Europe’s choice

It has been clear for years that Europe is suffering from a lack of vision, of an image of the future that will inspire citizens and offer them hope of a better society. Today, in the turmoil of Athens, Europe sees the nightmare that will be its future if its politicians and intellectuals do not design a better future. We’re no longer talking about whether the Irish will ratify the Lisbon Treaty or whether the British will join the single currency. The question is whether member-states’ societies will explode. Despite the fact that in most other EU countries the institutions that will be dealing with the social results of the recession are more developed than in Greece, the roots of the strife are common and only the time of the eruption in each country will differ. In Greece, institutions have been mortally damaged in people’s eyes by their chronic incompetence and by a general climate of corruption and political expediency. Other countries may take a while to reach this level of contempt for authority, but as the economic crisis drags on and misery spreads, then even the most developed societies will struggle to deal with their citizens’ needs. Then, in those countries things might be even worse than in Greece. Here, the protests (at least so far) have been confined to youngsters – either school students being blooded in their first revolt or hardened «anti-establishment» types who have matured and developed their skills in the hothouse of the state’s inability to deal with them over the past few decades. It is significant that the demonstrations have been confined to youngsters and have not included other social groups. (Although this is the first time that street violence in Athens has involved migrants, gypsies and other marginalized groups, they are exploiting the situation rather than instigating it). In Greece, with its state incompetence and a tradition of tolerating (and even romanticizing) all forms of civil disobedience, a policeman’s killing of a 15-year-old boy was enough to light the flame of revolt. But the ease with which the fire took hold and the way in which the violent anti-establishment types took control, kept other groups from participating in the protests. Paradoxically, the violence has prevented a more substantial protest by a greater section of the population. When the economy worsens, we will see the youths’ rebellion spreading to workers, the unemployed, the migrants. Until then, it is more likely that we will see a more generalized uprising in another country rather than in Greece. What undermines and jeopardizes Europe is that many young people believe their future will be worse than the present, whereas their elders worry about their jobs, their pensions, their health and medical benefits. We are sliding into a recession at a time when all our economic models and the global financial system are discredited. Now our politicians have two urgent tasks: to find ways to make their own profession more representative of their people (at the national and European level) and to develop new economic models capable of rescuing their societies. Instead of focusing on this, though, they busy themselves with «politics,» as if this can be done far from society’s real needs. In many countries we see the people demanding reforms because they know that this is the only way to deal with the challenges of the future, and yet, at the same time, they demand benefits in the present. This will lead, increasingly, to revolving-door governments as no party can meet both sets of demands. The solution does not lie in parties making promises that they cannot keep, but in finding ways in which they can bring more people into the labor market (perhaps through fewer work hours and other original ideas). At the same time, governments must improve public spaces and encourage the arts, so that citizens, with unprecedented amounts of free time, can spend the greater amount of that time in creative pursuits (rather than resorting simply to handouts and soccer, the Roman concept of «bread and circuses» in return for political support and social stability). If we do not turn toward greater, participatory creativity, we will turn toward destruction.