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Grand Hotel Abyss. The Lives of the Frankfurt School. Stuart Jeffries. A Review, Grand Theory.

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“Terrific” Book.

From the latest – July/August – Chartist Magazine (For Democratic Socialism).

“The Frankfurt School combined Marxist thought with psychoanalytical theory as believed people were socially and economically as well as sexually repressed. Religion, the family, marriage, heterosexuality and gender hierarchies, were all viewed as part of the problem,” explains the Stop RSE campaign. Supporters of the vociferous  protests against “compulsory sex education” promoting ‘gay’ issues in Birmingham primary schools are far from the only ones to seize on the writings of Jürgen Habermas, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer. Stuart Jeffries writes “..a conspiracy theory” alleges that the Frankfurt school “developed something that overturned traditional values”, by promoting “multiculturalism, political correctness, homosexuality and collectivist economic ideas.”

“It would be Marxist,” its first director Carl Grünberg announced, “in that it adhered to Marxism as a scientific methodology”. The Swiss architect Sascha Roessler called the building in an “austere cube” that housed the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) that opened in 1924 ” a “symbolism of retreat”.

The believer in the ‘actuality of the Revolution’, György Lukács, remarked that in the Grand Hotel Abysses, you looked at the world wrapped up in comfort. They were Mandarins. Even an admirer, Gillian Rose would say “instead of politicising academia, it academised politics.” After Stalinism and the Nazi regime, the Frankfurt theorists would come, for writers like Perry Anderson, to embody the pessimism born out of Western Marxism’s divorce between theory and political practice.

The Frankfurt thinkers did not become famous for Grünberg’s programme of investigation into the history of socialism and economic theory. A growing scepticism was not just affected by the defeat of the post Great War German Revolution. They questioned Marxist ideas about humans defining and liberating themselves through work. Modern capitalism took labour in its grip. It equally took over leisure through the ‘culture industry’. Walter Benjamin saw the Paris arcades, as spaces in which a ‘new social world’, ‘temples of capitalism’ took shape. This picture of a few – now out of the way – enclosed shopping passages, has inspired many later writers. Benjamin aimed to “recast Marxisms for a new consumerist era in which we were in thrall to commodities.” As Jeffries points out, the Frankfurters are remembered largely for the importance they gave to analysing culture as an ‘instruments of capitalism’.

Grand Theory.

If you want Grand Theory the Frankfurt School offered it in plenty. The Grand Hotel Abyss deftly weaves through Benjamin’s celebrated efforts to undermine Marxist, more properly Second International, and belief in its leading role in the inevitable progress of History. This could be said to extend Georges Sorel’s attack on the bourgeois Illusions of Progress (les illusions du progrès. 1908). ‘Negative thinking’ in the writings of Adorno and Marcuse was not just a break with the optimistic positivism that the French writer attacked. It was a reaction to the failures of socialism; the Nazi victories and the Soviet show trials and gulags. What is, “the forces that were to bring about the transformation are suppressed and appear to be defeated?”

Jeffries does not stand back from probing this aspect of the Frankfurt school. That reason has turned out to be a new form of domination, when they tried to demolish it “with its own tools.” The Grand Hotel steps into the murky waters of the Hegelian inspired dialectics employed to demolish the claims of ‘the Enlightenment’. A famous episode, when Adorno confronted Karl Popper, saw their pretensions challenged. The defender of the Open Society, who for all his faults as a political thinker had a deep knowledge of scientific method, maths and formal logic, which was not the case for the Marxist Hegelian, ended up talking across each other. The writer whose work was an attack on positivism was charged with…positivism.

Snobs.

The Frankfurt School are often described as terrific snobs who regretted the loss of traditional high art and intellectual modernism and scorned mass culture. Jeffries calls some of their writings on this “incredibly patronising”. Marcuse also talked in Freudian terms of the manipulation of sexuality and need: Eros was controlled and subordinated. His search for a new revolutionary subject to replace the working class in the “one dimensional society” saw his books being taken up by New Left movements which, if often transient, were at the forefront of calls for sexual and social liberation. More detached Adorno and Horkheimer reacted with hostility to the protests of the 1960s, and attacked student activists who disrupted the, their, universities.

The Grand Hotel Abyss is full of memorable detail. One is a meeting between Sartre and Marcuse. The existentialist turned New Leftist managed to give the author of One Dimensional Man the impression he had read his works in depth, without ever having opened a page. This was just as well. Marcuse managed to cite favourably in that book, at length, Roland Barthes’ Le Degré zero de l’écriture without twigging that, amongst many other topics, Barthes was attacking Sartre’s idea of ‘committed’ writing.

Jeffries achieves that hard task of making abstract ideas accessible. It interweaves biographical material on the thinkers’ Jewish background, their fraught relationship with Marxism and the socialist movement, and the shadows of Nazism and Stalinism. Jeffries suggests that, after a period of neglect in their writings, a revival of interest in the potentially emancipatory side is underway. That may well be true. In the meantime this is a terrific book to get them going.

Andrew Coates.

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Written by Andrew Coates

July 4, 2019 at 4:23 pm

A Critical Account of Laclau and Mouffe on Populism. Part One.

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A Socialist Critique of Laclau and Mouffe, from Discourse to Populism.

“Enfants, enfants, je vous le dis: montez sur une montagne, pourvu qu’elle soit assez haute, regardez aux quatre vents, vous ne verrez qu’enemies.”

Children, children, I say this to you, climb a mountain, providing that it’s high enough, look in all directions, and you will see but enemies.”

Jules Michelet. Le Peuple. 3rd Edition 1846. (1)

Ernesto Laclau (1935 – 2014) was a political theorist, perhaps best known as a ‘post-Marxist’. The former Professor Political Theory at Essex University, he is attributed the founder of the Essex School of Discourse Analysis, and is best known today for his book on a topic which has recently come to dominate politics, On Populist Reason (2005). The Belgium born Chantal Mouffe, his partner, has, like Laclau, passed the major part of her career in British higher education. Their joint book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1986) made a splash, as a critique of class based Marxism that tried to deal with ‘new social movements’. Readers of Marxism Today during the period would have been familiar with the two names, as well as the often virulent critiques of their turn. Norman Geras began with an attack on  “a procession of erstwhile Marxists” (Post Marxism? 1987) But since that time Mouffe, like Laclau, seemed consigned to the decent obscurity of the University.

