Seeing Nicholas Sarkozy elected president by a wide margin after twelve years of Chiraquery, and at the same time witnessing the collapse of the entire left, moderate as well as radical, one feels forced to take note of this strange eventalism. In a way, we are all caught up in this sad story, and the same calls are being heard everywhere: to understand and rebuild, analyse and reform, resist and recreate. Yet it is hard to avoid two pitfalls: letting yourself get swept up by Sarkocentrism—watching, stunned, as your revulsion transforms into perverse fascination or flatus vocis—and getting lost in the endless quest for new foundations, new organisations, new kinds of resistance. The “black hole/white wall” conceptual pair invented by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus to explain the haunting power of certain faces, their ability to captivate, describes the first pitfall well. Sometimes Sarkozy seems like the perfect “black hole”, absorbing everything that surrounds him, criticism as well as praise, the important thing being to relentlessly occupy the heart of all public space. Other times he is like the perfect “white wall” a pure signifier that signifies nothing; all attempts to extract any kind of truth shatter against it. The important thing isn’t to be this or that, but to be “Sarkozy”. The second pitfall is perhaps better described by psychoanalysis. The desire to reform, reconstruct, resist, invent, create, is often not so much the first step toward overcoming impotence as the symptom of a failure to confront it effectively. “The only person who asks ‘what should we do?’ is someone whose desire is on the wane”, Lacan wrote with wretched lucidity in his Television.
If these two pitfalls indicate the same anxiety—caused by no longer being able to express anything sensible, either against the other side or for ourselves—maybe it is appropriate to change the question, and first figure out not what to say, but who to talk to. To emerge from the presidential hypnosis it is important to remember we’re not alone. In the past twenty or thirty years, a wide cycle has seen “strong men” and “iron ladies” installed elsewhere, people who, with the consent of their electorate, worked to increase inequality, dismantle collective solidarity, generalise dealing with poverty through police and prison, stigmatise minorities, make authoritarian methods of exercising power and controlling information part of everyday life. Speaking with people who have been through this sort of experience and lived to tell about it makes it possible to assess the reconfiguration of the global political landscape that is following economic and cultural “globalisation”. But in the course of these discussions—to the extent that these experiences turn out to be less homogeneous than one might expect—one is also forced to search for the right words to characterise what is happening to us, to find, against speechlessness or prescribed words, the possibility of naming what is taking place. After all, what are we talking about? What common name can be given to the process in progress, beyond the proper name of the man who started it? Answering this question means passing a verdict on the way in which these policies dub themselves a “rupture” full stop, rejecting any qualification, with the intention of escaping all identification and stealing an outlook from revolutionary heritage that promises something radically new, an extraordinary future.
We can start by exposing the flimsiness of this pretension: like Thatcherism and Reaganism, there is absolutely nothing “revolutionary” about Sakozysm. The “rupture” should be read as a classic reactionary movement, a restoration or counter-revolution marked by three criteria: 1/ really, a very coherent class policy that consists of support for all existing forms of domination, including, as in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, the rising bourgeoisie even though one is an aristocrat (or, in Sarkozy’s case, including persons of independent means, though he claims to defend the value of work, or sitting professors though his stated goal is to reduce them in both number and influence); 2/ ideologically, a return to traditional values that have supposedly been scoffed at or forgotten in favour of ideas and experimentation judged to be harmful; 3/ individually, by a frenzy of palinodes and a race to fill posts by old adversaries that might still be useful to those in power, and the bitterness unleashed by the thinkers behind the aforementioned counter-revolution, exasperated to find themselves sidelined by compromises those in power cannot pass up.
This picture of right-wing policies sweeping up the western world for twenty-eight years has nothing odd about it. However, it crosses the line when it suppresses everything new, because it then risks entering into a reactionary logic itself. To say that Reagan, Thatcher, Sarkozy and others invented nothing, would that not be to say they changed nothing, and preclude oneself from finding new weapons with which to resist them efficiently? Then the other side of the problem appears: it is not a question of doing away with the word rupture, but of supplementing it with concepts that qualify it. One has to think about what meaning to give to the adjectives that designate it sometimes as a “liberal revolution”, other times as a “conservative revolution”. Most importantly, what should be done about the contradiction that seems to undermine these opposing characteristics? If there is reason to hold onto these notions, how is it possible to stop them from seeming confused and impracticable because of this opposition, thus reducing us even more to silence?
