Keep calm and carry on(wards)

(The Global Crisis in Confidence, 25 Jul 2012)

Bram De Ridder ·

“If the euro explodes, Europe would explode. It’s the guarantee of peace in a continent where there were terrible wars.” With this statement Nicolas Sarkozy acted as spokesman for a new approach to the Eurozone crisis, one that hinted at the repetition of a dreadful European past. He was joined in this strategy by Angela Merkel and Herman van Rompuy, who respectively declared that “History has taught us that countries with a joint currency don’t go to war with one another”, and that “Together with the euro the Union will fall, and with the Union our greatest guarantee of peace”. Apart from the obvious rhetoric behind such statements, we can indeed wonder whether or not there is a danger that things are going to become a lot worse. Disturbing as this might seem, the historical record to which these politicians allude nevertheless allows us to argue that as long as we keep our reactions relatively moderate, a disaster surely does not need to come about.

Admittedly, on first sight it all looks very serious. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the entire world has been placed on its guard. After the US housing bubble burst in 2007, experts gradually converged on the same point: we are living in a period of crisis. This time the threat is not related to potential nuclear Armageddon but to what is feared to be the collapse of the global economic system. Despite the fact that every country is predicted to suffer the consequences, Europe and North America seem to experience a more serious feeling of unease. On top of their economic problems a crisis of confidence matured, a feeling that build on other doubts about the fundaments of western society. Some European countries struggled with their increasingly right-wing or nationalist election results. Current Republican preliminaries in the U.S. are increasingly determined by which candidate can afford to produce the most damaging television commercials. The European Union stumbled through the sovereign debt crisis, resulting in doubts about the entire project of integration. The climate conference in Durban had as its most important effect the withdrawal of Canada from the Kyoto agreements. After nearly a decade of fighting, foreign forces left Iraq and are leaving Afghanistan without any guarantees about the stability of both countries. And most recently the ‘occupy’ and ‘Indignado’ movements, which tried to deal with exactly these feelings of unease, were seen but not heard.

All this created, especially amongst the younger generations, a feeling of uncertainty about the structures that so far have constituted our world. Attempts to describe what this crisis in confidence is all about are very confused. Nobody seems able to grasp what is going on, in effect immobilizing people’s ability to react. Indeed, so far we only seemed capable of stabilizing these old structures without having a clue about what actually undermines them, let alone how to create change. This in turn makes people even more uncertain about the road ahead: will we ever be able to solve this, or will our own indecisiveness lead to an even worse crisis, maybe even one of the kind Sarkozy alluded to? In order to answer this question, we could try to have a look at history in a less demagogic way. By comparing the current crisis in confidence with other moments of widespread turmoil and uncertainty, we can widen our view and try to reassure ourselves. Historians however are by nature suspicious of such conduct: most (correctly) believe every situation to be unique and strongly oppose the idea that history can be turned into a guidebook for contemporary issues. Indeed, the past can’t be use as a ‘crisis in confidence for dummies’. Nevertheless, a way around this suspicion can be found if we considered history more as a novel: the story it tells will always be different from your own, but you might find it relevant none the less. You might even use it to create certain points of reference in order to assess your own position, much as generations of intellectuals (amongst whom historians) have done with literary classics. So by making the comparison between the tale of the past and the impression of the present, we might be able put our own ‘crisis’ into perspective.

Three periods might serve our purposes: the sixteenth century Reformation, the French Revolution and the interbellum period. Other crises might spring to mind, but these are often too constrained in time or magnitude. The chosen cases fit all of the definitions for a ‘crisis’ recorded in the Oxford Dictionary, descriptions which also suit our contemporary period. Each of these three periods was ‘a time of intense difficulty or danger’ and ‘a time when a difficult or important decision must be made’. They even fit the more medical explanation of a crisis being ‘the turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death’, a definition which people like Sarkozy seem to use when making statements as the one mentioned. Most importantly however, all three periods were not just mere crises; they were also moments when a serious lack of confidence was displayed.

