Europe’s State of Mind

Jeremy Rifkin is a well-known social critic. He has written or coauthored more than 16 books on a number of diverse topics from global warming to our preoccupation with the clock; from genetic engineering to the changing nature of work. As president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., he has been an advisor to European politicians, including European Commission president Romano Prodi and former French prime minister Michel Rocard. He spoke with Vision publisher David Hulme about his new book, The European Dream.


DH Why have you chosen to write about the European Union?

JR The EU is extraordinary in several ways. It’s the first mega political experiment in all of history that’s born out of the ashes of defeat rather than the jaws of victory. Following World War II, the countries of Europe said that after almost two thousand years of conflict, enough was enough. They decided to create a new type of political institution, based not on conquest, territorial expansion or military prowess but on shared vulnerability, shared risk and cooperation.

The EU is also the first transnational political space in all of history: 455 million people united across 25 member nations. But when you get an EU passport, you are a citizen of an idea, not a territory. There is no precedent in history for this, maybe with the exception of the Holy Roman Empire, where there are some vague parallels. In a world that’s caught betwixt and between the old idea that people’s loyalties and identities are bound up in territory, and the new idea that loyalties and identities are much more sophisticated and layered and global, the EU is a hybrid institution between the two. It’s not a superstate, and it’s not a global institution.

In addition, the people of Europe are realizing that in a world where human relationships are more dense and everyone is more interdependent, where technologies are bringing people into close connection and shared space, we’re all increasingly vulnerable. So the EU is also a realization that no one goes it alone. Now that’s the vision, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a long way to go until the vision becomes reality.

DH What are the main differences between the American and European dreams?

JR We Americans define freedom and security quite differently than our Europeanbrothers and sisters. We have grown up to believe that freedom is autonomy and mobility. That’s why we were the first country in the world to embrace the automobile en masse and why we have a love affair with it. The automobile represents that basic freedom. Our European friends accuse us of being too materialistic. But for us money is not an end in itself; it’s a means to an end. We’ve long believed that the more money we have, the more autonomous we can be.

In Europe the notion of freedom and security is quite different. Freedom is embeddedness, continuous engagement in relationships and access to communities of meaning. Europe has a long history of paternalism—the history of the Catholic Church, of fortress communities and hereditary transmission. So there autonomy would be death, because it would mean isolation.

Second, the American Dream is bound up in the notion of hard work and efficiency. We live and die by the work ethic. Europeans give more attention to leisure and even idleness. We think of idleness almost as moral laxity. In Europe idleness is considered a value and a pleasure.

America has an assimilationist culture. We ask people to shed their ethnic and cultural ties to some extent and be free agents in the great American marketplace. In Europe they are much more into preserving their rich multicultural diversity and its potential for creativity.

In the United States we believe there are evil forces in the world (this comes from our religious background), and we put a premium on military might in order to ward off those forces. Europe, because of its long history of military destruction, is developing what they hope will be consensus among the peoples of the world—using aid and other development tools to bring people together. They are much more reluctant to use military force.

Americans are more patriotic; our identity is bound up in our nation-state. Europeans, by and large, have shed that level of patriotic fervor; their loyalties and identities are much more layered and go from regional to global.

And America is much more religious: two thirds of Americans say that religion is the most important part of their life. In Europe less than 15 percent of the population is religious, and very few people even believe in God. Europe is the most secular region in the world.

DH Politically, what you are outlining sounds like the difference between idealism and realism.

JR Yes, although my European friends would say they’re the ultimate realists. Americans might respond, “Well, this is just idealistic pie in the sky; this is utopian foolishness.” Europeans would reply, “No, we’ve made it work. We’ve taken two thousand years of war among 25 nations and created a cooperative transnational political state.” They really believe this is their best chance not only to overcome the despair of generations of fighting but also to generate hope and optimism among the younger generation. Yes, there’s still a lot of angst in the EU, quarreling and misgivings; but overall, you sense an excitement in the air, much like when the American colonies were thinking about founding the United States. And just as we had many problems and misgivings, and we muddled our way toward a great experiment called the United States of America, so the United States of Europe is beginning a new experiment. The difference is that this is a transnational space and not a nation-state.

DH You write that the American Dream is undergoing a slow death.

