Belmont Club

The end of the old

What was usual about 2011 was that so many things were unusual. It was the year the European Union came to the end of its road by announcing it had been born. Spiegel describes the process. It happened, the paper said, in a half hour. “And so the summit, which was intended to be a turning point in the struggle to save the euro, ended up marking a major turning point in the history of the European Union. In the middle of its biggest crisis to date, the European Union is divided and Great Britain has been sidelined, possibly for the long term.”

Angela Merkel eulogized it in a speech before the German parliament.

“It is the historic task of today’s generation of politicians to create a lastingly stable Europe.” It was with these resounding words that Chancellor Angela Merkel concluded her government statement to the German parliament, the Bundestag, on Wednesday.

To create it, she might have added, on the grave of the old. What has also changed, as Tony Blair noted, is the role that “new Europe” will play in the coming world. It will be a smaller and less influential. The foreign aid which at once characterized Europe’s moral superiority was also implicitly predicated on its financial superiority. Now that the signeur is broke, it may still be many things, but not the signeur. Blair writes:

Fifty years ago, the scene in Busan, South Korea, would have been a familiar image of international aid: sacks of grain stacked precariously on a crumbling dockside. The backdrop would have been a country emerging from war and dependent on outside assistance to meet the most basic needs. But when national and development leaders gather in Busan this week to discuss the future of aid, they will see a very different place: the fifth-busiest commercial port in the world, transporting advanced technologies around the globe. This, writ small, is the Korean miracle — the transformation of a country from aid-dependent to aid donor.

The South Korean imagery is a perfect explanation why old continent is reduced shopping around among the BRICS.  The world has been turned upside down. Births are celebrated at funerals. Pigs can fly. It is everywhere marked by absurdities since all the old verities have broken down. For example, Andrew Sullivan the ‘conservative’ commentator has endorsed Ron Paul for the Republican primary and Barack Obama in the Presidential general election. He writes:

Which brings me to Ron Paul. Let me immediately say I do not support many of his nuttier policy proposals…. But all this is why a conservative like me is for Obama. What we are talking about here is who to support in a primary dominated by extremes, resentment, absence of ideas and Obama-hatred…

And I believe an Obama-Paul campaign would do us all a service. We would have a principled advocate for a radically reduced role for government, and a principled advocate for a more activist role. If Republicans want a real debate about government and its role, they have no better spokesman. He is the intellectual of the field, not Gingrich.

I am, like many others these days, politically homeless.

Homeless may not have been the exact word he was looking for. Now if you think Sullivan’s endorsement is absurd consider that he now passes for the voice of moderation and reason among those who think they are the voice of moderation and reason. The status quo is sounding more and more like HAL 9000 as its memory and logic modules are withdrawn and deactivated. It becomes first assertive, then fearful and finally childlike. Only Dave (not Cameron) isn’t doing the deed; it is doing it to itself.

The structure of the problem facing both Europeans and Americans — and by implication the rest of the world — is very similar. They are torn between the natural need to prevent the destruction of the system they live in and the impulse to tear it down.  They want to save it because they depend on its fitful workings; they want to change it because it is doomed.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the dilemmas presented by the candidates for the US Presidency. The main argument against Mitt Romney (and to a lesser extent Newt Gingrich) is that they have enough competence to prolong the agonies of the system. The primary attraction of Ron Paul (and ironically Barack Obama) is that their selection has the potential to finally destroy the status quo.

The paradox is that if you vote for someone who can make the system work better than the other you will do well in the short run but condemn yourself in the long run. But on the other hand if you vote for the Destroyer, it will hurt. These arguments are often articulated without conscious thought. One friend said to me, “if we cannot get a true conservative to run in the GOP general then I hope Obama wins because he will finally bring all the issues to a head”. That in a way may be the subconscious thought of Andrew Sullivan. He is ‘homeless’ And by that he may mean he senses danger is near, like the robot in Lost in Space, frantic at the advent of some alien menace. ‘Bzzt. Bzzt. It does not compute. It does not compute. Danger Will Robinson! Danger!’

And that too was the problem facing David Cameron. Unable to go on inside the European Union, the British PM is trying to save it by staying out of it. For he must save it to preserve the British economy, even if the EU is destroying the British economy. Similarly Angela Merkel, burdened with a fatally flawed European concept, is enlarging it in order to preserve it. Without the EU Europe cannot survive. With it, it cannot survive either.

In the short run the incentives are to save the system — which means in the case of the EU, to grasp at one more bailout, and in the case of the United States to elect someone like Gingrich or Romney. But in the medium and long term the incentives are to start over, because now knows in his bones, if hadn’t realized it before, that putting off the day of reckoning doesn’t fundamentally change anything.

What people are likely to do is follow Yogi Berra’s advice. Having reached a fork in the road, they will take it. That is to say they will wait on events. It may not in the end much matter whether Romney, Gingrich, Paul or Obama are elected so people are probably going to do whatever it takes to optimize their short term interests. They will choose the clearest path in the jungle no matter what direction it goes because they can’t tell which paths are dead ends anyway. The strategy will be to survive and trust to luck.

This may not be as illogical as it seems.  Few revolutionaries have succeeded in making a revolution. Most got to the top by recognizing when it got there.

Someone once observed that “any fool can have bad luck; the art consists in knowing how to exploit it.” Surviving the end of an era is not so much the art of crafting a new one, but in recognizing what opportunities are possible and being ready to take them. That is why organizing and preparation matter; not so much because it can shape events as be ready for them. Yogi Berra may have known a thing or two when he said, “if you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” He might have added, ‘but if you know where you are going, you might recognize it when you get there’.  Or at least when you’re heading in the right direction.

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