Communism is dead, most pundits--the mainstream, stupid ones anyway--have been telling us since the USSR shut down in 1991. As it turns out, the libertarians were wrong. Half-right, anyway: Human nature may be inherently individualistic, as free market capitalists claim, but it's also inherently social. When economies boom, most people are sufficiently satisfied to leave well enough alone. Who cares if my boss gets paid 100 times more than I do? I'm doing OK. As resources become scarce, however, we huddle together for protection. The sight of a small rich elite hoarding all the goodies violates our primal sense of fairness.
"In Soviet times," a man in present-day Tajikistan told me, "we lived worse than we do today. But we were all the same. Now we live a bit better, but we have to watch rich assholes pass us in their Benzes." Which would he choose? No hesitation: "Soviet times."
In America, a French cliché goes, people are afraid of the government. In France, the government is afraid of the people. With good reason, too: the French have overthrown their governments dozens of times since the Revolution of 1789. The French are hard wired with class consciousness. Strikes, demonstrations and general hell-raising are festive occasions. Only when things spin totally out of control--as when Muslim youths rioted in the suburbs of Paris and other cities--are conservatives like Sarkozy able to make headway.
Riots over police brutality by disenfranchised minorities make the French nervous. But contempt for American-style "harsh capitalism," where citizens pay $800 a month for healthcare and write nary a letter to their local newspaper to complain, is 100 percent mainstream. The French don't think they should have to suffer just because some greedy bankers went on a looting spree.
Even Sarkozy is getting the message. "We don't want a European May '68 in the middle of Christmas," he warned his ministers in December. He shelved proposals to loosen regulation of business. Arnaud Lagardère, CEO of the Lagardère Group, told the financial daily Les Echos: "We're seeing, in renewed form, the most debatable aspects of Anglo-Saxon capitalism called into question."