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Inside the Goldfish: Myth and Impersonation in Switzerland

Myths and peoples attitudes towards them aren't only a private matter, of course. They play a very important role in the politics of a society, too.
Thomas Barfuss

Issue #49, April 2000

For the fact is that being inside a whale is a very comfortable, cozy, homelike thought. ...There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens.
— George Orwell

Being Swiss, I tried very had to become a farmer. My family's recent past didn't offer me many resources in support of my quest, though. My parents weren't farmers. They ran a small garage. My grandparents weren't farmers either. Indeed my grandfather had been a kind of automotive pioneer in an area of Switzerland where for a long time farmers had tried to ban cars. Heeding the call of the roadways, he purchased a car very early on. As a result, the license plate he handed down to my parents had an unusually low number. I remember as a child that when we would cross the border into Italy, the customs officials, spying the license plate, would humbly ask my father whether he was a member of the Swiss government.

Despite these hurdles, I managed nonetheless to eventually trace my family's history back to farming. If you go back far enough, there's a farmer or two in just about every family. Looking back on my search, I often wonder what it is that makes middle class people like me fall for these kinds of identity charades? No doubt, it has something to do with what some people consider to be the petty bourgeoisie's defining attribute: our voracious appetite for anything that smacks of a meaningful life. We invest so readily in myths because they allow us to connect our deeply felt ideas about who we are with a larger collective story and in this way make sense of our individual lives. For this reason, impersonating mythic figures like I did with my heroic Swiss farmer cannot easily be left out of any serious middle class do-it-yourselfers "making sense of life" kit.

Myths and peoples attitudes towards them aren't only a private matter, of course. They play a very important role in the politics of a society, too. Elites will make use of myths to legitimate their policies and their political decisions. They will also use myths to socialize people in the ways they feel are necessary for the smooth functioning of society. Thus myths cut both ways. Individuals will insist on them as an important element in their search for meaningful lives. Elites will rely on them as important tools in their attempt to organize society and regulate political, social and cultural conflicts, especially those that arise as a society moves from one level of technological development to another more highly advanced level. In stable societies, the private and political dimensions of myths are tightly interwoven and mutually support each other. In fact, the interweaving of the private and political dimensions of myths is a crucial factor in the process of stabilizing modern societies in which political, economic and cultural conflict is built into the fabric of society.

However at certain times, especially in times of heightened social and political stress, the private and political uses of myths can begin to diverge. The specific myths and the manner in which individuals use them to construct their personal identity histories no longer correspond to the myths being used by elites to ensure both the smooth functioning of society and its ability to adjust to new economic, political and moral challenges.

Switzerland is so politically interesting at the moment because just such a rift has developed, throwing Swiss civil society into crisis. Contemporary Switzerland provides a wealth of material for anyone who wants to study the transformation of myths. Until recently, the country displayed a carefully balanced political, social, and economic arrangement in which the state apparatus, civil society and the economic powers were intertwined in one exceptionally close woven texture. It is this arrangement that has been thrown off balance. Inside the goldfish -- Switzerland is a little too small to be a whale -- the private and political myths are running in opposite directions.

For most of the postwar period, Switzerland possessed a functional collection of political and personal myths, including the myths of self-sufficiency, Swiss neutrality, and the moral superiority of the nation. This collection helped to reconcile the interests of financial capital and the rest of the nation. Recently, however, this collection of myths has turned dysfunctional. A process of coming to terms with Switzerland's recent past and its prevailing myths has started. This political process pits Swiss elites, who are desperately trying to modernize the country's collection of myths, against the Swiss populace, who have reacted in number of ways to the Switzerland's crisis. Some have reacted by developing a growing critical awareness of the mistakes made by Swiss elites throughout the postwar period. Others have expressed outright disgust with their political leaders. Most ominously, some Swiss citizens have turned to more radical forms of right-wing politics.

As a way to chart this development and show where Switzerland's elites blundered in the handling of myths, I would like to trace my personal history of using myths to make sense of life in postwar Switzerland. As it turns out, my way of using myths to make sense of life wasn't as private and unique as I once thought.

