The European Union’s stated aim of an ever-closer union is based upon an intellectual confusion. It is the character of the EU itself that should determine our perception of it rather than the hum-drum trivial distractions we see daily, says Sean Walsh.
Our colourful foreign secretary wants to “do the business” with “business”. Naturally there is a deeper point here and naturally, the commentariat chose to stay shallow. To shape -or constrain- our post-Brexit future on the basis of the self-declared interests of one sector of business is to get things the wrong way round. Our response to the referendum result should not be contracted out to one of the interested parties. Our response to the result of the referendum should be to implement the result of the referendum. If that makes us poorer (and it won’t but let’s assume for a moment that Project Fear is the proverbial stopped clock) then that does not settle the matter one way or the other. It costs more to keep a murderer in prison for life than to hang him three weeks after sentencing. If the death penalty had been abolished as the result of a referendum it would be very curious were the retentionist to argue that abolition should be postponed on the grounds that “nobody voted to be poorer”.
The defenders of the EU project seem to be in the grip of what Wittgenstein called a “particular picture” of the character of the historical process. What is that “particular picture”? Defenders of the EU project are apt to urge the rest of us to look to history, or at least to their version of it. For instance, the EU having been instituted and developed during a period of relative European peace (come again?) must be the cause and guarantor of that peace. If those of us on the Leave side were as intelligent as the European nomenclature then we might simply reply: post hoc ergo propter hoc. Instead let’s offer up the following distinction: that the EU is not sensitive to the lessons of history but is driven by the assumptions of historicism.
Historicism is the view that history is not merely a sequence of events subsequently incorporated into a narrative but is rather driven by an internal dynamic. Usually that dynamic is explained in terms of progress. History self-directs towards a certain end which is either inevitable or desirable or both. And historicism carries with it a moral implication: to be “on the wrong side of history” is not so much to be in error as to be in sin.
The historicity of the EU project can be seen in its legal structures. Eu law is a priori and teleological. It is not concerned primarily with the mediation of dispute but with the announcement and enactment of a specific historical-political end. The EU single state may be inevitable but it still needs, it seems, a jurisprudential nudge in the “right” direction.
It is of course always possible to read inevitability back into history. My own discipline is philosophy and it is possible to describe the story of philosophy in this way: the Greek thought of Aristotle and Plato was appropriately reinterpreted by the scholastics in the development of Christian theism which in turn gave rise to the tools that shaped Enlightenment scepticism the implications of which were developed by Nietzsche who therefore killed off God (and truth) which led naturally to the anxieties of Sartrean existentialism to be replaced by the idiocies of Derrida and the post-structuralists. At this point we draw breath and see that the history of philosophy can be read as a pre-determined journey from darkness to Enlightenment and beyond. It’s a plausible story (some of my colleagues would call it a hermeneutics of progress). It’s also complete tosh. But the important point is this: taking an historicist attitude towards the past might be academically dubious, but to use the same attitude in an attempt to gerrymander the future is downright dangerous.
Let’s go a bit deeper and offer up two objections to the historicist assumptions that underpin the European project, one empirical and one philosophical. Why does experience suggest that history is ordered according to some progressive principle? The answer, surely, is to do with the rise of science and technology. That there is scientific progress seems obvious. But why assume it is attached to moral progress? Are we really denying that as we have become more materially comfortable we have become more spiritually impoverished? In the UK the medical facilities and treatments that we can withdraw from 3 year old children in Liverpool hospitals is second to none. The rise of internet technology has offered opportunities for types of warfare that would have been unimaginable to our grandparents. Progress? Really?
The philosophical objection is this: historicism emerged in the writings of philosophers such as Hegel and Marx who wished to do away with the supernatural categories of religion only to (perhaps unwittingly) attempt to reintroduce them at the level of historical process. But what is contingent can never bear the load of what is transcendent. And the historicisms of Hegel and his successors have carried forward the contradictions inherent in that attempt. These successors include those that would defend the European idea on the grounds of a mythical “progress”.
EU integrationism is underpinned by a type of intellectual corruption. Those of its defenders who cite the lessons of history ignore one such lesson: that historicist projects that base themselves on “progress” always end in disaster. The referendum result is an instruction to our political masters to decouple us from that corruption. And you cannot successfully decouple from what is corrupt while remaining attached, however loosely, to those EU structures which carry the virus of that intellectual corruption. “Brexit means Brexit” is not some tautologous formula into which can be read whatever we want. When we voted to Leave we issued an instruction to leave the customs union, the single market and all those other facilitators of ever closer union, not simply because of what we thought we were voting for, but because of the character and confusions of the EU itself. That is a moral imperative, and the valid concerns of business do not constitute any sort of veto over it.