Chartbook #75: Being realistic … about the EU, history and climate policy

Further to a review of van Middelaar’s Pandemonium

After Perry Anderson devoted 19,000 words to Luuk van Middelaar’s analysis of the EU in the LRB you might wonder why anyone should write anything else. To be honest, I was in two minds. But, in the end I did a review of Pandemonium – van Middelaar’s latests on the COVID crisis – for the New Statesman.

Why? Because, on closer reading I was struck by van Middelaar’s rather particular conception of history and historicity and the way they shape his narrative of the EU’s development – conceptions to which Anderson gives his nodding assent. Furthermore, in a truly striking omission neither van Middelaar nor Anderson addresses seriously what is, in fact, the EU’s central policy preoccupation of the current moment and the foreseeable future i.e. climate policy. And I have a hunch, as I argue in the New Statesman piece, that these two features of their reading of the EU’s development are related. Their agreement on how to conceive historicity, conditions their common blindspot on climate. And in the back of everything is a question I am preoccupied with, which is the question of realism.


The thrust of all three of van Middelaar’s recent books is to reconstruct the emergence of Europe as a political and historical actor. The backdrop against which he does this is a notion of modern politics which he traces back to Machiavelli.

Van Middelaar, reads Machiavelli through Pocock’s influential work on the Machiavellian Moment. This is how van Middelaar puts it in Pandemonium:

In his brilliant study The Machiavellian Moment (1975), J. G. A. Pocock locates the creation of modern political thought – by Machiavelli and contemporaries such as Guicciardini – in the recognition of the finite nature of the polis. Pocock speaks of the moment “in which the republic was seen as confronting its own temporal finitude, as attempting to remain morally and politically stable in a stream of irrational events conceived as essentially destructive of all systems of secular stability”.13 Those who know themselves to be mortal must regard and arm themselves as chance entities in the river of time: an existential experience.

van Middelaar Luuk. Pandemonium: Saving Europe (p. 41). Agenda Publishing. Kindle Edition.

This nugget from Pocock founds the distinction that is crucial for van Middelaar between a conception of the EU as a rule-making machine fit to govern a predictable flow of events and a genuinely competent political agency capable of improvising in the face of history, understood as a stream of unpredictable and “irrational” events.

Van Middelaar’s history of the EU is a Bildungsroman through which Europe moves from seeking to subordinate conflicting national interests within a gigantic rule-making organization, under a geopolitical umbrella provided by the United States, to Europe emerging in its own right as a concerted body of states, capable of defining their common borders, identity and interests on the stage of history. Like the renaissance polities that Machiavelli was advising, Europe is finally coming to terms with a secularized world of power, violence and historical events.

It is worth lingering over this construction. To go forward to the future, the EU goes back to the early modern moment. In finally embracing the challenges of the 21st-century, van Middelaar sees Europe recapitulating the Machievellian enlightenment of the 1500s. Historicity, it turns out, has a frame that is, if not transhistoric, at least millennial in its range.

In his LRB review, Anderson discusses van Middelaar’s first book, the Passage to Europe precisely in these terms. Anderson applauds van Middelaar for pointing out that

discourses about Europe have revolved around offices, states and citizens, with corresponding theories about whether it is best conceived in terms of functionalism, inter-governmentalism or constitutionalism: the first oriented to a static present, the second to a familiar past, the third to a longed-for future. Yet none of these passes the critical test of genuine historicity, that flux of unpredictable events which makes of government, van Middelaar writes, citing Pocock, ‘a series of devices for dealing with contingent time’.

But this begs the question. What, for van Middelaar, are these contingent, irrational, unpredictable events that have delivered Europe’s Machiavellian moment? In the recent past the list includes the 2008 financial crisis and its European aftermath, the Ukraine crisis of 2013-4 and the “refugee crisis” of 2015-6.

As van Middelaar puts it:

we had arrived at world history’s end. Then suddenly the crises came: banks collapsed, the euro wobbled, Russia attacked Ukraine

van Middelaar, Luuk Alarums and Excursions

Europe was shaken out of its neo-medievalism into a new realism.

In light of our current situation, van Middelaar’s extensive treatment of the Ukraine crisis of 2013-4 in his book Alarums and Excursions is particularly interesting. The first Ukraine crisis was for van Middelaar a learning process through which the EU went from a naive and priggish insistence on the “attraction” of European norms and rules to being a pragmatic and realistic broker of the Minsk II accords of 2015, which sacrificed principles and strict adherence to international law, to the priority of stability and, if not peace, then at least a reduction in violence.

