Though less well-known in the Anglophone world, the economist turned social philosopher Frédéric Lordon has emerged as one of the most effective public figures of the French intellectual left. On tv talk-shows and in La Pompe à Phynance, his blog for Le Monde diplomatique, he has launched ferocious attacks on Hollande and Valls’s post-Bataclan police-state legislation, making no concessions to union sacrée thinking.footnote1 He has been a staunch left critic of the single-currency project, demolishing wistful social-democratic hopes for ‘another euro’, and makes no bones about characterizing the ps as ‘the moderate fraction of the right’. He greeted the financial crisis with a four-act play in rhyming alexandrines, the bankers explaining the tragi-comedy of their subprime losses to the President of the Republic and ministers of state. At the same time, Lordon has been developing an ambitious research agenda, aiming to renew and re-ground the social sciences on the basis of a Spinoza-inspired materialism. What are the origins of this project, and what have been its results to date?

Born in 1962, Lordon grew up in a prosperous western suburb of Paris, his father an executive in the textile sector. Initially planning on a business career himself, Lordon entered the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in 1982, followed by an mba at the Institut Supérieur des Affaires, the French equivalent of Harvard Business School. Here, on his own account, he baulked at what lay ahead and began, for the first time, to read: political economy led swiftly to Michel Aglietta, Pierre Bourdieu and René Girard. Switching to the ehess, he attended Robert Boyer’s Regulation Theory seminar, where he found an intellectual home.footnote2 His doctoral thesis, supervised by Boyer and completed in 1993, undertook a mathematical modelling of the Regulation School’s theses on economic crisis. In the 90s, teaching at Sciences Po and then researching at the cnrs, he turned his attention to economic-policy formation.

With its strong emphasis on historical periodization, and foregrounding of the social norms and institutions structuring successive ‘regimes of accumulation’, the Regulation School was famously open to engagement with other disciplinary approaches—social, historical, anthropological—and Lordon’s early work on political economy, informed by his practical professional training, had a strong sociological dimension. Les Quadratures de la politique économique (1997), published by Albin Michel, investigated the then-hegemonic doctrine of ‘competitive disinflation’—a technocratic proto-theory, in Lordon’s view, formulated by functionaries at the Direction générale du Trésor, the Banque de France, the Finance Ministry and Sciences Po. Lacking any founding text, it was in reality little more than an export-oriented project to reduce prices and labour costs, supposedly issuing in a virtuous spiral of rising employment, investment and productivity growth. As Lordon showed, the doctrine owed its status as an orthodoxy to its adoption by both political and financial elites. Indeed, with the state increasingly dependent on the financial sector to roll over public debt, ‘competitive disinflation’ signalled that the markets themselves would henceforth be the arbiters of economic policy.footnote3

Now based, as was Boyer, at cepremap, the cnrs’s economic-policy research institute, Lordon had also begun firing off polemics against the establishment. In 1995, a piece in Le Monde attacking Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the central bank, elicited a rebuke from the Prime Minister. In 1999 a fusillade against Jospin’s financial deregulation, also in Le Monde, brought a phone call from Bourdieu requesting a short book on the subject for Raisons d’Agir. The result was Fonds de pension, piège à cons? (2000), the title echoing Sartre’s philippic on the 1973 election. But Lordon’s major research project in this period was an inquiry into the epic 1999 takeover battles that pitted the three French giants, Banque Nationale de Paris, Société Générale and Paribas, against each other. Lordon interviewed some of the main players in autumn 1999, when the wounds were still raw, and incorporated his findings in La Politique du capital (2002), published by Odile Jacob: a detailed and unsparing analysis of the conduct of French economic and political elites, at once historically situated and strongly conceptualized, with a keen ear for the logomachy of the banks.

Lordon’s guiding insight was that at such life-and-death moments, when rival firms or banks are fighting for their survival, profit maximization was set aside and another logic, that of politics, substitutes for economic reason. Neo-classical visions of economic rationality could shed no light on ‘this dark face of capital’ and analysts had to look elsewhere to explain the drive for power and expansion at the heart of the capitalist system. The concept of conatus—literally, impulse or striving—thrown into relief in Alexandre Matheron’s reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, offered the requisite philosophical illumination for an agonistic social theory.footnote4 ‘Spinoza’s thought affirms the primacy of struggle’, Lordon argued. ‘Struggles for power, recognition, domination find their motive impulse in the conatus’, the primary effort of all entities ‘to persevere in being’, as the Ethics had it. The conatus of capital took two heterogenous forms. For finance capital, the injunction was profit—‘the only use value of money-capital’, as Marx put it. For entrepreneurial or industrial capital, by contrast, the drive was for expansion, with profit a means rather than an end. Lordon cites Keynes: the satisfaction of building a factory or a railway line is not merely pecuniary.footnote5 The politics of capital, then, names the relations of solidarity and influence which bind capitalists to one another, as well as feelings of fear, pride and cupidity. It also implied that conflict might be redefined away from a two-term class struggle into a ‘three-body problem’, as industrial capital devolved onto wage workers the financial strictures it could no longer resist.

La Politique du capital situates the battle of the banks within the longer-run transformation of Atlantic capitalism. In the post-war period, Lordon argues, industrial-entrepreneurial capital was hegemonic, financial markets restricted and shallow. But industrial profits began falling from the 1960s, resulting in a battle over wages; by the 70s, a growing crisis of state debt and high inflation led to a historic compromise between political and financial elites that would put finance capital in command. The first step was to free up the national savings and pension funds for wide-ranging investment, creating vast new liquid markets in which the state itself could borrow; French funds were deregulated by the Fabius government in 1985–86, not least to compete against the encroachment of big Anglo-Saxon players. Second, the conatus of these institutional investors drove them to impose their own profit-maximization agenda on industrial capital, through the formula of shareholder value. Firms struggling with slow growth were tempted to expand by mergers and acquisitions, but this put them at the mercy of their profit-hungry investors. Finally, capital ownership was increasingly up for grabs, presenting firms with the imperative to expand or be gobbled up, in hostile takeovers.footnote6 By the late 90s, after two waves of privatization—first Balladur’s, then Jospin’s—foreign penetration of French firms and banks was on the rise. This neoliberal transition required the mobilization of the state, at least for its initial coup de force.

This is the context in which Lordon details the struggle of the giant retail banks, Société Générale and bnp, to position themselves for the wider opportunities of the coming Eurozone and to snaffle the investment bank, Paribas. As he demonstrates, this was a fight to swallow or be swallowed, driven by the logic of ‘entrepreneurial conatus’—the banks as firms, with their own networks of business relationships, real-estate holdings, etc.—rather than purely economic considerations. It was conducted in martial terms, through strategies of conquest and predation, far from the neo-classical tranquillity of profit-optimization. Lordon cites the Financial Times: ‘At its heart, a takeover battle is just an expensive way of answering Lenin’s succinct summary of the essence of power: “Who whom?”’footnote7 Société Générale’s bid for Paribas was countered by bnp with a double takeover bid against both of them; sg raised its offer, but was over-ruled by the regulator, cecei, under central-bank governor Trichet, who attempted to conduct three-way negotiations. The market response was a violent plunge in bank shares, upon which cecei reversed its position, to crowing from the financial press. The eventual outcome was of course the bnp–Paribas merger, creating the mega-bank whose closed windows in August 2007 signalled the start of the financial crisis.