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‘The Centre Can Hold’: Perry Anderson, French Politics in the Era of Macron, A Critique. Part One.

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‘The Centre Can Hold’: Perry Anderson: a Critical Look. 

Part One.

Chaque pensée devrait rappeler la ruine d’un sourire.”

Each thought should evoke the ruin of a smile.

Syllogismes de l’amertume. Emil Cioran.

For Perry Anderson “the revolutionary working class went AWOL somewhere around 1970.”

Roger Scruton. Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. Thinkers of the New Left. (1)

Has the 2017 French Presidential contest, followed by the June Parliamentary elections, redrawn the political map not just in France but also across Europe? Emmanuel Macron’s conquest of the Élysée (66,10% of the vote), in a second round against the far-right Marine Le Pen (33,90%), marginalising the Parti Socialiste (PS), eliminated at the first hurdle with 6,36% and Les Républicains (LR), at, 20.02% is said to have seen off the anti-European Union “populist revolt”. Others talk of his pro- EU “populism of the centre”. Some on the left draw comfort from the respectable score in the initial contest, 19,58% for Jean-Luc Mélenchon of la France insoumise.

The success of Macron’s brand new, ‘start-up’, movement-party, La République en marche (LRM), with 314 seats, and close allies, the MoDems, 47 MPs, out of 577 députés, is overwhelming. Backed by ‘compatible’ deputies from the fragmenting Socialist Party and the Republican centre-right, which now dominates the French lower house, the Assemblée Nationale, illustrates, it is claimed, the obsolescence of the old-party form. To some this has shaken up not just the old French blocs of left and right but introduced a new form of political representation. For Pierre Rosanvallon Macron, and his still-standing opponents, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen, are the “personalised”, “direct catalysts of popular aspirations” (Idées. Le Monde. 17.6.17) Introducing Perry Anderson’s The Centre Can Hold (click for full text)  The French Spring. New Left Review’s (NLR) Programme Notes begins rather with political economy. Macron, liberal in economics, and liberal (in the American sense) socially may mark another shift. “Has neoliberalism finally arrived in force in Paris and if so what are the implications for Europe?”

Macron’s journey from liberalising Minister of the Economy (2014 – 2016) in François Hollande’s Socialist Government, some tussles with Prime Minister Manuel Valls – not to mention mass protests against labour reforms – to the entry of the former high-flying Banker and Civil Servant into the gilded chambers of the Élysée, is a tale worth telling. That it did not happen without help, unwilling as much as willing, is recalled. Attacks on finance soon forgotten Hollande had rapidly begun “tilting to business and tailing Berlin”. Nor is the inability of his governments to tackle mass unemployment, poverty, to stand up to EU financial ‘rigour’, forcing the Mediterranean members to suffer the blast of monetary discipline and ‘restructuring’, unchronicled. The President’s manifest failings, low, described in Valérie Trierweiler’s Merci pour ce Moment (2014), and high, beginning with Hollande’s opinion of himself, and the both at the same time, as revealed by Gérard Davet and François Lhomme, are there for all to read, or at least the media’s extracts and commentaries. The outgoing tide of Hollande’s support, the his “self-destruction”, the mass protests and strikes at labour law reform (Loi El Khomri) under PM Manuel Valls, to “please business” – Anderson at least does not finger the EU for that measure – paved the way for the marginalisation of the Parti Socialiste. The transfer of PS card-holders and, above all, notables, to the new Master, was preceded by the mobilisation of an active core behind Macron’s Presidential bid.

Tenebrous back-door manoeuvres

Macron appeared, in short, Anderson affirms, at length, more than a providential “embodiment of all that was dynamic and forward-looking in France”. Behind this public portait, Anderson suggests that not only was their was transfer of allegiances, the use of PS networks, and the development of an establishment cabal behind him, there was a vast media-political operation, with wider business and ‘civil society’ support. Le Canard Enchaîné, with, he notes, close links with the “tenebrous world of back-door manoeuvres” and the “manipulative operations of the French intelligence services” leaked evidence of the abuse of public funds by Macron’s right-wing rival François Fillion. Dubbing the satirical weekly the Great Elector we are treated to Anderson’s lengthy speculations on the origins and motives of those who may have used these leaks to destroy the candidate of Les Républicains.

If Anderson is to be believed, “Macron’s background guaranteeing he would be a business-friendly icon of deregulation of the kind Hollande wanted” the transfer of the President’s claque to a new icon was well judged. The Centre Can Hold describes him marketed as part of “a movement transcending the outdated opposition between Right and Left in France, for the creation of a new, fresh politics of the Centre, liberal in economics and social in sensibility.” Enough people bought the message for an electoral landslide to take place.

