Thursday, April 19, 2018

Emanuel Macron and the Discontents of Centrism

I was never a believer in Emanuel Macron. He posed as a new man untainted by past mistakes and scandals, and when his new party swept into power some people heralded a new dawn for France. (Others were just relieved that he beat Le Pen, but really there was a lot of "new beginning" rhetoric in some quarters.) But so far as I could see, Macron had no new ideas about how to improve either the quality of life or the quality of politics. His election presaged, not a new departure, but more of the same: more debates about immigration, and more argument over the neo-liberal economic policies he has promoted. And now, with danger of a far-right government pushed aside for now, millions of French people are turning against him:
The undisguised hostility has made clear that, less than a year into this new presidency, anti-Macron sentiment is emerging as a potent force. It is being fueled by a pervasive sense that Mr. Macron is pushing too far, too fast in too many areas — nicking at the benefits of pensioners and low earners, giving dollops to the well-off and slashing sacred worker privileges.

The souring of the public mood is reflected in Mr. Macron’s drooping poll numbers among workers and the middle class. (His popularity remains high among those that the French call “executives.”) It is also seen in the streets, where a wave of strikes and demonstrations is testing Mr. Macron’s resolve as never before.
The French railway system has been shut down by strikes, universities are closed, nurses and orderlies are "working to rule" in many hospitals, and more. Challenged by an interviewer to explain why all these disturbances have broken out at once, Macron could only fume,
Your question is biased! The discontent of the railway workers has nothing to do with the discontent in the hospitals!
Which is not true; whatever the particulars, all of these disputes flow from the attachment of French people to their system of lengthy vacations, early retirements, generous healthcare, and safe jobs. Macron, along with most mainstream economists, believes that France must curb its welfare state and encourage entrepreneurship to compete in the 21st century. His main defense of his policies is to accuse his opponents of "intellectual dishonesty." That is, he thinks they are blaming him for stating the facts, and opposing his actual plans with calls for an alternative that they cannot themselves define.

Like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama, Macron thinks the old economy of safe factory jobs is just dead, and nothing can bring it back.The future requires us to get more education and more skills, and to constantly update our skills in an ever-changing world. The role of the government is to help people get those skills, to cushion the transitions when an industry collapses, and to take care of those who cannot work. Otherwise it's up to us.

There is a harshness to this worldview, but it does have two virtues: it faces the facts as its adherents see them, and it offers a clear program for the future. All of these "new left" leaders have supported a template that includes reducing some regulations, encouraging new industries rather than protecting old ones, promoting education, and opening the nation to the world so the best people, ideas, and investments will flow in. Using the tax code to somewhat ameliorate the increasing inequality that is bound to follow. I feel certain that it is not the best possible plan, but it is a plan and experience shows that it can work in a basic way.

But this approach is vulnerable to attacks from every direction. Libertarians decry the high taxes and continued government interference in markets. Conservatives hate the embrace of change for its own sake (as they see it) and the welcoming of foreigners and foreign influence. Leftists hate the emphasis on investment and profit, the disregard shown to older workers, the way decisions that mean life or death for communities are made in distant boardrooms or Davos cocktail parties. Many people of all sorts hate the upheaval, or fear the prospect of it. Emotionally it is weak stuff, as we saw in the campaign of Hillary Clinton, putting Democracy in peril to the gut appeal of blood and soil nationalism, or (perhaps, in the future) revolutionary socialism.

Ten years ago I thought we would always muddle through, that because there is no real alternative to the representative democracy/mixed economy/open world system, we would keep going down this path pretty much by default. But recent events have shown that you don't need a real alternative, that the emotional appeal of our system so weak, its rewards so paltry, is victims so many, that a completely fake alternative will do. I suspect Emanuel Macron will eventually be defeated by one, fulminating to the end that only he sees reality and knows what must be done.


G. Verloren said...

We can't move backward, and we can't stay where we are, so realistically the only viable option is to move forward, toward more progressive policies.

Unknown said...

At this point, I think we are essentially waiting for the machines.