The Windows of History
First published in Le Monde Diplomatique. Translated by David Broder.
Mélenchon rally, Lyon, February 2017.
1. In the so-called "democratic" era, a system of domination is a paradoxical creature. It categorically refuses to recognise its own systemic character, precisely because this era purports to be "democratic." However, even to begin to challenge its vital interests immediately reduces this playacting to nothing, making its systemic character manifest again. Indeed, so much is this system a system, that it comes out of the register of denial only in order to fall into a register of hysteria. As soon as Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s presidential bid became a serious possibility, leaving behind his outlandish fringe-candidate status, all the pretenses of upholding democracy, all the restraints of reasonable objectivity, instantly collapsed, ultimately allowing the system’s true face to come to light: furious, and of one mind.
Since an experience of reality is always worth a thousand times more than an abstract formulation lacking in flesh and blood, a week in the clinic with the media in a situation of political stress — as always, the only truly revealing situations — suffices to wipe away what ordinary times more or less manage to hide. This also lets us know what we ought to think of the half-clever protests — obfuscated by an entirely circumstantial intellectual deontology — that we could even conceptually imagine the existence of something like "The System" or "The Media." As in 2005 with the referendum on the European Constitution, a short week of hysterical circling the wagons and single-minded foaming at the mouth offers a far more eloquent object lesson then any cold-blooded sociological survey.
So we have the simplest of experimental means to distinguish between a certain sort of anti-system, whose adulteration quickly gets the system fluttering its eyelashes, and another anti-system that drives the system — in a compulsive-reflex movement — to expose itself, strikingly demonstrating what its whole work of denial usually works to keep under wraps. However rudimentary it may be — or perhaps for this very reason — this protocol offers us some solid conclusions. To observe the system’s reactions, particularly when they are as violent as this, is sufficient to allow us to distinguish between the different pretentions, and to know what the system really considers anti-systemic, what it judges as being really dangerous to the maintenance of its essential interests. This is a sort of homage that vice renders to virtue, all of a sudden throwing the crudest of its pretenses in the trash.
2. The different treatment of "anti-systems" thus offers the best perspective on the general economy of the system itself. Only a maniacal sensitivity to Emmanuel Macron’s phoney charisma could allow anyone to continue to believe that a fresh face and bypassing the parties, simply for the purpose of a broad-scope recycling — that is, seeking to do exactly the same thing — can be passed off as a subversion of the system. From the outset, this latter’s contentment with allowing itself to be "subverted" by Macron was rather telling.
But, without doubt, it is Marine Le Pen’s case that exposes the most paradoxical, or even the most cunning, properties of this general economy. For Le Pen is this particular sort of anti-system that is in fact functional to the system. The Front National is a marvelous peril, a providential horror, that allows the system to arrogate to itself the right to "fix" what the alternative idea is, and, through this, to render any project for "doing something else" essentially abominable, no matter what that "something else" is. Even in such an approximate democracy as our own, only the recourse to this most convenient of monsters now allows for the stabilization of an order that has become socially revolting to ever wider layers of the population. So it was necessary to arrange the scene so that there was nothing between the CICE [corporate tax credits] and this heinous monster.
The system and its preferred anti-system have ended up settling into an objectively symbiotic relationship in which the former prospers thanks to the latter’s contribution, and the latter by cultivating the singularity that the former so generously attributes it (even if negatively). The system finds its perfect foil in this preferred anti-system, which now serves as the ultimate argument for its own indefinite perpetuation. This is a functional harmony, in which the order has well accommodated itself to a monstrous "other," according this latter a monopoly of alternativeness in order to guarantee itself a monopoly of reason (one that [pro-Macron business advisor, neoliberal editorialist and former Sarkozy acolyte] Alain Minc might himself have designed). But most important, no third proposition should break through to disturb this harmony, completely reworking the landscape of differences.
The Mélenchon candidacy is this calamity, this undesirable alternative, the one that imperatively had to be prevented from emerging in order to preserve the well-established identity between "anti-system" and whatever is "putrid" — the system’s comprehensive insurance package. We can measure the system’s precise democratic content by way of the amount of energy it deploys to try and wipe out this inadmissible alternative. To repel this adverse outcome — an inopportune alternative — it needs but one argument: to deny that the difference exists. Or rather, to deny that the difference of the difference, and act as if it were ultimately identical to the only alternative that it does provide a space for: the fascist one. Stir up the editorialist manure as much as you like, you will find nothing that cannot ultimately be reduced to this: Mélenchon is Le Pen. We can understand the urgency and the crudeness of this procedure: to accord any other value to Mélenchon’s alternative would be again to open up the possibility that the system, aided by its monster, has worked so hard to keep closed off: the possibility of doing something else.
3. An unhinged system, foaming at the mouth with falsifications: something must really be happening. And the least one can do, in terms of political virtues, is to pay attention to the fact that there is something, rather than nothing going on. But what is it possible to expect from this? The last time that something seemed to be happening (electorally speaking, that is) was in 1981. We remember what happened next. And we have seen — rather completing this past reference — Mélenchon’s own admiration for Mitterrand. The consequence supposedly logically follows from this. But it might not.
