The Time for Games is Over

Amitai Etzioni is considered the founding advocate of contemporary communitarian philosophy. He spoke with Martin Eiermann about the construction of a European community, the social market and the perils of modern consumerism.

The European: You are German by birth, American by choice. Looking back across the Atlantic now, what is your impression of the European state of affairs?
Etzioni: I am looking at Europe not as an American but as a sociologist who has studied the European Union from the very beginning. Today we can observe a tragic mistake: The introduction of more European centralism without the construction of a sense of community. It is impossible to impose constraints on nation-states from the outside unless those nations are bound to the larger entities by a sense of loyalty and commitment.

The European: Advocates of EU integration would respond that times of crisis demand determined actions. The focus is on securing the foundations of the EU, not on democratic processes or a European identity. Unless we plough ahead now, the argument goes, there will be nothing left to commit yourself to.
Etzioni: This is not a question of a democratic deficit but of a community deficit. It is a question of loyalty: Whom do we care for? West Germany has been subsidizing East Germany for the past twenty years without much fuss because we are part of the same community. No nation will make a comparable sacrifice to a people that it does not consider as part of the same community.

The European: What else do you propose?
Etzioni: The European crisis cannot be solved through centralization. You either have to take the next step and build a political union, or you have to restrict your ambitions. That is why I don’t like the idea of “ploughing ahead”. Already, the support for the Euro is dwindling. Only one third of Europeans were committed to their currency in a recent poll. So I don’t accept it when people say that we need to protect the current state of affairs at any cost. That’s like saying, “Give me a billion dollars, I need it”. It is not a rational argument. But what can be done instead? You could start by having Europe-wide binding referenda to create a European demos, a public sphere across the continent. Look at immigration policy: Different countries have very different approaches to immigration. I would propose a European referendum: Under what conditions should we let people in? The outcome would be binding. And you could have similar referenda on austerity matters. It forces us to come together because we make decisions collectively.

The European: Community identity is often based on a shared history, shared customs, shared symbols. Is there a comparable narrative in Europe?
Etzioni: I agree that a joint narrative is important. But right now, there is too much time pressure. When I talk about a referendum, I don’t see it primarily as a voting mechanism. I see it as a mechanism to force us into discussion and bring about shared values. Don’t relegate important decisions to experts and politicians in Brussels. Let us all take part. The more we are forced to become political decision-makers, the more we have to raise our own awareness of European issues. On that basis, shared new values will arrive. They can build on two European narratives, both of which have lost their power: One is the narrative of the first community of nations. After centuries of war, European nations made lasting, unprecedented peace. What a remarkable narrative! And two, Europe has struck a good balance between capitalism and the social good. The idea of the social market is the second European narrative.

The European: You already mentioned low levels of support for the Euro. If we actually asked the citizens of Europe, the EU might be history soon enough.
Etzioni: The strategy of not asking tough questions because we might not like the answers is exactly what is destroying the European Union. You can manipulate people to a certain point with legal and political language. But that’s over. Time for games is over. Now we actually have to engage with people and attempt to be persuasive. If we fail to be persuasive, we have to scale back. Frankly, I think we will scale back rather than push forward.

The European: What are persuasive arguments? An appeal to sentiments and identity, or something along the lines of tangible benefits and interests?
Etzioni: The shared European interest is the avoidance of war. You could make the argument that a decline of the EU would result in a return to nationalism and war. And there is also an economic argument to be made: Germany’s economy has benefitted from exports within the European Union, and markets have benefitted from German investments. The way to frame these arguments is not by drawing on national sentiments but by emphasizing the commonalities of citizens across Europe.

The European: What is wrong with the nation-state as the proper unit of analysis?
Etzioni: Unfortunately, the nation-state is still present in our thinking. All the talk about the death of the nation is fallacious. But we have indeed reached an unprecedented moment in human history: When Germany emerged as a state in the 19th century, it was not build from smaller nations. Today, we live in a world of nation-states; and the great experiment of our time is whether you can take 27 nations and build a community. It’s a very challenging project, precisely because the idea of the nation is very strong.

