During the Presidency of Valery Giscard d’Estaing (1974-81) a seemingly innocuous decision was taken, which was, unknowingly, to launch the largest social experiment in Western history.
There were a fair number of immigrant workers from the Maghreb in France at the time, generally working for a few years and returning home. The government decided, under a scheme known as regroupment familial to permit them to bring their families with them, once they had been granted temporary residence rights. Those who were nationalised could stay, with their families and bring more family members over. Forty yeas later the Muslim population is estimated at 5-6 million people, or about 10% of the population.
From the beginning, one political party sounded the alarm about this policy. I know what you’re thinking, but no, it wasn’t the National Front. It was the Communist Party, which saw very clearly that a cheap, disposable labour force was exactly what employers wanted, and would drive down wages and working conditions. And so it came to pass. In those days, religion was starting to be regarded as a relic of the past, and if someone had told the Communist Party that in forty years time there would be murders by jihadists, they would certainly have laughed.
The Communist Party is (pretty much) no more, but the problem is still with us. For decades, the extreme Right has been making all the running, but now, at last, there’s an opening for a serious, secular, republican Left to get a grip on the situation. Of course the Left’s ability to fumble the ball and stab itself in the back is proverbial: but here, surely, is an opportunity … isn’t there?
The ghastly murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty on Friday has already had a fair number of consequences for French politics, now that the immediate shock and horror is being replaced by anger and demands that something serious should be done. No-one is worse placed to do what needs to be done than Emmanuel Macron.
Macron is now confronting the third crisis of his reign for which he is unprepared and inadequate. The first was the Gilets jaunes, which is partly in abeyance because of the second, Covid, and now we have a third, which goes beyond the immediate crime to a sordid and depressing story of two decades of ignoring and minimising a threat to the nation that has already claimed the best part of 300 lives. In each case, Macrons’s response has been fumbling and hesitant, speaking the words put in front of him but going no sense that he understands the issues, still less that he knows what to do about them.
In a way, it’s hard to blame him. Macron is a technocratic neoliberal manager, with little experience of anything outside banking and finance. He sees himself as the CEO of a “start-up nation”: his role model is less De Gaulle than Bezos. Frequently appearing ashamed of being French, his objective seems to be to construct a country without history or culture (“there is no French culture” he famously said), an indistinguishable, greyish part of some flavourless European bankers’ paradise. The best you can say is that it’s not working out very well.
And now he’s required to deal with an actual and serious threat to the country, supported from abroad and deeply dug into French society. And apart from making martial noises, he seems, as usual, to have no idea what to do. How, after all, does he reinvigorate and propagate traditional French Republican ideas to challenge the Islamists when he himself has publicly mocked these very ideas that people now demand should be defended?
More on that tomorrow.
Apparently there are people out there, running airlines and being paid millions, who genuinely believe that international travel will be “back to normal”, or something approaching it, next year. Obviously, their job is much easier than anyone had realised. You just have to be an idiot.
It’s not just airlines though. To an extent that it’s hard to conceive of, if you can remember back to the 1960s, our world is built on the idea of international mobility, especially if you can afford it. It’s not just, Let’s Get Pissed in Prague This Weekend, pleased as the Czechs will be to see that come to an end. Globalism (more than just globalisation) is the basic mechanism by which the international Professional-Managerial Class (PMC) rules. Consider: you recruit your staff from where you want; you send them where you want; you outsource to where you want; you buy from where you want and you sell to where you want. Literally none of that will now be easy: some of it will be impossible.
If you can’t rely on a cheap disposable immigrant workforce, you have to pay higher wages. But how long will it be before such a workforce can be delivered in batches again, for exploitation and ultimate replacement? (How long would slavery have lasted in the Ottoman Empire if the captives from Africa and Europe might have been bearing a deadly disease?) What happens if there’s a sudden suspected infection in your call centre in some pauperised African or Asian country? You can’t find out without sending someone there, and they might bring the virus back with them. But you can’t provide the services any more because all the expertise has gone.
Not that I’m sorry for the PMC: they built a complex fragile system out of greed, and it’s falling apart. But it’s the rest of us I’m worried about. All these things that are (we now realise) made in China … Well, there are ships on the high seas with infected crews that can’t put into port, and ports with infections where ships can’t call. And your electrical goods, your clothes, your toys and even your pots and pans … well, they’re stuck on the high seas somewhere. And nobody knows when, or if, we’ll see them again.
Things are changing. More tomorrow.
Some of the consequences of the Covid virus are more obvious than others. Let’s start with them.
If you have travelled a bit internationally (and I don’t mean just to the country next door) you’ll be familiar with what airlines call the “hub and spoke” model of travel. Essentially, you fly from where you are to the airline’s central hub (or that of one of their partners) and then on to your destination. This may not be ideal for you, unless you like hanging around duty-free shops and drinking expensive coffee, but it’s good for airlines, who can use smaller planes making shorter flights, and simplify their logistics.
But more than the (in)convenience, what’s interesting here is the model of interaction. Say I am an NGO worker in South Sudan, going home to Copenhagen. I catch a plane from Juba to Addis Ababa, a major hub for the region, then catch a plane to Munich, another major hub, then on home. At Addis, I bump into someone who is coming from Khartoum, and going to Dubai, to take a plane to Islamabad. In Munich, it’s someone from El Salvador, who’s arrived via Mexico City and Washington, and is going on to Warsaw. You get the picture.
