“A vain EU-topia seated in the brain?”: A conversation about Europe with Gerard Delanty

‘A vain Eutopia, seated in the brain’; Thus concludes The Moral of Bernard Mandeville’s 1705 poem The Grumbling Hive, a six-penny pamphlet which owes its fame to the 1714 edition of Mandeville’s most known oeuvre, The Fable of the Bees. Literary history aside, there are countless reasons for re-reading the poem in the light of the current global crisis; one is the very power of the verse itself, another is the suspicion that it is capable of setting forth, in John Maynard Keynes’ (1964: 360) words, ‘the appalling plight of a prosperous community in which all the citizens suddenly take it into their heads to abandon luxurious living, and the State to cut down armaments, in the interests of Saving’. Richard Sennett (2012: 159) indeed toyed with the idea suggesting that ‘were he alive now, Bernard Mandeville could have written a new Fable of the Bees based entirely on Wall Street’.

Whatever the virtues and vices of Mandeville’s controversial text however, it provides a good starting point for discussion on an ‘appalling plight’ such as the global crisis which erupted in the wake of the financial collapse of 2007-2008 and spread farther from the geography and the imagination of ‘Wall Street’, prompting Europeans to engage in much theoretical, intellectual and mediatised navel-gazing not just about financial, political, social and societal crises but also about the very idea of Europe itself. Laments, alarm bells and wake-up calls soon emerged in various forms, circulated through a multitude of media (old and new), offering divergent interpretations of a phenomenon that, fiscal policies aside, was suspected to signal not simply a crisis for Europe but a crisis of Europe too; a crisis that went beyond the management of a common currency but one that mobilised questions of historical and cultural identity about the Union itself.

This period of unsettlement is of course hardly new, and indeed it could be interpreted as a permanent feature or a even birthmark of Europe’s history and transformation from myth to a constellation of nation-states bound together by legislation, money and (more problematically perhaps), history and culture.  Yet any notion of unity might be (still) premature, if not misleading, thus pointing to what the melancholic Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (2012 [1925]: 15) called ‘the European disassociation’ or ‘civilizational disassociation’; an atmosphere of bitter ennui that remind us of the disquiet of two other fellow-European littérateurs writing in the brink of World War Two, namely Stefan Zweig and W.H. Auden.  ‘I belong nowhere, and everywhere I am a stranger, a guest at best. Europe, the homeland of my heart’s choice, is lost to me, since it has torn itself apart’ writes Zweig (1964 [1942]: xviii) while packing his bags for Brazil with a copy of Montaigne’s Essays as a useful travel companion and philosophical interlocutor on questions of ‘How do I survive?’ or ‘How do I remain fully human?’.  W.H. Auden (2007 [1940])  in a manner as dark as Zweig’s, but without the consolations of the philosophy of Montaigne, was mourning for the loss of W.B. Yeats but one could also suspect him for distressing about a political turmoil  and one of European import too:

‘In the nightmare of the dark

All the dogs of Europe bark,

And all the nations wait,

Each sequestered in its hate’

The verse is remarkable as it is depressing and it points to an acute sense of ‘disassociation’ with and a lack of ‘belonging’ in the Old Continent, thus uniting literary figures as distinctive and disparate as Pessoa, Zweig and Auden in their feeling of loss in Europe bringing to mind that ‘extravagant and wheeling stranger, of here and every where’ of Shakespeare’s Othello (Act I, Scene I).

These ‘extravagant strangers’ of Europe however are not alone in their saudade about their spiritual homeland and much of their message has morphed into political commentary during our current version of the European crisis witnessed in various ways; as (a) an unpleasant downfall of the economy which resulted in democratic dislocation and historical and cultural displacement, leading to questions about (b) the ability and power of EU nation states to remain sufficiently liberal and democratic, while casting doubt about (c) whether the EU is indeed institutionally and politically robust to cope with structural and systemic rather than symptomatic and arbitrary crises. Added to this is a (d) fictionalisation of Germany as a hegemonic superpower with little regard for its underperforming neighbours which then prompts bitter questions about (e) what kind of Europe we have had , we currently have and could have with many predicting a happy-end in an otherwise distressing political affair which can only end in divorce. This dramatic end to Europe’s rendezvous with its own future however does not end here, and Habermas’ (2009, 1975) image of a ‘faltering’ Europe which suffers from a serious ‘legitimation crisis’ is emulated in diagnoses that attribute much of Europe’s demise to its existential anomie; characterised, in surprisingly Durkheimian terms, by (a) weak levels of EU integration and (b) poor national regimes of regulation, exacerbated by (c) the German dominance of the EU and the destructive effect of (d) neo-liberal responses to a crisis that goes beyond casino capitalism tactics and Dow Jones arithmetic.

