Dreaming Europe in a Wide-Awake World

Dreaming Europe in a Wide-Awake World

Mini Teaser: When it comes to Europe's gilded future, success is always just around the corner. Europeanists need to wake up--or risk being left behind by an unlikely coalition.

by Author(s): James C. Bennett

Immigration, which is now hoped to be able to fill the demographic gap, remains problematic. It is exactly the postmodernist multicultural narrative so praised by Rifkin that has created an unassimilated immigrant underclass. This underclass is a poor candidate for stepping up to the greater taxes needed to fund the lavish pensions now coming due. Young, mostly Muslim families struggling under ever-increasing payroll taxes will hear calls from ethnic-based politicians to repudiate the checks that old rich white Europeans had written to themselves. To the extent that Rifkin holds up Europe as a model for Americans to emulate, he is in effect urging the purchase of a ticket on the Titanic.

At this point one must turn to the underlying level of Rifkin's critique, that of the entire complex of ideas of autonomous individuals with enforceable constitutional rights. In essence, Rifkin is saying "Okay, perhaps United Europe will after all be poor and strife-ridden. But at least you will lose your freedom and individualism in the bargain." Rifkin presents a distillation of the positions of a number of European intellectuals over the past decade or two (but with roots in a Europeanist tradition going back much further). This argument states, roughly, that the entire idea of progress--of autonomous individuals possessing stated constitutional rights in a contract-based market society--is a historical aberration, and an unfortunate one. Rifkin traces it to the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution and certain precursor events, including the introduction of scheduled time by the Benedictine order.

In Rifkin's narrative, medieval people lived a collective lifestyle, in which individuals were embedded in a web of connections and did not think of themselves as apart from their colleagues. It was only the introduction of the proto-capitalist mentality that shattered this comfortable universe of family, congregation and community and transformed mankind into alienated individuals. The coup de grace was provided by extreme Protestant sects in the English Civil War, who used the new invention of printing to shatter the last stands of community by preaching the direct link, via the Bible, between man and God. These individuals went on to develop capitalism and technology, destroy the environment, subdue the Third World, and create our current world of SUVs, beef eating, obesity, and excessive punctuality (to give some idea of the bˆtes noires inhabiting Rifkin's earlier works critiquing the American way of life). America is of course the ultimate example of this alienated world, while Europe is on the path back to connectedness, mostly by creating vast, unaccountable bureaucracies and substituting positive rights (things the state must do for you) for negative rights (things the state cannot do to you).

What Rifkin is talking about is familiar to anyone who has studied the historiography of the Industrial Revolution: Marx and Engels on alienation, Tâ€nnies' distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft societies (the former Rifkin's medieval, status-based, "connected" societies, the latter modern, contract-based individualist societies), and Max Weber's famous "Protestant Work Ethic" thesis.

All these theorists posited a world characterized by universal laws of cultural evolution: Everyone was once tribal, then agricultural, then feudal, then modern (or is destined eventually to become so). The Marxists posited subsequent stages of socialism and communism, and others debated how, when and why peoples moved from one stage to another. Rifkin's novel contribution is to identify the emerging European postmodernist society as the next stage. Instead of a proletarian revolution ushering in central planning, we are to have a centralized bureaucratic revolution that will plan proletarian immobilization.

But what if there are no inevitable stages of social evolution? What if some people have never displayed the characteristics of Gemeinschaft society, but have been individualists from as far back as records could show? This in fact seems to be the case. It is the English (and their cultural descendants throughout the Anglosphere) who for many centuries have been the exception. Over the past thirty years, an intellectual revolution has been taking place in historical sociology, led in particular by Alan Macfarlane (whose works deserve a more substantial treatment in this regard than is possible here).

Macfarlane and his associates have demonstrated very convincingly that English society back to Anglo-Saxon days has been characterized by individual rather than familial landholding; by voluntary contract relationships rather than by inherited status; and by nuclear rather than extended families. Individuals were free of parental authority from age 21 on, and daughters could not be denied their choice of husband (unlike on the Continent). The English nobility, regularly churned by elevation of commoners and marriage of younger sons to non-titled families, tended to mix freely with the rest of society, rather than being a separate caste, again as on the Continent. Rather than the English Reformation being the event that caused this change, it seems to have been (for the majority of the population) the event that brought formal theology and church government more in line with the pre-existing customs of the country. So the English "peasant" that Hollywood is fond of depicting turns out to be the figment of a 19th-century Marxist's imagination.

