On the 12th February 1980, Roy Jenkins, then President of the Eurpean Commission, in a speech to the European Parliament at Strasbourg, stated the following:
“Looking ahead to the future, what we can see appearing on the horizon is nothing less than the collapse of the economic and social order upon which post-war Europe was constructed. We have based our industrial society on the consumption of fossil fuels, oil in particular, and no one can deny, at the present moment, that if we do not change this system – while there is still time – our society risks being overthrown and, in the end disintegrating. Signs of irreversible change can already be seen in the rapid decline of several of our oldest industries under the impact of new technologies on countless aspects of our daily life, and in the way in which the pattern of our transactions has been revolutionized”.
When such an alarming statement is made by an expert in economic affairs the situation appears nothing less than drastic. Notice moreover that he only mentioned one particular aspect of our crisis, energy and essential though it may be, it is nevertheless only one of many. It is undoubtedly true that energy sources control the life-blood of our society, but of equal significance are the collapse of the doctrine of full employment, financial uncertainty, an the inherent inability of our national governments to control the “crisis”.
But when it comes down to it, is there a “crisis”? This word of Greek origin has the etymological meaning of a critical turning point, from which a patient might emerge cured of his illness, or, on he other hand, he might die. The Chinese script expresses the same idea by combining the notion of “crisis” with “catastrophe”, but also with that of “chance”. In both cases, the event always seems at any rate to be of short duration. This was again the case with the “Great Depression” during the 1930s. It began in New York on “Black Friday”, in October 1929, with effects in Europe first being felt with the crash of the Viennese Credit Anstalt, but by the time Hitler had seized power in 1933, the worst was over, and his dictatorship could profit – and how skilfully – from the recovery that was on the way. Though a time of extreme hardship, the crisis was nevertheless of short duration, lasting four years in all.
Nowadays, it is a different matter. The Trotskyite economist, Ernest Mandel, could write his work on THE CRISIS 1974-1978 (Paris, Flammario) in 1978 – though at the very same time American analysts of the business cycle were announcing yet another drop in industrial production, while, in the interval, no new prosperity had emerged: neither the unemployment figures nor the indices of inflation produced any rise in the economic barometer. Another indication, of academic interest: Michel Jordet called his last book: “The Crises of Tomorrow”. Would it be correct, therefor, to infer that we have entered a state of permanent crisis and that at no time in the future will the business cycle make a recovery? In conclusion, are we witnessing the final decline of capitalism, Europe, and the West? Wether or not that is so, we would do well to heed carefully the warning of Simone Veil who foresees, in addition to economic turmoil, the decline and even the possible disappearance of our entire culture. “For my part, I hope that we listen with the utmost attention to those who have raised the alarm, those who, with competence, conscience, and a sense of responsibility, have shown us possible new ways out of our present difficulties… However, societies and civilizations have disappeared because they were unable to assert themselves; human values do not last forever.”
Is all this simple “pessimism”? Those who see in it nothing more than a fit of bad humour or a passing mood of melancholy, are taking the easy way out. Far from being a matter of Mr Jenkins’ and Madame Veil’s high or low spirits, it is a matter of hard facts that become increasingly worrying because increasingly persistent. It is a matter of statistics and facts of life, rather than personal psychology. The situation is even more serious since Europe is not alone in the world. Its economy is linked to that of the United States, though becoming progressively less protected by it. And our society, our civilization, is permanently in competition with those of so-called “socialist’ countries. Undoubtedly, it is easy to criticize these countries, which still live under a system of poverty as far as consumer goods goes, but their system of bureaucratic planning, even with its unwieldily size and relative inefficiency, succeeds nevertheless in the concealing unemployment and holding inflation within acceptable limits. In short, Western Europe is in a precarious position. We are exposd to all the winds of history and our economic regime is becoming more and more vulnerable.
We might ask ourselves why, in these conditions, the economic collapse which seems a logical outcome, has not yet taken place? The answer is twofold. On the one hand, the more vulnerable one is, the less one is inclined to “stir up trouble”: the crisis of the ’30s also had a politically conservative effect. Today, on the other hand, unlike the past, we have not seen terrible misery following in the wake of unemployment. The system of welfare benefits, a heavy burden on our national budgets, is, this time, sufficiently generous that we have been spared the spectacle of the bloody revolts that took place then. On the other hand, the feeling of a “crisis of civilization” is more acute now, and the standing of those in power is much lower.
Let us then try to respond to the classic question frequently posed by Marechal Lyautey: “What is the matter?” Is it a simple crisis of the classical type at the end of a cycle, described by Marx and Kondratieff? Or are we this time being confronted with truly unique and new phenomena?