French Socialism, 2012: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

One of the stranger things to happen in American politics in recent years—and competition for that distinction is pretty stiff—is the reappearance of the word “socialism” in mainstream discourse. Bizarre rumors about Barack Obama, TARP, and the health care debate gave us the Tea Party. Part of the package has been a new lease on life for old-time paranoia: we’re “losing our way,” the Constitution is being “subverted,” we’re surreptitiously becoming “socialist.”  Yet there’s something new about this return to the past: we’ve lost a sense of what “socialism” even means. During the Cold War, Americans devoted considerable effort to comprehending the beliefs of their ideological competitors. I remember, as a kid, checking out from the school library a book called Today’s Isms, a classic of Cold War pedagogy. No doubt it was pretty conservative. But as I recall, the author actually explained the difference between, say, communism and socialism with considerable insight and subtlety. Those days are over. Now, “socialism” is little more than a code word for “big government” and whatever else makes Atlas shrug. It exists as a reference point. But even in this limited role, it has become almost completely purged of meaning.

Consequently, I was eager to read the electoral program that the French Socialist Party (PS) recently published in preparation for next year’s presidential elections. Who better than the French—and particularly the members of a self-described “socialist” party—to remind us of just what the term means, not only as an influential political tradition, but as a really existing contemporary movement? I was, however, disappointed. The Tea Party is indeed clueless about socialism. But anyone who reads the PS’s manifesto quickly gets the sense that, in their own way, French socialists are, too.

First, a remark on format. Last fall, I wrote a post for my French blog on the Republican Party’s election platform, A Pledge to America. The GOP and PS manifestos make for an interesting comparison. The Republicans’ document is 48 pages. There are, however, pictures.  A lot. Thirteen pages worth, to be precise. Glossy, postcard-like pictures. Mount Rushmore. A cowboy. A butcher shop. A TV screen. Paul Ryan. The PS’s program is 52 pages. Want to guess how many pictures there are? Well done: zero (except the cover, which consists of a dozen rows of smiling socialist faces). And there’s a lot of text crammed into each page, too. For one thing, being a socialist means this: you have to read a lot.

Now, the manifesto’s content. First, anyone who reads it will be hard pressed to identify a unifying paradigm. In the early nineteenth century, socialism meant workers’ associations. Then it meant class politics. In the interwar years and during the Occupation, it meant anti-fascism. Today, socialism is little more than an ideological mix-and-match. There’s a healthy dose of residual Marxism: the PS still thinks the key to most social problems lies in increasing production. This productivism is spiced up with a dash of alter-mondialisme, or anti-globalization rhetoric: production is good because finance is bad. And speculation is worse, as the socialists make clear when, somewhat belatedly, they steal from ATTAC—once the vanguard of the anti-globalization movement—by endorsing (without calling it by name) the Tobin Tax on international speculative transactions.

The altermondialiste critique of finance is the fig leaf covering the socialists’ awkward effort to blend their own unabashed love of production with the contemporary taste for environmentalism. Socialists, it would seem, are at their most green when environmentalism and production can be married (i.e., ending nuclear energy and replacing it with “green jobs”). They don’t like neoliberalism, but they’re careful to declaim their enthusiasm for companies (especially those that make things). They don’t believe the state is the solution to everything. They admit that its services must be “more personalized and decentralized.” Finally—surprise, surprise—they absolutely love the Republic. The left has changed in many ways, the socialists tell us, but its core values remain “liberty, equality, fraternity, secularism, justice, responsibility, internationalism.”

The PS’s manifesto is entitled Le changement“change.” Why not? But reading it, I thought of a better title, borrowed from a pop spirituality bestseller from the eighties: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. France, the manifesto implies, used to have it good. Back in the day (i.e., the “trente glorieuses”—the thirty postwar years of unprecedented economic expansion), the French economy was extremely productive. It produced a social model based on full employment (or close enough), relatively high wages, job stability, reliable public services, and social security. Now, with the onset of globalization, there’s a rush to the bottom as competition increases, governments slash their budgets, and work—and life—becomes increasingly precarious. Fortunately, the French are still popping out babies at a steady clip. And, the socialists note with pride, two hundred million people across the globe still speak French! (How this happened is, however, conveniently elided).

The manifesto repeatedly emphasizes that France has lost its international standing. Europe’s power and wealth is dwindling as new economies emerge. Even within Europe, France’s stature is diminished. The PS blames globalization, but also Nicolas Sarkozy: his crass materialism and outsized ego have only hastened France’s steady descent. In referring to this sense of national decline, the socialists speak of “déclassement.” A strange word for socialists, if you think about it. What could be a more bourgeois concern? Isn’t it even—to employ that cruelest of Marxist insults—petty-bourgeois? I thought the point of socialism was to emancipate those who have become déclassé, rather than bemoan their lost status.

Reading the manifesto, I was reminded of the Gorbachev era in the Soviet Union, when the most die-hard Communists were described as “conservatives.” This, it strikes me, is the PS’s core problem: it is effectively a conservative party. It’s not lacking in ideas, and its ideas are not unintelligent. But its posture is essentially defensive—protecting a threatened social model, restoring French pride (albeit in its most universalist, least ethno-cultural form), reinventing France’s international role. This becomes evident when the manifesto starts to appeal to particular constituencies. There’s a lot of (rather interesting) talk about rehabilitating the French educational system (teachers being one of the PS’s electoral mainstays). We hear a fair amount about cities and jobs and new technology (a pitch to the bobos, or “bohemian-bourgeois”—a term that has entered mainstream French thanks to David Brooks). And pensions and the “new old age” is unquestionably a major concern (the document specifically commits a socialist government to repealing the Sarkozy-Fillon raising of the retirement age). But, as far as I could tell, the socialists don’t mention the problem with France’s ethnic minorities and the crisis of the banlieues (the high-rise suburbs where much of the Arab and African population resides) until page 34. And even then, the emphasis is on how these neighborhoods could contribute to French competitiveness. There’s a sense in which some of the key issues affecting French society—as well as some of the country’s most vulnerable populations—are addressed by the socialists only as an afterthought.

I want to like the PS. If I were French, I would probably vote for its candidate (though one of the problems with the party’s ideological incoherence is that it gives enormous weight to personality conflicts, which is what the imminent primary will soon become). I can’t see myself being tempted by the “left of the left” (the NPA or Mélenchon). The centrist-liberal-faux-Christian-Democrat candidates are pretty unattractive (Bayrou is insipid, Villepin awful, and someone needs to explain to me what the big deal about Borloo is). The Greens (in their current awkward incarnation, Europe-Écologie-Les-Verts, or EELV) are a more serious option, but they always seem to be sliding back to an earlier, more marginal status—unlike, say, their German counterparts.  And let’s be honest: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, in one of France’s great political second acts, gave the Greens a lot of luster. But for he’s now been pushed aside, to the movement’s detriment.

I realize that electoral manifestos say relatively little—not exactly nothing, but little—about what a candidate is likely to do if elected. But the fact of the matter is that, intellectually and politically, the PS underwhelms. Incoherence, nostalgia, conservatism for a decent but challenged social model, pride in eighteenth-century ideals: these aren’t bad things, as such. But its unimaginative, stilted outlook bodes poorly for the PS’s chances next spring.

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