Trans-Atlantic Tripe

Jeremy Rifkin's theory of failed states.


The American Dream, warns Jeremy Rifkin, is on the ropes, thanks to "depleting resources, increased pollution, rising costs of production, spiraling inflation, low return on investments, escalating capital shortfalls and limits to technology." Our vaunted productivity has "bottomed out."

Actually, that was Rifkin's prediction in his 1979 tome The Emerging Order. Most would argue that America made a comeback in the '80s and '90s, but Rifkin has stuck to his story. Now America is really staggering into obsolescence. His latest work, The European Dream (Tarcher), is his chronicle of the society that will overtake it.

On its own, the idea of the European Union as a rising superpower is an easy sell. In the last decade, after the Soviet superpower fell apart, European patriotism soared. A 2001 survey in the European edition of Time suggested that a third of E.U. citizens between 21 and 35 "now regard themselves as more European than as nationals of their home country." And it's a good time to be European. As Rifkin points out, the E.U. is the world's largest single market, with a $10.5 trillion GDP. Some member nations are outpacing the U.S. in economic growth. The E.U. exports more than it imports. Most auspiciously, since 2001 the euro's value has risen steadily as the dollar has weakened.

Rifkin spares no praise on these figures. Sure, the growth might be slowing down, but what's really important is that "Europeans have laid out a visionary roadmap to a new promised land, one dedicated to re-affirming the life instinct and the Earth's indivisibility."

As proof, he offers that "more emigrants are choosing Europe over America than ever before." We don't get any statistics to back up that claim, or rejoinders to the E.U.'s own modest immigration numbers, or estimates of how many immigrants come from former European colonies, or a theory of why nearly 175,000 Europeans became American citizens in 2002. But the idea of Europe as a beacon for the poor, hungry, and downtrodden is dropped pretty quickly. Rifkin's point isn't that Europe is becoming a new America. It's that America's way of life has got to go.

Rifkin's real beef is with individualism, and with "the European Enlightenment idea that equates private property with freedom." (He's using "Enlightenment" as a pejorative.) Even if it didn't spoil the environment and burn up resources, he tells us, the American lifestyle would be headed for a fall because the dreamers aren't being fulfilled. "Up until the 1960s," writes Rifkin, "upward mobility was at the core of the American Dream. Then, the dream began to unravel, slowly at first, but picking up momentum in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s."

But did it? By most indicators, the doldrums of the late '60s and '70s were blown away in the '80s. The gap between America's rich and poor has risen, but between a quarter and a third of the population moves into a new income quintile in any given year. Rifkin throws in some poverty figures to add thunder to the gloom, but they appear next to data on how Americans are getting fatter and buying bigger houses.

There's an explanation for that too: "We have become a death culture." Indeed, that seems to be Rifkin's point.

"What lies below our obsessive, if not pathological, behavior," he writes, "is the frantic desire to live and prosper by killing and consuming everything around us." Unlike Europeans, who find freedom in "embeddedness," Americans are gobbling up resources and drawing away from each other. They're moving to suburbs, which "represent the final chapter of the American dream."

One of Rifkin's examples of American decline is "the new genre of TV reality shows," wherein "millions of viewers can live out the American Dream vicariously by watching the fortunate few who beat the odds, convinced that the dream is still alive and that their turn is coming." He fails to mention that reality shows were invented in Europe–Big Brother and Fear Factor by the Dutch, Survivor by the Swedes. The most get-rich-quicky of the shows, American Idol and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, came from Britain.

And it's worth unpacking some of Rifkin's economic data. He admits that "the Thatcher-Reagan economic revolution of the 1980s, with its emphasis on deregulation," had an effect on the way the E.U. came together. He could have gone further in describing how market reforms kick-started the economies of Britain, France, and Spain, and how European writers on the left blame their speedier, more competitive cultures on Americanization.

There are interesting arguments to be made about how America's economic rivals are approaching property rights and productivity. Rifkin may yet get around to tackling them. Expect that book to come after the Golden Days are over.