AUGUST was once a time for dreaming, wandering the empty streets of this city, reading silly-season newspaper stories after a leisurely lunch washed down with Sancerre, gazing at squares where fountains plashed and the pregnant or the old chatted on benches at dusk. Then something happened.
The world speeded up. Stress levels soared. Idle moments evaporated. Egos expanded. Devices became hand-held. Money outpaced politics. Rage surged. As Leonard Cohen put it: “The poor stay poor. The rich get rich. That’s how it goes. Everybody knows.”
Except that everybody is at a loss. When David Cameron rushes back from Tuscany (a k a Chiantishire) to riot-ravaged London, and Nicolas Sarkozy hustles home from the Riviera to a Paris debt crisis, and the summer vacation void vanishes in Europe (once so long the Germans coined a word for “free-time angst”), all bets are off.
August aborted this year. It morphed into the serious season. The beach lost out to the barricades. A time of outrage is upon us.
The fury in British cities follows huge social protests this year in Greece, where violence also flared, and in Spain, where tens of thousands have camped out from Madrid to Barcelona. Other nations, including Portugal, have seen a diffuse anger rooted in a shared conviction: things can’t go on like this. This European malaise is no stranger to a United States of high unemployment, economic bafflement, ideological radicalization and political pettiness.
Numbers tell part of the story. Youth unemployment in the 27-nation European Union stands at just over 20 percent, ranging as high as 45.7 percent in Spain. In Britain youth unemployment has risen from 14 percent in the first quarter of 2008 to 20 percent. About one in every five young Europeans and young Americans is wondering how to get any sort of working life on track. Britain’s NEETS (not in education, employment or training) meet U.S. boomerang kids in the anxiety of waiting.
The anxiety grows when governments are slashing benefits and pushing back retirement ages in an attempt to deal with spiraling deficits. A working gerontocracy hardly helps the young. Brits from Tottenham to Teesside have watched the most patrician cabinet since Macmillan cutting everything from libraries to youth counseling services. Theirs is a “No Future” revolt.
A feeling has grown in Western societies that uncontrollable forces are at work shrinking possibility. History has never seen a global power shift as radical as the current one that managed to be peaceful.
The united Europe of today is built on the ashes of successive empires — from the Roman to the British — that ended in one form or other of violent convulsion. Now the American quasi-imperium, and more generally the dominion of the West, is ending, not rapidly but steadily.
Growth, jobs, expansion, excitement — and, yes, possibility — lie in the great non-Western arc from China through India to South Africa and Brazil. Go South! Go East! That’s the dictum of the age but not always practicable in Peckham or Peoria. The world has been turned upside-down. What we are witnessing is how shaken Western societies are by such inversion.
As new powers emerge, globalization has altered the relationship between capital and labor in the former’s favor. Many more cheap workers have become available outside the West as technology has eliminated distance. Returns on capital have proved higher relative to wages. That’s the story of the post-cold-war period. The gap between rich and poor has become a gulf.
The only people who walked away unscathed from the great financial binge that preceded this mess were its main architects and greatest beneficiaries: bankers, financiers and hedge-fund honchos.
This, too, is fueling a time of outrage that has left Western politicians chasing shadows.
Perhaps the society dealing best with these dilemmas is Germany. It has invested in a highly educated work force. It has matched workers’ skills to jobs. It has continued to make precision machinery others can’t make. It has fostered cooperation between labor unions and employers and between industrialists and the government in defense of German jobs. The youth unemployment rate is under 10 percent.
It has not tried to race to the bottom to compete with China, or imagined that financial and other services could sustain a society, or shirked on training, or tried to dismember unions, or believed that markets held all the answers. Past cataclysm has contributed to Germany’s ability to see past ego to the common good needed for stability.
Alas, Germany is also involved in a fit of navel-gazing. It is tired of others’ problems. It is sick of bailing out the Greeks. Surveys suggest 50 percent of Germans now have little or no faith in the European Union, the country’s postwar route to rehabilitation. German leadership has become an oxymoron just when needed.
The United States and Western Europe saved Germany. Perhaps it’s time to return a little of the favor — not with money alone, but ideas.