Revisioning Europe …

This blog is a written version of the talk prepared for London’s Thought Menu on Saturday 4 August 2012. The subject I was asked for was, ‘anything you are interested to talk about …’ well, this is what came out:

There can be little doubt that we have been condemned to live, to quote the Chinese, in interesting times. In an era between epochs. Moving from a comparatively fixed past to a comparatively fixed future, but for now with the political door distinctly ajar, and with the precise direction of exit not yet apparent. So these are bad times to be overly inflexible in approach, but a period of rich possibilities for creative and lateral imagination, and for generating thought that might even contribute to how we come out of the ‘current crisis’ (of which more below).

I can’t remember a period like it since the 1960s, when the last generation that believed that real change was on the way – in their case believing it to be ‘the revolution’ – manned actual barricades from Paris to Berlin in the hope of making a transformation materialize. Well in today’s Europe there may be few actual physical barricades against which people are leaning (though we do have Occupy and Los Indignados, and it would be interesting to know how many barricade panels have actually been erected by the police and security in the UK during the Olympics) but in other respects there are distinct similarities.

Today I want to talk about how this flux might affect Europe, and what I believe to be an opportunity for the first time in almost a century to rethink the concept of Europe, and to offer a vision of what Europe might not only be, but might return to being.

There are of course many Europes. There is a Greater Europe of some 40 countries which reaches from Atlantic Ireland and Portugal to Russia and the Urals; there is the European Union of 27 states, which itself contains a Eurozone of 23 countries, and of whom there may be a yet smaller Eurozone of a handful of essentially northern European countries. But when I speak of Europe today, I mean the big one, the stuff that is in a continent that doesn’t start with an A: that which is neither in Asia, Africa, Australasia nor America.

I’m going to start with a proposition, and two questions:

The proposition is that Europe as an idea, as a concept, as a proposal for a way of behaving, working, thinking, imagining has for some time been spiritually, morally and creatively bankrupt. Now it seems it is also literally bankrupt. And it is this literal bankruptcy that has really changed our options. Because it has forced onto absolutely everyone’s lips the language of change. All we know is, we can’t go on in the same way.

So we are being told by some of Europe’s most senior politicians and bankers that in order to get out of the mess that we have got into, Europe will need more integration. But these politicians mean only the recent financial mess, and the integration they intend is simply financial integration, ignoring the fact that our financial problems are greater than those flowing from the recent banking crisis, and a small proportion of other social problems that we have. The ‘current crisis’, is therefore simply language for economic problems so big that they threaten the status quo of a number of people who in the recent past have had significant resources and power, not the far more significant number who have been without resources and power for quite a while now.

So my proposition is that financial bankruptcy is simply a metaphor for a whole other series of bankruptcies. And what that metaphor has allowed us to do – as metaphors do – is to understand something else, and in this case that something else is that longer list of non financial bankruptcies: creative, spiritual, moral, emotional, civic. This list could probably be longer, but it should more than do as a start.

Now my first question is, how did we get here? How did we get into a hole quite so vast?

And secondly how do we get out of it? And in particular, what solutions could not only solve the banking crisis, but also make Europe a better place in the process?

Well the quick answer to that second question is the title of this talk: we get out of the hole by understanding better what it is that we are trying to protect; by first giving Europe a vision, and not simply a programme for financial development. Greeks and Germans can’t see eye to eye? Well of course they can’t, they have little shared vision. Without a credible vision, financial reforms, however fundamental, are simply sticking plaster. What we need first is a Re-Vision Statement for the continent.

But to return to the first question, how did we get here? Let me start, as everything does, with a story. What Werner Herzog has called the Cave of Forgotten Dreams. What was the opening story of Europe – its first narration, its myth if you like? Well there is a myth of course, and it’s called the myth of Europa.

Europa was a Cretan moon goddess adopted into Greek myth as a Phoenician princess, the daughter of King Agenor of Sidon. So Europa has a dream in which two continents in the form of women are arguing over her. Asia maintains that since Europa had been born in Asia she belongs to Asia. The other, nameless, continent, says that her birth was not important, and that the god Zeus will give her to that continent.

Later the following day Europa and her friends went off gathering flowers by the sea. Zeus was in attendance. He noticed Europa, and changing his appearance to that of a white bull, approached the group. The bull lay down in front of Europa. She was attracted to the bull, went to it, caressed it, and slid on to its back. At that moment, the bull charged off into the sea, and swam away. Looking back, Europa saw not only the receding shore, but also a procession that had joined them: Nereids on dolphins, Triton blowing his horn, and the sea god Poseidon. From this she realized that the bull must be a god. Zeus declared his love for Europa, as gods did with mortals before having their way, and took her to Crete where she eventually grew up.

What’s the meaning of all this? Well the myth probably derives from something that happened at the start of the Holocene era, say between10,000 and 2,000years ago, when the first big westward migrations began from the Asian steppe into the European plains and forests. It’s a classic identity story, asserting the independence of the new Europe, and articulating the fact that Europe arose out of Asia to create itself in a revolt, if you like, against the East. And since then Europe has often viewed the East – from Herodotus and Thucydides on – as the place from which it escaped, and therefore with a certain suspicion.

