A Radical Proposal After Brexit: End the European Union and Begin Destructive Creation

Why the European Union should start over

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By Peter Turchin

A year ago, as the “Greek Tragedy” was unfolding, I posted on my blog, Is this the Beginning of the End for the European Union? The outcome of the EU membership referendum in UK suggests that the break-up process is gathering steam. I didn’t predict a vote of “yes” in the “Brexit” referendum (I thought it would be narrowly defeated). But as I pointed out in last week’s post, Will the European Union Survive its 60th Anniversary?, written the day before the referendum, Brexit is only one of many signs of how the political landscape within Europe has been tilting.

A disintegrative tendency has been gathering steam over the last 5-10 years, well before UK Prime Minister David Cameron had rashly set the referendum on whether UK should leave the EU in motion.

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Now, in the aftermath of the referendum, the main question is, what’s next? In the following I propose some answers suggested by the new discipline of Cultural Evolution and my research on historical dynamics (Cliodynamics).

My proposal is quite radical.

Rather than trying to fight the disintegrative trend, we should allow it to run its course, destroying the EU as it is now.

But we need a European Union. Thus, what I hope will happen is another integrative project within Europe, one that will learn from the mistakes of the last one.

In other words, the EU is dead; long live a new and better EU.

Social Cooperation is Key

We live in huge societies of hundreds of millions of people, but we don’t really understand what makes them possible. It is not often appreciated that well-functioning—peaceful, wealthy, and just—societies are possible only on a basis of effective cooperation (for more on this, see Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth).

The overall trend over the last 10,000 years has been for humans evolving to cooperate in ever larger societies—from living in farming villages of a few hundred people to nation-states of today and even supra-national formations like the EU. But cooperation is fragile. We know from studying history that cooperation tends to go up and down in cycles. Currently, and according to all the indicators, both the United States and the European Union are in a downward, disintegrative, phase of the cooperation cycle.

There are several interlocking reasons why the EU, in particular, has entered the disintegrative phase. Let’s discuss them in turn.

Betrayal of the Elites

The political elites in UK were overwhelmingly in favor of staying, but the majority of the population voted to leave. We see similar gulfs develop between the elites and people in other European countries (notably, Germany). Why? Some answers are suggested by The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, published 20 years ago by Christopher Lasch. Lasch’s book is a powerful social critique of the American elites, but many of his charges now apply to the European leaders—self-serving, globalist, and disdainful of people they govern.

This development is, in large part, a result of the spread of the corrosive ideology of neoliberalism from the US to Europe. As the European elites adopted the neoliberal views en masse, it changed their attitudes and behaviors in several ways.

First, neoliberalism freed them to pursue self-serving policies, such as reducing corporate taxes:



Second, the reference group for European elites became other wealth- and power-holders in Berlin, London, and Washington, not their own populations.

The treatment of Greece last year is a vivid illustration of the new elite behavior. The Greeks were forced to swallow the neoliberal recipe for fixing the mess, in which they found themselves. Note also that it was not the elected (and completely ineffectual) European Parliament that imposed austerity on Greece.

Imperial Overstretch

The European Union was born in 1957, when the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community was signed by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. If you trace the signing countries together on the map, they will closely match the extent of the Carolingian Empire. Why is this important?


Large-scale societies are not simply huge sloshing bags of people. Instead, they’re groups of groups of groups. Unlike ants, humans cooperate in societies that are organized hierarchically. Cooperation is important at all levels: we cooperate in families, we cooperate in towns, we cooperate on a regional level, in nation-states, and supranational organizations, like the European Union or the United Nations. At each level you need an identity. Who is that “us” who is cooperating? Most people have multiple nested identities, for example, one can be an Ingoldstadter, Bavarian, German, and European. We are interested in cooperation at the level above the nation-state. So where do supranational identities come from?

In my cultural evolutionary view, such identities come from very deep history. Often, they are “ghosts” of powerful and prestigious empires that are long gone—“charter polities”, to use a term proposed by the historian Victor Lieberman in Strange Parallels. For the European Union such a charter polity is the Carolingian Empire (eighth and ninth centuries AD).

