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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Jupiter in the Élysée: how long can Emmanuel Macron's good luck last?

Before entering politics, he studied Machiavelli and the art of gaining and holding power. But is the young French president a lion or a fox?

“A prince, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares, and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.”

This was Niccolò Machiavelli’s advice to young rulers in the notorious handbook that he wrote for them, The Prince, in the early 16th century. The ruler needs to be a strong lion to scare off the wolves but also a cunning fox to recognise the traps that the lion might fall into. We are very far here from the simplistic idea that “the ends justify the means”, a phrase that does not appear in the book – a Machiavellianism that was caricatured later to blacken his name.

As a young philosophy student at Paris Nanterre University, Emmanuel Macron would have known the difference, and the “lion and fox” analogy has been doing the rounds among political commentators in France as a way of characterising his rule.

Macron wrote his undergraduate dissertation on Machiavelli, exploring his ideas about politics and the representation of history in his work. This was before he went to the Paris Institute of Political Studies – better known as Sciences Po – where many aspiring French politicians go, and to the École nationale d’administration, France’s elite finishing school and its equivalent to Oxford’s politics, philosophy and economics course.

The story of his subsequent vertiginous rise to the top is well known: after spending some time as an inspector of finances in the French ministry of economy and serving as the deputy rapporteur for the commission to improve French economic growth, headed by Jacques Attali, he broke with the French high civil service to become an investment banker at Rothschild & Cie, making himself a tidy sum. François Hollande called him back to politics in 2012, making him his deputy secretary-general at the Élysée before naming him as minister of the economy, industry and digital affairs in 2014. Upon leaving government and breaking with the Parti Socialiste (PS), Macron founded his own political movement – En Marche! – in 2016, with which he swept to the presidency to become France’s youngest leader since Napoleon, at the age of 39.

Like Machiavelli before him, who served as a senior civil servant and diplomat in the Republic of Florence, Macron has the experience of high civil service and political position. But unlike Machiavelli, who was removed from his job when the Medici family returned to power in 1512, Macron has attained his country’s highest political office. He is exactly the type of “new prince” for whom Machiavelli was writing: someone who has only recently come to power, who is lacking an established structure and must stabilise his position in order to rule. To the new prince, Machiavelli’s advice was to be both a strong lion, ready to remove one’s enemies forcefully if need be, and a sly fox, to avoid the traps that the lion might not see.

Macron has described his presidency as “Jupiterian”, after the Roman sky and lightning god, the king of the other gods: he will be an aloof but strong leader, thundering orders from on high. This suggests that Macron has decided to be a lion. But has the young prince who declared that he wanted a renaissance of France forgotten the Florentine’s advice about also being a fox?

***

Macron outfoxed his PS rivals in his rise to power. Sensing that Hollande’s record unpopularity – it fell as low as 4 per cent – would be a death sentence for anyone associated with him, he fled the government’s sinking ship after only two years as economy minister. He was right: Hollande never recovered, becoming the first incumbent French president of the Fifth Republic not to seek a second mandate. Macron also avoided the trap of the PS primaries, which was to account for his main centre-left rival, the former prime minister Manuel Valls. Valls fell victim to the anger within the PS rank and file over the reform of the labour market, perceived as betraying the left-wing values of the party – a reform first piloted by Macron and pushed through parliament by decree by Valls.

Macron the fox avoided paying the price of the political fallout that engulfed the labour market reforms that he had instigated and succeeded in detaching himself from Hollande’s toxic legacy. Within the party, the principal beneficiary was Benoît Hamon, who had rebelled against the government’s policy of austerity, and he won the PS primaries. But that victory was short-lived. Hamon was quickly overtaken by the far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who appeared to be the more credible left-wing anti-Hollande candidate. As a result, a large space opened on the centre left for Macron, who wanted to occupy the centre ground – a space that would not have existed with Valls as the PS candidate.

His positioning of himself as being beyond left and right was also astute. First, it presented Macron as being the credible, centrist alternative to Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN) – if one didn’t support Mélenchon and oppose one extreme with another. It also sowed confusion in the traditional left- and right-wing parties: those closer to Hollande and Valls, not recognising themselves in the more leftist and ecological programme of Hamon, turned to Macron; and so, too, did the supporters of the failed centre-right candidate Alain Juppé, who, not recognising themselves in François Fillon’s economically Thatcherite and Catholic, socially conservative platform, found themselves drawn to Macron.

Presenting a new opposition between progressives and conservatives – mirroring Le Pen’s “patriots v globalists” rhetoric – Macron captured the French zeitgeist. He played to two audiences usually kept separate by the play of political parties. And when the centrist candidate François Bayrou offered to form an alliance, Macron the fox jumped at the opportunity. That gave him a 5 per cent boost in the polling, after which he never looked back.

