My previous post linked to the new gloomy piece by Robert Kaplan for the WSJ, in which he ponders the possibility of Europe reverting to deep historical fault-lines:
The sturdy core of modern Europe approximates in large measure the Carolingian Empire founded by Charlemagne in the ninth century. The first Holy Roman Emperor, he ruled the lands from the North Sea down through the Low Countries and radiating outward to Frankfurt, Paris, Milan and so on. The weaker cousins of this Europe extend along the Mediterranean, from the Iberian peninsula to southern Italy and the historically less-developed Balkans, heirs to the Byzantine and Ottoman traditions.
During the decades following World War II, this divide was suppressed because of Europe’s relative isolation from its “near abroad”—that is, from the regions of North Africa and Eurasia that, for centuries, did so much to shape the distinctive character of the continent’s periphery. Today that wider geography can no longer be ignored, as Europe’s various regions adopt very different attitudes to the threats posed by Russia’s bullying under President Vladimir Putin, the flood of refugees from the Middle East and the latest terrorist outrages at home and abroad.
It has become clear that the centralization imposed for decades by the EU and its distant, unrepresentative bureaucracy hasn’t created a unitary Europe. Indeed, it has created a powerful backlash across the continent, one that the EU can survive only by figuring out how better to establish its legitimacy among its diverse nations.
This is a key smart point:
Europe thus now finds itself facing an unhappy historical irony: The decades in which it was able to develop its high ideals of universal human rights, including the right of the distressed to seek havens in Europe, was made possible, it is now clear, by the oppressive regimes that once held sway on its periphery. The Arab world was slammed shut for decades by prison states whose dictator-wardens kept their people in order. Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad family in Syria, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya—they allowed Europe to have its idealistic cake and eat it, too.
He’s right. The reason why the EU developed in such an improbably benign yet intricate way is that the surrounding Cold War conditions allowed that to happen. The fact of the USSR closing off any idea of genuine ‘European integration’ and the Cold War’s crummy dictatorships in North Africa together created an unnaturally ‘static’ situation on EU borders. That allowed all sorts of grandiose institutional formations and philosophical ambitions to develop in key European capitals.
All that has collapsed. The drastic new instability to the East caused by a neurotic, erratic Russia and to the South caused by the inevitable collapse of Arab-style national socialist autocracy leaves the EU just too big and inflexible to cope.
What’s genuinely odd about all this (and see ‘climate change’ too) is that so much of the discourse about what should happen now somehow assumes that there is a naturally safe/stable place to perch indefinitely, if only we can find it. Robert Kaplan thinks there isn’t:
As the EU continues to fracture, this power vacuum could create a 21st-century equivalent of the late Holy Roman Empire: a rambling, multiethnic configuration that was an empire in name but not in fact, until its final dissolution in 1806 …
The decades when we thought of Europe as stable, predictable and dull are over. The continent’s map is becoming medieval again, if not yet in its boundaries then at least in its political attitudes and allegiances. The question today is whether the EU can still hope to permanently replace the multicultural Habsburg Empire, which for centuries sprawled across Central and Eastern Europe and sheltered its various minorities and interests.
Remember that DNA map of the UK? Certain patterns of thought and instinct and human loyalty may be quite invisible, yet deeply engrained (indeed literally part of our genetic makeup) over many centuries. For most of European history things have ebbed and flowed, usually in a violent messy way. The ‘stability’ of the Cold War and the rise of EU institutional hegemony are an anomaly. It is hard not to agree with the broad point Robert Kaplan makes: that that artificial stability is steadily eroding, and something new (and not necessarily ‘better’) is going to replace it whether we like it or not
Likewise with ‘jobs’. For most of human history there were no ‘jobs’ in the sense of a steady contractual relationship that could be replaced by something similar. People mostly worked here and there, living unpredictably off their wits and skills or submitting to feudal relationships of different shapes and sizes. The industrial revolution opened the way to a demand for ‘systemic’ work for huge numbers of people to help get the best from massive predictable machines. Now thanks to new technology the idea of ‘work’ is fragmenting: it’s far more fluid and unpredictable once again. Jobs are the historical anomaly – we look to be reverting in a turbulent way back to the historical mean.
This (finally) is why the Corbynista obsession with ‘fairness‘ is literally stupid:
“Too much of the proceeds of growth have accumulated to those at the top. Not only is this unfair, it actually holds back growth. A more equal society is not only fairer, it does better in terms of economic stability and wealth creation.”
One option could be the imposition of “pay ratios” between those at the top and those at the bottom of a company’s pay scale, he will suggest. Alternatively, firms could be barred or restricted from distributing dividends until all their employees are getting the living wage – which is higher than the minimum wage.
“Only profitable employers will be paying dividends, if they depend on cheap labour for those profits then I think there is a question over whether that is a business model to which we should be turning a blind eye,” he will say.
This way of looking at ‘fairness’ is utterly static. It takes snapshots of current relationships and tries to impose a steady-state equilibrium identified by priggish civil servants poring over data spreadsheets. This risks losing all the wider dynamic effects of letting markets do their job. See Venezuela, a country feted by the Corbyns of this world for its ‘economic management’ and ‘fairness’ that is fast slumping into disaster.
In short, there is no ‘steady state’ in pretty much anything concerned with human affairs. And the more politicians claim to be able to deliver one then try to impose it, the greater the risk of setting up brittle structures and policies that crash spectacularly – sooner or later.