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Macron and the Civil War in France

Macron recently side-stepped France's Parliament to institute an unpopular, neoliberal law raising the country's pension age. But Macron is only the most visible symptom of a system that has become totally infected with neoliberalism.

Pierre Dardot, Haud Guéguen, Christian Laval, Pierre Sauvêtre26 June 2023

Macron and the Civil War in France

This article was originally published by Diacritik on 1 May 2023.  


Many bad things are being said about Macron in connection with the forced passage of the pension reform. He is said to be egotistical, arrogant and anything but clever. People forget that he is the man for the job, whose historical function today is to pursue a project that goes beyond just him. We need to get away from a petty ‘psychological’ analysis and consider objectively a policy which, although brutal and sometimes tragically irrational, nevertheless has a precise meaning in the history of our societies. The personal and even sociological characteristics of an individual obviously count, but only in having made Macron this warlord whom people admire or detest. The hatred, even rage, that he inspires in many people is explained by understanding the reasons behind his actions and the effects that they have. Of course, Macron is not Napoleon, nor Putin either. This war does not mobilise planes or tanks; it is muted, diffuse, long term, both political and policing, ideological and budgetary, parliamentary, and fiscal. It is not directed against an external enemy, it targets the population, and deliberately its poorest part, those doing menial jobs and the hardest work. It weakens, distorts and destroys, whenever circumstances and the balance of power allow, everything that could oppose its great project of a ‘fluid society’, ideally made up of innovative entrepreneurs, young people dreaming of billions and a mass of individuals who have only themselves to rely on in surviving amidst generalised competition. 

The programme on which Macron was elected in 2017, which promised a ‘revolution’, should not be taken lightly. This was the title of his campaign book, which, contrary to what has been widely said, was not just a little marketing operation. This revolution from above is one of leaders, local oligarchs, mainstream economists, and current editorialists. In a word, this heralded neoliberal revolution is still, and more than ever, on the agenda. Let’s be clear, Macron didn’t invent anything, he is the actor of a scenario that has been unfolding its effects for a long time. What is particular about him is a political career that is ‘outside the box’, sufficiently ‘disruptive’ not to bother with the basic forms of democracy, even less with social dialogue, and not even with legality when, for example, he has to defend manu militari ecocidal projects suspended by the courts, as with the case of the mega-reservoirs. Macron is the ‘transgressive’ and ‘brutal’ figure who was needed to accelerate the process of in-depth transformation of society, at a time when it would be far more urgent to reflect ‘responsibly’ on its social, ecological, and political claims. 

The present impasse of the administration is often explained in terms of the use of means that are scarcely compatible with political liberalism. It is fortunate for Macron that the constitution of the Fifth Republic offers the president procedures to bypass both parliament and public opinion. That he uses and abuses them, weakening a so-called representative democracy that is already shaky, is obvious, but these forms of brutalisation are not enough to characterise the meaning of the action itself. In other words, Article 49.3 is only the generic weapon of a more specific war, as are also the police forces and their immoderate use of violence. 

Some people mistakenly hold that neoliberalism is a doctrine too heterogeneous or incoherent to cause major concern. Others believe this doctrine has already been consigned to the dustbin, along with the policies and modes of government that find their rationality in it, as if it had been enough to note its catastrophic effects on nature and society to be definitively rid of it. Errors of analysis have piled up, leading to many blind spots. We urgently need to understand that neoliberalism is a doctrine of civil war, in the sense that Michel Foucault argued, in his analysis of power, that ‘civil war is the matrix of all struggles of power, of all strategies of power’. This is something the current government knows perfectly well, since it deliberately and systematically practises civil war while accusing the various ‘enemies of the republic’ of being responsible for it, in a reversal very suggestive of denial.

Fear of democracy

Neoliberalism – a doctrine that former prime minister Édouard Philippe hailed in his address to the Authorité de la Concurrence in 2019, paying tribute to one of its main founders, Friedrich Hayek, and his conception of the state as the legal guardian of efficient economic competition – was born at the turn of the 1930s with the aim of establishing a firm and coherent political order that would protect private property and guarantee competitive market exchanges: ‘economic freedoms’. Liberalism had to be ‘renewed’ by making the state the protective membrane of market competition, because the laissez-faire policy of the classical liberals and their doctrine of the minimal state had failed to protect the market from the powerful and dangerous desire of the masses for equality. From the outset, neoliberal advocates thus explicitly identified the main problem threatening their project of using the state to make the market more fluid: democracy, which was always likely to endanger economic freedoms. Their political strategy, rooted in a deeply reactionary demophobia, has remained unchanged from Hayek to the present day. It consists in containing, neutralising, or destroying all forces that would attack private economic interests and the principle of competition in the name of social justice, which it denounces as a myth. 

