‘People begin to feel that… there are bonds of international duty binding all the nations of the earth together.’

This quotation, which resonates so clearly as yet more blood is shed in Syria, belongs to Guiseppe Mazzini, the 19th century Italian nationalist whose vision of a ‘Holy Alliance of peoples’ underscores much of Professor Mark Mazower’s Governing the World: The History of an Idea.

Mazower’s book is an account of the ideas and institutions of international relations from the Concert of Vienna in 1814 to the present day United Nations. It is, then, the story of how Western hegemony has shaped the international sphere; this period of hegemony is soon to end and perhaps Mazzini’s international ambitions will die with it. In this sense, Mazower’s engrossing survey prompts questions about the nation state in an unsettled global future.

It is becoming fashionable, perhaps, to assume that a strong state is one that is independent of (but not necessarily isolated from) international bodies. Certainly, critics of Britain’s membership of the European Union make such assertions, usually by referring to the arrangements of Norway or Switzerland. Yet it was not always so. Mazower describes how generations of statesmen have followed Mazzini’s famous dictum that there is no contradiction between the national and the international. In an age of empire, and the age of superpowers which succeeded it, states found stability and resilience by co-operating closely with another. Thus, international bodies formed, multiplied and became more complex.

The defining feature of each international system which emerged was that, more often than not, it served the interests of the dominant powers of the day. This implies that those powers were vital to the health of the institution in question and the success of its policies. Mazower expresses this most clearly in the chapters devoted to the United Nations, where he argues that there would have been (and indeed could not be) a UN without American money, expertise and political support.

However, membership of international organisations comes at a cost for a nation state, especially second rank powers (such as present day Britain) which do not enjoy the advantages of dominance, because competences are transferred from its direct control. This exchange “hollows out” national institutions and alienates the public from political processes, undermining faith in both national and international government, especially at times of crisis.

Mazower tells me that we are living through a delicate historical moment because our confidence in government, democratic institutions and international co-operation is low. Might our faith be restored by repatriating sovereignty, say, from the European Union, as is envisaged by many on the right in this country?

“The Tory critique of European integration as an abolition of sovereignty points to this unease that we’ve lost something. Now, what they think we’ve lost I think we’ve lost for ever and that there is no way back to it… but they have identified an important problem of political thought and practice.”

Sovereignty is irretrievable, Mazower says, because so many professions are completely immersed in a European framework that would be “extraordinarily difficult to undo”. He did not elaborate; but it would be onerous to withdraw from the social chapter and other European employment regulations because they are so deeply incorporated into English law. And even if they were repealed, Britain’s historically fractious industrial relations are likely to ensure that the process of replacing workers’ protections would be extremely fraught.

If the clock cannot be turned back to 1972, what then might renew faith in politics and representative institutions? Mazower suggests that the problem is deeply philosophical but not wholly novel:

“We’re having great difficulty thinking through what we mean by democracy. I think that this is a good time to re-read de Tocqueville because he was writing at a time when one felt, or he felt, that the future was morphing into something unknowable and that nobody, including him, had the vocabulary to describe it.”

De Tocqueville wrote that ‘history is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies’. Mazower’s book charts mankind’s recurring belief that technology will re-order society for the better. H.G. Wells famously supposed that scientific progress would inaugurate world peace through the creation of a single world government. To my ear, Wells’ utopianism is echoed by the present fervour for the possibilities of the world wide web, encapsulated by American intellectual Clay Shirky’s view that ‘what [Google is] exporting isn’t a product or a service, it’s a freedom.’ Mazower, however, perceives an important distinction between these visionaries:

“Wells believed in the state; he just wanted a world state. Clay Shirky from what I know of what he writes does not believe in organization at all… Shirky’s view does without institutions, either state or non-state, because everything is forming and re-forming [online], and it’s a kind of anarchism in a curious way.”

Shirky is a relatively tame post-modern anarchist compared to Peter Thiel, a Californian technology billionaire who is investing in ‘seasteads’: self-governing seaborne communities that deny nationhood in favour of absolute equality and social experimentation, questioning the very existence of politics. Thiel, though, is no original. Mazower’s book records, time and again, that people have tried to abolish politics by insisting that every predicament can be resolved by the inviolable laws of nature. Mazower explains:

“Bentham didn’t think there was a decision to be made. You just collected the information and then the best outcome presented itself mathematically. Most 19th century positivists thought the same thing. I think that Clay Shirky thinks the same thing. Sunstein and Thaler’s theory of nudge is the same thing.”

