Sunday, June 24, 2007

Rebuilding the Socialist Party 2

Yesterday I wrote of proposals for reform of the Parti Socialiste:

Essentially, three broad options are mooted: 1) the PS should go "social-democratic"; 2) the PS should become a "party of resistance"; 3) the PS should continue to equivocate about the choice between 1) and 2), as if these were the only genuine options, in the hope of erecting a tent broad enough to accommodate disaffected centrists without alienating the more militant leftist rump.
Options 1 and 2 share an identical sociology.* They posit that society is irrevocably divided between the few and the many, the owners of capital and the rest, the ruling class and the working class, or, in the currently fashionable terminology, the partisans of "Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism" and the defenders of what it has become customary to call a social-welfare "model" of one form or another. The moral mapping onto categories of good and evil is too obvious to need stating.

The two options differ only as to the action metaphors they prefer. Advocates of "resistance" prefer martial metaphors. One side or the other will inevitably dominate. The only political question is the rapport des forces. Resistance must be limited to indecisive skirmishes until the balance of forces is favorable. Then and only then can a decisive blow be struck. By contrast, advocates of the various so-called social democratic options accept that no decisive blow will ever be struck and therefore favor some form of co-operation. Their metaphors are metaphors of regulation rather than warfare. Instead of the physics of ballistics, of shells lobbed, bombs detonated, and hammers raised, they prefer the physics of weights and springs, shock absorbers, and viscous fluids.

The PS has slowly been weaning itself away from martial metaphors for decades. The "armed prophets" are now more likely to be found in anti-globalization groups like ATTAC--the name alone makes the point. Nevertheless, the language of rupture, résistance, and related terms still crops up from time to time, most commonly when the political struggle turns bitter, as in the clash over the European constitutional referendum, or moves into the streets, as in the anti-CPE episode. To a segment of the Socialist electorate, the size of which can only be roughly gauged, the idea that there is an alternative to capitalism--indeed, that the very raison d'être of politics is to midwife the birth of that alternative--retains an appeal that is more emotional than rational. It doesn't figure in the policy debates that Ségolène Royal, in a recent explanation of her alienation from the party whose standard she carried, termed "stupefyingly boring." Mitterrand knew how to appeal to these emotions, even if he didn't share them. Indeed, the ability to pluck that string in the leftist lyre was the secret of his political success--and the reason why Royal invokes his legacy, as she did today in contrasting Mitterrand's response to defeat in 1974 to Jospin's in 2002, and aligning herself with Mitterrand.

By contrast, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, eschewing the metaphors of rupture and resistance, describes "social democracy" as "ordered liberty" (see the lengthy comment on socialist values on his blog, here). His preferred metaphors are not martial but mechanical: "In the face of economic insecurity, ecological damage, and the social inequalities that it [sic: the misplaced antecedent of this pronoun should be capitalism, which comes later in the sentence, as though DSK feels a sort of bad conscience in resorting to such 'archaic' rhetoric while putting himself forward as a 'modernizer' of socialism], we persist in our wish to regulate capitalism. Unlike the liberals, who seek to 'free' the market from all its fetters, we, as social democrats, continue to think that the tension between capital and labor must be organized."

Organized: an interesting choice of word, in that it points up the difference between DSK's social democracy and historical social democracy, that of the eponymous German party, which was based precisely on a powerful labor organization, the likes of which does not exist in France. Coming from a talented technocrat like DSK, the word organization should be translated as "management." But managed capitalism is precisely what Sarkozy has offered in a far more minutely elaborated package. If DSK wants to make this option persuasive, he has to overcome his disabling timidity, stop equivocating with faint-hearted stabs at "the tension between capital and labor," and say in some detail what he means.

He might be able to do this, but in my opinion it won't be enough to win the next election unless Sarkozy stumbles badly or the economic conjuncture turns against him. But the three options I enumerated at the outset are not the only choices available. It would serve the Socialist Party well to consider some others. I hope to say something more about other possibilities in the days to come.

*Until recently the right shared the same sociology. Only the emotional valences were reversed. Rather than the many oppressed by the few, the few feared the oppression of the many. The specter of "socialo-communism" was frequently sighted. This was merely the late-20th-c. name for the immemorial fear of dispossession by the aroused masses. Because the right's sociology mirrored the left's, the left's choices remained viable even as its rhetoric diverged increasingly from the self-understanding of growing numbers of voters. Many politicians in France, on both sides of the left-right divide, sensed this divergence, but Sarkozy was the first to hit on an effective articulation of a new vision. How he did this bears some thinking about.

Sarkozy's Style

In the previous post I alluded to President Sarkozy's extensive interview with Claire Chazal and Patrick Poivre d'Arvor on TF1 (viewable here). Much can be learned about Sarkozy's break with past presidential styles, and even with his own previous image management, by watching this interview.

There has been criticism of the fact that PPDA anchored the evening news from an office in the Elysée before joining Chazal in the presidential office for the interview proper. TF1, already suspected of being the house organ of the presidency with Laurent Solly's transfer from the management of Sarkozy's campaign to the front office of TF1 immediately after the election, no doubt recognizes this decision as a mistake in retrospect. But the interview was reasonably tough, with both interviewers pressing Sarkozy on numerous points. PPDA even brought up the incident of Sarko's alleged drunkenness at the G8 news conference, though a cynic might say that this was a move well calculated to invite a demonstration of presidential measure and self-control in swatting away the nasty accusation.

