June 18, 2013
The culture of complaint
About a decade ago, most Western Europeans told themselves they were wallowing in prosperity and that times were good. If the available statistics are anything to go by, today they are on average rather better off than they were back then. While it is true that, with few exceptions, their economies are either expanding at a slower rate than before or shrinking a bit, in itself that hardly justifies the comparisons that are being made between the current situation and the Great Depression of the 1930s that saw many people going hungry. When the IMF chief Christine Lagarde said she cared more about children in places like Niger than their contemporaries in Athens, she was making an important point. By all historic standards, Western Europeans, whether they are employed or are on the dole, are still doing very well indeed. Though that could change, as yet they have little to moan about.
But moan they do. In much of Europe and the United States, a culture of complaint had become well nigh universal long before the current crisis struck home. Its grip may be weakening, but it is still very much there. If you look hard, you will find some old-fashioned eccentrics who are content to count their blessings, but as far as the rest are concerned such blessings are heavily outweighed by grievances. Even bankers who, year after year, get paid millions of dollars, euros or pounds despite their inability to prevent their institutions losing billions, feel they are innocent victims of populist prejudice and say they will depart for greener pastures should anyone try to deprive them of the huge bonuses they assume are theirs by right.
Equally aggrieved are unsackable public employees with allegedly cast-iron pensions awaiting them who fear they may be asked to work a bit harder, ambitious women who tell us they keep bumping into a “glass ceiling,” people of one ethnic group or another who insist they are being held back because of the colour of their skin or their insistence on performing religious rites in their workplace, whites who accuse the local government of pandering to ethnic minorities, teachers who are told to teach, leftists who are enraged by the examples of social injustice they manage to detect, conservatives who think the world has veered sharply left, homosexuals who are determined to remove whatever remains of millennia of heterosexual traditions, traditionalists who protest against such nonsense, old folk who feel appalled by the pushiness of youngsters and youngsters who say the “baby boom” generation has already consumed their birthright, greens who want to save the environment by shutting down industry, and many, many others.
In much of the Western world and in poorer countries, among them Argentina, where governments have got into the game, politics, especially “identity politics”, is to a large extent a matter of making sure that your own particular wheel squeaks loudest and is therefore entitled to get more grease. Self-pity pays off.
If you don’t complain, you will be overlooked and left in the lurch, so it is better to proclaim oneself a victim of some monstrous social, economic or historic act of injustice. It is no longer a question of the survival of the fittest, a Darwinian struggle that, in the view of the flintier advocates of a free market at any rate, will benefit just about everyone in the long run, but of a competition to see which group is least fit and therefore most deserving of sympathy.
This was all very well when it was believed that the economy was a perpetual motion machine that could be propelled for a great many years to come by easy credit. That agreeable proposition was widely accepted until, in 2008, Lehman Brothers capsized and indebtedness suddenly became a major issue. Since then, some people have been having second thoughts.
The most heartfelt calls for a rethink are coming from Germany. Angela Merkel has made herself unpopular in southern Europe by standing up for such antiquated Teutonic virtues as thrift and hard work. She really does seem to believe that if only the Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians, as well, though they have yet to get the message, the British and North Americans, were to get their fingers out and start taking things seriously, they would soon overcome their many economic woes. Not surprisingly, Frau Merkel’s preaching has been met with considerable resentment and much talk about the ongoing German conquest of Europe and the forthcoming rise of a “fourth Reich”. Nonetheless, her strictures are hitting home.
More and more Westerners are beginning to realize that for their societies to remain prosperous in an increasingly competitive world they will have to change. Now that money seems to be running out, not just well-heeled tax-dodgers but also freeloaders, families whose members have not held a proper job for generations but have lived well enough on handouts, chronic malingerers, public employees accustomed to coasting along until the time comes for them to be pensioned off and others accused of abusing a generous welfare state are under attack.
Colder winds are blowing across Europe and the US. What is more, to the alarm of hustlers who have made it their business to exploit the many grievances of whatever interest group they identify themselves with, the winds are changing direction, coming not from the tender-hearted progressive left but from the puritanical right.