‘The dollar is our currency but your problem’.
John Connally, US Treasury Secretary, 1971
‘It might or might not be right to kill, but sometimes it is necessary’.
‘The death of a worker weighs heavily like a mountain, while that of a
bourgeois weighs as lightly as a feather’.
‘This is the Hour of Lead-
Remembered, if outlived’.
‘Punk might have been invented for the cultural theorists—and the partial
truth is that it was’.
Even before the effervescence of the Sixties had subsided, the unique circumstances that made it possible had passed forever. Within three years of the end of the most prosperous decade in recorded history, the post-war economic boom was over. Western Europe’s ‘thirty glorious years’ gave way to an age of monetary inflation and declining growth rates, accompanied by widespread unemployment and social discontent. Most of the radicals of the Sixties, like their followers, abandoned ‘the Revolution’ and worried instead about their job prospects. A few opted for violent confrontation; the damage they wrought—and the response their actions elicited from the authorities—led to much nervous talk of the ‘ungovernable’ condition of Western societies. Such anxieties proved overwrought: under stress, the institutions of Western Europe showed more resilience than many observers had feared. But there was to be no return to the optimism—or the illusions—of the first post-war decades.
The impact of economic slowdown was only just beginning to be felt when two external shocks brought the Western European economy to a shuddering halt. On August 15th 1971, US President Richard Nixon unilaterally announced that his country was abandoning the system of fixed exchange rates. The US dollar, the anchor of the international monetary system since Bretton Woods, would henceforth float against other currencies. The background to this decision was the huge military burden of the Vietnam War and a growing US Federal budget deficit. The dollar was tied to a gold standard, and there was a growing fear in Washington that foreign holders of US currency (including Europe’s central banks) would seek to exchange their dollars for gold, draining American reserves.192
The decision to float the dollar was not economically irrational. Having opted to fight an expensive war of attrition on the other side of the world—and pay for it with borrowed money—the US could not expect to maintain the dollar indefinitely at its fixed and increasingly over-valued rate. But the American move nonetheless came as a shock. If the dollar was to float, then so must the European currencies, and in that case all of the carefully constructed certainties of the postwar monetary and trading systems were called into question. The fixed rate system, established before the end of the Second World War in anticipation of a controlled network of national economies, was over. But what would replace it?
Following some months of confusion, two successive devaluations of the dollar, and the ‘floating’ of the British pound in 1972 (belatedly bringing to an inglorious end sterling’s ancient and burdensome role as an international ‘reserve’ currency), a conference in Paris, in March 1973, formally buried the financial arrangements so laboriously erected at Bretton Woods and agreed to establish in its place a new floating-rate system. The cost of this liberalization, predictably enough, was inflation. In the aftermath of the American move of August 1971 (and the subsequent fall in the value of the dollar) European governments, hoping to head off the anticipated economic downturn, adopted deliberately reflationary policies: allowing credit to ease, domestic prices to rise, and their own currencies to fall.
Under normal circumstances this controlled ‘Keynesian’ inflation might have succeeded: only in West Germany was there a deep-seated historical aversion to the very idea of price inflation. But the uncertainty produced by America’s retreat from a dollar-denominated system encouraged growing currency speculation, which international accords on floating-rate regimes were powerless to restrain. This in turn undermined the efforts of individual governments to manipulate local interest rates and maintain the value of their national currency. Currencies fell. And as they fell, so the cost of imports rose: between 1971 and 1973, the world price of non-fuel commodities increased by 70 percent, of food by 100 percent. And it was in this already unstable situation that the international economy was hit by the first of the two oil shocks of the 1970s.
On October 6th 1973, Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) in the Jewish calendar,Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. Within twenty-four hours major Arab oil-exporting states had announced plans to reduce oil production; ten days later they announced an oil embargo against the US in retaliation for its support for Israel and increased the price of petroleum by 70 percent. The Yom Kippur War itself ended with an Egyptian-Israeli cease-fire on October 25th, but Arab frustration at Western support for Israel did not abate. On December 23rd the oil-producing nations agreed to a further increase in the price of oil. Its cost had now more than doubled since the start of 1973.
To appreciate the significance of these developments for Western Europe especially, it is important to recall that the price of oil, unlike almost every other primary commodity on which the modern industrial economy rests, had remained virtually unchanged over the decades of economic growth. One barrel of Saudi light crude—a benchmark measure—cost $1.93 in 1955; in January 1971 it went for just $2.18. Given the modest price inflation of those years, this meant that in real terms oil had actually got cheaper. OPEC, formed in 1960, had been largely inert and showed no inclination to constrain its major producers to use their oil reserves as a political weapon. The West had grown accustomed to readily available and remarkably cheap fuel—a vital component in the long years of prosperity.
Just how vital can be seen from the steadily growing place of oil in the European economy. In 1950, solid fuel (overwhelmingly coal and coke) had accounted for 83 percent of Western Europe’s energy consumption; oil for just 8.5 percent. By 1970 the figures were 29 percent and 60 percent respectively. Seventy-five percent of Italy’s energy requirements in 1973 were met by importing oil; for Portugal the figure was 80 percent.193 The UK, which would for a while become self-sufficient thanks to newly discovered reserves of oil in the North Sea, had only begun production in 1971. The consumer boom of the late fifties and sixties had greatly increased European dependence on cheap oil: the tens of millions of new cars on the roads of Western Europe could not run on coal, nor on the electricity now being generated—in France especially—by nuclear power.
Hitherto, imported fuel had been priced in fixed dollars. Floating exchange rates and oil price increases thus introduced an unprecedented element of uncertainty. Whereas prices and wages had risen steadily, if moderately, over the course of the previous two decades—an acceptable price for social harmony in an age of rapid growth—monetary inflation now took off. According to the OECD, the inflation rate in non-Communist Europe for the years 1961-1969 was steady at 3.1 percent; from 1969-1973 it was 6.4 percent; from 1973-1979 it averaged 11.9 percent. Within this overall figure there was considerable national variation: whereas West Germany’s rate of inflation from 1973-1979 was held to a manageable 4.7 percent, Swedenexperienced a level twice as high. French prices inflated at an average of 10.7 percent per annum in those years. In Italy the inflation rate averaged 16.1 percent; in Spain over 18 percent. The UK average was 15.6 percent, but in its worst year (1975) the British inflation rate exceeded 24 percent per annum.
Price and wage inflation at these levels was not historically unprecedented. But after the stable rates of the fifties and sixties it was a new experience for most people—and for their governments. Worse still, the European inflation of the seventies—compounded by a second oil price rise in 1979, when the overthrow of the Shah of Iran produced panic in the oil markets and a 150 percent price increase between December 1979 and May 1980—did not conform to previous experience. In the past, inflation was associated with growth, often over-rapid growth. The great economic depressions of the late nineteenth century and the 1930s had been accompanied by deflation: precipitate falls in prices and wages caused, as it seemed to observers, by over-rigid currencies and chronic under-spending by governments and citizens alike. But in 1970s Europe the conventional pattern seemed no longer to apply.
Instead, western Europe began to experience what was inelegantly dubbed ‘stagflation’: wage/price inflation and economic slowdown at the same time. In retrospect this outcome is less surprising than it seemed to contemporaries. By 1970 the great European migration of surplus agricultural labor into productive urban industry was over; there was no more ‘slack’ to be taken up and rates of productivity increase began inexorably to decline. Full employment in Europe’s major industrial and service economies was still the norm—as late as 1971 unemployment in the UK was 3.6 percent, in France just 2.6 percent: but this meant that organized workers who had grown accustomed to bargaining from a position of strength were now facing employers whose generous profit margins were starting to shrink.
Pointing in justification to the increased rate of inflation from 1971, workers’ representatives were pressing their case for higher wages and other compensation upon economies that were already showing signs of exhaustion even before the crisis of 1973. Real wages had begun to outstrip productivity growth; profits were declining; new investment fell away. The excess capacity born of enthusiastic post-war investment strategies could only be absorbed by inflation or unemployment. Thanks to the Middle East crisis, Europeans got both.
The depression of the 1970s seemed worse than it was because of the contrast with what had gone before. By historical standards the average rates of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in western Europe through the 1970s were not especially low. They ranged from 1.5 percent in the UK to 4.9 percent in Norway and were thus actually a distinct improvement over the 1.3 percent average growth rates achieved by France, Germany and the UK over the years 1913-1950. But they contrasted sharply with the figures of the immediate past: from 1950-1973 French growth per annum had averaged 5 percent, West Germany had grown at nearly 6 percent and even Britain had maintained an average rate above 3 percent. It was not the 1970s that were unusual so much as the ’50s and ’60s.194
Nevertheless, the pain was real, made worse by growing export competition from new industrial countries in Asia and ever more costly import bills as commodities (and not just oil) increased in price. Unemployment rates started to rise, steadily but inexorably. By the end of the decade the numbers out of work in France exceeded 7 percent of the workforce; in Italy 8 percent; in the UK 9 percent. In some countries—Belgium, Denmark—unemployment levels in the seventies and early eighties were comparable to those experienced in the 1930s; in France and Italy they were actually worse.
