The future in the mirror

Willem de Kooning, Landing Place, 1970 (Published 1971).
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By BRAND IRON*

It widens the gap between the richest and poorest societies; within each one, the gap between the most privileged and the destitute deepens.

At the end of the millennium, the idea hovered over us that we are entering a new historical era, the era of globalization. Wouldn't that be, however, a simple optical illusion? After all, the world unification movement has existed for a long time, despite its recent expansion and acceleration. The dramatic character of the two world wars – dramatic to the point that these conflicts are considered as markers of the beginning and end of an era – would it not have been a mere incident in the course of History, only discreetly altering the course of a centuries-old process?

Let's look at an example. Globalization is attributed to the emergence of new anonymous and uncontrollable masters who arbitrarily increase or decrease prices, who speculate on capital, trigger economic crises, create and destroy fashions and opinions. Now, this diagnosis can be equally applied to the pre-war period – a time when professions were born and died before completing the cycle of a generation, while the latest inventions trampled one another.

Colonization, in its own way, had already represented the first form of uniformity in the world, be it in the name of God, civilization or the search for gold. It matters little whether yesterday's master was a banker or some other important figure, whether he now lives in the City, on Wall Street or in Brussels. And for victims, the effects are much the same. What is new is that globalization reaches the most distant corners of the planet, ignoring both the independence of peoples and the diversity of political regimes.

There is, in any case, an important difference between the present and the past. At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, for victims of societal transformations – be they political or religious persecution – there was a way out: some left for the Americas, others organized a revolution or fought for their independence. Now, when the social rift in the West is seen even deeper, European emigration no longer offers the possibilities it once did, revolution is no longer attractive: on the other side of the ocean, the morning after independence came laden with disappointments. The fall of the Soviet system discredited the ideas on which it was said to be founded – although they were, in fact, perverted by it.

Outside the West, the dramas faced by entire populations – in Central Africa, Bangladesh, etc. – testify that the improvement in the standard of living of the most unfortunate, even if possible, remains an illusion. On the one hand, the gap between the richest and poorest societies increases; on the other hand, within each one, the gap between the standard of living of the most privileged and that of the destitute deepens.

Such reversals had effects that, in the post-war dawn, no one could have imagined. In Russia, for example, the end of the Soviet regime, seen as the rebirth of its freedom, resulted in a series of catastrophes. The “transition” was marked by mass unemployment and galloping inflation, which reduced the savings of millions of citizens to dust, pushing them into poverty and reducing their life expectancy. This trauma, without historical precedent, mainly affected people between 40 and 50 years of age: they witnessed the destruction of their standard of living, the disappearance of the relationship they had with the organizations that offered them stability – factories, universities, public services, etc.

The upheavals in Western society were less dramatic. But the effects of the crisis and accelerated globalization also brought about a regression. Unemployed, victims of economic restructuring also lost their security. In the times of the “thirty glorious years” nobody imagined that the social elevator that carried them would suddenly stop. Here, as elsewhere, such catastrophic changes have had effects on people's health: stress, which previously only affected individuals exposed to danger or in positions of responsibility, finally reaches vast social strata. In western Europe, diseases associated with the crisis and the disorganization of work take the place of those that, until then, were associated with the organization of work.

For two centuries, the main claim of Western populations was the right to work, associated with a minimum income in case of illness. Thanks to the welfare state and social security, this right was guaranteed. In the world of work, we have witnessed, since then, a slow displacement of conflict foci. It was Germany that paved the way: for half a century, there has been a steady reduction in the number of strike days and an equally steady increase in the number of sick days. More clearly than in other parts of Europe, the existence of an association between strike and illness is observed, in such a way that employers claim that it is a case of reducing the base salary of those whose number of absences exceeds a certain floor.

It can be considered that the disease has become a new form of social refusal, an individual desertion in response to a general malaise. Among OECD countries, Sweden takes first place in absenteeism, with only 250 to 280 effective working days per year; the number of absences due to illness increased from 13 to 25 between 1988 and 1997, with the Swedish system “turning disease into a social buffer”.

Moreover, in recent years, the right to treatment has been replaced by the right to be cured. Perfect health thus becomes a life project – if not a substitute ideology. Such third-type patients, harbingers of a new health paradigm, become patient-partners of their physicians, keeping their lawyers close – especially in the United States. Getting sick is no longer an accident, but a way of life that guarantees an identity to those who sometimes have no other. It gives meaning to their lives.

