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My Great Depression

October 13, 2016

My Great Depression

October 13, 2016

I wouldn’t ordinarily write about my own state of mind, but since I suspect many readers have harbored thoughts similar to mine in recent months, I will risk getting personal. The world we live in has become profoundly depressing. Wherever I look, I see tragic impasses from which no exit seems possible.


Europe is my regular beat, so let me start there. The dream of an “ever closer union” is dead. It is doubtful that even the most robust of political systems could have survived the series of blows that Europe has sustained over the past decade: a financial crisis compounded by pitiless austerity, a massive influx of refugees, a series of terror attacks, the rise of antidemocratic politics in several member states, and finally Brexit—an outright repudiation of the dream by a country that never fully embraced it in the first place.


And of course the European Union was never very robust. It survived as an awkward, oft-patched compromise among nations that surrendered just enough sovereignty to anger domestic electorates and foment populist protest but not enough to deal effectively with simultaneous and convergent crises. Strong national (and nationalistic) leaders—de Gaulle and Thatcher—viewed Europe with suspicion; lesser (and more internationalist) leaders—a Mitterrand or a Kohl, a Blair or a Schroeder, a Sarkozy or an Hollande or a Renzi—used it as an alibi to excuse the failure of national governments to deliver on their promises. When Europe too ceased to deliver, the alibi evaporated.


National leaders then shifted the burden of providing a rationale for a robust Europe to the much-maligned Eurocrats, who come in many varieties: Some are public-spirited and far-sighted, others venal and self-serving, still others well-meaning but helpless given the dearth of resources and the weakness of the institutions they have been given to work with. “In the beginning everything is mystical,” wrote Charles Péguy, “but in the end everything is political.” Europe’s course has been even more dispiriting, from the mystical to the narrowly economical. The only European visionary today is Mario Draghi, whose vision extends no further than quantitative easing. In the stodginess of official Europe, this passes for radical and innovative thinking. Where poetry is wanted, Europe offers not even decent prose but only bureaucratic “directives” and “central bank guidance.”


The only act of moral courage by a European leader in recent memory was Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees from the carnage of Syria. She offered the world a vision of Europe as a beacon of peace and prosperity, ready to accept “your tired and your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free”—which used to be America’s vision of itself before one presidential candidate erected wall-building as the ambition that will make the country great again.


This was a fine gesture for Merkel to make, but it has also proved to be a serious political miscalculation, as she herself has admitted. It fueled the rise of Alternative for Germany, a far-right anti-immigrant party. It also exemplified everything that has gone wrong with European decision-making: Merkel made her decision alone, without consultation with other leaders. She assumed their cooperation would be forthcoming, no doubt because she has been able to impose Germany’s idea of what is best for Europe in the economic sphere, with disastrous consequences. And now she has been forced to backtrack. In a less depressing world, virtue would be rewarded, but in our world, virtue’s only reward is plunging popularity. (Photo: Sipa USA via AP/Julien Mattia)

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About the Author

Arthur Goldhammer

Arthur Goldhammer

Local Affiliate & Seminar and Study Group Chair

Goldhammer has a B.S. and Ph.D. in Mathematics from MIT and has taught at Brandeis University and Boston University. He has translated more than 125 books from French, for which he won ...
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