By William Pfaff
PARIS—The plethora of unwanted strikes and student and youth unrest in Western Europe is a morbid condition.
Speaking medically, plethora is an overabundance of blood in the body, connected with the choleric temperament that medieval physiology described. The word “colere” means anger, fury, in French. The rest of the Western world has other words to match.
It is not pension claims that are driving the current political uproar. It is popular fury at the people who created the present economic crisis and have been rewarded, with everyone else left to face the consequences.
The demonstrations are obvious nonsense in terms of what they are supposed to be about—early pensions, secure working lives, abundance for all. “The French are bored,” Pierre Viansson-Ponte wrote shortly before all hell indeed broke loose in Paris in the spring of 1968. France soon was no longer bored. To the present day, France’s students and unionized workers have longed to stage something as memorable as May 1968. This is part of the explanation why, today, lycee students (15-18 years old), and even younger pupils from the middle school French “colleges,” have joined their university elders and teachers in these manifestations of outrage.
They have shown that they are contagious and even dangerous (the police dread dealing with juvenile rioters, who can be totally uncontrollable). Launched by minority unions in France, futile gestures of defiance against the Sarkozy government and mainly motivated by internal union politics, these protests have escaped union control, spreading from France to neighboring states, engaging port, refinery and railroad workers, printers, truckers, factory employees, and practically everyone else.
These events of autumn 2010, like those of 1968, mark the end of an era. Those who claim to be the new era’s reformers, or try to perform as reformers, are incapable of escaping the old system’s claims and its moral structure. Money has taken control.
The symbol of this to Americans was the U.S. Supreme Court decision in January (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) that delivered the American government over to business corporations, all of whose corporate money, including unreported and secret special interest campaign money, is now declared democracy’s free speech, dominating other forms of speech. A quarter of a billion dollars of undeclared money will be spent on the November midterm elections, thanks to the Supreme Court.
Elsewhere in the Western world, the economic role of speculative money is widely recognized, as are the crimes committed in its service, the fortunes of defaulting moneymen that are rescued by taxpayers, and the corporations with foreign, tax-haven headquarters. This is today’s world.
Americans have demonstrated their anger over the result of all of this. But the American way is unique. It is to attack bitterly the liberals and progressive Democrats who have criticized the system all along and want to change it. It is to rally to vote increased power to those who created the crisis, together with the Republican senators and congressmen who voted for it all, and perpetuate the system.
Such is the wonder of American politics, in which only native Americans can recognize the national ideology that says, “Hurrah for the rich who’ve already made it; I’ll make mine tomorrow! Cut taxes for the rich! I’ll be rich one day! Reward the rip-off bankers and brokers of Wall Street—cleverer than the rest of the world—with tripled bonuses! Champion the corporations that not only ship their manufacturing overseas, but send their accounting headquarters there too, so as to be spared the burden of American taxes!” They’re the wise guys!
This is the crisis of the American and British version of capitalism, ruler of the world since Mikhail Gorbachev caused the collapse of communism by trying to reform it. Gorbachev’s party rivals, fearing the consequences, ousted him and brought down his system, with the result that brigands and looters took over.
Americans rejoiced, and decided that it was American capitalism that had “won” the Cold War. And if regulated and rational capitalism could do that, unregulated and irrational capitalism could do even better in looting Western as well as Eastern society, with the consequences being what we have experienced since the new century began. The unregulated Western economic system has demonstrated a moral abandonment and adhesion to greed that shows no sign of ending, whatever the timorous promises made by Barack Obama and David Cameron—leaders of the nations from which this disaster has sprung.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.