Friday, February 12, 2010

Bouvet on the Veil and the NPA

Laurent Bouvet, with whom I often agree, here attacks the decision of the NPA to run a candidate who wears the veil, and I'm afraid that this time I can't agree with him or even make much sense of his argument, His first point is that parties should be doctrinally pure and therefore rule out "incompatible" allegiances. In his mind, it is absurd to think that a person can be "à la fois anticapitaliste, féministe, laïque et porter le voile." The problem is that "actually existing" human beings, like the "actually existing" socialist republics of yesteryear, are never as free of contradiction as theorists sometimes like to imagine. Socialists circa 1914 woke up to the rude shock that it was possible both to belong to the Workers' International and to support nationalist governments bent on making war on armies whose ranks were filled with one's comrades. Surely the set of commitments that Laurent ridicules here is less seriously contradictory than the jingoism of nationalist internationalists whose existence Marxist theory never satisfactorily explained. As I have explained in previous posts, I have no difficulty imagining a woman committed to anticapitalism and feminism, laïque in the sense of tolerating all forms of religious expression while according preference to none, and determined to wear the Islamic scarf as an assertion of her own identity (which may be simply a matter of ethnic belonging but may also signify religious belief, which Marx may have dismissed, as Laurent notes, as the opium of the people but which other socialists have found it possible to embrace).

Laurent's second point is that it's preposterous for a party like the NPA, predicated on antiliberalism and dedicated to the notion that freedom of choice is an illusion of "false consciousness" induced by capitalist ideology, to advocate the "ultraliberal" idea that what a woman chooses to wear can ever be truly a matter of "free choice." This is an adolescent exercise in polemical logic-chopping rather than a serious argument, but if the metaphysical point is pushed to its obvious conclusion, then there is no point to any so-called political choice: we are all merely the playthings of forces that surpass our understanding, and whatever happens will happen without human agency, as it has been foreordained. Only religious fundamentalists are so dogmatic in their metaphysics, and surely Laurent Bouvet wouldn't want to be taken for a fundamentalist: given his politics, that would be as bizarre as an NPA feminist wearing a veil.


philosoraptor said...

At least M Bouvet recognizes the need to offer arguments. Over at Langue Sauce Piquante, the author(s) baldly assert, without even an attempt at argument, that a "veiled feminist" is an oxymoron worthy of the finest Sophists of ancient Athens. But I can't tell whether the whole post is tongue-in-cheek...

Laurent Bouvet said...

Dear Arthur,
I understand your (counter)argument. But mine, concerning the coherence of antiliberalism/anti-individualism of a true marxist position cannot be dismissed so easilly. If I blame Besancenot, the NPA leader, for manipulating the young candidate woman wearing the headscarf that’s because of his lack of political and philosophical coherence.
I don't blame her for doing so – I think she doesn’t even know (or very approximatively) what she is talking about when she says that it is possible to be both feminist, anticapitalist (ie antiliberal in her mind) and 'laïque'. Whatever she says, and even if she truely believes what she says, pretending to be both an heir of marxism (in one way or the other), a feminist (idem) or a ‘laïque’ (a word meaning something in French) AND showing, as a candidate to a political position, an obvious religious belief or belonging, is just aporetic.
Politics isn't just about what you pretend to be or believe in - even if you are a true believer -, it is also about the coherence of your thought and, beyond, of the way you understand the world.
As you know, Arthur, I am far from being a Marxist and far from being a hardline ‘Republican’ (in the French meaning) myself, I am rather a Social-Democratic Liberal. But I think that, whatever one thinks, what we need the most in politics is coherence and a strong argument about what we believe in.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your reply. Coherence is an excellent thing in theory but not such a wonderful thing for political parties seeking to appeal to a broad electorate. Now, one might question that the NPA is such a party, but the least one can say is that it is a party attempting to expand its appeal beyond its core constituency. I think it's a fine thing that at least one party in France is attempting to speak to the dilemma of Muslims caught between the assimilationist demands of hard-core republicans and the invented traditions of religious fundamentalists.

Like you, I'm a social democrat, but I wouldn't describe "coherence" as a notable feature of social-democratic thought. We are caught between demands for liberty and equality, acceptance of the market and regulation of it, "bourgeois" and "heterodox" economic theory, deliberative and representative democracy, etc. etc. We are a part of contradictions, not coherence, and, I would argue, the stronger for it, since we do not fall into the dogmatic excesses of free marketeers or statists, ultrarepublicans or unbridled multiculturalists, or whatever other antinomian extremes you wish to add.

A proposfrance-usa said...

On a side note, I am surprised that people seem to forget that the French Republic did not always have problems with elected officials wearing religious clothes.
What about when l'Abbé Pierre became
elected as elected deputy for Murthe-et-Mosell in the National Assembly as a member of the Popular Republican Movement (MRP) in 1946? He took his seat in the French National Assembly wearing his cassock. Was his duty of neutrality questioned? No, because he was a resistant and man of integrity.
Other times, one might say, but it means that the duty of neutrality has nothing to do with what you wear and everything to do with who you are.
In fact, knowing someone's religious background might make them more liable to public scrutiny in this particular matter.
It may also teach people, including voters, to become more tolerant of other people's faiths and/or identities.

Unknown said...

A-propos, excellent points! But consistency on the historical meaning of laïcité is not a strong point of current debate. See Jean Baubérot's works on the subject.

Laurent Bouvet said...

@Arthur : the understanding of a necessary (and unescapable, you are right) compromise is the exact definition of a "coherent" social democrat !
Concerning the wearing of any religious symbol, clothes, etc. by a politician or a civil servant, it must be strictly forbidden. This is the only way to practice what we call here in France la laïcité - which is not just an abstract and old-fashioned principle but an active way to live together in a multicultural society.

Unknown said...

Laurent, I am thoroughly versed, believe me, in the principles of laïcité--I've just finished translating an essay by Baubérot! But you speak as if it were an unalterable and fatal necessity rather than a particular compromise that has evolved because of certain peculiarities of French history. There are other ways of living together in a multicultural society. For example, we might agree that civil servants shouldn't wear religious symbols because they represent the power of the state, which should be neutral. But the politician, or the deputy, represents constituents, not the state. Admittedly, there is a competing French idea of representation, in which the particularity of representatives is supposed to dissolve in the "general will," but this is not the only way of conceiving representative democracy. I think the concept of laicity has been traduced, misrepresented, and hardened into a dogma, which needs to be challenged, and I applaud the NPA for doing so, even though it has created dissension within the party itself.

Oscine said...

It is striking, the terms in which Laurent Bouvet denies NPA candidate Ilham Moussaïd's capacity to have agency in this affair.

Nowhere in his article or in his comments here, does he dignify her with a name. Olivier Besancenot gets a name, Arthur Goldhammer gets a name, but Moussaïd is simply a young, woman, headscarf-wearing candidate: reduced to certain observable characteristics, devoid of interiority. When described in such terms, it is not surprising that she "doesn't even know... what she is talking about".

Particularly distasteful is the way in which Bouvet attacks Moussaïd on the basis of her sex. She is a "young... woman" being manipulated a "leader". He could just as easily have written, for instance, that Moussaïd, a militant for abortion and contraception rights, is being manipulated by a young postman. (Indeed, Besancenot is often described in just these latter terms when the aim is to diminish him.) The choice to focus on her combination of youth and femininity is not neutral.