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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-07-2024 05:50

The United States and Europe in meltdown mode

All this political turmoil reflects what is going on beneath the surface. In every Western country, people are dissatisfied with the way things are and fear they could soon get far worse.

The last few weeks have been great for those who want to see Western civilisation crumble into dust. Recent political events suggest that most of the West is suffering from a collective nervous breakdown, much like the one that in Argentina preceded the election of Javier Milei, with more and more people turning against apparently established political groupings and putting their faith in whoever seems to be offering something new. Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, the Iranian ayatollahs, Islamist fanatics and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un must be rubbing their hands with glee as they watch from the sidelines what is going on in the United States and Europe. Though their rejoicing is premature, because their countries are faced with challenges that are certain to overwhelm them, they are understandably pleased to see that the once arrogant West is unable to come up with any plausible answers to problems that are troubling the entire world.

So far, the main English-speaking countries in which politics has long been dominated by a couple of big parties that have been around for over a century have resisted the temptation to leave such traditions behind, but they too could be approaching that point. In the United States, the electorate is being asked to choose between allowing a man who is evidently senile to remain in the White House and letting a thoroughly untrustworthy egomaniac who is in trouble with the law get his old job back. Warnings that the election of either of them could set the stage for a civil war may seem far-fetched, but the mere fact that a country as brimful of talent and energy as the United States has contrived to get itself into such a grotesque mess tells us that something has gone terribly wrong in a democracy that has always prided itself on being an example to the rest of the world.

In the United Kingdom, a once phenomenally successful party has just been humbled by one led by a strangely colourless individual who says he does not do any “work-related thing” after 6pm because he likes spending time with his family. Sir Keir Starmer may have his merits; if so, he is reluctant to reveal them.

In France, the “centre” represented by the arch-technocrat Emmanuel Macron has been squeezed out, so the choice is now between the “hard right” of Marine Le Pen and the equally unlovely “hard left” legions of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Something similar could be in store for Germany, where the Social Democrats of chancellor Olaf Scholz are in deep trouble. By European standards, Italy seems to be in fairly reasonable shape despite being governed by an outfit which includes outright fascists among its forefathers. If Giorgia Meloni does become the most influential leader in Europe, as some say is likely, it will be because the others are considered sheepish mediocrities.

All this political turmoil reflects what is going on beneath the surface. In every Western country, people are dissatisfied with the way things are and fear they could soon get far worse. Many suspect they have been sold a bill of goods by mainstream politicians who are simply unable to understand what is happening outside the “bubble” in which they live. However, while it is wonderfully easy to deride them for their failings, saying what they would have to do in order to overcome the difficulties they have allowed to mount up is anything but easy. If present trends continue for much longer, the US and the European Union are rushing towards a socioeconomic and political disaster, but nobody knows what can be done to prevent this from happening.

Along with most others, Western societies are ageing fast and birth rates are well below replacement level. This is putting an intolerable burden on generous pension schemes that were set up when the demographic circumstances were radically different from what they soon became and “experts” worried about the threat allegedly posed by a Malthusian population “explosion” that did not take place. Though raising the pension age from about 60, as it is in most countries, to well over 70 is clearly necessary, politicians who dare to suggest that it would be advisable to do so are liable to be booted out by angry voters who cling to what they see as a cast-iron entitlement.

Another major problem has to do with climate change. Those who insist that unless every country in the world agrees to sharply reduce the use of fossil fuels and, while about it, get rid of all those methane-belching cows and stop using nitrogen fertilisers, may be technically right, but where the policies they want have been adopted they have led to huge protests. This is because they make life even harder for working people who depend on old-fashioned pursuits such as farming, prefer petrol-consuming cars to electric ones and are unable to spend large sums of money on replacing the heating arrangements on their homes. From the point of view of ‘with-it’ urban dwellers, such attitudes may be deplorable, but in democratic societies they have to be taken into account. What is more, most people know very well that, unless China and India do the same, their own countries’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions to zero will amount to nothing.

Another cause of concern is the way all advanced economies are evolving. Thanks to turbo-charged technological progress – which as well as eliminating an increasing number of jobs both in industry and services, makes it possible to export many of those that remain to countries where wages are lower and employees are often brighter and more diligent than their Western counterparts – economies in the still rich countries are getting hollowed out. Among other unfortunate results of this, the big rewards of the macroeconomic growth government spokespeople boast about are getting monopolised by an already well-off minority, leaving the rest to compete for whatever is left over.

This has had many unhappy consequences for younger people who lack the appropriate skills or connections but had been led to believe that, having acquired an academic diploma of some kind, a promising career would be there for the taking. Feeling let down by the moderate conservatives and socialists who dominated public life for well over a century, millions are flocking to the banners of politicians who say they know what must be done to remove the obstacles that prevent them from moving ahead as they once expected. Among the beneficiaries of their eagerness to try something that is apparently new is President Milei.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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