Liberal, or conservative? At first sight, there is nothing paradoxical about a “liberal revolution”. On the one hand, liberalism is partly linked to the great revolutions of classical times: the English beheaded their king a century and a half before we did; American liberalism started with a war of independence; Kant didn’t conceal his “enthusiasm” for the French Revolution in 1789, mainly carried off by French liberals. The struggle against privilege, and for the advent of the autonomous individual, is not conservative in itself. On the other hand, today’s neo-liberals basically claim to reject all consensus and all status quo in order to radically change the world, to remove the fundamental core from the 20th century conception of politics: the primacy of the social question. At the same time, the adjective “conservative” fits these so-called liberal revolutions as soon as you examine their flip-side. For one thing, those who carried out these revolutions were recruited from the ranks of those who are traditionally called conservative (American Republicans, Tories, Gaullists, the Italian or Spanish right). For another, this type of revolution has tended to produce only a hemiplegic liberalism. Liberalism in the economic order begets a ferocious anti-liberalism in the social and cultural order, particularly in the United States: a reduction in fundamental liberties, a hygienistic, moralistic repression of private practices (smoking, drugs, prostitution…), alliances with fundamentalists, defence of the death penalty and religious communities, condemnation of homosexuality and abortion.
It still remains to be proven how conservatism can be revolutionary, when the two terms appear to be so diametrically opposed. This tension is significant for two reasons. It shows that change, movement, radical social transformation, in short the whole erotic of revolution has been given over to the side of order and conservatism. And above all it suggests, with its slightly obvious look of being yoked, the newest aspect of the phenomenon: this linking of economic liberalism (really defended this time, not just tolerated “for lack of something better” as it was in the 19th century) to conservatism in moral and cultural matters (much more feigned and calculated than it was in the 19th century). Put another way, if these conservative revolutions deserve this name, it is because they rely on the support of the most conservative social strata, but only, in reality, to better transform society for the benefit of another rising class: the Young Turks of business and finance.
Is it a counter-revolution in which the “rupture” contents itself with being reaction dressed in new clothes, or an actual revolution using conservatism as a Trojan horse? Looking at the five years ahead, it might be necessary to alternate these two conceptual frameworks, so much does the government still seem to be hesitating, and so much is each of these interpretations needed to correct faults in the other and overcome the temptations it gives rise to. If there is in fact an urgent need to avoid giving into the illusion that “nothing changes” and keep an eye on the policies of a Sarkozy, it is just as essential to remain lucidly aware of the ideological fraud this rightist appropriation of revolutionary heritage entails, and of the fact that opportunities cannot possibly arise from emptiness and misery.
This kind of vigilance has something immediate at stake. Among the illusions stimulated by the adversary’s monopolisation of gestures and categories traditionally associated with the left, this stands out: we could count on Nicolas Sarkozy to dismantle the worm-eaten organisations of a so-called “government” left, organisations that have offered nothing but arrogance and deaf ears to proposals from social movements, without, for all that, being able to lead to the exercise of power. Under these conditions, the sad spectacle of the Parti Socialiste after May 6—when some of its managers were let go by the current government—was just the beginning of a collapse that had been waiting to be precipitated; some of the voting strategies during the presidential election already followed this pattern. As we can see, this new version of an old idea (the “opposition cure”) is finding some dialectical overtones. Since the right has appropriated the revolutionary stance, why not count on it to effect a revolution in our own camp, and sweep up institutions that have cost leftist supporters so many concessions and frustrations, so many affronts to swallow when no one spoke up, and so much support for candidates we always knew weren’t much to our liking?
It must be recognised: the intensity of this desire and the will to make a clean sweep don’t allow themselves to be easily brushed aside in the name of the principle of reason. It would nevertheless be strange at this point to take Sarkozian “rupture” pretensions seriously when they are attributed to an ability to effect a transformation that the left proved incapable of accomplishing for so many years. On the other hand, in this abhorrence of old structures, in this desire to see the apparatus collapse, there is actually a faith in spontaneity that looks a little too much like the other camp’s glorification of free initiative, singular personalities and the intrinsic power of ideas. Remember this: if Sarkozy’s policies are intolerable, among other things it is because while it is silently supported by a formidable electoral machine, it loudly and clearly proclaims its contempt for intermediate structures, its indifference to anything that enables collective organisation, its incomprehension of the way in which groups and organisations can make individuals more intelligent, more resolute, more inventive than they would be in isolation. So in a sense, one cannot rail against the cult of personality that is settling in, and at the same time wish for the death of what, in our camp, is sustained by anonymous systems, by procedures and machinery, rickety though they might be. The fact remains that we can no better defend these things against those who maintain them in their sickly watertightness, when these people don’t simply leave them behind for more profitable climes. It’s monopolising for the sake of monopolising, so all that’s left to do is to wonder what “opening” could mean in organisations on the left, on at least two levels: that of the relationship between political frameworks and the movements that come out of civil society (a problem the participation theme only partly answers, since it is so prone to skirting organisational and associative dimensions); and at the level of representative selection and designation procedures, within the various organisations and between them.
Instead of getting caught up in abstract or utopian proposals, we should attempt to understand the voices of all of those who, here or elsewhere, have found themselves caught in the same double bind: trying to understand what was falling on their heads without dreaming of imitating the adversary’s way of inventing new methods of resisting and reorganising the political opposition. In any case this is the issue addressed in the series of interviews that follow.