he end of World War II in Europe elicited a soothing fantasy: that the presence of atomic weapons would ironically thwart the prospect of another full-scale war. From now on in, uneasy Europe could focus on repair. With Communists entrenched in the East and capitalists in the West, anxiety would take the place of invasions, and anxiety wasn’t lethal. Things would get better, which from the Western perspective meant emerging from the war’s actual and ethical devastation.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union brought with it a second soothing fantasy: that the half-a-century global standoff was about to yield to celebratory unity and limitless prospects of cash-driven stability. Images of the Berlin wall falling were peddled as the obverse of later 9/11 footage, their exhilaration recycled on a loop for all to applaud. Postwar, existentialist Europe would now be carefree post-communist Europe. An age of affluence was in the wings. And so it was.
Capitalism’s central tenet, hawked by brokers and governments alike, was that human betterment depended on things and the cheering data behind them. Enlightened contentment meant political choice and social freedoms. It also meant a middle class free to choose what it needed and more. Wars, when they happened, would be “smart” and touch the few. Affluence would relieve the need for incessant worry and introspection. Mass entertainment and would distract people from the tediousness of intellectual concerns. Philosophy was outdated, even portrayed as a symptom of depression. Europe could rest on its multi-century laurels and trade in a new common currency that would eventually benefit all involved.
This, too, came to pass, but only briefly, and only in the most successful postwar countries.
Though the focus of what’s coming unraveled today tends to rest on matters of currency, economic indices, and numerical representations of faltering states, the underlying corrosion emerges from a different source.
The euro crisis is not just problem related to debt and irresponsibility but a surrogate war, or the closest thing to war that enlightened societies can produce.
War long perceived in terms of ruins requires transforming, like computers have transformed communication, so that it fits into a framework of invasive bad tidings that make people lose hope about the meaning of all they’ve built. Despair is the “new” destruction; resignation the “new” defeat. Humiliating bailouts, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, are like “benign” invasions, at least from psychological perspective. Those most damaged are hurt and bewildered, if not dispossessed, like war victims.
In cursing past the 1,000-year-long age of constant confrontations, middle class Europe, like most planetary blocs, has developed modular norms based almost entirely on income and thus attentive to booms and recessions but removed from the cathartic “relief” produced by national fistfights. The problem with this set-piece life is human rage, which is no less dramatic than a century ago.
For most Europeans, the promise of a better life after World War II and communism was embraced at the expense of trusting economic voodoo few fully understood. Capitalism’s wildly erratic heartbeat, familiar to Americans, was never factored into European thinking. The more the EU attempted to mimic American tropes — the euro like the dollar — the more Europeans convinced themselves nothing could really go wrong. Even a hardened existentialist could learn to love an iPhone.
But with things are coming apart, the fake wholeness all seemed once to applaud is back on brittle European ice. In the absence of jobs the pursuit of the better seems hollow. What does better mean when it doesn’t last? What is cash when it runs out or is cut off? What is the purpose of work if a salary is insecure? What’s the use of taxes and proud civic compacts when they conspire to interfere with individual and family happiness? How can peacetime be called that when all it elicits is concern and doubt?
The small-scale surge in suicides in Greece and Italy reflect not only the misery of affluence lost, but also a widespread recognition that the post-war, post-Communist pledge of everlasting satisfaction and a sense of personal and collective accomplishment have faded. Overwhelmed by disruptive numbers broadcast by a bad-news media oblivious to the psycho-social toll of delivering relentless bad news, many Europeans can no longer distinguish the good guys from the bad, knowing only that the order they once hoped for is now in fact disordered. With no obvious war to contain or rationalize it, with no sides and no promise of victory, with no Manifest Destiny confidence, they fall back on question their role, and Europe’s. Absent the growing material wellbeing that defined the last three decades, what is there around which to rally? If people are “consumers,” the stokers of a grand system of give and take, what are they when the system falters?
In fact, most are lost and anxious, or both; an immobilizing condition whose quiet panic yields a Spanish Flu of the mind.
Pope John Paul II, born a modest Pole, saw capitalism’s intrinsic limits early on and warned that a revering of things and status could make for helplessness in their absence. But in return, all he had to offer was faith, insufficient in societies that crave instant repair and no longer live in fear of death.
In the acclaimed 1990s Hollywood film “As Good as it Gets,” a cantankerous and neurotic protagonist played by Jack Nicholson storms unannounced into his therapist’s office, where he demands to be seen. But the waiting room is overflowing. It is then that he utters the line Europe has since adopted: “Is this as good as it gets?”