Monday, May 26, 2008

Quote of the Day

"From the point of view of politics, truth has a despotic character."
-- Hannah Arendt, "Truth in Politics"

Quoted in David Estlund's extremely interesting book Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework.

Auchan Speaks

I confess to a certain weakness for Auchan. In one of the places I frequently vacation in France, it has become the retail outlet of choice, blowing away the aging Leclerc that had pioneered the penetration of la grande distribution in the area. Incidentally, contrary to widespread belief, there are lots of grandes surfaces in France, but relatively few in the Paris region, and in any given locality there tends to be less competition among large retailers than one finds in other countries where the overall density of large chains may be lower. There are hopes that the law on the modernization of the economy will change some of these patterns to introduce greater competition and therefore lower prices to end consumers.

Arnaud Mulliez, the head of Auchan, isn't so sure. Of course it would be foolish to take his word for Gospel, since he's an interested party, but what he says is worth paying attention to. For one thing, he insists that retail prices aren't on average lower in Germany than in France. For another, he's not convinced that changes in the law that will ease market entry for stores in the 300 to 1,000 square meter range will benefit the consumer as much as they will benefit so-called "hard discounters," mostly German firms. Why favor a type of store rather than general competition? Finally, he talks about the jockeying for influence between large and small or medium industrial firms and about Auchan's relationships with the latter. He doesn't, of course, get into details about who dominates these relationships and about the important consideration of control of the supply chain as a means of cutting prices and gaining market share. But he says enough to demonstrate that the relation between competition and retail prices is far more complex and cuts much deeper into the economic fabric than can be addressed by reforms of the Royer, Raffarin, and Galland laws that are at the center of the current reform.

Of course this is a very controversial subject, and whenever I raise it, commenters are quick to point out the many aspects of the question that brief posts must inevitably ignore. Working conditions, product quality, aesthetic blight, environmental damage, quality of life--I'm aware of all these things. I may shop at Auchan when I'm in Burgundy, but I wish I didn't have to pass it on the way from one lovely valley to the next. Still, I'm an incorrigible homo economicus when it comes to economizing on money or time. So, it seems, are most of the French, whose patronage accounts for the robust growth of the chains.

The Fifth Republic at Fifty

TexExile commented on a previous post:

I take everything you say in this latest post, which I think is spot on. Still, I still number myself among those who roll their eyes to the heavens when the veteran 68ers get started. It's not that what happened in 1968 was not a significant historical turning point; it was. It's worth remembering, no doubt, and worth reflecting on. The trouble is that that is not normally what happens when the subject comes up in the media. It's the romanticisation of 1968 that gets on the nerves. I could go on about that for pages but actually I am posting to ask if you've had any reflections on the other May anniversary -- no, not "Les Pieds Nickelés" but the anniversary of May 1958. Perhaps you've posted on this and I missed it... What do you make of the 5th Republic at 50?

Thanks for forcing my hand on this. I have been struck by the relative inattention to the other anniversary, that of the Fifth Republic. I'll get to that in a moment. But first, let me say that I agree with your comments on the mediatization of '68. Of course, one could apply them mutatis mutandis to the mediatization of just about anything. Indeed, I think that the media's capacity to induce disgust with reflection on certain topics is an environmental poison that ought to be taken seriously. The ability to reflect historically is an important component of maturity, and the way in which we are dissuaded from doing so by cloying and emetic media saturation contributes to our social infantilization. But that is a topic for another time.

What about the Fifth Republic? I think the question to be asked here is why its fiftieth anniversary has received relatively less attention than the fortieth anniversary of May '68. Perhaps the answer is that the inception of the Fifth Republic is attended by a certain mauvaise conscience. It was of course denounced at the time as a putsch, and it was only de Gaulle's subsequent (relatively) good behavior that redeemed it. I wrote previously about the general's vindictiveness toward the media after May '68 and used the word "totalitarian." There is no doubt that there was an authoritarian--a very authoritarian--side to the regime that de Gaulle founded, but he was also deeply, profoundly, democratic in that he derived his authoritarian powers from his reading of the people's will and was willing to relinquish them when he concluded that he had lost their consent.

Of course that abdication left France to soldier on with the regime he had created in his own image. In many respects it was and remains a regime not very well suited to anyone else. Only a president invested with the charismatic legitimacy that fell to de Gaulle not as the founder but as the (two-fold) savior of the nation could really hope to function as le Dieu caché that the Constitution of the Fifth Republic makes of the president. When Le Canard enchaîné referred to Mitterrand as "Dieu," the reference was ironic if not bathetic. By degrees the regime has inched toward normalcy, particularly with the reduction of the presidential mandate to five years. One thing for which I credit Sarkozy is his de-divinization of the presidency. To some degree, of course, this has been involuntary: he just can't help himself; grandeur is not in his nature. But to some degree it has been conscious: witness his desire to "collaborate" with his prime minister, to appear before the Parliament, to apply legislative checks to certain presidential appointments, to expand the power of the Constitutional Council. All of this makes sense. The Gaullian presidency is simply too large for anyone who is not de Gaulle.

But there is a problem. The presidential system has transformed France into a bipolar state. De Gaulle wanted, needed, to transcend the parties that had paralyzed the Fourth Republic: the bickering, contentious, faction-prone, overly cautious parties of parochial interest and resolute small-mindedness. Presidentialism has in a curious way magnified the importance of parties, of creating a bimodal distribution in the electorate out of which two heavyweight contenders for the supreme office must somehow emerge. It hasn't eliminated the multiplicity of political opinion in France, which is to the good, but it has also failed to define a clear and legible mechanism for the selection of a candidate, which is not so good. Much of the confusion of French politics stems from this latter failure. The two-round presidential election and the present party system make it difficult to read a mandate in any presidential election. Instead of moving to the center to capture the median voter, candidates tend to appeal to the extremes in their respective camps in order to maximize their first-round vote, then to move back to the center between the first and second rounds. So the candidate of the Left is usually obliged to indulge the revolutionary illusions of the Left's left wing, while the candidate of the Right appeals to the xenophobic instincts of its right wing. Yet much of the electorate falls closer to the center, and there is a broader consensus in the political class than this election-induced polarization would lead one to believe.

That is where the Fifth Republic stands today, and it is a long way from where it began, in division over Algeria and fear of a takeover by the generals.

Two Views of "Liberal Socialism"

It would seem that Bertrand Delanoë scored an instant tactical success with his frank declaration that liberalism and socialism are not only compatible but in essence identical This remark might put us in mind of Tocqueville's declaration that liberty and equality--the two terms of an antithesis that defines Democracy in America--are at bottom different aspects of the same thing--"les extrêmes se touchent"--which Tocqueville in turn borrowed of course from Pascal, who held that true understanding was precisely the ability to embrace antitheses in a single thought, a precursor of die Aufhebung dear to Hegel and Marx. But of course political philosophy is one thing, politicking is another, so Delanoë's antithesis, rather than developing into a delectable soufflé, swiftly collapsed into an identity--"our" identity as opposed to "theirs," as Lionel Jospin promptly redefined "liberalism" to mean "political liberalism" (ours) as opposed to "market liberalism" (theirs), thus short-circuiting any temptation to do any real thinking about the relation of the one to the other.

Ségolène Royal then drove the wedge home by insisting that even this trivialization of antithesis into shibboleth was too much, that there was only one "liberalism" (theirs), and that all true Socialists must reject it. This was a silly thing for a candidate who had once identified with Blairism to do, but her fighting instincts overcame any intellectual scruples. Her opponent had run a banner up his pole so she would take potshots at it.

The result has been predictable, as we can see from the remarks of two commentators. The blogger versac believes that Royal has thus revealed her true colors, her antiliberal, "Jacobin" instincts. Meanwhile, Nicolas Domenach at Marianne attacks the "Jospinisme relooké" being retailed by "Libération, le journal libéral boboïsant de gauche" under the banner of "liberal socialism" (Delanoë's statement was co-written by Laurent Joffrin, the editor of Libération). Domenach associates Michel Rocard with the formula as well, driving yet another well-beaten nail into the well-sealed coffin with the well-used hammer.

