Europe and the Nation State: Thoughts on Ortega y Gasset

A lecture in Madrid by Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson

As benighted as the Bourbons: Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk at a European People’s Party summit earlier this year (European Peoples’ Party CC BY 2.0)

What does it mean to be a conservative in Europe today? My answer is simple: to be a conservative means to reject the politics of negativity — anger, revenge, hatred, guilt and resentment — and instead to pursue a positive vision: a liberal-minded vision of generosity and justice, of peace and prosperity, of democracy and conviviality under the rule of law. To be a conservative means, in other words, to take the best ideas of the past and apply them to the present: not in a negative spirit of reactionary fear of the future, but embracing this world as we find it, with all its defects and depravity, its opportunities and its glimpses of divine glory, in the hope of improving it before we leave it for a better place. Conservatives are conscious that the material world matters to us all, but that it is not the only one; just as we know, too, that those living in it are not the only people who matter, for we cherish the generations who have come before us and learn from them, while never forgetting that we are but the harbingers of posterity, the generations to come who will inherit the world that we bequeath them. Conservatives feel the weight of history not as a burden, but with gratitude for the responsibilities that have been placed upon us by God. We are responsible for the preservation of the civilisation that has formed us and of which we in turn must endeavour to be worthy. For us European conservatives, our primary duty is to the civilisation of the West; but our responsibilities do not stop there. Wherever in the world the forces of barbarism seek to destroy humanity and liberty, we must resist and overcome them. If we do not, they will seek us out sooner or later. Even if they fail in their attempt to annihilate us, physically and culturally, the barbarians may do great damage.

Who are the conservative thinkers to whom we should be looking for inspiration? Here in Madrid, such questions spring naturally to mind, for this Most Catholic Kingdom of Spain is and always has been of a naturally conservative disposition, and conservative thought has flourished here at least since Ferdinand and Isabella ushered in the Spanish Golden Age. The grim fundamentalism of the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada and his Dominicans was only one side — a dark one — of that glittering coin. This was also the Spain that opened up the New World, that created global markets and trade routes, and to which we owe, perhaps, the very idea of “Western” civilisation. This was the Spain of El Greco and Velázquez, the Spain of Calderón and, above all, of Cervantes. It is worth recalling that the strict censorship of the Spanish Inquisition did not apply to the most popular literary genre of the day, novels and romances of chivalry. My godfather, the historian Hugh Thomas, describes this as “a remarkable toleration”. The author of Don Quixote — whose quatercentenary we celebrate this year along with that of his contemporary, Shakespeare — was a true Spanish conservative. He loved the past, he revered the old knightly virtues of courtesy and mercy, but he was also a man of action who was wounded at Lepanto, helping to save Christendom from the Ottoman threat. Like Shakespeare, another great conservative, he loved his country more than himself. He believed in God, but his subject was humanity. For Cervantes, we are all, like the Don, muddle-headed fools with lucid intervals. Such is the hard-headed conservative view of politics and especially ideology. To a conservative, the pursuit of a perfect world, the world of which the Left has always dreamt, is at best like tilting at windmills; at worst, it means the abandonment of all the chivalry that mitigates man’s savagery to man and especially to woman. We cannot avoid mistakes, but we may hope by the end to emulate the Don’s epitaph: “Morir cuerdo, y vivir loco.” (“To die in wisdom, having lived in folly.”)

One part of this realism concerns the problem of inequality. Unlike many modern writers, including even some conservatives, Cervantes has no illusions about abolishing inequality: “Dos linajes solos hay en el mundo, como decía una abuela mía, que son el tener y el no tener.” (“There are only two families in the world, as a grandmother of mine used to say: the Haves and the Have-nots.”) This must be the first literary use of the phrase “Haves and Have-nots”, more than two centuries before another great conservative, Benjamin Disraeli, wrote in his novel Sybil of “two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy . . . the Rich and the Poor”. Because conservatives do not yearn for an egalitarian Utopia, they prefer to address the problem by ameliorating the effects of poverty, rather than demonising the rich. It is as important today as it ever was to avoid class warfare, which is stoked up by the demagogy of the far-Left; but the Right will only be taken seriously if it is seen to take radical measures to open up society and the economy to enable the Have-nots to compete on equal terms with the Haves. The Left will always try to exploit the guilt complexes of the Haves and the resentments of the Have-Nots; and these two emotions, guilt and resentment, are very powerful political factors, today as much as ever. If the centre-Right cannot counter guilt with generosity and resentment with justice, then its place will be taken by the far-Right, which exploits similarly negative emotions to the Left. The far-Right is in the ascendant across Europe today precisely because the conservative cause has allowed itself to abandon liberalism, and with it the positive politics that alone provide a vision of the future that may inspire the young and old alike.

