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Macron’s European Trap

11 May

This article was originally published on the Cambridge University website.

By any account, the French presidential election that ended last Sunday was extraordinary. The run-off in the second round was between two political ‘outsiders’: Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. In the first round, the mainstream left and right candidates came fifth and third respectively, with the far left Jean-Luc Mélenchon coming in way ahead of the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon. Many voters only decided late on who they would vote for, making this one of the most volatile elections on record.

The scandals affecting the centre-right candidate, François Fillon, overshadowed the campaign and relegated debates about political programmes into second place. In the run-up to last Sunday’s second round vote, a fierce argument raged – especially on the left – about the rights and wrongs of abstaining or spoiling one’s ballot paper. Political celebrities – such as the Greek Yanis Varoufakis – weighed in, urging French doubters to vote for Macron because “he is all that stands in between France and the fascism of Marine Le Pen”.

In the end, one in four of registered voters either stayed away last Sunday or spoilt their ballot paper.  What prevailed in the second round was the logic of lesser evil – voting for a candidate that is ‘not as bad’ as another – which goes some way to explaining the sombre tone of Macron’s victory speech on Sunday night at the Louvre in Paris.

For all the novelty, Macron’s election victory points to one important continuity: France’s complicated relationship with the rest of the European Union and its place within the Eurozone. When François Hollande was campaigning for the French presidency in 2012, it was the height of the Eurozone crisis with jobless figures reaching record levels and France’s economy in deep trouble. Aware of the opposition to austerity policies within France, Hollande promised to take-on the German government. He would discuss “firmly and amicably” with Ms Merkel and impress upon her the need for a new ‘growth pact’ for the Eurozone. His growth pact included proposals for Eurobonds to finance infrastructure spending and a transactions tax to fund development programs. His efforts came to nothing and the idea of a “growth pact” disappeared without a trace.

Something similar is happening today. Last Monday, a day after the French election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech where she insisted that Macron’s victory would not change German policy in Europe. The German position is clear: France must reform its economy first, and bring its budget deficits well within the Eurozone’s rules, before there is any discussion on Eurozone reform. Even then, it is very unlikely that anything that was contained in Macron’s programme – creation of a Eurozone parliament, a Eurozone budget and a Eurozone finance minister – will see the light of day. Such changes would require treaty reform that national governments say is out of the question. Referendums have left European governments so bruised that they are unwilling to risk putting treaty changes to the vote.

There is an irony here. Macron has been an openly pro-European candidate, regularly waving the European flag and taking the Ode to Joy – the EU’s ‘anthem’ – as his own campaign song. And yet, this very pro-Europeanism is what will most constrain a Macron presidency. Most likely as a first step is that Macron will be pushed into cutting budgets and reforming labour markets, doing so possibly by decree given the history of opposition to such measures. In exchange, he may get some mild reforms of the functioning of the Eurozone but ones that fall short of any need for ratification through referendum or by national parliaments. This outcome may be part of Macron’s strategy, where the rigidity of the Eurozone’s rules is used as a means of pushing economy reforms onto France. Either way, the bigger difficulties, to do with structural imbalances of the Eurozone, will remain untouched.

A problem Macron never has confronted is that his promises to transform France’s national growth model are made within a context where Eurozone membership which makes such a change almost impossible. Macron’s election was extraordinary in many respects but his experience of life inside the Eurozone is likely to be rather more run of the mill.

Chris Bickerton

Fear Wins in France

9 May

Last Sunday, Marine Le Pen came in third in a two-way race for the French Presidency. With the lowest turnout since 1969, Emanuel Macron won 44% among registered voters, abstentions plus over one million spoiled or blank ballots added up to 34%, and Le Pen won 22%. While most newspapers have trumpeted Macron’s 65% of expressed ballots, the real story of the election is one of dissatisfaction, strategic ambivalence and discontent. Even the status quo had to show up wearing anti-establishment garb. Macron, the great savior of the republic, is someone who stood apart from its major parties, while they collapsed around him. His En Marche! is not even a party but rather a political trick borrowed from Latin American politics or the likes of Silvio Berlusconi – a personal vehicle whose only purpose is to get him elected. The crisis of representation is the central fact of this election.

During the election, and its immediate aftermath, the dominant interpretation has been different: the moral imperative was to vote against the right-wing nationalist and then leave the rest to those who govern. We have argued before that there is no obligation to cast strategic votes against lesser evil candidates and that campaigns dominated by Lesser Evilism are undemocratic. During the campaign one isn’t supposed to bring up any of the lesser evil’s faults, for fear of undermining his or her chances, and there is nothing to hold him or her to afterwards. As such, Lesser Evil voting amounts to carte blanche for the victor. Merely by winning, the winner fulfills his mandate.

