As in the early 1930s, the shockwaves of the crash, at first confined to those directly involved in financial markets, are painfully touching the lives of increasing numbers of people. The search for scapegoats is becoming more bitter. Today’s hunted bankers cut wretched figures compared with the top-hatted, cigar-wielding plutocrats in Georg Grosz’s caricatures of the Weimar Republic. It is better to forfeit a knighthood or even a bonus than be hanged from a lamppost, but they face the same raw public anger.
Unfortunately, this fury chimes with the widespread but false belief that the rich can pay for all the damage, an idea that politicians – most shortsightedly – are doing little to discourage. The narrowing of the tax base in many countries needs urgently to be corrected; it is barely being addressed.
Immigrant and refugee populations, tolerated during prosperous times, are now seen as both the cause of unemployment and a potential source of sedition. Tolerance, always fragile, is giving way to disapproval. Fashion is becoming more staid; they’re wearing ties again at Davos. Demagogues are gaining ground in a number of countries in Europe – so far, oddly enough, more in the still relatively thriving north than in the suffering south. So far.
The economic debate, in which the proponents of austerity face off against those who see the promotion of employment as the primary duty in such times, would be all too familiar to a revenant from 80 years ago. It is considered bad manners to accuse the inventors of the fiscal pact for the eurozone of not having learnt the lesson of German reparations after the first world war. But the pact enshrines a similar intellectual error, and this needs saying. That it may be necessary to secure German support is beside the point: reparations were essential (with rather more justification) for French support at Versailles in 1919. That did not make them a good idea. Besides, Germany, with its own demographic problems increasingly evident, can no more pay for all Europe’s problems than the rich can pay for the world’s.