The new spirit of capitalism


Roma, Sunday, April 28, 2002

In the first round of the French presidential campaign this past Sunday, Jean-Marie Le Pen --best known to the outside world for having stated that the gas chambers and the Holocaust as a whole were only "a detail in history," no less no more-- made a surprising show up as the candidate that will be confronting Jacques Chirac on May 5. But what's really surprising is not the score itself --barely 17%-- but the fact that he ended up second, and that the president and his prime minister received no more than 35% combined. There has been much speculation since then on the so-called "coming" of the extreme-right and the rise of xenophobia and racism in Europe generally. Part of the European public, we are told, has become more conservative because of the internal strains and the competitiveness imposed by the European Union, which to date, remains by and large an economic forum (and legal to some extent), while leaving the management of politics to the national governments. Indeed, Le Pen very much stands in opposition to the EU efforts, and he reiterated his hostility this past week in a number of interviews (with a major one to the weekly German Der Spiegel): in short, for him, if elected president on May 5 --and he remains very optimistic about such a possibility-- he would immediately request the withdrawal of France from the EU, the euro, and even the Shengen consortium (composed of eight European countries, all of which grant the same type of visa to foreigners). To be sure, such views are not unique to France only, as witnessed by similar --though not identical-- trends across Europe in particular in Austria, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium. In Italy, the Parliament voted in January against granting a court permission to prosecute Reforms Minister Umberto Bossi on charges of defaming the national flag during a 1997 rally of his then secessionist Northern League party (founded in 1984). Bossi had told a woman who was flying a national flag from her balcony during a rally that he considered the "tricolor" toilet paper material. (By comparison Le Pen would have no problem with the French "tricolor" --the only symbol, together with the now defunct Franc, that would give him "pride.") The National Alliance, another one of those "parties" founded in the wake of the collapse of the old-party system with the end of the Cold War, and which is mostly rooted in the south and does not hide its "pro-fascist" doctrines, had its leader Gianfranco Fini become the number two in the actual Berlusconi cabinet. The division of the new-party system between the traditional north-south allegiances, together with the fragmentation of the "left," inevitably led to the success of Berlusconi's own Forza Italia!, which indeed looks more like a modern soccer team run by wealthy businessmen, than a genuine political "party" in the traditional way --hence its overnight success since the early 1990s from the moment of its inception.

But even though there does seem a lingering malaise in the current European political system --in spite of the EU's much conservative attitudes towards politics, and its de facto numbness even when it comes to crucial political matters such as the wars in the ex-Yugoslavian confederation-- it would nevertheless be wrong to see such movements either as a "return to fascism," or as mere xenophobic localized nationalisms prompted by globalization and the competition over national markets and the like. To begin, "democracy," as Schumpeter reminded us back in 1942, is a "method," which implies particular rules in selecting and voting for representatives and their parties. Among all the current democratic countries only Israel could claim to have implemented a genuine "proportional" system of representation. It had to do so, it could be easily argued, as a factor of stabilization for a society of recent Jewish immigrants divided along their old regional backgrounds. Moreover, Israel's non-Jewish citizens, mostly Arabs who did not leave Mandate Palestine in the wake of the independence war in 1947/9, would not fit in the larger political formations and thus need parties of their own. All such groups --or the millets as the Ottomans used to call them-- have to be proportionally represented in the Knesset to be "integrated" within society and to feel that they have a "voice" of their own. By contrast, other democracies, whether North American or European, have either avoided such proportional representation or else reduced its impact considerably. In the United States, the emergence of the likes of Ross Perot and Ralph Nader as third-party candidates points to a bi-partisan malaise. Italy, for example, has only recently managed a complex mixture between a proportional and a majority system, while France has kept playing between the two on and off in the last two decades. Thus, Le Pen's Front National has for some time been granted a margin of 15 to 20% in the polls, but the complicated and mostly non-proportional French electoral system would not allow it to use its popular base very effectively due to the isolation of the Front National within the old party system. Since De Gaulle had transformed in 1962, with the coming of the fifth Republic, the election of the president by direct universal suffrage --with no mediation from an Electoral College or the like-- so that the latter would receive the legitimacy of his or her "mission" "directly from all our citizens," the "first rounds" acted de facto as a "proportional" measure of French political life: that was due to the ease with which one could pose him(her)self as a plausible presidential candidate. Yet, in the final analysis, it all amounted to ending with two "solidly"-rooted candidates --on the left and the right-- for the second round. Le Pen has therefore successfully broken that golden rule not because his popularity has substantially increased by any means, but because of the fragmentation of the traditional party system. That could be easily discerned with the number of candidates in the first round: sixteen in total. Interestingly, those who managed a score of above 5% in the first round will have the cost of their campaign covered by tax-payer's money, so that the Communist runner, Robert Hue, who scored only 3.5%, is now covered with a mounting debt, which prompted the Communist Party to begin a massive funding campaign to cover the several millions of euros that its miserable candidate had to trail behind.

