In his fantastic history of Europe, “The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914,” Cambridge scholar Richard J. Evans argues:
The pursuit of power permeated European society in the nineteenth century. States grasped for world power, governments reached out for imperial power, armies built up their military power, revolutionaries plotted to grab power, political parties campaigned to come to power, bankers and industrialists strove for economic power, serfs and sharecroppers were gradually liberated from the arbitrary power exercised over them by land-owning aristocrats […] But, as the nineteenth century progressed, people increasingly prioritized power over glory, honour and comparable values that had been dominant through most centuries before 1815.
Evans’ history covers the often violent dislocations caused by the fallout from the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars. He describes how economic discontent among the working classes throughout Europe melded with rising nationalist sentiments (as well as social reform movements demanding greater rights) that led to the decades-long erosion of the old European political order. Ultimately, these disturbances between 1815 and 1914 laid the groundwork for World War I, which led to the collapse of the European world order.
The past few years of European politics have made it clear that the current European order is dying. Last weekend, Catalonia—a non-Spanish-speaking province consisting of 7.5 million people (and a key economic driver for the otherwise torpid Spanish economy)—voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Spain. This sort of nationalist-populism is nothing new to the continent. Catalonia’s independence referendum is a natural reaction on the part of a people seeking a more equitable political order that respects their rights and serves their interests.
Fact is, and contrary to the claims of the Eurocrats populating the European Union’s “government” in Brussels, the democratic globalist consensus that has dominated Europe since the Cold War is dead. Frankly, that “consensus” was a fiction in the first place, as the electorates of various EU member states never bought into it. In a way, nationalism never died in Europe—it was just muted because the ruling elites deemed it “déclassé.”
Nationalist-populism is cyclical. It is more pronounced when socio-economic instability and insecurity reigns—as they have since the 2008 Great Recession. Add in the current dislocations caused by the ceaseless waves of immigrants washing over Europe from the upheavals in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia—as well as the resurgence of Russia—and this nationalist-populist fervor is growing stronger by the day.
Besides, Europe’s technocratic governing elite have proven unable to navigate effectively the triple crises of Europe: economic decline, unstoppable immigration, and Russia’s resurgence. Each problem is an outgrowth of systemic failure. And the system is failing because the elites have too much power and the people have too little. Nationalist-populism seeks to alter that imbalance.
In 1848, a wave of revolutions swept across Europe. The current spate of nationalist-populism mirrors those movements. As the Cambridge historian Brendan Simms observed, “The revolutionary virus [in 1848] struck first at the weakest point of the old order.” It’s no surprise, then, that the first, serious disruptions in post-Cold War Europe began with the rise of nationalist-populist parties in the Netherlands in 2009—one year after the Great Recession shredded Europe’s economy. The global economic downturn highlighted the dangers to Europe posed by unfettered immigration, coupled with self-destructive low fertility rates (and the accompanying imbalance that comes with having too many elderly people and not enough young people). This pattern of mistakes is similar to the ones that the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Wars highlighted. The inequities of Europe in the 19th century were certainly more severe than those of today, but they may prove no more potent in effecting a backlash.
While the 1848 revolutionary movements did impart their liberal, socialist, or Communist sensibilities onto the European people in the long-run, all they ended up doing in 1848 was to galvanize the global counter-revolutionary forces against them. This explains why Simms, like many historians, dubbed the 1848 revolutions a “failure.” Yet, their long-term impact was fundamentally to alter the political status quo of Europe forever. In fact, I believe the 1848 revolutions were not “failures,” so much as they were merely incomplete.
As Priscilla Robinson wrote about the seemingly unfinished nature of the 1848 revolutions, “Battles have been won or lost for centuries without winning or losing what they were ostensibly fought for.” It is clear that the spirit of 1848 lives on in Europe’s left-leaning and right-leaning nationalist-populist movements.
The real challenge, though, is the same one that faced the 1848 revolutionaries: can these disparate groups truly unite around a common nationalist-populism, or will they be torn asunder by internal contradictions and rivalries—even as the forces of the status quo are weakened (yet united) against them? We’ll know soon enough.
The instability befalling Europe (and much of the world today), however, is likely to lend itself to some great catastrophe similar to the one that consumed Europe in 1914, unless the world’s leaders can wake up in time to understand what confronts them and manage some rational and rightful embrace of the changes that so many people are calling for.