We would struggle to deny that the conversion of programmes into effective policies is one of the most uncertain of operations — in any case, from a voter’s point of view. Given her asymmetrical position — not to mention the lessons of the past — distrust is methodologically rational, this time as before. But what conclusion is to be drawn from this? In reality, there is only one conclusion, which also responds — while we are at it — to the more contemporary reflection very directly questioning the electoral game itself, seeing it as a pantomime well-adjusted to reproducing the system. And indeed it is that, in many regards — but perhaps not unfailingly so.
For none of the arguments coming from skepticism, however well-founded, can succeed in persuading us that we ought to overlook the present possibility — a possibility that the system’s own defensive reaction itself attests to. And there is, in sum, a curious paradox binding together the most naïve faith in the election and its most radical rejection, each of them in a certain sense having assumed the passive dispossession that necessarily accompanies the proxy effect of voting for someone. But where is it carved in stone that political activity stops after the election? If that were indeed the case, we could only concede to the skeptic’s in-principle disinterest. But it is not — or at least, it is not inevitably the case. A second paradox, deriving from the first, claims that there an election can itself be used to subject the election to a radical critique the election. Not to content itself with the election, of course, but to make use of it.
The critique does see things clearly when it uncovers the reality of the forces underlying the formal election system, normally guaranteeing that the election goes in the "right" direction, or else promptly bringing the winner back onto the rails if — as in 1981 — the "wrong" candidate wins by mistake. Given such a reading, there is no use getting moving, which will in any case immediately be followed by a slump back into passivity. But what the "wrong" winner cannot do alone, he could do with help, or if he were driven to do so, by a mass that has not demobilized. Evidently, on European matters, this "push" will not just be an additional luxury…
In any case, the real site of the test of strength with capital — European or national — is in the streets. But this test of strength will go further or less far depending on whether it is encouraged by an electoral victory that proclaims that it is pushing in the same direction. What is an electoral victory useful for, then? For being taken at its word, or even taken beyond what it had wished for. In 1936 it was the general strike — after the election — that wrung from Léon Blum’s hands ten times more than he would otherwise himself have given. Yet there still needed to be a signal for the mobilization. The signs of encouragement coming from above are doubtless not inevitably necessary: but all the same, they are hardly unwelcome when they do come.
So we can say what we want about Mélenchon’s candidacy, but we cannot deny that he is this potential signal. Otherwise we would not be hearing so much screaming. Getting rid of the El Khomri law on labour code deregulation; taking away the police’s Flash-Balls and Tasers — and last spring’s demonstrators know very well what that means; getting rid of stock options and limiting the wage gap to 1 to 20; banning dividend payments from companies that lay people off; and most important of all, establishing workers’ right of preemption to take over their company as a cooperative if it closes, etc.; these are the indications of a certain coherence. A limited one, some might still think; but one that depends on electors not abdicating the responsibility, once the vote is over, to be political subjects seeing how far this can be taken.
4. So the first question is a wholly strategic one: will we get further, or less far, with a president who himself points in this direction? And the second is a wholly practical one: will "we" have the numbers to help the president — and if necessary, drag him along — in order to convert the written programmes into reality? If we stick to 1981 as a comparison, there is no space for optimism. But that comparison is not the appropriate one. A further (last) paradox holds that the two situations profoundly differ precisely on account of the property they have in common: being ends of a cycle. But in the two cases, two diametrically opposed things are coming to an end. Coming amidst the countervailing political times, Mitterrand’s election would mark the end of the Keynesian-Fordist cycle of the welfare state: this was the beginning of the great neoliberal regression. What mobilisations could there be, in such a context of ideological adversity and retreat?
Thirty-six years later, it is neoliberalism itself that is reaching the end of the road, bringing about an international struggle. The broad bases of its legitimacy are on the point of dropping away. That capital is mounting more aggressive conquests than ever does not prevent the fact that it is losing the battle for legitimacy. Indeed, it is this already-consummate defeat that creates the possibility of Mélenchon, just as it has created, with varying fortunes, the possibilities of Sanders, Podemos, Corbyn etc. Everywhere among the employed workforce, even among managers – normally the system’s social base — anger is spreading, and a manifest, generalized, open capitalist abuse is becoming reviled.
However composite it may be, this mass is raising its head again. Part of it is turning to vote Mélenchon, attributing this vote no other meaning than putting a limit to capital’s outrages, or perhaps even pushing it back. We will see if and how far its meaning can go beyond what the candidate himself wants to do. But, in its general orientation, this turn is not mistaken. All the less so that it now has its symbolic conjuncture — and, if it is up for it, the possibility of transforming this into a political conjuncture. Should we use this possibility or not? That is the only question.
1981 to 2017 — 36 years separate these two dates. A long time. History has proven sparing indeed in opening up a few windows to the dominated. But it does do so, even if the opening is only a small one. Without doubt, social struggles cannot expect them to open all on their own, and sometimes they themselves have to force them open — 1968, 1995… But this is hardly going to be more difficult when someone comes along to undo the latch. The least we can do is not fall asleep at this movement. Wide awake, we should give the necessary push, so that finally we might breathe.