While Macron the fox was using all of his cunning on the political plane, Macron the lion was consolidating his authority within his En Marche! movement, which carries his initials. Portrayed as a political start-up, with an informal, horizontal organisational structure – “helpers” (not employees) used the informal tu to address “Manu” – it is, like most unicorns, highly centralised around its boss, Macron, who makes all of the key decisions. It was he who hand-picked the 428 candidates who ran under his banner for the legislative elections. Whereas the PS and the Republicans hold internal elections to designate candidates, La République En Marche! (as Macron’s party was renamed after his presidential election) is the most centralised political party in France.

Macron the lion also showed his claws in the second-round debate with Marine Le Pen – a debate that Jacques Chirac had refused to have with Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, when the then FN leader made it through to the second round of the presidential contest in 2002. He forcefully confronted her, and the debate was the turning point of the second round. After it, Macron’s ratings jumped 7 per cent to the 66 per cent he was elected on.

In the subsequent legislative election, La République En Marche! won by itself a majority of seats, something rare in the Fifth Republic, which is normally led by a coalition of right-wing or left-wing parties. Macron can now rule without his centrist allies the Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem), whom he ruthlessly eviscerated from his government, throwing out its hapless leader, François Bayrou, whose initial support had provided him the boost without which he would never have made it into power.

***

Macron’s capture of the presidency and the national assembly has brought about accusations of a one-party state. It is true that Macron the lion holds the reins of the two most powerful institutions of France, but he has no control over the local branches of government. Moreover, the assembly is one of the most diverse that the Fifth Republic has ever had: there is a record number of female deputies (223, up from the previous legislature’s 155), ethnic minorities are better represented, and the two extremes – whether Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise or Le Pen’s FN – are present.

With many of his deputies being political novices, however, Macron the lion will be able to dictate how he wants things at the assembly to proceed. That both Mélenchon and Le Pen (for the first time in the assembly) have elected positions will suit him: beneath their shooting matches, his party will go about implementing the reforms he has promised. His appointment of a moderate right-winger close to Juppé, Édouard Philippe, as prime minister continues to sow discord within the established political parties, leading to factions of both the PS and the Republicans to declare themselves Macron-compatible, or willing to be “constructive”. As such, there is no strong constituted opposition in the assembly, the role falling to Mélenchon’s 17 deputies. Macron the lion is implementing Macron the fox’s policy of divide and rule.

Macron has a radical view of how the assembly should work, one he laid out in his manifesto. Instead of the usual back and forth between the left and right, he wants the assembly, whose deputies he will reduce by a third, to transform itself into an evaluative body. Its role will be to judge the policies announced by the government, revise and amend them where necessary, then vote them into law. What Macron wants to do is to transform the assembly into an expert body of assessors, which explains why he brought so many deputies from civil society into his party.

In an essay entitled “The Labyrinths of Politics”, written in 2011 for the magazine Esprit, Macron presented his vision of how politics should be conducted. He had joined the editorial board of Esprit after serving as the philosopher Paul Ricœur’s editorial assistant in the late 1990s and wrote several reviews and articles over the next ten years. In “The Labyrinths”, he criticised the “hiatus” between political debate and policy implementation: once a political decision had been made, there was a disconnect between that decision and its implementation.

To solve this problem, Macron the lion proposed to clarify the role that each institution was to play, so that public policy might be able to overcome its immobility and become efficient again. He argued that the ideology of the left and right had to be replaced with proposals for competing visions of society.

In his US-style State of the Union address to the joint houses of parliament at the Palace of Versailles, Macron the lion reiterated this vision. The point of the exercise was to determine the responsibilities of each of the institutions: he, as president, would offer a grand vision of society; his prime minister would elaborate its details; the parliament and senate would evaluate it before voting it into law. The top-down nature of the approach is confirmed by his desire to pass one of his most contentious measures, the reform of the labour market, by decree, which would mean that parliament could vote only to approve it. He has also publicly brought into line anyone who might deviate from this procedure – not least his prime minister, whom he corrected over the timing of fiscal reform, and his army chief of staff, General Pierre de Villiers, who was forced to resign after criticising the reduction of the military budget. He reminded both that he was their boss.

***

Macron the lion’s consolidation of his power on the domestic front continues apace. He has promised to end the state of emergency that has been in existence since the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, but by bringing many of these measures into common law, thereby substantially increasing the power of the state.

That Versailles, the seat of the French “Sun King”, Louis XIV, should play such a prominent role in Macron the lion’s establishment of his power should come as no surprise – he has pursued what some have described as a “monarchical” style of governance. In an interview in 2015, when he was still minister for the economy, Macron explained that since the beheading of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution, political power in France has felt empty, incomplete. This thesis of democracy as an “empty space” was developed by the political philosopher Claude Lefort, though Macron does not seem to have been influenced by him. Since the king’s death, on Macron’s account, great leaders such as Napoleon or Charles de Gaulle have been able to occupy that space, whereas others, such as Hollande, have failed. Macron the lion king has every intention to fill it, for his presidency to be a true republican monarchy.

