Foto: Jeremy Rifkin
Interview with Jeremy Rifkin
“National journal” has named you among 150 influential advisers of federal government of United States. How did you reach so impressive position?
I am 60, I have been in Washington for 25 years, so long time. I wish that was a case, I mean, that are certain policies or areas that I have invaded. Others would like to have more influence that I have, so it is hard for me to judge. I have been an activist in an NGO, since 1970. I also teach at the oldest business school in the world, and I write books and do my column, so I do not know how to judge that. Some days I feel frustrated that I wish I had a little bit more influence than I do.
Maybe you can say why is it necessary to listen to you?
It is (laugh). My family never listens to me.
What I am saying to Americans is, we have got off the track, we are in a very, very deep trouble. It began at early sixties, and now we are polarized, angry, frustrated society, split in a half around our conception of what it means to be an American. I was raised on the American dream, which is our glue. And that is a very simple dream. America is a tough country, but it is a land of opportunity. If you get a good education, you work hard, you can make a success out of your life. It’s a personal, individual dream. Even in 1960, when I was 15 years old in a high school, we were the most middle class, egalitarian society in the world. We were someone to look to for guides. Now we are flapped 45 years later, a dream is unravelled. There are still people here in Latvia and other places who have this myth of the America that was here 45 years ago. Today the United States makes 24th among the industrial countries in income disparity, a gap between the rich and millions of working and poor people. Only Mexico and Russia went lower. So today 51% Americans still believe in American dream, a third don’t believe in a dream at all. So, one of the things that I am saying is that we need to rethink the American dream, we need to salvage a part of it and understand some of it’s whole flash of 19century individualism that does not fit in a vulnerable global connective world. You can not have 6 billion cowboys in a world today, everyone pursuant of their own unfettered interest in the market. A little under a half of the Americans think that the American dream has good elements they want to preserve, but they also believe, they want a dream as more cosmopolitan. They would be attracted to what I have outlined as a European dream. They just don’t know that Europeans have this dream. The Europeans are not aware of their own dream. Till you lay it out. So I am trying to create a conversation in America about where we go. The European dream is in interest because I think it is a new standard for a global dream. And I hope it is something for us.
I am curious about the comparison of middle class values in the United States and in Europe, is there any significant difference?
Very significant. In some ways the European dream is a mirror opposite to the American dream. And middle class creates the dream. I think that in Baltic countries, and in Switzerland and UK, the dreams get somewhere in a middle of the American and European dream. You are somewhere in between which makes you a good bridge.
I used to believe that Europeans and Americans are pretty much alike in basic concepts, but it took me a long time to realize that I misread Europeans minds. When an American uses as a basic concept like ‘freedom’, which is a core of our dream, it means something completely different than in Europe. Our parents teach that freedom is autonomy and mobility, that’s why we love ‘automobiles’. We are taught to go along, swim or sink. Each person is on his own, be self-sufficient, be an island for your own. A European parent does not teach his child like that, even in recently liberated Baltic countries. You teach, that is what I know at least, that freedom is directly related to the quality of your life, quality of your relationships, the quality of your community, the quality of your culture.
