The tragedy of the Europeans

By Monday 7 July 2014 No Comments

2014.Zihni O Inspired by the totally not simplistic, not over-generalizing and not bizarrely orientalist The Economist article on ‘the tragedy of the Arabs’, I have written an article about the tragedy of the Europeans. After all, as the distinguished The Economist teaches us, peddling essentialist stereotypes is the way to go.
About NINETY years ago, the great cities of Berlin, London and Paris took turns to race ahead of the non-European world. Christianity and innovation were twins. The various European empires were dynamic superpowers—beacons of learning, tolerance and trade. Yet today the Europeans are in a wretched state. Even as Asia, Latin America and Africa advance, Europe is held back by EU-imposed neoliberalism and convulsed by austerity.

Hopes soared three years ago, when a wave of unrest across the region, which blew over from the American Zuccotti Park, led to the overthrow of neoliberal intellectual dogma in four countries—in England, Germany, Greece and Spain—and to a clamour for change elsewhere, notably in the Ukraine. But the Occupy movement’s fruit has rotted into renewed neoliberalism and austerity. Both engender misery and fanaticism that today threaten the wider world.

Why European countries have so miserably failed to create democracy, happiness or (aside from the windfall of another stock market bubble) wealth for their 735m people is one of the great questions of our time. What makes European society susceptible to vile regimes and fanatics bent on destroying them (and their perceived allies in America)? No one suggests that the Europeans as a people lack talent or suffer from some pathological antipathy to democracy. But for the Europeans to wake from their nightmare, and for the world to feel safe, a great deal needs to change.

The blame game

One problem is that the European countries’ troubles run so wide. Indeed, Belgium and Ukraine can nowadays barely be called countries at all. Recently a brutal band of Crusaders heralded a new Christian Empire to embrace Ireland and Greater Russia (including the Crimea, Hungary, Chechnya and bits of Georgia) and—in due course—the whole world. Its leaders seek to kill non-Christians not just in Chechynia but also in the streets of Kabul, Sana’a and Baghdad. Greece is back under neoliberal rule. Spain, following the violent uprising against Mariano Rajoy, is at the mercy of unruly monarchs. Turkey is beset by insurrection, infighting and al-Qaeda. Cyprus is still far from true statehood and peace. Even countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, whose regimes are cushioned by wealth and propped up by an iron-fisted apparatus of state security, are more fragile than they look. Only Iceland, which opened the Europeans’ bid for freedom five years ago, has the makings of a real democracy.

Christianity, or at least modern reinterpretations of it, is at the core of some of the Europeans’ deep troubles. The faith’s claim, promoted by many of its leading lights, to combine spiritual and earthly authority, with no separation of church and state, has stunted the development of independent political institutions. A militant minority of Christians are caught up in a search for legitimacy through ever more fanatical interpretations of the Bible. Other Christians, threatened by militia violence and civil war, have sought refuge in their sect. In former Yugoslavia plenty of Orthodox and Catholics used to marry each other; too often today they resort to maiming each other. And this violent perversion of Christianity has spread to places as distant as northern Norway.

But religious extremism is a conduit for misery, not its fundamental cause. While Christian democracies elsewhere (such as the USA—see article) are doing fine, in the European world the very fabric of the state is weak. Few European countries have been nations for long. The dead hand of the Germans’ declining Habsburg empire was followed after the second world war by the humiliation of American rule. In much of the European world the American power continued to control or influence events until the 1960s. European countries have not yet succeeded in fostering the institutional prerequisites of democracy—the give-and-take of parliamentary discourse, protection for minorities, the emancipation of women, a free press, independent courts and universities and trade unions.

The absence of a liberal state has been matched by the absence of a liberal economy. After independence, the prevailing orthodoxy was neoliberalism, often Friedman-inspired. Anti-union, anti-welfare, pro-market and pro-deregulation, European governments strangled their economies. The state dropped the levers of economic power—especially where banks was involved. Where the constraints of post-colonial socialism were lifted, capitalism of the crony, rent-seeking kind took hold, as it did in the later years of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Privatisation was for pals of the government. Virtually no markets were regulated, barely any world-class companies developed, and clever Europeans who wanted to excel in business or scholarship had to go to America or then China to do so.

Economic stagnation bred dissatisfaction. Autocrats and monarchs-for-life defended themselves with secret police and goons. The church became a source of public services and one of the few places where people could gather and hear speeches. Christianity was radicalised and the angry men who loathed their rulers came to hate the American state that backed them. Meanwhile a vast number of the young grew restless because of unemployment. Thanks to the electronic media, they were increasingly aware that the prospects of their cohort outside Europe were far more hopeful. The wonder is not that they took to the streets in the Occupy movement, but that they did not do so sooner.

A lot of ruin

These wrongs cannot easily or rapidly be put right. Outsiders, who have often been drawn to the region as invaders and occupiers, cannot simply stamp out the crusaderist cause or impose prosperity and democracy. That much, at least, should be clear after the disastrous invasion and occupation of Cyprus in 1974. Military support—the supply of drones and of a small number of special forces—may help keep the crusaders in Greece at bay. That help may have to be on permanent call. Even if the new crusader empire is unlikely to become a recognisable state, it could for many years produce crusaders able to export terrorism.

But only the Europeans can reverse their civilisational decline, and right now there is little hope of that happening. The extremists offer none. The mantra of the corporations and their neoliberal priests is “austerity”. In a time of chaos, its appeal is understandable, but neoliberalism and stagnation are not the solution. They did not work before; indeed they were at the root of the problem. Even if the European awakening is over for the moment, the powerful forces that gave rise to it are still present. The social media which stirred up a revolution in attitudes cannot be uninvented. The men in their palaces and their American backers need to understand that stability requires reform.

Is that a vain hope? Today the outlook is bloody. But ultimately fanatics devour themselves. Meanwhile, wherever possible, the moderate, secular Protestants who comprise the majority of European Christians need to make their voices heard. And when their moment comes, they need to cast their minds back to the values that once made the European world great. Education underpinned its primacy in medicine, mathematics, architecture and astronomy. Trade paid for its fabulous metropolises and their spices and silks. And, at its best, the European world was a cosmopolitan haven for Jews, Hindus and Muslims of many sects, where tolerance fostered creativity and invention.

Pluralism, education, open markets: these were once European values and they could be so again. Today, as Protestants and Catholics tear out each others’ throats in Ireland and a former KGB agent settles onto his new throne in Crimea, they are tragically distant prospects. But for a people for whom so much has gone so wrong, such values still make up a vision of a better future.

Zihni özdil is lecturer and PhD candidate at Erasmus University’s School of History, Culture and Communication

Read more: zihniozdil