“In the last resort, every shadow is also the child of light, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives”

The World of Yesterday. Memories of a European, Stefan Zweig 

Doesn’t this title remind you of Charlie Chaplin’s film: City lights? It also reminds me of the song  by Giorgio Gaber, an Italian singer who ironically pictured his own city “full of streets and shops, and windows full of light, with so many working people, with so many productive people”. Somehow, the idea of civilization being linked to light has always been present in our minds. Gaber’s “beautiful city” is actually Milan, where I also happened to arrive on a late September Sunday to see the exhibition of another George: The Europe of Light. Georges de la Tour is a French painter who is usually associated with Caravaggio because of his dramatic interpretation of light and for how it defined a whole new pictorial realism. Caravaggio and de la Tour were the first to take inspiration from the common everyday reality, meaning that tavern scenes and street brawls became worthy of being painted. Even the traditional representation of holy scenes lost its classical attributes and the usual distant edifying figures of Saints are now just beggars without a halo. De la Tour’s painting breaks with the traditional use of reproducing “noble” subjects to tell the stories of men and the reality of his century. This kind of humanism has been a major breakthrough and a powerful game changer time and again throughout history because of the essentiality of its idea: man is the noblest source of truth and bringing this into our moral conscience  is the necessary condition to get an increasingly better understanding of the world that surrounds us. Seeing how this thought has become the cornerstone of the most relevant moments in our history of ideas has always deeply moved me. From the sixteenth century of Erasmus, Montaigne and Descartes, the classicism of La Rochefoucauld and La Fontaine, to Rousseau’s Enlightenment and right up to the deep melancholy of Stefan Zweig – quoted at the opening of this article. In all our moments of progress we have drawn on this original thought to shed new light for the civilization we were building. Like a Promethean fire, this light has traveled through minds and through time to shape the greatest visions and the finest communities of men.

Today, however, our Europe looks like the one Stefan Zweig describes in his memoir at the dawn of the Second World War. It is a troubled chiaroscuro with a faint candlelight which, by an ironic concordance of the times, already shone on de la Tour in the seventeenth century. By then, the humanistic optimism was over and Europe was sinking into religious wars and mourning his beautiful ideas. It was the time of Reformation, but not only of the Reformation of history manuals. The Reform that Caravaggio and de la Tour were carrying out was a change far beyond faith alone: ​​their Europe, with its disappointed dreams, was changing completely. And it was at a crossroads: one way led into darkness, the other one consisted in growing that faint light of the last century, to pass it on to the next. All in all, couldn’t we consider it the tale of our modern times?

I sometimes believe the echo of history reaches the present even before the present becomes history itself. Thanks to this particular overlap of circumstances, we are able to see what kind of history we are about to make, and what is actually at stake in the game we are unconsciously playing. Because of this fascinating phenomenon, I decided to enter the Palazzo Reale where the exhibition was taking place with special time-glasses, the kind that made me see what the stories of de la Tour tell about us and which portrait of our modern Europe is revealed in the pictures of the seventeenth century one, between light and shadows.

Chapter I

The payment of dues, The Dice players

The Eurozone versus the European Union

These two pieces are part of the so-called night scenes of de La Tour’s work, which is characterized by some leitmotifs: the central-positioned light (hidden or not, with consequent backlighting effect) and the representation of an on-going action – that is literally happening. Through their clothes; or even armor, the characters come out undoubtedly as aristocratic members of society, and the shadow of mystery surrounding the plot puts the spectator under the impression that they are peeping through the door of a hidden room or perhaps in a secluded tavern corner. 

As suggested by its title, The payment of dues, recalls a rather topical European issue. An amount of money we ignore entirely takes all the light of the painting and even seems to reflect around the table, carving the faces as if they were masks. On the one hand, an old man is counting the coins from an open purse, assisted by the candle-holder; on the other hand, in a half shade, the borrower tightens his purse, staring at the open register which is placed in the exact middle of both parties. The scene is shown as a kind of surrender – agreed yes, but not peaceful. The man is fixing the register with a rigid expression that suggests frustration and some kind of yielding under pressure, which in fact explains him clinging to his last moneybag. In such a significant moment as the payment of debts (which is now a familiar circumstance to all of us: who, which company, or which State isn’t used to living on credit and bank loans?), this tension suggests how little room for decision or rebellion the debtor has against the creditor’s law. Free will, the moment of choice has passed and its point was precisely to accept the loan’s rules, is now nothing but a suffered consequence. This exact scheme has re-emerged in the recent debate that came up between “frugal countries” and – what would be the politically correct contrary to frugal? – non-frugal countries (“squanderer” perhaps?). Remember that old saying, true friends reveal themselves in time of need? Well, it seems our modern EU is no exception to this wisdom: the collapse of the weakest economies after the pandemic has brought back the rift between the rich and the poor. But those divisions are just the “visible part of the iceberg”: the real undermining clash is one of power and it has come to oppose economics to politics.

