Sunday, April 17, 2022

Florence Gaub: Russians aren't Europeans

Florence Gaub is a Franco-German political scientist who works for the World Economic Forum and who advises various governments on international security issues. She works in a field that emphasises "foresight" in politics.

She made some controversial comments in a TV interview, when she argued that Russians were not really to be considered Europeans:

She says in the interview:
We should not forget that even if the Russians look European, they are not European in a cultural sense. They think differently about violence and death. They have no concept of a liberal, post-modern life, a concept of life that each individual can choose.

(A more exact translation of the last part might read "a life as a project that each person designs individually for themselves".)

This is not a good way to think about what makes a European. First, there are distinctions in national character across Europe. If, for instance, you have an Anglo background, then the character of, say, Dutch or German women will seem remarkably blunt and undiplomatic. Who, then, gets to claim to be more European? Thought of in terms of character traits, there would be no unified category of "European", but rather distinctly national, or even regional, peoples.

Second, once you base identity around values alone, then boundaries become porous. If, for instance, you claim that adopting liberal values of a self-choosing individualism is what makes you a European, then anyone, anywhere can be a European, the more so given the dominance of liberal institutions in much of the world. In fact, you could logically argue that some Japanese people were more European than some native Swedes, if those Swedes happened to be conservative or traditionalist rather than liberal. 

Third, if you really had to choose a value as a marker of belonging and identity, then making it the liberal one of an individually self-chosen life is not a great decision. Yes, having some considerable scope to make decisions about your own life is obviously a human good. But the principle cannot work by itself; it is ultimately dissolving of human society and of the human personality. After all, the principle says nothing of what kind of life is worth pursuing. Is a woman opting to make money on Only Fans really as equally valid as a woman opting to marry and have children? According to the liberal principle, the answer is yes - as long as she is choosing it without coercion, it becomes a moral good.

In a society based on liberal values, there is a loss of what was once a notable feature of Western cultures, namely a distinction between the noble and the base within human nature. There is a loss, too, of the Western moral culture that once defended the integrity of the human personality, by rejecting behaviours or influences that were dissipated, or profligate, or incontinent, or dissolute - moral terminology that seems old-fashioned now but which recognised that our moral choices might either uphold or undermine the integrity of our personhood.

Liberal values are also radically individualistic, in the sense that they acknowledge only the life we might design as an atomised individual. What we derive as a person from our membership in larger bodies, such as families or peoples, is neglected. Liberal values, therefore, also undermine what was once a core aspect of Western culture, namely an emphasis on fidelity and loyalty - on being "true". Western cultures are slipping from being high trust to low trust societies as a result, this being most evident in the current state of relationships between the sexes.

Finally, liberal values make it difficult to uphold prudence, this being one of they key virtues in both the classical and Christian West. Prudence is lost because the emphasis in a liberal society is on the freedom to choose in any direction, rather than on natural limitations imposed by the given reality we inhabit. If we can self-define, or self-author, according to our own will, then prudence will be relegated in significance, as increasing numbers of people come to believe that they themselves get to decide their own subjective reality, so that society and the larger world should simply conform to whatever they choose to do or to be.


  1. I was amused that I guessed correctly and was proven in 17 seconds. Haven’t they been trying to run this play for a long time? You aren’t a real true American if you’re not liberal; you’re not a real true Brit if you’re not liberal; you’re not a real true Australian if you’re not liberal. Gets a bit old, doesn’t it?

    Second, a community (not a voluntary association or group of mutual interest) is by definition a web of interdependencies. If you’re a free and independent individual how can you possibly belong to a community? That would make you dependent on other people and therefore not independent (and in the real world not free to make whatever choices you want).

    Third, how can one be culturally liberal? A culture is shared customs, practices, traditions, heritage, identity, and (arguably) beliefs, which the liberal project is opposed to. The ideal liberal society is one where one isn’t bound by any of that and is a completely unique individual, sharing nothing in common (except property, according to the socialist liberals).

    It would be more appropriate to call liberalism an “anti-culture” than a culture.

    Besides, if we’re all just unique individuals then how can we be commonly defined by one culture anyway? And how can one have a culture where a defining aspect is being able to choose to be part of the culture or not? Wouldn’t that make choosing to not be European (whatever that means) is an intrinsically European act in line with European culture? And am I therefore European if I choose to be since by the mere act of being able to freely choose my culture I am being culturally European? Wouldn’t that just mean that “culture” means being liberal and nothing else, except perhaps some superficial distinctions of no consequence like cuisine, dress, language, and entertainment — all of which could be aped by any human being?

    It all begs the question of what the point of this category labeled “European” is even for, since it doesn’t really seem to signify anything. Tax residency? Is a “European” just a liberal who happens to be a subject of a government in Europe? Why bother using the word?

    1. Terrific comment, thank you. I might post it later this week, as you draw out the contradictions of the idea of a liberal culture so clearly.

    2. Thank you. If you post it, I’d be appreciative of removing the error in the penultimate paragraph (it should be “Wouldn’t that make choosing to not be European (whatever that means) an […]” etc. but there’s an erroneous “is” there).

      On the note of culture, I think really what defines a culture above all else is shared customs and traditions — things we are largely bound to do or not to do, and things which therefore inhibit our freedom. There can always be cultural outliers that do whatever they want, but for a real living culture to survive the majority of people have to act as if they are bound by custom and tradition. Liberalism is obviously opposed to this and so works to dissolve them and reach the ideal state of a “culture” of uninhibited individuals.

      It would be tempting to argue that liberalism itself could constitute shared customs and tradition in that it dictates behavior in the real world, but I think that’s misguided for two reasons.

      The first and lesser reason is that liberalism discouraging us from doing some things and encouraging us to do other things is a result of internal contradiction which, for liberals, it would ideally not have. “Liberal cultures” might then be somewhat distinct by their members doing whatever they want and not being bound to do or not do anything, but this only works as a marker of distinction if non-liberal cultures exist to compare to. I don’t believe it would occur to anyone to frame NOT being bound to do or not do things as being custom or tradition just as BEING bound to do or not do things is without the latter existing. At the risk of being repititive, I would sooner label that “anti-customs” or “anti-traditions”, seeming similar and part of a whole only because one is a negation of the other (just as I think it would be misguided to call darkness a type of light when it is defined as the absence of light). I may be bound to do or not do many different things in many different ways, but I can only be unbound in one way; in other words while there can be diverse and multitudinous traditions and customs, there can only be identical anti-traditions and anti-customs. It’s hardly like my not being bound to do or not do anything can be different from your not being bound.

      The second and greater reason is that liberalism is a universal imposition. Liberals want everyone else to be liberal. If you have a number of “liberal cultures” therefore that are defined all by not being bound to do or not do things, they’re identical in “custom” and “tradition.” What becomes the marker of cultural distinctiveness then? What would separate, say, a German from a Frenchman? It cannot, if they are both liberal, be differing customs and traditions (or practices). And since liberalism as discussed elsewhere is opposed to bonds of kinship and common heritage and descent, a liberal culture also can’t be defined by those. What remains? Only superficial distinctions that are not morally unacceptable to liberalism; dress, cuisine, language, entertainment, etc. And, as I put in my original comment, all of those can be adopted without much impediment by any human being on the planet, while common practices and heritage might be outright impossible to “adopt."