In the essay “Slouching towards Byzantium”, Conquest takes a look at the present day in the context of the past. Assuming that the enemies of the Western political order have, for the moment, been defeated, or at least contained, he asks, are there any other dangers that augur the possibility of a negative future? His answer is “unfortunately, yes.”
In Europe, far more than in America, the civic order is now under threat from centralizing trends which have their origin in post-Rousseau social and political thought and its implementation in political practice, which while it “liberated” the individual from communal ties, at the same time increased the dependence of individuals on the state. He quotes the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet (1913-1996), who, echoing Tocqueville, pointed to the error involved in this type of thinking: “Centrality of sovereignty does not lead logically to the centralization of administration in public affairs… Decentralization of administration is not merely feasible technically; it is a prime necessity of free culture.”
Unfortunately, Conquest continues, a convergence of interests between managerialist, technocratic conservatives and socialists theoretically committed to the state-centred model of government has led to the emergence of a body such as the European Union, which encourages the growth of “an ever more rigid bureaucracy and an ever more constricted mentality”:
One thinks of the classical world’s decline into Byzantium – and, for example, the closing of the Academy in Athens in 529 A.D. and the earlier abolition of the Olympic Games. It is doubtless unfair to take this well-known instance. And Byzantium was better than most polities of its time. But the mind, outside internecine theology, had by earlier standards fallen low, become desiccated. Instead of Aristotle, for example, we find synodic records described by Edward Gibbon as a mass of “nonsense and falsehood”. Nor was this mental decline offset by the exemplary codification of the law that accompanied it.
Conquest sees the long-term prospect offered by such intrusive and stultifying corporatism as “pink Fascism”:
There is no need of a monolithic party if the effective apparat is in general agreement, and makes the same assumptions. The totalitarian attempt to control all aspects of life was untenable in the long run. A far greater leeway on small matters, even disagreement on tactics, is much more viable.Indeed, the Byzantium analogy, the essay suggests, may actually be inadequate and possibly even misleading: for “Brussels is not Byzantium”: the EU does not appear to be viable in the longer run. Its basis is the following:
1) It is an attempt, by a stratum that needs, and no longer has, a justificatory “Idea” like “Socialism”, to synthesize one.
2) It is an attempt to build a state from populations that have none of the qualifications for nationhood, neither historical nor ethnic.
3) It is an extravagantly expensive bureaucratic nightmare. In pursuit of a supposed high and even transcendent aim, it pursues a vast over-regulation of human life.
4) It is a project imposed from above, and maintained by misrepresentation.
5) It is divisive of the European culture, omitting the Europes overseas.
With the help of journalist, author and National Review editor David Pryce-Jones, Conquest describes the political and mental stultification induced by the bewildering structure of the EU, “in which there is no link between its institutions and the freedom they are supposed to ensure”:
At the apex are a president and twenty commissioners, appointed to office by national governments in a process invisible to the public. Not elected, they cannot be dismissed. The commission, and its subordinate councils of ministers drawn from national countries, have executive and legislative powers, and some judicial ones as well. These politicians are accountable to nobody but themselves. Here is the only legislative body in the democratic world that meets in secret.
With its “nearly thirty-thousand civil servants, spread over two hundred buildings, with about seven hundred standing committees” the Leviathan that is the EU claims the authority to regulate the lives of its victims, but is unable to regulate itself – the whole organization is riddled with corruption: several billion dollars of official funds go missing every year. The EU also represents connivance between bureaucracy and what Conquest calls “ochlocracy”, or mob rule – its tolerance for mass disruption and street violence is notorious. Examples range from protests on issues such as free railway passes to the large-scale anti-capitalist demonstrations of recent years. In relation to the latter, Conquest draws a parallel here with the National Socialists and Communists of the 1920s and 30s – in 1933 the Communist street fighters mostly went over to the Nazis, “doubtless partly by habit.”
Conquest sees the future of Europe as a bleak one. Above all, it is “the downgrading of the mind, the advance of political stultification” that is the real and enduring trouble – the EU is only a part of the problem, for the same trends can be observed on a global scale. Europe is, however, now the most vulnerable part of the developed world from this point of view. As an example of how countries can be ruined by their rulers, the author points to Argentina, where disaster was triggered by “rulers who became or remained popular by giving their subjects more than the country could afford.” He sees a similar scenario in present-day Germany.
The essay concludes on a warning note: as the section of society that is dependent on the state grows larger and larger, it becomes difficult for elected governments to maintain economic, and even social security:
The downward slope, unless interrupted, can scarcely lead to anything but corporatism. The only probable interruption would be due to the buildup of resentment against the system. That is to say, this etatism may itself produce the catastrophe from which it purports to save us. Let us hope we survive.
See also: Dragons and Democracy
Dragons and Democracy - II
Dragons and Democracy - III