Russia serves van Middelaar as a foil against which to further elaborate his thoughts about politics and history. His characterization of Russian statecraft is worth quoting at length:

With Moscow the Union comes up against a different way of dealing with history. The Russians are masters at opportunistic events-politics and they have a system to match. Vladimir Putin did not invent it, but he does embody it. …Western commentators tend to write pedantically that Putin shows himself to be more an opportunistic “tactician” than a visionary “strategist”, or that he has “unclear intentions”. But the Russian president probably has no master plan for either Ukraine or Syria. Not because he is incapable of thinking of one, but because he regards it as a wasted effort: events always turn out differently. This Russian attitude existed long before Putin and will not disappear with him. … In the midst of the Cold War, when much was at stake for those trying to understand Russian intentions, America’s best ever diplomat in Moscow, George F. Kennan, observed the same phenomenon. In a memo written in 1952 he told his bosses in Washington that Russian agility is more than caprice. It arises from their own view of history and politics:

“I believe they [the Russians] are much more conscious than we are of the interplay of action and reaction in international affairs, of the way in which events mesh into each other and reflect each other, of the number of variables that can enter into the determination of a situation some years removed; and that they would be less inclined, for this reason, to feel themselves under the obligation to arrive at any firm or final judgement at the present time about the likelihood of war in a more distant future.”31

This way of engaging in politics demands strong central leadership without any lasting accountability, precisely the kind for which the Kremlin is so well equipped. In a democracy, improvisation is harder. Every move has to be elucidated, counterforces defeated – partly with words, partly through wrangling behind the scenes – and the public persuaded. All this costs time. Moreover, the arguments deployed go on to lead a life of their own. They take root. If you are forced to do something else three months later – new circumstances, new plan – you soon start arguing against your former self and are labelled a flip-flopper. A Kremlin leader is less troubled by that. In Russian dealings with chance, the leader has no need to feign sincerity and little to take account of, as long as the defence of national interests reaps results at the crucial moment and earns respect. We, by contrast, are troubled by the blind chance that reality serves up and demand, as a public, stories to tame it, preferably cast in moral categories that our own politicians must also believe in: the root melodies that are played. Yet good improvisation-politics need not be mere opportunism. European leaders acting in the moment can still remain true to their own convictions; they too can steer by compass. This requires a clear definition of strategic aims, which change and evolve over time and are continually the subject of debate, along with an honest acknowledgement of the plurality of our values, which may, indeed will, collide. They define our power and individuality. If the classic American history is at its heart a morality play of right against might and Russian history a cynical chronicle of might against might, then European history has given us a tragic awareness

van Middelaar, Luuk . Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage .

What is striking here, apart from the essentializing distinctions of three different political styles – American, Russian and European – is the slippage between van Middelaar’s text and Kennan’s.

What Kennan attributes to the Kremlin is an awareness of a complex pattern of action and reaction and long-range historical determination. In van Middelaar’s rendering, only a few sentences later, this becomes something quite different. Putin’s supposed awareness of complexity and a mesh of interrelationships and long-range determinations, becomes instead an improvisational capacity for dealing with “blind chance”. You might say that Middelaar has transmuted Tolstoy into Machiavelli, or, at least, Pocock’s reading of Machiavelli. We are back, whatever Kennan actually said, in the world of contingent, unpredictable and “irrational” events. History as “blind chance”.

Middelaar does admit the possibility of strategic statecraft beyond mere improvisation. But what moves us beyond opportunism and improvisation is not knowledge of ocean currents or prevailing winds (in other words knowledge of the logic of complex but nevertheless ordered historical processes), but the compass of Europe’s leaders. Order derives from the actions and insights of political leaders, it does not inhere in historical processes themselves.

As van Middelaar remarks at one point, riffing on Machiavelli’s discussion of fortuna and virtu:

Anyone who acts steps onto unknown territory. They cannot lean on custom and tradition but must set out on something new. …. Yet the fact of living in a world of ruptures and renewal offers an advantage too: “Men are attracted more by the present than by the past, and when they find the present good they enjoy it and seek

van Middelaar, Luuk . Alarums and Excursions

What van Middelaar’s description does not allow is the possibility that though not fully known, new territory may, in fact, be partially mapped and we may have point of orientation. We are not absolutely ignorant. There are no doubt ruptures in our world, but they are rarely if ever absolute. Existential drama, trumps an evaluation of modernities developmental logic.

Against the backdrop of the crisis of medieval theology – Pocock’s original Machiavellian moment – one can perhaps understand how contemporaries might have understood history as a stream of irrational events. Clearly modern history does not conform to any easily intelligible divine plan. But if we refuse the spell of Pocock’s dramatic scenario, in what world does it make sense to describe the Eurozone crisis, the Ukraine crises and the refugee crisis as essentially contingent, unpredictable and irrational? They are none of these things. All three were predictable and overdetermined. If they were irrational it was only in the sense that they were shot through with multiple conflicting logics. The outcome might be described as irrational, in the sense of a Keynesian “muddle”, but if you allow for conflict and contradiction and uneven and combined development, the historic process itself that led to them was not indecipherable.

Of course, if you believe that the original vision of the EU embodied a kind of neo-medieval theodicy – at one point in Alarums Middelaar describes the ideologues of the EU as “medieval prophets” – then you could imagine that Europe’s technocrats did indeed experience a secularizing Machiavellian shock when they came face to face with financial doom-loops and the Russian army. But if they were suffering moments of existential panic that is hardly a reason for us to make their trauma into the basis for our own diagnosis of their situation, or ours. If history seemed in such moments to be nothing more than a series of contingent, unpredictable and irrational events, if history bore a “Russian” visage, or as Donald Kagan insisted, it took the form of the war-god Mars, such imaginings are hardly the hallmark of a deep realism. Rather they are the sign of disorientation, disillusionment and despair.


