Pierre Manent, Democracy without nations. The fate of self-government in Europe

by Cristian Gherasim,

Pierre Manent, Democracy without nations. The fate of self-government in Europe, ISI Books, 2007, 130 pp.
English translations of: La raison des nations: reflexions sur la democratie en Europe. Paris: Gallimard, 2006.

In the tradition of his mentor, Raymond Aron, Pierre Manent has managed to offer a clear-cut approach towards the problems of political philosophy, especially the deadlock of contemporary liberal thought. In his previous books, An intellectual history of liberalism and Cours familier de philosophie politique, Pierre Manent had taken an innovative approach to the intellectual genealogy of liberalism, stating that the central element of liberal development had been the religious problem. The creation of European nation-states bears hallmarks of our Christian political history. Not only do equality and liberty trace their roots in the same evangelical values, but the modern nation states are organized by a series of separations, the one between state and church carrying the heaviest political impact. Modern democracy rests on these separations. Democracy, as Manent points out, can only be possible within nation states, the only form of political community that can merge civilization with liberty.

In the first chapter, the author takes a look on how democracy evolved from a system that organizes separations to a political regime that levels them. From a Tocquevillian perspective, democracy requires equal conditions for all members of society. Following this line of thought, Manent mentioned the two crucial historical moments in the evolution of this political system: 1848- the social cleavage (the workers social struggle against the state); 1968- social equality (disappearance of social classes). 1968 stood for what Manent called “the sense of human resemblance” (p 25), a Tocquevillian period ended on 9/11 2001. Then, the military actions of the US had reasserted the fact that differences exists, that there isn’t a global community, that there are national diversities fuelled by culture and religious contrasts and by the understanding that laws can only exist at national level and only if connected to a body of authority.

Why this backlash against the sovereign state in the first place? Manent discusses three reasons: liberal skepticism towards authority, strong belief that equality and liberty can do without the sovereign state, and the understanding of democracy not as a principal of separation but a strong sentiment of “human likeness”. The last argument seams to carry a deeper meaning especially regarding European and American approach towards the death penalty. On this sense of “human likeness”, Europe had even accepted that criminals (people that gravelly breached the Social contract) should remain within the social structure (even if it means live in prison). On the other hand, the Americans, accepting that a non-punishing state defies the citizen’s trust, stuck with the old Hobbesian matrix in thinking that the state of nature hadn’t been completely overcome: “the general recognition of the legitimacy of the death penalty goes hand in hand in the US with the right of every citizen to carry a gun for self-defense.” (p. 43) The Americans still have the feeling that they require the assistance of the sovereign state.

Pierre Manent stresses, in the second chapter of the book, the importance of the nation as the only viable form of political community. Arguing against the expectation that modern forms of communication will unify all the world’s nations, Manent points to “the political nature of words”(p 49), underlining the fact that any language, any form of communication can only be understood within the cultural background of its community of origin.

Further on, the author considers that the sovereign state and representative government are the two principles that enable huge numbers of people to live in freedom and civil equality. As with democracy, a representative government requires a sovereign state, otherwise the political body becomes an oligarchy. If the European integration process has weakened state sovereignty, detaching itself from the national political bodies (it took a life of its own), the welfare state had appeased the need for political representation. With the social integration of workers, Manent fears that the need of representing different social classes has died out. And with that, the political elite lost all legitimacy.

In Europe, Manent considers that democratic governance has replaced national governance. Europe’s endless expansion, fuelled by the universal belief in human rights, has shackled the need for self-governance, paralyzing state action and seating the stage for “political laziness and spiritual inertia” (p.64). Europe’s endless and pointless expansion (universalism without limits) is justified by the flawed idea that only general/universal actions are legitimate and moral. Any action that separates and differentiates between individuals is seen as a hateful and repulsive step, a violation of human rights.
Finally, the author offers his judgment on the controversial aspects of religion, Islamic fundamentalism and secularism. Reasoning that religious beliefs can’t be quantified because of their subjective nature, Manent points out that religion can be objectively analyzed only as a political fact. The military interventions hastily coined as religious wars or civilization clashes are actions only viable between different political entities.

The main problem of the Islamic community is the absence of any political structure. The difficulties that Islam faces regarding the implementation of democracy are imbedded in the accepted perfectibility of the divine law. Umma, “the best community there is”, ignores any separation between state and religion and accepts only the authority of the Qur’an. As mentioned above, modernity and self-government are attainable only in nation states, a political structure completely absent in the Muslim world.

On the opposite extreme, Manent finds a secular Europe, ignorant towards its religious past. Again, fearful of differences and separations, accepting only humanitarianism and universalism, Europe renounces religion and only accepts the “European point of view” (p 106) as guiding principle. Consequently, the European identity becomes an ambiguous concept that leaves any effort of defining and limiting the integration process in a permanent state of limbo.

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