Sunday, April 16, 2017

Response to a Reader on Why I Do Not Support Mélenchon

Yesterday, a reader wrote:

You suggest "My two chief desiderata are to preserve both the European Union and the French welfare state."

But Mélenchon ​ does not seem to pose a threat to the welfare state, and his opposition to the EU​ is ​based on the body's neoliberal leanings, ​not unreasonably so.

Otherwise, ​you've not been specific about your concerns. What is it specifically about the man's positions that bothers you? Perhaps this should be in a blog post.
This reaction is typical of some quarters of the left, so let me answer briefly.

Mélenchon does pose a threat to the welfare state, because he believes that it is enough to make redistributive demands without proposing a plan to manage the economy so as to generate the revenue needed to meet them. This was what left-wing politicians often did propose before the 1930s, back when the state's role in managing the economy was minimal. This is no longer the case today. One cannot simply decree that pensions should be increased, working hours reduced, the legal retirement age lowered, taxes on households decreased, nuclear power eliminated, etc., without explaining how you expect the economy to respond and how you might manage any adverse consequences. Mélenchon has nothing to say on these matters.

I do not like the term "neoliberalism," however useful it may be as shorthand on occasion. But if you think that the EU suffers from "neoliberal leanings" that would justify leaving it, you have to explain what France will do once it is no longer a member. Capitalism is not going to disappear if France withdraws from the EU; the global market is not going to evaporate; competition from low-wage states is not going to vanish; and financial institutions are not going to be more inclined to lend to states that run deficits far larger than permitted under the EU's Stability and Growth Pact. Mélenchon seems to believe that if France withdraws, it will be free to stimulate its economy at will and devalue its currency until its products become competitive. This is identical to Marine Le Pen's position, and it is in my view dead wrong. France's borrowing costs will rise, as will its trade deficit. Consumers will feel the pinch as the prices of imported goods, especially food and fuel, rise. Remember what happened to the Mitterrand government between 1981 and 1983. Most Socialists do; Mélenchon left the party because he thought his comrades were cowards; if only they had had a little more revolutionary fervor in their hearts, he thinks, things would have turned out differently. He's wrong about that.

Mélenchon appears to believe that he can run the economy by fiat, as Chavez, whom he admires, did in Venezuela. But harsh realities cannot be overcome by mere defiance. Mélenchon is good at enacting defiance rhetorically. I wonder how he will respond when the popular anger turns on him, as it surely will if he comes to power and he fails to deliver on his unrealistic promises.

Finally, I believe that Mélenchon is right when he says that France has more power to affect the course of the EU than it has realized in recent years. But there is no chance of deflecting Europe toward a better equilibrium by confronting the Germans with non-negotiable demands, as Mélenchon intends to do, and by telling them that they are fools for not seeing the wisdom of the course Mélenchon proposes as an alternative. Opponents can be persuaded, but not by making empty threats. Mélenchon's stance toward the EU is like that of a child who threatens to hold his breath until his mother does what he wants. He will turn blue in the face, but eventually he will have to start breathing again, and his mother will still be standing there with her arms folded.


haaaarc said...

Your post is a good example of why I have found some of your writing on this election so frustrating. I agree that their are many justified critiques of Mélenchon, a few of which you outline in the post above. Unlike Mélenchon, Hamon has articulated I viable plan to expand the welfare state while managing the economy. He has outlined a plan to democratize the EU while harnessing some of its worst neoliberal tendencies. However, throughout the campaign you have written off off Hamon's plans as fantasy. All the while you have been generally supportive of Macron who has promised nothing but more of the same. I guess I find this position frustrating because you seemed to genuinely be self-critical after you failed to see some of the problems with the Hillary campaign, but here you are again supporting another Hillary-esque politician (Macron) over another Sanders-esque politician (Hamon) - why?

Art Goldhammer said...

Because I think Hamon is as unrealistic as Mélenchon and do not believe that Macron is more of the same. Clear?