Let us start with the Reformation. Again using a definition from the Oxford Dictionary, this was a crisis of confidence because it constituted a disruption of ‘the state of feeling certain about the truth of something’. When Martin Luther pinned his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church and the protestant movement took off, the European world became a whole less certain place. Roman Catholicism, until then considered to be the only possible version of the truth, suffered under a vicious ideological attack. Protestantism had its predecessors, but in the sixteenth century criticism of Rome seemed to have hit a serious reservoir of doubt. Decades of papal excesses, clerical infighting and widespread neglect of Christian values found in Luther a first focal point from which protest evolved in various directions. The spread of Protestantism however made sure that people in for example the Netherlands or France had to choose between two different divine truths, resulting in genuine uncertainty and social tensions. This ideological turmoil got caught up with political struggles, with radicals on both sides making a compromise impossible through acts such as the Iconoclastic Fury or the Bartholomew’s Night murders. Because of such events the moderates were squeezed out of the debate, finally resulting in bloody conflicts like the Eighty Year’s War.

The French Revolution was a crisis of confidence on a different account. A second definition of confidence is namely ‘the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something’. In 1789, the uproar was in the first place directed against the monarchy, an old institution that had ignored its responsibilities towards the people. Because of hunger and ill-treatment faith in and reliance on the capabilities of the king had been eroded. These feelings came to an outburst at the start of the Revolution, when people decided to act upon their feelings of unease about institutions that seemed to have failed them. The philosophies of Rousseau and Montesquieu provided the alternatives on which a new society could be build. However, after the initial phase of the revolution these ideas were interpreted in all sorts of ways, and the Republican movement radicalized rapidly. The results were ‘la Terreur’, a few years of chaos, and a government spinning totally out of control. Only when the most extreme ideas were removed and the awakened energies were directed outwards did some stability again take hold in France. Unfortunately for Europe this French stability came under the form of the Napoleonic Wars.

The third period to be considered is the interbellum era. This crisis of confidence started right after the first World War, or maybe even during the war. The conflict had shaken Europe onto its foundations by replacing its presumed enlightenment and benevolence with barbaric fighting and mass destruction. What essentially had been hit was Europe’s ‘feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities’. The reaction to this was either a strong belief in the principles of world government as forwarded by President Wilson, or a feeling of disillusionment and doubt. This last stance is perfectly illustrated by the Cambridge Scholar E.H. Carr. In The Twenty Years’ Crisis he tried to reconcile his old liberal beliefs with the bare workings of military power he had observed before and during the war. Added to this was uncertainty about the diminishing British imperial power, and the result is as much a classic of International Relations as an example of the general European crisis of confidence. On top of this moral disillusionment came the famous economic problems of Black Tuesday. The Weimar Republic, which had never generated much confidence anyway, could not cope with the situation and the German people chose the radical way forward. At the same time the other European countries remained highly insecure about their strength and eventually played the card of appeasement. The results of both policies need little elaboration.

Clearly, all of these tales fitting the ‘crisis-in-confidence genre’ have ended in major upheaval and suffering. So were Sarkozy, Merkel and Van Rompuy right to give us their warning? Do we need to brace ourselves for more rough times? I believe this is not necessarily the case. The only reason why these periods of uncertainty spun out of control was not because of the lack of confidence itself, but because additional factors intervened. The religious troubles of the sixteenth and seventeenth century got caught up with the political designs of for example Cardinal Richelieu. The French Revolution derailed because of ideological hardliners and was transformed by the ambition of Napoleon. The Second World War was mainly made possible by the rise of the figure of Hitler and the ideology he presented. The importance of such factors becomes clear if one notices that other crises of confidence have taken place without major destabilization. Vietnam was a knock-out blow for American self-assuredness, but because no additional events or tendencies got involved it nowadays can be considered a mere bump in the road. What we however should remember of these historical cases is that a crisis of confidence not necessarily results in serious turmoil, but that it creates a dangerous condition into which other problems can get entangled. In this respect is the current crisis already a grade worse than Vietnam because it combines a lack of confidence with economic turmoil.

Critical therefore will be our own behaviour: will we add something more to this already dangerous mix? Will we chose radical solutions should they be presented to us? As all three cases show, this is the worst possible choice we could make. We have to remain wary and critical of tendencies such as observed in our three ‘novels’. But as the policy of appeasement has also demonstrated, being careful shouldn’t mean being conservative or taking only small measures. Things do have to take a new direction under the current circumstances; we only have to make sure that the cure is not worse than the disease. Current generations have increasingly taken as self-evident the values on which our society is build, or have at least lost feeling of what they can cost. This getting out of touch might still correct itself, but the risks are great if it doesn’t. This makes it all the more important that we keep our guard up and avoid getting carried away by persons, ideologies or ambitions playing on our uncertainty whilst we are building the road ahead. Human agency therefore remains critical: even today we still hold the future in our own hands, for better or for worse.