Blaming all current ills on a single cause was already common practice in ancient Rome. Cato the Elder ended all his speeches, no matter what the subject, with the words ‘Carthage must be destroyed’. In 1984 public broadcaster France Télévisions asked the late Yves Montand to present ‘Vive la crise!’ (Long live the crisis), which set out to explain to the French public that the welfare state was to blame for all their problems — and austerity the remedy.
Then terrorism became the fixation, the magic slate that allows everything else to be erased. In the first hour after the 9/11 attacks, British civil servants received a message from a special advisor to transport secretary Stephen Byers telling them, ‘It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.’ They could just use what would soon become known as the ‘war on terror’ to obscure any bad news, even if it had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. Today the Russian government blames everything on Western ‘plots’; in the West it’s always ‘Moscow’s fault’.
It’s the same with the falling standard of living. President Joe Biden constantly attributes soaring inflation in the US to ‘Putin’s tax on both food and gas’. Emmanuel Macron claims his poorest compatriots’ problems are due to the ‘war economy’. But if that’s true, France must have been at war for the last 40 years, because the indexation of wages to prices ended in 1982, when François Mitterrand and his finance minister Jacques Delors gave business owners their biggest ever gift in the form of letting prices (and profits) overtake average income; there was no such gift for their employees, whose purchasing power was permanently slashed.
Yet, at the time, Ukraine and Russia were still part of the same country and Putin had yet to leave his native Leningrad. The ‘war economy’ has merely prolonged and accelerated the impoverishment of the poorest, while the profits of the CAC 40 index giants (€160bn in 2021) have just broken the record set 15 years ago. In short, everything has changed except for the worldwide precedence of dividends over pay. And the determination of governments to favour the former over the latter. Oligarchs of the world, unite…
The magic slate works for environmental issues too. Coal mining restarting, rail freight being sacrificed, fracking, digital pollution, jewellers’ outrageous advertising in the media and on billboards: should Putin be blamed for all of this too? Next, the French state will be giving electric fans and bottled water to the poorest, and discounts on fuel to those who don’t go shopping by bicycle. So why is the government taking such ‘emergency measures’? The answer is, because urgent measures can always wait.