Macron v Le Pen: Both ineffectual solutions of the past

Ineffectual Solutions of the Past Offer No Escape from the Neoliberal-Tribal Binary of the Present

Marcia Pally ABC Religion and Ethics 10 May 2017

Marcia Pally teaches at New York University and Fordham University, and is a guest professor in the theology department at Humboldt University in Berlin. Her latest book is Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality.

When news began to come in of Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, I was – funnily enough – working on an article on the paradox of continued support for Donald Trump’s policies by those whom they will harm.

Needless to say, the French and U.S. elections, together with the rest of the global rightist wave, give one rather a dose of dismay about the species homo sapien.

Why? Let me begin with the problem.

In a way, it hardly matters what the problem is. People don’t vote on the basis of their problems. Problems are concrete and measurable, and people can reasonably identify what they are. No one in France or anywhere else is unaware of present economic duress described by economic reports, the media and one’s neighbours.

People vote on the basis of their beliefs about solutions. That’s the problem.

The solutions presented to the French public were Macron’s middle-of-the-road neo-liberalism and Le Pen’s unvarnished tribalism.

The question is why these were the only solutions comprehensible and attractive enough to earn large blocs of voters – especially given that so much of Macron’s approach, abandoning as it does large sections of the electorate, fuels Le Pen’s.

Where do ideas about solutions come from? In a word: the past.

Here the entire Enlightenment tradition, the fleet of rational-choice theorists and other barkers of progress must bite the bullet and recognize that cultures – their norms, epistemological heuristics, categories of value, practices – change, but slowly. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “it’s not even past.”

Take “trickle down” economics as an example. Cutting taxes on the rich in the hope that they will invest the windfall in business and other projects that benefit society has failed every time it’s been tried. American middle-class purchasing power went flat when Reagan tried it in the 1980s. But tax cuts for the rich is being essayed again by Trump with great persuasiveness because Americans believe tax cuts to be a fix-all solution. They believe this because of 400 years of solid history in which government is considered paradoxically both tyrannical and incompetent. Cutting taxes is thus seen as a solution that constrains Washington and puts money back in the pockets of “We, the (self-reliant, entrepreneurial people) people.”

As American voting history has shown, as long as citizens believe some version of this, they will vote for very tax cuts that the rich will not invest in the common pool and so will not benefit the people who voted for them. But it won’t matter because people believe they are voting for solutions, and their solutions are ideas they believe in.

Under Ronald Reagan, the middle-class saw incomes fall and those of the poor fell drastically (10.5% from 1977 to 1986). By contrast, income for the top 10% rose 24.5% and for the top 1%, over 74%. Nonetheless, Reagan enjoyed a landslide re-election in 1984, winning 60% of the vote and 525 out of 538 electoral votes – the highest total received by a presidential candidate.

And this brings us back to France. Macron’s middling neo-liberal economics – whose provenance is much like that of the “trickle down” theory – maintains that the unconstrained free-market yields the best life for the most people. It represents a wacky mix of utilitarian concern for “most people” and utter disregard for their actual wellbeing – and it, too, fails each time it’s tried. Neo-liberal economics widens the gap between the rich and poor in income, wealth, nutrition, health care, life expectancy, education, employability, marriage sustainability and so on. It leaves large numbers of people unable to develop themselves and unequipped to contribute to society.

This is not new news. Even Adam Smith – not to mention Antonio Genovesi and other Italian social market theorists – knew that markets work precisely when they are constrained by “common good” norms of honesty, promise-keeping, sympathy and, importantly, reciprocal concern among parties. Markets don’t work unless they are governed by societal ethics and unless those in the “value chain” (employees, suppliers, distributors, investors, customers), the schools and neighbourhoods on which businesses rely, and other stakeholders are also doing well. Businesses seek profits. But perpetual striving towards maximal gains at the expense of others in the market destroys it.

Macron will not make middling neo-liberalism much better, and the eleven million who voted for Le Pen are bracing for the ongoing economic pinch. If present socio-economic duress is not relieved by his policies, Le Pen’s appeal will surely broaden.

