In Other Words

A Hollow Mandate

Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (Essay on Lucidity)
By José Saramago
330 pages, Lisbon: Editorial Caminho, 2004 (in Portuguese)

Suppose they gave a democracy and nobody came? Not an unreasonable question, given the dismal voter turnout in the recent elections for the European Parliament. It's a conundrum well suited to Portuguese writer José Saramago, who has made a career skewering the pretensions of Western politics. Saramago, the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in literature, is a self-described "libertarian communist." Yet, he has always defied the expectations created by that label. None of his novels is about simplistic class struggle, much less a romanticized working class at the vanguard of history. Rather, his writings lament the imperfections of democracy, expose its perversions, and warn against the dangers that threaten its survival.

Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (Essay on Lucidity) is not Saramago's first political novel. During a career that flourished in the last 20 years, Saramago has authored more than 30 works of prose and poetry, including Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (An Essay on Blindness), A Caverna (The Cavern), and Todos os Nomes (All the Names). But Essay on Lucidity contains his most overt political message to date: that civic indifference is threatening democracy. The book begins with municipal elections in an unnamed city in a generic Western nation. "A bad time to vote," the author notes in an ambiguous tone that is sustained throughout. We don't know whether he's referring to the inclement weather or something deeper. The big surprise is the election's outcome: Eighty-seven percent of the ballots are left blank, with the rest divided evenly among the dominant political parties of the right, center, and left. Instead of searching for an explanation, outraged government officials and party leaders (especially those of the right and the center) immediately set about finding the culprits for this challenge to the legitimacy of the system.

In Portugal, Essay on Lucidity's release was controversial. It was attacked by the political elite, welcomed by literary critics, and snatched up by the reading public. This response surprised no one, including Saramago, who is accustomed to controversy. His 1991 book O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ) alienated him from the Portuguese establishment and effectively led him into a self-imposed exile on Lanzarote, the northernmost of Spain's Canary Islands. Manuel Veiga, a looming figure in Portugal's ruling Social Democratic Party, condemned Essay on Lucidity, calling it an "open door to bitterness." So did former Prime Minister Maria Pintasilgo. Mario Soares, ex-president and a patriarch of Portugal's democratic awakening in the 1980s, was more appreciative, calling the book "a wake-up call on the crisis of democracy."

It's no wonder the book jolted the Portuguese: After years of political and cultural isolation under a military dictatorship, of being Europe's social and economic backwater, they craved international recognition. But, far from celebrating his country's entry into the modern era, the Nobel prize-winning author bashes it and the much lauded integration process, lamenting that the traditional agrarian, Catholic, vaguely melancholic Portugal of old has lost its soul.

This tension is the hallmark of the book. Saramago offers no names, places, or other labels that might help readers peg his allegory to a specific nation. The lack of specificity makes it easy to see parallels between the novel and the reality of modern democracies afflicted by a new brand of political polarization -- not between those who vote and those who don't (what American author Gore Vidal labeled the true U.S. "bipartisanship"), but rather between those who vote for candidates or parties and those who cast blank ballots. Readers are left to believe that blank ballots are a vacuous form of protest, charged with ominous meaning. The recent European Union referendums, marked by widespread disaffection and indifference, lend an urgency and familiarity to Saramago's scenario that resonate with many readers.

Neither Saramago nor any of his characters ever explain the motives behind the blank ballots. Are they the result of general apathy, a feeling of emptiness, a quiet revolt against all politicians and politics in general? Amid the ensuing crisis in the wake of the election -- mass resignations, scheming, plotting, and a desperate search for a scapegoat -- the president of Saramago's hypothetical republic pompously denounces what he terms "a torpedo fired under the water line against the majestic ship of democracy."

