Throughout my childhood in Britain one of the rituals of Christmas was to watch the Queen on television. In those days, she seemed like an alien from another planet using stilted English, strangulated vowels, and talking about nothing in particular.
Then the Queen was re-branded and she started to talk about her family and talk a little less like ET the extraterrestrial from the Steven Spielberg film. But there was rarely, if ever, a note of pessimism. Sitting on your sofa, your stomach swollen from lumpy Christmas pudding, the last thing you want to hear is bad news.
Angela Merkel, who has recently removed herself from politics as thoroughly as the Queen, could learn a thing or two. Her YouTube video Christmas message – use the holidays to gather strength for the bad times to come – is pretty scary. “Be afraid,” she seems to be saying, “be very afraid.” As if the Germans need to be told to be fearful. Merkel could have been gentler and – for this surely is the task of the political class – put the crisis in perspective.
Now I don’t want to play down the troubles that are heading our way. It is particularly difficult to lose your job at the outset of a recession since it will almost certainly take a year to get back into the labour market. The anxiety about job losses is being exploited by employers to push down wages. This applies not only to people working at Daimler or Opel but also to freelance journalists.
Colleagues say it has never been so hard to sell an article (far harder than selling a car) and that real payment rates have slipped back to 1990 levels. It has become a permanent struggle to ensure payment within a month or two after publication. The collapse of trust in the banks has started to affect all commercial relationships, to poison our language (for me Zwangsurlaub, or forced vacation, is the word of the year) and the way we look at the world.
But it is possible to keep fear of what may come (another beautiful German word is Zukunftsangst) under control. It seems to me that is what the Germans find so difficult – the ability to set themselves psychological boundaries. After all what we are witnessing at the moment is not a breakdown in the German way of life. My neighbours still gossip; the birth of a child is still celebrated; there is food on most tables.
All that is happening is an astonishingly fast contraction of the economy. We just have to learn to adapt with similar speed. The effects of a recession are not all negative. For the first time I have received a long Christmas letter from the Dresdner Bank thanking me in language that bordered on pathos for not moving my fortune elsewhere. Last time I checked I had €464 in the account. Still, some humility from the banks is good. Everybody has to try harder to keep customers.
This New Year’s I shall be spending with friends in Iceland – like Berlin it is a lonely island threatened with bankruptcy. Surely, Iceland has a reason to complain about the cruelty of global capitalism. They have been ruined by the recklessness of their banks. Once they were the happiest nation in the world, now they are one of the most indebted. They even had to negotiate a special loan with China to supply the fireworks for New Year’s Eve.
Icelanders once proud of their independence have to shake the begging bowl, like homeless newspaper sellers outside the supermarket. So, of course, what is happening is a retreat to tradition, to family (partly out of pragmatism – it is difficult to sack a pregnant woman), to friendship.
That is how Icelanders are coping with a far worse situation than that experienced by the Germans. In a recession, the first priority is to guard ones dignity; your self-worth should not be debased by the vagaries of the market.
Angela Merkel is a pastor’s daughter – she should understand the importance of putting this crisis into a moral context. Instead, she is emerging as a hesitant figure overwhelmed by the fury of events, and eaten away by self-doubt.
The year 2009 will not bring the apocalypse. It will simply be difficult, but out of its complexities, we can learn again what we seem to have forgotten: respect, decency, an aversion to greed. That’s what I wanted to hear from the chancellor on her holiday YouTube video.
A happy new year? Yes, happy new year to you all.