Bloomberg offers its readers a look at a typically French phenomenon: a government’s economic cheerleading around the promotion of a simplistic idea that makes its traditionally stale policies appear more modern and dynamic than they actually are.
One of the classic ploys is to borrow concepts from the US with a view to sounding more revolutionary than the Americans. It goes back to an 18th-century tradition. The American Revolution, launched in 1776, led to the colonists’ independence from the king of England. The French liked the idea and ran with it, pushing it to a higher, more centralized level of organized violence and radicalism in their revolution beginning in 1789 that clearly one-upped the Americans by beheading the king.
France has always had a vibrant intellectual culture. The French generally appreciate complexity and nuance and adore contradictory debate. But its political leaders know that one of the keys to electoral success is to promote ideas that sound original even when they lack substance or contradict reality.
France’s thinkers in the second half of the 20th century offered us precious insight into how all modern governments and social systems work. Back in the 1960s, Guy Debord analyzed “la société du spectacle,” which he saw as an inevitable consequence of the marriage of democracy and technology. Around the same time, Jean Baudrillard elaborated on the concept of “hyperreality” that describes how a society with the means to fabricate an artificial version of reality comes to prefer it to its natural environment and believe in the tangible reality of an invented and industrially finished simulacrum.
In a Bloomberg article with the title, “Emmanuel Macron’s Startup Nation Has an Old-School Dilemma,” the author, Lionel Laurent, describes one of President Macron’s “inspiring” themes to stimulate the economy. Laurent explains that, as with so many political themes that French governments expect people to rally around, Macron’s latest attempt has been greeted with criticism and contempt. “Given the slowly-rumbling backlash against ‘le startupisme’ and the rough performance of tech IPOs in the U.S., there’s probably not much time left to prove that French Tech hype is more than just political aspiration.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A policy invented by Emmanuel Macron’s French government to make people believe that a certain unfounded and untested approach to economics and technology could be thought of as comparable to a trending French innovative artistic movement, on the model of impressionism, expressionism or fauvism (all of which take an ‘e’ at the end of their title in French).
Summing up the thesis of a recent book, “Le Fantasme Technologique et Economique de la Startup Nation” (“The Technological and Economic Illusion of the Startup Nation”) by journalist Antoine Gouritin, its publisher explains the context in which it was written: “Startupism is now taught in business and engineering schools, as well as in incubators, and one of its effects is to replace business creators with ‘fundraisers’, whose action consists entirely in attracting financiers, regardless of the usefulness of the product created and marketed.”
Rather than starting with concrete reality before inventing a categorically abstract label to describe it, the political class in France has always preferred to start from an abstract idea and assume they can mold reality to fit it. Back in the summer of 2017, President Macron bombastically called France a “start-up nation” (using the English terms). The idea quickly evolved into an “ism,” meaning a powerful federating idea and a way of thinking about the world, similar to an ideology. Adding “-isme” even to an English word has become something of a tradition in recent decades.
The sociologist Dominique G. Boullier describes the phenomenon launched by Macron in these terms: “A new generation equipped with slogans borrowed from the world of start-ups seems ready to impose its law and re-educate all our public services.” Pushing his critique further, Boullier cites the real world of truly creative entrepreneurs and calls the initiative a “veritable hold-up of their culture … in the service of an ideological campaign.”
The Bloomberg article calls one of the government’s more audacious initiatives — the creation of an artificially defined category of stocks called the “New 40” — a “boondoggle.” It amounts to the selection and promotion of a new elite and a glorification of the stock market itself. Its aim is to make people believe in an illusory vision of the economy that has little to do with the real economy. It belongs to the world of political hyperreality.
Boullier writes about what he calls the “platform state,” highlighting the fact that the newly idealized economic model is the platform, as embodied by Facebook, Uber, Airbnb and others. Platforms allow entrepreneurs and their investors to make money not from what they produce, but from what other people do on their platform. Free or cheap labor. Boullier calls the concept barbarous (“la philosophie de barbare”). He notes that the fashion has promoted belief in what might be thought of as the “startup mentality,” whose process he describes as a form of “self-generated storytelling.” The story is more real than the events it describes, a classic feature of hyperreality. He points out that the recent history of techno-jargon in the entrepreneurial class can be explained by what has become their unique purpose and goal: “seducing investors.”
He points to a significant change in the culture and behavior of the actors participating in the recent history of startups. In previous generations, the French referred to their entrepreneurs as “enterprise creators.” The new title for them, “startuppeurs,” sounds fashionable and draws attention to their focus on the kind of innovation that promises rich rewards for investors. Boullier notes that this characterization of newly idealized generation of entrepreneurs saddles them from the outset with the obligation not to build a successful business, but “to play in the big leagues and deal with serious people, the so-called venture capitalists [risquers in French], who, it must be admitted, have so much liquidity that they don’t risk much more than getting bored with their activity.”
Boullier describes a model that became dominant in Silicon Valley 20 years ago. It holds a central place in the ideology of high-tech capitalism now observable everywhere in the world. It took two decades for the French to buy into it, but one might say they — or at least Macron’s government — have finally caught on, though they haven’t quite caught up. And just as the French Revolution easily outdid the American Revolution, Macron has quite naturally ended up emulating Robespierre rather than George Washington.
As a result, in a nation that questions everything, no one in business or government now questions the infallible wisdom of the investors. It may be a sign of the rift that exists at the heart of French society and that became evident with the rise of the yellow vest movement a year ago.
Since the birth of the American nation, France has always had an ambiguous love-hate relationship with the US. Since the end of World War II, France has sought, sometimes ostentatiously, to resist the incursion of US culture, even claiming its own version of exceptionalism (to protect its cinema industry).
Of the eight presidents of the Fifth Republic, four have been to various degrees French exceptionalists (Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Francois Mitterand, Jacques Chirac) and three vocal admirers of the US model (Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Nicolas Sarkozy, Emmanuel Macron). In other words, an ongoing cultural battle of traditionalists vs. modernists — Francois Hollande being too much of an “ordinary guy” to be one or the other.
Since Giscard d’Estaing in the 1970s, French governments have occasionally suggested that if you feel brutalized by a declining industrial system, create an enterprise, a policy that has provided an opportunity for many people, but not enough to appease the yellow vests and turn France into California. By defining France as a “startup nation,” Macron has taken that final hyperreal step.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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