A la recherche de l’unité perdue

Arthur Goldhammer
20 March 2018

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.

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5 Comments

  • brent says:

    “What rough beast”: one can only imagine, given the colossal failure of global capitalism to distribute its favors equitably, and given the dangers of the right-wing nationalist ‘solutions,’ that some left alternative may emerge. JLM has endowed that movement with some serious ideas you seem to overlook: the economic renewal offered by sustainable, local economies; the replacement of US-dominated global alliances with affiliations driven by ‘citizens’ revolutions’ in places like Tunisia or Bolivia; and the dogged retention of social gains despite the belief of politicians like Macron that these are only affordable for the rich. Mélenchon has also bequeathed his regrettable personality to this movement in formation, but as younger figures–e.g. Besancenot, Autain, Hamon–come together despite him, maybe there’s hope for a broad-based, true Left after all…

  • Alexandra says:

    hmmm, brent, maybe the problem with mélenchon’s big ideas is that they’re so totally unworkable for france as a whole that there’s no point taking them seriously? the country does not want to leave the euro. given that we can’t even get the EU to agree on a proper shared police force for our shared borders, i can’t see the 27 really getting behind bolivia. (you neglected to mention cuba and venezuela, méluche’s other favored nations, which are a bit less aspirational as allies and social models.)

    there must be room for some kind of left in the contemporary world. UBI may be the thing that gets us there. if hamon can regain some momentum (pun not intended) as a politician in france, he could be a capable avatar. he’s certainly a lot more palatable than the alternative personality. and also less likely to indulge in holograms.

  • brent says:

    @Alexandra
    First, the smears: JLM has never been a particular fan of Cuba, and largely withdrew his support from Venezuela’s government after Chavez’s death. You’re joining the far right in red-baiting him.
    Second, the illogic: France, as a member of the EU, could certainly pursue an independent set of foreign alliances (despite quite irrelevant problems with border security) with like-minded governments in Africa and South America, as JLM has proposed.
    Third, the equivocation: LFI proposes treaty changes in the Eurozone, not withdrawal. JLM is hardly the first to notice that the ECB operated a devastating policy of financial austerity during the Great Recession, and I find it remarkable that anyone would fail to advocate for structural changes. (I suspect Hamon and his friend Varoufakis would agree.)
    Hamon and UBI: Not terribly feasible without those Eurozone changes, but you might notice that I was specific in suggesting that Hamon (and Autain, and even Besancenot) would make an effective array of new leaders (though I would be reluctant to dismiss the achievements of JLM with a few snippy half-truths).

  • Mitch Guthman says:

    @Alexandra,

    I don’t really understand your objections of JLM’s proposals. You don’t seem to have any substantive objections to them except that they’re unlikely to be instantly adopted by acclamation in the EU. But, from my perspective as a man of the center-left, they represent a far better starting point for discussions and negotiations that anything currently on offer from Macron and the right.

    It seems to me that the first step in a campaign to change the EU and, for example, make the kind of changes that would prevent a repetition of imposing austerity during a recession. Similarly, the EU needs to have more democratic institutions and to change its approach so that when parties of the center-left or the left actually win elections (such as in Spain) they will be allowed to assume power. JLM has a large number of these “big ideas” which you evidently actually like and my suggestion to my friends in France is to use those ideas and others that are more moderate to rebuild the PS into a party of the center-left that advocates for a socialism of the possible.

  • Mitch Guthman says:

    @ Art,

    I’m pretty sure you won’t find JLM’s fingerprints of the weapon that murdered the PS. The bloody fingerprints of François Hollande, Manuel Valls, and Emmanuel Macron, will be quite will represented. But not those of JLM because he was nowhere near the steering wheel when Hollande et Cie ran the party into a ditch.

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