Should we support Mélenchon?

From the 27 January edition of Daniel Mermet’s Là-bas si j’y suis. Translated by David Broder. Based on French transcript

Frédéric Lordon:
Well, the upcoming elections… There is something weird. For me, the prospect of this election awakens very mixed feelings. Very contradictory feelings.

I should say that as the years have come and gone — and it is a while since I stopped voting — I have truly come to consider the Fifth Republic’s institutions’ electoral pantomime as something empty, a dead end.

And from a certain point of view, what happened with Nuit Debout was the expression of this same frame of mind. Playing the game within these institutions is either a game lost in advance, or an entirely senseless one. And the only political question…

Daniel Mermet: We can endorse something, offer an endorsement

Lordon: Yes, that’s it. But the only truly relevant political question worth posing is the transformation of the political institutions, immediately ceasing to endorse them with our participation.

And then, by way of contradiction, yes, I do think that this is an election like no other. I think that this election raises political stakes of an intensity that we have not seen since 1981, and perhaps even more than then. And moreover, it promises to be an impressively violent affair. So where should we locate the stakes that will perhaps make this election so unique? Well, for the moment I will try and remain as analytical as possible. One such stakes comes up with the candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

So yes, we can have all the reservations in the world about Mélenchon, his personality, his political orientation etc. And we will probably soon discuss that. But if we observe the landscape with even the small distance that means that we cannot help but recognise it, there is at least something going on here. Namely, that he is the bearer, for the first time in a long time — well there was 2012 of course — of a significant left-wing alternative, in the spectrum of what is on offer politically. And that is not nothing.

We have long known that there is a significant alternative established in the political landscape: the Front National. But it was the only one, and it goes without saying that it obviously prospered amidst the general lack of differentiation.

But this time there is an alternative that can grasp our attention, and grasp the attention of all the people who recognise themselves as being authentically left-wing. Clearly, we can see that we are living through a very particular conjuncture, in which the arrival of this alternative may itself perhaps produce some effects. This very particular conjuncture appears together with its characteristic symptom, namely the general confusion.

And we could name plenty of signs of this general confusion. Left-wing voters got all worked up about whether they should go along to vote in the primaries for the Right. There is something that is not OK going on there. The media themselves are subject to this very great confusion. For they are taking slap after slap: the level of contestation is mounting, and their means of integrating it no longer work. They realise that everything they say is doomed to being refuted, that all the candidates they carry are threatened with ending up on the sidelines, that those who are winning in the polls will end up the losers, etc. The media themselves start providing a discourse about the media, saying "damn it, we keep screwing up."

So I want you to allow me to speak as an academic for a minute, very briefly. I am going to make a little detour via a paradox that has been known since ancient philosophy; a paradox that has crossed the centuries, and remains a very great question for logic. This is Epimenides’s paradox. And Epimenides was a good guy, a Cretan. It is important that he was a Cretan. The Cretans are good guys. And Epimenides rolled up and said: I, Epimenides, a Cretan, say that all Cretans are liars. And then he scarpered.

So people who wanted to know if the Cretans lied or told the truth soon got tied up in knots. And then they went from bad to worse. For if Epimenides was not lying, then indeed all Cretans are liars, so all Cretans lie. So the Cretan Epimenides was lying too. So if he wasn’t lying, he was lying.

But if he was lying, then the proposition that all Cretans are liars is a lie. So all Cretans speak the truth. And Epimenides, a Cretan, was telling the truth, too. So if he wasn’t lying, he was telling the truth. So with this kind of thing we get stuck like a fish trying to ride a bicycle. There’s no way out of it. Logic ends up deciding, and it tells us that we’re dealing with a type of statement whose characteristic trait is its own auto-referentiality. That is, it is a statement that takes for its object what it itself says.

And, indeed, this type of self-referential statement delivers up undecidable propositions. We cannot say whether they are true or whether they are false. Which, by the way, is a pain for fact checkers. And the media are becoming Epimenidean. For they come and tell us that they are mistaken. So if they are not mistaken, they are indeed mistaken. And if they are mistaken, then they are not mistaken.

So obviously there, if you will, the paradox is not formulated with quite such clarity within the media minds themselves, but it works away at them, behind the scenes. And that leaves them totally at sea. So yes, well it’s a problem. So if we support Valls, he will lose, because we are mistaken. Yes but then, if we say that we are mistaken, maybe that itself could help him recover? You see, in these people’s heads there’s an endless fuck up.

