Review: The New Vichy Syndrome

policy-winter10-coverPublished in Policy Magazine (Sydney), 16 June 2010

The New Vichy Syndrome— Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism

By Theodore Dalrymple
Encounter Books, New York/London, 2010
US$23.95, 163 pages
ISBN 9781594033728

It’s no secret that Europe has big problems. The Greek budget crisis was only the latest in a long chain of events revealing how terminal the European political, social and economic model is.

Well before Athens triggered the Euro crisis, there was no shortage of warning signs that something was fundamentally amiss. In the face of persistently high levels of unemployment in Germany, regular outbreaks of violence in the banlieues of Paris, or the rapid ageing of Italy’s population, only the incorrigible optimists still believe that Europe would dominate the twenty-first century, as Jeremy Rifkin argued less than a decade ago.

A number of books dealing with different aspects of the phenomenon have appeared in the last five years, of which these three are the best: Italian economists Alberto Alesina and Francesco Giavazzi’s The Future of Europe, which mercilessly exposes the weaknesses of European economy; US historian Walter Laqueur’s melancholic The Last Days of Europe, which details the disappearance of European society as we know it; and the Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe— Immigration, Islam, and the West, which analyses the Islamisation of the European Union (EU).

Now Theodore Dalrymple, the cultural pessimist par excellence of our times, has added his own observations. The New Vichy Syndrome bears the endorsements of Caldwell as well as friendly words from Andrew Roberts, Claire Belinski, and Bruce S. Thornton, all of whom have made distinguished contributions to the burgeoning Euro-decline literature.

With such impressive support from some of the best experts on European affairs, the reader looks forward to an intellectual feast. Unfortunately, the book only partially lives up to expectations.

The main problem with Dalrymple’s book is that it does not read like one but a number of loosely connected essays thrown in-between two covers. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the content of each essay, except that a central thread is missing to guide readers from one chapter to the next. Indicative of this flaw is that the book’s title is not illuminated by the material it contains.

What Dalrymple does is jump helter skelter between different subjects: from demographic change and Muslim immigration to the attack on science; from the EU bureaucracy to German history and on to the brutalist architecture of Le Corbusier, to just name a few of the topics covered. Each is treated in a mostly convincing and usually entertaining manner. But it comes off as a stream of consciousness rather than a comprehensive analysis. The bizarre choice of chapter headings completes the effect. Seven consecutive out of a total 13 chapters are titled ‘Why are we like this?’, only differentiated by the Roman numerals attached to them.

Outside the lack of structure and clear line of argument, substantial objections can be raised against Dalrymple’s assessment of Europe’s problems.

The EU is rightly singled out as the root cause of Europe’s predicament. Eurosceptics will undoubtedly agree. Dalrymple argues that the driving forces behind the EU’s establishment was the French desire to retain the pretence of global power and the German desire to shed its nationalist baggage. This might be so, but it does not explain why other European nations were eager to join this alleged Franco-German self-help group.

A more powerful explanation would regard the EU (then EEC) as part of the West’s response to the Soviet threat in the Cold War. In the same way that NATO mirrored the Warsaw Pact, the EEC mirrored the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), an economic organisation of communist nations in Eastern Europe comparable to the EEC. The EU began its life as part of the West’s bulwark against communism. Only later did it develop into the bureaucratic über-state and pension fund for superannuated politicians, which Dalrymple so eloquently describes.

Perhaps the most curious thing about Dalrymple’s book is his boundless gloom about Europe’s future while downplaying the major threats to the continent. Most demographers agree that Europe’s shrinking and ageing population will soon doom its welfare states. Not so Dalrymple: ‘The ageing of the population, however, is not necessarily as disastrous as is sometimes suggested. Societies and mankind in general are very adaptable; new situations call forth new solutions. It is mistaken to think of a person as necessarily a drain on society merely because he has reached a certain age.’

At some stage in the first half of this century, the median age in most EU countries will reach around 50 years. It is hard to view this unprecedented situation as a creative opportunity when one thinks of the combined effect on economic growth, welfare spending, and tax revenue.

Dalrymple also rejects the view that sees the rise of Islam as an existential threat. Most Muslims, he asserts, are, or will soon become, more secular than commonly feared. Yet it is hard to reconcile this with opinion polls that show the very opposite, i.e. growing sympathy among European Muslims for Muslim values and institutions like Sharia law. Nor does it tally with growing segregation in many European cities.

Hence, Dalrymple’s book is strangely self-contradictory. He mourns the cultural, social, political and economic decline of Europe while questioning the severity of the two fundamental causes of that decline.

The New Vichy Syndrome is still worth reading. Only a brilliant thinker like Dalrymple could manage to write a seriously flawed book that still offers scores of profound insights to provoke further thought and reflection. That said, if you are looking for primer on what is really wrong with Europe, try the books by Laqueur, Caldwell, or Alesina and Giavazzi instead.

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