Invented Communities

David Runciman

  • Democracy in Europe by Larry Siedentop
    Penguin, 254 pp, £8.99, June 2001, ISBN 0 14 028793 0
  • The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Max Pensky
    Polity, 216 pp, £45.00, December 2000, ISBN 0 7456 2351 4

What is wrong with the idea of a world state? John Rawls, the world’s most celebrated living political philosopher, believes that the answer is relatively straightforward. ‘I follow Kant’s lead in Perpetual Peace,’ he writes, ‘in thinking that a world government – by which I mean a unified political regime with the legal powers normally exercised by central government – would either be a global despotism or else would rule over a fragile empire torn by frequent civil strife as various regions and peoples tried to gain their political freedom and autonomy.’ Which is to say: size matters. Or, as Kant wrote, ‘laws always lose in vigour what governments gain in extent; hence a condition of sullen despotism falls into anarchy after stifling the seeds of good.’ This is a refrain which sounds somewhere in the background of most thinking about politics: states should not be allowed to get too big. There will come a point at which the distended state, if it is to hold itself together, must stifle freedom, or, if it is to allow freedom to flourish, must collapse. Supertankers, supermodels and even superpowers can be good. But superstates are invariably bad.

How big, though, is too big? Unsurprisingly, the answer to this question has tended to vary, but Kant and Rawls imply that whatever the answer, it will in the end be a question of geography. Size means extent, and the surface of the earth has natural and social contours which limit the extent of any putative state, no matter how well organised or well intentioned. Something more than a walled city, something less than the globe, a viable state in the modern world fits into the space that can accommodate it. There is a rather curious aspect to this argument, however. The states of the modern world are not geographical entities. We identify them with particular places, and the people who live in those places, and we expect the governments of states to reside in particular places as well, but states themselves are separate from all these. States in the modern world are the things that governments represent, and it was the discovery of representation as a mechanism of government which emancipated states from the confines of geography. About the time that Kant was writing, the great representative experiment on the North American continent set out to demonstrate that size did not matter. Properly constituted, a state didn’t need to accommodate itself to geography, because properly constituted, a government could represent anywhere, and, as it eventually turned out, anybody. What mattered was the quality of the representation.

This is what makes the presumption against the idea of a European superstate, which is currently seeping out from Britain to pervade the political rhetoric of the entire continent, so odd. The United States of Europe, it is assumed, would be a superstate, even though no politician would dare attach that term to the United States of America. The presumed reason for the difference is that the North American model doesn’t fit the European space, which contains too many different peoples and regions to accommodate it. But the North American model, like the European model of representation from which it derives, is designed to fit any space that wants it. If the model of a single, federal republic is not right for Europe, that must be because Europe lacks the quality of representation, not because Europe can’t be represented in that way. The presupposition against the European superstate is, therefore, a constitutional argument masquerading as a geographical one. The geographical argument is usually tarted up with a bit of legal window-dressing, in the form of a defence of national sovereignty. But sovereignty no more has set boundaries than representation does; it follows the contours of political institutions, not those of mountains, forests, rivers, coastlines and the people who live between them. If Europe ought not to be a superstate, then that can’t be an argument about the nature of the European continent. It must instead be an argument about the nature of the state.

The ominous lack of such an argument in European politics is what has driven Larry Siedentop to attempt to instigate one in Democracy in Europe. He lists ‘superstate’, alongside ‘subsidiarity’, ‘economic sovereignty’, ‘rationalisation’ and ‘Europe plc’, as one of the terms that has ‘denatured the political language of our time’. But even he is not entirely immune to its rhetorical appeal. Later in the book, he insists that the lack of any proper constitutional arrangements for the European Union doesn’t mean that it has ‘already become a superstate’. Size still matters. However, Siedentop is clear that what really matters is not the size of the state itself, nor the quantity or range of different groups who have to live under it. Rather, it is, he says, a question of ‘hypertrophy’, or the presence of an ‘oversized member’ within the body politic. A state becomes a superstate when it becomes not distended, but distorted, as separate parts begin to swell. Modern states depend on complex constitutional arrangements – some written, some not – designed to allow governments to represent their diverse peoples. If the government becomes too closely identified with some group or locality within the state, these arrangements have a tendency to collapse, as they do when politicians become too closely attached to the business of government itself. Political representation is like other forms of representation, including those that take place on the stage. The most important thing is to be convincing, and partiality and literal-mindedness are the enemies of a convincing performance, as with an actor who is too much in love with acting. You have to get the balance right. If you do, there is practically no limit to what is possible. But if you don’t, things can start to look grotesque very quickly.

The current European Union sometimes presents a fairly grotesque political spectacle, with a hypertrophied bureaucracy and a Commission whose representative status is wholly unclear. There is the potential here for a superstate to develop, though the implication of Siedentop’s argument is that ‘hyperstate’ would be a better term. More striking, however, is the further implication of Democracy in Europe that anxiety about a future European superstate has blinded us to the fact that Europe has a superstate already. It is called France. France is not the biggest state in the European Union, nor the most powerful, nor even the most vocal. (It’s the tragedy of the French political classes, Siedentop suggests, to be burdened with ambitions for Europe which dare not speak their name; the very word étatisme can’t be translated without putting people off – in Siedentop’s terms it translates as something like ‘superstatism’ – and can’t be left untranslated without putting people off.) What France has is a history, and ‘the danger for Europe,’ he writes, ‘is that its history will come to resemble that of France since 1815. The tutorship of a bureaucratic state will be rejected from time to time by Europeans angry at being treated like children, but unused to the disciplines of citizenship.’

