Chris Walker is Ignorant

If you want to lecture the French on “economic reform”, it pays to have some knowledge of French economic history. If you insist on doing so despite knowing nothing, “Big Mouth Strikes Again” is not a good headline. Of course, it could be some downtrodden sub-editor’s revenge.

Anyway, Chris Walker writes in today’s Independent that Nicolas Sarkozy is “committed to privatisation, and many of the Mitterand legacy stakes are to be addressed, such as Renault, Safran, EDF, and Air France”. Renault was nationalised by Charles de Gaulle in 1945, as punishment for allegedly collaborating with the German occupier. This is not a legacy of François Mitterand, at least not one he’d admit to. EDF is also a creation of De Gaulle, or more importantly the technocrats who ran it and the Communist minister Marcel Paul. It is hard to find an argument that cheap power is a net loss for French industry. Air France has been semi-nationalised as long as it has existed.

Walker also repeats the content-free mantra that “a Thatcherite-style purge and return to free markets has not happened in France in the 25 years since” Mitterand – well, something. Mitterand came to power in 1981, 26 years ago, swung around to the franc fort in 1983, 24 years ago, went into cohabitation in 1986 with the Right, who forced him to privatise many of his nationalisations, won the Presidency again in 1988, won back the National Assembly…but on the way, French heavy industry went through a pretty grinding restructuring process, with tens of thousands of jobs lost. The whole coal industry was shut down. The French also invested heavily in the remaining big industries, which is why they can build trains and space rockets and mobile phone networks and we can’t.

Walker demonstrably knows nothing about France. However, he is an expert.

Book Review: “European Integration 1950-2003: Superstate or New Market Economy?”

Once upon a time, there was a large, intellectually hegemonic, somewhat totalising ideology rooted in a heterodox school of economics. Its advocates proposed to make massive changes to the structure of society and claimed that only such a revolutionary realignment could alleviate the contradictions and failures of the existing order and save the world from stagnation and misery. They claimed that their programme would produce immediate results, and that the only reason it wasn’t immediately implemented was because entrenched interests were manipulating the public against them.

Ultimately, advocates of these principles did gain power in many places and were able to implement elements of their programme. Some came to power through revolutions of various kinds that granted them the near-dictatorial powers they needed to make the changes they believed necessary. Others were able to convince electorates and even elites that theirs was the way of the future. They turned public dissatisfaction to their advantage, especially during economic downturns when people were willing to turn to new solutions and elites feared that the masses would turn against them.

And, they had some arguable successes, but no unambiguous ones. In some places, particularly those where effectively unlimited power had shifted to them, they often maintained highly inequitable regimes which grew harder and harder to justify, faced ever growing public disaffection, and turned to more oppressive and manipulative means to sustain control. This undermined their movement, but despite the best efforts of their enemies was not quite able to kill it off.

In states where more democratic methods had been used, the need to compromise with established interests and to sustain public consent forced them to accept measures often contrary to their initial programme. Their ideological identity tended to shift over time as winning elections grew more important than ideological purity and as the drawbacks of real power became apparent. Actually being held responsible for results forced many members of this tradition to accept their enemies’ interests as at least partially legitimate, and compelled them to less radical legislative programmes.

In some of those nations, these radical parties became increasingly manipulative and difficult to distinguish from their former enemies. But, in a few places, the necessary dilution of their programme brought about an ideological synthesis that appeared successful, and this success in turn showed that the radical programmes they had once advocated were perhaps unnecessary. In the end, ideology had no real hold on them, and the models and methods that seemed to work became the political and economic programme that they were identified with. Their former allies who operated more dictatorial regimes were easily repudiated.

But others were unable to accept that option. They included dissidents who had been burned by the growing authoritarianism of their own failed revolutions, or who were simply unable to accept that their early ideological purity had become superfluous. They were isolated and powerless, only able to function in the states where their former allies had become moderates, leaving them without meaningful public support. They fumed at the world’s unwillingness to go the way they wanted, and increasingly recast the history of the world in terms of their own ideological predispositions. The past became, in their minds, an unending conflict between an ideologically pure vanguard and scheming established interests, a story of their courageous champions betrayed by back-sliding traitors. Ultimately, the world moved on and these radicals virtually disappeared outside of intellectually protected milieux like privately-funded think tanks and universities.

Of course, by the now the astute reader will have recognised that I am talking about the history of neoliberalism.
Continue reading