Friday, April 16, 2004

French Commonsense

In my last post I mentioned the name of Emmanuel Todd. He’s a French anthropologist and demographer whose book, After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order, was a best seller in Europe and recently appeared here in translation without eliciting much of a response. To judge from the vehement denunciations of some of the reader reviews at Amazon, he certainly strikes a nerve with right-wingers, who are amazed that anybody can gainsay American righteousness and—more to the point—American might. But Todd, who is neither a leftist nor a retailer of conspiracy theories, hasn’t been much noticed by Bush’s domestic critics except for angry moderates like Michael Lind and me. Todd, however, is not angry. Observing the scene from across the ocean, he is not personally upset about American foreign policy because he believes it will mostly harm us and not the Europeans or Asians.

Todd is no philosopher. He is an observer of big trends such as the rapid spread of literacy and lower birth rates throughout much of the world. In lieu of ideological fine points, he tends to pay attention to coarse facts like the huge American foreign trade deficit and the increasing gap between rich and poor in America and Europe. It says a great deal about the false consciousness of many Americans than such a perspective upsets them so much. I don’t agree with Todd’s particular takes on the renewed importance of Russia, the future of the EU, and the potential dangers of our aggressive foreign policy, but I think his perception of American weakness and vulnerability is essentially indisputable. He also makes a couple of specific points that are well worth considering:

1. Todd buys into a modified version of Fukuyama’s theory of the inevitability of democracy because he believes that general literacy more or less automatically leads to democratic institutions. He does insist that there are very significant differences between democracies, however—it matters that parties alternate dominance in America and the U.K while in Japan the same coalition rules year in, year out. He also accepts Michael Doyle’s claim that war between liberal democracies is impossible. But Todd disputes the notion that the triumph of democracy is the end of history or, for that matter, of the realistic possibility of serious war between developed countries. Nations may tend towards democracy as their citizens learn to read, but there is no guarantee that the process stops with democracy. Indeed, both the United States and Western Europe are currently evolving into a high-tech oligarchies with declining levels of political participation and drastically higher levels of economic inequality. Perhaps Fukuyama will have to indulge us with a sequel: Son of the End of History: the Thousand Year Rule of the Optimates.

2. Many people understand that the huge imbalance of trade between the United States and the rest of the world will eventually be redressed by a lowering in the American standard of living. Todd suggests some ways in which this readjustment could occur sooner rather than later. For example, part of the reason that the rest of the world is willing to finance American power is the dominant role of the dollar. The Euro has already challenged the status of the dollar. If the British do decide to opt for the continent and the still very considerable financial clout of London goes Euro, it’s very easy to imagine a drastic realignment of currency rates.

No comments: