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Some Clarity: Frédéric Lordon on the danger of 'the logic of fronts'

Frédéric Lordon23 September 2015

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In a number of recent articles, Jacques Sapir has argued for the 'logic of fronts', stating that the Left must temporarily subordinate its ideological differences with far-right groups such as the Front National to pursue the common objective of leaving the euro. Writing for Le Monde Diplomatique, Frédéric Lordon strongly rejects this view, arguing that any euro-exit must be from the left and to the left, not shackled to forces with fundamentally different conceptions of what 'national sovereignty' would entail. 

Some clarity

By Frédéric Lordon. Translated by David Broder

Will the debate on the euro ever be free of the curse of the Front National? Without doubt, everything seems set on condemning it to this association, especially in an era when all kinds of confusion and hysteria mix together to the extent that it is impossible to have even the slightest rational debate. But what are we to say when some of the advocates of euro exit add to the intellectual mayhem, identifying themselves as of the Left but then calling for improbable alliances with the far Right?

The FN: a terrible plague, a blessing

Unless we live in Habermas’s dream world, basic experience teaches us that orderly debate is improbable: it only has a chance if there are certain particular institutional prerequisites, like scholarly institutions. But the disfigurement that the euro debate has suffered will doubtless go down in contemporary history as an extreme deformation, even an aberration, offering the spectacle of a political world whose arguments seem to have been deserted by any kind of rational thinking. Certainly, in their readiness to do anything necessary to defend the social order that produces their good fortune, our rulers are prepared to resort to the most shameless distortions such as to dismiss any alternative, invariably presented as a monstrosity. That is indeed why the ruling order has an imperative need for its own monsters, which it systematically refers back to in order to insist on the monstrous character of everything apart from itself. So for example North Korea is less the anomaly from globalisation than its secret blessing – its monstrous, its necessary otherness: how better could you insist on the irresponsibility of deglobalisation than by boxing it into the idea that North Korea is the only form that it could possibly assume (and please, God, let it keep going a good while longer). Better to strike with the killer argument: ‘and that’s what you want?!’

Mutatis mutandis, the FN is the functional equivalent, for the euro debate, of what North Korea is for deglobalisation. Of course, we wouldn’t be so clumsy as to say that there is no alternative; rather, we say that there is that alternative… And what comes next naturally follows, all by itself. Their surface-level ‘radical’ opposition masks the profound structural solidarity of the two terms that are supposedly in conflict – the FN and the great euroliberal single party – who are, here again, a blessing to each other, to the point that it brings them into a perfect relation of functional symbiosis. The FN prospers from its monopoly over uniqueness, which is abandoned to it by the single party facing it; and in turn, having been worn threadbare, this latter can now endure only by reducing any project for doing things differently to this monster.

For if one thing is certain, it is that apart from striking terror into people about the FN, the euroliberal party – in which, we now understand, the French Socialist Party and the Union for a Popular Momvement are two perfect substitutes – has nothing left to say. It has been rinsed out, freeze-dried; its thought comes in granules, its speeches in powdered form. And in truth, what more could they have to say, when the striking spectacle that they’ve given since 2010 can only reduce the defence of the European order to nothing, or else merely a further scandal? A European order that has made itself truly hated, in all senses: its terrifying economic catastrophe, its trampling on even the most formal democratic obligations, its having driven several countries into humanitarian crisis – and this, in Europe!...By Europe!

Happily, when there is nothing left, there’s always the FN. And that is also how the euro maintains itself in place. But for the monster to fulfil its role, it has to be made to soak up all possible alterity, mixing up all the alternatives in just one – its own, monstrous one. That is why the euroliberal ideologues, with the embedded journalists in the lead, have never had any more urgent task than to assimilate any idea of Euro exit to the Front National, drawing a direct equals-sign between the two terms, which are thus opportunely soldered together in the same indignity. What do the Left projects for Euro-exit matter? – if they are ‘red’, they must just be ‘red-brown’ [ie, National Socialist]… in an Oulipo-like thought experiment, we should imagine the disarray, or even perhaps the feeling of radical impossibility, that would result from the mainstream media pundits Jean-Marie Colombani and Jean Quatremer being invited to object to Euro exit without once uttering the words ‘red-brown’ (or ‘nationalist retreat’ or ‘xenophobic tendency’).

Disputed signifiers

The political drama truly builds when the confusion is being fed not only by what we will call the Right-in-general – obviously including the PS – but also the Left, in two diametrically opposed forms: the alter-Europeanist Left’s stubborn insistence on ‘changing the Euro’ and the distress of another Left at its – yes – monstrous temptation to ally with the Front National.

In its own way, the alter-Europeanist Left has lent credence to the euroliberal discourse of the Right-in-general, in reducing every plan for euro exit to the curse of ‘nationalism’, just as the Right-in-general does. At times of intellectual vacillation, the ideological catastrophe was doomed to build up around two disputed signifiers: ‘nation’ and ‘sovereignty’. Indeed, they are disputed because in each case the singularity of the name masks a duality of possible readings, upholding radically antinomic political worlds. There is not only a chasm between the substantial nation crystallised in its identitarian, eternalising myths, and the political nation, bringing individuals together on the basis of allegiance to principles regardless of their own origins – in sum, between Charles Maurras’s nation and Robespierre’s; rather, there is a merciless struggle between them. 

And the same is true of the struggle between sovereignty understood as the exclusive prerogative of governing élites, and as conceived as the ideal of popular self-government. ‘Nation’ and ‘sovereignty’ do not alone mean anything; they are just points of bifurcation. They say something only after they have duly been qualified, and thus only when we know what they lead us toward.

Given all this, alter-Europeanism has made a three-fold intellectual error: it has failed to see the duality of the signifier ‘sovereign nation’; abandoned it to the Right (thus allowing the Right to impose its own interpretation of it); and in so doing betrayed its own historical legacy. That is, in France the sovereign nation was born in 1789, constituting itself as a citizen-universality, expressing the desire for political autonomy, the desire of the people as a body to make itself master of its own destiny – in short, it is of the Left.

And as a result of an incomprehensible capitulation, it is now only of the Right… It is true that a poorly-reflected internationalism has contributed no little to spreading ignorance [1] – in actual fact, making people forget – that sovereignty as self-government necessarily supposes a relative closure (relative, because it is always to some degree open to what is outside it) of a community within a finite jurisdiction. The united human race does not exist, and is not the basis for any possible policy. Or else, it serves as a (hypothetical) end goal that is well made for eternally deferring any return of the political – and this is the essence of Jacques-Attalism and its reassuring messages: that globalisation is our unsurpassable horizon, and if, for certain, it has overwhelmed us a bit, the global government will allow us to take back control… when it comes. As we wait for that, just show some patience… and courage.

Some will say that Europe presents itself precisely as a tangible solution for regulating neoliberal globalisation. Without even discussing the fact that the European Union is in fact made not to regulate this, but rather to relay and amplify it, it would need the narrow vision of the most untroubled Europeanism, but also of the most anguished alter-Europeanism, not to see the basic paradox that the European project is in its very essence national-sovereigntist! Does it not propose to found a sovereign political community within a finite perimeter – and ‘Europe’ will certainly stop somewhere – and thus a citizenship of (European) belonging? This is not at all the ‘overcoming of the nation-state’ that Habermas and his French epigones mumble on about, but the simple redeployment of its principle – albeit in another form – on a wider scale. And the United States of Europe will only be the reflection of the USA across the Atlantic. It’s hard to believe that they have transcended the nation-state over there – isn’t the USA known as one of the most aggressive realisations of nation-state sovereigntism? So we can see the degree of conceptual confusion that afflicts the European question, on all sides.

The poverty of mono-ideism

The intellectual failure of alter-Europeanism is a considerable one; but even in its error it has a certain dignity, and the thing that it has erred in the name of has only ever been respect-worthy. But the failure of the Left-in-perdition is inexcusable. After all, if we cannot excuse the Left for becoming the Right – in the image of the Parti Socialiste – still less can we excuse it for drifting toward the Right of the Right, even to the point of a rapprochement with the far-Right. It is useless to try and deny it, because the evidence is there: among certain sections of the Left there has been a real tendency toward this diversion, and for a long time, indeed. Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s appeal for the unity of ‘republicans of both sides’ in 2002 was its first visible manifestation on the political field. Logically enough, the worsening of the crisis has accelerated all these tendencies, loosening all self-restraint, and encouraging the breaching of all previous limits.  

