Europe’s Embarrassing Secret

Stephan Lessenich

5.6.20 / Text
In his essay for A Pleasant Apocalypse: Notes from the Grand Hotel Abyss, sociologist Stephan Lessenich reflects on Europe’s continued pursuit of a cult of enjoyment and the massive self-deception that goes beyond simply looking away.

Future historians will struggle to make sense of the social makeup of early 21st-century Europe. From a future vantage point, they will see a thoroughly schizophrenic society, in which some European nations let loose and partied while others footed the bill.

We live in a world of double standards. As we check in to a flight to take a well-deserved vacation abroad, there are so-called “economic refugees” who are being forced to board a deportation plane at the neighboring gate. While we relax and recharge our batteries on the other side of the world, migrants are illicitly cleaning our apartments back home. And while we are posting photos of exotic places every few minutes to our friends at home (photos that say, you definitely have to come here as well someday!), the global service proletariat is taking care of us under working conditions that we would never dream of accepting ourselves.

Apropos dreaming: the future historiography of our postmodern present will report not only on a reign of double moral standards. It will also tell of a society in a mode of total auto-suggestion: wealthy nations that see themselves as victims of global misery; prosperous communities that believe they have reached the limits of their economic, administrative, social, or cultural capacity; populations that think they have a legitimate right to defend themselves against the overexploitation of their resources, infrastructures, and goodwill by some sort of “foreigner.” These people, in the same breath, boast of their extraordinary generosity: “Our heart is wide open, but our capacities are limited,” as a previous German president stated at the peak of the “refugee crisis”—prompting both politicians and journalists to enthusiastically nod in assent.

The cry of “us first” is causing a current furor not only in the United States, and not only in the abysmal world of narcissistic, chauvinist state leaders in the mold of Viktor Orbán, but also in new and old Europe, in equal measure. It can be found among the identitarian right and national-liberal groups too, in the milieu of repentant ex-cosmopolitans, and among left-wingers who are proud of their steadfast closeness to the people. “Us” and “them,” “our” affluence and “their” poverty, “our” workers and “their” economic refugees. The logic of national, categorical differentiation—along with the social aspirations of “our own people” being pitted against the social sense of entitlement of “others”—has become the latest fad in political discourse. This is even the case in places where people, who in general are seldom surprised these days, would not expect to hear such rhetoric.

Certainly, the established sociopolitical position of the respective “others” who should not be socially entitled can be occupied by very diverse individuals, depending on the historical situation and social context—and present-day historians studying the success story of our affluent capitalism are already reporting on this. Sometimes it is “the elderly” (and not, interestingly, the neoliberal restructuring of pension systems) who threaten the future pension rights of young people; other times it is “the unemployed” who apparently do not want to work (and surely should thus be pressured to find work by means of state intervention); then, of course, “the lower classes,” who have a poor diet, do not read to their children, and even—believe it or not—pocket loads of money from innumerable administrative authorities. Meanwhile, the fundamentally hard-working middle classes, which uphold the development of moral standards, are seen as being fleeced by taxation.

Mind you, now and then “the better-off” and especially “the superrich” also are caught in the crosshairs of popular criticism—and for once, the right people bear the economic brunt. Ideologically, however, the projections of blame directed toward “the top” also follow common patterns of revitalized social critique, given that it is fundamentally personalized villains (“the top one percent,” “financial consultants,” and “incompetent managers”) or even shady characters personified (Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg) on whom the spotlight of indignation falls. By contrast, the structures from which such dubious social figures emerge again and again are typically overlooked.

Yet always, truly always, the “others” of choice are those who are somehow not from “here” and thus cannot “belong”: immigrants and refugees, all migrants or general “nomads,” foreigners and those who seem alien to the native-born, as well as non-citizens and “tolerated individuals” (a typically German legal category); also included in this category are all people with a different skin color. If all else fails, a preference for the native-born always works—with priority given to those born in the country in question.

