Wednesday, March 23, 2011

When you call Europe on the phone ... a busy signal?

Scene: President Obama, en route from Chile to San Salvador on his first imperial tour of Latin America, uses the time on Air Force One to bring order to the squabbling NATO allies. Prime Minister Erdogan must first be cajoled: he can claim all he wants to his party faithful that Turkey will not be shooting at Muslims in Libya, but he mustn't block NATO's command-and-control role there. Then Cameron and Sarkozy must be placated: NATO will take a lead role (Cameron), but so will an independent authority (Sarkozy). Now if Italy doesn't get cold feet, if Norway can be reassured and Chancellor Merkel (looking at her party's declining poll numbers) doesn't make a fuss, and a couple of Arab states can be brought on board, the US can make good on its claim to play a secondary role. But meanwhile, no in-flight basketball games for the President, as he carries out his functions as Leader of the Free World.

One of my main interests in pursuing this blog is to see whether Europe, particularly the 'Old Europe' with its traditions of social democracy and post-colonial contrition, can play a significant and countervailing role on the world-stage of the 21st century. As the world system evolves from a single superpower to a multilateral system embodied in the G-7 or -8 or -20--or is it really a G-2, as China steps firmly into every power vacuum?--I, like many others, have held out hope that the European civilization, somewhat world-weary and battle-scarred, could gather its forces and bring into world affairs a degree of circumspection and civility that seemed so wanting in the America of George W. Bush and our yahoo Congress. I still think the EU has that potential.

But right now, in the face of an urgent situation in Libya and throughout the Arab world that demands clarity of purpose and deft diplomatic and military discipline, Europe seems more than ever to be looking over its shoulder for its American big brother to take charge. Who else could make those calls to order? Lady Ashton? 'President' van Rompuy? The EU's exclusion of Turkey is of course an initial difficulty, but it hardly stops there. The particularist--and nakedly political--interests of politician-statesmen like Sarkozy and Merkel, both looking at unfavorable polls, present another. And then the divergent traditions each works within: Cameron must bring his policies back to Parliament where he is primus inter pares, while Sarkozy is half-expected to act like General de Gaulle, if not Napoleon. Germany isn't sure whether it is still a pacifist nation, in rehabilitation, or one of the new world-system's Great Powers. Belgium, the Netherlands, and others to varying degrees are held hostage to nationalist, xenophobic parties whose world-view has nothing in common with the global perspective I would hope for in this virtual Europe of my dreams. And let's not talk about Italy's leadership ...

I salute for the moment the efforts of Obama and Clinton to implement the Pax Americana, with all its bellicose trappings, along lines of UN sponsorship, multi-lateral responsibility, and diplomatic consensus. In some ways an outlier like Gadhafi makes an easier test case for such an initiative than more complex test-cases like Afghanistan or Iraq. But despite the eager volunteerism of Sarkozy and Cameron, 'Europe' is in no way ready to be a co-equal partner in this venture, and I have to ask: if not now, when?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

France's Brave New Political World

The political scene in France this morning is a shambles. Polls that suggested the emergence of the National Front as a major player have been strongly confirmed by Sunday's local elections, and the ambivalence of Sarko's UMP is there for everyone to see: wanting the FN's voters, the UMP managed to promote the its ideas to the point where significant numbers of voters are leaving the UMP for the FN, in effect asking, Why not go for the real thing? This becomes easier to consider as Marine Le Pen proves so much more canny than her father in banishing the more offensive parts of his message while sending a clear signal that hers is still a France for 'the French' (defined along the narrowest lines of race, religion, origin) and her movement a vindication of the white, Christian, and chauvinist identities of another age.

In response the UMP and the French Right in general still can't decide where the lines of respectability ('republican' is the term of choice) are to be drawn. This leaves considerable confusion as to whether the Right intends to team up with the Socialists against the FN, or leave open by default (i.e., abstention in the second round) an ambiguous space in which an unstated alliance with the FN can continue to form.

This dilemma is oddly mirrored on the Left by the success of Jean-Luc Mélenchon's Front de Gauche. Though given little attention in the MSM, consumed as it is with the marquee drama of Le Pen and her vague bleu Marine, JLM's success on Sunday is no less impressive. The FdG, barely 2 years old, stands at something more than 10%, with candidates in play for more than 200 local seats; it is, as its leaders proclaim, the clear second force on the Left, the fourth largest force nationally--and though they aren't saying so right now, a bloc without which the Left may never claim the national presidency it so desperately covets.

In yesterday's press conference the FdG's leadership strongly urged an alliance with other Left forces--the Socialists, but also Europe Ecology/the Greens--in order to exclude the FN as widely as possible from winning seats in next Sunday's second round. In the longer run, though, will the FdG be able to support a PS whose candidate is none other than the director of the IMF, one of the most visible leaders of the global capitalist system the FdG so deeply deplores? Conversely, can the PS hope to capitalize on its situation--Sarko's unpopularity, the enduring economic crisis, the threat of the FN--without running a centrist like M. Strauss-Kahn? While the Right's dilemma is all over the front pages today, the quiet triangulation between Left, Far Left, and Center (and also between socialists, communists, and ecologists) is at least as thorny.

