Democracy without Nations?: The Fate of Self-Government in Europe

Democracy without Nations?: The Fate of Self-Government in Europe

by Pierre Manent




Can Europe survive after abandoning the national loyalties—and religious traditions—that provided meaning? And what will happen to the United States as it goes down a similar path?

The eminent French political philosopher Pierre Manent addresses these questions in his brilliant meditation on Europe’s experiment in maximizing individual and social rights. By seeking to escape from the “national form,” he shows, the European Union has weakened the very institutions that made possible liberty and self-government in the first place. Worse still, the “spiritual vacuity” that characterizes today’s secular Europe—and, increasingly, the United States—is ultimately untenable.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610170840
Publisher: ISI Books
Publication date: 10/21/2013
Edition description: 1
Pages: 124
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Pierre Manent teaches political philosophy in the Centre de recherches politiques Raymond Aron in Paris. His previous works in English include the groundbreaking Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, The City of Man, and An Intellectual History of Liberalism.

Read an Excerpt


By Pierre Manent


Copyright © 2006 Editions GALHMARD, Paris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-933859-42-2

Chapter One


If everyone does not feel what 1 am talking about, I am wrong. -Montesquieu

THE REFLECTIONS PRESENTED to the reader are, I fear, far removed from common opinion. Today, all of us-at least in Europe-are moved and even carried away by an idea that is also a sentiment and even a passion: the idea that humanity is proceeding toward its necessary unification. The "sentiment of resemblance" which Tocqueville already saw as the central emotion of human beings in democracies has become a passion for resemblance. It is no longer simply a matter of recognizing and respecting the humanity of each human being. We are required to see the other as the same as ourselves. And if we cannot stop ourselves from perceiving what is different about him, we reproach ourselves for doing so, as if it were a sin. But what can "same" or even "similar" mean to someone who refuses to see what is different? Vaguely perceiving differences they really do not want to see, and thus see with a great deal of pain, Europeans immerse themselves in an indifference toward the world that their humanitarian endeavors hide less and less well.

We learn to see what is similar and different in the context in which we experience these qualities-that is to say, first of all, in the political body to which we belong. For Europeans, for centuries this body has been the nation-state. This political form weaves together what is similar and different in particularly complex and subtle ways. Beyond its borders, each nation saw in the neighboring nation both a partner and a rival it sought to best in works of war and peace. But in truth, it shared these works in common with the other. Each nation raised its voice-its propositions on humanity-in the "European concert." Internally, class struggles troubled each nation even as they gave birth, sometimes violently, to its unity. In short, it was across the differences of nation and class that we sought and exercised our common humanity.

The weakening of the European nations weakens this framework in which the similar and the different can be recognized and take on meaning. It is not surprising, therefore, that we seek refuge in a vague idea of human unity, an imminent unity that would resolve by a kind of internal necessity the problem of human order we no longer know how to state. This idea takes rather different forms depending upon whether one looks at "old Europe" or its cross-Atlantic progeny. But if European quietism presents a vivid contrast to American activism, the two are nonetheless versions of what one might call "democratic empire." Both sides propose such an empire with equal conviction and even obstinacy.

THE AMERICAN VERSION of empire manifests the following traits. One central nation, the model and guardian of democracy, encourages all peoples, whoever and wherever they are, to establish a democratic regime and cultivate democratic mores. After all, democracy is natural to man. One discerns on the horizon a world made up of democratic nations; among them, the rules and regulations of commerce and human rights compose an ever-tighter network of relations that enhance world unity every day. And if a "rogue state," moved by the hatred evil reserves for the good, seeks to trouble this natural harmony, then the awesome military superiority of America will arrest the rebel and punish the criminal. The American version of democratic empire is characterized by a harmonious mixture of older elements, such as the maintenance of nations and willingness to take recourse to force, with newer elements. The primary newer element is the vision of a united world in which collective differences will no longer be truly meaningful or significant.

The European version of democratic empire presents other traits. Its center is not a central nation but what I will call a central human agency. This agency was born (since everything has to be born someplace) on either side of the Rhine. But it soon detached itself from any particular territory or people and is now occupied with extending the area of "pure democracy." Pure democracy is democracy without a people-that is, democratic governance, which is very respectful of human rights but detached from any collective deliberation. The European version of democratic empire distinguishes itself by the radicality with which it detaches democracy from every real people and constructs a kratos without a dèmos. What now possesses kratos is the very idea of democracy. The European empire, however, has one thing in common with the American version: it too is animated by a vision of a world in which no collective difference is significant.