Jean said...

Thank you Art for this refreshing view. My corner of the internet has turned into Mélenchon-land recently, with culty followers having seemingly lost all grips with reality...

@haaaarc: if Sanders was a politician in France, chances are that he would be pretty mainstream. From what I gather most of his positions are shared by almost everyone in France, including welfare state (healthcare and education) and social issues (gun laws, death penalty, LGBT rights, church/state separation...). This includes Macron of course, but you might also be surprised that most of these views are also shared Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen. So the left in France and in the USA are just too different to be compared, and Macron is no more a Hillary-esque politician than Hamon is Sanders-esque.

brent said...

As I understand the French system, Presidents determine a broad course in domestic policy--as well as international alignments--while Prime Ministers, with the support of the Assembly, actually make and enact policy. JLM's broad vision is clear enough, radical, and--like many visions--unrealizable in its specific terms. Holding President Mélenchon to the letter of candidate JLM's promises would be a misunderstanding.

That said, one might expect him to open more stringent negotiations with the EU on the Stability and Growth pact, but that's quite different from infantile screams. He has for many years advocated reorienting France away from the US-driven North Atlantic system--and given the wreckage of American politics, how prescient was that? One would expect him to pursue redistribution through changes in taxation and social benefits, but in a time of disastrous inequality that seems only prudent. Rebuilding the economy through state-directed sustainable energy initiatives--and a little-discussed aquacultural initiative--along with support for local and sustainable agriculture would be part of a plan to generate growth and revenues. JLM has spent a lot of time on the ground, observing what works and what doesn't in France's economy.

Comparisons to Chavez, or even Mitterand in '81, are just polemics--his actual vision is very forward-looking, and very French. Depending on the composition of the Assembly we might expect a highly modified version of his programs, or a partial one. But he would offer an alternative that is neither more of the same--and Macron has offered nothing else--nor a retrograde, intolerant isolationism--which JLM has opposed more fervently than anyone. I can only take the caricatural representations of him here to mean that he has succeeded in promoting a serious alternative to those other visions--how serious we shall soon see.

Anonymous said...

Just because your position is not the position most people think is practical does not mean those who do not hold it are paleolilthic, as the writer who speaks of the "wreckage of American politics" would have us believe. This reminds me of the joke about democracy in developing countries: when it's good, it's very good; she it's bad, it's still pretty good. Wherever you draw the line on the U.S. economy, it's still pretty good compared with most others. The perfect is the enemy of the good in politics, as the writer's disdain for Macron's centrist solutions at the expense of ideals indicates. Incremental changes in policy are less dramatic than revolutions, but frequently accomplish more in the hands of sober leaders. It is the economy, that most effects the quality of life of voters, and ignoring economics in making politics is a course a politician pursues at his peril today. There is no "elegant alternative" to centrist neoliberal economic solutions in France. Some sacred cows will be slaughtered if Macron gets in, but the French may be better off for their deaths. To think that France will become a communitarian utopia of "décroissance", the rich paying for the privileges of everyone else, technology subservient to a planned economy is pure fantasy.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that Hamon is as unrealistic as Mélenchon and so I am forced to have faith in Macron, but it is hope against expectation. Marcon seems to me to be very much a continuity candidate with the present regime, and perhaps this is not a bad thing. Perhaps Holland-ism will stand a better chance of working and being understood if it is presented honestly, by somebody who doesn't get elected by pretending to be on the left, who allies himself explicitly with the center (with Bayrou etc.)

In fact what is needed, not just for the French economy but for all of Southern Europe, are concessions from Germany of the sort that Mélenchon demands. You are right that, if he is elected, Mélenchon will not get them by pounding on the table, particularly because his domestic position will be so weak. However, Sarkozy and Hollande were not able to get substantial concessions by being polite. I think that the current attitude of Germany (and of like-minded Northern European nations) is leading Europe inexorably to a crisis. In fact we are already in the crisis: the southern nations are suffering economically in a way that is not politically sustainable. Merkel has been able - no mean feat in its way - to postpone political catastrophe in Europe. However she hasn't dealt with the underlying problem, and it there is no political appetite in Germany to do so.

