Post-National Europe and Other Bureaucratic Fantasies: On Robert Menasse’s “The Capital”

October 11, 2019   •   By Andrew Griffin

The Capital

Robert Menasse

FOR A BOOK WRITTEN in the past five years, Robert Menasse’s The Capital, published for the first time in the United States last month in a translation by Jamie Bulloch, feels strangely dated. In the time it’s taken the novel to win the 2017 German Book Prize and be translated into English, the character of European nationalism — a central issue in Menasse’s novel — has transformed significantly, marked more prominently now by Islamophobic contempt than by the intra-European chauvinism that Menasse explores.

While The Capital seems written about a different world — a world before the ascent of the Alternative für Deutschland Party (AfD) in Germany, say, and the resurgence of the National Rally in France — Menasse wouldn’t be surprised by this nationalistic ugliness. His earlier Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits, an essay written while he was researching The Capital, predicts this sort of dangerous nationalism. The earlier book, which won the 2015 European Book Prize, argues against the “homicidally stupid” regime of nation-states that currently imagines itself as the United States of Europe. So long as member states retain significant power in a constitutional arrangement that pits their interests against the interests of the European whole, violence, claims Menasse, will always be on the horizon. To combat nationalism and its role in violence on the continent, goes his modest proposal, Europe should just get rid of nations.

If that dream seems even further away now than it was when he wrote Enraged Citizens — the age of the “Greek Financial Crisis” and high-handed Franco-German diplomacy — then at least his admonitions about nationalism now take on a prophetic force. As Europe remembers that history isn’t over, perhaps now is the time for a more careful discussion of what a post-national Europe could be. If that imaginative project is political, then The Capital is best read as a political novel, one that aims to imagine an EU that would allow Europe finally to supersede its terrifically violent history. But the novel also seems dubious of its own hopes. With its curiously shapeless plot and violent resolution, The Capital doubts that its ideals will ever be achieved. When we find ciphers for Menasse in the novel — the sincere bureaucrat Martin Susman and the pathologically charmless professor of economics, Alois Erhart — they’re the ones who lose, ending up marginalized in a European Commission that is itself strangely marginal to the political life of Europe.

This ultimately poignant view of the European condition and its deep sensitivity to its characters’ inner lives ultimately makes The Capital seem like something other than a satire. Even if it mocks the bureaucrats of the European Commission, it also reminds us that they — whether overly earnest, careerist, boring, hypocritical, passionate, or fastidious — are generally better than the nationalist bigots who demonize them and the predatory international capitalism they try to regulate. But being better than the worst probably isn’t enough to satisfy Menasse’s ultimate political vision, outlined in Enraged Citizens, which involves a robust and modernized version of enlightened Josephinism. In this account of an enlightened continental order, politics itself is replaced by a managed (rather than governed) bureaucracy, compelled to order by a regime of disinterested functionaries who supplant previous power centers. For Menasse, this is the only solution to a continent historically plagued by nationalist violence and an electorate apparently unfit for democracy. His politics, needless to say, are difficult to situate in the current political scene, and the novel itself is understandably unable to imagine these weird political solutions.


The European Union is, for Menasse, a formal problem. What would it mean, he asks in Enraged Citizens, to render the EU? This is a question of realism, and the sort of question that quickens a variety of high realist novels explicitly treated as models for The Capital, books such as Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Theodor Fontane’s The Stechlin, and Dostoyevsky’s Demons. These are books with a sense of political complexity and generational scope, hoping to imagine the relationship between their characters and a cultural whole that its characters both embody and produce. But is the EU such a whole? A network of integrated economies is hardly the sort of totality that major realists of the early 20th century imagined, and Menasse recognizes that it was a “quirky idea” to write such a novel, but it’s coming to seem increasingly plausible. Europe is growing more and more coherent as a political institution since the Treaty of Lisbon, and it might be able to support this sort of treatment. Twenty-five years ago, Étienne Balibar was right to claim that there “was no state in Europe” — “Es gibt keinen Staat in Europa” — but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

Wrestling with this formal problem is part of the mythology that has sprung up around Menasse’s novel and his deep research. “I flew to Brussels,” he explains in Enraged Citizens, “rented a flat and, in the subsequent weeks and months, tried to meet as many Eurocrats as possible, have them tell me about their work and life, and, if possible (and it was possible), observe them working.” As an answer to the question, “What is the EU?,” this literal-minded response fits well with Menasse’s ultimate dream of a well-managed, bureaucracy-centric union. “If it’s still possible to write a realist novel,” he insists, then “I had best make my way to the place where that reality is being produced — and, without a doubt, that place nowadays is Brussels.”

This “without a doubt” is a stretch — global capital, as Menasse knows, is pretty important when it comes to the production of reality — and yet it serves as a crucial conceit for the novel, which is fascinated by bureaucracy in the derogatory sense, pointing up the idiocy of committees and the self-indulgent turf battles waged by career administrators. In this morass, we find a variety of characters working on vanity project at the Directorate-General for Education and Culture (D.-G. EAC) as they prepare for a jubilee celebration of the European Commission (EC). Marginalized within the EC and seen as an institutional backwater, the D.-G. EAC is filled with vaguely sympathetic, slightly weird bureaucrats like its protagonist, Fenia Xenopoulou, or Xeno, an ambitious Cypriot who desperately wants to move higher in the EC, away from the directorate dismissively known as “Culture” and closer to the center of power.

Despite the need for a back-patting celebration, the plan for a parade featuring elderly Auschwitz survivors dies, unsurprisingly, in committee. As a bureaucrat from another directorate notes, the problem with the jubilee plan wasn’t its obvious crudeness, but its explicit claim that the EC had a “moral duty” to the “overthrow of the nation state.” This sort of bureaucratic overreach — a parade that calls for the destruction of its sponsors — is an obvious source for Menasse’s pointed and frequently funny office-comedy humor, but it resonates bleakly against the stakes he imagines. To imagine Europe in terms of its moral imperative to avoid nationalist violence is, as one bureaucrat from the powerful Directorate-General of Trade, to provide “an inappropriate moral canopy over an economic community.” This vision of a unified, post-national state, then, isn’t a standard behind which a continent of economies will rally, and that seems to be the source of Menasse’s anger and frustration. Meanwhile, all of Europe knows Auschwitz, and yet Europe won’t recognize that the shared trauma, inspired by nationalist zeal, is a meaningful kernel for an identity. It’s here, around the question of Auschwitz, that Menasse’s political world is built: unless Europe eliminates nations, it’s due to repeat the camps.

Menasse suggests in The Capital that his post-national political dreams, sketched out roughly in Enraged Citizens, are likely impossible to attain. The problem is the distribution of constitutional powers in the EU. National interests, according to Menasse, maintain too much power in the European Parliament and the European Council. While the EC may build on a noble mandate committed to European peace and prosperity, national interests embodied in the other two pillars of the EU’s constitutional order interfere with that mandate. While this friction between the member states and the tenuous “European whole” is an insoluble constitutional problem, Menasse makes clear in The Capital that German, French, and British “national interests” are particularly intransigent. Overweening German and French diplomats are frequently a target of Menasse’s satire, in part because the EU of which Menasse dreams will never thrive while its two most powerful member states resist incorporation. Menasse’s deep contempt for the “Merkozy” bloc is captured in a squabble between two German diplomats “who couldn’t agree on whether Germany should exercise her claim to leadership in Europe ‘with greater confidence’ or ‘with greater humility.’”

The humor and pathos of the novel draw from this tension between enlightened visions of European citizenship and the ugly stupidity of the backroom dealing that actually shapes EC policy and the EU’s reality. As Xeno struggles to impress powerbrokers in the EC with her management of the jubilee, her general vulgarity undermines the ideals spouted by her more sincere staff. This administrator, so powerful in the D.-G. EAC, seems unable to think beyond her career in any meaningful way, reading her first ever novel — Musil’s The Man Without Qualities — only because she wants to impress the EC president. Such figures are easy targets, more convincing because they seem clearly drawn from life, with Xeno herself apparently based on Themis Christophidou, director-general for Education, Youth, Sport, and Culture. As Menasse tells it in Enraged Citizens, she reluctantly offered a meeting as he wrote his book only to be boggled when she learned that he was writing a novel. “A novel?” she asks, “Why, for heaven’s sake, are you writing a novel?”

If the bureaucrats in the EU suffer from vulgarity, Menasse suggests that they also suffer from a broadly deficient sense of history. In this context, the regular invocation of “Auschwitz” by bureaucrats in The Capital comes to feel both poignant and risible. As Europe seems to forget the postwar foundations of its current political settlement, the moral force of Auschwitz wanes. It’s around this sense of historical loss that the novel claims a degree of moral authority, focusing on David de Vriend, an aging camp escapee buffeted about Brussels by the paired humiliations of managed care and senescence. The nightmarish story of his camp survival and the shortening list of his survivor friends provide a moral horizon to the novel. And yet the novel knows too well how such historical power can be co-opted or degraded. While it’s likely true that nothing “has created such a fundamental solidarity of all people [of Europe] as did the experience of Auschwitz,” Europe today also features gaudy bus tours to the camp. For a few extra Euros, you can buy a VIP pass, marked in three languages: “GUEST OF HONOUR / GOSC HONOROWY / EHRENGAST in Auschwitz.”

