Bad Habits

Scene is familiar. Half naked kids beg for food in the streets. Poor people search through trash cans for food. Soup kitchens close their doors on long lines of people still waiting to eat. Professionals leave for overseas.  People squirrel their money into foreign bank accounts.


Welcome to Europe in crisis, or at least to Greece. The approved word for poverty in Europe is “social exclusion,” a concept invented to describe people who had not yet been brought into the European Social Model. It  “refers to processes in which individuals and entire communities of people are systematically blocked from rights, opportunities and resources (e.g. housing, employment, healthcare, civic engagement, democratic participation and due process) that are normally available to members of society and which are key to social integration.”

According to the European Statistics Office in 2010, 27.7% of people in Greece, 24.5% in Italy, 19.3% in France,  25.5% in Spain and 25.3% in Portugal were “socially excluded.”  As a whole 23.4%  of[r] around half a billion European citizens fell into this category.

Medecins Sans Frontieres is watching the rise of infectious diseases and malaria in Greece, things it believed were gone from Europe.  How did it come to this? Nick Cohen of the Guardian is beginning to understand that collapse of southern Europe is the direct consequence of the European political project:

Currency union is — self-evidently — a disaster. Admitting that would bring a loss of face too great for the European elites to bear. To take the most discreditable example, Germany and Holland have benefited enormously from the single currency holding down the exchange rate for their goods, while imposing effective tariff barriers on southern Europe.


Still, it was all done with the best of intentions. Even now, admitting that a mistake has been made requires more gumption than most politicians can manage. For years the European Social Model — and Europe itself — was such an act of faith that to express skepticism would have been blasphemy. It still is.

The EU cannot take responsibility for what it has done and be magnanimous for reasons British readers may not grasp. Raised in a Eurosceptic country, we do not understand how an absolute commitment to the European project was a mark of respectability on the continent. Like going to church and saying your prayers for previous generations, a public demonstration of commitment to the EU ensured that the world saw you as a worthy citizen. If you wanted to advance in Europe’s governing parties, judiciaries, bureaucracies and culture industries, you had to subscribe to the belief that ever-greater union was self-evidently worthwhile.

To the Left, the real problem with Europe was that it could not rid itself of the last taint of capitalism. Cohen recalls his conversation with “Liana Kanelli, spokeswoman for the Greek Communist party, about her country’s crisis”:

[S]he flew off into a rage about how the 1999 Nato intervention to stop Serb nationalists slaughtering Kosovo Muslims was an imperialist plot to extend capitalism into the Balkans.

Unfortunately the aspirin of fantasy can no longer palliate the hell into which southern Europe is descending. Kanelli is getting her wish, and the last vestiges of capitalism are being driven from the country.


University of Athens economist Panagiotis Petrakis ticks off the indicators: standard of living down, by as much as 30 per cent; bank deposits that have not been spirited out of the country are dwindling; almost 70,000 businesses folded in 2010 and bankruptcy is stalking more than 53,000 of the remaining 300,000; unemployment, 25 per cent – but youth joblessness is 47 per cent and rising; a quarter of the population living in poverty; homelessness, up 25 per cent, with well-educated youngsters accounting for much of the rise. Petty crime, doubled.

On top of all that Petrakis detects a slow run on the Greek banks. “It means a slow death for the economy,” he forecasts.

Whatever else happens, Greece has provided a preview into what happens when a welfare state model can no longer be sustained. The first to fall will be the weak, as the stimulus money wears off and its toxic aspects become evident: competitiveness has been destroyed, the inability to sustain itself with stimulants, the loss of the ability to heal itself.  All the signs will be there. The emigration of the working age population; capital flight; corruption, which, rather than abating, intensifies; the political elites, who, rather than reforming, double down.

And yet none of it will rescind the articles of faith which brought about the destruction.

The result is that Greece, like Detroit, may be destroyed.  What accounts for the absolute lack of political consequence is myth. There is more than one kind of religious fanaticism in the world. Meaningless phrases like “social exclusion” are still bandied about — even used for statistical categorization — as if they were real ideas, instead of what they actually are — mediocre concepts thought up to justify the rise of the Model.


Though Europe’s economies are dying, its mind is still in the grip of patterns of thought and modes of analysis that were hatched in another era. Socialism still enjoys great prestige. It’s an open question which will die first: the socialist faith or its acolytes, for what kills the adherents in this case is the dogma.

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