Thursday, May 4, 2017

The backlash - French edition

Ananth draws attention to Chris Caldwell's excellent review of Christophe Guilluy's new book which explore the causes of social divisions in French society.
At the heart of Guilluy’s inquiry is globalization. Internationalizing the division of labor has brought significant economic efficiencies. But it has also brought inequalities unseen for a century, demographic upheaval, and cultural disruption... A process that Guilluy calls métropolisation has cut French society in two. In 16 dynamic urban areas (Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse, Lille, Bordeaux, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg, Grenoble, Rennes, Rouen, Toulon, Douai-Lens, and Montpellier), the world’s resources have proved a profitable complement to those found in France. These urban areas are home to all the country’s educational and financial institutions, as well as almost all its corporations and the many well-paying jobs that go with them. Here, too, are the individuals—the entrepreneurs and engineers and CEOs, the fashion designers and models, the film directors and chefs and other “symbolic analysts,” as Robert Reich once called them—who shape the country’s tastes, form its opinions, and renew its prestige. Cheap labor, tariff-free consumer goods, and new markets of billions of people have made globalization a windfall for such prosperous places. But globalization has had no such galvanizing effect on the rest of France. Cities that were lively for hundreds of years—Tarbes, Agen, Albi, Béziers—are now, to use Guilluy’s word, “desertified,” haunted by the empty storefronts and blighted downtowns that Rust Belt Americans know well.
And this cleavage has generated its social dynamics which in turn has been amplified by migration,
The laid-off, the less educated, the mistrained—all must rebuild their lives in what Guilluy calls (in the title of his second book) La France périphérique. This is the key term in Guilluy’s sociological vocabulary, and much misunderstood in France, so it is worth clarifying: it is neither a synonym for the boondocks nor a measure of distance from the city center. (Most of France’s small cities, in fact, are in la France périphérique.) Rather, the term measures distance from the functioning parts of the global economy. France’s best-performing urban nodes have arguably never been richer or better-stocked with cultural and retail amenities. But too few such places exist to carry a national economy. When France’s was a national economy, its median workers were well compensated and well protected from illness, age, and other vicissitudes. In a knowledge economy, these workers have largely been exiled from the places where the economy still functions. They have been replaced by immigrants.
After the mid-twentieth century, the French state built a vast stock—about 5 million units—of public housing, which now accounts for a sixth of the country’s households. Much of it is hideous-looking, but it’s all more or less affordable. Its purpose has changed, however. It is now used primarily for billeting not native French workers, as once was the case, but immigrants and their descendants, millions of whom arrived from North Africa starting in the 1960s, with yet another wave of newcomers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East arriving today... While rich Parisians may not miss the presence of the middle class, they do need people to bus tables, trim shrubbery, watch babies, and change bedpans. Immigrants—not native French workers—do most of these jobs... a huge supply of menial labor from the developing world has created its own demand.
To the extent that urban centres are areas where narratives get spun and are also at the vanguard of emergent social cleavages, gentrification may turn out to be one of the most important trends to watch for in the years ahead. On the corrosive effects of gentrification in French context,
No equivalent exists any more of Madame Vauquer’s boardinghouse in Balzac’s Père Goriot, where the upwardly mobile Rastignac had to rub shoulders with those who had few prospects of advancement. In most parts of Paris, working-class Frenchmen are just gone, priced out of even the soccer stadiums that were a bastion of French proledom until the country’s World Cup victory in 1998. The national culture has changed. So has French politics. Since the age of social democracy, we have assumed that contentious political issues inevitably pit “the rich” against “the poor” and that the fortunes of one group must be wrested from the other. But the metropolitan bourgeoisie no longer lives cheek-by-jowl with native French people of lesser means and different values. In Paris and other cities of Guilluy’s fortunate France, one often encounters an appearance of civility, even consensus, where once there was class conflict. But this is an illusion: one side has been driven from the field... Most often, Parisians mean what Guilluy calls la gauche hashtag, or what we might call the “glass-ceiling Left,” preoccupied with redistribution among, not from, elites: we may have done nothing for the poor, but we did appoint the first disabled lesbian parking commissioner... Those outside the city gates in la France périphérique are invisible, their wishes incomprehensible. It’s as if they don’t exist. But they do.
The social and political disempowering effects of these trends are very disturbing,
Three years after finishing their studies, three-quarters of French university graduates are living on their own; by contrast, three-quarters of their contemporaries without university degrees still live with their parents. And they’re dying early. In January 2016, the national statistical institute Insée announced that life expectancy had fallen for both sexes in France for the first time since World War II, and it’s the native French working class that is likely driving the decline. In fact, the French outsiders are looking a lot like the poor Americans Charles Murray described in Coming Apart, failing not just in income and longevity but also in family formation, mental health, and education. Their political alienation is striking. Fewer than 2 percent of legislators in France’s National Assembly today come from the working class, as opposed to 20 percent just after World War II.
The political schism is striking and is as much applicable to US and elsewhere, as to France,
The two traditional French parties—the Republicans, who once followed a conservative program elaborated by Charles de Gaulle; and the Socialists, who once followed socialism—still compete for votes, but along an ever-narrowing spectrum of issues. The real divide is no longer between the “Right” and the “Left” but between the metropoles and the peripheries. The traditional parties thrive in the former. The National Front (FN) is the party of the outside.
And the reaction of the establishment has been one of denial and pushback, 
French elites have a thesaurus full of colorful vocabulary for those who resist the open society: repli (“reaction”), crispation identitaire (“ethnic tension”), and populisme (an accusation equivalent to fascism, which somehow does not require an equivalent level of proof). One need not say anything racist or hateful to be denounced as a member of “white, xenophobic France,” or even as a “fascist.” To express mere discontent with the political system is dangerous enough. It is to faire le jeu de (“play the game of”) the National Front... the rhetoric of an “open society” is “a smokescreen meant to hide the emergence of a closed society, walled off for the benefit of the upper classes.”
This is excellent stuff and is explanatory of social dynamics elsewhere in the West. My only grouse is that this too represents only a part of the problem. For example, the dynamics of modern economy, with its labour displacing technologies, skill-biased technical change, and disempowered labour, have all played an important role in the emergence of the La France périphérique. There may even be a case for reining in the excessive focus on individual rights often at the cost of social responsibilities. The narrative cannot be complete without documenting and exploring these forces too. To the extent that they are ignored, this too becomes a convenient fig-leaf for the anti-globalists to work their fury on globalisation. 

Unfortunate as it is, the reality is that trade, migration, excessive technology (read automation), globalisation, deregulation, gentrification etc impose significant economic costs and, especially when taken together, is associated with an inexorable dynamic of widening inequality. Most often the losers are the poor and those in rural areas. The winners are the rich and the liberal middle class living in cities. Redistribution and retraining etc is practically difficult. Some of the losses are irreversible. And social safety nets are being pruned down. 

Worse still a hegemony has been established that all these are progressive ideals. In the establishment as well as among liberals, these forces are seen as part the logical progress of human civilisation. In fact, even commonplace traits like decency have been yoked to these trends. To reverse or even qualify them is seen as retrograde. So, questioning them runs the risk of being branded populist, Luddite, Marxist and so on.

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