To the surprise of many in the new century Laclau and Mouffe spread their wings much further than academia. Posthumously Laclau has joined the select group of radical thinkers who have passed from youthful left activism, to being considered, not least by some players on the European left, a real influence on practising politicians. Pablo Iglesias, and Íñigo Errejón, have cited the Argentine born academic as an inspiration for the strategy of their political party, the Spanish Podemos founded in 2014. For those of an historical spirit they may indicate that the tie between radical left-wing Theory and Practice, apparently broken by the decades of Stalinism and the Cold War, and rendered even more marginal by the collapse of Official Communism, has been re-forged.

Mouffe was, and remains, very visible, at least in that select part of the political world that reads the Guardian, the New Statesman, El País, le Monde, and other European heavyweight dailies and magazines. Perhaps the high-water moment of her political influence was seen in her dialogue with leading Podemos figure, Íñigo Errejón in 2016, Podemos In the Name of the People. Mouffe has had the ear of the undisputed leader of the largest French left party now represented in the Assemblée Nationale, La France insoumise (LFI), created in 2016 by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mouffe and Laclau and Mouffe’s influence on Mélenchon and his advisers, particularly during the 2017 Presidential Election, has drawn the attention of the francophone media. The interest, originating in his personal formation in the Argentinian left,  of Laclau in Latin American populism, and relation to the Bolivarian Revolution – a key theme of the chief of LFI – in countries such as Venezuela drew attention and criticism. (2)

Left Populism.

A degree of scepticism about Laclau and Mouffe’s impact is nevertheless needed. The dispute between Errejón and Iglesias indicates that they are thinkers, and above all politicians in their own right. There are even greater doubts about whether anybody outside his inner circle marked Mélenchon’s left populist L’ère du peuple, Mouffe is clearly heard. Whether her recent suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is also “left populist” will lead a British audience to follow the “clues” for successful radicalism Owen Jones saw in the 2016 book remains less probable. Left populism has not been able to construct a ruling political bloc through on electoral victory. Efforts to go beyond ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the traditional sense have not been crowned with success. Podemos lost seats in the Spanish General Election, and Mélenchon’s La France insoumise has descended to below 10% in the poll. The Bolivarian Revolution has not turned out well, to say the least. (3)

It remains an attractive speculation that Laclau and Mouffe have created a Mirror for the Modern Left Populist Prince. The issue of Populism, which they have covered for many years, is important at the present. This is only one example of how their works might be mined for insights: “As Laclau foresaw” writes Jade Azim, “the success of populist movements depends on a symbolic signifier that can unite varied demands under a single umbrella.” For Nigel Farage, “The Brexit party’s empty signifier is Brexit, uniting a variety of voters under its banner; Farage loyalists, grassroots Conservatives, George Galloway, and the Communist Party. Its genius lies in its simplicity: an ideologically empty home for those angry at what they perceive as a Brexit betrayal by corrupt elites.” One awaits the response of Corbyn’s inner circle to her proposal that the party counter attacks with, “a unifier akin to “Get On With it”, in the context of winning security for businesses and workers alike..”  Apart from the fact that even the Communist Party of Britain has yet to endorse Farage, what kind emotional affect would tie a voter to this “unifier” – which says essentially, I’m not interested. (4)

In the revival of interest in Laclau. though with more detail about his views on populism, Phil writes,

Does Laclau offer any insights? Widening the possibility for the co-option of demands is one. Indeed, what we’re likely to see before the next general election is the wholesale adoption of hard Brexit by the Tories, at least for the cameras and papers anyway. But ultimately, getting down and dirty in the guts of populism is what’s necessary. We know the logic, but the logic isn’t free-floating. It is fed. Elaborating the programme for older voters, who tend to power right populism more than any other demographic, looking at the myriad of unsaid demands and grievances the Brexit chain of equivalence scoops up, challenges us to think about ways of co-opting them and neutralising them. It’s a task easier said than done, and one much harder than Laclau’s book, but done it must be if we are to detoxify politics and banish the hard right from political efficacy permanently.

Laclau on Populism

Phil observes that vagueness and a rhetoric that reveals the “materiality of words” lies at the heart of a wide spectrum of populism.  This is to ignore, in Most recent writings, the importance of emotional ‘affects’. It’s is hard to believe that “re-copting” the nationalist rhetoric of, say, the Brexit Party, its cries of Betrayal, its loathing of Europe,  into an alternative ‘left populism’ based on the ‘People’ can avoid giving credence to the super-charged right-wing ideas used.  Indeed this has been a main charge against La France insoumise, which has sought, endlessly, to make its own chain of equivalence work.  Left politics are based on new demands that break from established ideas, not to mention prejudices, and the xenophobia and racism that have fed the Brexit movement. FInally, language is not ‘out there’, the populists produced them within material party apparatuses, amply funded by sections of the hard-right bourgeoisie. They are “popular” only in the sense that a movement like 19th century French Boulangism was, a plebeian movement funded by fractions of capital that supported French monarchism, and anti-Semites engaged in a struggle with ‘Jewish’ capital. (5)

Perry Anderson on Laclau Today.

This is far from the end of the story. Works, from their joint Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), Laclau’s On Populist Reason (2005) and final writings on ‘rhetoric’, have much wider implications. Mouffe’s essays on political theory, up to Agonistics (2013) the discussion with Errejón, and For a Left Populism (2018) have an enormous range of references, from Gramcsi to Frédéric Lordon.  Are the ideas of Laclau and Mouffe, to cite only a few, on the “empty” and “floating” signifier in the discursive forms that construct the People Against a Them – an Other which Mouffe was to frame in terms adapted from Carl Schmitt as the “Enemy” – guides for radical let alone socialist politics? Perry Anderson, with commendable generosity, has said that Laclau and Mouffe writings of of thirty years ago, which argued for a break with Marxist “economism” and for a “new pluralism” based on radical democracy, and for a “politically constructed collective will” were “augers of the reaction against neo-liberalism”. They anticipated the conditions for the rise of Populism, the present, “when deindustrialisation had shrunk and divided the working class leaving a much more fragmented social landscape and a multiplication of movements, of right and left contesting the established order in the name of the people” – populism, a “bug bear of elites. (6)