So what did this new Europe do that was so special?

Michael Polanyi, in his book Meaning, written with Harry Prosch, wrote of a particular process of thought that for him characterised this new continent:

“Modern thought in its widest sense emerged with the emancipation of the human mind from a mythological and magical interpretation of the universe. We know when this first happened, at what place, and by what method. We owe this act of liberation to Ionian philosophers who flourished in the sixth century BC, and to other philosophers of Greece who continued their work in the succeeding thousand years. These ancient thinkers enjoyed much freedom of speculation but never raised decisively the issues of intellectual freedom”.

Polanyi was referring to a new type of freewheeling thought then, a freed intelligence and intellectualism, which in a way was nothing more than a kind of liberated curiosity, but a curiosity so immense that it spawned some of the greatest thinkers and writings that we have ever had at one time and in one place.

Then came Rome and practical order. Large parts of Europe were Romanised and then de-Romanised. Christianity became the belief system of the continent, and the learning from Greece was slowly retained whilst being slowly refracted through the prism of the new religion. Around the 12th century AD a huge wave of classical texts entered Europe from Spain via the Arab conquests there. And then in the 14th and 15th centuries that process continued, accelerating with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Vincent Cronin, in The Florentine Renaissance, has described how in one year, 1423, one man alone (Giovanni Aurispa) arrived into the city with 238 Greek manuscripts. As he says:

” …immense horizons were suddenly opened. The Iliad and the Odyssey, the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the comedies of Aristophones, the odes of Pindar, the eclogues of Theocritus, the histories of Heroditus, Thucydides and Xenophon, the character studies of Theophrastus, the speeches of Demosthenes, the dialogues of Plato, the writings of Cynics, Stoics, and Neo-Platonists, the speculations of the Ionian Philosophers, the medical writings of Hippocrates and Galen, the geography of Ptolemy and Strabo – it was as if these masterpieces had been written all at once and suddenly given to Florence”. 

All of this amounted not only to something spectacular, but also to something particularly characteristic of Europe, and one of the most interesting processes in the development of humanity; what I want to call the ‘invention of the individual’. So Europe was a revolt against Asia that created a new realm of individualism. It is a world in which, to quote Protagoras “man is the measure of all things.” This to me is where a vision for Europe could begin. In very few other cultures has the imagination and creativity of the individual had such a large presence in society.

There is a flaw here (actually with a narration this speedy there are quite a number of flaws). The big trouble is, the last few hundred years of European history has in many respects been a slow documentation as much of the loss as well as the continuing confirmation of that individualism.

Looming large in such matters was the French Revolution, essentially political liberation connected to intellectual enslavement. The new French meritocracy was extremely efficient, but it has much to answer for. But I guess most people would agree that the all time low for this European descent came in the last century with the demotion of the individual into the worst sort of group mentalities: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, Milosevic, fascism, communism, nationalism, racial hatred, ethnic cleansing, anti Semitism, Islamaphobia: much of the story of 20th century Europe has been about the terrifying folly of this embarrassing catalogue of evil. It was back to Europa and hatred of the East, hatred … of the other.

To try to escape this fate, during the second half of the 20th century in Europe there was what is the most recent attempt to engineer a new type of Europe, and it is the failure of that attempt that we are today staring in the face. The new attempt looked far more civilised than what came before. Fewer armies but more bureaucracy. Fewer ideals but more powerful markets. And a gravy train of possibly epic proportions. In my opinion there is almost nothing in that new Europe worth salvaging.

Neil Acherson in a recent LRB article ‘Memories of Amikejo’ summed up this attempt with pinpoint accuracy:

“The first [element of a European union emerging from the rubble of 1945] was that a European union’s political strategy must be to construct an international framework – which would include Germany – to contain German strength. The second was that any union had to start with some deal over economic and industrial integration between France and Germany. The third was that the construction of Europe, institutional and economic, would have to be a top-down affair carried out by international technocrats under political protection. The notion that ‘the people of Europe’ should play an active part or be consulted was not entertained. After all, a European people did not exist. Maybe one day it would, making possible a true American-style federation based on democracy. But there was no point in waiting for that.”

Such a vision – if one could call it that – might have been relevant in the appalling ‘rubble’ of 1945. Not anymore. How can we think that these three principles are what should be dictating the agendas from Athens to Aarhus, from Berlin to Bosnia? Yet they seem to be.

So how do we find our way back? How do we revise Europe, reinvent, replace, revitalise, regenerate, revision it. Well one way would be to reject this ‘top-down affair carried out by international technocrats under political protection’. Forget in fact, conventional politics. We tried violence; that didn’t work. Then we tried money and that hasn’t worked. Now it’s time for something different; time for slow burn, bottom up social change. By all means lobby government. Keep at it, but forget the idea that on its own that process will bring positive and radical change. If anything what we need now is upward political management; we need to manage our governments.

