Politics and Philosophy in Paris

May 15, 2017

sacre-coeur-2I left Paris on Sunday, May 10, the day of the presidential election. The election had two rounds. Emmanuel Macron and Marine LePen qualified for the final round. Macron, like Hillary Clinton, defeated the left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, the equivalent of Bernie Sanders. LePen, like Donald Trump, defeated the center right candidate, Francois Fillon. Then Macron defeated LePen by a 2-to-1 vote.

A sigh of relief swept centrist Europe. The vote for Macron was largely a vote against LePen. Macron is a political neophyte without an established party behind him.

After the Brexit vote in Britain to leave the European union, Europe has wondered whether it can stem the rising tide of right-wing parties. The answer so far is a qualified yes. But the right wing, temporarily checked, is moving into the political mainstream. Establishment parties have no good answers on immigration. Endless wars in the Middle East and Africa, climate change, famine, and drought are driving desperate people toward the rising barriers along Europe’s frontiers.

Nor does mainstream Europe have good answers on globalization. With China and the United States in a race to the bottom in economic, social, and environmental protections, how can Europe sustain its commitment to social democracy and the environment?

The questions play out in two specific issues I have been tracking on annual visits to Europe: chemical policy and trade agreements. I’ve tracked European chemical policy for a decade. After the adoption of the REACH legislation in 2006 – the most important precautionary chemical policy reform in world history – funders and NGOs (non-governmental organizations or non-profits in U.S. terms) who had pushed REACH through disbursed, many moving on to climate change issues. Industry, surprised by the passage of REACH, vowed “never again.” The corporations moved massive assets to Brussels to gut REACH implementation. A new NGO coalition coalesced around the issue of endocrine disrupting chemicals. I have followed that policy struggle ever since.

I’ve been tracking global trade treaties for the past three years. The story is more complex than I can readily describe here. Lori Wallach’s Global Trade Watch at Public Citizen is an excellent start.

These so-called “trade” treaties aren’t about tariffs. They seek to establish irreversible rights of multinational corporations to override democratic decisions about how countries protect health, the environment, justice, privacy, and much more. They form a superordinate network of global corporate governance. They give corporations the right to sue countries for lost profits in private corporate-controlled courts outside the jurisdiction of national legal systems. They interfere with the regulatory independence of the executive power and the legislative power to pass laws that protect citizens. They are developed in extraordinary secrecy under the boring rubric of “trade.” Most people think trade is good so assume these treaties must be good.

These treaties have acronyms like TTIP (between the U.S. and E.U.), TPP (between the U.S. and Asia), and CETA (between the E.U. and Canada). There are hundreds more. In an unanticipated achievement, a coalition of E.U., U.S. and other international NGOs defeated two of these treaties – TTIP and TPP last year. The U.S. NGOs had help from Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. They had more help from widespread revulsion with these treaties in the E.U. – revulsion that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in massive protests. The organizing and the intellectual capital for the campaigns came from unions and NGOs. The NGOs won on the merits of the debate. Der Spiegel, an influential German periodical, said the opposition had better arguments than the proponents – a remarkable achievement.

The multinational corporations have come back with a plethora of new strategies. Their interests are directly at stake and they have unlimited resources, outspending the opposition by at least 1000 to 1. They are forging a patchwork of bilateral and regional treaties to replace the overarching trade treaties on which they were defeated. They are moving many of their objectives forward under the rubric of “regulatory reform.” The provisions of the TTIP and TPP treaties on which they were defeated are being pasted directly into the new bilateral and regional agreements. The threats to health, the environment, democracy, and human rights are moving rapidly into dozens of other agreements.

In both cases (trade reform and chemical policy reform), NGOs are David battling Goliath. These networks of citizens who don’t want to be poisoned and don’t want corporations to rule the world have won significant battles. But they are heavily outspent by the limitless resources of the multinational corporate community.

The current neoliberal (as it is called in Europe) economic paradigm of unlimited growth – and the increasing power of multinational corporations – continues to degrade conditions of life for people and planet. The opposition will only succeed if a credible economic model emerges that challenges neoliberalism. Components of that model are emerging, but no one has yet put the pieces together in a way that attracts popular and intellectual support. It is an immense task.