The modern French state on this account is top-heavy, excessively bureaucratic, too dependent on clientelist relations between the public and private sector, overly centralised and elitist. Its history is one that follows the model of the ‘over-extended’ state, being punctuated with periods of despotism and civil strife. Yet it would be absurd to claim that the French state is literally ‘overextended’, and that there are natural or social barriers to the successful government of that particular piece of the European land mass. The French were simply starting from the wrong model of representative government, having taken too many of their lessons from, among others, Hobbes (‘a Multitude of men are made One Person when they are by one man, or Person, Represented’), Napoleon and de Gaulle. This model would be a disaster for Europe, Siedentop insists. But there are other models on which to draw. There is Britain, there is Germany and there is the United States.

Siedentop doesn’t think that the British constitutional example is one that Europe can plausibly follow, because it is sui generis, and anyway an increasingly ragged example of how to reconcile government with freedom. The model that Europe needs is a federal one. Thus it is one of the ironies of this account that while France, une et indivisible, is a kind of superstate, the union of the two Germanys or the Union of the 50 American states is not. What is it, then, that makes possible the extension of government without the elimination of freedom? The first condition is a written constitution, and the apparatus to interpret and uphold it, because the distribution of power and responsibility in a federal state isn’t possible without one. (The French Republic has a written constitution; the trouble is that it has had five.) The second is an open political class, so that the representatives don’t become a closed interest group in themselves. In this way, the availability and ubiquity in the United States of a legal education, in other contexts the mark of cabalistic self interest, becomes a badge of political freedom. The third is a culture of consent. No state can endure unless its people accepts that their representatives speak for them, rather than simply at them. The dilemma of modern democracy, as Siedentop (following Benjamin Constant, Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill among others) describes it, is that we are happy to be spoken for because few of us any more have the time or incentive to speak for ourselves. However, the readier we are to be spoken for, the more likely it is that we will end up sullenly resenting what is said in our name. ‘We want more from public life than we are prepared to put into it. We want a share in power, but we want to be left alone.’

What Siedentop does not do is characterise this as a problem of representation. As a result, he spends practically no time discussing the characteristic modern resolution of this dilemma. The single most significant instrument by which large states have managed to hold themselves together under the pressures of representative government is the political party, that scourge of the body politic from which Madison and the other Founding Fathers had sought to preserve the new American Republic. The history of the United States since 1815, which stands on Siedentop’s account as an unspoken reproach to its Gallic counterpart, is, among other things, the history of the ways in which political parties are required and able to hold large states together. At those moments, particularly the 1860s, but also the early 1930s and the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Union was prone to exhibit the characteristics of a superstate (too unwieldy, too brutal, too insensitive), it was the party system that saved it, by providing the means for just that scourging and healing on which its survival depended.

It is very hard to imagine a sustainable European politics in the absence of Europe-wide political parties offering a unifying vehicle for the complicated ambitions of the various European peoples, including their various, complicated ways of wanting to be left alone. The problem is conceiving how this politics will emerge from the parties we have at present, all of which are unavoidably detained in fighting their own corners in the national politics that concern them. Jürgen Habermas articulates the problem as follows: ‘This legitimation process’ – of a federal European politics – ‘has to be supported by a European party system that can develop to the degree that existing political parties, at first in their own respective national arenas, initiate a debate on the future of Europe, and in the process articulate interests that cross national borders.’

Habermas knows this is easier said than done, since ‘the governing elites have to concern themselves with consensus and re-election within their own national arenas.’ His solution is to call for electorates which do not punish political parties for taking a chance with the national interest, or, as he more tactfully puts it, ‘operating on the procedures of a cosmopolitan community, rather than those of national independence’. What Europe needs, on this account, is not a better quality of representation, but something more open-minded to represent.

It’s tempting to dismiss this as just so much wishful thinking, since national electorates are notoriously unreceptive to lectures about cosmopolitanism from cosmopolitan intellectuals. But the temptation should be resisted, since the thinking is not merely wishful, but also misplaced. Habermas construes the problem of European union as one of ‘solidarity’, supposing that the coherent representation of the continent requires something coherent to represent, a union of people who care about what happens to each other. He writes: ‘The form of civil solidarity that has been limited to the nation state until now has to expand to include all citizens of the union, so that, for example, Swedes and Portuguese are willing to take responsibility for one another.’

