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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 collapsed 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 postwar 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 area 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, 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.


  1. Dr Paul says:

    Were I living in France, I would have put a peg on my nose and voted for Macron, solely to keep out Le Pen: an emergency vote against fascism.

    This article puts very clearly the dangers that neo-liberalism poses to the working class, how it is an unwitting facilitator for fascism.

    1. James Martin says:

      Your argument falls at the first hurdle, Le Penn and the FN are not fascists and it is actually quite dangerous for various reasons to confuse far right parties with fascist ones.

      1. JohnP says:

        Quite right, James Martin, Le Penn and the current iteration of the Front National is not fascist, but Radical Right Populist. This is still a party riddled with hard fascists though , campaigning on a racist , nationalist , and Strasserite type anti globalist capitalist programme. The interesting thing about current radical Right populist parties like the FN is whether, in the absence of any type of major threat from the Left, their role would be more akin to the postwar iterations of Argentinian Peronism, than conventional European fascism. The Golden Dawn in Greece is obviously a different kettle of fish , being pure Nazi in programme and actions.

        Today a radical Right Populist party would probably end up in major confrontation with Big Capital almost as much as a radical Left party, if it tried to carry out the range of autarkist measures Le Penn has proposed to protect French industry. And it is of the radicalism of the FN programme, AND of course its racism, that offers a very real danger that the blatant stooge and creature of French and European Big Capital, Macron, in trying to implement the neoliberal makeover of France over the next few years will drive ever more workers into the arms of the FN.

        1. Imran Khan says:

          A good summation of the situation. What is of interest is that as well as doubling her father’s vote a majority of 15 to 25 year olds have said they are FN voters as opposed to a majority of over 65s who are opposed to the party. Not a good omen for the future.

  2. Bazza says:

    FN are wolves in sheeps clothing.
    Macron actually got 33% of the total eligible electorate, FN 16%, 25% registered their vote as Blank or Abstain and 26% did not vote so 51% felt there was no-one to give them a voice.
    The tragedy is Neo-Liberalism doesn’t generally make people militant, it crushes them and breaks them and many give up and don’t even bother voting.
    You can see the poverty etched on their faces – they do not live, they just exist.
    And believe me I have to go all over my city by bus and I feel like Charles Dickens; and I am tired of seeing broken people.
    So as Liberals and Neo-Liberals get excited re Macron perhaps On The Move is Going Nowhere.
    Another example of the bourgeois left (top down, read made programmes, banking concept of political education – just need to deposit policies in heads working class/working people and as the vanguard they will deliver socialism FOR US not WITH) getting in the way.
    If the Left had one candidate in France it would have had 9m plus votes and come top in the first round and would have knocked the FN out and it would then have been Left v Neo-Liberal.
    Same again in Unite General Secretary Election – bourgeois socialists took 17,000 votes and Len just got in by 6,000.
    I want a socialist society (in other countries too) and were 2 very difficult frameworks – transforming the Neo-Liberal EC or individual nation states co-operating.
    I felt the first had just more potential with ready made international links but Out won so perhaps Brexit is now the only game in town.
    This election is of global significance, it is a chance to break the Neo–Liberal Chain if JC’s Labour wins then with things like more democratic public ownership (with staff and communities having a say) AS CITIZENS WE THEN TAKE BACK CONTROL FROM NEO-LIBERALISM!

    1. Steven Johnston says:

      No you won’t. You vote Labour and it’s business as usual and one year into any Labour government, the hard left will cry “but we never voted for this!”. Yes, you did. It’s the Labour party that is the wolf in sheeps clothing, not the FN. As for top down politics, what do you think the election of Jeremy Corbyn was? Grass-roots politics?
      You may feel like Charles Dickens but I take leave to doubt you’ll pen an Oliver Twist.

      1. Bazza says:

        But I AM A STAR!

  3. Sacha Ismail says:

    Hi Imran,

    It’s certainly true that the FN isn’t strong among the old and does better among the young than many radical rights parties in other European countries. But a majority of 15-25 year olds? Can you cite a source? In the election Le Pen came well behind Melenchon among 18-24 year olds, roughly 21pc to 30pc (with Macron on 18pc), and in the second round Macron won this group something like 66-34pc.

