Ennui and effete European society

11 May

Due to problems with getting my Chinese visa, I spent over three weeks in the Czech Republic around Easters. Coming back home after three months in Latin America and having stayed in India right before that, it was a bit of shock. While living in a relative luxury and having access to all amenities they need, the people were still grumpy, complaining about their lives. I wished I could send them all to live in an Indian city or a Colombian countryside for a while to see how happy people can be with the little they have. But is it really that simple?


I was lucky to be in India during Diwali (the festival of lights, something like our Christmas) last October and even more lucky to have been invited to a party along with one of my Indian friends from Warwick. In between firing crackers and drinking lots of whiskey I had great conversations with other people there, in particular with a son of one Indian MP. Having studied politics in London, he was very knowledgeable about functioning of European states and quick to compare them with India. His two favourite words to describe Europe were ennui (a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest) and effete (lacking in wholesome vigor; degenerate; decadent – both definitions from dictionary.com); I could not agree more with him.


The European society has made an enormous progress in increasing its living standards over the last 100 or so years, far beyond how have people ever lived before or how they live in other parts of the world. Free health care for everybody, maternity benefits and guaranteed pensions are a norm as is free or heavily subsidised education, unemployment benefits, housing benefits, agricultural production benefits and the list goes on.  Yet there are two crucial problems with this system. Firstly, it makes people lazy and secondly it creates an impression that this ever increasing trajectory can be sustained forever.


My flight to from Colombia to Spain a month ago was delayed because of a Spanish general strike against a new austere budget giving me an excuse to stay in Madrid overnight before catching another plane home. One of the first things that struck me when I landed was that apart from the odd immigrant, there were no people selling stuff on the streets, a common sight in Colombia where it was no problem to get chewing gums, cigarettes etc. anywhere and at any hour of a day from omnipresent vendors with small carts or simple paper boxes. In Spain, as in other countries of Europe, people can afford not to work and have all their basic needs catered for. The millions of street sellers and crafts men in India or Colombia do not run their businesses because they love entrepreneurship so much, but because if they want to feed their families and have somewhere to live, they simply have to. People in the developing world work much harder and face more serious problems than people in Europe with their 35-hour work week early pensions and social safety net but they still enjoy their life more.


The second problem is reconciling this lazy nature with an illusion that living standards have to increase every year, leading to sovereign debt crisis we are seeing in Europe right now. With the adoption of Euro, countries for the first time in decades had to start functioning like companies. If you borrow monies, you have to pay them back or default – you can no longer press the print button and supply more funds to the market. This is a shock mainly for the Mediterranean countries whose living standards are higher than they should be given their labour habits and policies, competition laws, education level or technological development. People will have to learn to accept that their comfort of living cannot be automatically increasing every year and that on contrary, it is perhaps a time for readjustment of living standards downwards to where they really should be.


This will be a bitter pill to digest for many in the West. When it comes to life satisfaction, people in developing countries have an advantage of living in an opposite form of ignorance. Unlike Europeans, who think that they can always get more and more, they are often unaware of what all they can achieve. Even the poorest people have TVs at home now and they see in them lifestyle very different to their own. But because they do not believe they can ever attain such standard of living they do not fall in depression and disillusion with their current state. In the absence of a critical amount of role models from their communities who have achieved such things, they accept they will never get there and find happiness in their daily lives.


One man in a Colombian countryside where I was staying for a weekend said that his biggest dream is to see an ocean at least once in his life. If he took a chiva (a local bus) to the nearest town, he was only six hour bus ride away from the ocean. Even though he could afford the ticket, he will probably never go there. Nobody from his village ever went there and he is not able to pluck up the courage, make the decision, and venture out into the unknown land beyond his village or a town. But this man did not live a sad life, worried that he has not seen the ocean yet, he was a happy man finding joys in and around his village.


Colombian people in general are a very happy lot. Despite having lived in a country torn by a bloody narco-war for decades, they think that Colombia is the best country in the world (and they are very close to being correct!). When I was in the city of Medellin, my local friends were telling me that Ron de Medellin is the best rum. After I moved to Manizales in the Caldas region, my friends there would argue to death that Ron de Caldas is best rum in the world. Whatever they had, it was the best for them! Can you imagine living in a country where all people have such an attitude?


On balance, I am not trying to argue in this blog post that people should start living in ignorance and be satisfied only with what they have at the moment; far from that. But they should learn to appreciate what they have now while setting up their society in a way that would motivate them to be in charge of their own lives and if they want to, to allow them to have better living conditions along with rise in their productivity.

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