Monday 8 May 2017

Emmanuel Macron and Neoliberalism

And breathe. Emmanuel Macron crushed Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential elections by 66.1% to 33.9%. But that is no cause for celebration. Le Pen's rebranded fascism was found beguiling enough for a third of voters, which is double what daddy got when he broke through to the run off in 2002. Amid the schmaltzy celebrations and feting of Macron as a centrist hero up there with Blair and Obama, serious questions need posing and answers found if this is to be the peak of the French far right's advance.

Unfortunately, the shiny new president is clueless and uninterested in the dynamics driving Le Pen's support. While a Macron win was and would always be preferable to a fascist victory, he will not solve France's problems. He's hell bent on exacerbating them. As we have seen with the collapse of the Socialists and the abysmal performance of Francois Hollande, their humiliation in this election and likely wipe out in the parliamentary elections next month is a calamity of their own making. Centre left parties across Europe have had a battering, from outright collapse like France and The Netherlands to parties hampered by splits and social dislocation, like Germany and, yes, Britain. Populism of the left and right have welled up through the fissures and caused all manner of complications, but the underlying problem in almost every case is the extent to which social democratic and labour parties have overseen attacks on their own constituencies.

The consequences of this is more complex than just economic anxiety, which is often lampooned by liberals hostile to understanding their complicity in the processes driving populism. All too often, this blog has visited how the breaking up of the post-war social order and the administration of neoliberal capitalism has seen many centre left parties pursue suicidal policies that break up their coalition of voters. Consider the case of New Labour. Sure, the sharper edges were blunted and investment - albeit sourced from the private sector at rip off rates - helped rebuild public infrastructure. But crucially Blair and Brown's drive to open more and more areas of the state to marketisation introduced uncertainty, varying standards, and a fundamental lack of accountability in service provision. Meanwhile their failure to roll back the attacks the Tories made on workplace rights, save for the enhancement of individual at the expense of collective rights, meant that impermanence and fluidity - a sense of a loss of control - deepened a diffuse sense of uncertainty that had more or less reigned unchecked since Keynesian capitalism was broken by crisis in the 1970s.

As this was going on, neoliberalism as a mode of governance continued to be normalised. This supposes and actively inculcates a default state of being human as an atomised individual. Society may exist, but how you travel through it and where you end up is entirely the result of your efforts and your choices. This cultural assumption assiduously cultivated by Thatcher, Major, and Blair at the level of policy was the default mode informing public institutions and their relations with the public. Citizens accessing council services were customers. Parents choosing schools for their kids were customers. Students looking for a place in Higher Education were customers. Patients entering the NHS were customers. They had the right to choose, but once inside these systems customers became something else: they were the carriers of social obligations. Nothing highlights this more than the social security system in which, in return for dole money, the unemployed - long re-branded jobseekers - are expected to attend training sessions, engage in job hunting full-time (how?), and latterly work for their dole. This is no different in kind from the workhouse, where inmates were set jobs to "morally improve" them. In our neoliberal times, nothing says virtuous quite like getting up in the morning and spending x number of hours under an employer's direction.

France differs from Britain in that market fundamentalism has not penetrated society to the same extent, much to the chagrin of capital and those who would like to see the rebelliousness for which the French are famous expunged from the body politic. In terms of France's political economy, its post war period - that of dirigisme - saw an active state drive reconstruction and development in a much more hands-on way than Britain. This meant nationalised industry and state supervision of large areas of the economy, though this direction was indicative (through market incentives) rather than bureaucratic command as per the Soviet Union. And it worked. Between 1945 and 1975 economic growth averaged out at 4.5%/year, numbers totally unthinkable today in a mature economy. This was largely abandoned in the mid-1980s by Francois Mitterand's Socialists as the price paid for remaining in the European Monetary System - a relatively fixed currency exchange rate - that aided economic integration, particularly between the economies of France, the low countries, and West Germany. The period that followed saw a number of state enterprises transformed into corporations. Ostensibly private businesses, the French state in the main kept hold of a controlling share of stock (unlike the get-rich-quick privatisations across the Channel) but simultaneously pulled back from indicative planning. However, despite attempts at trying to dump them, strong worker protections persist even though the trade union participation rate has historically been lower than Britain's - proof that there isn't a necessary correspondence between union density and militancy.

