Reaching For Our Revolvers: How a United Europe defused its culture and divided its people

VeroniqueThis is an article that appeared in Brooklyn Rail, a NYC-based art magazine. My brief was to write a piece on the effects of European unification on European culture. Click here for the BR website version. Or… 

1. Europe: From division to unity to fragmentation

As the Iron Curtain was coming down, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Double Life of Veronique (1991) not only captured elegantly the emotional impact of Europe’s post-war division but also conveyed a brooding angst about the promised ‘European Union’. Kieślowski’s device was the overwhelming bond between two identically looking strangers, Weronika in Poland and Véronique in France (both played by Irène Jacob). Their paths only cross once, as Europe is about to be re-united. Jubilant that she had just been invited to audition for a major singing part, Weronika is rushing home through Kraków’s Main Piazza only to find herself in the midst of a demonstration. A protester accidentally knocks her bag over and her sheet music falls on the ground. As she is picking it up, she notices Véronique boarding a tourist bus. The two women’s eyes meet for a fraction of a second. After a successful audition, Weronika lands the solo singing part but, while singing her heart out in the concert’s premiere, she collapses on stage and dies. At that same moment, in Paris, Véronique is overwhelmed by deep, inexplicable grief.

Véronique’s emotional and musical bond with her Polish double (they share a love of the same music), and the radical absence she felt upon Weronika’s death, symbolize the solidarity and cultural-cum-spiritual connection between western Europeans and those left behind the Iron Curtain, even toward the southerners in Greece or in Spain who were not released from fascism until the mid-1970s. Films like Veronique and Costa Gavra’s Z (1969) epitomized a European cultural unity that not only survived but, actually, grew in the shadow of harsh divisions.

Could an elegiac film of this type emerge from today’s ‘united’ Europe? The irony of our present moment is that the eradication of borders and the triumph of the Single Market have devalued and fragmented Europe’s cultural goods. Today, Weronika might get a recording contract in Paris or in London but her music will be ‘homogenized’ within a global marketplace for music and art that knows no boundaries and lacks a heartland. Music, art, even theater have come under the aegis of market forces, guided by Brussels’ funded institutions, and ‘showcased’ in blockbuster exhibitions, or heavily marketed concert series, in which the stars are postmodernist curators, celebrity conductors and, of course, their corporate sponsors.

In short, instead of being bonded by music, emotion, guilt and culture, Véronique and Weronika would, today, be bound by a contract drawn out by some global legal firm. Indeed, Véronique would probably be worried that Weronika might move to Paris and take her… job. In this harsh world of ours, there is no longer room left for films like Veronique.

2. Culture and Europe’s Single Market: A mounting contradiction

Looking down from the heights of the famous Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park in Vienna, Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles in The Third Man, 1949) issued an impertinent theory of culture: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

However impertinent Lime’s line may be, European high culture is drenched in blood and underpinned by conflict. Art and music are far from benign features that sit decoratively on top of European civilization. Picasso once said that a painting is not meant to decorate but to act as “a weapon against the enemy”. Beethoven dedicated his Ninth to Napoleon, and then tore up the dedication in anger. D.H. Lawrence sported a raging contempt for democracy, with a sprinkling of virulent anti-semitism thrown in for good measure. Ezra Pound’s poetry celebrated his immense love of European culture which, alas, proved no impediment to his glorification of fascism.

Hermann Göring once quipped that: “When I hear the word culture I reach for my Browning”. He was right to think that culture is, indeed, a dangerous weapon. Unless, of course, culture becomes commodified by expert gallerists, post-modernized by cunning curators, and sanitized through the meat grinder of the European Commission’s funding procedures. Göring never understood that he had no need for his revolver! Culture could be defused simply by making it go through the revolving doors between the Single Market and a European bureaucracy. Indeed, why send the storm troopers into the theaters and the artists’ studios when, the bureaucrats, the auctioneers and the curators can eliminate the potential of culture for political subversion, turning it into another realm where playfulness and subversion are traded in the cultural stock exchange, alongside jewelry, cars, gadgets and toxic financial derivatives?

For three decades now exchange value has been wiping the floor clean with any other form of value, including the cultural. Since the 1970s finance has been subordinating industry and neoliberalism converted us to the new creed that markets are ends in themselves, rather than means to greater ends. Thus, we developed a radical inability to think thoughts that a more confident past used to allow: that there can be song and poetry valuable in its own right; that value may well be irreducible to price; that, no, not everything is a matter of demand and supply; that the inability to privatize the smell of a meadow in springtime is not a problem in search of a ‘technical fix’.

