The ‘Holy Trinity’ of the liberal order are Democracy (free elections and majoritarian rule), Human Rights and the Rule of Law. I use the term ‘Holy Trinity’ only with limited irony. Since, like the real Holy Trinity, the three are one: Majority governance without the constraints of human rights and the rule of law is but a tyranny of the majority. Human rights without effective rule of law are but slogans. The rule of law, outside a democracy is simply the most effective instrument of authoritarianism and worse. That is why so called ‘illiberal democracy’ is an oxymoron. It is no democracy at all.
There is a second sense in which I use the metaphor of ‘Holy Trinity’. These three values represent the bedrock of our civil faith, the reason we fought to overturn both fascism and Communism in the twentieth Century.
But whence, then, the disillusionment with these noble values?
It is oft forgotten that these are peculiar values in the sense that they are mostly but conditions for the Good Life (in the ancient Greek and Biblical sense). Democracy is a ‘technology’ of governance, flawed but the best we have. But it gives no instruction as to the content that has to be put in place in the act of governance. A democracy of evil people will be an evil democracy even if enjoying majoritarian support, does not violate human rights and respects the rule of law. Human Rights guarantee our liberties but give no instruction as to how one should exercise such liberties. One can use freedom of expression, for example, to be vile. One can be mean spirited, egoistic, hard hearted and lacking in charity and mercy and yet not violate anyone’s human rights. And provided our laws do not violate fundamental human rights, they too, can be uncaring, socially unjust, draconian and yet the rule of law would still be observed.
In this sense, then, the ‘Holy Trinity’ are but a framework to be filled. They are like the oxygen of physical life. You need it to live, but it does not determine how your life will be lived.
What has been, generally speaking, the governance policy content that has been put into this framework in the Post WWII decades by the European political consensus, and what has been left out?
It has been primarily material: Prosperity. The Treaty of Rome expresses this enduring concern very well: The [European] Community shall have as its task, by establishing a common market and progressively approximating the economic policies of Member States, to promote throughout the Community a harmonious development of economic activities, a continuous and balanced expansion, an increase in stability, an accelerated raising of the standard of living and closer relations between the States belonging to it.
The Treaty of Nice further elaborated this concern by stating: The Community shall have as its task, by establishing a common market and an economic and monetary union and by implementing common policies or activities referred to in Articles 3 and 4, to promote throughout the Community a harmonious, balanced and sustainable development of economic activities, a high level of employment and of social protection, equality between men and women, sustainable and non-inflationary growth, a high degree of competitiveness and convergence of economic performance, a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment, the raising of the standard of living and quality of life, and economic and social cohesion and solidarity among Member States.Footnote 2
The magic square of development of economic activities, expansion (growth), increased stability (low inflation) and raising standard of living—the Canon of Ordo-Liberalism—has been the bedrock of European politics for decades. This is mainly what the main parties argue about—the best way to achieve such: Fiscal austerity or otherwise and how much? And what policies of redistribution are the best to ensure prosperity with social justice. There are some notable theorists of democracy who claim that the essence of democratic governance is but the issue of redistributive politics. Christian democracy and social democracy, until recently occupying the central space of European politics shared this same bed.
Our record in this sphere is both spectacular and dismal. These politics, the different political divisions between the center left and center right notwithstanding, has resulted in remarkable overall growth in prosperity and the European construct has played a critical role in such. But these politics, the different political divisions between the center left and center right notwithstanding, has also seen a remarkable growth in the uneven distribution of the deserts of this political project and of, more recently economic globalization. It is a common place that as a result of this gap, a growing segment of the population has felt left out of this success story.
