In the foyer of the magnificent Musee D’Orsay in Paris hangs a telling painting by the nineteenth century French artist Thomas Couture. Titled ‘The Romans during the decadence’, the canvass depicts a mass orgy in a guilded Roman assembly hall, its citizens sprawled all over in various stages of drunkenness and post-coital repose as the prim upright statues of those who established Rome’s greatness seem to look down upon them in apparent distaste.
In one corner sits a melancholic looking thinker, reflecting, it seems, on the debauchery of the oblivious revellers while on the other corner stand two affronted foreign visitors looking on with clear disapproval.
By seeking to thus depict the reasons behind the fall of Rome, Couture was trying to draw a parallel with the decline of his own French polity at the time. But the painting could equally stand in as an allegory for the blindingly self-indulgent and myopic actions of Western politicians, in the US and in Europe, in dealing with an economic crisis that could well turn into long-term stagnation.
Facing the most serious challenge to their economic ascendancy since the Great Depression, American politicians have been stuck in an orgy of fanatical partisanship even as they are besieged with epochal shifts in global power dynamics.
Even if a last-minute compromise solution is found to the surreal theatre of the absurd over raising the US debt ceiling, it won’t change the fact that US economic growth data has been dramatically revised downwards, the recession is deeper than thought, and unemployment continues to rise.
Yet, all of this has meant little to the intransigence of Republican Tea Partiers whose behaviour has resembled the zealotness of religious fundamentalists, except that their religion is the principle of no taxation and an eighteenth century idea of limited government.
Already, Congressional failure to extend funding for the Federal Aviation Administration has meant that 4,000 workers had to go on unpaid leave last week and US soldiers in Afghanistan have been publicly asking visiting generals if they will get paid this month.
For all the dynamism of America’s private sector, the current gridlock means that outsiders can be forgiven for thinking that US politics appears as broken as that of Greece. Political paralysis in Washington only fuels the talk of decline.
In Europe, similarly, politicians seem unwilling to accept the reality that eventually there is no option but to pay off the bills from Greece’s bankruptcy – either by restructuring its loans or by bailing out creditor banks who are exposed.
The recent EU package essentially kicks the can further down the road: it reduces the debt burden on Greece but doesn’t solve the fundamental problem that sooner rather than later, more north European money will need to be spent on Greece.
Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic turning inwards with yesterday’s battles and being consumed by the special interests that hold them hostage wouldn’t matter to outsiders like us if their actions didn’t have such ripple effects on the global economy. The US housing bust in 2008 that brought about a global downturn showed how inter-connected modern economies are.
This is why the Chinese news agency Xinhua warned last week, “The ugliest part of the saga is that the well-being of many countries is also in the impact zone when the donkey and the elephant fight.”
There is a lesson here somewhere for our politicians too as Parliament opens for its monsoon session. The winter session got washed out with both the Government and the Opposition trying to score brownie points allowing the Ramdevs and the Anna Hazares to take centrestage. Meanwhile, governance has been paralysed, foreign investments have been consistently going down, Indian capital is seeking better pastures overseas, and crucial legislations on the next stage of reform, and equally on social security, remain largely undebated in political terms.
There are signs of sanity returning to the political discourse but the monsoon session will be an important marker. At least the West’s politicians have a Rome to destroy in their inner turmoils. We still have to build our Rome.