More about 2018

There’s a lot more to world politics than just elections, and 2018 was eventful on a number of fronts. So in addition to this week’s review of the top ten elections, I’ve compiled here ten of my favorite stories of the year on other topics. Many of them will be still relevant for this year, so this might be a good time to go back and catch up on what you missed.

The trials of social democracy (February). One theme carried forward from 2017 was the sad condition of mainstream centre-left parties, particularly in Europe. Here I take a look at the problem in the runup to the Italian election.

The more unreconstructed leftists like Jeremy Corbyn are half right – politicians, social democrats among them, have given far too much ground to business and allowed it to milk the consumers and taxpayers. But the solution is not to turn the clock back to anti-market thinking; the solution is to dismantle monopolies and special privileges and let markets do their work.

Happy birthday, Dr Marx! (May). A review, for his 200th birthday, of Karl Marx’s significance, from a critical but not unsympathetic position.

Marx’s philosophical work is still important today – historical materialism has proved itself to be a fertile source of ideas. Much of his journalism is still lively, and even his economics has nuggets of interest. But his lasting influence has come not from any of these things, but from his status as a prophet of revolution.

Neoliberalism and socialism – compare and contrast (June). The strange fortunes of the term “neoliberalism” were a recurring issue; here’s one of my attempts to understand what’s going on.

The difference is that while the first response is well known and can be intelligently argued about, the second response is rarely heard and poorly understood. And one reason for that is the construct of “neoliberalism”, which allows its user’s meaning to slide from market liberalism to crony capi­talism, so that a key step (perhaps the key step) in the argument passes by definitional fiat rather than by any sort of evidence.

Germany and the doomsday scenario (July). The age of Trump has brought an increased interest in mid-twentieth century history; this is one look at how the Trumpist agenda engages with European politics.

History matters. Germany’s experience with the extreme right is so traumatic that mainstream politicians of every stripe know better than to risk going there again. German policy may shift rightwards, but it will not shift Trumpwards.

Time for honesty on immigration (July). Immigration was another perennial in 2018; here I revisit the Australian debate over “border protection”.

But it was all a con. Others, of whom I was one, argued that while it might work in the short term, demonisation of certain categories of arrivals was bound to affect attitudes to immigration in general. Xenophobia can’t be neatly contained; once unleashed, it tends to spread, and the genie resists being put back in the bottle.

France, Zionism and antisemitism (August). Inextricably tied up with the immigration debate was the question of racism, with its many angles. Here’s a post dealing with one of them (although there were several others – try this for example).

But it would be foolish in the extreme for France’s Jewish population to think that the old anim­osities have disappeared. As Donald Trump and his white nationalist supporters have demonstrated, whenever there is demonisation of minorities, antisemitism sooner or later pushes its way to the forefront.

Socialism with a human face? (August). A retrospective on the Prague Spring of 1968 and its continued relevance.

The reality, however, is that socialism in the traditional sense has never been successfully combined with democracy and civil liberties. Every serious move to collectivise the economy has undermined democracy; every move to liberalise an authoritarian state-run economy politically has ended (if it did not begin) with economic liberalisation as well.

Mr Corbyn goes to Liverpool (September). Of course, you can’t mention 2018 without the enthralling saga of Brexit. Here’s one report on how it all played out; there have been a number of subsequent updates, such as here and here.

And so we have the remarkable spectacle of Corbyn, doctrinaire leftist and natural isolationist, outflanking the Tory Party on the cosmopolitan, open market side. … The Conservatives are regressing to their nativist and anti-market roots – either awkwardly and reluctantly under May, or more enthusiastically under an alternative such as Johnson.

Worrying about the far left (October). This was a three-part series (here are parts two and three) about the role of far-left parties and their similarities and differences with the more topical far right.

Of course, if the Marxists are right, and socialisation of capital really will usher in an earthly para­dise, then maybe it’s worth compromising in the short term. You might have to accept a few bigots as allies today, but tomorrow (or whenever the revolution comes) everything will be just fine. But that’s a big gamble to take.

Do the Liberals have a history? (October). And finally, one about Australia, which had an interesting year in politics. Here I look at David Kemp’s interpretation of Australian history, with obvious contemporary relevance.

Whatever Kemp’s own credentials, it is impossible to imagine most of today’s Liberals, if magically translated to the 1830s, joining in the campaigns for representative government or an end to trans­portation. They would have been on the other side. And they and their like have run the Liberal Party for a long time; the progressive current is the preserve of a small minority, and it is delusional to think otherwise.


