Review of Bruno Amable & Stefano Palombarini, The Last Neoliberal: Macron and the origins of France’s Political Crisis (Verso, 2021)
Depending on one’s perspective, social democracy’s divorce with substantial transformative change became obvious at different times of its historical trajectory. For some, the key conjunctural point was World War I, when social democratic parties rejected internationalism, swapped their red banners for national flags and gave the ok for millions of workers to die for their respective “fatherlands”. Others point at the post-war period and the gradual abandonment of any framework of action based on combatting exploitation and ending the division of society into antagonistic classes, triggered among other things by fears of association with real existing socialism. What social democrats, at the time, conceptualized as an opportunity to take advantage of an expanding capitalist economy as a means of increasing wages and welfare was, for others, an early sign of defeat.
There might, however, be no better example of the historical transformation of social democracy than its embrace of market-oriented reforms at the expense of wages and welfare that began, in most European countries, in the 1970s. Faced with a stagnating capitalist economy, the social democratic vision of redistributing profits towards social spending came under profound pressure. In that crucial moment, instead of a re-think of the post-war trajectory and a return towards a more confrontational outlook, social democracy disposed of all its historical baggage and fully embraced market-oriented, supply-side policies. It turned, in other words, neoliberal.
This historical flight path of social democracy has long preoccupied scholars from a variety of fields. Today, with the “death” of neoliberalism announced at various intervals since the onset of the 2007 global crisis, and the elevation of the post-war compromise into the veritable nostalgic horizon of significant parts of the left, research into the causes and (more importantly) the consequences of the decline of social democracy has accelerated. Not only have the trajectories of the most important social democratic parties being put under scrutiny, but the overall framework of social democratic collapse has been theorized as a crucial component of the emergence of “populist” “Anti-System Politics”, while also informing attempts to ground a return to an “Economics of Belonging“.
Within this context, Bruno Amable’s and Stefano Palombarini’s The Last Neoliberal: Macron and the Origins of France’s Political Crisis (Verso, 2021) is indispensable. Originally published in French shortly after Macron’s electoral victory, the English translation carries the explicit aim of grounding the Macron government within its proper historical context, a key aspect of it being the neoliberal transformation (and eventual electoral) decline of the Parti Socialiste (PS).
The theoretical background of the research – a Regulation School approach that utilises a “regimes of accumulation” framework – is clearly visible. But Amable & Palombarini have long tried to enrich this by incorporating the political factors that shape institutional change. Beyond the form of institutional change, they argue, its causes need to be assessed.
The Last Neoliberal therefore proceeds methodologically by analysing the mechanisms that produce political support in order to understand the impasse in contemporary France. In their view, economic accumulation produces a series of (contradictory) expectations, and it is “the selection and satisfaction of some part of these expectations” (p.25) that determines political support. Making extensive use of research on voting patterns across different social categories, Amable & Palombarini show how economic policy choices come to be reflected in political outputs, zeroing in on their role in producing crises of representation.
Macron’s electoral victory is thus contextualized as the culmination of a decades-long process of institutional transformations and the fragmentation of traditional social and political alliances. For such a victory to materialize, the emergence of a new “bourgeois bloc” was pertinent. Placing the evolution of the PS into a neoliberal party at the centre of these developments, Amable & Palombarini see Macron’s ascendancy as the final phase of this long neoliberal trajectory. Firmly grounded on the left but critical of many of its contemporary expressions, the authors conclude by proposing a new political strategy for left-wing opposition to contemporary developments.
The transformation of the PS
Amable & Palombarini begin their account by pointing out how the initial attempts to embrace the “neoliberal turn” heralded by Thatcher and Reagan were made by the French right. Time after time, however, the right’s efforts to impose “a supply-side policy aimed at creating an environment favourable to private investment” (p. 86) remained unsuccessful. From Chirac’s early attempts to increase labour market flexibility in 1986-88 to Juppé’s attempted pension reform in 1995, and from Chirac’s second attempt with the Contrat Premiere Embrauche (CPE) in 2005 to Sarkozy’s mid-2000s social security and labour flexibilization laws, reforms split the right’s social base as they conflicted with interests within it.
Instead, in a now-familiar development, the most successful implementation of neoliberal restructuring was carried out by governments of the left. Focusing on the Mitterrand government of 1981, Amable & Palombarini argue that its rapid capitulation and abandonment of its electoral promises corresponded to the internal victory of the “modernising” faction within the PS, a neoliberalism-embracing tendency exemplified by figures such as Jacques Delors. Contrary to the narrative that sees the gradual adoption of neoliberal restructuring as caused by exogenous factors (such as “inevitable” globalization or a hegemonic Germany), The Last Neoliberal offers ample evidence that the shift was the result of a “domestic” struggle between competing sections within the same party, the same elite forces, and even within the social alliances they represented.
The triumph of the modernising faction made further neoliberalisation, enacted through European integration, a “non-negotiable point” in the PS programme. This was, however, a pyrrhic victory. For the pursuit of this project not only undermined pre-existing social alliances (and, therefore, the stability of the PS’s own electoral coalition), but also intensified inequality and social conflict. Gradually but steadily, neoliberal reforms implemented in the name of European integration generated a massive fragmentation in French society, creating a representational crisis and multiple irreconcilable minoritarian blocs.
To the extent that this neoliberal path continued to be seen as inevitable and necessary, a new social alliance became imperative. With the disintegration of traditional political divides and the growth of electoral abstention, Amable & Palombarini argue, the composition of this new alliance has now taken the form of a “bourgeois bloc”, representing the middle and upper classes at the expense of, and through the exclusion of, the “popular classes”.
