In a recent interview, French President Francois Hollande made the crucial, but often forgotten point that there are limits to the level of sacrifice that can be demanded of the citizens of southern Europe’s financially distressed countries. To avoid turning Greece, Portugal and Spain into collective “correctional houses,” Hollande reasoned that people need hope beyond the ever-receding horizon of spending cuts and austerity measures.
Even the most rudimentary understanding of psychology supports Hollande’s assessment. Negative reinforcement and delayed gratification are unlikely to achieve their goals unless there is a perceived light at the end of the tunnel — a future reward for today’s sacrifices.
Public pessimism in southern Europe is largely attributable to the absence of such a reward. As declining consumer confidence and household purchasing power deepen the recession, projections of when the crisis will end are repeatedly pushed back and those bearing the brunt of austerity are losing hope.
Throughout history, the concept of sacrifice has merged theology and economics. In the ancient world, people made often-bloody offerings to divinities, whom they believed would reward them with, say, good harvests or protection from evil. Christianity, with its belief that God (or the Son of God) sacrificed himself to expiate humanity’s sins inverted the traditional economy of sacrifice. In this case, divine suffering serves as an exemplar of the selfless humility with which earthly misfortunes should be endured.
Despite secularization, the belief that rewards, or achievements, require sacrifice has become an integral part of European cultural consciousness. The idea of a “social contract” — which arose during the Enlightenment in order to address, without resort to divine right, the legitimacy of the state’s authority over its citizens — rests on the premise that individuals surrender a certain degree of personal liberty in order to secure peace and prosperity for all.
As a result, political leaders have often asked citizens to sacrifice personal freedoms and comforts in the name of secular spiritual entities, such as the nation or the state — and citizens have often eagerly obliged. In his first speech to the House of Commons as prime minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill inspired hope in a beleaguered nation when he famously declared that he — and thus Britain — had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Given such countless precedents, it may be surprising that the rhetoric of sacrifice under the banner of austerity has proven so ineffective in Europe’s current crisis. Some observers blame declining levels of commitment to anything that transcends the individual, including the political system.
However, resistance to austerity in southern Europe is not rooted in general hostility toward sacrifice. Rather, Europeans have come to believe that their leaders are demanding sacrifices that do not advance their interests. Churchill gave Britons something to look forward to: victory. Without a clear end that justifies it, sacrifice becomes meaningless.
Prosperity was supposed to legitimize the EU. After the period of rapid economic growth ended, Europe’s leaders came to rely instead on the threat of an evil greater than austerity: further destabilization of debtor countries, leading to expulsion from the eurozone as well as economic, social and political collapse.