A Really Bad Book by Someone Who Should Know Better
December 6, 2005 19:03 | by Steve McGiffen
Review of: The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream. Jeremy Rifkin. (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2004, 288 pp. $25.95)
In the era of the Internet, the Really Bad Book has reached new depths. For the most part, this is fairly harmless. A publisher notices, say, that as everyone else is selling a book which purports to tell the history of the world by recounting the history of a single commodity, they ought to be cashing in. The results can be sublime (cod), inadequate (tulips) or embarrassing (potatoes). All you have to do to write such a book is tap said word into Google and edit the resulting squillion hits down to a manageable and would-be entertaining 220 pages. Hey presto, you've got yourself a book.
The worst that can happen as a result is that a few people waste small amounts of money, and a few more unsubstantiated myths enter the hotch-potch of human misunderstanding. No big deal. Hey, I'm a freelance writer too. Give me a reasonable advance and a feasible gestation period and I'll do you Nougat: the bonbon that changed history, or 1968 thwarted: How telex saved capitalism.
Occasionally, however, somebody well-known, somebody who ought to know better, gets a Really Bad Idea and proceeds, with some help from Google and more from an overactive imagination, to write a Really Bad Book. Then we are in trouble, because the writer's reputation may well lead to the widespread reading of said book, and widespread swallowing of the myths and nonsense contained therein. Such books must, by any objective standard, be judged more harshly than those harmless little volumes knocked off by otherwise honest citizens desperate to make a living at the comfort of their own computers.
Jeremy Rifkin, by these standards, may just have produced The Worst Book Ever Written. The European Dream is a book so stunningly, unrelentingly awful that it is difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps the best approach would be to indicate the broad classifications into which its faults might be grouped, before homing in on a few illustrative details.
It contains, for one thing, numerous errors of fact. From the smallest to the most important, no fact is too trivial or too grand to escape Rifkin's sustained misinterpretation. This is, at any rate, the kindest reading one can give to his statement that the recently rejected constitutional treaty contains "barely a passing mention of free markets and trade." In fact, the main thrust of the treaty - not surprisingly, as its purpose was to consolidate and add to the existing Treaty on European Union - was to establish that the so-called 'free market' is and forever more shall be the basis of the Union's economy. For this reason the word 'market' occurs over eighty times, hardly a "passing mention" (as I couldn't find a copy of the constitution on-line in a single document, I decided life was too short to count the mentions of 'trade' as well, but there are many.) The US Constitution, incidentally, does not concern itself to any degree with trade, or with the economic system of the nation it created. In fact, no constitution which expects to be taken seriously as a democratic document would bother with such matters at all, as it should clearly be for the electorate to decide how they are conducted. It is one of the most striking features of the proposed constitution that it went into such great and inappropriate detail about the conduct of trade and markets. Opponents of the measure on the left made great play of this during the convention which preceded the eventual adoption of the text and later, during the campaigns against it. Rifkin, however, seems unaware that there is such a thing as an opponent or critic of this European Union on the left. He can be forgiven, I suppose, for never having read the Morning Star, or L'Humanité, De Tribune or indeed spectrezine. But the only conclusion one can reach is that he has not read the constitutional treaty itself, unless he is deliberately misleading his reader.
Less importantly perhaps, Rifkin thinks that all we EU "citizens" now have the same passport. We don't. They all have the same cover, that's all. And in a few years, thanks to the freedom-loving Union, they will all contain the holder's fingerprints and, in the course of time, other biometric information. Mine still has the Queen imploring foreign authorities to allow me safe passage and so on. It remains a passport of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Possibly still less importantly (though I can hardly be accused of nit-picking), Rifkin believes that the European Environmental Agency issues directives. In fact, directives are legally enforceable measures obliging the member states to adjust their laws. The EEA, on the other hand, is an advisory body with no powers whatsoever. It does excellent research and produces some decent policy proposals which are then, at best diluted or more often ignored.
Having presented his arguments, Rifkin often disarms the critic by admitting that the opposite case can be more soundly argued. More than once, after negotiating the choppy waters of a discourse treacherous in its shoals of misapprehension, distortion and illogic, enraged readers will find themselves suddenly becalmed, the wind taken out of their sails by an admission that (though Rifkin presumably doesn't generally realise this) everything which has gone before is hokum.
