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Notre histoire intellectuelle et politique. 1968 – 2018. Pierre Rosanvallon. Review.

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Notre histoire intellectuelle et politique. 1968 – 2018. Pierre Rosanvallon. Les Livres du Nouveau Monde. 2019.

History, writes Pierre Rosanvallon, has meted out a long series of disappointments, and still bites at our neck. One of France’s leading public intellectuals, who began his career working in the secularised, once Catholic, trade union, the CFDT, developing their radical approach to autogestion, self-management, Notre Histoire starts with reflections on the ordeals of politics today.

The shades of the defeat and marginalisation of the French left, with Macron wiping the floor of the left in the Presidential contest of 2017, the once-governing Socialists down to just above 6% in the 2019 European elections, and the populist left of Jean Luc-Mélenchon at 6,3%, hover for the reader of a book originally published last year, at the start, the middle, and the end of these pages. Yet, the author, asserts, despite the widespread feeling of powerlessness, the left should not wallow in pessimism, however lucid. Beyond sterile political managerialism, and posturing Rosanvallon aims to offer a renewed effort towards a “perspective émancipatrice”

The present volume is a balance-sheet of decades of public intervention, above all, post 1981, in the French governing left, and more books and articles than one cares to count. Rosanvallon “combines positions in the power in the academy, prominence in the media, patronage in publishing; enjoys close connections with the worlds of business and politics” Perry Anderson continued in 2009, a social liberal “embellishing the new”, and engaged in a “work in progress” towards a “liberal future”. (1)

One of the many merits of Notre Histoire is to put that angle firmly in its place. Rosanvallon lays claim to the influence of Cornelius Castoriadis on his 1970s work for the CFDT and development of ideas about autogestion, and close relations with the Socialisme ou Barbarie (SouB) thinkers. His approach to labour history was influenced by E.P.Thompson and Gareth Stedman Jones and History Workshop. He was informed by Michel Foucault’s ideas on liberalism as a “une technologie politique”, and the writings of Jacques Rancière, André Gorz and Marcel Gauchet. Rosanvallon, fortified with these influences, could he be conveniently classed amongst the hysterical anti-Marxist nouveaux philosophes. Not does Rosanvallon refuse to called an ‘anti-Marxiist, but for him totalitarianism was a wider phenomenon of modernity, marked by the abolition of politics as an autonomous realm, and a disregard for democratic processes.

The critique of totalitarianism, began by another SouB writer, Claude Lefort, did not imply a sense of self-satisfaction with liberal democracy The liberalism which he began to defend could be better seen in terms of the image of sovereignty as an “empty place”, which all can compete to occupy. There is a permanent revolution in democratic invention, ‘indeterminate” (that is, never fixed) propelled by movements and demands for rights and recognition. Rosanvallon’s writings, on “counter-democracy” far from waddling off into ever more complex sovereignties, are intended to offer this radical supplement. This is far from the “anti-political” liberalism of the unfettered free-market.

Second Left.

The Second Left (deuxième gauche), with which Rosanvallon was identified with in the 1970s – an “organic intellectual” – had a more immediate target, the “social-étatism” of the French Communist Party (PCF), and sections of the French Socialist Party, (PS). Yet, as he recounts, in the 1980s, during François Mitterrand’s Presidency, neither the statists nor his own side, from the CFDT to Michel Rocard, succeeded in imposing their ideas. Rocard took stock of economic reality and backed the turn to “rigour” in the 1983 turn from the PS’s plans for a Keynesian national relaunch. Yet this “realism” became a kind of “religion” for this current, at the expense of any plans to change to society (Page 207). As Prime Minister from 1988 to 1981, Rocard began France’s ambitious decentralisation programme, and made steps toward an inclusive universal social security system. But the Second Left itself, in the wake of the CFDT’s dropping of autogestion and socialism, no longer existed as a coherent political force to confront the challenges of neoliberalism. Following others he paints a picture of the PS clinging to Europe as the theatre for their ambitions, a – flawed – construction that compensated for the lack of national ambition. This limited their approach to democratic and social issues. (Pages 217 – 219).