The New Leftist remarked critically, if, one may gives him the benefit of the doubt and imagine that he still considers himself  committed to some socialist ideas,  that in Laclau’s On Populist Reason “reference to socialism fades altogether, and populism take over hegemony as the more pointed and powerful signifier of the inherently contingent unification of democratic demands – which in isolation would equally well be woven into an anti-democratic discourse – into a collective will. Bound together by a common set of symbols and affective ties to a leader, and insurgent people can then confront the regnant powers of their society, across the dividing-line of dichotomous antagonism between the two.” Everything becomes an affair of “articulation” joining voices together an attempt to construct a progressive populism embedded in the “national popular” to fight this battle for a “populist rupture”. As Anderson indicated, the People against the Elite, the Oligarchy, comes also in a National Populist guise, the Nations against more enemies than even Jules Michelet could have dreamt up. How these could be articulated into a left movement, other than a ‘red-brown’ or, at best, a ‘Blue Labour’ one that sympathises with them, is never explained. (7)

There are deeper problems with the views of Laclau and Mouffe. Their exaggerated interest in constructing “popular hegemony” (federating the people as Mélenchon’s supporters call it) and blindness towards what Perry Anderson called the “normal forms of hegemony” that of the dominant classes. But assessing Laclau and Mouffe is not easy. The response leads us from theoretical abstractions that would make an E.P.Thompson belch in his tomb, to some of the thorniest issues confronting the present day left. To begin, but not end, they include the nature of the discourse theory that replaced ideology in their work, ‘rhetoric’ and ‘articulation’ in politics, Mouffe’s sketch of ‘agonistic democracy’ right up to the overlaying of class politics by ‘populism’, national identity and sovereignty. As Mouffe put it, “Introducing her latest book the political theorist Chantal Mouffe writes that post-democracy “signals the decline in the role of parliaments and the loss of sovereignty that is the consequence of neoliberal globalisation.” (8)

This complex of theory, often described as abstract, if not rebarbative, is beyond doubt influential, if hardly accessible to a popular audience.  (9)

It is also profoundly wrong implying a shift and opening to Sovereigntist ideas, and has potentially damaging effects in destroying the historic class and ideological basis of the left.


Next section…..from Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory,  Slavoj Žižek. to On Populist Reason….

 

  1. Page 41 Jules Michelet. Le Peuple. 3rd Edition 1846
  2. There are hundreds of articles on this see :Les dangereux affects de Chantal Mouffe. Laurent Joffrin. 2018 Chantal Mouffe, la philosophe préférée de Mélenchon, Corbyn, Iglesias…  Chantal Mouffe, gurú del Podemos de España y del Frente Amplio: “Hay que votar por Guillier”
  3. La influencia de Laclau y Mouffe en Podemos.  Miguel Sanz Alcántara. One of the founders of Podemos cited in their piece, Juan Carlos Monedero, has stated that the impact of Laclau-Mouffe “populist hypothesis” on the party has been framed a posteriori. See for example  Las debilidades de la hipótesis populista y la construcción de un pueblo en marcha. Mélenchon pays homage a number of times to Laclau and Mouffe in Le Choix de l’insoumission (2016). But it is far from rare for a French politician to garnish her or his intellectual authority with weighty sounding influences.
  4. What Ernesto Laclau can teach us about the Brexit Party. New Statesman. 15th of May 2019.
  5.  See “Boulanger’s appeal as a nationalist was added appeal in the face of disillusionment with the Republic installed on 4 September 1870 and gradually solidified during the 1870s, the Third Republic (1870–1940). To most republicans, especially since 1848, the Republic had meant “the social and democratic Republic,” but the Republic now in power seemed to foster big business and industry. The severe recession of 1882, which hit farmers and increased unemployment, particularly in construction and textiles, increased resentment against the Republic among workers, artisans, and small-businesspeople. This resentment was further increased by a corruption scandal that broke in October 1887. President Jules Grèvy’s son-in-law, Daniel Wilson, who lived in the presidential residence, was selling his influence on the president: payment to Wilson was a sure way to get the Legion of Honor. The president was forced to resign at the end of 1887.” “The affair led directly to a new right. Until Boulangism, nationalism had been linked to the Revolutionary tradition of the levée en masse (the nation at arms) and royalists had disdained it. Now nationalists began to envisage authoritarian methods. In the mid-1880s, under a journalist named Paul Déroulède (1846–1914), La ligue des patriotes (the Patriots’ League) developed a new vision: the way to rebuild the nation was to inculcate obedience among the people and authority among their leaders. Monarchists and other conservatives who had initially disdained Boulanger soon saw the value of this kind of nationalism through Boulanger’s ability to draw popular support. If they could not restore the monarchy, they could use this nationalism to aim at an authoritarian regime based on values of nationalism, deference, and hierarchy. And conservatives learned about mass politics. The Dreyfus affair would further hasten their learning process.”
  6. Gramsci’s Heirs. Perry Anderson. New Left Review No 100. 2016. Socialist Strategy Where Next ? January 1981 Marxism Today. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Verso. 1985.
  7. Page 80. Gramsci’s Heirs
  8.  For a Left Populism. Chantal Mouffe 2018. Verso.
  9. For an overview see the review of Ernesto Laclau: Post-Marxism, Populism and Critique. David Howarth. by Will Horner.

Written by Andrew Coates

May 20, 2019 at 12:08 pm

A World to Win. The Life and Works of Karl Marx. Sven-Eric Liedman. A Marxist Review.

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A World to Win. The Life and Works of Karl Marx. Sven-Eric Liedman. Verso. 2018. Translated by Jeffrey N. Skinner. (This appears in the latest Chartist magazine).

“I have attempted to explain not only who Marx was in his time” announces Sven-Eric Liedman, “but why he remains a vital source of inspiration today.” This major biography, published in Swedish in 2015, aims to offer a “portrait of Marx unobscured by what happened after his death.”

The book is also, the Preface to this English edition explains, a counterweight to Gareth Stedman Jones’ Karl Marx Greatness and Illusion, which appeared (2016) after the present work’s original publication. Jones, he asserts, tends to overshadow Marx’s own writings through his detailed portraits of the inspiration of his thought, and the early socialist and workers’ movement. Jones saw Marx’s crowning achievement in the years when the International Working Men’s Association, the First International, began to flourish, from 1864 to 1869. In that study this was the period when the author of Capital deployed “a language with which politically aware working men at the time could identify”.