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At the forefront of these forces are trade unions, the ‘collectivist’ opposition, social movements, and electoral majorities ‘manipulated by demagogues’. Neoliberal doctrinaires have devoted countless pages to imagining ways to keep democracy in check, not hesitating to call for a right of exception giving the government full power over parliamentary bodies, which one of their number, Alexander Rüstow, called ‘dictatorship within democracy’. Others went so far as to stress the usefulness of fascist violence to save ‘European civilisation’ from socialist ‘barbarism’ (Ludwig von Mises). More ‘legal’ ways could also be useful depending on circumstances, for example the establishment of an ‘economic constitution’ allowing all the conditions of a capitalist economy to be enshrined in law and so protected from political choices and popular will. Everything had to be done to defeat the ‘social state’ that another neoliberal, Wilhelm Röpke, considered a ‘rotten fruit’. In place of this social state, a ‘strong state’ had to be built and defended, which Röpke defined as ‘a totally independent and vigorous state that is not weakened by corporatist pluralist authorities’.

A never-ending war

But is it legitimate to speak of ‘civil war’ in describing the establishment of the neoliberal strong state against social and political forces hostile to capitalism or simply desiring more equality and solidarity? 

In this respect, history is not deceptive when repeated with such regularity. As early as 1927, Mises applauded in Vienna when the emergency powers given to the police to suppress a workers’ demonstration left 89 people dead. In 1981, at a meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society, three winners of the ‘Nobel Prize for economics’, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and James Buchanan, celebrated the Pinochet dictatorship at the height of its repression. Röpke supported apartheid in South Africa, while Hayek sent a copy of his book The Constitution of Liberty to the Portuguese dictator Salazar – ‘to assist him in his efforts to devise a constitution protected from the abuses of democracy’, as he said in the accompanying letter. Thatcher, who corresponded with Hayek, made The Constitution of Liberty the Conservative Party’s bible: she violently suppressed the miners’ strike, killing three people and injuring more than 2,000, and dealt harshly with urban riots by Blacks and South Asians, while allowing the far right to run wild. As governor of California at the turn of the 1970s, Reagan introduced compulsory tuition fees, and the California National Guard’s crackdown on the student movement left one person dead. In his first speech to the Republican Party after his 1981 presidential victory, Reagan thanked Hayek, Friedman and Mises, among others, for ‘their role in [his] success’. ‘Civil war inhabits, traverses, animates and invests power on all sides’, said Foucault, ‘we have the precise signs of it in the form of this surveillance, this threat, this possession of armed force, in short all the instruments of coercion that actually established power gives itself to exercise it’ (Ibid, p. 33). 

The imposition of the market order by neutralising or destroying democracy cannot, however, win the support of society in the long run, with the exception of the pro-business classes who always find it profitable. For this reason, the strategy of creating enemies allegedly responsible for the chaos is essential to the policy of neoliberal civil war, since through the cultural and media battle that it triggers and that the state seeks to dominate at all costs, it gathers around power the social coalition of those who take sides against the designated social enemy. For neoliberals, all critics of ‘capitalist civilisation’ fall into the category of enemy: in the 1920s, Mises saw Soviet Russia as a ‘barbaric people’; in the 1940s, Röpke saw workers as ‘barbaric invaders within their own nation’, and in the late 1950s, he equated blacks in South Africa with an ‘overwhelming majority of black barbarians’; In the 1980s, Hayek called the student protesters of the 1970s ‘undomesticated barbarians’ and Buchanan called them the ‘new barbarians’, while Thatcher referred to the miners’ unions as the ‘enemy within’. 

Macronism or the convulsive form of neoliberalism

An essential aspect of neoliberalism is thus overlooked if we forget its intrinsically authoritarian character. Hayek’s formula: ‘I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking in liberalism’ sums up the neoliberal attitude towards democracy: acceptable when it is harmless, but rejected one way or another, even by the most violent means, when it threatens the unlimited right of capital.

