Viva la Siesta Should Southern Europe Really Be More German?

In the wake of the euro crisis, Southern Europeans have increasingly traded their traditions of leisure for more work and more consumption -- often at Germany's prodding. As backlash sets in, this logic must be questioned.
Von Max A. Höfer
Southern Europeans see their traditional way of life under threat.

Southern Europeans see their traditional way of life under threat.

Foto: ? Susana Vera / Reuters/ REUTERS

Europe is groaning under German hegemony, but that isn't something we in Germany like to hear. From the perspective of most Germans, when it comes to saving the euro, Berlin more or less selflessly comes to the aid of bankrupt euro countries by spending vast sums of money. This explains why they find it so incomprehensible when Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben proposes the creation of a sort of "Latin Empire," consisting of France, Italy and Spain , as a bulwark against the north.

But Agamben is well received in France and Italy, where he apparently strikes an emotional chord. His central charge is that the euro crisis is forcing Southern Europeans "to live like Germans."  He is concerned about nothing less than the "disappearance of cultural heritage," namely the "lifestyle" of the Latin nations, and about defending their way of life. The debate, he says, has escalated into a battle of mentalities, of a Protestant work ethic against a Catholic savoir vivre.

This isn't absurd. In fact, there is even concrete evidence that Agamben has a valid point. The siesta hasn't existed in Spain since the fall of 2012. That was when the Spanish government, under pressure from the euro troika  of the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF, eliminated the siesta.

The country believed that it could no longer afford  to "lounge about" in the midst of a national bankruptcy -- not even in the searing midday heat. For centuries, the people of Southern European countries observed a midday break from noon, the sixth hour after sunrise (sexta hora), until 4 p.m. They left the fields or their offices and went home to relax, eating meals together, engaging in conversation with friends and family members, and generally avoiding stress. Their midday naps were sacred. But now that idyllic aspect of southern life is over.

Consumption over Culture

The current debt crisis  is only part of the reason, because the siesta was already curtailed once before. In 2005, the government of then-Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero eliminated the siesta for public servants, arguing that, in an era of global turbo-capitalism, time had to be utilized more productively. The government pointed out that nowadays air-conditioning makes it easier to continue working despite the heat. Today everyone is expected to keep working and, during their shorter lunch break, to spend more time shopping and going to restaurants, increasing consumption and tax revenues.

As a result, Spaniards have traded their siesta, their shared meal with family members, their leisure, their art of enjoying life, for more work and more consumption. It's a bad trade, and many have protested against it, but to no avail. But isn't it an absurd tradeoff? A century ago, Spaniards earned 20 times less than they do today. Aren't they in a much better position to afford their siesta today than 100 years ago?

The Spaniards see the loss of their tradition as the result of a German dictate, an effort to convert them into practitioners of Prussian virtues. "They now speak German in Europe," as conservative politician Volker Kauder once said with typically German innocence.

The Spirit of Capitalism

Now the European press is calling the demise of the siesta an adjustment to Northern European culture. If money were the only issue, the solution would be self-evident. Excessive indebtedness has always existed. The Spanish kings were deeply in debt centuries ago -- to Germans, among others, in the form of the Fugger banking dynasty. In the end, they did not repay their debts, which came as a shock to the Augsburg bankers but was not the end of the world. People would never have hit upon the idea of abandoning their culture because of debt. But now that is precisely what they are expected to do.

In the areas within its protectorate, the euro troika is exerting control over labor agreements, changing the retirement age and requiring longer working hours. The siesta is being dispatched in the process. It is a cultural struggle that is clearly reflected in the debate over the siesta, an inherent part of the Latin culture of rest and leisure. The puritanical spirit has always engaged in a crusade against sleep and the good life, because both are equated with laziness and blasphemy. Those who sleep are robbing God of the day, earning nothing and wasting the profits they could have been generating instead of sleeping.

In "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," German sociologist Max Weber offers a very clear assessment of the puritanical fight against sleep: "According to God's unambiguously revealed will, it is only action, not idleness and indulgence, that serves to increase his glory. Wasting time is therefore the first and most serious of all sins." Weber shows that among the Calvinists, loss of time through "more sleep than is required for health -- six to eight hours at the most -- is morally, absolutely reprehensible." Work, on the other hand, "is the end and purpose of life commanded by God."