He spends the first few pages of Chapter 1, for example, waxing lyrical about how "The European Dream", in contrast to "The American Dream" (which is "little concerned with the rest of humanity") is about "relationships with others", "sustainable development" "leisure and deep play" (sic) as well as being "cosmopolitan". Then he informs us, however, that "Europeans have become increasingly hostile toward newly arrived immigrants and asylum seekers" and that "Ethnic strife and religious intolerance continue to flare up in various pockets across Europe". Well, writing this in France, where I live, just after around a month of ghetto uprisings, all I can say is tu l'as dit, Monsieur Rifkin!
As a variant of this, Rifkin often describes things as they really are, yet skips over this reality as if it were a trivial thing not worthy of further consideration. As a writer and political activist myself, I can appreciate Rifkin's displeasure at finding incontrovertible facts which demolish his arguments, but the only rational course available in such circumstances is either to come clean or try to hush the damned things up. Parading them before the startled reader in the hope that he or she won't notice the contradiction is unlikely to prove a winning strategy.
Rifkin believes, for example, that "Europe" is governed by far-sighted people who are in pursuit of a wonderful Dream. As most spectrezine readers will know, it is actually run by multinational corporations and managed by monomaniacal bureaucrats on fancy salaries. Rifkin, who seems in writing this book temporarily (one hopes) to have forgotten about the power of corporations, does recognise as early as Chapter 1 that "Brussels' governing machinery... is a labyrinthine maze of bureaucratic red tape" but skirts over this as if it were of no import. In addition, having heaped Europe's social and welfare systems with praise, he then proceeds, some pages later, to tell us that all of this is under threat.
According to Rifkin, "Politicians and business and labor leaders squabble over the issues of creating a flexible labor policy, lowering taxes, rewriting the rules governing welfare and pension allotments, and bringing their economic policies in line with the United States"; although, in the same paragraph, he calls this "squabble" a "fierce ideological struggle". It is indeed that, Mr Rifkin, and for some years now we have been losing it. Or, if that's too pessimistic, the fat lady not having quite burst into a swansong for everything we have gained since 1945, we have been at best forced on to the back foot in trying to preserve, from an onslaught marshalled and forced on by the European Union, what remains of the European social model that he so admires.
Yet Rifkin, referring to this onslaught, states the belief that "No one would argue that such reforms are unnecessary..."
This is the kind of throwaway line that takes your breath away, and the book is so full of them it should come with a warning that it may cause respiratory problems. I could introduce Jeremy Rifkin to hundreds of people - elected representatives of the people, trade union militants, economists, journalists, and just plain Jo(ann)es who would argue most emphatically that the "reforms" contained in the Lisbon Agenda are necessary only to preserve the record-busting profits currently being registered by Europe's "uncompetitive" corporations. Such thinking, however, is entirely outside the ambit of the "radical" Mr Rifkin, who instead sees only that "Europeans are beginning to heed the American advice by instituting reforms that draw more of a balance between individual initiative and collective responsibility" and laments that there's no sign of the US moving in the other direction.
Once again, Rifkin is entitled to hold whatever opinions he cares to, but he should at least attempt to be coherent. Most of us are guilty of inconsistencies from time to time, but to call your book "The European Dream", to make the idea of "collective responsibility" so central to that "Dream", and then to admit that "Europe" is watering the concept down is surely inconsistent to the point of being utterly inchoate.
Elsewhere, having explained how the EU facilitates delocalisation from higher- to lower-wage economies, and noted that some developed member states have ratted on one of the promises of enlargement by restricting the rights of citizens of the new member countries to move freely in search of employment, he states categorically that "in creating a cohesive internal market across Europe... the positive accomplishments far outnumber the remaining obstacles." This is a truly astonishing statement for an environmentalist to be making. The single market, aside from its social costs, has been a disaster for the environment, replacing varied local production with the unnecessary transport of mass-produced foodstuffs and other commodities, destroying small, artisanal producers and handing every advantage to the biggest corporations. It has, moreover, been accompanied by a road-building programme so extensive that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that our poor old continent is being buried under concrete and tarmac, while its benefits to the consumer have turned out to be, on a back-of-the-envelope calculation, vanishingly close to non-existent.