Notre Histoire would no doubt be the cause for some cackling in pro-Brexit New Left Review circles if it remained fixed at this point. But Rosanvallon has another narrative, of wider importance, the rise of sovereigntism. From leader of the PS’s marxisant CERES to government Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement developed a “republicanism” from 1986 onwards in Socialisme et République which gradually obliterated all reference to socialism. This went with a return to the Nation, and the ponderings of Régis Debray on the soul of France and the manes of Gaullism.

Notre Histoire observes that the rediscovery of republicanism could also be found visions of “civic republicanism” described by the historians of ideas such as John Pocock and Quentin Skinner – reprised more recently by Chantal Mouffe. Yet this was not an academic detour. Identifying globalisation (with a heavy accent on ‘Americanisation’) and the European Union, this current has developed a defensive and restrictive concept of secularism (‘Laïcité’), a conservative vision of education, and a fundamentalist stand on sovereignty. (Page 256) Chevènement now is part of a small movement, Le Mouvement républicain et citoyen, (MRC), whittled down to The Republic defended against all.

The ‘anti-68’.

Rosanvallon outlines the “pensée anti-68” which parallels the retreat of this part of the left (including his old comrade, Marcel Gauchet) to ideas that seem closer to the anti-cosmopolitan right than to an emancipatory left. The writings of Christopher Lasch on the “culture of narcissism”, influential in France, and Lipovetsky’s critique of hypermodernism and individualism (a coupling, some would say, ignores that writer’s more optimistic moments), writers on the breakdown of community and traditional solidarity, the left-behind in La France périphérique, and the critique of the “rights culture” are cited to indicate an anti-68 “populism”. Perhaps it is in this nébuleuse that one can see some of the most significant “passerelles” (bridges) between the left and national populism. It does not take long to see parallels amongst the British ‘left’ supporters of the Full Brexit and their Brexit Party members.

Others will no doubt go through Rosanvallon’s approach to neoliberalism, informed by a reading of Foucault on ‘governmentality’. The concept that emerges at the end, of an “individualisme de singularité” casts some light on a key aspect of modern politics, the decline of mass class based parties and trade unionism. The weakening of collective negotiation goes in hand with patterns of work, making inequalities both more resented (directly experienced), and less easy to see in terms of people as groups. He writes, “le peuple”, the people, is henceforth the plural of a vast collection of different “minorities”. (Page 410)

Anderson, we have already noted, dismissed Rosanvallon. Apart from his pretensions, so distant from those of the one-time Editor of New Left Review, to international stature, he writes, apparently, is “somewhat priestly”. This is not a trait this reviewer has noticed, and he has at least seven of the author’s books. They are fluent, thought-provoking, aware of debates rarely taken up in France (such as British post-war discussion on equality and socialism) and a mine of information. One would like to follow his lectures he now gives as a member of the Collège de France. Anderson is not alone in scorning all reference to ‘liberalism’. Claude Michéa, accused of reneging on his SouB roots, now the manufacturer of grumpy populist books on common decency and the left-behind, calls the alliance between liberalism, internationalism, and socialism, one of the founding faults of French socialism. Others, who have learnt much from Rosanvallon’s writings on democracy,  for all their, at time, sweeping history, would disagree. The present work, studded with a marked degree of intellectual honesty,  indicates many reasons why. (2)

Facing up to National Populism.

How these insights enable us to face up to national populism is far from clear. Solidarity and national protectionism may look appealing to fragmented minorities. Rosanvallon only announces a possible “conceptualism” of populism, not a new emancipatory project. By contrast though, the “democratic revolution” outlined by Claude Lefort and developed in different ways by writers such as Étienne Balibar as “unlimited democracy” may offer the basis of an alternative. Not shutting down, not borders, not the sovereignty of referendums and chiefs – or PMs – but the popular ‘counter-democracy’ movements like Another Europe is Possible try to embody, indicate that nationalism can be fought. How successfully, we have yet to see. Democracy, as Lefort said, is “indeterminate”. On the horizon we see that Thomas Piketty has just published a new tome, Capital et Idéologiewhich includes proposals for reform and transform the European Union. The fight continues…..

*****

(1) Pages 208-9. The New Old World. Perry Anderson. Verso. 2009.

(2) La Gauche et le Peuple : lettres croisées. Flammarion 

 

See:  Une aventure intellectuelle par Jean-Yves Potel

and, amongst many other  reviews,  Pierre Rosanvallon : bilan d’étapes Jean BASTIEN

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