Belmont Club


Nine years ago, Jeremy Rifkin, an American economist wrote The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream. Rifkin confidently predicted that Europe would dominate the world.

He observed that Americans emphasised the work ethic whereas Europeans placed more of a premium on balancing work and leisure. According to Rifkin, America had always seen itself as a great melting pot. Europeans, instead, preferred to preserve their rich multicultural diversity. Americans believed in maintaining a strong military presence in the world. Europeans, by contrast, emphasised economic cooperation and consensus over traditional geo-political approaches to foreign policy. Particularly, he argued that the European Union had the potential to become a world super power and that the European model was better-prepared to face the challenges of a globalizing world in the 21st century than the American equivalent.

Europe would rule because the future belonged to an aristocracy. With the rise of automation most people would become functionally useless. A  small cohort of superproductive persons — a kind of aristocracy of enlightened Stakhanovites — would create everything of real value. The rest of society would be functionally on the dole. In his book, the End of Work:

Rifkin predicted the growth of a third sector—voluntary and community-based service organizations—that would create new jobs with government support to rebuild decaying neighborhoods and provide social services. To finance this enterprise, he advocated scaling down the military budget, enacting a value added tax on nonessential goods and services and redirecting federal and state funds to provide a “social wage” in lieu of welfare payments to third-sector workers.

America, with its emphasis on individual freedom and productivity, was doomed. The world was destined to become an ant-heap. The sooner people got used to the idea, the better it would be.

It would not be at all unpleasant for people would become enlightened ants. In a later book Rifkin further prophesied that in that future everyone on the planet earth would buy the world a Coke. In a 2009 book titled the Emphatic Civilization he predicted that  “humanity … finds itself on the cusp of its greatest experiment to date: refashioning human consciousness so that human beings can mutually live and flourish in the new globalizing society. In essence, this shift in consciousness is based upon reaching out to others”. Learning to be an good little ant was the key skill.

The danger lay in those who resisted change  — the bitter clingers. “The older faith-based and rational forms of consciousness are likely to become stressed, and even dangerous, as they attempt to navigate a world increasingly beyond their reach and control.” Like so many others before him Rifkin was confident that the Age of Aquarius was right around the corner, held back only by people who read books and constitutions more than a 100 years old.

The question now is where did the Dream go? Europe now seems less the land of aristocratic ants than of paupers. Greeks are eating out of garbage cans. Young Spanish workers are moving to Latin America in search of a job. Americans find it tough  but “the combined gross domestic product of the 17 countries that use the euro currency shrank 0.6 per in the four quarters from the previous three months, and now has declined for five consecutive quarters.” It’s tougher in Europe.

The Guardian summarizes the unemployment figures for the continent. “The eurozone unemployment rate rose to 11.8% in November 2012 – the highest rate on record according to official figures out today.”

Eurostat figures also show youth unemployment and the latest figures suggest the situation has got worse. The youth unemployment rate for November 2012 was 23.7% in the EU, up from 22.2% in November 2011.

The eurozone recorded a youth unemployment rate of 24.4%, up from 24.2% the previous month. Greece and Spain reported the highest rates at 57.6% (September 2012) and 56.5% respectively.

For the Greek and the Spanish youth, Rifkin’s prophecy has proved tragically accurate. Europe seems to have indeed seen the End of Work. And it looks like Unemployment.

What may follow next is described by Victor Davis Hanson in his article Why Do Societies Give Up?   On the heels of the Dream comes Depression. Not just of the economic kind, but also of the emotional sort. “Why do once-successful societies ossify and decline?” Hanson asks. His brief answer is because they got lost in the Dream. They left reality. For societies which find themselves in a state of despair first began their downward path by imagining they had conquered reality and running off the cliff like Wile E. Coyote.

Hanson explains with lessons plucked from history. Time and again societies have given themselves over to the dreamers who thereafter produced a Nightmare.

One recurring theme seems consistent in Athenian literature on the eve of the city’s takeover by Macedon: social squabbling over slicing up a shrinking pie…. For Gibbon and later French scholars, “Byzantine” became a pejorative description of a top-heavy Greek bureaucracy that could not tax enough vanishing producers to sustain a growing number of bureaucrats …

Britain missed out on the postwar German economic miracles, in part because after the deprivations of the war, the war-weary British turned to class warfare and nationalized their main industries, which soon became uncompetitive.

The gradual decline of a society is often a self-induced process of trying to meet ever-expanding appetites, rather than a physical inability to produce past levels of food and fuel, or to maintain adequate defense. Americans have never had safer workplaces or more sophisticated medical care — and never have so many been on disability.

Like other mental aberrations, depression often alternates with mania. The nightmare follows the dream followed by more nightmares. First the hors d’oeuvres. Then the ordure. And if we’re smart we fool ourselves so we can’t tell the difference.

Probably nothing demonstrates a manic obsession better than New York Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to ban styrofoam. This follows his wars on smoking in bars, trans-fats in restaurant foods and big gulp sodas. “The Styrofoam ban is likely to meet opposition from small businesses since containers made from ‘greener’ materials cost more.” But who cares? It’s onward. Ever onward.

Other environmentally friendly proposals laid out in the address include the installation of curbside vehicle chargers for electric cars and the construction of a new recycling plant that will be able to process plastics that were not accepted before.

The city is also planning to launch a pilot program on State Island that will take food waste from homes and turn it into compost for city parks.

As Hanson puts it, “we don’t talk confidently about capitalizing and expanding on our natural and inherited wealth”.  Hell no. We don’t talk about the parade of foreign policy disasters, the debt or the loss of jobs either. No, we talk about styrofoam and “high powered magazines” or whether Marco Rubio drank water in the proper way. Those are the important things.

Since VDH missed the opportunity to articulate it, I will formulate the thought:  in the nightmare state the more serious things become the more obsessed with trivia our cultural elite becomes.  Actually it was Dickens who put it most memorably, as he traced out the workings of Fagin’s mind while waiting for the sentence of death to be pronounced.

He looked up into the gallery again. Some of the people were eating, and some fanning themselves with handkerchiefs; for the crowded place was very hot. There was one young man sketching his face in a little note-book. He wondered whether it was like, and looked on when the artist broke his pencil-point, and made another with his knife, as any idle spectator might have done.

In the same way, when he turned his eyes towards the judge, his mind began to busy itself with the fashion of his dress, and what it cost, and how he put it on. There was an old fat gentleman on the bench, too, who had gone out, some half an hour before, and now come back. He wondered within himself whether this man had been to get his dinner, what he had had, and where he had had it; and pursued this train of careless thought until some new object caught his eye and roused another.

Not that, all this time, his mind was, for an instant, free from one oppressive overwhelming sense of the grave that opened at his feet; it was ever present to him, but in a vague and general way, and he could not fix his thoughts upon it. Thus, even while he trembled, and turned burning hot at the idea of speedy death, he fell to counting the iron spikes before him, and wondering how the head of one had been broken off, and whether they would mend it, or leave it as it was. Then, he thought of all the horrors of the gallows and the scaffold—and stopped to watch a man sprinkling the floor to cool it—and then went on to think again.

Of course Fagin was hanged anyway. But at least focusing on trivia helps you forget about it. The styrofoam, Mayor Bloomberg, that’s it! Then the compost for the city parks.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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