Mitterrand’s turn to austerity was an ideological choice not an inevitability

As background research to one of my book projects I have been reading a recent biography of François Mitterrand by Philip Short. Its title “Mitterand: A Study in Ambiguity” points to the capacity of Mitterand himself to blow with the wind but only when it suited his sense of personal ambition. Hiding behind his statesmanship was a man with “infinite shades of deviousness, an aesthete and intellectual, a sensualist, a crook”. The story of Mitterrand and his famous turn to austerity in March 1983 is very important to understand because it is used by progressives to justify their ‘austerity-lite’ stances with respect to economic policy. The New Labour politicians that are attacking Jeremy Corbyn’s policy proposals fit into this camp. The ‘left’ narrative is that the demise of Keynesian policy options was inevitable in the face of globalisation of capital and the growing importance of Transnational Corporations (TNCs). But, my argument is that there was nothing inevitable at all about Mitterrand’s poorly contrived shift into austerity. The progressives who advocate the inevitability thesis conflate the development of the TNCs with the emerging dominance of the neo-liberal ideology (which is concoction from economists intent on pushing the textbook competitive free market model with minimal state intervention). The development of the TNCs didn’t undermine the capacity of currency-issuing nation states. That has been accomplished by the imposition of the neo-liberal ideology and is reversible if the politics can be won. That is what I see as Jeremy Corbyn’s challenge – to win the politics. There is plenty of strong economic argument to help him do that.

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