Through its satirical distortions, the novel portrays democracy as shallow and soulless, a system in which deception and manipulation assure the perpetual incumbency of the powerful. A somber vision, no doubt, but not an entirely pessimistic one. Saramago seems convinced that, even in democracies, decent individuals and virtuous morals will somehow prevail, often when they're least expected. Following the wave of blank votes, the powers-that-be leave town to plot from the outskirts how best to punish and terrorize the population. They ultimately blame the debacle on an anarchist conspiracy, led by a doctor's wife. A curious relationship of mutual respect and admiration develops between her and the comisario (commissioner) dispatched to arrest her. Refusing to obey orders, he denounces the conspiracy to a tightly controlled press. They both end up being killed by paramilitary commandos, but emerge nevertheless as living symbols of moral strength precisely where one least expects it, as the type of people who "remain standing in defeat."

The target of the novel's deeper satire is the weakness of a democratic majority when confronted by a powerful minority upon whom the decision-making process relies. Saramago also criticizes democracy's capacity to manipulate the media and the "perverse privatization of the public domain" that ultimately immobilizes the individual. These dangers are at the heart of the protagonist's frequently repeated question, "Who has signed this for me?" In other words, what forces are determining the social compact by which I live?

Essay on Lucidity is a book in which citizens lose their ability to influence leaders and conduct politics. Saramago raises the specter of societies where people finally rebel by refusing to play the game, and by undermining the fundamental precepts of democracy. Is this a scenario that Saramago would like to encourage? Probably not. But it is a deeply unsettling possibility, particularly as conceived by a rich and original mind, a writer whose communism serves more as a provocation than as an ordered vision of history. In the end, Saramago does not propose an alternative to democracy, or any corrective measures for its dilapidated state. But his story demonstrates that civic participation can still be synonymous with lucidity -- and therein lies the force and efficacy of this literary call to political action.

In Other Words

The Thrills of Misery

Das Methusalem-Komplott (The Methuselah Conspiracy)
By Frank Schirrmacher
220 pages, Munich: Karl Blessing Verlag, 2004 (in German)

Germany, it must be said, no longer exists. Nor does France, Spain, Italy, or even Britain. After 50 years of Europeanization, of interfusing and intertwining, no corner of Europe is untouched by Brussels, and no return to the nation-state is possible. And yet, the most common lens through which Europeans are viewed -- even by themselves -- remains the national one, much to the detriment of the identity that Europeans will need to forge to live up to the political and economic realities of integration.

Germany has no more truly national borders, and 1 in 6 German marriages is now binational. Germany’s national currency is no more. The bulk of its laws are of European origin, devised in Brussels, and signed by the German parliament. In the old days, an economically strong Germany gave its neighbors the jitters. Now a sluggish Germany seems to cause the same angst. After all, Germany is the motor of European political and economic integration. It is hard to gauge whether Germany watchers or German citizens are more confused about the metamorphosis of Europe's historically most worrisome nation-state into a pacifist, internationalist, but also rapidly diminishing and financially struggling, core member of Europe's whole.

Viewed from the inside, this new European Germany is painfully awakening from its all too brief dream of boundless prosperity. A number of German authors recently sounded the alarm through an emerging genre of so-called “reform books,” all of which alert Germans to their own misery. Gabor Steingart's Deutschland -- Der Abstieg eines Superstars (Germany: The Fall of a Superstar) calls on German policymakers to dismantle the welfare state and thereby rescue Europe's most reliable economic machine. Steingart argues that after the shock of World War II, the founders of democratic Germany were so determined to prevent backsliding that they built an elaborate welfare state that is now almost impossible to reform. In Generation Reform, Paul Nolte offers a rather lukewarm assessment of the possibilities for change.

Topping the list, however, is Das Methusalem-Komplott (The Methuselah Conspiracy) by Frank Schirrmacher, publisher of the venerable conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Despite its gloomy message that Germany's population faces catastrophic aging and eventual social collapse, the book has sold nearly half a million copies since its publication in late March. Excerpts in Germany's mass tabloid, Bild Zeitung, and thundering reviews in the more serious press aided the book's success.

