Rene — Liquidate ‘68, or, the obscure subject of French politics

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Alberto Toscano – Liquidate ‘68, or, the obscure subject of French politics
30th November 2007
Any hope of liquidating Sarkozy’s reactionary project in France, argues Alberto Toscano, will be obliged in some sense to ‘repeat’ ’68, not by cloaking new political content in the kitschified icons of rebellions past, but by repeating the spirit of political and organisational innovation contained by the best products of that experience.
“In this election,” Nicolas Sarkozy [1] proclaimed some months ago , “we’re going to find out if the heritage of May ’68 is going to be perpetuated or if it will be liquidated once and forever.” Though the voicing of political principle and its antagonistic distillates may be an increasing rarity in our world, where enmity is naturalised (and racialised) by the imperatives of “national security” or outsourced to lands failed and threatening, it was heartening to see France once again revelling in the performance, if not always the reality, of political struggle. Rather than simply taking the technocratic path, and mobilising interest rates or pensions to prod the proverbial swing-voter into action, Sarkozy – [2] inspired, in his own words, by a ‘Gramscian’ hegemonic project – saw it fit to evoke the spectre of ‘68 to dramatise the stakes of the second round of the election that pitted him against Ségolene Royal – as if the tiresomely descried stagnation or crisis of French society rested on the inexhaustible effects of that fated date.
‘Sarko’ even presented his presidency as a chance, forty years on, to retroactively karcheriser the mutinous streets of the Latin Quarter and all of the polymorphously repellent effects they allegedly spawned. Whence [3] the catchy slogan: ”I want to turn the page on May 1968”. His political biographers even tell us that only his mother held him back, at the age of 13, from joining in the pro-De Gaulle march against the alliance of students and workers. It might be tempting simply to regard this gambit as an obligatory mediation for reactionary politics within the French context; an attempt to swing Paris back, after the banlieue riots, CPE protests and mobilisation against the Constitution, to its status as “the capital of European reaction”, [4] in the words of Perry Anderson. But I think Sarkozy’s wish to liquidate ’68 – to repave the French political imaginary and erase the very memory of those events in anticipation of their (inevitably anticlimactic) fortieth anniversary – bespeaks a harsher form of subjectivity than a merely reactionary one.
Despite the presence in Sarko’s entourage of the insufferable [5] André Glucksmann – the epitome of reactionary subjectivity in Alain Badiou’s recent [6] Logiques des mondes – alongside Johnny Hallyday and, alas, Charlotte Rampling, the figure of the reactive subject is still too mild to properly identify la singularité Sarkozy. Taking [7] François Furet as emblematic of this form of subjectivity, Badiou portrays reaction as the stark denial of the necessity of rupture embodied in a political event (e.g. the French Revolution, or indeed the ‘world revolution’ of 1968, [8] to borrow Wallerstein’s terms). But such a denial nonetheless incorporates some of the novelties spurred by the event, in a narrative where radical subjectivity and collective action are simply hysterical and catastrophic gestures that, at best, give rise to changes which the gradual and reasonable unfolding of historical change would have led to anyway. The event, and the implacable fidelity to its consequences, are ultimately futile, obstacles to the very principles they seek to realise (in this respect, the American pragmatist hostility to [9] John Brown and anti-abolitionist politics is a perfect example of reactionary subjectivity).
But the obscure subject is made of different mettle. Its aim is not to neutralise novelty by incorporating some of its effects and sagely despairing of its needless excess. Rather, political obscurantism is aimed at radically negating the new present that a faithful subject has arduously brought into being. As Badiou puts it, it “systematically resorts to the invocation of a transcendent Body, full and pure, an ahistorical or anti-evental body (City, God, Race…) whence it derives that the trace will be denied (here, the labour of the reactive subject is useful to the obscure subject) and, by way of consequence, the real body, the divided body, will also be suppressed”. In this case, Sarkozy’s wager is that the very act of liquidating the divided body of ’68 may aid in conjuring up the full body of a morally rearmed French nation. His ultimately sinister jingle, “Ensemble, tout est possible” (wherein the body of the tous who will be brought ensemble attains unity through the exclusion of ‘excess’ immigrants, soixante-huitards, the racaille of the Parisian periphery, and so on), is thus infinitely distant from the slogan of the 1995 French protests: Tous ensemble. We could thus say that while Sarkozy is still functioning within the ambit of reactive politics (capitalist parliamentarianism), his tendencies, following Badiou’s useful formalisation in Logiques des mondes, are obscure:
It is crucial to gauge the gap between the reactive formalism and the obscure formalism. As violent as it may be, reaction conserves the form of the faithful subject as its articulated unconscious. It does not propose to abolish the present, only to show that the faithful rupture (which it calls “violence” or “terrorism”) is useless for engendering a moderate, that is to say extinguished, present (a present that it calls “modern”). … Things are very different for the obscure subject. That is because it is the present that is directly its unconscious, its lethal disturbance, while it disarticulates within appearance the formal data of fidelity. The monstrous full Body to which it gives fictional shape is the atemporal filling of the abolished present. [It entertains] everywhere and at all times the hatred of any living thought, of any transparent language and of every uncertain becoming.