The conversation that follows was carried out with the belief that instead of talking about Europe merely as a problem, it might be possible to better understand it as an assembly of multiple and contradictory interpretations, personal, collective and institutional, all of which are engaged in a dialogue as well-thought and measured as the sociology of Europe that our guest in this part of the ‘Sociologists of crisis’ article series,  Prof. Gerard Delanty  has been engaged in for a large part of his career. His 1995 Inventing Europe was one of the first attempts to a political and historical sociology of Europe and he is revisiting such concerns in his forthcoming book Formations of European modernity: a historical and political sociology of Europe, while our discussion took place soon after the publication of his article Europe in an age of austerity: Contradictions of capitalism and democracy for International Critical Thought. Before joining in the discussion with Prof. Delanty however, it should be borne in mind, by means of a disclaimer, that what follows is simply one kind of discussion to be had on the theme of Europe with no pretensions to exhaustiveness or an assumed monopoly of knowledge and wisdom of a rather complex and complicated issue. Rather, it is a conversation that took place at a specific moment in time and place and with a more or less limited set of questions that sprang to my mind largely while talking.

As soon as the Eurozone crisis was pronounced a reality, the very idea of Europe came under attack and was to be understood as a problem. Why do you think that might be?

It has been largely regarded as a crisis because the whole project of European integration was based on the presuppositions of post-World War Two economic growth. Little thought was given to capitalism being in crisis but that’s what happened since 2008. It can be argued that capitalism itself is going through a new phase and the emergence of such a new phase challenged assumptions of European integration; itself understood as an equilibrium between capitalism and democracy, or what is commonly referred to as ‘democratic capitalism’. It can therefore be said that European integration was conceived as a series of assumptions about market and political integration around a common currency and when these assumptions were challenged, the crisis emerged.

To what extent is the crisis of Europe a European identity crisis?

This crisis is an economic crisis beyond Europe; it is a crisis of capitalism which has severe consequences for Europe because it came about the same time that other problems became apparent. The economic crisis simply exacerbated problems such as the dilution of the possibility of a more cohesive Europe, as it’s obvious that something that is larger is going to be thinner. In other words the economic crisis became a problem of its own on the back of these other problems of cohesion within Europe.

If the global financial meltdown hadn’t become a reality, would such an identity crisis of and in Europe come about?

Yes. It was already there. The European Union’s enlargement diluted the European identity as something cohesive and different Europes emerged. In a sense the Eurozone crisis speeded up that process, a process which was already in progress.

Is the ‘idea of Europe’ then simply product of our imagination, a fictive space on which we deposit arbitrary meanings? If I understand it well, your book Inventing Europe seems to entertain such a possibility…

Inventing Europe was one of the first books to systematically explore the idea of Europe in history and it had a kind of critical function; to unpack and criticise the grand narrative of a continuous European identity.  Instead, it emphasised rupture over continuity and the way in which European identity was constructed in relation to the non-European world.  Where I differ now, in relation to that book, is in that you can no longer argue that something was constituted in relation to an outsider simply because there is no consistent outsider. Speaking of European identity, one needs a differentiated approach as Europe as a whole, Europeans and the political institution of the European Union do not translate to just one thing, not to mention that the notion of identity itself is problematic. It is something like a black box, many things are attributed to it and they need to be unpacked. Europe is highly diverse so we need to be specific about which historical region of Europe we are referring to. In my latest book I speak of six historical regions of Europe [building on the western, central-eastern and south-eastern Europe division], each with different civilizational heritages, experiencing different roots to modernity. There is no common European identity that has existed in history continually, there have been different models. However, I do still agree with the observation that the relationship with the outside world is important but the outside need not be interpreted as simply hostile. A cosmopolitan hermeneutics is required to better understand this as an open question. Continuity emphasised the importance of the colonial context/legacy but one must not forget the pre-colonial past, when Europe was weak and un-European. Greece is a good example, we now think of Greece as European but this has not always been the case. [The relationship of Greece with Europe and European identity has indeed been debated many times over in its history, not simply by its fellow EU members but by itself too].