Prosperity jingoism makes the much-loved talk of “European values,” which have to be safeguarded and defended against possible threats from the outside (Vladimir Putin, China, Islam), deeply suspect. All the more so if one considers the conditions under which many European nations obtained their prosperity—nations which have recently become, to an increasing extent (though from a global perspective, to a comparatively low degree) destination countries for transnational migration. The embarrassing secret: we did not merely borrow this prosperity from others, but we wrung it out of other nations by force. And we do so anew each day, while attempting to deprive those other nations of such similar prosperity using all means possible.

Whether platinum mines in South Africa, textile factories in Southeast Asia, or the plantation economy in Latin America: it is the same everywhere. People in other places work, suffer, and—yes, of course—also die, so that we can live this way here. It’s been going on for as long as anyone can remember. The affluent capitalism model of creating economic value and (howsoever limited and selective) social redistribution of income from economic growth is essentially based on the uninhibited exploitation of labor and nature in other regions of the world. These global regions thus have to locally bear the ecological and social costs of production methods and consumption patterns. The working and living conditions that prevail in this part of the world only became possible in the first place, and can only be perpetuated, because the majority of the populations in the “underdeveloped” societies of global capitalism work and live under conditions that we simply cannot fully imagine.

Certainly, prosperity is also unevenly distributed across Europe too, and in recent years the distribution of income and assets has become even more unequal, and for many, working conditions are becoming more and more precarious. Even so, employment and living conditions in Europe must be understood in relation to—and as being embedded in—the structure and dynamics of inequalities around the world. From a global perspective, what to us appears socially acceptable, appropriate, and tolerable is actually made possible by social conditions in other places that we would consider absolutely unacceptable, inappropriate, and intolerable for ourselves. And indeed, they are precisely that. Considered on a global scale, our social life also takes place on a level of material and energy consumption that is by no means “sustainable,” and indeed must be regarded as absurd, even virtually insane. This level, in turn, can only be maintained because the environmental consumption of so many billions of people on this planet occurs on a level well below ours. So let’s not deceive ourselves: we live our lives at the expense of others.

And yet we really do deceive ourselves. We know what’s going on, but we prefer to remain unaware. Moreover, we don’t need to be aware—no one is forcing us to be, and we accept every opportunity to remain unaware all too readily. Just to avoid any misunderstanding: this is not pointing at a vague “us” in general, allowing our responsibilities to blur and disappear. There should be no trace of doubt that it is the big, global corporations and banks who are the responsible parties, with their economic power and political influence. These corporations and individuals continue to organize global business based on the exploitation of labor and nature, and make an obscene profit by doing so. There are naturally only very few who are able to live from the prevailing capitalist model of overaccumulation in a way that is fantastic in the truest sense of the word. And few, too, who emerge from each of its cyclical crises—which for many others result in the destruction of livelihood or even cost them their lives—with even more wealth, even more power, and an even more appalling arrogance. They are thus justifiably the focus of public criticism, and critics of capitalism and activists involved in the politics of globalization justifiably point to them when naming names is concerned.

But the naming of names—such as Amazon and Exxon, Rio Tinto and Monsanto/Bayer, Bezos, Zuckerberg, or whatever their names might be—takes place on well-prepared terrain. The game-playing of those named is only able to succeed because so many others play along with it—and this implies the depoliticization of people, rather than the supposed power of consumers. A half-century of growth and a quarter-century of neoliberalism have left their traces in the hearts and minds of people in affluent societies. The prevailing subjectivity—the desire for more on the one hand, and concern for oneself on the other—does not reflect personal wickedness on the part of individuals, nor an anthropological constant in the sense of the infamous declaration that “people are simply that way.” By no means, for people living in Western societies permeated by affluent capitalism have experienced, over an extended historical period, a set of social influences and, not coincidentally, have gradually internalized them.

The desire for more is not simply individual self-indulgence or compulsive greed. This desire is instead a fundamental part of societies that have elevated excess or “more”—that is, capitalist accumulation—into an economic necessity and social principle. At base, everyone in Western capitalist societies are conditioned to want more and more. Capitalism, as the 19th-century sociologist Max Weber already knew, creates the subjects it needs—and, above all else, it needs the subjectivity of growth, the endless, collectively individual desire for more. And with respect to oneself, the concerns are similar. It is not “people” who are egoistical, distrustful, and polarized due to competition, but it is the neoliberal subject who is (supposed to be) this way. For decades, these ideas have repeatedly been shoved down our throats—by economic institutes and professors of economics, just as by politicians and newspapers—that the individual must come before the collective, the private before the public, ownership rights before public assets, and, in general, one’s own affairs before those of others. Even if one wished things were different, the consistent ideological indoctrination, combined with politically institutionalized market pressures, has unfortunately left its mark on people.