In its long period of decline from the 17th to the 20th centuries, Spain produced several conservative thinkers of a deeply pessimistic cast of mind, from the great Jesuit Baltasar Gracián, whose Criticón and Oráculo so impressed Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, to the noble diplomat Donoso Cortés, whose Ultramontane polemics against progress exercised a profound influence on Carl Schmitt. We can certainly learn much from these Catholic Cassandras, but in my view the Spanish thinker who should inspire conservatives today is José Ortega y Gasset. In his early tribute to Cervantes, Meditations on Quixote, he declared: “Hatred is the feeling which leads to the extinction of values.” That was published in the fateful year 1914. Then came the Great War, from which Spain was fortunate to escape unscathed. In his best-known work, La Rebelión de las Masas (The Revolt of the Masses), published in 1930 as monarchy was replaced by republic in Spain, while Europe was being crushed between the pincers of Fascism and Communism, Ortega developed this thought. “Civilisation,” he wrote, “is nothing else than the attempt to reduce the use of force to being the ultima ratio, the last resort.” What he called “the revolt of the mass man”, the tyranny of the majority and the use of force to resolve political disputes, was “the Magna Carta of barbarism”. He went on: “Civilisation is above all the will to live together. A man is uncivilised, a barbarian in so far as he does not take others into account.” This is what we see today, in its most extreme form, in the jihad against the West by Isis and other Islamist terrorists. What Ortega held up as his ideal “form of life” he called convivencia, a wonderful Spanish expression which combines the English words “coexistence” and “conviviality”, as well as the Latin concordia. Such is the life that is only made possible by civilisation, and such is the true raison d’être of conservative thought and politics.

Ortega preferred to call himself a liberal rather than a conservative. In The Revolt of the Masses he wrote: “The political doctrine which has represented the loftiest endeavour towards common life (convivencia) is liberal democracy . . . Liberalism — it is well to recall this today — is the supreme form of generosity; it is the right which the majority concedes to minorities and hence it is the noblest cry that has ever resounded in this planet.” Much later, in a 1940 essay on imperial Rome (translated into English as “Concord and Liberty”), Ortega lamented the death of liberalism, which “has passed away without ever receiving a proper obituary”. What he meant by liberalism, however, was a political philosophy that would now go under the name of conservatism: a society and economy governed with a light touch. He was critical of parliamentary paralysis under the constitutional monarchy, or what he called España invertebrada (“Invertebrate Spain”) in a 1921 book of that name, because he wanted what he saw as a backwater to become a truly European country. And so he gave a cautious welcome to the modernising dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, who suspended the Cortes [Parliament] from 1923 to 1930, but executed nobody, imprisoned few and permitted a largely free press. As Editor of Revista de Occidente from 1923 to 1936, Ortega provided the most intelligent commentary on the dramatic political vicissitudes that preceded the Civil War. Though he supported the Second Spanish Republic, Ortega was never a man of the Left. He admired the English political system precisely because, though the most liberal of the democracies, it was rooted in an aristocratic past. In 1930 Ortega ventured into Spanish politics as leader of a group of intellectuals, “the movement for the service of the republic”, who opposed the personal rule of King Alfonso after his dismissal of Primo de Rivera. Ortega’s declaration of war on the monarchy — “Spaniards! Your state is no more! Reconstitute it! Delenda est monarchia!” — caused a sensation and contributed to the King’s decision a few months later to go into exile. But within a couple of years Ortega was disillusioned by the Republic: in 1932 he denounced its brutal suppression of anarchists: “It was not for this that we worked in the days of the monarchy.” Once the Civil War began, Ortega declared his loyalty to the Republic in the famous manifesto of the intellectuals. “But the atrocities and the increasing influence of the Communists,” Hugh Thomas remarks, caused Ortega and his friends to flee abroad, in his case to Portugal and later Argentina. “There they repudiated their support for the Republic.” In 1942, Ortega settled in Estoril, an entrepôt for émigrés and the Allies where he could stay in touch with European intellectuals. After the horrors of the Civil War and its bloody aftermath, in 1945 Ortega returned to Spain and for a few years attempted to revive intellectual life in Madrid under the Franco regime. This was indeed a quixotic enterprise, which alienated other Republican exiles but aroused only suspicion from the Generalíssimo and his followers. He was unable to resume his editorial chair at Revista de Occidente, but he succeeded in publishing his own collected works, Obras Completas, under the journal’s imprint — an important concession by Franco’s otherwise strict censors. Though Ortega’s Institute for the Humanities was closed down in 1950 and he returned to live abroad until his death in 1955, his disciple Julián Marías continued his work until the return of democracy in 1976 after Franco’s death. Today, Ortega’s memory still burns brightly, not only among philosophers but for all who value integrity and humanity.

