By Barry Rubin
The current political crisis in Europe, and in America as well, is not at all hard to understand. Think of it like this: society is not infinitely malleable. If you pull a rubber band far enough it is either going to snap back or it will break.
Western democracies have worked very well for 60 years now. They have been remarkably prosperous; remarkably peaceful. They defeated the Communist challenge. In a sense they — and I include the United States here — are victim of this very success.
Out of rational self-interest, the realities of electoral politics, and a strong sense — misguided or otherwise — the welfare state and the payment of entitlements have been expanding.
You can — as my grandmother used to say — throw around money like a drunken sailor until you run out of money.
The self-imposed burdens have reached, and exceeded, the limit of what these societies could finance. This problem has been highlighted, of course, by an economic recession but it is not the product of that business contraction.
Things have been made worse by the fact that most governments in power have tried to apply the very old policies that were making the societies ill in the first place. The situation is akin to the medical practice of centuries ago in which an already sickly patient was bled further by the application of leeches. Death often followed.
Those governments buried in the equivalent of “old-think” in the USSR have just three alternatives:
–Deny any of this is happening. Every penny spent is absolutely necessary to stop old people from starving, women from keeling over in their 30s, the globe from heating up like a tea kettle, and in short the mass extinction of the human race.
–Self-defense. Say that anyone who wants to recognize reality is a violent Nazi hater of women and a racist flat-earther.
–Use a scapegoat. If only taxes were raised on rich, greedy people then the party can go on uninterrupted.
Obviously, I’m being facetious but that when all the verbal foliage is cleared away that list is pretty accurate.
But what about those governments, or oppositions, that wanted to be responsible by limiting spending, reorganizing or reducing entitlements, and cutting their own payroll to a level that could be sustained?
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Well, that’s an uphill battle as we’ve just seen in Greece. People don’t want to be told to sacrifice, especially because they suspect that the elite isn’t doing so and that this same elite is responsible for the mess. So they can be — easily? — manipulated into voting for those who tell them to eat, drink and be merry, with a minimal tax on billionaires and millionaires paying off the caterer.
If you can buy or import voting blocks to ensure your victory that also helps. Is any government in France from this moment on going to limit immigration, fight Islamism, cut back on vacations, and raise retirement ages and the length of the work week? That’s doubtful.
Now this is the very moment that democracy comes into play. It is in the hands of the voters to decide whether to face the music or default on paying the fiddler. Can they be made to understand in the face of a clueless mass media and a fantasy-intoxicated intellectual class what is at stake and what needs to be done? Ask again in November.
Something very important should also be made clear here: political stances and solutions are not historically permanent. I would argue that liberalism (and a dose of the social democrats) was the best solution for the West’s problems in 1900. But it is no longer 1900. Huge social reforms have been made; out-groups have been brought into equal rights. The balance has shifted and that reality must now be the starting point in facing the current reality.
Could it possibly be that a government that has grown steadily for so many decades might have become too big? Is it conceivable that regulations imposed by the thousands have become too onerous? Is it within the realm of the real world that the burden of salaries and retirements for those who draw government pay checks have become too heavy? Might it be true that if you keep dividing society into warring groups they will eventually go to war against each other?
Or is this all a fantasy of a reactionary, evil, woman-hating racist mindset that should be dismissed by any civilized being?
Democracy is based on the idea that the average citizen is wise enough to understand what his society and country must do to survive and to do better, or at least minimally well. We are now going to find out whether that proposition is accurate.
Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International
Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.