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Parliamentary Assembly Session: 21 to 25 June 2010

Statement by Alain TOURAINE, Sociologist

23 June 2010

(Extract of the verbatim record)

Mr TOURAINE (Sociologist) was grateful for the opportunity to share his thoughts with the Assembly and he thanked the rapporteurs for the high quality of their reports. It was necessary to make a choice. Had the economic crisis resulted in a political crisis or vice versa? This was a question not of opinion but of fact. Compared with the situation when the Nazis came to power following the economic collapse of 1929, the present was very different. There had been silence from intellectuals, trade unions and most economists about the impending financial crisis. Those few economists who did recognise the signs were voices crying in the wilderness.

Why had there been no political or democratic reaction to the crisis? It was certainly true that the President of the United States, supported by European leaders, had helped prevent the financial crisis becoming a systemic crisis like the one in 1929, but 30 years of unbridled neo-liberalism had meant that states could not interfere and that markets had to regulate themselves. Public opinion, on the whole, was such that the system of political action had been stripped of much of its meaning. Just as communist parties had lost their essence 50 years ago, so social democratic parties had lost theirs now. This had led to a feeling that voting was pointless, that there was no difference between left and right. Coalitions had shifted in Germany, and in France, a very right-wing government had a number of members who had been very left wing in the past.

How could people act? How could faith in politics be restored? These were the problem before politicians, and they needed in-depth analysis and concrete proposals so that political life could be changed. It was necessary to look at the definition of democracy, sometimes conceived as the rule of the majority, or, in Churchill’s words, the tyranny of the majority. There were problems of poor access, of weak capabilities, and of politics being pushed to one side. Lobbies were very powerful. These were often institutionalised in the USA, but in Europe economic lobby groups had become more and more powerful. The process of globalisation had led people to believe that they could not affect political outcomes, and so a deficit of power had developed. The political system did not feel strong enough to transform a mass consumer society. Equality of action on the political and economic sides were necessary.

The idea of democracy as a common good had been adopted by countries in the 20th century. Today, people were more fearful that this idea of the common good or the general interest could result in minorities being persecuted. There was the example of the recent referendum in Switzerland, which would be ridiculous if it were not so scandalous. There were fears that pursuit of the common good could lead to xenophobia, and a different definition of democracy was needed. The reports brought that out.

It was essential to follow the ideas of Benjamin Constant, expressed 150 years ago, that the liberty of antiquity had to be distinguished from the modern view of liberty. Participating in democracy was positive but in the complex modern world it was necessary to stress the importance of negative freedom: the freedom not to participate. This concept was typified in the United Kingdom’s principle of habeus corpus, the foundation of modern democracy. There had to be universal terms for freedom which applied not just to particular groups but which were universalist in principle: a freedom for all to express themselves without excepting minorities. This principle had to inform both the birth and future of modern democracy, but people could not reject the freedoms of antiquity.

The reports had spoken of broadening democracy and the need for it to be participatory and deliberative, not just representative. Democracy had to come from the bottom up but there also had to be input at the top, from scientists or other experts, for example, in order to make difficult information available. The reports had made proposals for both participatory grass-roots democracy and deliberative democracy.

A democratic system must be fed by information. This was a more serious and important problem than facile attacks on the media might suggest. The media were dangerous only to the extent that they had a monopoly. For example, in the years before Solidarity came into power in Poland, Poles believed only the media of the United States and other media who could broadcast across national borders. The media had to pose problems and not impose solutions.

Some 30 years of neo-liberalism had begun to break down in the 1980s and 1990s with regional crises, which had recently become a general crisis. It was now necessary to break with those ideas. After the collapse of the economic system a more wide-ranging political system was needed, with cross-fertilisation between the political and the socio-economic spheres. Only through strengthening democracy could a solution be found to the economic crisis.