Après la démocratie (After Democracy)

Review by John Thornhill
Published: November 30 2008 22:41 Last updated: November 30 2008 22:41
Après la démocratie (After Democracy)By Emmanuel ToddGallimard €18.50 (£15.30)
The financial crisis is convulsing politics in unexpected ways. The triumph of an inexperienced black liberal senator in the US presidential election may yet be counted as the first surprise of many. What else could be in store?
Emmanuel Todd, the French historian, made a name for himself by predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has been peering into his crystal ball again. In his latest book, Après la démocratie (After Democracy), he conjures up the alarming possibility of a post-democratic Europe reverting to ethnic scapegoating and dictatorship.
Mr Todd’s thesis will strike many readers as nonsense. In particular, his conclusion that only overt protectionism can preserve Europe’s social fabric has already been attacked for being dangerously counter-productive. After all, was it not the reversion to protectionism after the crash of 1929 that tipped the world into the Great Depression and fuelled the rise of Hitler? Yet some of Mr Todd’s arguments are as insightful as they are polemical, and reflect the evolution of Europe’s political debate. His warnings of a democratic meltdown in France, and perhaps more generally in the developed world, certainly deserve to be read, challenged and debated.
The author’s starting point is incredulity that a politician as “vacuous, violent and vulgar” as Nicolas Sarkozy could ever have been elected president. As interior minister, Mr Sarkozy proved he was ill-suited to high office by inflaming social tensions during the riots in France’s troubled suburbs, Mr Todd argues. Mr Sarkozy’s first months in power have only confirmed this judgment. As incompetent in economics as in diplomacy, the hyperactive Mr Sarkozy is going nowhere fast, the author contends, rather like a cyclist pedalling away on an exercise bike.
Yet Mr Sarkozy’s election is a symptom of the sickness of French democracy rather than its cause. Once, French politics was neatly defined by its ideological divisions: the Communists represented the secular, internationalist, working class; the Gaullists represented nationalist, conservative, Catholic values. But the collapse of religion and ideology has destroyed that framework, leaving behind a politically atomised society wide open to manipulation by the likes of Mr Sarkozy or Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Tough economic times will only tempt such populist politicians to stoke public fears of immigration and to adopt ever more authoritarian ways.
However, the author is equally scathing about France’s opposition Socialists, a party of cosseted bureaucrats who have betrayed the workers they once represented. French civil servants do not have to worry about the corrosive effects of globalisation because their own jobs cannot be sent offshore.
Mr Todd paints a picture of a collusive political-media elite that benefits from globalisation while being disconnected from the people who suffer from it. As arrogant as the aristocracy on the eve of the 1789 revolution, this elite blithely ignores the views of voters whenever it suits them. French voters rejected the European Union’s constitutional treaty, but a modified version was later adopted by parliament. Britain’s voters protested massively against the war in Iraq, but the government sent in the troops regardless.
Ordinary workers blame cheap-wage China for killing jobs and compressing wages. Instead, France’s leaders scapegoat Muslim immigrants and target militant Islam, justifying an unpopular intervention in Afghanistan. Employees want Europe to protect their jobs but, in spite of his increasingly protectionist rhetoric, Mr Sarkozy – and the opposition Socialist party – still adhere to the free-trade dictates of the EU and the World Trade Organisation.
In Mr Todd’s reductionist view, globalisation is simply the exploitation of cheap workers in China and India by US, European and Japanese companies. He is therefore an unabashed champion of European protectionism. Erecting trade barriers would increase European wages which, in turn, would increase demand and boost trade, he argues. The “social asphyxia” that is sucking the breath out of democracy would disappear.
The British, whose very identity is wrapped up in free trade, will never buy protectionism, Mr Todd suggests, but Germany and the rest of the EU could be persuaded.
At times, Mr Todd’s anger outstrips his analysis. Too many questions are left hanging. Does globalisation not benefit western consumers? Why would Germany, one of the great exporting nations, turn its back on free trade? Has Mr Sarkozy not performed well in the crisis? But there is no doubt that the intellectual assault on free trade is intensifying. Mr Todd’s book is an impassioned salvo in that war of ideas.
The writer is the editor of the FT’s Europe edition