Real political incompetence ought to be understood not in terms of the ministerial bumbling of The Thick of It, or the gaffes that make momentary headlines, but in terms of mass self-delusion.
Tony Blair’s interventions into the public debate on Brexit do not lack eloquence, they lack self-awareness. When Labour’s centrists attempted to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2016, they did so under the delusion that their triangulating politics could capture the support of members and the wider public. As the centre falls out of politics, many still cling to its false certainties.
In May last year, the dream of a centrist comeback was given a major boost with the election of Emmanuel Macron in France. Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell, now editor-at-large of the New European magazine, praised his “energy and confidence and conviction”. Painting himself as the liberal, pro-European antithesis to Marine Le Pen of the National Front, Macron came to power on a momentary wave of optimism about breaking free from the Socialist and Republican parties, winning big among better educated and urban voters.
But the real story of Macon’s Presidency so far has been his economic policy: his determination to cut 120,000 civil service jobs and his adherence to an orthodoxy that, everywhere else in Europe, is being rolled back.
It would be over-generous to say that Macon’s promise to the disillusioned working class voter is simply more of the same. As a fresh faced, charismatic technocrat, he often draws comparisons to Tony Blair. In terms of his real ambitions and France’s less neo-liberalised economy, he is more like a French Thatcher. As Francois Hollande’s economy minister, he oversaw labour market reforms, which, among other things, made it easier for employers to sack workers.
Now, his policy is to increase taxes on pensions, undermine trade union representation and power in public services, and introduce performance-related pay for civil servants as a means of undermining general wage increases – all on top of reforms last year which attacked collective bargaining. Simultaneously, the French government has introduced controversial selection practices in higher education, and, perhaps most significantly, paved the way for the privatisation of French railways.
Thus far, most of the commentary in Britain has focused on a rather wonkish analysis of whether or not Macron can get his reforms through – whether he can “win”. Like the British miners’ strike, this is a race between the unity of the French labour movement and the government’s resolve. But the reality is that, regardless of who wins, Macron’s policies are a disaster for the ideals he claims to be fighting for – most obviously his Europeanism.
When introducing its package of reforms to the railways, the French government has argued that the dismantling of the working conditions of staff is simply a part of readying the state train network, SNCF, for being opened up to competition and liberalisation under the EU’s latest railway directive.
The new EU rules do not really require Macron to do what he is doing – and in any case, the directive could simply be opposed and amended if the French government had the will to do so. And yet, when confronted with the privatisation of the railways, the average French worker finds themselves opposing not just the French government, but, seemingly, the concept of the EU as well.
This is a classic example of how technocratic neo-liberalism operates. Governments with an agenda of privatisation use their seat at the table of trade deals or transnational institutions (in this case the EU) to create rules which supposedly force them to privatise public services – and then claim merely to be following those rules. Fans of privatisation and opponents of state intervention are quite open about the role that state aid rules play – they provide the excuse for right wing governments to do what they want.
Where progressive European idealists would seek a regime of international solidarity and levelling up, Macron offers a race to the bottom. As banks consider their future in the aftermath of Brexit, he is keen to make France a competitive option for big capital and the super rich, offering a big cut to corporation tax, scrapping some property taxes, and maybe even removing the highest bracket of tax for bankers.
It does not take a genius to work out that this situation is a disaster for pro-Europeans and opponents of the far right in France and beyond. But Macron, who carries an axe in one hand and a European flag in the other, is still held up as a saviour of progress by much of the political elite. What his supporters will find is that a deregulatory economic agenda is actively corrosive to the progressive dream of Europe.
The political agenda of Macron – like that of the Labour right, Hillary Clinton and the rightward-drifting establishments of Europe’s social democratic parties – is an agenda sustained only by the collective delusion of its adherents. Every day, it pushes ordinary people into the arms of the far right and resurgent nationalism.
The politics of technocratic centrism are resistant to being labelled in ideological terms, so perhaps we ought to describe them in their own terms. They are incompetent. The growing movement of French workers and students currently mobilising against Macron’s reforms are not just fighting over their own wages and public services.
They are the only force that can save the European project from itself.