The American dream, what is ironic about it, is a European transplant. But it did better in America than it did in Europe. Our founders came over 200 years ago, it was the last stage of the reformation and the early stages of the enlightenment, and what our founders did, they froze those ideas for two hundred years. If Martin Luther would to be to come back here today, he would feel much more comfortable in the Heartland of America, than in Europe. Even Adam Smith, the enlightenment economist, would feel much more comfortable in America than in Europe where there is a social economy model. Martin Luther said: “You stand alone with your Bible and God, no Vatican, no priesthood, no community here along”. Adam Smith turned around 2 thousand years of economics (remember, economics comes from oikos, a word form family, community), he says: “No, you stand alone and pursue yourself interest in a market”. This fit America like it never fit Europe, because we are all individuals that came alone. In Europe, you had an older tradition which tempered individualism. The Catholic church, for one – it was paternalistic, but communal, because everyone had an obligation in relation to each other. You had fortress cities, so they were all communes. So, that is how the world dreams diverge. American dream, personal accumulation of wealth. In Europe you spend less time on personal accumulation of wealth, but you do spent a lot of time on quality of life. The American dream focuses on growth, we hate the frontier. In Europe you put much emphasis on what you call sustainable development. You signed the Global Warming treatment and Biodiversity treatment, and use energy more efficient. Why? It has to do with density. We just make a new corn field and make it in a new city, and we have so much land. In Europe by the XVIII century you were so densely populated, you learn quickly that you have to be careful about the space. So, it is no accident to me that while ecology started in America, you did a long distant run. It’s basically an understanding that you are dependent on these larger systems and you cannot just go somewhere else.
The American dream focuses of the work ethics. We work the longest hours in the world. We work longer than Koreans that is impressive. When we hear a word ‘idle’ in America that congest up more relaxation, idle hands means a devil’s workshop. When the European hears the word ‘idle’, it’s not a bad thing, it’s a sit down at the café, have a bear, sit with friends and let good things happen.
American dream focuses on property rights and civil rights, because they extend our individuality. With property I am independent, no one tells me what to do, if I have a right to have a gun, if I have a speech in an Assembly, I am by my own. In Europe I hear a lot of discussions about social rights, like health care, retirement, maternity, and you spend a lot of time on universal human rights.
The American dream focuses on a religion, we are the most religious of the industrial countries, 93% of us have a Bible. Majority believe that the devil exists. Over half the country believes that there will be a final battle between the Christ and antichrist. 25% of the country believes that we are in the end times now, the antichrist is living on this planet now. So this is a serious business. In Europe you are less religious. You may be personally spiritual, you may have lot of cathedrals here, but there is not a lot of religious stuff going on in Europe.
The American dream is very patriotic, oh God, our kids would die for their country. Here, especially in the new countries, there is a lot of patriotism because you finally liberated yourself from all that pressure. But here the identities are in more layer, the young person might think, I am Polish or I am Latvian, but they also begin to think that I am some of European and sometimes I am just a person of the world.
Finally, the American dream is heavily involved with military. I feel angry when I hear my European friends calls us a military hegemony, because our young man and women in uniforms have been looking after your security interests more than 50 years. On the other hand, the Europeans do work a lot to build peace, that is your biggest legacy. You put out more money on economic assistance, on foreign aid. Now you need a military to be at least to maintain your own security interest.
So, here is our sum up of the European dream. First, no one should be completely abandoned to the wild open marketplace, a market is essential, but not sufficient. You have to have some social net, some solidarity, because there is a lot less fortunate people and you have to take care of each other. Two, multicultural diversity, at least to respect pluralism. Culture is a gift to share and not in a position to defend. Three, quality of life. Forth, sustainable development. Fifth, social rights and human rights. Six, balance work and clay. Seven, build free peace.
Now, as I have crossed Europe, I have seen that most people will not say that this is what we are. I am not naïve. Europe is living up in enemies, the bureaucracy, biases, the rich countries against the poor countries … We can go on endlessly about how messed up Europe is. So what? So is every other region, including the US. What is interesting to me, is dreams of what you would like to be. This is the first dream that I know of history, where collective part of a human race – 455 million people, even as thin as it is, have actually dreamed global consciousness. It may fail. It may be too ambitious, you may not make the lead, the Constitution crises says that you are getting scared, that this is too big for you, but you may succeed. But at least this is the first attempt.
If you compare these two dreams with both societies, which has more prospective for the future development? America or EU or maybe there will be next superpower?
The European dream is a better fit for Globalising world. Because in new condition what we all fell is vulnerability. Like that or not, the world is connecting. We are not ready, we don’t know each other stories, we don’t even like each other, and we are all connected. And in a world with 6 billion people the European dream is the better standard, because it is a global consciousness, creativity and sustainability, the quality of life, universal rights and peace.
