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Time to Kill: Europe and the Politics of Leisure

Time to Kill: Europe and the Politics of Leisure

Mini Teaser: Europe, now liberated from the Cold War, as a whole is far more likely to face a period of acute economic stagnation, the undermining rather than the expansion of democracy, and serious social upheaval.

by Author(s): Steven Muller

Europe, now liberated from the Cold War, is seeking to reconstitute
itself, and in doing so fulfill the lofty integrationist expectations
of the early post-World War II era on a fully continental basis.
Despite minority undertones of skepticism both here and in Europe,
the prevailing expectation is that a new and better Europe is taking
shape, one that will be united, prosperous, stable, and democratic.
But such expectations mirror hopes, not reality. Europe as a whole is
far more likely to face a period of acute economic stagnation, the
undermining rather than the expansion of democracy, and serious
social upheaval.

Conventional economic analysis and a few select sociological
observations suffice to account for most of Europe's coming
trouble--of these more below. But it may be, too, that what would
otherwise be merely trouble will turn into a full-blown crisis for a
reason that has so far received little attention: that Europe is
destined to bear the initial brunt of a revolutionary change in the
human condition. Such a bold assertion naturally invites skepticism
if not outright rejection. Nonetheless, humanity may well be standing
on the edge of a fundamental reversal of the human condition: the
elevation of work into a privilege and the denigration of leisure
into the burden of idleness.

Revolutionary is indeed the only way to describe the implications of
such a reversal of the social functions and values of work and
leisure. Throughout the ages, for all but a privileged minority that
could command servants, the need to labor has been accepted as an
inescapable burden. Only that same privileged minority had the luxury
of true leisure, meaning not merely time free from work but
discretionary time and energy uncontaminated by exhaustion or
deprivation. Now we face a future in which the need for human labor
will rapidly diminish to the point where there is no longer enough
work to occupy the majority--let alone the entirety--of the human
talent and energy available. Leisure will become ever more abundant,
up to and indeed beyond the point of idleness and boredom.
Increasingly, those with meaningful work to accomplish will
constitute a privileged minority, while the majority will consist of
those burdened with idle "time to kill."

The origins of this transformation go back to the beginning of the
Industrial Revolution when, for the first time in history, machinery
began to replace heavy human and animal labor and also to provide
humanity with enormously increased mobility. The pace of that
revolution itself continuously accelerated, but since the arrival of
electronic technology it has been explosive. Smart machines, equipped
with increasingly sophisticated virtual intelligence, now more and
more perform the tasks of both production and service that human
society requires. The human home as well is far along in featuring
autonomously intelligent, comprehensively responsive technological
enhancements of human purpose--such as programmable environmental,
communications, cooking, cleaning, and security systems.

These developments are already so familiar as to require no further
elaboration to those living in the technologically most advanced
nations. Much of humanity, of course, finds itself in earlier stages
of industrial and technological development, but the more gradual
pace of the lateral extension of the industrial-technological
revolution has not retarded its headlong rush in the most highly
developed countries. Nor has the correlation between technological
advance and the growth of material prosperity broken step as this
rush has continued. Up to the present, too, the volume of work has
remained sufficient to sustain more or less acceptable levels of
employment--and hence the consumption levels required to keep a
consumer society economically robust.

In the days ahead, however--and not so far ahead--there will be an
inexorable rise in unemployment in the societies already most
technologically advanced: the United States, Europe, and Japan. Much
can be done, and is being done, to share jobs between two or even
more people, to shorten worktime, increase holidays and vacations,
and search for other means to spread out employment opportunities
more widely. But despite such expedients, unemployment will increase
as the need for work decreases.

Now there is a standard economic objection to this scenario, and it
will be just as well that it be made explicit. It may be argued that
the problem of absolute scarcity was already solved thirty or forty
years ago in much of the West. Certainly, to someone living a century
or two earlier it would have seemed so. But people tend progressively
to transform their definition of "want" into "need", and there seems
to be an infinite capacity to create new--critics would say
"artificial"--demands in a consumer society. It is not self-evident
that this process cannot continue indefinitely, or at least for a
very long time; if people are willing to spend money on some thing or
some service, there will be jobs to make whatever that thing is or
that service delivers. There may be more smart machines, but there
will also be more demands and hence more (if different) jobs created
by that demand.

