Sunday, August 18, 2013

Southern comfort

As someone who spends a lot of time in southern Europe and who has learnt to appreciate the benefits of the siesta, I enjoyed this piece from Ed Vulliamy in praise of the Mediterranean lifestyle. It was romanticised certainly, but I like this observation:
And so our August holidays on cobblestones and land where the vine grows become very weird, as people go to play at the way of life their leaders – maybe even they – are destroying. Many of those from Britain, America, Germany and elsewhere this weekend setting off to savour the southern life are the politicians, bankers, lawyers, managers, civil servants, thinktank "brains" – newspaper columnists indeed – who have decided, generally if not individually, that our Anglo-American way of capitalism is the only way to go. Fuelled, it sometimes feels, more by some combination of cocaine, Red Bull and Viagra than aromatic coffee, a cool aperitif and an afternoon snooze.
Once again, we are back in the land of Eurozone crisis as morality drama. The lazy, laid-back latin lifestyle may be pleasurable, but has to be abandoned, regrettably, in favour of adopting the superior northern work ethic. It is easy to think like this as one sits in a comfy chair by the sea, sipping wine and enjoying the fresh food, but only as long as you ignore the early mornings, late nights and relentless hard work that those feckless Med-types have to put in to provide you with your leisure.

The reality is that this is another manifestation of what Michael Young satirised in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young saw meritocracy, a term he coined, as dangerous because it justified material inequality on the basis of the supposed superior qualities and virtues of the privileged. Reducing poverty simply became a matter of reforming the poor to be more like 'us'. Poverty was the result of their failings. Young rejected this. He saw inequality as mainly the product of class, family, inheritance, luck, power and exploitation. Young's point was that the whole idea of meritocracy was a self-serving fiction that encouraged those that initially benefitted from social mobility to pull the ladder up behind them as they felt that their good fortune was solely the result of their personal qualities and not the institutions that supported and promoted them. This way of thinking undermines rival concepts of social solidarity and informs a punitive policy of economic reform as a response to crisis.

August is a tired month. The grass is crisp and dry; trees and plants show the strain of their summer growth and are beginning to take on an autumnal look; waiters and shopkeepers have heavy bags under their eyes as they ceaselessly serve weary workers refreshing themselves in the late summer sun. But most of all, Greece, together with much of southern Europe and Ireland as well, are exhausted by the battering of austerity and its manifest failures. It is time that the austerians took a little nap, ate a leisurely lunch and thought, 'no, I can't be bothered; let's give them a break.' 

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