Monday, February 04, 2008

The end of Europe? IV

Utopias appear to be more easily realized than anyone had previously believed. And we find ourselves today before an otherwise harrowing question: How to evade their definitive realization? ... Utopias are realizable. History is marching towards utopias. Perhaps a new century is beginning, a century in which intellectuals and the educated class will dream of the means of escaping utopia and returning to a non-utopian society, less "perfect," and more free.
- Nikolai Berdyaev (1923)

Surveying the future of Europe one last time, we also need to keep in mind that, for all their importance, deep philosophical, spiritual, and existential questions rarely furrow the brows and agitate the minds of most people. (Good thing, too.) Most of their decisions, most of the time, are shaped by straightforward political realities and economic incentives. Europe's welfare states were not born from a vision of continuing progress, but from the socialist vision of heavenly stasis and permanent leisure. More importantly, they were born from the social upheavals and civilizational emergencies of the century-and-a-half ending in 1945. But history never stops: even if you're not interested in it, history is very interested in you. Europe's welfare states embody long-outdated responses to civilizational crisis. They have made it difficult for productive people, between the ages of studenthood and retirement, to sustain themselves economically, much less expand and improve their economic activity, and to raise families. While providing lavishly for the young, old, and sick (they're receiving free benefits no one ever got before - and no one ever will again), welfare state systems of subsidy and taxation penalize responsible adult behavior to an unprecedented degree - often seeing the only way to cushion the burden of high unemployment and low growth in pulling even productive, educated people in their working prime into the welfare state net. This is immoral, crazy, and won't last even another generation: it makes permanent adolescence universal, but drains away all of its benefits. While immediate success is rewarded, continued failure is subsidized, even glorified. Instead of marking an intermediate destination on the way to better things, the prolonged adolescence of welfare state culture is a cul-de-sac, a deadend.* The pervasive underlying principle is the powerful tendency to treat adults of sound mind and body as children, no matter their age - as the prophetic thinkers of the nineteenth century foresaw.

The evidence for such simple reasoning is straightforward: when Europeans emigrate - mainly to the US, but elsewhere too - they respond to lower taxes and less stifling economic conditions by working harder, saving more, and having more children. We can muse, as do Bawer, Weigel, and Berlinski, on hard questions of national identity, Europe's catastrophic modern century, or its spiritual deadness - but let's not lose sight of the obvious. The books of Steyn and Laqueur, in particular, are buckets of common-sense cold water poured on what might otherwise become woozy and interminable Weltschmerz (world-weariness).

All of these authors ask what are the possible and likely futures for Europe. Steyn and Weigel attempt some systematic answers, as does Laqueur, in a more jumbled fashion. None is sanguine. All foresee large parts of urban central and western Europe ceasing to be European in any meaningful way. Some parts will become Islamic, although it's a mistake to view these immigrant communities as monolithic. All of them point to the fact that the big changes have only just started. The biggest will happen in the next couple decades, and Europe is likely to be unrecognizable afterwards. Tourists receive a seriously distorted view by getting such a surfeit of Europe's past - while the ex-pat set (students, temporary and visiting workers) see only the slowly shrinking island of the pampered welfare state lifestyle that is already unaffordable.

The future of the American relationship with Europe. In keeping with our starting principles, this is another subject that requires steady concentration on long-term fundamentals, ignoring immediate episodes of European anti-Americanism, like the most recent one that started in the late 90s and now dissipating.

Until 1917, the US did not interest itself directly in European affairs. European countries were major world powers in their own right, while the US was a new and largely untested power. Almost all of its energy was focused inwards on economic development and political integration. Back then, if they thought about foreign countries at all, many Americans often viewed Latin America and Asia as more important. They were wrong back then - Europe remained a center, if not the center, of the twentieth century's great conflicts. But those Americans then, and their misnamed isolationist cousins of the 1930s, saw a deeper truth. Europe was destroying itself, and the future - for the US - had to be more about Latin America and Asia. That was already evident by the 1980s, but it became central after the Cold War. American intervention in Europe - in four distinct episodes (1917-1919, 1940-1945, 1945-1990, and 1995-1999) - has been founded on the perception that Europe was both important and, at the same time, in so much trouble, that it couldn't straighten itself out.

As Steyn and Laqueur point out - in very different tones - both the US and Europe have, since the late 90s, been focusing on a meaningless rivalry between them, while the heated public rhetoric has ignored the real issues. America's main economic competitors are Asian. Its major, everyday pressing social problem is illegal immigration from Latin America. Its major political problems are internal. Europe's major economic competitors are Asian. Its largest strategic problems are with Russia and the Islamic world. Its major social problems are internal (demographics, welfare state) and externally to the east and south. Europe is in a weaker position to deal with its problems than we are to deal with our problems. For the foreseeable future, Europe will need us more than we need them - just as it has been since 1945. The real change is not Europe's objective condition - in trouble and needing outside help - but in American perceptions of whether it's worthwhile to help Europe. While Europe still needs outside help, Europe is no longer as important as it once was. This fact will be the source of a considerable friction in the years to come. Many Americans don't understand it, especially liberals, who have spent the last 90+ years selling the centrality of Europe as a core principle of US foreign policy. This view will be harder and harder to defend in the coming decades and is another sign of modern liberalism's decline. Certainly, nothing has brought out American liberalism's backward-looking nature the way its colonial-inferiority complex vis-à-vis Europe has. Bawer's book exhibits a strong, lingering whiff of this thinking, although Bawer has spent most of the last decade apparently arguing himself out of his once-firm liberal views on this and other topics. It's even more bizarre given the fact that, until recently, the US was much more firmly committed to liberal political values than was Europe - Europe's continent-wide conversion to these is recent and untested, no matter what the Eurocrats say.**

As we look further and further out beyond the current generation, we must admit that all bets are off. Demographers cannot predict accurately much beyond two generations. It is clear that Europe's native populations will shrink dramatically during that time. In particular, Europe's southern tier and eastern ex-Communist bloc of countries have reached low birth rates that no society, outside of wars and plagues, has ever recovered from. But what comes after is less clear. Right now, the immigrant communities filling in Europe's hollowing-out demographics form compact societies-within-societies, especially the Islamic ones. (This is also true of the Africans, but much less true of Hindus and Sikhs in Britain, whose success is more "American" in nature.) These compact mini-societies might become sovereignties in all but name, just as the western Roman empire fragmented in its last few decades. Or something else entirely might happen - the modern world is not the ancient. These immigrant communities might open up and become far more culturally integrated into their host societies than they are now. Then expect to see a significant decline in traditional religious identities and automatic political solidarity. Although they will remain different for a long time to come, in this scenario, they might become more like the "hyphenated Americans" of 50-100 years ago - on their way to cultural assimilation into Europe, while changing Europe at the same time. This American-style "happy ending" is possible, although I would say now, not terribly likely.

Only time will tell and, as it it always has, holds surprises in store.
* The American version is familiar - from the birth of the teenager in the 1940s, captured perfectly in Lolita (the movie, not the novel), to the "death of the grown-up" in Diana West's new book, reviewed here by John O'Sullivan.

** Or perhaps, in their nervous political correctness, they know in their bones better than they know in their heads.

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