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06-13-2012

The German soul and the Italian volksgeist

Nathan Gardels is editor in chief of NPQ and the Global Viewpoint Network of Tribune Media Services. He is also a senior advisor to the Berggruen Institute. His forthcoming book with Nicolas Berggruen is entitled "Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East."

By Nathan Gardels

ROME — The romantic side of the Germanic soul has always loved the Italian volksgeist. Like Goethe, northerners have long sought to escape, if only on temporary vacations, an unforgiving ethos of prudence and discipline in search of the charming inefficiency and sensuality of Mediterranean climes and culture.

The single European currency, combined with the burdens of the Bismarck-invented welfare state that faces demographic demise and competition from the rising rest around the globe, has put an end to this pleasant complementarity.

Now everyone is tied together in one continental fate, obliged to answer to the same global bond market by harmonizing their diverse tempers and rhythms to the Protestant tune of productivity, competitiveness and fiscal responsibility.

Not surprisingly, there is push-back on all sides, leaving the European project of integration in a kind of purgatory between the old nation-state and a full European political union. In a resonant historical twist, the issue is once again a matter of indulgences. The Protestant Reformation was rooted in Martin Luther’s revolt against poor German peasants being forced to buy indulgences from wealthy Roman clergy as a way out of purgatory. Today, Luther’s wealthy descendants refuse to indulge the poorer and fiscally lax Italians or other southerners in the name of one day reaching a common European utopia.

The metaphoric inhabitants of Martin Heidegger’s austere hut may still long for the sunlit stones of Florence, but they’ll be damned if someone else’s languor is purchased at their expense.

One worries where this will all end up. If Europe doesn’t get its collective political act together to solve the eurozone crisis, prosperity will be set back and dangerous political fragmentation to the extremes will set in — as it did, tragically, once before in the 20th century. If Europe succeeds in converging toward stern German standards in a globally competitive world, what will become of the convivial cultures of the south?

Yes, the trains must run on time. Taxes must be collected. But one worries where the logic of harmonization will ultimately lead. As a converging Europe opens services to the winds of competition across the single market, will the mom and pop shops found on every corner consolidate into Walmarts, the cafes into Starbucks, pensiones into Holiday Inns, and the countless trattorias into homogenous restaurant chains?

For a glimpse of the future, take a look at the most productive — but most sterile and least charming and convivial — place on the planet: Silicon Valley. The buildings that house the information revolution are featureless blocks, save for the designer logos of Yahoo!, Intel or Oracle, surrounded by manicured lawns crisscrossed by wide boulevards. Nothing is architecturally distinct. Though connectivity is the main business, ambling pedestrians are nowhere to be found, save for the occasional lone jogger. On a recent visit to Santa Clara, the only sign of convivial life was a gaggle of Indian software engineers, lonely and far from home, swirling beers at Pedro’s, a faux Mexican cantina.

Not long after my visit to Santa Clara, I was in Rome strolling around the neoclassical Piazza del Popolo designed by Giuseppe Valadier in the early 1800s. Teens gathered spontaneously around the fountain beneath the Egyptian obelisk from Sety I in the center of the Piazza. The surrounding cafes overflowed with patrons smoking and chatting. Hordes of pedestrians passed by the twin churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto, completed by Bernini, on their way to the Via del Corso.

Who would trade one for the other? Nothing, of course, must be either/or in life. And Germany is still quite a ways from corporatized America. But we should be careful what we wish for as we seek to harmonize today’s interdependence of plural identities.

It would be reactionary to regret the future. But we ought to be wary about extinguishing what makes life worth living by assigning a clock to every hour, as even Germans understand when they regularly trek south to take a break from efficiency.

 

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