Why I Always Wanted to Live on Top of a Mountain

How did that dream of leading what I imagined to be the simple and plain life of a farmer enter my head in the first place? One Christmas, I remember my father wanting to give me a toy garage for. But stubborn little kid that I was, I insisted on a barn. My connection to farming can't be explained with reference to everyday Swiss life. For most Swiss people farming isn't an everyday reality, unless they live in a part of the country where subsidy programs have maintained a network of small farms. No, Switzerland is an urban, industrial nation. It industrialized early and, as its dependence on the world market grew, it became one of the financial hubs of international capitalism.

swiss alps But this doesn't mean that farming hasn't developed into a powerful myth in Switzerland. Unlike most other European countries, where the farmer was a symbol of suppression, the Swiss farmer - due to the region's early breakaway from the surrounding feudal powers - came to represent freedom and resistance. At a certain stage, the mythologizing of simple patterns of rural life and the natural glory of the Alps developed as a response to the economic modernization of Switzerland along capitalist lines. It should be noted that while the farming component of this myth was definitely Swiss, the glorification of the Alps was more international in origin. Curiously enough, the Alps were not so much a Swiss, but an English invention.

For my generation, which came of age when the Golden Age of postwar prosperity was drawing to a close, the myth of the heroic farmer and pristine Alps were reinforced by an environmentalist conscience. My friends and I, then in our early twenties, were in the middle of our studies, but still dreaming of dropping out and getting away from it all. During our university vacations, we took jobs as herds people in the Alps, running after cattle for three months out of the year and sleeping in rickety huts and stables. It wasn't well paid, but then you cannot spend a lot of money sitting on top of a mountain, can you? On lonely afternoons we'd take the binoculars and watch our fellow citizens work down in the valleys, gazing at the smoke rings indicating towns or following the brooks until they vanished into some electrical plant. Down there they were doing what we thought was destroying the world.

I remember that back in 1986 when the country held a referendum on whether Switzerland should become a member of the United Nations, I thought, "What's the point? The UN is a hopeless organization." Now I wasn't chauvinistic or right-wing or anything. Myself and the other counter- cultural members of my generation considered ourselves to be anti-establishment. We loathed the narrow-mindedness of the elites and their banking secrecy. Our stance illustrates what I mean when I say that myths cut both ways. We used the myth of a simple and self-sufficient life as a means of resistance to the dominant trends of Swiss society. It contained our dreams for what we could do despite the pressing other reality of daily life down in the valleys. But secluded on our mountain tops, we didn't see how the ingredients of our personal myths -- self-sufficiency and freedom -- could also be used by the political and economic elites to legitimate their policies. You can expect myths, therefore, to bear a considerable potential of resistance for the individual against the predominant powers. But you also have to bear in mind that acting inside a myth restricts your view to the very things that you share with the powers you try to resist. Or, to cut it short: It makes you strong, but it keeps you stupid.

People and Profits

Let's enlarge this personal experience by considering the historical situation of Switzerland and the development of another key myth, the myth of Swiss moral superiority. Despite being situated between fascist Italy and Germany, Switzerland was spared occupation during World War II, an experience that certainly would have brought to the surface conflicting forces of resistance and collaboration. Absent such an experience, Swiss elites were able to remain at the helm after the war. Without much infighting, they completed the integration of the left, that is, the trade unions and social democrats. They were supported by a relatively homogenous generation that had served in the army, but that was not exposed to the trauma of combat and defeat. In such a context, it was relatively easy for Swiss elites to alter the prevailing self-image of the Swiss as a small nation of chosen people surrounded by powerful enemies and fit it into the emerging cold war context. They encouraged the replacement of the Swiss citizenry's widespread anti-fascism with upright anti-communism and fashioned the myth of the moral superiority of the Swiss people. That the moral superiority of the Swiss was in fact a myth can be seen, for example, in how little attention was paid to the fact that money from Holocaust victims remained in Swiss banks without the banks attempting to get in touch with the victims' relatives. Nonetheless, for decades this myth would make the establishment invulnerable to objectives raised by critics such as the novelist Max Frisch. Frisch launched fierce attacks against the complacency in this country without achieving more than the doubtful fame of the nonconformist intellectual.

