Scott Atran: People need purpose and meaning to embrace Europe

A 'United States of Europe' faces a number of challenges. [Shutterstock]

The European Union is not inevitable: it requires struggle and sacrifice otherwise it will die and Europeans must regain this sense of purpose, cultural anthropologist Scott Atran said in an interview with

Scott Atran is a French-American cultural anthropologist. He is director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, Research Professor at the University of Michigan, and co-founder of ARTIS International and of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s editor-in-chief Daniela Vincenti.

You are a cultural anthropologist and study closely all forms of extremism. Extremism is growing and so are narrow, xenophobic ethno-nationalisms and separatist movements like the one in Catalonia. Is the world going mad?

There is the bright side of globalisation and there is the dark side of globalisation.

The bright side of globalisation is for the European middle class and the elites. It has worked very well except that it doesn’t give people a sense of community and purpose.

The European Union is too abstract, its elites are too distant, citizens feel that they don’t have a real role in decision-making and even the effects of decision-making seem difficult to comprehend.

Their nations don’t seem to be giving them either the sense of rootedness, of spirituality, of rituals, of ties, that make community life through a shared sense of values evident like human beings want. So, they are looking for that sense as community.

The dark side of globalisation has also resulted in a lack of community, but in a different way. There, people have been forced into the gamble of creative destruction, market capitalism, and for the vast majority of humanity now it’s a failed gamble.

These people don’t belong to those who control the world and you see that in the ever increasing distance between the super wealthy and the rest of the world.

In fact the middle class has been increasing for more than a decade now and they have no traditions to fall back on, because they’ve all been destroyed. There is nothing left, so they are looking elsewhere, but they are looking for something else, something in that ‘golden age’, something in their traditions.

But, in fact, the dark and bright sides of globalisation come together. There is a huge movement, a search for identity and purpose that people aren’t finding in this ‘shopping mall’ world of nation states.

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You point to the missing sense of community, but thousands of communities are forming online. Is that not substituting old forms of spatial communities?

You see, the bright side of globalisation is a materially-driven economic process. And in the globalisation process, the principle means for self-realisation is through material accumulation and status and so the quest for material status and expression through material sufficiency is now wedded to the quest for identity.

So Catalonia, for example, or Scotland or Britain want a sense of community that also gives them a privileged material opportunity in competition with their closest neighbours. And they feel cheated. It’s a fiction I believe, but they do believe that they can best manage their material world, their finances and their wealth separately and they shouldn’t share their wealth because they are being exploited. Of course that’s their narrative.

Is there a way to convince them otherwise?

No, once you are involved in a narrative like this it doesn’t matter. Evidence, truth is not important. I mean the Catalonian narrative is nuts. Catalonia has been part of Spain since the founding of Spain; it was part of Aragon. The Spanish succession in the 18th century ended up with the defeats of Catalonia and Valencia and resulted in the birth of modern-day Spain. That had nothing to do with independence, but people reinterpret history to fit their own needs.

And then of course there was the era of Franco, which suppressed the Catalan language but all that is almost meaningless because Catalonia was granted a great degree of autonomy in the 1970s, probably much more than any other region in Europe.

No one oppresses the Catalan language, they only teach one hour of Spanish a week, three hours of English, no one is oppressing them, plus they are pretty much able to manage their own finances, their own school systems and their own security.

They are very autonomous already and they have no complaints to make. Go to Barcelona, do you see oppression? Give me a break.

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How can you deal with separatism? Now we have Catalonia, but next month we could have Corsica, the Basque region, Lombardia …

The EU itself has to take a stance. It’s such a wishy-washy organisation. I mean even the reaction to Brexit and the Catalonia crisis or Scotland, they give these weak responses instead of saying what they are, how they see themselves.

We are a federation of nations, is that where our strength lies? If so, do we try to preserve these nation states or open it up and say no: the European Union is this entity that tolerates all those identities.

The EU is not clear at all about this, so the ones that are breaking away – or hoping to – are hoping to go this way. And those who want to stay as nations are  hoping the EU says nothing. I mean Merkel or Macron have said this is not what we really want, indirectly, through Tusk and others are saying we really prefer it this way.

Well there are also other ideas: some say that instead of unifying states and creating a United States of Europe (a federal union), we should unify citizens and create a European republic.

When pigs fly. There are just too many different historical, linguistic, cultural differences for that to work. The United States is really pretty homogeneous, at least its founding was homogeneous, Germans and English basically, unified around a single language, two religions but both Christian, and still they have big problems to keep it together.

But in terms of unifying Europe, do you think starting with the single market, the euro and now thinking of a defence union is the right way to go? Shouldn’t we have started from culture and education? We have the Erasmus programme, but compared to the rest it’s a drop in the ocean. Should we focus much more on culture and forging a common identity? And how?

Yes, I do think so but it’s not going to happen. I think that the values – especially in the West – of justice and democracy and human rights and tolerance that make the West what it is, are good things and underpin the union but there is not enough will in the union or agreement among many member states, especially in the east, that these are actually values.

There are no values in the European Union. Look at Hungary. I mean Viktor Orbán says these are not our values and we couldn’t care less about them. Democracy is pretty worthless unless it is a one party state where everyone votes for me or my party. He actually says that: “We don’t want multiparty states; we want one set of values governing us. And then his people feel as close to Russia as they do to people to in the West. And they also feel that the EU isn’t preserving their traditions, Russia is. Same in Poland, except they are more worried about the Russians.

So the way it is set up, it is impossible. You’ve got Orbán and you’ve got the Poles and the Slovenes, so what do you go and agree on? Nothing.

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The current president of the Commission is pushing for more qualified majority voting, especially in defence and security. The EU was created on the ashes of many crises and it will continue to be so …

I think the crisis is already tearing the union apart, we don’t see it strengthening. The European Union survived by the skin of its teeth with Macron’s election. If he had lost it would have been finished.