Overt neoliberalism hasn't made inroads, but it certainly has as a mode of governance. As with all Western European societies, France became a consumption-oriented society during dirigisme. Meanwhile the expansion of French technocracy in the state-directed enterprises ensured that managerialism worked with this consumerism to promote a particular type of individuality: what we now understand as neoliberal individuality. Choice and responsibility were its key attributes and, of course, moral rectitude and self-worth found expression in the usual trappings of success. This cultural shift, remember, occurred independently of any neoliberal attempt at restructuring of France's political economy. Quite the contrary, this was a mode of governance promoted by social democratic capitalism's workplace and leisure cultures. Hence on the surface of economics, France looks different to the US and UK but down at the cellular level, the mode of governance, of how institutions deal with citizens and how they are expected to interact (transact) with one another is qualitatively the same. No surprises that the same problems - existential anxiety, ontological insecurity - stalk the land, and the same extremists, in this case the "post"-fascist National Front, are happy to play the blame game and offer up the certainties (and simplicity) of nationalism and nationality in response.

And this is why Emmanuel Macron's defeat of Le Pen should be more a sigh of relief than an enthusiastic celebration. His candidacy and incipient political party was enabled by the collapse of the Socialists but the precipitating factor was Hollande's programme. A loosening of workers' rights, including giving employers carte blanche to cut wages and salaries "when times are tough" (whatever that means), pensions reform with increased contributions, and political paralysis as opposition to these measures mounted - what a shower. Scenes from the presidential campaign when we saw Le Pen welcomed by factory workers as Macron was barracked should set the alarm bells ringing, but they haven't. Effectively, Macron takes office as the new Socialist president in all but name and with the same discredited programme, and the same liberal tin ear to the aspirations and interests of working people exhibited by all centrist heroes. Without a hint of understanding what happened to the government in which he was a minister, his aim is to curb the power of labour, liberalise the economy further, and wants to start by throwing 100,000 civil servants out of work. At the very moment capitalism requires stronger management similar to the dirigisme of the past, he wants to take France in the opposite direction, of, effectively, restructuring its economy so it better corresponds to neoliberal governance. It's a recipe for more social conflict, more anxiety and doubt, more alienation and anomie, and more fuel for the extremist fire. If Macron wants to prepare the ground for future fascist success, he's going the right way about it.


jim mclean said...

Yet it is the minorities that are dancing street, a breathing space at least. In Scotland people are openly switching to the Tories from Labour. The reason is total opposition to Indyref2. McDonnell and Corbyn seem to live in a dreamland where the Nationalists are an anti-imperialist movement and many of our Labour supporters are walking away at this election. If you cannot get what you desire vote against what you oppose the most. They are not gone for good but they wont be back until Corbyn, and more importantly McDonnell, are gone.

Makhno said...

Labour lost Scotland before Corbyn was a glint in the electorate's eye, but putting that to one side for a moment:

The nationalists say that Labour lost Scotland because they were tied too closely to the No campaign.

The unionists say that they can't win Scotland back unless they complete dissociate themselves from Yes/nationalists, despite the fact that Labour is still to all intents and purposes a unionist party

And meanwhile over in England & Wales:

Brexiters say that Labour is losing a huge amount of support to the Tories in the regions because they are seen as soft on Brexit.

"Progressive" Remainers with little knowledge of how the FPTP system works get all excited about how they're voting Lib Dem (because that worked so well last time) and blame Corbyn for Brexit.

And whilst everyone is getting their knickers in a twist swallowing the media line and blaming Labour for Hobson's choices that aren't of the party's making and continue the barrage of in-fighting, the Tories lick their lips and eye up our hard won rights and public services.

I don't support Scottish independence, I utterly opposed Brexit and in my view Corbyn should have resigned after Copeland (although the seeds for that loss were sown in the incompetent and abortive leadership challenge), but the political debate in this country from all political sides has become so simplistic, infantile and essentially decadent that there really is very little left to hope for on this benighted little rock.

