Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Globalisation is more of a political imperative than an economic fact
The Weight of the World was recently published in Britain. It describes through interviews in the early 1990s the 'social suffering of contemporary society'. Why is life getting harder for most people?
When we conducted this study it was only beginning. Now it is far worse. So for example, in France neo-liberal philosophy has become embedded in all the social practices and policies of the state. It has become internalised in the minds of the political establishment. The minister of education who was recently forced out of office, Claude Allègre, was very similar to the one you have in Britain. He introduced into education so called 'tough policies'--a drive for efficiency and productivity.
Instead of looking very carefully at how education works, the neo-liberals opt for a very simple solution. They create competition between schools and between the directors of schools, who have to compete for budgets and for students. This competition is fake--it is artificially constructed. It does not arise spontaneously from the way the education system works. The education system was not perfect. I was very critical of it. But instead of correcting it and providing the means to better it, they destroy it by introducing this capitalistic vision of education.
One could say the same about healthcare. I recently read a record of a meeting between a group of professors of medicine who are traditionally very conservative. They went to meet prime minister Jospin. He did not receive them. A technocrat met them instead. The transcript of the discussion is terrible. The people say, 'Look, I never demonstrated or participated in any strike or protest movement. But for the first time I am forced to speak out on behalf of my patients.' One gave an example of a 73 year old woman who had cancer, but her medicine was too expensive for the hospital's budget. Another said that his hospital does not have the money to pay anaesthetists, so there are no anaesthetists at night. He asked the technocrat, 'Would you send your wife to such a hospital?' He replies, 'That's a personal question which I will not answer.'
We are seeing a blind and chaotic response to the problems of public institutions. We have had a very hierarchical system in healthcare for many years. But after 1968 younger people tried to change it. They tried to make the system more collective and introduce the idea of working as part of a team. Now that is being destroyed because they work under the threat of cuts and demands for greater productivity.
Centre-left parties are in government across most of Europe. They are presiding over these neo-liberal policies. Do you see anything new in the way social democratic parties are governing?
In France many of those pushing this offensive hail from the 1968 generation. They became radicalised then, but now are incorporated into the system. The failure of the Mitterrand years generated a backlash against the French Socialist Party. Of course, the great revolt of December 1995 ushered in a wave of social movements which brought the Socialists back into power.
But the aim of the government and its technocrats is to curtail and destroy those movements. Ministers and advisers use their prestige and experience from 1968 against the movements.
When students occupied the École Normale Supérieur, the government figure arguing to send the police in firmly and swiftly had himself taken part in the occupations of 1968.
People in Germany and in Britain often tell me that it must be wonderful to live in France with the 35 hour week and other reforms. But those gains are a result of the pressure of the movements. They are not freely given by the government. The left government believes it can be more successful than the right in controlling those movements.
How do your sociological ideas influence your political stance? You developed your ideas when structuralism was the main influence on French intellectuals.
I was not a structuralist. That approach saw the world as composed of structures which strictly determine the way people act. There was no scope for human agency. As the structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser said in the 1960s, human beings were merely the 'unconscious bearers of objective structures'. The results of my anthropological work in Algeria in the 1950s did not fit into this structuralist framework.
Of course people are structured by society. They are not, as free market theory holds, isolated individuals each deciding a course of action by making individual economic calculations. I developed the concept of 'habitus' to incorporate the objective structures of society and the subjective role of agents within it.
The habitus is a set of dispositions, reflexes and forms of behaviour people acquire through acting in society. It reflects the different positions people have in society, for example, whether they are brought up in a middle class environment or in a working class suburb.
It is part of how society reproduces itself. But there is also change. Conflict is built into society. People can find that their expectations and ways of living are suddenly out of step with the new social position they find themselves in. This is happening in France today. Then the question of social agency and political intervention becomes very important.The heart of Marxism is the struggle by the working class for its own emancipation. Where do you place the struggles of the working class within the spectrum of the social movements you are involved in?
In France we have this tradition of workerism which is anti-intellectual. The unions are very hostile to intellectuals and the intellectuals are very distant from workers. In 1968 it was very visible. Now for the first time because of the failure of Soviet Marxism we are free from that. So I can speak with a CGT official as I am speaking to you. They are very open. In a sense intellectuals like me did not exist 20 years ago. People like Sartre and Foucault were sympathetic to the movement, but they did not have much empirical knowledge of workers.
Seattle is very important in showing how new forces are developing. The small farmers' leader José Bové is well informed. He expresses himself clearly without the oversimplification which you hear from politicians. He is an intellectual. But at the same time he works on his farm.
I recently organised a meeting of all the leaders of the social movements in France--the unemployed, the sans papiers immigrants, some trade unionists. You had anarchists, Trotskyists, Marxists--all types. The discussion was at a level you could not imagine. You can see the revival of a left political culture in the huge sales of Le Monde Diplomatique. Some suspicion still remains among those who are working together, of course. But at the end of the meeting they gave Raisons d'Agir, the group I am involved in, a mandate to issue a charter for a European social movement. We must escape nationalist division and have an international movement to fight against global capital.
How can the movements generalise and how will the different ideas within them be clarified?
The way the movement will develop is open. It is a process. We plan to publish an appeal for a European movement against neo-liberalism in May. We are seeking the support of the DGB union federation in Germany, the CGT in France, intellectuals, social movements and many different organisations. There will be a meeting in September of different movements to elaborate this charter. Then we will hold a conference in Athens in March of next year to discuss that and try to create the foundations of a social Europe. We have many ideas, but we must work on them. The aim is to create an intellectual and practical opposition. It is not only intellectuals. One of the most important leaders of one of the main unions in Greece wants to fund the conference. Our mission is to organise and try to help people to communicate.
There is a division of labour in this developing movement. Social scientists can help to overcome difficulties. If we want an effective social movement at the level of Europe we must overcome that--otherwise we will disappear.
There are powerful political obstacles between people. The main obstacles come from the social democratic movement. If we succeed in overcoming these it will lead to a genuine Third Way which will be much more radical. We need to build the left of the left. In the ecology movement you have people who are really on the left--even among the Communist Party, which has had a deadening effect on the left in France.
Many people are coming to realise that globalisation is more of a political imperative than an economic fact. Three quarters of the exchange of goods in Europe is internal to Europe. The social democratic parties in power could implement policies to limit the free market.
How will we force them? Will we require a new political party?
I don't know. It would be nice if we could force them, but I am not sure if we can. It seems to me there is a crisis of the social democratic governments. In Britain the crisis of Blairism has well and truly started. There is also the crisis of the right wing parties in much of Europe, particularly the CDU in Germany. The true left has always faced a false choice: you vote for the right or you accept this fake left wing. We have had the same problem in France since 1981.
Forces other than the left are trying to gain a hearing. So we see the Haider phenomenon in Austria. But he has not gone unchallenged. The recreation of a true left wing movement will be the main instrument of the destruction of Haider. Nobody spoke about Le Pen and the National Front in France during the hot winter of 1995 in France. The mass movement in defence of pensions in Italy also marginalised the far right.
Whether the revival of the left will lead to a new party is an open question. So too is how ideas will be clarified. The main thing is to build the movement. No one should doubt the radical changes that are happening in the way people think. I am more optimistic about the future than at any time in the last three decades, despite the seeming triumph of global capitalism.
You can find a copy of the manifesto for the charter of the European social movement on the website www.raisons.org