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The Nouveau Frontier

The American Challenge

by J.J. Servan-Schreiber, translated by Ronald Steel
Atheneum, 320 pp., $6.95

When Le Défi Américain was published last year, it was immediately a bestseller all over Western Europe. One can see why. The subject it dealt with—America’s threatening technological hegemony—was important. The author was chief editor of an influential liberal weekly, L’Express. There was a ready-made audience in the shape of all those modern-minded youngish businessmen and managerial types who a decade earlier had briefly hearkened to the voice of Mendès-France. Moreover, M. Servan-Schreiber, while decidedly no Gaullist, could not be written off as a simple-minded anti-Gaullist either: he stood, and stands, for a greater degree of European independence from the United States. He also stands for that section of the Center-Left in France which backs M. Mitterand.

This is not to say that he is a political force in his own right. Arthur Schlesinger, who has contributed a brief and enthusiastic Preface to the American edition, seems a trifle short on reliable information about public opinion in France; otherwise he would not have suggested that “The American Challenge may do for European unity very much what Thomas Paine’s Common Sense did for American independence.” He is right in saying that the book has made an impact upon businessmen and civil servants hitherto unaware of the technological gap between the Old World and the new. It may also have helped the federalist gospel, according to which Western Europe can raise itself by its economic bootstraps only if it has the sense to federate politically. Unlike the General, M. Servan-Schreiber makes no fetish of the nation-state. This indeed is his chief quarrel with the Gaullists, as readers of his frequent editorials in L’Express must now be aware. On other topics—e.g., the election of the President by popular vote, and the consequent dethronement of Parliament—he has reluctantly come around to the Gaullist viewpoint. So, by the way, has M. Mitterand.

What then is The American Challenge principally about? Perhaps the easiest way to answer the question is to quote a somewhat lengthy passage which occurs at the close of the US edition (the French original also has some appendices—including a comment by Mr. Herman Kahn—which for some reason have not been translated):

The American expeditionary corps will leave Vietnam, where there is nothing more to gain and everything to lose. But American industry will not leave Europe, where it has made new conquests and increased its formidable power. Even if we were not faced with such a challenge by the Americans, we ought to find in ourselves the power and the desire to build a more intelligent and bountiful post-industrial society…. The American challenge really adds only an external pressure to what is an internal necessity….

The training, development, and exploitation of human intelligence—these are the real resources, and there are no others. The American challenge is not ruthless, like so many Europe has known in her history, but it may be more dramatic, for it embraces everything. Its weapons are the use and systematic perfection of all the instruments of reason….

We can no longer sit back and wait for the renaissance. But it is not going to be evoked by patriotic rhetoric or clarion calls left over from the age of military battles. It can come only from subtle analysis, rigorous thought, and precise reasoning. It calls for a special breed of politicians, businessmen, and labor leaders.

The concluding paragraph should help to explain why orthodox Gaullists regularly go purple in the face at the mention of M. Servan-Schreiber’s name. But it also explains why he has been howled down by left-wing students: not only in Paris but also—believe it or not—in Madrid, where his appearance some months ago caused a near-riot—not because he was too far to the Left, but because the student radicals (they have them in Spain too, and they are beginning to speak up) thought him too conservative! Too friendly to the Americans in fact. For M. Servan-Schreiber is that new phenomenon, a modern-minded liberal who believes in Keynes and Galbraith, styles himself on the late John F. Kennedy, likes and admires the US, and yet wants Europe to be more independent.

BUT HOW MUCH more? There’s the rub. The Communists (and the Gaullists too) suspect that all he wants for Europe is a more influential voice within an Atlantic Free Trade Area, which in their eyes would simply be a decorous camouflage for the American Empire. Hence the unmitigated hostility with which he and his paper are treated by those left-wing Gaullists who are close to the Communists on foreign policy. Hence, too, the difficulty he has had in maintaining his links with those socialists who follow the lead of Mendès-France within the somewhat amorphous Federation of the Left nominally headed by M. Mitterand. Consider a passage such as this with which the volume concludes:

If criticism of an oppressive capitalism led these “founding fathers” of socialism to challenge the explicit liberties capitalism dispensed to a few thousand of the privileged, it is equally true that they wanted, on the whole, a society of individual initiative. These objectives are completely contemporary. Their vision of an open society where men are mobile and continually regenerated by continuing education is magnificently confirmed today.

Is it indeed? A lot of French students don’t seem to think so, but M. Servan-Schreiber has a ready answer to that: the French educational system is out-of-date and must be modernized. By now everyone in France, from the General and M. Pompidou downward, is in agreement on this theme. But once again, the awkward question arises: what exactly is all this modernization to be for? The answer, so far as one can gather from the enthusiastic rhetoric of The American Challenge, amounts to this: France and Europe must pull their socks up and march resolutely into the electronic future mapped out by Herman Kahn and his colleagues. If they don’t, they will have only themselves to blame if Europe becomes a mere annex of America. Now this may well be true—it probably is true—but it eludes the problem of social organization. After all, there are other ways of conceiving the kind of society which can make optimal use of the human and natural resources placed at its disposal by modern technology. Suppose someone were to suggest that “a society of individual initiative” is not what is wanted. Then where would M. Servan-Schreiber be? Why, exactly where he belongs—among those modern-minded representatives of “the Left” who want the new technocratic setup to be as liberal and humane as possible so long as they themselves go on controlling it.

