Virtue in the people, part deux

What did Madison mean by that quote?  He meant that without self-command, the individual – and in the aggregate, the citizenry – is incapable of self-government.  We can’t be good parents unless we place our children’s wellbeing above our own.  We can’t be good neighbors unless we perceive our homes as part of a community that rises or sinks together.  We can’t be good citizens unless we accept that we owe a debt, to be paid in integrity and restraint, to our dead fathers and to our great-grandchildren not yet born.

Insofar as we are individuals, and not, as David Hume once wrote, “a bundle of perceptions,” we must impose a theme and a purpose on the random events of everyday life.

The world is a hard unforgiving place.  Yesterday’s success becomes the reason for tomorrow’s failure.  The temptation to become comfortable, self-absorbed, and smug when one has known prosperity, is a difficult one to resist.  A virtuous people are always uneasy:  eternally vigilant, in Jefferson’s words.  Their fate is in their own hands.  The corrupt, in success, are self-smitten, and in failure find many villains to rage against.

That brings me, once again, to Europe.  A spate of articles have appeared over the last few days speculating on the future of the EU and the European “social model” after the vote on the European constitution this weekend in France, and next week in the Netherlands.  The early elections in Germany, the country that patented the “social market,” adds to a growing premonition that, for good or evil, the Europe the next generation is about to take shape.

I find two quotes particularly telling, one by Michel Rocard, once prime minister of France, the other by Gunther Grass, a great German novelist.  These are not the words of vigilant and self-commanding persons.  Both men look on a world of chaotic contending forces, and see instead a cunning ideological conspiracy, led by America, and aimed at making Europe weak and poor.

Rocard, after blaming the unpopularity of the EU constitution in part on President Chirac, who happens to be his political enemy, goes on to the big picture:

The world has undergone massive economic deregulation, prescribed by the monetarist doctrine supported by the conservative forces dominant in the developed countries of North America, Europe, and the Far East. This economic tsunami has come to us from the United States – there is nothing in it for Europe, but the right-wing forces in all our countries, which have coalesced into the majority that governs Europe, have rallied to its support.

It is the desire to reject this state of affairs that, above all else, explains the “No” many French people want to shout.

Rocard disagrees with the rejectionists, but only because he believes a newly constituted EU will be “big enough to block the neo-liberal tsunami.”  Somehow the adoption of a 600-page document by the French and the EU will end the coldness of the world and the harshness of reality.  Grass splashes out into economic deep water with all the expertise of an author of fiction:

“We are all witnesses to the fact that production is being destroyed worldwide, that so-called hostile and friendly takeovers are destroying thousands of jobs, that the mere announcement of rationalisation measures, such as the dismissal of workers and employees, makes share prices rise and this is regarded unthinkingly as the price to be paid for ‘living in freedom’.”

“Parliament is no longer sovereign in its decisions – [it] has thereby become an object of ridicule. It is degenerating into a subsidiary of the stock exchange. Democracy has become a pawn in the dictates of globally volatile capital.

“The social market economy – formerly a successful model of economic and cohesive action – has degenerated into the free-market economy.”

The Germans, like the French, are no longer in command of their own fate:  otherwise, how could they fail?  Democracy has been violated.  Painted barbarians stand astride the city gates.  That last sentence of Grass’ explains a great deal:  “formerly a successful model” is the cry of the last dying dinosaur, enormous and powerful, no doubt wonderful in its own esteem, about to be overcome by nimble mouse-sized mammals.

The world condemned by Rocard and Grass in the same one in which unprecedented numbers of Chinese and Indians, as well as formerly communist East Europeans, have left poverty behind, and taken their place among the “developed” nations.  To rage against this transformation isn’t merely corrupt:  it’s monstrously selfish.  Let me end this post with the words of Martin Kettle, from his sane and insightful piece in today’s Guardian:

What went wrong for Germany was also what went wrong for Europe. It was not East Germany alone that collapsed in 1989. It was communism more generally, and not just in eastern Europe but across the world, above all in Russia and China. Once these countries, with their billions of skilled but largely impoverished inhabitants, began to become market economies, the writing was on the wall for high-cost welfare settlements in the developed world. And rightly so. The prospect that hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indian people will enjoy double or treble the prosperity that their parents knew is the single most wonderful possibility in the modern world.

There was nothing wrong with the postwar settlement for the Europeans who benefited from it, especially for those who had survived the terrible years of 1914-45. But it was only sustainable as long as the millions who languished under communism were unable to get their share of the prosperity, security and freedom that western Europe enjoyed. Once communism collapsed, the privileges and protections that were essential to the western settlement began to be unsustainable economically and, in an important way, morally too.


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