Enlightenment, Enlargement, and the European Union

Enlightenment, Enlargement, and the European Union

The New Old Europe
by Perry Anderson
Verso, 2009, 548pp., $39.95

When the history of the present era is written, it will be interesting to see which institutions, ideologies, and reputations survive the Great Recession of 2008. Some casualties are already evident: Lehman Brothers, the Efficient Market Hypothesis, Alan Greenspan, and Gordon Brown (to list a few obvious examples). Some are wounded, but will likely survive in a diminished form. Still others are doing quite nicely. As the West’s leading Marxist intellectual, Perry Anderson appears to be having a rather good recession. Anderson was quick to recognize both the triumph and the contradictions of what he terms “the neo-liberal ascendancy.” Anderson’s fascinating new book of essays on Europe is framed by the Thatcherite-inspired deregulation of financial markets and the collapse of communism that initiated its ascendancy. If the book—which comprises several long essays—has one central theme, it is the confusions that have befallen the European Union (EU) as its architects wrestle with the contradictions in neoliberal capitalism. It could not be more timely. Reeling under the impact of the Southern European debt crises, the EU might well prove to be the Great Recession’s biggest casualty of all.

One does not have to be a Marxist to recognize the social pathologies that result from a poorly regulated form of market capitalism. These pathologies have prompted social democrats to build institutions capable of socializing the market. In contrast to Marxists, social democrats are animated less by any sense of inevitable contradiction than by a hope, perhaps naïve, that a just society can be constructed within the interstices of a broadly capitalist order. The problem for social democrats is to identify the right balance of values—equality, opportunity, liberty, democracy, and so forth—and the institutions capable of securing those values. For thinkers in this tradition, theories of justice are important, but so too is the comparative study of social and political institutions. Social democrats recognize that capitalism comes in a variety of different institutional forms, some less benign than others. When a new institutional form emerges—and the EU is nothing if not new—a social democrat wants to know, Does this new institutional form serve social democratic values? Which of its institutional features require reform? Is this institutional form an improvement on its predecessors?

Faced with the EU, social democrats remain divided in their answers. For some social democrats (political theorist David Miller comes to mind), social justice requires the strong sense of shared nationality found in Europe’s traditional nation-states. In opening the borders of the nation-state, the EU, so it is feared, will erode this sense of shared nationality, which in turn will jeopardize the achievements of the welfare state. John Rawls took a si...