The dark irony here is symptomatic. Europe, for Menasse, is adrift, and Europeans are only vaguely aware of their shared pasts, ignoring that its current relative stability is tied to postwar European coherence, the forgiveness of German debt, and the Marshall Plan. As Susman quotes Jean Monnet, a “father” of the EU: “All our efforts are the lessons of our historical experience: nationalism leads to racism and war, and with dire logic, to Auschwitz.” And yet Menasse wants us to register that this clear-eyed account of the European condition falls on the deaf ears of bureaucrats who work in Monnet’s shadow. When Susman appeals to Monnet, describing “what connects the citizens of this continent,” Xeno’s response is, “Who?” As often as the novel claims something like, “The past forms the future, without regard to life,” it also insists that the past is very far from the present’s concerns. Inspired by the theme, Menasse spends considerable narrative time describing contemplation and conversation that take place in cemeteries — “Are you talking to the dead, too?” — and the novel features a scene in which we learn the Mausoleum of Eternal Love is in disrepair. As with the characters he mocks, Menasse seems occasionally prone to mawkishness, even if the historical crisis he describes seems dangerous.

Against its pessimism, the novel offers a weird bit of hope. If a truly pan-European past persists in the present, The Capital suggests that it persists in an institution of pious Polish assassins who … uh … work for the Roman Catholic Church and NATO as they … uh … murder terrorists? As models of supranational organization go, one could do worse than the church and NATO, but they also usefully suggest the broader “variety of forces” that persist, often anachronistically, well beyond the remit of the EC. The paranoid tone of the assassination plot and its vague suggestion of “larger powers” seems to offer the ultimate horizon to the novel’s realism, gesturing to a point at which bureaucrats aren’t, in fact, producing reality in the EU today. It’s here that the novel seems to drift, ignoring all sorts of forces that seem crucial to acknowledge if one hopes to think through the EU in meaningful ways. As a narrative fact, the novel explains away this amorphous messiness as a function of realism rather than as its failure. Appealing to a vague notion of connection to which it won’t really commit, The Capital wants us to ask about the “significance” of “interrelationships, entanglements, and connections […] if those concerned know nothing of them?” The novel asks this question as it stages, again and again, characters who cross paths without meeting. Its characters share a political space that they only vaguely comprehend.

Just as the novel seems to elide crucial factors that shape the EU today — one can’t manage one’s way out of global capitalism with “culture,” memory, and fellow feeling — its few vague allusions to Muslim Brussels seem a strange elision in hindsight, especially considering how Brussels’s largely Muslim Molenbeek neighborhood features in the fever dreams of today’s nationalists. If Menasse’s goal is to understand European nationalism today, then he shows how long the past five years have been by ignoring the Islamophobic core of today’s nationalist zeal. If Nazis come back, they’ll project violence onto the bodies of Muslim men both within and beyond European borders. These facts make the novel’s fleeting, pointed allusions to Muslim people in Brussels seem oddly off-key. Menasse describes police who protect a Muhammad-drawing cartoonist, and he mentions — in the voice of a clearly dim, paranoid cop — the cafés in Anderlecht and Molenbeek where women aren’t “allowed” to visit. Menasse also notes, optimistically, that Martin’s brother Florian, is rescued from the wreckage of a car crash by a Muslim woman, who holds him like the Virgin in La Pietà. This general disinterest in Islamophobia, migrants, and refugees, especially when combined with a sense of gradual reconciliation, means that Menasse misses a crucial feature of European nationalisms today.

This feeling that Menasse misses the real character of the nationalism he disdains — a nationalism that emerged under globalization rather than in the shadow of the Franco-Prussian War — is ultimately the most significant problem with a novel that attempts to assess the European condition. Ironically, considering how European consensus has split around immigration policy, the dream of a united EU might fall apart due to an issue that Menasse registered only vaguely five years ago. Similarly short-sighted, the novel seems to recognize the economic power of China, for instance, only as a force that divides EU trade delegations and buys a lot of pork. In this plot, Menasse again gestures toward crucial economic determinants of life in Europe today — determinants that are decidedly global — and yet his gaze is frequently pulled back to the continent as if it were largely self-contained, as if it could be better served by a more coherent identity.

