The euro crisis seen from atop the Empire State Building

Europe’s leaders need to take a hard look across the Atlantic before they start dismantling the Union, writes George Blecher. Emulating the US would risk forfeiting all the things that make Europe the best of all worlds.

Many of the articles I’ve written about US culture for European publications over the past twenty years have had the same message: Here’s something stupid that we’re doing in the US. If you don’t watch out, somebody will be doing it in Europe in the next five years. Some of these stupidities included the takeover of independent publishing houses by conglomerates with no interest in publishing; the commercialization of everything from higher education to art to sports to medicine; the switch from consensus to adversarial politics, to the point where nobody in American government can agree on anything, and politicians become spoiled kids who look at compromise as a sign of personal weakness.

I was no soothsayer: changes always flow from the bigger countries to the smaller. What was interesting was that, thanks to technology, the lag-time between events in the US and Europe started to decrease: what used to take years to cross the ocean now could happen overnight.

Then came the US financial crisis. Though it was initially treated by the American press with a kind of breathless surprise – and by the European with a hint of condescension – plenty of people saw it coming. Last year an excellent American financial writer, Michael Lewis, wrote a book called The Big Short, in which he described a bunch of Wall Street “contrarians” – speculators who watched the crisis developing (at first they were just flabbergasted by the shakiness of bad home mortgages and investment-banking-generated “derivatives”) and made fortunes from what they saw.

In the space of a few nanoseconds, the crisis came to Europe. How could it not? And for many of the same reasons.

Some aspects of the euro crisis ring old bells to anyone familiar with the American version. For example, the response to the bank speculation that helped foment the crisis has been just as timid in Europe as in the US; only the Icelanders, and the brave initiators of Occupy Wall Street, allowed themselves to get really pissed off. And even though the EU seems to be trying to punish speculators a little by reducing the payback on Greek governmental bonds (as opposed to the US government rewarding big banks for their avarice), the main blame for the crisis has settled on the Greek citizenry, in particular those employed in the public sector. The banking/financial complex, many of whose members were making fast money à l’américaine, has largely been overlooked; certainly no one – with the possible future exception of the ex-Prime Minister of Iceland! – has gone to jail. (Not that European bankers needed to be inspired by American greed; I suspect that they had enough of their own.)

However, there’s one disturbing subtext to the euro crisis that’s different from the American version: the fact that Europe has begun to see itself as divided into two distinct classes of nations – not only rich vs. poor, but “grown-up” (the North) vs. “childish” (the South), “responsible” vs. “irresponsible”, “hard working” vs. “lazy” – you get the idea. Not only is this dichotomy wildly simplistic, but it has spooky echoes of earlier classifications about IQ, ethnicity, race, religion – things that nobody wants to talk about.

But now that Mrs Merkel and Mr Draghi have taken over the management of the euro crisis, sitting in judgment over the poor Greek state like stern parents preaching abstinence, it feels like the right time to offer a few kind words about the post-war European project, and about its future – from a perspective of 5,000 miles away.

The first point is that no matter what bad names American Presidential candidates attach to the European welfare state, it’s a pretty spectacular achievement, and one that Europeans should be proud of. If you only knew how hard it is to live in the US without the safety net of a welfare state! How much effort parents put into finding either a decent public school for their kids, or enough money to send them to an expensive private one. How much time Americans waste dealing with their private medical insurance plans, and how, at least until Obama-care kicks in years from now (if it ever does), the many millions without insurance let their illnesses worsen to a point where they can hardly walk through a hospital door. I could go on. The point is that for me and other admirers, the European welfare state doesn’t look like a universal fact of Nature so much as an act of will and self-sacrifice. The EU really is based on the same noble premise: the wish to create a society of nations willing to look out for each other. Instead of shaking a parental finger at the errant Greeks, the EU would do better to find a way to nurture its partner-nation back to health by centralizing the debt and softening the rhetoric of austerity.

The second point is probably obvious to the point of banality – and yet, given the anti-American feeling of many European intellectuals, it may also sound counter-intuitive: Europe seems still to be suffering from a post-war inferiority complex, which makes it admire and emulate the US for the wrong reasons. Take the speculation of the past twenty years. Rather than looking at the heated-up American markets with a dose of scepticism, too many Europeans jumped on the bandwagon. Following the rhetoric of both the American Right and Left, several European countries tried to privatize public services, but without much success: they didn’t gain popular support or cut their costs to any significant degree. Their mistake was that they saw the US as a European outpost (or Europe as an American outpost!) instead of what it really is: a rich Third World country with a weird overlay of Puritanism.

A few summers ago I saw a TV interviewer ask Slavoj Zizek if he liked being European: “Oh sure,” he said, “it’s the only big public space in the world where one is free to be an atheist.” Underneath the clowning, I thought he was saying something important. If you look around the globe, you’ll see that he was right. He was expressing a necessary Eurocentrism that wasn’t snobbery as much as gratitude: a lot of the best European thinking (humanism, the Enlightenment, scientific inquiry, etc.) thrives best in an atmosphere where religion or worship of the state aren’t oppressive forces.

So then – why can’t the euro crisis be an opportunity for Europe to take a hard look at its past and future? To get some distance from either the American or Chinese models, and come up with a quieter, more humane, less volatile system than either of the superpowers is able to muster? Maybe it’s asking too much of a group of nations still learning to get along with each other, but doesn’t it make more sense to rekindle a sense of solidarity within the EU than to break Europe up into classes again while the financiers wait for the next exciting way to fill their pockets?

This article was commissioned by Berliner Gazette.

Published 12 March 2012
Original in English
First published by Eurozine (German version); Berliner Gazette (German version)

© George Blecher / Eurozine

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