Above all that comes Macron. And, indeed, this is another sign of confusion, the guy who calls himself anti-systemic but has all the system’s labels, who writes a book called Révolution and presents himself as the champion of progressiveness! Well that’s really something. The garnish is on the filet. And so in this situation in becoming, with spaces of freedom opening up everywhere, some ideas are foundering, others are becoming entangled, etc., so perhaps something might happen.

Mermet: Yes, meaning…

Lordon:  I do not know, on that. I have no crystal ball. I am not going to take the risk of making a mistaken prediction, you’ll understand, in these conditions. I am not a total idiot. Well, we have to take those who… well, we can’t talk about the Parti Socialiste, here, because that virtually no longer exists. All that is making waves on TV, but that really makes me think about… you know when astronomers tell us that we are receiving the light that has travelled so far that the star that emitted it is already dead by the time we see it? I think that we’re dealing with this type of observation.

Mermet: You don’t see the light arriving?  

Lordon: Well you see, all this does bring up a little spark on our screens, but I’m telling you what you will see afterwards. And then comes the static. It’s done for — and that’s the good news, in this period.

Mermet: You don’t think Benoît Hamon has any saving grace? I thought he wasn’t bad, with his little objets [‘objects’/‘objectives’]…

Lordon: (smiles) yes, hmmm… well, hmmm… 

Mermet: A little stone pot, a little macramé lampshade — there’s the workshop over there… That didn’t move you a little? He has some political objets, too, maybe they are not all that interrelated, but there is plenty of good will there…

Lordon: Well, he is moved [ému] like another animal that is also going to go extinct! No, but for my part there is no limit to my compassion (laughter among the audience). No, but it’s true, we have to say things as they are. And it’s true, I am perhaps a little harsh, but only a little.

I have very long thought, if you will, that one of the great political stakes for the Left is to manage to operate the symbolic conversion that would take place if we finally succeeded in denying the Parti Socialiste the label "left-wing." And I think that we have lived through a Hollande presidency which — for want of being revolutionary — will indeed prove really historic.

I really think that Hollande’s term is something historic. It is historic because it will have succeeded in this performance of convincing a growing number of people that it is a major error to characterise this kind of political personnel as "left-wing," and that now we have to work — almost in a psychological sense, for those who believed in it — to cast off this idea.

And I think that looking at this story with Hollande, Hollandism, etc. the lexicon of "betrayal" was inadequate. We said a lot that "Hollande has betrayed, betrayed, betrayed the [2012 programmatic] speech at Le Bourget!" But no, I do not believe that he did, and I do not think that these people have in fact betrayed. My argument, rather, is that they were loyal to themselves. So — to complete that argument — evidently when we go back over the years, they did use to do some little left-wing things, some trinkets here and there, but in reality these were always men of the Right, albeit unsettled men of the Right.

And yes, they were unsettled by a certain history, and sometimes certain media that continued to tease them, etc., but for a very long time they have been of the Right. And what happened is simply that as the years have passed they have become more and more uninhibited, and they have ended up chucking any restraint in the river. And finally, under Hollande, they could be themselves. And, you see, all that has a very powerful revelatory effect.

So I would like to read you a little something I unearthed in a book I would recommend, called Le concert des puissants ["The Concert of the Powerful"]. It is the last book to come out with the Raisons d’agir series — you know, the little books from the "Bourdieu" collection — and it is by François Denord and Paul Lagneau-Ymonet. There is a box on the documents that the Parti Socialiste published, including those in the party called the "cross-tendency" Socialists, of which Hollande was a notorious example. As you will see, these documents reveal a lot; they tell us everything that is going to come next. When you have read that, you have understood everything about the following thirty years; for it dates from 1985. So hold on, this is what the famous "cross-tendency" Socialists wrote:

"'Always more' and the need for help are not the trait of a given social group, but rather seem to be the object of a certain consensus. Excess regulation and bureaucratisation are not always the symptom of a rampant socialism, but they most often correspond to categorial demands" — grrr! — "a concern for protecting incomes and privileges. Bureaucratisation and corporatism: one struggle. In such a context" — and this is the crucial point — "in such a context, deregulation changes camps. The generalisation of the practices of competition becomes a demand of the Left’s, as it seeks to ensure greater social mobility." Etc., etc.

