On the occasion of the publication of the team of authors’ calling itself the “Orwell Committee” new book, its president granted the “Figarovox” an extensive interview. To the mind of this well-known French journalist and columnist, we nowadays live in a form of “soft-totalitarianism”.
Figarovox: Together with the “Orwell Committee”, whose chairman you are, you have published “Welcome to the worst of all worlds”. After 1991, we thought we had been liberated from all ideological totalitarianism. Are we back to living in the world of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley?
Natacha Polony: The concepts and images created by Orwell [“1984”] and Huxley [“Brave New World”] make it possible to imagine a world that seems completely different from ours. Of course our world has nothing to do with that of “1984”. In view of the manipulations of humanity made possible by the progress of science, our world has, if anything, a similarity to that of Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World”. We have, however, already integrated Orwell’s ideas, which were then used in other contexts, into our way of thinking.
It is not a matter of suggesting that the totalitarianism we experience today is as violent, and comparable to the real Soviet, Maoist, or National Socialist totalitarianism. Of course it is not. That is exactly why in our book we speak of soft-totalitarianism, because it is not based on coercive measures. But in a certain way it can have the same alienating effect. It is imperative that the Marxist concepts of alienation and emancipation be revived. The system facing us again questions the emancipation of peoples and individuals.
What is this system you are talking of?
We believed we had liberated ourselves from the ideologies, but today we are confronted with something that presents itself as a matter of course – sometimes also as a matter of economics – but in any case, it presents itself in the guise of pragmatism, although it is very much an ideology. This is the ideology of the free trade system, which has evolved since the seventies and which has gradually compromised all social achievements – not just those of the working class, but also those of the middle class. In France, this concerns mainly those social achievements which the Conseil National de la Résistance (CNR) introduced after the Second World War.
This ideology was implemented under Reagan and Thatcher, but its greatest impact came when Social Democrats came to power: Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair in England, elected politicians who liberalised the capital flows and abolished the separation between the traditional banking business and investment banks – measures which had previously protected citizens from predatory capitalism.
Is capitalism always dog-eat-dog capialism?
Simply put, in the twentieth century capitalism was constrained by its enemy: communism. Consequently, the ruling classes had to come to an agreement with the working population: They renounced a portion of their dominance and granted social advancement opportunities, protection rules, in short the typical social models of the Western countries – so that the said middle classes aligned themselves with a free and liberal democracy. When, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, capitalism had no longer any enemies, we saw how capitalism detached itself from the real economy and showed its true face again, the face of a kind of capitalism which has no other reason for its existence than itself. It no longer serves to finance the economy, but merely to increase capital. This system eventually led to the crisis of 2008. We in the Orwell Committee say that this is a soft totalitarianism, because it goes contrary to the will of the peoples, yet without losing its democratic semblance. In our book we call to mind a phrase of David Rockefeller’s – the founder of the Bilderberger-Group and president of the Trilateral Commission, two influential groups in the service of multinational corporations: In 1999, Newsweek quoted him as follows, “Something must replace the governments, and it seems to me that private power is the most appropriate identity for this.”
One can comprehend the logic of a “capitalist” who strives to preserve such a system ... but why do the citizens not oppose it? To use Huxley’s language: What is that “somma”, which makes the citizens so drowsy?
First, there is the affluent society and its counterpart, the feel-good society. This works by means of an ideology of progress, which is totally detached from the idea of a moral progress of mankind, namely the progress of freedom as well as of emancipation. This ideology is oriented entirely towards the progress of well-being. The peoples’ consent is obtained by giving them the right to own a flat screen and an iPad.
And is there a “newspeak”?
Yes, and it is effective because through the manipulation of language, all this appears to be utterly objective and detached from all the usual attributes of ideologies. By the way, it is not enough to watch the ideological clashes in the media. They do not say, either “free trade” or “protection”, they say: “opening” or “isolation”. And who would want to be against opening? If you call it by these names, it is clear that “opening” is good and “isolation” is bad. The whole language is manipulated to convey the impression that those in favour of regulating this system want to return to the national state, to the withdrawing into themselves and the isolation of peoples. They are said not to like others because – and that is the highest degree of manipulation – all this is happening in the name of “the others”, in the name of the pleasant and congenial migrant. In reality, this is the instrumentalisation of the fate of unhappy wretches fleeing before their misery, so as to enforce a system which imposes a further aggravation of inequalities on the poorer population and the middle classes in the developed countries. It is enough to see the response to our book. Immediately adjectives such as “nationalist”, “populist”, and even “conspirative” were assigned to us …
What role do the media play in spreading this “newspeak”? In the editorial offices there is, after all, no puppeteer pulling the threads and thus enforcing the ultra-liberal economic system of soft-totalitarianism!