Being transformed from a union construction project to a (not so much) simple monetary space, EU history itself testifies to the triumph of the economists’ vision. This mere economical space however – and this is a first logistical issue – still coexists with the previous political structures, which according to Carlo Galli results in: “Sovereign states that have a single currency in common and are obliged to pay its costs out of their own pockets on their own soil; if someone is in real difficulty, he can be offered a loan on very expensive terms, not so much economically as politically.” The debt issue in Europe and its consequent recovery fund debate are actually directly imputable to the exclusively economical and non-political interpretation of the union: “the point isn’t that the creditor wants his money back, but that it is loaned in debt! If Europe were united it would not be a debt: it would be what happens in the US, creation of money and redistribution to areas that need it. If Europe was a union, it would print its own currency, that is to say its central bank, as final lender, would go with the “monetization of the debt”, in order to buy each state’s debt securities.” Galli’s explanation highlights how crucial the (now missing) political element is for the union construction and for the recovery of its economical function.

One important consequence of this “unfinished” European status (halfway between States and Union) has been to give up the exclusivity of the sovereignty argument to the eurosceptical criticism. Sovereignty is a highly strategic topic we should never have abandoned and left to the  nationalist protest movements, given the inevitable risk of handing the debate over to sovereignism’s misleading vision. The request to “go back to States” is the expression of the populations’ legitimate need for a political reaction. It may be  a clumsy one, but this definitely should be considered as a red light warning that the social cost of this economical agenda falls too heavily on societies. Eurosceptic movements are the result of nations’ concerns that are finding an immediate answer – more probably just a hope – by addressing the States’ request for protection and the possibility to counterbalance the economic hegemony. The question of sovereignty is therefore a question that the very same European institutions must confront themselves with and use as a key to reinterpret the whole European Union project. The answer to the social hardships of neoliberalism is undoubtedly political and consists in redesigning the concept of sovereignty. But under no circumstances can it be left to weakened, unstructured parties that have indulged in populist methods and poor leadership. Sovereignty is a strategic question because it is a potential solution to this dilemma. It was already the base of the Enlightenment political vision that invented our modern democracies. Bringing this heritage to light and adapting it to the current economic context (though pretty visionary, Rousseau was unable to predict Reagan and Thatcher) is essential work we need to go over in order to define our own political sovereignty as a European nations’ Union and refund a true, original, democratic culture.

The idea of sovereignty that the sovereignists stand for is basically one of unlimited power (indeed, some of them sharing a certain taste for autocratic regimes doesn’t come as a surprise), whereas democratic government models tend, by nature, to counterbalance powers in order to avoid the autocratic danger that always threatens the exercise of power (again, we owe this sophisticated political engineering concept to the Enlightenment). The sovereignty of a modern state is therefore limited by many juridical, economical and political determinations, all of which, however, descend from free and willing choices (that are normally approved through parliamentary process). For instance, NATO membership conditions the international policy of its members, entering the United Nations (UN) dispossesses de facto the States of their original right to decide autonomously to engage in wars. But the biggest deprivation the eurosceptics are focusing on – because it is directly affecting citizens’ lives – is the loss of monetary sovereignty which, roughly, brings us back to the scene of our painting. Constant debt, increasing violence of deflationary policy demands, political alienation: as it appears today, Europe cumulates flaws and gives back too few contributions, precisely because the sovereignty it took away from its members hasn’t been restituted in any political benefit whatsoever. Some economic interests were met once, but today these too are missing from the balance and with this comes the inevitable question: “what is the point?”