Could it be then that nowadays ‘the Other’ is indeed ourselves? The differences and tensions within Europe that is…

Yes, one could say so as ‘the Other’ is no longer Asia, Islam or the non-EU world, but Europe’s own past especially if one is to consider the post-World War Two violence and trauma.

If that is the case, is it at all useful to identify with Europe or are we beyond it and only psychologically depend on it as a master narrative of sorts?

The notion of European identity is itself a constriction, and not in any way an object of identity for individuals. Rather, it is something that takes place within the context of other identities (e.g. national), something much more hybridized and trans-nationalised. Identities can therefore be seen not as external reference points but as more complicated than an external set of values that you buy into or not.  For example Europeans are Europeanised but that doesn’t mean that there is such a thing as a European identity.

Can cosmopolitanism be seen as an antidote, or an alternative to the idea of Europe, in the form of postnational citizenship?

To a certain extent yes, but let us look more closely at the idea of cosmopolitanism itself. In my work, cosmopolitanism is understood as a theoretical and intellectual alternative to globalisation, a critique of globalisation and of nationalism too. It is that idea of tension between the polis (city) and the cosmos (the cosmic order of the Gods) and it also implies a world consciousness. Cosmopolitanism is also about taking into account the perspective of others’ view of the world, that reflexivity between self and other, which makes it different from the national view of things. In that sense cosmopolitanism can be seen as a space for dialogue, encounter and exchange as it is produced as a result of an encounter of one with another.

Would it then be better to define ourselves as nationals with a cosmopolitan outlook rather than as Europeans, given that the latter is not so concrete an identity?

Yes, I like this idea as cosmopolitanism is compatible with the nation as a political community armed with a cosmopolitan image. Nationally defined forms of political community can therefore be developed in a cosmopolitan direction.

How might we then propose cosmopolitanism as an alternative political institution, can it inspire people collectively and bring forth solidarities in a bottom up way? I am thinking about this presupposing that Europe was a notion that was imposed by elites rather than established by means of a democratic mandate…

Well, before or instead of doing that, we need to look at what trends are in evidence; the sociologist would indeed try to identity cosmopolitan trends in society and see where these can be enhanced rather than looking for some ideal model. Besides, cosmopolitanism is always incomplete, always partial as opposed to simply being present or absent.

Is there any way then that we can introduce cosmopolitan citizenship as a postnational political practice and alternative?

Well, I think Kant’s idea is still valid, seeing cosmopolitan law as based on the principle of hospitality and the legal recognition of migrants.

But can we educate ourselves in such a perspective?

Yes, definitely. Martha Nussbaum’s (1996) famous essay on ‘the limits of patriotism’ makes that point. A lot of people in fact forget that it is largely a book about the national curriculum in the United States and an invitation to bring a cosmopolitan dimension to that.  Cosmopolitanism is about the broadening of horizons so if it doesn’t take place in education it is not going to go very far; in fact education is the place where it all begins.

Does the idea of cosmopolitanism however not replace one imaginary category with another? I am thinking here of Weber’s definition of a nation as a ‘community of sentiment’ and Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’…

In contradiction with nationhood, I think cosmopolitanism implies a more positive, a broadening process, a process of enlargement…

Having made that distinction between cosmopolis and nation I am curious to ask you for your view as a sociologist of crisis about where the Greek case/situation might fit in with what we are now discussing…

I think that the Greek situation illustrates graphically the contradiction between capitalism and democracy signalling a movement into a new age of austerity. The situation in Greece is unique in that it problematises the capacity of the state and the political elites to manage the economy as such. The way politics is managed in Greece is not well-served by its political classes as they failed to get a hold on the economy.

Would it be valid to say that austerity is gradually becoming a new polity, a   new culture of capitalist import?

I don’t think so but I appreciate why you might ask that, coming from Greece but I think that austerity is a discursive construction as a way of making sense of crises and we would need more evidence of a societal shift before we can conclude anything of the sort, especially as there are austerity-ridden countries such as Spain where (unlike Greece) the fundamental structures of society have not fundamentally shifted as a result of the recent crisis.

