“In 2017…We are not only aware that the unthinkable can happen, but we actually expect it to happen.”
This sentence exemplifies one of the reasons I was so riveted by Ivan Krastev’s After Europe – namely, the author writes with a shocking degree of objectivity and clarity when discussing our collective present historical moment. I say shocking because, frankly, I don’t expect much objectivity or clarity when reading books on current international affairs. That isn’t meant to dismiss or demean the work of writers who analyze current events. Rather, I recognize the supreme difficulty in talking objectively about a period that has not ended. It is easy enough to express a political position, but over time such expressions tend to be seen primarily as examples of partisan views or biases.
Krastev’s book is so fascinating because, while the author certainly makes explicit and implicit political claims – one of which I vehemently disagree with – overall the reader is left with a sense that they are not being offered one man’s opinion but a lucid and eminently useful interpretation of the world that will only increase in importance over time.
Specifically, Krastev’s book is an incredibly insightful examination into the present state of the European Union, an organization that – according to the author – is at a crossroads.
Simply put, Krastev asks whether the EU will, or even can, survive.
The answer largely depends on who wins in the conflict between the Anywheres and the Somewheres.
And by articulating the conflict as between Anywheres and Somewheres – as opposed to conversatives vs liberals or the Right vs the Left – Krastev makes not only the EU debate intelligible to the general public, but gives us a new political vocabulary that makes sense of the world as a whole.
But who are the Anywheres and the Somewheres?
According to David Goodhart of The Prospect, “The old divides of class and economic interest have not disappeared but are increasingly over-laid by a larger and looser one – between the people who see the world from Anywhere and the people see it from Somewhere. Anywheres dominate our culture and society. They…have portable ‘achieved’ identities, based on educational and career success, which makes them generally comfortable and confident with new places and people. The Somewhere people are by definition more rooted and usually have ‘ascribed’ identities – Scottish farmer, working class Geordie, Cornish housewife – based on group belonging and particular places, which is why they often find rapid change more unsettling.”
It’s easy to see why Krastev finds Goodhart’s framework so useful in understanding the EU’s current crisis. On one side, you have those who see the fate of every EU country as intertwined, and thus believe cooperation and collaboration is the only path to mutual survival, let alone success. On the other, you have those who believe the EU is nothing but the fantasy of technocrats with no loyalty to any nation, including their own. To this group, the problems of one country should mean nothing to any other, and they see any attempt to impose policies on multiple nations as outright illegitimate.
In a sense, it comes down to an empire vs kingdom mindset. If you believe the problems facing the world require a collective response – for example, that mitigating the damage of climate change means countries must band together and unite behind common policies – then you’re in the empire/Anywhere camp. But if you believe that no country should be able to tell any other country what it should do about any issue, large or small, then you’re in the kingdom/Somewhere camp. Sovereignty, then, is the ultimate issue.
Naturally, neither side is inherently right or wrong. The problem is that both sides can, and have, taken actions that are incredibly dangerous. The Somewhere camp offers plenty of obvious examples. For instance, resistance to helping migrants and refugees has led to the increased power of nativist, racist, and outright fascist parties that stoke the fears of populations of “them” (which almost invariably means brown people). What else explains the fact that toxic extremists like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders nearly won the presidential elections in France and the Netherlands, respectively? Fears of the “other,” and ever-increasing economic insecurity fuels the worst impulses in all of us, leading to the rise of demagogues and a society that sees force as the first and only recourse.
This leads to one point, however, where I strongly differ with Krastev. It’s true that the appeals to blood and soil of the kind offered by Le Pen, Wilders, or Trump (Krastev makes frequent and enlightening comparisons to the situation in the United States, where Trump’s “America First” policy – which was the exact line/name of a fascist group in the 1930s in America – has often meant dismantling, undermining, or outright abandoning our commitments to allies around the world while encouraging terrorism at home by courting the support of the KKK, neo-Nazis, and the like) are extremely dangerous. But Krastev seems to believe all these terrible expressions of nationalism can be reduced to populism, which is a dirty word in After Europe, signaled out as a major, if not the major, threat to the EU’s continued political cohesion.
Consider this excerpt, where Krastev claims, “It is loyalty – namely, the unconditional loyalty to ethnic, religious, or social groups – that is at the heart of the appeal of Europe’s new populism. Populists promise people not to judge them solely on their merits. They promise solidarity if not justice.”
But Populism is not inherently irrational, racist, xenophobic, or anything of that sort. Rather than dwell on the issue here, I would refer you to an article by Jacobin published in which Anton Jäger explains how the concept of populism has been abused and misused throughout history.
Despite my disagreement with the author about the nature of populism, however, I still found After Europe a useful and invigorating read. It made sense of the dizzyingly complex problems facing the EU and showed how different parts of Europe are reacting in different ways and why (that is, Western vs Central vs Eastern European countries).
And if we are going to solve any of these problems, we will need to consider them with the clarity and historical awareness that Krastev demonstrates again and again throughout this important text.
So go read it. Now.