One immediate result of the economic down-turn was a hardening of attitudes towards ‘foreign’ workers of all sorts. If published unemployment rates in West Germany (close to zero in 1970) did not climb above 8 percent of the labor force despite a slump in demand for manufactured goods, it was because most of the unemployed workers in Germany were not German—and thus not officially recorded. When Audi and BMW, for example, laid off large numbers of their workforce in 1974 and 1975, it was the ‘guest workers’ who went first; four out of five BMW employees who lost their jobs were not German citizens. In 1975 the Federal Republic permanently closed its recruiting offices in North Africa, Portugal, Spain and Yugoslavia. As the 1977 Report of a Federal Commission expressed the point in its ‘Basic Principle #1’: ‘Germany is not an immigrant country. Germany is a place of residence for foreigners who will eventually return home voluntarily.’ Six years later the Federal Parliament would pass an Act to ‘Promote the Preparedness of Foreign Workers to Return’.
Voluntarily or otherwise, many of them did indeed return ‘home’. In 1975, 290,000 immigrant workers and their families left West Germany for Turkey, Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy. In that same year, 200,000 Spaniards returned to Spain in search of work; returnees to Italy now outnumbered emigrants for the first time in modern memory, as they were shortly to do in Greece and Portugal. By the mid-seventies, nearly a third of a million Yugoslav emigrants had been obliged to return to the Balkans, where their expectation of employment was no better than in Germany or France. The northern European jobs crisis was being re-exported to the Mediterranean. Meanwhile France imposed strict restrictions on immigration from Algeria and its former African colonies, and the United Kingdom placed ever tighter limits on would-be immigrants from the South Asian sub-continent.
The combination of structural unemployment, rising oil import bills, inflation and declining exports led to budget deficits and payments crises all across Western Europe. Even West Germany, the continent’s manufacturing capital and leading exporter, was not spared. The country’s balance-of-payments surplus of $9,481 million in 1973 fell within a year to a deficit of $692 million. The British national accounts were by now chronically in deficit—so much so that by December 1976 there appeared a serious risk of a national debt default and the International Monetary Fund was called in to bail Britain out. But others were little better off. French payments balances fell into the red in 1974 and remained there for most of the ensuing decade. Italy, like Britain, was forced in April 1977 to turn to the IMF for help. As in the British case its leaders could then blame ‘international forces’ for the unpopular domestic policy measures that ensued.
In Keynesian thinking, budget shortfalls and payments deficits—like inflation itself—were not inherently evil. In the Thirties they had represented a plausible prescription for ‘spending your way’ out of recession. But in the Seventies all Western European governments already spent heavily on welfare, social services, public utilities and infrastructure investment. As the British Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan glumly explained to his colleagues, ‘We used to think that you could just spend your way out of a recession . . . I tell you, in all candour, that that option no longer exists.’ Nor could they look to the liberalization of trade to save them, as it had done after World War Two: the recent Kennedy round of trade negotiations in the mid-Sixties had already taken industrial tariffs to a historic low. If anything, the risk now was of growing domestic pressure to re-impose protection against competition.
There was a further complicating element in the choices facing policymakers in the 1970s. The economic crisis, however circumstantial and conjunctural its triggers, coincided with a far-reaching transformation which governments could do little to arrest. In the course of a generation, Western Europe had undergone a third ‘industrial revolution’; the smokestack industries that had been so much a part of daily life just a few years before were on their way out. If steelworkers, miners, car workers and mill hands were losing jobs, it wasn’t just because of a cyclical downturn in the local economy, or even a by-product of the oil crisis. The venerable manufacturing economy of Western Europe was disappearing.
The evidence was incontrovertible, though policymakers had for some years been trying hard to ignore its implications. The number of miners had been slipping steadily ever since West European coal output peaked in the 1950s: the great Sambre-Meuse mining basin of southern Belgium, which generated 20.5 million tonnes of coal in 1955, produced just six million tonnes by 1968 and negligible amounts ten years later. Between 1955 and 1985 100,000 mining jobs disappeared in Belgium; ancillary trades of various kinds suffered accordingly. Even greater losses were experienced in British mining, though spread across a longer period. In 1947 the UK boasted 958 coal mines; forty-five years later just fifty of them remained. The mining workforce was to fall from 718,000 to 43,000: most of those jobs were lost in the course of the decade 1975-85.
Steel, the other staple industry of industrial Europe, suffered a similar fate. It was not that demand for steel had fallen so very dramatically—unlike coal, it could not so readily be replaced. But as more non-European countries entered the industrial ranks, competition increased, the price fell and the market for expensively produced European steel collapsed. Between 1974 and 1986 British steelworkers lost 166,000 jobs (though in the latter year the UK’s major manufacturer, the British Steel Corporation, made a profit for the first time in over a decade). Shipbuilding declined for similar reasons; motor car manufacturing and textiles likewise. Courtaulds, the UK’s leading textile and chemical combine, reduced its workforce by 50 percent in the years 1977-83.
The recession of the Seventies saw an acceleration of job losses in virtually every traditional industry. Before 1973 the transformation was already under way in coal, iron, steel, engineering; thereafter it spread to chemicals, textiles, paper and consumer goods. Whole regions were traumatized: between 1973 and 1981 the British West Midlands, home of small engineering firms and car plants, lost one in four of its workforce. The industrial zone of Lorraine, in north-east France, lost 28 percent of its manufacturing jobs. The industrial workforce in Lüneburg, West Germany, fell by 42 percent in the same years. When FIAT of Turin began its switch to robotization at the end of the 1970s, 65,000 jobs (out of a total of 165,000) were lost in just three years. In the city of Amsterdam, 40 percent of the workforce was employed in industry in the 1950s; a quarter of a century later the figure was just one employee in seven.
In the past, the social cost of economic change on this scale, and at this pace, would have been traumatic, with unpredictable political consequences. Thanks to the institutions of the welfare state—and perhaps the diminished political enthusiasms of the time—protest was contained. But it was far from absent. In the years 1969-1975 there were angry marches, sit-ins, strikes and petitions all across industrial Western Europe, from Spain (where 1.5 million days were lost to industrial strikes in the years 1973-75) to Britain, where two major strikes by coalminers—in 1972 and 1974—persuaded a nervous Conservative government that it might be the better part of valor to postpone major mine closures for a few more years, even at the cost of further subsidies charged to the population at large.
The miners and steelworkers were the best-known and perhaps the most desperate of the organized protesters of the time, but they were not the most militant. The decline in the number of workers in old industries had shifted the balance of strength in trade union movements to the service-sector unions, whose constituency was rapidly growing. In Italy, even as the older, Communist-led industrial organizations lost members, teachers and civil service unions grew in size and militancy. The old unions evinced scant sympathy for the unemployed: most were anxious above all to preserve jobs (and their own influence) and shied away from open confrontations. It was the combative service-sector unions—Force Ouvrière in France, NALGO, NUPE and ASTMS in Britain195—which enthusiastically took up the cause of the young and the jobless.
Faced with an unprecedented raft of demands for job security and wage protection, European leaders initially resorted to proven past practice. Inflationary wage settlements were negotiated with powerful unions in Britain and France; in Italy a flat-rate indexing system linking wages to prices, the Scala Mobile, was inaugurated in 1975. Ailing industries—steel especially—were taken under the wing of the state, much as in the initial round of post-war nationalizations: in the UK the ‘Steel Plan’ of 1977 saved the industry from collapse by cartelizing its price structure and effectively abolishing local price competition; in France the bankrupt steel combines of Lorraine and the industrial center of the country were regrouped into state-regulated conglomerates underwritten from Paris. In West Germany the Federal government, following form, encouraged private consolidation rather than state control, but with similar cartelizing outcomes. By the mid-seventies one holding company, Ruhrkohle AG, was responsible for 95 percent of the mining output of the Ruhr district.
What remained of the domestic textile industries of France and Britain was preserved, for the sake of the jobs it offered in depressed regions, by substantial direct job subsidies (paying employers to keep on workers they didn’t need) and protective measures against third-world imports. In the Federal Republic the Bonn government undertook to cover 80 percent of the wage costs of industrial employees put on part-time work. The Swedish government poured cash into its unprofitable but politically sensitive shipyards.
There were national variations in these responses to economic downturn. The French authorities pursued a practice of micro-economic intervention, identifying ‘national champions’ by sector and favoring them with contracts, cash and guarantees; whereas the UK Treasury continued its venerable tradition of macro-economic manipulation through taxes, interest rates and blanket subsidies. But what is striking is how little variation there was along political lines. German and Swedish Social Democrats, Italian Christian Democrats, French Gaullists and British politicians of every stripe instinctively clung at first to the post-war consensus: seeking full employment if possible, compensating in its absence with wage increases for those in work, social transfers for those out of work and cash subsidies for ailing employers in private and public sector alike.