The “master thinker” who in modern European political thought most often encourages a conflation of realism with disorientation and despair is not Machiavelli, but Max Weber.

There are many different Max Webers. For a sympathetic and brilliant portrait of this complexity I cannot recommend highly enough Joachim Radkau’s adventurous psychobiography.

The Weber text that is most often cited as the warrant for political realism is his essay of 1919, “Politics as a Vocation”. Contemporaries at the time remarked on its Machiavellian flavor. But what kind of realism did it embody?

At the time, in the wake of Germany’s defeat and witnessing the disintegration of the Imperial German state, Max Weber was in a state of turmoil. The nation-state that had anchored his attempt to formulate a pluralist value system and define, like Machiavelli, a domain proper to political ethics, had just collapsed. In the lecture hall in 1919 his students recalled him ranting about the imminent Polish occupation of East Prussia and appealing for acts of heroic self-sacrifice. All the evidence suggests that Weber had, in fact, lost his grip on history. The only vista he could see ahead was one of polar night. As was noted by astute contemporaries and friends of Weber, notably the historian Friedrich Meinecke and the philosopher and theologian Ernst Troeltsch, this mood did not make for a particularly realistic reading of German politics or German raison d’état

By way of Frank Ankersmit, Meinecke’s history of European raison d’état – a far more realistic and historically saturated appraisal than Weber ever delivered – makes a cameo appearance in Anderson’s genealogy of van Middelaar’s work.

As Stefan Eich and I argue in our essay, “The allure of dark times: Max Weber, Politics and the Crisis of Historicism” (History and Theory 2017), what was centrally at issue in Weber’s crisis was his conception of history, or rather its evaporation. In phrases which anticipated Pocock’s vision of a stream of “irrational events”, Weber positioned the vocation of the politician against an essentially meaningless flow of history, on which human subjects did their best to impose whatever reason and order that they could. What is missing in this moment of Weber’s thought, is precisely a conception of history as process, history as Kennan actually described it. History as driven by “action and reaction” creating events, not as isolated contingencies or irrational incidents, but one event meshed with another, reflecting each other, shaping determinations that act over the long range.


What van Middelaar’s dichotomous distinction between history as predictable regular development and history as irrational event allows him to capture, is something akin to this Weberian shock. What it doesn’t allow you to do is to write history or understand historical process, to recognize 2008 or 2013 as something other than irrational event. It’s a symptomatic reading.

If on the other hand, we are actually to grasp the challenges for government posed by financial capitalism, or geopolitics we need to start not with the tragic, existential image of an embattled polity struggling to right itself amidst the stream of irrational events. We need to start with some conception of history as a process, a process in which actor like the EU and its member states and the social forces that cluster within that zone, have agency. They don’t simple react or strategize in relation to an external flow of events, they constitute that flow, they drive it more or less consciously. As Stefan Eich and I put it in our essay, “history is one of the names that generative social praxis fed by collective political action has given to itself.”

Politics formulated in relation to this kind of conception of history is neither merely rule-making, nor (strategic) improvisation. It is not simply about taking “the turbulent world for what it is” as van Middelaar insists any Realpolitik must. It is about articulating social change, initiating processes of transformation. And that preeminently is the domain in which the EU likes to position itself. Most notoriously, its favorite self-description is as the vehicle for a process of “ever closer union”.

That vision has its ups and downs, but it “ain’t dead yet”. Currently, the domain in which it is most clearly formulated is precisely climate policy and NextGen EU. To paraphrase the formulation that Stefan and I devised in wrestling with Weber, “the climate crisis is one of the names that generative social praxis fed by collective political action” gives to itself in Europe today.

Nor is this new. Before NextGen EU there was the Common Agricultural Policy, not just silly rules about bananas, but one of the most dramatic and problematic exercises in “just transition” ever conceived. Before CAP there was the Coal and Steel Community, and closer to the present both monetary union and, like it or lump it, “social Europe”. These are politics neither of rule-making, nor of improvisation. They are projects, projects conceived not in relation to a meaningless flow of events, simply taking reality as it is, but efforts to read, decipher and shape historical processes of social, economic and political change. Nor, frankly, was there any mystery about this at the time.

One can’t help wondering, in fact, whether the entire framing of the EU’s history in terms of an opposition between rule and event, in which van Middelaar is by no means alone, is not itself an effect of a particular phase, shall we call it the neoliberal phase or the phase of the “great moderation”, that might be dated to the period from 1992 (Maastricht) to 2008 (Georgia v. Financial crisis).

A phase of depoliticization, a purported end to history, has in turn given rise to a singularly convulsive and ahistorical account of the “return” of both history and politics. Whether as trauma or Schadenfreude it carries with it too much of its own moment of genesis. To arrive at a truly realistic account of this moment and of our present, stripped of the existential histrionics, there is still work to do.


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