In the Court of the Centrist King: Emmanuel Macron and Authoritarian Liberalism

About Ajay Singh Chaudhary

President Donald J. Trump visits President Emmanuel Macron in France, July 13, 2017 (Photo: The White House / Shealah Craighead)

“New Labour.” – Margaret Thatcher, when asked about her life’s greatest achievements.

“America is the original version of modernity. We are the dubbed or subtitled version.” – Jean Baudrillard, America (1986)

On July 3, 2017, France experienced an unusual spectacle. With all the regal pomp that the French state and the Palace of Versailles can accord, newly elected President Emmanuel Macron addressed both houses of parliament, only the fourth such address since 1873.

Macron used his speech to lay out a program of severe transformations to the French state and society: breaking labor and enacting economic “reforms”; decreasing the number of parliamentarians; minimizing legislation and legislative oversight; and making permanent aspects of the constitutional “state of emergency” France has been under since the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. In other words, far from the image of a liberal democratic savior painted by the Anglo-American press, Macron outlined a program to maintain and consolidate minority-government rule. In terms that hovered between self-parody and pure mysticism, Macron called this an “efficient,” new “contractual republic.” From the dais of the Sun King, Macron proclaimed—several decades after the fact—that we are all human capital now.

Macron’s program is anti-democratic in everything from its rejection of civil rights and equal protection to perfected neoliberal economic “reforms.”1 It even takes aim at the democratic institutions of the state itself. In structure and even aesthetic,Macronism” presents a postmodern pastiche of hyper-modern technocracy and ancien regime all at once. Understanding why this program is so attractive to the political center, and to liberals more broadly, is vital in order to understand the volatile political climate on both sides of the Atlantic. As with the supposedly “boring” political situation in Germany, where the neo-fascist Alternative fur Deutschland party will now be the first Far Right party to enter its parliament since the end of WWII, Macron also represents a rightward trend: a brand of authoritarian liberalism that emboldens the Right, facilitating its political maneuvering, and allowing even small radical right-wing movements outsized influence over national policy.

And yet, Macron’s election was met with near universal acclaim among nominally left-of-center politicians and media commentators across Europe and North America. “About as exciting and theatrical as electoral politics gets,” exclaimed The New York Times.2 Macron’s movement was held up as an exciting prospect, a new “revolution” from the center, a response to “Trumpism” the world over and in the United States in particular. This despite the fact that, just as in the Netherlands and Austria, the French Far Right, while not winning the election, still received higher support in the national contest than ever before.

Political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa have recently argued, citing public opinion polling data, that there are decreasing levels of support for liberal institutions and liberal democracy itself.3 Such commentators do focus on the existential threat the Far Right poses. But the implications of their arguments go further: if push comes to shove, better the “traditional” Right than the emergent Left. Mounk and likeminded thinkers imply that there is little difference between, say, enthusiastic English Labour Party supporters chanting for Jeremy Corbyn and torchlight parades in Charlottesville.4 They see the failure to uphold the “vital center” as the disease and men like Emmanuel Macron are the cure.

If Macron is the bulwark against a looming authoritarian nightmare, why does his program look like an assault on the fundamental foundations of democracy in France?

But if Macron is the bulwark against a looming authoritarian nightmare, why does his program look like an assault on the fundamental foundations of democracy in France? If Macron is the defender of a broadly liberal dream, why do his policies look less like support for a multicultural, egalitarian liberal republic and instead, as Nancy MacLean recently wrote of midcentury American libertarians, more like “protecting capitalism from democracy”?5

A “New” Kind of Politician

Wipe away the veneer of the Macron’s École Nationale d’Administration education and superstar status (outside of France) and one is left with a curious picture of the man himself. Macron cuts a strange figure on the French stage, but perhaps one more familiar to an American audience. A banker by trade, he uses his finance background as a stark contrast to the “inefficient” and hopelessly “weak” state. He embodies the increasing cross-spectrum enthusiasm in France for militarism, both in policy and aesthetic. In a weird echo of George W. Bush arriving in a fighter jet to his famously ill-conceived “Mission Accomplished” press conference, mere weeks into his presidency, Macron turned an ordinary naval inspection into a bizarre photo-op. In specially tailored, Macron-branded pseudo-military gear, he rappelled onto a nuclear submarine from a helicopter then had himself photographed in a commanding officer’s pose on the vessel’s bridge.6

