François Hollande and the conservative critique of capitalism

29 Feb

In an earlier post, we criticized the French Socialist Party candidate, François Hollande, for his moralizing approach to economic policy. The ills of contemporary capitalism are, for him, a matter of evil intentions pursued by unscrupulous individuals. In his first major campaign speech, he declared that his real enemy was finance. Most recently, in a television interview for TF1, Hollande announced that if he was elected president he would introduce a new tax on high earners (Le Monde, 29 February). For those earning over 1 million Euros a year, the tax rate would be 75%. This would affect about 3000 people in France and would bring into the French treasury around 200 to 300 million Euros.

Upping the attack on the country’s rich and on its financial institutions seems in part a calculated response, in part a spontaneous reaction by Hollande and his entourage to the dynamics of the campaign. Whilst Hollande’s speech at the end of January was a carefully crafted affair, this latest announcement of a tax hike on high incomes seems entirely off the cuff. Announced by Hollande on TV and radio, even his taxation and budgets specialist within his own campaign team was unaware of the new policy. Hollande’s decision to crank up the anti-rich rhetoric is clearly both a strategy and an integral part of his world-view.

The problem with this moralizing approach to capitalism was put succinctly in a comment to The Current Moment: an ethical critique of capitalism leaves the system itself untouched and in fact only goes to legitimize the status quo further. It does this by attacking the present for being dominated by a materialistic, vulgar and anti-egalitarian culture, encapsulated in the figure of the bankster and the celebrity lifestyle of its political class. In its place, it proposes a deeply conservative alternative: austere, responsible, more egalitarian and less showy in its attitude to wealth and consumption. This is exactly François Hollande’s argument: he justified his new tax measure not on the grounds of how much money it can raise but in terms of morality and national patriotism. France’s rich elite, by paying more into the national coffers, will be doing its patriotic duty.

Instead of being asked to choose between different economic programmes, what Hollande is proposing is a different style of rule. In place of the crass materialism of Sarkozy, with his rich friends and rich wife, we are presented with François Hollande, a more ordinary and serious individual, with tastes that are less extravagant than those of Sarkozy. Here we can see very strong echoes between the campaign in France and developments in Italy. What Monti brings to Italian politics is more than anything a change of style: far removed from the glamour and glitz of Berlusconi, Monti represents the austere alternative, suited to times of generalized national austerity. When asked about the cost of his end-of-year celebrations, Monti replied by publishing a detailed list of his end of 2011 dinner party at the Chigi palace: 10 guests, all family members, a traditional New Year’s Eve menu, and a list of where Elsa Monti went shopping and how much it all cost.

This is in fact the key: this cultural shift proposed by Hollande and others such as Monti is what is required to legitimize the present age of austerity. Hollande’s moralizing critique of capitalism thus preserves the system in two ways: by proposing a set of conservative values, such as patriotism, duty and national responsibility: and by providing a closer fit between the downturn in France’s economy and the values and conduct of its political class. So far this is working for Italy, as Italians welcome an end to the Berlusconian orgy. Hollande’s bet is that it will work for him in the forthcoming elections. It may do, especially if the wealthy in France catch-on that Hollande isn’t out to get them, he is their saviour.

7 Responses to “François Hollande and the conservative critique of capitalism”

  1. Paco Barragán February 29, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Very interesting article.

    I think we all should be happy hearing politics talking about ethics and morality in relation to Capitalism.

    The problem with calvinist Capitalism as I see it is mainly that it ceased to be calvinist.

    Capitalism is the way it is because the pillars of our society are the way they are.

    Capitalism contributed to the creation of a set of thoughts that were the true reflection of the economic practices, social ideals and religious rituals of its particular historical period. With the advent of the market around 1570, soon the dilemma of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ merchant came along: “the merchant profession was noble and the greedy traders did not deserve such a title […] and there is an inherent danger in the commerce world and it is every merchant’s duty to maintain his virtue.’ (I’m quoting this passage from Elizabeth Alice Honig’s “Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp”, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998, p. 56)

    Honig explains brilliantly that the market was a place of social justice, a place where to test of what seemed reasonable patterns of belief and behavior.

    Nowadays, Capitalism has lost any kind of social justice, and as Chris Hedges keenly points out in “Death of the Liberal Class”, the liberal class who had historically taken up this idea of the market as a place of justice has renounced to defense liberal values.

    Capitalism has under Neo-cons, but also Clinton and Obama ceased to be capitalistic: it has socialized losses which we all are paying with our taxes, and individualized gains which the rich and banksters are enjoying.

    The fact that Mr. Hollande wants to tax the rich is in my opinion a problem of social justice: the rich, the bourgeoisie, the liberal class, corporations… called it whatever you want, used to make money and also share money with the middle class and the working class. Now this chain has been interrupted and the rich and upper classes only care about making money themselves.

    So, this natural order has to be restored in some way, be it by taxing or other more imaginative measures.

    It’s good to hear ‘old-fashioned’ European politicians talk about morality and the market again. I wish more politicians did the same.

    Kind regards,

    Paco Barragán

    • The Current Moment March 1, 2012 at 7:50 am #

      Thanks for the comment and “calvinist capitalism” is a fitting – if anachronistic – term. We appreciate that compared with the brazen cynicism of Berlusconi and Sarkozy, the moralism of Hollande today may seem refreshing. But the points of the post still stand. It’s not that Sarkozy’s presidency has lacked any moral code, it’s just that its conception of social justice was not through state redistribution but through individual achievment. More American dream than European welfarism. Hollande promises something different: an ethic of responsibility. What the post argued is that this was both deeply conservative in its own way and that it servied ideologically as the perfect complement to times of state-enforced austerity. And to imagine that the ills of the market can be alleviated by counting on the good intentions of the rich to “share” their wealth misses the point of capitalism. It is a system, not reducible to individual intentions. Individuals are not pawns and make choices everyday about how to act and what to do but the circumstances in which they do that are “not of their own choosing”. An ethical critique of capitalism occludes its systemic features. The result is that after all the rhetoric of moralizing capitalism, we are left with more of the same, and disillusioned with it all to boot.

      • Inverness (@Inverness) March 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

        Suddenly, now many 99 percenters are hyper aware of neoliberal injustice. Of course, this has been a problem for decades, at least. These days, instead of just an underclass being aware, now we have those used to be comfortably middle class suffering. Or rather, a much larger underclass. So now, we can talk about a fairer tax code. The author is absolutely right to call out Warren Buffet, who just wants to save the system, and we can go back to having a smaller underclass, who will remain forgotten by everybody. Now there’s a unique opportunity to challenge the system itself, which has always been about exploitation. Whether that happens is another story.

  2. Marlene Bastillette May 14, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    Me voilà terriblement éffarée.J’ai voté François Hollande pour président seulement parce que je voulais croire ai changement qui était annoncé et à l’élaboration d’une équipe irréprochable. Quel désespoir de constater que François Hollande va choisir en tant que Premier ministre Jean Marc Ayrault, qui n’est vraiment pas irréprochable ! Il a clairement était l’objet d’une condamnation à de la prison pour fait de favoritisme. Grande déception !!!.

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  1. The Oxonian Review » Weekly Round-up - March 5, 2012

    […] “François Hollande and the conservative critique of capitalism”, The Current Moment: “An ethical critique of capitalism leaves the system itself untouched […]

  2. François Hollande, a year on | thecurrentmoment - May 7, 2013

    […] commented extensively on the elections a year ago and on Hollande as a leader (see here, here and here). A few points are worth reiterating to make sense of today’s widespread […]

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