In The Conversation with Ksenija Pavlovic, Simon Glendinning, acclaimed British philosopher, Professor of European Philosophy in the European Institute at the London School of Economics and a Director of the Forum for European Philosophy, speaks his mind about Zizek’s judgment on Trump and reveals what he would say to Boris Johnson over a cup of coffee.
Zizek told us prior to the U.S. election that Trump would be a better voting option if we wanted to defeat the status quo. From a philosophical standpoint that may make sense, but how about a practical one?
Simon Glendinning: Frankly I thought Zizek’s judgement here was appalling – and not just practically. The “philosophical” idea is that the status quo is so objectionable that it is more objectionable to maintain it than it is to elect someone as dangerous as Trump. The reason Zizek thinks this is that while Hillary Clinton’s election would lead only to “absolute inertia” (no fundamental change), Donald Trump’s election would hasten the arrival of the sort of revolt that Zizek would really like to see, one which would bring about the destruction of capitalism: it would create the conditions in which that eventuality becomes at least possible.
Not only is there is absolutely no historical precedent for that sort of “creative destruction” idea, but the deluge of violence and hate that could be unleashed by Trump’s Presidency will land on the lives of human beings who have none of the security and comfort of Zizek, who will no doubt watch it with horror on TV as he waits for a revolution that won’t come anyway.
Brexit came as a shock to progressives in Britain and the pro-EU block. What did “the shock” encompass? What broken values and failed dreams did it contain?
Simon Glendinning: There are many ways in which political identity – the citizen, the voter, the common man, etc. – can be conceived, but for Europeans in general the most powerful identification is national. Eurobarometer surveys consistently show that about 90% of EU citizens see themselves as primarily national citizens. However, not only do many of those, indeed most of those, think of themselves also as European, but the national identities of Europe’s nations have, in sometimes subtle ways, themselves been Europeanized: the narrowly national shaping of identity that expressed itself in xenophobic hostility to European neighbours was withering away – especially for people who had European neighbours as their neighbours. Almost immediately after the referendum result was announced there were reports of violent attacks in the UK on EU citizens living and working here. This was not because people suddenly flipped back into old national cultural formations, but because the door had been opened or reopened to those who had never lost those old formations. That is a shrinkingly small minority – nothing like the 52% who voted Leave – but their views have certainly fractured the values and dreams of people who thought we were moving away from those petty nationalistic attitudes. Those dreams are not dreams of a Europe becoming one in the sense of a shift towards supranational government in Europe, but rather, on the one hand, of a British identity which cultivates tolerance and respect, and, on the other hand, of a European horizon to our politics which cultivates peace and mutual understanding between the peoples of Europe – the real meaning of “ever closer union” in my opinion.
What did the Remain camp miss during their campaign? Is there any more clarity as to what went wrong now that we have some distance from the referendum?
Simon Glendinning: Outside Scotland, the Remain campaign was dominated by the open divisions within the UK Conservative Party. The divisions there were the fundamental reason why there was a referendum in the first place; and the arguments between them were the nightly news. One side inviting us to “take back control”; the other side warning about the economic perils that would follow from Brexit. The two sides were readily labeled “project hope” and “project fear” respectively, and hope won. One can argue that what the Remain camp missed was the anxieties of millions of British citizens that national life was no longer governed by national politics. And the temptation for the European Union to become a state-like power fuelled those anxieties. Was there a way for British national politicians to provide a counter-narrative for those anxieties? There was, I believe, but it would not have been through more detailed statements of, for example, the way the European Union protected us from international and global forces, and hence enhanced the sovereignty we kept (which to some extent it does). No, arguments like that would not have been able to compete against the more intuitive appeal of “taking back control”. However, what would have helped, and in a close run campaign would have made the difference, would have been to see something at the UK level that was visibly presented in Scotland: namely, all the leaders of the main political parties standing together to present a fully national united front against the motley crew of Leavers. Without exception the leaders of the main parties in the UK wanted to Remain, and had they campaigned together the sense of national unity attained in Scotland could have prevailed UK-wide. I’m afraid there is only one person responsible for this not happening, and that is Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party. It has been accepted that the campaigning he did do was not the cause of the defeat in the referendum, and he may even have struck quite a good tone in not being ludicrously starry-eyed about the EU, and I accept that. It was the campaigning that he did not do, and in particular his pathetic refusal to appear with the Conservative party leader on the campaign trail that did the damage. On the morning after the referendum the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, Tim Farron, furiously pointed the finger at Corbyn as the weak link in the Remain campaign. I think he was right. In my view Corbyn lost it for the UK, not simply because of a lacklustre campaign (which it was), but primarily for refusing to be part of a national one.
Why does populism still sell? One would think that in a new millennium we are much wiser, more liberal and more cosmopolitan. What kind of social and political regression is taking place in 2016? Where are we heading to?
Simon Glendinning: We are, as Paul Valéry said in 1932, “backing into the future” and “heading we know not where”.
I do not think we are wiser, more liberal or more cosmopolitan. Indeed, one of the major problems with the EU as it is presently constituted – with the Euro and Schengen especially – is that it is hyper-liberal and naively cosmopolitan.
In the 1780’s and 1790’s when the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant projected the emergence of “a great political body of the future” on our continent, he warned against taking what looks for all the world like the “one rational way” of bringing the Europe of nations into a condition of lasting peace: namely forming an international state. That step may look rational but it is, as long as there are nations that understand themselves as such, absolutely fatal. The EU should aim to cultivate a united Europe of states, not a United States of Europe, and the populist backlash against an EU that has been seeking to promote “ever closer union” through the transfer of sovereignty from the national to the European level was inevitable, and it is not over.
When, or better where, will Europe end?
Simon Glendinning:I have not lost faith in the European political project. There is even a chance that Brexit will help create a form of international union that will be a successor of the present form: a political union that is not a federal state but a proper federation of free states. A friend of mine once said that, in the end, it is a question of institutional design, and I think that’s right.
Unfortunately, political science is more or less obsessed with explaining the workings of the current design, and – hopelessly I think – working out how it can overcome its faults.
But philosophers have been contributing more radically to alternatives, from Hayek to Habermas. The argument there has been between an expressly liberal order (with minimal interference in the lives of European citizens by the European institutions) and a powerfully interventionary order (with a democratically elected European government relegating nations to implementing authorities). The tide is turning against the idea of a European supranational government. But if all is not to be lost we desperately need to think out the form of what Kant called the “negative substitute” of an international state: not increasingly greater European government, but an international federation that will make hostility between nations increasingly less likely. Limited sovereignty for all to maximise the sovereignty that each retains, that for me is the way forward for Europe. Back to Kant!
Your thoughts on evil. Is it an outmoded concept?
Simon Glendinning: We are not gentle creatures. Nothing seems to me less outmoded than recognising this. In my view, every philosophy that supposes we are, in the end, fundamentally good and peaceable, and that it is only horrid forms of politics that leads people to do horrid things, is not just false: it is an example of the very thing it wants to deny. Wherever we go, that dangerous animal will follow us there, and the ones who preach a form of social life that will finally bring peace and social justice will not only hate but finally murder those who stand in their way.
What would you say to Boris Johnson over a cup of coffee?
I don’t really trust to hope. I prefer the politics of memory which says “never again”. But even that politics is not unhopeful that the spirit, being in command and having overcome the lust of eating, may triumph over all the field.