Her tribalism – along with its fellow travellers: chauvinism, nativism, protectionism and prejudice – reaches further into the past than does liberal economics. It also fails each time it’s tried. It leads to ghettos, gulags, expulsions and ovens, and idiotically deprives society of the contributions of the despised groups, which may enhance the economy, science, education and arts. (It’s worth noting that the 2016 report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, by investigators inclined towards and against immigration, found that immigrants, spurring innovation and new businesses, substantially increase U.S. employment.) Europe and the United States tried trade protectionism in the 1920s, which eventuated in an international trade war that contributed to the Wall Street crash and onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

But tribalism’s failure won’t put voters off any more than the failure of “trickle down” economics has. Because in-group-ism as a fix-all solution is an old and oddly satisfying belief.

The question for France and for many advanced economies is why solutions other than neo-liberalism and tribalism are not more apparent? Voting for Macron in an effort to stave off Le Pen is little more than political appeasement, and likely as effective as Chamberlain’s was in September 1938. It is little wonder, then, that a quarter of the French electorate abstained from voting altogether and 10% of those who went to the polls cast blank protest ballots.

To arrive at a better solution, one cannot start from where Macron or Le Pen begin. Macron starts with the “I” of an agonistic market and hopes to address France’s economic ills by training young people to function better within it. Le Pen starts with the “tribe” – what economist Luigino Bruni calls “the gigantic I” – which functions just as self-absorbedly as does the singular “I”: me first, my clan, firm, or party.

A better place to begin is the understanding that each “I” develops through relations with others, starting with those nearby but extending out – because one’s educational and economic opportunities, nutrition and health care, and the pollution and stresses encountered are not determined only in one’s neighbourhood. This reciprocal impact is how each singular person develops, and it entails unavoidable reciprocal responsibility.

In this way, the “I”-centric starting points of both Macron and Le Pen are abandoned, and we are free to pursue an economics that accounts for the reciprocal impact/reciprocal responsibility that is the makeup of the species. The evolutionary biologists are with me on this: humanity is, as Donald Pfaff puts it, “wired for goodwill.” “Reciprocal altruism antedates formal institutions, and,” Edwin Scott Fruehwald explains, “appears to be hard-wired into human brains. In other words, there is a universal grammar of reciprocity just like there is a universal grammar of language.”

To the extent that we go with the grain of our relational make-up, we are likely to arrive at better outcomes. To the extent that we don’t, we have the present mess.

We do not lack economic or political ideas that would get us out of the Macron-Le Pen binary – that provide careful explanations about the requirements of a flourishing society, the creation and transfer of wealth, and mutualist, reciprocally responsible practices and institutions. We lack the political will and worldview.

The electorate in France and elsewhere will not rush to these mutualist solutions because cultures disaffect themselves of the false “solutions” the past only slowly. More optimistically, however, there is a great deal in the West’s own past to draw on for a more reciprocal organization of society – from the poor laws of the Hebrew Bible, to the debt forgiveness of Matthew and Luke, and mutualized risk distribution in the lending laws of Islamic finance. Yet we approach this alternative tradition gradually and non-linearly, losing the point as much as we learn it. “The conclusion most abhorrent to the modern mood,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1935,

“is that the possibilities of evil grow with the possibilities of good, and that human history is therefore not so much a chronicle of the progressive victory of the good over evil, of cosmos over chaos, as the story of an ever increasing cosmos, creating ever increasing possibilities of chaos.”

Writing as fascism was growing in Europe, Niebuhr recognized the consequences of his views: as our transportation, communication and trade enlarge, our “cosmos,” the possibilities for competition, dislocation from community, loss and violence also increase. As the losers in the present high-skill, high-tech, money-race are abandoned, they are left to abandon society for tribalism.

Thus Macron’s proposals, absent attention to the losses they create, create Le Pen. I’ll give the final word to Niebuhr:

“the avoidance of social violence depends upon the ability of a wise statesmanship to prevent the lower middle classes and farmers from becoming the political allies of an imperilled capitalistic oligarchy … Such a political alignment offers the imperilled oligarchy the fascist alternative to capitulation and increases the desperate fury of the dispossessed. Unfortunately, the classes which have moral scruples against violence are not always particularly helpful in guiding the political thinking of lower middle-class life away from the deceptions and perils of fascist politics.”

Marcia Pally teaches at New York University and Fordham University, and is a guest professor in the theology department at Humboldt University in Berlin. Her latest book is Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality.