Wonder batteries, claims a famous French advertisement, only wear out if they are being used. The opposite is true of democracy. It is now withering away spectacularly in our “advanced” countries, where it has become a money-dominated ritual, thanks to which every four or five years we may abdicate our sovereignty and pick among the candidates of the establishment.
Democracy can only gain ground when people take matters into their own hands–when, at all levels, from the bottom to the very top, they collectively try to gain mastery over their work, their lives and their fate. So why, then, did I feel a certain unease when Europe’s protesting truck drivers were using blockades to put pressure on their governments to lower fuel costs? Because to be really genuine, people’s power must have a purpose and aim at a more just society.
In the case of the truck drivers, the protest was a reflection of general discontent and the absence of a coherent policy of officialdom. One could imagine a left-wing administration with an ecologically sound energy policy defending the fuel tax as a conservation measure. But that would have meant a government capable of attacking both OPEC and the oil companies, one developing public transport, having a general fiscal policy that penalizes profit and reduces taxes affecting mass consumption, giving working people the feeling that their interests are being defended. The bulk of the population does not feel this. They are told that the West is getting more and more prosperous, yet they perceive that this only applies to a thin layer at the top. A sharp rise in the price of gasoline hit them in their pocketbooks.
In fact, what this crisis showed is that the so-called left-wing governments of Western Europe have no project, no vision, no progressive alternative. We are seeing the final funeral of that nine days’ wonder, the fairy tale of the “third way.” In Western Europe the period from 1945 to 1975 was one of unprecedented growth (about 5 percent a year of gross national product), and its people probably did better than elsewhere in terms of collective social benefits. This “social democratic” interlude, while not as attractive as it is now being painted in retrospect, did provide advantages worth defending. But, naturally, the miracle of “capitalism with a human face” did not last. After twenty years of defeats of labor around the globe, the United States–with some lessons from Japan–emerged with another potential model, one based on the unquestioned and undiluted dictatorship of capital. It is this model that for several years now has been peddled to Western Europe.
Many voters saw the third way as some sort of combination of America’s new ruthless dynamism with the welfare state and social democracy. The leftist label attached to this US model was supposed to convince Europeans, keen on retaining the social gains won in the years of prosperity after the war, that the welfare state would not be dismantled too brutally. The purpose of the third way was to dismantle it, but to carry out the process without promoting a radical response.
Now the leftist governments in Europe may well have fulfilled this task. Last year eleven out of the fifteen governments on the Continent were still run by leftist parties. Since then, Austria has swung to the right, and the odds are that Italy will follow suit in next year’s general election. A triumphant Jörg Haider in Austria, and the formerly open fascist Gianfranco Fini and jingoistic regionalist Umberto Bossi in Italy, were a lot to swallow. And the extremist Vlaams Blok got a third of the vote in the municipal election in Antwerp, Belgium’s second-largest city. But when in quiet, civilized Denmark the xenophobic People’s Party of Pia Kjaersgaard gets 7.4 percent of the vote and now claims double that share in opinion polls, something is rotten in the kingdom of Europe. Fortunately, the most dangerous, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, lost momentum through a split. Still, if we don’t do our duty, there are plenty of candidates to exploit the growing discontent. But the dividing line between Europe’s left and right has become so blurred that it requires an expert’s eye to draw the political distinction between the conservative José Maria Aznar in Spain and the progressive Tony Blair in Britain or Gerhard Schröder in Germany.