The party system that emerged from the French Revolution has often been copied. But only in Europe does this system also serve an ideological competition that subjects the sociopathological results of capitalist modernization to an ongoing political evaluation. This fosters the sensitivity of citizens to the paradoxes of progress. The contest between conservative, liberal, and socialist agendas comes down to the weighing of two aspects: Do the benefits of a chimerical progress outweigh the losses that come with the disintegration of protective, traditional forms of life? Or do the benefits that today’s processes of ‘creative destruction’ promise for tomorrow outweigh the pain of modernity’s losers?
In Europe, those who have been affected by class distinctions, and their enduring consequences, understood these burdens as a fate that can be averted only through collective action. In the context of workers’ movements and the Christian socialist traditions, an ethics of solidarity, the struggle for ‘more social justice’, with the goal of equal provision for all, asserted itself against the individualistic ethos of market justice that accepts glaring social inequalities as part of the bargain.
Contemporary Europe has been shaped by the experience of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and by the Holocaust – the persecution and the annihilation of European Jews in which the National Socialist regime made the societies of the conquered countries complicit as well. Self-critical controversies about this past remind us of the moral basis of politics. A heightened sensitivity to injuries to personal and bodily integrity reflects itself, among other ways, in the fact that both the Council of Europe and EU made the ban on capital punishment a condition for membership.
A bellicose past once entangled all European nations in bloody conflicts. They drew a conclusion from that military and spiritual mobilization against one another: the imperative of developing new, supranational forms of cooperation after the Second World War. The successful history of the European Union may have confirmed Europeans in their belief that the domestication of state power demands a mutual limitation of sovereignty, on the global as well as the nation-state level.
Each of the great European nations has experienced the bloom of its imperial power. And, what in our context is more important still, each has had to work through the experience of the loss of its empire. In many cases this experience of decline was associated with the loss of colonial territories. With the growing distance of imperial domination and the history of colonialism, the European powers also got the chance for reflexive distance from themselves. They could learn from the perspective of the defeated to perceive themselves in the dubious role of victors who are called to account for the violence of a forcible and uprooting process of modernization. This could support the rejection of Eurocentrism, and inspire the Kantian hope for a global domestic policy.
Source of English translation: Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, “February 15, Or, What Binds Europeans Together: Plea for a Common Foreign Policy, Beginning in Core Europe,” in Old Europe, New Europe, Core Europe: Transatlantic Relations after the Iraq War. Verso: London and New York, 2005, pp. 4-12.
Source of original German text: Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas, “Unsere Erneuerung. Nach dem Krieg: Die Wiedergeburt Europas,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 31, 2003, p. 33f.