Saturday, April 21, 2012

Kapil Takes on Mélenchon

My blogging confrère Arun Kapil dislikes Jean-Luc Mélenchon a good deal more than I do, and I don't like him much. I know that Mélenchon has many supporters among my readers, and they will no doubt be incensed by Arun's post. They should nevertheless read it. He states his position forthrightly and invites debate. I found this passage noteworthy:
The political scientist Marc Lazar said recently that the Communist party in France may be all but dead but that a communist culture still exists on the French left, and that Jean-Luc Mélenchon has achieved the singular feat in his presidential campaign of awakening this culture and giving it a unified political expression.
I would take some issue with Lazar's formulation. Mélenchon revives one aspect of French Communist culture,  but that culture was far more than Georges Marchais's sneering attitude toward journalists, which Mélenchon shares. Communist culture would never have survived as long as it did if it hadn't provided a structure of support, solidarity, and community for its adherents. Mélenchon has resurrected the cult of personality, the combative spirit, and a good deal of the nasty invective as well as the high-flown historical rhetoric of that earlier period, but one might speculate that a part of the enthusiasm he has aroused comes from a yearning for a restoration of that community on the part of a mostly older group of leftists who found in May 68 a solidarity that no "modern" political party--and certainly not the French Socialist Party--can supply.

To my mind, such solidarity, which grew naturally out of the experience of the shop floor when labor was regimented in battalions and treated like cannon fodder, is not a natural part of today's society. It can flare up briefly in specific settings: the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s bore some, though not all, of its earmarks. And since I was a part of that counterculture, I can attest to its attractions. But such fellow-feeling, however pleasurable, is not a sound basis for the kinds of political decisions that we face today. It leads almost invariably to a division of society into friends and enemies--a distinction that is the basis of the thought of Carl Schmitt more than that of Karl Marx. It is no longer possible to wish that "demain l'Internationale sera le genre humain." We have become too diverse to believe that any one class of society is called by its very nature and essence to become "the universal class." And for me that is the essence of Mélenchon's error and the illusion under which his supporters labor.

The rest I leave to Arun, along with the responsibility for his remarks.


Anonymous said...

Silly leftists——don’t you know that neoliberalism will bury you? Your outmoded ideal of solidarity is no match against the pitiless march of HISTORY. Solidarity is unnatural and unsound in today’s world. So put down your signs and go home . . . because this is not happening. You are not happening. This can’t be happening. . . . History has so decreed.

Art Goldhammer said...

Dear Anonymous, If I had your faith in acidulous sarcasm, I might observe how touching I find the faith of those who believe that 15% of the vote infallibly represents the will of a People incapable of formulating its own preferences and doomed by False Consciousness to miss the Vanguard of the Promised Revolution. But it's best to ignore trolls.

Anonymous said...

I believe that Mélenchon found a way to stir and uplift people. As you said, there's a matter of community - here, not a class community (as there's no "class" in common with public school teachers and mechanics on a temp job) but a community of references and anger. Many people are angry and want to kick the hornet's nest (plus, to kick Sarkozy's butt - that last will affect Mélenchon's score, as when it becomes the #1 concern the vote goes to Hollande.) And some, oddly, don't even want that much, they just like the way he speaks or makes them feel righteous and hopeful.
Most French people don't go to church (I read yesterday that only 2% attend church every Sunday) but they, too, may feel a need to be inspired or energized spiritually. There's a "fellowship of the left" that's not so much ideological as it is this vague feeling of being heirs to the French Revolution (rather than The Revolution :p), the continuation of the people who created secular free schools, the Republic, etc, etc, you can even throw in Pagnol and a bunch of singers.
Royal managed to create a similar "community of enthusiasm" in 2007. People loved going to her meetings, they were happy and hopeful (even, erm, delirious, and sometimes dancing). Those may now go to Hollande's meetings out of duty. Or they don't. They agree with him but they don't "feel" him. Those from 2007 in the cités have disappeared instead of being nurtured by the PS and many who used to attend Royal's meetings now attend Mélenchon's.
Mélenchon, with his long sentences, his literary and historical quotes, his appeals to an ideal, fulfills that role. He's been helped by Hollande, who most definitely does not stir, uplift, or inspire, although he broke his voice trying.
And before you assault me: I don't like Mélenchon and I like Hollande. He's definitely very popular among PS party members and has a solid support for his serious demeanor. But I understand Mélenchon's appeal to people for whom reason is not enough.

Anonymous said...

I picked up a copy of LeMonde last month and Corine Lesnes was talking about the US Supreme Court, and she said "dans un pays où la loi n'impose même pas aux motards le port du casque, l'idée que le gouvernement..." and so on. She had no way of knowing that motorbike helmet laws happen in the states, any more than I could have known that to get a vehicle license in France or at least in French Côte d'Ivoire you go to the Bureau of Mines. The bureau of mines? Wha...? Because why, because they used to regulate mining carts or something? You could spend your life not ever learning those basic details.

On another page in the same paper, as a side-bar to a story about how the private school kids did better in the bachot, there was a report about some guy selling "le sweat du bac", partly because French kids don't get to parade in robes and mortarboards like American high-school graduates, but then there was the caution that any kid can buy a "sweat du bac", even a kid who never got anywhere near the bac. I remember quizzing those poor kids for the English part of the bac and not understanding anything except that it sure wasn't anything I'd had to go through in high school, there was no valid comparison anywhere. This Le Monde piece on the US Supreme Court reminded me of another story in Le Monde back during the Atlanta Olypmics, where a Le Monde reporter saw guys in uniforms driving the city buses and reported that the US government had taken over the transit system and soldiers were driving the buses. It's like when you were talking about translating things, something about knowing what the carrousel is or not knowing and getting everything wrong-- it is next to impossible to really know what the hell is going on in another country in another language.

Be all that as it may, I got into a three-star hotel and watched a few minutes of television, and it was Mélenchon talking to some television guy, sitting there and taking lip and giving it, and I thought about how nice it would be if we did that in the USA, if politicians had to express themselves and show their chops in front of television reporters almost as glib as they are themselves. I can't say I understood what Mélenchon was driving at, except that he seemed to be dodging his inordinate love of China, but then he said something like "Bush was dangerous because of his violence, his stupidity, and his milieux." If a politican in the USA said something like that, even about a foreign politician, he would immediately be out of the running, they'd be all over him as long as he wasn't a crazy Republican spouting some weird Ayn Rand shit. So I fell in love with Mélenchon and decided I would vote for him if they let me vote in France. Of course a couple of days later I read the piece by Cohn-Bendit saying Mélenchon wasn't the real thing, and then you said you didn't like him, so I backed off and threw my virtual support to the socialists.

I guess the comment here is that you're probably right, but what a crazy country and can I really be sure you're right? Marine seems to have dropped out of sight, and then there was this Mélenchon craze, and Sarko, jeez louise, so what does Hollande really mean? Maybe he means a little sanity, who knows? Tell you what, though, I miss the days when the socialists were all about keeping the ticket ladies taking tickets in the métro and you had to hand over one of those brown tickets to an actual lady in a blue smock instead of feeding it through the turnstile gizmo. You're doing a good job, keep it up, and please don't ever let us know if you are as uncomprehending about all this stuff as the rest of us onlookers. Also, don't worry about these characters complaining to you about your Mélanchon misgivings. If those guys weren't around, it wouldn't be France.