Rifkin presents a dewy-eyed American tourist's idea of Europe which, like most tourist idylls, contains just enough truth to get you through a pleasant fortnight, but is barely recognisable to people actually inhabiting the resort on a full-time year-round basis. In some cases he simply gets it wrong, but more often he praises some genuinely attractive aspect of European culture, apparently blissfully unaware that this charming phenomenon is living out its last days, destroyed by the neoliberal integration which drives the EU on and which he mistakes for a cuddly internationalism.
My personal favourite example of this concerns cheese, something dear to my heart (though my heart itself may not agree). "The human nose hasn't come fully alive until it has passed a cheese shop in France and taken in the rush of sumptuous smells emanating from a hundred different cheeses, each with its own particular history, and every one of them better than any cheese we might find in our own supermarkets back home," writes our Europhile. All of this is true, but it leaves out a number of crucial facts.
I live in a French village, and the small town in which I do most of my shopping boasts a good range of shops, as well as a good weekly food market. It has, however, no cheese shop. In fact, specialist cheese shops have become something of a rarity in most of the country. Two stalls sell a range of cheeses at our weekly market, though no more than can be found in most supermarkets. Government and European Commission policies in headlong pursuit of the single market have massively favoured huge, soulless and - to anyone who appreciates good food sold by people who understand and often love what they're selling - deeply unsatisfactory supermarkets over all other retailers. This is leading to the gradual disappearance of specialist food shops with all that entails, not only for the quality of our food, but for car-dependence, the unnecessary transport of goods, and the quality of employment. None of this is 'natural', nor does it reflect any real consumer choice. On the contrary, it is the deliberate creation of governments and EU institutions who consistently put the demands and interests of major corporations before those of the citizens whom they are, in theory, supposed to exist to serve.
If you want to buy a high-quality, traditional French cheese you have to wait for the (roughly) monthly visit of the merchant from the Auvergne. The products he sells are truly astonishing, cheeses to make one weep for the sheer sensual delights life can offer. Or, in this case, can offer to some.
I am not a rich man but I save my euros all month to buy maybe half a kilo - just over a pound of the stuff. This costs between 13 and 15 euros, the price being 27 or 30 a kilo, or, if you prefer, about $17 a pound. Nice cheese if you can get it. The craftsman who sells this likes to chat, give a very generous range of samples, and discuss the quality, origins and different uses of the ten or so different cheeses he has on offer. He isn't a profiteer or a swindler, and he knows that people find the money for his product partly because of its quality and partly because of what it means. Quite simply, buying this cheese I am paying to keep alive the French countryside, which I love so much that I intend to spend the rest of my life here, ending up under it. All of the economics works against this conservationist aim, favouring, for example, the mass production from factory farms of bland but serviceable cheese. This means that a whole generation is growing up never experiencing what was once a commonplace delight. I repeat - this is not the result of a force of nature but the consequence of economic processes deliberately fuelled by the European Union to the advantage of the corporate capital whose handmaiden it is.
No doubt there are splendid cheese shops in the upmarket districts of Paris and other cities where Jeremy Rifkin appears to acquire his deep knowledge of Europe. As for the places where most Europeans actually live, he does not seem to have much experience of them at all. He sees, for example "very few homeless or mentally ill people" which, having visited in recent times Brussels (where I lived for 12 years), Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Strasbourg, Paris, London, Dublin and Rome I find frankly astonishing. The streets are safer, he tells us, women walk alone in parks, there are fewer police and these officers are "less tense" than in the US (not in Clichy-sous-Bois they're not, Jeremy). Rifkin "rarely come(s) across multitudes of fat and obese people" in Europe and "can sometimes walk an entire day without encountering a single overweight person." What can one say in the face of such impressionistic stuff? Figures on obesity, crime and so on are readily available and, though they must be treated with a critical eye, are surely more useful than this "what I saw on my holidays" approach. And they don't make encouraging reading: according to a recent study by France's national statistical institute, for instance, 40% are overweight, 7% have a drink problem and 25% smoke. Obesity, according to the British government, has reached the proportions of an epidemic. Alcohol intake and related problems are almost everywhere on the rise, as are most categories of mental illness. Things might be even worse in the States, but if European countries continue to Americanise their economies and social systems, the gap will surely close.
