A Switch in Time Saves Nine (Souls)
Moral sentiments and industrial revolution allowed mankind to live better. Not all individuals shared all the wealth, but most people started to live better and longer than their ancestors. It happened roughly after the Americans, the Poles and the French invented the world’s first constitutions. They were not perfect. The Americans liked slavery, the Poles were carved up by Germans, Russians and Ausrians, the French tried to reinstate the king, sometimes successfully. Nevertheless, history was becoming brighter and simpler: it ceased to be just one damn thing after another. Some people thought that history got on the right track and started making sense. No jungle of wildest motives, no accumulation of random circumstances decided what was about to happen. History was not supposed to depend on the length of Cleopatra’s nose or on Napoleon’s reason winning battles on a horseback. Market economy, capitalist calculation, rational management of progress. No more clash between those who fought for more power, as opposed to those who sought glory and to those who wanted only to plunder. Invisible hand drove all human beings towards profit, investment, rational calculation and entrepreneurial adventure. Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill could not agree more.
But then the switch appeared. Karl Marx could not agree less, nor could Proudhon or Bakunin. Property became theft. Underdogs of the world were asked to unite. History had been stolen and had to be recovered by the toiling masses, who paid the bills for the living standards of the upper classes. Collective action of the wretched had to be managed. No problem. The new counter-elites emerged. Masses were led by the trade union’s and left parties’ bosses. Lenin might have been a teacher. Stalin might have been a priest. Some socialists got to the parliaments and played the game of world wars. Some communists got to the revolution and drowned the idea of a classless garden of a proletarian Eden in the sea of blood. Meanwhile, a Henry Ford convinced the European peasants, who crossed the Atlantic and went to work in factories, not fields, that buying his cars and moving to the suburbs they will become the middle class. They did. The Cold War ended in the collapse of the Russian Soviet Union and in China’s Great Leap Forward towards the market economy. The conversion of both Russia and China into capitalist market economies did happen, but without the democratic re-engineering of these civic liberties that the world had been hoping for, ever since the US Americans, the Poles and the French had dared to imagine them.
Which switch do we face right now, after the Russians and the Chinese failed to democratize and after the western democracies failed to prevent the 2008 financial meltdown or the bankruptcy of Greece? First and foremost, the anti-political establishment switch. Tea party and Occupy Wall Street stand out as real alternatives to the US two-party system of rejuvenating political elites. The EU-leaders listen to the Siren song of political correctness losing touch with reality of Turkey and Poland, Great Britain and Russia, Ukraine and Hungary, France and Syria, Germany and China. Most political elites lost their authority, and only their legitimacy is currently at stake. Their chances look slim. In France, the president orders the police to disperse politically neutral young people leading heated discussions through the long nights on Place de la Republique. This is the patented way to coach them into rejecting neutrality and defending their right to become full citizens. To reinvent democracy – performative, deliberative, transparent, egalitarian… well, democratic tour court. Let us hope that the affluent French have the guts to imitate their more courageous and less materially endowed Egyptian predecessors from Tahrir Square. Let us hope that the richer Germans have the guts to learn from their Turkish counterparts standing up to Erdogan on Taxim Square.
May 1, 2016