3 thoughts on “More about 2018

  1. Finally I have come across a halfway decent analysis of Gilets Jaunes. No accident that it is by someone “on the ground” (even the French journos who write for The Guardian seem to get it wrong … or write in cliches …) as well as having an informed international perspective. Of course this is a case of confirmation bias, in that I never believed France had as much intrinsic inequality as many others (esp. UK & USA). The problem is that many French are not aware that, as tough as it may seem, their lot is still a lot better than their equivalents in most other countries.

    But the problem now is that this meme has taken hold in the French mindset. As I understand it Pisani-Ferry is a Macron insider/confidant so it is disappointing that he wasn’t better advised about the politics of premature removing that wealth tax and CGT. IIRC he also did it (and some other changes) by presidential fiat, when he had one of the biggest super-majorities in parliament that France has ever seen (why did he do this?). Is it a manifestation of the “training-wheels president”?

    Fifty Shades of Yellow
    Jean Pisani-Ferry, 31 Dec 2018.

    Six weeks after they started rocking French politics and a month after violence erupted on the Champs Élysées, the Yellow Shirts remain both highly visible and highly enigmatic. The question now is whether the movement will find a political voice, and, if so, which one.
    It is less straightforward to understand why so many lower-middle-class people feel unable to make ends meet. While median household income stagnated in the United States and Germany since the turn of the millennium, that was not the case in France. Despite the financial crisis, real household income increased by 8% from 2007 to 2017 – more than in many other European countries. Furthermore, there was significant redistribution along the income ladder. Changes in taxes and transfers took away 5% of the income of the top 10% and increased by 5% the income of the bottom 20%.1


      1. That far-right stuff is worse than I realised, and which has only been hinted at in previous MSM reporting. Of course the anti-semitism meme about Macron can derive from his stint as boss at Rothschild investment bank.

        Anyway on the MSM front, the last few weeks (and days) have seen a bit more serious reporting, to which I say, not before time. In addition to that piece I cited, yesterday there was an OpEd in The Australian by Richard Ogier (formerly in our Paris embassy, which I am unfortunately automatically prejudiced ever since my days in Paris and my friend worked there–as an underpaid, overworked “local”, on completely different rather exploitative terms to those Australians seconded from Australia who got overpaid by jumping up two salary levels–oh for the hardship posting of central Paris next to the Eiffel Tower, and who got one of those apartments in the residential block next to the admin block of Sidler’s Oz Embassy–built by Gough–they even got free housekeeping and childcare etc.). Ogier’s piece was better than most such stuff though he still curiously lists the problems afflicting France without once comparing them to peer nations (I mean France’s national debt is no different to the UKs or USAs, or indeed much different to the OECD average; only Germany has reduced its debt-to-GDP and we know at who’s expense.)

        Today there is an informative piece (in AFR via Bloomberg) by William Horobin which describes Macron’s jobs program; it is affirmative action (“positive discrimination” in French) to encourage employment in blackspots and inevitably focuses on ethnic communities with their crippling unemployment. It provides €5,000 a year for the first three years for new employment, in a test program. In Lille (centre of the biggest blackspot in northern France) some 1,000 contracts were signed in the first 9 months of the program. Of course this kind of thing takes years to know if it makes a difference.

        And the thing is that it has drawn a lot of fire. From whom? The far-right, of course. The same who are fomenting the worst aspects of gilets jaunes. “During his 2017 election campaign, Macron sparked an angry reaction when he espoused it as one solution for the high-unemployment banlieues. Marine Le Pen, his rival in the runoff vote, said at the time it was “contrary to the French Republic.”” Indeed my understanding has been–over decades, as governments grappled with chronic high unemployment in the blackspots like Seine-St-Denis, was that affirmative action is technically illegal, according to the constitution where such “bias”, in either direction, cannot be exercised by the state. Sarkozy–to give him some points–also talked about such a scheme but I don’t think he ever put anything into action.

        Macron has also announced reform of the ordinary university sector, which it is true is rather bleak and in huge contrast to the Grands Ecoles. As an Australian this ghetto-isation of tertiary education in France was painful to observe, though actually most of the peer scientists etc one works with, came from the regular, not Grands, system and seemed as good as any from the Anglosphere. However one was also aware that there were those that were clearly marked for success by their having gained entry to the elite schools. (Funny enough, Sarkozy flunked out of Sciences Po, which possibly partly accounts for that enormous chip on his shoulder.) Again I think it is testament to Macron’s genuine desire for deep reform, but likewise this stuff is going to take years and years (more than one prez term which is probably why so many have talked about it but done nothing–it doesn’t win popularity contests, and possibly threatens, or is perceived to threaten, the existing power structures). It’s also expensive.

        Macron’s job subsidy program shakes a pillar of French identity
        William Horobin, 10 Jan 2019.


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