It is about what Pierre Bourdieu [a French sociologist and social philosopher, translater’s note] called a “process without a subject”, which means that no one is directly guilty. Every journalist tries to do his own work to the best of his knowledge. Nevertheless, he is unconsciously involved in this process without a subject. We – Jean-Michel Quatrepoint, Alexandre Devecchio, Emmanuel Lévy, and Gérald Andrieu – have together founded the Orwell Committee. We are journalists working for different media representing different political views and thinking in different directions (“Le Monde”, Marianne, “Le Figaro”, or Causeur).
We founded this committee under the impression that certain topics were not addressed at all or only from a special angle of view in the media, i.e. that of the ultra-liberal ideology. The true questions are never treated as a thematic highlight. Here again we come to speak of Marx and the difference between basis and superstructure he described. We are constantly confronted with morally connotated debates on immigration, opening up, protectionism, and never is the basis considered, i.e. the delicate economic questions: Who benefits from this system? Of course it is the big multinational corporations that use the economy for their own profit. It is mainly Anglo-Saxon or American companies, especially the four big ones known under the acronym “GAFA”: Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. Their common stock market value reaches 600 billion. Google currently has about $ 250 billion cash assets in tax havens.
These questions are not dealt with in the media at all, because these are now grouped together in the hands of capitalist groups that thus acquire influence. Today journalists are subject to a certain economic constraint. They are under pressure to prepare their issues too quickly, according to the rhythm set by the news networks. Thus, it has become impossible to deal with a topic in depth. Looking even more closely at the media landscape, one can, for example, see that in many different newspapers the structures are being dismantled.
Formerly, journalists were specialists in their field; they were able to communicate on the same level with their discussion partners and informants. This was abolished in the 1990s in favour of a so-called investigative journalism in which the topics are treated alternately by different journalists, which prevents them from gaining a certain distance to given events.
Traditionally, propaganda and the media play an important role in totalitarianism. But another lever can also be applied, namely that of education. How, for example, can the Ministry of Education, which is still a state institution, be permeated by such an ultra-liberal globalization ideology?
The educational system is always set up to be one of the last state bastions, which would, by the way, mean that the total failure of the French school system was due to the failure of our elite state model. But that is the wrong idea. Over the past 30 years, efforts have been made under the leadership of large international organizations such as the European Union and the OECD, to harmonize the school systems of many countries, and that by means of their assessment of the results of the notorious Pisa studies.
These evaluations tell the countries what a good school system has to look like. These recommendations are always shaped by that kind of utilitarian thinking that makes the school a “service for the business” – to use the words of a European lobby. Students are to be transformed into future workers, who will be adaptable and therefore deployable as desired. In this way the cultural, tradition-preserving and civilising dimension of schools is completely neglected; and so is, of course, the schools’ decisive task, namely the development and the emancipation of the individual student. According to this ideology, skills and knowledge are viewed merely as capital, which the individual can use fruitfully to participate in global growth. People are not aware of the fact that this destroys precisely what constitutes the wealth of the school: to impart universal knowledge to the individual, so that the world will be revealed and made accessible to him or her. This is what once constituted the strength of the French school system; it made possible the continuation of national history and a definite idea of France, as well as certain ideas of England and Germany. Thus, globalisation is also at work in the education sector – and it is also in the service of this economic system.
What about extreme individualisation? At the end of your book the victory of “minority group tendencies” is mentioned. In what way does this trend towards more and more individual rights support soft-totalitarianism?
Obviously, it is not a question of denying the important progress made in the area of individual rights that we have made since the French Revolution. Of course we agree that the declaration of human and civil rights was a great advance for mankind – and here the concept of citizens must be underlined. The student movement of May 1968 added some fundamental rights. These developments, especially in the area of equality between men and women, were decisive. But today there is something entirely different going on.
There is the notion that democracy is confined to ever-expanding individual rights. This deprives democracy of its real significance, as that consists of enabling the peoples to express their sovereignty, and thereby also the sovereignty of each individual in his capacity as a citizen, which in turn enables the citizens to decide jointly about their future.
This expansion of individual rights is presented under the cover of the beautiful, the good, and the true. And here again, who wants to argue against increased rights? Presented in this way, this process appears self-evident as the victory of the good. But again, this is a very special way of presenting facts. For, in reality, it is primarily about dividing the national community of each country into groups of individuals and smaller communities, which are then individually available as target groups for marketing campaigns. This prevents individuals from becoming aware of their role as citizens, so that they might be able to defend themselves against the interests of the private economy. Majority thinking, which is the essence of democracy, is destroyed and so the possibilities of countering the taking-over of public space by private interests are undermined.
Donald Trump in the United States, Brexit in the United Kingdom, outbreaks of the various kinds of “populism” in Europe ... Is not this world of soft totalitarianism that you describe seriously undermined by all this? Does not the same rejection of neo-liberal globalisation, which increases the socio-economic inequalities and unifies the world culturally, prevail in all of these political phenomena?