This brand of machismo also extends to Macron’s personal behavior: in another strange episode, he engaged in a “handshake-battle” with President Donald Trump in May 2017. “My handshake with him was not innocent, not the alpha and the omega of a policy, but a moment of truth,” he’d later explain. “We must show that we will not make small concessions, even symbolic ones.”7 Macron caused another scene a couple months later at the G20 summit where, either because he relishes his rising star as the purported anti-Trump or was dissatisfied with his slightly background position at a photo-op, he awkwardly hugged, kissed, and elbowed his way to the front, right next to Trump.8 There are dozens of critiques of Trump’s hyper-masculine behaviors during the 2016 presidential election, and rightly so. Yet Macron’s similar behavior makes hardly a blip and when it does, is often noted approvingly by center-left commentators.9

In addition to mirroring Trump’s performance art version of politics, Macron also rivals his U.S. counterpart in sheer narcissism and “will to power,” comparing his rule to that of Jupiter, King of the Gods; openly regretting the fall of France’s monarchy in the French Revolution and, sounding quite a bit more like the conservative Edmund Burke or reactionary Joseph de Maistre than liberal John Rawls, openly lamenting democracy’s inability “to fill this void.”10

An apples-to-apples comparison of France and the U.S. is difficult. Even if Macron’s wish list for curtailing French labor laws and welfare provisions comes to pass, what remained would still be enviable compared to the U.S. This is not an appeal to any kind of Euro-philia. There are areas in these sectors—affirmative action, anti-discrimination and sexual harassment laws and regulations—where the American position, however flawed, is salutary in comparison with France. But in basic social provisions—from welfare to healthcare, public housing to paid leave—the United States lacks anything more than the most rudimentary forms of these vital and basic universal social guarantees. But the importance of understanding Macron lies in the appeal of his political tendency—what Macron represents to so many delighted commentators—and the political formation he is trying to create: an anti-democratic, “authoritarian liberalism” as a possible future for “liberalism” itself.

President Donald J. Trump visits President Emmanuel Macron in France, July 13, 2017 (Photo: The White House / Shealah Craighead)

Something Different?

France’s election did do something extraordinary: as the French versions of Republicans and Democrats both imploded, a “new,” “neither Right nor Left” center-of-the-center candidate, Macron, rode middling support and the public loathing of Marine Le Pen’s Front National into a situation of extraordinary power.11 In addition to his sweeping powers as president, Macron’s new La République en Marche! party—an amalgamation of the Right, the neoliberal wing of the disintegrating Socialist Party, and center-right politicians—effectively commands single party rule in the French parliament. Despite overwhelming voter disaffection (voter abstention was nearly 52 percent in the first round of the parliamentary elections and close to an astonishing 65 percent in the second, the highest in modern French history), Macron has taken support from a mere 11 percent of the French electorate and transformed it into complete political domination.12

Macron has taken support from a mere 11 percent of the French electorate and transformed it into complete political domination.

The Republique en Marche! program was hilariously opaque during the elections—draping itself with cant and Camus, technocratic derision and Deleuze.13 Since then, though, it has become crystal clear.14 Macron will proceed—with the incredible speed afforded by the French constitution, which grants the president unusually strong powers—toward a radical transformation of the French state and society. This is most apparent in three key areas: first, destroying French labor and instituting related economic “reforms”; second, making the current constitutional “state of emergency” de facto permanent; and third, enacting anti-democratic political reform.

French cultural issues and even its increasingly bellicose foreign policy seem secondary to the goal of outright consolidation of political power around Macron’s weak, unpopular government, of maintaining minoritarian rule, and expanding state power of the police, intelligence, and military. This political consolidation is the means to enacting a series of “free” market reforms—a kind of massive neoliberal catch-up plan. And if it sounds familiar to American readers, it should. In a Venn diagram of the Republican Party and Trump’s political objectives, Macron represents the vast area of agreement.

State of Emergency

France had been in a technical “state of emergency” since the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. The emergency suspended constitutional protections for citizens and residents and granted sweeping powers to executive bodies, from the president to the police. Then-President Hollande’s declaration was the first of its kind in seven decades, since the presidency was granted new powers during France’s colonial war against Algerian independence in 1955.15 Despite an election framed explicitly around the threat of fascism, it remains remarkably underreported that for two years France has already technically been in a period of constitutional abeyance: one of the textbook warning signs for more legal understandings of fascism and authoritarianism.

