France: Apocalypse in about a month.

With only three weeks to go before the first round of the French Presidential election, the media are in full politics-as-horse-race frenzy. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out, which grinning face will give the victory speech after the second round, and that’s pretty much it.

Lost in all this is the terrible, lamentable, really not very good, performance of the two major parties. Hamon (Socialist of a sort) and Fillon (official candidate of the Right) can barely muster thirty per cent of the vote between them. Can you imagine it, what has become of the two major parties of one of the most powerful nations in the world? Think Labour and the Conservatives, or Republicans and Democrats, with thirty per cent of the votes between them.

Now of course these are not the parliamentary elections: they come a few weeks later, and the party machines should be capable of turning out a higher vote. But we’re looking here not just at a rough patch politically, but at the end of an entire political system. It’s going to get a lot rougher between now and May, and even rougher thereafter. This is big news, probably the end of the Fifth Republic as we know it, and the media and the political class have no idea how short a time the current system has to live.

 

My franglais is not efficient

You may have seen that Paris is bidding for the Olympic Games again, this time for 2024. You may also have seen that they’ve chosen a slogan in English – franglais, really. It’s Made for Sharing.

Think about that for a minute. Does it mean anything? Did whoever made it up think it meant anything? Cities aren’t “made” for a purpose, after all, any more than the Olympic Games are. Is the assumption that all of the visitors return home with a small piece of Paris? For the benighted who don’t speak English, there’s also a slogan in French, Venez, Partarger, which does at least mean something. A decent English translation would be “come and join in” or “come and share the experience”

Joking (mostly) aside, this is important because it reflects a much wider problem in France, and especially among French elites who are going through one of their periodic obsessions with copying other countries – in this case the Anglo-Saxon ones. This extends to the wholesale, and often clumsy, importation of English words into French political and media discourse, as well as into advertising. The problem is that the French aren’t actually very good at foreign languages. They are not as bad as the British (and certainly they are more willing to try) but they still aren’t that good. The standard of English teaching in France is, well, variable, and you very rarely encounter the kind of fluency in English, even among the well educated that you find in Germany or the Netherlands. Few large organisations have specialist translators. This doesn’t prevent the widespread and often inelegant use of English as a status symbol by a certain category of aspirational French individual, often with hideous results, or the clumsy and misleading presentation of the world’s favourite tourist destination in information for visitors. Ironically, this is even having an effect on English itself, where the language of Shakespeare is turning in a globish pseudo-language. For example, the confusion between translating efficace as “efficient” (i.e. cost-effective) and “effective” was lost many years ago: “this medicine is efficient” anybody? Most non-native English speakers have now totally confused the two.

The obsession with the slavish imitation of others, is, of course, a symptom of the lack of confidence in their own country, its culture and its language, which is now pretty much universal among French elites. Indeed these elites, independent of their political views, share a sense of embarrassment at being French, and some go so far as to criticise those who take pride in their history and culture as racists or xenophobes. So when Presidential contender Emmanuel Macron asserted recently that there was “no French culture” no one was surprised, and nobody important was offended. Macron, the symbol of the French elite’s aching desire to be un-French, speaks (bad) English at every opportunity and seems proud to do so.

So as World History replaces French History in schools, and the language of Moliere is increasingly replaced by the language of Trump, you have to wonder where, if anywhere, this is all going to end. Would a President Macron make Franglais the official language of the country? Until recently that would have seemed a joke. Now I’m not so sure.

Is America a failure of marketing?

If there’s a single dominant theme of advanced western societies today, it’s popular anger. This anger, often incoherent, often poorly focused, is mostly directed against what people see as “the system” or “the elites” who they feel have betrayed and abandoned them. So pervasive has this discourse become that even the most elite of establishment politicians feel obliged to position themselves against “the system”; the latest and least credible being Emmanuel Macron, a serious candidate for the French Presidency who is a millionaire former merchant banker. What’s going on here?

First, we need to distinguish between popular anger and elite anger. We’ve seen a lot of elite anger recently, in the reaction to the Brexit vote, in the wider challenges to the current European financial and economic system and, perhaps most of all, in the reaction to Donald Trump’s election.Elite anger is a form of narcissism, a childlike scream of rage and disappointment that the elites can no longer have what they want so easily, that people are calling them unpleasant names, or, in the case of the US, that the toys they have played with for a generation are being taken away. In a society that prizes feelings above facts, and demands nor simply protection from bad things but even from hearing about bad things, all this is perhaps not surprising.

