Books by Todd, Emmanuel

Todd, Emmanuel. Après l'empire. Paris: Gallimard, 2002. ISBN 2-07-076710-8.
An English translation is scheduled to be published in January 2004.

November 2002 Permalink

Todd, Emmanuel. Après la démocratie. Paris: Gallimard, 2009. ISBN 978-2-07-078683-1.
This book is simultaneously enlightening, thought-provoking, and infuriating. The author is known for having forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1976 and, in 2002, the end of U.S. hegemony in the political, military, and financial spheres, as we are currently witnessing. In the present work, he returns his focus to Europe, and France in particular, and examines how the economic consequences of globalisation, the emergence of low-wage economies such as China and India in direct competition with workers in the developed West, the expansion of college education from a small fraction to around a third of the population, changes in the structure of the family due to a longer lifespan and marital customs, the near eclipse of Christianity as a social and moral force in Western Europe, and the collapse of traditional political parties with which individuals would identify over long periods of time have led to a crisis in confidence among the voting public in the élites who (especially in France) have traditionally governed them, escalating to a point where serious thinkers question the continued viability of democratic governance.

Dubiety about democracy is neither limited to the author nor to France: right-like-a-stopped-clock pundit Thomas Friedman has written admiringly of China's autocracy compared to the United States, Gaia theorist James Lovelock argues that “climate change” may require the West to “put democracy on hold for a while” while other ManBearPig fabulists argue that the “failure of democracy” on this issue requires it to give way to “a form of authoritarian government by experts”.

The take in the present book is somewhat different, drawing on Todd's demographic and anthropological approach to history and policy. He argues that liberal democracy, as it emerged in Britain, France, and the United States, had as a necessary condition a level of literacy among the population of between one third and two thirds. With a lower level of literacy the general population is unable to obtain the information they need to form their own conclusions, and if a society reaches a very high level of literacy without having adopted democratic governance (for example Germany from Bismarck through World War II or the Soviet Union), then the governing structure is probably sufficiently entrenched so as to manage the flow of information to the populace and suppress democratic movements. (Actually, the author would like to believe that broad-based literacy is a necessary and sufficient condition for democracy in the long run, but to this reader he didn't make the sale.)

Once democratic governance is established, literacy tends to rise toward 100% both because governments promote it by funding education and because the citizenry has an incentive to learn to read and write in order to participate in the political process. A society with universal literacy and primary education, but only a very small class with advanced education tends to be stable, because broad political movements can communicate with the population, and the élites which make up the political and administrative class must be responsive to the electorate in order to keep their jobs. With the broad population starting out with pretty much the same educational and economic level, the resulting society tends toward egalitarianism in wealth distribution and opportunity for advancement based upon merit and enterprise. Such a society will be an engine of innovation and production, and will produce wealth which elevates the standard of living of its population, yielding overall contentment which stabilises the society against radical change.

In the twentieth century, and particularly in the latter half, growing prosperity in developed nations led to a social experiment on a massive scale entirely unprecedented in human history. For the first time, universal secondary education was seen as a social good (and enforced by compulsory education and rising school-leaving ages), with higher (college/university) education for the largest possible fraction of the population becoming the ultimate goal. Indeed, political rhetoric in the United States presently advocates making college education available for all. In France, the number of students in “tertiary” education (the emerging term of art, to avoid calling it “superior”, which would imply that those without it are inferior) burgeoned from 200,000 in 1950 to 2,179,000 in 1995, an increase of 990%, while total population grew just 39% (p. 56). Since then, the rate of higher education has remained almost constant, with the number of students growing only 4% between 1995 and 2005, precisely the increase in population during that decade. The same plateau was achieved earlier in the U.S., while Britain, which began the large-scale expansion of higher education later, only attained a comparable level in recent years, so it's too early to tell whether that will also prove a ceiling there as well.

The author calls this “stagnation” in education and blames it for a cultural pessimism afflicting all parts of the political spectrum. (He does not discuss the dumbing-down of college education which has accompanied its expansion and the attendant devaluing of the credential; this may be less the case on the Continent than in the Anglosphere.) At the same time, these societies now have a substantial portion of their population, around one third, equipped nominally with education previously reserved for a tiny élite, whose career prospects are limited simply because there aren't enough positions at the top to go around. At the same time, the educational stratification of the society into a tiny governing class, a substantial educated class inclined to feel entitled to economic rewards for all the years of their lives spent sitting in classrooms, and a majority with a secondary education strikes a blow at egalitarianism, especially in France where broad-based equality of results has been a central part of the national identity since the Revolution.

The pessimism created by this educational stagnation has, in the author's view, been multiplied to the point of crisis by what he considers to be a disastrous embrace of free trade. While he applauds the dismantling of customs barriers in Europe and supported the European “Constitution”, he blames the abundance of low-wage workers in China and India for what he sees as relentless pressure on salaries in Europe and the loss of jobs due to outsourcing of manufacturing and, increasingly, service and knowledge worker jobs. He sees this as benefiting a tiny class, maybe 1% of the population, to the detriment of all the rest. Popular dissatisfaction with this situation, and frustration in an environment where all major political parties across the ideological spectrum are staunch defenders of free trade, has led to the phenomenon of “wipeout” elections, where the dominant political party is ejected in disgust, only to be replaced by another which continues the same policies and in turn is rejected by the electorate.

Where will it all end? Well, as the author sees it, with Nicholas Sarkozy. He regards Sarkozy and everything he represents with such an actinic detestation that one expects the crackling of sparks and odour of ozone when opening the book. Indeed, he uses Sarkozy's personal shortcomings as a metaphor for what's wrong with France, and as the structure of the book as a whole. And yet he is forced to come to terms with the fact that Sarkozy was elected with the votes of 53% of French voters after, in the first round, effectively wiping out the National Front, Communists, and Greens. And yet, echoing voter discontent, in the municipal elections a year later, the left was seen as the overall winner.

