~By Inderjit Badhwar
I was fortunate enough, barely a week ago, to share the stage with the soaring Viennese-born philosopher-novelist Robert Menasse who has just won the coveted German Book Prize for his book Die Hauptstadt (The Capital) in which the European Union plays the main role. This was at the annual Prague Writers’ Festival (PWF), rated among the world’s top 30 literary events, for which I had been selected by the Festival’s jury to represent India. I felt like a pygmy among the giants in that theatre. Especially in the presence of Menasse, a towering intellectual who has made it his mission to rage against the virulent nationalism spreading like a scourge across continents.
The malady is a mutant with many manifestations. Its most salient symptom is what is now widely known as “identity politics”—the feeling of revanchist and aggressive distinctiveness, of exclusive
we-ness against them-ness, the ready adoption of warmongering by groups smitten by insecurity no matter what their numbers.
We have seen this in India, in the creation of Pakistan, in state-level chauvinism and the preservation of antediluvian tribal superstitions and customs, in caste warfare, in the defence of religious personal laws, and in love jehad. We see this today in the warlike defence of the purity of the mythic Padmavati and the power of mob-censorship of artist MF Husain and writers Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen, in the murderous assaults by self-styled cow protection vigilantes.
Islam is in danger, say some. Caste cohorts are in danger. The Hindu lives in fear: A majority with a minority complex! As a blogger recently wrote to me: “The Hindu believes that fast-multiplying minorities will soon dominate; minorities are hard core and better organised; they are engaged in all illegal economic activities; Islamists will kill infidels at the drop of a hat and impose Sharia law if they come to power; minorities should be economically disenfranchised in order to prevent them from buying arms; only those devoted to saving Hindus deserve to be elected…. I do not even have a solution to offer, I am in the problem definition stage…I am clueless….”
Actually, this is not new. The India before Independence was an agglomeration of over 560 often warring independent states—identity states—and the Founding Fathers, after horrendous bloodshed, created a pan-Indian union in which a larger concept of cooperative creative federalism would claw itself out of the primordial slime of petty, identity-based nationalism.
“The sooner Europe gets used to a future without the nation-state, the better. Amnesia about what the unification project originally meant is causing a catastrophic lack of imagination about where it is heading. Hegel once said: ‘The human being also dies out of habit.’”
—Robert Menasse, the winner of German Book Prize for Die Hauptstadt (The Capital)
We have regressed. Under Trump, America is regressing into isolationist, jingoistic, white supremacist nationalism. In Europe Brexit’s Little Englander showed the way out of supranationalism and into xenophobia, followed by the European Union. But there’s also a fightback. There’s Angela Merkel of Germany.
And there are philosopher kings like Menassse who face fierce hostility, as I saw him encounter, at the Prague Writers’ Festival. Here are some pearls of wisdom from Menasse, in his own words:
- The sooner Europe gets used to a future without the nation-state, the better. Amnesia about what the unification project originally meant is causing a catastrophic lack of imagination about where it is heading. Hegel once said: “The human being also dies out of habit.”
- He wasn’t, of course, questioning the biological finitude of human life, but referring to the political and social nature of the human being. If one lives entirely in the everyday, eking out an existence “doing servile work, in which the tool has become autonomous, in other words a machine”, then this “dying out of habit” sets in, a “trembling in the face of social death”. This trembling is the final agitation of an historical movement that has run aground, because its intention and necessity, namely progress in the spirit of freedom, has been forgotten, and its goal, even if provisional, is seen as threatening to the familiar and hence repressed.
“The work of unity which we have begun, and which we work on daily, is no schematic idea projected blindly onto the future, no nebulous dream. Rather, it is a reality, because it is oriented towards the realities of Europe.” These words were spoken by Walter Hallstein, the first president of the European Commission, in a speech in Rome in 1964. Despite drawing much attention at the time, today it has been forgotten.
- So what were the “realities of Europe”? After a 30-year war (1914-1945), Europe lay in ruins. Many could still remember the Franco-German war, the overture to Europe’s self-destruction. So compelling was this experience that it was possible to convince people that lasting peace should be created in a new and entirely different way. But how? The founders of the European integration project had recognised the aggressor that had destroyed the continent’s infrastructure, that had caused suffering and misery for generations, that was responsible for the most horrendous crimes against humanity, all the way to Auschwitz. The aggressor was nationalism.
- The ideological self-aggrandisement of nations, the national arrogance that inevitably results in permanent conflict with the interests of other nations. These “national interests”, wrote Jean Monnet, “are nothing but the short-sighted economic interests of national elites, the satisfaction of which, in economic terms, involves writing off the national population, and the populations of other nations, as losses, and in real terms turning them into victims.”
- I cannot understand what should be so wrong with a transnational community of solidarity, in an era when globalisation, though unstoppable, needs to be actively shaped. I cannot understand why, after all our experiences with nationalism, overcoming nationalism should be a bad idea. I cannot understand why today’s leaders consistently refuse to mention the ideas of their predecessors. Is it forgetfulness, misunderstanding, denial? Why, when these ideas indicate ways out of a crisis that the leaders have otherwise failed to deal with?
- Oh, right. They want to get re-elected. Nationally.
- One thing is clear: the nation-states (must) go down. The sooner we get used to this fact, the better our democratic and autonomous future will be. Otherwise there will be soot and ashes all over again, suffering, ruins, scapegoats murdered en masse, the real sinners dead too. We will stand distraught before the smoking ruins and murmur: “This must never happen again!”
- Hegel’s death out of habit.
Thank you, Robert, my friend. India, too, lay in ruins after the bloody Partition of 1947. We thought we had found a way out. But we are losing our way, as is Europe. We, too, need your voice.
—Inderjit Badhwar is Editor-in-Chief, India Legal.
He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org