Rome, Italy. 20 March. “The five marks of the decaying Roman culture: concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth; obsession with sex and perversions of sex; art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original; increased demand to live off the state”. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a master-piece. It is also a hideously-long, bloody pompous master-piece, a pomposity was the academic mark of his eighteenth century age. Of course, there is absolutely no academic pomposity whatsoever in the twenty-first century world, anywhere. Sitting here on the Aventine Hill close to where the Temple of Diana once stood my mind is cast back to those carefree days when I was an Oxford undergraduate studying Modern History. A time of long, greasy hair punctuated by long, greasy Genesis albums and occasional bouts of ‘study’ during which I was forced to read the long, greasy Gibbon. And yet when I now re-read my Gibbon from the lofty heights of perfect wisdom and maturity I am struck by what insights the man had on the eternal human political condition and our enduring and not-so-endearing ability to eternally screw things up.
The EU and its member-states have become far too focused on displaying affluence rather than building wealth. Europe’s refusal to properly prepare its economy for the hyper-competitive twenty-first century means decline and decay is inevitable. Early signs of that are all around me here in a Rome that has not been troubled by economic growth since 1999. However, it is Greece rather than Italy that really reveals the dangers of perpetual self-delusion. Athens is still resisting any proper reforms to its economy in spite of promises to get real. Sadly, Greece is not alone. Whilst Ireland and Portugal have undertaken serous reforms other southern European states still hanker after a return to the Mezzogiorno lifestyle that can no longer be afforded.
Gibbon was a curmudgeon when it came to matters of sex and art. However, I am struck by how much the politics of sex dominate discourse these days. It is my firm belief that the rights of all minorities should be protected, and I am a firm supporter of gay marriage. However, be it the politics of race, gender or sex so many in the European elite seemed to have forgotten that whilst minority rights must be protected a society can only flourish if the majority are respected. As a white, fifty-something male I sometimes get the impression I am the font of all evil and that it is my duty to be discriminated against ‘positively’ and routinely to ensure ‘equality’, even if that is at the expense of quality and the promotion of mediocrity.
However, for me Gibbon’s most striking suggestion was that Rome was lost because people simply came to believe that living off the state was their right. In Europe ‘living off the state’ takes two forms. At the European level it manifests itself in the belief that the taxpayers of eight EU member-states are expected to pay for the tax and non-taxpayers of the remaining twenty. The transfer of funds from the North and West of Europe to the South and East of Europe, most evident in the Greek bailouts, was meant to be a temporary phenomenon to help bring economies up to a level of mutual enrichment. And yet, as I make my way around Europe I am struck by how many EU member-states now see such transfers as permanent and theirs by right.
At the popular level the battle over the welfare state in its various incarnations across socialised Europe suggests a culture of entitlement that is now so ingrained in Europeans that they believe their well-being to be somebody else’s problem and at someone else’s cost. This is not something that the creators of the Welfare State in the years after World War Two ever envisaged, nor is it sustainable. Berlin is right about this; it is not German meanness to suggest that Europeans reform and prepare to succeed in a competitive world. Is is simply the harsh, unforgiving reality of a harsh, unforgiving world. Europeans either modernise together or fail together.
What makes Gibbon still so funky is precisely his understanding that what killed Athens and Rome ultimately was that their desperate desire to protect themselves from change doomed them to change. As Gibbon wrote, “In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”
Gibbon also offered another warning. Rome fell because its ancient civic virtues were eaten away from within by competing religions to the point where society and governance collapsed. Europe?