But over the course of the seventies a growing number of politicians came to the conviction that inflation now posed greater risks than high levels of unemployment—especially since the human and political costs of joblessness were institutionally alleviated. Inflation could not be addressed without some sort of international arrangements for the regulation of currencies and exchange rates, to replace the Bretton Woods system precipitately overthrown by Washington. The six original member states of the European Economic Community had responded by agreeing in 1972 to establish the ‘snake in a tunnel’: an accord to maintain semi-fixed ratios between their currencies, allowing a margin of 2.25 percent movement either side of the approved rates. Initially joined by Britain, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries, this compromise lasted just two years: the British, Irish and Italian governments—unable or unwilling to withstand domestic pressures to devalue beyond the established bands—were all forced to withdraw from the arrangement and let their currencies fall. Even the French were twice forced out of the ‘snake’, in 1974 and again in 1976. Clearly, something more was needed.
In 1978 the West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt proposed recasting the snake into something altogether more rigorous: a European Monetary System (EMS). A grid of fixed bilateral exchange rates would be set up, linked by a purely notional unit of measure, the European Currency Unit (the écu196), and underwritten by the stability and anti-inflationary priorities of the German economy and the Bundesbank. Participant countries would commit themselves to domestic economic rigour in order to sustain their place in the EMS. This was the first German initiative of its kind and it amounted in fact if not in name to the recommendation that, for Europe at least, the Deutschmark replace the dollar as the currency of reference.
Some countries stayed out—notably the UK, where Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan correctly understood that the EMS would prevent Britain adopting reflationary policies to address the country’s unemployment problem. Others joined precisely for that reason. As a ‘solution de rigueur’, the EMS would function rather like the International Monetary Fund (or the European Commission and the euro in later years): it would oblige governments to take unpopular decisions which they could hope to blame on rules and treaties framed from abroad. Indeed, this was the true long-term significance of the new arrangements. It was not so much that they succeeded in time in driving out the demon of inflation (though they did), but that they did so by steadily depriving national governments of their initiative in domestic policy.
This was a momentous shift, of greater consequence than was sometimes appreciated at the time. In the past, if a government opted for a ‘hard money’ strategy by adhering to the gold standard or declining to lower interest rates, it had to answer to its local electorate. But in the circumstances of the later 1970s, a government in London—or Stockholm, or Rome—facing intractable unemployment, or failing industries, or inflationary wage demands, could point helplessly at the terms of an IMF loan, or the rigours of pre-negotiated intra-European exchange rates, and disclaim liability. The tactical benefits of such a move were obvious: but they would come at a price.
If the European state could no longer square the circle of full employment, high real wages and economic growth, then it was bound to face the wrath of those constituents who felt betrayed. As we have noted, the instinctive reaction of politicians everywhere was to assuage the anxieties of the blue-collar male proletariat: partly because they were the worst affected, but mostly because precedent suggested that this was the social constituency most likely to mount effective protests. But as it transpired, the real opposition lay elsewhere. It was the heavily-taxed middle classes—white-collar public and private employees, small tradesmen and the self-employed—whose troubles translated most effectively into political opposition.
The greatest beneficiaries of the modern welfare state, after all, were the middle classes. When the post-war system started to unravel in the 1970s it was those same middle classes who felt not so much threatened as cheated: by inflation, by tax-financed subsidies to failing industries and by the reduction or elimination of public services to meet budgetary and monetary constraints. As in the past, the redistributive impact of inflation, made worse by the endemic high taxation of the modern service state, was felt most severely by citizens of the middling sort.
It was the middle classes, too, who were most disturbed by the issue of ‘ungovernability’. The fear, widely expressed in the course of the 1970s, that Europe’s democracies had lost control of their fate derived from a number of sources. In the first place there was a backlog of nervousness provoked by the iconoclastic rebellions of the 1960s; what had seemed curious and even exciting in the confident atmosphere of those days now looked more and more like a harbinger of uncertainty and anarchy. Then there was the more immediate anxiety born of job losses and inflation, about which governments seemed helpless to act.
Indeed, the very fact that European leaders appeared to have lost control was itself a source of public angst—all the more so in that politicians, as we have seen, found some advantage in insisting upon their own inadequacy. Denis Healey, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the hapless Labour government of the mid-Seventies, bemoaned the billions of Eurodollars washing around the continent, the work of ‘the faceless men who managed the growing atomic clouds of footloose funds, which had accumulated in the Euro-markets to evade control by national governments’.197Ironically, Healey’s own party had been elected in 1974 because of the Conservatives’ apparent inability to allay public discontent—only to find itself accused of comparable impotence, and worse, in the coming years.
In Britain there was even passing talk of the inadequacy of democratic institutionsin the face of modern crises, and some speculation in the press about the benefits of government by disinterested outsiders, or ‘corporatist’ coalitions of ‘nonpolitical’ experts. Like De Gaulle (in May 1968), some senior British political figures in these years thought it prudent to meet with police and military leaders to reassure themselves of their support in the event of public disorder. Even in Scandinavia and the Low Countries, where the core legitimacy of representative institutions was never seriously called into question, the disarray of the world financial system, the apparent unraveling of the post-war economy and the disaffection of traditional electorates called into question the easy confidence of the post-war generation.
Behind these nebulous stirrings of doubt and disillusion there was a very real and, as it seemed at the time, present threat. Since the end of the Second World War, Western Europe had been largely preserved from civil conflict, much less open violence. Armed force had been deployed to bloody effect all across Eastern Europe, in the European colonies, and throughout Asia, Africa and South America. The Cold War notwithstanding, heated and murderous struggles were a feature of the post-war decades, with millions of soldiers and civilians killed from Korea to the Congo. The United States itself had been the site of three political assassinations and more than one bloody riot. But Western Europe had been an island of civil peace.
When European policemen did beat or shoot civilians, the latter were usually foreigners, often dark-skinned.198 Aside from occasional violent encounters with Communist demonstrators, the forces of order in Western Europe were rarely called upon by their governments to handle violent opposition and, when they were, the violence was often of their own perpetrating. By the standards of the interwar decades, Europe’s city streets were quite remarkably safe—a point that was frequently underscored by commentators contrasting Europe’s well-regulated society with the rampant and uncaring individualism of urban America. As for the student ‘riots’ of the Sixties, they served, if anything, to confirm this diagnosis: Europe’s youth might play at revolution but it was mostly show. The ‘street-fighting men’ ran little risk of actually getting hurt.
In the 1970s, the prospect suddenly darkened. Just as eastern Europe, in the wake of the invasion of Prague, was stifled in the fraternal embrace of the Party patriarchs, western Europe appeared to be losing its grip on public order. The challenge did not come from the conventional Left. To be sure, Moscow was well pleased with the balance of international advantage in these years: Watergate and the fall of Saigon had decidedly reduced America’s standing while the USSR, as the world’s largest petroleum producer, did very well out of the Middle East crises. But the publication in English of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and his subsequent expulsion from the Soviet Union in February 1974, followed within a few years by the massacres in Cambodia and the plight of the Vietnamese ‘boat people’, ensured that there would be no revival of illusions about Communism.
Nor, except in a very few marginal instances, was there a credible revival of the far Right. Italy’s neo-Fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) never received more than 6.8 percent of the vote in national elections and in any case took care to present itself as a legitimate political party. The nationalists in West Germany were less concerned with such niceties of appearance, but like comparable parties of the nationalist fringe in Belgium, France or Britain, they had negligible electoral significance. In short, Communism and Fascism, in their classic incarnations, had no future in Western Europe. The real threat to civic peace came from another direction altogether.
In the course of the 1970s, Western European society faced two violent challenges. The first of these was pathological, in the sense that it was born of a longstanding malaise, albeit cast in a very modern form. In the Basque region of northern Spain, in the Catholic minority of Northern Ireland, in Corsica and elsewhere, old grievances flared into violent revolt. This was hardly a new experience for Europeans: Flemish nationalists in Belgian Flanders and German-speaking ‘Austrians’ in Italy’s Alto Adige (the former South Tyrol) had long resented their ‘subjection’, resorting variously to graffiti, demonstrations, assault, bombs and even the ballot box.
But by 1970 the problem of the South Tyrol had been resolved by the creation of an autonomous bi-lingual region which appeased all but the most extreme critics; and although the Flemish nationalists of the Volksunie and Vlaams Blok parties never abandoned their ultimate goal of separation from French-speaking Wallonia, the new prosperity of Flanders, together with far-reaching legislation to federalize Belgium, had temporarily removed the sting from their demands: from a resentful pariah movement Flemish nationalism had been transformed into a revolt of Dutch-speaking taxpayers reluctant to subsidize unemployed Walloon steelworkers (see Chapter 22). The Basques and the Ulster Catholics, however, were another matter altogether.
The Basque country of northern Spain had always been a particular target of Franco’s ire: partly because of its identification with the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, partly because the Basques’ longstanding demand to be recognized as different ran counter to the deepest centralizing instincts and self-ascribed, state-preserving role of the Spanish officer corps. Anything and everything distinctively Basque was aggressively repressed throughout the Franco years: language, customs, politics. Contradicting his own centripetal instincts, the Spanish dictator even favored Navarre (a region whose sense of self and separateness never remotely approached that of the Basques or Catalans) with rights, privileges and its own legislature, for no other reason than to rub in the fact that the neighboring Basques could expect no such favors.