Stedman Jones is known for an interest in the way language forms class. But he also stated that Marx was buoyed up by the belief that, “the process of a transition from the capitalist mode of production towards the society of associated producers had already begun.” It was this that propelled him to reach out to the activists in trade unions and the co-operative movement, associations that could change the course of history. It is from these origins that ‘Marxism’ took political shape.

Liedman, by contrast, is inspired by the approach of the largely German New Marx Reading (neue Marx-Lektüre) of figures such as Hans Georg Backhaus. This aims to show Marx’s ideas, not the Marxism that developed inside these movements. A large part of A World to Win is taken up with the conceptual analysis of Marx’s categories, from the method announced in the 1859 Introduction to the Grundrisse, that work itself, and the “unfinished Masterpiece” of Capital.

Marx nevertheless stood out as more politically active “than any other political thinker in the nineteenth century”. “In his own time”, Liedman states, “Marx was almost exclusively known as a politician.” He was “allied with the working class” acting for their liberation, the pivot of “the liberation of all humanity.” Liedman’s account of Marx’s involvement in radical German ‘young Hegelian politics’ is largely philosophical. But he soon brings the issue of industrialisation, the Industrial Revolution to the fore. The account of the 1848 Revolutions, above all in France, lacking Jones’ familiarity with  (largely French)  utopian socialism and communism, Christian social thinking, and early social democratic politics, portrays the bond between social and political revolution.

The International.

In the late 1860s Marx made a significant contribution to the International. While advancing his views on the “abolition of the wages system”, this involved “compromising” with a variety of socialist, anarchist and trade union forces. Spreading the word of “solidarity” between workers’ struggles (the body’s prime aim), to the “duty of the working classes to conquer political power” allowed for leeway between opposing viewpoints. But the months of the Paris Commune in 1871 saw Marx convinced again that “bloody conflicts as part of social development that would be hard to avoid.”

Liedman is less informative than Stedman Jones on why many of the British trade unionists recoiled from the Commune. It was not just that they considered it “rash” and “hopeless”. Their lack of sympathy extended to its plans for federal self-government faced with what was already the foundation, under initial Orléanist, constitutional Monarchist, and constitutional republican leadership, of the French Third Republic. Marx’s social democratic and republican rival, Louis Blanc, the veteran of the 2nd Republic, who would go on to serve in that Republic’s National Assembly, enjoyed great influence over the British radical movement. (2)

A World to Win gives substance to the ideas that Marx developed. This ranges from a discussion of Method, from the 1959 Introduction to the Grundrisse, the traps of the ‘metaphors’ of base and superstructure, the category of the “totality”, dialectics, form and content. There is a more accessible account of Marx’s studies of technology, machinery, and the industrial revolution, its downside for the working classes, and, Liedman’s forte, science. In this the book deploys with a welcome freshness greater textual resources than other recent biographies.

Was Marx, in this context, a pioneering thinker of globalisation? Liedman’s claims (he is far from the first)  about his “prophetic” insights are not wholly convincing. Joseph Addison talked in the Essay on the Royal Exchange (1711, Spectator No 69) of merchants who “knit mankind together in mutual intercourse”, and Ricardo, of free commerce creating a “universal society of nations”. Marx highlighted the planet-wide development, and, while not thinking it through, did not regard colonisation as a straightforward boon. In this respect, an observation that deserves underlining for critics of globalisation is Marx’s view, which he cites,  that, “free trade expedited the classless society”.

Benefits of the Doubt.

A World to Win, as a biography must, traces out a life. Liedman gives Marx the benefit of some weighty doubts on his behaviour towards his servant Helene “Lenchen” Demuth, his personal feuds (notably with Bakunin), and the abusive, often racist, vocabulary of his correspondence with Engels, described as “roguishly nonchalant”.

A World to Win often cites one of Marx’s favourite authors, Honoré de Balzac. For Liedman one tale, Melmoth Reconciled (1835), is a “picture of capitalism” in which the capitalists “live their lives at the Stock Exchange in a pact with the Devil.” (Page 462) Others recall that the hero Castanier got for his soul an eye into “men’s thought’s. I see the future, and I know the past. I am here, and I can be elsewhere also.” After peeling away Marxism from Marx, to reveal Marx’s original picture of the “mechanism and the scheme of the world.” Liedman has many pages on the thoughts of theorists who have attempted to do the same. Little of this is accessible to those not already familiar with the terrain. Despite the great strengths of the biography, many may come away feeling, like Balzac’s Cashier in the short story, that such painstaking knowledge of thinker’s insights into the whole of creation is too much to absorb.

******

  1. Pages 465 – 466. Karl Marx. Greatness and Illusion. Gareth Stedman Jones. Allen Lane 2016.
  2. Page 510. Karl Marx. Greatness and Illusion. Gareth Stedman Jones. Allen Lane 2016.

Written by Andrew Coates

May 8, 2019 at 9:31 am

Counterfire, John Rees, So-called Marxists and Brexit.

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“Genuine Marxists” with their one-time Best Friend.

Amongst many other things Brexit has divided the left.

The Parliamentary Labour Party, and the large number of people in Britain who have left-wing politics, from social democratic ideas, left liberalism, green politics, and all the varieties of democratic socialism have seen different views on the European Union become the burning political issue of our time.

The Marxist left has also been split.

What seemed like the majority view of both the non-Labour Leninist left and – it was assumed – the Labour left was a position extremely  hostile to the EU. Tony Benn had even described the UK as a “colony” of the EU, and this flight of fancy was not his alone.

The Referendum showed that there was a strong section of the radical left, including those who identify with the Marxist tradition, who stood for a Remain Vote. Today many are organised in the campaign, Another Europe is Possible, whose support goes from the Labour grass-roots group, Open Labour not far from the Party’s centre, the Green Party, to the Party’s Left, the democratic socialist Chartist, supporters of Momentum, to more radical groups, such as Socialist Resistance and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Left Unity has also given its backing to Another Europe. From Another Europe there is equally Labour for a Socialist Europe, which produces valuable material relating to Party debate. The allied initiative, Love Socialism Hate Brexit, has attracted Labour MPs, like Clive Lewis and Lloyd Russell-Moyle.

