1

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

Nonetheless, it is inevitable that strenuous efforts will be
undertaken to find ways to avoid confronting the problem. One such
effort will be to allow human labor to remain cheaper than technology
in performing tasks at the lower end of a polarized labor market. At
the moment, for example, it is still possible for industries
headquartered in technologically advanced states to export production
to parts of the world where labor is cheaper than at home. It is also
possible to establish immigration policies that attract cheap labor.
While both such practices are now widespread, they create many
problems. The former often involves systematic violations of human
rights: a vast amount of apparel worn in the technologically most
advanced nations, for example, is manufactured in the Third World by
child labor or prisoners. And conclusive evidence of the
extraordinarily high cost of German labor--the most expensive in the
world due in large part to the fact that every Deutsche Mark of wages
is nearly doubled by the cost of mandatory social benefits--resides
in the fact that German firms have been driven to take advantage of
lower labor costs in the United States by establishing manufacturing
plants there.

Exporting production is also significantly counterproductive in the
short run. Apart from the fact that it represents a kind of
exploitative neo-colonialism often involving human rights violations,
it aggravates unemployment at home and reduces domestic investment.
In the long run, economic growth and rising living standards are not
only likely to raise labor costs above present levels around the
world, but will result globally in continued reduction of the need
for, and economic advantage of, substantial human labor in all
manufacturing, maintenance, transportation, and clerical processes.
There is no realistic prospect that West European states can address
their problems of rising unemployment by lowering their cost of human
labor sufficiently to underprice technology-driven manufacture and
production.

As for the second practice, that of encouraging immigration to supply
cheap labor, this is doubly injurious. The immediate effect is to
displace local labor, particularly local labor in unskilled and
semi-skilled jobs. Worse, as the forces of technology grind away
lower level jobs, immigrants end up disproportionately on the
dole--as is already the case in France, Italy, and Germany. This not
only bloats government financial responsibilities, but could
introduce acute social divisions, with the potential to undermine
both civility and democracy itself across the continent.

As to the external sources of trouble, the burden on public
expenditures is further seriously increased by the pledge to
establish the single European currency. While in itself that currency
requires no vast new expenditures, its adoption greatly restricts the
borrowing capacity of member states. As a condition for entry, the
European Monetary Union demands limits on national deficits of 3
percent of GDP and on total public debt of 60 percent of GDP. West
European states are therefore left with very little discretion and
face a zero-sum game: spending in relief of unemployment must come at
the expense of other public spending, and vice versa.

The conditions for sharing in the euro currency are uniquely devised
to achieve monetary stability, but they do not stand altogether
alone. Singular as their purpose may be, they also form part of a
larger--and looser--design to standardize social and economic
conditions within the European Union, and to do so at a high and
expensive level. Bureaucracies being what they are, it comes as no
surprise that the European one in Brussels is energetically pursuing
the many little, and occasionally larger, steps toward the common
standards and measures that lend substance to the concept of common
EU citizenship. The European bureaucracy operates formally under the
authority of governmental representatives from all of the member
states, but in practice the servants of the European Union possess a
growing ability to play a virtually unsupervised regulatory role
within member states. The odds are that this ability will complicate,
inhibit, and even frustrate national governments rather than provide
them with assistance or relief as they struggle with the rapidly
expanding problem of unemployment.

In addition, for the near future there is the added burden that
Western Europe--and particularly its main economic engine,
Germany--remains committed to heading a major effort to assist the
economic and social recovery of Central and Eastern Europe. This
commitment also extends prudentially to the successor states of the
former Soviet Union, because it is feared that their instability
would adversely affect the rest of Europe. From 1990-95, the member
states of the European Union contributed over $50 billion to twelve
Central and Eastern European beneficiaries, and these contributions
have been extended to 1999.

