An interesting viewpoint from Dominique Moïsi, visiting professor at Harvard University and author of the forthcoming The Geopolitics of Emotion
: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World
- What the French Revolution Can Teach America
by Dominique Moïsi, Financial Times
“Eat the wealthy.” The ferocity of the words used by some demonstrators in London on the eve of the Group of 20 summit evokes the worst excesses of the French revolution.
Of course, America in 2009 is not France in 1788, the year before the fall of the Bastille (the prison that embodied the oppressive nature of the monarchical regime) and the symbolic beginning of the French revolution. The fall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 has nothing to do with the fall of the Bastille; symbols of wealth should not be confused with symbols of oppression. There is no guillotine around the corner and it would take a lot of imagination to compare President Barack Obama to Louis XVI, or Michelle Obama to Marie-Antoinette.
Yet as a European living in America – watching news on television every night, talking to friends, colleagues or my students – I sense fear, anger and a deep feeling of injustice reminiscent of the climate on the eve of the French revolution. Just replace bread shortages with foreclosures, aristocrats with bankers, and privileges such as the right not to pay tax with stock options. Add to that support for the king but rejection of many of his ministers, and the comparison looks less far-fetched.
The problem with the economic team of the new president is that, like the court of the king of France in pre-revolutionary times, it has inherited all the bad reflexes of the ancien régime, mixing excessive sympathy for the outdated logic of the world of finance, which it helped to create, with insensitivity to the emotions of the ordinary people, which it tends to ignore. This sympathy is perceived to contrast with the harsh treatment of carmakers.
Bankers and financiers have to reinvent not only their trade but also their way of life and, above all, their value system. In the Madoff scandal, just as shocking as the crime of an individual was the behaviour of many of his rich customers, who combined greed with a lack of financial common sense.
The greed of some was tolerated as long as most of society continued to progress. But today’s combination of fear and humiliation with a deep sense of injustice leads to anger that is potentially irrepressible. The strength of the American republic has been bolstered by the popularity of its new president. This capital should not be squandered on reliance on a media-savvy communication culture. As can be seen so often in history, less is more. The president of the US simply speaks too much.
Revolution is not around the corner; at least, not in America. But there are lessons Mr Obama can learn from the French king’s failure to manage dissent. He must not fall prey to populism. His goal is to save the economy, not punish the bankers. At the same time, he must not be seen to have too much sympathy for the world of finance and its excesses or to cut himself off from the suffering of his people. If he fails, the corporate laws of today will face the same fate as the ancien régime rights of yesterday.
See the complete atricle on the Financial Times
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