It was at Versailles that Macron the lion welcomed Vladimir Putin for his first state visit and gave him a public dressing-down over the role that the Russian media had played in the French elections, peddling conspiracy theories about him (there were suggestions that he was living a secret life as a gay man). The choice of location was astute. Because of his KGB training, Putin values being able to understand the international partners he has to deal with. By bringing him to Versailles, Macron sent a signal to Putin that France, too, could play the type of 19th-century power politics that Russia indulges in. Moreover, that the invitation took place during a celebration of Peter the Great was intended to remind Putin of Russia’s Western vocation.

By bringing Putin to Versailles, Macron also announced to the world that he was returning to what he calls the “Gaullist-Mitterrandian” line of foreign policy. This means Paris being a natural ally of Washington, but willing to follow its own independent objectives and also serving as an intermediary between Washington and Moscow. With his now infamous white-knuckled handshake with Donald Trump, Macron the lion showed (literally) that he had the strength to hold his own against one of France’s oldest friends.

Macron the lion committed one mistake, however, after the Trump handshake, which was to explain why he did it: authority needs no explanation. And it backfired. In the US president’s rationale for leaving the Paris climate change agreement, he cited Macron’s handshake. To make amends, Macron invited Trump to attend the Bastille Day military parade in Paris to mark the centenary of US entry into the First World War, which Trump seemed to enjoy. Any good lion would appreciate the display of military power – Trump is no fox – but it allowed Macron to pass a foxlike message to his American counterpart: that there is a link between global warming, which encourages the migration of those people from the Muslim countries whom he wants to ban from entering the US, and terrorism. Trump said he would think about it.

Machiavelli’s criterion for success for a young prince is duration: the new prince must be able to stabilise his power and rule over a long period. This is how Machiavelli would judge Macron. Will Macron succeed, or will the streets thwart his reforms? He has at least five years ahead of him, but will he be re-elected? Would that be success in Machiavelli’s eyes? Will Macron even run for a second presidential term?

Essential for success is what Machiavelli calls “Fortuna” – that is, luck. Macron has been remarkably lucky so far. Had it not been for the “Penelopegate” fake jobs scandal, it would be Fillon we would be discussing today as French president. And Macron has also come to power in a period when Europe is renewing itself with growth, which will help his target of reducing unemployment to 7 per cent, down from the almost 10 per cent that it stands at.

***

For Machiavelli, Fortuna is a woman and she favours the brave. In particular, she favours young, brave men – characteristics that Macron has. To make the best out of Fortuna, one needs virtù, that elusive value of having good judgement. It is virtù that transforms fortune into an opportunity, and Macron has showed good virtù so far, from escaping Hollande’s sinking PS ship to creating his own party, forming a coalition with François Bayrou and engaging in a televised debate with Marine Le Pen.

Fortuna is, however, fickle. So what will happen when Macron’s luck runs out? Will his virtù desert him, too? Machiavelli’s advice to maintain a strong state is to keep the people contented and the grandi on side. His choice of Édouard Philippe, who was a little-known mayor of Le Havre, as prime minister was inspired, as Philippe owes his position to Macron. He has kept the support of the grandi of both parties by bringing them into government. But he has also alienated his old ally Bayrou, and his public humiliation of the army chief of staff has been criticised.

What the prince should fear are conspiracies from within and conspiracies from without. On the international stage, Macron has developed his independent line but crucial to his success in Europe will be his continuing good relations with Angela Merkel. His recent nationalisation of the French shipyards at Saint-Nazaire in Brittany has infuriated his Italian partners, and he has sent his economy minister to Rome to make amends.

At the domestic level, Machiavelli’s counsel is to avoid being hated at all costs. As a liberal (still a dirty word in France) and a former employee of a Rothschild bank, seen as close to employers and wanting to reform the labour market, making it easier to hire and fire, Macron is already hated by a section of the population. He must ensure that this section does not become too large. To do so, he must show himself to be a courageous, firm and decisive leader.

His real test at the domestic level will come in September, when the inevitable street protests against his labour reforms will take place in Paris. Reform of the labour market has been one of his top priorities, so if Macron were to vacillate, he would lose authority. In the choice between being loved and being feared, Machiavelli recommends fear.

Macron’s popularity is high, with approval ratings reaching 64 per cent in June. These have inevitably dropped – at the time of writing, they were down to 54 per cent – but his popularity is also his best protection against internal conspiracies. He will have to be wary of the ambitions of Prime Minister Philippe, whom he has already called back into line on several occasions. But if his popularity remains high, he will be safe.

Macron’s drop in the polls comes, in part, as a result of cuts to housing benefits and a delay in tax cuts, so he must be sure to keep the people content. One of the president’s projects is the “moralising of public life” – to end some of the nepotistic practices of politics (employing one’s family members, for example) that seem to hark back to the ancien régime. Completing that reform of the political class will keep the people who want change on his side.

In the next five years, Macron will have to use all of his lion strength and fox cunning to establish his rule and make it last into the next presidency.

Hugo Drochon is an historian of late nineteenth and twentieth century political thought, with interests in continental political thought, democratic theory, liberalism and political realism. His book Nietzsche’s Great Politics came out with Princeton University Press in 2016. 

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special