ONE of the great studies of decline is a novel about a fictional Sicilian prince, living more than a century ago. There is much about Giuseppe di Lampedusa's "The Leopard" that is remote now: peasants paying their rent with wheels of cheese and freshly killed lambs, footmen in knee-breeches, a constant threat of revolutionary violence on the horizon. Today's Europe is at peace. Feudalism is long gone. Blatant inequalities are frowned on. Yet today's European leaders would still do well to study "The Leopard", for it offers them some topical lessons.
As usual, in these columns, it's the subtle hints and the discreet lies that matter: using Southern Italy as the reference for Europe, suggesting that Europe is stuck in the 19th century and, conversely, claiming that today there is no such thing as inequality and unhappy poor... You see where this is going...
Talk of Europe's relative decline seems to be everywhere just now. Listen to a speech by any European leader and you are likely to hear about the dangers of a G2 world, run by America and China, if Europe does not get its act together and speak with one voice. You may hear glum figures about Europe's future weight, and with some reason. In 1900 Europe accounted for a quarter of the world's population. By 2060 it may account for just 6%--and almost a third of these will be more than 65 years old.
Actually, the only place where I see worries expressed about the G2 or the "one voice" is in the pages of the Economist - this might be called "concern trolling" in other venues... or worse, given that such claims were mainly made to support 'traffic-stopping' Blair's quest to be "President of Europe," in breach of any kind of journalistic standards the magazine may once had... And as to Europe representing a smaller chunk of world population, it's hard to see how that represents any kind of decline in any absolute terms.
Such gloomy reflections are the cue for ringing phrases about the future. Some leaders may point to the new Lisbon treaty and predict that it will bring about a "Europe of results". Others will thump lecterns and call for banks to return to their "proper function" of low-risk lending to business. Or they may hint that fighting climate change will be painless, predicting that Europe will create millions of new, green jobs. Yet if politicians were more honest, they would admit that a tightly regulated financial sector will produce less growth. They would admit that fighting climate change may also curb growth (even if it is the right thing to do), and not produce any jobs bonanza. After all, the same rivals who test Europe in other fields--the Brazils, Indias and Chinas, as well as America--will want their own green jobs.
Note a usual technique of the Economist: "if politicians were more honest, they would admit that a tightly regulated financial sector will produce less growth:" make a highly partisan claim, and turn it into an incontrovertible truth by introducing it in a supposedly neutral manner, with a jibe at an easy target (politicians not being honest, who knew?) distracting attention. And thus the claim that deregulated finance produces growth is repeated and reinforced - in the middle of the most savage recessionary crisis in almost a century, caused largely by such unregulated finance... And note that the qualifier in the next sentence about curbing growth to fight climate change being a good thing, which is absent here, underlining, as an echo, that there is really no good reason to regulate finance...
As to fighting climate change not being painless, that's just as false an assertion - unless you narrow down who it might be painful for - big corporations in incumbent sectors...
As to others getting green jobs as well, how on earth would that be a bad thing for Europe? Does Europe have to have a monopoly on green jobs for them to make sense? Or is it a none-too-subtle jab at exports-oriented industrial policies of countries like Germany and Denmark, who put in place substantial subsidies to their renewable energy sectors and now have thriving industries that dominate their industries worldwide? With the "savings glut" theory, exporters and savers are the new evil guys, and if that further comes from - yuck - government-driven industrial policy, it can only be a bad, bad thing.
More fundamentally, much of Europe has long been living beyond its means.
I admit I did a double-take here. The gall is just damn impressive.
Take an acute example, Spain, where the collapse of a construction-fed boom has led to nearly 20% unemployment. One in every two euros spent next year by the Spanish government will go on pensions, welfare payments or unemployment benefits.
Imagine that. Spending public money on poor people when it could be spent on defense contractors or in payout to banks! Unbelievable, I know!
Yet the same government is unwilling to tackle one of the biggest barriers to sustainable growth: its unjust, two-tier labour market, in which some workers are nearly unsackable but others (the young, immigrants and others on temporary contracts) take the pain.
Sustainable growth (of profits) can only come when ALL workers are vulnerable and easily sackable, ie when they can be paid much, much less.
In general, leaders' warnings about European decline are not often matched by political courage or even much ambition (think of Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton, the obscure and unthreatening pair of politicians chosen to fill the two top jobs created by the Lisbon treaty).
They are still really unhappy that (presumably "threatening") Blair didn't get the job, aren't they?