There are parts of Rifkin's book which are misleading, others which are just plain wrong, and some which hardly seem to have enough substance to be good enough even to be wrong. "...no-one seems to be rushing." Rifkin tells us. "No-one. People still stroll in Europe." Again, how can one respond to such an empty observation? We don't have urban blight, either, by the way, a fact that would astonish my Mancunian mother, for one, or the people who sit around me at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough when I make my annual trip to watch my favourite football team, or the inhabitants of the suburbs of Barcelona through which I passed through recently, or the car-burning youths of Paris and Lyon. Try Warsaw, for size, Mr Rifkin, and if citing a new member state smacks of cheating, go to any European city and get out for once. Instead of spending your time with eurocrats, find out who is trying to do something about poverty and ask him or her to take you to show you how some real Europeans live. You won't find specialist cheese shops or people who care two cents about European integration but, if you go with an open mind and an open heart, I can almost guarantee that you will find a welcome, an inspiration to match any degradation you might also witness, and material for a book about what's really happening in the Old Continent.
Rifkin would be a good person to have on our side, because he has the ability turn virtually any fact or supposition to his advantage. He notices that Europeans have fewer household gadgets than do Americans, and fewer clothes. I happen to agree with him that the people of those European countries that I know do seem on average less acquisitive than do people in the US, and that this is something to be valued. Yet I also know that had it been the other way round, and European households been conspicuously more replete with the gee-gaws of consumerism, Rifkin would have been soberly telling his fellow Americans that they weren't quite so rich as they thought.
A writer who has in the past done sterling work in combating the foisting on the world of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and would on this basis generally be identified as a radical thinker and activist, nevertheless unquestioningly accepts a range of economic and political concepts - "economic reform" to take for now just one example, as if they were value-free. In Chapter 1 he tells us that "economic reforms inside the Union have slowed of late, raising serious doubts about Europe's hope of becoming the world's most competitive economy by the end of the decade." Leaving aside the utter futility, even in their own terms, of these "hopes", is Rifkin telling us that he actually approves of the vicious attack on working people's living standards? Does he know what is being done to social provision, the welfare state and public services in the name of the Lisbon Agenda, as the programme of "reforms" designed to achieve this "competitiveness" is known? Is he telling us that he swallows the myth that Europe's economic difficulties - persistent unemployment in a number of member states, for example - derive from a lack of "competitiveness"? Has he given no attention to the alternative critique produced by people such as ATTAC, the European Parliament's United Left Group, or progressive economists such as the Netherlands' Arjo Klamer or Hungary's Laszlo Andor?
In similar vein, Rifkin tells us that the euro "succeeded beyond even the most enthusiastic projection of its supporters and is now stronger than the dollar... becoming a rival in world financial circles". This, at least, is undeniably true. It would be interesting, however, to hear Rifkin's explanation of why he considers it a good thing. The strong euro is, of course, of enormous benefit to finance capital and to European governments seeking to dictate the terms of trade to economically weaker nations and blocs. On the other hand, it makes it much more difficult for European manufacturers looking for export markets and holds almost no benefits for the EU's working people.
If it is pleasing to be able to buy ludicrously cheap electronic goods from manufacturers in low-wage countries, this dubious benefit has been paid for in a complete loss of any influence over monetary policy on the part of the electorate, dictatorial control having been handed to the European Central Bank (ECB). The almost exclusively male, exclusively white, exclusively privileged directors of this institution dictate to democratically elected governments the amounts of money they may spend, when they may spend it and on what. The people who supply this money - the taxpayers - have no right to any opinion about this, violating one American principle with which surely even Mr Rifkin could not take issue - "No taxation without representation."
