A la recherche de l’unité perdue
A funny thing has happened to the French left. Jean-Luc Mélenchon realized his dream of destroying the PS, but thus far he hasn’t been able to put anything solid in its place. Now he has been outflanked by Olivier Besancenot, the mediagenic postman who a few years ago seemed on the verge of turning his Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste into what Mélenchon subsequently made of La France Insoumise: the (far) left alternative to the status quo. But that effort fizzled owing to the inveterate fissiparousness of the left and the brief hope, after Hollande’s rousing speech at Le Bourget, that the left could once again united behind a common program as in days of yore and actually, you know, win the presidency. Which it did, only to founder yet again on the reality that the newfound unity was wholly illusory.
This time the PS has been left out altogether. Besancenot did not invite the moribund Socialists to join his coalition of the hopeful, whose hope rests on the idea that the upcoming railway strike will prove to be the catalyst of a vast social movement among the malcontents of Macronism. He did invite Mélenchon, but Jean-Luc seems still to be in a funk over having failed to make round 2 of the presidential. That, to be sure, is the uncharitable way of putting it. The more charitable interpretation would be that, like his nemeses Macron and Le Pen, he is convinced that the old left-right divide no longer makes sense. Under the influence of his philosophical gurus, (the late) Ernesto Laclau and his partner Chantal Mouffe, Méluche has become an adept of a particular strand of populism, one that carves out a crucial role for a charismatic tribune of the people, whose eloquence will distill the masses’ innate hostility to the elite and lead the atomized workers out of the wilderness of advanced industrial society and into the promised land.
The coalition of splinter parties and groupuscules that Besancenot is proposing holds no great appeal for Mélenchon, who would be obliged to march arm-in-arm with smaller fry rather than appearing, solo, simultaneously in Paris and Lyon via hologram. But the truth is that Besancenot has beaten him at his own game. Mélenchon had previously envisioned piggy-backing on mobilized unions disgruntled by Macron’s labor-market reforms. On that score he admitted failure, but the railway strike promises to be more disruptive, so it might have seemed logical for Mélenchon to try to exploit it. Perhaps he has soured on this tactic, or perhaps Besancenot just beat him to it. So he has grudgingly paid lip service to the impending protest, though it is not clear that he will personally participate.
What this latest bid for left-wing unity demonstrates beyond any doubt is that true unity will not be easy to achieve. It may be true that all previous history has been the history of class struggle, but the class lines today are impossibly blurred. Opposition to the “elite” will not be enough to achieve unity among the rest. No amount of colorful pageantry drawn from the annals of earlier mass movements will suffice to clarify the nature of today’s struggle. Besancenot will have succeeded in mobilizing the splintered fragments of a left that lacks a clear idea of what its mobilization is intended to achieve. Perhaps Mélenchon’s melancholy disinclination to participate stems from an intuition that the idea needed to transform mere mobilization into movement is still lacking.