The point here is therefore the fragmentation of the old party system, the one that survived throughout the Cold War, rather than a sudden rise in a quasi-fascist and nationalistic xenophobia and racism. Capitalism restructured itself by and large in the interwar period when its expansion was hampered by the residues left from the industrial revolution and colonialism. In countries doing well economically, such as the United States and the British Empire, the old class stratifications have been helpful in containing extremist movements either from the left or the right. In those societies laissez-faire capitalism and liberalism have succeeded in integrating large populations movements into a bi-polar party system. Socialists and communists alike defended and represented the interests of the working class, while the conservative liberals stood behind the bourgeoisie and its middle class. Far-right movements, such as Vichy under Pétain, were mostly concerned about the secularism of the Republic and its non-concern with the traditional values of the ancien régime. As Eric Hobsbawm has convincingly argued, such movements are not to be confused with fascism and totalitarianism, considering that with values that centered around travail, patrie, famille (all of which adopted by Le Pen's Front National), they were mostly pre-Revolution and failed to attract the mass appeal of the fascists in Italy and Germany. Indeed, their image of France was mostly aristocratic, one that was subservient to the nobility and the church. On the other hand, countries which like Italy and Germany had a long historical problem in unification and the creation of a coherent dominant class that would serve the interests of the newly promulgated territorial state, fell pray either to a hyphenated fascism, as was the case in Italy, or else adopted a hardened totalitarian fascism. The instincts of the masses thus survived, at least temporarily, and the integrity of the territory was conserved, even though a combined Anglo-American rescue operation was needed for the liberation from fascism.

It meant something at the time to consolidate an ideology that centered on "the protection of the workers' interests." It also meant something to claim the interests of the dominant classes either nationally or at a European scale. That was because class stratification mattered and formed the matrix of societies moving from their agrarian and peasant origins to a capitalism that was mostly urban, and in which agricultural production was no more the dominant factor. And while the peasant populations all across Europe rapidly dwindled, the number of students, bohemians, middle classes, and unemployed in the cities grew considerably. It could thus be argued that up to the 1950s class identity was an important factor in social cohesion, which in turn formed the backbone of the party system, the trade unions and the workers' associations. European societies have thus learned to survive long periods of internally monitored and pacified civil wars through the liberalism of the party system. The Paris commune and the revolutions of 1848, in their sudden shocks and ruptures, thus looked like relics of the past, triggered by massive industrialization and urbanization.

That civil peace and prosperity still survive in all the major industrialized nations today, the kind of peace that the Third World still aspires to. But beginning with the 1970s, however, a new "spirit" of capitalism has begun to emerge, one which, I think, has rendered traditional political affiliations problematic. In fact, with a more prosperous working class, and the growing of a youth culture as a result of mandatory schooling and a long college education, not to mention the incessant broadening of the middle class, all such factors have contributed in blurring the borderlines between blue- and white-collars workers, right and left, conservatives and liberals, and manual versus intellectual labor. As the French sociologist Luc Boltanski has argued in his recently published Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, the growing importance of information, transmission of knowledge, telecommunications, consumerism, individualism, and an independent and original life-style, have all increasingly led to an overt reliance on informal "networks" over class, family, and regional affiliations. Networks could be of a different nature and serve different purposes, such as specific professional or consumerist needs, and help in connecting individuals, which even though are socially from very different backgrounds, nevertheless share similar interests in their professions, hobbies, and leisure lives. When a plethora of political candidates present themselves as possible candidates for France's highest executive job, as was the case this past weekend, they are not anymore perceived solely in terms of their political affiliations, but mostly in terms of individual life-styles, a personalized ethical ethos, and their commitment to issues that those involved in networks would find primordial. Issues such as the safety of cities, immigration, the ecology, education and family, get more attention than they would normally do in traditional politics.

In that fragmentation of the social and political body, professional politicians like Le Pen with extremist values could be used by voters to cast a vote of dissatisfaction with the political system as-a-whole. But that would be achieved on the basis that it's a no-risk situation since everything would get back to normal by the second round. The most serious problem, however, is not the existence of the likes of Le Pen as much as the difficulties inherent in maintaining the old party system. That was witnessed, among others, in the incessant difficulties that the French socialist party has encountered in creating an ideology that would be all at the same time: open to globalization but protective of French national interests, impose a 35-hour workload but also court the big capitalist firms, support the American war in Afghanistan while protecting the interests of the Third World, etc. But if fragmentation and excessive experimentation is the way to go, what would then a government that needs a minimal consensus to function look like?



copyright © 2002 by zouhair ghazzal