We needn't worry, apparently, because in place of democracy we have what Rifkin calls "the polycentric governing style" and "the feedback revolution". These phrases, when translated into English, do, surprisingly enough, have meaning: the "feedback revolution" means that the EU institutions are careful to "consult" amongst a narrow and hand-picked group, before implementing decisions, while "polycentric governing style" refers to the diffusion of power through a number of elite bodies. There are no longer any Winter Palaces to storm, because the hegemony of this euro-elite is everywhere, "polycentric" and multifaceted. Rifkin refers approvingly to the European Committee of the Regions, in reality an unelected and entirely undemocratic institution which at first sight appears to exist only to provide jollies for local councillors and their "assistants". Its purposes are to replace democratic decision-making with this process of "consultation", to enable local elites to feel part of a bigger elite, and further to separate elected representatives from those who elect them. It does nothing of any value and is the laughing-stock of the European Parliament ( in whose building it meets) which is at least elected and, though no true parliament, does have some real functions and a measure of influence.
The only people left out of this decision-making process are those who have not made it into the elite, or at least into the elite's sycophantic entourage. Within the elite itself, a delicate balance is maintained, reminiscent of proto-constitutional medieval arrangements designed to limit the powers of kings and define those of other members of the secular and ecclesiastical hierarchy. Even the ECB, whose power is so great that it could threaten to upset this balance, cannot take decisions in complete freedom. On the contrary, it must prioritise "price stability", providing it with an excuse to maintain the cripplingly high interest rates which are - unlike the meaningless mantra of 'competitiveness' - one real cause of the eurozone's economic malaise.
His hymn of praise to the euro exposes Rifkin as one of those deeply conventional thinkers who purports to imagine that what's good for some must be good for all. The euro, under the conditions laid down in the Maastricht Treaty, was designed by and for the benefit of finance capital and in those terms has indeed been a great success. His celebration of its existence may seem, therefore, surprising, but we are dealing with someone who considers the fact that the EU is now home to some of the world's most powerful multi-national corporations - he cites Royal Dutch/Shell, BP and Nokia, amongst others - to be something of which we Europeans should be proud. Even the global consolidation of publishing under monopolistic monoliths is fine apparently, provided it's under European control, a strange position for a writer to take, to say the least. "Random House is owned by Bertelsmann" crows Rifkin, seemingly unaware that, to those who value freedom of expression, the nationality of people who get to decide what books are placed before the public is of less importance than their number and diversity.
Rifkin, as I said, does not always get things wrong. Sometimes he draws attention to an undeniable fact, but then presents it in a thoroughly misleading way. So, for example hecorrectly points out that all but the very poorest EU member states "have less income inequality between rich and poor" than does the United States, but then admits that these inequalities are widening. He then dismisses this increase as being "quite modest - with the exception of the U.K. - compared to the sharp increase in the U.S.... over the past three decades." True, Rifkin's purpose in writing this book is to contrast US and EU, to the latter's advantage, and so the point seems at first glance a fair one. A moment's reflection, however, reveals that it is anything but, for if "Europe" were really chasing a "Dream" of the kind Rifkin describes then income inequalities would surely be narrowing, not merely widening relatively slowly. In another part of the book, moreover, Rifkin approvingly notes that Europe now has more millionaires than even the US! Is it really possible to celebrate both a slower rate of growth of income inequality and an increase in the numbers of fat cats? Does Rifkin believe that you can have income equality and lots of millionaires? This is really too much, having, you might say, your euro and your croissant and all.
The same point might be made in relation to his comparison of the amount (11%) of its GDP that the US devotes to those forms of social spending tending to redistribute income, to the concomitant figure (26%) for the EU15. The latter figure is, however, in decline, and in any case Rifkin misleadingly fails to make it clear that (a) it does not include the new member states and (b) almost the whole of the figure applies to redistribution within each of the individual countries, and not to transfers between member states, these being much lower, in fact, than the comparable figure for redistribution among the fifty states of the USA. Gaps between member states remain huge: "How do we know we've left France and entered Spain?"Rifkin asks in another part of the book, where he is breathlessly praising the freedom of movement afforded by 'Europe'. The answer to this question is simply that Spain is, and looks, quite strikingly poorer than France; many of France's roads have been resurfaced within living memory, and few if any of its laybyes lined with teenage Romanian prostitutes. I expect there are less obvious differences, but these two were very striking indeed when I went into Spain by road a few months ago. If Rifkin's point, on the other hand, is that there are no (or relatively light) border checks, he should see just how easy travelling around Europe can be for people who aren't white, aren't well- educated, and have a passport from (say) Africa, an Arab or former Soviet state rather than North America.
