As France goes to the polls to elect a new president, observers are wondering if the vote will follow a populist trend that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
Here are a few important things to know about the upcoming vote, as explained by Joshua Cole, an American scholar of European history.
1. How does the French presidential electoral process work?
Prospective candidates must gather 500 signatures of support from French elected officials and have their candidacy approved by the Constitutional Court. A presidential term is five years, and all citizens 18 years and older can vote. This year the first round of voting is on April 23. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, there will be a second-round runoff between the top two candidates on May 7.
2. Is president an important job in France?
The prime minister is the head of the French government, but the president outranks the prime minister and has important powers in national defense and foreign relations.
The president also chooses the prime minister from the majority party in parliament. Occasionally, the president is forced to choose a prime minister from a different party than his or her own. This is called “cohabitation.” This year, the legislative elections will be in two rounds on June 11 and 18.
3. Who are the most popular candidates for president?
Eleven candidates are running, with five seen as the main contenders. Two candidates are leading the polls: Marine Le Pen of the extreme right-wing National Front and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist and former economics minister, who is not associated with a traditional party.
Surprisingly, the candidates from the parties who have dominated presidential politics for almost 40 years – the Republicans and the Socialists – are seen as unlikely to make the second round. Republican François Fillon has been hobbled by scandal. Socialist Bénoit Hamon has found little traction among voters tired of the current socialist president, François Hollande.
A candidate from the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has seen his chances of making the second round improve in recent days.
4. France has been under a nationwide state of emergency since November of 2015. Is security a big issue?
Multiple terrorist attacks in 2015-2016 have made security more important than ever. Article 16 of the French Constitution gives the president the power to declare a state of emergency and then exercise executive and legislative powers simultaneously, ruling directly by decree. Given the likelihood of more terrorist attacks, this possibility has received a great deal of attention of late. A group of lawyers and jurists recently published a letter arguing that the Constitution gives too much power to the presidency and that electing Le Pen was a danger to French democracy.
5. During the 2012 election, some said then-President Nicolas Sarkozy was afraid to visit immigrant neighborhoods. How are these so-called “banlieues” playing into the election this time?
The banlieues are zones of economic and cultural exclusion, where problems of chronic unemployment are concentrated. Not all French Muslims (about 8 percent of the population) live in the banlieues, but some banlieues have large Muslim populations. Le Pen’s campaign painted the banlieues as zones of failed assimilation and a danger to France, blaming the residents for their own isolation.
6. What are the chances Le Pen will win?
Le Pen is popular among many young people, who seem not to be bothered by the National Front’s long association with racism and anti-Semitism. She is also supported by those who are opposed to European integration. Most polls say a second-round runoff between Le Pen and Macron is likely, and that Macron will win this match-up. With more than a third of the electorate saying they’re undecided on whom to vote for in the second round, the result may end up being much closer than predicted.
Donald Trump entered office in January vowing to improve US relations with Russia. Less than three months into his presidency, however, the prospects for a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to be as remote as they were under any of his predecessors.
The extent of tensions and disagreements between the United States and Russia will be on display on Wednesday when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets in Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a much anticipated encounter.
Where’s the love now?
Tillerson’s April 12 visit to Russia is the first by a top Trump administration official. A former oilman who made many trips to Russia while CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson is still learning the ropes as America’s top diplomat.
The US bombing came in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack on rebel-held territory in Idlib Province on April 4 that killed at least 80 civilians, including women and children, and sickened hundreds more. The United States and other Western governments claim the Assad regime was responsible. American warships in the eastern Mediterranean fired 59 cruise missiles against the military air base in western Syria believed to be where the attack originated.
Russia called the missile strikes an act of aggression and a violation of international law. Assad remains Moscow’s main ally in the Middle East and one of its only allies outside the post-Soviet sphere.
Tillerson’s ties to Russia aroused scrutiny from both Democrats and Republicans during his confirmation hearings in January, and almost derailed his nomination. But since then he has emerged as one of the Trump administration’s strongest Russia critics.