I remember listening to this bitter old man lashing out against the smugness of the elites and the fact that they were sending all of the ideas the country had come to stand for down the drain. Listening to Frisch, was like going to church for some of us. We listened in awe when he sucked down his rattling breath only to convert it into razor-sharp criticism and painful disappointment with this country, its elites, the enlightenment, the postmodern, and numerous other targets. He looked like our real grandfather and of course we knew he was right. Still the setting looked somewhat outdated to us who had grown up without much belief in the religion of being Swiss.

Goldfish in Distress

If the shift to a more global capitalism that began in the seventies and gained momentum through the 1980s and early 1990s marked a dramatic change in the country's political and economic environment, Swiss elites were slow to notice. The establishment failed to modify the myths that for so long had been the formula for Switzerland's political stability and economic growth. And as the educator, like the rest of us, is educated by mistakes that make themselves felt, this led to blunders. A number of glaring examples: In 1989 Swiss elites chose to celebrate the generation that served in the army during the Second World War and by extension chose to celebrate not the end of the war, peculiarly enough, but it's outbreak. These celebrations played out once more the myths of heroism and moral superiority, although a critical awareness was growing among the Swiss populace about the artificiality of these myths. Indeed, in that same year one third of the eligible voters supported a referendum to abolish the Swiss army.

Despite such signs of popular dissatisfaction, Swiss elites used the 1991 celebrations of 700 years of Swiss democracy in an attempt to reinforce the time-honored myths of Swiss self-sufficiency and moral superiority. These myths might have been useful in rallying the Swiss nation during the war years. But after the end of the Cold War, their use cost the Swiss elites the political initiative it needed to take part in the process of European integration. Instead, it was the newly emerging right-wing that seized the initiative and began to succeed on a platform of xenophobia and hostility to the European Union.

Pressure on the elites also mounted from outside Switzerland. The old respectability of the establishment could no longer cover up the major moral lapses of the financial sector. This was especially true when it became apparent that the banks had failed to actively trace the accounts that had belonged to victims of the Holocaust and notify the victims' relatives of those accounts' existence.

At this late stage, the elites found themselves forced to work upon the increasingly dysfunctional myths. Archives were opened and historians called in to investigate the role of the establishment during the war. For a short time at the end of the 1990s, their findings made the headlines of the newspapers and appeared on TV. A debate ensued over such issues as the extent to which Switzerland really had provided adequate refuge for those fleeing the Nazis and the role of the banks in harboring Nazi gold.

These debates have been a positive first step in re-defining the politics of civil society in Switzerland. But more is needed. It is not enough to try and re-define the identity history of Switzerland. It is also necessary to open this history to a wider international context. Swiss elites need to connect the history of Switzerland to the more universal history of Europe and beyond. If they do not take this step, they risk further exacerbating the gap between themselves and the rest of the Swiss populace. The danger in such a situation is that the radical right will step into this gap and begin to profit from the further blunders of Switzerland's political and economic leaders.

In surveying the political landscape of Switzerland, I fear that a resurgent right could begin to provide new, harmful myths. As nation-states compete to provide better conditions for the realization of capital accumulation, it is possible that these regressive myths might become part of the next round of capitalist modernization, one that would then be characterized by the combination of neo-liberal policies and chauvinistic identity politics.

Acknowledgments: The fresh approach of M. Hettling, M. König, M. Schaffner, A. Suter and J. Tanner in their Eine kleine Geschichte der Schweiz has proved very stimulating

Thomas Barfuss is not a farmer, but an English Teacher in Switzerland. He researches old and new forms of conformity.

Copyright © 2000 by Thomas Barfuss. All rights reserved.