The overall trend of social evolution during the last 10,000 years has been from small- to large-scale societies. If the typical scale of human societies was initially in the hundreds, it is now in the hundreds of millions.
War has been the chief evolutionary force in this astronomic—six orders of magnitude!—leap in social scale and complexity. In some cases, one group of people conquered others and built huge empires. In other cases, like with early Rome, an empire was put together because ethnic groups joined with a warlike people for protection against a frightening enemy (see more on this in my book War and Peace and War). Some Early Modern empires, like the Spanish one, coalesced as a result of a series of dynastic marriages.
And then, in 1957, a new way was found to combine human groups into a voluntary union. A group of six countries, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, started a new venture in Social Evolution—the alliance that eventually became the European Union. War still played a role. The Europeans were shocked by the blood and misery of World War II and resolved not to repeat its mistakes. At the same time, the Cold War imposed the Us-versus-Them mentality, which helped the integrative processes within Western Europe. Still, it was a new way of building a large-scale society—a voluntary union of peaceful democratic countries.
We all should pay attention to this experiment. If successful, it would point the way to ending wars on this planet. After all, the EU has succeeded in ending interstate wars within Western Europe (although it failed to play a similar role on its fringes, as bloody conflicts in the Balkans, in Ukraine, and in North Africa demonstrate all too graphically).
But the grand experiment of a unified Europe is failing. The landslide vote for “no” in the Greek referendum last Sunday is only the most visible signal of this impending failure. There are other problems that are tearing the Union apart. The massive influx of immigrants from Africa is dividing southern Europe from northern Europe. In a symbolic development, Hungary is building a fence to wall itself from Serbia. Some countries, like Germany, have both anti-immigration and pro-immigration movements that run ‘dueling demonstrations. Then, there is a looming referendum in the UK on whether to stay within the European Union.
I am not even talking about how the European Union’s policies on its eastern frontier have alienated Russia and turned the Ukraine into a battleground, with thousands of people killed and whole cities turned to rubble. After all, that’s outside of the EU.
What we see is a massive failure of the European asabiya. Asabiya is the key concept in the theory of history developed by the great Arabic sociologist Ibn Khaldun. It means the feeling of togetherness, which is translated into the capacity for collective action (see more in War and Peace and War).
As a result, today’s Europeans don’t feel that they belong together, and they are losing their capacity to generate collective action to solve their common problems. The Greeks hate the Germans, and the Germans detest the Greeks. Southern Europeans (Spaniards, Portuguese, and Italians) and the Northern Europeans (Germans, Swedes, and Danes) seemingly live in separate worlds. Everywhere, we see the rise of ‘Eurosceptics’: Podemos in Spain, Marine le Pen’s Front National in France, AfD (Alternative for Germany), Pegida (People Against the Islamization of the West) in Germany, UKIP in Great Britain, and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands.
The success or failure of the European Union is important for all of us, whether we’re American, Chinese, or Kenyan. Why is it important? Because if we want to abolish wars, we will have to build a cooperative society that encompasses all humans on this planet. The European Union was the first attempt to do it in a consensual, peaceful, and democratic way, even if at a regional scale. If it fails, and it looks likely that it will, we need to learn from its mistakes so that we can do it better next time. This is how Cultural Evolution works, but we need to help it along.
In the next installment, I analyze the Greek crisis using the tools of Cultural Evolution.