    So cause for concern but the figure you cite seems wrong.

  4. Tim Pendry says:

    Surely the Left cannot have its cake and eat it, defeating neo-liberalism and defeating fascism. In defeating one, it appears to strengthen the other. While we know just how neo-liberal the Radical Centre is, it is possible we are misinterpreting the new populism as ‘fascist’ much as John P. suggests.

    It could be argued that the neoliberals have achieved their hegemony precisely because the Left has mounted a series of futile red lines, crossed them out of pessimism and fear and then accommodated to become the mild ameliorative wing of the hegemony.

    This is the classic soft Left approach that might be likened with (to continue the French analogy) staying in one’s post under Vichy in order to try and manage an essential malignity.

    But the real question, as raised by John P, is whether Le Pen and her populists are actually fascist at all and whether, by failing to engage with some of the issues raised by her and her movement and simply calling them ‘fascist’ (which they are not), in a ritual bit of tribalism set by a misreading of history, the Left merely becomes the cover for equal or even worse evils when it comes to the actually lived experience of most people … in the long run.

    Melenchon did start to address these issues and got 19% of the vote, then held his nose and stood back, not personally becoming complicit in the soft Left effectively guaranteeing the neo-liberal hegemony though many of his supporters did not take that view. The low turnout says something but this idea that we must support the Radical Centre to keep out the Right out owes more to a simplistic reading of Weimar Germany than to any serious analysis of the situation.

    The central point of Le Pen is that fascists do like her and so fill the gap left by the lack of engagement of the Left with the anti-globalist agenda that they share in places … but Le Penism is also libertarian (in terms of personal freedoms) and interventionist (in terms of economic development). I am also not convinced that a critique of obscurantism in some migrant communities is to be associated automatically with racism or that some criticism of urban liberal cultural politics is not needed.

    These are above all populists. They are ultimately the enemy but the pusillanimous approach to liberal hegemony, out of a constructed fear of them, simply consigns the Left to permanent irrelevance in the future except as gad fly.

    When around half the population vote for anti-globalist anti-neoliberal candidates in the first round and nearly half of those are Leftists, then you have a near majority of people prepared to challenge the Radical Centre. Yet the Radical Centre not merely triumphed again but has now taken Leftist discontent totally for granted and prepared itself to be ignored for another four years or so.

    Melenchon had it about right. Challenge a broken system by asserting core Left values (of which egalitarian anti-racism is one) and get (in his case) nearly one in five voters to make a stand. His relative silence in the second round is rather heroic given the weight of pressure placed by the liberal establishment to rally around their man on the false implied narrative that the opponent is a fascist and stormtroopers would be marching down the Champs Elysee to round up Muslims within days.

    The next stage is surely to detach Le Pen from a total dependence on the Right and enter into dialogue on core values because I think we may be surprised at what is negotiable in order to defeat the Radical Centre on core economic and social policies while protecting the rights of minorities. This latter being key and not to be confused with the radical liberal idea that borders should be opened up to enable cheap labour.

    What would be tragic is a Trump-type Le Pen in office in four or five years who has sacrificed a central socio-economic radicalism to cut deals with traditional conservatives in a form of malign national capitalism that effectively jettisons the interest even of the ‘little people’ she claims to serve.

    Of course, the Left hopes that Macron will be one of them but that will be only in the sense that Blair was one of them, with the Left the mere foot soldiers or rather submissive frightened slaves of the ‘nice’ wing of the global middle classes.

    If the Left seriously believes that Macron will adopt Melenchon’s central socialist agenda, then, of course, I am wrong … but how likely is that given what Macron has said about modernisation and the European Project. Some rethinking across the Left is now due … the more so as it is likely that the British Left will have plenty of time to ponder its mistakes over the next four years.

    Across Europe, the Left should be cutting into populist ground while reassuring the ‘decent’ middle classes, not allowing the elite middle classes to play it like an instrument in its orchestra only to dispose of it later,

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