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 process?

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 it wants?

New World Order