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After the Carolingian Empire broke apart it left behind the idea of Europeanness that still survives today, although naturally it underwent a lot of evolution in the last thousand years. Initially the idea of Europe was known as Latin Christendom (note that excludes the Orthodox Christian areas as well as Islam). Latin Christendom had two important unifying institutions, Empire and Papacy. Of course, the French and Germans fought each other all the time, but when they were faced with outsiders (for example, during the Crusades), they actively cooperated with each other.

There were internal tensions within the precursor of the EU, the European Economic Community, but initially these problems were resolved in cooperative manner. But then, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the EU started acting as a typical expansionary empire, gobbling up more and more states. This is a typical imperial disease, known in historical sociology as “imperial overstretch.” The problems mounted, willingness to cooperate waned, and the integrative trend reversed itself. In addition to the spread of neoliberalism, which, as I stated above, is an ideology corrosive of cooperation, different EU members found it difficult to cooperate with each other, because they did not share a well-defined common identity. Additionally, different groups evolve different institutions that promote cooperation. This is why, as the political scientist Robert Putnam found, ethnically diverse groups find it more difficult to cooperate. It’s a coordination problem.

Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder recently expressed this idea as follows: “In southern Europe, there are notions of solidarity that differ from ours.”

Identities are not fixed in stone; they evolve. The idea of Europeanness has evolved quite a lot since the day of Charlemagne. But evolution takes time. You cannot build an identity and a common set of institutions in one fell swoop. The rapid expansion of the European Union far beyond the area where Europeanness was born (the Carolingian Empire) was, in my opinion, a big mistake. Positive social change is gradual and slow; it’s breaking apart that can occur quite rapidly.

Destructive Creation

But breaking apart is also an important aspect of social evolution. When social formations become dysfunctional they must be somehow swept away and be replaced with more cooperative formations. After all, that’s how free market economics works. Unprofitable firms go belly up, and more efficient ones grab their market share. Joseph Schumpeter called this “creative destruction.” For reasons I explain in Ultrasociety I prefer to reverse the order, “destructive creation”.

In the past, political formations—chiefdoms, states, and empire—were usually discarded by violent means, either as a result of external conquest, or of internal revolution and civil war. I very much hope that the dissolution of the European Union will unfold in a non-violent manner. In fact, the faster the political elites decide that the EU must go, the better chances are that it will happen without people getting killed.

I actually don’t expect such an outcome. Instead, over the next years the European elites will invest a lot of effort in trying to reform the European institutions. That effort is likely to fail, for reasons that I have discussed in this article.

What will probably happen is that the EU will gradually fade away by becoming increasingly ineffectual and then irrelevant. A historical example of such a fade is the League of Nations.

Where could a new and better EU come from? There is already some talk about “Core Europe” (Kerneuropa) perhaps consisting of the six founding nations, or some other subset of the EU. Such an incipient supranational political formation has a much better chance of promoting integration in Europe than an attempt to reform the EU as it is now. It can borrow those EU institutions that worked well, and replace the “bad” ones with new versions.

Much has been learned during the last 60 years. But the architects of the new Europe should not limit their sights to the past experience of just Europe and only the last six decades. We have a rich history of human attempts to build large-scale societies over the last 10,000 years. The rise of the new discipline of Cultural Evolution, which uses evolutionary theories and historical data (see Seshat: Global History Databank), provides us with new tools and ideas for evolving peaceful, prosperous, and just societies.

Cross-posted at Cliodynamica

2016 July 2

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  • Aside from the gratuitous and unsupported swipes at “neoliberalism,” the central thrust of the piece– that cooperation is positively correlated with commonality of identity– seems accurate. It is also true that larger societies require more cooperation.

    Strangely, the piece ignores the largest sphere of cooperation: people engaging in market transactions. The cooperation that enables makes everything in modern society possible and is actually a sign that people are more cooperative than ever. The globalization of trade, finance and communication has enabled cooperation on a scale never before seen.

    • franciscolopezus

      Unless there is a real free market (we have a theoretically free enterprise system, not a free market), neo liberalism can be toxic. We do have a lot of global cooperation, but I suspect this is a consequence of self interest and not the actual intent.

    • Duncan Cairncross

      The The globalization of trade, finance and communication has enabled – piracy and theft -on a scale never before seen. – there fixed it for you

      Neoliberalism – the idea that the 0.01% can steal ALL of the money

  • This book discusses the problems with micromanaging economies in an era of accelerating technology with all of the improbabilities that engenders. No elites, no matter how intelligent, can manage those immensities. Time to give up socialism. Time to take unguided evolutionary processes far more seriously.