But I’m not really concerned with that here, except for one interesting point. Clinton supporters have been busy finding someone to blame for her recent catastrophic defeat, and I don’t know (or frankly, care) enough about American politics to act as some kind of adjudicator. But I was struck by how many times it’s been suggested that the problem was with “the message”, or that “people didn’t understand.” In other words, what we have here is  failure of marketing. If the marketing had been better, people would have “understood” and Clinton would have won.

Of course politicians in every country worry about the “message” and why it is or isn’t getting through. But it’s especially important in the US, because the US is the home and origin of Public Relations, and indeed PR is probably the only industry in which the US has consistently been a world leader.  It was also the first society to be built, deliberately and methodically, on public relations rather than on real political and economic structures  Consider the phrase “The American Dream”, which is a bit shop-soiled now, but still in use. What’s a dream? A dream is something that by definition is not real. So tens of millions of immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were sold a dream, rather than a reality. The reality was that most of them would have had a better life if they had stayed where they were.

The politics of the deliberately manufactured dream has been the dominant mode in the US ever since. The present is great but you don’t realise it. The future will always be wonderful when it eventually arrives. If you don’t see that it’s because you are too stupid to understand. This works for a while, reinforced by a powerful and sophisticated propaganda machine, in ways first spelt out by the journalist Walter Lippman in the 1920s. But the problem with PR, of course, is that in the end it’s not real, and there’s a limit to how far and for how long you can persuade people that black is white and up is down. It would be easier if elites were hypocritically and deliberately lying, but the problem is that they have employed and manipulated these dreams for so long, they have started to believe them. They no longer think they are lying.

But ordinary people think they are. The anger that we’re seeing is not about finding someone to “blame” for the apparent inability of so much of the population to understand  the wonderful benefits of globalization.  It’s the anger of people who realise that they have been systematically lied to over a long period of time, and that the lying is still going on. It’s the anger of people who realise that, behind the PR there actually is nothing. We’re in Wizard of Oz territory here, where everything is smoke and mirrors and there is nothing behind the curtain.

So what’s a poor, misunderstood elite to do when people have finally realised that PR and the world are two different things, and get angry? Search me. There’s nothing else, after all, but dreams to use as weapons. If I were them I’d start running now.

 

 

Fillon: Schadenfreude à la française.

The German word schadenfreude –  usually translated as something like “a malicious delight in the unhappiness of others” – refers to a concept that’s not especially nice, and by and large it’s something that we shouldn’t cultivate. But there are exceptions.

Most of us like seeing the hypocritical, the arrogant and the corrupt cut down to size, and no matter how many charitable feelings we manage to conjure up, there will be occasions when we think that somebody’s misfortunes are richly deserved: karma, if you like, with added moral sauce. In a world where the rich, powerful, arrogant and hypocritical seem to get away with everything all the time, it’s hard not to see the humbling of one of them as the limited and temporary reinstatement of a bit of moral order in the universe.

So after a year which featured, among other things, the humiliation of David Cameron and Hilary Clinton, and the apparent banishment from politics of Nicholas Sarkozy (but watch it, the slimy bastard may yet be back), we start 2017 with the hilariously entertaining crucifixion of François Fillon. There’s a kind of mad narrative purity in the Fillon story, almost as if he was setting himself up for a fall for twenty years, deliberately cultivating a false and hypocritical image and then making it easy for people to find out what he had done. Whatever the final result, the Fillon story will go down as an archetype of how to destroy a political career through stupidity and arrogance.

Consider. Here’s a man whose Presidential programme involves forcing people to wait longer for their pensions, and getting rid of half a million public sector workers, while wielding the lash of austerity with evident relish. Here’s a man who mentions his own honesty, his own integrity and the need for an “irreproachable” President in every speech, and takes the whole family off to church on Sunday. Here is a man who won the primary elections of the main right-wing party by contrasting himself with Juppé (who had served a suspended prison sentence for corruption) and Sarkozy, about whom nothing else need be said. Here’s a man who even his detractors thought was basically honest in a deeply corrupt political system.

But here’s a man who was employing his wife, or arranging for her to be employed, as his parliamentary assistant on and off for nearly twenty years. He somehow never got around to mentioning that fact, and indeed both he and she denied that she was working, and nobody ever seems to have seen her in her alleged place of employment. So he (or she or both) pocketed nearly a million Euros, more than most French people ever earn in a lifetime, at the taxpayer’s expense, and for doing no obvious work. Oh, and there was her non-existent but well-paid media job, the use of his children as assistants when they were both students, the mysterious consultancy with unidentified clients, and whatever new revelation will have surfaced by the time I finish typing this.