Under the state of emergency, thousands of warrantless raids have been conducted and hundreds of people placed under house arrest—overwhelmingly French citizens and residents of Muslim background and racial minorities. Police were given nearly limitless power of surveillance, search, and seizure. After these searches, only 20 actual charges were ever filed. And although people remain under house arrest to this day, no emergency house arrest has led to any charges. Human rights NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have warned that these developments indicate that the rule of law in France is deteriorating. The emergency measures have been used not only for racial profiling but also to combat political dissent, such as at the COP21 treaty negotiations, in which protests were banned and 24 ecological activists preventatively detained to ensure the smooth negotiation of the market-friendly climate change treaty. One need not imagine how these powers could be used to suppress French unrest over changing labor laws or other political and economic reforms; since 2015, emergency powers have been explicitly invoked 155 times to prevent public demonstrations. Beyond the Muslim dragnet, 639 known political activists have been individually barred from public participation in assemblies and 574 of those cases targeted labor activists.16

In early July 2017, the state of emergency was extended until November and on October 3, the first institutionalization measures were passed. Although Macron campaigned on lifting the state of emergency, it is clear he is doing so in name only. His proposals—which have already sailed through the French senate—codify the power of the executive to ban public gatherings, close places of worship, search individuals, and confine people to house arrest, all without judicial oversight. A speedy judicial procedure—akin to the American FISA court—allows police to additionally raid any space but the executive has full and absolute control over all information the court sees.17 A new national counter-terrorism agency has been promised, intelligence gathering powers enhanced, and a 10,000-officer expansion of police forces proposed.18 This legalization—and in some cases intensification—of emergency rule provides a classic case of nearly every political philosophy argument against the very idea of states of emergency.19 But while Donald Trump has been stymied in fulfilling many of his promises to suspend or abridge U.S. civil liberties, Macron, the supposed avatar of ideological opposition to Trumpism, is pulling it off with speed and efficiency in France.

While Donald Trump has been stymied in fulfilling many of his promises to suspend or abridge U.S. civil liberties, Macron, the supposed avatar of ideological opposition to Trumpism, is pulling it off with speed and efficiency in France.

Crushing Labor

The French Center-Left and Right have long dreamed of breaking the near legendary power of French labor unions. France has followed the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Coordination (OECD) trend in decreased participation in organized labor—moving from a mid-1970s high of around 30 percent of the workforce to a current level of approximately 11 percent, heavily dominated by public sector unions. This is almost a mirror of labor union participation in the United States (while as of 2014, the Scandinavian countries have above or even well above 50 percent, the UK about 25 percent, and the OECD average nearly 17 percent).20 However, what has distinguished French labor even amid this relatively low level of union participation is its militancy. Although the French propensity to strike may be the butt of many jokes, its vital labor protections and admirable working conditions (not to mention its standard 35-hour workweek) were largely secured and maintained through fierce union struggle.

France’s economic situation today is dire. Unemployment has held steadily at around 10 percent for many years. One in four French youth are unemployed, with a similar level of unemployment found among immigrants. Nearly half of all unemployed citizens are long-term unemployed.21 Because of its extensive social welfare system, France has not yet faced the extraordinary decline in quality-of-life indicators that are seen in the U.S.22 But the overall structure of the European Union will likely soon make many of these social provisions increasingly difficult to maintain. For example, France has been in violation of European GDP-to-debt ratio rules since 2009. While France’s political and economic position as the key “second” power in Europe (after Germany) has given it considerable room to maneuver, recent EU and European Community (EC, formally European Economic Community) reactions—particularly to the Greek debt crisis and Brexit—have demonstrated the EU’s ongoing commitment to a strictly neoliberal austerity regime. It’s difficult to foresee a future in which French social provisions are not sharply curtailed without a revolutionary transformation of the EU and EC.

Macron’s initial round of labor laws, put into swift effect by presidential decree in September, weaken national collective bargaining, end sector-wide union representation, allow for swift and easy firing of employees, particularly employees at smaller French firms (over 50 percent of the workforce), and broadly circumvent unions and encourage “modern,” “flexible” employment.23

Macron’s labor and economic reforms will have the twin effect of bringing France closer to overall EU compliance and, to some extent, alleviating aspects of its dire economic portrait. Liberalizing the job market should bring unemployment down, but almost certainly through an explosion of American-style precarious employment for not only youth and the long-term unemployed reentering the workforce, but also for a significant portion of the currently stable labor sector as well. Macron is aware of this, acknowledging in 2014 that his proposed labor reforms mean, “young people will experience ten to twenty changes in their careers, they will work longer, their wages will not increase, not all the time.”24 Already, the initial reforms Macron helped pass under the government of former president François Hollande have produced a pattern where 86.4 percent of new hiring is for temporary employment.25 This increase in precarious employment—and in social precarity overall—is not simply an economic hardship for French workers. It has an additional, fundamental political impact: a more precarious society quite literally has less time and fewer resources for democratic participation.

