Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Challenges for Post-Christian Europe

Christianity in Europe is far from dead. It has split into many elements, liberal and conservative, communitarian and evangelical, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and free-thinking, with many offshoots including imported and indigenous 'new religions' derivative from it (often from America). Yet the cultural model of idealism towards and faith in the other ('God'), salvation and (to a greater or lesser extent) tradition and good works still makes up a considerable part of the European branch of Western culture. Into this complexity, the Judaic element is added with its own mix of liberal and conservative, comunitarian and free-thinking ideals and we have, more recently, the re-irruption of Islam with elements that are hyper-traditionalist as well as others seeking the path of assimilation and collaboration following the Jewish precedent.

The mix becomes ever more complex with time. The religious wars of the early modern period and the Enlightenment brought us not only the opening for Judaic thought and for both liberal Christianity and an evangelical and traditionalist reaction to it but an opportunity for atheism and 'ideology' which became the basis for secular faith systems - nationalism, both authoritarian and liberal, liberalism (the currently dominant ideology), various forms of socialism (as complex as Christianity and perhaps even to be considered a Judaeo-Christian heresy adapted to science and materialism) and, finally, anarchisms, existentialism and scientific atheism. We might add, more latterly, neo-paganism, whether innocent and associated with post-fascist traditionalism, and the so-called hyper-real religions developed out of popular culture and modern myths such as those surrounding UFOs.

Have I missed any? Theosophical movements may have declined but Buddhism has a position in European society and there is space for nearly all the non-tribal Eastern religions as exemplars or philosophies of life. You may add to taste what I have forgotten. Whichever way we look at it, the sheer scale of the variance of belief is staggering compared to the early modern and modern totalitarian attempts to impose monotheism or a single ideology on a population - let alone the 'tolerant' conformity of a hegemonic Christianity in the liberal world of the nineteenth century. This is the chaos of late paganism or of the East held together only by the monopoly of force that a secular authority can maintain. Historically, it has often been convenient for that force to take one religion and endorse it and crush others if that will bring victory or order - Constantine springs to mind.

If there are modern tendencies in that direction, they are not towards imposing a religion but uniting forces against a religion - radical Islam. Both traditionalists and liberals are conflicted even here, some choosing confrontation for the sake of 'purity' and the imagined past and others seeking accommodation with the majority of Muslims as shared peoples of the book or just as political realities in our inner cities who have to be taken account of. But, unless political order completely breaks down (if it does do so, it is at the crumbling far periphery of the European Project), the presumption of the authorities remains one of tolerance, secular order and allowing religious moderates to enter into policy-making within the framework of democratic persuasion and political organisation. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the indifferent and the agnostic - those who have no real interest in the myth of the spirit or invisible creatures - have votes and want to be consumers and producers first and rely on the movies not the churches for their access to the fantastic.

But underpinning this struggle within and between the myths and legends that came in with a desert wind between the first century BC and seventh century AD under the Pax Romana and then as a political tool for kings and emperors subsequently and then with the reaction to obscurantism (often creating new obscurantisms) that took place from the sixteenth century to the twentieth and with the arrival of spiritualities from below under American, Eastern and nationalist influence later still, there are ancient mental models that preceded these waves of external and democratic mental change. We should ask whether and where they shave life and potential today (or present dangers perhaps). I have identified six that still exist below the surface of or alongside the Christian sub-stratum in our cultural-archaeological dig. You may think of others but I suggest these are the six that make up our indigenous pre-modern European culture and act as 'to-hands' for political and cultural actors in our future.

Strand One - The Athenian Texts

In each of these cases, we are less concerned with what these traditions actually were or meant in the past and more concerned with what they have come to mean and what they could mean in the future. Nowhere is this more true than with the mythology surrounding Athenian democracy. Although it is now righly criticised as a flawed democracy with slaves and a subservient role for women as well as implicitly xenophobic, in its historic context it was a remarkably robust system for sovereign independence and then empire before being crushed by Alexandrine imperialism. The core of the ideology is of a closed democracy as necessarily the 'good society' and it stands as challenge to multicultural fluidity of the globalising West. Historically, it was influential on American democracy and on Jacobinical republicanism and so, by twists and turns, on both liberalism and fascism as well as on all forms of republicanism. It stands as an ideal with continued potential for misapplications of notions of purity and conformity on the one hand and self-determination and freedom on the other.

