Upon returning to the United States last week after a few days in Paris I was astonished to read that while I was visiting the recently re-opened Picasso museum, enjoying a splendid lunch at a delightful restaurant called Camille in the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, and going on from there to the Victor Hugo house in the Place des Vosges (the only pre-revolutionary square remaining in the city) there had been a tremendous demonstration going on only a few meters away in the Place de la Republique. It even made The New York Times, where a report by Mira Kamdar was headed, “In Paris, a Protest Movement Awakens.”
Presumably, New York Times readers are unaware that, in Paris, protest movements are always awakening, most of them, like the current one, composed of economically illiterate students reacting against left-wing governments which, having been mugged by reality, periodically make desperate but ultimately futile attempts to undo some of the economic damage caused by themselves or by previous left-wing governments.
To Ms. Kamdar, however, the French demonstrators calling themselves Nuit Debout (Upright at Night) are twins to the protestors of our very own Occupy movement of a few years ago and similar “anti-austerity” demonstrators in Spain and Greece—though she notes that “there are also echoes of France’s own history of popular revolt, including the student-led protests of May 1968.” If so, they are very distant echoes, and their calls to overthrow “the system” have by now taken on a somewhat ritualistic quality. As one of Ms. Kamdar’s interviewees put it:
“Our grandparents failed to bring about systemic change in 1968,” she said. “Our parents failed in 1995,” when there were massive protests against pension-plan reforms. “Now our generation has a chance to do something.” She added, “We’re really worried about the National Front, about the environment, about a lot of things, and we have a lot of ideas.”
Indeed they do! But maybe the two generations of failure—and, of course, they could have gone a lot further back with this than 1968—should be telling them something. Or something other than, “Why not have another shot at it?” What never seems to occur to the lefties, either in France or in the pages of The New York Times, is what those of us who were enjoying a peaceful lunch in the Rue des Franc Bourgeois implicitly acknowledged: namely, that trying “to bring about systemic change”—or l’invention d’un nouvel ordre politique et économique—is always and everywhere one of the really bad ideas.
For French students or the young American supporters of Bernie Sanders, however, it has has the more important virtue of being a very simple idea. The day after we returned from Paris, I spotted a headline in The Guardian which perfectly illustrated the point: “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems.” The article was by our old friend George “Moonbat” Monbiot, but the thought behind it was no more sophisticated than that of the French protestor who told Mira Kamdar that “Neo-liberal economics are hurting everyone.” On this occasion Moonbat appeared to be chiefly aggrieved because the hated “neoliberals”—as believers in free markets are now called by the left—stubbornly refuse to identify themselves as such. But he had only to look at his own headline to see why. It reflects the simplistic notion of the naive left—come up with the right -ism, either good or bad, and you have the answer to everything—which is precisely the kind of ideological thinking that we non-ideologues get called ideologues and “neoliberals” for declining to engage in.