A few years ago, Bill Gates wrote seductively of "friction-free capitalism," a happy system in which technology unites producers and consumers with ultimate efficiency. And you might think of Jeremy Rifkin as an advocate of "friction-free socialism," in which rational governments nudge enlightened citizens toward an ever more perfect existence. In just under a decade's worth of provocative books, the prolific Rifkin, president of a Washington-based thinktank called the Foundation on Economic Trends, has told us that we'll have to stop eating meat (Beyond Beef) and using fossil fuels (The Hydrogen Economy); that full-time jobs are passé (The End of Work); and that there's no need to actually own anything (The Age of Access). That none of these scenarios has actually come to pass does not make Rifkin wrong, exactly. It's just that the persistence of mankind's bad habits is something that non-friction writers tend to overlook.
In his latest book, The European Dream (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin; 434 pages), Rifkin's target is the trans-Atlantic divide, which he sees as a turning point in history rather than an argument over issues like the war in Iraq. Americans, in Rifkin's view, are belligerent, money-obsessed, undereducated, hyperviolent (and therefore overincarcerated), scarily religious and overweight. Therefore the fabled American dream in which individuals work hard, buy a home and surround themselves with consumer luxuries "is far too centered on personal material advancement and too little concerned with the broader human welfare to be relevant in a world of increasing risk, diversity and interdependence." That's why it needs to be replaced by the European dream, which "emphasizes community relationships over individual autonomy, cultural diversity over assimilation, quality of life over the accumulation of wealth, sustainable development over unlimited material growth, deep play over unrelenting toil, universal human rights and the rights of nature over property rights, and global co-operation over the unilateral exercise of power."
A sweeping idea, which Rifkin proceeds to defend with an arsenal of statistical data. Europe's lower productivity and wages? They deliberately choose to work less so they can enjoy themselves more. Europe's high unemployment? America's is almost as high, if you include the prison population and the millions who've stopped looking for work. America's larger gross domestic product? gdp is a lousy way to measure an economy's true value.
From there, Rifkin launches into several chapters of history about both sides of the Atlantic, in which he discusses topics as diverse as architectural theory, private property, even table manners. He tries to weave these strands together into an argument that the European dream grows out of a culture that for centuries has valued being "embedded" in communities, consensus politics and a commitment to the less fortunate. The ultimate culmination of this history is the European Union, which, by transcending the destructive tendencies of the nation-state, paves the way for "global consciousness."
At several points, Rifkin notes that the European dream is not yet perfectly realized. In a chapter devoted to immigration, he even acknowledges that the day-to-day reality in Europe is chafing against some of its ideals. But overall Rifkin preaches a kind of cartoonish Hegelianism, in which reality is defined as rational and rationality is defined by E.U. press releases. (Rifkin is an adviser to outgoing European Commission President Romano Prodi.) His paean to the 35-hour workweek ("Most French employers have been won over to the scheme") will make those who've watched it disintegrate this year wince. He predicts repeatedly and confidently that the E.U. constitution will be ratified in the next two years; anyone who lives in Europe can be forgiven for thinking that timetable optimistic.
Sure, any book can be overtaken by events, but Rifkin's wispy determinism doesn't even accommodate recent history. If peace and community are so intrinsic to the European spirit, then how is it that Europeans created vast empires that had to be enforced with brutal violence against indigenous upstarts? How is it that they fought two of the bloodiest wars in human history just a few decades apart?
For all the book's flaws, you find yourself almost rooting for Rifkin. After all, if even a semblance of his European utopia is ever going to exist, someone has to promote its most idealistic version; a dream's reach should always exceed its grasp. But a far more useful book would highlight the places where the dream isn't working or is struggling to be born, and suggest how it might be fixed. That, however, would require a friction writer.