The Lexit, pro-Brexit, Left, has grouped around The Full Brexit, an alliance of Family Faith and Flag Blue Labour, sovereigntists, The Communist  Party of Britain, Spiked contributors , the odd maverick Green, and supporters of the Revolutionary Socialist Counterfire. The Full Brexit’s recent troubles over Eddie Dempsey, and, now Paul Embery, opponents of “rootless cosmopolitans” illustrate the difficulties many on the left would have in working with this body, let alone its anti-EU politics.

Now, from the above Counterfire, ignoring such mundane issues, John Rees offers the left a masterclass on Marxism.

Marxists, so-called Marxists, and parliamentary socialists

He begins by citing this,

The only sensible reaction to the accusation by the Tory right that Jeremy Corbyn is “a Marxist“ is the one that Karl Marx himself gave. In response to some of his own would-be followers in France he said: “all that I know, is that I am not a Marxist”.

Marx was referring to Jules Guesde the leader of the French ‘Marxist’ tendency which became the Parti Ouvrier, and, after another name change, eventually became, in 1905, part of the first substantial french socialist party, the : Section française de l’Internationale ouvrièreSFIO.

A little further down Rees gives another “famous quotation” from Engels, on French socialism to support his politics,

“We have never called you anything but ‘the so-called Marxists’ and I would not know how else to describe you. Should you have some other, equally succinct name, let us know and we shall duly and gladly apply it to you.”

He states of this (Engels To Paul Lafargue At Le Perreux. London, 11 May 1889)

What was it that produced such a scathing remark from Engels? It was the idea, current among Marx and Engels’ French supporters, that support for reforms was just a trick meant to lure workers into more radical politics once they had seen such demands fail.

Marx and Engels would have none of it. They took seriously the demands for reform that arose from the working-class movement and inscribed them as basic demands in their own programme. They wanted them achieved because they knew that both the struggle to attain them, and any successes that were achieved, would strengthen the working class movement in practice and ideologically.

Rees, to put it simply, is  misleading. The exchange had a meaning only within its time of writing and does not refer to “reforms” in general.

Engels’ letter was in the context of one of the divisions that marked, and still mark, French socialism, and international socialism. That is between those who stand for internationalism, what would now be called universal human rights, and those tempted by National Populism.

This arose during the “Boulangist Movement” and the letter is about the ambiguous attitude of Marx’s son-in-law, who had expressed sympathy  for this nationalist upsurge.

Mitchell Abidor offers and excellent introduction to this episode, a mass movement around Georges Boulanger, a former general in the French army, General Boulanger and the Boulangist Movement.

The movement that had grown around Boulanger’s name was perhaps the first of its kind, a combination of royalists, Bonapartists, Republicans, socialists, and Blanquists. If it resembles any movement in this strange mix of followers it is Peronism, which was also able to attract followers from all ends of the political spectrum around the figure of a general. And like Peronism, Boulangism was able to do this because it can justly be said of the man at the heart of it that, like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, there was no there there.

It is hard not to see some modern parallels,

Populism, nationalism, defense of the rights of workers; everything was in place for the birth of the movement that would bear the general’s name.

And,

From 1888-1889 Boulanger went from victory to victory, winning elections in seven different districts. Blanquists, the most intransigent of revolutionaries (but who were not immune to the temptations of nationalism and anti-Semitism) , were to say that with Boulanger “the revolution has begun,” and that Boulangism is “a labor of clearing away, of disorganizing the bourgeois parties.” So close were the ties between the extreme left and Boulangism that the police were convinced that secret accords had been drawn up between the two forces. And though the official Blanquist bodies were split as to how far they’d go in following Boulanger, it is a fact that the Boulangist movement’s strongest electoral showing was in the Blanquist strongholds in Paris. Indeed, throughout France, it was in working class centers that Boulanger garnered his greatest successes.

The Engels text in full reads,

We have never called you anything but ‘the so-called Marxists’ and I would not know how else to describe you. Should you have some other, equally succinct name, let us know and we shall duly and gladly apply it to you. But we cannot say ‘aggregate’, which no one here would understand, or anti-Possibilists, which you would find just as objectionable and which would not be accurate, being too all-embracing.

It continues,

What we need are letters from Paris, sent direct to the Star, bearing the Paris postmark and refuting the Possibilist calumnies which appeared in Saturday’s and Tuesday’s editions, namely, that Boulé’s election campaign was run on Boulangist money, that Vaillant had acted as an ally of the Boulangists, etc. I should say that you could do this perfectly well without ruffling your newly-found dignity as the one and only Catholic Church in matters connected with French Socialism.

Apart from Engels notably not criticising Lafargue’s misguided enthusiasm for Boulanger, what else does this refer to?

It is first of all, about the Guesdist tendency’s war with the “possibilitists” of Paul Brousse leader of the  Fédération des travailleurs socialistes de France and with Édouard Vaillant a former Commmard, and ‘Blanquist’  elected a Municipal Councillor in 1884 in Paris

Engels backed the desire of his friend for an independent workers’ party – unlike the Possibilistes, and by extension municipal socialists of all stripes,   who turned from intransigent socialism and  were ready to compromise with the Parliamentary (and Municipal)  Republican left in order to achieve reforms.

But this leaves open the issue of what position should have been taken to Boulangism, a view, which Lafargue  was, unfortunately, to clarify further in a far from progressive direction.

As Abidor says,

We can multiply the number of quotations from those on the left who either supported Boulangism or refused to openly or uncompromisingly oppose it. Paul Lafargue, the great socialist leader and theoretician, who in 1887 wrote a bitingly mocking article on Boulangism, also wrote to Engels that “Boulangism is a popular movement that is in many ways justifiable.” The followers of the other great Marxist if the generation, Jules Guesde, wrote that “the Ferryist danger being as much to be feared as the Boulangist peril, revolutionaries should favor neither the one nor the other, and shouldn’t play the bourgeoisie’s game by helping it combat the man who at present is its most redoubtable adversary.”

He continues,

But not everyone on the left was willing to go along with or refuse to block the Boulangist juggernaut. Jean Jaurès wrote that Boulangism is “a great movement of socialism gone astray,” and the Communard and historian of the Commune P-O Lissagaray was a motive force behind the Société des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, which was formed to combat Boulangism and defend democracy, uniting in the group socialists, republicans, students and Freemasons.

