Saturday, September 27, 2008

Rocard, Fauteur de Trouble

Ah, the luxury of being a post-ambitious politician! Witness the interview that Michel Rocard gave to Le Parisien, in which, bucking all the Socialist courants, he praised Sarkozy's Toulon speech (two cheers for "regulated capitalism") and called him an "openminded man of the right." It wasn't the most politically adroit move, and it has already prompted an outburst of sniper fire from the various camps.

Rocard once again demonstrates the political clumsiness that frustrated his once bright hopes. But I suppose that, as sober analysts, we ought to try to see this latest blunder in comparative terms. What Rocard seems to be groping for is some new ideological alignment that will break the depressing deadlock between what came to be called neoliberalism on the one hand and social liberalism on the other. The two positions had become increasingly difficult to distinguish at their core, so that peripheral issues (immigration, crime, religion, etc., declined in various ways in various national contexts) became decisive in narrow elections.

The disproportionate nastiness of political debate created a yearning for "postpartisan" politics, a yearning that, in the U.S., both Obama, outspokenly, and McCain, in his "maverick" excursions "across the aisle," as he likes to say, have attempted to satisfy. Sarkozy has demonstrated a similar instinct in France, with his ouverture to, or débauche of, Socialists, his references to Jaurès, etc.

The latest "crisis of capitalism" might provide an opening for a less decorative, more substantive search in this direction. Within a remarkably short period of time, attitudes toward market regulation and government intervention have changed dramatically. No politician has yet articulated a real grasp of the possibilities inherent in this suddenly altered political force field, but both Sarkozy and Rocard have shown that their antennae are quivering. When the sniping stops, other signs of change may well manifest themselves. We are on the cusp of real transformation, but no one yet dares to articulate what it might look like. This comprehensible fear of getting too far out in front was evident in last night's U.S. presidential debate, in which neither candidate would acknowledge the depth of the crisis for fear of looking doubtful and uncertain, when doubt and uncertainty would in fact be welcome signs of realism at this moment.