He has called Russia “incompetent” for allowing Syria to maintain a stockpile of chemical weapons following a 2013 agreement to disarm Assad of banned weapons, and suggested that the Russians may have been “outmaneuvered” by the Assad regime. The White House on Tuesday April 11 went further, accusing Russia of trying to cover up the attack.
Over the past week, Tillerson and other US officials have accused Russia of playing an increasingly disruptive role not just in Syria but also across Europe, just as it interfered in last year’s US presidential election.
Most difficult relations since the Cold War
In response to a surge of violence in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russia separatists, Tillerson is likely to remind Russian officials of their commitments under the 2015 Minsk agreement, namely the importance of enforcing the ceasefire. Pentagon officials have also accused Russia of violating an important arms-control agreement signed in the 1980s.
In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, “It is obvious that Russian-American relations are going through the most difficult period since the end of the Cold War.”
At Tuesday’s G7 meeting in Lucca, Italy, Tillerson said the reign of the Assad regime was “coming to an end,” and called on Russia to end its support for it. Continued support for Assad will only serve to embarrass Russia, he said, and make it irrelevant in the Middle East.
Still, Washington is sending mixed signals on how it plans to deal with Syria. The Trump administration does not yet have a clear policy regarding the conflict, or what the level of US involvement will be going forward. It is not yet clear whether last week’s strike will be a one off – a warning to Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people again – or whether it signals a broader strategic shift in the US approach to the civil war there, which is now in its sixth year.
Russia, on the other hand, is concerned that the US strike might signal the emergence of a more assertive foreign policy under the Trump administration. It could signal Trump’s willingness to use military force, and perhaps even a readiness to pursue military interventions and regime change. They see their interests clashing with the United States not just in Syria but possibly over North Korea and Iran as well.
So what can Tillerson achieve in Moscow? Neither government expects any breakthroughs on the issues that currently divide them. Russia has moved closer to Iran, Assad’s other main backer, and it is unlikely that the Kremlin will be willing to distance itself from the Assad regime.
A thaw in relations between the United States and Russia seems unlikely, and even common ground will be hard to find. Both countries increasingly see the other as an adversary, convinced that each is out to undermine the other.
The civil war in Syria has claimed more than 400,000 lives. Half the population has been displaced, and it has led to one of the worst refugee crises since the second world war. The latest ceasefire, reached in December 2016, is faltering, and UN-backed peace talks have accomplished little.
An end to the slaughter will require the active coordination of the United States and Russia. But, given current tensions between Moscow and Washington, this possibility seems more unlikely than ever.
Make no mistake. The April 6 U.S. airstrike on Syria following Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon attack is a remarkable shift in President Donald Trump’s – and Washington’s – past policy.
As president-elect, Trump’s Middle Eastern concerns centered on defeating the Islamic State and depicted Syria’s millions of refugees as potential extremists and a threat to U.S. borders. The president now justifies American attacks on Syrian airfields as a “vital national security interest of the U.S.”
Moreover, the U.S. airstrikes may have involved some strategic thought and multilateral diplomacy, two central aspects of foreign policymaking not previously associated with the Trump administration. The choice of the airfield for attack was a limited, comparatively low-stakes target. Both Russia and Syria had advance knowledge from the U.S. of the attack.
Syrian and Russian outrage at the U.S. involvement is an expected response to this first open major American military action against Assad since the 2011 civil war began. But that doesn’t mean the conflict will necessarily entangle the U.S. more deeply. Indeed, Russian frustration with the particular nastiness of its ally’s chemical attack may make the US strike a relief to President Vladimir Putin because it signals to Assad that he had better be careful about how he tries to reassert control over Syria. That signal, however, need not undermine Assad himself.
A one-time thing?
So what comes next for U.S. policy?
Was this a one-off U.S. intervention reflective of Trump’s interest in doing “something” in response to a particularly shocking event?
We don’t know, because the U.S. leader has shown limited consistent attention to foreign policy.