So here’s a man, one is tempted to say, who either has a political death-wish, or is so arrogant that he thinks the law and the rules don’t apply to him. Here’s a man who lied, with the complicity of his wife, over the course of twenty years, about something where the truth could easily be demonstrated. Here’s a man who disobeyed Denis Healey’s first rule of politics – when you’re in a hole, stop digging – and has flailed around, offering excuses and explanations which blow up in his face almost as soon as they are uttered. Here’s a man who doesn’t seem to actually deny the accusations, but who presents himself as a the innocent victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy. Here’s the man who would probably have been President of France.

Here’s a man who richly deserves everything he’s currently undergone, and everything he’s about to get. I don’t feel sorry for him at all.

Irresistible forces, immovable masses, and the sh*t hitting the fan.

When I was a student, a horribly long time ago, one of my professors, the kind of person who was always intolerant of intellectual laziness, explained to us one day why the idea of an irresistible force meeting an immovable mass was rubbish. After all, he said, if a force was irresistible, then no mass could be immovable, and vice versa. I was impressed by this, and occasionally mention it to my own students.

Nonetheless, in vernacular speech we continue to use this expression to mean that something very powerful is about to collide with something very strong, and it is not obvious which will prevail. I was thinking of this, obscurely, while I was looking at the new book by Mark Fisher, which I mentioned in a post recently. The late lamented Fisher quoted Slavoj Zizek as saying that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than it was to imagine the end of capitalism. Now Zizek is not known for his sense of understatement, but there is some truth in the idea that capitalism has come, in a matter of a generation or so, to dominate the ideological space in a way nothing else has for hundreds of years. I suppose the last time anything similar happened was in the 17th century, before science has started to make too many inroads into religion. If you look at the, sermons of John Donne, for example, you can see a highly intelligent man struggling and failing to understand that there were some people who literally did not believe in a supernatural God. Similarly, after several centuries when different orthodoxies fought it out with each other, it is true that there is today no obvious articulated alternative to capitalism. And you find support and adulation of it wherever you go. This, if you like, is the immovable mass.

But it’s not immovable. I said above that there was no “articulated” alternative, but that’s not to say that people don’t hope and wish for a better system. It’s just that there is no single, powerful system of ideas to which they can turn. But recent history shows that there is a limit to how far you can simply ignore ordinary people. For all that the post-modern list theorists have done well to alert us to be importance of discourse, and for all that George Orwell said in 1984 about making certain thoughts unthinkable, in the end we do have emotions and thoughts and we do find an expression for them. In the absence of an articulated ideology, this tends to come out in a rather rough and undeveloped form. We have seen this in the case of Brexit, we have seen this in the case of Donald Trump, and will be seeing it again and again over the next few years. The absolute incapacity of ordinary people to accept capitalism as it now is, and to demand change, is, if you like, the irresistible force.

So what happens now? I think there are two basic possibilities. One is a kind of ginormous explosion, which may actually destroy the current political and economic system as we know it. I leave you to consider whether you think that would be a good idea or not. The other possibility, floated over the last few months and potentially very interesting, is what James Petras has called “nationalist capitalism”, which would be a kind of return to the period before the madness of neoliberalism, where protectionism and economic nationalism went hand in hand with more attention to the needs of ordinary people. Obviously, this could come in many varieties, some good, some bad. But when even the rich are beginning to realise that neoliberalism will eventually eat itself, then it may be but on this occasion it’s the irresistible force that wins, and not the immovable mass.

So where isn’t NATO when you really don’t need it?

Hard as it may be to remember now, there was a time twenty-five years ago when the future of NATO looked like being short and undistinguished. The end of the Cold War took NATO completely by surprise, and the organisation and its members were in a state of frozen disbelief for quite a while. I remember being in NATO headquarters in January 1990: half of the offices were empty, as though the bureaucrats had run away to hide somewhere, and there was an almost tangible atmosphere of depression and shock throughout the building.

Of course, NATO did not die then, because its continuation served the interests of too many different states and lobbies. Although nations had claimed throughout the Cold War that the only reason for NATO’s existence was the Soviet Threat, and that this was why millions of young men were conscripted every year, and hundreds billions of dollars spent on defence, there was always much more to it than that.