The European: We can presumably abort most experiments and simply return to business as usual. Giving up on the EU entails great costs.
Etzioni: Yes. We would close the borders again, we would lose the benefits of an economy of scale and of Europe’s contributions to the global landscape; we would be less able to provide a counterweight to the United States, Russia and China. We would give up many benefits of Europe. It is easy to overlook these positive aspects and abandon the European project. But when I am on an airplane and the engine fails, I am not simply going to jump out the door without a parachute.

The European: If the EU had to be scaled back to regain its footing, how would that change the footprint of Europe?
Etzioni: It is useful to use the image of being caught between two steps on a ladder. It would be preferable for the EU to move upwards towards a political union. But that’s very difficult, so the likely option might be a step down towards a pre-EU state. Either way, Europe has to take a step. I am 99 percent sure that it will not be a step towards integration.

The European: The crisis of Europe overlaps with further economic crises. Debt is mounting, rating agencies continue to downgrade larger banks and national economies. What lessons can be learned from the past years?
Etzioni: You have to regulate capitalism. When you let the markets roam free domestically or internationally to produce the greatest happiness, you are mistaken. I like to compare capitalism to nuclear energy: When it is contained in a strong container, it can do wonderful things. If it is allowed to run amok, it becomes destructive. And there are also important aspects of our common life that cannot be captured by the logic of the market: family ties, church groups, associations, clubs, schools, social movements, ethnic groups, voluntarism, actions based on bonds and values. Economic theory presents us with a very thin view of human nature. Liberals tend to look at each other and see human beings as economic beings. But the economy is not a self-sustaining system; it is a subsystem. It needs to be contained within a social, political and moral context.

The European: The idea of community interests has often been invoked to justify repression and exclusion. The states with good human rights records tend to be states on the liberal end of the spectrum, the peaceful history of Europe since World War II is also the history of liberal governance.
Etzioni: Communities exist everywhere. It is mistaken to think that they only exist in Communist China or in the left-leaning democracies of Latin America. One complaint that my colleagues from economics departments have about German workers is that they don’t like to move. These economists see that capital has become more mobile and respond by saying that labor needs to become more mobile as well. It does not work that way. Workers like to remain close to their families, to the burial sites of their ancestors, to their friends. That is true across the world, not just in individual countries. In Southern Europe, the Catholic Church is an important provider of a sense of community and social services. In Berlin, Turkish communities provide similar services. These communal ties are not dead. They can be oppressive but there is nothing inherent to communities that puts them at odds with human rights.

The European: Are you worried about the loss of religious attitudes – not because of a loss of faith but because of the structures they support?
Etzioni: I would rather talk about spirituality. Religion is one way to express it, humanitarianism or neo-romanticism are other ways. I can study Goethe and Kant, I don’t have to go to church. Historically, religion has played an important role but it is not irreplaceable. The task is to find meaning in life that goes beyond shopping.

The European: What’s wrong with consumerism?
Etzioni: It is empty. You can never be satisfied with what you have. The old idea of “less is more” still holds true. Up to a certain point, an increase in material wealth corresponds to an increase in wellbeing. But after that point it becomes a rat race. A new flatscreen TV comes out and you think that you’ll need to buy it. Why? Why do you need yet another gadget or smartphone or one of Martha Stewart’s polka dot towels? We are enslaving ourselves to the world of products. But none of them give any meaning to life.

The European: What gives meaning to life?
Etzioni: Three things: First, life is about building lasting relationships with family and friends. Second, spiritual pursuits like reading, listening to music, painting. And third, political action and volunteerism. Plato had it right when he talked about the Agora as the focal point of public life.

The European: We just came out of the annual Christmas season of charitable giving. Is that one way of acting on behalf of other people through monetary means – or a way to buy our way out of moral obligations towards others?
Etzioni: Suppose that you immigrated to the US from Cuba or Russia. Your immigrant community will embrace you, they will teach you English and tell you where to shop. They will help with your job search and console you when you are sad. None of this can be measured in monetary terms. We often call this the “social fabric”. Traditionally, it has been very strong in the US as a nation of immigrants. To have that kind of social interaction is enormously gratifying to the giver and the recipient. So I am not talking about altruism here, I am talking about mutuality. You are helped by others, and you help others in return.

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