Sunday, May 06, 2007

M. Sarkozy: Govern from the Left, or Fail

There are two pieces to the prosperity puzzle for any country in the contemporary world. The first is a flexible capacity for production, one that can adapt to changing conditions. The second is a social system that apportions resources correctly, both to minimize suffering and to keep the population secure, content, creative, and, of course, flexible.

The past 25 years has seen a never-ending focus on the first part of the puzzle and the eclipse of the second. Politicians in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Chile, Poland, Ireland, and elsewhere have focused obsessively on deregulating businesses, cutting their taxes supposedly to free up investment capital, weakening labor protections, encouraging layoffs and other formers of worker recycling. This focus has been an enormous boon to the Right in each of these countries, which has collectively found in economic flexibility a recipe for short-term business gains and political success, since the policies that serve business self-interest also serve the Right's wealthy supporters.

The other half of the puzzle - proper social systems - has been allowed to decay. The quality of social services has mostly declined in the West, even as their cost has risen. Economic insecurity is on the rise everywhere, with the Right successfully making a virtue of the necessity that follows their political victories. For thirty-five years, the bottom 80-90% of the populations of these countries - the vast economic majority - has seen their living standards stagnate or decline. The fall of the Soviet Union, which should have discredited economic dictatorship and the police state, instead discredited socialism and, more generally, social democracy and the accompanying concepts of broad-based social development. The theory of social systems has been defensive and reactive - great work has been done on the concrete effects of welfare reform and dramatic increases in incarceration rates, but little of it points to a new vision of society.

France has been a partial exception to all this, but a weak one. For special historical reasons, it has done a better job than most of celebrating high-quality public services in areas like health care and public transit, and France's are among the best in the world. Its public secondary school system, battered by racial conflict and policy confusion, remains superb.

And yet even France has been unable to explain the causal connection between a strong society and a strong economy. A terrible misunderstanding - the idea that justice diminishes efficiency - has meant that even the left believes right-wing economics to be more efficient than its own. Sarkozy would occasionally concede that the French must be “protected,” but this didn't matter because he remained, from first to last, the candidate of economic vitality and competitive winners. Until the left can make the same kind of claim, founded both in better economics and better social justice, the Sarkozys of Western countries will almost always win. The excepts to this rule - Mitterrand, Clinton, and Blair - were so compromised by conceding the Right's vision of economics that their legacies will at best be dim.

The false yet pervasive axiom is that business gives life and public services drain it away. Sarkozy's victory in the recent presidential elections will have the ironic effect of showing its limitations. The reason is simple. France is not large or dominant enough economically for it to muscle its way through the inefficiencies of conservative economics as the US has done. American conservatives from Reagan on could indulge in their completely one-sided notion of development - all business, no society - only under special circumstances. The country was already wealthy, had a huge internal market, dominates the global economic system, and had military and financial power clout to win every bargain into which it enters. American financial and political leaders could conceal declining wages, benefits, and quality of life for the economic majority with massive foreign borrowing to fund domestic deficits, similar foreign subsidies to keep interest rates low, and cheap money policies that allowed rising stock and housing prices to create temporary wealth effects for the middle classes that, in the long haul, have done poorly. The Right was also helped by its incessant attacks on both people of color (as degenerate and lazy) and on blue-collar workers (as inflexible and obsolete), for these destroyed the political standing of much of the economic majority, leaving a clear field for conservatives.

None of these options are available to France. It is a medium-sized country with a second-tier economy that has no chance of competing with the US, China, or India through deregulation. No politically imaginable amount of flexibilization will make it like the US, to say nothing of countries where manufacturing workers earn 50 euros a month or less and have no health and safety protections. Nor can it imitate the U.S. immigrant labor strategy, whereby wage levels have been steadily reduced in important sectors such as hospitality, agriculture, and construction through the use of low-wage and often undocumented workers. France cannot even compete in status-quo quality industries - It lags well behind Germany in export revenues and general reputation - though that makes sense given its highly educated workforce and excellent technological capabilities. If Sarkozy lives by the neoliberal sword he will die by it - or more accurately, France will die, while his wealthy backers do as well as their counterparts in the US, England, Mexico, and Russia.

Sarkozy's only chance for success is to dump the Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism that he has ridden to victory. There are three critical strategies here. The first is to increase funding to the economically strategic public sectors that have lagged in France. This begins with education and research, and it includes languages and cultural disciplines as well as technological ones. This strategy will require a higher-quality version of the second piece of the puzzle - emphasizing public sector activities that add value in addition to maintaining those that sustain decent life.

A second key concerns the economic side. Now that he has won by hammering the inefficient state, Sarkozy will need to hammer the inefficient business world - its rigid hierarchies, its authoritarian executives, its culture of ritual and mistrust. If Nixon went to China, can Sarkozy go to the CAC-40 CEOs and say big business, reform thyself?

A third key is racial. The campaign was disgracefully silent on racism in France, on the warehousing of immigrants and their racialized French-born children, on their far worse public services, their limited life chances, the constant exclusion and hypervisibility, the general insult to republican ideals incarnated in their everyday experience. White French folks are likely to follow their American cousins in destroying the public services they associate with brown and black folks. IF French republicanism still matters today, it will matter by offering the first Western model of cross-racial negotiation and equal development. At the moment, this seems unlikely, and Sarkozy has gone out of his way to be part of the problem. If France fixes this, it will fix its society, and rebalance its society and economy. If France cannot include its own people of color, it will continue to deteriorate economically.

The French are among the most brilliant people on earth. Let's hope that they can help their new president be half as brilliant as they are.


jkl said...

well, it appears that there is no place safe from the american bug, you know the one where middle-class people commit collective social suicide.

any silver lining you see in today's election?

Chris Newfield said...

a non-pessimistic and probably factually accurate prediction about Sarkozy-France appeared in the New York Times today (see