This article was originally published by Le Monde Diplo on 7 February 2023.
This text, the development of an intervention made at a meeting of Révolution Permanente, focuses at length on a question that is certainly decisive in the current period – the question of legitimacy, or rather of legitimacies: that of elections, that of social movements.
It happened on France 5, a public service channel with certain standards, especially late evening, in a distinguished and polite debate programme. The talk was about social movements. Nicolas Framont of the left-wing magazine Frustration tried to explain that voting is not the only source of all political legitimacy. Obviously, that was a waste of time. Well, not completely: at least there was a bit of a spectacle, a mental treat. Apart from voting, ‘there is no other possibility’, and besides, ‘that’s how it is’: in one fell swoop, the journalist Laure Adler gave her all. And that was the result.
However, Framont persisted. Voting was only one way of transmitting legitimacy, there were others, and the protest over pensions could also claim legitimacy. A murderous cutaway shot showed Adler expressing a sense of outrage and a groan of incomprehension. In fact, it was too much for her, her thoughts were starting to go off the rails. She was being offered another world, but at the cost of a system error; if you zoomed in on her eyes, you would see them glazed over.
The polling booth or nothing
There is not a single place in the editocracy where this idea is not gospel truth: voting in the polling booth is the unassailable horizon of ‘democracy’. It is easy to understand why: voting, supposedly a means of participation, is, in fact, an instrument of dispossession, and nothing is more important than preserving the authority of the dispossessors – editorial writers in particular, who, believing themselves the rulers of opinion, imagine themselves the rulers at all. And then voting means electoral competition, the drumbeat of parties, polls, alliances, betrayals, combinations, ‘egos’, the backstage for the ‘informed’, sources and confidences, the paradise of lunchtime journalism – emptiness and insignificance. There are few media where the ‘political desk’, supposedly the place of the local elite and generally a breeding ground for future editorialists, is not an unparalleled concentration of intellectual poverty.
Logically, from the point of view of the editocracy, Macron is fully legitimate since he was elected (no matter how). He is therefore entitled to do whatever he wants – in particular to massacre pensions – as long as it is done in proper form. But, here, ‘proper form’ gives him almost complete latitude. Anything that opposes the measure by any means other than procedural immediately counts as political barbarism.
Procedural fetishism. There is only one source of legitimacy: the electoral procedure. Framont tries again to explain the idea that a mandate is fragile. Laure Adler: ‘But it was still a vote!’ said journalist Karim Risouli: ‘He came first in the first round!’ François Ruffin from La France Insoumise made the same attempt on France Inter, and journalist Léa Salamé responded with exactly the same words, the same mentality – in this case, however, almost barking: ‘Who won the first round? Who finished on top? Was it Jean-Luc Mélenchon?’ No matter that polls show 75 per cent against the pension reform, or that millions have demonstrated. Nothing counts but the vote – only voting counts.
Saying ‘legitimacy’ – and not knowing what you are saying
In politics, legal formalism is the refuge of stupidity. To persist in thinking of legitimacy solely in procedural terms (i.e. suffrage) is to be certain of understanding nothing of what makes politics in its highest sense: upsurges. The bewilderment in the face of the gilets jaunes is still vivid in our memories, and it’s a delightful exercise to imagine TV political journalists Apolline de Malherbes or Nathalie Saint-Criq commenting on a live broadcast from the Bastille on 14 July 1789.
Both the Le Monde editorialist and France Inter political editorialist Thomas Legrand would also have baulked at such disorder and irregularity: after all, wasn’t the King entirely legitimate? The procedure that led to him may have been lineage not suffrage, but it was nonetheless a procedure, or at least a rule. And if it differs in almost everything from constitutional law, divine law is, indeed, a law of its kind – a form, not purely arbitrary.
‘In almost everything’, but all the same with a common element. A certain kind of aura, precisely what makes people say ‘legitimacy’ in both cases – without knowing what they are saying. Behind the aura, the social sciences suggest, we always find the same thing: beliefs. The social nature of legitimacy is that of belief. The anointings of legitimacy are simply those of belief. The adoption of a legal procedure does not change anything: it is the procedure itself, its power of transmission, which becomes the ‘intermediary’ object of belief. The ‘elected one’, in the double sense of the term, is only such when supported, in the final analysis, by belief: belief in the validity of the form that made for their election.
