What should Europe’s intellectuals be doing?
Towards the end of last year, as the Eurozone crisis was reaching (yet another) climax, a number of journalists in the German quality press alerted their readers to an aspect of the crisis which had received scant attention so far: the euro crisis marked not only the failure of Europe’s central bankers, or Greek bureaucrats, or Italian non-taxpayers, or Angela Merkel (all depending on one’s perspective) – it also signified a comprehensive failure of intellectuals. Why were they not defending the great achievements of European integration? Why were they not putting forward appealing visions of the continent’s future, instead squandering a great legacy of mutual trust and understanding among Europeans which had been nurtured over many decades? Were they simply sleeping through a crisis that might eventually usher in the return of ugly nationalisms? Or even military conflict, as elder European statesmen like Helmut Kohl never tire of warning?
The idea of a distinctive “failure” or even “betrayal” of the intellectuals originated in the twentieth century. The latter was commonly understood as an “age of ideologies”: ideas not only mattered in some vague general manner, they could be directly translated into politics and turn into deadly forces. Just think of Czeslaw Milosz’s famous observation that in mid-twentieth-century Europe “the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy”. Intellectuals acted on the world-historical stage, taking part in the bloody drama of the battle between liberal democracy, fascism, and Soviet communism.
Given this role, what constituted “failure”? Not speaking one’s ideologically prescribed lines correctly? In 1927 the French essayist and moraliste Julien Benda accused fellow writers and philosophers of betraying their vocation by advocating nationalist positions: proper intellectuals would speak (universal and timeless) truth to power, he argued, instead of being in the business of advancing the national interest. But intellectuals defending universalist, communist ideals were also charged with treason, primarily for buying into Stalin’s lies and turning a blind eye to the increasingly obvious shortcomings of the Soviet Union.
Today, the whole language of failure might strike us as odd: intellectuals are not schoolchildren who might flunk tests, with other intellectuals keeping score on them; nor are they bound by the same codes of practice as trained professionals. But that does not mean that, in the rather different circumstances of twenty-first century Europe, intellectuals cannot get matters fundamentally wrong when judged against a set of liberal democratic values: they might become rabid nationalists themselves, or implicitly condone rising nationalism by not speaking out against it. They might also fail by simply overlooking the profound injustice of what is currently being done in the name of austerity and fiscal rectitude.