Why have I dwelt on Ortega’s life? Because I believe that he has bequeathed an important legacy, not only to Spanish conservatives but to all of us who try to defend Western civilisation. In the first place, Ortega was a true European: not in the sense that is nowadays attached to the word, an uncritical admiration for the European Union, but as a writer, thinker and journalist who was fully abreast of and engaged with the intellectual currents of his time. Such authentic cultural cosmopolitans are rare, but they invariably recognise one another. Albert Camus, for example, praised Ortega as “after Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest ‘European’ writer”. One of Ortega’s younger contemporaries, Salvador de Madariaga, was also seen as a European, but in his case he devoted himself to the cause of Pan-Europa, which later became the European Union. My copy of Totaler Staat — Totaler Mensch, a polemic against totalitarian politics by Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi published in 1937 on the eve of the Austrian Anschluss, is inscribed by the author to his friend and fellow Pan-European Madariaga — a precious document of the early years of the European project. Ortega, however, took no part in that project, even in the early 1950s when it took political shape in the Schuman Plan. Ortega had been dead for two years by the time the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, but it is safe to say that while he might have admired the ideals, he would not have approved of the centralising, bureaucratic and above all illiberal form in which the European idea became reality. Ortega died in Venice, the maritime republic that had once embraced Orient and Occident, and I cannot help wondering if this was a coincidence. Venice was the bulwark of Catholic Europe in defeating the Ottomans at Lepanto, together with the Papacy and the Habsburg Empire. La Serenissima symbolises grandeur and decadence, the metaphysical city suspended between land, sea and sky. Venice is the antithesis of Brussels, the Europe on which Ortega had turned his back.

In an article of 1933, Ortega praises curiosidad, curiosity, as the essential attitude of the student and scholar, and he cites Heidegger in support of this. At that time, Ortega must have been one of very few Europeans outside the German-speaking world to have even heard of Heidegger, let alone absorbed his ideas. Yet in fact Ortega had not only studied in Germany during its golden age before the First World War, but in 1930 he paid tribute to German thought even though by then it was no longer fashionable to do so, in Misión de la Universidad (Mission of the University). There he criticises German pedantry: “One of the tasks Europe needs to perform with dispatch is to rid contemporary science of its purely German excrescences, its rituals and mere whims . . .” He could be talking about the present-day plague of political correctness, which has been imported into the European academy from America. But Ortega appends a footnote: “Do not forget . . . that the writer . . . owes to Germany four fifths of his intellectual possessions. I am more conscious today than ever before of the indisputable, towering preeminence of German science.” We should not forget that Ortega — who was deeply immersed in the thought of German-Jewish thinkers such as Georg Simmel, Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler and Ernst Cassirer — is here writing on the eve of the Nazi seizure of power, which was accompanied by the most shameful betrayal of Western civilisation in history by those who should have been its boldest guardians: the German universities. Ortega knew better than anyone both the value of that civilisation, which had reached its zenith in the Weimar Republic, and the forces that threatened it from within. What Aurel Kolnai later called Germany’s “War against the West” had already begun even as Ortega was diagnosing the forces at work in the catastrophe of German culture in La Rebelión de las Masas. The proper tribute that we should pay to Ortega’s memory today, as intellectuals who adhere to his conservative and liberal tradition, is to respond to the progressive abandonment that we see around us of the heritage of Western civilisation in all its incarnations: Judaeo-Christian, classical, medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment.

