On Giorgio Agamben, the ‘Latin Empire’ and a European identity

Does the EU have a common cultural identity or is it just an economic pact?

"More Italy, Less Germany" is the EU election slogan of Berlusconi's Forza Italia [AP]

These European elections, Silvio Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, has decided to campaign with the motto: “More Italy, Less Germany”. It is indeed an ironic choice of words since Berlusconi’s people in the European Parliament have worked intimately close with those of Angela Merkel’s CDU.

But this is not the only paradox that appears in these nebulous pre-electoral weeks. The nationalistic and xenophobic Marie Le Pen in France, the anti-Islam Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and many other extreme right-wing parties have joined forces in a coalition called “Europe for Freedom and Democracy”. That is, European separatists are working united to fight Europe. And, as a recent public opinion survey revealed, they are likely to get some 30 percent of the votes.

Europe is suffering right now. It has a serious form of an identity crisis, in addition to a severe economic crisis that is still raging on. And, as history has demonstrated so many times, elections in crisis times can bring worrisome results.

That is why TV-shows, newspapers and in general the media landscape are full of debates on European identity. Among them, one in particular deserves to be considered in its contructive implications.

The ‘Latin Empire’

In March 2013, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote an article for La Repubblica about the possibility of a “Latin Empire” as an alternative to the political hegemony of the rich states of Northen Europe. The article has been translated into numerous languages and widely discussed. It evoked the indignation especially of German journalists who misunderstood Agamben’s thesis as a provocation against Germany.

But the real point Agamben’s was trying to make is yet to be disputed: Is EU merely an economical pact, where strong countries count more than the others? Or does it have a cultural identity, which can make EU an independent agent on the global scene?

Inside Story – Europe’s lost generation

It wasn’t Agamben’s intention to write a provocative article. He only intended to show the surprising relevance of a thesis formulated in 1945 by the French philosopher Alexandre Kojeve. Just after World War II had finished, Kojeve argued that Germany would quickly become the principal power in Europe – not on a military, but on an economic level. And indeed, that is what happened.

Kojeve also wrote that Germany and the other Northern European countries would fall under US capitalist influence because of their cultural and religious affinities. And in Agamben’s opinion, that has occurred, too.

Kojeve also proposed that if France, Italy and Spain wanted to be more than the periphery of Europe, they should try to find out their “cultural familiarities” and build a kind of transnational identity. Something that he called a “Latin Empire”: An independent political entity, which could resist the capitalist system, defending and preserving a different form of culture and lifestyle.

In contrast to the working, protestant ethic of Northern Europe (and the US, too), for Kojeve the “Latin countries” had a unique way of living – more precisely, a “douceur de vivre”, sweetness of living. Well, of course this could sound like a banal cliche, but Agamben says this “sweetness of living” should be interpreted as a capacity, as an ability or even a technique to give form and significance to life outside work. That is: To live not only in and for the material comfort and social prestige; but to concentrate on what Marx called the last and more important step of progress, what the future generations should struggle for: the “humanisation of free time”.

Agamben argued that this ability is not any more a peculiarity of the “Latin countries”, but has rather become a European legacy since “the identity of each European culture is a border identity.” In an explainer to his original article, he argued that: “A German like Winkelmann or Holderlin could be more Greek than a Greek.” Indeed, Agamben has been misunderstood. He did not intend to criticise Germany specifically, but he did want to focus attention on the rigid way in which Europe has been constructed. Today the EU is much more about the economy than about cultural, social and religious roots and affinity.

Today in Europe, economy is considered the most important value and tool of power. Thus, rich countries feel that they are entitled to more decision-making power. At the same time, poorer countries have to conform to a uniform political, cultural and social system where efficiency is the only goal. This efficiency is monitored, calculated and categorised by external “authorities”, such as rating agencies.

If EU’s efforts stays limited to imposing economic and financial conformity to the global capitalist system, the struggle for Europe is already lost. Some EU countries will continue to see Brussels’ decisions as externally imposed and breaching national sovereignty. Uniformity and conformity are a threat to regional differences and identities, which are at risk of being levelled off.                                                     

But there is still some hope. The uniqueness of Europe is that it is composed of countries that are very different from each other. These differences should be celebrated as a unique feature of EU, and not as an obstacle that should be erased. These differences are constitute the EU identity and can also be a guaranty of democracy.

European diversity should be seen as a starting point to discover and develop a kind of a (in Kojeve’s words) “cultural kinship” – a loose, but fundamental transnational identity. This indeed might be the way out of the current EU crisis and a promise for a better future.

Silvia Mazzini is a lecturer at the Humboldt University and at the University of Arts in Berlin. She is the author of Fur eine mannigfaltige mogliche Welt. Kunst und Politik bei Ernst Bloch und Gianni Vattimo (“For a Many-fold Possible World. Arts and Politics in Ernst Bloch and Gianni Vattimo”)and of numerous articles on aesthetics, political philosophy, theatre sciences, rhetoric.