It is understandably of the utmost importance to reproduce this belief: the entire political order hangs on it. This shows the fragility of the edifice. For every belief has its breaking point. And it always reaches this point for the same reason: because the beneficiaries of the belief have abused it, because they have gone too far. In 1789, the belief that supported the legitimacy of divine right collapsed. In the organic crisis of contemporary capitalism, belief in the electoral transmission of legitimacy is in the process of collapsing, and with it the thinking of those who know no other political principle. So, we see them haggard and stunned, their minds spinning, no longer having the slightest grasp on events in progress. In a revolution, the dominant end up dazed at having been overthrown, but above all without having understood anything. ‘I only suggested they eat cake… what’s got into them?
This could be a more general definition of an organic crisis: when the formal framework of rules and procedures is no longer sufficient to contain what it had to regulate. Tautologically, it overflows. Hence the inanity of reminders of the kind: ‘But it was a vote after all’, ‘Who won in the first round? Who?’ Precisely because the framework – belief in the validity of the framework – is on the skids.
The failure of institutions
There is really no mystery: belief in institutions is collapsing because the institutions have failed, and it is simply no longer possible to believe in them. As a formal promise of mediation between governors and governed, they have long since ceased to mediate anything, and even do the opposite of what they were supposed to do: they cement the separation. This is where the fanatics of only-legal-is-legitimate power, including the reigning editorialists, are unaware and blind to everything: poring over the bargaining with the centre-right Les Républicains in order to be able to celebrate as an ‘unquestionably democratic’ outcome that the government did not have to apply article 49.3 that allows it to override parliament... The level of ‘democracy’ never stops collapsing.
Nothing reaches the top any more, and symmetrically nothing listens, nothing hears, and especially nothing responds – other than by paying lip service and actually saying nothing. Certainly nothing substantial, except a mixture of denials and antiphrasis: ‘The reform is fair’, ‘We are listening’, ‘We hear the concerns’, ‘We are attentive to the employment of pensioners’.
The political pathology of separation takes a critical turn in the Fifth Republic when institutions, unregulated by nature, fall into the hands of a particularly unregulated individual. All the tendencies of the regime, which have been observable since its birth, are brought to an unprecedented point of aggravation – the point of abuse that prepares the ruin.
Destruction of language, destruction of debate
This is because the individual in question has gone beyond ordinary lip service, and brought political speech into an absolutely new register. For example, he initially said: ‘Should we raise the legal retirement age, which is now 62? I don’t think so. As long as we haven’t solved the problem of unemployment in our country, frankly it would be hypocritical.’ Later he said: ‘Pension reform is indispensable, it is vital.’ He said first of all: ‘Many of our compatriots voted for me, not to support my ideas but to block the far right. I am aware that this vote obliges me in the future.’ Later he said: ‘We cannot pretend that there wasn’t an election a few months ago. This is a reform that has been democratically validated.’
This point is not directly related to pensions, but it is helpful to understand what it is all about: having dutiful journalists constantly write about his determination to ‘counter the Rassemblement National’ and its candidate, Marine Le Pen, Macron organised a governmental seminar which he concluded in these terms: ‘I am the one who faced her twice. In 2027, I won’t be a candidate, so I won’t be accountable for what happens.’ It is therefore no surprise to hear him say: ‘This is my trademark, I have always told people the truth.’ In what entirely psychic world, separated from all reality, does this man live? How can one continue to consider what comes out of his mouth as anything other than pure and simple acoustic phenomena?
It is quite obvious that we are no longer dealing with the ordinary political lie, the picturesque and good-natured lie of Charles Pasqua, for whom promises were only binding on those who received them, or the healthily effervescent Chirac, who declared as soon as he was elected in 1995: ‘You’ll be surprised at what I will lie about.’ Liars who know perfectly well they are lying. Macron, on the other hand, is possessed by his momentary truths. We are dealing with an individual for whom words have no stable meaning or value, other than the pleasure of letting them out of his mouth. An individual who has destroyed the meaning of words, and therefore the condition of possibility of any discussion. If it is true that ‘democratic’ politics is first and foremost about words or, as is said, ‘debate’, what is left of ‘debate’, and ultimately what is left of this politics, when words have been so eviscerated?
