What « Politics of Civilization » ?

Sami Nair
Sami Nair

Liberation, 18 January 2008

Par Sami Nair  

In his New Year’s greetings to the French nation on December 31, 2007, President Nicolas Sarkozy appropriated the notion of « politics of civilization » for himself to define the meaning he intends to give his presidency’s actions. His advisers immediately made it known that the idea had been borrowed from the book Edgar Morin and I wrote in 1997, the title of which, « Politics of Civilization, » is already a whole program. I am sure that President Sarkozy did not have the necessary time to devote to the first version of the book, which, in fact, contained a very harsh criticism of neo-liberal globalization and a reflection on the restoration of the social bond that is incompatible with the policy his government is implementing today, ten years later. Unless the president has – as I would wish – gone over to the side of the Left’s post-Keynesians who inspired the book’s first chapter (which I wrote) : « For a Globalization of Social Well-Being, » … But I confess that even in that case, I remain unconvinced about the orientation being prepared for us and the use that will be made of the concept. That’s because there is a precedent : the government also adopted the idea of « co-development » which I elaborated in 1997, and is using it today, through the intervention of a « Ministry of Immigration, National Identity, and Co-development » ( !) to implement an immigration policy exactly opposite to the one I advocated. That’s why it is prudent, before granting any blank check, to recall several basic principles.

 

The original question that directed our thought was « Where is our world going ? » After reading the first version of the book, one may see that the answer was dependent upon an analysis of the then-existent global system. Since that time, the situation has worsened : September 11, 2001 ; the American invasion of Iraq ; March 11 in Madrid ; attacks on London ; globalized terrorism and the interminable Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. And in the background : pursuit of unchecked globalization in the context of planetary ecological degradation. In France, as in Europe, privatization of the social bond associated with that globalization leads to an unprecedented crisis in social status : the notion of the common good is totally overthrown ; public services are dismantled. The idea, civilized par excellence, of the « commons, » of « public goods belonging universally to humanity, » outside of and beyond the market, the idea that covers such sensitive domains as education, health, housing, and free information among others has now been delegitimized by the iron law of commoditization. Everything must submit to the sacrosanct law of money and blind competition. The government is less and less as the embodiment of the general tending towards the extension and deepening of solidarity ; it is more and more the image of an administration that never stops whining about its own powerlessness….

 

If civilization, in the most beautiful European tradition of the Enlightenment, means the establishment of a world where equality of opportunity and human solidarity prevail, then we must declare that it is presently in profound crisis, devoured by a soulless capitalism. In his recent press conference, President Sarkozy pilloried the dehumanization of social relationships, carnivorous individualism, the loss of feelings of collective solidarity. He is right.

 

But by outrageously favoring, as his government does, the dynamic of privatization of the social bond, does he not strengthen what he denounces ? Doesn’t he call the dismantling of entire sections of the welfare state « reform ? » Does the fiscal gift granted at the beginning of the legislative session (about 20 billion Euros) to certain of the wealthiest categories of the population contribute to solidarity with the neediest ?

 

I humbly submit that a politics of civilization worthy of the name is first of all a policy of fair and equitable citizenship. It implies great public policies, a heightened role for the state as a vector of social well-being, a vision of social and territorial development based on targeted redistributions of resources to establish equality of opportunity and create conditions for a true common identity. By giving his government the image of diversity through the nomination of several ministers of immigrant origin (and here I opine neither on their virtues nor on their representativeness), President Sarkozy has considerably advanced the representation of the French people. This merit of his must be acknowledged and he must be given credit for this symbolic coup. But the reality must follow. So, when shall France see true and great integration policies for the stigmatized suburban zone, the cities’ marginalized neighborhoods, the country’s abandoned urban areas ? On this ground, France is the country in Europe where the situation is the most worrisome.

 

And there is still more : today shouldn’t an up-to-date politics of civilization confront the question of religious pluralism frankly and rigorously ? In the speech Sarkozy gave before the pope in Latran on December 20, 2007, he seemed to imply that French secularism now constitutes an obstacle to what he calls, in an overly hasty formula, the need for « transcendence. » There we’re touching on something dangerous that could, after over a century of pacific relations, reignite the war between the republican state and the church. Of course, the Christian religious substratum, which is resurfacing in the context of questions about European identity, as well as Islam’s new presence all over Europe are stumbling blocks for the French secular model. But is that a reason to renounce the latter ? And what if, on the contrary, that model is, now more than ever, the best way to answer the challenges today poses ? Or do we have to invent a new « transcendence » by decree ? In fact, the idea of a secular public space that respects believers and non-believers constitutes the impassable horizon of freedom of conscience in a democratic government of law ; it is at the heart of a politics of civilization based on respect for diversity and unimpeded adherence to common values.

 

On the international level, it is difficult at the moment to see what the rapprochement Nicolas Sarkozy has effected with the United States means. Does one plead for peace and solidarity when one aligns oneself with a President Bush who has not hesitated to lie, to spill blood, to destroy the Iraqi nation by stirring up a horrible civil war there, and finally to feed a « war of civilizations » that fundamentalist terrorism wants to spread everywhere ? And, on the other hand, if it’s legitimate to condemn a dangerously provocative Iranian president and to refuse the race towards military nuclear use, does it advance the cause of peace today when France proclaims, ahead of Washington even, the « logic of war » against Iran ?

 

Where is the « politics of civilization » in this conflict-ridden vision of international relations ? Ideas – one can never say it enough – are not abstractions : they often transform themselves into material forces, and that’s why their use implies an elevated sense of moral responsibility. The reflection on « politics of civilization » must not be manipulated into justifying precisely what it is meant to oppose.

 

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