Karl Marx was talking about French politics when he quipped that when history repeats itself the first time is tragedy and the second farce, so it was appropriate that this past Saturday’s French presidential election confirmed the theory. The Socialist candidate, François Hollande, came out ahead, earning a berth in the runoff with incumbent Gaullist Nicolas Sarkozy, which he is widely expected to win as well. But more startling were the third and fourth place challengers. Marine Le Pen, the neo-fascist candidate whose father Jean-Marie won a spot in the 2002 presidential runoff, earned 18 percent of the vote, only ten points behind Hollande, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leftist backed by the French Communist Party who calls for a maximum income of $500,000, took in 11 percent.
Given the circumstances, one’s mind naturally turns to the last time Europe flirted seriously with far-left and far-right movements. And that, unsurprisingly to those of us who take an economically determinist view of political cycles, coincided with the last time that Europe had to deal with a financial meltdown and ensuing recession in the 1920s and 30s. Radical movements proliferated, with fascists gaining power in Germany and Italy and leftist and fascist governments ruling Spain in succession. Even the U.S. saw an uptick in interest in radicalism, with the quasi-fascist priest Charles Coughlin gaining widespread support.
Obviously, there is little risk of any of this repeating itself in the wake of the current crisis, not least because the continent’s current economic straits are markedly less dire than they were eighty years ago. But the parallels are real and illustrate a few ways in which politics hasn’t actually changed much in the intervening almost century.
For one thing, the weekend’s elections, and in particular Le Pen’s disturbingly strong showing, serve as a reminder that recessions typically result in a resurgence of xenophobic, racist, and otherwise reactionary social sentiments. The causal theory is simple enough. When times are bad, people search for scapegoats, and immigrants and ethnic minorities provide ready targets. But as Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman ’66 argued in his book “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth,” the theory has a lot of empirical evidence backing it as well, with the pattern occurring across countries at all stages of development. Generally left-minded people have an unfortunate tendency of occasionally downplaying the importance of economic growth. But if one cares about social tolerance, few things are more critical.
This, of course, raises the question of what regime best promotes steady, broadly shared growth, and thus mitigates societal prejudice and secures various other social goods. The 1930s provided a trial by fire of different models of how to lead nations out of economic holes, and, as Sheri Berman argued in her outstanding study “The Primacy of Politics,” social democracy came out the victor. Classical liberals (what we would now call libertarians) and orthodox Marxists made plays at relevance, but they proved unable to deliver the goods. The liberals’ opposition to market interference left citizens to fend for themselves, as did the orthodox Marxists’ insistence that capitalism must be allowed to run its course until the revolution inevitably arrives. Two theories emerged that allowed for a more active state and thus a better cared-for populace: social democracy and fascism. And after the latter was defeated in battle (and by its own irrationality and barbarism) social democracy was left standing as the lone theory that allowed for both democratic governance and the redress of economic hardship.
So it’s fitting that Hollande, the representative of the French social democratic tradition in this year’s presidential race, would emerge the winner when the continent again found itself in crisis. His proposals—a 75 percent income tax bracket, CEO salary caps, and tougher bank regulation, among other things—sound radical to American ears, but are more responsive to the need to combat inequality and prevent future financial meltdowns than any policy initiatives on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, in many cases they’re hardheaded and technocratic, given that the best evidence suggests that tax rates that high could be optimal.
Not a lot about politics is fair, but one thing that is, is that in well-functioning democracies like France (or really any country with a less rigid system than the United States’), policies that succeed in producing widely shared prosperity are rewarded at the ballot box. The failure to do so doomed classical liberals and Marxists in the 1930s, and it has doomed Sarkozy today. And social democracy’s consistently strong record in that regard is giving it yet another inning.
Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @dylanmatt.