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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

These differences suggest that the outcome of large-scale enforced leisure will be a new form of social conflict in Europe. One could envisage in addition to classical "proletariat" style social upheaval a kind of cultural chaos. Masses of basically sated but bored people are less likely to man barricades than to debauch society generally. The lack of self-definition and self-respect, and the consequent demoralization that is bound to afflict so many, is likely to lead to a sense of alienation and purposelessness so acute as to touch off any number of morbid cultural trends. Indeed, we already see the beginnings of such phenomena among unemployed and underemployed youth all over the continent - and here urban North America is no exception - from self-styled anarchists in Germany to skinheads and assorted "punks" in Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and beyond.

The growth of such essentially antisocial forces could be as corrosive to normal life as any amount of proto-Marxist rabble-raising. Those who believe that they are denied the right to work, as well as those who fear losing the work they still have, are likely to perceive themselves as an oppressed lower class - again, some in proletariat terms that we would recognize from the past, but others in terms of an underclass characterized by an angry cultural anomie rather than a specific political ideology. The crisis of work is already a likely source of the "many factors encouraging populist politics in Europe today", as Anthony Hartley described it. "Economic despair and xenophobia bring violence in their wake. . . . All countries need totems. Their destruction by . . . a corrosive skepticism confuses peoples who require national landmarks by which to navigate." And surely national social landmarks will be destroyed wholesale when those who have work and intend to retain it behave as an upper class committed to the preservation of its privileges.

As Hartley's reference to xenophobia intimates, racism will also inevitably play a role in future crises. Here, too, the European experience may be more severe than that of the United States. That may at first seem paradoxical, because the legacy of slavery, the partial extermination and subsequent segregation of Native Americans, and continuing eruptions of racial conflict are such well known aspects of American society. However, despite all the problems involved, the United States is well on the way to becoming a multiracial nation in which Americans of European descent will - within the next century - become the largest minority rather than, as in the past, the absolute majority of the population. In the much more homogenous nations of Europe, however, where the new era of work as a privilege will arrive first in full severity, the priority certain to be claimed by the indigenous majority in every country will inevitably produce racially discriminatory treatment of foreign immigrants and residents, including demands for the expulsion of foreigners. Already anti-immigration parties - the Italian neo-fascist movement, Le Pen's National Front in France, and especially Jorg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria - are gaining ground all over Europe. At present, while the world in general and Europe in particular have yet to recognize the key challenge lying ahead, and are busy treating seemingly disconnected symptoms in lieu of recognizing their common cause, it is impossible to be certain how the Continent will ultimately react to the coming crisis. But there are reasons for believing that the responses to the challenge are more likely to be authoritarian than democratic in nature. Human beings are dependent on order and predictability in their environment. A crisis that causes prolonged and acute disorder and uncertainty therefore engenders an ever more urgent priority for the most rapid and complete possible restoration of stability and predictability. The quickest and most effective response to that priority is authoritarianism.

Beyond the human need for order is the fact that the very technology that is leading to the crisis of work and leisure augers in favor of authoritarianism. The unprecedented surveillance and tracking capabilities of the electronic communications technology are well known. In the future it may become literally impossible for a human being to escape surveillance. As for leisure as a burden, there is already evidence that among the first human responses to an abundance of leisure and unused energy is a craving for sedation. In part such sedation may be the product of entertainment. In part it may also be the product of what we have come to call substance abuse, be it alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, or Prozac. In a society where no one can hide and in which any malcontent can willingly or unwillingly submit to sedation, the temptation to totalitarian control would appear to loom large.

The second and more important reason for anticipating an authoritarian response is best termed civic. If huge numbers of adults never have to take real responsibility for making their own way in the world, if their education comes to consist entirely of tutorials in aesthetics and leisure, if their families no longer serve as production units in every traditional sense, then the very values and attitudes that undergird democracy - independence of spirit, responsibility, resourcefulness, honesty, moral integrity - will simply never develop. A majority of people devoted to their own entertainment and idle-time management would far more resemble H.G. Wells' hapless Eloi in The Time Machine than the robust practitioners of liberty and self-reliance captured in the writings of Tocqueville, Locke, Montesquieu, and Mill.

This is not, of course, to maintain that the doom of European democracy is certain. Indeed, democracy may well be a prerequisite for solving social problems of the sort and magnitude described here, in the sense that only with a broad political base willing to sacrifice and experiment with new forms of social organization will leaders be able to lead effectively. Neither can one ignore the power of historical memory and political culture. Europe's experience with authoritarianism in this century may well serve to prevent its revival in the next. Democracy is to some extent a habit, and habits, good and bad, are not easily broken. Democracy is also part of Europe's self-definition, and the exertions of new democracies to the east may even have the surprising effect of bolstering by example democracy's prospects farther west.

The only certainties are that the transformation of a key aspect of the human condition is challenging the technologically most advanced nations; that Western Europe in particular is less able to cope with this transformation than the United States; that the required restructuring of society is so radical as to engender social conflict; and that the manner in which Europe resolves this conflict, while unpredictable, will be of utmost consequence to the human future.

Essay Types: Essay