Tuesday, March 8, 2011

President Rising

Leading economic theorists converged on the IMF headquarters in Washington today for a summit conference on macroeconomic policy. I gave myself the treat of watching the IMF's director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, open the proceedings with a 20 minute address, in charmingly accented and idiomatic English, in which he welcomed his academic colleagues, reviewed the themes of the day's work, and promised to attend the sessions. It was a remarkable performance from this remarkable person, in whom the strands of politician, economist, and banker come together with such force. Only a few years ago DSK, between ministerial posts, was teaching economics at Sciences Po. In another year he may be Président de la République ... or not. As he exhorted his guests to help set the new, post-crisis course for global capitalism, in which his IMF will take a leading part, I had to wonder (as I suppose he himself does) whether that other job, if he wins it, would be a vertical promotion, a lateral one, or no promotion at all.

Clearly on display in this room full of brainpower, in the roster of topics and supporting papers, and in the host institution at large, is the confidence of a world system that believes it knows where it is going. Conference convener Olivier Blanchard, describing the task at hand, makes it seem so clear: certain assumptions need to be examined, certain adjustments made to monetary and fiscal regulation, and then the global system can resume its work, spreading growth, consolidating markets, enlarging the precincts and advancing the interests of capital. It is a powerful, possibly all-powerful system, and DSK sits at its nexus.

Of course like so many others my interest in DSK is more specific: I want to know if he is going to launch a presidential campaign, and if so when, and with what success. What was merely a handicapper's curiosity until last Saturday has turned into something much more urgent: the fate of the Republic, no less. For with Sarkozy's dismal performance and the meteoric ascent of Marine Le Pen in the polls, all eyes are turning to DSK as the one sure trump card that will keep the National Front out of the Elysée Palace.

But I must say, watching DSK preside over the IMF, he seems oddly juxtaposed, with all due respect, to Marine Le Pen. Not that I mean to underestimate her, and anyone who does would be a fool. She is a fierce debater, a quick study, and her strategic instincts thus far display a discipline quite unlike her father's. And yet what she stands for, compared to DSK and the IMF, seems so small, so petty , so local. Her current mission to Lampedusa, presumably to tell the Tunisian and Libyan refugees to get back on their boats and go home, is a case in point: in the face of a wrenching political and humanitarian crisis that has galvanized the world's attention, her response is to pull up the gangplank and let history take its course somewhere else. Hers is a folkloric France, homogeneous and pure, old-fashioned in its values and without global ambitions. One can understand the appeal of such a world to a populace battered by unemployment, bewildered by demographic and cultural change, chronically anxious about the destination of a world too large to be comprehended. If she can succeed in painting her more familiar vision in vivid colors for the French voters, is it so difficult to imagine them preferring it to the more abstract, cosmopolitan, polyglot realities so perfectly embodied in DSK?

Well sure, the smart money still favors DSK, or even Sarko, to this upstart frontrunner-of-the-moment. My own admittedly remote hope is for a third alternative that has hardly shown its outlines as yet. It would question the viability of that capitalist world system, for all its power, and recall how close it brought us to the brink of collapse just two years ago. It would question whether the barely visible but no less imposing environmental catastrophe can be addressed by a system whose only rationale and modus operandi is perpetual growth. It would understand that ours is, like it or not, a world system, but would postulate a world system grounded in solidarity, not competition, exploitation, profit. It would take on the challenge of rising inequality, within the developed economies and between the less developed ones, and redistribute the vast accumulations of wealth that are the source of such instability. Such a nascent vision will be represented, however imperfectly, in the French presidential election, whether by Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Olivier Besancenot or both. It will be ridiculed and marginalized in the mainstream press, as indeed it already has been. It may never be forced to specify its ideas programmatically, which is too bad because they need the refinement that comes from public debate. That debate will most likely follow the worn path of DSK's (or Sarko's) old ideas, vs. MLP's utterly anachronistic ones. But a new synthesis of global reach with local management, in a framework no longer determined by capital's demands for growth and profit, will try to articulate itself in this coming campaign. It would be everyone's loss if the more flamboyant thematics of today's medio-political stars render it invisible.


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