The current intifada in France has stripped the American Left of its second Utopia in a generation.
The Left lost its earlier worldly utopia when the Soviet Union fell apart. 1989 was not only the year that the countries of Central Europe regained their independence, it was also the year that the Left began to lose its organizing principle, its focus, and to begin casting around for a new organizing principle. The Soviet Union had been the focus of ardent loyalty amongst many American Leftists in the 1930s and for some up to the 1950s. After that the Soviet Union, whatever its defects, was seen as the supporter of progressive forces – and Leftist poster-children — of the day, like Mao, Castro, Che Guevara, the Viet Cong or the Sandinistas. Even into the 1980s there were many Leftists in the West who could come up with good things to say about the Soviet Union. And even as the rotten juggernaut began to crumble more and more visibly, it was at least still possible to attack its enemies as “McCarthyists”, and to despise anti-communists as hicks, militarists, religious cranks, and otherwise unsophisticated and contemptible.
With the Soviet Union gone, the Leftists shifted or intensified their focus on various “progressive” causes, such as anti-globalization, environmentalism, multiculturalism and radical feminism. However, there was no particular geographic locus for these causes, no place where “real existing” progressivism could be found. The enemy, however, remained clear: The West, especially the United States and its capitalist economic system.
What I have observed in the last few years, especially since the Iraq war began, is a strong revival of an older liberal vision, which saw Europe as being a model for a more socialistic society, which the USA should supposedly emulate. (Remember Mike Dukakis went on vacation with a book on Swedish land-use regulation for beach reading?) The idea has been promoted more and more that the European model of multiculturalism, socialist management of the economy, a relaxed attitude toward work, high taxes, lavish benefits, antipathy to Christianity, and pacifism is the one that the United States should emulate.
This “European social model” has been presented and accepted by many as a more humane alternative to the savage capitalism of the Anglo-Saxons. This model is based – supposedly — not on competition and greed, but on solidarity, on protecting workers and citizens from the gales of creative destruction which make life for the grasping, vulgar Americans so insecure. Educated, well-to-do Americans envy their peers in Europe, who seem to get more respect just for having advanced degrees, and they don’t have to work as hard. This makes Europe seem like a worldly paradise to elite Americans. (I got exasperated with one friend who kept going on about how great it is in Germany – “look, I don’t envy them their life, and I don’t care what they think of mine.” He could not understand why I did not want to make America more like Europe, even when I explained it to him.)
The deep problems the European “social model” suffers from are not focused on by our friends on the Left. The demographic death spiral, massive structural unemployment, increasing levels of crime (at or exceeding American levels in most cases), bureaucratic stasis which holds down growth and prevents the creation of new businesses, a business community focused on rent-seeking, a stifling PC multiculturalism, an unresponsive and unaccountable government at national and Union levels – this is all off the radar. And the biggest of all these elephants crowded into the room is the very large, unassimilated, unemployed and unemployable, welfare-supported Muslim minority. Warehoused in public housing projects which have been abandoned by the police, with no opportunity for gainful work, yet supported by relatively lavish benefits, this community has been a time-bomb waiting to go off. We now see that the French state, one of the most expensive, intrusive and arrogant there is, falls on its face when it is asked to perform its core function of providing physical security to lives and property. This is not a model anyone who is paying attention will want to emulate or adopt.
In addition to thousands of cars, lots of buildings, and at least one elderly old lady doused with gasoline by the rioting “youths” of Paris, the American Left is also watching its default Utopia – their dream of the European welfare state — going up in smoke.
(Of course they may not realize it yet. But I think these riots cannot be buried on page 8 of the newspaper forever.)
Utopia: By popular demand, here is exhibit A (Mr. Rifkin’s book) of how Europe generally and France in particular have served recently as a Leftist utopia. There are others, such as Exhibit B (Mr. Kupchan’s book).
Really, also, I do have friends who are lefties. I even married one. They often tell me how Europe is better than the dear old USA, more social justice, socialized medicine, etc. I say: So move there. One has. That’s fine. To each his own. I’ll stay in Chicago, thanks.