All of the social benefits which Rifkin, quite understandably and, to an extent, correctly, sees as a praiseworthy feature of European societies are, first of all, characteristic only of parts of Europe, and secondly, entirely the product of individual nation states. This point would admittedly be as specious as many of Rifkin's own were it not for the fact that the EU is busily pressuring those same states to dismantle whole layers of their social provision, to privatise public services and throw almost everything and anything into the marketplace. It is precisely the relative 'generosity' of many EU member states which is seen as a problem by those who claim, with Rifkin's support, that Europe is insufficiently competitive. The shorter hours worked and longer holidays enjoyed by the average citizen of one of the EU's developed countries when compared to his or her American counterpart (to which Rifkin draws attention in a section entitled "Live to Work or Work to Live?") are the prime target of these attacks. His statement that French employers have been "won over" to the 35-hour week - a measure introduced a few years ago by the then left government - is plain wrong. In fact, pressure from employers have led the right-wing government to prioritise measures which have so eroded the 35-hour week that it no longer exists either as a meaningful, legally enforceable right or as an aspect of common practice.
If working people have it bad in this corporate Europe, so do small businesses. Rifkin cites a survey which showed that "while two out of every three Americans preferred to be self-employed, half of all EU citizens preferred to work as an employee for somebody else." He accounts for this by reference to something he calls "entrepreneurial values". I beg to venture a simpler explanation: in the US workers have almost no rights; in the EU insecurity and precariousness dog the small businessman or businesswoman in much the same way. Unable in most cases to take advantage of the single market, he or she is constantly bullied out of what should be natural markets by big and powerful competitors from other parts of Europe whose rights are absolute and whose transport costs grow lower with every taxpayer-funded motorway that scars our landscape.
Yet Rifkin seriously believes that "The European Union has made a point of advancing the interests of SMEs..." His evidence for this is that the EU "adopted the European Charter for Small Enterprises in 2000 to help their growth and development." What does this Charter do? Well, nothing at all, actually. As Rifkin admits, it merely "calls upon member states and the EU Commission" to do various things: to "support education for entrepreneurship," introduce "legislation and regulation to help SMEs remain competitive" and act in favour of "improved job skills" and "the use of successful e-business models." Well, one can imagine the unrestrained joy which must have greeted this Charter when word of it reached the small business people of Europe, and the huge consolation it must be to them now in the face of accelerating levels of bankruptcy brought about by the ECB-induced unaffordability of credit, the EU's preposterous paper-pushing culture, and the massive advantages handed every day to major corporations by the rules of the single market. Of course, these rules are the same for all and are therefore fair, just as boxing would be much fairer were its authorities to do away with those unnecessary weight classifications.
What is perhaps most reprehensible is that, as a member of a profession whose first responsibility is surely to avoid taking things at face value, Rifkin consistently mistakes rhetoric for reality, and allows wishful thinking to take the place of informed judgement. He enthuses about our "common European Parliament" with its "many powers previously reserved to nation-states" without noting the number of powers previously reserved to elected national institutions which have now been handed to the unelected European Central Bank, European Commission and Court of Justice (ECJ). He does note, without criticism, that the ECJ "supersedes the laws of the respective countries", perhaps hoping that no-one will notice that this means an unelected institution overruling the decisions of elected parliaments. He even, astonishingly, enthuses about the fact that the EU now has a "military arm".
What he must himself feel to be his most embarrassinging error, however, is his oft-repeated assumption that the constitution's ratification is a foregone conclusion. This hubris is a virus which Rifkin has contracted from his eurofanatic friends. This condition which caused him to believe, on the basis of a poll conducted in February, 2004, that because only a small minority was opposed to an EU constitution, the people of the member states would happily accept any constitution which the great and the good cared to propose. Yet in February 2004 no text had been agreed and hardly one inhabitant of the EU in a hundred could have told you what was in the Giscardian text which had just been thrown out, let alone which bits of it were likely to be retained. Despite the best efforts of political activists like Rifkin and myself, people do not generally give a wooden eurocent for political abstractions. What they voted on was the proposed text, and the evidence is that in both France and the Netherlands, they took considerable pains to find out what was in it. Having done so, they quite predictably voted no.