Europe's Social Disadvantages

Economic factors alone cannot account for the fact that Western
Europe is already experiencing serious unemployment while U.S.
unemployment is currently at a record low: 4.9 percent, less than
half the rate in France and Germany. After all, America is
technologically as advanced as Europe, if not more so, and American
social welfare programs are also very expensive, even if they are
less comprehensive and expensive than their European counterparts.
The United States too, like Western Europe, devotes public funds to
overseas assistance, not only to Central and Eastern Europe and the
former Soviet states, but to developing economies all over the globe.
Beyond that, America maintains a costly military establishment that,
while reduced from Cold War levels, dwarfs its European counterparts
not only in absolute terms but proportionally. How then to explain
the differences? The crucial difference between the American and
Western European economies lies in three areas: the leisure industry;
the service industry; and the "charitable" or, better, the
not-for-profit sector. Of these, the leisure industry is the most
significant.

Human leisure creates economic demands as does any other human
appetite. One demand generated by leisure is perhaps best designated
as diversion, that is, relief from idleness or boredom. Diversion can
take many forms, among them entertainment,learning, cultural
pursuits, physical exercise, substance abuse, and sexual indulgence.
In response to such demand, leisure industries have already
mushroomed throughout the technologically most advanced economies. Is
it possible then, that employment in leisure industries can over time
replace jobs lost in production and manufacture? The still
multiplying profusion of fitness clubs, for instance, designed to
furnish healthy exercise for those whose lives no longer demand much
bodily exertion, certainly offers new employment opportunities. So
does the gathering of great numbers of people at entertainment and
sporting events, where audiences need food, drink, sanitary
facilities, transportation, and so on. Unquestionably, leisure
industries will grow along with increased leisure, and they are bound
to generate new employment. The question is how much new employment,
and of what kind.

It may well be that the most significant capacity of the new
technology will turn out to be its ability to cater profitably to
individual tastes. People who crave exercise can purchase for home
use the very machines that fitness clubs deploy for their users, or
perform aerobics under direction by video cassette rather than a live
instructor. Fast food of limitless diversity can be machine-produced
and purveyed with limited human involvement. Electronic programming
of literally infinite abundance can be summoned from cyberspace to
meet individual taste anywhere, anytime.

As things stand today, employed people tend to make the most use of
such leisure products and services; the unemployed cannot so easily
afford them. In the future, however, should a way be constituted--or,
rather, as a way is constituted, for it will have to be done in order
for society to function--to distribute wealth even to those for whom
there is no necessary and meaningful work to do in an age of smart
machines, this would not be the case. A greatly increased demand for
leisure products and services can be anticipated, but comparable
increases in employment cannot, for the same technological dynamic
will apply here as elsewhere in the smart-machine economy now coming
into being. Today an increasing number of people are employed making,
handling, shipping, retailing, and invoicing video cassettes,
computer games, and the like, but, as in other domains, much of the
low-skilled employment involved in this activity is being "exported"
to lower-wage economies, and in the future that sort of employment is
the most vulnerable to information science-based automation.

Obviously, some new jobs will continue to be generated by such
leisure products and entertainment programming, but not only will the
number of such jobs be limited, the better ones will be concentrated
in a particular locale--America. The capacity for individuation does
not eliminate the tendency of individuals to share common taste and
preference: mass enthusiasm, or rejection, is still much in evidence,
and such mass reaction is of great significance to those who use
telecommunications for financial or political gain. Mass appeal by
definition requires vulgarization. Vulgus is the Latin term for the
people, and accurately connotes the lowest common denominator. It
follows that the software (i.e., content) of telecommunications is
dominated by the United States, where from its very beginnings it has
been a commercialized, as opposed to a pro bono publico, product and
industry. The American global dominance of telecommunications
software generates significant employment in the United States, and
also inhibits the growth of this type of employment in Europe. The
commercially driven exports of American software appeal strongly to
European tastes and saturate the European mass audience to the point
of virtual monopoly. In this sense, Europe has been colonized by
America, and to an extent that even Jacques Servan-Schreiber did not
anticipate in his 1960s description of ledéfi américain.

Essay Types: Essay