An incomplete list of reasons why states really supported NATO would include the following. For the United States, the chance to have a decisive voice in European security issues without being militarily committed to the defence of the continent. For Britain, the chance to exert influence over the United States, and to play a role through NATO that it could not have played otherwise. For Germany, a ticket back to international military respectability. For France, the hope of not being left alone as in 1940. For many smaller countries, on the other hand, NATO was a useful counterweight to the developing Franco- German axis that threatened to dominate Europe. For Belgium, it was another international organisation to add to the collection. For just about every European state it was a way of keeping Germany under control, as well as providing assurance of international help if some of the continent’s large and powerful Communist parties looked like coming to power.

Whilst these factors were well understood, for obvious reasons they were seldom talked about in public So after the confusing first few years, it was necessary for NATO and its member states to come up with at least a formal new justification for its existence. Unfortunately, NATO was set up as a wartime military alliance, even if few people believed after the mid-1950s but it would ever actually fight a war. An essentially military organisation, organised along the paralysingly bureaucratic lines of the American military, was always going to find it hard to do other things successfully. Efforts at defence reform in Eastern Europe were best a modest success. Other attempts to extend NATO’s mandate into softer security areas (most recently Afghanistan) were in general a failure. When NATO actually came to conduct military operations, first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo and then in Afghanistan, it turned out not to be very good at them. So if it couldn’t do war, and it couldn’t do peace, what could it do?

The answer, or at least an answer, turned out to be enlargement. Indeed, for most of the twenty years that followed the Cold War, NATO was primarily occupied with getting bigger. In spite of what is sometimes alleged, this was never a deliberate long-term plan. The assurances that the Americans gave the Russians in 1990 that NATO would not expand towards the East were probably at least partly genuine at the time. Certainly, many European capitals were very worried about the possibility of uncontrolled expansion of a military alliance which one day would find itself on the borders of Russia. But what else was NATO to do? It was like a bike: either it goes forward, or it falls over. And the potential problem of German tanks on the Russian border was one that future generations of politicians and generals could be left to solve.

Well, we are there now. In a sense, also, we are back where we were in 1990, except that all the pieces are considerably further east. Unable to expand any further, and with most of its members decidedly unenthusiastic about declaring war on any more Arab states, NATO is effectively forced into a posture of military confrontation to justify its existence. As it has been from the beginning, NATO is desperately casting around for a role, and allowing itself to be driven by events in the direction of anything that looks promising.

Over the last generation, American governments have been more or less enthusiastic about NATO depending on their complexion. Some Republican administrations have been decidedly lukewarm, but in the end have always come round, prodded by the foreign policy establishment. But, whilst it’s too soon to draw conclusions, it’s quite possible that one of the effects of Trump’s election victory will be to finally begin the process of burying NATO. The neoconservative hawks who have dominated American foreign policy for so long do appear to have been strangled, or at least put in cages, and the policy of confrontation for its own sake seems to be over now, for which we can all be thankful. NATO, which has been in an existential crisis for more than 25 years, is perhaps about to be put out of its misery.

The difficulty is that we have become used to the rhetoric of “defence” and of Europeans “taking responsibility” and “paying their share”. This rhetoric is the biggest single obstacle to actually seeing and dealing with European security problems as they really are, which have little to do with NATO, except inasmuch as it is a large part of many of the problems. For a long time, we had Cold War nostalgia by people who missed the certainty that the Cold War provided. We now have Cold War nostalgia by people who missed it in the first place because they were too young. Wars have been fought for many bizarre and improbable reasons in history, and we may have escaped, through Clinton’s defeat, the first war ever to have been fought out of nostalgia and the desire to escape an existential crisis. .

RIP Mark Fisher

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Mark Fisher, or if you have, you haven’t read any of his (few) books. And now there won’t be any more, because he committed suicide a few days ago at the age of 48.

To call Fisher a writer on cultural issues is to do him a disservice. He was a political commentator in the widest sense of that term as well, and write trenchantly about both politics and culture in clear and jargon-free prose. His short book Capitalist Realism and his collection of essays Ghosts of My Life, should be compulsory reading for anyone trying to understand our confused, conflicted and deceived era. He published a new book just before he died, The Weird and the Eerie which I’ll be reading as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Looking back on his writing, the revelation in the obituaries that he struggled for years with depression isn’t surprising, but that makes him sound like a gloomy writer, which he really isn’t. His writing is fiercely intelligent, clear and elegant, in a field where obfuscation and pretension are generally part of the job description. Go and buy one of his books and do his family some good. You’ll learn something as well.