The results suggest most French people, like almost everyone else, can hold two thoughts in their head simultaneously: they disliked the FN more than Macron, but thought little of him and the status quo he represents. During the second round, one was not allowed to express much discontent with the present, nor the many good reasons for it, without looking like or being called a Le Pen supporter. With the bête noire of the FN out of the way, it will have to be continuously revived over the next five years to rebut perfectly valid criticism of Macron, his policies, the EU, the euro, the major parties, and the rest of it. If anything, the result underestimates the degree to which the sands are shifting beneath those who rule, since much of the vote for Macron was strategic. This graphic shows that the highest single reason given for voting Macron was opposition to Le Pen (h/t Jacobin)

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That is all the more reason why the ruling coalition will want fear of the right to overshadow serious political debate about central issues – like how deeply undemocratic the EU is, what a recipe for stagnation and inequality the Eurozone is, and how few answers the mainstream European parties have for these problems because they prefer to wander the halls of Brussels than represent their own constituents.

Those who govern need to be forced back into representing their own people and they won’t do it voluntarily. As the French election reminds us, the EU is not the only way they wish to avoid accountability. Establishment politicians are no less willing to employ the politics of fear than is the populist right – an inflated fear of fascism to match the right’s inflated fear of immigrants. Anything to avoid the harder task of convincing voters on the merits.

Alex Gourevitch

 

Macron is a symptom of France’s problems, not a solution to them

24 Apr

This post was originally published here by Prospect Magazine

Having fought a campaign around the theme of over-turning the political establishment and pitching himself as the leader of an insurgent citizen-led movement, that very same establishment greeted Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the first round of the French presidential election with a huge sigh of relief. This tells us something about the candidate who is now most likely to become the next president of France.

Macron’s success boils down to one key insight: the French Socialist party (PS) is a sinking ship and anyone tied to it will go down with it. Macron quit the government presided over by François Hollande just in time to make his image as an outsider plausible. He decided to run as an independent rather than seek the Socialist Party nomination by taking part in the open primaries. This laid the basis for his success. The relegation of the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, to fifth place in the first round, where he secured a paltry 6.35% of the vote, is the big story of this election so far. It had a decisive result in both propelling Macron to first place in the first round and in pushing up Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s vote share to within a whisker of François Fillon. The latter got 19.94% of the vote, Mélenchon 19.62%.

The collapse of the PS made the Macron phenomenon possible and this dynamic will shape a Macron presidency, assuming he goes on to beat Marine Le Pen in the second round as many assume he will.  His En Marche! movement captured the imagination of many but this enthusiasm came from his call to break the mould of French party politics. Disillusionment with the capacity of these parties to organize and lead drew people to Macron. In this first round of voting, it was striking how often people said they were voting in order to avoid someone else getting through. This sort of negative reasoning suited Macron perfectly as he was the acceptable face of all anti-system feelings: he was a safe vote for anyone who wanted to give the political mainstream a kicking but preserve the status quo at the same time. This peculiar and contradictory desire for both change and continuity was summed up perfectly in the days before yesterday’s vote, where voting Macron became a way of avoiding a Mélenchon-Le Pen run-off.

The negative feelings behind the Macron phenomenon are not new. In 2012, François Hollande won the presidency on the back of huge anti-Sarkozy sentiment. In 2002, Jacques Chirac won in a run-off against Jean-Marie Le Pen, securing over 80% of the votes cast in an enormous wave of anti-National Front feeling. Negative sentiments rather than a positive endorsement of a distinctive programme have become central to determining who makes it to the Elysée palace, and Macron confirms this rule. Even in organisational terms, Macron and his En Marche! movement have some roots in the recent past. Back in 2007, the Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royale tried to create her own electoral movement, Desirs d’Avenir, after she received lukewarm support from the chauvinist barons of the PS. Her movement went nowhere after she lost to Nicolas Sarkozy but it was a sign that short-lived electoral vehicles built around the personality of a presidential candidate were possible in France as alternatives to traditional party machines.

What propels Emmanuel Macron forward as he fights to win the second round is the collapse of the French party political system and specifically the disappearance of the French PS as an electoral force. These disintegrative and negative dynamics make for very weak foundations going forward and explain why abstention is likely to be very high in the second round. Those congratulating themselves after Macron’s first round victory should think a bit harder about what is exactly is happening in France. Macron is a symptom of the country’s problems, not a solution to them.

