31 May 2011

The Us and Them Syndrome: The Case of France

When I read about the "dolchstosslegende" in Harper's Magazine a while ago (it is a must read for anyone) I remember seeing a large incandescent bulb appear just above my head: it made so much sense historically and illuminated so many paths in modern day politics. The legend was introduced by the vanquished German army in 1918 to attribute their defeat to the traitorous activities of "internal enemies" who stabbed Germany in the back.

As we know, within two short decades, that "internal enemy" ended up in Auschwitz and Birkenau. The Harper's article narrates the story how American conservative movement used the same legend to explain away the failure to win the Vietnam War. It was lost because, they claimed, the American liberals, intellectuals and the Democratic Party stabbed their country in the back.

It is a neat trick as it absolves one while demonizing the other. And if you pursue it systematically, it creates a sharp internal division and a highly polarized segments whose mutual hatred prevents any governance compromises.

Until I read it, I never understood the internationalist social democracy movement of the late 19th century gave way to the bloodshed of World War I and II. I have been equally puzzled about how the social movements of the 60's and 70's like the New Left, Peace Movement, Feminism and Green Movement were transformed into a sharply divided and polarized Gordon Gekko paradise, where the former parasites became the true Randian producers and the true producers were designated parasites.

As I mentioned, I have been living in France for several years now. Previously, I had lived in Europe in the late 70's and early 80's, so I have a pretty good basis for a before-and-after comparison.

At the time, France was a very progressive country. Simone de Beauvoir's pioneering but somewhat self-loathing feminism had given way to more assertive and sophisticated analyses of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. Despite the existence of an oppressive state apparatus that harassed immigrants, large segments of society claimed solidarity with these underclasses with movements like "Touche pas à mon pote."

Communism had gone through the Euro-communism phase made fashionable by Enrico Berlinguer and, though more Stalinist than PCI, the French Communist Party appeared capable of governing within a coalition of the left. And the whole thing reached its zenith when Mitterand became the first Socialist to be elected President de la République.

Also, and people forget that, France had an impressively efficient and advanced industrial sector. It was capable of producing its own war planes (Mirage) and it was the driving force behind the most advanced passenger plane, Concorde, to cite two obvious examples.

Moreover, from Traction Avant to DS series, Citroen was one of the most technologically avant-garde companies on the planet. And while ARPANET, the precursor of the Internet, was a closed specialized network, France had the first popular Internet called the Minitel. Starting from 1982, most land lines in France came with a small screen that enabled people to make reservation, to get a cab, to communicate with others using some kind of bulletin board technology. As a result, most of the French telephone network was digital. If I remember correctly, at the time, their network was close to 80 percent digital, when the rest of the world, including the US, had only a fraction of their analog network converted.

The booming economy, an advanced technological infrastructure with high industrial productivity, a progressive electorate and finally a socialist government led to a number of societal advances. Their health sector has been routinely selected as the best in the world. Their schools are of high quality yet inexpensive. Their working people have some of the highest number of vacation days per year in the world. And they only have to work 35 hours a week. They retire relatively early and they die old.

In the intervening years, instead of adapting, reforming and therefore protecting these important gains, French society lost its societal perspective and social solidarity. Instead every trade union in every sector wants to keep what they acquired but they no longer care if everyone else's taken away. For instance, subway drivers were given important concessions due to risks associated with their job during World War II, including a very early retirement age. Even though there are no such risks any longer, they routinely go on strike to maintain those rights, which are very difficult to justify when cost-cutting affects other municipal workers.

Health care is running into serious difficulties due to rising costs and inadequate funding of the sector. Instead of thinking about reforming what is acclaimed as an excellent system, people ask for more and they want to pay less for it. The same is true of the education sector. And while productivity is still quite high in the industrial sector (due mostly to the creation of capital-intensive facilities that favor machines over labor), it is abysmally low in the service sector.

Any talk of reform is shut down almost immediately. By now, the social solidarity of 30 years ago has been replaced by a "me, myself and I" perspective. If you ask (almost) anyone in France, they will tel you that the problems are caused by "immigrants" who abuse the health care system by bringing in illegally their relatives and getting them treated in hospitals. In the same vein, French people are convinced that the decline of social services, including unemployment insurance and state assistance programs are also the immigrants' fault as all of them are unemployed and reproduce like crazy, sucking unemployment benefits and state assistance programs dry.

The mind set seems to have shifted from a high-earning-social-solidarity-society to a Galtian us "producers" vs them "parasites." The racial dividing line that fuels the same resentment in the US, where it is the blacks and illegal aliens "sucking the country dry," seems, in France, to be with African, Arab and Muslim minorities.

In fact, French media is full of stories how "they" are taking over. My neighbors fret that very soon this country will cease to be a republic and become a Caliphate.

Why the Shift?

Usually, when confronted with this question, people make a laundry list of possible causes, hoping that one or more of them will seem explanatory to their interlocutors. They mention the radicalization of Muslim minorities in France after 9/11. They point to chronic budget deficits that impose different choices. They emphasize high taxes and unrealistic number of state assistance programs. They complain about the intransigence of trade unions and "others."

I tend to disagree with those ideas. The radicalization of Muslim minorities might have taken place after 9/11 but it has more to do with the built-in cultural racism that kept them aside and down for decades. Maybe 9/11 gave them some kind of spark, I don't know, but I know that they were rebelling against the cultural oppression that makes them "the other" on a daily basis.

