Contribution to the Engelsberg Seminar 2007: The Future of the West

The Future of a European Gemeinschaft


THE FIRST thing to say about the future of a European Gemeinschaft is that there is no such thing as a European Gemeinschaft and there never has been. That is, not if you by the term Gemeinschaft mean what the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies meant when in 1887 he coined his famous dichotomy Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.1
So what did Ferdinand Tönnies mean by Gemeinschaft – and by Gesellschaft too for that matter?
First of all he did not mean them as two mutually excluding forms of society, but as two more or less distinct forms of human relationship present in all human societies and existing in continuous interaction with each other.
Human relations in a Gemeinschaft are characterised by being primarily an end in themselves. They may be based on love, friendship, neighbourliness or blood, but also on a wider range of shared memories and experiences, as well as common religious, professional or intellectual traditions and affinities. It is a relationship that “by its very essence [is of an] earlier origin than its subject or members”, writes Tönnies, implying that Gemeinschaft relationships are long-term in character transcending the horizon of a single individual.2 Relations in Gemeinschaft are driven mainly by what Tönnies calls natural will, or Wesenwille, in contrast to relations in Gesellschaft that are mainly driven by rational will, or Kürwille.
Do ut es, (I give, so that you will give), or what evolutionary psychology terms reciprocal altruism, is a characteristic feature of Gesellschaft relations. To get something from someone else is the end, the relationship a means to that end.3 The emblematic form of a Gesellschaft relation is the formal agreement or contract. The emblematic form of a Gemeinschaft relation is the informal duty or obligation. Gemeinschaft relations are prevalent in a family or a tribe or a clan or a religious sect or an ethnic nation or any other social circle or environment tight and warm enough to make us act out of duty, devotion and dependence. Gesellschaft relations become prevalent in societies where trust is increasingly de-personalized and based on self-interested agreements. Tönnies linked the expansion of Gesellschaft at the expense of Gemeinschaft to the emergence of modern capitalist society, which, he wrote, “is the most distinct form of the many phenomena represented by the sociological concept of Gesellschaft”.4
But since no society according to Tönnies, could be based on Gesellschaft relations alone, the emerging capitalist or middle-class (bürgerliche) society of the nineteenth century created emotional obligations and loyalties to what were basically Gesellschaft institutions and relations. It had to make “the consciousness of the Gesellschaft gradually [becoming] the consciousness of an increasing mass of the people.”5 Consciousness, or Bewussttsein, here obviously implying something more and something else than calculated reason or rational will.
This is also what seems to have happened later when the Gesellschaft of capitalist society became embedded in the Gemeinschaft of the modern nation state. In some cases it took wars, the moving of borders and people – and even the killing of people –to achieve this modern symbiosis of Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft. In other cases, such as Sweden, the process was mainly peaceful and popular and produced perhaps the most successful example – the people’s home or folkhemmet – in which the state assumed the role of a benevolent pater familias, trusted with universal welfare and commanding far-reaching and largely unwritten duties and obligations from all. Membership of the “family” had, of course, to be based on common criteria, clearly determining who should belong and who should not, who should be trusted with a key and who should not. In that sense Sweden was no different from other nation states, only blessed with a more continuous, homogeneous and less contested past.

The nation state as Gemeinschaft
There is little doubt that the nation-based welfare states of Europe largely owe their triumph to the successful combination of their constituents’ loyalty to their nation as a warm and emotional circle of Gemeinschaft and their loyalty to their nation as a cool and principled system of Gesellschaft. The institutions of democracy have been defined as much by the craving for collective belonging, for a common “we” in a world of “others”, as by the ideals of the universal marketplace.
There is good reason to believe that this nation state democracy is facing a wholly new challenge as cultural and ethnic diversity grows, and as globalisation, migration, borderless communications and other forces tend to tear apart old allegiances and communities. Even in seemingly mature nation-state democracies where the warmer elements of nationhood had appeared safely submerged in a cooler system of justice, like Denmark or Holland, we have witnessed the emergence of new distinctions between “we” and “them”; between those who naturally belong and those who don’t; between those to whom we can extend our emotional obligations and those to whom we cannot; between one Gemeinschaft against another. Even in the most principled democracies we can now imagine points of conflict where justice for all breaks down into loyalty to one’s own.