The easiest guess? Trump’s lack of prior expertise in the Syrian crisis, his moves back toward the U.S.‘ more typical globalized outlook and apparent genuine shock at Assad’s brutality may signal a real shift. Yet, even if so, it is unlikely founded on a broader policy vision. The problem of what Trump does when faced with a complex global challenge, without the background and fully staffed bureaucracy to respond rapidly, has been raised appropriately by journalists and pundits. We have seen no sign so far that the White House has a strategy on Assad larger than the air strike.
Of course, Assad, Putin and Iran’s leadership do have such strategies. They involve continued strengthening of the Syrian strongman’s power.
The long-term, entrenched nature of these countries’ commitments casts doubt that the U.S. for now will take bigger steps to undermine Assad’s recently improved position in Syria. The Trump administration has expressed indifference toward complex diplomacy. Indeed, greater U.S. determination to adopt a multipronged, multilateral effort to weaken Assad or crush Syrian opposition might make defeating the Islamic State harder. It would embroil Trump in a problem that proved too vexing for the extensive brainpower and experience of the Obama administration. And it might risk long-term, unpopular military engagement, with greater responsibility for state-building, like what bedeviled Washington a decade ago in Iraq.
Moreover, in terms of broader U.S. military involvement, Syria today is not a clear analogy with Iraq in 2003. The absence of a prior attack on U.S. soil, the longer-term plan of U.S. policy advisers to topple Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government and that government’s lack of powerful international allies are all key factors that facilitated American military escalation in Iraq that are not present in Syria.
Syrians, and people who care about Syria, might hope that a U.S. airstrike leads to new, international, creative efforts to try to alleviate Syrians’ suffering. We all know that President Trump is quite capable of actions that surprise. Could a sustained American commitment to stop Assad’s killing be such a surprise? Such a commitment would require not quick attacks but subtle diplomacy, with the credible threat of force as one policy lever among many. It’s unlikely, but with Donald Trump, it is hard to know for sure.
The U.S. and China together account for one-third of global economic output, so there is a lot at stake as President Donald Trump meets with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, not least the fate of the world economy over the next few years.
And it is precisely the magnitude of the stakes involved that has led some observers to assume that both countries will play it safe and focus on the areas of the relationship that are “win-win” relative to the areas that are more likely to produce conflict.
But there is no guarantee that this will happen. In fact, Trump may have already dealt himself a poor hand thanks to his past rhetoric on trade, which has heightened the political risk that he faces in negotiating with Xi. Perhaps more worryingly, Trump’s focus on achieving short-term victories could also tip the balance against the U.S.
At the end of the day, the two countries not only drive the world economy but also rely critically on one another, a fact that should moderate the decisions of these two strong-willed leaders. In fact, my research (with fellow economists Giovanni Peri and Gianmarco Ottaviano) has highlighted the economic risks of miscalculating on trade deals, particularly those with developing countries.
A tricky trade balance
Trump has a difficult political balancing act to maintain.
On the one hand, 85 percent of Republicans believe that trade has cost more U.S. jobs than it has created. This group will presumably expect results in raising barriers to U.S. imports, particularly those from China. In fact, there is perhaps no other issue more salient to Trump’s base than the perceived harm done to U.S. workers due to international trade, and Trump has been unequivocal in his promises to scale back trade agreements, from NAFTA to the now-rejected Trans-Pacific Partnership.
On the other hand, Trump’s more moderate advisers, such as Gary Cohn, head of the National Economic Council, have likely cautioned him that trade is ultimately good for economic growth. And any disruption would be bad both for the U.S. and for Trump’s political future.
Having repeatedly (and unrealistically) promised at least 4 percent to 5 percent annual economic growth, Trump must be careful not to inadvertently push the economy into a ditch by abandoning the free trade principles that have made the U.S. one of the richest countries in the world.
Who will ‘win’?
Another potential pitfall for Trump is that the search for a perceived “victory” in the negotiations – something the president typically prizes above all else – is actually more likely to favor Xi.