So we have respite for maybe four years to come up with something that will keep it together. And Germany is not going in a good direction either now, Britain is already gone, Spain risks breaking up …

How can we resist and overcome these strengthening countercultural pressures? Or better, how can we shape them?

By offering people a sense of purpose and meaning.

You are also an expert on ISIS. Do we really understand the reasons why young Europeans are attracted to fight and die for their cause?

No, and I don’t think our politicians do either, judging by the questions that have been given to me by the ministers of defense. Nor does the European Union.

The biggest problem is that the best indicator of who joins one of these groups is whether their friends join. And that spreads because the environment is there for these ideas to spread. It spreads particularly among people in transitional stages in their lives: those who have left their family, are seeking a new family or friends, immigrants, students between jobs and girlfriends and boyfriends and it spreads in places where the community structure is weak, distressed.

So how do we inoculate against this? Well, counter narratives and mass lectures for people are going to get you nowhere. Moderation is going to get you even less, because those people are looking from the side of adventure, purpose, glory, something to make life meaningful. Moderation is basically like taking in an anti-depressant drug or valium, trying to keep it under control. That’s how most people look at young people anyway these days, controlling, not releasing their creative force.

The Islamic State tries to lure them with propaganda mostly about social development programmes for youth, not about punishment.

So what can move young people in these particular neighborhoods to find purpose and significance in life?

Well in the more elite neighborhoods they could work on climate change or defense of the environment or I think even more important anti-nuclear activities, which is the world’s greatest threat.

But in these communities, what moves young people? Democracy? As I said, the German defence minister asked, why do they reject it? What is democracy when it ends in a white oligarchy that controls everything and they have no opportunity to do anything at all? Right?

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There must be something that we can come up with, no?

What can be meaningful for them? It has to come from them. No one is listening to them, no one is even asking their opinion. For vicious ideas to spread all you have to do is do nothing. All you have to do is be neutral. And certainly the people in those neighborhoods don’t trust the authorities, the authorities provide them with nothing, so why should they.

You’ve got to inoculate these environments by giving them ideas that are even more powerful. Ideas have to come from the communities themselves, from the young people themselves.

Do you think youth parliament, youth community councils could help?

It’s a good idea if there is a concrete possibility of them implementing their decisions, otherwise it’s worthless.

Could this work better at community level, because it’s smaller and more manageable than the world stage?

Give it a purpose with a universal message, so it allows for linking them up with other local groups. How do the United States take care of bounds of urban crime with new immigration in the late 19th century? Through things like high school football and the boy scouts and even comic books about superheroes. High schools which were very much related to their churches in their communities or particular clubs or boy scouts, they were all connected and so there was a national feeling about it, a national understanding. Even though each chapter had their own thing, it was totally grass roots and totally local.

That’s all gone, unless it has become a very liquid, fluid idea that most of the world shares, so community is being lost.

But it worked for the time it worked. You have to re-enchant, respiritualise communities so the members care for one another, but you’ve got to do it with other communities. Otherwise they can’t compete. This is where the far-right has a universal message, they can link up many communities, and they also have very local chapters.

In a way you are talking about giving a sense of community and purpose much linked to passion. Isn’t a united Europe still a dream in itself?

Why would it be a dream for a young kid in a distressed neighborhood, a second generation Moroccan?

How do you reinvent European democracy to make it more inclusive?

By making people understand that it is not natural, it is not something inevitable, that it is something you have to fight for, it’s something that requires struggle and sacrifice. Otherwise it will die and that’s what happens, it dies.

Like any cultural idea, people are not willing to make costly sacrifices for, they die. People think, especially young people think, that the EU is just there, that it came down from heaven and that democracy is just the natural order of things. Of course even their parents think that, since the war. But it is not, it took great struggle, it took wars, it took social engineering, education, it took revolutions to build democracies. And there is nothing natural about it.

All people are equal? Give me a break. Tolerance, slavery, cannibalism, genocide, oppression of women, minorities, 200 thousand of years and all of a sudden a bunch of intellectuals from Europe decide: no more torture, no more slavery. It was the most counter empirical invention: human rights, democracy, ending torture. What ISIS does is much more common to humanity, even today with human rights and democracy.

People have to realise this.

George Orwell in his review of Mein Kampf asked: how is it, that socialist countries, capitalist countries, offer their citizens ease from pain, risk with health care, birth control, comfort, tolerance, ensure a good life and no one is willing to fight for that? At that time no one was.  Hitler, who offered his people revolution, death, destruction, adventure and tens of millions of highly advanced Germans followed his feet. Why? That’s the question he was asking in 1940.

Then he answered, because Mr. Hitler understands something profound about human nature: people need at least some sense of human sacrifice and transcendence, a sense of understanding, of making their own history but also of knowing that there is a higher purpose, that this is not just an arbitrary interval in the world between life and death.

And that‘s not what we are making. We made democracy as the freedom to select goods in a shopping mall, not about how to make life better. It’s about how to make my life better.

Do you think it is a path of no return?

Nations rise and nations fall on the basis of making this sacrifice for their cultural ideas. If we can respriritualise them, re-enchant them, there is no reason you can’t turn around.

Yes, but if you ask a young person: would you die for Europe …

I do in my lectures. When you ask the question in North Africa and the Middle East, they all say yes. Here very few say yes. There are some, but as Darwin said, you need a critical mass of devoted actors that can inspire others. Those who are inspired will eat you alive. Do we have that critical mass; do you see that in the Commissioners, in the European Union? Who is inspired? Who can inspire?


He has the perch, but I don’t know if he has the inner fire and understanding. Maybe he will surprise us.

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