By JR on Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Boris Johnson (Mayor of London) always writes with a lightness of touch but he is a genuine classicist and it seems to me that his dark vision of the EU below could be largely true of the USA as well
It is one of the tragic delusions of the human race that we believe in the inevitability of progress. We look around us, and we seem to see a glorious affirmation that our ruthless species of homo is getting ever more sapiens.
It is one of the tragic delusions of the human race that we believe in the inevitability of progress. We look around us, and we seem to see a glorious affirmation that our ruthless species of homo is getting ever more sapiens. We see ice cream Snickers bars and in vitro babies and beautiful electronic pads on which you can paint with your fingertip and - by heaven - suitcases with wheels! Think of it: we managed to put a man on the moon about 35 years before we came up with wheelie-suitcases; and yet here they are. They have completely displaced the old type of suitcase.
Aren't they grand? Life seems impossible without them, and soon they will no doubt be joined by so many other improvements - acne cures, electric cars, electric suitcases - that we will be strengthened in our superstition that history is a one-way ratchet, an endless click click click forwards to a nirvana of liberal democratic free-market brotherhood of man.
Isn't that what history teaches us, that humanity is engaged in a remorseless ascent?
On the contrary: history teaches us that the tide can suddenly and inexplicably go out, and that things can lurch backwards into darkness and squalor and appalling violence. The Romans gave us roads and aqueducts and glass and sanitation and all the other benefits famously listed by Monty Python; indeed, they were probably on the verge of discovering the wheely-suitcase when they went into decline and fall in the fifth century AD.
Whichever way you look at it, this was a catastrophe for the human race. People in Britain could no longer read or write. Life expectancy plummeted to about 32, and the population fell. The very cattle shrunk at the withers. The secret of the hypocaust was forgotten, and chilblain-ridden swineherds built sluttish huts in the ruins of the villas, driving their post-holes through the mosaics.
In the once bustling Roman city of London (for instance) we find no trace of human habitation save for a mysterious black earth that may be a relic of a fire or some primitive system of agriculture. It took hundreds of years before the population was restored to Roman levels.
If we think that no such disaster could happen again, we are not just arrogant but forgetful of the lessons of the very recent past. Never mind the empty temples of the Aztecs or the Incas or the reproachful beehive structures of the lost civilisation of Great Zimbabwe. Look at our own era: the fate of European Jewry, massacred in the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents, on the deranged orders of an elected government in what had been one of the most civilised countries on earth; or look at the skyline of modern German cities, and mourn those medieval buildings blown to smithereens in an uncontrollable cycle of revenge.
Yes, when things go backwards, they can go backwards fast. Technology, liberty, democracy, comfort - they can all go out of the window. However complacent we may be, in the words of the poet Geoffrey Hill, "Tragedy has us under regard". Nowhere is that clearer than in Greece today. Every day we read of fresh horrors: of once proud bourgeois families queuing for bread, of people in agony because the government has run out of money to pay for cancer drugs. Pensions are being cut, living standards are falling, unemployment is rising, and the suicide rate is now the highest in the EU - having been one of the lowest.
By any standards we are seeing a whole nation undergo a protracted economic and political humiliation; and whatever the result of yesterday's election, we seem determined to make matters worse. There is no plan for Greece to leave the euro, or none that I can discover. No European leader dares suggest that this might be possible, since that would be to profane the religion of Ever Closer Union. Instead we are all meant to be conniving in a plan to create a fiscal union which (if it were to mean anything) would mean undermining the fundamentals of Western democracy.
This forward-marching concept of history - the idea of inexorable political and economic progress - is really a modern one. In ancient times, it was common to speak of lost golden ages or forgotten republican virtues or prelapsarian idylls. It is only in the past few hundred years that people have switched to the "Whig" interpretation, and on the face of it one can forgive them for their optimism.
We have seen the emancipation of women, the extension of the franchise to all adult human beings, the acceptance that there should be no taxation without representation and the general understanding that people should be democratically entitled to determine their own fates.
And now look at what is being proposed in Greece. For the sake of bubble-gumming the euro together, we are willing to slaughter democracy in the very place where it was born. What is the point of a Greek elector voting for an economic program, if that program is decided in Brussels or - in reality - in Germany?
What is the meaning of Greek freedom, the freedom Byron fought for, if Greece is returned to a kind of Ottoman dependency, but with the Sublime Porte now based in Berlin? It won't work. If things go on as they are, we will see more misery, more resentment, and an ever greater chance that the whole damn kebab van will go up in flames. Greece will one day be free again - in the sense that I still think it marginally more likely than not that whoever takes charge in Athens will eventually find a way to restore competitiveness through devaluation and leaving the euro - for this simple reason: that market confidence in Greek membership is like a burst paper bag of rice - hard to restore.
Without a resolution, without clarity, I am afraid the suffering will go on. The best way forward would be an orderly bisection into an old eurozone and a new eurozone for the periphery. With every month of dither, we delay the prospect of a global recovery; while the approved solution - fiscal and political union - will consign the continent to a democratic dark ages.