Europe in the Cave of Polyphemus

By Nick Psomas

In May 2003, philosophers and public intellectuals Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida published an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung regarding mass demonstrations across Europe against the Iraq war. The lack of transparency by European officials in their handling of the war and their compliance to American militarism sparked fulminations from the European public. At the time, this was heralded as an uprising of ordinary European citizens and a prelude to the birth of a ‘European Public Sphere’. More importantly, this panegyric interwove the formation of a European public within the broader narrative of deeper European integration. In an earlier publication, Habermas identified the construction of a common European identity and a single “European people” as prerequisites for a European Constitution. In a more abstract sense, Habermas’ notion of European “consciousness” or “imagined community” would be embedded in a political culture that acknowledged Europe’s historical experiences, traditions, and achievements. More concretely, this included a commitment to secularisation, low toleration for violence, mitigation of class conflict through the welfare state, the development of a European foreign policy in a multilateral framework and the reflection of Europe’s painful legacy of colonialism and Eurocentrism.

Habermas’ emotion-laden rhetoric of founding a European civic nationalism, emanating from Europe’s historical legacy, did not resonate in public discourse. The project of utilising politics to reach the “End of History”, a kind of Kantian cosmopolitanism, was premature. Instead, a brief overview of Europe’s current political landscape is indicative of the fact that the phantom of history has returned with vengeance. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s government mounts an opposition to European values through the persistent infringement of human rights, especially concerning the LGBT community. In Poland, the erosion of judicial independence has resulted in a direct challenge to the EU’s legal authority. In the Mediterranean, the Greek government continues to violate EU and international law through the violent pushback of refugees. Ironically, this act is labelled by EU officials a ‘European shield’. On a pan-European level, the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced nationalism in regard to the distribution of vaccines, lack of economic solidarity amongst its member states and a frustration with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy in Brussels. In short, it appears that the triumph of liberal democracy and its values of toleration, multiculturalism and acceptance of the “Other” has ultimately failed. As a consequence, the dissipation of the European liberal establishment has unleashed the forces of xenophobia, nationalism, social polarisation and far-right politics.

With a tragic sense of irony, the principles that underpinned Europe’s liberal establishment have created an existential crisis. No matter how well-intentioned the pleas for tolerance and humanist sympathy are, they are evidently powerless to the pervasive ideological formulations of nationalism, fascism, and xenophobia. Toleration and the multiculturalist approach inadequately engage with the allure and seductiveness of the ideologies enumerated above, that appeals to the jouissance of their acolytes. In this context, Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, Slavoj Žižek, urges Europeans to abandon the dream of resurrecting the corpse of liberal democracy in Europe. Instead, he argues that “only by a schism against the classical version of liberal democracy defended by the European heritage, only by breaking what attaches us to the decaying body of old Europe, can we keep European heritage alive”.  Essentially, rather than gradual change, which was considered the default mode of political development in the Fukuyamian “End of History” thesis, a reconceptualization of European politics is imperative with revolutionary transformation and radical action at its core. If one is to accept the problematization promulgated by Žižek’s diagnosis of Europe’s liberal democratic politics, a number of questions is pertinent. Firstly, what is exactly meant by radical political action and revolution? Secondly, what does the emancipation of revolutionary politics from their status as “lost causes” (attributed to them by post-Marxists and postmodern liberals) actually entail?

In the Event of Revolution

One of the defining features of modern revolutions, according to political theorist Hannah Arendt, is the establishment of a novus ordo saeclorum (a new world order). In her essay, On Revolution, Arendt writes on pages 21 – 22:

“the modern concept of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known or told before, is unbound to unfold, was unknown prior to the two great revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century […] Crucial then, to any understanding of revolutions in the modern age is the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide” 

For Arendt then,  reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on History”, revolutionary dynamics cannot be conceptualised as a predictable outcome of either social processes or historical necessity (in the Marxist or Hegelian sense). Revolution is an unprecedented event whose participants are striving towards political freedom. Arendt’s comparative study of the French and American Revolutions reveals that, in the initial stages, the aim of such upheavals was political reform rather than revolutionary transformation. As such, the shift from moderate reform to revolution was an outcome that was part of the ongoing process, not predetermined from the beginning, and hence completely unexpected. This notion of novelty is shared, on a superficial level at least, with another theorist of revolutionary politics, Alain Badiou.

Badiou’s philosophical project is vast and complex, primarily because his understanding of revolutionary dynamics is closely interwoven in an intricate philosophical system that encompasses mathematics, ontology, and ethics. Therefore, any attempt to succinctly outline his philosophical thought without being reductionist is a Sisyphean task. Nevertheless, what is relevant in the context of this article is that Badiou goes a step further than Arendt by claiming that the very idea of Truth itself is revolutionary and innovative in relation to the established body of knowledge that informs our reality. For Badiou, Truth represents a rupture from the prevailing epistemological status quo, through an Event. The concept of Event, broken down to its basics, refers to a phenomenon (e.g., revolution or social change) which is necessarily unpredictable and inexplicable from the perspective of the status quo. In other words, Truth is not found in ontology or ‘Being’, but it is socially constituted by the rupture and is thus part of history and politics. This has profound implications for our very own subjecthood. Instead of being cast off as a derivation of the dominant power structures, the subject is defined by its fidelity to the Event. For Badiou, the subject is a militant of truth

