European Modernity: Tragedy, then Farce

Opinion by James Bradbury
Feb. 13, 2014, 1:01 a.m.

A prominent Stanford professor (whom I won’t name because he wasn’t speaking to be quoted) was only repeating the consensus among the political and economic elite when he told me after a talk on Monday that, simply because Europe was the first to modernize, modernization will always and everywhere involve Westernization.

His point was that China, if it is to become a modern superpower, has no other option than to follow what its leaders used to condemn as the “capitalist road.” More specifically, he said that China’s large and independent state-owned enterprises—whose profits largely support the remaining collective welfare infrastructure for workers, retirees and their families, rather than accruing to the state treasury—are in some objective sense “no longer acceptable”: They neither prop up the national budget nor enable rapid consumer-driven growth like more efficient private companies.

Never mind that many Western state enterprises aren’t especially profitable for their respective governments either, or that Germany, the absolute core of the European West, continues to defy foreign economists’ advice to shift its export-driven economy more towards domestic consumers. In the Western view, China is holding on to an un-Western economic institution and it must get rid of it to be deemed truly “modern.”

He was, of course, right. Modernity is Western. The institutions that comprise modernity, from the nation-state and parliamentary democracy to the stock exchange and corporations, began as Western innovations and were spread, first by overt colonialism and then by simple economic dominance, to “the uttermost ends of the earth.”

The West’s ongoing imposition of European modernity on the world does not really distinguish between pre-modern cultural and economic institutions, like family and clan-based social insurance, and alternative modernities like collective farms or the state-owned enterprises I mentioned: Both are swept away. Those of us who idealistically insist (though it really is a conservative impulse) that countries like China can and should forge independent paths which preserve their unique mixtures of traditional, Western and alternative institutions are up against that onslaught, and our victories are always at best both temporary and conditional.

But isn’t it unfair to blame Europe for the continued influence of the Western conception of modernity? Hasn’t the continent been, as it were, defanged through decolonization and demobilization, and hasn’t it even itself adopted institutional mixtures like social democracy?

There is indeed a new Europe. The founding of the European Union as the European Coal and Steel Community—designed to make another European World War a physical impossibility—replaced the modern concept of the nation-state with a new kind of supranational authority. The European Commission—the EU’s unelected executive branch—similarly replaced the modern institution of parliamentary democracy with a more complex technocratic ideal.

In justifying this new ideal, the whole system goes to great lengths, often in aggravating ways, to appear as non-ideological as possible: Every decision and regulation is couched in the language of utilitarian cost-benefit analysis (when the language makes sense at all: The EU itself released a 66-page document detailing the ways in which words used in EU documents do not mean the things they do in other contexts).

Of course, this claim of non-ideology is a façade: It can only be ideology that motivates the EU to (for example) take a strong, science-based position on climate change at the same time as a deeply unscientific policy stance against all GMOs.

This is the reality of Europe which Ukraine and Turkey—perennially almost-European—have wrestled with for years. Ukraine has been equally poorly served by the Russian-aligned President Viktor Yanukovych and his Europe-aligned but infighting predecessors President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko—not to mention the series of corrupt governments which preceded them or the present opposition leaders, each of whom are less well liked than Yanukovych.

For Ukraine, then, Russia and Europe, who have both extended loan offers to help shore up the country’s budget, represent limited economic lifelines but not a solution to governance problems. The protesters in Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement want functioning institutions of Western modernity and more democratic and national sovereignty—not the loss of all three that EU membership ultimately promises.

At Europe’s other border—with the Arab world, rather than the Russian bloc—Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan believes that, while maintaining a largely pro-European foreign policy outlook and adopting at its own pace aspects of EU law and policy it considers helpful, the country can forge an independent development path: one that (among other things) allows for the successful integration of Islamist politics and democratic elections.

Most discourse on EU relations and accession, including that which concerns Turkey and Ukraine, focuses on the economic incentives surrounding the European free trade zone and shared currency, as well as the effects of specific policies like the free flow of immigrants. But the most fundamental right a country gives up when it joins the EU isn’t economic or even political sovereignty—it’s the right to experiment with differing conceptions of modernity and development, to define for itself what those words should really mean.

With that in mind, the European Union project is a necessary framework for Europe as it embarks on its long path of reconciliation with its many historical and social demons. It is not a new modernity to be exported with the same impunity as the last.

Contact James Bradbury at [email protected].

James Bradbury is an international politics opinion columnist for The Stanford Daily. His goal for "Outside the Bubble" is to provide accessible, (hopefully) informative and slightly opinionated context for the week's world news headlines. James is a sophomore from McLean, Va. majoring in linguistics. To contact him, please email jbradbur 'at'

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