The step from loyalty to family or tribe to the larger loyalty of a national community or a democratic nation state is not an obvious one. History knows many forms of society where tribal loyalties have remained the highest loyalties possible and where tribal feuds and fortresses still determine the limits of justice. History also tells us that a wider loyalty, once established, may quickly dissolve into narrower loyalties again.

Why the United States is a nation state Gemeinschaft . . .
Some argue that the US is a case of a democratic and capitalist society that functions and thrives without a nation state Gemeinschaft; that American democracy is basically founded on what Tönnies have called rational will, on the voluntary allegiance by all to a common contract, and therefore on the manifest irrelevance of historical, national, cultural, ethnic, religious and other Gemeinschaft-based loyalties.
I believe that this is a myth; a founding myth to be sure, and surely with some basis to it, but a myth nevertheless, largely serving to conceal the fact that America, too, has imbued its rationally designed Gesellschaft with a large measure of Gemeinschaft. Unlike other nation states, however, deriving their Gemeinschaft mainly from the past, the American nation state has derived its Gemeinschaft mainly from the future, basing it on the mythology of a common dream and a common mission. It is the attachment to the promise of what you or your children will attain tomorrow that shapes your emotional loyalty to the American Gesellschaft of today. This attachment is constantly stirred and nourished by popular quasi-religious ceremonies and rituals, most of them involving flag-raising and flag-waving, all meant to celebrate and give thanks to a society that provides each and every American with the never-ending opportunity to take part in a common future. The strong emotions of Patriotism –or Nationalism, if you wish – that this Gemeinschaft of the future so far has been able to create and foment, well compares to, and today far exceeds, the discredited and defeated nationalisms of the European nation states, which were all based on Gemeinschafts of the past.
However, there are groups in America for whom Gemeinschafts of an American past are still pervasive, and for whom the Gemeinschaft of the American future consequently has difficulties in taking hold:
• The Civil War left in its wake a Southern, separatist, racist, nationalist, honour-driven and isolationist form of Gemeinschaft that for long has proved resistant to the melting pot Gemeinschaft of a larger American nation.
• The long memory of slavery has had a lasting impact on generations of African-Americans, creating a Gemeinschaft of outsiders, or at least a subculture that still seems more resistant than others to the incentives and promises of the American future.
• The Native populations of North America are still clinging to what was once taken from them in the name of the American future.
Nevertheless, by successfully creating a national Gemeinschaft based on myths of a common future rather than a common past, American society has become more accepting of social change, individual success and failure, ethnic, cultural and religious difference, large-scale immigration, social and economic gaps. More accepting, certainly, than the nation states of Europe, and also more accepting, I think, than the European Union, or rather the union of European nation states, is ever likely to become.
Whether the US will retain these features very much depends on whether it can sustain its unique combination of Gesellschaft with Gemeinschaft, of a society organised by the Gesellschaft of the present with a society bonded by the Gemeinschaft of the future.

… and why Europe is not
For Europe the situation is quite different. Not only has Europe never been a Gemeinschaft, in the sense of Tönnies, or for that matter in any sense, but it also can probably never become one. Not without losing what probably has been the most defining feature of Europe ever since the fall of the Roman Empire, and perhaps ever since the rise and fall of the incessantly competing and warring city states of Ancient Greece.
If by anything, the part of the world that was eventually to be called Europe, ,was defined by its multitude of intensely competing and conflicting Gemeinschafts; by its multitude of different and sometimes irreconcilable collective memories and narratives; by what it was not, namely one of those Eastern monoliths, emerging out of the deep expanse of Persia or the monotonous steppes of northern Asia.