Of course! These revolts at the ballot box illustrate citizens’ of the Western countries resistance to a system which they recognize as having been imposed upon them. It is by no means certain that they will always bring an improvement … Hardly anyone will approve of Donald Trump’s extreme exaggerations or some of his appalling statements. Let us leave the wrong alternatives behind us! It is not permissible for us to close our eyes to soft-totalitarianism just because we are facing Islamist totalitarianism, which is an even more dangerous, direct and brutal totalitarianism. And be this only because this kind of soft-totalitarianism prepares the way for Islamic totalitarianism. On the one hand, it destabilises the nation-states, on the other hand, it destroys those of the individuals’ anti-bodies which they should use to fight radicalisation, and lastly, because financial and neoliberal globalisation is based on consumerism, on the widespread barbarisation and brutalisation of the peoples and their withdrawal into banal consumption and into the growing social misery.
We must not refuse to challenge the current system – on the pretext of being too concerned with the existing Islamic danger. For this is also a reason for the anger and rage of the populations, expressed in different places by the ballot-box uprisings. It would be better to take this anger into consideration, to understand it, and to react appropriately to it, than to simply leave everything as it stands.
We have, however, instead been trying for some years to rebuild our institutions in such a way that finally the whole democratic system will be blocked. It was obvious how the system marginalised Bernie Sanders, and how the democratic establishment quite openly fiddled so as to favor Hillary Clinton. This booby trap has quite evidently exploded in their hands, but it was nevertheless a form of undermining democracy. It is also possible to observe in France how with the help of the primary elections everything is undertaken so as not to have to call the system into question.
Is it not a reason for optimism that, for example, François Fillon was not the candidate of the establishment and his success [in the primary elections of the center-right parties] gave the lie to the predictions of political media and opinion polls?
Indeed, on the one hand we have François Fillon. On the other hand there is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who refuses to participate in the primary elections. Alone from this, you can already see that this system does not work, and that cracks are developing all over the place. But the key question is whether we will be able to question what is at the basis of this soft-totalitarianism, namely the power of multinational corporations brought about by the free trade ideology.
The peoples can express their opinion in the elections, but their elected deputies and politicians must also be able to act according to their mandate. Is not the politician doomed to a natural impotence in our ever faster, ever more complex, more global, and more interwoven world? Can the politician actually still deal with the reality at the national level?
The problems can not be settled at the national level; there it is primarily a question of allowing the peoples to express their will. In France, we have admitted this political impotence; things have been established in this way. However, it is our role as citizens that we should force politicians to exercise their power. It is up to us to choose those politicians that are willing to fight against the system. That is sovereignty. The only way to strive against this globalisation which privatises democracy is with the help of politicians who are ready to reject what is not acceptable, to reject, for example, all those free trade agreements which do not correspond to our European model of civilisation.
For it is not so hard to say no! I recall the words of General de Gaulle, reproduced in the book “C’était de Gaulle” by Alain Peyrefitte. The author spoke with de Gaulle about the Treaty of Rome and pointed out that no withdrawal from the Treaty was possible. Then the general replied roughly as follows: “This is nonsense. Have you ever seen a large country that can be cheated and then be told that, unfortunately, no provision has been made for this fraud to ever stop?” He added: “When you have been cheated, you say, ‘I’ve been cheated; I’m leaving!’ That’s all.” It is a matter of will. This does not mean retreating behind one’s own borders, as they want to make us believe. But it means regulating the system. It is about a fair regulation to protect citizens’ interests.
Your book ends with the appeal for a transition from the global control of things to local control. Is the statement “small is beautiful”, which has been coined by the economist Ernst Schumacher in 1979, really still realisable, in view of the great technological upheavals we are facing? Is this not utopian?
No, it is by no means utopian. The positive sides of the new technologies can even help us. Thus we can regain full sovereignty over our way of life and our way of consuming and of moving about. Every purchase is a political act. Through our consumer choice, we make a decision for one or the other system. By returning to the local level, we will be able to control the economic flows, to determine our future and to counter distortions of competition. The return to the local level sets the citizen’s foot on solid ground once more, and enables him to deal with the great international questions.
The system is breaking apart, and suddenly you see how the EU slaps a 13 billion euro fine on Apple, due to the tax advantages this multinational group was able to profit from in Ireland. There is only one explanation for this: that Brexit has prevailed and that the free trade agreements are being massively challenged by the citizens. The voice of the peoples has enabled Europe to regain more significance. The EU needs to re-focus on what it was founded for, the community preference. In the beginning, the aim was to create an internal market, to maintain the exchange between countries which have the same conditions and which cooperate because they have the same view of things and the same culture with regard to social rights. This aim was made completely unattainable by the massive expansion of the EU – through opening its borders on the basis of an ultra-liberal ideology, which is not prevalent among the other large mergers in the world. With the “Orwell Committee”, we wanted to put into words what people feel, because they feel that they are being deprived of their freedom, their say and their sovereignty. •
Source: © Alexis Feertchak, www.lefigaro.fr from 25. November 2016
(Translation Current Concerns)
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