On the other hand, there is an underbelly of the American sense of individuality which Europeans could learn from. When we were little kids, our parents teach us: never ever vain, or blame someone else or say someone else is responsible, you take all responsibility for your actions, your lie, you swim or sink! In Europe there is a sense in many Europeans: not my fault, someone else is responsible, someone else should make it happen, someone else is to blame. You can’t have a global dream, unless you can first take a personal accountability.
Also the American dream if very good on optimism, hope and risk taking. You cannot have a global dream, what European dream tends to be, without hope and optimism and risk taking, because you have to have the confidence and hope to get there and take the risk to sacrifice. Show me a Eurocinic, Europesimit or Eurosceptic, and they are all over the place, and I will show you someone that does not have a dream down there in their heart. So, if we could take an American sense of personal accountability, which is a strong part of individuality, our hope, optimism and risk taking, craft it on the European dream and learn from Europeans about the responsibility about their fellow human beings, and creativity, diversity and human rights, and sustainable development and peace, and than you would have a very strong synergy. And then the European dream could be the standard.
Now you asked about superpower. Europe is a great economic superpower, and Europe is a political union, with or without the Constitution, and has been since 1992. with Maastricht. 455 million people across 25 states have created the first transnational government experiment in history based on peace. That is why everyone knows where the EU is, because it is one of the most bizarre experiment in history. Your grand parents looked at all the rubble in 1945, this place was a rubble here like a sinner town, and they said: “We are done, we are sick to our stomach of two thousand years of this. Put down the sword, let’s try to figure out, at least among the elites, how to create a new way to govern each other based on trust and peace”. And in two generations you got an open continent with huge opportunity for young people, where you begin to reveal on each other cultures, dating across the cultures. There is no precedent. Now, the reason I say this. I am willing to admit that Americans have a superiority complex, but you have an inferiority complex. Ah, every conversation is about failures, failures. This did not work, that will not work. It has to do with how you feel about yourself as a power and how you take responsibility. For example, we think that America is a big economic superpower, Europe is a museum falling apart. Here is a reality. In 2003, 25 member states of your Union, your GDP exceeded the 53 states in my Union. The European Union is a largest exporting power in a world today, not the US, not China. The EU is the largest internal commercial market in the world. In EU there are 61 of a 104 of the largest companies in the world, but only 50 are in US. You lead banking, insurance system, air space, chemical industry, construction, engineering, food. Part of a problem is perceptual, we are still comparing Germany to the US, and France to US. So one of the changes that has to happen in the European mind is the geographical perception change. You have to compare Germany to California, not to the US. Germany is the largest state in your Union, California is the largest state in our Union. Germany trumps California. The UK trumps New York, the second state. Your third largest state France is more powerful than our third largest state – Texas. Italy is more powerful than Florida. So if you go state by state in your Union and compare it to our Union, you begin to see the magnitude of this.
This is when people don’t know what that Constitution is about. Everyone who voted “No” for domestic politics, they just were pissed of’, because things aren’t going well. You understand what you are saying “No” to? Is your children’s future better served, if you go back into your little French container, your little Latvian container, your little British container? Or your children are better served if all Europe becomes a peaceful plain field for opportunities? And if any parent can answer that it’s the former, than God help their children, because they will go back to the battles of xenophobic days of 1930ties.