How can a democratic society continue to function when the electorate repeatedly empowers people who are neither competent to govern nor aligned with the self-interest of the nation and its population? The author sees only three alternatives. The first (p. 232) is the redefinition of the state from a universal polity open to all races, creeds, and philosophies to a racially or ethnically defined state united in opposition to an “other”. The author sees Sarkozy's hostility to immigrants in France as evidence for such a redefinition in France, but does not believe that it will be successful in diverting the electorate's attention from a falling standard of living due to globalisation, not from the immigrant population. The second possibility he envisions (p. 239) is the elimination, either outright or effectively, of universal suffrage at the national level and its replacement by government by unelected bureaucratic experts with authoritarian powers, along the general lines of the China so admired by Thomas Friedman. Elections would be retained for local officials, preserving the appearance of democracy while decoupling it from governance at the national level. Lest this seem an absurd possibility, as the author notes on p. 246, this is precisely the model emerging for continental-scale government in the European Union. Voters in member states elect members to a European “parliament” which has little real power, while the sovereignty of national governments is inexorably ceded to the unelected European Commission. Note that only a few member states allowed their voters a referendum on the European “constitution” or its zombie reanimation, the Treaty of Lisbon.

The third alternative, presented in the conclusion to the work, is the only one the author sees as preserving democracy. This would be for the economic core of Europe, led by France and Germany, to adopt an explicit policy of protectionism, imposing tariffs on imports from low-wage producers with the goal of offsetting the wage differential and putting an end to the pressure on European workers, the outsourcing of jobs, and the consequent destruction of the middle class. This would end the social and economic pessimism in European societies, realign the policies of the governing class with the electorate, and restore the confidence among voters in those they elect which is essential for democracy to survive. (Due to its centuries-long commitment to free trade and alignment with the United States, Todd does not expect Great Britain to join such a protectionist regime, but believes that if France and Germany were to proclaim such a policy, their economic might and influence in the European Union would be sufficient to pull in the rest of the Continent and build a Wirtschaftsfestung Europa from the Atlantic to the Russian border.) In such a case, and only in that case, the author contends, will what comes after democracy be democracy.

As I noted at the start of these comments, I found this book, among other things, infuriating. If that's all it were, I would neither have finished it nor spent the time to write such a lengthy review, however. The work is worth reading, if for nothing else, to get a sense of the angst and malaise in present-day Europe, where it is beginning to dawn upon the architects and supporters of the social democratic welfare state that it is not only no longer competitive in the global economy but also unsustainable within its own borders in the face of a demographic collapse and failure to generate new enterprises and employment brought about by its own policies. Amidst foreboding that there are bad times just around the corner iTunes Store, and faced with an electorate which empowers candidates which leftists despise for being “populist”, “crude”, and otherwise not the right kind of people, there is a tendency among the Left to claim that “democracy is broken”, and that only radical, transformative change (imposed from the top down, against the will of the majority, if necessary) can save democracy from itself. This book is, I believe, an exemplar of this genre. I would expect several such books authored by leftist intellectuals to appear in the United States in the first years of a Palin administration.

What is particularly aggravating about the book is its refusal to look at the causes of the problems it proposes to address through a protectionist policy. Free trade did not create the regime of high taxation, crushing social charges, inability to dismiss incompetent workers, short work weeks and long vacations, high minimum wages and other deterrents to entry level jobs, and regulatory sclerosis which have made European industry uncompetitive, and high tariffs alone will not solve any of these problems, but rather simply allow them to persist for a while within a European bubble increasingly decoupled from the world economy. That's pretty much what the Soviet Union did for seventy years, if you think about it, and how well did that work out for the Soviet people?

Todd is so focused on protectionism as panacea that he Panglosses over major structural problems in Europe which would be entirely unaffected by its adoption. He dismisses demographic collapse as a problem for France, noting that the total fertility rate has risen over the last several years back to around 2 children per woman, the replacement rate. What he doesn't mention is that this is largely due to a high fertility rate among Muslim immigrants from North Africa, whose failure to assimilate and enter the economy is a growing crisis in France along with other Western European countries. The author dismisses this with a wave of the hand, accusing Sarkozy of provoking the “youth” riots of 2005 to further his own career, and argues that episode was genuinely discouraged young versus the ruling class and had little to do with Islam or ethnic conflict. One wonders how much time Dr. Todd has spent in the “no go” Muslim banlieues of Paris and other large European cities.

Further, Todd supports immigration and denounces restrictionists as opportunists seeking to distract the electorate with a scapegoat. But how is protectionism (closing the border to products from low wage countries) going to work, precisely, if the borders remain open to people from the Third World, many lacking any skills equipping them to participate in a modern industrialised society, and bringing with them, in many cases, belief systems hostile to the plurality, egalitarianism, secularism, and tolerance of European nations? If the descendants of immigrants do not assimilate, they pose a potentially disastrous social and political problem, while if they do, their entry into the job market will put pressure on wages just as surely as goods imported from China.

Given Todd's record in predicting events conventional wisdom deemed inconceivable, one should be cautious in dismissing his analysis here, especially as it drawn from the same kind of reasoning based in demographics, anthropology, and economics which informs his other work. If nothing else, it provides an excellent view of how more than fifty years journey down the social democratic road to serfdom brings into doubt how long the “democratic” part, as well as the society, can endure.

April 2010 Permalink