The key to 20th century European thought, as Ortega conceived it in his Mission of the University, is that the Church has abandoned the present, while the democratic state has submitted to public opinion. This left the press as the sole surviving spiritual force. While admitting that “I may be nothing more than a journalist myself”, Ortega wanted the university to “assert itself as a major ‘spiritual power’, higher than the press, standing for serenity in the midst of frenzy, for seriousness and the grasp of the intellect in the face of frivolity and unashamed stupidity”. Today, not much remains of the higher journalism that in Ortega’s day was represented by such titans as Karl Kraus in Vienna, Raymond Aron in Paris or George Orwell in London. And it must be admitted that, with a few exceptions, European universities have not fulfilled Ortega’s hopes. Instead of preserving our culture, which Matthew Arnold defined as “the best of what has been thought and said”, our universities have denied that  such values even exist. The failure of the university to preserve our culture has been paralleled in the failure of our artists to renew it. Their abdication of responsibility began with what Ortega described as “the dehumanisation of art”. Six decades after Ortega’s death, our culture has yet to rediscover the genius to transcend our mortality that we treasure in Shakespeare and Cervantes, Goethe and Goya, in the deep, pure wellsprings of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Romanticism.

This  absence of creative energy in European culture applies, unfortunately, to political thought too, including conservative thought. In Britain, we have produced a great conservative thinker in the late Michael Oakeshott, whose political philosophy, like that of his Spanish contemporary, attaches great importance to the idea of universitas. But Oakeshott sees this medieval concept as the origin of “rationalism in politics”: the idea of the state as an “enterprise association”, in which society is united by a “common good” or collective purpose, as opposed to the state understood as a “civil association”, in which autonomous individuals pursue their own individual ends. The idea of an enterprise association is almost infinitely extendable: it can apply not only to a state, but to a union of states, a “superstate”. The European Union is an archetypal case of an enterprise association. It exists for one purpose: “ever closer union”. Its institutions, its laws, its treaties are all subordinated to and subsumed under this purpose. With uncharacteristic frankness, the former President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, describes the EU as “a non-imperial empire”. As Oakeshott says in On Human Conduct, “The member of such a state enjoys the composure of the conscript assured of his dinner. His ‘freedom’ is warm, compensated servility.”

Yet there is another idea of Europe, one that Oakeshott briefly discusses in his essay on “Europe, the emergence of an idea”. He points out that, unlike “Asian” and “African”, “‘European’ has become an adjective which refers to something which may be found in any part of the world”. “Europe” in this sense means much the same as “the West”. And it is in this sense that Ortega was a true “European”. Western civilisation has become ubiquitous because it opens up an infinite vista of possibility and potentiality to all those who grasp it. I mentioned earlier the idea of “curiosity” as characteristic of this European or Western view of the world. There is another passage about curiosity in one of Ortega’s most charming books, On Love, where he is discussing “the psychology of the interesting man” — that is, the man with whom women fall in love. While he insists that he does not wish to “intellectualise” love, he argues that love always has a rational core that derives from a particular kind of curiosity. “This curiosity, which is simultaneously an eagerness for life, can only be found in porous souls where free air — cosmic air charged with stardust — circulates, unconfined by any limiting wall. But,” he goes on, “curiosity is not enough to make us ‘see’ the delicate, complex structure of a person. Curiosity predisposes the eye, but the vision must be discerning. And such discernment is indeed the prime talent and extraordinary endowment which acts as a component in love.” The love of which Ortega speaks here is of course erotic love, but his words apply no less to patriotic love, to the love of country and the love of liberty.

