“In the end more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom… When the freedom they wished for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.” – Edward Gibbon on the fall of Athens
As I have grown older, I have increasingly blessed being given a classical education at the University of St Andrews. We were actually encouraged to look at where the present day foreign policy dilemmas we studied arose, going deep into the mists of time to find answers. This has helped me immeasurably in understanding Europe’s present slide into absolute decline. Only by understanding the theory of decadence put forward by eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon can the continent’s startling fall from power make any sense.
What Gibbon meant by decadence was a people that had over time failed to solve its basic problems, and then slowly but surely abdicated responsibility for them. The utterly mediocre career of Angela Merkel is instructive here. Never even attempting to solve the gigantic policy problems in front of her – particularly regarding the euro and refugee crisis – the German Chancellor has instead tried to “manage” them. In essence, her pathetic strategy has been to keep crises as far away from the German people as possible in the short run, and not to worry about the long run.
This strategic motivation explains why Turkey has become the bribed, truculent night watchman for Europe regarding refugees. This crisis isn’t solved, just kept at a distance. It also explains why Germany insists Greece must never have its debt written down as the IMF (and any sane person) recognises is necessary, as that would entail coming clean with the German people that they are partly on the hook for previous loans to Greece and must pay their share. No, far better to live in a fantasy world for as long as possible, whatever the consequences. In the gormless Chancellor, it is hard to think of a better exemplar of decadence.
Given the long years of futility since the Lehman crisis, this sense that Europe’s dreary elites are not really even trying to solve the devilish problems confronting the continent has seeped into the broader public consciousness. Decadence is the gasoline which has been fuelling the populist movement that has swept over Europe, from left-wing Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, to the right-wing Front National (FN) in France, AfD in Germany and Golden Dawn in Greece, to the libertarian Five Star Movement in Italy. And the problem is, even if none of their policy prescriptions pass the laugh test, the narrative the populists have to tell of the European elite’s utter failure to cope with its problems is so compelling precisely because it is true.
Beyond Merkel’s soothing if poisonous fairy tales, the French government tinkers at the edges but hasn’t the nerve to even embark on the fundamental structural economic reform that is the country’s only long-term economic hope. The outgoing Spanish People’s Party (PP) government was economically brave, but hopelessly corrupt. Italy under Matteo Renzi has at last awoken from its long policy slumber under Berlusconi, but it has decades of stagnation to overcome. All the while the unelected Eurocrats of the EU act as if nothing much has happened, and they can proceed with their religion of ever-closer union, despite the fact that increasing numbers of Europeans are actively hostile to the project.
This failed elite, still intent on keeping its privileges despite its monumental policy blunders over both the euro and refugee crises, is increasingly and actively hated by large segments of European society, as youth unemployment numbers stay at depression-era levels and healthy sustained economic growth (use 2 per cent of GDP as a basic yardstick) simply has not returned. The future an entire generation was implicitly promised has disappeared, due to elite incompetence. If I were in this lost European generation, I suspect I would not be nearly so patient; I would be throwing bricks and I would know at who; the self-satisfied utterly useless elite, la casta as Podemos rightly puts it, that had visited such devastation upon me.
Instead, insecure segments of the European populace, particularly older voters, have turned to the populists, who compellingly and correctly recount the tale of European decline, with these elites as the villain of the piece. They will continue to rise until Europe grasps the nettle and actually begins to solve its problems. As there seems absolutely no signs of this happening, expect populism, with its even worse policy suggestions, to poison the well of Europe for a long time to come.
Gibbon would understand all this, as European populism is merely a symptom of the disease of decadence.