Commentary. If democracy works, it works as a virtuous circle, because it promotes the development of the maturity of its citizens, something it desperately needs. But if this process becomes jammed, the circle becomes a vicious one, and democracies commit suicide.

The United States of Europe: a political structure with a philosophical foundation

There are few things more discouraging than the state of the public debate on the European elections. Two ideas of Europe will face off against each other—however, given the fact that the debate has been reduced to a tug-of-war between more sovereignty and more integration and solidarity, these ideas both show extreme intellectual poverty.

That’s a shame. Because today, the European Union, seen as the long, slow process of the formation of a federation of a United States of Europe, is, at least in terms of possibility, the largest and most innovative political laboratory in the world. It represents the actual ongoing construction of an edifice whose architect has been political philosophy: that is, the universal soul animating political thought, which is, or at least tends towards, cosmopolitanism.

In effect, cosmopolitanism is the form of a civilization based on reason, which means, simply put, our ability to ask others and ourselves “why?” for every action and every statement—and to ask this question, in particular, of those who are making decisions that affect the life and the fate of everyone. Asking for reasons and justification is the most universal thing there is: it is, we may say, something constitutive of the human mind, of human language itself, the only form of language among all animals that possesses the characteristic tone and symbol of the interrogative: “Why? Why are you doing this to me? Why do I have to suffer this?” Being born in a desert or in a region plagued by massacres and war is not a justification, but an accident: the accident of birth.

The ability to ask “why?”—and to say “It’s not fair”—is universal, and we see it manifesting early on in every human child, wherever he or she was born. Can the accident of birth determine the fate of a human being? And should it? This is the final aim of the demand for justice, and therefore the proper object of practical reason. Every injustice is tied to the accident of birth: this is why there is no expression that is more prescriptive and less descriptive, or more rational and less factual, than “born free and equal in dignity and rights,” which is applied to human beings in the first article of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Equal) dignity is the first of the six values ​​around which the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000) has been structured. Dignity and Justice enclose within themselves and represent the fulfilment of the other four values, which stand for the successive generations of human rights and the ages of their conquest: freedoms (civil rights), equality (political rights), solidarity (social rights), and, finally, the right to have rights: the right of citizenship. As a principle, the latter is something that belongs to humans as such, not just to Italians, or Turks, etc.

In this way, the soul of Europe is essentially cosmopolitan, born from the most enlightened idea that has come out of modernity: the idea that, in the realm of the geopolitical jungle of might makes right, governed by power relations and precarious balances, lawfulness should rule instead. And not in the form of a single Leviathan, but in a form that would disarm all would-be Leviathans, namely federated republics that are tied primarily by the universality of rights opposed to accidents of birth. This is the basic meaning of the beginning of the Ventotene Manifesto:

“Modern civilization has taken as its specific foundation the principle of liberty which says that man is not a mere instrument to be used by others, but that every man must be an autonomous life center. With this definition in hand, all those aspects of social life that have not respected this principle have been placed on trial in the grand, historical process that has begun.”

In my opinion, the depth of this version of political liberalism has not been understood well enough. I call it “political personalism,” using the latter term with a meaning completely independent from those it has been given so far. It comes from an insight found in a letter that Spinelli wrote to Wilhelm Röpke (which would later inspire Konrad Adenauer) on Nov. 24, 1943:

“When I went to prison, I was an orthodox Marxist, full of the fervor and intolerance that is characteristic of all those who believe they have found the key that unlocks all the secrets. (…) In prison, I was able to study, to think, to look with a certain detachment at the things of human beings. My historical studies and the contemporary events in Italy, Germany, Russia made me realize that there was something very important in our civilization that threatened to collapse, and which must be protected and rescued at all costs: something that you have called ‘Persönlichkheitszivilisation’” (‘personalistic civilization’).

Is ours a civilization of the person? We should look at what is happening around us. How far has a democracy fallen in which it is no longer allowed to display a banner with a message as innocuous as “let’s remain human” at a public event, if the people who happen to be in charge don’t like it? It’s not a good side of humanity that is being expressed in the screams of the leaders and of the people taking part in such demonstrations. The founding fathers who initiated the process of creating a constitution of the United States of Europe knew this side of humanity well—but the process has unfortunately become stuck.

Democracy, with all its insufficiencies, is more than just a system of government: it is the political manifestation of a humanistic civilization. It is the means to allow the widest possible set of people the effective exercise of existential and political sovereignty: to allow them a responsible freedom, respectful of humanity in themselves and in the other, while remaining irreducibly diverse, because they are all individuals, incarnated, rooted, with their own passions—as well as rational and moral beings.

In other words, if democracy works, it works as a virtuous circle, because it promotes the development of the maturity of its citizens, something it desperately needs. But if this process becomes jammed, the circle becomes a vicious one, and democracies commit suicide. The “non-removal” of obstacles to human development—i.e. not only economic, but also moral and civil—of large social categories is threatening democracies with illiberal degeneration, and our humanistic civilization with implosion.

“Italians first!” is the cry that best expresses the beginning of such an implosion, and it is clear evidence of the correctness of Spinelli’s intuition, according to whom the resumption of the unfinished process of the practical implementation of the humanism process requires a revolution in the idea of ​​democracy itself: the dissociation of the concept of sovereignty from that of the nation, and the construction of a supranational democracy in place of an inter-governmental organism which would be as impotent in the face of nationalism as when confronted with multinational forces.

Perhaps too little has been understood, even today, of the tragic nature of the choice by the European left to side against European federalism, and then to be only marginally pro-European. And too little has been understood of the tragedy that is our contemporary blindness toward the necessary cosmopolitan horizon of any just society.

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