I hold up Ortega as a role model for young Spaniards because he seems to me to represent a kind of European intellectual who has almost disappeared, or at least been eclipsed, in the six decades since his death. That period roughly coincides with my own lifetime; and like others, I have often regretted the absence of the great thinkers, writers and artists who were my contemporaries but who have died before I could meet and learn from them. Hitherto, Ortega the European intellectual has had no real successor in Spain and precious few in Europe. Why not? And what is to be done about it?

This brings me at last to the subject which you have doubtless been waiting for: Brexit. I shall share only a few thoughts with you now, for fear of provoking a new Spanish inquisition or, worse, to be handed over to the secular arm for an auto da fe. First, the Eurosceptic rationale is much more complex than has been reported here on the Continent, for a simple reason: most of the press here sees its job as cheering on the European project rather than questioning it. On the day after the referendum, the BBC correspondent in Brussels, Katya Adler, asked the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker a highly pertinent question: “Is this the end of the European Union?” Juncker pretended not to hear, then snapped a one-word answer — “No!” — and stormed out of the press conference. The other journalists applauded — not Adler, their colleague, but the petulant president. They saw their job as playing their part in advancing “Europe”, not as holding its officials to account. That is why Brexit came as even more of a shock to the rest of Europe than it did to us in Britain.

Second, the British are not xenophobic, racist or even “anti-European” merely because they voted to leave the EU. We love almost all the same things about Europe that you do, including the idea of Europe as a family of free and democratic nations, brought together by our Judaeo-Christian civilisation. Indeed, we helped to make the EU possible, by defying first Hitler and then Stalin. We were able to do this because the British are blessed by an unbroken tradition of parliamentary government and the rule of law. But most of Europe has a very different experience, as I hardly need to remind a Spanish audience: one of dictatorship, occupation and totalitarian ideologies.

It is therefore no surprise that we see the nation state rather differently. For the British, the nation is the primary political entity, the embodiment of our freedom. Parliament is the visible representation of our ancient liberties. Those who govern us do so under the rule of laws that we, as a nation, have made for ourselves, either in Parliament or through the operation of judicial precedent in our courts that we call the common law. We do not recognise any source of authority over the people, other than the Queen in Parliament. It is essential to our conception of democracy that ministers are accountable to Parliament and may be removed from office at any time: normally by free and fair elections or, exceptionally, by due process of the law. A free press is as essential to our system as an independent judiciary and an impartial civil service. We are proud of the fact that the nation state has preserved our freedom for more than a thousand years. It is at once a thoroughly liberal form of politics, capable of reform as the need arises, and a profoundly conservative one, which has obviated the need for revolutionary change.

Yet what took place in June was nothing less than a revolution — a bloodless one, to be sure, as has been the British way for centuries. The democratic decision to leave the European Union was not, as it has been widely portrayed at home and abroad, a vote against immigration. We are not raising the drawbridge to exclude foreigners, let alone turning our backs on Europe.  On the contrary: this was a vote to restore a United Kingdom that is open to the world. We voted to take back control of our borders, not in order to close them, but to restore enough confidence in  them to keep them as open as possible. More than any other country in Europe, we live by our wits: we are free traders and cultural cosmopolitans. We have exported to every country on earth our language and our literature, our ideas and our institutions, our sciences and our sports. Why would we suddenly turn into a nation of nativists, a race of racists, a people of protectionists?

That is not what has happened. What took place last week was indeed a revolution in the way that the British see their relations with the European Union. It was a radical rejection of the whole project of European political and economic union, as it has been pursued since the Treaty of Rome and especially the Treaty of Maastricht. But if Brexit was a revolution, it was a conservative revolution: a peaceful reassertion of national sovereignty. All the cross-border arrangements that work well for both Britain and the rest of Europe will continue — if the EU agrees. European citizens who live and work in Britain may go about their business secure in the knowledge that nobody is going to deprive them of their rights, let alone deport them. We expect nothing less for our own citizens on the Continent — if the EU agrees. Even before we joined what we then called the Common Market, we managed to do without visas or tariffs or other barriers to travel and trade with the Continent, and nobody in Britain wants to impose such barriers now — if the EU agrees. But will the EU agree? Nearly half of us voted to remain in the EU, so there is no appetite for a “divorce”, in Mr Juncker’s unfortunate choice of words. Indeed, we may already discern the outlines of the deal to be negotiated with Brussels. It will have to include an end to the free movement of EU citizens, but as far as the UK is concerned everything else is negotiable.