Again, let’s try dusting off a 250-year-old idea to shed a new light on the current EU situation. In his Social Contract, Rousseau had a more accurate insight about the importance of the trade-off concept than we did. In his theory, the transition from the state of nature (in which “man is a wolf to man”) to the social state (in which man finally becomes a “social animal”) is completed through a contract. It is really more of a commitment than an actual contract. No one has ever really signed it of course, but if you think about it, it must have happened, at least theoretically, somewhere in between the prehistoric form of civilization and our modern societies. At some point of our social evolution each and every one of us must have agreed to forgo a part of their individual freedom (including the right to kill a neighbour) in order to create a whole new Society that bonds to one another all of its “contractors”. This means that from this theoretical moment on, the safety and the defence of each individual’s fundamental freedom no longer depends on each individual’s force or ability to fight for it. Instead,  it is now guaranteed by right though a representative institution that will stand for it. By making this deal a group of scattered individuals that are simply coexisting on the same territory upgrades to a model of society whose interests are now connected and commonly shared as values, something we now (should) know as “common good”. But calling ourselves a society is not the only reason this contract is so crucial: the big change this trade-off is bringing is the one that endows us with the power of choosing our own political representation. So now that we are no longer allowed to make our own justice, we are able to constitute some institution that will ensure justice and government of the whole society – let’s call it… a State for instance. All in all, this power is a chance at self-determination: of course, it is an indirect power (one entity will be chosen as the representative of the whole society and, as such, be trusted and given authority by it, in order to govern), but it is an absolute and inalienable faculty of societies (if the entity no longer ensures the functions it has been elected for, it can be deprived of the executive power it has been given). These are the reasons why democracies use to think in terms of people’s sovereignty – not states’. It is important to understand that changing from a scattered collective to a united society doesn’t just happen, and clearly it has nothing to do with altruism. There is a very good reason for each individual to accept this contract as soon as he comes to terms with the state of nature’s reality and everyone gets that their freedom will be constantly threatened by that of others who, like them, have the power to act by the principle of survival of the fittest. In other words, the state of nature is sustainable only and exclusively in the state of nature. One problem is the state of nature is a hypothetical theory (no one has ever acknowledged its conditions, if not in prehistoric times), and the second issue is we’ll never go back to recreate those conditions: unlimited resources – or at least enough without having to rationalize them – and few enough individuals sharing the same territory so as not to threaten each other. Current demographic conditions and the global environmental circumstances require an effort of rationalization for us to keep on living (together). But this achievement has to be renewed again today, especially when taking for granted our nations’ and our modern societies’ “democratic contracts”. The need for a new proposal of union is crucial at global level and in particular at state level in Europe. 

The current Eurozone arose from an original contract that consisted in sovereign states giving up some of their sovereignty – the monetary aspect- to create a union. But unlike Rousseau’s society, this union hasn’t given back any constituent political power (yet), when only political sovereignty could allow us to choose and reorientate the economic model we are now trapped in. We therefore need to complete the pact that is the basis of the original EU project. The Union of States requires us to think over the act of joining the EU and bonding at a supra and inter-state level in order to guarantee, by this very same act, the constituent power and the political sovereignty we are now lacking. The reciprocity between what single country members put in and the power that is given back as a united entity must be ensured, and it is urgent we work this out to overcome the impasse. But in order to turn this wishful thinking into a real and achievable project, there are some conditions to be met. A European sovereignty, the so called “United States of Europe” must attain the attributes of sovereignty, so – again, according to C. Galli: “it has to provide for an institutional system (…) in which the Chamber is directly elected by the people and is central in the political system, and the federal executive descends either from Parliament’s vote of confidence, or from direct people’s election, with the consequent “provincialization” of the state’s politics. European trade unions and parties have to exist, and a radical political stand about the current economic paradigm must be possible, in order to free it from its destabilizing contradictions. In other words, the primacy of politics must be reasserted at the continental level ”. The realization of these conditions implies an overthrow, a real political and economic change which will begin with a new constituent act at a continental scale. The current Eurozone itself is now threatened by the sovereign movements that arise in every European country and by the “increasing tension between the deflation rules – that are no longer within states’ control –  and the exasperation of societies that the states are left alone with”.

