Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Fear of the People: a geneology of Macron's ultra-liberalism


In Marie Helene Baylac’s aptly named “The Fear of the People, a history of the First Republic, 1848-1852, there is an account of one of those highly charged and very theatrical events that distinguish the 1848 revolution – which in spite of being the revolution of writers (Marx, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Sand, Hugo, and last but not least, Marie D’Agoult, whose history of that moment should be retranslated and introduced by some muckety muck for NYRB books – who will inevitably refer to D’Agoult as Franz Lizst’s lover and the mother of one Cosima, who married another famous composer, Richard Wagner) is not a revolution much loved by historians. A flop, they say. Such hopes, ending in Little Napoleon!

The scene takes place at the Hotel de Ville, which is around 10 blocks from where I am typing this. To set the scene, Louis Phillipe, the last king of France, had fled, and a new republic had been proclaimed , at least in Paris. One of the notable figures in the provisional government was Alphonse Lamartine, a romantic poet and, it turns out, an ultra-liberal. He was in the company when, on February 25th, a worker with a rifle, at the head of a delegation of workers, barged into the room at the Hotel de Ville where the provisional government was meeting and addressed them, demanding “the organisation of labor, the right to guaranteed employment, and a minimum assistance assured for the worker and his family in case of sickness, and to save him from misery once he could not work.” Lamartine rose to the occasion: “You would have to cut off my hand before I would sign that!” Three days later, Lamartine addressed the assembly with even more stirring words about the horrors of undermining the free market in labor, again offering himself as a martyr for the cause: “You can set me to face the mouth of a cannon but you will never get me to sign those two words associated together: Organisation of Labor!”

The phrase is associated with Louis Blanc, who wrote a best-selling book of the same name. Blanc is a socialist of the kind still recognizable on the French left. Baylac quotes a speech he gave which defines, to an extent, the nebulous concept of organisation of labor: “… does liberty exist there were the conditions of labor are such that they are hammered out between the master who stipulates the wage to profit by it and the worker who stipulates in order not to die… one of the thousand tragic incidents that are engendered each day by the immense anarchy of universal competition?” In Blanc’s vision, the state would insert itself in the manifestly bad deal for the workers by creating national workshops and moderating competition. The demand for organized labor was, to an extent, a demand for unions – but this was still a vague organizational notion.

Lamartine is, I think, the true begetter of that strain of social moderation and ultra-liberalism that has found its latest puppet in Macron. One can imagine Macron throwing himself into some hysterical pose to face down the unruly masses – organisation of labor indeed! The combination of police-heavy tactics, a throwback to the French governments of the seventies, if not the Greek colonels of the 60s, and the confidence that the people, like children, will just settle down “after the dust has settled” – the Macronites have a quasi-obsession with the “dust settling”, which is about their entire experience with such things as garbage collection and manual labor – is reminiscent of Lamartine, although not as poetic – the poetry in Macron’s circle is produced by McKinsey consultants, and they earn more for their odes to privatization than Lamartine could ever have dreamed.

I have a feeling, where I sit, that the weight of fatigue has shifted – that the unions, the young, and the seventy percent that oppose the “reforms” are on the retreat. I hope I am wrong – and I know that this retreat is not an extinction of anger, but a sense that the government is sealed against the will of the people. I don’t see the French going gentle into the next period, giving away the national treasure of a social security system for Macron’s beaux yeux. But I also don’t see the Left taking advantage of this moment. Which leaves Le Pen.

And yet, Le Pen has her problem too - someday, somewhere, she  is actually going to have to speak about the French social security system, which her hardcore supporters have fought furiously against for fifty years. This is a dilemma she is helped over by a complacent French media, but these are questions that can't be delayed forever. 


Anonymous said...

Marie d'Agoult is most definitely not the least of that impressive list. Her account of 1848, particularly the events of June, offer a rather different perspective than that of Hugo on the same.

I suppose we will find out starting tomorrow if people are tired and the government impenetrable.

Apologies for multiple recent comments that don't offer anything. I'll stop but sure as hell am not stopping from protesting tomorrow and the day after...

- Sophie

Roger Gathmann said...

Yeah, I've long been a Marie D'Agoult fan. Very impressive. Hugo's Choses Vues, though, shouldn't be sneezed at! I'm glad you are going to the demo - I can't go today for various reasons. I'm wondering whether Borne's refusal to talk about the retraite will inflame or douse the people. I think we are soon going to have to take a chapter from MLK's Alabama campaign. And we definitely have a Bull Connors, the notorious police chief - we have Gerald "you don't have any rights" Darmanin. With his little Franquist moustache.
I've written a bunch about D'agoult. Here's a post, to which your aunt added.

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