Opponents were trounced, deals were made, François Bayrou was squared, the middle class were quite prepared…Anderson has, we can be sure, not revealed more than a fraction of the contents of a hefty shelf of breathless Secret Histories of the 2017 Election Campaign. That the new Boss has been sometimes ungrateful, the Editorial suggests, at least to his one-time Patron, and, we could add, to those, like Valls, with whom he has accounts to settle will doubtless lend piquancy to the narrative.

This entertaining, depressing but far from unprecedented story, is only part of a larger picture. The ‘operation’ succeeded as a consequence of the withering on the vine of the Parti Socialiste’s social base and the political impasse of the party that has failed in recent years to manage more than Léon Blum’s “exercise of power”, without conquering the solid bastions that give a real lever for social change.

The Republic of the Centre.

The NLR Editorial locates the origins of the PS’s difficulties in relief against a long line of attempts to create a Republic of the Centre, a term taken from the widely read. La République du centre (1988). In that book, subtitled, La fin de l’exception française, Pierre Rosanvallon, with François Furet and Jacques Julliard, announced the end of French ‘exceptionalism’, above all the persistence of an electorally and socially significant radical left. For Anderson President Mitterrand “had laid the foundations of a stable Republic of the Centre: no longer dependent on the individual charisma of a national hero who was distrustful of parties, but now solidly anchored in a cross-party ideological consensus that capitalism was the only sensible way of organizing modern life.”

Crucial to this turn was not the “stable republic”, a cross-party consensus and left-right alternation of power, but the left’s acceptance of the market. Since the Mitterrand ‘turn’ in 1982-3, the Socialists have constantly drifted, but they have always been marked by efforts to create a market-friendly liberalising ‘republic’. Anderson does not cite exactly why this change happened, here, or in his previous writings on France, where we learnt that it was ‘neoliberal’ and a “decisive turn towards the logic of financial markets”. Indicating, rather than defining ‘neoliberalism’, with the label Hayek stuck on it too boot, obscures what lay at the origin of their trajectory. (2)

The 1982-3 ‘moment’, a conjuncture that brought together political and economic strategic change with a cultural shift towards the market, remains marked in PS history. The Mauroy government, abandoned a strategy, reinforced with the entry of Communist Ministers in the cabinet, of nationalisations, proactive industrial policy, and increased consumption, came as the first Mitterrand governments failed to reduce unemployment or stimulate growth. Put simply, with the world in recession, going it alone was not working. Warnings of economic disaster starring the President and Prime Minister in the face during the summer of 1982 and the judgement that the franc risked going through the floor, strained the country’s membership of the European Monetary System (EMS) to breaking point. Retrenching at this point was more than a “pause” in reform. The government suddenly dropped all the idea of top-down ‘statist’ economic intervention. The initial wave of nationalisations (which remained in place for the time being, including important parts of the banking system) were not the ‘instrument’ of economic growth and social change. Industry had to be “restructured”, that is modernised at the cost of closures and layoffs; budgets had to restrained. The PS, soon free of a vestigial alliance with the Communists (PCF), came to grips with what they considered the impossibility of ‘Keynesianism in one country’. The “mutation” of modern capitalism was embraced.

What remained of a left-wing ambition beyond clamouring for creative destruction and extolling model entrepreneurs? For Anderson, it was the European ideal. For Mitterrand Europe was France’s future and economics had to follow. The two term President seized on “the inspiring ideal of Europe”, that is, staying within the EMS (European Monetary System). It was in its service that the French were called upon to “liberalise and modernise themselves.”

That the austerity programme in 1983, and the zealous pursuit of ‘modernisation’ under the subsequent PM Laurent Fabius, has marked the governing French left ever since is not in doubt. But the alternative answer, argued by the Minister of Industry, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, for France to “go it alone” outside the EMS, may well have led, as his opponents claimed, to a collapse in the franc, and to France going cap in hand, for help to another international “neo-liberal’ institution, the IMF, with an equally severe plan for budget cuts. A left-winger might well ask about the reaction of the labour movement. From Mitterrand’s victory in 1981 to the policy change, there was little popular activity, and the brief displays of CGT militancy that followed the exit of the Communists from government never rose beyond fragmented protest. (3)

The Construction of Europe.

The Centre Can Hold spills the beans on some more confidential reasoning, “In private, Mitterrand—more candid than his successors—knew what that meant, as he confided to his familiar Jacques Attali at the outset: ‘I am divided between two ambitions: the construction of Europe and social justice. The European Monetary System is a condition of success in the first, and limits my freedom in the second.’ Once the eu was in place, every market-friendly initiative could be extolled or excused as required by solidarity with Brussels.”