What I want to say to every Latvian, there is no positive correlation between giving up your social benefits, sense of solidarity with people and a positive growth economy. It’s only negative correlation. You build negative GDP if you give up your sense of distribution of the fruits with social programs. You get more crime, poverty. European kids in 18 countries outperform our kids in math performance, why? You have not totally abandoned the public education. We can go on and on. If you go to the American model, what do you get? What the neo-conservatives don’t tell you when they come over here to Latvia, the economists, is that the American growth in last 15 years has to do with consumer debt. The average family savings rate in 1990 in my country was 8%, today it is almost zero. Millions of Americans are spending more than they make. More people in my country this year will fall bankrupt, or divorce, get a heart attack, get cancer, graduate college. Is this the model you want to follow? Did we create jobs? Every Latvian should know, we have more jobs lost than gained since 2000, when last time it happened, was 1929. And the proof, whether I am right or wrong, is the currency. Why is the dollar devaluated? The investors say, we don’t trust you, we have too much consumer debt, government debt and trade deficit.
Today dollar becomes stronger.
That is because the crisis of Constitution.
Is it temporary?
Yes, I think, I don’t know. It depends on if Europe looses it’s will and becomes fearful of making a lead, or whether they can make a lead. One of the reasons I wrote this book for Europeans, I saw this coming. Not the Constitutional crisis. But I knew, Europe is about at the point, 50 years into this project, the Union and the dream that goes with it, has to make an actual ownership of it’s dream, and lead to the next stage. Like American and French revolutionaries finally did two hundred years ago. It was a big lead to the risk. And I knew there would be the commitment phobia, and that is exactly what is happening. It’s like a relationship, when you get closer to somebody, and at the critical point, when you have to take a lead in the marriage, wow, I don’t think so, this is not good. This is what is happening for Europe. I wrote the book to say, have hard on your dream, understand that the world is looking on Europe. And if you like it or not, people are hoping that you don’t let the world down. So, don’t be week.
I think it’s disgraceful the way that Constitution was used in France for personal political agendas. My 93 years old mom red my book, she had only one comment: “This European constitution, I don’t get it. This chart of fundamental rights, I don’t get it. There are rights that I have never heard about”. Do you understand, for American to say that there are rights she has never heard of, never thought of, and they are interesting rights!? She thought everything ever been given is a right what Americans have. So, when I read that Constitution, it’s a principles of how to build in a little bit more efficiency for 25 countries. There has been some liberalisation of market since Maastricht that is part of a plan. But if you read the Constitution, it’s all about the social solidarity, sustainable development and a quality of life. So what I am saying to Europeans, it is not frustrating, but: “Grow up!” You don’t realize how important is what you have done for yourself and for the world. So, what I think is going on in Europe, this is not so much about the Constitution, this is about your economic model. Do you want to be in American model or you want to have a continental social economy and Scandinavian model. The American model is full of disparity, a lot of poverty, deterioration. What you have is an alternative. You have a golden goose, you have food to feed it. You have the family savings across the EU of 8%, that’s in average. So you have got savings to invest in Europe. Two, your relationship between your deficit and GDP is only 3%, it’s 4% in our country. So, you have more investment possibilities. What is the goose you want to feed? It is called the integration of the infrastructure of the biggest market in the world, from the Irish see to Russia. So, politically they went to Lisbon in year 2000, saying I want to be the most competitive economy by 2010. Then they came back and they used Europe as a whipping boy for everything going wrong in domestic politics. Shame for them. We need Churchills and Monnets and Adenauers, we don’t have them now. People should be tough saying: “Look, we have to integrate the infrastructure of Europe quickly for our children. We need the transportation across the continent. We need a power grid, an energy grid, and communication grid that integrate. We need a single set of equitable policies on commerce and trade, capital, labour flows in 10 years. We need English as lingua franca for business only.” You have got to maintain your language for your social life or you loose the cultural diversity. Integrate the infrastructure of Europe, so you can engage in commerce and trade with the same ease in you 25 states as we do across our fifty states. If you don’t do that, and you play with local political opportunities, you will deny your children and people around the world for better opportunities.”
I would like to ask, are you a citizen of America?
And, are you a patriot?
