Eurodämmerung

Euro Consumed by the FlamesIt is a time of waiting. If the G8 and NATO summits over the weekend proved anything, it’s that politics have gone into a deep freeze. At the G8 meeting, the Americans and French wanted to emphasise growth over austerity, the Germans and British, rhetoric aside, feel the opposite: this debate is nothing new. The NATO members’ message was “steady as she goes, and withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 regardless of what the conditions on the ground may be”: again, nothing to see here, carry on. The emissaries and ambassadors still filter in and out of the chancelleries of Europe, America and Asia; messages are passed back and forth, press conferences are held, platitudes expressed. There is a pretence of normality, but perhaps fear lurks in the heart of all involved: it could be that the principal players in this drama are adhering to the mantra, “fake it to make it”, namely if they put up a brave front of normality, then everything will be normal. In this case, I don’t believe it will work.

This isn’t like 4 years ago, when Lehman Brothers crashed in the blinking of an eye; we can see what trouble lay ahead. The destruction of the current Euro system merely waits for the Greek people to return to the polls, and to tick the box for the radical left Syriza group or the Communists or worst of all, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Alternatively, they may opt for continued stalemate, which in this case, is also a decision of sorts. Few in leadership positions want to talk about this; because once it happens, then the final chapter can begin.

Were this an opera, the music would rise at this point into an overture. I cannot help but think of Wagner’s works, and in particular, the last of the Ring Cycle, “Götterdämmerung”, which translates as “The Twilight of the Gods”. I look at the stock market numbers rising and falling, momentary optimism dissolving into the acids of uncertainty, and in my mind I hear the echoes of Siegfried’s Funeral March. Cameron issues impuissant statements telling the Eurozone “make up or break up” and my imagination drowns his words in the deep roar of brass instruments. From the music, one gets a sense of loss and passing, yet there are also portions that indicate an ending which flares out in a blaze of glory: for death is also a form of renewal, and there may be something which arises from the ashes of today.

Furtwangler: Siegfried's Funeral March

But listen more closely. Are the triumphal passages merely an indication of a great door being shut? I read about Athens, its closed shops, its smashed windows, the angry graffiti indicting and cursing the entire political class, unemployment galloping off with a lost generation bound and gagged across its saddle, a nation’s hopes routed. Rage boils on the streets and some of the worst political ideas are in the process of being recycled. Greece had thought it had slipped through the golden door marked “Europe” to a prosperous future, now it is being brutally shoved out. The pretence of modernity and progress has shattered; now what lay left is derelict, burned out, perhaps soon to be abandoned to its fate. Geographically, Greece is eroding, it is being swallowed up the sea; its supposed friends and neighbours seem content to let it sink. One gets the sense from Angela Merkel’s weary visage that she would be delighted if she didn’t have to think about Greece any longer. Let it pass, let it dissolve, let it just go away.

Go back to Götterdämmerung; prior to Siegfried’s death, the Rhinemaidens plead with him to give up the Ring of the Niebelungen, lest he die. He laughs and refuses. There were so many warnings of impending disaster; the European Central Bank could have bought Greek sovereign debt through Quantitative Easing, Eurobonds could have been issued. Both of these moves could have restored some measure of confidence and perhaps helped smooth Greece’s way through this crisis. The Germans seem to believe the thread of destiny is as tight and strong as that woven by the Norns of Wagner’s imagination: it is not mutable. They refused to give Greece the necessary slack, fearful they would unleash the demons of inflation; they may have fashioned destiny’s thread into a noose.

All that those of us who are bit players in this scene can do now is wait; we wait by the television set, tuned to BBC News or France 24 or CNN. We wait for the morning paper, which tries to distract us with ephemera about the procession of the Olympic torch through the West Country. We pass the time by trying to ignore the future and focussing on the present: there is the tragic death of Robin Gibb, the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku is next weekend, and Cameron wants to offer parenting classes which is an odd idea coming from someone who was probably at least in part raised by a nanny. All of it seems preposterous and silly given the present peril; the best we can hope for is that if Greece does leave the Euro is that somehow containment procedures will be put in place for the remaining members. However the Commission is unclear about what precisely it would do; last week, Channel 4 News interviewed Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner tasked with managing this crisis. His answers to direct questions were as opaque as the steam rising within the saunas of his native Finland. This is inadequate. It was Siegfried’s funeral pyre that presaged the firmament being set ablaze: one bank collapsing in 2008 caused the entire financial system to have the monetary equivalent of a coronary seizure. What happens if a country fails? What occurs when the forces of law and order of that country can no longer be paid? What takes its place, anarchy? Looting? The military? Revolution? How can stability and confidence recover in such a situation? Is it even possible? How would we confine the trouble to just inside Greece? Will the last flights out of Athens ferry refugees to Paris, Berlin and London? What’s the plan? We don’t know, Olli Rehn won’t tell us; he may not know either.

At the end of the opera preceding Götterdämmerung (“Siegfried”), Wotan, the chief of the Gods, says that he doesn’t fear the end of the Gods, indeed, he desires it. The emissaries and ambassadors and businessmen and traders are perhaps blowing on the embers of a dying paradigm: one which simply cannot carry on as normal. Something that cannot go on, tends not to do so. The hour of reckoning is about to strike; the lack of vision, planning, empathy and generosity has progeny which are about to be born. The rope of destiny may be about to snap. For the moment, however, we simply wait.

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