Thank you

Thank you too

A cup of coffee later, and having left Prof. Delanty’s office, I was rather pleased our conversation took place not just for what it included but for what it excluded too. Besides, the idea of Europe itself is just as selective, often holding on to a self-portrait that desires it untainted by a centuries-old cultural exchange, ethnic and linguistic plurality. This however is an image that is as paradoxical as Daniel Defoe’s playful late seventeenth-century poem about The True Born Englishman;

Fate jumbled them together, God knows how;

Whate’er they were, they’re true-born English now

More paradoxically even, it is useful to recall George Steiner’s (2004: 17-8) view of Europe as a map of cafés; ‘so long as there are coffee houses, the ‘idea of Europe’ will have content’, but such a definition can only work if that content is as broad as Steiner’s romantic view of the café as ‘a place for assignation and conspiracy, for intellectual debate and gossip, for the flâneur and the poet or metaphysician at his notebook. It is open to all, yet it is also a club, a freemasonry of political or artistic-literary recognition and programmatic presence’. The paradox in Steiner’s affirmation therefore is that although our imagination of Europe can be sensed as a pilgrimage to ‘the café’, reality polices the boundaries of Europe in air-tight containers, also known as borders. In that map of cafés we call Europe, what and where is the space for the aroma of a café à la turque that so enchanted Orientalists like Théophile Gautier who praised that very method of grinding and drinking coffee in his 1853 voyage to Istanbul? Against the spirit of such a practice of Europe as a taxable customs rather than an open commons, a re-appropriation of the boundaries between natives and ‘extravagant strangers’ may become necessary as a process of translation from presuppositions to the intervening reality, itself an idea that is forged in the crucible of fusion and hybridity.

The soundtrack to this article is also a project of fusion and hybridity, brought forth by Courtney Pine and the Jazz Warriors who assembled in 2007 as ‘Afropeans’ to celebrate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. The video shows the ‘Afropeans’ rehearsing before their Barbican performance in London, hinting perhaps at an idea of Europe as a rehearsal of and experiment with possibilities for self-definition as a playful provocation rather than clinging to the absent plot of its grand conceptions of itself.

A  note on the discussants:

Gerard Delanty is Professor of sociology and social and political thought at the University of Sussex, UK. His most recent publications are Community (2nd edition, Routledge, 2010), The cosmopolitan imagination: The renewal of critical social theory (Cambridge University Press, 2009). He has edited (with Stephen P. Turner) The international handbook of contemporary social and political theory (Routledge, 2011) and Handbook of cosmopolitan studies (Routledge, 2012). Recent journal articles have appeared in the British Journal of Sociology (2011), The Irish Journal of Sociology (2010), and The Sociological Review (2012).

Lambros Fatsis is a final year DPhil student at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. His doctoral thesis concentrates on discussions of public sociology, the role of the University and intellectuals, while other research interests include black music, urban culture and the history and sociology of the Jamaican soundsystem. He also performs as a reggae selector/radio presenter under the name Boulevard Soundsystem and is a contributor of Billboard magazine on reggae music.


Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism London: Verso

Auden, W.H. (2007) Another Time London: Faber and Faber

Delanty, G. (1995) Inventing Europe London: Palgrave

Delanty, G. (2012) ‘Europe in an Age of Austerity: Contradictions of Capitalism and Democracy’ International Critical Thought 2 (4): 445-55

Delanty, G. (2013) Formations of European modernity: a historical and political sociology of Europe London: Palgrave (In Press)

Habermas, J. (1975) Legitimation Crisis Boston: Beacon Press

Habermas, J. (2009) Europe: The Faltering Project London: Polity

Keynes, J.M. (1964) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money London: Macmillan

Mandeville, B. (1970) The Fable of the Bees London: Penguin

Montaigne, Michel de (2003) The Complete Essays London: Penguin

Nussbaum, M (1996) For the Love of Country: The Limits of Patriotism Boston: Beacon Press

Pessoa, F. (2012) Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See Lisbon: Livros Horizonte

Sennett, R. (2012) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. London: Yale University Press

Steiner, G. (2004) The Idea of Europe Tillburg: Nexus Institute, 2004.

Zweig, S. (1964) The World of Yesterday: An Autobiography Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press

Categories: Sociologists of Crisis


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