What Macron’s psychism understands by the word ‘debate’ became evident in relation to the gilets jaunes, in particular with the ‘Great Debate’, instantly transformed into a Big Monologue. Or with the Citizens’ Climate Convention, assured (beforehand) that its proposals would all be unconditionally accepted, and invited (afterwards) to go and get stuffed.
We can see how the editocracy is the last bastion of belief in ‘democratic debate’, the essential condition of which it sees methodically destroyed before its eyes, but without learning the slightest lesson. It is true that, in its case, ‘democratic debate’ is only of real value if it always reaches the same conclusions. It is therefore sufficient that the conclusions are maintained for the debate to be deemed to have taken place.
A madman is entrenched
By an argument a fortiori, we can understand how action beyond debate, to which all those who have experienced the destruction of debate for so long necessarily resort, inspires such movements of horror in the editocracy. What other possibility is there, however, when, enthroned on the ruins of language, the madman is entrenched in the institutions of the Fifth Republic, from where he can do whatever he likes? How can we imagine that demonstrations from Place de la République to Place de la Nation could cause him the slightest blink of an eye? If there were five million of us in the streets, he would continue straight ahead with hallucinated gaze.
For all that, the demonstration, at the junction of debate and beyond debate, is a certain sign. But its effectiveness can only be symbolic. That is to say, it assumes it is faced with a leader who still possesses some common morality with the led – and is capable of receiving the sign. In the 1970s, for example, Japanese workers would go on strike while continuing to work, but with armbands indicating their status as strikers. The armbands were effective because the bosses recognised the sign and immediately opened negotiations. Let’s imagine the scene ‘à la française’: ‘I heard you, I’m listening, keep working – you idiots’. In Macronism, i.e. on the upper floor of the moral pigsty that capitalism has become, (peaceful) protest has become literally meaningless – and it is no longer within the reach of any number of demonstrators to pull it out of this void.
There is only one conclusion to be drawn from this: since language has been annulled even up to the ‘demonstration’ sign, and with it the force of dialogue, all that is left is material force to make known to the madman that he has to give way. Professionals in these situations know very well that a madman has to be dislodged. At the very least, they can be unplugged.
Pulling the plug
No rational objection can overcome the fact that, once debate has been demolished, nothing can happen in politics except by other means. This is what the gilets jaunes understood perfectly. However admirable it may have been, one of the weaknesses of their movement was its distance from production and the workforce. This is not the case in the present situation, which offers an unparalleled opportunity to remember that logistical power, power over the vital flows of capitalism – energy, transport, the docks – lies in the hands of the workers. For those who hold it concretely, logistical power is also a power of embolism: the power to bring everything to a standstill.
Even if the economy is on its knees from being embolised, in a way the madman doesn’t care. What does care is capital. In ordinary times, capital lets its proxy, who thinks he is the power, do his thing, but, when necessary, it reminds him of the real hierarchy between principal and proxy. In 2019, during the gilets jaunes, it was the terrorised bosses who called on the Elysée to make the necessary concessions. It will be no different this time when capital demands that we stop sacrificing its turnover to the madman’s point of honour. If it’s a question of pulling the plug, which is the whole point of the present situation, we would have the added pleasure of having the plug pulled by ‘someone else’, and not just anyone: by the employers’ association (the MEDEF).
For this to happen, the cost of the blockage will have to be made intolerable, which supposes: 1) rolling and even indefinite strikes; 2) concentrated and simultaneous in all neuralgic sectors. And, so, 3) well-supplied strike funds to which all those would contribute who are a bit further from the front line, who don’t need to give up their wages to their employers by ‘striking’ for nothing, but could pay into these funds the equivalent of their ‘self-striked’ days.