Of course the correct solution is "the slow boring of hard boards." I would prefer the employment of gradual pressure (including from within Germany) to make the Eurozone more fiscally equitable. But I feel in my stomach that this won't happen. Like Perry Anderson, to whom you referred indirectly in your Prospect piece, I fear that the EU, or at least the Eurozone, has become too "path dependent" to be saved. Some "banging on the table" by France is exactly what is needed. Mélenchon is right to say that France is not in the same position as Britain or Greece: French withdrawal from the Euro would blow up the whole European project. A credible threat of it would force real concessions from Berlin. Without such concessions, I am pretty well convinced that the Euro will collapse on its own. So my heart is with Mélenchon. My head tells me that you are right, Mélenchon would make a hash of the negotiations, because (among other reasons) his domestic agenda is so extreme that it will seem positively outlandish in Germany.

My head also tells me that Macron will not be able to pass his reforms; that even if he could get them through they would resemble Schroder's impoverishing "Agenda 2010"; that they wouldn't have even the positive macroeconomic effects that economic liberalization had elsewhere in Europe in the 80s, 90s and 00s because of the straitjacket of the Euro. Finally, I fear that Macron is unlikely to get any major concessions on the running of the Eurozone even if he is a "good pupil" and passes reforms that are well-regarded in Germany. Whomever the next Chancellor is, Germany (and the European institutions) are only likely to make substantial concessions on the Eurozone if there is a crisis.

I'm sorry to go on but this subject drives one mad. I'm sure that I speak for many of your readers when I say I would appreciate a clear, affirmative presentation of the case for Macron on this blog sometime before the first round of voting. My sense from what you have written so far is that you support him more or less the way I do: faute de mieux, and with considerable foreboding.

Jerry Z. Muller said...

If only Piketty were as astute as his translator.

Tim said...

I will note that in the past few the UK press seems to be going all out for either Melenchon or Le Pen FWIW. Don't know if this helps Macron or not.

Emanuel Goldstein said...

"Opponents can be persuaded, but not by making empty threats"

"Remember what happened to the Mitterrand government between 1981 and 1983. Most Socialists do; Mélenchon left the party because he thought his comrades were cowards; if only they had had a little more revolutionary fervor in their hearts, he thinks, things would have turned out differently. He's wrong about that."

Hmmm sure doesn't sound like an empty threat then does it?

Anonymous said...

Interesting, I hadn't picked up on the fact that you were hostile to Hamon as well as JLM. I suppose because you & Arun are often times so similar I had assumed that you preferred Hamon to Macron, but thought that the most important goal was keeping both MLP & Fillon away from the presidency that Macron was the preferable choice.

For me the biggest problems with JLM always related to his positions on NATO & the EU & trade--and those seem to be your chief issues as well--rather than domestic (though Hamon always seemed more realistic than JLM to me too).

FrédéricLN said...

I fully agree with the last sentences of the post. Mélenchon's "scheme A and scheme B" regarding Europe are a quite unrealistic strategy. But I do think that Macron's, Le Pen's, Fillon's and Hamon's strategy are as unrealistic as Mélenchon's. None of them would deliver. In Fillon's, Hamon's and Macron's cases, we would just have a 15th then an 16th and a 17th last chance summit about greek debt. In Le Pen's, just mess, confusion, and shouting.

Lapinot said...

One of my preoccupations in elections is the attitude of candidates towards animals and I'm finding Melenchon and Hamon both markedly superior to Macron. In general I've been very impressed with French advances in recent years, especially with the recent anger towards abuse in abbatoirs.

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan is also pretty admirable (more than I expected) while Marine Le Pen is a hopelessly-confused mess.

bernard said...