Chris Bickerton

Give them British citizenship!

4 Mar

The British government is not treating EU citizens resident in the UK as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the EU. On the contrary, it is the EU that is treating those citizens, and British citizens resident in Europe, in this way. Theresa May has already sought a deal allowing EU citizens resident in the UK to remain here following Brexit, if EU governments will do the same for British citizens in their countries. EU leaders have refused to make any agreement until Article 50 has been invoked and its secretive negotiation process has begun.

The UK government should respond to this with a very public message that it is committed to the rights of those who live here. It should unilaterally declare that EU citizens have a right to remain in the UK after Brexit, and urge European governments to reciprocate. Indeed the British government should go further. It should make a point of inviting those EU citizens to become British citizens, and reduce the significant barriers to them doing so that exist at the moment.

The Prime Minister is not wrong to insist that she must put the interests of British citizens first. And EU governments may refuse to reciprocate. In Greece those governments have demonstrated that their attitude to European citizens can be almost as vicious as their treatment of African and Asian migrants. But the significant costs that might be caused by EU intransigence on the rights of British citizens abroad will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits to all British citizens.  We would be citizens of a state that has the confidence both to insist on its accountability to its own people (its democratic political sovereignty) and its openness to others (its internationalism). Such a state would earn worldwide respect from many millions of ambitious, talented and public-spirited individuals who are crying out for a break with the stale politics of the past. That would be an asset beyond price.

Opinion poll evidence suggests that there is overwhelming popular support in Britain for allowing EU citizens to remain in the UK after Brexit. A huge opportunity exists here for Theresa May really to lead the world. There is, of course, no evidence that she has either the political imagination or courage to take the opportunity – her long tenure as Home Secretary suggests the opposite. Only those committed to an internationalist politics of sovereignty are likely to be willing.

Peter Ramsay

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Resistance

15 Feb

This week, TCM author Alex Gourevitch has an article at Jacobin on the limits of resistance and the tendency of the Left to substitute a short-term politics of fear and outrage for a long-term politics of freedom. This leaves the Left without an independent set of ideas or organization to which it might win people, and leaves it in the uncomfortable position of tacitly serving as the shock troops for the Democratic Party.

Readers of this blog can read the article here: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/02/trump-gop-democrats-protests-marches-social-movement/

Whose Strike?

3 Feb

Following the massive Women’s March and the surprising partial success of protests against Trump’s immigration ban, many feel that the logical step is to escalate. Seize the momentum, put more pressure on the administration, disrupt and paralyze as much as possible. I feel it myself. There are ways in which there is more possibility in the air than there has been in a long time, and Trump has wasted little time going about his authoritarian business.

That, no doubt, is the reason why the idea of calling for a general strike – a general national strike – has caught the imagination over the past few days. After Francine Prose put the idea out in the Guardian, it spread rapidly throughout social media, and split into multiple proposals and counter-proposals.

Some, including Prose herself, see themselves carrying on in a venerable tradition of mass social disruption. But, as much as these proposals look like a natural response to the moment, they are severely disconnected from reality. Calling for a general strike now bears no relation to what mass strikes have meant in the past. The flight from reality shows up in activists’ blasé attitude to history and their very distant relationship to the working class.

The United States has the most violent labor history of any major industrial country. General and other large-scale strikes in the US have nearly always been met with major repression, from police, National Guard, even federal troops. For instance, the general strike in San Francisco of 1934, which developed out of a longshoremen’s strike, led to running battles with the police and a number of deaths.

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Running battles on San Francisco’s Embarcadero 

National Guardsmen set up machine gun nests and tanks for strike suppression

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The massive strikes in the period of 1919-1922, involving more than 1 million workers in industries like railroads, steel and mining, were met with enormous violence. One of the most famous is the coal mining wars, which culminated in the Battle for Blair Mountain. It pitted armed and organized miners against a private militia, federal troops, bombing runs by employer-hired aircraft, and some of the first post-war uses of military planes. Hundreds of miners died in the battles.

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Rifles collected from defeated miners

During the Ludlow Massacre, National Guardsmen mounted a machine gun on a train, and mowed down strikers and their families living in tents.

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Machine gun nest at Ludlow 

During the massive Pullman Strike of 1894, during which Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs was arrested, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike, and the Attorney General carpeted every state from Illinois to California with injunctions and martial law. Federal troops aided local police and private guards to suppress the strike.