For the Ancient Greeks, writes Jacques Le Goff in his book on the birth of Europe, it was the contrast between the East and the West that first defined something called Europe, a word derived from a term used by Phoenician sailors to designate the setting sun – that is, Europe was the West against something that could be called the East.6 Le Goff quotes Hippocrates, the father of medicine, as saying, “the Europeans were courageous but aggressive and bellicose, while the Asiatics were wise and cultivated but peace-loving to the point of lacking initiative. Europeans were committed to liberty, for which they were prepared to fight and even die, while the Asiatics were content with servitude in exchange for prosperity and tranquility.”7
The Middle Ages in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was the other period during which the term Europe or European was defined. Its most common social unity was the walled city, and its basic social organisation the multitude of feudal fiefdoms, making for what has been termed the territorial incastellamento or encellment of Europe. It is thus a Europe made up of innumerable and separate Gemeinschafts – or nations – sometimes having peaceful and productive relations of Gesellschaft with each other, sometimes bringing war and destruction upon each other. It is also a Europe characterised by increasing differences between life inside the walls of the city and life outside, between citizen and villager. Citizens feared the latter as outcasts, or villains – a word derived from the medieval French for villager, villaine.
Apart from their apparent lack of a shared Gemeinschaft, what did these walled in and divided up Europeans have in common? At best they managed to create and sustain what I would define as a number of European Gesellschafts. At first through the rule-based moral order of the Catholic Church, creating, at least for a while, a common European elite of clerics, and with them a common European elite of warrior-knights and tradesmen and a common European enterprise of war and conquest, the Crusades. The emergence of the Hanseatic League in the late twelfth century, a powerful network of trading cities, creating a common European “consortium of entrepreneurs”, was made possible under the common moral order of the Church, as were the European universities in the thirteenth century.
When the moral order of the Church weakened, and competing moral orders began challenging each other, the many Gemeinschafts of Europe had to rearrange their terms of competition and conflict. This took a prolonged period of European-wide religious and dynastic wars, culminating in the Westphalian Order of 1648, a negotiated European system of territorial empires and nation states. Again, this was by no means an order based on Gemeinschaft, but a fragile and contested contract for a European Gesellschaft, for a negotiated and rule-based European order. It was soon to be challenged by revolution and reaction, leading to new European wars and new European orders. During the nineteenth century, from the Treaty of Vienna in 1814 and onwards, an order sometimes called “the Concert of Europe” prevailed; it was largely based on the common interest of a few powerful monarchies in suppressing movements for political and social change. This order was mortally wounded in the First World War and finally obliterated in the Second World War. In May 1945 one could plausibly argue that the competing and conflicting Gemeinschafts of Europe had finally managed to destroy themselves.
So Europe, if – and when – it has been something more than an elusive abstraction, has been a temporary order of more or less fragile political arrangements and contracts between a multitude of competing and conflicting histories, languages, cultures, religions, traditions, and memories: between a multitude of actual and potential Gemeinschafts.
There have occasionally been attempts by one or another of the larger or more powerful Gemeinschafts of Europe to impose itself on all the others, having them submit to a European Gesellschaft of their own making, from Charlemagne to Napoleon and Hitler, but the result has always been more or less horrifying. Charlemagne was no more European than the others. His Europe was a Frankish Europe, inspired by an unmistakably Frankish “patriotism”, and to again quote Jacques Le Goff, “smacked of a project that was contrary to any true idea of Europe”.8
So is there any true idea of Europe? Well, if there is, than it is certainly not the idea of a common European Gemeinschaft, but perhaps, judging from history, the idea of a common European Gesellschaft, a common rule-based political and moral order, a commonly negotiated constitutional contract, within which the inherent diversity of European Gemeinschafts can be a source of creativity and construction and not a source of debility and destruction. Transnational European elites, from crusaders and clerics to capitalists and clerks, have all been linked by relations of Gesellschaft rather than by relations of Gemeinschaft.
Thus, the only materialised idea of Europe so far is not one of blood and soil, or flag and fatherland, but of contracts and constitutions, rules and agreements. We can perhaps perceive this most clearly in the early origins of the European Union; the creation of a common institution regulating the production of coal and steel, and thereby the production of weapons. That is, not with an attempt to create a common Gemeinschaft between France and Germany – that would have been politically absurd considering their incompatible collective experiences and memories – but with an attempt to create a common Gesellschaft.
Of course it was a Gesellschaft prompted by a shared experience, the near-self-destruction of Europe in two wars, and thus by a shared promise; never again. But it was still an order based on the voluntary and self-interested association of the nation states of Europe in a system of common rules and institutions with the ultimate aim of enabling the separate Gemeinschafts of Europe to not only survive but to flourish.