P.S. Excellent article, Phil. Agree that the complacency of the centre is setting us all up for a fall.

Shai Masot said...

Socialists are quite right to sling gratuitous insults at Blairites whilst openly mocking their pathetic Tory-lite political beliefs at party meetings. Macron is a Blair creature and he will attack the French social security system. He will flog off chunks of their health services and rail network. He will attempt to crush the unions. But I would rather see a French version of Blair in power than a full-fat fascist.

What's the French word for "choice"? I suspect we'll be hearing it quite a lot.

Speedy said...

"Nothing highlights this more than the social security system in which, in return for dole money, the unemployed - long re-branded jobseekers - are expected to attend training sessions, engage in job hunting full-time (how?), and latterly work for their dole. This is no different in kind from the workhouse..."

Dave Spart-o-meter alert.

I don't disagree with what you're saying, but i think you're hunting around for a solution within your own terms of reference - socialist materialism (or whatever more sophisticated thing you call it). I think Macron appreciates the pickle he is in, and he may turn out to be more of a leftist pragmatist than you think - if the book by that Greek on the bailouts is anything to go by - but you're also correct it may be too little too late.

You ignore immigration (naturally) although if there is an elephant in the room, phew, it's that, exacerbated to some extent by the same kind of suppression/margianlisation (to the right fringe) of dissent in France applied by the Left in the UK, and which led directly to Brexit. You can't pick and choose your liberal policies (though you do) and this is, of course, one of them, largely owned by the Left. You call for further social engineering, yet you ignore a prime example of how it is leading directly toward fascism.

What a fuck up. 63 percent of manual voters chose Le Pen. 63 percent!!!! 44 per cent of 18-24 year olds.

Blissex said...

«LAs with all Western European societies, France became a consumption-oriented society during dirigisme.»

Not consumption-oriented, but rent-oriented, which implies, secondarily, consumption-orientation.
Because once rentiers have collected their rents, they seem themselves primarily as consumers with a fixed income, and producers, in particular workers, as always too expensive suppliers.

Again the big change has been the (temporary) rise of mass-rentierism (final salary pensions, house ownership).

Blissex said...

«Centre left parties across Europe have had a battering»
«63 percent of manual voters chose Le Pen.»

I think the shrinking of centre-left parties has been called "pasokification" as they abandon their bases to chase a small minority who are “aspirational voters who shop at John Lewis and Waitrose” and according to legend decide elections at the margin.

Blissex said...

«blaming Labour for Hobson's choices that aren't of the party's making and continue the barrage of in-fighting,»

Part of the issue is that the Conservatives and Unionist Party, globalist, unionist, free-marketeer, has been defeated and in effect it has disappeared. It has been replaced by the right-wing English Nationalist Party led by Theresa May, which has two independent appeals the opposite of a Hobson's choice:

#1 It can appeal to rentiers of all colors because rentiers put their rentierism before their nationalism or federalism;
#2 It can appeal to english nationalists of all classes because many nationalists put their english nationalism before their economic interests, or think that their economic interests are best served by english nationalism.

Conceivably Labour could switch to become a centre-left english nationalist party and counter point #2, but it cannot move as opportunistically as T May did in reinventing herself as the leader of the opposition to the failed Conservative and Unionist government of Cameron.

«the Tories lick their lips and eye up our hard won rights and public services.»

A lot of ex-Labour voters, especially middle aged and older rentiers, see “rights and public services” as costs they don't want to pay for. Mass rentierism of the "Blow you! I am allright Jack" is significant problem for Labour.

Trudie McGuinness said...


Robert said...

You write as if everything was rosy in the European social democratic garden and if only "neoliberalism" had not been inflicted on it we would be now living and breathing in solidarity and fraternity like in er...France where there is a stagnant economy where one in ten are unemployed (considerably more if you are young) largely thanks to Hollande's failure to restrain public spending which is higher than the rest of the Eurozone. Just blaming the outgoing President for his attempts to undermine worker rights is selective thinking to say the least and overlooks or diverts attention from other factors including the flow of professionals from Paris to London (which may reverse due to Brexit) and the inability of French businesses to create jobs (which may be down to some extent to rigid employment rules) and the failure to maximise the advantage gained from having much higher productivity levels per worker than many other OECD nations including Britain.