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Federal troops guarding a train during Pullman  

We can tell similar stories for the suppression of the Great Strike of 1877, which included a general strike in St. Louis; for the strike wave of 1886; for the Lawrence strike of 1912; for the Little Steel Strike, Harland County strikes, the Auto-Lite Strike, the Minneapolis strike, and the textile strikes of the 1930s; and so on and so forth.

This isn’t just distant history.

On March 10, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed “Local 1199,”* a radical local of drugstore and hospital workers, and spoke about the need for organizing the unorganized and for a trans-racial class alliance against exploitation and imperialism. Turning his attention to African-American sanitation workers striking in Memphis, Tennessee, he said, “You may have to escalate the struggle a bit….just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.” Less than a month after calling for a citywide general strike, King was assassinated in that very city.

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National Guardsmen at the Memphis Strike

The Phelps-Dodge strike of 1983 pitted local miners against riot police.

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Tear gas and cops at Phelps-Dodge

During the Hormel Strike of 1984-5 in Austin, MN the National Guard helped local police forces suspend civil liberties, impose deeply oppressive labor law, and undermine the strike.

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The National Guard helping break the Hormel Strike

The 1990 Justice for Janitors campaign was not exactly peaceful.

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The more seriously disruptive the strikes, the more dangerous they are. It is no doubt true that the American state has reduced its readiness to violently repress workers. But even that is as much a function of the decline in worker militancy itself as it is a more tolerant view of major strikes.

Even when not violent or repressed, strikes are serious business. They are often lost, and if strikers aren’t injured they can lose their jobs, friends, and even families. The law is pitted heavily against workers – they can be replaced, they lose free speech rights when at work, even the whiff of strike activity allows employers to shut down the entire factory, and legal protections of workers are poorly enforced. The police and the rest of the security apparatus are usually happy to enforce that law, and there is often no way for workers to carry out a proper strike without breaking those laws. To the degree we have forgotten this, it is because worker militancy has declined, strike rates are way down, and union memberships have dwindled into the low single-digits.

In the past, workers stayed out on those strikes, even fighting the state, in part because of dense, historically developed, cultures of solidarity; established traditions of militancy; organized, if not always recognized, unions; and long connections with left-wing organizers. These days, the appetite for fighting the state is next to nil, there is no tested public sympathy for labor actions, and there are no clear organizations standing ready to lead.

If you’re going to ask people not just to risk losing their jobs but potentially face the armed apparatus of the state, there had better be preparation, leadership, and some evident readiness for mass labor actions.

Not to mention, there had better be a recognizable goal. But what is the point of the proposed general strike? To say down with Trump? What, so we can have Pence?

Or is the point just a generalized ‘No’? A massive expression of discontent? None of the significant costs of a general strike are worth it if it’s just a grand gesture of refusal.

On one version, the point of the strike is to affirm a grab-bag of demands: no to the immigration ban, yes to universal health care, no to pipelines, no to global gag rule and, inexplicably, a final demand that Trump reveal his tax returns. These demands show no evidence of thinking about what the immediate interests of workers might actually be – no mention of proposed national right-to-work legislation, $15 minimum wage demands, or even Trump’s terrible Labor Secretary pick. Trump’s nationalist and deeply inegalitarian economic ‘plan’ at least acknowledges the need to address bad employment prospects and stagnant wages.

It would be reasonable for workers to dismiss the call for a general strike. It looks like they are being asked to be actors in someone else’s drama, by people who just cottoned on to the fact that things are shitty out there.

Moreover, even moderately effective general strikes don’t emerge, willy-nilly, like miraculous interventions into national life. They are intensifications and radicalizations of already existing patterns of resistance by the working class. This demand for a general strike looks less like that intensification and more like an attempt to leapfrog all the hard, long-term political work that goes before.

At least some of those arguing for the general strike seem to sense that there is an element of bad faith here. For instance, Francine Prose added the qualification, which I have seen repeated in a number of places, that only those “who can do so without being fired” should go on strike. This must be the first time someone called for a general strike but exempted most of the working class.

Believe me, I’d love to see a real general strike, a serious attempt at restructuring society, not just lopping the head off the Republican hydra. But there is no royal road to revolution, or even to a true mass movement for social change.

Alex Gourevitch

* The original post said “SEIU Local 1199,” but Local 1199 only joined SEIU many years after MLK addressed them.