All this of course took a certain amount of leadership and confidence-building and there was always the temptation to appeal to something that was not there, a unifying European history, or culture, or religion. The only thing that unifies cultural expressions in Europe is the fact that they rarely can be defined as European. The strength of any European cultural “product” is its cultural specificity. A good European film is either Swedish or Danish or Italian or Polish or any sub-cultural category of these – but not “European”. The same goes for journals, magazines, books and music.
The future of something called Europe therefore again depends on whether the nation states of Europe are able create and sustain a common rule-based order that can reap the benefits of Europe’s cultural diversity without inviting its all-too-evident dangers: a Gesellschaft where the many Gemeinschafts of Europe, old and new, may feel at least partially at home.

A European order for diversity
The human need for Gemeinschaft will not go away. The radical transformation of Gemeinschaft relations into Gesellschaft relations in modern society has not created a new breed of human being, as some perhaps had hoped. With life becoming increasingly global and borderless, the fundamental questions of identity – who we are and where we belong – are becoming increasingly pervasive and frustrating. Sometimes they produce desperate and destructive answers. This may at least partially explain the appeal of radical Islamism to young individuals of Muslim origin, on the one hand born and raised in the midst of European societies, on the other hand in the no-man's-land or limbo between a rejected Gemeinschaft of the past and a rejecting Gemeinschaft of the present. As Francis Fukuyama writes: “The transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft constitutes an intensely alienating process that has been negatively experienced by countless individuals in different societies.”9
The existence of multiple and, perhaps, multiplying Gemeinschafts, warm human circles of belief and belonging, is a product of innate human needs. So if a European Gemeinschaft is not possible, what is? At best, I believe, a European contract, a common Gesellschaft, explicitly based on inherent cultural differences and not implicitly on an increasing cultural homogeneity. The challenge is for this European Gesellschaft, this common rule-based order, to command the necessary authority and legitimacy among a large number of national societies where a multitude of Gemeinschaft-based relations will continue to exist and emerge.
Previously such authority and legitimacy could be claimed, and sometimes achieved, by imposing a common order from above, either through a trans-European elite of clerics or clerks, not to mention the more resolute authority of the off-and-on collusion of varying constellations of trans-European kings and princes. This can no longer be achieved since no such authority will be regarded as legitimate by its subjects, or be sustained by killing off the recalcitrant. Legitimate authority in Europe today demands popular acceptance and support.
But such an authority cannot be taken for granted any longer, not even by the most recent trans-European elite, the clerks of the European Union: the commissioners in Brussels, the judges in Luxembourg and the parliamentarians in Strasbourg. They may be formally the most legitimate trans-European elite ever established, but they remain a tiny and fairly isolated elite of professionally mobile cosmopolitan Europeans. Only a few of them would describe themselves as generic Europeans and it would probably take only a little scratch of the surface, or a career change, to uncover other, warmer allegiances. Nevertheless it is still a matter of elites; elites with a vision for a common European order and the authority to command a popular mandate for it.

Where to the European Union?
I believe that there is only one vision capable of bringing Europe's many Gemeinschafts together within the framework of a common and reasonably legitimate order. Unfortunately it is much maligned and therefore much misunderstood. The misunderstanding comes from the very often deliberate confusion of Gemeinschaft with Gesellschaft; especially in the threat of a European super state replacing both the democracy of the nation state and whatever relations of Gemeinschaft the nation states of Europe have been able to foster and sustain. This is the monster that has come to be associated in most debates about the future of Europe with the f-word par excellence – federation.
That this should be so is remarkable because federation is a European invention, or at least a Roman one, meaning a union or a treaty with nations whom you trust (foedus, derived from fido, to trust), and is the preferred form of government in perhaps the most successful of Western democracies, the United States.
E pluribus Unum, one from many, the original motto of the American Confederation (in fact coined earlier), is if anything more relevant to the European condition, where historical diversity is greater, the record of disunity and discord more disastrous and the need for a common order therefore more compelling.
Federations are perhaps the most sophisticated form of human societies, since they are based on the assumption of diversity and conflict and not on the assumption of homogeneity. The American Confederation was explicitly constructed on the assumption of inherent conflicts in society, and created a far-reaching division of powers – in order to make “ambition counteract ambition”, as James Madison wrote in The Federalist (51).