This is because Xi’s grip on power is such that he does not need headline-grabbing wins to the extent that Trump does. Instead, he can try to extract more substantive concessions behind the scenes. This suggests that a possible outcome is that the status quo will be effectively maintained. For instance, Xi may be able to walk away with a win by simply avoiding a trade war while also obtaining an implicit promise that the U.S. will look the other way on human rights issues and Chinese regional expansion.
This isn’t to say that Trump does not have leverage – his campaign promise to raise import tariffs on China to 45 percent would be a serious blow to the Chinese economy. And of course, the U.S. can always flex its political and military strength in opposition to Chinese interests. But perhaps most unnerving for the Chinese is Trump’s unpredictability which, despite its downsides, keeps his counterparts off balance.
The concern is that Trump may use his leverage in order to obtain “tweetable” victories that do not amount to much. For instance, a likely outcome is that Trump obtains promises of future investments in the U.S. of several billions of dollars. In fact, Chinese and U.S. commentators have suggested that these investments may come as part of a larger U.S. infrastructure program. However, as with other investments that Trump has taken credit for, most of these would be made in any case (China invested $45 billion in the U.S. last year) and so come at little cost to the Chinese.
A misguided focus on trade deficits
But as with the imposition of trade barriers, Chinese investments do not come without political risk. In this case, it is the Trump administration’s obsession with the trade deficit in goods as the key metric by which it views success or failure on trade that will make life harder.
The trade deficit with China – US$347 billion in 2016 – is simply the difference between U.S. exports to China and U.S. imports from China, and this value fluctuates for a variety of reasons. When the U.S. runs a trade deficit it means that, on net, the U.S. is sending dollars to China in exchange for Chinese goods. As a simple fact of accounting, those dollars must then end up back in the U.S. as investments in U.S. assets. So investments in U.S. assets are the flip side of a trade deficit.
As a result, inviting greater Chinese investment in U.S. assets will necessarily increase the trade deficit with China. While most economists believe that the trade deficit is a poor measure of the success of a country in the world economy, National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro has repeatedlypressed the case for trade deficits as a proxy for the overall health of the U.S. economy, as has Trump.
And so, however inadvisable it may be to focus on the trade deficit, Trump is sure to pay a political price if it were to grow over the course of his tenure.
Forging a bond before the clashes ahead
In the end, the most consequential outcome of Xi’s visit may be the extent to which a bond is forged between the two leaders.
This is because Trump tends to personalize policy choices, and many of the most important issues on which the U.S. and China will need to find common ground will arise over the next few months.
For instance, although Trump has not yet formally labeled China as a currency manipulator (which he promised to do on “day one”), later in the spring the Treasury Department will publish its analysis of international currencies and may choose to place that label on China. While the Chinese would likely simply ignore such a designation, it would require the U.S. to take some form of punitive action if negotiations with China did not resolve the dispute.
But, of course, this may be small beer compared with the more pressing geopolitical issues that will be in play. These include dealing with North Korea, whether or not to confront internal repression within China and the threat of Chinese regional expansion. It would not be surprising to find that American cooperation on these fronts comes with a price tag denominated in U.S. jobs.
Finally, it is worth noting that reducing the level of trade with China will do little to help U.S. workers. This is something that nearly all economists agree on, but that politicians rarely embrace. This is because while the economy can be easily cured of a proliferation of trade agreements by simply withdrawing from, or rewriting, those accords, there is no easy cure for the proliferation of new technologies, which are the real culprits in the decline of U.S. industrial production.
And so, since trade is a policy lever that can be easily pulled, politicians inevitably rush to do so.
Editor’s note: The fight didn’t last long. Moments before a scheduled vote on March 24, House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the bill that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act. It was a surprisingly swift defeat for a legislative priority talked up by Republicans since the day Obamacare first passed. We asked congressional scholars what the retreat means – and what comes next.
