What can be next for France…and the world

15 January 2019

This comment was published in Le Monde on 7 January.

What is France to do now? Unlike Hungary, Brazil, and the United States, its voters rejected the far right. Unlike Russia and Venezuela, they rejected the far left. They went straight down the center, or so it seemed, with Liberal Democracy. And now look what has happened.

The promise of Liberal Democracy is that liberating markets liberates societies. Compared with what came before, it delivered on that promise, more or less. The rising tide did raise many boats. Now the yachts on top are swamping the dinghies below. Supported by the dogma of economics—that greed is good, markets are sacred, and governments are suspect—the winners have managed to displace human values with Shareholder Value. Many have been using the corporate press and the social media, as well as election financing schemes (especially in the United States, where the Supreme Court has legalized bribery), to distort election campaigns and corrupt governments.  Liberal Democracy has become an oxymoron: it is no longer socially liberal, instead a threat to democracy.

The recent events in France have brought the globalization scenario into sharp relief. Liberated markets empower global corporations above all, which face no countervailing power. This enables them to ride roughshod over national governments and local communities. Divide-and-rule is the globalization game: get one country to cut taxes on wealth, and other countries have to follow suit. This starves their governments, which are thus forced to cut support for the rest of the population, while turning to regressive forms of taxation—for example, on those diesel fuels in France. In turn, this squeezes many of the people already brought to their knees by the very practices of globalization, namely weakening job security to hold down wages.

In America, where business remains sovereign, the people have tolerated this. Indeed, many blame the government for it and so elected a businessman to drain the swamp created by businesses in cahoots with politicians. In France, where the people who have lived better know better, there is less tolerance for this. So out on the streets many have gone, provoked by a fuel tax that broke the proverbial camel’s back. When a protest reaches 77% public support, you have to believe that the people are on to something—and it’s not populism.

That something is imbalance. Many of the countries we call democratic are now out of balance in much the way that the communist regimes of Eastern European were out of balance, just on the other side of the political spectrum. There the public sector dominated; here the private sector dominates. A healthy society balances the commercial interests of businesses in the private sector with the collective powers of governments in the public sector and the communal concerns of citizens in the plural sector: liberté, égalité, and fraternité, to quote the French motto. There are not many healthy societies left.

Like a barstool, no society can balance itself on one leg—be that socialism, capitalism, or populism. And trying to do so on two legs leaves many societies swinging back and forth between left and right, while the power of government dissipates as that of business escalates. A third leg is necessary for balance. I call it the plural sector, rather than the more usual “civil society”, so that it can be seen to take its place alongside the sectors called public and. private. It is largely community-based, comprising those associations that are owned by members (such as cooperatives) or by no-one (trusts, etc.). Here, in fact, is where we spend much of our personal lives, whether playing in a club, praying in a church, supporting an NGO, volunteering for a charity, or shopping in a co-op, not to mention marching in a protest.

Large as this sector is, there is no place for it in a world fixated on left and right, public and private.  But here is where major social change has usually started—on the ground, in communities, these days networked through the social media. If this sounds like France of late, then let’s hope it has started something.

What form is this something to take? What can be next, after so much else has failed?  Look around: there are still countries that have managed to maintain a semblance of balance across the sectors, most notably the Nordic ones, and my own country Canada, among some others. These places are not utopian, but they do offer a decent life for all. Not long ago, France was one of them. To this Canadian who has spent years of my life in France, this is what made it so liveable, so delightful—and now so dispirited.

Will Monsieur Macron get the message from the streets of France and become the statesman he fashions himself to be, instead of just another politician? Will France join with other countries to challenge the hegemony of globalization?  Will the businesses of France and other countries get the message that in a democratic society, their place is in the marketplace, not the public space? Will they have the courage to shake off the mercenary stock markets, by finding more decent ways to fund and govern themselves (for example, by using patient capital and vesting control in trusts, as do most of the major corporations of Denmark)? Will more citizens get the message that it is they, in their communities, who will have to drive their governments and their businesses to behave in such responsible ways?

Two hundred years ago, an astute Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville described the “associations” of this plural sector as a key component of the new “Democracy in America”. Imagine if his compatriots today recognized that insight, to lead a new wave for the restoration of democracy worldwide.

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. See Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center for elaboration of some of these points.

Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here. To help disseminate these blogs, we also have a LinkedIn page and a Facebook page.