 

Don’t Vote Strategically

8 Nov

This has easily been the most substance free election in recent American history. It is also one that has generated a huge amount of emotion. Precisely because the central theme of the election has been personality and temperament, not policy and ideology, everyone has taken the election personally. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the daily inquisitions that pass as attempts to convince individuals to vote. Anyone who refuses to vote, or plans to vote for a third party candidate, is attacked as an irresponsible fantasist who cares more about the beauty of his soul than the hard political realities of this election. The vote shouldn’t be expressive, it should be practical, they say. When those on the Left argue that Lesser Evilism only means that the Left, such as it is, will be taken for granted or safely ignored, a standard liberal response is that those Lefties will be responsible for Trump winning. Actually, the standard response is considerably more abusive and moralistic. But whether delivered in a hostile or friendly tone, the essence of the case for Hillary has simply been that: each individual must vote strategically, rather than for what he or she believes in, because otherwise that person is responsible for Trump. But that is not only wrong it’s a fantasy, and an undemocratic fantasy at that.

In an era of Vox-style data-driven journalism, in which social policy is tortured by the nudge and tweaks of the latest social science, it is notable that liberals leave the same style of thinking at home when it comes to voting. After all, it is political scientists who have been telling us for decades that individuals make no causal difference to the outcome of large-scale collective actions like national elections. These are the same experts that liberal technocrats want us to defer to for the two and four years between major elections, but whose most long-standing social scientific thesis is suddenly irrelevant during these elections. But it is during elections that they really have a point. After all, it is true that no individual’s vote is decisive in an election. Run the probabilities however you like, but you, individual voter, have a better chance of winning the lottery everyday for months than you do of determining the outcome of the election. That’s just as true in a swing state as it is in a safe state. Even in Florida, North Carolina or Nevada, the chance is effectively zero that one of the candidates will win by one vote.

This is not a counsel of despair. This is, for one, how it should be in a democracy. Everybody counts equally, so nobody should have that kind of control over outcomes. Nobody’s individual will should so heroically determine our collective fate; it is pathological to think otherwise. But more than that, this should be a liberating thought. You or I do not carry the fate of the republic on our shoulders. We do not determine the fate of the election in that way. There is no good reason to harangue someone for being irresponsible when he or she votes on principle rather than pragmatically.

So one of the deepest ironies of this election has been that the people – especially liberal commentators – who claim to be reasoning in the most hard-headed, reality-facing, pragmatic way are, in fact, the ones in the grip of an illusion. I suspect that, for some, this is not so much an illusion as it is bad faith. They personally don’t actually believe that Hillary is Lesser Evil. Instead, they believe she is the good option, close to the best that America can do. They deploy the Lesser Evil argument to try and convince those to their left who think she is a neoliberal warmonger who will only entrench the racial and class divisions of this society. But many Lesser Evilists really do think it is the ‘Responsible Thing To Do.’ That they must think about their vote as if it were decisive. Not only is that a deep distortion of the reality of the situation, it is its own form of expressive voting dressed up as pragmatic thinking. Their vote becomes a signaling device for what it means to be a serious person and, by the same token, serves as moral permission to rant at others.

The problem here is not just that the Lesser Evilists peddle an illusion, it is that this illusion serves deeply undemocratic ends. The other side of blaming individual voters for outcomes is relieving candidates of the responsibility for making their case to those citizens. The political role of the strategic voting argument is to paper over the weakness of democratic representation in this country. While that is a long-standing trend in the United States and, as we have discussed on this blog, in other countries, this particular election has brought to the fore just how limited the attempt to organize and represent interests is. Trump is a vile demagogue who shows little interest in the art of governing, while Clinton has made her campaign almost entirely about the clash of personalities rather than their ideas. It is always at the moments when dissenters criticize Clinton’s views or record that the Lesser Evil argument gets trotted out. Yes yes, we are told, she might be nowhere near the kind of progressive candidate we would like, but if you don’t vote for her you are responsible for putting Him in office. Never mind that the positive case for her is weak, the argument goes, we can’t afford to think about that.

So the strategic voting argument does more than ignore the fact that individual voters are not responsible for the outcome. It also reverses the relationship of political responsibility. It holds individuals responsible for outcomes, while alleviating candidates of responsibility for proving themselves. But, in a democracy, it is the candidates who are responsible for making their case to the people, not the other way around. Citizens are responsible for deciding on their own principles and holding representatives to them. But the more disconnected representatives are from the public, the more they try to conceal that fact by turning the tables and holding voters responsible for outcomes that voters cannot personally control. On top of which, by lowering the standards to which they are held to (“at least she’s not the other guy”), the election is turned into something like a blanket grant of authority. That bar is so low it is achieved simply by winning the election, which makes it all the harder to hold the winner to account during the period of actual governing. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that. If they haven’t made their case, we have no responsibility to vote for them.

Alex Gourevitch

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