Historian Philipp Blom – “The Machine Can Be Stopped.”

On the Enlightenment’s mixed legacy, European solidarity and lessons of the pandemic.

Back in 2014, historian Philipp Blom stood in front of a Gymnasium history class of German teenagers, talking about the anniversary of the First World War. “And I said, so if Chancellor [Angela] Merkel were to declare war against Vladimir Putin tomorrow, who of you would volunteer?” They all stared. “And yet their great grandfathers, in the same classroom, all shouted, Hurrah! and went down to the next enlistment office!”

What happened in the moral reflexes of people – in the same society, sharing the same genes – that had changed so radically, he wondered? It is these points where history shifts gear, where the experience of being alive is profoundly altered, that fascinate him the most. 

We met on a balmy summer afternoon under an umbrella at Café Korb just off the Tuchlauben in the 1st, the “grove of the cloth makers,” complete with scissor-wielding statue. Blom stood up to greet me. “Nice hat!” he nodded appreciatively, as I put my new fringe-brimmed straw with a floppy black band on the seat next to me. I always forget how tall he is, at least 1.95m. Must be an interesting vantage point on the world. 

He had arrived early and was already well through an Achtl of something white; when the waiter returned, I ordered a Spritzer and he einen großen Braunen

“I have to become a serious person now,” he moaned, … “at least seem serious.” He could always switch back later, I suggested. “…I can never keep it up for very long.” It sounded like a confession. As with the hats, of which he is a devotee. (“I’ve been wearing hats for the longest time.”) With the world the way it is, we agreed, being serious for too long could end badly. “Seriousness kills,” he mugged. 

Solidarity or ‘Enlightened Self-Interest’

In an April interview in the Austrian weekly Profil, Blom had doubted that the EU would be able to come together on a recovery package. It had been national governments that had stepped in to protect people, and coordinate measures to fight the pandemic. The EU seemed toothless, any discussion of “corona bonds” mired in controversy. Any hope of European solidarity seemed remote, Blom had said. 

“What could have energized the EU,” he told interviewer Robert Treichler, “and given them a chance to show that they could act effectively in this cross-border crisis, unfortunately simply didn’t happen.” 

Now with the July 21 agreement on a €750 billion EU recovery fund – including €390 billion in grants financed by shared debt – was he more optimistic about the possibilities for European solidarity? 

“I don’t really know,” he paused… “That’s the honest part of the answer. It’s about the economics, about preserving the internal market. They didn’t do it because they are nice people.” So, enlightened self-interest? “Yes. Enlightened self-interest is the one thing you can rely on. I like to know where someone’s selfishness lies.” 

Many observers had been troubled by a survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations released in June showing that many Europeans – close to 40% overall (58% in France) – described the EU as “irrelevant” in their country’s dealing with the pandemic. At the same time, large majorities in all nine surveyed countries said they were now “more firmly convinced” than ever of the need for further EU cooperation. 

(C) Daniel Shaked

So Where Does This Leave Us?

“The initial response of the EU was disastrous, because there was none,” Blom said. “Initially, it seemed it was just a sort of good-weather club that was completely toothless when the things got hard. National borders clamped down and medical supplies were bunkered.” But surely closing down the borders was necessary to contain the virus. 

“That’s true,” he agreed, “but it’s always in which context, and which rhetoric you use to do that. If Mrs. Von der Leyen had said, ‘We as Europe need to do this, for the sake of Europeans,’ that would’ve been different from just nation states acting on their own – basically demonstrating that Europe was irrelevant. It created a pretty devastating impression.” 

“If this precedent shows anything, it’s that we need bigger solutions. This agreement now shows that Europe can still go beyond a purely economic union. Let’s hope so. But we certainly need more Europe, not less. This is really a ‘“make or break’” moment. Because if the union is shown to be completely irrelevant when things don’t go well, what’s the point?” 

The Drivers of Change

Blom has put a lot of thought recently into the causes – and effects – of social change: Beginning with The Vertigo Years in 2009, he explored the accelerations of technology that stimulated, but also unhinged, Western societies in the years leading up to The Great War. This was followed by Fracture, Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938 (2016) that, beginning with the shock of shredded empires and lost faith, showed how the forces driving change had begun long before, of urbanization, consumerism, mass media, industry and international finance, feminism, psychoanalysis, the theory of relativity and abstract art. 

