Revue de Presse: June 28

Tocqueville 21
28 June 2020

 

The latest issue of The Point asks, “What is the Nation For?” Tom Meany’s response? It depends. Throughout history, the idea of the “nation” has confronted sovereign power, international economic competition, and minority populations alike, while some of the most fervent “nationalists” have also been prolific actors on the global stage. In the twentieth century, the global Left—socialist, communist, or decolonial—often attempted to harness nationalist aspirations to further its causes. Today, the Left tends to equate nationalism with reactionary politics. Yet as the contemporary Right embraces nationalism, liberal nationalists seek to reclaim it for more “progressive” ends, mistakenly believing that national feelings can be redirected toward ends of the Left’s own choosing. For Meany, the nation is awkwardly suited for the conditions of twenty-first-century global politics, but it remains indispensable nonetheless. The nation is “less something to be wished away than a needle that needs to be threaded in order for a less bad future to have a chance.” (For more regarding contemporary globalization and the fate of the nation-state, see our own ongoing forum on David Djaïz’s book Slow Démocratie).

 

The Point’s symposium on the nation also features an interview between editor Jon Baskin and George Kateb, the American political theorist well known for his work on individualism and modern democracy. In the course of the conversation, Kateb criticizes patriotism as a grave mistake. Kateb cautions all citizens—but especially intellectuals—to avoid loyalty to the nation, which he thinks will always necessitate a loyalty to an abstraction. Baskin raises the possibility that certain patriotic or communal attachments might motivate citizens to hold their country to a higher standard. However, Kateb cautions that political justice is not the same as love for individuals. We ought to love our family and friends, but “love” of country leads to needless war and groupthink. Alluding to Tocqueville, Kateb notes that “America has always been a groupish society.” He recommends pluralism and worldiness over traditional patriotism.

 

Meanwhile, a group of political writers and personalities in France have developed what Baptiste and Mathieu Roger-Lacan call, writing for Le Grand Continent, the “sovereignist style.” A new media outlet, provocatively titled Front Populaire, is attempting to collect the concerns of the anti-capitalist Left alongside those of the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Right. The founder of Front Populaire, Michel Onfray, recently found himself in a friendly televised conversation with the star of the French hard-Right, Eric Zemmour. This convergence might seem impossible to reconcile. But Roger-Lacan and Roger-Lacan identify a shared political style, grounded in a “manipulation of history in the name of their political obsessions.” This style, the authors claim, is not unique to Zemmour and Onfray, but rather has a long history—on both Left and Right—stretching back to the Boulangistes, the anti-Dreyfusards, and beyond.

 

Thomas Piketty thinks it’s time for the world to get serious about reparations. After the Civil War, the United States reneged on its promise to grant every freed person “40 acres and a mule,” while, in the United Kingdom and France, it was slaveholders, rather than slaves, who received compensation after abolition. Piketty argues in Le Monde that granting reparations to the descendants of enslaved people would, at the very least, have symbolic value, and he thinks the same goes for removing statues that commemorate those involved in the slave economy. Piketty acknowledges it will be difficult, politically and economically, to adjudicate reparations in practice, but he urges a trust in the deliberative process.

 

Katharina Pistor, however, raises doubts about Piketty’s presentation of the political process. In a challenging Public Books review of Piketty’s latest work, Capital and Ideology, Pistor takes issue with Piketty’s conviction that ideas drive social transformation. This conviction, she writes, leads the French economist to the curious claim that it was a failure of ideas (i.e. Western ideas) that led to crises like the 2008 crash. For Pistor, Piketty’s two main influences, the economics profession and the contemporary progressive Left, both lack a deep understanding of institutional change. Even a state that fully endorses Piketty’s idea of a “participatory socialism” for the twenty-first century may well lack the state capacity to transform property relations, as Piketty would urge. Is this a shortcoming of ideas, or simply a reflection of the fact that property is embedded in a transnational legal order?  Still, Pistor thinks Piketty’s ambitious empirical approach may provide the tools to evaluate precisely what capacities for action are available to states in our current moment.

 

In the New York Times, Norimitsu Onishi chronicles how the George Floyd protests are affecting conversations about race in France. Activists charge that tenets of republican universalism, espoused since the French Revolution, obscure the racism currently endured by many French people. Lauren Collins expands on this clash between the ideals of French republicanism and the realities of discrimination with a profile of Assa Traoré, an organizer whose brother Adama was likely murdered by French police in 2016. Collins argues in The New Yorker that the timing of the present protests makes sense: many white people witnessed police violence during last year’s gilets jaunes demonstrations, and after months of quarantine, every French person has glimpsed what it might mean to have one’s bodily movements controlled by the state. Still, many refuse to acknowledge the problem of racism in France, or would prefer to deflect the conversation to race-relations in the US.

 

To mark “Juneteenth,” the date in 1865 when black slaves in Texas first learned of their emancipation, Troy Patterson recommends revisiting Ralph Ellison’s unfinished novel, Juneteenth, which was posthumously published in 1999. Writing for the New Yorker, Patterson meditates on how Ellison describes this quasi-religious holiday, “as if reverse-engineering a prototype of a black-church sermon.” For Patterson, Ellison’s prose addresses not just the black Southerner or the Christian congregant; it speaks to the entire nation.

 

In another New Yorker profile of a mid-century American author, Paul Elie returns to the problem of race in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. O’Connor’s reputation has steadily increased since her premature death in 1964, as more readers become captivated by her steely reflections on life in the “Christ-haunted” South, as well as by her private writings and letters. But some of this correspondence reveals O’Connor, a Georgia native, expressing openly segregationist views. Should evidence of such views mar her fiction? Elie compares O’Connor with other figures from her generation, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Toni Morrison, and Gabriel García Márquez, and argues her racism is difficult to write off.

 

Enrique Krauze examines the rule of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the New York Review of Books. Obrador’s messianic populism has eroded years of democratic progress, as Mexico faces rising crime rates and declining economic prospects. All the while, the charismatic president thrives on state propaganda and undermines a respect for balanced political institutions. Krauze is especially outraged at Obrador’s handling of Covid-19. Only 0.04 per thousand people in Mexico have been tested, and virus deaths in Mexico City have turned out to be three-times worse than the number officially reported by the government. In the current environment, Kruase fears ordinary Mexicans are ill-equipped to demand accountability.

 

In a report for Mediapart, François Bonnet describes the exploding inequality between Paris and its banlieues. As rent skyrockets and the city prioritizes tourism, many Parisians have been forced to relocate to the outer banlieues. But these neighborhoods by no means exist independently from Paris. The city center has been exporting its graveyards, its trash, and its poorest citizens into its less-advantaged outskirts for generations. Many inhabitants of the banlieues resent the ongoing waves of gentrification they face in their own communities, as the well-off (yet not-wealthy-enough) continue pushing outward. Bonnet suggests that, so long as this inequality continues, democracy in the Île-de-France will be byzantine at best.

 

Benjamin Studebaker contemplates the future of the liberal order in Aeon. Though liberalism doesn’t lack for critics, Studebaker thinks its structures have not yet faced a serious challenge. The Right wants to protest the liberal order without actually curbing its power, while attempts at radical democratic reforms only confirm that international liberalism’s structures operate on a scale that average citizens cannot control. In the long term, we need democratic institutions that exist at the same scale as the globalized economy. But Studebaker is skeptical that such reforms can mount sufficient support or power.

 

Photo Credit: Debby Hudson, via Unsplash.

 

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