Time is Money

Benjamin Franklin's famous adage, "time is money," is the epitome of the capitalist spirit. The only time that counts is time that can be converted into money. For Franklin, time spent lazing about is lost time, and the interest on the money that is not being earned as a result is lost interest. Man, he argued, should have a need only to be useful, not a need for time.

The need for time contradicts the neoclassical economic assumption of endless needs. Anyone who desires to do nothing wants for nothing, and appears not to have endless needs. Sleep, which is so similar to idleness, fundamentally calls the total utilization of time into question. In this sense, sleep has always been suspect to puritans. Cotton Mather warned the first settlers in Massachusetts that sleep was a "temptation of the devil," designed to prevent them from working.

Franklin criticized the French in 1784, in his "Journal de Paris," writing that they went to bed too late and didn't wake up until noon, which was inefficient and costly because it meant that a lot of money was being spent on candlelight. His lack of understanding for the French way of life is remarkably similar to that of American tire magnate Maurice Taylor, who earlier this year criticized the work ethic of French tire workers in the northern city of Amiens, setting off a diplomatic tiff between Paris and Washington. Taylor declined to buy a tire plant there, because, as he claimed, the plant's "so-called workers" worked only "three hours" a day and spent the rest of the time idle.

The War on Sleep

In his extensive study "The Slumbering Masses. Sleep, Medicine and Modern American Life," anthropologist Matthew Wolf-Meyer shows that the original puritanical and functional attitudes about sleep, oriented toward usefulness, "continue to shape the understanding of sleep in America today," and that medical sleep research in the United States long aimed to "make sleep American by intensifying interests in its efficiency and management."

Today Americans suffer from a chronic sleep deficit. The National Sleep Foundation has found that many people sleep less during the week and make up for it on weekends. The consequence is a growing abuse of sleeping pills and an increase in admissions to sleep clinics. Sleep, like many of life's other challenges, is now seen as a management problem, one that is fundamentally fixable with rational means, which, in the case of sleep, often means medication.

Everything remains subordinate to efficiency and productivity. Capitalism is systematically turning night into day. Everything has to be available 24/7, without interruption, because there could always be someone with a desire to consume something, a desire that must be satisfied. The unlucky souls who work in Indian call centers are forced to sacrifice their nights to their jobs, which revolve around the timing of life in the West. Global capitalism is colonizing sleep.

In other words, the euro sovereign debt crisis  is merely the tip of a cultural struggle, one in which not only the way of life of people in Southern Europe is being challenged, but also that of Indians and Southeast Asians. The EU troika, backed as it is by a real or imaginary German hegemon, claims to be pronouncing indisputable truths. In truth, it is executing a radicalization of the Protestant work ethic.

The Prussian Taskmaster

Realistically speaking, very few euro countries, least of all Italy  or Greece , will be able to repay their debts by increasing economic growth. That would require real growth rates above 3 percent for many years to come. The Germans must ask themselves whether it makes sense to further ramp up the speed in the economic hamster wheel, to wield the whip and execute an austerity regime in the euro zone that is doomed to failure -- especially as these reform programs are perceived as dictates in Southern Europe and are plunging the European community of nations toward a crucial test.

Germany should not allow itself to be forced into the role of the Prussian taskmaster, who aims to implement strict discipline on the labor front throughout Europe and is being held responsible for the demise of cultural traditions. The social market economy does not follow the tennets of a radical, market-driven machinery of efficiency, which would of course have only one response to the subject of siestas: Get rid of them.

Agamben's popular call to defend Latin culture has a real background that would be foolish to ignore. Perhaps we should warm to the idea that the Spanish kings, in the days of the Fuggers, chose a solution that wasn't half bad: They did not repay their debts.

Max A. Höfer, 54, is an economist who lives in Berlin . His most recent book, published by Knaus, is called "Vielleicht will der Kapitalismus gar nicht, dass wir glücklich sind?" ("Maybe Capitalism Doesn't Even Want Us to be Happy?").

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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