    • franciscolopezus

      Socialism should be viewed as a way to fill the gaps left by the application of free market policies upon an imperfect (and far from free) market, which in reality is a free enterprise system (a real free market is Utopian and does not exist). Trying to micromanage anything under rapid technological change can be a nightmare. But letting things to evolve out of any control under the conditions described above, may end reinforcing the status quo and its negatives, so I would be cautious about this.

  • SLDI

    Peter is right: “It’s a coordination problem.”

    Origin of Sustainability Movement Leads to Current Challenges
    Individual components of sustainability have come together, but were initiated and promoted by
    separate advocates and frames of reference.

    Designing a ‘Big Wheel’ for Civilization
    Everyone who has ridden a tricycle understands the fact that three wheels are more stable than one or two. In fact, a three-legged stool gives greater stability than one with four (or more) legs when the surface on which the stool sits is not perfectly level.We also have learned that the simple balance of three applies not only to working with the laws of gravity, but to all aspects of life, hence the triple bottom line of sustainable development. What is harder to understand is why humans have so much difficulty applying this basic scientific fact through better balanced public and private policy.

  • l777l

    The problem is not (classical) liberalism. It’s that under the pretense of a free market socialist policies are being implemented. Which means the EU exceeds it legitimat purpose. It doesn’t limit itself to dealing with market failures, externalities, coordination problems, information and transaction costs, but actually interferes with decentralized experiments in living, with specialization, and pluralism. It interferes with cultures, with freedom of contract, with competition (of cultures, of corporations, etc.) and creates moral hazards. Unsurprisingly, it violates the rule of law. The idea to make this a democratic federal state is ridiculous. Apart from the aforementioned, it’d increase (political) information costs, decrease (political) accountability (reputation, local ties), and subject citizens to the rule of a veritable mass of others. The hypothetical social contract is strained enough already. Subordinating individuals to ever more others makes even more problematic. And along with this comes systemic risk, and human nature. Feel free to try and strike a balance between communism, liberalism (negative liberty), and communitarism. But something of this scale does not reflect human nature. It’s social engineering, the project of an oligarchy. And it will backfire, as it always does, in constitutional cycles. Try Switzerland, instead of the EU.

  • Jan de Jonge

    The article on Brexit is not very correct in my opinion. I explain this later. But first I want to address another issue.

    What I found astonishing is the kind of comments on this article. Almost nobody criticizes the core of the article but starts writing instead about his or her personal obsessions (market transaction, the free market, socialism, social engineering and so on). I’m afraid this is the American way of communicating, ignoring what has been written or said but trying to put your personal, sorry I have no better word, ‘obsession’ in the foreground. In American talk shows you see the same; nobody is listening to each other, the ‘law’ in such ‘discussions’ is don’t argue, but try to WIN (!!) by using one-liners and humiliate your discussion partner(s). It is like reading the social media.

    Second: the article. The moral of the explanation is: the elite ignores the interests of the majority. That is exactly what Marie Le Pen of the National Front in France, Martino Savini of Lega Nord in Italy, or Wilders of the PVV in the Netherlands and other right-wing parties in Europe argue. These are all xenophobe parties with as most striking characteristic that they are strongly anti-Muslim in particular and anti-refugees in general.

    The EU did not emerge out of the legacy of the Carolingian Europe, i.e., Western Europe. The Austrian-Hungarian empire already connected Western Europe with Middle Europe. That does not mean that there are no differences between Western European countries and Middle European states. Particularly, Romania and Bulgaria are lacking behind, economically. There is also a North- South divide between states like the Netherlands and Germany and South-European countries like Italy and Spain. Let’s for the sake of telling it as brief as possible explain the difference as a difference of austerity of economic policy.

    The determining reason to start the EU (first as the EG, the European Community) was the experience of WOI and WOII. Trade instead of war, was the slogan. And it worked. The rapid expansion eastward after the fall of the Wall was politically motivated (and strongly supported by the US government). From an economic point of view it meant that states that differ very strongly in economic development were joined together.

    Perhaps the wrong decision was the introduction of the Euro as a common currency. It deprived national states of executing their own monetary policy (depreciation of their currency for example). Afterwards, it would have been better to introduce a common currency gradually. Joining as a nation after it has passed an economic test.

