Take the recent strikes in France. We learn they are a reactionary attempt to maintain the good life. An overblown romantic revolt over some trivial policy change, with young emotions unleashed on just two additional years on the pension age. Those pampered French again!
But is it so simple? Diana Johnstone offers an alternative view:
…this movement is an expression of exasperation with the government of Nicolas Sarkozy, which blatantly favors the super-rich over the majority of working people in this country… The Labor Minister who introduced the reform, Eric Woerth, got a job for his wife on the office staff of the richest woman in France, Liliane Bettencourt, heir to the Oreal cosmetics giant, at the same time that, as budget minister, he was overlooking her massive tax evasions. While tax benefits for the rich help empty the public coffers, this government is doing what it can to tear down the whole social security system that emerged after World War II on the pretext that “we can’t afford it”.
The retirement issue is far more complex than “the age of retirement”. The legal age of retirement means the age at which one may retire. But the pension depends on the number of years worked, or to be more precise, on the number of cotisations (payments) into the joint pension scheme. On the grounds of “saving the system from bankruptcy”, the government is gradually raising the number of years of cotisations from 40 to 43 years, with indications that this will be stretched out further in the future…
The trend is for qualified personnel to enter the work force later and later, having spent years getting an education. With the difficulty of finding a stable, full-time job, many depend on their parents until age 30. It is simple arithmetic to see that in this case, there will be no full retirement until after age 70. (In effect this will reduce pensions, as people will retire before this age. See also Mark Weisbort for a sharp critique of Sarkozy and his plans.)
That detail about the Labour minister is just the kind of thing to spark off a strike… Is there something he is not telling us? Let’s have a closer look at the Professor.
The pension age must rise to maintain the pension system; and the majority agree; but they also support the strikers. How French!
Mark Weisbort suggests a reason for this apparent contradiction: the population are opposed to Sarkozy’s proposals, while the media supports them. Public opinion, as we know, can be manipulated so as to gain support for measures that are against the public’s own interest. The inflation of the present crisis in Britain to cut public funds, while at the same time transferring government contracts to large corporations,[i] is another recent example. Governments have a bad habit of not telling the truth, and as it suits the corporate interest these distortions and outright lies become the conventional wisdom of public discourse, which inevitably affects how people perceive events; for you have to be very interested in the topic indeed to achieve an alternative narrative. These strikes could provide the catalyst for just such a narrative; a new understanding that embodies the living concerns of the population, who have been told there is no other option. Yesterday’s acquiescence is today’s resistance, when we learn new facts and arguments; and some brave souls step into the street and protest. We also know that opinion polls in Le Monde, the New York Times and yes, even the Guardian, are not to be trusted – how are the questions framed; and what context is given? –; for too often they are used to confirm the paper’s own opinions, rather than genuinely assessing what people think.
Revolutionary means for extreme conservative purposes.
Are strikes really a revolutionary means? Sometimes they can be, thus the 1905 revolution in Russia. Generally, though, strikes are for quite specific, often very concrete, grievances; usually to protect benefits and working conditions that are under threat.[ii] France 2010 seems to be following the usual pattern; though there appears more solidarity between the different sectors of French society than in Britain; and which must relate to differences in national culture and politics.
Paris 1968 has become an icon; a sort of Andy Warhol screen print of Marilyn and Chairman Mao. In the process it has lost all specificity and content. Indeed, like red wine and cheese it is now a French national symbol; at least for a particular generation.[iii] And like all symbols it can be used for many purposes: to inspire a new revolt or trash an existing one. In this case with a little negative colouring it can be used to ridicule the protesters: those French, they’re overdoing it again.
Protecting the Welfare State is an extreme conservative position.
Hurrah for the conservative position that it can be so liberal and modest! If trying to maintain the welfare state in its current form, with its protection of the incomes of the poorer classes, is conservative, what is the progressive position? To support Sarkozy to increase the wealth of the already super rich? This sounds very like the top-down radical populism I covered in the last post. Who are the radicals now? There is a fascinating discussion between Bryan Magee and Noam Chomsky where the latter describes how classical liberalism was transformed during the last century.