This will not necessarily be a super state. In the American Confederation the word state is still reserved for its constituent parts. The federal government has in principle only the powers conferred to it by the states in a common constitutional contract.
In Europe, no one who dared to propose a European federation has ever suggested that it replace the nation state. On the contrary, a European federation, if anything, can only be constituted by its nation states, which is basically how the present European order has come about – under testing conditions and in the belief that political legitimacy and authority on a European level would follow from a common European market.
The European order, therefore, did not develop common institutions for democratic scrutiny and accountability; perhaps because it was deemed politically impossible, but more likely because it was not deemed necessary. What it created was a system producing a stream of rules and regulations for making the common market as common as possible.
Democratic accountability for these decisions basically ended at the borders of the nation state. Proposals for European rules were made by a non-elected body of European civil servants, the Commission; decisions were the outcome of closed diplomatic negotiations in a council of nation state ministers that as an institution could not be held accountable for its decisions. Accountability was instead vested in an unelected European Court of Justice, where political scrutiny was replaced by judicial review.
In short, a democratic deficiency was built into the new European order more or less by default. At first with no one really bothering, but as the European order has become more intrusive and demanding of national accommodation and allegiance, and as the Union has become larger and more diverse, the deficit has become increasingly evident and increasingly problematic. As a consequence diverging national and sub-national agendas and interests, appealing to Gemeinschaft rather than Gesellschaft, seem to take precedence over what was supposed to develop into ”an ever closer Union among the states and citizens of Europe, whilst respecting the diverse cultures of Europe” (from the preamble to the proposed new constitution for the European Union).
As we all know, this is not what is happening right now. The Gemeinschaft-based opposition to a transnational European Gesellschaft is likely to grow along with the global pressures of rapid cultural and social change. Europe today faces a widening gap between a multitude of Gemeinschafts and a well-entrenched European Gesellschaft that has come to demand rule-based obedience and adherence from national citizens in more and more aspects of their daily lives. It has tried to meet this challenge in part by substituting the demand for a European contract based on trust, transparency and accountability with the promise of a European Gemeinschaft based on a common history, a common faith, a common culture or any other of those things that Europeans most certainly do not have in common.
Once again we can see the European order losing its grip on its constituents. The rules are there, but obedience and respect are faltering. There is little common understanding of what the rules should be, what they are for – or for whom they exist.
So what remains is a specifically European dilemma that presents a continuing challenge: how to create a common, rule-based order on a continent populated by a multitude of distinct Gemeinschafts, defined as much by their diverging memories of war and conflict as by their common memories of peace and co-operation.
In fact, this is increasingly becoming the challenge of the world as a whole, as the need for a global order based on the rules of a common Gesellschaft faces that human need for meaning and recognition that only Gemeinschaft relationships can reasonably satisfy.
The founding fathers of America saw their country as the laboratory for the creation of a society in which free men could rule themselves, without kings and princes, in a society based on diversity and disagreement. I believe that Europe is a similar laboratory, conducting in many ways a more advanced experiment, because of its greater level of diversity and its more conflicting and devastating memories and experiences. In that sense the process towards a common European Gesellschaft can be seen as a test case for the feasibility of common, rule-based global order.
The recent backlash in that European process – the No votes for a new constitutional treaty, growing disobedience and resentment and increasing emphasis on the geopolitical and cultural limits of the EU – goes to show, if nothing else, that not even the most far-reaching economic community has been able to produce the political order necessary to handle the social and cultural conflicts of an increasingly borderless society. And if not even the small nations of the European Union are able to transcend the political horizon of the nation, why would considerably larger nations such as the United States, China or India be able to do so? Any future for Europe, as for a globalised world, is a future of many Gemeinschafts, creating for themselves either a common order – or a common disorder.


1. Here and throughout, I have benefited from the English translation by Charles P. Loomis and the excellent introduction by John Staples in Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society [Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft], (New Jersey:Transaction Publishers, 1988).
2. Ibid, p. 252.
3. Ibid, p. 252.
4. Ibid, p. 258.
5. Ibid, p. 259.
6. Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Europe, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005).
7. Ibid, p. 8.
8. Ibid, p. 29.
9. Francis Fukuyama: “Identity and Migration”, Prospect, February 2007, p. 28.