Europeans and Americans are therefore separated despite sharing the same idea of the world-albeit of a different color-in important respects. The explosion of human unity makes both groups less capable of actually seeing the present state of the world. Occupied with building our twin towers of Babel, we no longer appreciate the fact that separations between and among human groups cannot be entirely overcome. Nor do we see that this fortunate impotence is the condition of human liberty and diversity.

THE TWO VERSIONS of the democratic movement are marked by the same dizziness, even giddiness, before number (or quantity) and spatial extension. The "global middle class" is constructed in units of hundreds of millions. It is composed of those who can master the new instruments of communication and have the capacity to quickly adapt to the rules of good governance. At the beginning of a new century, the diffusion of rules and regulations provides a substitute for the reality and energies of collective willing. On the one hand, there is the indefinite extension of "the construction of Europe." On the other, there is the American policy of "global democratization."

This indefinite spatial extension is accompanied, especially in Europe, by an extraordinary temporal retrenchment. The past is deemed culpable, made up of collective crimes and unjustifiable constraints. As more and more populations are added to the immense "global middle class," each people is commanded to divorce itself from its culpable past-one said to be defined by intolerance and oppression. At the same time the monuments of their crimes, whether cathedrals or pyramids, are enlisted as elements of a "global patrimony."

But how can one simultaneously condemn all pasts and recognize all cultures? Since every significant collective difference puts human unity in danger, one must render every difference insignificant. Thus, aspects of the most barbarous past become elements of an infinitely respectable "culture," since the only truly evil thing today is to think and act according to the idea that one form of life is better than another. To summarize our condition and conviction: the only blameworthy human conduct for us is what used to be called "conversion." In this way, our extreme democracy, enjoining absolute respect for "identities," joins hands with the fundamentalisms that punish apostasy with death. There is no longer any legitimate transformation or change of mind, because no one preference is more legitimate than any other. Under a flashing neon sign proclaiming "human unity," contemporary Europeans would have humanity arrest all intellectual or spiritual movement in order to conduct a continual, interminable liturgy of self-adoration.

NOT TOO LONG ago, the democratic idea justified and nourished the love each people naturally has for itself. But now, in the name of democracy, this love is criticized and mocked. What happened? And what future can human association have if no particular group, no "communion," no people is legitimate any longer? What becomes of us if only human generality is legitimate?

It is amazing to see how quickly the meaning of the democratic nation has been lost in Europe-the very place where this extraordinary form of human association first appeared!

The democratic nation tied the democratic future of a people to its monarchical or feudal past. The mores of the democratic present introduced whole peoples to a wider and deeper communion. The "barbarous" past itself was redeemed by the free present, as well as by a future that was bound to be even freer. The present generation was seen as the latest advancing wave arising from previous generations. It joined the immemorial past with the indefinite future; it thus placed the present under the double authority or solicitation of these two. In this light, one can see that Ernest Renan's famous formula stating that the nation is a "daily plebiscite" failed accurately to identify the nation-as he had aimed to do with his 1882 address, "What Is a Nation?" Each "day" of the nation is connected with its origins long past as well as its open, indefinite future. Each day of the nation connects the three dimensions of time. The warp and woof of a nation's time is finely textured.

This in no way contradicts freedom, since no one-whether an individual or even an institution-wholly contains the nation's time. Only political liberty offers the possibility of responding to the double solicitude of the past and the future in their inconquerable amplitude. It is well known that the European nation was extremely meticulous when it came to matters of space and territory. We ought not to overlook how much the nation helped us to inhabit time and hold together-with equal zeal-past, present, and future.

Today, however, this unifying principle of our lives has lost its connective force. The elements it had held together are now rediscovering their independence. As a result, we celebrate the arrival of a brighter future even as significant meaning retreats into elements of the past-into "regions" and "religion." By stripping the nation of its legitimacy the contemporary democratic movement brings predemocratic "communions" to the fore. But the democratic nation was the mediation of mediations, bringing together consent and communion. How can we continue to live without such mediation? What human association, old or new, will be able to bring consent and communion together in a viable way?


I HAVE JUST spoken of the democratic movement. Today we speak of "democracy" in the singular. In this sense, popular usage joins scholarly discourse. And both join Tocqueville, who presented democracy as an immense phenomenon that came from afar and is leading us toward unknown shores, but also as remaining essentially the same throughout its long development. According to Tocqueville, democracy is first and foremost "the equality of conditions." The democratic movement is a movement toward an ever-greater equality of conditions.

Thirty years ago our manner of speaking about democracy was different. The substantive "democracy" was usually accompanied by an adjective. One spoke of "liberal" or "bourgeois" democracy, of "socialist" or "popular" democracy. Scholarly opinion very much doubted that there was something called democracy tout court.