So there you see how already their ideological matrix took form already in the mid-1980s. Obviously, you understand that in 1985 shouting things like that from the rooftops was a bit complicated. So these are internal PS documents, published to some small extent, but hardly widely read. Thirty years later we got the Macron Bill and the Valls-Hollande government. So there, if you will, a long cycle was fulfilled. And it is time to bring it to an end.

Mermet: Yes, I think I can hear the whistling that accompanied François Mitterrand’s arrival at Charléty [a stadium in Paris] in May 1968. These people have always betrayed, for them it is the norm, and now they are doing it again. So there.

Lordon: Well, yes…

Mermet: So you trust in Mélenchon, then; he is the Left…

Lordon: Listen…

Mermet: ... because I remember a certain Lordon saying, "We cannot do anything in this framework, we have to change the framework itself, we have to turn the table upside-down, etc…" Suddenly you say, well, no, perhaps we can do something within this framework, and then after… I also heard this from some of our friends [during the last presidential election] in 2012, who said "Wait, wait, today we go to the polls and tomorrow we will be in the streets. We will put pressure on Hollande after. We should vote for Hollande (against Sarkozy), and then after that put pressure on him." Some friends even spoke of a "revolutionary Hollandism"… that was another level of things, but even so, people did say that. Are you not worried that today you are losing a little… that Lordon is a little bit less radical than usual?

Lordon: No, no, do not make a big deal out of that. I am as distrustful as ever. But still, I will stick by what I just said. I think that for the first time a significant difference has come out, that it has taken its place on the spectrum of political supply, and we cannot simply sit this out. Not sitting it out does not mean surrendering and giving up all our weapons — or our baggage. I do not have any taste for unconditionally rallying to something, you should understand. And in this particular case, as it happens… well, in Mélenchon’s programme he speaks of "taking power in order to give it to us." This is the kind of promise about which there is reason to be cautious, methodologically. Some little joker on the internet has unearthed a poster of Mitterrand’s from the 1981 campaign, where there appear the very words "I will give power to you." And as you see, in this case we are still waiting at the lost property office.

Mermet: It is also what Trump said…

Lordon: Well there you go. I for my part am always very distrustful of strategies that suggest going through institutions in order to change the institutions. So let us look, but let us look with some precaution, and all the more so — how can we put it, without being uselessly hurtful… — given that the institutions of the Fifth Republic do indeed correspond to Mélenchon’s personality. I do not think he would find himself ill at ease there. And we know what happens: you come to power, you have an agenda — one, I will accept, that includes some interesting things — and then you begin to implement it, etc., and then next you say "ah yes well wait, yes of course we will have a Constituent Assembly, we will remake the institutions, yes, of course, but that is not the priority, there are big reforms to carry through, you have to give us time." And then after we give him time to carry through the reforms, we have to wait for the time it takes for them to pay off, and then…

Mermet: … and then the times change.

Lordon: … and then the times change, and then five years [a presidential term] have passed. Well, there is the problem. So the question is what you need to do to break out of this kind of contradiction. But you said it yourself, in a rather mocking and jokey way, and yet I think there is no other way. I do not see any solution to this kind of difficulty other than recognising that — contrary to what would happen with any other president that was elected — electing Mélenchon would not be the end of the process, but the beginning. And at that, the beginning of a process that would necessarily proceed via extremely intense street mobilisations.

So you said "yes, we will vote Hollande and then after we will put pressure on him in the streets." But that is like saying that it took a steely morality to go into the streets with Hollande as president. Because in reality there was nothing worth defending; there was nothing beyond trying to stop the stripping-away of a certain number of things that were left to us — and I do not know if you still remember what they were… Well, I will make my own self-critique. You had your evening with the engineering workers three years ago, I said that "Hollande is even worse than Sarkozy because it means the same policy as Sarkozy but with the anaesthetic effect as well." And that spring we defeated the scourge of this anaesthetic. That was the first time that there was a social movement of that size under a "left-wing" government, which usually radically destroys any mobilisation that is not a sectional one. So, there you are.

But if you will, I think that comrade Mélenchon, if he did reach power and if he really intended to combine words with actions, would find himself facing very great adversity indeed. For over the last thirty years, capital has got comfortable and has no intention at all of letting all the freedoms it has conquered, all the comfort it has secured, being taken away again. We have to understand what entering into confrontation with capital again means. There we really have political battles…

Mermet: You have worked on Syriza, on Podemos, on Europe… 

Lordon: Yes, yes, but we have to imagine Mélenchon’s finance minister getting lumbered with the management of the Treasury and the Finance Inspectors; that is, an entire, hostile structure of technocrats. That is really something, even just taken alone. And we are well aware that institutions are often much stronger than individuals; they absorb them through a kind of phagocytosis, and normalise them again. Even in two years, it is all finished.