A more precarious society quite literally has less time and fewer resources for democratic participation.

Macron seems likely to secure his policy victories with the same sorts of measures that have been used in the U.S.—those pioneered by American Republicans and emulated by the DLC-style Democrats of the 1990s and their contemporary successors. His tax and welfare reduction policies—couched in retro-chic Reaganite language, fretting about “the weakest” becoming “wards of the state”—are another near pitch-perfect imitation of Republican policies, promising to starve the state into “proper” form.26 If successful, a more precarious society is precisely what he will get.

Ending Checks and Balances

Perhaps the most audacious of Macron’s plans is his proposal to overhaul the French parliament altogether, decreasing its number of deputies, oversight, and even the amount of legislation it should consider. Although the French parliament has already granted him executive authority beyond his constitutional powers to pass his labor reform laws via executive “ordinances,” Macron remains committed to further reducing the legislature’s power. This parliamentary reform remains the vaguest part of Macron’s program, but he has promised to reduce the size of both houses by a third, to introduce measures to speed legislation more quickly through, and even to move some powers either to the executive or to subcommittees which could bypass parliament altogether. In an echo of U.S. Republicans’ demands to “deregulate,” he used his simulacrum State of the Union address to call on France to “try to put an end to the proliferation of legislation.”

Macron’s popularity—ginned up as the foil to Marine Le Pen—is already plummeting. He knows very well that his party is new and untried and that, as many neoliberals before him have noted,27 his program will never find broad support beyond the technocratic and professional elite. While he has not quite reached Trumpian levels of popular disdain, Macron’s support stands at the lowest all-time for a new French president: 42 percent as of late October 2017. And so it seems he sees labor repression, emergency powers made permanent, and a “kinder, gentler” semi-authoritarian state as the key legs of Macronism into the future.

The Democratic Void

The Austrian economist and key neoliberal theorist Friedrich Hayek was ever fearful of the encroachment of democratic majorities on “individual liberty”—a concept he carefully distinguished from “political liberty” (which he defined as “the participation of men in the choice of their government, in the process of legislation, and in the control of administration”28). What Hayek and modern-day neoliberals value above political liberty is a vision of human beings as completely free within the market and further, since the 1970s, as themselves “human capital”: existing as objects for “investment” to generate profit and not the full, rights-bearing citizens envisioned by classical liberalism.29 The threat that democracy poses for private property is one of the key foundations of neoliberalism.

Democracy, for Hayek et al., is not about majority rule, self-governance, and certainly not achieving egalitarian outcomes (or even the classically liberal position of equal opportunity). Democracy in this sense is purely functional. It allows for a smooth transition of power and provides the necessary checks on majoritarian power and other citizens for the flourishing of property, as cultivated by entrepreneurs. As Hayek once said in an interview:

Democracy has a task which I call “hygienic,” for it assures that political processes are conducted in a sanitary fashion. It is not an end in itself. It is a rule of procedure whose aim is to promote freedom. But in no way can it be seen as the same rank as freedom. Freedom requires democracy, but I would prefer temporarily to sacrifice, I repeat temporarily, democracy, before having to do without freedom, even if temporarily.30

One must keep in mind that “freedom” for Hayek and for his later followers means market freedom above all.

While the history of liberal thought includes many cautions about simple majoritarian rule—sometimes warranted, as for the recognition and protection of minority racial, religious, sexual, and ethnic groups from potential bigotry—Hayek’s chief concern is with preventing any rule of the majority to fundamentally demand a change in the overarching social contract. In this conception, humans are bound forever to the only true vision of freedom—market freedom—and the state’s role is in enforcing that “freedom.” As with small government arguments—from Hayek to “state’s rights”—the rhetoric is deceptive. The state, under his vision, won’t necessarily shrink. It may, in a technical sense, become not clearly sovereign, but its coercive apparati—through policing, surveillance, and programs to promote business—may, in fact, expand.

