Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Modern European Tragedy

The endgame playing out in Europe is a tragedy in the usual sense, but also in the sense of Greek tragedy -- downfall brought about ironically through the very efforts, perhaps even well intentioned, of those ultimately afflicted. It's terrible to see Europe looming toward disaster, but also utterly fascinating that everyone involved -- Greeks, Germans, French, the European Central Bank -- has acted in what they thought was their own interest, yet those very actions have led the collective to a likely outcome much worse for all. A tragedy of the commons.

Philosopher Simon Critchley has written a brilliant essay exploring this theme more generally. Among the most poetic analyses of the situation I have seen:
The euro was the very project that was meant to unify Europe and turn a rough amalgam of states in a free market arrangement into a genuine social, cultural and economic unity. But it has ended up disunifying the region and creating perverse effects, such as the spectacular rise of the populist right in countries like the Netherlands, for just about every member state, even dear old Finland.

What makes this a tragedy is that we knew some of this all along — economic seers of various stripes had so prophesied — and still we conspired with it out of arrogance, dogma and complacency.  European leaders — technocrats whom Paul Krugman dubbed this week “boring cruel romantics” — ignored warnings that the euro was a politically motivated project that would simply not work given the diversity of economies that the system was meant to cover. The seers, indeed, said it would fail; politicians across Europe ignored the warnings because it didn’t fit their version of the fantasy of Europe as a counterweight to United States’ hegemony. Bad deals were made, some lies were told, the peoples of the various member countries were bludgeoned into compliance often without being consulted, and now the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost.

But we heard nothing and saw nothing, for shame. The tragic truth that we see unspooling in the desperate attempts to shore up the European Union while accepting no responsibility for the unfolding disaster is something that we both willed and that threatens to now destroy the union in its present form.

The euro is a vast boomerang that is busy knocking over millions of people. European leaders, in their blindness, continue to act as if that were not the case.

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