by Jerome a Paris
Sun Jan 11th, 2009 at 11:40:47 AM EST
This topic was already discussed in marco's diary [last month], but as I have now actually read the book, and found it extremely insightful, I wanted to revisit it.
What struck me in the two reviews that marco posted (one from Le Monde, one from the Financial Times, with the more critical one being the French one) is that both fail to mention that Todd bases his arguments, like in previous books, on long-term demographic and sociological trends for which he provides a wealth of data. So presenting his work purely as a political pamphlet is already to deny his background in facts and figures and thus its strength.
It is not surprising, of course, that the media elite would try to dismiss his work given that it is a scathing indictment of said elite, using themes that are rather familiar here on ET:
[editor's note, by Migeru] Fold inserted here for the front page
- that the underlying problems are economic in nature (and populism, islamophobia or racism are just diversions that, in his view, are unlikely to work in the long term),
- that a very small elite has cut itself off from the rest of the population, accumulating massive wealth in the process and now engaging in an amoral power grab,
- that the left is complicit in this process as its technocrats are fundamentally supportive of the neoliberal dogma of unfettered free-trade.
But his main theme is that economic trends have been driven by long-term underlying trends: one is the rise of a large class of highly educated professionals, whose education has allowed it to see itself as distinct from "the masses", and to behave in much more autonomous and individualistic ways; the second is the fall in the practice of religion, which has simultaneously killed the unifying secular republicanism whose main purpose was its hostility to religion.
His book is about France, and some of these notions are not easily replicated elsewhere, but his first point is that the end of society-shaping ideologies, combined with high level of education, has taken large swathes of the population into inchoate, narcisstic behavior with a focus on self, sex and money (Sarkozy being in that respect a perfect representative of our times). His second is that this has been fertile ground for inequality and, when the "elite" (the highly educated) is 20-30% of the population, you need something else to distinguish yourself, and that is capital. We have thus seen a massive quest to accumulate and concentrate capital, via globalisation which, as he notes, allows the re-creation within countries of the inequality that exists between countries. (As an aside, he notes that French has two words: mondialisation - which is the exogenous fact the communications and exchanges are easier - and globalisation, which is the chosen economic process whereby free trade imposes that wage levels converge).
What's happening today is that the educated middle class realises that it is not quite part of the elite, and is seeing its position, both in absolute and relative terms, worsen. But that growing awareness is being fought by various distractions like immigrant-bashing, islamophobia or berlusconesque populism (the difference between democracy and populism, in Todd's view, is not the absence of an elite; it is that democracy happens when the people trust their elite, and the elite does act on behalf of the people).
He sees worrying signs that the outcome could be fascism (populism turning nasty, as Sarkozy hints) or a suspension of universal rights (a temptation he sees on the left, as the technocrats are not happy with how the population votes, and suspend votes, as has been done already at the European level: elections could go on at the local level, but have no bearing on economic policy). His suggestion for a better outcome is for European elites to ackowledge that the underlying problems today are economic, and that they need to address these which, in Europe, means re-establishing protectionism at the continental level, with the explicit goal of increasing wages again.
It is hard to give credit to all the demographic data he provides, but these are at the heart of the book and, for that reason alone, the book is worth reading in full. His analysis is that France is in a rather unusual position, with a strong, deep-seated thirst for equality in its population and an elite which is rather more neo-liberal than anywhere else.