‘Neutres dans les grandes revolutions des Etats qui les environnaient, les Suisses s’enrichirent des malheurs d’autrui et fondèrent une banque sur les calamités humaines.’ (Chateaubriand)

‘Switzerland does not exist’. (André Gorz)

From a political point of view, Switzerland represents three things: a haven for international capital, the embodiment of the petit-bourgeois spirit, and an apparent challenge to Marxist theory on the national question. Though these phenomena are swiftly conjured up by the word ‘Switzerland’, they are not seen as forming an essential unit. Yet Switzerland is all these three things precisely because it is not an ordinary nation-state: it was created, by both internal and external forces, against the nation-state at a strategic moment of history. Switzerland is a unique construct—an international mercenary state, first of feudal militarism, and now of world capital.

If Engels was correct (Der Schweizer Bürgerkrieg, 1847)—though this position is disputed by Grimmfootnote1—the Swiss displayed their profoundly reactionary propensities as early as the 13th century when they performed the extraordinary feat of breaking away from Austria at the one and only time in history when Austria was a relatively progressive state. Switzerland’s mercenary role in the feudal ages is even today evidenced by the fossil Swiss Guard of the Vatican—the only such surviving relic in Europe.

Pictet de Rochemont, the Swiss delegate to the Congress of Vienna in 1815, subsequently wrote a book whose title is the summation of his country’s role: De la neutralité de la Suisse dans l’intérêt de l’ Europe. For, on the one hand, Switzerland specifically designed herself as nothing other than a disembodied refuge for international capital: she had to lack the characteristics which would make her like other states: others’ wars had to be her peace, her peace had to be others’ wars. On the other hand, international capital co-operated in the construction of this enclave, conveniently situated in the heart of Europe (where else?), and populated by the optimal combination of lumpen peasantry and petits bourgeois. In origin, therefore, there was a clear structural connection between the class composition of the area that became Switzerland, the role assumed by the Swiss state and the cultural characteristics of the population: what Gorz has called the ‘miserly opulence of Zurich’ is more than a figure of speech, it condenses a historical reality that is both prehensile and warped.