While commodification is a global phenomenon, it took a particular virulent form in the European Union around the time of Veronique’s release. Not because Europe became too pacified, or too unified for culture to flourish, but due to the constant retreat of the public sphere. There is nothing wrong with the idea of a Single Market from the Atlantic to the Ukraine and from the Shetlands to Crete. Borders are awful scars on the planet and the sooner we dispose of them the better. No, the problem is that market economies require a powerful demos to counter-balance, to stabilize, to civilize them. To keep Europe civilized and European culture ‘dangerous’, a Single European Market required a supersized democratic state. Instead, as the nation states were retreating, a wholly undemocratic, centralized bureaucracy was taking over. The emergence of a gigantic market and a colossal bureaucracy led to an Unholy Alliance of exchange value and bureaucratic fiat at the expense of the cultural and political values that Europeans so painfully produced over the centuries.

3. Divided by a common currency

On a dull autumnal afternoon in 1978 two suited men exuding authority entered the chapel in which the remains of Charlemagne had been resting for eleven centuries. The two men had just completed an agreement that set up the European Monetary System which, eventually, spawned the euro. One of them, the French President Valery Giscard D’ Estaing, was haunted by the memory of a previous experiment with monetary union – the calamitous inter-war Gold Standard. The second pilgrim, Helmut Schmidt, the German Chancellor, was worried too, fearing a backlash from the mighty Bundesbank. To drown their trepidation, Giscard and Schmidt sought solace and legitimacy in the legacy of the Christian King who, amongst European traditionalists, is synonymous with the longing for European Unity.

When, a couple of decades later, the new euro notes were issued, the cultural signs of the impending disaster were printed all over them. Take a look at any euro note. What do you see? Decorative arches and bridges. Only these are fictitious arches and non-existent bridges! A continent replete with cultural treasures has, unbelievably, chosen to adorn its freshly minted common notes with none of these treasures. Why? Because bureaucrats wanted to print nothing ‘dangerous’ on the new money. Even if one knew nothing of economics, and of the Eurozone’s hideous architecture, one glimpse of the cultural desert on the euro notes might have sufficed to guess what would transpire.

Thirty six years after Giscard’s and Schmidt’s euro-kitsch ‘pilgrimage’, a continent that was culturally united (despite clashing temperaments, legacies of wars, different languages, and even Iron Curtains) is now divided by a common currency. Based on a preposterous reading of Aesop’s tale, according to which all the ants live in Europe’s Protestant North and all the grasshoppers have congregated in the South (plus Ireland!), the crisis of a terribly designed monetary and economic union has propelled Europe’s core to an advanced stage of disintegration.

4. Epilogue

The Roman Empire imploded when its inner core became too brittle while its borders were expanding eastward. A cultural vacuum, also known as the Middle Ages, was the result. Today, the European Union is also seeing its core disintegrate at a time of eastward expansion. With one proud nation being subjected to fiscal waterboarding after the other; with one people turned against another; with no serious discussion of how to create a rational economic architecture; and with some Europeans increasingly convinced they are more deserving European than others, Europe’s core is weakening perilously and the bonds of solidarity are breaking up.

And here is the irony: Before the border fences were torn down, a film like the Double Life of Veronique resonated perfectly in Paris, in London and in Stuttgart. Today, a similar film would not. Véronique and Weronika would have no bond, no mystical connection. They would have been pitted against each other in the context of a ruthless Single Market where solidarity evokes predatory ‘bailout’ loans and priceless culture makes no sense.


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  • Bravo, Yani, for a very delicate piece, the more delicate the stronger. And, incidentally, happy birthday to you two! G + V

  • I agree with the point you are making RE, the homogenization of culture which is also the Nazification of culture, btw.

    The line “When I hear the word culture I reach for my Browning pistol” is from a play called ‘Schlageter Schauspiel’ by Hans Johst: “Wenn ich Kultur höre… entsichere ich meinen Browning!”

    The play was presented in 1933 after Hitler gained power.

    This is also in Shirer, “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”.

  • Harry Lime: Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays

    I think the euronauts would wholeheartedly agree with this.

  • This is now a long term process.
    Back in the 60s there was a major fight between Irish cultural nationalists who wished to revive a almost dead Gaelic culture and a member of the Anglo- Dutch elite who wished more then anything to fill the state airwaves with cheap American cowboy films or some funny reason.
    Of course the Anglo Dutch elite has won yet another round but at this stage who the F%$k cares as inner spiritual life is effectively over for most anyway.

    A visit to Dingle today is now a deeply traumatic experience for me which I wish to avoid if at all possible.
    Its a hideously alien and commercial place when once it was the most easy going of all Irish towns.

    Recently a friend of mine ran out of the place as all of his favourite little pubs had been ripped out of their cultural sockets as euro health fascists & Polish Euro Roboten colonize this now non place.
    I will not be going back either.
    Its a time of retreat.
    A time to live in ones cave. (which began in Ireland at EEC entry)
    At most the banking elite have another 100 years of pillage before the storm which began in Tudor times will blow out.
    Then perhaps what remains of people will pick up the pieces.
    But I imagine not much will remain.