So both to protect Mélenchon and to keep watch over him, his election must be just the beginning of a political process of a whole different dimension, necessarily proceeding by way of popular mobilisations. I do not know if that means re-awakening the old memories of the Popular Front or whatever… but all the same…

Mermet: And that worked.

Lordon: And that worked. It is a tried and tested configuration. But if you will, my hope is that the mobilisations are something even greater; that we are even more spurred on, that we have the feeling that something is happening and that it is also up to us to defend it, in order that it might be realised.

Mermet: Tell me a little about Europe and Mélenchon. Have you seen his plans for Europe? It is an area that you have worked on — on the euro, etc. He has the air of saying "we will renegotiate the treaties," and then, probably… not?

Lordon: Ah, well listen, after an enormous amount of prevarication, and after repeatedly refusing to jump, I get the impression that… but there, you see, it is always the same, I get impressions, but it is a leap of faith, as we say, we give credit or refuse to give it…

Mermet: It is called taking sides.

Lordon: Yes, perhaps. So it seems that after this meeting held just a year ago in Paris, which was called the internationalist summit for Plan B, after all his beating around the bush Mélenchon ended up deciding on a sequence called plan A, plan B. Here plan A consists of nailing the colours to the mast with Germany, with a back up plan B that would be immediately put into effect if Germany will not buy plan A.

So if we remain at this level of generalities, then at the risk of being naïve, I think that this sequence is very much an appropriate one. Indeed, I think it is the least of things — almost a political necessity — to say to the Germans and the other EU member states that it is impossible to continue in these conditions, and that these are the transformations we want. And if they do not take place, we will leave. And indeed perhaps we will not be alone in leaving.

My feeling is that if we do have to go through the sequence with plan A, that will simply be for the sake of putting our minds at rest. For, in my view, the results are already decided in advance. Germany will refuse. So obviously the great rider to this reasoning is the question of what transformations exactly we will demand from Germany. I think that what is really problematic in the positions of someone like Varoufakis is that I feel that he could settle for little things like a reduction of the debt, a little more tolerance on budget deficits… Turn around three times, and it has all disappeared.

So the thing that there is good reason to demand, and demand sine qua non, is a total reworking of Europe. That means a total abandonment of the treaties, and the full — full — repatriation of all the arrangements relating to economic policies, in an authentically democratic assembly, for example a Eurozone parliament to be created in future.

But I will stick to my line of argument: you can indeed build this Eurozone parliament somewhere in the back of beyond, but it will not work for one very simple reason, which is that a certain number of countries — Germany in the lead — will refuse to allow it to exist with the prerogatives that I just mentioned. They will not allow the arrangements that the Germans cherished above all else to be put back under discussion. The Germans had them sanctioned in the treaties, precisely so that they should never be discussed. So they will refuse to jump the first hurdle.

And even supposing that they did jump, anyway, I think that they would refuse to allow themselves to be put in the minority — which is the law of democracy — on any of the arrangements which they so fetishise. Imagine the Germans being put in the minority on the question of repatriating powers from the European Central Bank to politically sovereign institutions. That would be the end of the independent central bank. Who can imagine making the Germans swallow something like that, amidst the present state of things?

Yet we can see that these were the stakes at the centre of the whole Left critique of the Maastricht Treaty and of the 2005 European Constitutional Treaty. And so, too, of its critique regarding the question of the Central Bank — and not only that, of course, but it is notable as a patented democratic anomaly, which either we revisit, or there is nothing more to do with. So yes, very well, we can go through the sequence. But in my view, it is already determined in advance how that will go.

So then we have to work out whether as president Mélenchon would be capable of taking on what would therefore be a historic rupture. It is one hell of a step to take.

Mermet: Let us fix a meeting for one year from now. Imagine if we were one year back in time, and think of all that has happened this last year. Who on 21 January 2016 would have predicted Trump? Who would even — even the Loi Travail and Nuit Debout had not happened.

Lordon: That is the peculiarity of conjunctures marked by crisis. Everything becomes fluid again and transformations can take place with shocking speed and in completely unpredictable ways. So maybe we should expect to be surprised?


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