Mitterand's U-turn in 1983 may have come about as part of the effort to remain in the European Monetary System but this also involved preventing inflation getting out of control something which was necessary with or without participating in the EMS. The truth is that Mitterand's travails from 1981-3 spelt the end of one nation social democracy as his Keynesian attempts to boost productivity foundered as unemployment continued to rise requiring three devaluations for France just to function. Blaming this U-turn -which became known as "tournant de la rigueur" (austerity turn) - solely on the EMS is a convenient but unconvincing way to side step the limits imposed on any country by the need for fiscal restraint.

Likewise, whatever objections we may legitimately have about the way monetarism was introduced in Britain, first by Denis Healey in 1976 and then far more aggressively by the Tories from 1979, there was a genuine need for a need to address the problems caused by post war consensus economics associated with stagflation etc. The idea that we can turn back the clock here (or in the case of across the channel freeze time) and there can be business as usual for social democracy/socialism in 2017 is oversimplistic. Since Hollande's attempts to curb workers' rights have failed they cannot be the cause for he persistently high unemployment in France which is such a factor in support for the far right. It is the stagnating economy - something which is almost universal across the developed world - and while Macron is going to have his work cut out over trying to effectively respond to this he should not be blamed for not looking to the 1970s and 80s for inspiration.

David Parry said...

'France where there is a stagnant economy where one in ten are unemployed (considerably more if you are young) largely thanks to Hollande's failure to restrain public spending which is higher than the rest of the Eurozone.'

Actually, unemployment at 1 in 10 in France is something that considerably predates Hollande setting foot in the Elyse palace.

'there was a genuine need for a need to address the problems caused by post war consensus economics associated with stagflation etc.'

The UK's economic difficulties in the 1970s cannot be blamed directly on the postwar economic consensus. 'Butskellism' can be said to have failed in as much as it was an unsuccessful attempt to crisis-proof capitalism, but the core aspects of 'Butskellism' (the pursuit of full employment through Keynesian demand management, corporatist economic planning, highly restributive taxation, a mixed economy and strong trade unions) did not cause the '70s crisis, at least not in and of themselves. What caused the '70s crisis was the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system of international monetary exchange, owing in no small part to the Lyndon Johnson administration in the US printing money to fund the Vietnam war, the attempt in 1971 of the Ted Heath government in the UK to deal with the negative repercussion of this in terms of UK business investment (and thus growth) by relaxing controls on credit, causing a surge in consumption that generated what came to be known as the 'Barber boom' but also caused inflation to spiral upwards, and the 1973 oil shock, which further exacerbated matters considerably in this regard.

'The idea that we can turn back the clock here (or in the case of across the channel freeze time)'

That's a strawman. I'm fairly certain that Phil doesn't advocate a simple return to the past.

Lidl_Janus said...

I feel like many people are giving Le Pen way too much credit, here - she went from being, in some 1st-round polls, in the high 20s/low 30s with 10%pt+ leads during mid-2016, to being a standard polling error from finishing 4th on April 23rd. If Melenchon had gained a little more, or Fillon had realised he was a liability and stepped aside (first as tragedy), the entire conversation would be very different right now.

Also, apparently this blog considers a year-old party scoring 66% of the vote to be ominous for its members, whilst Labour pulling off the worst local elections for an opposition party in decades is worth a brief grimace and a hasty move onwards. I know the OP doesn't care for liberalism as an ideology, but this is surely biased media in action. It seems liberalism can't win even on a sizeable majority, but socialism can't lose even if it tallies up hundreds of losses.

Although I will concede this: the Liberal Party, as opposed to the Liberal Democrats, lost all three councillors they were defending last week.

Anonymous said...

Well, the LibDems lost seats as well.

