PARIS — Is the current economic crisis uniting the democratic world in anger as much as in fear? In France, with many factories closing, a wave of executive hostage-taking — “boss-napping,” as this newfangled crime is called — is agitating board rooms and police. In the United States, big bonuses given to executives from firms receiving billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts — the insurance giant AIG, in particular — has infuriated public opinion, with a populist press and Congress fueling popular rage.
Similarly, in Britain, an increasingly inquisitive and critical public is now lumping together bankers and members of Parliament in a common climate of suspicion. Is the current crisis creating or revealing a growing split between rulers and ruled?
Populist anger is one of the most predictable, and certainly inevitable, consequences of today’s financial and economic crisis. The unifying factor behind this rising “anger” is rejection of both real and perceived inequality — inequality in both treatment and economic conditions.
In terms of the French Republic’s credo, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” the first principle, liberty, became the motto of our age after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; the second is gaining greater precedence today as the economy falters.
Can a renewed quest for equality close the traditional gap that has existed between America and Europe? Will the “American dream” be Europeanized? And, with their country’s economy humbled, will countless Americans’ secret hope that they, too, might one day be rich now give way to European-style envy?
It would be dangerous for America if things went that far. America is not France — at least not yet. But it seems obvious that increasing economic inequality in the U.S. and, indeed, throughout the OECD, has stoked a perception of injustice and growing anger.
In the U.S., as the financial sector soared, the manufacturing base contracted sharply. It is clear that all over the Western world, particularly in the last 20 years, those at the top of the income ladder have done much better than those in the middle or at the bottom. While the rich got richer, the poor did not get poorer, but the gap between rich and poor expanded significantly.
The current crisis may have seriously eroded the wealth of many of the very rich, destroying their assets in an unprecedented way. But the fear, if not despair, of the poor and not-so-poor has increased tremendously.
Of course, inequalities between countries are one thing, and inequalities within countries are quite another. But today the two processes are taking place simultaneously and at an accelerating pace. Anger is no longer restricted to extreme anti-capitalist, anti-globalization forces. A deep feeling of injustice is spreading across large swaths of society. This sense of injustice is only partly contained by political considerations in the U.S., thanks to the “Obama factor,” a rare phenomenon that can be described as the restoration of trust in one’s political leaders.
But the more you distrust politics and your politicians, the more anger will manifest itself in uncontrollable ways, especially if your country is imbued with a romantic “revolutionary” tradition and culture. This is obviously the case in France, where, contrary to what the French historian Francois Furet thought in the immediate aftermath of communism’s collapse 20 years ago, the French Revolution is neither over nor a closed chapter in history.
In France the decreasing popularity of President Nicolas Sarkozy and of his main “classical” opponent, the Socialist Party, favors the rise of the extreme left behind the energy and charisma of its young leader, Olivier Besancenot.
In the U.S., the reverse is true. President Barack Obama’s popularity remains largely intact and acts as a kind of buffer against an uncontrolled explosion of anger.
It is possible, but far from certain, that what Obama describes as a “glimmer” of hope in the U.S. could be sufficient to keep popular anger at bay and bring about a recovery in trust in politics and politicians. And European discontent will probably continue to grow, whatever happens in the U.S. Economic recovery, when it comes, will probably start in America, but it is likely that the public’s sharpened sense of injustice, and the resulting resentments, will linger, poisoning politics in the Western world long after the crisis has passed.
Dominique Moisi, a visiting professor at Harvard University, is the author of “The Geopolitics of Emotion.” © 2009 Project Syndicate. www.project-syndicate.org
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