Leiden Law Blog

Nihilism in and on Europe?

Nihilism in and on Europe?

Reading Camus’ L’homme révolté (1951) makes one think again about nihilism and its destructive powers in history. Actually this book, seemingly happily overtaken by European history after World War Two, acquires new importance in the light, or darkness, of the anti-Europeanism on the rise today. Why?

Populist and other stances against a unified Europe often stress the supposed incompatibility of such unification with democracy and with the national state. From a legal point of view the democracy issue is nonsense of course. Nothing in organised and unified Europe has not been decided upon in some form or another in national parliaments. As for the ideal of the national or “nation” state, all that needs to be quoted is Dr. Johnson’s justifiably famous 18th century one-liner on “patriotism as the last recourse of scoundrels”. Right?

Still this does not do away with anti-Europeanism and its underlying forces. Back to Camus and his vividly recognisable depiction of the nihilistic “dandy”,  trying to draw public attention without actually having any further intention of doing anything good or even bad. More than a few latter-day anti-Europeans fit this classic description reasonably well. Think of those elitist right wing intellectuals, vociferously trying to convince us of their democratic stance against the bureaucratic evil of Europe. But what is their real allegiance with “the people”? In real life they do not want to be associated with le peuple commun at all.

All this may be less important than nihilism in a much broader sense, explained by Camus as a major driving force behind the mass destructions of the twentieth century. “Man revolts against God, against himself, against everything and thus destructs everything” – to rather briefly and simplistically summarise Camus’ frightening depiction of such nihilism.

How relevant is this today? Is the seemingly innocuous vanity of “dandy-esque” nihilism foreboding some or other really dangerous nihilism leading to new destruction? Will Europe remain strong enough to neutralise such negativity? Negativity is also to be found in anti-Europeans’ conspicuous neglect of any real diagnosis of problems supposedly caused by Europe and comparable neglect of any reasoned alternative to a unified Europe. How does a unified Europe really affect its citizens’ freedom, security and justice, compared to alternative schemes in terms of some kind of return to independent national states? Nobody knows for sure, though it is certainly true that contemporary Europeans do enjoy historically incomparable amounts of freedom, security and justice, even though they themselves may not always believe this to be the historical truth.

We never had it so good, still resentment against Europe and its less well-off inhabitants is on the rise. Such negative dialectic or simple discontent is the stuff on which anti-European, xenophobic and other populism thrives. Any self-respecting critic of Europe ought to take notice of this: do not jump onto the bad bandwagon, otherwise things may really end up rolling the wrong way. Think and act in the first place on further reforming Europe, not so much in the name of “the people” “the nation” and other dangerous rhetoric, but instead in the name of freedom, security and justice for all.

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