Oct 4, 2011
Italy’s future – a theme park
Not a crisis, but a negotiation is underway among the debt-ridden countries of southern Europe. Greece and Italy illustrate Spengler’s Universal Law Number 15: Stick around long enough, and you turn into a theme park. As the descendants of the former masters of the Mediterranean fade into senescence, hordes of Asian tourists will keep them in business. That’s the Spartan model.
Sparta is the first world power to succumb to demographic suicide, and also the first former power to live on as a theme park. Aristotle reports that Sparta “sank under a single defeat; the want of men was their ruin”. Sparta once had 10,000 citizens, but by 371 BCE, when Thebes broke Spartan power at the Battle of Leuctra, had shrunk to barely 1,000.
Aristotle’s observation is doubly remarkable, as I report in my new book, How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). It is the first report in history of depopulation due to a reluctance to raise children. It is also the first time that the decline of a great power has been blamed on depopulation. Sparta lived on, though, as a theme park: the last remaining Spartans continued to oil their hair, don their red robes, play their flutes and train in a phalanx for gawking Roman visitors until the end of the 2nd century CE. “The prestige of the ‘revived’ training and the tourism which it generated helped this otherwise fairly typical provincial Greek city to maintain a place in the world and allowed the Spartans to feel that they were still ‘special’,”  according to two recent historians.
If Italian tourists kept Sparta afloat half a millennium after its political model passed its best-used-by-date, Chinese tourists well might sustain Italy for another century or two. Forty-three million tourists visited in 2009, spending about US$1,000 each. Another 15 million came to Greece. Under the right circumstances, Asians could double that number in a few years, helping Italy to service its US$2.2 trillion external debt. But there’s a catch: China would have to own a good deal of the country. The Chinese do not wish to merely stop and gawk: they want to learn, buy, and carry home the magic of Italian manufacturing. That would unlock tens of billions of dollars of unrealized export potential