The emergence of modern Basque terrorism was a direct response to Franco’s policies, though its spokesmen and defenders always claimed deeper roots in their region’s frustrated dreams of independence. ETA—Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basquia and Freedom)—was formed in December 1958 to lead the armed struggle for Basque independence. From its earliest days as an underground organization it established working links—later given somewhat specious ideological justification—with similar groups abroad, who helped it secure money, weapons, training, safe havens and publicity: the Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany, the Irish Republican Army, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, as well as the OAS in France.
The strategy of ETA—and its political supporters in Herri Batasuna, the Basque separatist party formed in 1978—was a straightforward one of instrumental violence: to raise the price of keeping Basques in Spain to a politically intolerable level. But like the IRA and other comparable organizations, ETA also had ambitions to function as a society within the state. Catholic, stern and moralistic—in a manner ironically redolent of Franco himself—ETA activists targeted not just Spanish policemen (their first victim was killed in June 1968) and moderate Basque politicians and notables, but also symbols of ‘Spanish’ decadence in the region: cinemas, bars, discothèques, drug pushers and the like.
In the waning years of the Franco era, ETA’s activities were restricted by the very repression that had led to its emergence: by the end of the dictatorship, in the early 1970s, one quarter of Spain’s armed police were stationed in the Basque country alone. This did not prevent ETA from assassinating Franco’s Prime Minister (Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco) in Madrid on December 20th 1973, or killing twelve civilians in a bomb attack in the capital nine months later. Nor did the execution of five ETA gunmen in September 1975, shortly before Franco’s death, have any moderating impact upon the group’s activities. The coming of democracy, on the other hand, offered new opportunities.
ETA and its supporters wanted full independence. What the Basque region got, under Spain’s post-Franco constitution (see Chapter 16), was a Statute of Autonomy, approved by referendum in 1979. Infuriated—not least at the prospect of losing the support of moderate sympathizers satisfied by self-government and the right to linguistic and cultural self-expression—ETA stepped up its campaigns of bombing and assassination. In 1979-80 the organization killed 181 people; in the course of the next decade its murder rate averaged 34 a year. But in spite of this, and the fragility of Spain’s infant democracy, ETA and its political allies failed to turn their terrorist campaign to political advantage: their one success, in provoking a small group of right-wing army officers to hold up the Cortes in February 1981 in the name of law, order and the integrity of the state, turned to fiasco.
One reason for ETA’s limited impact, despite the horrific scale and wide public impact of its killing sprees, was that most Basques identified neither with its means nor with its ends. Indeed, many Basques were not really even Basques. The economic transformations of Spain in the 1960s, and the large-scale migrations within the country and abroad, had wrought changes that the old nationalists and their fanatical young followers simply did not grasp. By the mid-eighties, less than half the population of the Basque region had Basque parents, much less Basque grandparents. Such people rightly saw ETA and Herri Batasuna as a threat to their well-being (and implicitly to their very presence in the region).
As its political project lost touch with social reality ETA became ever more extreme—having forgotten its aim it redoubled its efforts, to cite George Santayana’s definition of fanaticism. Financed by crime and extortion, its operatives increasingly constrained to function from across the border in the Basque départements of south-west France, ETA survived and it survives still, murdering the occasional politician or village policeman. But it has failed either to mobilize Basque sentiment in support of political independence, or to bludgeon the Spanish state into conceding its case. ETA’s greatest ‘success’ came early in the 1980s, when its actions prompted the Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González to allow counter-terrorist hit men (the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación) to base themselves illegally on French soil and pick off ETA operatives, twenty-six of whom were killed between 1983 and 1987. González’s decision, only revealed many years later (see Chapter 22), has cast a retrospective shadow across the early post-Franco years of constitutional democracy in Spain; but in the circumstances it was arguably a remarkably moderate response.
The Provisional IRA was much like ETA in its methods, and in some of its proclaimed objectives. Just as ETA sought to make the Basque provinces ungovernable and thereby secure their exit from Spain, so the Irish Republican Army aimed at making Northern Ireland ungovernable, expelling the British, and uniting the six northern provinces with the rest of Ireland. But there were significant differences. Since an independent Ireland already existed, there was—at least in principle—a practicable national goal for the rebels to hold out to their supporters. On the other hand, there was more than one Northern Irish community, and the distinctions between them went back a very long way.
Like French Algeria, Northern Ireland—Ulster—was both a colonial remnant and an integral part of the metropolitan nation itself. When London finally relinquished Ireland to the Irish, in 1922, the UK retained the six northern counties of the island on the reasonable enough grounds that the overwhelmingly Protestant majority there was intensely loyal to Britain and had no desire to be governed from Dublin—and incorporated into a semi-theocratic republic dominated by the Catholic episcopate. Whatever they said in public, the political leaders of the new Republic were themselves not altogether unhappy to forgo the presence of a compact and sizeable community of angrily recalcitrant Protestants. But for a minority of Irish nationalists this abandonment constituted a betrayal, and under the banner of the IRA they continued to demand the unification—by force if need be—of the entire island.
This situation remained largely unchanged for four decades. By the 1960s the official stance in Dublin somewhat resembled that of Bonn: acknowledging the desirability of national re-unification but quietly content to see the matter postponed sine die. Successive British governments, meanwhile, had long chosen to ignore so far as possible the uneasy situation they had inherited in Ulster, where the Protestant majority dominated local Catholics through gerrymandered constituencies, political clientelism, sectarian pressure on employers, and a monopoly of jobs in crucial occupations: civil service, judiciary and above all the police.
If politicians on the British mainland preferred not to know about these matters, it was because the Conservative Party depended on its ‘Unionist’ wing (dating from the nineteenth-century campaign to maintain Ireland united with Britain) for a crucial block of parliamentary seats; it was thus committed to the status quo, with Ulster maintained as an integral part of the United Kingdom. The Labour Party was no less closely identified with the powerful labour unions in Belfast’s shipbuilding and allied industries, where Protestant workers had long received preferential treatment.
As this last observation suggests, the divisions in Northern Ireland were unusually complicated. The religious divide between Protestants and Catholics was real and corresponded to a communal divide replicated at every stage of life: from birth to death, through education, housing, marriage, employment and recreation. And it was ancient—references to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century quarrels and victories might appear to outsiders absurdly ritualistic, but the history behind them was real. But the Catholic/Protestant divide was never a class distinction in the conventional sense, despite the IRA’s efforts to import Marxist categories into its rhetoric. There were workers and priests—and to a lesser extent landowners, businessmen and professionals—on both sides.
Moreover, many Ulster Catholics felt no urgent desire to be ruled from Dublin. In the 1960s Ireland was still a poor and backward country and the standard of living in the North, while below that of most of the rest of the UK, was still considerably above the Irish average. Even for Catholics, Ulster was a better economic bet. Protestants, meanwhile, identified very strongly with the UK. This sentiment was by no means reciprocated by the rest of Britain, which thought little of Northern Ireland (when it thought of it at all). The old industries of Ulster, like those of the rest of the UK, were in decline by the end of the 1960s, and it was already clear to planners in London that the overwhelmingly Protestant blue-collar workforce there had an uncertain future. But beyond this, it is fair to say that the British authorities had not given Ulster serious thought for many decades.
The IRA had declined to a marginal political sect, denouncing the Irish Republic as illegitimate because incomplete while reiterating its ‘revolutionary’ aspiration to forge a different Ireland, radical and united. The IRA’s wooly, anachronistic rhetoric had little appeal to a younger generation of recruits (including the seventeen-year-old, Belfast-born Gerry Adams, who joined in 1965) more interested in action than doctrine and who formed their own organization, the clandestine, ‘Provisional’ IRA.199 The ‘Provos’, recruited mainly from Derry and Belfast, emerged just in time to benefit from a wave of civil rights demonstrations across the North, demanding long overdue political and civil rights for Catholics from the Ulster government in Stormont Castle and encountering little but political intransigence and police batons for their efforts.
The ‘Troubles’ that were to take over Northern Irish—and to some extent British—public life for the next three decades were sparked by street battles in Derry following the traditional Apprentice Boys’ March in July 1969, aggressively commemorating the defeat of the Jacobite and Catholic cause 281 years before. Faced with growing public violence and demands from Catholic leaders for London to intervene, the UK government sent in the British Army and took over control of policing functions in the six counties. The army, recruited largely in mainland Britain, was decidedly less partisan and on the whole less brutal than the local police. It is thus ironic that its presence provided the newly formed Provisional IRA with its core demand: that the British authorities and their troops should leave Ulster, as a first stage towards re-uniting the island under Irish rule.
The British did not leave. It is not clear how they could have left. Various efforts through the 1970s to build inter-community confidence and allow the province to run its own affairs fell foul of suspicion and intransigence on both sides. Catholics, even if they had no liking for their own armed extremists, had good precedent for mistrusting promises of power-sharing and civic equality emanating from the Ulster Protestant leadership. The latter, always reluctant to make real concessions to the Catholic minority, were now seriously fearful of the intransigent gunmen of the Provisionals. Without the British military presence the province would have descended still further into open civil war.