He then turned his attention to the environment: In Nature’s Mutiny (2019) he looked at the “Little Ice Age” of the 17th century, when a drop of around 2° C across Europe – the same temperature shift that is dominating the current debate on global warming – resulted in social collapse, failed crops, chronic malnutrition, disease, wars, perpetual unrest, and gradually, adaption to new realities. Without any better explanation, many clung to religion, including burning witches to make amends. 

Today, many effects of climate change are already clear, particularly extreme weather events, and new temperature records – with 2010-2019 the hottest decade on record (NASA) and last year the second hottest ever. Which helps explain the enormous response to Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement. Still, government responses, even in Europe, have seemed little more than gestures. Isn’t anyone paying attention? 

“The problem is, all that is not clear enough, not direct enough in its apparent causation,” Blom said. “Most of it is far too far away to make people worried.” 

The pandemic, on the other hand, certainly got people’s attention. Here was a natural disaster that affected everyone, more like a world war than the flooding banks of the Oder, typhoons in the South Pacific or tornadoes in Tennessee. A definitive shared experience. 

COVID-19 has brought this home so much more brutally,” Blom said. It’s all “a symptom of the same malady,” which he describes as “our mania with thinking we can control nature.” And with all the enormous suffering – which is far from over – it may have been a blessing in disguise, “because it has moved the conversation.” 

At the same time, our guiding narrative is being broken – that of natural markets and perpetual growth – “it’s crumbling under our feet.” But there will be a lot of pushback; “a lot of powerful people will have a lot to lose.” Others will turn to populism, seeking easy answers to complex problems, blaming the elites, migrants or Silicon Valley. “The alternatives are far harder, calling into question everything we thought we knew.” 

Repacking Religion

Blom has long been a chronicler of the Enlightenment – the one we think we know, and the far richer discussion that went on among the thinkers David Hume christened “that wicked company,” including Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith and others, who met weekly for two 

decades around the table of the Baron Thiry d’Holbach in 18th century Paris. Their goal was to free men – and women – from the fear and ignorance fostered by a church that condemned desire as “lust,” reason as “pride,” and perverted empathy into “meaningful suffering” in the promise of an afterlife. 

“The Enlightenment was a blessing and a curse,” Blom said. “It was a blessing for the invention of human rights, but a curse because it simply secularized Christian thinking,” so we no longer recognized it. “Look at the Christian Soul and Enlightenment Reason: They are the noble, immaterial parts of ourselves, [telling us] that we must offer up our instincts and our bodies to be ennobling and freeing. It’s the same logic.” 

Similarly with the idea of Progress, which parallels the salvation story, or the idea of Free Will: “Without free will there is no sin, without sin there’s no redemption, without redemption there’s no Christianity. So the Enlightenment has simply secularized Christian concepts, and made them unrecognizable as theology.” 

And today, we have neoliberal economic thinkers, “who imagine a world of free and rational individuals in competition with one another – which is in no way what we know of life, how we function, but it has become the reigning fiction, with the same people lording over the same other people. It’s so deeply imbedded, going back millennia.” 

“It’s time to break with these things.” 

Stopping the Machine

Just then, it began to rain, a steady patter on the umbrella overhead, catching us in mid-sentence, and me on the shoulder. 

Do you think you should change sides?” Blom asked. Philosophically? We both laughed. Good idea. “And that fantastic hat!” We shuffled our seats and paraphernalia out of harm’s way. 

“But you know,” he said, “it’s not that we suddenly become nicer people because of COVID, there’s no epidemic of solidary. People, myself included, have argued for so long that we have to do things very differently, that growth, as an end in itself, is destructive. And we have been told that that may be so, but unfortunately it cannot change.” 

“We now know it can change,” Blom said. “We have seen that societies can take decisions based on political and even human grounds, to protect people who are economically unproductive, namely older people. We have seen that the machine can be stopped.” 

Later, in a phone call, he related a conversation with a Czech ecologist at the UN. “His theory was that in the life of every environmental activist there are three phases: The first is optimism (‘This is fantastic, we can change the world!’); the second is pessimism (‘Oh no! it’s all in vain. We have changed nothing’); and the third… is alcoholism.” Blom laughed. “I could identify with that.” 

Hear Philipp Blom discuss how peace and prosperity led the West into a crisis with Petra Herczeg and Rainer Rosenberg in this online talk at the Kreisky Forum. In German.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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