Deconstructing Europe

J.G.A. Pocock

History is about process and movement: yet up to now, it has taken as given the perspectives furnished by relatively stable geographical communities, of whose pasts, and the processes leading to their presents, history is supposed to consist. All that may be changing, with the advent of the global village, in which no one’s home is one’s own; with the advent, too, of a universally-imposed alienation, in which one’s identity is presupposed either as some other’s aggression against one, or as one’s own aggression against someone else, and in either case scheduled for deconstruction. Yet the owl of Minerva may continue to fly, as long as there is an ark left to fly from; and the historian, who must today move between points in time, must recollect voyages and may still recollect voyages between known points with known pasts, recalling how the pasts changed as the presents shifted.

Two voyages, then, furnished the prelude to this essay in historical reflection: one beyond what is known as ‘Europe’, the other within it. The former was the later, and is therefore the nearer in time; it is therefore remembered first. It was a voyage in May 1991 to New Zealand, which is this historian’s home culture; he is aware that few of his readers know that there is a culture there, or can readily believe it stands at the centre of anyone’s historical consciousness. It was in that month a culture very deeply in crisis and threatened with possible discontinuation: more than for most reasons because the Europeanisation of Great Britain had deprived it of its economic (and like it or not, its previous spiritual) raison d’être, and it had not yet found another. Not having found – wherever the fault might lie – new markets of outlet, it had resorted to policies of privatisation which amounted to the forced sale of national assets in the hope of attracting new investment capital, a subjection of national sovereignty to international market forces such as the European Community – only in this case there was no community – is supposed to stand for. This had reached the point where it was being seriously proposed to sell New Zealand public schools to their own boards of trustees, and the trustees were making it known that they had no money to buy them with. In the midst of this scene of understandable demoralisation, relations between the largest minority and majority ethnic groups – Maori and Pakeha, Polynesian and Anglo-European – were giving rise to a complex, serious and conceptually sophisticated debate over the legal, moral and historical foundations of the national identity.[1] The owl had taken flight, but the dusk could be felt approaching. In history nothing is as certain as night and day: but it was a measurable possibility, if not an inevitability, that the history being intelligently debated might simply be terminated because the international economy had no further need of the community whose memory and identity it was.

An effect this had upon a historian who had lived for twenty-five years in the Northern Hemisphere, while remaining a product of the Southern, was sharply to jolt his awareness of ‘Europe’. The historic process he saw before his eyes in New Zealand had begun with the British entry into the European Community, and had not been alleviated by that Community’s economic policies. This is to say nothing of the moral policies of some of its member nations: the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior has not been forgotten in New Zealand, and there is a deep conviction that the French do not care, and cannot understand that anybody else does. In New Zealand – as when resident in the United States of America – he found himself in a culture governed by ‘Western’ values and given shape by then historic (and imperial) expansion: yet it seemed that there was a mystique of ‘Europe’ which laid claim to these values while excluding others from the community which claimed to base itself upon them. And the same mystique seemed to proclaim the subjection of national sovereignty to international market forces without making more than sporadic progress toward the creation of any new kind of political community governed by its citizens, to replace that whose obsolescence it so readily proclaimed. New Zealand, only yesterday a viable social democracy with policies and a government of its own, looked like an extreme because extra-marginal case of where the post-sovereignty process might lead.

The response might be a retreat into militant and even violent local populism – the Third World, to which New Zealand was threatened with relegation, was full of examples of the kind. But New Zealanders had been and still were a non-impoverished, civilised and international people, used to travel, to join the world and its history – distant though they found them – and to look at history through looking at others, way of seeing it.

An owl departing from the South Island of New Zealand must define the region in which its flight has navigational meaning. Until half a century ago, New Zealand’s national existence was situated less in the Pacific Ocean than in a global area defined by British naval and imperial power, running from Britain and Flanders through the Mediterranean and India to Australia, Singapore and beyond. New Zealand’s wars were fought along the length of this system, as late as the Malaysian emergencies of the 1950s; even in 1942, New Zealand troops were not withdrawn from the Mediterranean for war against Japan, as those of Australia were, but ended the Second World War keeping Trieste from becoming part of Yugoslavia. This imperial area possessed a consciously-preserved history which was less that of empire or imperialism than that of British culture, political, religious, social and historical. Of this, New Zealanders – and, subject to their own more Irish mythology, Australians – saw themselves as part; it was believed to be the history of a culture with a global capacity for creating and associating new nations. Even now, when it has survived the power that once held it together, this history is part of their perception that they inhabit ‘Western civilisation’ though they do not inhabit ‘Europe’. The accession of the United Kingdom to the European Community entailed a rejection by that kingdom’s peoples of the former global capacity of their culture; it was a confession of defeat, and at the same time a rejection of the other nations of that culture, which seemed to entail a decision that there was no longer a British history in which New Zealand’s past or future possessed a meaning. The South Pacific owl of Minerva, finding its environment endangered, faced the task of rewriting New Zealand’s British history, while taking part in the revision of all British history in which the historians of the United Kingdom have engaged in the post-imperial and quasi-European era now going on.