JR My family’s from the West and very much into the American Dream. I grew up believing you could make a difference, regardless of the circumstances of your birth, if you really applied yourself. What’s happened is that in those upper-middle-class families that have made it, the children are finding the idea of hard work and discipline and sacrificing for the future a less appropriate metaphor. There’s a certain sense of overempowerment and privilege. They seem to believe that the American Dream is a right, not a quest.

But that isn’t true of the present-day immigrant generation. For people who have come here and worked hard and tried to pick themselves up by the bootstraps, the American Dream hasn’t even been fulfilled. One third of the American public doesn’t believe in the American Dream anymore. In a country where that was the social glue that united us beyond religious, ethnic, cultural and class lines for two hundred years, that’s extremely significant. Once the social glue loosens, there’s not much that keeps the country together.

DH You mention “deep play” as a constituent of the European approach. How do you define the term?

JR Developing human relationships; community in its broadest sense; engagement in activities that are designed to foster human relations independent of commercial or political ends. In Europe a tremendous amount of activity comes after work. Most Europeans do not define their identity first and foremost in commercial terms but in terms of culture and community. In America the first thing people ask is “What do you do and where do you work?” In Europe they talk about where you’re from, about culture and identity in that sense. So they say that Americans live to work, and Europeans work to live.

DH You say the European Dream is secular to the core, but some parts of the newly expanded Europe seem very religious—Poland, for example, and some of the other former East Bloc countries.

JR But in Poland you don’t see that with the younger generation. They are becoming just as secular as in Italy or the other Catholic countries of western Europe. That’s happening across the board with the younger generation in Europe. The irony is that European sensibilities are more reflective of Christian theology than those of Americans. Take, for example, capital punishment. We tend to agree with the Old Testament adage, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Americans are moving more and more toward capital punishment. In the past in America, when someone was executed, it was an unusual event. Now we barely pay attention to it. In Europe, when an American is executed, their press has it in the front pages. To qualify for entry into the European Union, a country has to eliminate capital punishment. And they are as zealous about doing so as we were about eliminating slavery. In some ways, in secular Europe they’re acting out Christ’s teaching: “When you say, An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, I say, Turn the other cheek.” In America we profess a dominant Christian theology, but we engage less in the kind of sensibilities that Jesus taught. It’s ironic.

DH What difference do you expect Islamic Turkey’s admission to the EU to make, if it occurs?

My sense is that Europe has a shot at being the most competitive superpower in the world between 2010 and 2020.” 

Jeremy Rifkin

JR This raises the problem of immigration. My sense is that Europe has a shot at being the most competitive superpower in the world between 2010 and 2020. It’s creating a seamless market—transportation, communication, energy, education—with English as the lingua franca among the middle class. The problem is that around 2022–23 the demographics begin to undermine their economic prowess. Europe is not reproducing: the fertility rate is around 1.4 on average. In the United States, the average age in 2050 will be about 36 or 37. It’s now around 32. In Europe, on the other hand, if it continues the way it’s going now, the average age will be 52 or 54. They’re going to have two retirees for every working person; they can’t provide enough to keep the economies moving. It’s turning into an old-age home. So here’s a conundrum. Assuming that fertility rates don’t go up magically, they’ve got to open their doors wide to immigration. But even if they invite in 50 million new immigrants between now and 2050, it won’t make a dent in their ability to maintain a healthy economy. Europeans talk about multicultural diversity, but with anti-Semitism on the rise and tremendous anti-Muslim feeling post-9/11 and -3/11, there’s a gap between their dream and their reality, as with the American Dream.

They’re going to have to come to grips with immigration. It is going to come first from Turkey, a nation of 80 to 90 million Muslims. Then there’s North Africa (which is Islamic) and the Middle East. The Europeans are worried. They need the new workforce, but they don’t want to be overwhelmed and lose their own cultural identities, which they think might happen if they’re awash with immigrants.

DH As the world becomes more interdependent, what are the main threats you envisage?

JR I would say that as we move into a global era, the new universal condition will be frailty and vulnerability. People will be much more densely interconnected, either by choice or by happenstance, because we’re all interdependent. Under those conditions the only glue that could keep us together would be empathy. Empathy is a way to identify with the vulnerability of another. We identify with people whose suffering we understand. So to the extent that vulnerability is the recognizable human condition (this is starting to sound like Christ’s teachings), empathy is the social glue. Global consciousness and universal human rights would be the dream.