There are more and less direct routes to getting lost in the far Right, but one of them worth focusing on is less immediately ‘political’, more pernicious and thus more dangerous: the blinding effect of mono-ideism. This is the empire of the single idea, the mental despotism of the absolutely singular Cause, which, freed of any intellectual regulation, imposes its primacy and deploys its consequences to the point of aberration, without any resistance. Everything for the single Idea, and worstward ho if need be – that is the implicit motto of monoideism.

This is fiercely being applied on what are otherwise the most opposite of sides; for there is evidently a Europeanist mono-ideism. Its Cause is Europe, whatever its form and whatever the content – literally, Europe at any price. However things shift, this is declared a good thing if it advances Europe, and it does not much matter in which direction. Europe drives the reign of free, undistorted competition? Little matter, since the right to competition is a European right, and a European right in itself means progress for Europe. Europe subjects economies to the omnipotence of the finance markets? Little matter, because this is the means of constructing a European currency, which is thus justified in itself. Europe is just a piling-up of austerian treaties? But that’s not the question: the essential thing is that Europe advances – the direction of the advance is wholly secondary. This is intransitive Europe, Europe for Europe, without taking any other consideration into account: that’s the shape of Europeanist mono-ideism. The socialists and ecologists vote for the TSCG [Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance] because ‘we have to keep building Europe’. And we can only ask ourselves how far this abasement must go before it finally provokes a reflexive turn, a fissure in mono-ideism, the return of another idea. Perhaps Europe could reintroduce children’s right to work – formally speaking, a fresh advance in ‘European’ rights, so progress for ‘Europe’ itself. Enough already, or do you want more?

Faced with this is the symmetrically opposite mono-ideism of leaving the Euro by whatever route necessary. If Euro exit has something to do with restoring sovereignty, it doesn’t matter what sovereignty we are talking about. So forward, for the undifferentiated front of sovereigntists. Nicolas-Dupont-Aignon [leader of the small Right-Gaullist Débout la France party, a 2008 split from the party then known as the UMP] is a ‘sovereigntist’: so he is one of our own. And so, too, is Marine Le Pen, after all (as if she didn’t say it often enough). 

So, logically, why not? That is the major defect of mono-ideism: its unfettered consistency. It will follow its single logic as far as it takes it, through the necessary unfolding of the consequences that follow from the initial premise. It little matters where; since once the Idea has been posed, you can only trust in the ancillary, neutral logic that simply brings out everything entailed within it.

After all, this is inherent to its very concept: mono-ideism supposes the radical effacement of all side considerations, that is, everything that does not belong to its Idea. For example, though the only thing truly cementing the Front National as a party is its racism, and the only energy behind its vitality is xenophobia  (and its ideological wandering on social and economic questions very much attests to this), when euro-exit sovereigntism becomes mono-ideism it drops all this from consideration.  After all, the Cause is euro exit, and nothing else truly exists. So we can foresee untroubled souls making common cause with a racist party because this ‘racist’ quality is not seen and does not count, from the point of view of the Cause. That is how from the ‘union of republicans on both sides’, passing via the ‘front of all sovereigntists’, we end up envisaging a compagnonnage with the Front National. And logically so – but on the basis of a logic that goes crazy when it has nothing more to work with, other than the material of the single Idea.

The judgement of history

The fact that someone like Jacques Sapir – who has a firm knowledge of history – has gone so far in losing any sense of history, must really mean that everything has been given up to a despotic idea. This period is certainly a historic one, and history will judge us. If we recognise historic crises’ capacity to blur and destabilise established beliefs and divides, then there can be no doubt that this is what we now face. We are living in the epoch of all sorts of confusions: the confusion of social democracy reduced to the state of a liberal debris, and the at-least-as-serious confusion of left-wing revolts that can now only see the paths of the far Right. And we can only survive the insidious discord that this confusion provokes if we are sure what we think, know where we are, and hold iron-firm to our line. In politics as in other matters, it is the first step in going astray that does the damage: for once this step has been taken, all the subsequent ones irresistibly follow from it. That is why the ‘union of all sovereigntists’ inevitably leads to alliance with the far Right.

This fatal inevitability is, however, a resistible one: it suffices to not start to dip a finger into it – for as we now know from so many testimonies, the entire body will inevitably follow. Here, the discipline of not ‘dipping a finger’ has no better weapons than the robustness of a few reflexes – e.g. where are we at on the question of racism – and the minimal degree of decentring that, not completely giving into mono-ideism, allows us to identify what the dangers are. Also useful, here, is the solidity of our concepts: in this case, the concepts with which we make sense of the signifiers ‘nation’ and sovereignty’, without which we are doomed to sink into the quicksand of confusion, for here it is the Right and the far Right whose interpretation is the dominant one, and we will inevitably succumb to this if we do not have another reading firmly to oppose to theirs.

But we never hold the line so well as when we remember some of the lessons of history, particularly the memories of some of the tragic confusions of the past. We only get above the grip of the present and the difficulty in knowing what we are truly doing – that is, the lack of such space as would allow us to judge ourselves by the yardstick of a sense of a history that has not yet been delivered – when we relate our activity to the dilemmas that others have had to face before us; some of them well, others badly. That does not mean that their situation was in all aspects similar to our own – it couldn’t have been. But from this past we can draw a greater sense of the dangers we face, and an increased sense of self-examination and of anticipation of a history that is yet to deliver its verdicts. 

We would be irresponsible indeed not to see the danger: if the current period is not the exact replica of the 1930s, it does borrow enough from it in order to make us fear that similar causes might bring similar consequences. We know well enough that the worse things get, the more the far Right profits. And apart from the Ship of Fools of columnists – which, endlessly repeating the word ‘reform’, ends up only asking for more of the same – we also know that this period will only mean things getting worse. But it also goes without saying that as the ‘intellectual’ arm of the euroliberal single party, the media apparatus [2] is decisively involved in the functional symbiosis that allows the Front National to prosper. From this terrible sequence, which creates no other duty than opposition – even if we see ever less chance of something coming along and turning things around – everyone must be able to know what she did and what position she took.

It is certain that the polemic brings its pile of gutter-level attacks: for alter-Europeanism (and in this, it is indistinct from Europeanism tout court), this means only imagining the kind of euro exit that suits its prosecution case… But we could much better argue that to refuse this very possibility, abandoning the question to the FN – and trapping the peoples of Europe in what is in reality a merciless euro-liberal catastrophe – is to hand the far Right an unequalled political resource. Yet nor should there be any equivocation when it explicitly becomes a question of making common cause, or going some way, or doing anything else, with the Front National. The wholly secondary additional clauses you might wrap the issue up in matter little: the essential thing has been said.

Going astray for nothing

But there is something worse than going astray: going astray for nothing. For this is the tragic irony waiting for these lost souls: if the FN came to power it would not carry out euro exit. It would not do so, because as soon as the prospect of its electoral success took on real substance, capital – which knows no enemies on the Right – will go along with it, however far things go to the Right. It will not come empty-handed, either – as is always the case, when it is serious in asserting or conserving its interest. So in exchange for some future campaign funding, and above all in exchange for its class collaboration – since, as the current government (with its ‘Responsibility Pact’ hanging over its shoulder) has seen to its discomfiture, capital certainly does have the power to shut down the economy out of malintent [3] – capital will demand that France keep the euro, its true treasure, its cherished machine for cutting the wage-earner class down to size. Do we think that the FN would put up the least resistance? It doesn’t give a fuck about the euro, any more than its basic economic doctrine – or any of the others that follow. The heart of its thinking (if it does think) lies somewhere else entirely: it is a sort of neocorporatism that has been vaguely repainted in order not to look too ‘30s’; and if there is one thing that it does truly believe in, it is without doubt taking a stance for the small businessman to be ‘master of his own affairs’ (in the event, combined with a shopkeeper’s hatred for the taxes that so strangle us).

A tragic fate, then, for all those who thought the FN to be the last church of the true believers, who will end up in the condition of scientologist recruits, rinsed dry and made anew, thus made to share (even if from the opposite side) the same belief as the euro-liberal propagandists. That is, the belief that the FN is about to shake everything up, even when it is so clear that it will never shake up anything (apart from the lives of the immigrants or the children of immigrants living in peace in this country, which will be well and truly devastated). After all, have we ever seen the Party of Order perturbing… order? And do we believe that the party of hierarchies has the heartfelt desire to upset the hierarchies – in this case, of capitalism?

At least the euroliberals, for their part, have their oblique interests to look after in this astounding stupidity: they need the FN to be assimilated to a sort of revolution, better to put the spectre of any kind of revolution at a distance. Now as always, this is the work of the functional symbiosis and the columnists hurrying to accord the FN its most central and most fraudulent demand (‘it’s going to turn everything upside-down!’), doing it the greatest of services, doubtless without realising.

To the Left, and only to the Left

And in every possible way. We aren't part of the perfectly heteroclite mass of would-be visionaries devoted to declaring that the split between Right and Left is over – a jamboree of fairground prophecy where we find the far Right (and this claim is one of its oldest tunes) as well as the extreme centre from François Bayrou to Manuel Valls, whose managerial reasoning ultimately allows them to spare useless quarrels (what the perfect ideologues of the ‘end of ideologies’ would term ‘ideological’ ones). Unfortunately for them, the denial of reality is always unfailingly accompanied by the return of the repressed. ‘That’ always returns. It even already has done: in Greece, under the name Syriza – before the incomprehensible Tsipras sank into a tragic renunciation. Tsiprasism is no longer anything but a dead star, but that is certainly not true of the Greek Left – or, therefore, the European Left. Just as we never show movement as well as by going on the march, we never more irrefutably demonstrate the possibility of a left-wing euro exit…  than with the spectacle of what is undoubtedly the Left, proposing to leave the euro. That’s the drama of the insufficiency of the intellect: for some, it takes a passage to the concrete for them to start truly believing in a possibility that their minds never managed to capture, so long as it remained simply abstract.

God knows that you would have to be either acting in the worst intellectual bad faith, or very intellectually limited indeed, not to be able to conceive of a left-wing euro exit – that is, a left-wing vision of sovereignty. But now it is here: a robust minority of Syriza, defeated by Tsipras’s betrayal but determined to continue to fight in the new colours of Popular Unity, is now concretely establishing the existence of a ‘left-wing exit’: an exit that is not at all sullied by the Right. It is not ‘nationalist retreat’, because here we are dealing with people whose internationalist stance is above suspicion; nor is it a ‘xenophobic drift’, because the only point of agreement within Syriza – but an absolute one – concerned the question of welcoming and regularising immigration. And only Jean-Marie Colombani rubbing his two brain cells together, Quatremer with his uncontrollable hatred for everything on the Left, or, indeed, the alter-Europeanists with their panicked warnings, could find any justification to cry ‘identitarian retreat’.

The Left is there. Even if reduced to the last degree of institutional minority-status, it will not die. It is alive in Greece. It will revive elsewhere in Europe, and especially in France, as soon as, finally meditating on Tsipras’s defeat, it begins to note that its only chance is outside the euro – and, of course, on exiting it to the Left. But we would have to be prey to the fetishism of euro exit to desire nothing more than exiting for its own sake, that is, preparing to leave no matter in what company. And having seriously forgotten to pose the only question that counts – the question of what purpose we are doing it for, andthus together with whom. This is the only question that brings back a little clarity and makes us see certain improbable alliances for what they are: aberrant, perverse, and doomed to perdition, in the dual sense of moral turmoil and guaranteed failure.


[1] See on this ‘Leçons de Grèce à l’usage d’un internationalisme imaginaire (et en vue d’un internationalisme réel)’, 6 April 2015.

[2] Whose internal differentiations are entirely secondary, apart from a handful of minoritarian exceptions.

[3] For a somewhat more substantial elaboration on this question, see ‘Les entreprises ne créent pas l’emploi’, 26 February 2014.

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