Since the sixteenth century, the New World has been the name given by Europeans to the continents discovered on the western route to the Indies; ‘christened’ after one of their number, Amerigo Vespucci, shortly before they exterminated its indigenous population and imported vast numbers of African slaves to cultivate the land. But if the New World was in some ways, therefore, a projection of the Old, it has always claimed to be liberated from the weight of the latter’s history and traditions. Emancipated from the past and entirely focused on the future, the United States of America in particular appears to have a special talent for suppressing the past, which never fails to betray itself in the most ingenuous way—for example, by using the Hiroshima epithet of ‘ground zero’ for the target of the 9/11 attacks; thus making America’s earlier victims in Japan disappear for a second time, so to speak.
The Old World, by contrast, seems burdened by a history that is too heavy to bear. Caught between the remnants of a lost grandeur and the memory of inexpiable crimes, Europe veers from nostalgia to guilt. These sentiments meet in its difficulty in drawing on the past to confront the future; sacralizing the memory of yesterday’s atrocities, instead of reflecting on them to arrive at principles on which to act today. European governments restore old towns as tourist sites, rather than revitalizing—and extending to the banlieues—the urban impulse that gave rise to them in the first place.footnote1 Tradition is regarded as a relic to be protected, or alternatively as an obstacle to be removed; never in its etymological sense, as a bequest, a gift transmitted from the past to construct the future.
Perry Anderson is one of few thinkers to have an intimate knowledge of both the Old World and the New. He is, moreover, familiar with what Westerners persist in calling ‘the rest’ of it. The New Old World, his latest book, invites us to look again at ‘Old Europe’: not taking the view it has of itself—this is discredited from the outset by the image of Narcissus on the cover—but seeing it from a distance. The chapters dedicated to the ‘construction’ of Europe, which open and conclude the work, and to which we will limit ourselves here, are drawn primarily from Anglo-American sources.footnote2 Continental readers would be wrong to complain: it allows us to see our Old World through the eyes of the New. It would require a separate book to teach us how to see Europe through non-Occidental eyes; but this is not Anderson’s purpose. His impressive erudition notwithstanding, he is not giving us a definitive account or a panoptic view of Europe; rather he is offering it up for our consideration. His book has the attraction of making the reader feel intelligent, but it is also harsh, methodically stripping us of our received ideas. The best tribute to Anderson’s work is to consider the question of Europe with him, sketching out a discussion of what is unmistakably new about the Old World: the post-war attempt to construct political and institutional unity across the continent.
Anderson stresses at the outset that this construction has no equivalent elsewhere in the world. Yet if Jacques Delors could designate it an ‘unidentified institutional object’, the European Community did not fall out of the sky. It is the product of a long history combining the will of men and women with the weight of circumstance. Of all those who worked towards the unification of Europe following the Second World War, Anderson sees Jean Monnet as the true father of the European Community. He does not hide his liking for Monnet, a complex personality and free spirit with clear ideas, who led an adventurous life. The Europe Monnet envisaged was a federal one, inspired by but not copied from the usa. This vision was soon countered by that of De Gaulle, who foresaw a Europe made from nations, through organized solidarity between sovereign states. In Anderson’s view, the European project has engendered neither a federation nor an intergovernmental organization; rather it is the most fully realized form of Hayek’s ultraliberal ‘catallaxy’.footnote3 Anderson does not simply advance this thesis: he demonstrates its validity and heuristic power.
Like a secular version of faith in divine providence, belief in the spontaneous order of the markets entails a desire to protect it from the untimely interventions of people seeking ‘a just distribution’ which, according to Hayek, is nothing more than ‘an atavism, based on primordial emotions’. Hence the need to ‘dethrone the political’ by means of constitutional steps which create ‘a functioning market in which nobody can conclusively determine how well-off particular groups or individuals will be’.footnote4 In other words, it is necessary to put the division of labour and the distribution of its fruits beyond the reach of the electorate. This is the dream that the European institutions have turned into a reality. Beneath the chaste veil of what is conventionally known as the eu’s ‘democratic deficit’ lies a denial of democracy.