One thing that has made such a prospect possible, really conceivable, is the forms of behaviour and communication that have flowed in the wake of the last quarter of a century of technological change. This is the real revolution that came in the wake of the political one that never came to any satisfactory fruition half a century ago. It’s given people a new peaceful but direct way of working together. I’m talking about the age of the Network.

One legacy of the previous epoch was the start of the replacement of hierarchies with networks, as Malcolm Gladwell articulated in a recent talk, as Google has made several fortunes on the back of, and as Paddy Ashdown’s recent TED ‘Global Power Shift’ talk  – maybe the most inspiring articulation of what this new landscape looks like that I’ve seen – focused on.

The network, as we know, changes the way that leadership functions, making it considerably more adaptable. Wherever you look the new way encourages leadership not just at the top – where, as we have seen time and again, it has a tendency to go stratospherically wrong – but at every point in an organisation. If you want to see if an organisation is one of the new or old types, simply look at the degree to which it operates with or without unlegislated shared leadership. It’s a test that never fails.

Today I’m talking at the Thought Menu, an ad hoc free entry series of talks with highly varied subjects put together to give people some thought nourishment in London during the London 2012 Olympic Games amidst the sea of media hysteria that has so far accompanied the Games. It’s  a good example of the new networked conversation. I actually haven’t the faintest idea who I am talking to; I’ve no idea where such a talk might lead. But, and here is the rub, as soon as I was asked to contribute I felt that this was a good thing to do, in an entirely speculative manner. There we go again: speculative behaviour, but not financially speculative. Finance is a metaphor that can take us almost anywhere, because for centuries now, it has been the fundamental road to power in the West. And my advice is, raid it, occupy the language; finance, as we know, costs money, but the words that describe it come free.

I want to spend the last few minutes of this talk on a couple of good examples of the new bottom up, slow burn, non technocratic, non government networked solutions.

First of all a music education programme that doesn’t come from Europe at all, but from Venezuela. Anyone who knows about El Sistema can skip the next paragraph.

El Sistema is a social development programme that uses playing together in orchestras as its vehicle. It was started in 1975 in a garage with 11 young musicians by an extraordinary man, Maestro José Antonio Abreu. Now, 37 years later, it has had over 2 million young people throught it, it currently has almost 400,000 young people playing at hundreds of music centres that are spread throughout every state of Venezuela in several hundred youth orchestras as well as everything from folk, jazz, rock, classical, baroque, paper and prison orchestras, and world class conductors and ensembles. But that doesn’t begin to describe what is special about El Sistema. Its real claim to fame is that it rescues the underpriviliged and gives them a new life of opportunity, inclusion and self esteem. As Abreu famously said, art began by the few for the few. Then it became by the few for the many. Now it is by the many for the many.

Not surprisingly El Sistema has begun to spread around the world, with more than 100 sistemas outside of Venezuela. The latest estimate I have seen suggests that there may be as many as a million children currently involved in Sistemas globally. Interestingly, from the point of view of the idea of leadership and vision, not one of the Sistemas outside of Venezuela was started by or is run by the Venezuelans. They have simply offered their model to anyone wants it.

So in Europe, there are currently Sistemas with upwards of 10,000 young people in about 15 countries, with about 5 more countries thinking about starting one as I speak. I expect that by the next Olympic Thought Menu in Rio in 2016 most European countries will have one. The question I began to look at five months ago when I founded Sistema Europe, is how can this project best work in Europe? and so we now have an umbrella organisation dedicating to helping all the Sistemas of Europe, both established and nascent.

Interestingly, out of that umbrella there recently emerged another initiative from three of Sistema Europe’s members, in England, Austria and Switzerland, and that is the new project Art.Change.Europe, the European Art for Social Change Alliance. The ACE alliance if you like. This is an alliance of people in Europe who believe in the power of art to help bring about positive social change. Anyone interested in learning more about the ACE alliance should look at the ACE Alliance call out survey at

The Art.Change.Europe Alliance could, as it develops, and if it makes contact with other organisations looking for positive social change, become part of a yet larger positive social change grouping. This is how the new Revisioned Europe could be, and perhaps is being, built. Alliances … groupings …: note that there is not much of the word organisation here. These are organisations but they are characterised by something very different from the old stratified IBM type of organisation.

Here are projects, from El Sistema to Sistema Europe and the ACE alliance, that are part of the spirit of a really new old Europe. It’s a bit like the difference between Apple and Android systems: Apple is the new IBM, although I suspect that it will be a while before we realise this. So in revisioning Europe my vote goes to Android rather than Apple. Android is messy, it allows all sorts of programmes, from the good and the bad to the beautiful and the ugly. But it frees and opens the process of making. One perfect closed iphone system, or dozens of differently specialised phones from a variety of makers. I know which looks more like Europe to me.

I want to finish with another quote from Ascherson in his recent LRB article:

“My own sense of the Europe we have is that it’s like a sponge, a living sponge of squashy texture and uncertain outline, a rich and beautiful collective creature into whose open pores countless visiting organisms swim or stay to breed. It will never be a clanking metallic superstate, capable of instant peace and war decisions.”.

Revisioning Europe. It’s in your hands. Thank you.


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