The end of the bright future

Thus, through all sorts of perverse effects, and also thanks to advances in extending life, the crisis of societies produces patients, and such patients ruin society. An infernal cycle: health and safety issues have moved to the center of political debates, in the United States as well as in France, precisely at the moment of greatest longevity, when there have never been so many doctors and patients.

Another trait that differentiates our present is the questioning of the dogma of progress, associated with the continued success of science. At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, and with the development of social science and political theories - Marx's "scientific" socialism, Kropotkin's "scientific" anarchism, etc. – it was thought that progress in the mode of government would necessarily follow that of other scientific activities. In fact, in response to the crimes committed in the name of perverse ideologies, the belief in a bright future disappeared, but at least hope remained in material and technical progress. And, in fact, after the end of the great wars, this belief was strengthened by the consumer society, by the eradication of a first epidemic, that of smallpox – which would be followed by others –, by the invention of the pill, by the adventures of the Sputnik satellite and the first man on the moon etc.

Now, on all sides, we see signs of an approaching catastrophe. In Africa, to begin with, the imperative of economic development at all costs causes the appearance or reappearance of “unknown” epidemics. Then, in line with the warnings of ecologists, Chernobyl demonstrates the reality of the nuclear danger. Finally, AIDS and the consequences of the industrialization of medical resources (with the contaminated blood scandal) etc. It thus confirms that the effects of science must be controlled – a conviction that the “mad cow” and the first clones reinforce – but it also confirms that science collides with insurmountable barriers.

Now we know that it is not just the habit of excessive consumption of antibiotics that reduces their effectiveness, but the resistance of bacteria that react and regenerate without science being able to react – a fact that contradicts several current beliefs. The same goes for the unpredictability of the yellow fever cycle, whose periodicity we still haven't mastered; nor do we dominate the cosmic phenomena that produce El Niño variations.

We find similar boundaries and issues in the realm of politics—except in the United States, where, under any circumstances, Americans believe their country represents a model for all societies. In Europe, and particularly in France, however, we are struck by a contradiction. We do not stop charging the State while stigmatizing its agents. We found a questioning of the political devices adopted, which we witnessed an increase in abstention. This phenomenon (which reaches its peaks in the United States) is associated, here, with the emergence of a political class whose regionalization, it is true, increased the scope, but which is perpetuated and reinforced in the form of hereditary family dynasties. This dissociation between citizens and elected officials confirms that such regimes are indeed representative and parliamentary, but not democratic.

No political resources

This modus operandi of the political system is translated into the speech that the elected present to their voters: “We respect your rights, defined by us, but let us govern alone and calm”. The essential is thus reduced to elections – a situation, in fact, more democratic than the regimes, communist or not, that do not even respect these rights and whose vanguard, in all its wisdom, rejected any form of representative democracy. In any case, this dissociation is still experienced as an alienation.

So, at a time when radio, written press and television inform citizens and democratize knowledge, not only do party leaders not seem to be more competent than most citizens, but also the militants themselves are transformed into simple supporters of American – unless they want to adopt a political career, in the same way that the burghers of yore wanted to enter the nobility. Citizens lost, with this, not only their ideological references, but ended up feeling without resources.

This frustration has the counterpart of a participationist activism that translates, especially in France, into the vitality of associative life. It leads to the appearance of counter-powers, truly democratic, with reduced capacities, in fact, but which testify both to the abandonment, on the part of the citizens, of the traditional forms of representative political life and the will to participate in the activities of the country.

What is surprising, particularly in France, is that those who speak out in defense of the modernization of politics themselves belong to the establishment and they think only in terms of the traditional forms of the parliamentary system. Consulted a few years ago about a constitutional reform, our great jurists did not find, under their togas, solutions other than the reduction of the presidential mandate, the harmonization of the modes of election and the limitation of the accumulation of mandates. Wouldn't that be forgetting that such political devices emerged at the end of the XNUMXth century, when the American and French revolutions built a new political order and a project based on an analysis of the functioning of societies at that time?

The principles on which they rest – human rights, separation of powers, etc. – are certainly still relevant. However, new forms have been born since the constitution of this democratic and republican model, whether it is a matter of capitalist organization, science capabilities or media development. However, no constitutional project takes them into account. It is the economic and managerial order that, little by little, assumes the figure of the law, imposing its criteria and judgments. What remains of political democracy's ability to make its will heard?

*Marc Ferro (1924-2021) was professor of history at the École polytechnique (Paris) and co-director of the journal Les Annales (Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations). Author, among other books, of The Russian Revolution of 1917 (Perspective).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published in the magazine Le Monde diplomatique in September 1999.

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