And just like Greece, Spain and Italy, so too will the debtor of de La Tour will have to answer to whom this money has been taken – perhaps from a wife, a child, his community for sure – and this is probably the reason he grips the last bag with a tense and restless expression. The interests between creditor and debtor are still different and the relationship is about to implode, not only in the painting scene and not only in the “non-frugal” countries, but as a model of Union in all the Member States. This opposition of interests and the lack of political response to solve this conflict has also led to an increasing distrust of governments and politics in general. And this is something the populist rhetoric has perfectly understood: it has taken into account this precious resentment in societies to turn the hatred for the politics into a political force, promoting the idea that there is some obscure power – an economical one of course, but one that today melts into the political game – which is deciding the fate of the world without people. A bit like those Dice players in de La Tour’s second painting who, in the darkness of a mysterious back room, gathered in a small aristocratic committee. The action here is not obviously offered to the viewer as the money was in the first painting: the arm of one of the soldiers actually obstructs the view of the table, and even the candle, which is the only source of light, is partially hidden from us, creating a backlight effect in foreground. Not to mention the character in the dim light on the left of the picture that stresses the enigmatic and quite shady atmosphere of the scene. While all eyes are focused on the roll of the dice, he is the only one who does not seem absorbed by the table: his gaze, almost contemptuous, looks beyond the center of everyone’s attention suggesting a different interest. In fact, his hand – which is cut from the edge of the picture but revealed by the light effect – seems to be plotting something unbeknownst to the other players, or perhaps in agreement with some of them … A perfect portrait of the evil arcana imperii according to the imagination of some party leaders. But this (somewhat) caricatured vision of power actually took root in people’s minds and symptomatically gave birth to the mythological battle of “people versus politicians”, who are just playing someone else’s game. An idea that is actually hard to contradict considering what people can see and get from the European political scene. That is, little.

A good policy is a policy that everyone can understand, I should say bright and clear. However, today’s direct relationship between the electorate and governments is somehow hindered by a sort of economic screen. Economics has become a predominant and indisputable science, and its power usually grows exponentially in times of crisis: remember Maggie Thatcher’s slogan in the 1980s? Her response to miners’ strikes and need for social justice was precisely an admission (or maybe a promotion) of politic’s powerlessness: “There is no alternative”. Politics has become an instrument for purely economic purposes. Considering the economic needs, all the elements that impact citizens’ lives are being reorganized and brutally changed: work, taxes, health and the education system. It is rife to such an extent that it is now quite undeniable that governments are the guarantors of the economic functioning and their role has come to ensure the conditions necessary for neoliberalism’s survival, that is: a global structure and a disconnected society removed from political life and its constituent power.

Everything that concerns the economy has been cut out from evaluation and criticism, and so, today’s economic model is no longer understandable. From the original project of redistribution and growth support, there is nothing left. The demonized ghost of inflation pushes us to adopt more austerity measures, to cut wages and public spending – choices we’ve come to know the real price just a few months back when we ran out of recovery rooms in our hospitals. This doesn’t just seal the defeat of politics. What is really at stake is the dissolution of the interests of societies into those of a schizophrenic economy, which results in the socialist parties’ setback. “This is because the neoliberal social model is that of an amorphous society, composed of solitary individuals, without intermediation, union parties, etc. Let’s remember Thatcher’s famous phrase “there is no such thing as a society”, society is made out of individual entrepreneurs who only think about maximizing their individual gain” recalls Carlo Galli. The neoliberal revolution therefore goes far beyond its economical implication: it is generating a kind of society that is as opposed as possible to the humanist idea. It teaches us to consider man in terms of “human capital” which, just like economic capital, follows the rules of necessity: it must be employed, mobilized, used. Even our relationship to the world, our moral values are changing: our thinking must be useful long before being critical. Our very taste for dystopias (see sales record for Orwell’s 1984 novel and the success of Black Mirror on Netflix) is symptomatical and betrays, in addition to concern, the attempt to understand what catastrophic future awaits us, and how much more distant from our human nature we will get.

How long will it be possible to ignore humans and cut them out of what directly impacts their lives? How long will this system be maintained for its own sake (and maybe that of few others’). Will political decisions continue to be decided in the back rooms of the economic power, behind closed doors, according to some indecipherable agenda? And most of  all, who will be able to answer these questions if not who votes, who enters into politics today? Who can change these conditions if not those who fight the manipulation of the information and the decline of democratic culture; who read, listen, seek the light of other ideas – from other cultures, other centuries – to bring them into our present, to discuss and debate them today. If we have to redefine European sovereignty, we cannot expect it to arise from the institutions that have failed to build the Union, because “there is no sovereignty that arises from a table. Sovereignty is an explosion of political energy, not a treaty, which at best can seal a defeat or a victory. If there was a European sovereignty, it would have arisen from movements, struggles and revolutions, like all sovereignties, even federal ones.” Carlo Galli speaks of this achievement as a missed and now lost opportunity, but this past conditional tense is not permanent and we believe that European sovereignty is possible and that it will rise from the movements, struggles and revolutions that we will effect and it is up to us to begin. Twilight ends with the light that we will turn on now and lucky for us, unlike de La Tour, we get to use electricity …