Revolt Of The Masses And Two Elites
By OWEN THOMPSON
There is a strange and perverse logic to much of the economic and financial crisis that is on the lips and minds of the opulent western world. A few greedy speculators provoke the collapse of the system, plunging the nations’ wealthiest economies into a crisis, the likes of which has not been seen since 1929; world leaders are mobilised to inject fuel into the system; two years later those countries are still steeped in that crisis; banking institutions and financial and lending agencies persuade governments that the only way out is stiff austerity measures that ultimately translate into great sacrifices for the middle and working classes; two years down the line we are still hearing there is no visible or imminent end to the crisis, not to mention further drivel about more austerity and sacrifices.
French trade union leaders tell President Sarkozy no, and make it clear to him that they have every intention of pressuring his government into rethinking announced austerity measures. In the conflict between the French government and the unions lie all the keys and intricacies to the problem that grips the western world in this moment of economic and financial crisis.
On the surface of things, what is making the news is the opposition of French unions to the extension of the retirement age. Deep down, what the French unions are questioning is what the imposed austerity measures really imply. There is, in their position, an unflinching determination not to allow the worst ravages of liberal conservative speculation and the consequences of its modus operandi to be borne mainly by masses of honest, hard-working, middle and working class people.
Jean Pierre Chevènement, a French Foreign Minister of the Mitterand era, put it best at a meeting here in Madrid recently. A relatively “minor” decision to extend the retirement age by two years, from 60 to 62, has sparked off massive strikes and the virtual paralysis of the country on several occasions within the last few weeks. “It is much more than the extension of the retirement age. It is a protest against a Europe that’s in crisis, where the euro is losing legitimacy, where the only thing that seems to matter is budget cuts. Ordinary citizens, young students and battle-hardened truck drivers alike see how taxpayers continue to bail out the banks and that they are the only ones being asked to make sacrifices.”
Chevènement’s words provide a clear insight into the true dimension and significance of French indignation. The measures imposed by Sarkozy stem from decisions taken at a summit of EU finance ministers last spring. Twenty four of the 27 EU governments are liberal-conservative. The Council of Finance Ministers of the EU has become a virtual liberal-conservative club which, from such a position, dictates the rules. Anyone who doesn’t comply will be ostracised. Spanish Prime Minister, socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, was forced to swallow that extremely bitter pill last May and told the Spanish nation then more or less what Sarkozy has just told French unions. Zapatero also did as he was told. The response of Spanish unions to Zapatero was nowhere near as vehement or effective as their French counterparts’ has been to Sarkozy.
French unions are simply being French unions. Most diligently so. The brunt of the crisis is being borne by those who had nothing to do with bringing it about. Those who did are still in positions of control of the markets and the financial agencies, from which they can force governments and international bodies to instigate measures that will never affect them.
Governments have to reduce public and welfare spending, cut salaries, force people to work more years in order to guarantee pension systems, while absolutely no measures are envisaged, let alone effected, for the control of market speculation. Obama has tried to take on Wall Street, but those in charge in that realm know they have the power to allow him very little room for manoeuvre. So while pensions are threatened and salaries are being cut, no sacrifice is being asked of those who have the greatest wealth and remain untouched by the crisis.
The opposition of the French unions is, ultimately, the defence of a welfare system that is of no concern to the clever brains behind uncontrolled financial and market speculation. The turbulence and paralysis provoked are enough to grind countries to a standstill and bring governments down, as Obama, in the USA, and the governments of Greece, Spain, Portugal and France, in Western Europe, have become painfully aware. The conservative government in Britain, after skilfully hiding its agenda during the recent general elections campaign, has only just had the courage to openly come out with measures that effectively dismantle the welfare state.
The French case is particularly poignant because in terms of what can be called the essence of welfare, the French have long gone beyond Right, Left and the broad gamut of meaningless isms inherent to the hackneyed verbiage of party politics in the West. In France, certain pillars of welfare have long been established as non-negotiable givens. Governments of one colour or another dare not even think of tampering with certain gains. That Sarkozy is the Elysee Palace tenant being forced at present to impose certain policies on the French nation must not be necessarily viewed as the extremes of a French conservative president. French citizens, whether they vote for Segolène Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy or Dominique de Villepin, view what is being foisted upon the French nation as an intolerable attack on the French welfare state, caused by international circumstances derived from intricacies that have nothing to do with France. There definitely is something about the French.
I remember, five years ago, during the worst of the car-burning unrest in French cities, I wrote in the pages of the T&T Review of the interesting etymological charge of the French word banlieue. It is derived from two words bannir, which means to expel or banish, and lieu, which means the place outside. Banlieue evolved to mean suburb, the place outside the city. There was a time when the French sovereign had the power to banish to the place outside the cities those elements considered dangerous to, or unhealthy for, the common good of the Kingdom. I said then that it was a cruel irony that much of the car burning was taking place in suburbs, and being carried out by angry immigrant or working class citizens. In short, that it was a rather twisted kind of revolt on the part of those who, within the context of French society at the beginning of the 21st century, continued to live in figurative banlieues, cruelly marginalised from the gains afforded by a country that had supposedly attained social cohesion.
