Citizens, Or... Welfare Recipients?
Le Monde Diplomatique of January 1996, taking stock of
the recent wave of massive strikes in France, yet again provides some
astonishing insights into the current developments on the social and
intellectual fronts in Europe. Le Monde Diplomatique focuses
precisely upon the most amazing "manufacture of consent" around the "one-idea
system" of total triumph of the market, and how intellectuals seem to have
deserted en masse their role (and duty) as providers of critical thought,
to become communication managers for Capital, whether paid or not. (A typical
editorial in a December issue of a mass-circulation weekly spoke in these terms
of strikers: "with its mic-mac of diverse archaisms, the million people that
take to the streets shows its flinching attitude towards modernism, its angst
against the liberal thought that is breaking through the world over. This
thought has not yet penetrated in France, which remains deprived of a culture of
free and adult individuals, with its adjustment-prone structures, and its
flexible and supple mechanism of contract.")
The core issue, both at stake in the strikes and the columns of
Le Monde Diplomatique, is that of the public provision of essential
services by state-owned utilities, such as energy, railways, mail and
telecommunications, health, etc. Both these enterprises and the concepts they
embody are going through a rough time at the hands of the champions of
deregulation and "free" enterprise, or to put it starkly: "public service is
outside the market. The market is the law. Hence public service is an outlaw!".
The French parliamentary report on public services (Raport Borotra) indeed
points out that "the very notion of public service is totally incomprehensible
to the majority of our (European) partners". Instead of "public service", its
alleged equivalent (but in fact its beggarly step-sister), the notion of
"universal access" is being advanced (cf , a.o., Wired), and the
European Commission seems prepared to leave everything to the "market forces",
provided "universal access" is somehow salvaged. Paul Marie Couteaux points out
that this laissez-faire is based on a triple misunderstanding:
- that public monopoly is the antithesis of private diversity, whereas
public monopoly (which is accountable) is usually the response to a private
monopoly - usually a multinational enterprise (which is not).
- that public service is somehow a socialist concept, whereas it is the
outcome of a historical European (and especially) French political choice,
whereas the state participates in (and not negates) the market.
- that public production and/or provision of services would be inimical to
innovation. Quite to the contrary: the Minitel, the high-speed train TGV, and
atomic energy on a large scale (which is not a controversial issue in France)
are all the outcome of state intervention. (A point also made by the opponents
of the "Californian Ideology").
Citizens, Or... Welfare Recipients?
The members of the European commission, facing the accusation of
wanting to run down the public services, routinely retort that deregulation and
competitiveness are not at all inconsistent with the provision of a minimal
"universal access", which would somehow be the European equivalent of the much
vaunted French-style service publique... This seemingly innocuous
variation in language hides in fact very fundamental differences in approach.
The public (provision) of service(s), as it is understood in France,
lies at the heart of a notion of economics that leaves, in addition to the
market(-forces), a large place to the State. It embodies a different approach,
which is anchored in the republican ideology, enriched by the Keynesian
tradition, and also by the charitative tradition of social Christianity ("Law
and State as bulwarks of the poor"), by the solidarity tradition of the social
democracy ("The State as protector of the weak and as reducer of inequalities"),
and finally, by the technocratic-scientific tradition of administrators and
engineers, themselves issued from prestigious state schools ("The State as
organizer of economic and scientific progress").
This concept is inseparably linked with the republican order, which
strives to integrate individuals into society on the basis of their identity as
citizens - and thus, on basis of equality of status. This necessitates in turn
the provision of basic goods and services outside of the customary trade
mechanisms. The Christian and social-democratic traditions add to this concept
the necessity to alleviate the inequalities in the distribution of wealth and
incomes caused by the market.
As for the Keynesian element, it highlights the limitations of the
regulatory potential of the market: state intervention, especially when
channeled through public production and financing, can correct the conjuncture's
instability, and increase the rate of growth by giving a clearer picture of the
future, thus providing more rational ground to private anticipations. The
technocratic-scientific tradition, whose roots go back to the absolutist
monarchy and Colbert's1
interventionism, allows for the creation of a strong state sector giving impulse
to an innovative dynamism that is autonomous from classical economic
All these elements are entirely foreign to the current European
economic buildup, which develops within the ambit of the globalization of
markets, and makes the latter the dominant instrument of socialization.
Brussels, in fact, organizes the routing around politics - that is, around the
core of the republican idea. Thus, instead of the "public service", the
Commission offers a concept that is borrowed from the Reaganite and Thatcherite
lexicon: "universal access". This is being defined as: "access, provided to all
users independently of their location, of a given minimal package of defined
services, and this, in the light of specifically prevailing national
circumstances, for an affordable fee".2 This is,
with regard to public service, the same as the dole is to wage-labor: a welfare,
nay, a survival scheme, intended for those who fail to make the grade into the
One therefore should not be surprised that the perimeter of this
provision of welfare-like services has been severely circumscribed: postal
services, but not the telephone; electricity, but not gas. It comes as no
surprise either that provision of universal service has been separated from that
of commercial services. Complete segregation of needs from users will be the
unavoidable consequence of this division, since whereas the current conception
of universal service makes it something accessible to every European citizen,
its natural evolution will be to end up being earmarked for welfare recipients
1. Colbert was the Sun King's (Louis XIV) long standing prime
minister. "Colbertism", the French version of mercantilism, pleads for a strong
economy, buffered up by a strong state. "Economic might is more important that
territorial might" was Colbert's constant advice to his royal master. (PJHR)
2. European Commission. "Green Book on the Liberalization of
Telecommunication Infrastructure and Cable Networks". Brussels: January 1995.
Christian Barrere is professor of economics at Rheims
University. This article first appeared (in French) in Le Monde
Diplomatique, January 1996.
Translation and preface by Patrice Riemens. Patrice Riemens is a cultural
activist and associate research fellow with inDRA (Institute for Development
Research) at the University of Amsterdam.
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