From Brussels, Paris and Berlin, however, the responses have ranged from the sullen to the hostile. The French, for example, have lost no time in attempting to abolish English as an official language of the EU — never mind that it is the unofficial lingua franca of Europe and indeed of the world. The protectionist measures with which the British have been threatened range from banking and legal services to refusing access to the  Single Market — even though Norway and Switzerland already have it. The spectacle of southern Europe’s martyrdom since 2008, with youth unemployment rates as high as 50 per cent, the catastrophic mishandling of the migration crisis, and Germany’s shameful kowtowing to Turkey, are all still fresh in our minds. The threat of Islamist terrorism grows worse by the day, and we have every reason to expect the catastrophic attacks on Paris and Brussels to be repeated elsewhere. Here in Madrid, you have fortunately just held an election without a repetition of the horrors of 2004, but nobody can say with confidence that democracy is safe from the demographic, social and cultural challenges that Europe now faces. Yet the only policy prescription that emerges from Brussels is “more Europe”, for example in the Five Presidents’ Report. Fortunately the peoples of France and Germany will soon have an opportunity to pass judgment on their governments. But who will hold Brussels to account? Why did not occur to any of the Five Presidents or the 28 Commissioners to take responsibility for the disastrous failures of recent years, culminating in the departure of the EU’s second- largest economy and net contributor? Why has nobody in Brussels, apart from the British Commissioner, resigned, or even bothered to apologise?
All that Mr Juncker could bring himself to say was: “The British vote has cut off one of our wings, as it were, but we are still flying.” I don’t know about you, but if the pilot announces that one of the wings has gone, it is time to say your prayers — or at least put on a lifejacket. It was King Charles I of England who declared: “Never make defence or an apology before you be accused.” He lost his head. His son James II lost his throne for the same reason. So did the French Bourbons, not once but twice. Of them, Talleyrand is supposed to have said: “They have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.” The Five Presidents, the 28 Commissioners and the rest of the Brussels bureaucracy are as stubborn and stupid as the Stuarts and as foolish and benighted as the French Bourbons. They would be wise to learn from the Spanish branch of the Bourbon family, which made plenty of mistakes in its history but has learned from them and even presided over Spain’s belated return to democracy 40 years ago.

This brings us back to Ortega. Though he did not live to see the end of the Franco dictatorship, he knew that one day his beloved Spain would return to the European mainstream. Yet I believe he would have been saddened by what has become of the European project: the stifling talk of “European unity” (which is really centralisation), of “harmonisation” (which is really homogenisation), the loss of the originality and vitality that always characterised European thought and culture even in its darkest days. A national community, he wrote in 1931, must obey one rule above all others: “not to imitate”. In Spain, the word “nationalism” has acquired too much historical baggage to be respectable, but the Spanish nation is still a fact and so is your pride in it. Nationalism has been a dirty word in Europe since 1945, but the truth is that we need it. The British, because of our different history, have never been ashamed of our nationalism, even if we have always preferred to call it patriotism. It was under Winston Churchill’s wartime government, which he was not ashamed to call nationalist, that the British saved Europe from Hitler. The Europe of nations, what De Gaulle called l’Europe des patries, is the only real Europe — unlike the phantasm of a federal union that still mesmerises and draws the European elites to their doom. Ortega understood that nationalism and republicanism are not incompatible, but are two sides of the same democratic coin. When they diverge too far, you risk something like the Spanish Civil War. Both Nazis and Communists suppressed the nation state in the name of supranational ideologies. Today, radical Islam similarly subordinates nations to the single Ummah under a global Caliphate. As against such ideologies, the democratic nation state stands firm. The renaissance of the European nation state began in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall; Brexit has opened a new chapter in that history. We in the Anglosphere have never abandoned our nationhood. Europe, if it follows the British example, may now rediscover it.

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