The British government was thus trapped. At first London was sympathetic to Catholic pressure for reforms; but following the killing of a British soldier in February 1971 the government introduced internment without trial and the situation deteriorated rapidly. In January 1972, on ‘Bloody Sunday’, British paratroopers killed thirteen civilians in the streets of Derry. In that same year 146 members of the security forces and 321 civilians were killed in Ulster, and nearly five thousand people injured. Buoyed up by a new generation of martyrs and the obstinacy of its opponents, the Provisional IRA mounted what was to become a thirty-year campaign, in the course of which it bombed, shot and maimed soldiers and civilians in Ulster and across mainland Britain. It made at least one attempt to assassinate the British Prime Minister. Even if the British authorities had wanted to walk away from Ulster (as many mainland voters might have wished), they could not. As a referendum of March 1973 showed and later polls confirmed, an overwhelming majority of the people of Ulster wished to maintain their ties to Britain.200
The IRA campaign did not unite Ireland. It did not remove the British from Ulster. Nor did it destabilize British politics, though the assassination of politicians and public figures (notably Lord Mountbatten, former Viceroy of India and god-father of the Prince of Wales) genuinely shocked public opinion on both sides of the Irish Sea. But the Irish ‘Troubles’ further darkened an already gloomy decade in British public life and contributed to the ‘ungovernability’ thesis being touted at the time, as well as to the end of the carefree optimism of the 1960s. By the time the Provisional IRA—and the Protestant paramilitary groups that had emerged in its wake—finally came to the negotiating table, to secure constitutional arrangements that the British government might have been pleased to concede almost from the outset, 1,800 people had been killed and one Ulster resident in five had a family member killed or wounded in the fighting.
Against this background, the other ‘pathologies’ of 1970s Europe were small indeed, though they contributed to the widespread atmosphere of unease. A self-styled ‘Angry Brigade’, purportedly acting on behalf of the unrepresented unemployed, planted bombs around London in 1971. Francophone separatists in the Swiss Jura, modeling their tactics on those of the Irish, rioted in 1974 at their enforced incorporation into the (German-speaking) canton of Bern. Crowds of rioters in Liverpool, Bristol and the Brixton district of London battled with police over control of ‘no-go’ inner-city slums.
In one key or another, all such protests and actions were, as I have suggested, pathologies of politics: however extreme their form, their goals were familiar and their tactics instrumental. They were trying to achieve something and would—by their own account—have desisted if their demands were met. ETA, the IRA and their imitators were terrorist organizations; but they were not irrational. In due course most of them ended up negotiating with their enemies, in the hope of securing their objectives if only in part. But such considerations were never of interest to protagonists of the second violent challenge of the times.
In most of Western Europe, the airy radical theorems of the 1960s dissipated harmlessly enough. But in two countries in particular they metamorphosed into a psychosis of self-justifying aggression. A small minority of erstwhile student radicals, intoxicated by their own adaptation of Marxist dialectics, set about ‘revealing’ the ‘true face’ of repressive tolerance in Western democracies. If the parliamentary regime of capitalist interests were pushed hard enough, they reasoned, it would shed the cloak of legality and show its true face. Confronted with the truth about its oppressors, the proletariat—hitherto ‘alienated’ from its own interestand victim of ‘false consciousness’ about its situation—would take up its proper place on the barricades of class warfare.
Such a summary gives too much credit to the terrorist underground of the 1970s—and too little. Most of the young men and women swept up in it, however familiar they were with the justificatory vocabulary of violence, played little part in its formulation. They were the foot soldiers of terrorism. On the other hand, especially in West Germany, the emotional energy invested in their hatred of the Federal Republic drew on sources deeper and darker than the mal-adapted rhetorical gymnastics of nineteenth-century radicalism. The urge to bring the architecture of security and stability crashing down on the heads of their parents’ generation was the extreme expression of a more widespread skepticism, in the light of the recent past, about the local credibility of pluralist democracy. It was not by chance, therefore, that ‘revolutionary terror’ took its most menacing form in Germany and Italy.
The link between extra-parliamentary politics and outright violence first emerged in Germany as early as April 1968, when four young radicals—among them Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin—were arrested on suspicion of burning two department stores in Frankfurt. Two years later Baader escaped from prison in the course of an armed raid planned and led by Ulrike Meinhof. She and Baader then issued their ‘Concept City Guerrilla Manifesto’, announcing the formation of a ‘Rote Armee Fraktion’ (Red Army Fraction—RAF) whose goal was to dismantle the Federal Republic by force. The acronym RAF was chosen deliberately: just as Britain’s Royal Air Force had attacked Nazi Germany from the air, so the Baader-Meinhof Group, as they were colloquially known, would bomb and shoot its successor into submission from below.
Between 1970 and 1978, the RAF and its ancillary offshoots pursued a strategy of deliberately random terror, assassinating soldiers, policemen and businessmen, holding up banks and kidnapping mainstream politicians. In addition to killing 28 people and wounding a further 93 in the course of bombings and shootings in these years, they took 162 hostages and carried out over 30 bank robberies—partly to finance their organization, partly to advertise their presence. In the early years they also targeted American Army bases in West Germany, killing and injuring a number of soldiers, notably in the late spring of 1972.
In their peak year of 1977, the RAF kidnapped and subsequently executed Hans Martin Schleyer, the chairman of Daimler Benz and President of the West German Federation of Industries, and assassinated both Siegfried Buback, the West German Attorney General, and Jürgen Ponto, the head of Dresdner Bank. But this was to be their swansong. Already, in May 1976, Meinhof (captured in 1972) had been found dead in her Stuttgart prison cell. She had apparently hung herself, though rumors persisted that she had been executed by the state. Baader, seized in a shoot-out in Frankfurt in 1972, was in prison serving a life sentence for murder when he, too, was found dead in his cell on October 18th 1977, on the same day as Gudrun Ensslin and another imprisoned terrorist. Their underground organization persisted into the eighties, albeit much reduced: in August 1981 it bombed the US Air Force HQ at Ramstein in West Germany, and the following month the ‘Gudrun Ensslin Kommando’ tried unsuccessfully to assassinate the US Supreme Commander in Europe.
Since the German terrorist underground had no defined goals, its achievements can only be measured by the extent of its success in disrupting German public life and undermining the institutions of the Republic. In this it clearly failed. The most distinctively repressive governmental action of the time was the passing of the Berufsverbot in 1972 by the Social Democratic government of Willy Brandt. This decree excluded from state employment any person who engaged in political acts considered detrimental to the Constitution, and was ostensibly aimed at keeping supporters of Left and Right political extremes out of sensitive posts. In a culture already preternaturally disposed to public conformity this certainly aroused fears of censorship and worse; but it was hardly the prelude to dictatorship that its critics feared and—at the outer extreme—hoped.
Neither the terrorist Left nor the apparently renascent neo-Nazi Right—notably responsible for killing 13 people and wounding 220 others in a bomb attack on Munich’s Oktoberfest in 1980—succeeded in destabilizing the Republic, although they did provoke careless talk in conservative political circles of the need to curb civil liberties and enforce ‘Order’. Much more worrying was the extent to which the Baader-Meinhof Group in particular was able to tap into a fund of generalized sympathy for its ideas among otherwise law-abiding intellectuals and academics.201
One source of local sympathy was a growing nostalgia in literary and artistic circles for Germany’s lost past. Germany, it was felt, had been doubly ‘disinherited’: by the Nazis, who had deprived Germans of a respectable, ‘usable’ past; and by the Federal Republic, whose American overseers had imposed upon Germany a false image of itself. In the words of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, the film director, the nation had been ‘spiritually disinherited and dispossessed . . . we live in a country without homeland, withoutHeimat.’ The distinctly nationalist tinge to German extreme-Left terrorism—its targeting of American occupiers, multinational corporations and the ‘international’ capitalist order—rang a chord, as did the terrorists’ claim that it was Germans who were now the victims of the manipulations and interests of others.
These same years saw an outpouring of films, speeches, books, television programs and public commentary on the country’s problematic history and identity. Just as the Red Army Fraktion claimed to be fighting ‘Fascism’—by proxy, so to speak—so West Germany’s intellectuals, Left and Right, battled for control of Germany’s true heritage. Syberberg’s fellow film director Edgar Reitz directed a hugely popular, sixteen-hour television mini-series: ‘Heimat: A German Chronicle’. The story of a family from the Hunsrück countryside of the Rhineland Palatinate, it traced contemporary German history through a domestic narrative reaching from the end of World War One to the present.
In Reitz’s film the inter-war years especially are bathed in a sepia-like afterglow of fond memory; even the Nazi era is hardly permitted to intrude upon fond recollections of better times. The Americanized world of the post-war Federal Republic, on the other hand, is presented with angry, icy disdain: its materialist neglect of national values and its destruction of memory and continuity are depicted as violently corrosive of human values and community. As in Fassbinder’s Marriage of Maria Braun the main character—also ‘Maria’—does duty for a victimized Germany; but Heimatis quite explicitly nostalgic and even xenophobic in its contempt for foreign values and longing for the lost soul of ‘deep Germany’.
