The European Comforts of Historical Amnesia

Europe’s labor force has allowed its modern privileges to become entitlements, writes Pallavi Aiyar.

I’ve recently returned to live in Europe, almost a decade after my first stint in 2009-2012. The stories I’d reported as the Brussels-based Europe correspondent for the Business Standard at that time were filled with the word that had defined the region’s most pressing concern: crisis. From my Indian perspective, Europe’s crisis was a sweet-smelling, well-dressed, bucolic type of calamity. Walking around Brussels, where I lived then, little had appeared amiss. There was no famine. No stench. No tanks in the Grand Place.

Yet, the streets were flooded with disgruntled workers holding up placards that read: “say no to the crisis,” as if it were cocaine. A decade on, the crisis, at least in France, is less sweet smelling, given the garbage collectors’ strike that has left Paris, the city of romance, more rancid than an aged slice of Époisses. For weeks, France has been roiled by strikes, demonstrations, and blockades against a proposed pension reform package, which would raise the retirement age by two years to 64. For me, it is déjà vu, having covered the 2010 protests in France against raising the retirement age by two years to 62.

It has long been clear that Europe is in for a less than enjoyable near future. What is good for the European economy as a whole: wage cuts, later retirement, public sector trimming, immigration – are not enjoyable experiences. Yet, the need to re-write the post-World War II social contract between the state and citizens of Europe, is writ large, given the ongoing recalibration of the global order.

For someone like me, who has spent decades living in India, China, and Indonesia, the handwringing in Europe about “decline” and “crises” can feel like the neuroses of a hypochondriac, coming as it does from wealthy, healthy Europeans, suntanned from their most recent beach vacations. For Europeans to be drowning in navel-gazing pessimism can smack of self-indulgence, when billions of people live in disease-ravaged, gut-distending poverty.

Even following proposed reforms to restore economic competitiveness, Europe’s health care will be more affordable, its unemployment benefits more generous, its homes more temperate-controlled, more so than in the vast majority of the world. The zukunftsangst– or fear of the future – that is so widespread across western Europe is in essence a response to the growing realization that life is not inevitably going to get better and better; that tough times are not merely imagery in musty history books.

Europe’s striking workers are the global labor elite.

As the latest protests in France indicate, Europeans remain loathe to accept that they need to run to stand still; that even maintaining the status quo will require belt tightening. The peoples of western Europe have been most fortunate in recent history, not because they somehow boast superior moral fiber. Nor because they are innately more innovative, clever, or efficient than citizens of the developing world. But because they have been born in the right countries at the right time. In effect, they’ve chosen the right parents.

If Europeans have to work somewhat harder for their money, resulting in a modest leveling out of global inequalities, surely this is only in keeping with the values that Europe itself claims to espouse and says it wants to universalize: those of solidarity and social justice.

The fact is, that Europe’s striking workers are the global labor elite. They are not malnourished coal miners from northeast China whose families are dying from lung cancer. They aren’t tribals from India’s forests whose women have been raped and leaders murdered by mining company bosses. They are trade union-protected workers fighting any loss of their substantial entitlements, no matter the cost to their countries as a whole. Striking dockworkers, refuse collectors, pharmacists, newspaper vendors, taxi drivers: everyone is in on the Euroballoo, with scant recognition of their privileges from a global perspective.

There are people in Europe who are willing to embrace these changed circumstances. But they are rarely Europeans. It is the immigrants who are taking up the gauntlet, despite the efforts to prevent them from working as hard as they might like.

I had never heard the word “work” made to sound like a term of abuse before I visited the rapidly shrinking cohort of Jewish diamond merchants in the port city of Antwerp in 2009. Antwerp is the center of the global trade in diamonds and for decades this trade was controlled by the orthodox Jewish community.

In recent decades, the younger generation has been leaving in droves for Israel. It is not anti-Semitism driving them away, but the intense economic competition unleashed by the forces of globalization, as represented by the rise of the Indian Guajarati diamantaire. Today up to 70 percent of Antwerp’s lucrative trade in diamonds is in Gujarati hands, and people with names like Mehta and Shah, rather than Epstein or Finklelsztein, rule Antwerp’s diamond quarter.

When I met with Abraham Pinkusewitz, the head of a 3,500-employee, diamond business, he related the idea of “hard work” to injustice: “The Indians work too hard and will grab customers at any cost…. There is nothing else in their [the Indians’] lives but diamonds. It is not the same for us.” He pointed out that the orthodox Jewish businesses remain closed on Saturday for religious reasons.

The allegations Pinkuswitz had made against the Indians – what he deems as “unfair” competition because of their willingness to work long hours – are charges that have been leveled over the centuries against the Jews themselves. But Pinkuswitz had appeared unaware of this irony.

In Europe, the argument that immigrants work too hard, for too little, is made both up and down the economic scale: against Indian diamond merchants as well as Chinese factory workers. I remember reading about the Spanish town of Elche, a traditional bastion of the shoe industry where workers in upstart Chinese shoe factories worked longer hours than the norm in Spain. The local Spanish workers set two Chinese-owned warehouses and a delivery truck on fire in protest. The media at the time explained that the outburst against the Chinese had to do with the feeling amongst Spaniards that the economic practices of the Chinese “threaten age-old social customs, employment norms, and labor relations” and their single-minded desire to make money “clashes with traditional values that privilege family, friends, and leisure over moneymaking.”

But given that only 50 years ago poverty had regularly forced Spaniards to emigrate out of their countries, the social customs and values that present-day Europeans seem to regard as so integral to their culture, are not particularly “traditional” or “age-old.” They are, in fact, rather modern.

Opinions, evaluations, and reactions to Europe’s problems from inside of the region naturally differ from mine, being unencumbered by the comparison to the lot of developing countries that frame my observations. And I am not immune to empathy for the European “crisis” either.

It is obviously harder to give up something than to make do without something one has never had. Comforts and privileges are normalized with remarkable ease. And for a generation that has no living memory of another reality, letting go of them is a tough ask indeed. This is hardly unique to Europe or Europeans.

But historical amnesia will not serve contemporary Europeans well. They have been enjoying the fruit of the long battles waged by the labor movement well into the latter half of the 20th century. The social contracts that they consider sacrosanct are a hard-won privilege, which have ossified into entitlements.


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