Mirror to the Future
by Marc Ferro
Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris, September 1999
(World Press Review)
As the millennium ends, there is a pervasive feeling that
we have entered a new era in history, the age of globalization.
Yet could this be a mere optical illusion? Even if it has speeded
up in recent times, the movement toward making all the world one
began a long, long while ago. Has the dramatic episode of the
two world wars in fact been anything more than a passing phase
in the course of history, bringing only a slight shift in a centuries-long
Globalization has been blamed for the emergence of new masters
of the world, anonymous and unchecked, who arbitrarily lower or
raise prices, who speculate on capital, who trigger economic crises,
and make or unmake fashions and opinions. But this analysis can
just as well be applied, item for item, to the prewar years-a
time when just as many occupations and inventions came and went
within the lifetime of a generation.
Colonization was an earlier attempt to make all of the world
alike, whether under the banner of gold, Christ, or civilization.
It makes no difference that yesterday the master was a banker
or some famous man, and today he is someone on Wall Street or
in Brussels-for the victims, the effects are much the same. What
is new is that globalization is reaching into the farthest corners
of the planet, disregarding both the independence of nations and
the diversity of political regimes.
The dramas affecting whole populations in Central Africa,
Bangladesh, and other regions show us that improving the standard
of living for the most wretched, possible though it may be, remains
a pipe dream. The economic gap between different societies widens,
while within each of them, the disparity in standard of living
between richest and poorest becomes more marked.
All these changes have had effects that no one imagined just
after the two world wars. In Russia, for example, the end of the
Soviet regime, welcomed as a rebirth of liberty, has brought a
series of disasters. "Transition" has meant mass unemployment
and galloping inflation that has wiped out the savings of millions,
driving them into penury.
The upsets in Western society have been less dramatic. Yet
there as well the effects of the crisis and the gathering pace
of globalization have also brought a decline. Jobless, the victims
of economic restructuring have lost their security, whereas back
in the 1930s, no one dreamed that the social escalator might one
day grind to a halt. Here, as elsewhere, the disastrous changes
have affected people's health. Stress, which once affected only
those exposed to danger or managers carrying a load of responsibility,
now afflicts vast swaths of society.
At the beginning of the century, it was thought that political
progress would inevitably follow in the wake of scientific and
social advances. Indeed, this belief was bolstered after the two
world wars with the advent of the consumer society, the first
eradication of an epidemic disease-smallpox-followed by others,
the invention of the birth-control pill, the adventures of Sputnik,
and the first man on the moon.
Now, everywhere, there are portents of catastrophe to come.
In Africa, insistence on economic development at all costs is
leading to the appearance or reemergence of epidemics. In Ukraine,
bearing out the dire warnings of ecologists, Chernobyl has shown
how real the nuclear danger was. And finally, AIDS has had dire
effects on populations and healthcare resources. The contaminated-blood
scandals have proved that a close watch needs to be kept on the
effects of science-a conviction strengthened by the "mad
cow" episode and the first cloning. It may be that science
is coming up against frontiers that cannot be crossed.
We are finding the same limitations and the same doubt in
the field of politics-except in the United States where, whatever
the circumstances, the Americans are sure their country provides
a model for all others to follow. But in Europe, we see a contradiction.
Unceasing demands are made upon the state while at the same time
its agents are condemned. We see a challenge to the existing political
machinery, evident in a slow but irreversible increase in abstention
from voting. This phenomenon (which is also seen in the United
States) is linked to the emergence of a political class whose
regionalization has widened its scope, but which perpetuates and
strengthens its hand in the form of hereditary political dynasties.
The rift between the public and the politicians means that while
these regimes are representative, they are not democratic.
We see the gap between voters and politicians in the way the
elected talk to their electors: "We respect your rights,
as defined by us-but leave us alone to get on with the governing."
The basic fact is that elections are held, which is more than
the Communists and other regimes that reject representative democracy
have done. Nonetheless, this rift is still felt as alienation.
So at a time when radio, press, and television are informing
the public and making knowledge available to all, the leaders
of parties are seen as no more competent than the general public.
Moreover, militants are turned into mere supporters, American-style-unless
they want to go into politics as a full-time career, much as the
middle classes once aspired to join the nobility. Ordinary people
have thus lost their ideological landmarks, and they feel powerless.
The economic and managerial order is gradually taking on the
mantle of law, imposing its own criteria and decisions. What is
there left of political democracy's ability to give voice to what