Trump legslative agenda now in serious doubt
Richard A. Arenberg, Brown University
President Trump and the Republican Congressional leadership have suffered a stunning defeat. The inability of the new president and his GOP majority to pass the American Health Care Act in the House places in question their ability to accomplish their central campaign promise of repealing Obamacare. It also creates significant obstacles for the remainder of the Trump legislative agenda, especially the planned tax cut.
The conflicting demands by factions in the health care debate have laid bare huge fissures in the Republican caucus – fissures which had been masked by apparent unity in the wake of Trump’s surprising election. Further, the failure of this first test of the Trump administration and its allies on the Hill raises serious questions about Speaker Ryan’s ability to bridge those gaps.
GOP leaders have been counting on that reduction to the revenue base to permit a large tax reform bill to be passed using the reconciliation process. Reconciliation would permit the tax bill to be passed in the Senate with a simple majority, foreclosing the possibility of a Democratic filibuster.
However, in order to qualify under Senate rules, that bill must be revenue-neutral. The plan to use the tax reductions contained in the American Health Care Act was one of the main reasons that the Republican Congressional leadership convinced Trump to undertake the health care bill first.
The wisdom of that strategy will come under severe scrutiny in the White House in the days ahead.
Will the GOP ever get its act together?
Christopher Sebastian Parker, University of Washington
By now, the GOP should should be tired of this: public implosion.
Ever since the Tea Party showed up on the scene in 2009, the Republican party slips on every banana peel in sight. The fight between the party’s moderate wing and the more reactionary one, led former Senate Minority Leader, Bob Dole (R-KS), to say that neither he, nor president Ronald Reagan, could get elected in today’s GOP.
This was followed by the ouster of former House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-VA), who was primaried by Tea Party candidate Dave Brat in 2014. Why? He was perceived as too moderate. He was the first sitting majority leader to lose since 1899.
This was followed by the GOP resignation of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in 2015 because, he, too, was perceived to be too moderate
Now this. The Freedom Caucus is responsible for the current public rift in the GOP. What’s that old saying? “Be careful what you wish for.” Well, the GOP got its wish to govern, and they’re blowing it.
The Conversation Global’s new series, Politics in the Age of Social Media, examines how governments around the world rely on digital tools to exercise power.
Privacy is no longer a social norm, said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010, as social media took a leap to bring more private information into the public domain.
But what does it mean for governments, citizens and the exercise of democracy?
Donald Trump is clearly not the first leader to use his Twitter account as a way to both proclaim his policies and influence the political climate. Social media presents novel challenges to strategic policy and has become a managerial issues for many governments.
But it also offers a free platform for public participation in government affairs. Many argue that the rise of social media technologies can give citizens and observers a better opportunity to identify pitfalls of government and their politics.
As government embrace the role of social media and the influence of negative or positive feedback on the success of their project, they are also using this tool to their advantages by spreading fabricated news.
This much freedom of expression and opinion can be a double-edged sword.
A tool that triggers change
On the positive side, social media include social networking applications such as Facebook and Google+, microblogging services such as Twitter, blogs, video blogs (vlogs), wikis, and media-sharing sites such as YouTube and Flickr, among others.
Today four out of five countries in the world have social media features on their national portals to promote interactive networking and communication with the citizen. Although we don’t have any information about the effectiveness of such tools or whether they are used to their full potential, 20% of these countries shows that they have “resulted in new policy decisions, regulation or service”.
Social media can be an effective tool to trigger changes in government policies and services if well used. It can be used to prevent corruption, as it is a direct method of reaching citizens. In developing countries, corruption is often linked to governmental services that lack automated processes or transparency in payments.
Can new technologies increase government accountability? India was ranked 79th on 176 countries by Transparency International in 2016. Nirzardp/Wikimedia, CC BY
The UK is taking the lead on this issue. Its anti-corruption innovation hub aims to connect several stakeholders – including civil society, law enforcement, and technologies experts – to engage their efforts toward a more transparent society.