I have been an activist for 40 years fighting for my country. But not in an old traditional sense of American flag. I remember America when it was in a middle class, egalitarian, with a very strong civil society, we had a good balance. The reason America worked for two hundred years is we allow the individual to pursue a self interest, but we created a strong civil society, voluntary associations to temper. What happened in the beginning of 1960ties, we have lost the civil society, so now you just have an individual self – interest. That is a prescription for a disaster for a society. So, if you ask me if I am a patriot, I rather say I have been fighting in my culture to preserve the best of the American spirit, and to have a conversation of what we have to do to get back on track. But my conversation there is the same what we have all over the world. So yes, people ask me, why don’t you just live in Europe, but I am American! But I am also a citizen of the world. And we now have to think globally and act locally. We have to do what we can at home, but we have to believe that the kind of principles are equally valid in Latvia and China. We want to maintain the cultural diversity, but we need to have the common glue. And I think that European dream is a global consciousness.
Isn’t it one of the real utopian projects?
It’s a dream of what human beings misadventure here, and the reason of the globalisation’s fail, is that there is a misconceptions that we are first material beings, that everyone cares about their material self interest, and that is a single synchronism of the human consciousness behaviour. What I am saying, that is wrong. If Latvians think that every person’s primary essential existence is to be a material being, they are in a very good line with the enlightenment tradition, but dead wrong with the history. People are not first material. For mammals, especially primates, first interest is to reach out and create affection with the other. The culture always precedes commerce. First, people create a language, because that is the way how to show the affection. I reach out and I try to communicate, so I can create a bond with the others. Than with language we create a story about ourselves and create social capital. Than we set up commerce, trade and governments – they are secondary institutions, extensions of the culture.
So, what I am saying here is this, there is a debate going around here in Latvia and around the Europe, deeper than the Constitution – do we have an American market or a social economy like here? What I am saying is they should not be in odd. It’s not that you want capitalism or socialism. They both go together, it’s not one or another. Capitalism and democratic socialism at the Scandinavian model, have to be seen as checks and balances that exists within a tense relationships with each other. Why? It is important to know what capitalism does well at and what it does not do well at. Capitalism does well at innovation, stimulating self-interest. It doesn’t do well at distributing the fruits. Invisible hand does not exist. If you let the marketplace go unfettered you end up in a winner take all society, that is what’s happening in America and UK right now. Greater disparity of income, more poverty, more crime. Now, what I would say, is what Latvians have to have is a discussion of how you can create a tense counter power balance between a western capitalism and western democratic socialism. I say this to your economics minister – stimulate the market, because that is innovations and self-interest. But make sure that you have a strong civil society organizations, make sure you have trade unions, make sure you have strong political parties, that can act as to make sure that fruits are more equitably distributed, so there is a social net, called democratic socialism, Scandinavians have been good on this, so you have a balance. Why the balance? If you just let market by it self, individual self interest goes to greed, narcissism, and fragmentation and you loose your society. If you just have socialism, like the communism model by it-self, you loose individual responsibility, accountability and self-interest you end up with paternalism, where everyone is dependent upon the state and you loos the sense of yourself. Each is the balance of the other. We want the individualism, but we also want social solidarity.
May I ask you about this sense of solidarity. Latvian society is really diverse, meaning Russian speaking community and Latvian community living together, and there are completely diverse socially shared values between those two communities. How to develop solidarity between them?
Well, the Russian people never had an opportunity to build a strong civil society. From the time of Bolsheviks, there were never any moments to build their strong civil society. On the other hand, you have a strong tradition in Russia in arts, philosophy, in literature that allows you to have some form of a cultural sense of diversity that can resist kind of recitation of power.
Now, if you really believe that the diversity is the model of Europe, there is a long way from theory to practice here. Because many Europeans are worried about Muslims. They don’t want Turkey in the EU, because Muslims will overrun Europe and they don’t respect pluralism, and they won’t respect cultures, and there will be crime on the streets, and they will kill the welfare system, but worse, it will result in vastest political movements emerging all over the Europe, and we will be back in 1932.
