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.

The quickening pace of events in the past few years, however, while a common currency was being set up by eleven members of the European Union, has confirmed the views of the doubters, namely, that a Europe that does not have a different social project, a model of its own, has no chance of standing up to the United States and of really defending its interests. I am not referring here to the fall of the euro, which in twenty months has lost over a quarter of its value. This is merely a symptom. What is more significant is the way in which economic concentration has been proceeding during this period. This process has been speeded up by the disappearance of national frontiers and the use of a joint currency under the EU.

Mergers and acquisitions are multiplying in all sectors. They are no longer limited to the big eating the small. Now giants are swallowing giants, and, increasingly, they are doing it across frontiers. But they are not necessarily, or even predominantly, doing it within the borders of the European Union. When a big Swiss or German bank, having absorbed its neighbors, looks for a target, it is most probably some specialist investment bank, quite likely to be American–for instance, Deutsche Bank has taken over Bankers Trust in New York. With the dollar riding high, Europeans have been pouring their money into the United States, while the Americans are picking plums in Europe. (Incidentally, rumor has it that the rather reluctant US decision to bolster the euro in September was imposed on US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers by US mutual funds worried by the drop in value of their holdings.)

Last year the United States was the main target of direct foreign investment ($276 billion), and the reason is crucial. Why should a European banker or manufacturer disdain a US partner if he thinks the American company is the most profitable? What means has a European government to impose its controls over the free flow of money, the pattern of investment–let alone some form of democratic planning–if at the same time it encourages and praises “globalization,” which is to say the spread of the US model? Naturally, there will be conflicts between European and American interests, notably over agriculture. There will be deals and confrontations. But a Europe that does not consciously build a different kind of society, that relies on the US Treasury to back the euro, cannot be taken seriously as a potential equal partner.

There are, to be sure, other domains, like diplomacy and military collaboration, in which Europe may try to assert itself. But here too, especially after Kosovo, any claims of growing independence are illusory. True, the European Union now has a man in charge of common policy, but he is Javier Solana: In his youth a protester against US weapons in Europe, Solana was Secretary General of NATO in his last job. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, another ex-revolutionary protester turned pillar of the establishment, claims openly that for him the long-term aim remains a “European federation.” But the EU for the moment is traveling in the opposite direction, and its very existence may be at stake. Its size, shape and institutional structure are all uncertain. Started with six members, now with fifteen and expecting to more than double that number with the entry of Eastern European nations and others over the next few years, the EU doesn’t even know whether it has a future. If it really aims at a federation, it should build a closely integrated core and a loose periphery. In other words, strengthen the institutions that govern it before admitting new members.

Otherwise, the entry of new members into an organization with weak institutions could kill the very idea of a federal structure. The British are still suspected of being a US Trojan horse bent on turning the whole construction into a vast free-trade area that will be extended beyond the Atlantic Ocean. At the December summit meeting of the ruling European Council in Nice, the fifteen must, in principle, agree on their institutional project so as to be able to proceed with the enlargement of the EU. It would be surprising if the deliberations at Nice, which will mark the end of the six-month French presidency of the EU, closed the year with any significant results. A provisional compromise is much more likely.

But if Western Europe is to try to be truly independent and stand up to the United States, it cannot do it on capitalist lines. It will have to start all over again by defending its welfare state. Because, despite the spread of the working poor, of precariousness and of uncertainty, despite the growing attitude against public pensions, Europe’s welfare state is still more attractive than the American, and you can start the struggle only when people have the feeling that they are fighting for their interests. A European New Left would thus have to begin by coming to the rescue of the welfare state, but not fraudulently, as under the third way. It must do so by showing how this welfare state must be broadened, made universal and rendered really democratic. It must show quickly–almost at once–that you cannot carry out such a progressive strategy and at the same time allow the savage extension of the US model of globalization. That model, by its very inspiration–profit above all–renders any such developments impossible.

Europeans will have to start the battle at once, because it is only in the renewed struggle for higher wages and less precarious working conditions that the labor movement can understand that its demands clash with the very foundations of existing society. The same is true for feminists and radical ecologists. It is through their own experience that they must learn that their aspirations and dreams cannot be fulfilled within the established order. Only then will a genuine New Left be able to seek a “fourth way,” one that does not conceal the established disorder but tries to move beyond the confines of capitalist society.

Controls over the movement of capital; the use of state power not to boost big corporations but to combat them; capitalism; socialism; democratic planning from below–all these have become unused or dirty words. So it would be naïve to expect such a policy to be invented, let alone applied, overnight. It is difficult to determine which tendency will prevail, because we are living in a strange period affected by two contradictory trends. On the one hand, the American model is spreading seemingly inexorably, with little effective resistance, and certainly none by European governments. On the other hand, its ideological domination has been shaken and weakened. More and more people, particularly in the younger generation, are now convinced that globalization brings about not prosperity but polarization, social uncertainty, inequality, the strains and stresses of uncertainty about the future.

There is something deeper, a growing feeling that the society it promises has no attraction. The extraordinary success in France of José Bové and his revolt against McDonald’s and the malbouffe–junk food–that it symbolizes is only one small example. With mad-cow disease, with the rushed abuse of genetic modification in the interest of big chemical corporations and agribusiness, there is increasing awareness that a system driven forward by the accumulation of profit cannot take time to study the use to which we should put our extraordinary progress in science and technology; that it is unable to assure the necessary precautions; that, condemned to permanent but uncontrolled growth, it may soon threaten the very future of our planet.

And yet, despite this awareness, especially among the young, the search for an alternative is still very timid. Shall we then wallow in gloom and doom? In some sections of the British former New Left there is now a temptation to retreat into ivory towers and rely on the old Marxist argument that “capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.” The greatest illusion of all, however, would be to assume that capitalism will accomplish this task of self-destruction on its own, without the help of a vast movement from below, which in its struggle would also be forging the vision of a different society. In 1995 the French “winter of discontent” reminded us that one could resist, at least for a time, even without a clear alternative.

Historically, the lesson of Seattle–if we don’t freeze it as a fetish and reduce it to repetitive demonstrations–is even more important. With the Americans taking the lead in the struggle against the world seen as merchandise, we are reminded that globalization is not the only form internationalism can take. What is at stake, it is now clear, is neither the imposition of the US model on Europe nor the defense of Europe’s welfare state. It is our common struggle–from below and on a worldwide scale–against a capitalist system both triumphant and in deep crisis. Amid the present confusion, we may actually be watching the early phase of a new historical period.