This episode is described in greater detail in Les Hommes Révoltés. Les Origines Intellectuelles du réformisme en France (19721 – 1917) Emmanuel Jousse. 2017. Pages 150 – 152.

The campaign against Boulanger “« empêcher la réaction césarienne. » (halt the Caesarist Reaction!) attracted the support not only Paul Brousse and Vailliant  but the radical left ‘Allemanists” of Jean Allemane a trade unionist,  and veteran of the Paris Commune exiled to hard labour in New Caledonia, and Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, the author of the still valuable History of the Paris Commune of 1871, an event in which he participated.

In other words, the salt of the earth.

After Boulangism dispersed, left supporters of Boulangism were still churning out books justifying their alliance.

Pàtil-Emile Laviron claimed that the anti-Boulangist campaign has meant an alliance with the parliamentary establishment and neglect of the class struggle (“Oubliant leur principe de la lutte des classes, ils entrèrent dans la coalition parlementaire des radicaux et des opportunistes. Boulangisme et Parlementarisme.” 1888)

In Les antisémites en France : notice sur un fait contemporain 1892  Mermeix (Gabriel Terrail) claimed that right-wingers and anti-semites were merely ‘infiltrators” in the movement. The General had popularised the ideas of socialism, (“Le général Boulanger a donc puissamment aidé l’esprit public à évoluer vers le socialisme”).

This may not help sort out the ‘genuine’ Marxist sheep from the reformist Goats, but it does raise some contemporary issues about national populism and anti-antisemitism…

In some respects one can that an alliance against a serious hard-right nationalist project, Brexit, springs to mind….means marching with, though not supporting, a variety of groups with this goal, though not others, in common.

It is hard to tell, but one could ask if more than one section of the Full Brexit would have had some sympathy with General Boulanger. who stood for the “real” France, the “real” workers” against the cosmopolitans.

What would Galloway have done…..?

Written by Andrew Coates

April 9, 2019 at 12:51 pm

Alain Badiou criticises the “réactionnaire” Gilets Jaunes movement: “tout ce qui bouge n’est pas rouge”.

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Something has kept me away from the movement of the Gilets Jaunes: it is the overwhelming presence, the constant return of the  cheerless tricolore  flag,..” Alain Badiou.

A few months ago it was announced that Badiou was to have an op-ed article on the Gilets Jaunes published in Le Monde.

We were watching out for it like ‘awks.

But it appears that the French Daily would not publish it, something about Badiou being virulently rude against Alain Finkielkraut in another article («Le Monde» a-t-il «censuré» un texte d’Alain Badiou sur les gilets jaunes ?)

In the weeks that followed we lost interest, largely because something was happening in the UK that readers may have heard of.

But now Cde Google informs us that the text had found a publisher.

ALAIN BADIOU : LEÇONS DU MOUVEMENT DES « GILETS JAUNES »

Alain Badiou, March 10, 2019

“Un proverbe d’autrefois dit que « tout ce qui bouge n’est pas rouge ». Et pour le moment, du « rouge », dans le mouvement des gilets, qui certes « bouge », il n’est pas question : je ne vois, outre le jaune, que du tricolore, toujours un peu suspect à mes yeux.

An old proverb says that “everything that moves is not red” (that is, not every political groundswell is on the left…Note). And for the moment, “red”, amongst the Gilet Jaunes movement, certainly “moves”. That is certain. But I see, in addition to the yellow, only the tricolore, which is always a bit dubious in my eyes.

Badiou considers the Gilets Jaunes’ upswell as a protest against the difficult lives of those in rural or sub-urban areas, the result of the erosion of public services,  the way that real incomes have not kept up with the times,  tax systems which weigh upon these parts of the population, and the hard lives of women who also have to raise a family.

In France there is are deep rooted reasons for discontent in the working middle and lower middle class, particularly in the provinces. Deindustrialisation and real pauperisation have gone along with the present, Macron-led, ‘modernisation’

The Gilets Jaunes are thus a reaction of classes threatened by Macron’s policies and the constant wavew of austerity/modernisation. They can be viewed in Marxist terms as the cry of despair of those threatened with losing their relative status in a ‘globalised’ world. But they are not forward looking. “The individual members of this class…. constantly hurled down into the proletariat ” look to the past, to their lost security, and demand that a better past be restored.

As traditional political organisations, of the left and the right, have not been able to channel this discontent, the Gilets Jaunes’ “spontaneous” response has been hard to pin down.

This is Badiou’s sketch:

..on pourrait appeler la subjectivité de ce mouvement un individualisme populaire, rassemblant des colères personnelles liées aux formes neuves de la servitude aujourd’hui imposée à tous par la dictature du Capital.

one could call the subjectivity of this movement a popular individualism, gathering together the personal anger related by the new forms of servitude today imposed on all by the dictatorship of Capital.

This does not mean the Gilets Jaunes are’ fascists’ (though one can remark that this reaction involves supporters of the far-right, from Marine Le Pen’s party to the ‘ultras). Badiou dismisses this talk from what he calls (with all the moral authority of a former apologist of Pol Pot), “renegade” intellectuals. This is just “infiltration”. Oh, and “crypto-fascist style of “the people against the elite” and, hey, the wild rumours (notably about The Media) circulating on social networks…

Which – all reports confirm – is widely taken for “truth” against “fake news”.

Yet the legitimacy of reacting to Macron’s neo-liberal policies does not make the Gilets Jaunes left-wing.

There are two fundamental tendencies in politics, those in favour of capitalism, and those, under the names of socialism and communism, which have challenged it.

In what sense are the Gilets Jaunes, harking back to the security of the post-war settlement, aligned with socialism or communism?

Les gilets jaunes « combattent la Bourgeoisie », comme le dit Marx, c’est vrai. Mais ils le font pour restaurer un ordre ancien et périmé, et non pour inventer un nouvel ordre social et politique, dont les noms ont été, depuis le XIXe siècle, « socialisme », ou, surtout, « communisme ».

“The Gilets Jaunes fight the Bourgeoisie”, as Marx would  say. That is true. But they do it to restore an old and outdated order, and not to invent a new social and political order, whose names have been, since the nineteenth century, “socialism” or, especially, “communism”.