An assertion by means of which the owl defined its flight path and air space was therefore the assertion that ‘Western civilisation’ extended beyond ‘Europe’ into those oceanic and continental spaces irreversibly Westernised by navigation and settlement in the 17th through 19th centuries. Europeans are often anti-American enough, and the United Kingdom British hostile enough to their imperial past, to deny and wish to sever this relation to the world: but the inhabitants of the world thus created are under a necessity of keeping its history alive, and an obsessive ‘Europeanness’ can appear to them a device aimed at excluding them from visibility. As part of the assertion that ‘the West’ extends beyond ‘Europe’, therefore, there are owls of Minerva who define themselves as navigating in the continental spaces of North America and Australia, or – and this is the case of the subspecies under examination – the enormous oceanic spaces of the austral Pacific ocean, which Polynesian and European navigators have lodged in their memory and tradition. Take a globe in your hands, one not mounted on a spindle which preserves the intellectual dictatorship of Gerardus Mercator, rotate it until the islands of New Zealand are at the centre of the hemisphere you face. You will be looking at one facet of the New Zealand historical imagination, and you will be able to see Australia and Antarctica, but nothing worth mentioning of Indo-Malaysia, Asia or the Americas. There is a history which has to be created in this space, and when it is not a history looking back up the lines along which culture has travelled – toward what Maori call Hawaiki paa-mamao, the spirit land high up and distant – it has to be the history of small communities in an ocean of planetary size. Writing Pacific history is a challenge to the imagination: it both is and is not a history of ‘the West’, and it certainly is not a history of ‘Europe’, even when a history of ‘Europeans’.

These are spaces by which the Antipodean historian defines his relation to the world, and the need to see the planet as if the Southern Hemisphere contained its centre makes him aware of others. There is the Indonesian or Indo-Malaysian space from which he is separated by the mountains of New Guinea and the deserts of Australia; there is the northern ocean defined by the ‘Pacific rim’ and the movements of Japanese, American and neo-Confucian capital; there are the spaces defined by the major civilisations of Asia, and west of them the extensive and at present disastrously incoherent domains of Islam. There is the enormous space of northern Eurasia, formerly coextensive with the Soviet Union, which may be glimpsed from cruising altitude on a flight from London to Tokyo. These last two offer the imagination a post-colonial route toward Europe, and toward the memory of the second voyage by which this essay is dominated.

This is the memory of a seven-months sojourn in Europe during 1989, moving through Calabria, Sicily, Tuscany, the Alpine region, south-west Germany and the Netherlands. The revolutions of Eastern Europe were beginning, and it would have been possible to set out by ferrovia or autostrada and watch the borders crumble: but there was work to be done, and in any case a lingering feeling that history is for its immediate participants and not a spectacle for tourists. One was close enough, at all events, to experience a sensation that we were witnessing the end of a European era forty years long, and of a definition of ‘Europe’ predicated on the partition collapsing before one’s eyes. The term ‘Europe’ had come to be often used co-terminously with ‘the European Community’, an association of former imperial states having in common the experience of defeat – Germany of defeat and partition, France, Italy and the Low Countries of defeat and occupation, Britain of exhaustion following victory – and the loss of colonial empires – in all cases except the first after 1940 – which had recovered enough to form a powerful combination based on the pooling of some sovereign powers and the removal of obstacles to the movement across their frontiers of international economic forces and some of the ways of living immediately dependent on them: this is the process intended to reach a culminating point in 1992.

The formation of this Community had been accompanied by an ideology of ‘Europeanness’, which sometimes affirmed that the culture possessed in common by these national communities, and the history of this common culture, was of greater moral and ideological significance than their several distinct national sovereignties or than the history shaped and written – as in the classical age of European historiography it had been – by their several existences as sovereign nation-states claiming to exercise control over their several histories. Politically as well as historiographically, there had been problems attending this fecund and exciting enterprise: it was not asserted, for example, that there existed or should exist a ‘European people’ or a ‘European state’, using these terms in the singular; and consequently – following the logic of political historiography – the ‘European history’ which was developing was (rightly enough) a plural history of divergences and convergences, in which a cultural commonalty interacted with a diversity (often a warlike and destructive diversity) of political sovereignties and national histories.

In this, European historiography continued in its classical patterns, the history of the state retaining its primacy even after giving up its claim to be a moral absolute. In partitioned Germany, and in an Italy still plagued by consequences of the forced unification of the Pied-montese and Neapolitan kingdoms in 1861, there continued to be debate whether the national state had been a historical necessity or could have taken some other path. There was less sign that the French were inclined to regard ‘France’ as a contingency or accident of history[2]: but even in Britain – which came to ‘Europe’ late, reluctantly, and with many signs of self-contempt – there was an enterprise of considering ‘British history’ as existing distinctly from the history of ‘England’ and of asking whether the extension of English sovereignty had created a ‘British’ nation with a history of its own.[3] The historian writing this essay and remembering these voyages could claim some role in furthering this enterprise; and since the questions which it posed could be answered in the affirmative or the negative, it might either reinforce or subvert the existence of ‘British history’ as a distinct and intelligible field of study.

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[1] Justice and the Maori: Maori Claims in New Zealand Political Argument in the 1980s by Andrew Sharp (1990).

[2] See Fernand Braudel, The Identity of France. Vol. 1: History and Environment (1988).

[3] ‘The Limits and Divisions of British History: In Search of the Unknown Subject’ by J.G.A. Pocock. American Historical Review, LXXXVII, 2 (1982).

[4] J.G.A. Pocock, ‘Tangata whenua and Enlightenment Anthropology’, a paper presented to the New Zealand Historical Association, Christchurch, 13 May 1991, to be published in the New Zealand Journal of History (1992).

[5] New York Review of Books, 11 April 1991.

[6] See, however, J.H. Plumb’s The Death of the Past (1970) and David Lowenthal’s The past is a foreign country (1985).