What Does Europe Want?

On May 1, eight new countries were welcomed into the European Union—but which “Europe” will they find there?

BY Slavoj Žižek

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In the months before Slovenia’s entry to the European Union, whenever a foreign journalist asked me what new dimension would Slovenia contribute to Europe, my answer was instant and unambiguous: NOTHING. Slovene culture is obsessed with the notion that, although a small nation, we are a cultural superpower: We possess some agalma, a hidden intimate treasure of cultural masterpieces that wait to be acknowledged by the wider world. Maybe, this treasure is too fragile to survive intact the exposure to the fresh air of international competition, like the old Roman frescoes in that wonderful scene from Fellini’s Roma which start to disappear the moment the daylight reaches them. Such narcissism is not a Slovene specialty. There are versions of it all around Eastern Europe: We value democracy more because we had to fight for it recently, not being allowed to take it for granted; we still know what true culture is, not being corrupted by the cheap Americanized mass culture. Rejecting such a fixation on the hidden national treasure in no way implies ethnic self-hatred. The point is a simple and cruel one: All Slovene artists who made a relevant contribution had to “betray” their ethnic roots at some point, either by isolating themselves from the cultural mainstream in Slovenia or by simply leaving the country for some time, living in Vienna or Paris. It is the same as with Ireland: not only did James Joyce leave home in order to write Ulysses, his masterpiece about Dublin; Yeats himself, the poet of Irish national revival, spent years in London. The greatest threats to national tradition are its local guardians who warn about the danger of foreign influences. Furthermore, the Slovene attitude of cultural superiority finds its counterpart in the patronizing Western cliche which characterizes the East European post-Communist countries as a kind of retarded poor cousins who will be admitted back into the family if they can behave properly. Recall the reaction of the press to the last elections in Serbia where the nationalists gained big—it was read as a sign that Serbia is not yet ready for Europe. A similar process is going on now in Slovenia: The fact that nationalists collected enough signatures to enforce a referendum about the building of a mosque in Ljubljana is sad enough; the fact that the majority of the population thinks that one should not allow the mosque is even sadder; and the arguments evoked (Should we allow our beautiful countryside to be spoiled by a minaret that stands for fundamentalist barbarism?, etc.) make one ashamed of being a Slovene. In such cases, the occasional threats from Brussels can only appear welcome: Show multiculturalist tolerance…or else! However, this simplified picture is not the entire truth. The first complication: The very ex-Communist countries which are the most ardent supporters of the US “war on terror” deeply worry that their cultural identity, their very survival as nations, is threatened by the onslaught of cultural “Americanization” as the price for their immersion into global capitalism. We thus witness the paradox of pro-Bushist anti-Americanism. In Slovenia, the Rightist nationalists complain that the ruling Center-Left coalition, though it is publicly for joining NATO and supporting the U.S. anti-terrorist campaign, is secretly sabotaging it, participating in it for opportunist reasons and not from conviction. At the same time, however, it reproaches the ruling coalition for undermining Slovene national identity by advocating full Slovene integration into the Westernized global capitalism and thus drowning Slovenes in contemporary Americanized pop culture. The idea is that the ruling coalition sustains pop culture, stupid TV amusement and mindless consumption in order to turn Slovenes into an easily manipulated crowd, incapable of serious reflection and firm ethical stances. In short, the underlying motif is that the ruling coalition stands for the “liberal-Communist plot”: Ruthless, unconstrained immersion in global capitalism is perceived as the latest dark plot of the ex-Communists, enabling them to retain their secret hold on power. Ironically, the nationalist conservatives’ lament about the new emerging socio-ideological order reads like the old New Left’s description of the “repressive tolerance” of capitalist freedom as the mode of unfreedom’s appearance. This ambiguity of the Eastern European attitude finds its perfect counterpart in the ambiguous message of the West to post-Communist countries. Recall the two-sided pressure the United States exerted on Serbia in the summer of 2003: U.S. representatives simultaneously demanded that Serbia deliver the suspected war criminals to the Hague court (in accordance with the logic of the global Empire which demands a trans-state global judicial institution) AND to sign the bilateral treaty with the United States obliging Serbia not to deliver to any international institution (i.e., the SAME Hague court) U.S. citizens suspected of war crimes or other crimes against humanity (in accordance with the Nation-State logic). No wonder the Serb reaction is one of perplexed fury! And a similar thing is going on at the economic level: While pressuring Poland to open its agriculture to market competition, Western Europe floods the Polish market with agricultural products heavily subsidized from Brussels. How do post-Communist countries navigate in this sea with conflicting winds? If there is an ethical hero of the recent time in ex-Yugoslavia, it is Ika Saric, a modest judge in Croatia who, in the face of threats to her life and without any visible public support, condemned general Mirko Norac and his colleagues to 12 years of prison for the crimes committed in 1992 against the Serb civilian population. Even the Leftist government, afraid of the threat of the Rightist nationalist demonstrations, refused to stand firmly behind the trial against Norac. However, just as the nationalist Right was intimating that large public disorders would topple the government, when the sentence was proclaimed, NOTHING HAPPENED. The demonstrations were much smaller than expected and Croatia “rediscovered” itself as a state of the rule of law. It was especially important that Norac was not delivered to the Hague, but condemned in Croatia itself—Croatia thus proved that it does not need international tutelage. The dimension of the act proper consisted in the shift from the impossible to the possible: Before the sentence, the nationalist Right with its veteran organizations was perceived as a powerful force not to be provoked, and the direct harsh sentence was perceived by the liberal Left as something that “we all want, but, unfortunately, cannot afford in this difficult moment, since chaos would ensue.” However, after the sentence was proclaimed and nothing happened, the impossible turned into the routine. If there is any dimension to be redeemed of the signifier “Europe,” then this act was “European” in the most exemplary sense of the term. And if there is an event that embodies the cowardice, it is the behavior of the Slovene government after the outbreak of the Iraq-U.S. war. Slovene