There’s a moment you get in Rome, at the Trevi Fountain, not the first time you see it, but the fourth or fifth, when it all becomes clear to you. The city is not an eternal, celestial city, recently spoilt by tourism. It was ever thus. The Trevi Fountain, with its impossibly symmetrically muscled bodies emerging from sheets of blank marble, is no renaissance masterpiece debased by tourism – it was ever thus, a piece of work designed for the gazes it absorbs, a crowd-pleaser for the pilgrims crowding into the holy city.
It’s worth asking whether anything in Rome – the Sistine ceiling, the Bernini fountains – looks the same again, when you’ve really understood just how superficial they are in motive, how oriented they are to pleasing you while maintaining a pretence of depth.
Mind you it helps to come here from Greece. Anyone who prefers Rome to Athens is bogus, by definition. Greece is the pure upsprung of Being, or something. Rome is the Disney version. It might go a long way to explaining why, when the crisis hit, the Romans gestured to their full restaurants, while the Greeks hung a hammer and sickle on the Acropolis and said ‘peoples of Europe, rise up!’.
But that is not to say that the place does not retain a, well, dolce vita, above and beyond the rather raffish charms of Athens. Indeed, though Greece is poorer than Italy, there is a sense in which it is more advanced, at least in the cities, a product of the Olympic spending that also pushed the country past the point of no return. The subway gleams, the wi-fi pulses in Athens, the streets were resealed, the wiring fixed up.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
In Rome, which has not seen an Olympics since Marcello Mastroianni lingered on the Via Veneto, the last two decades have been a gentle running down. My three-star hotel room, hardly archaic, is like a museum of mid-twentieth century technology. The power points appear to have a metal-casing and gleam with danger. The bedside phone has a rotary dial. It takes two minutes to place a call, the dial snivelling back to zero after every number.
We used to do this all the time. The first modems were phone cradles, braces which would prop two receivers together, face to face, so they could whisper data to each other. One of the early adopters of such technologies was the guy who went on to start Onetel. Remember Onetel? Remember rotary phones? Remember having to wait?
The change in technology tells you all you need to know about the current financial crisis, which is rapidly becoming a global one. The financial system became autonomous about the time the rotary yielded to the touch-tone, modem to broadband, open-call stock markets to virtual exchanges, and so on. The markets came loose of any human, bodily, process – and then, as the process of global deregulation permitted the endless, multi-levelled abstraction of financial products, the assessment of risk came to be the domain of the machines, each whispering to the other.
We are now at a point, globally, where that system, the one that hums along the wires, recalibrates itself a million times a second, has come to stand so absolutely and separately against a more recognisable version of human life, that it cannot be remarked upon. We have spent the past month watching one Eurozone country after another succumb to financing crises with the predictability of blondes in a slasher movie, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal…. And like the gormless cops in said movies, most financial journalists report these events as if they were a series of unrelated, unexplained deaths, as if everyone just met with bad luck at once.
You can do that when the contagion is contained in Europe. The continent’s fissiparous nature is, after all, the result of an earlier failure and collapse – the inability of Rome to conquer the Germans in the first century, followed by the financial crisis of the mid 200s, when the gold and silver currency was adulterated by an early version of quantitative easing. Intra-imperial trade collapsed because no-one could trust the coinage, and the economy relocalised – creating the national identities we know today. Had that not happened, for better or worse, Europe might be more like China, a single Latin empire unified over two millennia.
That distinctive structure has given the money markets plenty to play with – a series of national economies yoked under a single currency, disadvantageous to most of them, their fiscal controls honoured in the breach rather than the observance. They can all be moved against ceaselessly, in sequence, their alleged national failings, distinctive characters put into play. Which is not to say that national character has had nothing to do with the fate of Europe.
Southern Europe has resisted, and resisted magnificently, to the dour Anglosphere notion that life should be lived at a pace set by the autonomous system rather than society. It has done so by holding to an entirely different conception of life, one in which full human beings still have room to breathe.
For the most part, the European crisis can be laid at the feet of monopoly capital control – that the only way to project a nation forward was to imagine a cycle of endless growth, based on its financial products. Once everyone was finally convinced that they would be lifted out of their mundane situations by endless growth, they were suckers for the money markets – who were in effect, selling nothing more than possibility. But leaving aside lazy caricatures of national laziness, the European project did, in part, founder on the implicit, and false, idea that everyone would become German – and be content to remake their lives around regularised work. It’s not the most important feature of the European crisis.
But it’s not a European crisis anymore – as the debt contagion has spread from southern Europe up to France, which is the euro-core. Those of us hoping for a productive disaster have been lucky in our right-wing leaders – Berlusconi and Sarkozy have been pathetic clowns, unable or unwilling to assert an agenda, as decadent as the US Right.
Merkel has been a coward in both directions, unwilling to challenge the social democratic entitlements, but unwilling, as m’colleague Keane notes, unwilling to stand up to her neoliberal Right and extend real finance to Europe.
The chance has been missed. Every indicator in Europe is inflamed, including (as the inestimable zerohedge blog notes) the obscure European Investment Bank bonds. Together with US debt, and the suggestion – which might actually make Australians sit up and notice – that China’s provinces are really twenty separate Greeces, leveraged to f-ck off the books and in imminent danger of collapse, the picture should be becoming clear by now.
In case it isn’t, here’s the short version: in order to buy keep capitalism going, from the 1950s onwards, the whole moral basis of western life was changed – from ideas of contentment and acceptance, to endless growth and personal self-enrichment. A noble aim, but impossible in the way it was conceived. Now, across the world — but not in Australia, not yet –- we are on the downside, being told that there is nothing on offer but more work and austerity, that things, to paraphrase the New Labour anthem, can only get worse.
Put simply, people are not going to accept that. That pure idea of absence, of working to stay in place, won’t fly. And so, as the whole thing starts to come down there is going to have to be a cultural renegotiation, and you could do worse than using southern Europe as a starting point for any re-establishment of a real notion of life.
Let’s face it – from the glittering malls of Shanghai to the heroic waste of America via the bloodless lands of the EU – the whole thing is revealing itself as a grand illusion, as beguiling as fountains, but no guide to how we will really have to live our lives in the years to come. Peoples of Europe, rise up, and demand what you used to have – there still, along the promenade, la dolce vita.