The same hubris leads Rifkin to declare that the EU "might ultimately be granted a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations - replacing the United Kingdom and France." And so it might, just as Rifkin might be elected President of the United States, I might win the Nobel Prize for Physics, and the Romulan Empire might join the United Federation of Planets. The fact that the odds of any of these things happening are extremely long does not of course undermine the veracity of Rifkin's statement, especially as he was careful to include the word 'ultimately". I do not rule out this happening some time long after Rifkin and myself are past caring. I do wish, however, that he had shown a modicum of respect for the democratic process, for example when writing of a constitution which had yet to be adopted. "The EU would have a single foreign minister..." in place of "The EU will..." might even have made him look a little less foolish, though it has to be admitted that by p.209 of this interminably long and repetitive book, when this statement occurs, the question of whether or not we were in the presence of foolishness had, at least for this reader, been fairly well settled.
The trait which leads Rifkin to think so wishfully also gives him a tendency to mistake pious declarations for political programmes, as with his treatment of the Charter for small and medium-sized enterprises discussed above. He tells us, quite falsely, that "Much of the constitution is given over to the issue of fundamental human rights," that it "might even be said that human rights are the very heart and soul of the document" and that, of all people, Giscard d'Estaing had proudly declared that "of all the men and women in the world, it is the citizens of Europe who will have the most extensive rights." The reality is very different. In fact, the proposed constitution, not counting the preamble and (though some of them were extremely important) the numerous Protocols, contained over 67,000 words, of which fewer than 4,000 are concerned with the fundamental rights which, along with the structures of political institutions, are the usual substance of constitutions. Moreover, the text extends not a single right not already enjoyed by the citizens (and in many cases other inhabitants) of every one of the twenty-five member states, either because it is in their national constitution, or because it already forms part of the Treaty on European Union, or, in numerous cases, because the country in question is signatory to an international convention which embodies that right, such as those establishing the Council of Europe.
Rifkin says that "the framers of the European Constitution have forthrightly set to paper a vision of the kind of world they aspire to and would like to live in and the rules to oversee the journey." This is certainly true. It is a world governed by big capital in its own interests, a neoliberal world characterised by deregulation and liberalisation. Fortunately, they have been told what to do with this world.
Unfortunately, they are still, for now, running the show, so that the European Union's policies favour big corporations and actively support the consolidation of capital. The EU's anti-trust policies, despite a few well-trumpeted successes, are ineffective to the point of being a joke. The Maastricht Treaty, the foundation of this Union, was based on a document prepared by the European Round Table of Industrialists, the major vehicle for multi-nationals active in Europe to achieve consensus and make their views known to the politicians and eurocrats who work on their behalf.
Mr Rifkin's whimsical holiday memories and highly selective "facts" are at least understandable to those of us who spend most of our time firmly on the planet, but when he gets launched on "theory" you get the distinct feeling that his mind is being controlled by aliens. From the chapter entitled "Space, Time and Modernity" onwards, Rifkin throws every half-baked theory of impressionistic academe into the pot to produce a dish which is even harder to swallow than the rest of his book. He quotes someone called Tim Luke, a political scientist who opines that the EU is, as compared to earlier political formations such as the boring old nation-state, "a more dynamic, more interconnected, yet more fragmented and fluid milieu for enacting authority and managing flows of influence from multiple sources, than can be contained by Euclidean geometry and identity spaces of territorialized or super-territorialized modernity."
Added to gibberish of this sort is a sort of cod 'Marxist' take on history, the usual wide-eyed, over-excited stuff about a "communication revolution", and something about how we (in Europe that is) are leaving the "market" system behind to enter the brave new world of "networks" which, unlike markets, are not "adversarial", a form of capitalism in which everyone gains. These networks depend on "reciprocity and trust", and it must therefore be reprehensible of me to feel that reciprocity and trust are at a fairly low ebb in the modern economy, on either side of the Atlantic.