Reitz, like Syberberg and others, was publicly scornful of the American television series ‘Holocaust’, first shown on German television in 1979. If there were to be depictions of Germany’s past, however painful, then it was the business of Germans to produce them. ‘The most radical process of expropriation there is,’ wrote Reitz, ‘is the expropriation of one’s own history. The Americans have stolen our history through Holocaust.’ The application of a ‘commercial aesthetic’ to Germany’s past was America’s way of controlling it. The struggle of German directors and artists against American ‘kitsch’ was part of the struggle against American capitalism.
Reitz and Fassbinder were among the directors of Deutschland im Herbst (‘Germany in Autumn’) a 1978 collage of documentary, movie clips and interviews covering the events of the autumn of 1977, notably the kidnapping and killing of Hans Martin Schleyer and the subsequent suicide of Ensslin and Baader. The film is notable not so much for its expressions of empathy for the terrorists as for the distinctive terms in which these are conveyed. By careful inter-cutting, the Third Reich and the Federal Republic are made to share a family resemblance. ‘Capitalism’, ‘the profit system’ and National Socialism are presented as equally reprehensible and indefensible, with the terrorists emerging as latter-day resisters: modern Antigones struggling with their consciences and against political repression.
Considerable cinematic talent was deployed in Deutschland im Herbst—as in other contemporary German films—to depict West Germany as a police state, akin to Nazism if only in its (as yet unrevealed) capacity for repression and violence. Horst Mahler, a semi-repentant terrorist then still in prison, explains to the camera that the emergence of an extra-parliamentary opposition in 1967 was the ‘antifascist revolution’ that did not happen in 1945. The true struggle against Germany’s Nazi demons was thus being carried through by the country’s young radical underground—albeit by the use of remarkably Nazi-like methods, a paradox Mahler does not address.
The implicit relativizing of Nazism in Deutschland im Herbst was already becoming quite explicit in intellectual apologias for anti-capitalist terror. As the philosopher Detlef Hartmann explained in 1985, ‘We can learn from the obvious linkage of money, technology and extermination in New Order Nazi imperialism . . . (how) to lift the veil covering the civilized extermination technology of the New Order of Bretton Woods.’ It was this easy slippage—the thought that what binds Nazism and capitalist democracy is more important than their differences, and that it was Germans who had fallen victim to both—that helped account for the German radical Left’s distinctive insensitivity on the subject of Jews.
On September 5th 1972, the Palestinian organization Black September attacked the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics and killed eleven athletes, as well as one German policeman. Almost certainly, the killers had local assistance from the radical Left (though it is a curiousity of German extremist politics of the time that the far Right would have been no less pleased to offer its services). The link between Palestinian organizations and European terrorist groups was already well-established—Ensslin, Baader and Meinhof all ‘trained’ at one time with Palestinian guerillas, along with Basques, Italians, Irish Republicans and others. But only Germans went the extra mile: when four gunmen (two Germans, two Arabs) hi-jacked an Air France plane in June 1976 and flew it to Entebbe, in Uganda, it was the Germans who undertook to identify and separate the Jewish passengers from the rest.
If this action, so unmistakably reminiscent of selections of Jews by Germans in another time and place, did not definitively discredit the Baader-Meinhof gang in the eyes of its sympathizers it was because its arguments, if not its methods, attracted quite broad consent: Germans, not Jews, were now the victims; and American capitalism, not German National Socialism, was the perpetrator. ‘War crimes’ were now things that Americans did to—e.g.—Vietnamese. There was a ‘new patriotism’ abroad in West Germany, and it is more than a little ironic that Baader, Meinhof and their friends, whose violent revolt was initially directed against the Germany-first self-satisfaction of their parents’ generation, should find themselves co-opted by the reverberations of that same nationalist heritage. It was altogether appropriate that Horst Mahler, one of the few surviving founders of Left terrorism in West Germany, should end up three decades later on the far Right of the political spectrum.
In external respects, contemporary Italian terrorism was not markedly different from the German kind. It too drew on para-Marxist rhetoric from the Sixties, and most of its leaders received their political education in the university protests of that time. The main underground organization of Left terror, the self-styled Brigate Rosse (‘Red Brigades’, BR) first came to public attention in October 1970, when it distributed leaflets describing goals that closely resembled those of the Red Army Fraktion. Like Baader, Meinhof and others, the leaders of the BR were young (the best known of them, Renato Curcio, was just 29 in 1970), mostly former students, and devoted to armed underground struggle for its own sake.
But there were also some important differences. From the outset, Italian Left terrorists placed far greater emphasis upon their purported relationship to the ‘workers’; and indeed in certain industrial towns of the north, Milan in particular, the more respectable fringes of the ultra-Left did have a small popular following. Unlike the German terrorists, grouped around a tiny hard core of criminals, the Italian far Left ranged from legitimate political parties through urban guerrilla networks to micro-sects of armed political bandits, with a fair degree of overlap in membership and objectives.
These groups and sects replicated in miniature the fissiparous history of the mainstream European Left. In the course of the 1970s each violent act would be followed by assertions of responsibility by hitherto unknown organizations, frequently by sub-sections and breakaways from the original unit. Beyond the terrorists themselves orbited a loose constellation of semi-clandestine movements and journals whose sententious ‘theoretical’ pronouncements offered ideological cover for terrorist tactics. The names of these various groups, cells, networks, journals and movements are beyond parody: in addition to the Red Brigades there were Lotta Continua (‘Ongoing Struggle’), Potere Operaio (‘Workers’ Power’), Prima Linea (‘Front Line’) and Autonomia Operaia (‘Workers’ Autonomy’); Avanguardia Operaia (‘Workers’ Avant-garde’), Nuclei Armati Proletari(‘Armed Proletarian Nuclei’) and Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (‘Revolutionary Armed Nuclei); Formazione Comuniste Combattenti (‘Fighting Communist Formations’), Unione Comunisti Combattenti (‘Fighting Communist Unions’), Potere Proletario Armato (‘Armed Proletarian Power’), and others besides.
If this list suggests in retrospect a desperate desire to inflate the social and revolutionary significance of a few thousand ex-students and their followers at the disaffected edges of the labour movement, the impact of their efforts to bring themselves to public attention should not be underestimated. Curcio, his companion Mara Cagol and their friends may have been living out in fantasy a romanticized fairy tale of revolutionary bandits (derived in large measure from the popularized image of revolutionary guerrillas in Latin America), but the damage they wrought was real enough. Between 1970 and 1981 not a year passed in Italy without murders, mutilations, kidnapping, assaults and sundry acts of public violence. In the course of the decade three politicians, nine magistrates, sixty-five policemen and some three hundred others fell victim to assassination.
In their first years, the Red Brigades and others confined their actions largely to the kidnapping and occasional shooting of factory managers and lesser businessmen: ‘capitalist lackeys’, ‘servi del padrone’ (‘the bosses’ hacks’), reflecting their initial interest in direct democracy on the shop floor. But by the mid-seventies they had progressed to political assassination—at first of right-wing politicians, then policemen, journalists and public prosecutors—in a strategy designed to ‘strip away the mask’ of bourgeois legality, force the state into violent repression and thus polarize public opinion.
Until 1978 the Red Brigades had failed to provoke the desired backlash, despite a rising crescendo of attacks in the course of the previous year. Then, on March 16th 1978, they kidnapped their most prominent victim: Aldo Moro, a leader of the Christian Democrat Party and former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Moro was held hostage for two months; backed by the Communists and most of his own party, the Christian Democrat Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti refused even to consider the kidnappers’ demand for the release of ‘political prisoners’ in exchange for Moro’s life. In spite of unanimous condemnation across the Italian political spectrum and appeals from the Pope and the Secretary General of the UN, the terrorists refused to relent. On May 10th Aldo Moro’s body was found in a car brazenly parked on a street in the centre of Rome.
The Moro Affair certainly illustrated the incompetence of the Italian state—the Interior Minister resigned the day after the body was found. After eight years of frantic anti-terrorist legislation and nationwide manhunts, the police had manifestly failed to break the terrorist underground.202 And the reverberations of the Red Brigades’ success in committing political murder at the very heart of the state and its capital city were significant. It was now clear to everyone that Italy faced a real challenge to its political order: less than two weeks after Moro’s corpse was found, the BR killed the head of the anti-terrorist squad in Genoa; in October 1978 they assassinated the Director General of Penal Affairs in Rome’s Justice Ministry. Two weeks later the Formazione Comuniste Combattentiassassinated a senior public prosecutor.
But the very scale of the terrorists’ challenge to the state now began to extract a price. The Italian Communist Party threw its weight firmly and unambiguously behind the institutions of the Republic, making explicit what was by now clear to almost everyone: namely, that whatever their roots in popular movements of the Sixties, the terrorists of the Seventies had now placed themselves beyond the spectrum of radical politics. They were simple criminals and should be hunted down as such. And so should those who provided them with ideological cover, and perhaps more: in April 1979 the University of Padua lecturer Toni Negri, together with other leaders of Autonomia Operaia, was arrested and charged with plotting armed insurrection against the state.