In the modern period the term ‘liberalism’ has taken on a very strange sense, if you think of its history. Liberalism is now essentially the theory of State capitalism, of State intervention in a capitalist economy. That has little relation to classical liberalism. In fact, classical liberalism is now what’s called Conservatism, I suppose. But this new view is highly authoritarian. It’s one which accepts a number of centres of authority and control – the State on the one hand, agglomerations of private power on the other – all interacting, while individuals are malleable cogs in this highly constrained machine. (Men of Ideas)
19th century liberalism was seen as a progressive force, overturning the vested interests of the aristocracy and the landowning classes. Not so any longer. It is now part of the ideology of the corporate state; and though fused with modern conservatism it still speaks the language of reform and progress. The old kind of conservative, represented by Sir Ian Gilmour, and perhaps Chomsky himself, may actually be the model we should aspire to now, since the words radical and revolution have become so mangled and misused. For Professor Moisi, and numerous right wing commentators and corporate officials, the term reform denotes the rollback of the progressive legislation of the last 150 years. Keith Joseph, friend of Margaret Thatcher and a key figure in the New Right’s ideological reorientation in the 1970s, saw his politics in just these radical terms.
In the 1960s it was natural to think of radical politics as belonging to the Left – history seemed to be on its side, with the gradual liberalisation of the cultural sphere; and the improvement in worker’s rights. The radical Right, if not forgotten, were viewed often as freaks or strange fanatics, completely outside the political realities; merely the detritus left over from the Fascist and Reactionary movements of the 1920’s and 1930’s. History was waving goodbye to them…. Of course the liberal state had its problems, but the radical solutions appeared to be naturally Left wing ones. The establishment had accepted a Christian or social democracy, with the conservatives looking to maintain what it appeared to be losing; together with a nostalgia for a past history. No more. The political reality has changed 180 degrees, and now the natural solutions appear those of the “free market” right; the ideology of the corporations, and the multi-national institutions that buttress their power. And this position is very comfortable for a majority of the political establishment; particularly its right wing parties.
Once we realise this we begin to see what the term radical actually means in mainstream political discourse… Conservative, either in the 18th century sense, alluded to by Chomsky, or the 20th century sense, exemplified by Gilmour, no longer exists. It is not the ideology of the ruling class, at all – the revolutionary Right is their model now; where economic determinism has replaced the Social Darwinianism of the 19th century as the motive force behind their theories. And this may in part explain the populism that exists at the centre of even government.[iv] The extreme Right were always keen to use the mob or the masses to fight Socialism or overturn Liberal administrations; which they usually conceived as a conspiracy of hidden or outside forces. Often this was merely a projection of their own views and psychology; of relatively small groups of extremists, or court officials, who would manipulate the general population to turn the establishment over to them.[v] Though that establishment, especially on the continent, was quite prepared to use them for their own purposes; and thus the political progress of Hitler and the NSDAP throughout the Weimar republic. Of course, many elements of the 19th century’s radical Right have been lost; and its ideology has been transformed: notions about race and hereditary absolutism have been replaced in favour of God the Market, with the corporation its new King or Emperor. But the populist feel, which resonates with the culture of the times, has remained, and is consciously used to undermine “elites” in the public service. This is not to say that groups even further to the right of the western establishments do not exist, with ideologies based on racism and violence, only that a significant part of the corporate state has incorporated the language of revolution and the common man to both justify and camouflage its political and economic programmes; which are essentially instrumental, to increase the wealth of the already wealthy, with an aggressive liberalism at its core. And thus terms that once applied to the opponents of privilege now apply to the CEO’s of the IMF and BP. This not only confuses the political language, making it harder to think clearly, but in a subtle way provides the discourse of progressive justification for what are actually quite irredentist policies.
The French so emotional; in love with the past but fearful for the future. And hey! They just want to be happy…
The wise professor is dealing with children. They are just kids you know. Moisi’s article was published eight days after Mark Weisbort’s in the same paper. The latter supports the strikes and gives detail about the issues, together with a coherent analysis. Maybe he has got his facts wrong? If so, surely Moisi’s article would have been a wonderful opportunity to argue against him, dealing the concrete issues that Weisbort has raised. But no! It’s only the nation’s nostalgia for adolescent happiness that is causing these strikes. It all comes back to Freud and his pleasure principle… The quality of his piece is quite unbelievable (and if my memory serves is reminiscent of the later attacks on May 1968, which was also explained in Freudian terms, precisely in order to diminish it).