The French always find ways to wage their crucial battles, regardless of the political colour of the government in power. Now, five years later, the society as a whole perceives that something is being foisted upon it that is unjust. Hence the level of mobilisation, across the board – students, truck drivers, ordinary citizens- all being asked to foot the bill for the effects of Wall Street machinations is something too many French citizens simply will not fathom. It is there that the real battle lies. And the French have been quick to take it up, with intensity and determination. In a way, they are, once again, pointing the way for Europe. Reaction across other nations has been more tepid.
In Western European countries such as Spain and France, millions of decent, hard-working people are being told that it is only through salary cuts and sacrifices that things will be brought back to normal and long term guarantees ensured. The crisis is going to be arrested without in any way correcting the mechanisms that have allowed it to surface. Those who have provoked it will have remained, throughout the crisis and after it passes, at the top of a pyramid they have carefully carved out to ensure for themselves a base that constantly bears the brunt of the convulsion caused by the head. The bases are made to work while the head simply waits, at the top, for things to sort themselves out. Doing something about the head and what it filters down to the bases never is a consideration. None of its power to speculate, to artificially create or completely ruin markets, is even remotely touched. Obama’s attempt to touch that power signalled the beginning of his battle with Wall Street, which has so marked his presidency.
It is not difficult to see why the two have been at each other’s throat. The world having been brought to a decisive watershed, and with the financial collapse provoked by unchecked speculation and capitalist zeal, the power brokers at the top quickly grasped that for the very first time there was a very clear, general perception of them as the ones responsible for this mess. The pillars of the system they have created were laid bare. In addition, a leader with the political clout and determination to knock those pillars down had not only emerged, but also acceded to political power. The dramatic consequences of speculatory greed had finally gifted history the possibility of seizing the moment for a real and meaningful overhaul. Those power brokers grasped that something truly seismic seemed a real possibility. That was too much of a threat.
Over the years, extraordinary levels of wealth, power and influence had been accumulated by interests that had always been careful to distribute enough crumbs in the right places to keep the system going, with its inherent mechanisms of self-perpetration. There was never any reason for Wall Street to be concerned. Not while things were kept going; not while the right interests were allowed to prosper; not while enough people were allowed to work for workable levels of remuneration without any threat to the system, and without that system ever escalating into levels of perversity that made it a danger to itself or allowed too many to see just how expertly designed it was to make sure that those at its helm remained there – in short, not whilst everything was kept well in check, on a planetary scale.
The combination of a gruelling crisis and the presence of a leader like Obama, prepared to take on those interests, has been more than enough for determined action from those that feel threatened. They have not been afraid to tighten the financial squeeze or boldly demand even further sacrifices from those who have always been there to guarantee them their position of power at the top. The general consensus among governments appears to be that they have little choice. It is what Zapatero has been trying, since May, to sell to the Spanish nation. The French see that their welfare system is being stymied, if not virtually dismantled.
There is little doubt that the European nation that sets the greatest store by its social and welfare conquests is France. It is the nation most incensed and most determined to protect something that goes beyond the whims of political alternation. It is in the French DNA. In France, it is no longer a question of Right or Left. A threat to the welfare system in a place like France triggers off a French DNA reaction that translates into what we have seen happening in the streets of that country over the past month.
On the other side of the Atlantic, to the Wall Street determination that has ruthlessly imposed its agenda in the financial engine rooms of the realm it controls, must be added Tea Party ideological mobilisation. It is the meeting of two essences of power that suddenly feel under threat. Teapartyers have, for the first time, seen themselves as a threatened elite and have moved to undermine what they perceive to be the agents of such a threat. It was all well and good while Civil Rights, Democrat power in the White House from time to time, and a whole host of conquests that lie within the logic of the social and civil evolution of a country such as America did not really threaten to turn America upside down. But now, all of a sudden, an elite that has always considered itself the natural elite of the American nation sees that certain trends and events can be seriously detrimental to it.
And it’s not just a black president, gay rights, America’s growing tendency towards being less and less of an international, bullying police force that must always safeguard America’s control of the globe on its own terms. It is the embracing of too many values that run counter to the Tea Party ethos, which the Tea Party movement considers the embryo of American values. Anything else is intrusion, betrayal, unAmerican, belonging somewhere else. They consider it their sacred duty to act, and not be bashful about saying certain things – like “the President is a Muslim, who wishes evil on America”. The Sarah Pallin/Christine O’Donnell heavy artillery has struck a sensitive chord with significant masses of people. Their swift mobilisation and the virulence of the messages they are not afraid to trumpet are simply a logical act of revolt on the part of an elite that feels threatened. They will be further emboldened if Obama gets the battering that the pollsters are predicting in the mid-term elections.
Another elite, the financial Wall Street elite, perceiving that the system they have carefully forged over the years faces the risk of being corrected, also feels under threat. The Wall Street and Tea Party elites have tightened the screws in tandem, in an orchestrated double-revolt to defend the continuation of what they consider sacred: keeping alive a certain ideology, and keeping alive financial and market mechanisms that safeguard untouchable, privileged positions for the moneyed elite at the top.
While certain ideas remained within the realm of election rhetoric it didn’t matter. When those ideas began to acquire an air of probable realisation, Wall Street felt obliged to protect itself. It has done so with utter ruthlessness, showing that it is prepared to strangle the world into submission, (though there remains the tricky business of dealing with Asia). At the same time, the Tea Party discourse has grown into more than distracting background noise.
The effects of the reaction of both elites to the dilemma they perceive they are in are being felt far and wide. As Obama, Zapatero and the French unions have painfully discovered.