Writing that "humanity is aging at an unprecedented scale" and that "[the Germans] need to solve the problem of our obsolescence on our own in order to solve the world's problem," Schirrmacher warns of a looming generational war. He writes that at its height, this conflict will ultimately merge with a war between cultures. The combination of generational and cultural clashes makes Schirrmacher sound like a German Samuel Huntington, with a demographic twist: He warns of a "massive wave of youth from Muslim countries. In our lifetime, we will not find a way out of the terrorist clash of cultures." There is no such thing as a political exit. Worse, "in a couple of years, Germany will experience its aging crisis as a shock of a scale only matched by World War II, the defining German trauma…. Questions of euthanasia, but also of guilt-driven suicide and the very cost of life and death will preoccupy whole continents," predicts Schirrmacher. Although The Methuselah Conspiracy's dire prophecies cater to typical German angst, Schirrmacher favors relaxed language, personally addressing his readers as he stokes their fears of the coming tyranny of the old by the young and the young by the old.

German youth groups, pensioner circles, and TV shows have fallen hard for Schirrmacher's predictions of generational mayhem. Is it the therapeutic notion of a familiar generational prejudice that makes this tract such a successful thriller -- one that taps both a lust for and fear of the inevitable? In an ever more globalized Germany, the coming standoff between generations resonates as a well-defined, highly personal, and fundamentally tangible conflict. Indeed, by offering a biological, post-Marxist scheme of class warfare, it provides an immaculate and all-encompassing explanation for Germany's decline.

Germany's woes go far beyond anemic gross domestic product (GDP) growth. The balance has been lost between those who create wealth and those who profit from welfare. Jobs have just vanished. The average number of hours worked per person in Germany has decreased by one fourth since 1970, while the number of unemployed citizens soared by more than 3000 percent in the same period, and the number of welfare recipients climbed by 450 percent. Additionally, Germans' life expectancy has doubled in a mere century while birthrates have trailed. The share of the population older than 60 is predicted to increase from 24 percent in 2001 to 37 percent in 2050. Beyond such statistics is an underlying subjective reality: Germans who used to equate democracy with prosperity (the postwar "economic miracle") must now acknowledge that though democracy may liberate, it does not necessarily create wealth. This painful truth is most apparent in post-communist countries. It is now also challenging Germany.

Germany's problems have not gone unnoticed in Brussels, for an aging and struggling Germany could end the whole European economic dream overnight. Germany accounts for about 22 percent of the 25-country European Union (EU)'s GDP. And yet, Germany has paid for much of the show so far. Between 1996 and 2001, it contributed nearly 27 percent of the EU's budget. Will a shrinking Germany be willing and able to wire extra tax money to Brussels, especially now that it has run a higher budget deficit than the EU allows for three consecutive years? How can other European countries with similar problems and even less economic clout bail out Germany? And how can the euro survive if fiscal straitjackets make it impossible for governments to overdraw to pay the pensions they still owe? Two years ago, European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein tried to restrain euphoria about the euro, warning that "the euro's real test will only come when the baby boomers want their pensions."

The Methuselah Conspiracy taps into Europe's paralysis in the face of two clashing imperatives. How can Europe reconcile the populist rhetoric of exclusion with the necessity for inclusion? How can the continent reconcile terrorism-related security arrangements aimed at Muslim societies on its southern and southeastern edges with the need to curb Europeans' hostility toward migrant workers? Elections in Europe are won on protectionist, nationalist platforms, and even center-left governments feel compelled to advocate right-wing populist themes.

Schirrmacher's views appeal to a growing number of politically conservative euroskeptics in two important respects. First, he is unwilling to recognize that immigration is a feasible -- though challenging -- political solution to the demographic problems facing the European continent. After all, Europe does have access to a pool of young workers striving for a higher standard of living. They just happen to live in countries surrounding the EU, with birthrates double the European average and Islam as the dominant religion.

Second, Schirrmacher, like Steingart and Nolte, dramatizes aging as a predominantly domestic problem, searching for particularly German answers, when really, an aging Germany is a European problem. Europe has one pancontinental dilemma: an aging, dysfunctional pension system, whose reform is opposed by influential interest groups. If tackled only nationally and incrementally, the problem may soon bring the whole European project to its knees. The prerequisite for its salvation is a realistic self-understanding on the part of Europe's former nation-state societies, beginning with Germany; a self-understanding that embraces, rather than fears, cultural diversity.