As already hinted at above, the association of Truth and Event is translated into the political realm through revolutionary politics. The essence of a political event is its innovation in regard to the current state of affairs. In the contemporary political landscape, this entails the transcendence of liberal democracy and its purpose of merely regulating competing interests. Any alternative mode of politics that goes beyond the mitigation of conflict and is able to generate political truths can only be actualised through a rupture with the hegemonic power constellations and institutions. It is when the “marginalised” or the “hidden” is recognised that politics can truly promote change. Badiou’s metapolitical approach clearly emphasises the indispensable role of political action for disrupting the repetitive reproduction of the status quo. Such action cannot be predicted or justified on a rational basis; one has to “take a leap of faith”. This is characteristic of the “voluntarist revolutionary politics” which focuses on the power of raw will to cause change, and is prominently featured in the politics of Lenin, Mao, and the Jacobins. 

Rescuing the Revolutionary Spirit from the Abyss of Totalitarianism 

One does not need to be an astute student of history to realise this revolutionary voluntarism partly led to the creation of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century. There is a persistent danger that stems from the type of radical political action defended by Badiou and Žižek. However, it is worth raising the question as to whether the rehabilitation of ‘Revolution’ from the legacy of the 20th century is possible. If indeed we ought to dispense with the project of liberal democracy in Europe and its Solonian purpose of pacifying conflict, then we must contemplate an alternative organisation of political life that is radical as far as it disconnects with the status quo. Yet one should be alert about the dangers of treading the path towards the Platonic “Politics of the Idea”, or simply put, political idealism.

This is a point of philosophical divergence between Arendt and Badiou about the purpose of political action. The former understands political action as an expression of freedom and an end in itself, whereas for the latter, politics is a mode of production of truth. More concretely, the risk of Badiou’s demand of fidelity to truth opens the door for the potential use of terror in politics. The materialisation of this “Idea” as a guiding principle for the production of truth, and its potential for violence and totalitarianism is at the heart of Arendt’s problematization. In her view, it is the instrumentalization of politics for a higher purpose that usurps revolution of its true aim: freedom through political action. This is exemplified in Arendt’s meticulous account of the French Revolution. She argues that the degeneration of the Revolution to Robespierre’s Reign of Terror was the result of a metamorphosis of revolutionary aspirations. While initially, the primary goal of French Revolutionaries was establishing freedom, this was eventually replaced by an emphasis on resolving the “Social Question” and appeasing the malheureux. It was the politics of pity, espoused by Robespierre, that for Arendt led to the cruelty and violence of that is iconic in the portrayal of the French Revolution. The glorification of the misery of the poor dismantled any authority found in law since any action was legitimate as long as it furthered their emancipation Under this framework, any form of violence could be justified and therefore it was the politics of cynicism, mistrust and the witch-hunt for ‘hypocrites’ that gave rise to the new order of the day. 

The main pathology of the French Revolution, and those who sought to later emulate it, is diagnosed by Arendt as its self-understanding as part of historical process and necessity. This idealism corrupted the soul of the revolution. Under this insight, Arendt, Badiou and Žižek share the common objective of restoring the openness of political action and its escape from historical necessity. However, both Badiou and Žižek still seek to redeem the modern tradition of revolutionary idealism that has been so deeply compromised by the totalitarian experiences of the 20th century. 

Through a certain form of Platonism, Badiou attempts to re-establish credibility to the “Politics of the Idea”. In particular, he identifies the rejection of radical politics as an argument that is neither neutral nor risk-free. The ethics of political activism cannot be reduced to merely the negative task of preventing evil, a discourse that ultimately is synonymous with an advocacy for multiculturalism and human rights, which are agnostic about the nature of the good. Therefore, a form of positive political action is that which affirms the “Idea” it seeks to materialise. For Žižek, negative action manifested in multiculturalism, tolerance, and a liberal postmodern resistance through “radical plurality” is suspicious. The postmodern liberal multiculturalist, paradoxically, postures his tolerance towards the cultural ‘Other’ without expecting the same postmodern tolerant attitude from them. In an act of hypocrisy, multiculturalism asserts that the essence of human life is based on the context of communities that are incommensurable with one another and hence immune to the universalism of modernism and rationality. More provocatively put, Žižek claims that multiculturalism is “racism with a distance”. The crucial point of critique is that tolerance for the ‘Other’, in the multicultural sense, appears to dismiss problems of inequality, exploitation and injustice. It does not invite the emancipatory struggle that has characterised modern European history. Rather, it fosters a form of political apathy that instead of actively seeking to address political and historical grievances, merely advocates for respectful inaction.