Macronism seeks to fill what he calls the “emotional abyss” of democracy, dug apparently by the French Revolution, with a neofeudal monarchial spirit of the “free market.” Instead of liberté, egalité, fraternité, Macron seeks to instill a business-friendly alternative: the “efficiency, representativity and responsibility” of his “contractual republic,” all under his careful, well-educated, “Jupiterian” gaze.31 In the heart of technocracy, one finds a postmodern ancien regime.

What Macron cannot change is the fundamental nature of the neoliberal project. Capitalism bought itself an extended lifespan with deregulated finance, the return of boom and bust cycles, and the squeezing of any remaining value out of a nearly fully commodified society—but even at that it can no longer artificially prop up growth rates nor solve the long-term productivity crisis in the economy (nor, many ecologically minded political economists would add, should we necessarily be wedded to any program requiring that). Having once extended and intensified the life of post-war capitalism past the crises of the 1970s, neoliberalism has become increasingly tenuous since its heyday in the 1990s, when there truly “was no alternative” between the feel-good brands of Blair and Clinton or the more hardnosed, “law and order” varieties of Major and Bush. Since the 2008 financial crisis—in which the state was forced to reveal its vast role in both maintaining the economic status quo and explicitly failing to intervene for the vast majority of individuals and communities—the neoliberal political project has held together largely through continued market and political consolidation, and subsequently, greater direct coercion and repression.

What lies at the center of Macronism is the lesson the U.S. Right learned nearly 50 years ago and that Hayek and his followers have always known: this political program, fully exposed, could never gain popular support. In the U.S., Republicans have responded to this reality by working, since the 1960s, to decrease the size of the electorate, disenfranchise racial minorities, and make voting as difficult (and pointless) as possible for poor and working-class Americans.32 Democrats eyeing Macron as a model for sustained commitment to the neoliberal program must know full well that they would be embracing the longstanding Republican outlook on democratic participation and rights.

For weary spectators across the Atlantic, Macron looks like a welcome relief from rising right-wing monsters and sheer gross incompetence. He also is—rightly—a welcome relief from the idea of Marine Le Pen at the helm of the second most powerful nation in Europe. But while liberal commentators like Mounk see Macron as shoring up support for liberal democracy,33 they fail to understand that Macronism cedes the entire “democracy” side of the equation—sometimes even the very idea of popular government—to the Far Right. Simultaneously, the Left is denigrated as expressing populist anti-liberal attitudes that might undermine the one right—property—that is the raison d’être for the regime. For Mounk, for example, popular European Left parties like Spain’s Podemos or Greece’s SYRIZA offer “simplistic” solutions and “inflammatory rhetoric.”34 They have the dangerous temerity to question the realities of “meritocracy.” They seek to “overthrow” the system unlike, well, Emmanuel Macron, who is fighting for a dehumanized “liberal democracy” as outlined here.

Macron demonstrates what it will take for the “center to hold”: nothing short of one-party, technocratic “liberal” authoritarianism, of the kind many OECD countries have been sliding towards for 40 years.35 But as a political program to extend capitalism through crisis conditions, sluggish growth and growing instability, such a project must become increasingly coercive, short-lived, or both. It would seem that the only opposition it can tolerate—in a version of Hayek’s ersatz democracy—is that of the Far Right. But if the neoliberal center can offer up only ever closer approximations to the more unadulterated right-wing project, there are few other possibilities it can pursue (and ever decreasing political prospects). As the great political economist and socialist organizer Rosa Luxemburg proposed in the 20th Century, the choice was simple—socialism or barbarism. This, the 21st Century center tells us, is oversimplified. There is also the choice of extended misery.

The Corbyn-Macron Paradox

During the ecstatic trans-Atlantic jubilation for Macron there was another election right around the corner. Following the Brexit referendum, UK Prime Minister Theresa May called early elections to solidify the position of her new, hard-right nationalist Tory formation. May, who has become one of Trump’s leading international supporters, had married David Cameron’s austerity program with the nativist elements from Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party. That orientation made it strange that many liberal commentators who’d welcomed Macron as an antidote to the Far Right were either silent about the contest between May’s Conservative Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s newly recommitted left-wing Labour Party or were openly contemptuous of Corbyn.