Some further salient extracts when Badiou gets more serious and tackles those who would see in the movement a revolutionary challenge to the system:

“Of course, the ultra gauches, the anti-fafs, those who’ve woken up after (the movement) Nuit-debout, those who are always on the lookout for a “movement” to get their teeth into, the loud-mouths of “the coming insurrection”  (l’insurrection qui vient, the name of an ultra left neo-situationist  manifesto) , celebrate the GIlets Jaunes’  democratic proclamations (in fact, individualistic and short-sighted), introduce the cult of decentralised assemblies, and imagine that they will soon redo the capture of the Bastille.

“But this attractive carnival fails to impress me: these movements have led everywhere, for ten years and more, to terrible defeats, paid very dearly by the peoples. Indeed, the “movements” of the last historical sequence, from Egypt and the “Arab Spring” to Occupy Wall Street, from the latter to Turkish Squares, from this  to the Greek riots, from  the Indignados…Nuit Debout…seem to ignore the implacable  historical laws that govern the world today….

Nothing is more important, in the present moment, than to have in mind the lessons of this sequence of “movements”, Gilets Jaunes included. They can be summed up in a single maxim: a movement whose unity is strictly negative, either will fail, often giving rise to a situation worse than the one that at its origin, or it will have to be divided in two, by the emergence of a creative surge, and within it, an affirmative political proposition which is really antagonistic to the dominant order, and supported by a disciplined organisation.

Sticking the knife in further Badiou talked of the Gilets Jaunes as a reaction of “old France” under threat in a recent book, Méfiez-vous des blancs, habitant du rivage  reviewed, here: Alain Badiou. Changer de peuple.

One can genuinely see that the State, in the service of Capital, has deserted the old provincial world, ageing, suburban and colonial. One can understand  the nation-wide, archaic, reaction of part of society whose small privileges are menaced.

His  hostility to the demonstrators brandishing of the Tricolore  is strong,

 Quelque chose m’a tenu écarté du mouvement des « gilets jaunes » : c’est la présence massive, le retour constant du triste drapeau tricolore, dont la vue, à chaque fois m’accable, et d’une marseillaise que trop de nationalismes fascisants ont entonnée pour qu’on se souvienne encore de son origine révolutionnaire.

Something has kept me away from the movement of the Gilets Jaunes: it is the massive presence, the constant return of the  cheerless tricolore  flag, whose sight, always overwhelms me, and of the Marseillaise which too many fascistic forms of nationalism have bellowed out for us to remember its revolutionary origins.

Back to the Op-ed (above) Badiou’s counter-strategy looks in the line of radical socialism.

…without massive incorporation of new proletarians, the Gilets Jaunes can not represent, as such, “the people”. This people, would be reduced to the nostalgia for its lost social status of the poorest sections of the middle class. Today, in politics, “the people”, the mobilised crowd must have a strong and central contingent amongst the nomadic proletariat of our suburbs, the proletariat from Africa, Asia, Europe of the East, Latin America; it must show clear signs of breaking with the dominant order.

Change is above needed,

First in its visible signs, like the red flag instead of the tricolore…..and in its demands,  the minimum requirements that must be claimed, for example, include  the total cessation of privatisations and the cancellation of all those sell-offs that have taken place since the mid-eighties. The main idea is to have collective control over all means of production, the entire banking system, and all public services (health, education, transport, communication)….

LEÇONS DU MOUVEMENT DES « GILETS JAUNES is beautifully free from Badiou’s ontological speculation. If you can get over the attacks on everybody – and I enjoyed those against the ‘ultra-left’ those out to fish for souls for their revolutionary projects – Badiou has retraced the path to some fairly robust ideas about reviving collectivist and universalist demands…..

There is nothing of this in the just published interview on the Verso site:  Allegiance to Macron is largely negative! Alain Badiou interviewed about the Gilets Jaunes, Macron and future of the French left.

The explanation is simple: the  original date of the article was Interview with Julien Le Gros, 17 December 2018 Translated by David Fernbach.

Less explainable is why Badiou’s numerous fans in the English speaking world have not reacted to the wise words of the ‘post-Maoist’ sage, which many will be tempted to call undeniably sane.

A clue, again, may lie in the way he lays into  Occupy! and other movements.

A pitiful reply from admirers of L’Insurrection qui vient on the site Lundi Matin, which mixed sub-Badiou ‘metapolitical’ ontology and Jacques Rancière’s devotion to the role of the “part of those of no part” in generating ‘dissensus” to accuse him of pointless irrelevance,  was published at the end of March: Jacques Fradin. QU’AURAIT PU DIRE ALAIN BADIOU DES « GILETS JAUNES » ?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by Andrew Coates

April 6, 2019 at 12:54 pm

John Rees (Counterfire/People’s Assembly/Stop the War Coalition) Compares anti-Brexit March to “mild (as yet)” “mass fascist or populist right wing” movement.

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Clive Lewis and Lloyd Russell-Moyle “Angry Middle Class moblised for its own purposes by sections of the elite”.

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John Rees is a leader of the groupuscule, Counterfire, a split from the Socialist Workers Party. He is a national officer for the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) and a key figure in the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.

Counterfire has worked with many groups and individuals, as part of what they pretentiously call “united fronts”, including George Galloway of the Respect Coalition and Andrew Murray, now an adviser to the Labour Leader on Brexit.

Recently they have engaged with the Full Brexit, an alliance of the Family Faith and Flag Blue Labour, the Communist Party of Britain, writers for Spiked, left “magic money” Sovereigntists, and bee-in-bonnet anti European Union loud-mouths. Two of the groups involved, Labour Leave, and Trade Unionists Against the EU, have received money from hard-right millionaire, Arron Banks.

Feyzi Ismail from Counterfire spoke at their hundred strong Rally in London this Monday.

Rees, and Lindsey German, have close links with Jeremy Corbyn, including a long history of joint work in the StWC.

Rees claims to be inspired by revolutionary Marxism.

A revolutionary organisation remains the indispensable tool for overcoming the unevenness in working-class consciousness, maximising the effectively of working-class struggler recalling the lessons of past victories and defeats, and educating and leading workers in struggle. Formed from the working class by working-class people to help generalise and organise the struggle of the whole class it is itself a dialectical organism. Without the struggle to build such an organisation, the danger remains that the dialectic of capitalist development will remain blind or destructive; but if the struggle to build such and organisation is successful, we have a change – more, not less power – to make the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.”

