“Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” -Alexander Solzhetsyn
At the end of 2020, it is natural to look back at how the year started in Europe. In fact, it is a question I asked several of my friends recently. Where were you on January 1st of 2020 and how did you expect the year to unfold? Truth be told, nobody expected this.
Today, some people ask me a different question. Am I pessimistic or optimistic about the future of Europe? If I may digress, in the garden of forking paths many people talk about the Swedish model of economic development as cause for optimism. However, I find it necessary to address a few false axioms embedded in this argument rather than give implementation details which you may readily obtain from the Swedish government itself.
I believe we have reasons to be idealistic but if we are to succeed in our efforts it is better that our idealism not be rooted in false hopes.
The Swedish vision of the future, or lack thereof:
Sweden is now famous for being the country of Greta Thunberg, the girl that stood up for what is right. However, being against climate change is not in itself a vision of the future. A vision of the future must simultaneously describe humanity’s place in nature, a value system, our relationship with technology, and metaphysical foundations that are captured by the art of that culture. In the past we had Da Vinci; today we have modern art.
What I can say about modern art is that it represents a civilisation that is lost; a European civilisation in decay. Those who argue that these are merely theoretical arguments don’t realise that Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, without whom modern technology would be non-existent, did not develop the Calculus in order to create jobs or to develop the economy. They were both driven by the belief that there was a divine order behind everything, and I believe that if modern Europeans want to understand the meaning of life they gain a lot by going back to the founding fathers of modern Europe.
Utilitarian arguments can’t motivate very capable human beings to do anything more besides follow procedures. In fact, utilitarianism has left a void in the hearts of men which is in turn responsible for the dangerous combination of cynicism, recalcitrance, and apathy that permeates all European social classes today.
While a 365 day economic development plan may be executed by following procedures, a program that spans several decades won’t succeed without a clear vision of the future that every European believes in and is willing to fight for.
The Swedish birth rate:
In spite of an economy that has consistently grown in strength since 1960, the birth rate in Sweden has exhibited a consistent downward trend. This is important because if income inequality is low then GDP per capita is a useful measure of economic progress, and economic progress is important because it is strongly correlated with technological progress. And technology is what makes civilised life possible.
In this setting, a low birth rate is a bet against the future. Some Swedes point to a growing number of precarious jobs and the latent impact of climate change. Given that the modern economy is global, both of these challenges transcend the boundaries of Sweden.
In fact, these coordination problems transcend Europe itself as the main actors are distributed across the globe.
Asymmetry between national democracies and global capitalism:
A robust middle class is necessary for free markets to function, and free markets are a necessary ingredient for capitalism. But, modern free markets are global and therefore transcend national boundaries and regulations. So modern free markets are effectively unregulated, a democracy-free zone if you will.
Given Piketty’s analysis that the returns on capital are typically more important than the growth of a national economy, we should expect this trend to lead to greater wealth inequality. But, there are other mechanisms at work. What if a multinational company decides to hire the best engineers in order to compete with other multinationals, then it won’t necessarily choose to hire local talent and may even relocate operations so we should expect income inequality to increase as well. Plus job losses. Add network effects and certain countries become hubs for the development of important technologies, while most countries will struggle to develop.
As a result of all this there is very little modern politicans can do(in most countries) to execute bold promises, unless they work together to create an international order that will regulate the current free-for-all. Until then, everybody in Europe will have to brace themselves for more precarity and we won’t have any chance of addressing climate change.
Steps towards such an international democracy may emerge through a sequence of international agreements(such as the Paris agreement) that outline a shared model of economic development. This would allow the creation of a new monetary system that actually works, unlike the current system which does not.
Lessons from the Meiji restoration:
In total, the challenges that face Europe between 2020 and 2030 are similar in magnitude to the problems that faced Japan during the Meiji restoration. This was a revolution that unfolded over more than thirty years leading to its industrialisation and the growth of a powerful economy. In this context, friends of mine sometimes ask whether this could have unfolded in France. My answer is simply no.
As a Frenchman with some common sense, I must note important cultural differences between the French culture and Japanese culture which was strongly shaped by the Samurai. Humans are not elementary particles and so a thousand people in France are not equivalent to a thousand people in Japan. There are not many historical equivalents to the resolve and rigour of the Japanese people and yet this is what Europe must match, if not transcend.
Our greatest weaknesses right now are our lack of unity, our lack of steadfastness, and our lack of resolve. And yet without these qualities we won’t be able to execute any serious vision. Some people tell me that the greatest fear of Europeans is that they won’t attain a certain life expectancy or standard of living, but I know that this is false.
The greatest fear of Europeans, and all humans for that matter, is that when it matters most they will hesitate rather than act with the courage that is necessary. While executing an essential plan they will doubt at a crucial moment that requires belief and falter. They fear this because they know that only with an effort that is total shall we manage to accomplish what is necessary by working together.
Faced with so many challenges, it would be better if the spirit of Cato the Elder lived on in Europe somehow and not only in history books.
In Europe we have so far focused on improving society by reforming institutions or modifying political and economic systems, not realising that the single most important thing to reform is the human mind. The human mind must be reformed in order for the appropriate culture to emerge and by this transformation alone shall we manage to solve our problems.
For this to take place, important reforms to the European education system are necessary.