Yesterday I wrote of proposals for reform of the Parti Socialiste:
Essentially, three broad options are mooted: 1) the PS should go "social-democratic"; 2) the PS should become a "party of resistance"; 3) the PS should continue to equivocate about the choice between 1) and 2), as if these were the only genuine options, in the hope of erecting a tent broad enough to accommodate disaffected centrists without alienating the more militant leftist rump.Options 1 and 2 share an identical sociology.* They posit that society is irrevocably divided between the few and the many, the owners of capital and the rest, the ruling class and the working class, or, in the currently fashionable terminology, the partisans of "Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism" and the defenders of what it has become customary to call a social-welfare "model" of one form or another. The moral mapping onto categories of good and evil is too obvious to need stating.
The two options differ only as to the action metaphors they prefer. Advocates of "resistance" prefer martial metaphors. One side or the other will inevitably dominate. The only political question is the rapport des forces. Resistance must be limited to indecisive skirmishes until the balance of forces is favorable. Then and only then can a decisive blow be struck. By contrast, advocates of the various so-called social democratic options accept that no decisive blow will ever be struck and therefore favor some form of co-operation. Their metaphors are metaphors of regulation rather than warfare. Instead of the physics of ballistics, of shells lobbed, bombs detonated, and hammers raised, they prefer the physics of weights and springs, shock absorbers, and viscous fluids.
The PS has slowly been weaning itself away from martial metaphors for decades. The "armed prophets" are now more likely to be found in anti-globalization groups like ATTAC--the name alone makes the point. Nevertheless, the language of rupture, résistance, and related terms still crops up from time to time, most commonly when the political struggle turns bitter, as in the clash over the European constitutional referendum, or moves into the streets, as in the anti-CPE episode. To a segment of the Socialist electorate, the size of which can only be roughly gauged, the idea that there is an alternative to capitalism--indeed, that the very raison d'être of politics is to midwife the birth of that alternative--retains an appeal that is more emotional than rational. It doesn't figure in the policy debates that Ségolène Royal, in a recent explanation of her alienation from the party whose standard she carried, termed "stupefyingly boring." Mitterrand knew how to appeal to these emotions, even if he didn't share them. Indeed, the ability to pluck that string in the leftist lyre was the secret of his political success--and the reason why Royal invokes his legacy, as she did today in contrasting Mitterrand's response to defeat in 1974 to Jospin's in 2002, and aligning herself with Mitterrand.
By contrast, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, eschewing the metaphors of rupture and resistance, describes "social democracy" as "ordered liberty" (see the lengthy comment on socialist values on his blog, here). His preferred metaphors are not martial but mechanical: "In the face of economic insecurity, ecological damage, and the social inequalities that it [sic: the misplaced antecedent of this pronoun should be capitalism, which comes later in the sentence, as though DSK feels a sort of bad conscience in resorting to such 'archaic' rhetoric while putting himself forward as a 'modernizer' of socialism], we persist in our wish to regulate capitalism. Unlike the liberals, who seek to 'free' the market from all its fetters, we, as social democrats, continue to think that the tension between capital and labor must be organized."
Organized: an interesting choice of word, in that it points up the difference between DSK's social democracy and historical social democracy, that of the eponymous German party, which was based precisely on a powerful labor organization, the likes of which does not exist in France. Coming from a talented technocrat like DSK, the word organization should be translated as "management." But managed capitalism is precisely what Sarkozy has offered in a far more minutely elaborated package. If DSK wants to make this option persuasive, he has to overcome his disabling timidity, stop equivocating with faint-hearted stabs at "the tension between capital and labor," and say in some detail what he means.
He might be able to do this, but in my opinion it won't be enough to win the next election unless Sarkozy stumbles badly or the economic conjuncture turns against him. But the three options I enumerated at the outset are not the only choices available. It would serve the Socialist Party well to consider some others. I hope to say something more about other possibilities in the days to come.
*Until recently the right shared the same sociology. Only the emotional valences were reversed. Rather than the many oppressed by the few, the few feared the oppression of the many. The specter of "socialo-communism" was frequently sighted. This was merely the late-20th-c. name for the immemorial fear of dispossession by the aroused masses. Because the right's sociology mirrored the left's, the left's choices remained viable even as its rhetoric diverged increasingly from the self-understanding of growing numbers of voters. Many politicians in France, on both sides of the left-right divide, sensed this divergence, but Sarkozy was the first to hit on an effective articulation of a new vision. How he did this bears some thinking about.