  • “The Double Life of Veronique” is one of my favorite films, and I had never thought of it in the way you describe. If this film is one bookend of a lost era of European culture, I think the other bookend is Godard’s “Germany Year 90 Nine Zero” (the scene where Don Quixote charges a gigantic open-pit mine borer came to mind while reading your essay). I agree too that the birth of the euro was emblematic of so much: first the name “euro” –“ecu” or something ancient like “thaler” or “ducat” or even “drakhma” would’ve been so much better– and then the totally lame pictures on the currency. Why didn’t they just copy in some fashion the old Dutch currency, which was so beautiful?

  • Mr. Varoufakis,
    A very evocative post. I read many of your posts over at Naked Capitalism, and with gratitude.

    Now, I’m just a guy from the US, and not a European, so my thoughts are those of an outsider. Let me get right to the point. You lament the hollowing out of European culture, seemingly largely traceable to the over-eager embrace of NeoLiberalism, and yet you seem to entertain the notion that a Europe-wide superstate would act as a brake on this trend. You express an antipathy to the idea of borders, and yet somehow their abolition is going to strengthen the individuality and uniqueness of the constituent national cultures of Europe? I must confess to great puzzlement on how exactly this would work.

    You lament the growth and abominate the corrosive effects of a largely unaccountable EU bureaucracy on the preservation of the richness and diversity of European culture, but then seem to wish for some unified political structure for all of Europe that will – mysteriously to my way of thinking – escape the implacable course of leveling that likely would result from its implementation. You are a Greek; how different do you expect the prospects for the survival of those uniquely valuable aspects of your nation’s culture would be when your small national population is formally subject to the will of a Europe-wide political entity that is elected versus one that is currently partly elected, and party negotiated by increasingly vestigial nation states?

    Allow me to formulate an analogy (subject to all of the limitations that analogies entail, of course). What makes for a great stew? You must have unity, but underpinning that unity, there must be differences; surprising little bursts of flavor from the constituent ingredients, disparate textures presenting different resistances to the teeth. Now, put that same succulent stew through a blender. What a difference. All of the ingredients are present, but homogenized in texture and flavor. No longer is it great, because the differences are no longer there to be experienced. Similarly, the unity of European culture which you value is paradoxically based upon the contrast between congruence and difference. Take my word for it, a continent-spanning superstate has a tendency to stamp out uniqueness and difference; it runs counter to the imperatives of a centralized bureaucracy operating under a NeoLiberal paradigm. I know, because I live in such a state, and between the corporations’ desire for uniformity of legal and regulatory frameworks, and the central government’s urge toward self-aggrandizement, particularities of local cultures, legal frameworks, and governmental structures face very tough challenges.

    Ostensibly, the individual states that comprise our federal structure in the United_States exercise autonomous powers, but in reality, under the dual assaults (and inducements…) of corporations and the central state, these are being progressively eroded, and as a result, the nation’s culture is being homogenized. Put through the blender, if you will. For European culture to survive and flourish, deep autonomy of the nations and cultures of the continent must be preserved. A truly federated Europe may serve in its preservation, but not a centrally-directed bureaucratic nightmare of a superstate. And regrettably that’s how these things tend to turn out if borders no longer provide protections against the cancerous growth of a bureaucracy that finds it imperative to collapse the sovereignty and cultural uniqueness of its nations and peoples.

    • As you discerned I loathe borders and lament the fact that their demise in Europe brought on a cultural, economic and social defeat for European peoples. The key concept that unlocks your questions, and our conundrum, is DEMOCRACY. If borders are to be a thing of the past (as they ought to), our borderless European realm will either be a broad democracy or a large tyranny. Given our elites’ determination to keep ‘rule by the poor’ (Aristotle’s definition of Democracy) at bay, then cross-border tyranny is the only alternative: the one we now live in. The United States is no showcase of democracy. But at least it has a federal system that could, in principle, be a democratic, unifying realm. The European Union, based on the awful structure and principle of inter-governmental institutions, is oligarchic by definition. And during periods of crises, like the present one, it becomes the epicentre of tyranny.

    • I am also an American, though I have lived in Europe (Germany) for 8 years now. I agree strongly with ‘JerseyJeffersonian’ (great moniker, by the way!). I, too, would like warn Europe in the strongest possible terms against creeping centralization and cultural/economic homogenization; that is, I’d like to warn them against becoming like the US.

      Yanis, I also think your intense dislike of borders will often work at cross purposes with your love of democracy. This is a common problem on the contemporary (western) left. There has been a failure to consider the intimate relationship between ‘demos’ and democracy. The basic idea is that, in order for rule of law to work, it has to be considered legitimate. But legitimacy, in most cases, is just a function of long-established custom–that is, culture.

      As an example, consider the historic importance of Anglo-Saxon common law in shaping the mentality of Anglophones toward the state and the community. It long pre-dated any real democracy in the British Isles, but was so instrumental in shaping it. One of the basic assumptions of common law is that, in the absence of any royal/ecclesial edict to the contrary, the custom of the people should carry the same weight (before a court) as positive law.

  • Hello Yani, thank you for this article 🙂
    Only one musical “note”: Beethoven dedicated his 3d symphony (Heroica) to Napoleon, not the 9th!

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