I would say that as we move into a global era, the new universal condition will be frailty and vulnerability.” 

Jeremy Rifkin

There is some hope of bringing Americans into this new kind of global sensibility. If we could take personal accountability, that sense of self that’s so well developed in America, and move it from narcissism, materialism and acquisitiveness into a global ethos of stewardship, we might be able to come to the same page Europeans are, but from a different route. The route for us might be Christian notions of stewardship. If dominion is redefined as caretaking rather than control, then Americans could make a different choice. They would say, “We are highly individual, but we are part of God’s creation, part of the entire whole. We are also in God’s image, and we are given choice, and our real role is to choose to reparticipate in God’s creation by being stewards.”

And so if that deep American sense of personal self could come to the fore, reparticipate and bear witness to “the coming of the kingdom,” that could bring us somewhat toward the same page as the Europeans.

DH But how do you get people to move from principles to practice?

JR As I ended the book I was asking myself, if universal human rights are really an expression and codification of empathy—“We recognize the right of the other: women, minorities, whatever”—how do you create a universal moral code that would go along with the rights? It’s one thing to have rights, but if there isn’t a moral code of behavior to take responsibility for the rights, the rights are meaningless. The problem in the modern age, and now the global age, is that we are so densely connected with everyone and everything across the world that many times the effects of our personal behavior can be immoral—we could say “cold evil” in both a secular and theological sense—but we don’t know it, because we don’t think in terms of the ultimate implications and effects of our behavior on someone else. Whether we’re driving an SUV or wearing Nike shoes that came from a sweatshop in Vietnam, how do we begin to develop a systemic approach to understanding how the behavior we’re engaged in affects everyone else? We’d have to begin to develop systems thinking and broaden the mandate of moral behavior, so that we actually could be passionately committed to a moral code based on understanding the implications of our behavior.

DH It would surely have to start at the individual level. The owner of the Vietnamese sweatshop would ask himself, “Am I treating others as I would want others to treat me?”

JR Absolutely. It’s the Golden Rule, that’s all. My feeling is that that’s the best way to measure human progress. We should be holding the sweatshop owner accountable, but also not buying those shoes unless we could press him to do that. “Universal human rights” becomes meaningless unless we’re tutored and trained from the time we’re children to understand how our behavior in a dense, interdependent world affects someone else or something else.

I haven’t had this discussion with too many people besides you, to tell you the truth. I put it in my book, and I’m hoping someone else relays the discussion.”

Jeremy Rifkin

I haven’t had this discussion with too many people besides you, to tell you the truth. I put it in my book, and I’m hoping someone else relays the discussion. In the final analysis, if we think vulnerability is the universal condition and empathy is the only social glue, then it brings together faith and reason in a synthesis. Then we’d have to have a code of enforcement and the moral behavior to go with it. Otherwise it’s not going to work. Now, I know that sounds too utopian and impossible. But on the other hand, imagine postulating just three or four hundred years ago that there would be something called “the nation,” which would represent the individual citizens who make it up; and that everyone would have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and to be represented; and that the individual was not bound up in proprietary relationships but was equal in the eyes of the law with everyone else. People would have said, “Come on. It’s not going to happen.”

DH You often pursue broadly spiritual themes in your writings. Most people don’t do that. What prompts you to take this approach?

JR I’m not religious, but as I get older, the things that are meaningful are those that have intrinsic value, not utility value. What amazes me about this whole experiment here on earth, with all the suffering and inhumanity, is that it can allow us to feel more empathetic. In order to feel empathy, you have to suffer first.

You can deal with this in terms of countries. I’ve spent a lot of time in Germany and thought for a long time about the German experience. Germany never wants to see war again. The redeeming aspect of the Holocaust may be that the present German generations are atoning for that deep brutality by saying, “Never again will we allow ourselves to take up sword. We will develop a world based on peace and harmony, inclusivity, and respect for the other.”

My hope with this book is that the European Dream will give us a new frame of reference to begin wrestling with the American Dream. That’s the one value we never discuss in America. We never say, “Maybe the dream itself is too limited for the 21st century.” Maybe by saying, “Here’s what Europe’s doing,” it could be a mirror for us, and for Europe a way to find out who they are.