Just, then, as the good burghers of New York could give a damn about what is happening in Louisiana, and the city-dwellers of Britain have ‘taken responsibility’ for the recent sufferings of the countryside, Europe needs that form of interconnectedness which rests on genuine connections. Hobbes may have been wrong about a lot of things, including the incompatibility of sovereignty and federal government, but he was right when he said that the union of a multitude requires nothing more than that they should be represented as though one. What Swedes and Portuguese need if they are to be governed jointly is some plausibly constituted representative to take responsibility for each on the others’ behalf, precisely so that they don’t have to do it themselves. It is, as Marx noted, one of the characteristics of representative systems (and capitalism is founded on two such: the state, and money, which has come to represent value in the modern world) that all that is solid melts into air. But the reverse can also be true – representation can make even the most vapid connections between people real enough to endure. That is its strength.

If Europe is to develop political parties willing to compete to represent Europe as a whole, then what is required is a political prize worth fighting for, and one that offers at least some of the parties a reasonable expectation of winning. Political representation works best when political power is made open to groups of individuals willing to organise so as to compete for it, but not so accessible as to be on offer to any group that stakes a claim to it. If it is too open, the prize will not be worth winning, a lesson that was learnt in, among other places, Weimar Germany. This is, therefore, a constitutional problem of some delicacy. There are genuine solidarities existing across Europe, founded on ties of history and language, which need to be taken account of, but which cannot all be represented. That, though, is why large-scale modern politics is not just a question of representing actual solidarities, but also of representing invented ones, if possible under a federal system which allows a local outlet to the real allegiances that cannot be captured under such a scheme. If nations are, in Benedict Anderson’s phrase, ‘imagined communities’, then states are ‘invented’ ones, and a federal Europe would be just another invention. It is the job of political parties to bring these inventions to life, and to select the politicians who have the best chance of convincing the voters, be they Swedes or Portuguese, that there is something in it for them. If they can do this, they can also persuade them that they have obligations of which they might otherwise have been unaware, including perhaps the obligation to pay for European-wide schemes of welfare and redistribution. The voters of Europe would have been unaware of these obligations because, in the absence of European-wide representation, they don’t exist.

The invention of the state doesn’t just depend on political parties marshalling the forces of representative government. Even in the absence of something solid to represent, it helps to have something tangible for representatives to define themselves against. The Founding Fathers of the American Republic had the immeasurable advantage that theirs was a project not just of invention but also of independence; that is, literally, freedom from dependency on the British Crown, and any others who might seek to dominate them. European union is hampered by the fact that the language of independence is invariably on the side of the doubters, who see potential enslavement in French and more particularly German domination. It is again one of the ironies of the search for a European constitutional settlement that the one nation with a clear sense of union as an enterprise of independence – the French, who see Europe as a potential site of emancipation from the malign political and cultural domination of the United States – lacks the language in which to express this to anyone else. When the French talk about American imperialism, they sound to their neighbours like French imperialists. A war, which is often the mainspring of state-building, might help. But whom is Europe going to fight its wars of independence against? The common enemy – globalisation – is not the kind to acknowledge defeat, not least because it has no properly constituted representatives to sign the peace treaties on its behalf. Anyway, it already has a foot in too many camps. A real political enemy might be contrived, but contrived wars, like the ones fought against Milosevic, are, however worthy the cause, shaky foundations on which to constitute a state.

There are limits to representative government. Although anything can be represented (as Hobbes says, ‘there are few things that are uncapable of being represented by Fiction’), everything depends on whether the fiction is a believable one, and whether the citizens of the state have a stake in believing in it. Although anything and anywhere can be represented, everything and everywhere cannot. A world state is implausible because states need something to contrast themselves with. As Habermas says, in a line of thought borrowed directly from Carl Schmitt, the legal theorist whose exasperation with the constitutional arrangements of Weimar Germany led him eventually into the hands of the Nazis, ‘any political community that wants to understand itself as a democracy must at least distinguish between members and non-members.’ A world community of citizens, even if generating what Habermas calls ‘a form of democratically elected political representation’, would lack anything convincing to represent. It would have instead to fall back on ‘a legal-moral form of self-understanding’, which is another way of saying that it would depend almost entirely on the language of human rights. These rights can generate plausible legal procedures, they can generate widespread feelings of sympathy, they can even produce a general sense of indignation when they are violated. What they can’t provide is a sense of identity, of the kind that political parties think that it is worth fighting over.

Siedentop associates the model of representative democracy as a competition between political parties for public support with the parodic version described by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, in which the citizen becomes the passive consumer of the ‘product’ that the party elites think they can sell. Party politics is certainly as vulnerable to hypertrophy as any other, and alongside the hypertrophy of the party elites goes the atrophy of the voters’ interest in what they are being asked to choose between. But plausibly constituted representative government, as Madison argued, is unique in containing within itself the remedies for its own disorders, even if the remedies were not quite what Madison had in mind. If the party system becomes a parody of itself – too craven, too remote, too clever, too stupid – then someone or something will reconfigure it, as happened in the United States after the Civil War and as will inevitably happen in Europe if it gets a plausible constitution. No constitution, not even a federal one, can guarantee against the potential distortion of interests within the state, and much depends on the political imagination of both representatives and citizens, which, as Siedentop suggests, is rather atrophied in Europe (and elsewhere) at present. But then, every state is a potential superstate: that is the risk you take when you move beyond the confines of the walled city.