With social media, governments can improve and change the way they communicate with their citizens – and even question government projects and policies. In Kazakhstan, for example, a migration-related legislative amendment entered into force early January 2017 and compelled property owners to register people residing in their homes immediately or else face a penalty charge starting in February 2017.
Citizens were unprepared for this requirement, and many responded with indignation on social media. At first, the government ignored this reaction. However, as the growing anger soared via social media, the government took action and introduced a new service to facilitate the registration of temporary citizens.
Shaping political discourse
Increasing digital services have engaged and encourage the public to become more socially responsible and politically involved. But many governments are wary of the power that technology, and most specifically smart media, exert over how citizens’ political involvement.
Popular social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are being censored by many governments. China, South Africa and others are passing laws to regulate the social media sphere.
The dominance of social media allows citizens to have quick access to government information – information whose legitimacy may not be validated. As this happens, the organic image formed in their minds will be affected and changed and an induced image, whether negative or positive, will be formulated.
For example, the top trending topics on social media right now are related to a tweet from Wikileaks claiming that CIA can get into smart electronics – like iPhones and Samsung TVs – to spy on individuals. This series of revelations led Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to see his internet access cut off, allegedly by the government of Ecuador, in October 2016.
For his supporters, this step jeopardizes what they perceive as the voice of truth. WikiLeaks usually spread a mass of sensitive and reliable information into the public domain about politics, society and the economy.
Others state that confidential information should not be published in social media because it might endanger life and could be misinterpreted.
In 2011, social media played a crucial role in the direction of the Arab spring in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, enabling protesters in those countries to share information and disclose the atrocities committed by their own governments. This ignited a “domino effect” that led to mass revolts.
Governments reacted by trying to impose draconian restrictions on social media, from censorship to promoting fake new and propaganda against them.
The dissemination of uncensored information through social media has precipitated a wave of public shows of dissatisfaction, characterized by a mix of demands for better public services, changes in the institutions and instating a socially-legitimated state. Citizens use social media to meet up and interact with different groups, and some of those encounters lead to concrete actions.
Where’s the long-term fix?
But the campaigns that result do not always evolve into positive change.
Egypt and Libya are still facing several major crises over the last years, along with political instability and domestic terrorism. The social media influence that triggered the Arab Spring did not permit these political systems to turn from autocracy to democracy.
Brazil exemplifies a government’s failure to react properly to a massive social media outburst. In June 2013 people took to the streets to protest the rising fares of public transportation. Citizens channeled their anger and outrage through social media to mobilize networks and generate support.
Social media is also used to propagate “fake news” in order to destabilize an organization or a country. The spread of disinformation through social media shows how governments can use the art of communication to channel specific facts to their own citizens – or to the world.
Social media also provide a powerful platform for extremism and hate speech, citizen activities that should compel government action.
Social media may have been used for extreme purposes, to topple presidents, spread calumny, and meddle in internal affairs of foreign countries. But it remains a potent technological tool that governments can use to capture and understand the needs and preferences of their citizens, and to engage them, on their own terms from the very beginning of the process as agencies develop public services.
The April 22 March for Science, like the Women’s March before it, will confront United States President Donald Trump on his home turf – this time to challenge his stance on climate change and vaccinations, among other controversial scientific issues.
But not everyone who supports scientific research and evidence-based policymaking is on board. Some fear that a scientists’ march will reinforce the sceptical conservative narrative that scientists have become an interest group whose findings are politicised. Others are concerned that the march is more about identity politics than science.
From my perspective, the march – which is being planned by the Earth Day Network, League of Extraordinary Scientists and Engineers and the Natural History Museum, among other partner organisations – is a distraction from the existential problems facing the field.
Other questions are far more urgent to restoring society’s faith and hope in science. What is scientists’ responsibility for current anti-elite resentments? Does science contribute to inequality by providing evidence only to those who can pay for it? How do we fix the present crisis in research reproducibility?
So is the march a good idea? To answer this question, we must turn to the scientist and philosopher Micheal Polanyi, whose concept of science as a body politic underpins the logic of the protest.