These changes in popular and academic discourse invite us to begin our inquiry into the European nation by attempting to retrace the movement of democracy in the main lines of its history, or at least to discover the rhythm of that movement. Inquiring after the various ways in which the question of democracy has been posed, we can see how it came to the point where it finds itself today.

THE TWO DATES most generally acknowledged to have structured or punctuated the development of modern European democracy are separated by more than a century: 1848 and 1968.

1848 was the year of the Communist Manifesto and those bloody June days in Paris when the National Guard crushed the Paris workers' uprising-one the closing of the national workshops had provoked. In short, 1848 was the initial explosion of the social question, the declaration of class warfare, and the establishment of class struggle.

Let us recall what happened in 1968. We can recall it because we were there; and some even took part in the last burst of the torch that had first been lit in 1848. Recall the Marxist consensus; the bourgeoisie up against the wall once again; their hands again white on the factory doors; Sartre on his barrel; and Raymond Aron holding the mirror of Flaubert's Sentimental Education up to "the elusive Revolution."

From 1848 to 1968: it seems to me that we have here the axial core, the inner circle-the magma, one might say-of our modern history. Then, the problem of democracy was called "the social question." It was Marx who posed this question in the fullest and most radical manner.

Democracy, however, did not come into existence in 1848. In the 1820s it was already "at the point of overflowing its banks" (as the French Doctrinaires put it). The greatest book ever written on democracy was published in 1835 and 1840. Tocqueville organized his Democracy in America around a double comparison. One axis of Democracy in America compares French democracy with American democracy, or the French Revolution with the American Revolution. The other axis compares democracy in general with the social form that preceded it, what Tocqueville calls "aristocracy." When did modern democracy begin? In any account, it appeared along with the American Revolution; let us then say in 1776, the date of the Declaration of Independence. How can we define this "Tocquevillean" period synthetically? Its problem was not the social question but rather the actualization, the institutionalization, of the new legitimizing principle of the sovereignty of the people. According to Tocqueville, the great difference between France and the United States lay in their differing modes of institutionalizing that principle.

But how do these two great periods connect? The period that opened in 1848 might be understood as refuting Tocqueville's perspective. As I have said, for Tocqueville, democracy primarily means "the equality of conditions." The emergence of the social question entailed the observation that at the heart of the new society reigned, not an equality of conditions, but a new inequality of conditions. In Tocquevillean language this is the anti-Tocquevillean meaning of 1848. Tocqueville the political actor became a government minister just as Tocqueville the political thinker appeared to have been decisively refuted. But 1968 represented Tocqueville's revenge. By an irony marking the inverse of what had happened in 1848, the end of the social question announced itself in the guise of a Marxist consensus. And with that end came the return of a Tocquevillean interrogation of democracy.

This return to-or of-Tocqueville occurred through a critique of regimes that claimed to base themselves on Marx: the critique of "totalitarianism." The totalitarian experience required the Tocquevillean question-that of the sovereignity of the people and the different modes of its actualization-to be posed again, but this time in an even more intense way.

Regarding "the events of '68," could one interpret them in Tocqueville's terms? The answer, I believe, is yes. Putting matters in a very condensed way, '68 was "an explosion of mildness" or "softness," an explosion of what Tocqueville called "democratic mildness." Thus, it also marked an upsurge of the democratic sentiment par excellence, that of "human resemblance." As I suggested earlier, Tocqueville saw in this sentiment the active source and intimate cause of all the transformations characterizing democratic life. And what was the most visible sign of this? The democratic eruption abolished or at least significantly diminished distance between the governors and the governed in the political realm (it was the end of Gaullist "hauteur") and between teachers and students in the educational realm (it was the end of "Napoleonic" discipline).

If the preceding remarks have any validity, then it is legitimate to say that the "Marxist" period of democracy, that of the social question, was preceded and followed-was in fact enveloped-by a large and powerful Tocquevillean "bed," to use a geological term. After 1968 democracy rediscovered its unchallenged authority. One could even say it attained an unprecedented degree of legitimacy. It was then that the reign of democratic consensus or uniformity began. This consensus was so powerful that communism itself, through the mouth of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, declared itself defunct!


Excerpted from DEMOCRACY WITHOUT NATIONS? by Pierre Manent Copyright © 2006 by Editions GALHMARD, Paris . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Translator's Introduction     vii
La Raison Des Nations
Foreword     3
The Present Situation     5
Democracy     11
The Nation     27
Religion     47
Democracy Without Nations?     71
What is a Nation?     87
Index     105

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews