What we are looking at is far more than an economic crisis and far more than a crisis of European integration, even if much of the analysis chooses to explore it from this perspective. While the perspective is valid in itself, it has the consequence of hiding other processes – political, cultural, sociological – that affect the crisis and, by ignoring them, we make the solution of the crisis less likely. In short, deep changes are taking place in Europe and some of these are partly accelerated by the economic crisis, which has exposed the fragility of Western material well-being. It is in this sense that the word ‘crisis’ is appropriate – social realities are increasingly out of alignment with institutions and elite thinking. The crisis has also brought into question the reliability of both state and market as the central organising principle of Western democracy. After 1945, a great deal of trust was invested in the state as rational redistributor and allocator, as well as the ultimate source of rationality. By the late 1970s, this was being questioned and the dysfunctions of the state were to be eliminated by the market. The market, therefore, was seen as the supreme source of rationality. Note here that, whereas the state is and must be a political category, the market is understood as free of politics and is a primarily economic process, albeit culture, psychology and other factors are now recognised as forming a part of market behaviour. The elevation of the market to paramount significance ignored, however, the political implications of the shift that effectively amounted to abandoning politics and political inputs into the central processes of society. Democracy was thereby reduced to something narrower, almost to being a spectator with few legitimate points to make. At the same time, the functioning of the market was naturalised and to some extent sacralised. The supreme rationality of the market ruled and was above and beyond questioning; those who did raise objections were dismissed as ‘irrational’ or as ‘dinosaurs’ or ‘reactionaries’. What is strongly suggested is that it is not sufficient to see the crisis as either an economic or a political or even a sociological one, even if all these spheres are out of alignment with how they are widely understood, but crucially that Europe is in the grip of an epistemological crisis, above all where the elites are concerned. In summary, an epistemological crisis can be diagnosed when the assumptions and discourses of a particular normativity, of a plausibility structure sustained by an elite, are out of alignment with the way in which other elites

construct the world and, vitally, the social support enjoyed by the counter-elite is real and cogent. Hence those inside the liberal consensus repeatedly find themselves in contradictions that they do not, indeed cannot, recognise and when the evidence of their contradictory position is presented to them, they wave it away or ignore it. In this instance, the cognitive world constructed by the liberal consensus cannot adequately fathom the qualities of the decorrelation and dealignment that Europe is in, a world where political elites pursue normative goals that do not correspond to, let alone respond to, the aspirations of society. The rising inequality, fear of economic deterioration and the inter-generational crisis may be the most central here. Indeed, even the term ‘society’ may be a misnomer, given the fragmentation of power. All of which should make it clear that those inside the consensus cannot grasp adequately why things have gone wrong and, consequently, still prescribe policies that either do nothing (at most little) or exacerbate the crisis. The explanation that can help to clarify this state of affairs is that the liberal consensus may well have started out life as relatively open. The proposition that the ‘best of left and right’ traditions would generate a set of norms that would suit the conditions in Europe after the collapse of communism was persuasive and certainly helped to give the left a new lease on life by ending its suspicion of the market, as well as burying its long-standing penchant for nationalisation. What was less predictable was that in a relatively short period of time, a decade and a half, the consensus would evolve into an ideology and that, in turn, acquired the qualities of an identity. Identities do, of course, change over time, but in this instance, there was precious little incentive for change, especially as the neo-conservative embrace of market fundamentalism, that markets solve everything, coincided with the left’s pro-market turn. The two – neo-liberalism and the consensus – imperceptibly merged their different approaches, not least because the left had abandoned its traditional critical stance towards the market, which then gave market-mindedness a near monopoly; certainly it was a hegemony that Gramsci would have recognised. The principal characteristics of epistemological closure, as argued, is that those inside the box are persuaded of the correctness of their views, do not admit alternatives, regard those who emerge with counter-arguments as tiresome and certainly not as worthy adversaries. Perhaps most significantly in the current context is their propensity to grow more and more introverted and conservative (in the sense of rejecting innovation and even change). In other words, closure appears to be dynamic. It follows that those so affected will tend to interpret events, change, processes, phenomena according to their epistemological criteria and this generally means that there is an ever greater distance between what the sociological reality happens to be and what those inside the closure think it is. There is, then, a cognitive gap. What is notable about the liberal consensus is the constant proclamation of its openness, its commitment to diversity, to multiculturalism, to innovation and to

a strong, normative concept of a single humanity. In reality, liberal consensus is increasingly nothing of the kind where openness is concerned. As it condenses its discourses, it correspondingly closes itself off from the ideas, process or inputs that might challenge or undermine its cherished ideology. Hence what we are looking at in sociological reality is not a commitment to openness etc., but to a targeted openness and so on. The consensus is open to some, but far from all; indeed intuitively I have the sense that it is less open now than it was a decade ago, but these things are hard to prove. This propensity to target specific objectives, to privilege some social groups over others, demonstrates that the universalism of the consensus is not as universal – driven by the vision of a single humanity – as it would like to claim. A particular and rather successful instrument wielded by the protagonists of the consensus is ‘politically correct’ language. Clearly an aspect of insisting on morality over politics, and the association with Marxist-Leninist usage is quite deliberate, allows the consensus to silence discordant and dissenting voices without having to put forward an argument. It is taken to be self-evident and that’s it. This does not, of course, mean that those holding these views stop thinking them; it’s just that they are silenced. There is a more than ghostly similarity here to communism – both are reflections of monistic thought-worlds. The politically noteworthy difference is that there is no vanguard party to act as enforcer, although social pressure can be just as effective, if not more so. But like all hegemonies, these thought-worlds tend to harden and carry within them the seeds of their own weaknesses. They tend to be anti-innovative, above all because they are inclined to see themselves as an end state (‘end of history’). If only the champions of political correctness were to read Bakhtin, they would know that sooner or later tightly defined systems become vulnerable to challenge from outside. We are some way from the challenge for the time being, however. What we have instead is a revitalisation of the universalist moral legislation dissected by Bauman. From the perspective of democracy as the exercise of power by the consent of the governed, two old-new problems arise. One is who has the right to define PolKorr, indeed the entirety of the liberal consensus, how can significant swathes of opinion simply be excluded (as ‘populist’ or ‘xenophobic’ or whatever) from the democratic debate? The other is that of the quis custodiet, who has oversight of the liberal elite to prevent the excesses? What we are looking at is, indeed, an elite construct, which – whether we approve or not – is cultural and not open to debate with a range of alternative views. Here it is worth adding that no plausibility structure lives for ever and the more tightly it is constructed, the more it moves towards monology (Bakhtin again), the more it lays itself open to a dramatic collapse. Possibly the most damaging aspect of this is the readiness to shout ‘racism’ whenever one of the groups favoured by the liberal consensus comes in for criticism. There is a twofold problem here – the simultaneous denial and acceptance of collective representation and the transmission of the verbal weapon to the affected group that whatever happens to them is the result of ‘racism’ (the racism of the majority), with the result that the group in question acquires a greatly

simplified concept of causation, and one in which it has no responsibility, or agency for which responsibility is assumed. One response to this is radicalisation. The liberal consensus has not, I would suggest, reached the stage of Mary Douglas’s enclave culture which erects a ‘wall of virtue’ around itself and rigidly excludes everything that does not conform. Bakhtin’s monology also resembles this. What can be said, however, is that some adherents of the consensus are tending in the enclave direction. The characteristics of this particular closure are broadly structured by a commitment to human rights, democracy, the support of immigrant minorities and the LGBT community, gender equality and, to a rather more muted extent, the disabled. In all these cases, the definition of the category is entirely in the hands of those inside the closure and, in acting as a realitydefining agency, they are active in seeking to impose their reality definitions on others. Because these categories are part of a monistic system, its members can readily ignore precedents, parallels or inconsistencies that might undermine the closure. In truth, this closure is political, so that political interests and power will override external inputs that might threaten the solidity of the closure. This can happen even when the exercise of this power goes counter to the purported values of the system – the commitment to openness is maybe the one abused most flagrantly, seeing that a closure by definition is antagonistic to new ideas, external inputs, different logics and, indeed, to alterity. In brief, the proclaimed principles and ideals of the closure, despite the assumptions to the contrary, are not universal, but are targeted at whatever suits the political aims of the members of the closure. And it goes without saying, or should, that the selection criteria of what is targeted are firmly under the control of the insiders. There are further consequences resulting from the crisis. Liberalism, being a lineal descendant of the universalist aspirations of the European Enlightenment, always did have trouble with collective identities. In the Enlightenment scheme of things, these were destined to fade away as a transcendental universe of reason – one that invariably resembled the assumptions of those putting these ideas forward – would triumph over petty particularities. Nothing of the kind happened, of course, and even in the heyday of Enlightenment thought, there were counter-arguments and proposals put forward to challenge these assumptions, Herder’s being the most obvious, for which he has been excoriated as a proto-fascist ever since. The entire history of modern nations (which are completely different from states, whatever current English usage ordains) refutes the assumption, but then those in the grip of a transcendental normativity seldom bother with evidence that undermines one’s case. If we fast-forward to the 1990s, the consensus imperceptibly took another step, this time about collectivities. Its protagonists, influenced no doubt by the ‘end of history’ argument, concluded that, hurray, finally these tiresome collective identities were finished and the dawn or mid-morning of universalism had arrived. This coincided with the unipolar moment, that brief decade when the US appeared to be in possession of the agenda of the world. The consensus simply integrated the ‘ought’ into the ‘is’, that collective identities should fade

and, actually, they had faded. The shift from referring to states as nations simply mirrored this, consciously or not. This shift can clearly be seen as a move into unreality, something that is generally evident when a sizeable number of people confuse the sein and the sollen, the is and the ought. In effect, and this is a further reason why it is proper to refer to an epistemological crisis, the reality that collective identities were alive and well just could not be decoded by the categories available to the consensus. Matters grew worse when it emerged that these collective identities were not only prospering, but that they were able to go on generating political and cultural power. In the context of the EU, the rise of intergovernmentalism and the nation state interest were clear enough. Outside Europe, as with China, for example, the consensus had little to say other than make disapproving noises. In a way, the inability of liberalism to find an answer to nationhood and other identity collectives is its greatest weakness, one that it cannot acknowledge, even if there is a perfectly respectable national liberal alternative around. Yes, but that throws universalism out the window and that is unacceptable, because that would force the consensus to acknowledge that the project of turning the rest of the world into etiolated imitations of the West had failed, failed in spades as a matter of fact. In this perspective, the West’s love of moral legislation for the rest of the world lives on as an aspect of the consensus. This is encountering increasing resistance and refuses to accept this resistance. This is yet another facet of the crisis. Universalism and the moral legislation are imposed within Europe as well, of course, and here the resistance is dismissed as populism, a word that currently means ‘something that I don’t like’ (and can’t fathom as to why it attracts a growing number of votes). Much the same problem is posed by religion, above all the slow realisation that, outside Europe, religion remains a powerful force and inside, religiousness – including believing without belonging – may be on the increase. What follows from this is that liberalism, as currently understood, tends to see these collective identities as deviant or, the worst-case scenario, as protofascist or even crypto-fascist. Note that the term ‘fascist’ has nothing to do with historical fascism à la Mussolini, but has become a generic word of condemnation in the liberal vocabulary. This is precisely because it has been torn from its historical roots; it can be applied freely to any phenomenon or process that the user dislikes. Another aspect of the epistemological crisis can be found in the strikingly contradictory view of the state in the assumptions of liberal universalism. As liberals, they are hostile to etatism and believe that individual interactions are sufficient to ensure whatever it is that liberal universalism wants to ensure – life, the universe and everything. In their moral legislative role, on the other hand, the same reality-defining agency looks to the state to enforce moral regulation. An incontrovertible example is the way in which legal instruments are used to punish Holocaust denial and anything that can be squeezed into the category of hate speech – a category that is necessarily subjective and flexible. It also has the advantage that it can be made retroactive and thereby rewrite the past.