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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

European public space

I’m European in perhaps a rather perverse sense – that I love the differences between the countries which make it up. Given the scale of EU activities (let alone EC programmes – such as Erasmus) which bring together officials, academics, students across national boundaries, you would have thought there would have been a market for journals and books to help ease the cross-cultural dialogues taking place. But I’ve mentioned several times on this blog (for example herehereand herehow few titles there are (at least in the English language) dedicated to deepen mutual understanding of each other’s cultures and ways of doing things.
I referred in the last post some of the British books which try to do this. And it would be an interesting exercise for a national of each EU member state to make a similar list of material available in their respective language!! I would exclude from those lists the conventional country histories which are written by the various country specialists at Universities – largely on the ground that they are not written for the purpose I have mentioned.      
Of course, there are the pop books which reduce it all to tongue-in-cheek stereotypes – for example We, The Europeans - or the Xenophobe series. Some of this stuff can actually be quite insightful – for example, this good expose of the phrases we Brits use; what our European partners generally understand them; and what they really mean by them 
At the opposite extreme, are those who try to understand cultures using comparative sociology for example Geert Hofstede and Frans Trompenaars. Richard D Lewis’s When Cultures Collide – leading across Cultures  (1996) is perhaps the most readable treatment.

In my days, we had the magazine Encounter (Der Monat in Germany) which gave me stimulating articles by renowned French, German and Italian writers, for example, but was then discovered to have been funded by the CIA. Where its equivalent these days? Le Monde Diplomatique and Lettre International perhaps - except there is, sadly, no English version of the latter - and only a short version in English of the former (whose language is, in any event, a bit opaque) 
In 2004 Carl Fredrikkson wrote an article about the need for a proper European public space where ideas were exchanged across national boundaries and Jan-Werner Muller returned to the issue earlier this year with an important article entitled The Failure of European Intellectuals? in which he argued that
Up until the 1930s at least, there existed a genuine European Republic of Letters, in which writers and philosophers engaged with each other easily across national borders – and in which they also explained other national cultures to their readers. And, in a somewhat different vein, it continued, at least for a while, after the Second World War, when the imperative of reconciliation loomed large. Figures like Alfred Grosser and Joseph Rovan explained the French and the Germans to each other. These weren't just glorified apologists for national quirks, or mediators who would quietly disappear when rapprochement was complete: they had standing in their own right. But, effectively, they did perform the role of sophisticated culturaltranslators and political mediators.
And now? One might be forgiven for thinking that the more Europe integrates politically, legally and economically, the more provincial and inward-looking its individual nation-states become culturally. Easyjet and the Eurovision song contest are not a substitute for a Republic of Letters, where intellectuals have a genuine feel for at least two or three different European cultures. Of course, there are exceptions: Eurozine http://www.eurozine.com/ is one of the major websites where Europeans can learn about the debates taking place in other countries (and, not least, about how intellectuals in other countries perceive their neighbours).
There is no panacea, as far as creating a genuinely European public sphere is concerned. One can only hope that individuals will become more curious, more willing to see the rewards in the work of translation and mediation. It might seem all very humdrum – but it is actually an urgent task, not only, but especially at this critical juncture. To take an obvious example: Germans (and other "northerners") need to understand the history of the Greek civil war, the ways the Greek state was used to pacify a deeply polarized society, and the way European money served to create a middle class which helped parties stay in power, but also diminished the dangers of renewed social conflict (none of this is an excuse for corruption and a generally dysfunctional state – tout comprendre ce n'est pas tout pardonner).
Conversely, it would be helpful if observers outside Germany got a grip on the particular strand of liberal economics that has been animating policy-making in both Bonn and Berlin for a long time: that strange thing called Ordoliberalismus, whose representatives conceived of themselves as the real "neoliberals" – liberals who had learnt the lessons of the Great Depression and the rise of dictatorships in the twentieth-century, and who precisely did not want to equate liberalism with laissez-faire. For them, soi-disant neoliberals like Ludwig von Mises were simply "paleoliberals" who remained stuck in nineteenth-century orthodoxies about self-correcting markets. The German neoliberals, on the other hand, wanted a strong state able and willing not only to provide a framework for markets and society, but also to intervene in the former for the sake of ensuring competition and "discipline".
Again, an understanding of such ideas is not the same as accepting them (with Ordoliberalismus, in particular, there are good reasons to be suspicious of its illiberal, perhaps even authoritarian side). The point is that a more productive and sophisticated debate cannot ignore the profoundly different national starting points for thinking about politics (and economics, of course). In that sense, what I have called clarifiers and the mutual explicators of national traditions need to work together. 
Perry Anderson is one of the few Anglo-Saxons with such knowledge and skills. Muller himself is a great example

The painting is a recent one by a good Bulgarian friend of mine - Yassen Gollev     

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