Macronism is, therefore, not violent by chance or by accident. It is one of the political forms that neoliberalism can take because it is in line with its strategy of neutralising the power of collective decision-making when this opposes the logic of the market and of capital. Its historical peculiarity is that it radicalises neoliberal logic at the wrong time, in a period when all social, political, and ecological signals are on red, so that it can only aggravate all latent or open crises. The result is before us: Macron’s convulsive obduracy is generating massive and determined resistance from society. 

Those who interpreted Macron’s neoliberalism as a moderate third way, equally distant from both ultra-liberalism and socialism, were sadly mistaken. And those who thought it was an alternative to the far right are the greatest victims of this illusion. In this respect, Macronism is not a bulwark but a springboard, for two reasons: because it accentuates and broadens resentment against elites and institutions; and because it uses methods, notably police violence, that would not be out of place in what is modestly called ‘illiberalism’. We need only listen to an interior minister like Gérald Darmanin to realise the hybridisation underway between Macronism and the far right.

Macron believes it useful to his cause to play the defender of ‘republican order’, and even thinks it clever to compare the demonstrators against pension reform to the Trumpist far right storming the Capitol, or to oppose the ‘riots’ of the ‘mob’ to the ‘legitimacy of people who express themselves through their elected representatives’. The reasoning here is both simple and sophistic: everything that the government decrees or decides to protect is, by that very fact, legitimate and democratic, even when it resorts to Articles 47.1, 44.3 or 49.3 to cut short parliamentary debate. And, conversely, all those who dare express their opposition to the government in the name of democratic, ecological, or redistributive values find themselves accused not only of illegality but also of illegitimacy or even of undeclared neofascism. We saw a similar rhetorical operation against the Gilets Jaunes, who were already compared with the fascist leagues of 1934.

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Denouncing ‘factions and factious elements’ as Macron has done has no other meaning than to fabricate an enemy within the ranks of society, following the well-established tradition of neoliberal authors. This is an essential aspect and wellspring of any civil war. In the case of contemporary neoliberalism, this vilification targets all those who, through their practices, their forms of life or their struggles, are seen as threatening the normative logic of the market or the supposed indivisible unity of the state. In the chaotic course of Macronism, we have witnessed the continuous invention of categories of enemies according to the circumstances, be it ‘populism’, ‘Islamo-leftism’, single-sex facilities, gender theory, ‘separatism’, ‘communitarianism’, ‘postcolonialism’, ‘wokeism’, ‘deconstructionism’ or ‘intellectual terrorism’. With the decision to dissolve Les Soulèvements de la Terre, which defended a non-productivist model of agriculture at Sainte-Soline, it is now the terms ‘eco-terrorism’ and ‘ultra-left’ that are systematically used to neutralise any criticism of Macron’s market ecology. The advantages of such denunciatory dizziness cannot be underestimated. It has the great advantage of earmarking those who denounce the various forms of inequality and predation as enemies of the Republic, and thereby maintaining belief in the pacifying function of the state, denying precisely by this operation the war waged by this same state against the opponents of the neoliberal order. 

We can therefore see what is decisive about Foucault’s invitation to consider all power in a situation like ours – and thus neoliberal power itself – in terms of the ‘matrix’ of civil war. It encourages us not to give in to the illusion that the state’s function is, in essence, to harmonise differences and points of view by means of a ‘dialogue’ as rational as possible between ‘partners’, but rather to see it as a leading actor in the conduct of civil war. But it also makes it possible to take the full measure of the scope of the current mobilisations, by bringing to light the deep coherence that links the regressive policy of the social state and Macron’s ecocidal policy.

Behind the ‘chaos’ that Macron has unleashed we can detect the other world that the ‘factionalists’ carry within them. How do the defence of a dignified life for older workers and future pensioners, and the defence of nature against destructive projects, offer a rare force of coalition today? Because in both cases it is a question of a desirable life and a habitable world. And this desire and this habitability are irreconcilable with the subordination of life and the domination of the world by capital and its state. The fact now is that, to the great majority of people, the logic of the common and the logic of capital are irreconcilable, given the urgency of the crises and the neoliberal obduracy. In this sense there is no possible ‘dialogue’ or ‘compromise’ between those who wage civil war and the great mass of the population that are its target.

Translated by David Fernbach

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