I updated my CV this week and, in the ‘Achievements’ section (modesty does not become me), I’ve included the fact that I was a recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which as you may have read, was awarded to the EU on behalf of “all Europeans” in late 2012. I am a European, ergo…
Resplendent in my Nobel laurels, I then took to contemplating my European motherland, casting a beatific and god-like eye over the continent, with its bustling liberal-democratic societies, its glittering cultural history and its enlightened people. I looked and I saw that it was good.
And then I remembered something that I read by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. In the first Interlude of his book The Parallax View, he makes brief reference to something he calls “aesthetic conservatism”, which involves the contention that “great monuments of culture and the ‘civilised’ way of life of the upper classes justify the suffering of millions”. In modern-day European vernacular, Zizek supposes that this would equate to “liberal-democratic affluent societies with their culture, versus billions living in poverty in the Third World; the recourse to terrorist violence…”
So, I considered again the great project of Europe, this time examining its stitching. I found a fabric threaded with the cords of imperial colonisation – of bloodshed, slavery and the stolen riches of exotic lands. For it was through these conquests that the wealth, labour and raw materials necessary for the construction, through the centuries, of European countries’ greatest monuments to their own magnificence, were taken. The soaring architecture, sprawling public parks and tree-lined boulevards: all share in the spoils of such exploitation.
My Nobel laurel wreath slips a little, but I readjust it with practised ease. I feel no guilt for the centuries-old barbarity of colonial power; my hands are clean. It is the Europe of today that I belong to, I tell myself. Yet, nothing is entirely innocent in this Europe. On the whole, the cultural artefacts that we venerate today still retain some of stink of the class system from which they tended to emerge. The great composers plied their trade to the nobility as a rule, meaning that the fruits of their labour were dishes for the affluent to enjoy. Ditto whole swathes of the visual and plastic arts. In the squalid rooms and byways of the poor, noble ambrosia was hard to find.
Today, we like to identify a sort of other-worldliness to these works: their beauty transcends the conditions of their birth. Perhaps the Nobel Peace Prize-winning EU should be accorded similar divinity – worshipped for the tantalising Utopia it seemingly promises is possible, rather than the grubby history it leaves behind it. Within the EU, its nations are the picture of good neighbourliness; soon, the whole world might populate a similarly cosmopolitan estate with pearly gates.
But while a peaceful breeze caresses the nations of Europe, their stability still has exploitation as its foundation. We still source the materials required to furnish our lavish abode from the poorest places in the world. From the sweatshops of the Far East to the stifling mines of Africa, countless toil anonymously, living and dying in impoverishment while we – good Europeans that we are – gorge on their produce.
The latest IT devices – with their gleaming black veneers – scuttle like beetles among EU citizens until fashion pronounces them redundant. Then to the bin they go, to be shipped out to some god-forsaken village in the Congo or China, where locals will strip them down for reusable parts. Toxic chemicals will leak into rivers and poison their water supply, their very flesh and bones. The poor will continue to suffer. In Europe, we’ll hanker after the new ‘must-haves’ and, purchasing them, ascend to new heights of trendiness.
And that’s not even mentioning the food shortages, healthcare travesties and general inequality that cripples most of the world’s population. We Europeans are peaceful now; we don’t want to see the bigger picture in which we might have a moral case to answer for our wealth and the consequent poverty of so many others.
“Let them eat cake,” we say…