Aux Armes, Citoyens! Economic Disintegration and Social Movements

Strike Today, 190 demonstrations should take place in France, supported by eight different unions to protest the French government’s response to the economic crisis. Sociologist Denis Muzet, of Mediascopie, offers his view, in Le Monde, on this social context in which large-scale protest social movements are likely to emerge. For him, we need a new moral and social contract.

Muzet notes that research has shown that a few weeks ago, French people were shocked by the scale of the crisis but were not panicking about it. Now, there is much more anger based on news such as the fact that banks have published profits while at the same time receiving 20 billion Euros in government help all the while refusing to give up or reduce their bonus. This feeds into a profound sense of injustice that can lead to social unrest even though the French social safety net has mitigated somewhat the worst impact of the crisis.

But what still feeds this sense of injustice is only partially economic and social. It is a moral crisis as well, a crisis of meaning. The complete devotion to profits at the expense of the human element is what is coming crashing down right now. The sheer number attached to financial losses is amazing. A whole social and moral structure is collapsing. Here, Muzet sounds very Durkheimian, talking about something that sounds a lot like anomie. And anomie can lead to chaos accompanied with a loss of social solidarity as people witness the excesses of the privileged class.

At the same time, the media themselves have fed this trend by framing the crisis almost exclusively in terms of social anxiety while politicians (Sarkzy and Obama, I might add) engage in dramaturgy (as Muzet notes) to present themselves as saviors. Again, here , Muzet notes the absence of coherent narrative. Interestingly, you would have to read sociological and economic blogs for that (such as Pual Krugman or Ian Welsh).

So, in this context, bailouts and stimulus bills with big numbers attached to them do not do the trick. What is the point of investing or consuming if one does not know what is going to happen? Discourse of meaning and of crisis exit is lacking. And such a framing discourse, for Muzet, needs to involve a new social and moral contract based on ecology, sustainable growth and social solidarity. Muzet’s studies reveal that the French see the state as the emergency paramedics but don’t think the state will be the main agency to get out of the crisis since so many states have been submerged and overwhelmed by the amplor of the crisis. For them, the role of the state is to not let the social structure collapse completely. At the same time, they do blame the state for letting this happen through liberalization and deregulation. In these studies, the French reveal that they understand that new modes of consumption and social organizations are needed.

Unions also have a strong part to play but their credibility is limited as well. And let’s not talk about the current political opposition. Muzet’s point is that the solutions to the crisis cannot be exclusively economic but have to be social as well. A purely quantitative and economist vision will not do the trick but as long as the media and the political sphere are stuck in (1) panic mode, and (2) economic determinism + consumerism, no solution will emerge and a profound social crisis with strong social movements is a very real possibility.

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