Europa and dystopia: the House of Eutopia – lecture by John Gray (05.09.2013)

Filip Berte’s work on the condition of Europe today poses some challenging questions—not only about Europe but also regarding the nature of utopia. In its etymological root, utopia signifies “nowhere”—a place that does not exist. Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas was a country off the map; many utopias have been situated in the irrecoverable past (Plato) or an indefinite future. Dystopias, on the other hand, seem to be necessarily situated in particular places. This is so even if the place is imaginary (Orwell’s 1984). Berte goes further and explores dystopia as the contemporary European condition. His dystopia is situated not in the past or future but the present.

Berte’s work raises some fundamental questions. If Europe presents a dystopian landscape, is this because the European project has been compromised and abandoned? Or is the dystopian reality a result of the attempt to realise that very project? Is Europe what it is today not so much because of its past but as a result of an attempt to flee that past and inhabit an impossible future? Is the current European dystopia no more than the detritus left by another failed utopia?

The rooms of the House of Eutopia form a kind of psycho-geographical map of the European landscape, covering Protected Landscape, memorial rooms, a graveyard/garden, a room representing the official European self-image and an attic which points to the European future. Many will think that the deceptive official European self-image expresses a simple denial of painful facts that contradict the European ideal. But what if the evolution of that ideal has led to some of these facts? There is nothing new in xenophobia or the politics of exclusion. They featured prominently in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Celebrated for its high civilization, fin-de-siecle was governed by a virulently anti- Semitic mayor, Karl Lueger, who was five times mayor of the city. Yet the xenophobic passions shape politics in most European countries run against a narrative of progress towards cosmopolitanism that was virtually unquestioned until only a few years ago. What accounts for this ugly development?

The post-war European project was launched to prevent anything like the atrocities of the interwar period (which include the persecution of Jews, Roma, gay people and others after the Nazis came to power) and the supreme crime of the Holocaust. For much of the post-war period the EU achieved its aims. Its greatest achievement was in enabling people of plural identities to live in peace without being demonised and attacked.
The limits of the European project began to emerge after the collapse of communism and the reunification of the continent. Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans was halted not by the EU but by American power. Incapable of dealing with a recurrence of its past, the EU set itself on a course of expansion. The goal appears to have been a supra- national state democracy without internal borders in which the persecution of minorities could not happen again. But in responding to its limitations in this way the EU became hubristic. Aside from a few relics of monarchy and empire (Spain, Canada, the UK), no contemporary democracy is genuinely multi-national. Even when it is supposedly civic in its values, I am no great fan of the nation-state. The fact remains that it is the effective upper limit of democracy. The US become a modern nation-state only after a devastating civil war. In trying to build a supranational democracy, the EU was launching a strictly utopian project—one that could be known in advance to be unrealisable. Structural flaws in the design of the aggravated the problems of the unworkable institutions that emerged. But the basic flaw of the euro is that it is a currency without a government or a state, let alone anything resembling a democratic polity. There is much idle talk about remedying the democratic deficit of European institutions. But the true task of politics is not pursuing the figment of cosmopolitan democracy. It is preserving and extending civilized values, which includes respect for cultural and other minorities. As we have seen from the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece and similar parties in other countries in the aftermath of the financial crisis, modus vivendi is a highly fragile practice in Europe today. It is not made less fragile by pressing on blindly with the project of constructing a European post-national state.

Europe is hardly alone in suffering from the downdraft of the financial crisis, but many of the evils of exclusion that Berte portrays have been exacerbated by the rigid structures set up to frame an impossible future. Even in Depression America, two thirds of young people were not shut out from productive employment for years on end as they are now in several European countries. Any idea that Europe embodies a version of social market capitalism that is superior to more individualist models has been ruthlessly shredded. The long-term consequences of this exclusion are disquieting to contemplate. One realistically imaginable scenario is the re-emergence of Europe’s classical demons—the demonization of Jews and other minorities–on a pattern that is already recognisable in Hungary and to a lesser extent Italy.
Asking what then can be done means failing to grasp the intractable difficulties that Europe faces. Large utopian projects are rarely deliberately and carefully dismantled. Normally they simply collapse when the strains on them become too much to sustain. There is no sign of that happening anytime soon in Europe. The ruling institutions have been stabilised at the cost of the underlying economies and societies. What we are left with is an unhealthy stasis. To imagine that a failed utopian project could be rationally deconstructed is itself an exercise in utopian thinking. But we can think more clearly, so that when the opportunity for change arises we can respond more intelligently. To think more clearly we need to see more clearly, and happily we can view our utopian/dystopian reality through the penetrating lens of Filip Berte’s work.

John Gray (03.09.2013) - text supporting the lecture, given by John Gray in the context of the exhibition ‘House of Eutopia’ on 05.09.2013.