Yet, even if the argument against the negative character of liberal democracy holds, it is not sufficient to justify a return to revolutionary politics. One has to confront the proclivity of revolution towards violence. Again, Žižek addresses this point by pointing out the fact that although revolutions cause an enormous degree of subjective violence, one should equally recognise the objective violence that is implicit in the injustice and inequality that are deployed in order to maintain the social and political order. The case of the Greek debt crisis and the negotiations between the Troika (an institutional configuration of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) and the left-wing Syriza government is exemplary. Any proposal by the Greek delegation to Brussels for moderate debt restructuring, that would in turn lead to economic sustainability both in Greece and the Eurozone, was rejected. The dogmatic adherence of the TROIKA to the continuation of the austerity programme, which was bound to lead to an economic depression in Greece, was justified by the preservation of the institutional architecture of the Eurozone. Perhaps a more cynical, but nevertheless highly plausible alternative explanation is the weaponization of debt as an instrument of control over the economy of member states. In a manner resembling the rationale of the Metternich System during the Restoration Period, the EU was willing to oppress any cry for reform (in the case of Greece this was by the closing of the banks) that was deemed to threaten the operation of a dysfunctional monetary union. From a Badiouian perspective, this can be seen as an Event that publicly exposed the inherent contradictions in the Eurozone system, its lack of respect for democratic procedures and its authoritative conduct. However, our ‘fidelity’ to the Truth of that Event remains ambivalent. 

For Žižek, the significance of the events that transpired in 2015 lies elsewhere, namely in the way they highlight how revolutionary politics have been transformed altogether. Žižek is sceptical about identifying revolution as a grand spectacle with thousands of people gathered in squares and sharing a moment of solidarity and ecstasy. Grand gestures of disobedience are meaningless without any vision for the future. The challenge in the political arena today is introducing concrete policy changes. For Žižek, it was not the fact that a radical left-wing government was elected in Greece that was revolutionary. What was indeed unacceptable, from the standpoint of the EU, was the renegotiation of debts which meant actual change impacting the day of everyday citizens. Therefore, Žižek is not overly optimistic about reviving revolution in the way that it was practiced and expressed in the 19th century. 

At the same time, one should not be dismissive of the potential of moments of mass mobilisation. The Revolutions of 1848 are exemplary of what the impact of even a failed uprising can have. Despite Karl Marx’s disappointment with the conclusions of the 1848 Revolutions, this pan-European phenomenon acted as a catalyst for a series of reforms and innovations that radically altered the socio-political landscape of European nations. As Christopher Clark points out, the 1848 Revolutions resulted in the abandonment of press censorship that was popular during the Restoration Era, an emphasis on economic growth and domestic investment. Naturally, one should keep in mind that this shift to increased public spending was a way to legitimise governments in the eyes of the public and suppress any appetite for further revolution. In an Arendtian sense, the “Social Question” continued to haunt European politics, and material progress became the ultimate goal, thus excommunicating political action. Notwithstanding, the example of the 1848 Revolutions is not a historical peregrination. It epitomises the challenge of distilling the essence and legacy of revolutionary politics.

The European Odyssey

The emancipation of revolutionary struggle from its former shadow of totalitarianism is by no means a straightforward enterprise. The danger that looms in radical political action orientated by sheer will is conspicuous. However, it is equally apparent that the Habermasian dream of a European public sphere or the desperate attempt to preserve liberal democracy cannot possibly offer salvation for Europe. As the Eurocentrism that is characterised by paralysing bureaucracy, colonial legacy, democratic deficit and lack of  (European) solidarity slowly succumbs to obsolescence, perhaps the only way to rescue Europe is indeed to divorce from it. Perhaps, a type of Badiouian return to political idealism and a form of universalism is needed. A universalism of radical political action that is global in scale and is not centred around Europe. A kind of radical action that is incessant and relentless about its fight against global poverty, economic and social inequality and global warming. The Arendtian warning against such a course of action is undoubtedly insightful, yet her prescription of freedom through political action as a natural end appears only performative and dismissive of the outcome of politics. If Europe is to survive the chaotic and unpredictable process of radical change, it seems imperative for it to have an ideal to strive towards. Already, the ideological monstrosity of far-right politics is advancing an alternative that is bound to release centrifugal forces in Europe. Neither Habermas’ European civic nationalism nor liberal democracy will be able to resist it indefinitely. To those who still want the idea of Europe to persist, the question is how to navigate through this historical conjunction. If radical action is indeed the solution, it is perhaps best to be mindful of the fact that the alacrity of a call to revolution or the romanticisation of the ushering of a new era in European politics should be curbed with the insight that however noble our striving towards Truth might be, one has to be prepared to also accept the risk, danger and painful change that might accompany such a course.

In Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, the perilous journey of Odysseus eventually takes him to the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus. In one of the most iconic passages in the Epic, Odysseus uses his cunning to escape the cave of Polyphemus but not without the cost of losing members of his crew. This moment is seen as a symbolic death and rebirth for Odysseus, a theme that is recurring throughout the epic. In the cave, Odysseus becomes literally “Nobody” and yet it is this radical break with his identity that enables him to escape. Perhaps, for Europe to experience its rebirth it needs to enter the cave of Polyphemus and through the chaotic and unpredictable act of radical change courageously become a universal “Nobody”.

Edited by Teun van Dieten, artwork by Oscar Laviotte