Here; let me rub it in:
It's simple really to translate their silly labels: lack of ambition and political courage = not speaking in one voice in support of Washington-originated warmongering policies.
One reason for this lack of courage is that "we are all talking about decline, but we can't feel it yet," as one European ambassador puts it. That may change. The shocking state of public finances may at last drive through big structural reforms in Europe, especially to labour markets (where huge resources have gone into protecting incumbents through the recession) and welfare states (which may mean more means-testing to exclude the middle classes who so often capture the system).
This is a common theme throughout the Economist: the European middle-classes (now labelled "system-capturing" "incumbents" because this fits them so much better than ExxonMobil or Citigroup) are not miserable enough for "reform" (Reduce taxes to reduce wage costs, tighten rules on government benefits, loosen up employment protection laws") to be politically possible. They need to suffer more for further destruction of the social fabric to be implemented, and the current crisis offers, maybe, a good opportunity to do so. Paging Naomi Klein...
Never has the agenda of the Economist (or rather its master) has been clearer: the complete pillage of the middle classes so that there only remains a small elite that owns everything and a large mass of vulnerable, weak - and cheap - workers. Hmmm - didn't the article start by saying there was no feudalism in Europe? It was to regret it, not to suggest it was a good thing!
"The Leopard" offers another factor that helps to explain European complacency. It teaches that living with decline is not always a question of denial: decline can be a seductive choice. Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, sees his new rich neighbours snapping up parcels of land from destitute nobles, and knows that his own inheritance is going to ruin. But his class is too proud to act to save itself. He still has his palaces, along with a life of culture and elegance. And his newly rich rivals aspire to his way of life, squeezing into tailcoats to ape his own evening dress, and marrying their daughters into his family.
You hear similar arguments from today's European politicians: our rivals may be overtaking us but, across the Atlantic, the Americans are copying our health-care model; and, in the other direction, the Chinese are intrigued by our welfare system. So what, they ask, if Europe's military might no longer makes the world quake: is it so terrible to be a peaceful, prosperous old continent? To which one answer is: it is a problem if your way of life is unsustainable. And the fact that some of your finest achievements are aped by rivals does not make them sustainable.
Again, as explicit as you can have it: healthcare for all and welfare are unsustainable. Quick, let's get rid of both!
And, just like the dig about Europe "living above its means" earlier, you can find here another traditional tool of the neo-feudalist brigade: accuse the other side of what you are guilty of: it's not China or the US that have unsustainable economic models, no, it's Europe! Middle classes are clearly a worse blight than massive debt-fuelled resource consumption or mercantilist pollution-rich indstrialisation!
A lot of ruin in a continent
Lampedusa's hero hopes that his children, and perhaps his grandchildren, will also know his life of privilege. But the novel's author knows the end is much nearer. He compares the prince's estates to September swallows: filling all the trees around in seemingly limitless numbers, but in truth poised for sudden departure. Don Fabrizio is also too tired to act. Sicilians, he tells one would-be political reformer, are "very old," and too "exhausted" for arguments about doing things well or badly. For them, he says, the great sin is "doing" anything at all.
Today "The Leopard" is best-known for a single line: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." It is a fine line, but it is also one that can easily be misinterpreted. Today's European leaders talk about things changing, but in ways designed to appeal, all too often, to the side of Europe that is old, tired and anxious. Buzzwords of the moment include a "Europe that protects" (a phrase recently used by both President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany). It is a horribly defeatist slogan. What about a Europe that makes its citizens strong, or one that equips them to compete?
Protection is defeatist. Competition and strength are good. Yes, the Economist loves winners and hates losers, and hate those who want to care about losers.
Europeans can live off their inherited wealth for a bit longer, and many still lead largely enviable lives. There is much that is fine and even noble about Europe, including its ambitions to reduce social inequalities. But Europe's rivals are young and hungry. The old continent should resist the allure of a genteel surrender.
The final comparison of reducing social inequality with dying aristocracy is interesting on many levels. Beyond the claim that it is a dying phenomenon (surely the case if the Economist has anything to do with it - and we know how their job is to package the common wisdom of the Villagers to make it sound sensible to wannabe-winners outside the elite), you implicitly get the oft-used claim that the left is the real nest of conservatism and that the right, led by the enlightened neofeudalists is the real force for change and thus for progress.
Old, tired, irrelevant and doomed: this applies to Europe, and to the ideas of the left that the continent now supposedly embodies for the Villagers.
Thankfully the Economist is not based in Europe, right?...