October 13, 2017
Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron address the Frankfurt Book Fair
by Simon Reichley
As Andrew Albanese reports at Publishers Weekly, and Anna Codrea-Rado at the New York Times, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron made a joint address at the opening ceremony of the Frankfurt Book Fair on Wednesday. Their theme? The power of literature and culture to reinforce the bonds of European solidarity in the face of political disruption, economic stagnation, and rising nationalism.
Merkel proclaimed that literature can enable Europeans to “understand and see what we have in common, and to understand our differences.” Macron, whose country is this year’s guest of honor at the fair, called books “the best weapons” against “groups trying to spread hatred, fanaticism, and dogmatism,” and insisted that “without culture there is no Europe.”
These comments come in the increasingly messy aftermath of Brexit, the recent electoral gains of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, and an unsanctioned and potentially earth-shaking referendum on Catalan indepence in Spain.
“In literature,” claimed Merkel, “we see the reflection of the soul of our society, which is based on freedom, and that freedom of expression goes hand-in-glove with political freedom.” Which is a lovely sentiment, and certainly not out of place at the largest and most venerable celebration of printed material in Europe. And indeed, it is obviously true that books, reading, and literary culture in general have a particular set of reponsibilities in times of upheaval such as these.
At the same time, it’s naive to think that literature and “culture” (a controversial word neither leader defined) alone can preserve the unity and stability of a massive, anti-democratic, and rigidly bureaucratic organization like the European Union. What will ultimately determine the fate of the EU are the actions and policies implemented by European elites like Merkel and Macron.
Take for instance the EU’s fiscal shakedown of Greece, which has severely damaged the nation’s political autonomy and the hollowed out much of its community life. Or take Emmanuel Macron’s ongoing war against labor in France, a bid to increase the power of corporate management that spits in the face of that country’s long-standing culture of valuing workers’ rights. Neither of these programs could be any less concerned with “culture,” European or otherwise.
And yet these are the kinds of political decisions that set the tone of everyday life in a society. They determine who can work, under what conditions, and for what compensation; who gets healthcare, and what they have to pay for it; how food, clothing, and shelter are distributed. “Culture” can amplify or critique the values and ideologies that motivate those decisions, and the products of culture can color the conditions of everyday life in one way or another. But culture as such doesn’t automatically undo the damage complacent managerialism has wrought.
Books and culture do have an important role to play in combatting those policies; but for Merkel and Macron to grandstand as though theirs were the agenda of all literate people—and as though it were inadequate appreciation for reading, rather than the kinds of neoliberal policies they themselves have championed, that is breaking European unity—is, well, a little rich.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.