Macron’s “bourgeois bloc”
The policies (and fragmentations) produced by the development of the PS were conceived as cutting across the previous politically-charged divide between left and right. Instead, the new alliances came to be theorized as reflecting a split between “Europeanists vs. nationalists”, “managers vs. populists”, or “liberals vs authoritarians”. That these conceptualizations are ideologically-oriented rather than realistic depictions has become easier to demonstrate in the current predicament. The illusory (and a-historical) opposition, for example, between liberalism and authoritarianism collapses in the face of the increasingly authoritarian measures and practices employed by liberal governments across the world. Additionally, the supposed disparity between “good management” and “populist governance” mystifies the fact that economic policy is persistently geared towards helping capital overcome its profitability crisis – at the expense of an increasingly precarious and marginalized working class. Finally, as Amable & Palombarini note, the apparent antagonism between European integration and national sovereignty ignores that both sides are articulated within the framework of national political interests, their apparent “competition” representing “the same neoliberal model pursued amid different national constraints” (p. xvii).
The recomposition of a “bourgeois bloc” that gave Macron the ability to form a government offers no way out of this impasse. In fact, this new alliance is not only incapable of overcoming the crisis and fragmentation that produced it, but is gridlocked into actively reinforcing its main coordinates.
Indeed, despite the various proclamations of novelty that has surrounded the “charismatic” Macron, his economic policies are nothing but a rehash of “the modernist/neoliberal technocratic tradition embodied by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing since the 1960s […] Chirac in the 1980s, Balladur in the 1990s, Sarkozy in the 2000s or Hollande in the 2010s” (p. 132). In other words, the very policies that produced the crisis in the first place. Behind the “new” slogans of “flexibility”, “inclusiveness” and France as a “start-up nation”, there is nothing but an old process: major cuts in public spending, labour market deregulation, decreases in unemployment benefits, privatizations, education reforms and tax cuts geared towards favouring those who hold capital. For Amable & Palombarini, such a path will only lead to a greater social conflict and thus to deeper crisis. This (2017) prediction was verified by the outbreak of the Gilet Jaunes and anti-pension reform movements which, as the afterword of the book stresses, “placed socioeconomic issues and, to put it in the simplest possible terms, the conflict between labour and capital at the centre of political conflict” (p. 168).
Contrary to the various ideological expressions utilized to describe contemporary fractures (such as “Europeanist vs nationalist” etc.), Amable & Palombarini show that the new social alliance that has formed is more than ever based on class. If the old left vs right divide was capable of incorporating cross-class alliances, this is no longer the case. Macron’s governance is the culmination of a strategy (initiated by the PS) of excluding the popular classes. Herein, however, lies its biggest contradiction: since the “bourgeois bloc” continues to represent a minority, Macron’s government is forced to remain electorally reliant on the support of the very social groups that its policies devastate. Its increasing authoritarianism is nothing but an inevitable expression of this contradiction.
A new strategy for the left
As elsewhere, the French parliamentary left has shown itself incapable of translating these new circumstances in its favour. But Amable & Palombarini accompany this well-known fact with a number of apt observations. Most importantly, they note how the discursive justification employed by PS’s original modernisers has ended up framing the political horizon even of those who are meant to oppose it.
In a fascinating passage of the book, Amable & Palombarini break down the ways in which the PS-aligned think tank Terra Nova framed and justified the party’s change of direction. In addition to repeating the usual tropes about “inevitable” changes imposed by globalization, or the numerical shrinking of the working class, Terra Nova spoke of a “self-inflicted” shift, according to which “blue-collar workers have headed in the opposite direction” of “liberal cultural values”, a change visible on issues such as nationalism, “tolerance, openness to diversity, and a favourable attitude towards immigrants” (p. 20).
While this supposed shift was utilized by Terra Nova as a means of rationalizing the decision to marginalise the working class, it is hard not to notice its positive re-appropriation by a growing tendency of the contemporary left – the “Lexit” movement in the UK being perhaps its most visible representative. Taking this ideological framework for granted, significant parts of the left have in fact proposed the adoption of the language of nationalism (or the more benign concepts of “patriotism” or “national sovereignty”), the abandonment of pro-migrant politics, and the enfolding of policy proposals within a culturally conservative framework.
Amable & Palombarini have no time for such an approach. Presenting evidence which shows that the working-class electorate “has shifted not so much towards the far right but towards abstention” (p. 20), the notion of a working class “retreat into nationalism” is firmly rejected. For this reason, they remain dismissive of political strategies which emphasize the need for a return to national sovereignty or those that propose electoral collaboration between left and right forces. It is on these points that they critique Jean-Luc Mélenchon, castigating his ambiguities on nationalism and attempts to “shake off his label as the left-wing candidate” (p.118).
Instead of a “patriotic” rebranding of the left or a coalition with the “anti-globalist” right, The Last Neoliberal closes with a call for a strategy that could mobilize abstainers around an opposition based on solidarity and social justice. Rather than the national, what needs to return is the social question. In the absence of such an opposition, they point out, the future remains split between two equally unappealing options: a continuation of Macron’s governance, or its replacement by a yet more authoritarian neoliberalism based on “a rapprochement between the Front National and the ‘republican’ right” (p. 120). And if the content of the former option is already analysed in The Last Neoliberal, the current situation in Greece offers a glimpse into what the alternative dystopia might look like.
Photo Credit: The Last Neoliberal [cover], Verso (2021), Fair Use.