Fraternity. It is not a word I think most people would use every day, or even know what it meant. A quick freedictionary.com search yield the following:
fra·ter·ni·ty play_w(“F0301600”) (fr-tûrn-t)n. pl. fra·ter·ni·ties
2. A group of people joined by similar backgrounds, occupations, interests, or taste
I bring up this word because on Sunday, whilst rushing to prepare my pork chow mein [exceptionally tasty that day], I was watching the end of the French election. For those of you not hot on French politics it came down in the second leg of voting to a socialist candidate on the left and a right wing candidate. I am hesitant to use the word ‘conservative’ because that would be an unfair representation of Sarkozy, the right wing candidate who won the election, however he was of the party that if we were to draw any parallels to British politics would be like the Conservatives [big ‘c’].
Well, either way, he won, and whilst I was sat on the sofa contemplating whether I had indeed put too many chilli flakes into my dinner, I noticed that the president-elect was using language which is pretty alien to British politics. There was lots of speak of ‘France’, and ‘the republic’, and addressing those present as his ‘compatriots’ and also talk of fraternity. This is no surprise of course, Liberté, égalité, fraternité is the motto of the French Republic and has its origins in the French Revolution. Nevertheless it was still odd to my British ears to hear that sort of talk coming from the translator as Sarkozy addressed the French people.
The thing is, liberty, equality and fraternity aren’t just words floated about by triumphant French politicians and political philosophers, they have practical every day purpose. Surely an example of French fraternity was the 85.5% turnout for the run-off election, something unheard of in the UK where political apathy has taken root and may soon bring us to the democratically laughable 50% turnouts that we see over the other side of the Atlantic. The French people gathered together for the collective purpose of participating in democracy and deciding to the make a choice about who runs the country. Even if just less than half of the voters didn’t vote for the winner, I think the fact that Sarkozy won with such a high turnout should accord a legitimacy to his office which says “Yeah, okay mate, fair cop, you won. [Almost] everyone voted, it was a fair fight, well played”. Contrast that with the British voters choice which effectively boils down to picking your favourite colour between red or blue [NB you can only pick yellow if you’re gay, green, or of a minority, in which case its a wasted vote because they won’t win and you’ll be under-represented].
Anyway I’m wandering off the point. What I really want to contrast is this idea of a collective, of a common and good and purpose that everyone’s efforts can contribute to. The French example is that everyone acted as a collective to choose a president. However in Britain we don’t have this focus. Everything is focused on the individual, and their freedom to do what they want, to pursue their own good in society. A recent documentary on BBC 2 What Happened To Our Dream Called Freedom highlighted in a historical manner the problem this outlook on liberty can have when it is applied to economics and social policy. As Maggie said, there is no society, people should be numbers in a state computer. However, what then are we? Are we just consumers? If we just keep buying and selling, and if we keep the economy going, is that it? Is that all society is? Is that why we join together and associate with one another – to be consumers?
I’d argue not. And I’d bloody well hope not. What Happened To Our Dream Called Freedom highlighted that what we may need in addition to our negative liberty, the freedom from, is a splash of positive liberty, the freedom to. A scary concept because it tends to lead down the path to fascism and communism and dictatorships and generally hideous abuses against the minority for the sake of the majority. However, it does mean that things like fraternity, and the idea of belonging for a common cause are easier. If we start to change our mindset away from the rights of the individual to the rights of the collective and the common good we may start to see the restoration of society.
However its not all that simple. I’ve just watched The Seven Sins of England which was in essence a defence of good old English liberty. We can be bigots, slags, excessive consumers, hooligans, violent, and rude because of our liberty. And it is something we are very keen to protect. This documentary, shown from the perspective of the self-proclaimed working class hoodies and chavs, is an attack on the encroaching state which is dictating what we eat [Jamie’s school dinners], how we act [ASBOs], what we can do in public spaces [smoking ban], and whether we think terrorism can sometimes be justifiable [if you think it can, then you can be arrested]. Add on top of this the fact that you can be held for a month for no reason under the Terrorism Act, or even worse sent on a long excursion to Cuba [if Mr Bush so requires] then you start to think, “Hey, what about my rights”?
On reflection this has been a wandering stream of thought and I apologise if it hasn’t made much sense or has been difficult to read, but in essence what I’m saying is there needs to be some sort of balance. However so far it seems we can’t have one AND the other. One political commentator on the French election said that France was no longer in the mood for love, but in the mood for work. Will be see a relaxation of working laws in France which mean they can work more than a 35 hour week? A move which essentially will bring the focus down to the individual and away from the collective. Will France substitute fraternity for liberty? Can the UK continue to give up liberty for enforced social cohesion and security?
Maybe when I don’t have revision to do I’ll be able to write something better and more focused on this topic.