This is now about that ominous, general, vague “us”—no one is treated with personal hostility, and simply “all” are addressed. As subjects of Western capitalism, the desire for more and the concern for ourselves is inscribed in us and in our everyday actions. And as subjects of neoliberal accumulation—which we really are, or into which we have been made and are made into again every day—we gladly allow ourselves to be deceived. We gladly believe that electricity comes from an electrical outlet or, at least, that e-vehicles can drive “emission free.” We gladly listen to all the things that companies are doing to make their supply chains “transparent” and to ensure “appropriate” working and living conditions in the countries of the Global South. We complacently allow ourselves to be deceived by social certificates and sustainability awards, which the most evil protagonists of transcontinental exploitation still reap and can proudly pin to their lapels. We do this so that we can all feel a bit better about the destruction of the environment and the disruption of lives that we cause, or allow to be caused, on a daily basis.

We gladly believe in the good facets of global capitalism, in green lies and colorful, glossy brochures. We don’t really want to know what’s behind it all. It is not always just a clever person, but, almost always, also a broken body and a tortured soul, ravaged nature and damaged lives. This is what speeches on “combating” the official reasons for migration and the displacement of people are dutifully talking about: suffering in the world that is very closely connected with our own lifestyle. The question about how large social majorities, which prevail in the capitalist centers of this world (and, from them, also influence living conditions around the world), conduct their day-to-day lives. It is these centers to which the enlightened minorities currently reading this also belong.

And what if we all already know all this, but would prefer to not to be aware of it? Then one thing matters above all: turning that preference into a political issue. The task, then, is one of knowledgeably and pointedly, courageously and skillfully, name the names of the participants in this great exploitation. And the task must also be one of revealing what is behind the Potemkin village projected by media networks, which are conjured around us and in which we somehow all participate—and in doing so, breaching the silent agreement that enables us to take part in the beautiful pretense. It is clear that we do not want to know the truth at all. The whole accumulation-prosperity-competition fetish needs to be exposed, since its fraudulent labeling arouses a fear of the alternative, by which we allow ourselves to be controlled.

This is said lightly—from inside the great swindle, from a position that is not external to the circumstances, but that is inherent to them, is entangled in and warped by them. And, yes, a position that lives off these circumstances, or rather, that is first made possible as a result of them. But the insight into how we ourselves are imprisoned by the prevailing circumstances does not in any way turn what is right into something wrong. Quite the opposite, in fact: it should make the struggle against what is wrong simply that much more obvious, more understandable. The goal would be to collectively obtain clarity about what is actually going on, and to accept our political responsibility, which arises from our individual and our social-collective position in a global system that functions at the expense of, and to the detriment of, others.

Acting in line with this political responsibility means wanting to know about the connections between one’s own life and the life of others. It means knowing that we are connected in social solidarity with those others and their lives—and it means wanting to change the structure of living conditions around the globe in cooperation with these individuals. Future historians of our social present would be positively surprised to report on such a historic turnaround.

Translated from the German by Amy Klement

Stephan Lessenich (1965, Stuttgart, Germany) is a sociologist. His chief areas of research are theory of the welfare state, political sociology, institutional change, sociology of age and aging, and sociology of consumption. His book, Neben uns die Sintflut: Die Externalisierungsgesellschaft und ihr Preis (Next to Us, the Deluge: The Society of Externalization and Its Costs) (2016), which describes the catastrophic impact of recent economic growth, was translated into English under the title The Hidden Costs of Western Prosperity (2019). Lessenich lives in Munich.

Stephan Lessenich, “Europe’s Embarrassing Secret“ in A Pleasant Apocalypse: Notes from the Grand Hotel Abyss, eds. Ekaterina Degot and David Riff (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, May 2020), pp. 87–93.

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