Both the appeal and the danger of the March for Science lie in its demand that scientists present themselves as a single collective just as Polanyi did in his Cold War classic, The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory. In it, Polanyi defended the importance of scientific contributions to improving Western society in contrast to the Soviet Union’s model of government-controlled research.
Polanyi was a polymath, that rare combination of natural and social scientist. He passionately defended science from central planning and political interests, including by insisting that science depends on personal, tacit, elusive and unpredictable judgements – that is, on the individual’s decision on whether to accept or reject a scientific claim. Polanyi was so radically dedicated to academic freedom that he feared undermining it would make scientific truth impossible and lead to totalitarianism.
The scientists’ march on Washington inevitably invokes Polanyi. It is inspired by his belief in an open society – one characterised by a flexible structure, freedom of belief and the wide spread of information.
A market for good and services
But does Polanyi’s case make sense in the current era?
Polanyi recognised that Western science is, ultimately, a capitalist system. Like any market of goods and services, science comprises individual agents operating independently to achieve a collective good, guided by an invisible hand.
Scientists thus undertake research not to further human knowledge but to satisfy their own urges and curiosity, just as in Adam Smith’s example the baker makes the bread not out of sympathy for the hunger of mankind but to make a living. In both cases this results in a common good.
There is a difference between bakers and scientists, though. For Polanyi:
It appears, at first sight, that I have assimilated the pursuit of science to the market. But the emphasis should be in the opposite direction. The self coordination of independent scientists embodies a higher principle, a principle which is reduced to the mechanism of the market when applied to the production and distribution of material goods.
Gone the ‘Republic of Science’
Polanyi was aligning science with the economic model of the 1960s. But today his assumptions, both about the market and about science itself, are problematic. And so, too, is the scientists’ march on the US capital, for adopting the same vision of a highly principled science.
Does the market actually work as Adam Smith said? That’s questionable in the current times: economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller have argued that the principle of the invisible hand now needs revisiting. To survive in our consumerist society, every player must exploit the market by any possible means, including by taking advantage of consumer weaknesses.
To wit, companies market food with unhealthy ingredients because they attract consumers; selling a healthy version would drive them out of the market. As one scientist remarked to The Economist, “There is no cost to getting things wrong. The cost is not getting them published”.
Polanyi also believed in a “Republic of Science” in which astronomers, physicists, biologists, and the like constituted a “Society of Explorers”. In their quest for their own intellectual satisfaction, scientists help society to achieve the goal of “self-improvement”.
That vision is difficult to recognise now. Evidence is used to promote political agendas and raise profits. More worryingly, the entire evidence-based policy paradigm is flawed by a power asymmetry: those with the deepest pockets command the largest and most advertised evidence.
A third victim of present times is the idea – central to Polanyi’s argument for a Republic of Science – that scientists are capable of keeping their house in order. In the 1960s, scientists still worked in interconnected communities of practice; they knew each other personally. For Polanyi, the overlap among different scientific fields allowed scientists to “exercise a sound critical judgement between disciplines”, ensuring self-governance and accountability.
Today, science is driven by fierce competition and complex technologies. Who can read or even begin to understand the two million scientific articles published each year?
Elijah Millgram calls this phenomenon the “New Endarkment” (the opposite of enlightenment), in which scientists have been transformed into veritable “methodological aliens” to one another.
The classic vision of science providing society with truth, power and legitimacy is a master narrative whose time has expired. The Washington March for Science organisers have failed to account for the fact that science has devolved into what Polanyi feared: it’s an engine for growth and profit.
A march suggests that the biggest problem facing science today is a post-truth White House. But that is an easy let off. Science’s true predicaments existed before January 2 2017, and they will outlive this administration.
Our activism would be better inspired by the radical 1970s-era movements that sought to change the world by changing first science itself. They sought to provide scientific knowledge and technical expertise to local populations and minority communities while giving those same groups a chance to shape the questions asked of science. These movements fizzled out in the 1990s but echoes of their programmatic stance can be found in a recent editorial in Nature.