Most Europeans – other than adherents to right-wing parties – are aghast at the American president. For Europeans, trade treaties and chemical policy agreements loom far larger than in the U.S. They have far more to lose in the “harmonization” process that dilutes their social, economic, and environmental protections. They are also aghast at Brexit. In the U.S. we see Brexit largely as a complex negotiation. In the EU, hundreds of thousands of people who are citizens of one country have lived for decades in other countries. They wonder what will happen with their health care and numerous other benefits.

Many Europeans are deeply angry at Britain. The E.U. has spent decades making concessions to the U.K., which favors dirtier environmental policies as well as economic globalization. In short, the U.K. stands for deregulation. The U.K. has often been the tip of the spear allowing U.S. interests to degrade European protections of culture, the environment, health, and more. The E.U. has a strong political interest in not letting the U.K. exit the E.U. with a good deal. On the other hand, if the U.K. becomes the “Singapore of Europe,” which is quite possible, the E.U. faces a race to the bottom from the U.K., the U.S., and China – and those pressures may be quite overwhelming. So the E.U. feels beleaguered, confused, and frightened.

At the same time, there is a backlash against the U.K., which is playing in favor of the E.U. National politicians have spent years beating up on the E.U. headquarters in Brussels. Now there is a growing wave of popular support for the E.U. Millions of people are realizing what they can lose if the E.U. collapses. They want to reform it – but they want to save it. This helped Macron win in France. It will likely help Merkel win reelection in Germany. It helped defeat the right wing in the Netherlands and Austria.

But the right wing parties won’t go away. They have clear rhetorical (at least) answers on immigration and globalization. On globalization, their rhetoric is often close to that of the left-wing parties. So the reprieve for centrism may or may not last. But the centrist parties are getting a reprieve.

* * *

I came to Paris 60 years ago, at 13, with my parents and two brothers. I came alone at 15. I lived in Paris and then drove a Lambretta scooter across France. I returned at seventeen to work for a year as a copyboy for The New York Times International in 1961. On October 17 of that year, the French police massacred more than 200 Algerians marching in support of peace talks to end the Algerian civil war.

Plastique bombs were exploding across the city. I lived in a cold-water hotel room on Rue de la Huchette near Place Saint Michael. The toilet was a squatter down the hall. The price was $5 a night. I drove a used BMW 250 motorcycle to work through the icy Parisian winter. I started work at 6 p.m. and got off at 2 a.m. I carried the articles from the city desk down to the printing plant where the paper was still set in hot lead type. The printers were Communists. The printers union was the oldest union in Europe. Printers were the earliest literate working people.

Once I was swept up in a police round up of Algerians. I was released at the police station when I produced my American passport. I haunted Shakespeare & Company, the French bookstore near Place Saint Michael. The proprietor, George Whitman, appreciated my bookish nature.

At year’s end I joined a high school friend to drive to Moscow with a caravan of French Communist trade unionists visiting the motherland. We weren’t political – this was the only way to make the trip. We drove a Deux Chevaux Citroen, which resembles a corrugated sardine can. In Moscow, two young women who said they were daughters of Russian intelligence agency operatives befriended us. They took us to a nightclub. Apparently they reported we were harmless. We drove out of Russia through Finland and up past the Arctic Circle to the land of eternal sunlight.

I return at age 73 for perhaps the 20th time. My wife and I rented a tiny 4th floor apartment overlooking the city in Montmartre. We were 100 steps below The Basilica of Sacre Coeur. Nuns and priests have prayed there 24 hours a day for 125 years.

For years I stayed in Paris with my friend the physician David Servan-Schreiber. David had come on a Cancer Help Program at our center in Washington, D.C., Smith Center for Healing and the Arts. The experience changed his life. He wrote his book, Anti-Cancer. He lived an exceptionally long time with brain cancer. He told me he saw me as an older brother. He came for Christmas with us in Bolinas one year. As he approached death, fading in and out of consciousness, he told his brother he should take notes on his experience to share with me. I suspect this beautiful agnostic was experiencing the (subjective at least) reality of a near-death experience.

