Though the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008 signalled the crisis of an elite ideology in the USA – neoliberalism – the Americans were able to adapt and survive. Even politically, they have so far headed off fragmentation: the Occupy movement will vote for Barack Obama; the Tea Party, which began as a revolt against Wall Street, is now beholden to Wall Street to fund its politicians.
In Europe, meanwhile, the elite is paralysed, suffering an advanced crisis of legitimacy, and might yet crash its own project. This is seen not just in the rush to vote for non-centrist parties. It is apparent in the sudden repatriation of capital that is beginning to happen as the Euro-crisis veers towards a Greek exit from the eurozone.
Throughout the crisis, the Euro elite has suffered from the same inability to imagine failure that led to August 1914. Even days before the outbreak of war, it was thought impossible because the consequences would end the system, and everybody would be the loser. As the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig commented: our common optimism betrayed us.
And once the system fails, the European elite has a historic mind-set it can relapse into: on the day of the Nazi election victory in Germany, the Anschluss, and the French surrender in 1940, Europe’s political class echoed the immortal words of the French socialists in 1914: ‘Events have overwhelmed us’.