You nailed it, Art, once again (why i keep reading you...).

On the fun side, I noted the other day that the JLM meeting in Marseilles, which I attended out of curiosity, was obviously very far from having 70,000 people attending. However, 70,000 seems to be a magical number with the JLM crowd counters, since the Toulouse meeting was also attended by 70,000 people according to organisers (the police, for the obvious reason that they may not interfere with politics, refrain from giving any estimate.). My advice to JLM figures makers, figures need to grow in coming days, not stagnate. 70,000 is out, let's have 90,000, and then break six figures between the two rounds should JLM qualify.

Emanuel Goldstein said...

Also when you talk about the economy "responding" we know you're talking about capital flight from rich people who don't want a welfare state. If you're not willing to challenge them with things like capital controls you have no place in the Socialist Party.

Art Goldhammer said...

Actually, Mr. Weinstein, I wasn't referring to capital flight, although that will occur, but among other things to the drying up of foreign direct investment IN France, which is considerable. France is, I believe, no. 6 in the world in receiving FDI, which keeps millions of French people employed. French banks rely heavily on foreign borrowing, and much French sovereign debt is held abroad. But of course you, like Mélenchon, believe that all that can be taken care of by authoritarian fiat. As for capital controls and the Socialist Party, it may surprise you to learn that it was the Socialist Jacques Delors, who, as head of the European Commission, played the key role in removing them and allowing free movement of capital across Europe. But if you look at what I actually wrote, you'll see that my main concern in speaking of "responses of the economy" was not with movements of capital but rather with movements of prices in response to protectionist barriers and devaluation in the wake of euro withdrawal. Nevertheless, if you wish to expel me from your Socialist Party (which, by the way is not the party to which Mélenchon belongs), feel free to do so. I won't take it amiss.

Art Goldhammer said...

Sorry, Mr. Goldstein, not Mr. Weinstein.

Nathaniel said...

Just a little non-policy-based quibble with how JLM has been represented here and elsewhere. I just saw him speak from his Péniche Insoumise yesterday, and it made me think: how many "populist protest candidates" have you heard quote Diogenes and La Boétie and Latin proverbs in their speeches, and how many "paleo-trotskyists" have you heard say "culture is the only thing that matters, the only thing that counts"? Mélenchon is many things, but he is not an old-school Communist. He is pushing a political philosophy based on happiness, respect, and cooperation in which poetry and laughter is of prime importance. This is not neo-Stalinism.

He can be attacked for economic naivety, perhaps, but this vision is precisely what gives people hope (against the supercilious, technocratic pessimism), as he expressed very clearly yesterday: what he wants for every individual (fulfilling work, decent housing, medical care, good education for children, peace) actually costs very little. It's the excesses of the capitalist system that cost so much and cause so much misery. That's what people respond to.

Alexandra Marshall said...

Wow, Nathaniel. Medical care and education cost very little?

While I love your mention of poetry and happiness and laughter, because those are also what make us human, your somewhat determinist comment about happy politics making for happy people zapped me instantly back to this:

If the link doesn't come through, it's "Socialism and Man in Cuba" by one Ernesto Guevara, and, well, look at how that turned out.

Michael Metz said...

Art, thank you for your thoughtful response to the question, (rudeness at the end set aside). I also thank your readers for the lively discussion. You speak to the issue at the heart of democratic socialism, ie , if/when a true socialist is elected, is it possible to implement their program, short of the Stalinist approach of Chavez. Blum and Miterrand, do not provide much hope.

Michael Metz

Anonymous said...

thanks, you are very accurate on these points below.
It seems the fair majority of the left and far right thinks that way. Maybe the economical aspect are miss-understood in this country.
keep writing,

"One cannot simply decree that pensions should be increased, working hours reduced, the legal retirement age lowered, taxes on households decreased, nuclear power eliminated, etc., without explaining how you expect the economy to respond and how you might manage any adverse consequences. Mélenchon has nothing to say on these matters."