The liberal response to Corbyn is all the stranger given that he and similar political figures of the reinvigorated Left are more consonant with liberal tradition writ large than their faux-liberal counterparts of the increasingly authoritarian center. Corbyn’s 2017 Labour Manifesto was the most full-throated major party platform to call unequivocally for both economic democracy and full liberal rights of the individual; for investment in universal public goods and identity-focused programs that specifically addressed the unique social repression faced by women, racial, and religious minorities, LGBTQ people, and the disabled. And within a coherent political framework as well: the flourishing of individuals through the flourishing of society, understanding the interconnection of formal liberal equality claims and demands for recognition, and the social equity and democratization necessary for their realization.36 Corbyn was not attacking basic liberal rights or the democratic process; Theresa May was. And yet the self-appointed defenders of “liberal democracy,” who had championed Macron and his authoritarian liberalism, were silent.

The irony of the Corbyn-Macron paradox, for those in the business of carving out a future for liberal democracies, is that only with policies like Corbyn’s can those phantasmagorically ascribed to Macron possibly come to fruition.

Late to the Future

“America is the original version of modernity. We are the dubbed or subtitled version,” the French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard wrote in his 1986 travelogue America. “We are condemned to the imaginary and to nostalgia for the future,” he continued. “What we see here [in the U.S.] are merely the inescapable results of an orgy of power, and an irreversible concentration of the world that has followed upon its extension.”37

Although Baudrillard’s arguments are slippery, he stumbled onto a truth, almost like a funhouse mirror anticipation of Francis Fukuyama’s post-Cold War declaration that here, in Reaganite and Thatcherite “liberal democracy,” was the “end of history.” Baudrillard proposes instead that America is always already the future. It is where the “idea” of history, where Geist, already landed. And—in good postmodern fashion—Macron proves him both right and wrong. Macron is the overdubbed Ronald Reagan, several decades late and better educated. He’s the subtitled Bill Clinton, without the popular appeal or charm. But for once the French—perhaps because, as the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez reminds us, vestigial feudalism has finally caught up with the times—are indeed ahead. Macron is the centrist vision for a baroque future better suited to the Palace of Versailles than the gleaming skyscrapers of New York. The greatest irony of all: for all this consolidation of power, for all the pomp and delusions of grandeur, Macron is auditioning himself, and France, for, at best, a number two role, to be forever in hock to Germany through the current mechanisms of the EU. Macron will truly be a king without a crown.

Macron’s appeal to political actors and thinkers is that he is the distilled essence of this spirit; he represents a future, hollowed-out liberalism relieved of all but the most cosmetic vestiges of democracy.

Without substantive advances for actual democracy, liberal rights lose even their formal meaning. They become charity bestowed by benevolent autocrats, by Jupiterian kings of the center, parceled out or withheld on whim. There is a dialectic of technocracy and its fruition is a new feudalism. Hiding within every good technocrat is a feudal lord who catches the scent, in Baudrillard’s phrase, of the “primitive future”—of a new-old barbarism just on the horizon. Macron’s appeal to political actors and thinkers is that he is the distilled essence of this spirit; he represents a future, hollowed-out liberalism relieved of all but the most cosmetic vestiges of democracy.

When Margaret Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievement, she replied: “New Labour.”38 In that she was both witty and incisive. It was only with the capitulation of the Center-Left that neoliberalism truly became entrenched as the only alternative to the Right. While Macron reshapes France into the perfect European vassal state and centrists around the world applaud, I can imagine the Iron Lady laughing as she wonders just how much more the Front National wins the next time around.

Endnotes

1 Neoliberalism, broadly construed, is a form of capitalist politics and governance which intensifies market relations in all aspects of society. Sometimes confused with a purely libertarian “market fundamentalism” (which it rhetorically often adheres to) or simply “more capitalism” (which is true but incomplete), neoliberalism extends the life of capitalism past endemic and external crises. So while there is language of the “shrinking” of the state, in fact state power is increased in its coercive functions while it is simultaneously decreased in its definitional sovereignty. One can think of this as a fundamental restructuring of the state in favor of unmitigated capital interests. For a more precise and thorough definition please see Philip Mirowski, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, (New York: Verso, 2014), chapter 2. On neoliberalism as a fundamentally right-wing reaction to the failures of the center-left please see, Adam Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), chapter 6. For a more purely economic analysis of neoliberalism please see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); and finally for understanding neoliberalism as a way of thinking, please see Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015). Przeworski’s succinct statement, in the early 1980s, that this is a new Right wing “to free accumulation from all the fetters imposed on it by democracy,” is extremely helpful in understanding that the neoliberal project is principally anti-democratic, not anti-state, even as it undermines, in many cases and areas, state sovereignty particularly where non-market actors might exert limiting powers over market actors.