Strand Two - The Dialectic Between the Roman Republic and Empire

The Roman Republic and the subsequent Empire might appear to be opposites as models for the future. They could be contrasted in later generations as narratives of decadence or of failure but they also present a particularly strong narrative of increasing order undermined by internal dissent, over-accommodation of the barbarian (external ideologies and forces) and accommodation with the popular (the Roman mob and Christianity). They are an 'object lesson' - the story is one of an ideal perverted and one where the ideal could be restored. That ideal is universal law applied by force. It is an ideal of conservative perfection at heart and it became an influence on Napoleonic and British imperialism, a driver for American perfectionism and empire and for Italian fascism but is also an 'at hand' for the increasingly frustrated European Project, even the West (as self-conscious political cause,) by which they could create an 'ideal' from which order might be imposed on fractious populations, Political Islam and Russia be resisted in their feared incursions (although Russia might equally be cast as Eastern Empire and the US as Western Empire to taste) and some accommodation be made with the dominant faith groups (a resolution devoutly wished for by the Vatican).

Strand Three - The Romance of Arthur

This might be considered peculiar to the British and lost now to the nineteenth century but it stands for something else that is derivative from Christianity yet exists not to be Christian first and foremost. It is a redirection of the inherent potential for warlordism and piracy in elites into social responsibility - the imperial version of corporate social responsibility. It is ideal behaviour as an aristocracy presented as 'service' (even if it is pretty flexible as to the question 'to whom' is the service owed). Today, we see it as an ideology of technocracy and managerialism where managers seek to assert their authority over what they see as anarchic social forces - whether finance capital or the mob. The ideal is romantic and is an irruption of the Roman past into, first, the medieval and then the modern present, first as restraint of feudalism, then as restraint on imperialism and now as restraint on capitalism. This the Western equivalent of mandarin confucianism. The 'to whom' is key - the Crown, the State, the Empire or the People. The vision is a form of liberal conservatism, a top-down granting of boons to the commonwealth, that could be useful if universal law is applied by force in the European Project since force requires an accompanying ideology of restraint. Or it could be used for the reconstruction of the power of a service elite following scandal after scandal in political, financial and bureaucratic elites in particular nation-states.

Strand Four - The Volkisch

Volkisch ideology invented history by intellectuals with time on their hands for the petit-bourgeoisie. It might be thought to have crashed in flames in the cellars and bunkers of mid-twentieth century Europe. Its origins lies in pre-Christian barbarian cultures and is at the root not only of neo-nationalism but of northern democracy. It has potential resonance three generations on from Hitlerism for two reasons - revisionist history can provide more rationale than liberals may like for the rise of nationalism as response to disorder in the 150 years before the conflagration and current conditions of hyper-modernity and multiculturalism almost require the existence of something to which those whose identity is threatened or who are economically disadvantaged can rally. What will emerge is unlikely to be precisely what existed in the past. It does not appear to be a very pan-European identity but more a populist identity based on language and place. It is thus in a dialectic tension with the first three strands.

Strand Five - Political Neo-Paganism

Neo-paganism is very much a minority sport, a clubbable business of small very liberal or hyper-conservative sub-sets of the population. The instinctive preference of most Europeans is Abrahamanic or secular. Although there is an association of Germanic and Nordic paganism with the Radical Right (although we should note that the murderous Breivik cast his violence in terms of Christian retribution and righteousness), the real contribution of neo-paganism is a withdrawal from politics into self-reliance and a theory of the 'natural', not the naturally pre-defined person (neo-pagans are as likely to adopt very fluid notions of identity as to follow the norms of Assatru) but of a natural world which provides us humans with meaning and order. If anything, this is a mode of resistance to social order and can present itself in terms of either the Right or the Left as traditionally understood. It tends to be passive rather than active but will engage in the world to protect, conservatively, its own - generally a locus or an 'environment' - from intervention. It is a proto-barbarian element in dialectic with the proto-Rome of the European Project.