A blind spot of Ordo-liberalism which under different guises and labels has so dominated our political landscape is that it regards the human person, in as much as politics is concerned, as Homo Economicus. But Not on Bread Alone doth Man Liveth. When one, explicitly and implicitly, places Prosperity at the center of your politics, one is transmitting a value, a measurement of ‘worth’ and of Respect. Just think of the respect that is accorded those States that ‘make it’ in these terms: The Germanys and Americas and Switzerlands of this world. And the same becomes true at the social and individual human level. The gap thus produces not only a resentment at the material unequal distribution of prosperity, but a deep sense of ‘not making it’ in a society which values ‘making it’ above all, an attendant sense of disrespect.
One cannot overstate the centrality of respect (and the lack of it) to human wellbeing. If we consider how, in Europe, in our various constitutions and charters of rights we have placed the inviolability of dignity as our primary human right, one can understand how potent will this disrespect be, real and perceived, in the political arena. The sense of material inequality pales in comparison to the sense of dignitarian inequality and deprivation. It is no answer to say that personally one does not disrespect persons because of their economic condition, if the system, as a whole, privileges so much material well-being and prosperity.
Our centrist politics are characterized not only by what has been placed at the center but by what has been removed.
In the critique of liberalism by such as Michael Sandel and Michael Walzer to name but two, a central argument concerns the very focus of liberalism on the individual and his or her liberties. Yet, the human person is always ‘situated’, sociality is integral to the sense of self. And I would add I would postulate—that as part of the very human condition there is a quest to give ‘meaning’ to one’s life in the sense that the sum of one’s existence not be limited to self-betterment—the engine of the free market—but will have some meaning that transcends such. And indeed it is the social condition that often provides this because it is only in sociality that altruism may be practiced and experienced. Moreover, the social situates the individual within a collective identity; it is commonplace that it is the collective identity which contributes to the sense of meaning that goes beyond the self.
In the pre-War era the two institutions which were most prevalent in this respect were national patriotism and religious faith. People found deep meaning in both. It is important to state, immediately, that the understanding of both is not exhausted, not even remotely so, by the meaning that was given to them in that era.
For reasons that are quite understandable, the very word ‘patriotism’ became ‘unprintable’ after the War notably in Western Europe. Fascist regimes (among others), by abusing the word and the concept, had ‘burned’ it from our collective consciousness. And in many ways this has been a positive thing. But we also pay a high price for having banished this word—and the sentiment it expresses—from our psycho-political vocabulary. Since patriotism also has a noble side: the discipline of love, the duty to take care of one’s homeland and people, of one’s neighbour; of accepting our civic responsibility toward the community in which we live. In reality, true patriotism is the opposite of Fascism: ‘We do not belong to the State as fascism claims; it’s the State that belongs to us’ and we are responsible for it and what happens to it which is the essence of democratic republicanism.
But the baby—a liberal and enlightened sense of national belongingness and pride—was thrown out with the bathwater of pre-War odious atavistic nationalism.
For reasons which I will not elaborate here, Europe, with probably the exception of Poland and a handful of others, underwent in the post war politics a rapid process of secularization. Not only did Laicite become prevalent and normative, but with time it has, as I argue in my book A Christian Europe,Footnote 3 been accompanied by distinct Christophobic manifestations.
This is obviously not a call for evangelization. I never judge a person by their faith or lack of it. I know religious persons who are awful human beings and atheists who are noble. But as a society we have paid two heavy prices for this process. First, we have lost a voice which was at one time universal and ubiquitous. A voice in which the emphasis was on duty and responsibility and not only rights, on personal responsibility in the face of what happens to us, our neighbours and our society. It has been replaced by an instinctive appeal to public institutions as both the source of all ills and as the remedy. In Church you do not hear about your entitlements from the State and others but on your duty towards society and others. No politician today in Europe could or would repeat the famous Kennedy Inauguration speech of 1960—Don’t ask what your country can do for you but what you can do … . Etc. The Citizenship chapter of the European Treaties are a poignant example. They speak of rights and duties which the citizen enjoys and owes—but then no duties are ever mentioned.