Unlike other Western countries, France does not have a huge ethnic racism. Interracial marriages are very common and do not warrant the second glance they always get in the US. French racism takes the form of being tested constantly how culturally assimilated a person is in their daily life. The way you speak, your sentence structures, how you eat, what you eat, how you argue, what you find funny etc are all closely regimented. If you deviate, eye rolling people will warn you that "Ça ne se fait pas" this is not done. Words that strike terror in the hearts of immigrants. So, you always run the risk of either being infantilized or excluded by your peers if you do not behave exactly how you are supposed to behave.

Blaming the immigrants for the ills of France is actually an effort to whitewash that cultural racism by pointing to their by now defiant acts such as Friday prayers being conducted on the streets of Paris suburbs.

The other economic causes usually brought into this discussion are -like the Muslim radicalization- symptoms, rather than causes. Chronic budget deficits, high taxes or large number of state assistance programs could have been addressed during boom times. Instead, all French governments continued to tax people (as high as 57 percent, making it the highest tax burden on the world) and paternalistically re-distributed that money in the form of state assistance programs. They never tried to increase productivity in the public sector (or in the service sector). They never seriously tried to reform the system to make better use of public finances. They lavishly spent on defense (as, until recently, they remained outside NATO's military wing) and on huge projects that showed France's grandeur.

And while it is true that trade unions were intransigent, their stand was somewhat justified as they questioned why their members should be the ones making sacrifices when profligacy was the norm throughout the republic.

All the while, conservatives kept saying that the system could not be reformed because the left (i.e the trade unions) are resisting change AND the immigrants were sucking the system dry.

The identification of internal "others" who are there to destroy, change or take over the country is a powerful political force. As Michael Moore graphically illustrated in Bowling for Colombine, it is quite easy to do away with social solidarity by constantly telling the population that certain elements within it are set to destroy them. If you remember, he was putting Canada and the US side by side with comparable per capita gun ownership Canada producing an insignificant number of gun-related murder. He attributed this to decades-long evening news broadcasts emphasizing crimes committed by "others" as in, "African Americans and Hispanics are coming to get you." As an illustration, I remember watching a 20/20 episode some 25 years ago with Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs with the main segment telling the story of what was presented as a bank robbery epidemic in California. While the voice over said that the overwhelming majority of bank robbers were white folks, the five separate security footage they showed had four black and one Hispanic robbers.

Something similar is being done in France. French journalism was traditionally a journalism of opinion, something along the lines of the Economist. They rarely ventured into the kind of efforts called investigative journalism in the US. Nowadays, it became a journalism of the mundane. Even the high-brow Le Monde has a renewed focus on what is known here as faits-divers. A lot of those daily events focus on the "crimes" committed in the suburbs. Just like the American evening news dealing with the others, they deal with Arabs, Muslims and Africans doing terrible things.

They also disproportionately highlight horrors committed by Muslims elsewhere. For instance, the New Year's eve clashes that took place in Egypt were mostly reported as more Muslim atrocities, whereas elsewhere, Muslims serving as human shields around Coptic churches were also underlined. Most stories from the Middle East and North Africa has that dog whistle element about scary Muslims. All of this is beginning to have an effect. Marine Le Pen's reported 23 percent poll numbers could be a direct result of this biased reporting.

This "us" vs "them" divide can get so powerful that, as in the US case, people might violently refuse a universal health care bill that would certainly benefit them, if they could be convinced that it might benefit some undeserving "them" even more. There is small distance from this kind of internal dislike of "others" to the hatred that triggered the Bosnian civil war.

Bosnian example is not an exaggeration: They employed a similar "us" and "them" blueprint there. Milosevic and Karadzic convinced Serbs that Bosnian Muslim leader Izetbegovic was a secret Muslim fundamentalist and he was about the start a Sharia based republic and they needed to act. Despite the fact that these communities are of the same ethnic origin, lived together for centuries and inter-married in high numbers ("In Sarajevo and in many of the principal towns of Bosnia, the Serbs, Croats and Muslims were highly intermarried. In pre-war Sarajevo, a third of the population was of mixed parentage."

The discourse of the Tea Party in the US where they claim that Ohio is about to become a Sharia republic or the dog whistles used by Sarkozy or Marine Le Pen are very similar in nature. Blame everything on internal parasitic enemies, make sure nothing is improved or reformed and use the deterioration as further proof of the disruptive work of those same internal enemies.

Stabbed in the back, indeed.

By passingly, a similar blueprint was being used in Turkey and by now the level of polarization is such that family members are unable to have a civil conversation. Their seething hatred of everything the other side stands for colors their vision and all their decisions.

France is not yet there. After all, they have had two centuries of revolutionary politics. But an apathetic young generation, a purposefully dumbing television, a media focused on what the "others" are plotting against us and a very powerful right wing narrative that points to the same alien and scary enemy, is about to bring them to a point of no return: once it is reached, like in the US, governance becomes impossible or one sided.

You can guess what side is that.

That would mean goodbye decent health care, goodbye social rights, goodbye trade unions, goodbye vacations and goodbye a decent balance between work and leisure.

And say hello to indentured servitude that is the modern capitalism.

I sincerely hope that it will not get there.

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