Today words have little meaning

Guy Sorman in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 27 August 2013
Guy Sorman, an economist and philosopher, in an interview on the French Left with Łukasz Pawłowski

Łukasz Pawłowski: What role should the Left play in France at present and what should be ideological foundations of its programme – calls for equality, justice, emancipation? 

Guy Sorman: If the Left had any consistent programme today, it should be based on the motto of technological progress and equal opportunities. This traditional definition of leftism does not overlap, however, with what the French Left is actually representing. To tell the truth, we are dealing with a peculiar situation, as a big part of the Left rejects scientific and technical progress in many areas, e.g. in case of new energy sources, the Left wants to maintain the existing status quo.  As regards the motto of equal opportunities, there is a contradiction between the leftist philosophy and interests of the leftist electorate, i.e. state clerks and other state employees. In theory, the Left supports equal opportunities, but in fact, due to political reasons, it maintains privileges of certain groups which are already privileged. The Socialist Party actively defends state clerks, but not the young unemployed nor minorities.

What is the reason of such change? Traditionally, the Left has always been on the side of the economically disadvantaged.

There are several reasons. First, the French Left has always been dedicated to the Marxist definition of socialism, rather narrowly understood, and even in the early 1980’s, during Mitterand’s presidency, it was still in favour of a widespread nationalisation. After 1989, when socialism in the Eastern Europe had ultimately fallen, the French Left lost its theoretical grounds. It has remained ideologically lost up to date, for it has never made a choice between  social democracy and Marxism.  A new consensus has never been reached.

Second, the Left is a part of the political class and it has got its own political interests. In France each party participating in elections has to fight for votes of state employees; they constitute nearly one third of all adult French! Ironically, today it makes the electorate of the French Left quite … conservative.

Finally, the Left has to some extent become a victim of its own successes. All major leftist postulates, demanded since late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as universal access to education and healthcare, social welfare for the unemployed and many other social benefits, have been achieved.

However, for several years now, we have been dealing with what many economists describe as the worst economic crisis since the Big Depression. Many countries are on the brink of bankruptcy and wealth inequalities continue to grow. One would expect that such situation should lead to an increase in support for leftist parties, but nothing of that sort happened.  

Although the economic crisis started nearly 5 years ago, we still do not know what are its real causes. Is it a failure of free market, of the global financing system, or perhaps a failure of the welfare state? There is no agreement on that, and hence, no universal nor commonly accepted solution is available. Both sides of the political scene agree only that nothing radical should be done about this issue.

One shouldn’t be surprised, as in France negative effects of the crisis have mainly affected the young, the unemployed and minorities. These people usually do not take part in elections, and hence, their problems do not particularly motivate the political class to take any actions. In contrast, a French clerk may in fact hardly have noticed any crisis at all. The state continues to employ new people, salaries keep on growing, for – due to the low interest rates on governmental bonds – France may continue to borrow money for eternity. The debt is growing but nobody seems to care. Unlikely Greece or Italy, there is no pressure to take any radical steps and tide up finances of the state.

You said that the electorate of the French Left was quite conservative. How would you explain then why the cabinet pushes for progressive moral reforms, such as same-sex marriage?

Moral reform is all what’s left of the Left. If we look at up-to-date achievements of François Hollande, it turns out that except for legalisation of homosexual marriages, he can hardly claim the credit for any significant reform. It should, however, be emphasised that even on that issue, the French Left was not unanimous. The right-wing supporters were divided too: conservatives remonstrated, but libertarians had nothing against the proposed amendment.

This issue, just as the reaction to the financial crisis, shows that differences between left-wing and right-wing parties are not as significant in France as they used to be. Do you believe then that it still makes sense to stick to the old distinction between the Left and the Right?

The Right and the Left have got many features in common, but I think it’s good. In France, till the 1980’s, all elections looked quite like a civil war; the opposition between the Socialists and the Conservatives was so strong that the country seemed to be on the edge of revolution every now and then. After 1983, and even more after 1989, impact of both the radical Socialists and the radical Conservatives decreased, and a much broader consensus emerged on such issues as universal healthcare and education, opening borders, the EU membership, etc. Today, only representatives of radical parties are against such postulates. The approximation between the Left and the Right is a good thing and we shouldn’t nostalgically recollect times when we witnessed fierce ideological confrontations.

However, in a democracy citizens should be able to make a choice.

Absolutely, and that’s why a balance is needed between political divisions on the one hand and the capacity to reach consensus on the other. The problem is that today words have little meaning: the Left is not a truly a Left; one also does not know where the Right is. None of these political forces has got any philosophical basis, which in turn is flattening  the political debate.

In consequence, political choices of the French are mainly of negative nature: one votes against, not in favour of somebody. To a large extent Hollande won because people wanted to get rid of Sarkozy, and probably in the next elections people will vote for somebody to get rid of Hollande. Extremist parties benefit from that, claiming to be the only ones which offer any political alternative. This does not apply solely to France; this situation is common in the whole Europe.

Are radicals likely to take power due to inertia of the political mainstream?

I don’t think so. Extremist parties look good in the media, they succeed in unimportant elections. Support for radicals is a specific expression of remonstration and does not go any further. There is a big difference between the noise made by such parties and the real will of the French to put them in power. Frankly, I don’t know if they really want to govern themselves. Their rhetoric works well to attract attention of mass media, but their postulates are completely unrealistic.

The above interview is a commentary on „21st Century. A World without the Left?”, a Topic of the Week discussing the future of both American and European Left, published in no. 241 of „Kultura Liberalna” .