Despite, unlike Labour, also doing terribly *last* time round.

How is "stopping Brexit" going?

Robert said...

@David Parry

Not only does the fact that French high unemployment predates Hollande fail to rebut my point that it has nothing to do with "neoliberalism" (as implied by AVSP) it suggests that there are structural problems with the economy. In my opinion these include both domestic and international pressures that cannot be simply dismissed by the left. First, too higher wages and/or too strong job protection - even with high productivity like in France - can deter companies from hiring new staff (because of the incumbent cost associated with workers' rights etc) second they can make trades less competitive in global markets. No country can simply exist in a bubble and deny outside pressures a point actually underlined by the causes you raise behind the economic crises of the mid 1970s which hit almost all developing nations.

This was the hard lesson understood by Mitterand in 1983 after three devaluations in two years, a trade deficit rising to 92.7 billion Francs from 60 billion in a year and double the inflation of Germany. While international factors were significant it was French policy which exacerbated their effect. For example high inflation was self inflicted since it Mitterand pursued reflationary economics while most of the OECD, most notably the US, Britain and Germany, were undergoing deflation. So it is not as straightforward as AVSP claims that inflation was simply down to participating in the EMS. So while intervention saved French industries more than if they had followed the UK's example their implementation came at a price since they were often done for political rather than economic reasons. The circumstances were very unfavourable to such Keynesian policies which rely on borrowing for investment. Because of high Labour costs French firms were already heavily in debt, borrowing costs were exorbitant because of high US interest rates and raw materials (not only oil) had massively increased over a short period of time.

Ironically the French reflationary approach was placed in the hands of consumers (by ramping up both public sector jobs and the minimum wage) and private capitalists and they chose to spend their bounty disproportionately on foreign imports rather than on domestic goods so it was German and Japanese companies who benefited the most (hence the spiralling trade deficit). The alternative would have been for Mitterand to aggressively pursue State focused reflation which would have curbed private consumption but this would not only have had to address the obstacles posed by the unfavourable circumstances I have mentioned above it would have been very unpopular. Unsurprisingly, despite all the nationalistic motivations behind voting for a Socialist Party who had draped their programme in the tricolour many consumers then had wanted to buy superior German and Japanese cars and electrical goods rather than make a patriotic purchase.

Robert said...


All this points to how Mitternand's apparent disregard to factors, both domestic and international, led to the failure of his national road to socialism and the enforced tournant de la rigueur after two years in office. Then as now the uncompetitive state of French companies (largely down to high Labour costs) placed considerable constraints on economic policy which could only be ignored for so long. That such unfavourable circumstances were beyond French control only underlines this point. It is beside the point to blame the US for choosing to abandon controlling interest rates to focus instead on tight monetary policy and fiscal expansion in response to the second oil shock in October 1979 the point here is that this was a factor whose implications could not be conveniently sidestepped to suit socialist ideology whether in France or elsewhere.

The debilitating effect this had on reflationary attempts around the globe had to be factored in whoever you were or wherever you lived. By not doing so Mitterand simply stored up more problems for his country which had to be reckoned with in his case within under three years. Furthermore, his acknowledgement that the national road to socialism was, at least for him precluded, and their context did not necessarily give much support for those on the left who assumed that under more favourable conditions a reflationary approach would suit everyone if pursued internationally. The more uncompetitive your industries and companies are the less your country will benefit from internationally coordinated expansionary economic policies. Too high wages or stringent Labour conditions will still come at a cost not worth the price.

David Parry said...


It may well be the case that the imperatives of capitalism demand poverty and economic security. For me, that's just another reason why this whole rotten system needs to go up in flames - literally if necessary.

Lidl_Janus said...

"How is "stopping Brexit" going?"

Brexit is definitely happening. Doesn't mean that I have to support it, or like it, or stop opposing it, but I'm not in denial either.

Bonnemort said...

Still, at least when the history books are written, and a tiny child asks you "Which side were you on, grandpa, Globalism or Nationalism?*", your conscience will be clear.

(* followed by "Is it really true, grandpa, that people used to have houses of their very own, and live in them?")