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Europe's crisis is philosophical

A Philosophy for Europe
Forfatter: Roberto Esposito
Forlag: Polity Press (UK)
Europe is suffering from an unclear crisis: the forces that would unite us are absent, while the contradictions that would propel something new are too vague. A philosophical clarification of the disease is needed to prepare a healthy political struggle. 


Roberto Esposito has in recent decades marked himself as one of Italy's foremost and most accessible thinkers, and is primarily known for his books on the community: immunity og communitas. The thinking of society (communitas) is linked to a thinking of immunity, because every society is like a community protected from a hostile outside. What was a speculative philosophy of life at Schopenhauer and Nietzsche has gone the way of Foucault's late works and turned into a "biopolitical" thinking. The dispute is about the conditions of life both for the individual bodies and for the social body as a whole.

Esposito also has a pronounced connection to Foucault's "biopolitics" – which affects health, sexuality and death – as well as to the late Heidegger's thoughts on technology and nature. For Esposito, the two world wars – especially the other – are also crucial. This is not just because this was the time when Heidegger had his darkest years and let his deep thoughts on time and destiny capture the historical visions of the Nazis. It is also because in the world wars that a mechanical management of human life and bodies appeared at its most monstrous as the true twist of civilization: Europe's crisis had long been latent in culture and thinking, but now manifested itself fully in a political and geographical plan – and demolish the rest of the world.

A philosophical Europe crisis. Esposito reminds us that "crisis" is a term from medicine that denotes the patient's condition in which it hovers between life and death. Terror threats and the migration crisis give the impression that the problems are pressing from the outside, and that – in biopolitical terms – it is about immunizing against the outside world. Esposito has highlighted elsewhere that biopolitics is not just about immunological self-defense and pure survival struggle. Crises can also be seen as an expression of an ongoing birth – a sustained attempt to come to life and find form. External problems are expressions of transformations that philosophy can anticipate.

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With a shudder, we see all the confidences of the community under a cold and distrustful look – which is really our own.

Nietzsche, long before the world wars, gave a name to the European crisis: nihilism. This "creepiest of all guests" is a homeless negativity knocking on the door. With a shudder, we see all the confidences of the community under a cold and distrustful look – which is really our own. The lack of authoritative truths and compelling values ​​at the core of culture cannot be covered by science's more or less uncontroversial "facts," Esposito believes. Neither are calculable market values ​​and common economic interests solving the problem of nihilism. Esposito seeks the key to Europe's way forward through a critical reading of the philosophy tradition.

A family portrait. The reader may feel uneasy when Esposito's ambitious pursuit of a hidden pattern branches into a philosophical family portrait, an entire family tree of thinkers over a century and a half, arranged by German, French and Italian family members. He points out hidden connections, tells anecdotes about mighty encounters, and draws the contours of bitter feuds and steep fronts in the philosophical landscape. Still, he helps the reader by constantly providing new articulations of "Europe's problem," which eventually branches into all kinds of historical events and metaphysical nodes. Of course, it is tempting to look for both the cause and the cure at the root of the family tree: to seek a lost original entity to find the way forward. This is where the most dangerous temptation lies, Esposito believes.

The longing for a saving unity and a deeper truth in Europe's origins – in Greek culture – found its most sentimental form in German neoclassicism and romance, where the Greek was united with the local. In the interwar period, the search for roots became a philosophical obsession. At the same time, the political story is haunted by the notion of Empire trying to embody the universal. After the Roman Empire, the empire resurfaced in Spanish, Austrian, French and English customs. The longing of the empire got its most spasmodic expression in Hitler's Third Reich. Here, the classical legacy was reduced to an empty political ornament, and the European obsession with finding universal truths turned into a totalitarian banishment of what is different.

Association without unity. Simply put, Esposito tries to distinguish all those who think out of unity and roots, from those who seek the key in what is different, or from the "outside." Nietzsche had no illusions of an original unity in the past, but saw that the Greek legacy carried explosive contradictions. Esposito refers to the fact that Nazi thinker Carl Schmitt already realized in 1945 that Europe was doomed to face new empires in a global game that overthrows the sovereignty of states. These empires were the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II, but even in a seemingly post-imperial Europe, states are overpowered by the world hegemony of neoliberalism in the form of supranational economic units. At the same time, states are undermined by internal conflicts and a seemingly incompatible diversity of tribal-like identity groups.

Esposito concludes that Europe must not seek its identity in the past, but in the future. It is not in unity, but in the diversity and contradictions Europe must seek the way forward. Moreover, the answers are not on the inside of Europe's borders, but on the outside – in the global context. Europe must embrace its own contradictions, minorities and internal tensions if we are to continue to teach the world about democracy and civilization progress.

Europe must embrace its own contradictions, minorities and internal tensions if we are to continue to teach the world about democracy and civilization progress.

Two European people. After painting a staggeringly complex panorama, Esposito allows himself a surprisingly radical simplification on the book's final pages. The thesis sounds something like this: The European countries have so far succeeded in uniting through trade treaties and bureaucratic regulations, but this is a false association that only embraces the privileged and biased elites of the individual nations. We only get a real collection when the indignant, marginalized and starved – Europe's second population – unite and win political authority. Only if these fronts crystallize into a clear and sharp conflict can the European crisis turn into a cure.

Esposito has an insight that lies in the air, but which we are still in danger of ignoring. Today, new fascist formations throw us back to the landscape of the interwar period. In a demagogically rigged struggle for outdated notions of identity, various groups of underprivileged are fighting each other, while the economic power elites remain untouched. Esposito is therefore seeking – on behalf of Italian philosophy – a new form of enlightened class struggle that may also be relevant to the rest of the world. Europe must be reborn – or perish in historical recurrence, allergic overreactions and outdated identity projects.

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Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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