Strand Six - The Shamanic

Finally we find ourselves in the lowest stratum of all. There may be a rich Eurasian shamanic tradition - the manipulative magician as community catalyst through altered states - but this has been culturally pushed to the periphery of the Continent. What has happened instead is an importation of indigenous peoples' shamanic experience through anthropology and the revived interest in psychedelics via the United States and it is this that has tapped into the oldest strata of all within the European cultural tradition. This is a culture of potential resistance to excessive order and, if you spend time observing it, one of withdrawal from elites and also a determination to defend place and person against authority much like Strand Five. It is anarchic but not in the destructive meaning of the term. It sits waiting to undermine fixed identities and beliefs through instant personal revelation and a direct communion with other realities - delusory perhaps but not much more so than the hyper-reality of post-modernism.


If we go back to Breivik, he looks, in his Christian political eschatology, more like the last brutal gasp of a decaying unified vision of Europe as a Christian Continent than the precursor of meaningful revolt. The Far Right (or at least an important faction of it and its populist element) is clinging to the Christian myth as political tool and to create a bulwark against the most significant 'other' - Islam - but they have lost the plot under conditions where a majority of Christians think in more socially liberal terms and where the most recent Pope has had to re-fashion his rhetoric in this liberal direction in order to hold on to his base.

Our model of contemporary Europe is of a flailing empire trying to maintain order with no clear authoritarian ideology to support it - beyond a sort of vaguely Kantian ideology of liberal rights and a collapsing 'peace' ethos driven from above by the elites themselves. There is no Cult of the Emperor, no belief in King and Country, no belief in the Dictatorship of the Proletariat than can push all rival political ideologies to the margins or into private life and even silence. Tolerance means maximal variation (which is creative but chaotic). This is what most of us rather like because it gives us the freedom to have a private life and yet to try to drive our world view into the political process by stealth and in a free competition within shared rules. But it also means that the political elite becomes an alien bureaucracy that looks weak and ineffective when it can do nothing or little about those who break or do not share the rules - just as the rule breakers are increasing in number.

There is no stasis in culture and politics. All systems that degrade like this either collapse (the European Project is undergoing an economic, security and political crisis all at the same time) or a crisis transforms the system into a new system with new rules and new structures of power - much as the Roman Republic transformed itself into the Roman Empire or the British Empire into a multicultural airstrip and banking quarter. We might oversimplify the strands we have identified into 'Roman' (that is Empire and Order) or 'Barbarian' (that is Freedom and Self-Determination) models by suggesting that the first three strands (a closed civics, universalism backed by force and the ideal of a service elite) are being challenged and contested by the last three (the politics of language and place, the defence of the individual and the tribe from authority and the primacy of personal revelation). The challenge and the contest will be, eventually, political involving some form of armed force either as repression or rebellion.

Judaeo-Christianity remains a formidable force for Order (as we are seeing in the return of the conservative Right in Spain) and is even hegemonic in some parts of Europe, notably Poland, but its power should not be assumed to be hegemonic across Europe. Even active Judaeo-Christian political forces can speak in secularist terms - such as in terms of support for or migration to Israel or defensive demands for protection from criminal Islamists. The Charlie Hebdo revolt was, we must not forget, about the right to be blasphemous as much as a populist negative revolt against the claims of radical Islam. This gives the European Union the character of the Roman Empire before Constantine - a fracturing culture maintained by a fractured political authority with the old religions no longer able to provide the necessary cohesion. If a cultural revolution takes place it is unlikely to come from the Vatican,. We cannot know what such a revolution will be if it does come but either an assertion of a European ideology of order, a sort of fascism-lite with added Kant, or an accommodation with radical liberal, tribal and even libertarian populism seem to be the current probable trajectories. We'll see.