Are the laws of nature and science absolute rulers over the affairs of men? On the contrary, Stalin’s criticism of H.G. Wells sounds clear today: there is such a thing as politics; therefore, there must be political institutions and a political class. Politics, though, is an invariably imperfect exercise. Mazower mentions Carl Schmitt, a German jurist and political philosopher whose foremost contribution was that there is always a decision to make. And therein lies the problem.

Schmitt has the notoriety of being a right-wing thinker who was co-opted by the Nazis; but despite that his thought remains valuable. He understood politics as being a ‘specific distinction between enemy and friend’. This distinction may sound extreme; but one can see that politics, especially electoral politics, is essentially adversarial. In Schmitt’s view one’s political choices are determined by one’s group membership, which means that politics is a question of identity. This ensures that the system will be fractious when there is more than one identity group competing within a given geopolitical boundary. Schmitt was a determined critic of the liberal democratic state, which he saw as a weak pluralistic entity rather than a unified polity. In The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923) and Political Theology (1922), Schmitt posited that the liberal state must incorporate elements of these competing tribes into its overall fabric in order to maintain what little cohesion it has. These factions simply become vested interests, serving to undermine institutions and the principle of equality, thereby deepening animosity between the groups. Elections air these tensions and encourage political parties to marginalise the voiceless or oppress the more submissive minorities. In Legality and Legitimacy (1932), Schmitt took the Hobbesian view that the state is only legitimate when it can protect its members and extended it to argue that the liberal state always fails because it cannot protect all its members from the influence of vested interests.

Our society’s present controversies illustrate Schmitt’s point rather well. On the one hand, multinational financial corporations that happen to be based largely in Britain are able to socialise their losses at the taxpayers’ expense. While on the other hand, unionised public sector employees are able to frustrate attempts to weaken their monopoly on services such as education and health. There are also examples from low politics. Reading University Student Union recently expelled the Atheist Society from its freshers’ fair for displaying a pineapple named ‘Mohammed’. It did so on grounds that the fair was ‘inclusive’ and that the pineapple offended those who respect religion and Islam in particular. Thus the atheists were excluded from an inclusive event; their rights of free expression prorogued by an organisation that privileges the interests of more influential groups.

As a view of the world, Schmitt’s analysis is compelling if slightly overstated: there is perhaps insufficient room in his account for artful pragmatism and compromise, a drawback that becomes more apparent when examining his understanding of the international sphere. Yet his criticisms are plausible nonetheless. How, then, is today’s liberal state to renew itself in order to guarantee its strength? Active national policy is the most obvious solution; but while the people’s confidence in government is low, it is strong compared with government’s negligible self-confidence. Mazower explains:

“The proof seems to me to be Quantitative Easing… a form of vulgar Keynesianism. I cannot imagine that in the 1940s civil servants would have said that essentially all we have at our disposal is to give the banks more money so that they will lend more money. No, they would have said we need an infrastructural plan for this and they were working on a comprehensive input and output analysis, which was discredited a long time ago. But I’m struck by the contrast.”

If the national route is closed, what about the international approach? There has been little concerted global effort on, for example, banks since the crisis opened. New capital rules have been introduced; but there has been no general approach to issues such as remuneration and risk. The European Union has moved towards a banking and financial union; but this was in response to the sovereign debt crisis among some of its members. Its emphasis on tight regulatory controls and transfers of sovereignty makes it emblematic of the sort of policy likely to inspire, in Mazower’s words, “a really significant crisis for the European project.” Far from allaying such fears, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union has exposed the project’s legion dilemmas to even greater scrutiny, and ridicule.

Europe’s stasis is one reason (there are plenty of others, the failure of global institutions to address climate change being the most serious in Mazower’s view) why he concludes his book with the stark phrase: ‘The idea of governing the world is becoming yesterday’s dream.’ Mazzini’s dream was predicated on the axiom that the international strengthens the national; it follows that the nation state will become weaker as the international subsides. Let us hope that Mazzini was wrong.

Tags: European Union, History, Interview, Philosophy, Politics