But what is this identity that Europeans might share if they hope to operate meaningfully as a coherent political unit, unaffected by internal faction? On the one hand, Menasse seems correct that Europe must become a more state-like organization if it hopes to prevent internal violence and to maintain meaningful leverage in a world of hostile “minor powers.” The power imbalance between international powers and, say, Estonia means that the smaller nation requires the support of something like Europe if it hopes to participate as an equal player in global markets, and if it aims to escape the orbit of a Russian state hostile to it. On the other hand, as Menasse points out, “Europe” might want to support Estonia, but why would Germany or France support a smaller nation when such support comes at the price of national competitive disadvantage? So long as German and French politicians remain in political thrall to their national GDPs, they’ll clearly operate as if Estonia is a competitor.

Menasse comes up with a truly novel and potentially convincing solution to the problem of nationalism in Enraged Citizens, one that exceeds the vague promise of “European peace.” For Menasse, the problem with a Europe-of-Nations is not only that nations are too recalcitrant and competitive, but also that the communal identity around which they’re built is artificial when compared with the more meaningful, organic idea of a regional identity. While national identities are difficult to eliminate, claims Menasse, regional identities are clearly more significant to Europeans today, and these regional identities are the best foundation for a post-national European politics. When Europeans realize that “the democratic legitimacy of nation-states […] actually creates and continually exacerbates the problems” in Europe, then they’ll realize themselves as Catalan, Saxon, Frank, and so on. From these apparently more organic identities — built on a continent that has, apparently, no immigrants to complicate its homogeneous regions — Europe might elect democratically legitimate representatives while also working together as a European whole. Suddenly, claims Menasse, Europe could be shaped according to a model of Hanseatic nationalism writ large. Ironically, he invokes the Hansa about five centuries after it collapsed under the weight of internal religious conflicts and global mercantile competition.

What seems particularly naïve about Menasse’s political vision, however, is not that he wants to eliminate the nation-state, but the way he wants to transform democratic participation and bureaucratic power. Ultimately, this longed-for empowerment of bureaucrats seems to emerge both from close contact with the admirable, modest, sincere bureaucrats he met during his research for the novel and from a fantastically antiquated faith in “Enlightenment values.” In the spirit of this Enlightened governance, Menasse ultimately calls for a proper revolution that requires a novel form of revolutionary selfhood he sees emerging. Thinking of Europe today, he’s positively dewy-eyed when arguing that “a truly universal class is emerging whose engagement will lead to a system of sustainable, universal law and freedom.” Under the watchful eye of benevolent bureaucratic management in a fully subsidiarized political structure, we find a new class emerging, Menasse claims, primarily among bureaucrats in Brussels; this class is

made up of all of Europe’s classes, strata, and groups that, given their highly diverse experiences and knowledge, bring their expertise to a movement criticizing national systems criticizing aporias in the structure of the European Union and criticizing a form of globalization that is clearly not the globalization of human rights but of financial capital. Much of that is still uncomprehended, but a dynamic is arising […] which the system will not be able to contain.

While the empowered regionalism Menasse suggests seems a compelling form for a post-national Europe, this revolutionary utopianism is just bizarre, and it suggests just how insular Menasse’s Brussels might be. Deeply invested in thinking through the “production of European reality,” Menasse went to the center of a politically disempowered bureaucracy and found a large group of well-educated people, many of whom passed a series of difficult exams to earn their spots in the EC’s institutions. They were “polyglot, highly-qualified, enlightened and liberated from the irrationalities of national identity,” which seems what one might say of any cosmopolitan bourgeois European today. As a strategy for understanding the reality of the EU, however, drinking with nice bureaucrats seems an inadequate methodology, and these methodological problems lead to the bizarre celebrations of enlightened Josephinism that pepper Enraged Citizens.

The EC may well be filled with such decent people and their expertise, but the EU is not reducible to its bureaucrats, “liberated” from the “irrationalities of national identity.” These bureaucrats can savvily critique the nationalized EU but their reasonable critiques of the nation form — even when espoused by a supporter as eloquent as Menasse — are poorly matched to the forces of xenophobia and global capital. Since the age of Novalis and Kant, the sword-bearers of Enlightenment have been waiting for reason to ascend in Europe, making it a place of Kantian “perpetual peace,” but it seems unlikely that it will be anytime soon. As Novalis insists when imagining a once-again unified Europe, we are likely to be waiting a long time: “When and how soon? That is not to be asked. Have patience. It will and must come, the sacred age of eternal peace, where the new Jerusalem will be the capitol. Until then be calm and brave amid the dangers of the age.” It’s an age of many dangers and, unfortunately for Menasse and everyone else in Europe, the dangers can’t be simply faced down by a collection of well-meaning smart people.


Andrew Griffin is associate professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he has taught since 2009.