Dante Alighieri didn't know the half of it. The wolf that barred his way in the
Wood of Error at the outset of his Divine Comedy represents Lust, who
never satiates her dreadful appetite and is hungrier after feeding than before.
To evade this predator, the poet journeys through Hell and Heaven, classifying
in high scholastic style the sins of humankind.
He missed the big one, the mortal sin that motivated two dozen suicides in 2009
at France Telecom, the dullest place in the habitable world, where people go to
do nothing and make a living at it. Twenty-four employees at the French
monopoly killed themselves in the past 18 months, and another 13 have attempted
suicide. The France Telecom suicide wave - the subject of endless public
controversy in France - is one of the iconic events
of 2009, the sociological quirk that sets in relief the mortal flaw in the
Lust is the least of the problems in 21st-century Europe. The insatiable
predator whom feeding makes more ravenous is not sex, but sloth. Dante doesn't
condemn the slothful to Hell; we find them instead in Purgatory, with eventual
hope of entry to Heaven. Among the risk-averse Europeans, who favor nanny-state
paternalism, the most risk-averse choose to work for state monopolies. But the
global economic crisis has shaken the foundations of state finances in Europe,
and bloated entities such as France Telecom must adjust. A consistent pattern
informs the suicide notes of France Telecom workers: the fear of downsizing,
demotion and reassignment is too much for them to bear. The desire for security
is an addiction: the more security one obtains, the less secure one feels.
France Telecom management "had argued, quite reasonably, that the company had
to move with the times: customer demand for mobile phones rather than fixed
lines meant massive restructuring was inevitable", wrote Gill Corkingdale in
her Harvard Business School blog. "The company avoided imposing mass
redundancies, but asked staff to retrain for Orange call centers and, in some
cases, change locations. Fairly reasonable, you might think. Yet this did not
stop one worker from stabbing himself repeatedly in the stomach when he was
told he was being transferred to another post in the same town."
Although the company went private long ago, telephone workers are considered
government employees. Two-thirds of them have civil-service status and cannot
be fired. Nonetheless, the monopoly cut 22,000 jobs between 2006 and 2008 and
reassigned many more workers to menial jobs with longer hours. ''Engineers who
spent 20 years doing repairs to phone lines are being reassigned to work in
call centers, and some of them struggle with the change,'' France Telecom
physician Monique Fraysse-Guigline told Londonís The Times last September 14.
On September 28, for example, a 51-year-old France Telecom employee left a note
complaining that he could not bear his new assignment to a call center and
jumped off a highway bridge into rush-hour traffic. In July, a telephone worker
in Marseille left a suicide note stating, "Overwork, stress, absence of
training and total disorganization in the company. I'm a wreck, it's better to
end it all."
The dead worker's sister told The Guardian newspaper on September 18: "There
was this pressure from the top to slim down operations by destabilizing
workers; people were undermined to the point that they got ill. He told me he
was regularly sent messages from managers suggesting he find work elsewhere.
Once they suggested he open a rural guesthouse. He accepted a far too heavy
workload out of fear of losing his senior job. He had no other problems, no
money worries, no family concerns."
A healthy middle-aged man - he ran in marathons as a hobby - with no money
problems could not bear the thought of losing an overpaid sinecure at the phone
company. For the fretful French, The Guardian wrote, his "suicide note has
become the defining message from the grave".
Given Europe's fiscal crisis, which is creeping up from the near-bankrupt
countries of the Mediterranean (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain, now dubbed the
"PIGS" by Wall Street wits), the downsizing of France Telecom will be repeated
throughout the risk-averse continent. By 2012, Moody's estimates, France and
Germany will spend nearly 10% of gross domestic product on debt service. For
that matter, the budgetary collapse of US states and cities imperils the one
economic sector to add jobs during the past decade. The US private sector shed
jobs during the 2000s, and the slack was taken up by state and local
governments riding the real-estate boom.
Lust, contrary to Dante, is the least of today's problems: if only the late
France Telecom manager had devoted himself to concupiscence to take his mind
off his problems, he would still be alive today. Even the crassest and cheapest
sort of sexual relations require a modicum of human intimacy.
The modern world, in fact, has found a cure for lust, the she-wolf that Dante
considered impassable. It is the desire for nothing, which, after all, is what
suicides desire. A favorite theme of post-feminist authors in the United States
is the sexless marriage. Japan, in fact, holds the world championship in this
league, with more than a third of Japanese couples reporting no sexual
relations at all in the past year, and three-quarters reporting frequency of
relations of a month or more.
I do not propose to demean Dante, in many respects the greatest of all European
poets, perhaps the greatest poet of all time. But he wrote for a world in which
certain things, such as the desire for life, were taken for granted. The sin of
suicide draws his passing attention in Canto XIII of "Inferno", where he passes
through a wood of gnarled and brittle trees encasing the souls of those who
took their own lives. Following Aristotle, who argued that dissipation of one's
wealth was a form of suicide, Dante depicts a pair of notorious contemporary
spendthrifts who killed themselves.
But it is not dissipation of one's substance, but the desire for security that
accounts for the two dozen suicides at the French telephone company. It seems
inexplicable that healthy and affluent people would end their lives over the
prospect of having to go out and find a new job, unless we consider that there
is a bit of death built into the craving for security to begin with. Life is
risky, and to withdraw from it is to embrace death. That is why the sort of
person who seeks a lifetime sinecure at a state monopoly is more likely to
tumble into despair at the first intrusion of uncertainty.
In the modern world, we observe that willingness to assume risk and love of
live go together with religious faith. By "modern world" I mean those countries
in which education and occupation are determined by choice and talent, rather
than tradition and compulsion - the industrialized nations, in short.
The United States and Israel produce the most babies and the most entrepreneurs
per capita in the industrial world and are also the only two industrial
countries in which religious faith still occupies the public square. This is
true by construction: Israel and the US, uniquely in the world, were created by
immigrants motivated in large measure by religious faith. Unlike the peoples of
Europe, who were assimilated into the Christian religion by political agreement
more than by individual conversion, the founders of the US and Israel selected
themselves as citizens of a new country.
If we construct a crude "love of life" index by comparing the fertility rate
(on the premise that people who love life also love babies) against the suicide
rate, Israel is off the charts in the