Duty and responsibility—towards others and not only ourselves and our families—are empowering as citizens and human beings. They, like identity, are meaning giving. And, of course, with a laique culture which consigns religions to the private sphere at best, and disdains it at worst, those to whom religion is an important point of reference feel marginalized, at times disrespected and under (non physical) threat.
Our commitment to rights, as has been pointed out by many is not, too, without ambiguities. We’ve accepted, both at the national and international levels, a serious and irreversible obligation rooted in our Constitutions to protect the fundamental rights of individuals, even against the political tyranny of the majority. At a more general level, our political-juridical vocabulary has become a discussion of legal rights. The rights of, say, a German citizen are protected by our Courts, and, above all, by the Constitutional Court. But also by the Court of Justice of the EU in Luxembourg, and—again—by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It’s enough to make your head spin. And this is true for the other Member States.
Just think about how common it has become, in the political discourse of today, to speak more and more about ‘rights.’ To try and turn any political action into a legal action about rights, and entitlements. And using the courts, again and again, to achieve our political objectives. It’s enormously important. I would never want to live in a country in which fundamental rights are not effectively defended. But here too—as with the banishment of patriotism—we pay a dear price. Actually, we pay two prices.
First and foremost, the noble culture of rights does put the individual at the center, but little by little, almost without realizing it, it turns him or her into a self-centered individual. It not only atomizes the individual since most fundamental right battles poses an individual and his or her liberties against the collective good but it also ‘objectifies’ him or her—as an object of someone else’s power. The (justified) concern with human rights at the European level gives some cover to the loss of power resulting from our flawed democratic process.
And the second effect of this ‘culture of rights’—which is a framework all Europeans have in common—is a kind of flattening of political and cultural specificity, of one’s own unique national identity.
For the most part ‘Identity’ politics are considered an evil. And when identitarianism turns into atavism and worse, it is an evil. But Identity, individual and collective, like patriotism, have, too, a noble dimension. The notion of human dignity—(in the secular version it is part of human ontology; in the religion version it flows from the fact that we have been created in the image of God) contains, at one and the same time, two facets. On the one hand, it means that we are all equal in our fundamental human dignity: rich and poor, Italians and Germans, men and women, Gentile and Jew. To assign more worth to the life of one individual over another, is an assault on our dignity. On the other hand, recognizing human dignity means accepting that each of us is an entire universe, distinct and different from any other person. To treat any of us as fungible with others is an equal assault. And the same is true for each of our societies. To deracinate the cultural specificity of each of our nations and societies is, in this sense, to compromise an essential element of our dignity. When this element of diversity is diminished or derided, we rebel.
And since with only small differences of nuance our supreme value as Europeans are our belief in the Holy Trinity of Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law (and thankfully this is the case) the specificities of our identities are seen to be devalued.
The ‘Holy Trinity’ remain indispensable, a ‘sacred’ dimension of our civil life. But I have argued that they are accompanied by a vacuum as regards the politics of meaning which I had ostulated as indispensable to the human condition.
The vacuum thus created has not been filled by mainstream politics, and the ‘populist’ turn at least in some appreciable measure has been a response to such. Of course it is tragic if the vacuum is filled by a return to pre-War versions of atavistic identity but the pretense that all is well if only the material needs of the human person are satisfied—as in Clinton’s famous adage ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’ is terribly reductionist and as wrong in America as it has proven to be in Europe.
Mussolini understood this perfectly and his Family, Church, Nation slogan had immense mobilizing power for just this reason—it catered to the politics of meaning. But it has to be emphasized again and again—different imaginaries exist. There can be, if we are to fasten on those three social institutions—and they are not the only ones—a concept of Patria and patriotism which is neither fascist nor atavistic but inclusive and celebrating diversity richness; there can be family which is not patriarchal but progressive and egalitarian and there are forms of our classical religions which are non-hierarchical but communitarian. This is not the place to elaborate on these but simply to remind us that a politics which and a social telos which reduces men and women to homo economicus are bound to produce the backlash we are experiencing today.