I had thought that outsourcing and subcontracting were mostly about finding cheap labour and undermining workers' rights, but it seems I have spent too much of my life in the company of Americans. At least this would be my conclusion were I to accept Rifkin's idea that the United States has an intellectual and philosophical tradition which consists almost entirely of vulgar materialism, in other words that Thoreau, Emerson and indeed Eugene Victor Debs never existed. At the same time, Europeans are different. How? Well, we are "less expedient and driven in (our) personal relationships." I can't make head nor tail of this, actually, but whatever it means it seems to me most unlikely that it applies equally to my rural French neighbours, my former neighbours in inner-city Brussels and (before that) a North of England fishing town (well, it used to be a fishing town before the Common Fisheries Policy destroyed its economy), to people who live in the Finnish arctic, Sicily, suburban Berlin and post-communist Bucharest. "Americans are more likely to use space and time in a purposeful manner," Rifkin says. This does rather depend on your definition of purposeful, but such fine semantics bother not a jot Mr Rifkin, who might do well to find himself an activity more purposeful than writing half-baked drivel.
Rational arguments for or against this European Union or any other European union or form of supranational integration are not what Jeremy Rifkin's Really Bad Book is about, however. "There is a sense of excitement across Europe, a feeling of new possibilities. To be sure, the feeling varies somewhat in intensity from country to country and region to region and even between young and old." It is statements like this which reveal the book's essential emptiness. In response to To Rifkin's holidaymaker's impression I can only offer a resident's. And that is that this feeling of excitement seems rather to have passed my village by, perhaps because it recently saw its major industry, mushroom production, destroyed, while its wine industry and other forms of agriculture die a slow and agonising death. I suspect that such euphoric feelings are in fact entirely confined to the elite with whom Rifkin passes his time when Over Here. It means nothing whatsoever to the rest of us, who are busy trying to make meaningful and fulfilling lives in the teeth of the idiocy and mendacity of our rulers, or, in the case of those less fortunate, whose numbers are growing visibly by the month, simply struggling to survive.
One exception to this was the definite excitement in the air when the Dutch and French voted overwhelmingly to reject these rulers' latest madcap scheme. Rifkin assumes all the way through his book that the constitution will be ratified: as he says at one point, "the path taken has the air of destiny." Oh really? Well, in that case, let us once more congratulate the people of the Netherlands and France - and above all the working men and women of those countries - for seizing control of their own destiny, refusing to be swept up in messianic, fatalistic nonsense, and voting instead to defend all that they have gained in the sixty years since their countries lay in ruins brought about by the last great attempt to unify the continent over the heads of its people. Teleology, the idea that we are moving inevitably towards some higher goal, has always, without exception, been the refuge of scoundrels.
The people of Europe do not want breathlessly exciting Dreams. We do, as Rifkin correctly notes, want cooperation which crosses national boundaries to help address the many problems which do so. Rifkin, who, given the excellent work he has done to counter agricultural biotechnology, should know better, uses the example of the introduction of GM food and food crops to illustrate this. Yet the laws controlling GMOs that we now have within the EU were won in the face of bitter opposition from the EU Commission, acting, as ever, in the interests of corporations. The Commission, moreover, continues to try to undermine these laws and to force member states to accept biotechnology in agriculture, when the people of those countries have said quite clearly that they want nothing to do with it. This, again, is typical of the superficial and (whether deliberately or otherwise) misleading nature of much of what Rifkin says. The EU has some of the most restrictive laws in the world governing GMOs. They were achieved, however, in struggle against its most powerful institutions. Despite it, in other words, not because of it.
Don't buy this book, whatever you do. Better to read something which gives a coherent argument in favour of the European Union than this mishmash of fantasies, wishful thinking, and just plain nonsense. We can only hope that Jeremy Rifkin, having recovered from the fever brought on by his trip to Europe, will now return to his important work as an environmental campaigner.
Steve McGiffen is spectrezine's editor. A revised edition of his book The European Union: A Critical Guide will shortly be available from Pluto Press, which also recently published his Biotechnology: Corporate Power versus the Public Interest.
See http://www.plutobooks.com/ for more information about these titles.