But wait! The French are also extremely rational, with their Cartesian heritage. With no fear of contradiction how easy it is to play these games:
And yet the reactionary/revolutionary movement of the type that we are witnessing – a backlash against the inevitable consequences of globalisation – remains unmistakably French. It is driven by the extreme Cartesian rationality, verging on the absurd, of a country whose citizens continue to view their state in the same way that adolescents view their parents.
I have to admit I’m at a loss as to how Descartes fits into this picture. Because he thinks? Because he is sceptical? Because he ran after Queen Christina of Sweden? Help me reader. As I labour through the professor’s words it begins to dawn on me that he can write only in clichés. Perhaps he thinks we are badly informed tourists who can understand his country only at the basest, most simple level. So he starts with those few things we all should know; with food, then 1968, now amour, and finally the great philosopher. It is a cartoon world for the ignorant. The only surprise is that the Guardian should commission an article by someone who has so little respect for its readership.
And globalization is inevitable; like God and the setting sun. If you believe the market theology, that the economy is self-regulating and multi-nationals must rule the world, then yes he’s right. As Christians are right if you accept their doctrines on their own terms. Do we? Should the Enlightenment intellectuals have accepted the eternal truth of the Catholic Church? Or Western Europe Marx’s iron laws of history? Of course, the current trend of state corporate capitalism, where the multi-nationals continue to grow and affect larger areas of our lives, creating a new society based on money and consumption, is a powerful one. It doesn’t follow it is inevitable – who would have predicted in 1983 that the Berlin Wall would come down in 1989? And no matter how powerful the trend should we simply accept it? Should we passively let the billionaires and their cronies, the large corporations and their mates in the IMF and the European Commission, get richer at the public’s expense? We are wrong and foolish to fight it? Just as the Chartists and trade unions in the 19th century were wrong to fight the mill owners and their political supporters; because it was inevitable that they would lose? The Professor disagrees because he has accepted that globalization is an immutable law, a new divinity; so much so that it has become a simple reflex – did he even think about it when he wrote those words? Yet what is globalization actually? As defined here it is the march of an imperial army, the multi-national corporation, across the globe… That is, a human phenomenon created and maintained by humans; and thus mutable. This is a curious reversal. During the Cold War much liberal thought went into opposing the idea of historical laws, and historical determinism; and many books were written against the mistaken belief that even if these laws existed, we could ever recognise them. Now the liberal position appears to accept just such a position! The Professor knows the laws of history, he reads their signs in Microsoft and KPMG.
Once upon a time attempts to overturn progressive laws were recognised for what they were: reaction. Today they are called reform!
But their opposition to change reflects not only a certain denial of reality, it also corresponds to a rebuttal of the man who incarnates in their eyes everything they reject. Indeed, Sarkozy's personal unpopularity plays a significant role in the continuing strength of the anti-reform opposition. How can a man who represents "big business", or who simply seems fascinated by money, dare ask them to sacrifice for France? The French passion for equality nowadays far outweighs the French passion for liberty, and thus threatens French prosperity.[vi]
Our friend believes in “reality”. Most of us would probably agree on this point, at least. But to oppose a corporation’s influence or a particular government policy is to deny the real world? Was Hungary in 1956 or the Prague Spring idealist fantasies, because they failed? How many would agree with the professor on that? Would he agree with himself? I assume in his early years he opposed Russian imperialism (or did he support it, and thus even then accept historical inevitability?). But reality here has its own special meaning: to be on the side of power and privilege, with its throwback to the idea of the divine right of kings, where their rule was ordained by the natural order, created and sanctioned by God. In a time when liberals are chasing after Christians and Moslems for their beliefs, most of which are tolerant and modest and have little negative impact on the world, it is strange that a most evangelical faith, and which is as medieval as Osama Bin Laden’s, is allowed to propagate almost unnoticed; even though its most powerful advocates seek to impoverish both its own people and that of other countries. Who are the Savonarolas now?
