Un Nouveau Capitalisme Est-il Possible?

The French – and Tony Blair – think the financial crisis is a chance to change our core values. That's optimistic

Is the global financial crisis an opportunity to forge a new form of
capitalism based on sound values? So Tony Blair and the French
president Nicholas Sarkozy appear to think. At a symposium in Paris
last month entitled New World, New Capitalism, Sarkozy described
(watch the video) capitalism based on financial speculation as "an
immoral system" that has "perverted the logic of capitalism". He argued
that capitalism needs to find new moral values and to accept a stronger
role for governments. Blair called for a new financial order based on "values other than the maximum short-term profit".

is surprising how readily politicians of all parties - even strong
ideological defenders of the unregulated market - accepted the idea
that the state should bail out banks and insurance companies when they
got into trouble. With the exception of a small number of ideologically
committed defenders of free enterprise, few were willing to take the
risks inherent in letting major banks collapse.

Who knows what
the consequences would have been? Many feared mass unemployment, a
tidal wave of bankruptcies, millions of families evicted from their
homes, the social safety net strained to the breaking point, and
perhaps even riots and a resurgence of the political extremism that
brought Hitler to power in Germany during the depression of the 1930s.

choice to save the banks from the financial consequences of their own
errors indicates a shift in values away from belief in the wisdom of
the market. Evidently, the market got some things - like the value of
certain financial securities - horrendously wrong. But will the
downturn also produce a deeper shift in the values of consumers?

It is no accident that the "New World, New Capitalism" symposium was held in France, where some critics have seen the global financial crisis as necessary and desirable precisely because it is producing this change in values. In the newspaper Le Figaro,
a section on how to scale back one's expenses predicted a "revolution
in values" and claimed that people will put family ahead of work.
(Americans think the French, with their shorter working hours and
longer summer vacations, already put family ahead of work.)

French have always been less likely to go into debt - when they pay
with plastic, they tend to use debit cards, drawing on funds they
already have, rather than credit cards. Now they see the current crisis
as a vindication of the value of not spending money that you don't

That means, in many cases, less luxury spending -
something that is hard to reconcile with the image of France as the
country of fashion, perfume, and champagne. But excess is out of style,
and there are reports of cutbacks in luxury goods everywhere.
Richemont, the Swiss luxury goods company that owns the Cartier and
Montblanc brands, has said that it is facing "the toughest market
conditions" since its formation 20 years ago. But does this mark an
enduring change in values, or just a temporary reduction, forced upon
consumers by investment losses and greater economic uncertainty?

his inauguration speech, Barack Obama said: The time has come to set
aside childish things" and instead to choose the noble idea that "all
are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full
measure of happiness." It would be an excellent thing if the global
financial crisis restored a proper sense of what is important.

the crisis remind us that we buy luxury items more because of the
status they bring than because of their intrinsic value? Could it help
us to appreciate that many things are more central to our happiness
than our ability to spend money on fashion, expensive watches, and fine
dining? Could it even, as Obama suggests, make us more aware of the
needs of those who are living in real poverty and are far worse off
than we will ever be, financial crisis or no financial crisis?

danger is that the potential for a real change in values will be
co-opted, as has happened so often before, by those who see it as just
another opportunity to make money. The designer Nathalie Rykiel is
reportedly planning to show the new Sonia Rykiel collection in March
not in the usual vast rented area, but in the smaller space of her own
boutique. "It's a desire for intimacy, to go back to values," she told
the International Herald Tribune.
"We need to return to a smaller scale, one that touches people. We will
be saying, 'Come to my house. Look at and feel the clothes.'"

yes: in a world in which ten million children die every year from
avoidable, poverty-related causes, and greenhouse gas emissions
threaten to create hundreds of millions of climate refugees, we should
be visiting Paris boutiques and feeling the clothes. If people were
really concerned about defensible moral values, they wouldn't be buying
designer clothes at all. But what are the chances of Nathalie Rykiel -
or the affluent elites of France, or Italy, or the United States -
adopting those values?

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