Monday, April 6, 2009

French Democracy/American Capitalism

In the early 90s, living in Lyon, we attended a PTA-type meeting for our sons’ school. Someone suggested that to get the attention of the authorities, maybe we parents ought to hold an administrator hostage. “Sequester” was word used. This was not a serious suggestion. Still, it seemed strange that it would be made at all. That was because we knew little about French worker movements. “Sequestering” occupies a special place in the strategy of social confrontation.

The recent economic crisis has made this clear. In mid-March an executive of SONY was held captive by workers. This was followed by “sequestering” at both Caterpillar and 3M. As if to show how they were equal opportunity sequesterers, a French company for luxury products, PPR, was also targeted. An executive had just gotten into his car when the vehicle was surrounded by activists unhappy about the announced layoffs of 1200 colleagues. The detainees are eventually released, usually after a day or two, either via police intervention or after some sort of agreement has been negotiated.

For an American, this strategy and the general public’s tolerance of it raise the obvious question: why is this so different than in the U.S. where even plain old strikes do not gain widespread public support? Part of the answer involves the tension between democracy and capitalism. In that tension, France leans heavily in one direction and the U.S. in the other.

Ideally, democracy and capitalism ought to get along just fine. Both prize freedom. Democracy emphasizes social solidarity, the common good, a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Capitalism offers itself as an economic system that provides the most rational manner for distributing goods and services. In other words, it provides the means whereby the common good becomes realizable in material terms.

Tensions arise when a few key phrases of Adam Smith, capitalism’s founding figure, are made axiomatic, specifically “self-interest” and the “invisible hand.” In its most extreme form, capitalism claims to function best when (1) its leading figures aim only at achieving their own interests, i.e. return on investment; and (2) it is given a free pass from the oversight of democracy’s elected representatives. The common good is not ignored. Rather it is acknowledged by the claim that a sort of magic wand, the “invisible hand” will automatically allow self-interest to result in the common good.
In a democratic republic, elected representatives, seeking to represent, assume a responsibility to monitor, in the interests of their constituents, the workings of the market. Rather than giving a free pass to the economic sphere, they believe that here is an area replete with issues of special significance to their constituents: workplace safety, wages, benefits, stability of employment, pollution. Thus the tension: democratic sentiments propel toward interference with the marketplace; straightforward capitalism insists on complete autonomy.

Unless one is an old-fashioned Communist or a new fashioned member of the French Anticapitalist Party, there is a felt need to make some sort of successful marriage out of the democracy/capitalism couple. But how are they to get along? What compromises must each make? There are no easy formulas for getting the mix right. Between complete autonomy and rigid, wide-ranging oversight there exist plenty of intermediary slots.

Not surprisingly, French politics and attitudes tend toward the democatic end while American attitudes lean in the capitalist direction. The early 21st century may bring about a double move toward the middle. Opinions in the U.S., reacting to the economic crisis, are becoming more favorable to elected representatives tinkering with the economic sphere. In France, a center-right government has been trying for several years to move in the opposite direction. The election of 2007 brought to power a candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, who promised reform, i.e. loosen economic regulations, abandon the 35 hour work week, allow people to work more overtime, introduce rules minimizing the impact of strikes, reduce the highest tax bracket.

Recent mass demonstrations, occupation of factories, and the “sequestering” of executives seek to force the French president to reverse his plans. So far, he has maintained his determination of moving more toward toward the capitalist end of the continuum. Whether his determination will survive the economic crisis remains to be seen.

No comments:

Post a Comment