Negri and his supporters insisted (and continue to insist) that the radical ‘autonomists’, neither clandestine nor armed, should not be confused with illegal secret societies, and that the political decision to go after them represented precisely the retreat from ‘bourgeois order’ that the Red Brigades had prophesied and sought to bring about. But Negri himself had condoned at the University of Padua violent attacks on teachers and administrators falling only just short of terrorist tactics. The slogans of ‘mass illegality’, ‘permanent civil war’ and the need to organize ‘militarily’ against the bourgeois state were widely declaimed in respectable academic circles—including Negri’s own paper Rosso. A year after the kidnapping and murder of Moro, Negri himself wrote in celebration of ‘the annihilation of the adversary’: ‘The pain of my adversary does not affect me: proletarian justice has the productive force of self-affirmation and the faculty of logical conviction’.203
The idea that political violence might have the ‘productive force of self-affirmation’ was not unfamiliar in modern Italian history, of course. What Negri was affirming, and what the Red Brigades and their friends were practicing, was no different from the ‘cleansing power of force’ as exalted by Fascists. As in Germany, so in Italy: the far Left’s hatred of the ‘bourgeois state’ had led it back to the ‘proletarian’ violence of the anti-democratic Right. By 1980 both the targets and the methods of terrorist Left and terrorist Right in Italy had become indistinguishable. Indeed, the Red Brigades and their offspring were by no means responsible for all the violence of Italy’s anni di piombo (‘Lead Years’). The conspiratorial, anti-republican Right resurfaced in these years (and perpetrated the single worst crime of the age, the bombing of Bologna’s railway station in August 1980, killing 85 and wounding 200 more); and in the Mezzogiorno the Mafia, too, adopted a more aggressive strategy of terror in its war with magistrates, police and local politicians.
But to the extent that the re-emergence of neo-Fascist terror and the resurgence of Mafia violence illustrated and exacerbated the vulnerability of democratic institutions, their undertakings were—perhaps correctly—interpreted by Left terrorists as a sign of their own success. Both extremes sought to destabilize the state by rendering normal public life intolerably dangerous—with the difference that the far Right could count on some protection and collaboration from the very forces of order they sought to subvert. Shadowy right-wing conspiratorial networks, reaching up into the higher ranks of the police, the banking community and the ruling Christian Democrat Party, authorized the murder of judges, prosecutors and journalists.204
That democracy and the rule of law in Italy survived these years is a matter of no small note. From 1977 to 1982 especially, the country was under siege from random acts of extreme violence by far Left, far Right and professional criminals alike—it was in these same years that the Mafia and other criminal networks assassinated police chiefs, politicians, prosecutors, judges and journalists, sometimes with apparent near-impunity. While the more serious threat came from the extreme Right—better organized and much closer to the heart of the state—the ‘Red’ terrorists made the greater impact upon the public imagination. This was in part because, like the Red Army Fraktion in Germany, they traded upon widespread local sympathy for radical ideas. Official Communists correctly saw this appropriation of the revolutionary heritage as the terrorists’ chief asset, as well as a symptom of the risk that they posed for the credibility of the mainstream Left.
Ironically, and unbeknown to local Communists themselves, the Red Brigades and the Red Army Fraktion—like the similarly motivated but ineffectual Cellules communistes combattantes in Belgium, Action Directe in France and other, even smaller operations elsewhere—were financed in part with money supplied by the Soviet secret services. This cash was not part of any coherent strategy: it was paid out, rather, on general principles—the enemies of our enemies, however absurd and insignificant, are still our friends. But in this case the undertaking backfired: the one incontrovertible achievement of left-wing terrorism in Western Europe in these years was the thoroughness with which it expunged any remaining revolutionary illusions from the local body politic.
All the mainstream political organizations of the Left, Communists especially, were constrained to take and maintain their distance from violence of any kind. Partly this was a spontaneous response to the threat terror posed to them as well as others—trade unionists and other representatives of the traditional labor movement were among the most vilified targets of the underground networks. But partly it was because the ‘lead years’ of the 1970s served to remind everyone of just how fragile liberal democracies might actually be—a lesson occasionally neglected in the heady atmosphere of the sixties. The net effect of years of would-be revolutionary subversion at the heart of Western Europe was not to polarize society, as the terrorists had planned and expected, but rather to drive politicians of all sides to cluster together in the safety of the middle ground.
In the life of the mind, the nineteen seventies were the most dispiriting decade of the twentieth century. In some measure this can be attributed to the circumstances described in this chapter: the sharp and sustained economic downturn, together with widespread political violence, encouraged the sentiment that Europe’s ‘good times’ had gone, perhaps for many years to come. Most young people were now less concerned with changing the world than with finding a job: the fascination with collective ambitions gave way to an obsession with personal needs. In a more threatening world, securing one’s self-interest took precedence over advancing common causes.
There is no doubt that this change in mood was also a response to the heady indulgence of the previous decade. Europeans who only recently had enjoyed an unprecedented explosion of energy and originality in music, fashion, cinema and the arts could now contemplate at leisure the cost of their recent revelries. It was not so much the idealism of the Sixties that seemed to have dated so very fast as the innocence of those days: the feeling that whatever could be imagined could be done; that whatever could be made could be possessed; and that transgression—moral, political, legal, aesthetic—was inherently attractive and productive. Whereas the Sixties were marked by the naive, self-congratulatory impulse to believe that everything happening was new—and everything new was significant—the Seventies were an age of cynicism, of lost illusions and reduced expectations.
Mediocre times, wrote Albert Camus in The Fall, beget empty prophets. The 1970s offered a rich harvest of them. It was an age depressingly aware of having come after the big hopes and ambitious ideas of the recent past, and having nothing to offer but breathless and implausible re-runs and extensions of old thoughts. It was, quite self-consciously, a ‘post-everything’ era, whose future prospects appeared cloudy. As the American sociologist Daniel Bell observed at the time, ‘The use of the hyphenated prefix post- indicates [a] sense of living in interstitial time.’ As a description of the real world—‘post-war’, ‘post-imperial’, and most recently ‘post-industrial’—the term had its uses, even if it left uncertain what might follow. But when applied to categories of thought—as in ‘post-Marxist’, ‘post-structuralist’ and, most elusively of all, ‘post-modern’—it merely added to the obscurities of an already confused time.
The culture of the Sixties had been rationalistic. Mild drugs and utopian revelries notwithstanding, the social thought of the age, like its music, operated in a familiar and coherent register, merely ‘expanded’. It was also strikingly communitarian: students, like ‘workers’, ‘peasants’, ‘negroes’ and other collectives, were presumed to share interests and affinities that bound them in a special relationship with one another and—albeit antagonistically—to the rest of society. The projects of the Sixties, however fantastic, presumed a relationship between individual and class, class and society, society and state, that would have been familiar in its form if not its content to theorists and activists at any point in the previous century.
The culture of the Seventies turned not on the collective but the individual. Just as anthropology had displaced philosophy as the Ur-discipline of the Sixties, so psychology now took its place. In the course of the Sixties the notion of ‘false consciousness’ had been widely taken up by young Marxists to explain the failure of workers and others to liberate themselves from identification with the capitalist interest. In a perverted variant this idea formed, as we have seen, the core premise of Left terrorism. But it also took on a curious afterlife in less politicized circles: adapting Marxist background language to Freudian subjects, self-styled ‘post-Freudians’ now emphasized the need to liberate not social classes but aggregated individual subjects.
Theorists of liberation now surfaced, in Western Europe as in North America, whose goal was to release the human subject not from socially enforced bondage but from self-imposed illusions. The sexual variant on this theme—the idea that social and sexual repression were integrally linked—was already a truism in certain milieux of the late Sixties. But Marcuse, or Wilhelm Reich, stood in clear line of descent from both Freud and Marx—seeking collective transformation through individual liberation. The followers of Jacques Lacan on the other hand, or contemporary theorists of feminism like Kate Millett and Annie Leclerc, were both less ambitious and more. They were not much concerned with traditional projects of social revolution (which the feminists correctly identified with political movements led by and primarily for men). Instead they sought to undermine the very concept of the human subject that had once underlain them.
Two widespread assumptions lay behind such thinking, shared very broadly across the intellectual community of the time. The first was that power rested not—as most social thinkers since the Enlightenment had supposed—upon control of natural and human resources, but upon the monopoly of knowledge: knowledge about the natural world; knowledge about the public sphere; knowledge about oneself; and above all, knowledge about the way in which knowledge itself is produced and legitimized. The maintenance of power in this account rested upon the capacity of those in control of knowledge to maintain that control at the expense of others, by repressing subversive ‘knowledges’.
At the time, this account of the human condition was widely and correctly associated with the writings of Michel Foucault. But for all his occasional obscurantism Foucault was a rationalist at heart. His early writings tracked quite closely the venerable Marxist claim that in order to liberate workers from the shackles of capitalism one had first to substitute a different account of history and economics for the self-serving narrative of bourgeois society. In short, one had to substitute revolutionary knowledge, so to speak, for that of the masters: or, in the language of Antonio Gramsci so fashionable a few years earlier, one had to combat the ‘hegemony’ of the ruling class.
