Economy Social Issues

Economy: Saint Precarious – new icon of Europe

15 January 2013
NRC Handelsblad Amsterdam

A statue of Saint Precarious during the Mayday parade in Milan

A statue of Saint Precarious during the Mayday parade in Milan

Austerity and free market regulations have created a band of loyal followers: The Precarious. And they are threatening the jewel European civilization, social security, argues Belgian writer Geert Van Istandael. Excerpts.

Are you familiar with the Church of Saint Precarious? It can easily be found without the aid of a guide, and once you enter you will have every reason to despair.

For the Church of Saint Precarious has no room for hope. Most of its parishioners work for the most meagre of wages to secure the privileges of the higher clergy, religious leaders who have replaced theology with economics.

Growth figures are the subject of worship at the Church of Saint Precarious. In fact, the budget always shows a surplus. How is that possible? It's simple. Just lower the wages. And, above all, eradicate all solidarity. Rid yourself of those expensive social costs that you had to pay in those backward times on the egocentric, lazy unemployed and the sickly with their illusionary afflictions. And long live the select privileged minority.

So what does the Church of Saint Precarious look like? The building has high walls without windows or roof that could protect its parishioners from the rain or scorching sun. Don't try climbing over the walls, as you would only tear your nails. Proudly displayed above the altar are the letters TINA, as an abbreviation of the new Latin: There Is No Alternative [a reference to a famous statement made by former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher].

Not a dream

So you think the Church of Saint Precarious is the product of the rampant imagination of a melancholy poet? No, it actually exists. In 2004, the first procession paraded through Milan, bearing the image of Saint Precarious. The striking thing was that devotees consisted exclusively of young people, recently graduated, recently employed, recently unemployed. These young men and women begged for mercy at the feet of Saint Precarious.

Let me remind you of one of the meanings of precarious, or its Latin stem precarius: obtained by prayer. The whims of the benefactor are unpredictable. Today, he scatters money throughout Europe. Tomorrow, he may hand out even more rare pieces of gold to the Chinese or Nigerians. This is called “globalisation”. And globalisation is the future.

My position is the following. The financial and economic crisis that has been plaguing Europe for four years now is being used to destroy the foundations of European civilisation. The welfare state. Democracy.

But by whom? By the European Commission and the European Central Bank, but also without a doubt by the Council of Ministers, and outside Europe by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), even though the IMF is clearly being torn apart by different schools of thought.

Also, politicians in too many member states of the Union act like missionaries spreading the destructive message with blind religious zeal.

Economy strangling youth

And the ranks of followers grow. Every day. In Spain, in Portugal, in Greece, in Italy, one can see how the economy they preach is strangling the youth.

But concern is growing too. In November 2008, perhaps the most important contemporary political philosopher of Germany, Jürgen Habermas, expressed his outrage in Die Zeit about the disgraceful social justice.

If Habermas were less of a modest man, I would proclaim him a prophet. The governing elites have unilaterally terminated their tacit agreement with their citizens, which was: The ruling class may acquire as much wealth as they wish, as long as they allow the average citizen a reasonable standard of living backed by a degree of social security. That contract has been ripped to shreds.

The end of the crisis is in sight, say Draghi, Barroso and Van Rompuy, but the financial markets still have Europe in an iron stranglehold. Europe can struggle for all it’s worth, the outcome remains the same. It may breathe easy for a couple of hours, like when Spain received €100bn from the ECB. The respite may even last a day. Or a week.

Trading democracy for technocracy

Indeed, the financial markets appear to be less bloodthirsty since the chairman of the ECB, Mario Draghi, strong-armed his Board to approve a decision whereby the bank would use the European solidarity mechanism to buy government bonds from stricken countries in order to sharply reduce the interest on those bonds. But does anybody care about the sacrifices that those countries have to make to qualify for such aid? The fact that they have to trade in their democracy for a technocracy.

But there is something else. What the ECB has essentially decided to do is create money. Simply said, Mario Draghi can print money as and when he pleases. While I always associated that power with people like Mobutu [the former president of the Democratic Republic of Congo].

Not only populists, communists or outright fascist have come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with the tactics and strategy of Europe. Its peace-loving, hard-working citizens feel fear in their hearts, people who aspire to no more than a simple home, children, and a wage with which they can give their family a reasonable future. But even that most meagre of happiness is now being denied them, forcing them into the Church of Saint Precarious.

Fairly paid work, a small house, a family. For me, those are rational wishes. But it increasingly appears that only one rationale has right of existence: the economic dogma that dictates that people must always strive to achieve the maximum benefit for themselves.

Threat to the welfare state

The existence of humdrum peace, that limited, but democratically assured ambition, was made possible by one of the greatest achievements of European civilisation. I am referring to the welfare state, also known as social security.

The social security systems that Belgium, Sweden, France, the Netherlands and until recently Germany created during the 19th Century, and especially in the years after 1945, may without reserve be acclaimed as a crown jewel of European civilisation, as valuable as the French cathedrals, the symphonies of Beethoven, the paintings of Vermeer, Faust by Goethe or the novels by Camus. The development and retention of social security call for vision, imagination, technical know-how, expertise, rationality; exactly those qualities that Beethoven required to compose his symphonies.

So, if Mr Draghi says in the Wall Street Journal that Europe's social model no longer exists and that the traditional social contract of the continent is outdated, the chairman of the ECB indeed declares himself an enemy of European civilisation. Draghi is a high priest in the Church of Saint Precarious.

Translated from the Dutch by Kelly Boom