But a lot of airlines don’t. And this is the problem with the”back to normal” idea. So long as the virus exists anywhere in the world, there is a measurable chance that air travel will spread it everywhere, without a level of control and testing that isn’t possible now, and may never be.
So long, international air travel. You were (occasionally) fun.
It’s an interesting exercise, to imagine a work of fiction or a film in which the authors tried to invent a threat which would target very precisely all of the main features of our contemporary society. Could they have done better than Covid? I honestly doubt it.
Much more than most people realise, the list of Covid casualties is long and growing. Some are obvious: international business travel, economic migration facilitated by the greed of multinationals, drunken weekends in Prague. Few will miss any of that. But it goes much further: everything to do with socialisation, collective activity; friendship, family life, social interactions, restaurants and bars, concerts and spectacles, cinemas and museums …. and so on and on. Still in the middle of a crisis we haven’t even begun yet to think about the consequences in the longer term. How about the end of life as we know it?
I’ve always thought it a good principle that, when you have nothing of value to say, it’s better to say nothing. That is, of course, not the spirit of our times, in which much social media consists of stream-of-consciousness real-time hectoring about What I Think and How I Feel. Still less is it a good principle for blogging, where the expectation is that you will say something every day, and thus that you will have interesting and useful ideas to communicate al the time. But few of us have, and many of us have nothing interesting to say at all.
So I haven’t written anything during the Great Virus Emergency, because I’m not a doctor, and epidemiologist, a virologist or even somebody who studied biology after the age of 16. (OK, that didn’t stop millions of other pundits from weighing in, but it did stop me). But I think a couple of things are now clear which were not clear before, as the virus accelerates again, and nether of them require socialist medical knowledge. One is that we know very little about the virus even now, and that even the most basic facts about transmission and how to stop it are in dispute. No government really knows what it’s doing. The other is that the only real counter-measures that might be effective are probably impossible. It may be less a case of “living with” this virus than dying with it.
On which cheerful note, more tomorrow.
In the short term, the argument that by voting for this party rather than that party you will make things worse is often true. It’s also sometimes true that by voting for that party rather than this party, things will get worse more slowly. But that may not be the point.
“If you think we’re bad, look at the other guys” isn’t, and never has been, an acceptable argument. As I said earlier, if a system is broken, it’s broken, and it needs to be replaced as quickly as possible. History suggests that the longer a major change is delayed, and the more it is resisted, the more violent and the more traumatic is the change when it comes. Voting for a party because they are “less bad” than the others, sounds sensible, but only if the situation is actually recoverable in some form. If it isn’t, then it’s a false, and possibly dangerous, tactic.
But what do we mean in this context when we talk about “change”?
Ultimately, the answer must lie in the distinction between the general, and the specific and personal. Take two contrasted examples.
If you believe that the political system in your country is broken beyond repair, then there are two things you can do when elections come round One is not to vote. If a large enough group of people refuse to vote, the system itself loses credibility. In several countries now, barely 50% of the population now vote even in the most important elections. A political system where less than 40% of the people voted would simply not be viable and would have to be replaced. The other thing you can do is to vote deliberately for parties that are going to crash the system more quickly than would otherwise be the case. They may be incompetent, they may be extremist, they may be completely out of their heads, but votes for them take away votes from the established parties, and so hasten the end of a system which is anyway doomed to disappear.
On the other hand, and in spite of Brecht’s thesis, we shouldn’t neglect our human duties. Giving food to the hungry or money to beggars doesn’t really perpetuate a system. Not doing so is often just a pretext to justify selfishness. There’s a big difference, in other words, between things we can directly influence, and those where our influence is only indirect.
But there are objections to this thesis aren’t there? Won’t it just make things worse?
OK, the system is broken, and nobody with the power to do so has an interest in fixing it. So what do the rest of us do, those who have no power beyond that which we can personally influence?
There are two approaches to this; the hardline and the squeamish. If you want an example of the first, go and read Brecht’s play The Measures Taken. It relates how, in the context of the civil war in China, Communist party members decided not to give food to starving people, because their deaths would sharpen the revolutionary mood and so bring the revolution closer. Brecht actually gt into trouble with his own Communist Party for blurting out inconvenient truths.
The squeamish approach, which in many ways is admirable, says that we should do good deeds and help those in difficulty, even if the effect is to prop up the system and enable it to survive. We become complicit in evil through wanting to do good: but then, are you just going to leave them to die?
Is there a solution? I think there is.
Our society will only be mended if elites think it is in their interests to mend it. So long as their interests and ours are aligned, or at least not opposed to each other, then there is some cause for hope.
This was the case in the past. Most western states realised in the nineteenth century that they would only survive if they built modern administrative systems, if they educated their people, and if they provided them with jobs and a measure of security. Asian states realised the same thing not long after. For about two hundred years from the time of the French Revolution, elites were sufficiently worried about the possibility of popular uprisings, and even revolutions, that they acted with a bit of circumspection, and threw the common people bones. In some countries – Britain in the nineteenth century, several European countries post-WW2 – religion was also a powerful moderating influence.
That’s all over now. Elites today do not need, or want, an educated workforce or a settled populace. They can buy or rent a workforce from abroad for the few jobs that still need doing, and they have succeeded in convincing most of the people that their ideology of unrestrained liberalism red in tooth and claw is the only one possible. You don’t need to put people in prison when you have convinced them that there’s no hope of a better system ever emerging, whatever their efforts, and so rebellion is pointless.
And if the elites don’t see the need for change, and the common people can’t imagine it, where’s the change going to come from?