Page 302 The Algebra of Revolution. The Dialectics and the Classical Marxist Tradition. John Rees. Routledge 1998.

With these arms in hand Rees has seen fit to advise Labour on strategy.

In February this year he wrote,

Corbynistas! Up your game, or lose the game

….Jeremy Corbyn, who has historically held an anti-EU position only altered under pressure from the right wing in the first days of his leadership, and now aware that Labour would lose the next general election if Labour deserts the very large number of Leave voters, is embattled at the head of his party.

One way of improving Labour’s prospects would be to face down the remainers and second referendumers. All the placatory talk of Labour being a broad church which can accommodate diametrically opposed views is doing nothing to quell the determination on the part of the remain right-wingers to see the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

..

At a moment when the Parliamentary system is manifestly failing, when every dog in the street knows that the government is willing to sacrifice the interest of ordinary citizens on the altar of Tory party unity, why would any left-wing organisation simply play by the Parliamentary rules?

Mass activity can never be a ladder which activists climb and then kick away once leadership has been attained.

The Labour Party and the trade unions should have by now called a second demonstration to ram home to the political establishment the simple message that voters will not tolerate a government which flouts every day democratic norms to stay in power no matter how many votes it loses in the House of Commons.

Call the rallies now. Send left leaders of the movement out to address them. Call a mass national demonstration now. Call on every Labour movement organisation to build for it. Break the bounds of the Parliamentary deadlock and give ordinary people the chance to shift the political spectrum to the left, open up the path to a general election, and win a left Labour victory.

The People’s Assembly held such a march earlier this year on the 11th of January.

Barely noticed, a  few thousand strong, it ended in confusion and fisticuffs between far-right Yellow Jackets and the ‘real’ Yellow Jackets of the demonstration (Hundreds of protesters have joined a ‘yellow vest-inspired’ anti-austerity march through central London this afternoon. The demonstration is organised by The People’s Assembly Against Austerity, which is calling for a general election. Metro.)

Understandably Rees is pleased when the only mass activity in sight has been the campaign for the People’s Vote.

He could have followed Socialist Worker which today describes the call for a Second Referendum by last Saturday million strong march, an ” anti-democratic outrage”.

Rees goes further.

He begins with claims that the march was set up by the wealthy to further the aims of the “overwhelming majority of big capital”.

It is a “middle class movement” with a “vanishingly small” union presence (where it was before it began to vanish is not described).

It is a “variant” of a “mild (as yet)” mass fascist or populist right wing” groundswell.

In other words, confusionist words, the Counterfire leader claims that the gentle anti-Brexit protesters  are manipulated by big business, the “elite”, “grandees” the “high Establishment” into something, which the expert in Dialectical Algebra can see: the beginnings of a “mass fascist or populist movement”.

Rees lectures, in the stentorian tones of somebody who he has spent his entire life in universities, that one should have a “respectful and engaged tone” to some of the demonstrators.

Like calling them part of a proto-fascist movement….

Perhaps Labour MP Clive Lewis could answer the learned dialetician best.

This is a racist Brexit, not fit for the 21st century but for the 19th century. That’s what it represents – deregulation, low taxes, imperialism 2.0. Don’t quote me on that: quote the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.

..

One of the other things you might know as well is this. There aren’t that many black MPs supporting Brexit. Do you know why? We’ve got a bit of a spider sense when it comes to shit like this. We can see that Brexit wasn’t going to end well for us, for black people, when it has targeted EU migrants. EU visitors here – welcome, welcome comrades. You are comrades, not a bargaining chip.

..

I’m not talking about “Remain and reform”. I’m talking about “Rebel and transform”, to turn Europe into a global entity that can tackle climate change and rebuild this world.

Speech at the Left Bloc Rally at the start of the 23 March People’s Vote anti-Brexit demonstration. The Clarion.

 

A critique of Jacques Rancière’s Politics.

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Image result for jacques ranciere la haine de la démocratie

 

 A critique of Rancière’s Politics.

 

“Politics occurs because, or when, the natural order of the shepherd kings, the warlords, or property owners is interrupted by a freedom that crops up and makes real the ultimate equality on which any social order rests.”

Disagreement (La mésentente) Jacques Rancière. 1995.  (1)

Jacques Rancière is a critic of “post-democracy”, who is probably the first to have used the term. This political condition is one in which “elites exhibit paternal concern for their flock and protect it from its own rebellious spirits”. The essayist emerged at the threshold of the new millennium as a pioneering opponent of the – alleged – consensus ruling modern states. He staked out territory occupied by both serious efforts to grapple with the “neoliberal” policies and business influence on modern states, and potboilers claiming that there is no “real opposition” in societies dominated by the “extreme centre.” This is a political form “that has eliminated the appearance, miscount, and dispute of the People” and reduced politics to “the sole interplay of state mechanisms and combinations of social energies and interests”. The result is  “consensus democracy” a machine of power ruled by enlightened “experts” and the “absolute identification of politics with the management of capital.” (2)

The vocabulary of ‘oligarchies’, ‘elites’, ‘plutocrats’  and ‘post-democracy’, paralleled in French, and in English, is now part of the political talk of left and right populists. (2005) the target was The Republic, for which read la République française, “un régime d’homogénéité entre les institutions de l’État et les mœurs de société.” In this sense the ‘oligarchy’ loathed democracy, the unruly demos, any attempt by the unordered masses to shake up the regime. In other words, they dislike not the word, but the substance of democratic life. Rancière is equally referenced in France for L’introuvable populisme (2011). This criticised, pell-mell, “elite” contempt for the rough masses, secular French republicanism, and the racialism of the French state. There is a third string to this bow of ideas. In July last year, Rancière said that capitalism is so dominant today that it has taken over the left’s historical timepieces, resetting the political clock in line with market chronology. The elites run the world. (3)

How times change. If the words circulate, the claim that “democracy after the demos”, had eliminated dissensus, and had absorbed politics by top-down agreement, now looks threadbare. “Populist revolts’ have often gone beyond rebellion, to political influence and  – if we are to follow those who call Donald Trump a populist – to rule the most powerful state on the planet.

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Written by Andrew Coates

January 25, 2019 at 3:03 pm