Trying to untangle this knot I find myself turning to an unlikely source, Valérie Pécresse, a hack politician on the Right and a junior minister. With reference to the UMP/PS/FN dilemma, Mme. Pécresse makes a distinction between "differences of ideas" (that divide UMP and PS, républicains all) and "differences of values" that make an unbridgeable gulf between the UMP and the FN. Wherever this leaves the Right, its logic applies similarly to the Left. For some JLM and the FdG are symmetrical with the FN--suspiciously descended from totalitarian Communism, republican by convenience but with values fundamentally incompatible with the PS. Decades of PCF participation in the 'republican' rituals of governance may have tempered this criticism, but they haven't put it to rest.

What I hear JLM and the FdG saying today, though, and in the campaign to come, is that they represent a challenge to Center-left Socialists at the level of ideas but not of 'values.' Far from contesting the basic values of republicanism, they intend to revitalize the PS and the Republic by addressing, within its institutional framework, the dissatisfactions and the despair that are driving voters outside that republican framework and into the waiting arms of Mme. Le Pen. While it is erroneous (as polling data shows) to claim that the FN's new strength is coming from apostate voters on the Left, it is probably true that those voters in play are demographically close to the PCF's traditional base. Can JLM reach them and bring them into an enlarged alliance within a Left that really challenges current assumptions (and cannot be dismissed with Le Pen's sardonic term 'UMPS')? Are his 'values' not compatible with those of the PS to which he belonged for nearly all of his long career? The Left has a year to negotiate these difficult waters, but after Sunday it will no longer be useful or possible to ignore the existence of a well-formed bloc to the left of the PS's center of gravity.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

President Rising

Leading economic theorists converged on the IMF headquarters in Washington today for a summit conference on macroeconomic policy. I gave myself the treat of watching the IMF's director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, open the proceedings with a 20 minute address, in charmingly accented and idiomatic English, in which he welcomed his academic colleagues, reviewed the themes of the day's work, and promised to attend the sessions. It was a remarkable performance from this remarkable person, in whom the strands of politician, economist, and banker come together with such force. Only a few years ago DSK, between ministerial posts, was teaching economics at Sciences Po. In another year he may be Président de la République ... or not. As he exhorted his guests to help set the new, post-crisis course for global capitalism, in which his IMF will take a leading part, I had to wonder (as I suppose he himself does) whether that other job, if he wins it, would be a vertical promotion, a lateral one, or no promotion at all.

Clearly on display in this room full of brainpower, in the roster of topics and supporting papers, and in the host institution at large, is the confidence of a world system that believes it knows where it is going. Conference convener Olivier Blanchard, describing the task at hand, makes it seem so clear: certain assumptions need to be examined, certain adjustments made to monetary and fiscal regulation, and then the global system can resume its work, spreading growth, consolidating markets, enlarging the precincts and advancing the interests of capital. It is a powerful, possibly all-powerful system, and DSK sits at its nexus.

Of course like so many others my interest in DSK is more specific: I want to know if he is going to launch a presidential campaign, and if so when, and with what success. What was merely a handicapper's curiosity until last Saturday has turned into something much more urgent: the fate of the Republic, no less. For with Sarkozy's dismal performance and the meteoric ascent of Marine Le Pen in the polls, all eyes are turning to DSK as the one sure trump card that will keep the National Front out of the Elysée Palace.

But I must say, watching DSK preside over the IMF, he seems oddly juxtaposed, with all due respect, to Marine Le Pen. Not that I mean to underestimate her, and anyone who does would be a fool. She is a fierce debater, a quick study, and her strategic instincts thus far display a discipline quite unlike her father's. And yet what she stands for, compared to DSK and the IMF, seems so small, so petty , so local. Her current mission to Lampedusa, presumably to tell the Tunisian and Libyan refugees to get back on their boats and go home, is a case in point: in the face of a wrenching political and humanitarian crisis that has galvanized the world's attention, her response is to pull up the gangplank and let history take its course somewhere else. Hers is a folkloric France, homogeneous and pure, old-fashioned in its values and without global ambitions. One can understand the appeal of such a world to a populace battered by unemployment, bewildered by demographic and cultural change, chronically anxious about the destination of a world too large to be comprehended. If she can succeed in painting her more familiar vision in vivid colors for the French voters, is it so difficult to imagine them preferring it to the more abstract, cosmopolitan, polyglot realities so perfectly embodied in DSK?

Well sure, the smart money still favors DSK, or even Sarko, to this upstart frontrunner-of-the-moment. My own admittedly remote hope is for a third alternative that has hardly shown its outlines as yet. It would question the viability of that capitalist world system, for all its power, and recall how close it brought us to the brink of collapse just two years ago. It would question whether the barely visible but no less imposing environmental catastrophe can be addressed by a system whose only rationale and modus operandi is perpetual growth. It would understand that ours is, like it or not, a world system, but would postulate a world system grounded in solidarity, not competition, exploitation, profit. It would take on the challenge of rising inequality, within the developed economies and between the less developed ones, and redistribute the vast accumulations of wealth that are the source of such instability. Such a nascent vision will be represented, however imperfectly, in the French presidential election, whether by Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Olivier Besancenot or both. It will be ridiculed and marginalized in the mainstream press, as indeed it already has been. It may never be forced to specify its ideas programmatically, which is too bad because they need the refinement that comes from public debate. That debate will most likely follow the worn path of DSK's (or Sarko's) old ideas, vs. MLP's utterly anachronistic ones. But a new synthesis of global reach with local management, in a framework no longer determined by capital's demands for growth and profit, will try to articulate itself in this coming campaign. It would be everyone's loss if the more flamboyant thematics of today's medio-political stars render it invisible.