2 The Editorial Board, “Mr. Macron Starts Making Waves,” The New York Times, July 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/21/opinion/emmanuel-macron-campaign-promise-budget.html.

3 Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect,” The Journal of Democracy 27, no. 3 (July 2016), https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/article/danger-deconsolidation-democratic-disconnect. There is something of a tautological argument across Mounk’s work. Support for liberal democracy is waning, the argument goes. And, while sociological specters like xenophobia, racism, class status, and economic well-being hover off-screen, haunting us with hopes of a causal mechanism, the primary motion is ascribed to the expressions of support or criticism for the status quo. Thus, support for liberal democracy is falling because people are failing to support liberal democracy.

4 See for examples of similar equivalencies: Yascha Mounk, “European Disunion,” New Republic, July 19, 2017, https://newrepublic.com/article/143604/european-disunion-rise-populist-movements-means-democracy.

5 Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, (New York: Viking, 2017), 81.

6 “French President Emmanuel Macron Dangles From Helicopter Over Sub,” NBC News (web), July 5, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/french-president-emmanuel-macron-dangles-helicopter-over-sub-n779721.

7 “French President Emmanuel Macron says Trump handshake was ‘not innocent’,” USA Today, May 29, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2017/05/29/french-president-emmanuel-macron-says-trump-handshake-not-innocent/352967001/.

8 “Emmanuel Macron jostles his way to the front of G20 photo to stand by Donald Trump,” The Telegraph, July 7, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/07/07/emmanuel-macron-jostles-way-front-g20-photo-stand-donald-trump/.

9 Sylvie Kauffmann, “When Trump Meets Jupiter in Paris,” The New York Times, July 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/12/opinion/emmanuel-macron-donald-trump-paris.html. While I have argued elsewhere that the “politics of personality” are a poor substitute for ideology, what is interesting in Macron’s case is not the man himself but rather the reactions to him, particularly among media and political actors outside France.

10 Eleanor Halls, “Emmanuel Macron says France needs a King,” GQ UK, May 9, 2017, http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/emmanuel-macron-policies-beliefs-philosophy. Macron’s words.

11 One should recall that various formulations of “neither right nor left”—while more recently popular with centrists—was a frequent self-description of 1920s and ‘30s fascists.

12 Will Worley, “French election turnout worst in modern history as Emmanuel Macron heads for landslide victory in parliament,” The Independent, June 12, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/french-election-turnout-emmanuel-macron-parliament-france-victory-fn-marine-le-pen-national-front-a7785366.html.

13 Gilles Deleuze, influential French poststructuralist philosopher.

14 For an examination of the election as well as some of its social underpinnings please see Perry Anderson’s excellent recent piece for the New Left Review 105 (May-June 2017), “The Centre Can Hold.”

15 “France: Abuses Under State of Emergency,” Human Rights Watch, February 3, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/02/03/france-abuses-under-state-emergency.

16 “France: Unchecked clampdown on protests under guise of fighting terrorism,” Amnesty International, May 31, 2017, https://www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2017/05/france-unchecked-clampdown-on-protests-under-guise-of-fighting-terrorism/.

17 Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, “France: the Permanent State of Emergency,” Financial Times, October 2, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/f5309ff8-a521-11e7-9e4f-7f5e6a7c98a2.

18 Yasmeen Serhan, “Will France’s State of Emergency Become Permanent?,” The Atlantic, July 11, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/will-frances-state-of-emergency-become-permanent/532848/.

19 This series of developments would seem to confirm the classic Schmittian thesis about executive decision and emergency/exception being the true constitution of sovereign power. However, here it is interesting to note that Macron is not fully sovereign in a Schmittian, Hobbesian, or any traditional definition of the word. In the realm of the economy he is only able to “reform” as pre-determined by the EU and, even there, where sovereignty lies is not entirely clear. This sets up a series of questions about the nature of states and sovereignty in the globalized era that goes far beyond the scope of this paper. Carl Schmitt was a noted jurist and legal philosopher in the Weimar and Nazi eras in Germany. Although a far-right thinker—and an enthusiastic Nazi—his views are extremely influential on a wide spectrum of political thought to this day.

