Jeremy Rifkin: Czechs can help build the new 'European Dream'

Jeremy Rifkin

Jeremy Rifkin is one of the most controversial American academics. The economist, philosopher, university professor and writer has published 17 books on the impact of scientific and technological changes on the economy, and has also been an advisor to many European politicians, including the former EU Commission president, Romano Prodi. David Vaughan caught up with him when he came to Prague towards the end of last year to plug the Czech edition of his newest book The European Dream - how Europe's vision of the future is quietly eclipsing the American Dream.

"Especially here in the Czech Republic there has been a lot of attention focused on America, and wanting the American dream and the American way of life and the American economic system. What I am here to say is, 'Be careful what you ask for.' That dream was robust until the 1960s. We were the most egalitarian society in the world. What Czech people need to understand is that our dream has unravelled over the last 40 years. The US now ranks 24th among industrial countries in income disparity - the gap between the very rich and poor. Only Mexico and Russia rank lower. When you saw those pictures of the poor black people in New Orleans in their shanties - that's not just New Orleans, it's one out of every four Americans.

"Here in Europe a new dream is emerging. It's still weak, but it's the complete opposite of our dream. And nowhere, I think, does it have more potential than here in the Czech Republic. If our dream in America is the individual's ability to make money, in Europe the dream is good quality of life, which is a community exercise. I think that the dream of the younger generation of Europeans is this: a belief in 'inclusivity'- no one should be totally abandoned by society, a belief in multicultural diversity, a belief in a sustainable environment - the earth counts and we have to protect the environment, a belief in social and human rights, a belief in balancing work and play, and a belief in peace. But I think the reason I'm so interested in Czech society is that the Czech young people seem to be a bridge between the American dream and the European dream. On the one hand, after years of victimization at the hands of outside forces, now the young Czech people say 'We want individual opportunity, I want to be able to get ahead.' On the other hand you have a deeper tradition here in the Czech Republic of communal solidarity."

Politically Europe is very divided, it's very fragmented. If you look from a Czech perspective - for example - at the years just after the fall of communism, it was the United States that took the lead in trying to draw this country back into the family of western nations, while Europe was still confused - there was a lot of navel-contemplating - and this seems to be continuing at the moment. You can understand why the Czech President Mr Klaus is rather sceptical about the integration of Europe, can't you?

"You know, everyone's confused about Europe. I've spent time with heads of state, I've spent time in Brussels, and nobody really knows what the EU is. Why? It's bizarre... It's a work in process. Every other empire and kingdom and nation in history has been born in violence, in coercion, in revolution, seizing people and territories - even the great democratic revolutions. The EU is counter to it. It's based on the defeated in World War II coming together and saying, 'Never again.' Two thousand years of bloodshed, two world wars and a Holocaust and your parents' generation said, 'We're going to put down the sword and try to create a new way of governing based on reciprocity and peace. Now it's justifiable if people are confused and a bit frustrated, but this is the next great political experiment in the human journey, and it ought to be supported."

Obviously, Czech historical experience plays quite a strong role in the, I suppose above-average degree of euro-scepticism in this country. I think there is a strong sense of being let down by big powers, by real national political interests and not wanting that to happen again. I think there is a very strong degree of euro-scepticism that that kind of bureaucratic democracy, committee decision-making can really stand up to those in the world who are trying in whatever ways - politically or economically - to dominate.

Photo: European Commission
"It's quite understandable. If I were Czech, I would feel the same way. Now, on the other hand, the opportunity now for the Czech Republic to be part of a larger space and to thrive and prosper is great. What I would ask every Czech citizen is this: 'Do you think the future prosperity of your children and grandchildren rests on going back into the little national state container, a nineteenth century idea, or integrating out and becoming seamless with an entire European continent, with the European Union?

"Let's take a look at key industries. They are huge here. You lead in the banking industry, insurance, aerospace (with airbus), construction, chemical engineering, and in food wholesale and retail. Yes, you have more people but you are a big superpower. I'm not saying that America isn't a superpower. Of course, it is. But to believe that Europe is falling apart and America is thriving is not a reality. Why is the dollar continuing to be devaluated against the euro?"

I have the impression that one of the problems here is that there is a lot of political talk about models. Politicians like to simplify things. President Bush, for example, likes to talk about a 'new' Europe and an 'old' Europe. You talk about the United States being no longer great. These are obviously simplifications. Isn't there a danger in both the neo-conservatives' and in your own rhetoric, let's say, of simplifying what the reality on the ground is, that each country is juggling with a lot of different economic and social factors and trying to find a kind of middle ground that will make as many people as possible happy and not leave too many people falling through the net?

"I agree. Of course it's hard to do this in sound bites on the radio. That's why I wrote a book that's 450 pages long and pretty detailed and deep. I wrote a piece on the question of the social-economy model versus the capitalist-market model. What I said is that this new debate in Europe on whether to maintain a kind of socialist-democracy model or go to an American market model is the wrong debate. It polarizes. The fact is that what we should be asking is 'What does socialism do well and what is its weakness? What does capitalism do well and what is its weakness?' We should use the strength in one ideology to be the antidote to the weakness of the other.

Photo: European Commission
"There is an alternative for Europe and the Czech Republic could be in ideal position to help lead it in terms of moral leadership. You should have a golden goose - it's called the integration of the biggest commercial market in the world - from the Irish Sea to Russia. You should have a seamless transportation, energy, and communication grids across Europe in twenty years (fifteen years, hopefully). You should have a single set of policies on capital and labour flows in ten years. You should have English as lingua franca in twenty years. So, if you can engage in business with the same ease as we do across our fifty states, you have a bigger market. You can grow your economy 'sustainably', and streamline your net, because you have too much dependency on the state here. The Scandinavian countries have shown that you can streamline but keep your social economy and still build the market. I think that is the mission in Europe. Get on with the task of integrating the trans-national space so that the Czech people can maintain their diversity, build on their prosperity and be part of a larger mission, which is to be a part of Europe."