Just how much will it take to save Europe? That is the 1 trillion Euro question. The magic number that Super Mario (Draghi), the “Illicit Emperor of Europe” 1, has pulled out of his hat is being picked up in all of the 700 billion Euro plans concocted by each European political family as part of their response to the “Juncker plan,” a more modest but much touted plan announced by the Commission last November. The initiative of a massive investment plan to stimulate the European economy will at worst have unclogged the drains of the European Central Bank and of national governments. Each individual plan has its own approach, but the diagnosis remains the same for all, including the Greens: there is currently not enough investment in Europe.
Certainly the senseless austerity policies that have been implemented over the course of the last five years have not helped as they have dried up all sources of finance. Nonetheless, the investment deficit does not just come down to a lack of money. There is a lot of cash rotting in the pipes for lack of the right conditions or local contacts on the ground to turn those funds into buildings and infrastructure. Investment is not simply a question of accounting and administration. It is above all a venture on the future, which in turn, requires an optimistic vision of the future. That will require a welcomed, tangible, understandable perspective for the greatest denominator of people for whom the only meaning that the economy has is whether it is able to empower them or not.
A glance at the proposals made by the national governments from which “Jean-Claude’s twelve projects” will be selected and the obsolescence is astounding. Debauchery in concrete and iron, highways ranging in digitization, nuclear and coal plants; thousands of Sivens dams in Romania, adaptations of Roybon in Portugal, British shale gas versions of Notre Dame, Lyon-Turin everywhere… All projects which would be old upon delivery. Jean-Claude has been before having even been is a bit hard to take.
Frankly, some of these projects would be useful. But, at least part of the reason why they have not yet been built is because they cannot offer European societies what they want. What can the most modern airport or the largest shopping mall offer when what people really want is improved quality of life, more solidarity and a feeling of community, shared belonging? “Poverty of materialism” when, additionally, it is disconnected from its historic meaning.
Indeed, it is instinctive to feel that it is completely out-dated to invest in an economic reality that is stuck in time in the 1960s, stuck in a reality of growth that conquers all. Yet that is precisely the storyline of the European Investment plan. In addition to the trick that magically turns 1€ into 15€, according to a multiplier reminiscent of Jesus and his bread and fish, the plan aims to collect white elephants and slough them off as pink elephants (digital, nano), just for the sake of hype.
Which, sadly, leads us to France and the sterile posturing debates that are taking place there, especially when it comes to economic policy. The Macron bill is yet another disappointing example of the depth of the deficit that we have and that is being run up as fast as the national debt: the creativity deficit. Indeed, creativity is as rare a commodity in politics as candour.
The current going economic line would have it that France has a typically French missing hostage: growth. As with real hostages, no one knows exactly where it is or where it is being held. We do, however, have a pretty good idea of who the kidnappers are: unions, organized labour, bureaucracy, environmentalists of all sorts, associations, zadists, those who decry pouring concrete in circles… all of these “who are sworn to immobility,” who scare away sacrosanct growth, and prevent it from sweeping in to dole out the booty. Awaited with the same feverish anticipation as the return of the Messiah, this ghost of the age of productivism (growth) fears one thing acutely: the “stocks” of social, environmental and fundamental rights.
The governments and institutions of Europe never seem to cease to reiterate their commitment to growth, like a religious incantation. Daring to utter “the end of growth” is tantamount to the warning of Dante’s Inferno: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter”). For growth is the language of Hope, on par with the Gospel, promising eternal redemption and rewards. Now, when it comes to faith, it is very dangerous to counter with facts and Galileo can attest to that. The thing is, however, growth actually exists: between 1974 and 2004, the French economy doubled in size, in other words 100% growth. In the same time period, unemployment tripled (3 to 10%) and the number of people living in poverty barely decreased by 10%… Welcome to the trente piteuses.
The problem is not an issue of accounting or economics. Whatever the materialist convictions of those who purport to be the scientists may be, the economy of a region, a country, an industry or a household cannot be distilled down to a simple accounting aggregate of units churned out or hours clocked. The economy is an image of the world, a representation of available resources, needs that must be met and desires to be fulfilled. A representation of what is necessary, useful, desirable, superfluous, and negligible. It is a relationship to time, effort, merit, and to fellow man. The ant and the grasshopper are but just one facet of the economy.
One of history’s greatest economists recalled that fact in nearly every line of his ever relevant work: the main thing that comes out of crunching the numbers and forecasts (varying in wisdom) is a difficult to quantify data set called “psychology”. Whether it is individual or group psychology that we are dealing with here, what it boils down to is a representation of the world.
Today, with the exception of a few lesser developed regions, the majority of our certainties have been poured into the last concrete blocks of industrial gigantism: useless big projects forced on us, Stuttgart station, Mielno, Paks and Temelin nuclear power plants, destructive extractive industries, pathogenic agro-industry, poisonous petrochemistry, industrial overfishing.
What Europeans really aspire to is something entirely different: the overwhelming pressure of massive unemployment by no means guarantees that the unemployed will go knocking on the door of a factory that has been packed up and sent off to China or Vietnam or that they are prepared to trade in their habitat for shale gas or oil sands.
The real question is a question of freedom. What really matters is not so much the “job” (which generally restricts one’s freedom) but rather to have “a way to make a living.”
We need to invest in society: inequality, redistribution, education, land management, rural communities, non-industrial farming, community infrastructure and telecommunication, social innovation, technological innovation and fundamental research. To sum up, we need to invest in a better world.
68 wanted to put imagination into power? Well, we want to invest in imagination.
Alas, we are subjected today to the dictatorship of managers: even Tsipras, Europe’s new radical golden boy, gives us Visconti in the texts by adorning social-democracy with a Mitterandesque revolutionary virginity.
When our faith in the songs of tomorrow has dried and the only thing left is the big single market, social-democracy or the rotary club as venue for dreaming, it is ludicrous to be flabbergasted that certain young people – who are seriously struggling – fall into the adulterated traps of a whole host of identity-based regimentation. One generation has come back from everything. Now it is time for a new generation to set out…somewhere. And that will require more imagination than all of the Junckers and Macrons of Europe combined could ever muster.
This article was orginally published on Mediapart.
1 See L’empereur illicite de l’Europe, au cœur de la Banque centrale européenne, by Jean-François Bouchard (Auteur) – Essai (broché), 01/2014