What I say to Europeans, whether you engage here in Latvia between Latvian and Russian population, or you engage with Muslims in other places, what we need to do is what John Kennedy did when he became a president. He created a Peace Corps. This was a voluntary service in America. I was one of the early members there in 1968. He said we will going to challenge our young people at the college, to serve their fellow human beings. Train you in NGO, go around the world and around the America and embrace your fellow human being. How about a Peace Corps for Europe? How about a welcome corps? Say it to Erasmus college students, we will give you a little steep after college of alternative service, train you in a NGO, send you to the front doors in Latvia, Estonia, France, Germany, UK and embrace the young immigrants. With job skills, language help, housing placement, sheared music and culture, because it’s not going to be easy. That the young kids in Europe, the college kid, the middle class, they are not xenophobic yet, they are multicultural, they are travelling around the Europe. Let them get out and embrace, because you get what you expect. Europeans just wring their hands saying that we cannot get along with these people … It’s up to those in the middle class. It’s not enough for the young people to be on the streets and say: “ No global”. It’s easy to go to demonstration, it’s tough to be out there in a community working like in a Peace corps situation or an NGO to integrate each other together. It’s a long term commitment.
Do you believe in progress?
I think that there is an alternative history to human race. It’s an empathy. Empathy is the most complicated and sophisticated of capabilities, because it supersedes consciousness based just on fate or reason, but incorporates the best of both. To be empathetic one has to trust that there is some higher end which we all are connected. And one has to use reason along with other feelings for the other in order to execute an arrangement of solidarity. Empathy to me is the way we reach out and recognize the other. We have long believed that identity is separating myself from the other, but the most advanced sense of the self is the ability to surrender a part of myself so that I can actually find a common ground with the other and experience some empathy. And that is what universal rights are all about. They codify empathy, I recognize women, minorities, I recognize my fellow creatures.
I was struggling with the idea of what is the glue for Europe. If this is a Diaspora and everybody is out there and doing their own things, so where is the glue? And I went back and looked at two previous periods of history of Europe. If you go back to medieval Europe, the universal condition was – all are sinners, the dream – salvation and Christ and the next world, the glue – faith. The Enlightment broke that whole structure, universal condition – all are materialists, the dream is progress, the glue is reason, rational behaviour which end up in positivism. How is it structured – property rights in nation states.
Now Europeans are the first collective group in a humane race to struggle into a global consciousness, and you are scared to death of the new universal condition that you feel. It’s vulnerability. We are all vulnerable, because like it or not, we are independent of each other even if we don’t like each other, we have to figure out how to do this together. The dream is global consciousness that is the European dream. What is the glue? It used to be faith and reason, now it’s empathy which embraces two other units in a higher form. It’s not a priority obligation like in a Christian medieval Europe, it’s not property rights as in modern Europe. It’s universal human rights – recognize the other. That is a top challenge, I am not sure that younger generations are up for it, I just do not know. All I know is that you are the first to do it. But it may be Asia who are looking to create a union now, and looking to Europe, democratic countries in South America are looking to European model, the African states are looking to the EU. Financial Times says that we need the European model for the Middle East. They don’t call for the American dream, they want European dream. So what I am saying to my European friends is, you take a responsibility now. We took it for 200 years and we kept tough on the American dream. And now there is a little bit of trouble as I see this softness in Europe, where there should be engagement of the younger generation, saying that the world is looking to us and we really believe into what we are saying, not that we have nothing more to contribute and the world does not have to look on the Europe. It would be a shame, because I think that Europe do has something to contribute. Let’s see what will happen next year, after we settle out this Constitution question. Maybe it’s good, because you got everybody talking about EU politics. The French, the Dutch, they voted wrong, but now they are engaged, now it’s a people sport. I think that this Constitution should go through the all 25 states. Let them all figure out, for or against, than let’s settle it down and have European discussion.