We Must Invent a New World
Today, all of Europe is living in doubt. For five centuries, our continent has been able to invent the ideas and the goods that have transformed the world, yet it seems to have lost the secret of their manufacture. It no longer knows if it is capable of inventing the world of tomorrow; it doesn’t even know if it has a common future any more.
Of the two terms of Schumpeter’s formula summarizing capitalism, «creative destruction», we have forgotten the former, that is to say, creation, leaving us only with the latter, destruction. For many, unemployment has become the norm. The hope of becoming a part of society through work has evaporated. Extreme ideologies bloom, though one sole look at the world would be enough to demonstrate the absurdity of all of them. Our societies thought they had built a balance in which every successive generation could legitimately hope that its progeny would have a better life. Today they are convinced that we can no longer keep this promise. Our systems of social negotiations have broken down, and our systems of social protection are threatened. Belief in progress has faded. Many perceive technical progress as a danger, economic progress as a lie, social progress as a mirage, democratic progress as an illusion.
We are living through a turning point, in great confusion. Nothing of what seemed obvious yesterday is evident today. Nor are there any signs to tell us what future certainties will be. The great points of reference — the Nation, the State, Morality — seem to have disappeared. The great hopes of tomorrow remain invisible.
We must struggle against this doubt, so devastating for a Europe whose history was built, precisely, upon progress.
When a majority of the population comes to the point of thinking that tomorrow may well be worse than today, the only possible strategy it can see becomes that of preserving what exists. Everyone wants things to remain frozen as they are as long as possible, in order to preserve his own interests, which leads to hampering, preventing, all change. Fear is the greatest ally of conservatives. It feeds the rise of egoism: the social egoism of those who can or believe they can succeed in spite of others or against others; ethnic egoism that rejects the other, whom they consider responsible for all ills; and the national egoism of each individual country persuaded it should prevail over its partners.
So how can one approach tomorrow in a new way?
We must invent a new world. We must recover the meaning of progress, not progress as an automatic reflex or an empty word, but as an act of will. We must return to the idea that it is possible to act in order to influence things. Never become resigned, never submit, never retreat. We must not see the market as a more effective means of coordinating individual actions. No society can organize itself simply by virtue of the market. Thus we must be wary of the liberal illusion of a society that has no need to think out its future or define its regulations. On the contrary, it is up to politics to reinvent itself, to define new rules and new institutions.
Many believe that in a so-called global and liberal economy, governments should have no power. They are mistaken. The crisis and reactions to the crisis demonstrate that this is a fallacy, that there exist good policies and bad ones, that there exist good and bad regulations.
We must act in three areas:
- Production, in other words, growth. We must tell ourselves that without growth, there can be no progress and no reduction of inequality.
- Solidarity, which is a method as much as it is a necessity. There is no progress if it does not profit all and if it is not accepted by all. Solidarity in Europe is not only a part of our glorious past, it is the key to our tomorrow.
- Public action, for the genius of Europe is first of all that of a collective project and a common destiny.
Production and growth, to begin with, to reach full employment. That may seem like a utopia, but actually it is not. The society of full employment we should strive for will not be that of the 60s. It will not be a society without unemployment. But it will be, or it should be, a society in which unemployment is only short-term. A mobile society in which every wage-earner can tell himself he will advance. The contrary of a society where everyone is pigeon-holed to remain in the same profession or at the same rank or level for decades. A society where all of us are perpetually learning or relearning. This implies a radical change in our relation to work and to our crafts and professions.
We must renew our solidarity. It is the distinctive feature of Europe and of European society. Those who carry the banner of individualism refuse to understand that, in the social contract, we Europeans have a concept much richer than theirs, founded upon the existence of a common good that cannot be reduced to the sum of individual interests. We should be proud of what we have built: adequate medical care available to all, an end to poverty for the aged, solidarity towards those who do not have jobs. An economy more vulnerable to technical change and the appearance of new competition is also harsher. So it demands that those who miss out because of progress can count on the solidarity of those who are benefiting from it.
Finally, we must reinvent public service, public action, that is to say, the role of the State. What counts is not the amount of taxes paid, it is the comparison between taxes and the quality of public goods and services offered in exchange: education, training, security, roads, railroads, communications infrastructure. It is the State’s capacity to favor the creation of wealth, to ensure its just and efficient redistribution, to reduce inequality.
The key principle upon which this project must depend is that of equality. The rise of unprecedented inequality is characteristic of the present day. It is something new, and it has been with us over a sustained period. To borrow Necker’s phrase, equality was the very idea of the Revolution. Yet today, the force that is affecting and transforming the world is the development of inequality. And it hasn’t slowed down for decades. Inequality between countries, between regions of the world, between social classes, between generations, etc. The result is the dissolution of the feeling of belonging to a common world. A world henceforth undermined by social inequality, the secession of the wealthy, and a revolt of those who feel, conversely, forgotten, despised, rejected or abandoned. And whose sole weapon is their discontent and the power of their indignation.
We must revive what was once the revolutionary plan: equality, in other words, a manner of building society, of producing together, of living together and of breathing life anew into the common good. As Pierre Rosanvallon put it, it is a question of refounding a society of equals. A society in which everyone possesses the same rights, in which each of us is recognized and respected as being as important as the others. A society that allows each one to change his life.
We must also take into consideration the political crisis we are currently experiencing. It is marked not only by political disengagement, abstention, and the rise of extreme ideologies, but also by an institutional crisis. To be more precise, a crisis of the political model. The crisis of the political model is the extreme concentration of power, and in particular the extreme concentration of executive power in the hands of one man, the President of the Republic. The real power of a sole individual versus the actual power of all. It is marked as well by a crisis of decision and a weakened legitimacy of institutions, government, ministers and other authorities.
What is to be done? To undertake a program of institutional reform comparable in its breadth to that of 1958, at the establishment of the 5th Republic. With two main objectives.
To make political decisions more effective and, with this in mind, introduce a dose of proportional representation in elections in order to ensure the best representation possible; reduce by half the number of parliamentary representatives, and outlaw cumulative office; downsize the number of ministers to fifteen, each concentrating on lofty missions of State and thus avoiding the dispersion of public actions, thereby ridding ourselves of that French specificity consisting of incessantly inventing new ministries whose missions are vague but whose uselessness is certain.
Take up the challenge of democratic representation. The historic principle of representation, the idea according to which the people exercise real power through the intermediary of their elected representatives, can only function if we recognize that two principles have proven largely fictitious. The first is the view that a relative or absolute majority represents the opinion of all. The second is that the ballot represents the opinion of the citizen, whereas the rich diversity of an opinion cannot be reduced to the choice of one person at a given time. The result is a legitimate feeling of not being represented. The demand for better representation must be met with more participation, the submission of governments to intensified surveillance, to more frequent rendering of accounts, to new forms of inspection. It is not possible to keep an eye on every decision, but everyone must be entitled to participate in the collective power through a system of evaluation.
This is the price of the construction of a more just and meaningful society.
This post is excerpted from Matthieu Pigasse’s new book, Révolutions.