A second assumption, one that was to acquire an even stronger grip on intellectual fashions, went considerably further. This was the seductive insistence upon subverting not just old certainties but the very possibility of certainty itself. All behavior, all opinion, all knowledge, precisely because it was socially derived and therefore politically instrumental, should be regarded with suspicion. The very idea that judgments or evaluations might stand independent of the person making them came to be treated in certain quarters as itself the expression and representation of a partisan (and implicitly conservative) social position.
All iterations of judgment or belief could in principle be reduced in this way. Even critical intellectuals could themselves be thus ‘positioned’. In the words of the French sociology professor Pierre Bourdieu, the most influential European exponent of the new sociology of knowledge, ‘professorial discourse’ is but the expression of ‘the dominated fraction of the dominating class.’ What this beguilingly subversive way of positioning all knowledge and opinion did not disclose was how to determine whether one ‘discourse’ was truer than another: a dilemma resolved by treating ‘truth’ as itself a socially positioned category—a stance that would soon become fashionable in many places. The natural outcome of such developments was a growing skepticism towards all rational social argument. The French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, whose 1979 essay on the subject, The Post-modern Condition, nicely summarized the air du temps, put the point clearly enough: ‘I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta-narratives.’
The underlying and usually unacknowledged source of these predominantly French intellectual influences was, as so often in past decades, German. The Italian writer Elio Vittorini once observed that ever since Napoleon, France had proved impermeable to any foreign influence except that of German romantic philosophy: and what was true when he wrote that in 1957 was no less true two decades later. Whereas the humanist sensibilities of an earlier generation had been drawn to Marx and Hegel, the self-doubting Seventies were seduced by an altogether darker strain in German thought. Michel Foucault’s radical skepticism was in large measure an adaptation of Nietzsche. Other influential French authors, notably the literary critic Jacques Derrida, looked instead to Martin Heidegger for their critique of human agency and their ‘de-construction’, as it was becoming known, of the cognitive human subject and his textual subject matter.
To scholarly specialists on Heidegger or his German contemporary Carl Schmitt (whose historicist realism was attracting attention among students of international affairs), this interest was more than a little odd. Both Heidegger and Schmitt, after all, were identified with Nazism—Heidegger quite explicitly thanks to his acceptance of academic office under Nazi auspices. But the renewed interest in criticizing optimistic assumptions about progress, in questioning the underpinnings of enlightened rationalism and its political and cognitive by-products, established a certain affinity between early-twentieth-century critics of modernity and technical progress like Heidegger and the disabused skeptics of the ‘post-modern’ age—and allowed Heidegger and others to launder their earlier associations.
By the time German philosophy had passed through Parisian social thought into English cultural criticism—the forms in which it was familiar to most readers of the time—its inherently difficult vocabulary had attained a level of expressive opacity that proved irresistibly appealing to a new generation of students and their teachers. The junior faculty recruited to staff the expanded universities of the time were themselves in most cases graduates of the Sixties, raised in the fashions and debates of those years. But whereas European universities of the previous decade were preoccupied with grand theories of various sorts—society, the state, language, history, revolution—what trickled down to the next generation was above all a preoccupation with Theory as such. Seminars in ‘Cultural Theory’, or ‘General Theory’ displaced the conventional disciplinary boundaries that had still dominated even radical academic debate a few years before. ‘Difficulty’ became the measure of intellectual seriousness. In their disabused commentary on the heritage of ‘’68 Thought’, the French writers Luc Ferry and Alain Renault tartly concluded that ‘the greatest achievement of the thinkers of the Sixties was to convince their audience that incomprehensibility was the sign of greatness.’
With a ready-made audience in the universities, newly lionised theorists like Lacan and Derrida elevated the vagaries and paradoxes of language into full-fledged philosophies, infinitely flexible templates for textual and political explication. In institutions such as Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the new theoreticism blended smoothly into the old. Marxism was relieved of its embarrassingly atavistic attachment to economic categories and political institutions and recycled as cultural criticism. The inconvenient reluctance of the revolutionary proletariat to vanquish the capitalist bourgeoisie was no longer an impediment. As Stuart Hall, the leading British spokesman for Cultural Studies in those years, expressed it in 1976: ‘The idea of the “disappearance of the class as a whole” is replaced by the far more complex and differentiated picture of how the different sectors and strata of a class are driven into different courses and options by their determining socio-economic circumstances.’
Hall himself would in later years concede that his Centre was ‘for a time, over-preoccupied with these difficult theoretical issues.’ But in fact this narcissistic obscurantism was very much of its time, its detachment from daily reality bearing unconscious witness to the exhaustion of an intellectual tradition. Moreover, it was by no means the only symptom of cultural depletion in these years. Even the sparkling originality of 1960s French cinema declined into self-conscious artistry. In 1974 Jacques Rivette, the witty and original director of Paris Nous Appartient (1960) and La Religieuse (1966), directed Céline et Julie vont en bateau (‘Céline and Julie Go Boating’). At 193 minutes in length, a plot-less, stylized parody (albeit unintended) of the French New Wave, Céline et Juliemarked the end of an age. Artistic theorizing was displacing art.
If one strand in the heritage of the Sixties was high-cultural pretension, the other, its intimate inversion, was a hardening crust of knowing cynicism. The relative innocence of rock and roll was increasingly displaced by media-wise pop bands whose stock in trade was a derisive appropriation and degradation of the style forged by their immediate precursors. Much as popular romances and tabloid journalism had once fastened on to mass literacy for commercial advantage, so ‘punk’ rock appeared in the Seventies in order to exploit the market for popular music. Presented as ‘counter-cultural’ it was in fact parasitic upon mainstream culture, invoking violent images and radical language for frequently mercenary ends.
The avowedly politicized language of punk rock bands, exemplified in the Sex Pistols’ 1976 hit ‘Anarchy in the UK’, caught the sour mood of the time. .But the punk bands’ politics were as one-dimensional as their musical range, the latter all too often restricted to three chords and a single beat and dependent upon volume for its effect. Like the Red Army Fraction, the Sex Pistols and other punk rock groups wanted above all to shock. Even their subversive appearance and manner came packaged in irony and a certain amount of camp: ‘Remember the Sixties?’ they seemed to say; ‘Well, like it or not, we are what’s left.’ Musical subversion now consisted of angry songs decrying ‘hegemony’, their counterfeit political content masking the steady evisceration of musical form.205
However bogus their politics and their music, the punk generation’s cynicism at least was real, and honestly come by. They were the sour and mostly untalented end of a growing spectrum of disrespect: for the past, for authority, for public figures and public affairs. In its wittier incarnations, this scorn for pomposity and tradition took its cue from the disabused young British political satirists who had first surfaced nearly two decades earlier: the theatre review Beyond the Fringe; the BBC late-night show That Was the Week That Was; and the weekly magazine Private Eye. Exploiting the rapidly growing television audience and the steady retreat of state censorship, Monty Python and its successors and imitators blended broad slap-stick, ribald social commentary and sardonic political mockery—a mixture last seen in the trenchant political cartoons of Gillray and Cruikshank. The close interplay between rock music and the new burlesque is nicely illustrated in the financial backing for two of the Python films, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) and Life of Brian (1979): underwritten respectively by Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and by George Harrison of the Beatles.
The low standing of public figures offered rich pickings to weekly television shows like Spitting Image or France’s Bebête Show, where leading politicians were routinely held up to a degree of ridicule and scorn that would have been unthinkable a few years before (and still is in the United States). Satirists and political comedians replaced writers and artists as the intellectual heroes of the hour: when French students were asked in the early Eighties which public figures they most admired, older commentators were shocked to learn that the late Jean-Paul Sartre had been replaced by Coluche, a ribald and occasionally licentious television comedian who sardonically acknowledged his newfound standing by running for President of his country.
Yet the same public television channels that broadcast pointed and irreverent parodies of popular and middlebrow culture also provided humorists with copious raw material. Perhaps the most widely celebrated object of ridicule was the ‘Eurovision Song Contest’, an annual television competition first broadcast in 1970. A commercial exercise glossed as a celebration of the new technology of simultaneous television transmission to multiple countries, the show claimed hundreds of millions of spectators by the mid-Seventies. The Eurovision Song Contest—in which B-league crooners and unknowns from across the continent performed generic and forgettable material before returning in almost every case to the obscurity whence they had briefly emerged—was so stunningly banal in conception and execution as to defy parody. It would have been out of date fifteen years earlier. But for just that reason it heralded something new.
The enthusiasm with which the Eurovision Song Contest promoted and celebrated a hopelessly dated format and a stream of inept performers reflected a growing culture of nostalgia, at once wistful and disabused. If punk, post-modern and parody were one response to the confusions of a disillusioned decade, ‘retro’ was another. The French pop group Il Était Une Fois (‘Once Upon a Time’) sported 1930s clothing, one of many short-lived sartorial revivals from ‘granny skirts’ to the neo-Edwardian hairstyles of the ‘New Romantics’—the latter reprised for the second time in three decades. In clothing and music (and buildings) the temptation to recycle old styles—mixing and matching with little self-confidence—substituted for innovation. The Seventies, a self-questioning time of troubles, looked backward, not forward. The Age of Aquarius had left in its wake a season of pastiche.