The Return of Economic Regulation?

Tuesday, 07 October 2008 12:11 By JeanLouis Andreani, Le Monde | name.

The Return of Economic Regulation?
Jean-Louis Andreani writes: "All adversaries of extreme neo-liberalism are, in a certain way, facing the battle of reason and humanism against insane money that resumes today... " (Art: Albrecht Durer)

    The longer the economic crisis lasts and the farther it spreads, the harder it becomes to see it as a certainly very painful, but momentary, episode. In France, right in the middle of preparations for their November party congress in Reims, some Socialist Party leaders have understood that this earthquake offers them a new chance. So Lille's mayor, Martine Aubry, urged "a complete change in the economic model" this October first. In other words, beyond the immediate measures to contain the panic, a new battle is opening up. On one side, those who want to maintain the last thirty years' gains for dominant free-market neo-liberalism; on the other, those who take to dreaming that the crisis marks the end of a cycle that began in May 1979 with Margaret Thatcher's ascension to power in the United Kingdom.

    For the latter, the scope of the disaster has - before the eyes of the whole world - illuminated the market's potentially catastrophic effects when it is left to itself. In fact, what is happening today is merely the illustration of the criticisms addressed against neo-liberalism (or neo-classicism) for decades. So, in the beginning of the 1970s, economics textbooks for French students, including Raymond Barre's, still emphasized that pure and perfect competition was a theoretical model subject to conditions that varied according to the author, but that shared the common characteristic of never having been met in real life. Similarly, the formula "leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse," which strikingly summarizes the reality of a deregulated economy in the present context, was invented ages ago.

    But, along with the double Thatcher-Reagan effect, and even more after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the neo-liberal ideological wave was so powerful it swept away those preventatives. Up until the brutal reversal of these last several weeks came to crown a slow deterioration over the years of triumphant neo-liberalism's image. In the former Eastern Europe, that doctrine's adherents nearly imposed the idea that nothing exists between communism and neo-liberalism. Thus, Georgian President Mikheil Saakachvili defines himself as "ultraliberal" [what we might call an uber-free-marketeer].

    In France, after the left's 1981 victory, the Gaullist right, furious about its defeat, began to break with its muse's government control philosophy to look towards London and Washington with interest. In the Hexagon also, the government became "outmoded;" money, a rising value. Some Socialist party leaders' new fascination for big company milieus and money accompanied this development: the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s were the years of French-style "golden boys, with Bernard Tapie as their symbol. They marked the apogee of the vogue of neo-liberal ideas.

    However, as early as 1995, the first cracks began to appear; doubts, to be born in public opinion. Jacques Chirac was elected president of the Republic. He built his victory by conducting his campaign on the theme of the "social fracture" as he faced off against moderate liberal Edouard Balladur, former prime minister of the "cohabitation" government that during 1986-1988 privatized those companies that had been nationalized in 1981. Exactly ten years later, it was the thunderbolt of the French "NO" to the proposed European Constitution that fixed in stone a much more free market conception of Europe than at its outset.

    Meanwhile, just about everywhere in the world, neo-liberalism, as though drunk on its own success, ended up caricaturing itself. Moral responsibility and exigency - supposed to go hand-in-hand with the freedom that was claimed, according to classic authors such as Max Weber - were chucked out, replaced by the most basic application of the principle, "The end justifies the means." The taste for work well-done was replaced with money-hunger. The requirement of two-figure profitability became the norm and led to a cortège of factory closings and layoffs. Industrial strategies based on investment, patience and long-term outlook were replaced by the urgency of maximum short-term gain. Inequalities exploded. In the media, the spectacle of unlimited enrichment clashed with that of temporarily employed and "poor workers" - who were increasing.

    The Market's Unbridled Play

    Little by little - and not in France only - voices warned against a world subject to the values of money and the law of the jungle only. Big bosses, once admired, scandalized public opinion by taking on the aspect of a caste to which all is permitted. Their insane remunerations - utterly unconnected to their performance - reached a level so shocking that it aroused criticisms from personalities such as American billionaire Warren Buffett. Germany came to realize that family companies, managed according to the wise principles of "Rhenish capitalism" - formerly presented as the height of archaism - are the best armed to confront the crisis and economic slowdown. Japan begins to assess the devastating effects of social precariousness. With the rise in the price of raw materials, international public opinion discovered the jungle of speculation that is practiced even on the prices of food products part of humanity lacks.

    In this context, now that part of the population is convinced that the market's unbridled play produces not only social, but also economic, catastrophes, will it become possible to start over again as we were before, or almost? Or is a new cycle, based on the return of public power and the rehabilitation of regulatory philosophy about to open up?

    To avoid what they see as a horror movie scenario, the present system's adherents mention technical failures or blame the mistakes on individuals - a little as though the financial planet suffered only from being peopled with clones of Jérôme Kerviel. The resistance to a return to earth comes from those who, out of ideological conviction, do not want to surrender a victory they thought was definitive. That resistance stems mostly from all those who profited from the system, accumulated gigantic profits and would like to just go on like that. All adversaries of extreme neo-liberalism are, in a certain way, facing the battle of reason and humanism against insane money that resumes today - with better chances of success.

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    Translation: Truthout French language editor This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Last modified on Tuesday, 07 October 2008 12:39