politicians desperately tried to steer a middle course between U.S. pressure and the unpopularity of the war with the majority of the Slovene population. First, Slovenia signed the infamous Vilnius declaration for which it was praised by Rumsfeld and others as part of the “new Europe” of the “coalition of the willing” in the war against Iraq. However, after the foreign minister signed the document, there ensued a true comedy of denials: The minister claimed that, before signing the document, he consulted the president of the republic and other dignitaries, who promptly denied that they knew anything about it; then, all concerned claimed that the document in no way supported the unilateral US attack on Iraq, but called for the key role of the United Nations. The specification was that Slovenia supported the disarmament of Iraq, but not the war on Iraq. However, a couple of days later, there was a bad surprise from the United States: Slovenia was not only explicitly named among the countries participating in the “coalition of the willing,” but was even designated as the recipient of financial aid from the United States to its war partners. What ensued was pure comedy: Slovenia proudly declared that it did not participate in the war against Iraq and demanded to be stricken from the list. After a couple of days, a new embarrassing document was received: The United States officially thanked Slovenia for it support and help. Slovenia again protested that it did not qualify for any thanks and refused to recognize itself as the proper addressee of the letter, in a kind of mocking version of “please, I do not really deserve your thanks!,” as if sending its thanks was the worst thing the United States could do to us. Usually, states protest when they are unjustly criticized; Slovenia protests when it receives signs of gratitude. In short, Slovenia behaved as if it was not the proper recipient of the letters of praise that went on and on—and what we all knew was that, in this case also, the letter DID arrive at its proper destination. The ambiguity of Eastern Europeans therefore merely mirrors the inconsistencies of Western Europe itself. Late in his life, Freud asked the famous question “Was will das Weib?” (“What does Woman want?”), admitting his perplexity when faced with the enigma of feminine sexuality. And a similar perplexity arises today, when post-Communist countries are entering the European Union: Which Europe will they be entering? For long years, I have been pleading for a renewed “Leftist Eurocentrism.” To put it bluntly, do we want to live in a world in which the only choice is between the American civilization and the emerging Chinese authoritarian-capitalist one? If the answer is no, then the only alternative is Europe. The Third World cannot generate a strong enough resistance to the ideology of the American Dream; in the present constellation, it is only Europe that can do it. The true opposition today is not the one between the First World and the Third World, but the one between the Whole of First and Third World (the American global Empire and its colonies) and the remaining Second World (Europe). Apropos Freud, Theodor Adorno claimed that what we are getting in our contemporary “administered world” and its “repressive desublimation” is no longer the old logic of repression of the Id and its drives, but a perverse direct pact between the punitive superego and the Id’s illicit aggressive drives at the expense of the Ego’s rational agency. Is not something structurally similar going on today at the political level, the weird pact between the postmodern global capitalism and the premodern societies at the expense of modernity proper? It is easy for the American multiculturalist global Empire to integrate premodern local traditions—the foreign body that it effectively cannot assimilate is European modernity. Jihad and McWorld are two sides of the same coin. Jihad is already McJihad. Although the ongoing “war on terror” presents itself as the defense of the democratic legacy, it courts the danger clearly perceived a century ago by G.K. Chesterton who, in his Orthodoxy, deployed the fundamental deadlock of the critics of religion: “Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church…The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them.“ Does the same not hold today for the advocates of religion themselves? How many fanatical defenders of religion started by ferociously attacking the contemporary secular culture and ended up forsaking any meaningful religious experience? In a similar way, many liberal warriors are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they will end by flinging away freedom and democracy themselves if only they may fight terror. They have such a passion for proving that non-Christian fundamentalism is the main threat to freedom that they are ready to fall back on the position that we have to limit our own freedom here and now, in our allegedly Christian societies. If the “terrorists” are ready to wreck this world for love of another world, our warriors on terror are ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalize torture—the ultimate degradation of human dignity—to defend it. And, along the same lines, we may lose “Europe” through its very defense. A year ago, an ominous decision of the European Union passed almost unnoticed: The plan to establish an all-European border police force to secure the isolation of the Union territory and thus to prevent the influx of immigrants. THIS is the truth of globalization: the construction of NEW walls safeguarding the prosperous Europe from the immigrant flood. One is tempted to resuscitate here the old Marxist “humanist” opposition of “relations between things” and “relations between persons”: In the much celebrated free circulation opened up by global capitalism, it is “things” (commodities) which freely circulate, while the circulation of “persons” is more and more controlled. This new racism of the developed is in a way much more brutal than the racism of the past: Its implicit legitimization is neither naturalist (the “natural” superiority of the developed West) nor any longer culturalist (we in the West also want to preserve our cultural identity), but unabashed economic egotism—the fundamental divide is between those included in the sphere of (relative) economic prosperity and those excluded from it. What we find reprehensible and dangerous in U.S. politics and civilization is thus A PART OF EUROPE ITSELF, one of the possible outcomes of the European project. There is no place for self-satisfied arrogance: The United States is a distorted mirror of Europe itself. Back in the 1930s, Max Horkheimer wrote that those who do not want to speak (critically) about liberalism should also keep silent about fascism. Mutatis mutandis, one should say to those who decry the new U.S. imperialism: Those who do not want to engage critically with Europe itself should also keep silent about the United States. This, then, is the only true question beneath the self-congratulatory celebrations that accompany the extension of the European Union: WHAT Europe are we joining? And when confronted with this question, all of us, “New” and “Old” Europe, are in the same boat.

Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.

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