    This decision was clearly a decision made by the leaders of the respective governments and they made the problem larger by embracing neo-liberalism, which forced all nations in the same economic mold and deprived them from an independent fiscal policy. At same time it must be said that this was motivated by the wish to bring all nations on the same level of state debt, budget debt, uniformity in tax regimes and so on.

    The elected leaders want to prepare a united Europe for the challenges of the globalized world. They are running ahead of the population and they should slow down their aspirations and spend more effort to maintain a social Europe, a Europe in which the losers of the globalization still can live a decent life.

    This will be a tremendous task. Let us not spill our energy in such (market wise) solutions as creative destruction. It will not solve the main problem of the voters for Brexit (or potential voters for Nexit, Frexit, Dexit) unless we end free trade. The Brexit referendum was in fact a referendum about immigrants. The voters think that the migration problem is directly related to the existence of the EU, but if they want to have free trade (and the UK always defended this), the migration problem will remain. And let us not ignore that the youngsters in Great Britain (and Scotland as a whole) voted remain overwhelmingly.

    • You may argue about the relative relevance of Peter Turchin’s storyline: there is also the ancient Roman empire with its larger territory resp. the later western Roman remnant, which both include modern Spain and Italy, but not the Balkans or Greece (parts of the later Eastern Roman empire) for instance (and neither Eastern Europe). Interesting that historical areas and cultures reflect modern fault lines.

      Nevertheless, it vindicates Peter’s general perspective, although it falls short in being just one of several relevant perspectives. Still, it outlines the general ‘forces’ that influence modern developments rooted in ‘institutional’ history and psychological views of the relevant cultural-historical identification ‘group’.

      To make Turchin’s story round, one has to add the layers of different historical cultures layers as they affect the perception of what Europe is and can / should be.

      Part of the EU troubles is related to the intended / accepted reach of cooperation and solidarity mechanisms: a common currency requires more fiscal transfers than northern countries are willing to accept. It also requires institutional change, which southern countries are too slow to adopt. Behind this are value and identity questions – and selffulfilling prophecies: if northern citizens assume that southern citizens are not willing to change their institutions than it is straightforward to oppose fiscal transfers, and vice versa it is straightforward to limit institutional change if not enough fiscal transfers can be expected.

      Thus instead of cooperating, both sides are playing tug of war waiting games instead of reform and integration to reap greater benefits at the cost of giving up what has evolved over centuries.

      • Jan de Jonge

        Carl. I don’t disagree with the main part of your argument. But first, the EU is in a split position. The economic integration requires a level transnational governance structure, which is at the moment politically unfeasible. Second, the EU has not evolved over centuries but is a product of a deliberate attempt to stop the wars after the disasters of WOI and WOII. Thus, I think is it more a product of political endeavors than a cultural evolved entity. Saying this, I do not close my eyes for the close cultural bonds between European countries. Personally I feel as much being an European as being a Dutchman.
        To overcome the current mistrust of large parts of the population in many European countries a new social contract is needed and to make a start the EU should stop in my view with the dominant neoliberal (economic) policy. (I recommend reading “The Globalization Paradox” by Dani Rodrik.)

  • John Burns

    You will find that the seed of the modern EU was planted by Winston Churchill.

  • BetterFailling

    ‘Brexit’ is just another example of ‘marketing’ tools being used deceptively.

    Instead of openly discussing the pros and cons both sides engaged into a
    war of deception. Instead of a rational argument the world witnessed
    how sentiment was used to spur people to vote for one side or another.

    Instead of choosing to stay in and help clean the mess the EU has devolved into
    many of the voters allowed themselves to slide into a ‘grab my toys and go
    home’ attitude.
    And now, that things happened as almost no one expected them to unfold, the rats are leaving the sinking ship.
    Which reminds me of another historical experiment that went horribly wrong.

  • Micha

    If you need to hearken back to the Carolingian empire to sweepingly explain modern geopolitics, you didn’t do your homework.

  • shiboleth

    This article looks like a set of not quite elaborated ideas. So, I understand that things need to be resolved (if it comes to that) in non-violent way but who called for violence in the first place? I also understand that some new EU should be real prospect on this continent, but what that really means, what’s that new Europe? Where is that going? What has been missed so far? And, as somebody said, things have very much changed for medieval times and those can hardly be taken as a model for anything today …