As a banker for Rothschild & Co from 2008 to 2012, Emmanuel Macron was the man of the liquid society. Since May 2017, he is the President of France. What does this change mean and imply?
The notion of “liquidity” is borrowed from physics. It entered the social sciences through economics and finance long ago, thanks to authors such as John Meynard Keynes in his Treatise on Money. An asset is said to be liquid when it is easy to exchange for money without loss of value. The notion of liquidity implies that value can easily move from one form of financial asset to another.
The contribution of Zygmunt Bauman, a professor of sociology at the University of Leeds who died last year at the age of 91, was to extend this idea to the whole of social life. Starting from liquid modernity, he came to speak of “liquid life”. Our societies that were previously “mineral” have now become liquid. Just as we move easily from one financial asset to another because of their liquidity, we move from one social role to another. We also move from one job to another, from one network to another, from one partner to another, and so on. In short, from one social form to another. We have been witnessing this liquefaction process for two decades. It can be interpreted as an extension of the logic of finance out of itself, as authors such as Randy Martin, Dick Bryan and Mike Rafferty have pointed out.
Emmanuel Macron became president of France in May 2017. More than anyone else on the French political scene, he emerged as a man of the liquid society. In the second round of the elections, last spring, his fluidity swept away the dam that his opponent Marine Le Pen claimed to embody. Let’s apply some criteria defining the liquid society to the new president.
Of course, Emmanuel Macron’s links with the world of finance are striking, and during the election campaign he proudly highlighted his past career as a banker. Therefore, we should not be surprised that he does not recognise the fundamental flaws of the current economic system. In particular, he sees no need to separate banks’ transaction-service businesses from their speculative activities. After all, he shares the commonplace diagnosis that it would be enough to limit certain excesses of finance. In the form it takes today, finance is considered intrinsically good and desirable in liquid society.
One feature of liquid society is that celebrity is based not on action, but on a media-built notoriety. It is therefore not surprising to discover that during the first eight months of 2016 (until his resignation as Finance Minister), Emmanuel Macron spent 80% of the total amount of representation fees of all fellow ministries and state secretariat covering the field of the economy. This allowed him to court many journalists, men and women of influence whose fields of activity seem far removed from those of the economy.
Despite this, many French citizens would have difficulty identifying a set of strong economic measures that came out of Macron’s time as minister (between August 2014 and August 2016). He was rapporteur of the Attali Commission (2007-2008) under President Nicolas Sarkozy, charged with “liberating” France’s economic growth. The so-called “Macron law” is strongly inspired by the requirements of this commission. It promoted mobility, i.e., the logic of competition, in multiple areas. Its flagship measure was the opening of low-cost bus lines competing directly with the French national railway system’s trains. In the short term, this allowed travel for a few euros between major French cities. In the long term, this model is unsustainable economically and ecologically.
The first year of Macron’s presidency confirms, if not accentuates, his image of a man of liquid society.
A fundamental element of the fluid society is the primacy of change for the sake of change – the actual direction taken is secondary. The political group formed to support Macron was explicitly a movement: “En marche!” (“On the move!”). After his election, it became “La République en Marche” (the republic on the move). This is a characteristic name of an ideology of mobility. But it does not present itself as an alternative ideology that could indicate the search for goals, therefore of meaning. He embodies a trend that amalgamates individual adherence from everywhere.
Macron is definitely pro-market and pro-business, yet he appears to be without partisan allegiance to the right or left. He legitimises this attitude by espousing pragmatism and an ability to select without prejudice the best of ideas in circulation. This primacy of change is the hallmark of liquid society. Most of his traits correspond to what Zygmunt Bauman has credited with a liquid society: concern for unremitting transformations as well as for the fluidity of things and beings in order to adapt to permanent changes and mobilities.
The concordance between the man and liquidity that dominates our time explains Macron’s influence over people to whom he seems modern and his rejection by others, likely in equal proportions.
Measures, not projects
Another characteristic of the liquid society according to Bauman is the absence of a specific project for fluidising economic and social relations. Even late in his presidential campaign Macron had yet to propose a clear political program, and when the time came, only a few measures were announced. The exercise perhaps seemed to him not particularly useful for a candidacy that didn’t have a strong backbone, nor any real projection into the future. Now we can measure how much it was about creating favourable conditions for once again adapting institutions and the workforce to permanent change.
As for the workforce, the logic of liquefaction is shown by the law on the labour code in autumn 2017 and the plans announced for the training of workers and the reform of the status of civil service or employees of the national railway company, SNCF. The new law reforming the university registration process is similar: presented as an opportunity to improve mobility and efficiency, in fact it introduces more selection and entry competition among both students and universities. This is a possible prelude to a sharp increase in France’s tuition fees, which are currently quite affordable.
The permanent training of the workforce will allow it to adapt to changes conceived as deus ex machina. People who work any level of production and exchange organisations are not thought of as stakeholders of the companies that employ them. Labour is a flow that entrepreneurs and employers take and reject, similar to electrical power, software or funding. Employees must therefore be constantly formatted and reformatted.
What is questionable here is not the concern for continuing education and training but the fact that labour is merely a variable onto which more risks are constantly being shifted. Yet it is crucial to acknowledge that the sole measure of the success of a business and its leaders is not just meeting the short-term interests of its shareholders. In the same way, the successes of public policies require the compliance of the civil servants rather than their simple adaptation to the supposed constraints of the times.
Another characteristic of the liquid society is amnesia. Some elements may give the appearance of an inscription of the presidential action in history, but history is actually used as mere scenery. Such a use of history was apparent during Macron’s participation in the annual devotion of Joan of Arc in Orleans during his campaign. Later, he chose to celebrate his victory in the courtyard of the Louvre, which was once a royal and then an imperial residence. For a year, the Château de Versailles has been regularly used by the liquid president to welcome guests such as Valdimir Putin or business leaders Macron wants to honour or seduce. In an anecdotal but significant manner, one can mention his desire to restore presidential hunts, which were abolished in 2010. Thus the traditional New Year’s wishes of the president to the French people on December 31, 2017 were particularly amnesic. Indeed, no mention was made to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the “events” of May 1968, nor the 100 years since the end of World War I.
Inconsistencies as well as discrepancies between the liquid society of Macron and the less liquid and harder-edged reality experienced by ordinary people will inescapably create new crises. It will reinforce environmental destruction because of the emphasis on short-term profitability. For example, the government continues to move forward with the plan to bury radioactive waste in Bure without worrying about the long-term environmental effects.
The idea of liquidity applied to all things in social life is an interesting interpretation of the evolution of social practices and mentalities. However, social reality itself remains irreducible to the behaviour of a fluid. It is doubtful whether this notion can serve as a standard for governing in the public interest. To try to render liquid what cannot be liquid will necessarily lead to irreducible contradictions, mental and material disintegration, suffering and conflicts. If we think that the liquid society and its short-term profit logic will only lead to new crises and reinforce the destruction of the environment, then we need to get prepared to face up to the risks of the liquid organisation of production, exchanges and their financing.