Macfarlane's body of work represents a momentous intellectual revolution. The implications of this revolution have not yet been fully realized, or even generally understood. It suggests that modernity and its consequences came particularly easily for the already-individualistic English. Conversely, it came particularly hard for the Continental Europeans, whose societies were characterized by all the non-individualistic features England lacked. It was to these Continentals that the intrusion of individualist, market-oriented relations was particularly disruptive and shocking. With medieval traditions of representative government moribund or long vanished, it is not surprising that Continental states had a particularly difficult time adjusting to parliamentary government, experiencing instead frequent coups, revolutions and periods of authoritarian rule, spiraling down to the abyss of fascism and communism.

It has been usual to write the history of the past two centuries of Continental Europe as one of modernity and democracy punctuated by periods of exception, but it may be more accurate to see the period from 1789 until the very recent past (France's current political arrangement dating back to 1958, Spain's to 1976) as a long, difficult and perhaps incomplete period of adjustment to modernity. Although certainly the majority of most Continental populations made a perfectly successful transition to modernist life, a significant minority never fully bought in to the psychology or assumptions of liberal society, and thus were easily recruited into the darker visions of fascism. That may explain why Anglosphere nations never developed significant fascist movements, despite experiencing the same traumas of postwar disillusionment and economic depression.

In this light, Rifkin's European dream becomes just one more chapter of what economist Brink Lindsey has aptly dubbed the Industrial Counter-Revolution--a diversion from the path to modernity rather than an effective alternative to it. Fortunately, this version of it lacks the fascination with violence and the cult of leadership that characterized the previous rejection of modernity in Europe (not to mention the effective military organization). Still, the Europeanist dream as articulated not just by Rifkin but by many intellectuals incorporates so many of the tropes of the authoritarian anti-Americanists from the Europe of 1921-45 that the current "Atlantic divide" (which in reality is still more of a Channel divide) may not be easily or quickly resolved.

One must then ask, if the divide between les Anglo-Saxons and the Continentals is genuinely deep rooted, why have Atlantic relations over most of the past fifty years been so relatively tranquil? It may be because the Cold War years, with their combination of Soviet threat and open American markets for recovering Continental industries, and with the Third World economically invisible, provided a period of unique military-political stability and economic opportunities that provided uniquely strong incentives to smooth over problems. With the end of the Cold War, the first incentive has disappeared. With the rise of the newly industrialized countries, the European share of the American export market continues to shrink. Japan now competes for the luxury markets Europe used to dominate, India targets software, while China and the East Asian Tigers take the low-cost manufactured-goods slot from Japan. The Anglosphere nations have navigated this tightrope with a combination of maintaining the high-technology pioneer slot, aggressively combining offshore, low-cost labor with their managerial and financial talents (a strategy followed by Japan as well), and growing their domestic services sector, primarily by entrepreneurism. Continental Europe has so far proven too slow and inflexible to follow this pattern. In this environment, the Anglosphere-Eurosphere divide promises to widen, not shrink.

Rifkin's analysis either ignores or trivializes this problem, despite his frequent invocation of the term "globalization", which in his eyes becomes primarily a justification for European-style multiculturalism. Fortunately, this global context is becoming more widely recognized. Two new books coming from the opposite sides of the British debate on Euro-Atlantic relations, Timothy Garton Ash's Free World and Christopher Booker's and Richard North's The Great Deception, provide a much more illuminating discussion, and one rooted much more soundly in current realities.

The British debate is particularly interesting, because Britain is a sort of canary in the mine for Euro-Atlantic relations. Any perturbation in those relations is usually foreshadowed by a perturbation in British politics over the same issues. This debate thus cannot be resolved without finding a consensus on exactly what "Europe" and "America", or increasingly, "the Anglosphere" mean, and where and how Britain fits into each. This debate has been continuing unresolved for decades. As issues such as the Single Currency and the current European constitution have begun to present Britain with the prospect of an irreversible commitment to the EU, the debate has become increasingly acute and shrill.

Essay Types: Book Review