We Europeans

With the help of new technologies and the social media, our world is changing so fast that we have difficulty in keeping up with it. Instant videos and SMS messaging fuel grassroots movements and challenge the established order. They create novel situations that, as in the Arab world, bring the need for new social constructs in their wake.

Yet, amid all this change, we see the influence of regional and national cultural attitudes that persist.

The fate of European nations in the economic meltdown of the euro echoes a number of cultural characteristics of the countries most seriously hit. These start out with positive traits like family ties, self-reliance at family level (in the absence of the social safety nets provided further north), extended families and, as a symptom of this, adherence to personal and local loyalties (campanilismo) rather than acceptance of the dictates of an impersonal and distant state.

Less positive are the far reaches of this process which lead to cronyism (clientelismo in Italy, enchufe in Spain, rousfeti in Greece, and so on) and incitement to cheat on the system. Northerners may complain about these things, but they are engrained in the institutions and lifestyles of these countries and will be difficult to change.

The Nordic countries, with their commitment to social responsibility, manage to curb such human tendencies, while Germany remains true to its cultural tradition of responsibility and discipline. A Socialist political slogan from the 1920s said: “Rot ist richtig aber Ordnung muss sein!” (“Red is right but we must have order”). That commitment to discipline, regardless of one’s political views, still dominates public life in Germany.

Events in France also demonstrate a grassroots commitment to social equality, though the behaviour of the elite and the antics of the National Front suggest otherwise. As Rudolf von Thadden, a German government adviser on foreign policy, said: “The French are an autistic nation.”

Multicultural Belgium continues to practice its traditional pragmatism by ‘fixing’ its problems and those of others. Its talents of compromise and mediation have not only produced a government of its own (at last!), they are also making a substantial contribution to the task of putting Europe back on the rails. Not just leading Belgian figures like ex-PM Guy Verhofstadt in the European Parliament and another ex-PM Herman Van Rompuy, now President of the European Council, but a major contingent of Belgian administrators working in the European Commission.

While British, French, Czech and Greek Eurocrats tend to network with ‘their own’, the Belgians get on with the job. “We have a capacity for producing compromises,” says a senior Belgian official. We are pragmatic. We want to make sure that the machine works.”

Meanwhile, the English continue to show their short-termism and potential for self-delusion in their reservations about the European ideal. More than a century ago the historian Thomas Carlyle said in his book The French Revolution: “Of the continental nuisance called ‘Bureaucracy’ I can see no risk or possibility in England.” That attitude shows no sign of changing, even if the reality is different: England is now a very bureaucratic country. There are other reasons though, also predominantly cultural, that the Scots are now contemplating independence…

As for the USA, well, the traditional verbal commitment to absolute values – freedom, democracy, limited government and so on – is rampant, polarising attitudes and prompting the electorate to view the world in black-and-white terms. Manicheism should be added to the long list of weird American cults: pentacostalism, scientology and the like.

Communism was – is – a cult too, though not in the USA. Its failure in Russia and its endurance in China may also find their roots in culture, even if part of the explanation lies in the relative non-doctrinaire approach of the Chinese authorities to the way they manage their society. North Korea meanwhile holds together through a mix of traditional confucianism and Buddhism, and modern juche.

To return to recent developments, it is evident that the younger generations in the Arab world and now Russia are challenging some of the old stereotypes without necessarily changing them. The fever of revolutionary zeal released through the social media will eventually subside and the old cultural patterns will reassert themselves.

In fact, as a counter-current to globalisation, we have mounting evidence in Europe of a return to our roots. Despite the younger generations’ addiction to new technologies and the social media (or maybe because of the increased opportunity to ‘tune into’ grassroots opinions), the young are as much a party to this process as their elders.

So the hidden hand of culture is still evident in many aspects of public life. It will be fascinating to see what the coming months and years have in store. If indeed we are returning to our roots, there may be much more of the same to come.

Richard Hill’s latest book, ‘A Question of Identity: Getting the Better of Globalization’ is available on the eBook website www.europublications.com.

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