July 18th, 2012 / 3:02 pm
Author Spotlight & Craft Notes

Soros And The European Poetry Crisis

Billionaire hedge fund manager and democracy advocate George Soros recently received the social media equivalent of a standing ovation from the world of finance. Instead of remaining in charts and data, or even in their value synthesis re: analyzing Europ’s sovereign debt crisis, he did what few money men had (and none in his position) done: he effectively used a metaphor. It was the kind of poetry that moves markets.

“Bubble” is a common enough term in popular finance, but it lacks a quantitative definition. It’s an existential state, or a spiritual one: a bloating, a swelling of the imagination glands (Dickensian?), a cultural feast that becomes a fiscal implosion. We fondly remember the Tech Bubble. We feel the presence of ghosts and of animated furniture (Marx?). Here’s what Soros wrote about on his personal blog (yes – indeed dear readers) . To be completely fair, he was reblogging his speech from the Festival of Economics in Trento Italy – but this is what “went viral”:

I contend that the European Union itself is like a bubble. In the boom phase the EU was what the psychoanalyst David Tuckett calls a “fantastic object” – unreal but immensely attractive. The EU was the embodiment of an open society –an association of nations founded on the principles of democracy, human rights, and rule of law in which no nation or nationality would have a dominant position.

The process of integration was spearheaded by a small group of far sighted statesmen who practiced what Karl Popper called piecemeal social engineering. They recognized that perfection is unattainable; so they set limited objectives and firm timelines and then mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when they achieved it, its inadequacy would become apparent and require a further step. The process fed on its own success, very much like a financial bubble. That is how the Coal and Steel Community was gradually transformed into the European Union, step by step.

Soros see the poetry of this “fantastic object,” this Idea of Greater Europe. And now, maybe we all see it. This poetry condenses the crisis, stocks exert downward pressure, and we economists of language try to bet on how far into the void the average worker can go.

It’s the idea that a capital democracy can function outside of national traditions, or rather, that idea that it can’t.

Enter Sam, a writer from – I think it’s worth mentioning – the UK, a strangely remote part of Greater Europe. Sam writes a book that, he confesses to me, takes on a somewhat opportunistic exploration into the concept of “austerity “- the main buzzword associated with the social consequences of this crisis. His book of poems is about a hundred pages. It’s personal. It’s dark. It features innovative use of the phrase “The New Sincerity.” It lacks the clarity and the actionable doom of Soros.

From the UK, there is this kind of critical distance that might double for an academic posture. Well, it has for a millennia. Sam is like, doing this time-tested thing with his writing that seems to examine the granular existence under this break up of the Europe Dream. His project is conservative, but also honest. The craft is dense and it goes right to the problem of being an artist in a world with really pressing issues that art doesn’t (and can’t) directly address:

Crisis Poem

In 3 years I have been awarded

£48,000 by various funding bodies

councils and publishing houses

for my contributions to the art

and I would like to aknowledge

the initiatives put in place

by the government and the rigorous

assesment criteria under which

my work has thrived since 2008

And that first section of the first poem in the first chapter starts the book. There is trouble at the center of this lifestyle, both in the academic experience, and the experiences outside of that institution – what was called the underground art world, but is now just ‘the cool parts of the internet’ – the 2/3rds virtual world of smart, slick people, ambition, dead ends, despair, and yes: small bits of fame, fortune, recognition. This crisis touches the paradise of elite culture. Europe is burning for a lot of personal reasons. Maybe poetry really does have something to do with it.

Sam’s debt crisis is less of a bubble and more of a fog – but not psedo-literary London fog of beggars and detectives ‘going steampunk’ for eternity on the page – more a fog of war, youth, knowledge, and a brand of post-Marxism (not all that rigorous – maybe I should coin the phrase chillmarx, but I won’t) that I found to be as depressing as it probably is relevant. I’m obviously a Marxist, and I was disturbed by parts of this book in a way that I’m not usually distubed. Historical/academic Marxism is typically, for me, a durable philosophy.

So yeah, I read most of the book at my desk at the ad agency, and it was good.

I wanted it all to be a little more accessible – the kind of shit that would be passed around Tumblr, like a Two Girls One Cup of poetry. Soros, but not just for hedge fund managers. The Dark Knight reads from his Twitter account level-shit, etc.

But what I want isn’t necessarily the best thing for Greater Europe. So, maybe we should take some time and actually figure this one out.



  1. abysmal

      “Bubble is a common enough term in popular finance, but it lacks a quantitative definition. It’s an existential state, or a spiritual one: a bloating, a swelling of the imagination glands (Dickensian?), a cultural feast that becomes a fiscal implosion. We fondly remember the Tech Bubble. We feel the presence of ghosts and of animated furniture (Marx?).”

      I think Keynes said it best when he coined the term “animal spirit”.

  2. Ultra Vegina

      I don’t understand the economy (someone does?), but narratives are made up trends, and the current trend is “the European Dream Was Shattered”. Well, in my opinion, there was no European Dream to be shattered to start with. All these “metaphors” are mental chimerical clouds that people cling to, but are ultimately, in their essense, meaningless. 