[i] The Audit Commission for example. Though interestingly there is a potential fight between the monopolistic tendencies of the four main accountancy corporations and the FRC (Financial Regulatory Council); which has suggested the creation of a new private auditing company, to increase competition, than rather parcelling out the Commission’s work to these four firms. (PwC slates FRC idea to create Big Five, in AccountancyAge)
[ii] And it is often forgotten that to strike is a big decision for people to make: lost of earnings; the tedium, particularly in long strikes, and the menace of official violence and abuse.
[iii] Tony Judt:
The radicals of 1968 mimicked to the point of caricature the style and the props of past revolutions – they were, after all, performing on the same stage. But they foreswore to repeat their violence. As a consequence, the French ‘psychodrama’ (Aron) of 1968 entered popular mythology almost immediately as an object of nostalgia, a stylized struggle in which the forces of Life and Energy and Freedom were ranged against the numbing, gray dullness of the men of the past. (Post War: A history of Europe Since 1945)
[v] See Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide for the relationship between a conspiratorial frame of mind and the propagation of conspiracy theories; with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other anti-Semitic literature serving both as a paranoiac justification for the Far Right’s racism, and a guide for future action; particularly the Nazis.
[vi] It’s a nice formula – liberty equals prosperity and the French prefer equality. But it is meaningless. Each of those terms must be properly defined and given content. Liberty – for whom? The corporation? Prosperity for whom? The nation state, the establishment or the general population? And even on these abstract terms how does he explain the greater prosperity of Japan, which is relatively more egalitarian than other European countries?
David Runciman, reviewing The Spirit Level, draws a completely opposite conclusion based on the findings of empirical research:
The argument of this fascinating and deeply provoking book is easy to summarise: among rich countries, the more unequal ones do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator you can imagine. They do worse even if they are richer overall, so that per capita GDP turns out to be much less significant for general wellbeing than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population (the basic measure of inequality the authors use). The evidence that Wilkinson and Pickett supply to make their case is overwhelming. Whether the test is life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity levels, crime rates, literacy scores, even the amount of rubbish that gets recycled, the more equal the society the better the performance invariably is. In graph after graph measuring various welfare functions, the authors show that the best predictor of how countries will rank is not the differences in wealth between them (which would result in the US coming top, with the Scandinavian countries and the UK not too far behind, and poorer European nations like Greece and Portugal bringing up the rear) but the differences in wealth within them (so the US, as the most unequal society, comes last on many measures, followed by Portugal and the UK, both places where the gap between rich and poor is relatively large, with Spain and Greece somewhere in the middle, and the Scandinavian countries invariably out in front, along with Japan). Just as significantly, this pattern holds inside the US as well, where states with high levels of income inequality also tend to have the greatest social problems. It is true that some of the most unequal American states are also among the poorest (Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia), so you might expect things to go worse there. But some unequal states are also rich (California), whereas some fairly equal ones are also quite poor (Utah). Only a few (New Hampshire, Wyoming) score well on both counts. What the graphs show are the unequal states tending to cluster together regardless of income, so that California usually finds itself alongside Mississippi scoring badly, while New Hampshire and Utah both do consistently well. Income inequality, not income per se, appears to be the key. As a result, the authors are able to draw a clear conclusion: ‘The evidence shows that even small decreases in inequality, already a reality in some rich market democracies, make a very important difference to the quality of life.’ Achieving these decreases should be the central goal of our politics, precisely because we can be confident that it works. This is absolutely not, they insist, a ‘utopian dream’.
In his review Runciman discusses the book’s biggest weakness: the belief that everyone benefits from equality. They don’t. Except for infant mortality the rich and privileged benefit enormously from its opposite; with not only greater wealth and better life chances, but more status within one’s own country. Thus the rise of inequality in the last 40 years has, despite all the protestations to the contrary, not been for the benefit of society as a whole, but for those at the top of the social pyramid. And the history suggests that the only way to overturn this trend is not by some technical fix, by the social science experts, but from a social revolution, which in the past has often come from pressure from outside: Scandinavia in the 1930’s and Japan after the Second World War.