What is wrong with this argument? It vastly underestimates the
revolutionary impact of information technology, which holds a future
where machines can make other machines, and where the overall
substitution of machine for human labor will progress exponentially.
Already, smart machines have polarized the labor market in the most
advanced countries. On the one hand we have the symbol manipulators
and the machine-builders and caregivers, and on the other the
McDonald's and hospital laundry workers. This itself is a truly
explosive social issue, and one that technological dynamism is likely
to make much more acute as, with the passing of time, jobs on the
lower end of the sophistication scale disappear much faster than
those on the upper end.

Europe's Handicaps

Whether one sees the growth of leisure as a truly revolutionary
phenomenon or as a serious but still manageable social problem, its
full effects are likely to be experienced first in Western Europe.
For of the three economically advanced areas of the world--North
America, Northeast Asia, and Western Europe--the last will be the
least able to respond effectively to it. The fundamental reason for
this lies in the structures of government economic policy that the
exceedingly generous welfare states of the continent have adopted.
Rising unemployment increases demand for compensatory public
expenditures, and the states of Western Europe are badly placed to
afford such additional expenditures. Their plight is due to a
combination of external and internal circumstances, both of which
restrict their ability to avoid a social crisis.

As for the internal constraints, here we come to mostly conventional
economic considerations. While West European states are not all
alike--Britain after Thatcher, for example, has reduced the role and
cost of central government more than its Continental partners--they
are similar enough for present purposes. The Federal Republic of
Germany represents the quintessential and most acute example of the
European dilemma. The recent sharp rise in German unemployment
suggests more than merely cyclical adjustments and the costs of
integrating the former German Democratic Republic to the tune of
nearly $2 billion per year; it is almost certainly structural in
nature. The current level exceeds 11 percent, one not experienced in
the Federal Republic since the 1950s. The current French unemployment
level is even higher (12.8 percent) and the Spanish much higher still
(21.8 percent). Indeed, comparable problems exist throughout the
European Union today, suggesting not random difficulties or
mismanagement, but the result of something embedded in Europe's
essential way of doing business.

The economic problems generated by generous welfare states are many,
but for Europe the implications for unemployment are the most graphic
and serious. The core of the problem is that the added costs of
assisting ever increasing numbers of unemployed require ever greater
public expenditures. Something has to give. Efforts to reduce the
costs of the welfare state and to increase tax revenues are
predictably producing heated controversy virtually everywhere in the
EU countries. Governments throughout Western Europe find themselves
politically unable to cut exceedingly generous benefits, and so they
turn instead to efforts to stimulate more economic growth in order to
pay for it all. But stimulating growth, if it is public sector
growth--and that is the easiest to bring about under current
circumstances--only puts more pressure on government budgets, which
makes such forms of stimulation too expensive even to contemplate for
many countries today. If it is private sector growth, on the other
hand, that will only advance the technological revolution that will
breed still higher rates of unemployment, which, of course, the state
has obligated itself to subsidize at still very generous levels. And
private sector growth is harder to stimulate precisely because the
burdens of the welfare state have made it prohibitively expensive to
create such jobs.

Obviously, then, such "solutions" cannot work for long. Taken
together they resemble a sort of social welfare Ponzi scheme, where
new growth is used to pay past obligations, which in turn generates
ever greater future obligations. If indeed the world is entering a
new era in which work is becoming a privilege, then it no longer
follows that increased productivity and sales will increase
employment. On the contrary, gains in both productivity and sales may
be dependent on greater reliance on technology and consequent
reductions in the use of human labor. If European governments fail to
understand this dynamic, they may manage themselves straight into
economic collapse.

Essay Types: Essay