Trained in political philosophy, I have an interest in the French tradition of maître penseurs, or master thinkers. David introduced me to French friends to discuss the decline of this great tradition. Most comprehensive systems of thought have eroded under the acid of modernity. Yet the French retain a reverence for master thinkers. Raymond Aaron, Michel Foucault, Merleau Ponty, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and Theillard de Chardin influenced me. Strangely, not Jean-Paul Sartre, whom I admired from a distance. I was more drawn to Simone de Beauvoir. Nor did Albert Camus really touch me. Later, I discovered the work of the French and Swiss Traditionalist thinkers Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schoen and others. Traditionalists embraced the perennial philosophy that was central to my informal philosophical thinking.

Traditionalists, especially Rene Guenon, were influenced by the great Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi. I have done three New School conversations on his work. Another great French scholar of Islam was Henri Corbin, whom I discussed with Tom Cheetham. Corbin was the author of Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi. Harold Bloom wrote an extended introduction:

Henry Corbin’s works are the best guide to the visionary tradition…. Corbin, like Scholem and Jonas, is remembered as a scholar of genius. He was uniquely equipped not only to recover Iranian Sufism for the West, but also to defend the principal Western traditions of esoteric spirituality.

Traditionalists are often politically conservative. Though understandable, I see no necessity for it. Brother David Steindl-Rast, whom I interviewed for his spiritual biography at The New School, is a beautiful example of a mystic dedicated to justice and the environment who embraces much of the perennial philosophy.

This week in Paris, I discovered some trenchant critiques of the perennial philosophy. These critiques are causing me to reconsider a 35-year commitment to the perennial philosophy. I won’t let go of lightly, but I understand the power of the critique. I had also, friends pointed out, falsely conflated the perennial philosophy with Thomas Berry’s thinking. Berry’s theology does not fall with the critiques of the perennial philosophy:

It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The Old Story — the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it — is not functioning properly, and we have not learned the New Story. The Old Story sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with a life purpose, energized action. It consecrated suffering, integrated knowledge, guided education. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were…

If the supreme disaster in the comprehensive story of the Earth is our present closing down of the major life systems of the planet, then the supreme need of our times is to bring about a healing of the Earth through this mutually enhancing human presence to the Earth community. To achieve this mode of presence a new type of sensitivity is needed, a sensitivity that is something more than romantic attachment to some of the more brilliant manifestations of the natural world. A sensitivity that comprehends the larger patterns of nature, its severe demands as well as its delightful aspects, and is willing to see the human diminish so that other life forms might flourish.

Berry was influenced by Giamattista Vico (1668-1744), a master thinker of the Enlightenment who critiqued the expansion of rationalism and praised classical antiquity. Mary Evelyn Tucker and her husband John Grim at Yale carry on Berry’s tradition. I spoke with them in 2007. Tucker studied world religions in graduate school with noted cultural historian, Thomas Berry. She worked closely with Berry for 35 years and has edited a number of his books including Evening Thoughts, The Sacred Universe, Christian Future, The Fate of Earth, and Selected Writings on the Earth Community. She and her husband John Grim together carry on the legacy of Thomas Berry through their work in religion and ecology and the Journey of the Universe. They are managing trustees of the Thomas Berry Foundation.

In the shadow of Sacre Coeur, I thought about the European political dilemma. I reflected on European chemical policy and trade agreements. I reconsidered my belief in a perennial philosophy at the heart of the great religions. I disentangled the perennial philosophy from Thomas Berry’s search for a new story. I sense that my commitment to the perennial philosophy will survive in some form. I may draw closer to what William James called a “pluralistic mysticism.” Or I may accept a more personal claim, like the Dalai Lama’s statement, “My religion is kindness.” I know I feel a deep admiration for Thomas Berry’s new story. Still, the simple dictum “One mountain, many paths,” resonates for me. If the religious and spiritual traditions are to come together to help save the earth, then surely the search for some deep unity – and not just a strategic alliance – is of more than personal concern.

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