Versac pertinently cites Monique Canto-Sperber's pre-emptive refutation of this ploy:

Ce qui est haï dans le libéralisme, c’est l’idée de libertés capables de maîtriser leurs propres excès. En ce sens, l’attaque radicale contre le libéralisme entretient l’intolérance – attitude quasi spontanée dans une mouvance dont le folklore présent ne peut faire oublier que ses références historiques portent avec elles un lourd passé de totalitarisme et d’exclusions. L’attitude anti-libérale, qui est aujourd’hui la seule pensée de l’extrême-gauche, exige des engagements tout d’une pièce. Elle se grise de mots, de slogans, de mots d’ordre qu’elle n’explicite ni ne justifie jamais. Elle refuse la complexité, voire l’ambivalence du réel. Elle est cléricale, archaïque et paranoïaque, car sa tendance naturelle est de voir des complots et des manipulations dans les volontés de réformes les mieux intentionnées. Elle adopte en permanence une posture intellectuelle de minorité assiégée, défensive et accusatrice.

Lucid as this denunciation is, it is of no use in giving content to the synthesis that ought to arise out of the conjunction of socialism and liberalism. That step still awaits its political philosopher, who will need the skills of a Tocqueville or Hegel as well as the irony of a Pascal and no doubt some of the faith.

P.S. Pierre Moscovici notes the same signs I do.

Why the Exasperation?

I haven't written directly about May '68 because it's a vast subject, I don't as a rule like anniversaries, and so many other people are talking about it anyway. It's perhaps the glut of talk that accounts for the exasperation of some, like the commenter to a previous post who said, "Enough is enough." But I have to disagree with the commenter "anonymous" when (s)he says that "nobody cares anymore." This is patently untrue in the literal and trivial sense that quite obviously some people do care, or "anonymous" would not have been able to make the first remark about the surfeit of commentary on the events. Of course (s)he goes on to align himself--as is also commonplace in the abundance of commentary--with those whose interest in the event is negative. This negativity is rather facilely linked to a generational and class resentment ("skinny bourgeois students," "grandmothers' apartments on the boulevard Saint-Michel"). The refrain is well-known: those self-styled revolutionaries became the establishment, and in any case they were privileged héritiers all along, merely shamming revolution and borrowing radicalism's robes to elbow their way into the limelight.

This is a trivialization of the event that I can't follow. There are many reasons why. It's partly true--but also partly false--that the general strike of '68--the largest strike of the 20th century bar none, incidentally--had little in common with the student uprising. Little, that is, except the essential thing, a generalized spirit of insubordination. Moments when the authority structures of a society are openly contested, even ridiculed, are rare enough that they arrest the attention, and deserve to.

Historiography has yet to come to grips with either the general significance of 1968--which, after all, was a worldwide and not simply a hexagonal event--or the specifically French significance (because there was a French peculiarity of the moment), but I think two aspects have begun to come into focus. First, the date marks the end of the recovery from World War II, which took a generation. The distribution of social authority after World War II had a certain inevitability about it and had therefore been taken for granted for two decades: it was an inevitability that stemmed in part from physical necessities; in part from its origins in the outcome of a war that had its winners and losers and distributed its spoils accordingly, as wars have always done; and in part from habits of duty and patriotism that had carried over from a very different era. Second, 1968 marks the advent of abundance. More people had more stuff than ever before. The baby boom was a generation large in numbers but even richer in capabilities in Amartya Sen's sense. Its sense of possibility was therefore wider than its field of opportunity. I think it was that mismatch that found ludic expression in the spring of 1968.

Of course the nay-sayers are right that if these were the forces at work, their significance is much larger than anything that happened in the streets of Paris forty years ago this May. That's no doubt true, but often we don't realize what's happened to us, as individuals or societies, until some event arrives to clarify our thoughts or at least crystallize our feeling that the past can no longer be our primary guide. If we subsequently return obsessively to these moments, it's probably to measure the distance traveled, to recall the illusions we may have entertained, and to recognize that change is rarely as complete as we tend to assume in moments of flowering or deflowering.