Now this must not be misunderstood. Those Parisian students who during the recent upheaval brushed Mitterand and his friends off as caretakers of a future “bourgeois” government were talking nonsense. “Bourgeois society” is not a serious issue in France. Everyone, or nearly everyone, is against it (for the sound reason that it is dead and can no longer defend itself). Even Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, whose “independent Republicans” are officially to the right of the orthodox Gaullists, would protest loudly and energetically were anyone to describe him as “bourgeois.” As for M. Mitterand and Servan-Schreiber, they are of course socialists. I say “of course” because ever since Henri de Saint-Simon invented the idea, if not the term (which made its appearance somewhat later), it has been the fashion on the French Left to describe oneself as a socialist.

For practical purposes this usually meant being in favor of centralized economic planning. By now this is not only technically possible, but politically popular, indeed necessary if the economy is to stagger on. There has to be some sort of planning, because things have moved beyond the primitive state where the market could be relied upon to allocate economic resources more or less rationally, without causing vast dislocations and mass unemployment. The early socialists were first with this notion, and thanks to them the Left eventually grasped it before the Right did (although the intelligent section of the Right has now caught up). All the same, M. Servan-Schreiber is being somewhat disingenuous when he writes, “It is the Left that brought rational decision-making to the economy, and thanks to the Left that the idea of the Plan came to France.” The “idea of the Plan” was brought to France in the 1930s by Henri de Man, whose pupils went over to Fascism when “the Left” idiotically turned him down. And when in 1944 the Resistance movement had made planning respectable, the Gaullists profited most from it, while the section of the Old Left from which M. Servan-Schreiber stems (the Radical party) virtually went out of existence.

Yet it remains true that so long as a Frenchman sticks to the Saint-Simonian vocabulary, he cannot be faulted for inconsistency if he chooses to call himself a socialist. Some of the more prominent Saint-Simonians in the past century ended up as bankers and railroad directors (they also built the Suez Canal). M. Servan-Schreiber is in an old and (in France) respectable tradition: that of industrial modernization in the name of socialism. After all, people have to believe in something, and few people these days believe in capitalism. Did they ever? As Schumpeter used to say: “the stock exchange is no substitute for the Holy Grail.” I doubt if anyone other than Senator Goldwater ever “believed in” an abstraction called “capitalism.” People generally tend to believe in solid entities such as “the home,” “the family,” or “private property.” These institutions made up what Schumpeter called “the civilization of capitalism,” that is to say, bourgeois civilization. This particular social milieu having disintegrated—even in France—it is no longer possible to run the country in the name of private entrepreneurship. Hence the cult of planning, now baptized socialism.

There is nothing wrong with all this. In fact, France needs a lot more of it, and will get it as soon as M. Mendès-France succeeds M. Debré at the Treasury: that is to say, when the General is gone and M. Pompidou (who, by the way, is a political heavyweight compared to his present assailants) has vacated the field. Of course it is all going to be called socialism. What else should it be called? But that is just where the real trouble is going to start: especially for the Communists, who by then will be in the government and will have to explain to their followers that democracy in the workshop can only go so far.

THESE CONSIDERATIONS may seem more relevant to the present political outlook in France than to M. Servan-Schreiber’s book (which, after all, came out in France last year, before the workers and students had started their wave of sit-down strikes). But anyone who reads the book—and it deserves to be widely read—will soon discover that the author’s technological enthusiasm has distinct political overtones. European federalism is only one of them, although the most notorious and the best advertised. Nationalization is another, though not much talked about at the moment. What do you do if your computer industry is being taken over by the Americans? M. Servan-Schreiber’s reply is: found a European computer industry. But suppose the leading European firms are so closely tied to their American partners that they find it convenient to sink back into the role of satellites? Or suppose the various European governments cannot make up their collective minds about concerted counter-measures? Then—if you have ruled out nationalism as old-fashioned—what have you got to fall back upon if you want to meet the challenge? The present technological imbalance, to which M. Servan-Schreiber devotes the bulk of his work, has social consequences, which in turn reflect themselves in the political sphere. Let us hear his own statement of the problem:

During the next few years American investment in Europe will continue to grow far more rapidly than European investment. Its profits are already half again as large as ours. It is taking over the major role in strategic areas of development. This is not happening through ordinary investments, but through actual take-overs of European firms that the Americans then transform into rich and powerful corporations. And they do this with European money that our own businessmen do not know how to use.

Sounds rather Gaullist, doesn’t it? In Britain, that eccentric Tory, Enoch Powell, is beginning to make similar noises, and no one could be more remote from socialism (or even from central planning) than he is. Patriotism does strange things to people. If Scotland secedes from England, or if Mr. Powell sweeps his bumbling rivals aside and becomes England’s next Tory leader (two distinct possibilities), it won’t be in the name of socialism, but of nationalism: an old-fashioned creed, but still a potent one. If M. Servan-Schreiber’s highly sophisticated analysis of the current European malaise has an intellectual flaw, it is his tendency to underrate the force of national sentiment. In all other respects he is as clear-headed and well-informed as one could wish. And he is not anti-American. That must be emphasized, for the benefit of readers who may have been misled by the passages I have quoted (there are a lot more, some of them couched in rather alarmist terms). He is simply voicing a very common sentiment among Europe’s intellectual elites, and doing it in the classical French manner: clear-headed, self-assured, and secure in the faith that Reason has the power to set all things right—even the student unrest in his own country. But there he may be up against imponderables fed by a subterranean source as ancient as his own: that of Rousseau.

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