20 Trade Union Density (by country), OECD.Stat, https://stats.oecd.org/.

21 Hannah Murphy and Valentina Romei, “The economy that France’s next president will inherit,” The Financial Times, March 9, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/c33bafde-fe68-11e6-8d8e-a5e3738f9ae4.

22 “By almost any measure, life for the vast majority of Americans has gotten worse over the last 40 years or so. Poverty, women’s health, median per capita wealth, income inequality, incarceration rates, and so on have all grown worse. The United States is one of the few countries on Earth where the maternal death rate is increasing. We have a growing life-expectancy gap.” Ajay Singh Chaudhary, “What a proper response to Trump’s fascism demands: a true ideological left,” Quartz, November 17, 2016, https://qz.com/838537/what-a-proper-response-to-trumps-fascism-demands-a-true-ideological-left/.

23 Caroline Mortimer, “Emmanuel Macron signs sweeping new labour law reforms amid union outcry,” The Independent, September 22, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/macron-labour-laws-reforms-new-france-union-protests-a7962141.html.

24 Branko Marcetic, “Emmanuel Macron is Not Your Friend,” Jacobin, July 26, 2017, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/07/emmanuel-macron-france-unions-workers-economics-le-pen. It is worth noting that Macron here is referring to earlier less drastic reforms.

25 Hannah Murphy and Valentina Romei, “The economy that France’s next president will inherit.”

26 Adam Nossiter, “In Lofty Versailles Speech, Macron Tells the French to Prepare for Change,” The New York Times, July 3, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/03/world/europe/macron-france-parliament-speech.html.

27 See arguments about difficulties of advancing a neoliberal program with electoral popularity in Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (2014) and Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains (2017).

28 Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 13.

29 The Chicago School economist Gary Becker popularized the concept of “human capital” in the 1960s. Since then the concept has become prevalent in policy discussions and popular discourse. It is part of a two-fold transformation of the subject as found in classical liberal political philosophy. On the one hand, human beings are “human capital,” like fixed capital—say, machines or buildings. You can invest in them for greater return on investment; they are changeable, malleable, and above all to be understood in their capacity to generate profit. On the other hand, human beings are consumers and all meaningful choices can and should be expressed through the market or market-like mechanisms. This is a far cry from the robust, rights-bearing citizen one finds in the pages of classical liberal political philosophy.

30 Friedrich A. Hayek, as quoted in Philip Mirowski, “Postface: Defining Neoliberalism.” in Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2009),446.

31 Eleanor Halls, “Emmanuel Macron says France needs a King.”

32 Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains, 87. As argued by Mariya Strauss (“‘Faith-Washing’ Right-Wing Economics: How the Right is Marketing Medicare’s Demise,” The Public Eye, Fall 2015), Republicans have also been enormously successful at mobilizing, within this diminished electorate, popular ideas via Christian moralism and theology of profit as a sign of grace, work as a moral imperative, and capitalism itself as in some ways divinely ordained. As Kathi Weeks and others have noted—drawing on the seminal work of Max Weber—this “Protestant ethic” can serve a profound role in justifying and reproducing capitalism while creating crushing commitments to work for work’s sake. Democrats and many who would consider themselves on the Far Left also often demonstrate a manic commitment to “Protestant ethic” values.

33 Yascha Mounk, “The Real Lessons of the French Election,” Slate, April 24, 2017, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_good_fight/2017/04/how_emmanuel_macron_can_save_france_from_the_populists.html.

34 Yascha Mounk, “European Disunion.” “Simplistic” is a farcical description of either Podemos or SYRIZA, regardless of one’s place on the political spectrum.

35 Raphaële Chappe and Ajay Singh Chaudhary, “The Supermanagerial Reich,” Los Angeles Review of Books, Nov. 7, 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-supermanagerial-reich/.

36 “Where We Stand: Our Manifesto,” UK Labour Party,  https://labour.org.uk/manifesto/.

37 Jean Baudrillard, America, (New York: Verso, 2010), 76, 95.

38 Thomas Jones, “Blair’s Thatcher, Thatcher’s Blair,” London Review of Books, April 8, 2013, https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/04/08/thomas-jones/blairs-thatcher-thatchers-blair/.

Ajay Singh Chaudhary is the executive director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and a core faculty member specializing in social and political theory. He has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Quartz, Social Text, Dialectical Anthropology, The Jewish Daily Forward, Filmmaker Magazine, 3quarksdaily, among other venues.