Is this another way of saying that French politicians, like political figures across the Continent, put responsibility for the unpopular consequences of market-friendly policies, which they fully support, onto ‘Europe’? Or is it to say that “pooling” sovereignty through the EU had given rise to an “accumulation of powers” by the “elites of the Council and Commission and their subordinates”, as Anderson put it in The New Old World (2009)? Is he suggesting that Keynesianism in one country was a viable option, and should have been pursued, regardless of the absence of mass popular mobilisation, and whatever the consequences for the ERM, and France’s position as the “hinge of the European Union”?

One way of avoiding these hard questions is to call upon the people to speak. That is, to demonstrate that, despite having filled their ears with Brussels’ wax, French politicians, unlike Ulysses, have had difficulty in resisting – much much later – the Sirens of popular discontent. Anderson fills several paragraphs with evidence that the masses recoil at pro-market reform. The Centre right has many object lessons in this, “as Juppé discovered in 1995 and De Villepin in 2006.” He then turns to the more difficult task of explaining how ‘neo-liberalism’ could be introduced.

The Centre-left, by contrast, was a better Lieutenant of Capital. It “was the better equipped of the two blocs actually to introduce neoliberal reforms. Resistance to these was always most likely to come from the popular classes where the larger part of its own social base lay, in particular—though not exclusively—from the trade-unions, where only the collaborationist cfdt could be relied on to swallow virtually anything…..still claiming to represent the injured and oppressed—and interpret their best interests—the PS was in a more favourable position to neutralise such opposition, as Valls’s success in ramming through a labour law to please business in 2016 showed. So too it was no accident that over the years the Centre-Left privatised many more public enterprises than the Centre-Right.” Except, of course, that these policies played sufficiently badly with the “popular classes” to contribute to the mass defection that caused this instrument to shatter. As their electoral disaster and the transfer of support elsewhere, including, Anderson notes, many went to La France insoumise.

Fighting Neo-liberalism.

From this account one might ask what is ‘neo-liberalism’ other than any pro-business policy? And what is the alternative other than the resistance of the masses to these measures? And where did these pro-market measures originate? Are they domestically determined, or can we, as appears to be suggested with the evocation of the ‘European ideal’ assign it to forces within the structures of the EU. The New Old World lists a lack of a common democratic will at the European level, the construction, from these quarters, of a Hayekian “semi-catallaxy” of free markets beneath, and an apparatus removed from accountability and stuffed with “prebends”. This picture looms only faintly over the present article. Even that charge-sheet against “self-satisfied” Europe seems feeble set against, to cite a representative from a mountain of critical literature, the account of a neo-liberal European Union apparatus in Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval’s Ce cauchemar qui n’en finit pas (2016) They talk of a “Empire des normes”, budgets, debts, “le bloc idéologique néolibérale”.

Dardot and Laval’s call for countervailing international democratic coalitions, and an “espace oppositionnel mondial” has so far, been largely unheeded. Yet despite the obstacles, the Union remains an area of “pooled sovereignty” in which national governments, if no longer unanimous about ‘rescuing the nation state’, still enjoy the determining power. That the EU – and Anderson, as we will see, homes in on the future of the Eurozone – can be shaped by political will. That domestic policy formation remains the key to change, that Macron’s decisions matter, and efforts to mould or block them, are at least one of the keys to the success or failure of neo-liberal, or, more simply, pro-business acts and legislation. And what could be the role of an opposition to undo Macron’s plans?

END OF PART ONE.

PART 2 TO FOLLOW: THE LEFT AFTER MACRON.

References.

(1) Page 232. Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. Thinkers of the New Left. Roger Scruton Bloomsbury. 2015.

(2) Prognoses. The New Old World. Perry Anderson. Verso. 2009

(3) See Pages 326 – 333. Les Socialistes français et le Pouvoir. Alain Bergounioux and Gérard Grunberg. Fayard. 2005. Pages 362 – 376. Mitterrand A Study in Ambiguity. Phillip Short. The Bodley Head. 2013.

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One Response

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  1. At first I thought that the French had elected a neo-liberal martinet, but with gaullist tendencies. Now I think it’s worse than that. Frankly, I feel Macron will attempt the “Uberization” of the entire country. A strange irony, no? Such a triumph of Americanization. Perhaps he’ll encourage big employers to write reviews of French labour laws and post them on Yelp! Who knows? He may even start shouting “de l’efficacité, encore de l’efficacité, toujours de l’efficacité!” at any moment.

    Les

    July 7, 2017 at 9:18 pm


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