  3. Richard Grayson

      In regard to what Soros called “a small group of far sighted statesmen who practiced what Karl Popper called piecemeal social engineering,” it’s important to recognize the context in which Robert Schuman and others had in mind when the Treaty of Paris created the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951.

      It was just after the cataclysm of World War II, the horrors of the Holocaust, in the second devastating war between European states — the key was France versus
      Germany — that had taken place and nearly destroyed the continent’s stability over the first half of the twentieth century. 

      And no matter what the financial and economic consequences of the “bubble”
      transformation of Europe from the ECSC to the Common Market — I’m old enough to have been quizzed on “the Inner Six” and “the Outer Seven” in junior high — to the European Community to the EU, the consequences of economic dislocation are nothing compared to what war — now unthinkable — between the big European powers did to the people of the various countries. 

      Sam’s London is not being bombed.  There is no “fog of war.” I’ve talked with many people who were adults or kids in London at the time of the blitz, not to mention people who were at Normandy and Auschwitz and elsewhere (I had teachers who served in World War I, even) in the horrors of war-ravaged Europe, and no, you’re totally wrong: Europe is *not* burning and the poetry of now is not Auden’s “September 1, 1939.”

  4. Erik Stinson

      W. H. Auden
      “Twitter War”

      I sit in one of the dives
      On Fifty-second Street
      Uncertain and afraid
      As the clever hopes expire
      Of a low dishonest decade:
      Waves of anger and fear
      Circulate over the bright
      And darkened lands of the earth,
      Obsessing our private lives;
      The unmentionable odour of death
      Offends the September night.

      Defenceless under the night
      Our world in stupor lies;
      Yet, dotted everywhere,
      Ironic points of light
      Flash out wherever the Just
      Exchange their messages:
      May I, composed like them
      Of Eros and of dust,
      Beleaguered by the same
      Negation and despair,
      Show an affirming flame.

  5. Austin Schauer

      tautologically deliciousss

  6. deadgod

      We use figurative language pretty often when we talk of “money”, no?  For example:  “inflation” – there’s no physical ‘air’ being ‘blown into’ the cost of things.  Another:  “currency” – money isn’t a liquid or gas ‘running’.  “Capital”, “speculate”, “liquidity”, “employ”, “interest”, and so on – economic talk is rich with metaphor.

      Soros’s use of “bubble” to describe political-economic and political union in Europe is, I guess, clever, but it’s not really apt, is it?

      The idea of European integration isn’t a fantasy – or hope or wish – that’s been accelerated circularly into a self-fulfilling ‘value’ with little connection to concrete reality.  It’s a fact of trade, of culture, of migration, and has been for centuries.  Attempting to regulate connected Europe, as a state is regulated, doesn’t seem to me bubble-speculative so much as it has been a rationalization in bureaucratic terms of what’s already the political-economic case.

      The process of increasing European integration did not “fe[e]d on its own success, very much like a financial bubble”.  Perhaps an example of this bubbling (and puncture) is Greece’s inclusion and retention in the currency federation, but this series of profiteering-maneuvers-papered-over-by-magical-thinking would be unwisely called characteristic of “European integration” either in the form of currency union or in general.

      Although the Euro has risen and fallen in accordance with speculative pressures, I don’t think this federal currency itself can be held responsible for national economic crises–that is, crises experienced unequally by various zones of the currency federation.

      It’s more currencies in Europe that would make for more speculative bubbling in currency manipulation, rather than persistence in re-rationalizing the Euro zone in accordance with realistic projected national needs and capacities.

      I think Soros understands the virtues – for Europeans – of a federal European currency–he sure should, given how he turned a tidy fortune into a sprawling one through currency speculation.

      After all, one doesn’t hear Soros – or David Frum – arguing, on the grounds of counter-fantastic thinking, for different currencies in every ‘state’ of the US.

      Europe federated by Goldman Sachs — okay, that would be (is?) a speculative bubble.  –but that’s tautological:  everything Goldman Sachs does seems to be of the nature of blowing bubbles.

      But Europe united by demilitarized conflict resolution and labor-equitable distribution of resources and decision-making — why does this goal have to be figured by ‘magical thinking’?

  7. Erik Stinson

      when a chair’s legs are different lengths, it doesn’t matter how good the ass is

  8. deadgod

      Hm.  I don’t think we’re talking about one ass on a chair with ~25 legs and however many matchbooks.

      We’re talking about ~25 locally appropriate chairs under ~25 asses of varied goodness.

      Do you think Maryland and Mississippi should share a currency?  With their own currency, would Mississippians have a ‘seat farther up from the floor’ than they do?