Most striking was the counterpoint between the regal, not to say gaudily baroque, splendor of the office itself and the informality, at least compared with previous presidential practice, of the actual conversation. And it was a conversation, not a serving up of prepared talking points and rehearsed responses. The president bravely exposed himself to the journalistic fire, abandoning the redoubt of the mighty presidential desk and sitting himself down, jacket open, breast bared, before the two questioners, who took him in a crossfire. The camera work was not static, and the cutaways offered more than just reaction shots. There were several angles on the room and the lovely garden outside. The doors were open--a nice touch, allowing the drapery to wave gently in the breeze and presumably cool the room somewhat, though not enough to eliminate altogether Sarko's sweating, which made it seem as though he was enduring another of the many épreuves he admitted he prided himself on having overcome on the way to the presidency.

Sarko was by turns serious, playful, teasing, earnest, sarcastic, bristling, didactic, emotional, and never less than lucid. He showed himself capable of adopting the point of view of his critics, allowing the justice of their criticism, and turning the tables sufficiently to show that, having taken account of the contrary view, he nevertheless had reached the conclusion he reached. He painted himself as a pragmatist, not irrevocably wedded to policies that he strongly promoted for now if in the future they should fail to satisfy him as effective. He avoided bombast and only rarely succumbed to bathos. He was less pugnacious than in previous incarnations and insisted on the weightiness of the presidential role. Most interesting was his insistence on the transformation imposed by the presidency, the need to recognize the 47 percent who did not vote for him, his understanding of "the general interest," and his justification of the opening of his government to the left on these grounds. Having said that, he invoked the same grounds--the existence of diversity in democracy, of incompatible points of view, of palpable constituencies whose existence cannot be ignored and must somehow be subsumed in the general interest--in justifying his decision to receive Le Pen at the Elysée after an absence of some 30 years. But then with some pride and a rather sly, enigmatic smile he remarked that perhaps he had done more than any other politician to put Le Pen on the run.

It was, in short, a tour de force, yet another token of Sarkozy's formidable skills as a politician of the media age. How he will marshal these skills to counter the coming confrontations with the unions over the minimum service and single contract issues and with students, unions, and administrators over university reform remains to be seen. But we can expect Sarko to be cannier than Juppé, Chirac, and Villepin. He has seen what is not to be done. What he does will be interesting to watch.

For David Bell's take on Sarko's style, see here. For a French take, see here.

On the Social VAT

The other day, in a comment to a post that can be read here, cjb wrote:

"AG writes that there is nothing necessarily anti-labour in the TVA sociale proposed by Sarkozy. But I think there is more to be said here. Sarkozy explicitly justifies this move as part of a plan to cut unemployment. By making it cheaper for employers to hire (reducing the 'charges' they have to pay), more jobs will be created. There is a strong class component to this approach. Sarkozy is pushing a version of the argument which blames high labour costs for unemployment levels. Traditionally, this was an argument which labour movements argued against, and an explicit tenet of Marxist theory is based around a critique of this argument about wages. So I think we need to situate the TVA sociale within the wider analysis the current government is making of the economic problems it faces, and to highlight the class bias many of its arguments rest upon."
I think the charge of class bias can be applied with greater accuracy to other tax reforms proposed by Sarkozy, such as the reduction of the ISF (the tax on large fortunes), the estate tax, and (with reservations I have already expressed elsewhere) the mortgage interest deduction. By contrast, the shift in welfare-state financing from payroll charges to VAT is not a gift to the already wealthy. Employers are not out-of-pocket for the payroll charges, which they simply pass on to the final consumer in the form of higher prices. Ultimately the consumer pays, whether in the form of a higher price with the current VAT or a lower price with a higher VAT.

If the choice is indifferent from the point of view of the consumer, however, it is not indifferent from the point of view of the social planner. Taxing in the form of payroll charges does increase the firm's labor bill and thus, under competitive conditions, induces a profit-maximizing firm to favor substitution of capital for labor. Hence it is plausible to argue that, other things equal, reduced charges might increase employment. The Marxian critique cited by cjb is irrelevant. What is relevant, however, are other factors that might affect firms' decisions, inflation, aggregate demand, and overall growth. In Sarkozy's interview with Claire Chazal and Patrick Poivre d'Arvor on TF1, which should be viewed in its entirety as a superb demonstration of the Sarkozyan style, he alludes to these complications and explicitly makes comparisons with the experiences of Denmark and Germany with a similar policy of VAT substitution for payroll taxes and mentions the advantage that the VAT scheme has in favoring consumption of domestic over foreign products, hence as a potential if modest weapon against outsourcing. Now, this is not surprising, because the subject was researched extensively by Eric Besson, as reported here. Since Besson was an advisor to Royal before becoming an advisor to Sarkozy, it is a good bet that the social VAT plan might well have figured among Socialist economic reforms had the election gone the other way. (For further discussion, see also here, here, and here).

Hence I disagree with cjb that this policy is a class-biased one. The choice among an array of tax instruments to finance the social wage is a complicated one, akin to the choice of present versus future consumption in, say, the Ramsey growth model. A challenge for the Socialist Party is how to present the implications of such technical choices to voters in ways that do not reduce to class-against-class metaphors, which I believe voters find increasingly alien to their comprehension of their social position.