The bourgeois press
Make no mistake: the moment this line is perceived as such, the moment the confrontation really begins, with the means that the confrontation requires, the whole bourgeois press will be unleashed anew. For the time being, it tolerates 2 million of us marching in the streets, so long as it’s done nicely and no notice is taken. But what it won’t tolerate is the logical deduction – that there is no other way to make the madman bend than to go outside the box and damage the economy.
There is no social struggle that is not a struggle against the bourgeoisie, and, to a certain extent, the press is little but the organ, partly unconscious, of the bourgeoisie. Therefore, a social struggle necessarily takes on the secondary character of a struggle against the bourgeois press. As soon as a struggle of this kind produces the slightest discomfort for the bourgeoisie, the bourgeois press throws itself into the conflict with all its might. We know in advance what they will say – they are appallingly stereotypical – we are quite ready for it, and this time it is we who will ignore it.
As in 1995, as in 2005 with the European Constitutional Treaty, as in 2016 with the Labour Law, as since 2018 with the continuous succession of Macron’s attacks, as on all the great occasions when its power is contested, the bourgeoisie is closing ranks around its press. This is because the idea that legitimacy and informal power could exist outside of institutions and their procedures must not be allowed to grow, since it is institutions and procedures that guarantee its formal power.
As history has abundantly shown, the bourgeoisie is prepared to maintain the exclusivity of legal proceduralism to the very end as long as its interests are served. Hitler was elected ‘democratically’ and Pétain received full legal powers ‘in the proper manner’. Being legal, shouldn’t everything that followed be considered legitimate? This is where the fanaticism of the legal order without any external regulating principle inevitably leads. In 1940, De Gaulle was a hooligan, a ‘black bloc’ with a kepi – a terrorist.
Another use of freedom
There is no need to reach these maximum cases to see what is really at stake in suffrage, and even more so in the conditions of its bourgeois organisation, i.e. under the guidance of the bourgeois press, the machine par excellence for the dumbing down and cancellation of all real politics. Proof of this was again given with the 2022 elections, which, as no one will have failed to notice, methodically erased the most urgent questions of the moment, those of the collapse of public services, the climate catastrophe, and pensions – whose resurgence today has all the makings of a nemesis (and an accusation). The campaign was a gigantic sham, a steady stream of media inanity commenting on the void, never talking about the reality, or talking about it in terms so shallow and silly that nothing but the shallow and silly could come out. The last time a campaign gave rise to real politics was the European referendum campaign of 2005. There, politics was everywhere. In a presidential or legislative election, it is nowhere.
Logically, the politics denied here is bound to reappear elsewhere sooner or later. But, just as logically, in forms that will not be the same ‘there’ as ‘here’. How can real politics, when it awakens, not spill out elsewhere from where it is blocked? That is to say, in the street, which has become, by default, the real place of real politics. We are there. All the more so at a time when the liabilities of our isolated rulers have become astronomical, and will have to be cleared up in one way or another.
And, since we have reached the point where accounts have to be settled, even the idea of sending Macron back to Le Touquet can be included in the perimeter of legitimacy – redefined to the great scandal of the party of ‘institutions’. By outrageously playing the politics of his ultra-minority wealthy clientele, Macron has based himself – for the second time! – on the exceptional circumstances of his election. From these circumstances emerged a particular contract of legitimacy, implicit, but perfectly clear. A contract that he himself had recognised by admitting that it ‘obliged’ him. As usual, ‘obligation’ was just an empty word, waiting to be replaced by another. The facts are no less clear: it is Macron himself who, on two occasions, pretended to believe that his mandate was unqualified and tore up the contract imposed by his flawed election. Why, under these conditions, should we hold on to a contract that the other party has trampled underfoot, and what principle could prevent us from denouncing it in our turn? We do not have to wait until 2027. It is not in any way contrary to legitimacy to demand that Macron consign his reform project to the dustbin of history now.
But, even more profoundly, something else is at play in these marvellous moments that are the abomination of the bourgeoisie and its press, something more essential, which amounts to the rediscovery of freedom. In The Social Contract, two and a half centuries ago, Rousseau already saw everything, understood everything: ‘The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them.’ We are tired of our own stupidity, we are tired of being ‘nothing’ and of being ‘slaves’. This time we will make another use of freedom.
Translated by David Fernbach