  9. Merzmensch

      Bubble? Well, why not? I’m observing the development of German literature inside of Germany. And I hope I am very false, but: there is no originality here right now. There are plenty many memoirs like “My life in GDR”, or many memoirs like “My childhood in Westgermany”, or huge amount of boring and _wannabe funny_ target group literature (“We are all 30ies and you know, what I mean *wink*” – blatant Wiedererkennbarkeits-clischees) or pretty many stereotypical relationship dramas, or some – if you want something different – weird “road movie across USA involving 9/11, some mystery and 2-3 lapidary shown sex scenes”-constructs. There are some plagiat scandals. There are almost no short stories masters (Dave Eggers is so right about it).

      Where are original narratives, where are mind-bending sujets [without beeing kitschy]? Where are postmodernity in Germany? I will be grateful to everybody who will point it out for me. Either I have no luck searching for this stuff, or… 

      imagine a bursting bubble sound

  10. D .

      The idea that you can compare Maryland and Mississippi to France and Germany is more than a little facile, no? To be facile, then, The Articles of Confederation needed some criticism.

  11. D .

      The idea that you can compare Maryland and Mississippi to France and Germany is more than a little facile, no? To be facile, then, The Articles of Confederation needed some criticism.

  12. deadgod


      The comparison is not absolute.

      The analogy is meant to argue that economies which are already integrated to some particular degree ought, for reasons of fiscal efficiency, to have the same currency.

      The comparison would be between ‘the trade relation between the economies of Maryland and Mississippi’ and ‘the trade relation between the economies of Germany and Greece’.  (In other words, ‘trade relation between richest and poorest states in US : trade relation between richest and poorest countries in Euro zone’ (wealth roughly considered).)

      I think the economies of Germany and Greece are integrated enough that each benefits from not having to change national currencies as goods/services are traded between them.

      The dysfunctions in the Greek economy will not disappear or even be ameliorated by a return to the drachma.

      The injustice to Greek citizens enforced by the borrowing terms that attended Greece’s entry to the Euro zone and that attend its debt ‘maintenance’ now have nothing intrinsic to do with the Euro.  Going back to the drachma will help nobody in Greece — except currency changers.

      Do you think that it’d be wise for Greece, for any reason other than to default, to return to the drachma?  Would it actually be beneficial to Greek citizens for Greece to flee the Euro zone?

  13. D .

      The second half of my reply indicates that I’m not talking about dissolution, but discerned integration; ie, you’re preaching to the choir. All things considered, I think the idea of dissolving the Euro, or the Union, is a great idea if you love to watch things burn.

      The idea that the Euro, or the Union, can exist -as it does now- is the thinking I find magical. Kicking the Greeks out of the Euro would settle nothing for the Euro and set ludicrous precedents, and it would fail to resolve the imbalance of power inherent in the current dynamics; it would even come close to institutionalizing them.

      I just find your defensiveness in reply to the original post a little silly, really: Like you, I don’t think Soro is talking about that, so why are you arguing as though he were? He’s describing the cultural pathology inherent in order as it exists, and unless you’re denying that those pathologies are in place, which I leave to you to determine, I think you’re bringing your arguments for one conversation into another because the tones sound the same, and you’ve already got the opinions for that one.

  14. deadgod


      It’s fine that we agree – I think – about (what we take to be) the large net-negative result of any thorough dissolution of either or both the Euro or the EU, but that perspective was ancillary to my sense that “bubble” (and its attendant magical thinking) isn’t that good of a figure for the taking-on of responsibilities of a federal currency in Europe.

      Soros poses two “bubbles” in the speech:  one, when Europe magically supposed itself to have been ‘united’ politically through a series of treaties; and a second, now, as the dissolution of a federated currency seems to be ‘becoming inevitable’.

      (The second bubble one can see in fine in:  “The Bundesbank[, by] taking resources to limit the losses it would sustain in case of a breakup[,] is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy” – namely, that circuitously arrival at a ‘necessary’ re-nationalization of bank assets (to protect ‘nationalized’ credit) that would drive currency and political disunion.)

      In his speech’s conclusion, Soros explicitly wants magical thinking; he wants the Euro and EU to survive, not as a new “German empire” (??), but rather, because the fantasy of a peaceful, prosperous, democratic federated Europe is worth ‘believing’ into existence.

      My argument is that a political-economically federated western Europe was a fait accompli long before the introduction of the Euro.  It wasn’t “magical thinking” to see flows in goods/services, money, and people between, say, Germany and Greece as being roughly similar to those between Maryland and Mississippi, nor was it “magical” to suppose that a rationally unifying currency would make those flows less viscid, less inefficient.

      ‘Silly’ and ‘defensive’ are sometimes effective criticisms.  I think you’re applying terms accurate for some responses to a response they don’t fit because those terms sound magically effective to you generally.

  15. D .

      “I think you’re applying terms accurate for some responses to a response they don’t fit because those terms sound magically effective to you generally.”

      Hey, dude, I know you take a bad rap around here, but I wasn’t on you, there’s no reason to get tetchy. Next time I’ll let you go your way.

  16. deadgod

      Touchy about a bit of your personalization of the conversation?  Okay.

      If you want to talk about European integration as a “bubble” neutrally, that’s cool, too.

  17. Harry Burke