Sarkozy’s negationist hatred of course can’t be directed at political novelty itself – which in any instance has been squandered by much of the Left and systemically next-to-obliterated during the years of neo-liberal Restoration. Nor can it be said to counter a living political subject, but, in a typical show of the obscurantist mindset, it is aimed at an eclectic set of noxious predicates and phenomena. This is a “divided body” indeed, division being the spectre that seemed to haunt all political discourse around the 2007 presidential election. Thus, in Sarkozy’s speeches, 1968 is the proverbial quilting point, in Lacanian jargon, for “welfare dependency, fraud, thievery, egalitarianism”, “moral and intellectual relativism”. It is the deep cause of a “moral crisis in France not seen since the time of Joan of Arc”. In order to bury the body of political principles and subjects, what better though than to portray 1968 as the very absence of principles? Also sprach Sarkozy: “The heirs of May ‘68 have imposed the idea that everything has the same worth, that there is no difference between good and evil, no difference between the true and the false, between the beautiful and the ugly and that the victim counts for less than the delinquent”. Values, hierarchy, morality – all moribund, all to rise again into the full body of the Republic once the canker of 1968 is finally excised. In order to mobilise the electoral flocks for his counter-revolutionary revolution he is even willing to depict ’68 as a kind of ethical catastrophe that made possible the “excesses of financial capital”, “golden handshakes” and “rogue bosses” (alas, this take on 1968 has been put forward by less obnoxious sources: the otherwise excellent [10] Adam Curtis, for instance, in his spurious attack on [11] Laing’s anti-psychiatry in the recent documentary [12] The Trap, or Régis Debray, who in the [13] New Left Review’s issue on the 10th anniversary of 1968 portrayed it as a vanishing mediator of sorts for American hedonistic capitalism).
This blessed rage for order does indeed seem to confirm one of Badiou’s hunches, to wit that an event and the faithful subject it catalyses do not just generate an independent trajectory, but reshape the whole of “subjective space”, compelling both reactionaries and obscurantists to recast their positions accordingly.
But what was the response of Royal, her camp, and the supposed perpetrators of this decades-long moral malaise, the soixante-huitards? On one level, Royal responded by laying claim to that legacy, having earlier even flirted with the thought of [14] Jacques Rancière. She parried Sarkozy’s denunciation with a [15] show of fidelity, declaring that “May 1968 is 11 million workers who obtained the [16] Grenelle accords, the right of women to access to contraception, a wind of freedom against a totally closed society”. Leaving aside the fact that the Grenelle accords, negotiated, among others, by Chirac, were held in contempt by much of the rank-and-file and all the Maoist and Trotskyst Left, another statement of Royal’s should also be kept in mind: she has in fact accused Sarkozy of trying to provoke “another 1968”. In this second sense, closer to the reactive one in Badiou’s terminology, 1968 stands in for disorder, social crisis, and a conflict that must be averted at all costs by the forces of reformism. It is no longer the cipher for a moment of political invention, for the possibility of a radical restructuring of society. The tenor of the “Left” replies is also symptomatic. The irritating Cohn-Bendit predictably rehashes his long-time anti-communism to brand Sarkozy’s liquidationism as “Bolshevik” and, in perfect Euro-liberal form, praises ’68 for its “liberation of the autonomy of individuals”. Many others emphasised the “values” of freedom and autonomy, but in the guise of a salutary infusion of joy, pleasure and mobility into the polity, not in terms of a radical alternative to the status quo.
Hopefully, both this complacent and conformist liberal-libertarianism, as well as any fetishistic celebration of the ‘heritage’ of the événements of May 1968 and the political season that they catalysed, will not prolong themselves much further than the non-event of its 40th anniversary. But any hope of liquidating Sarkozy’s reactionary project in France will be obliged in some sense to ‘repeat’ ’68, not by cloaking new political content in the kitschified icons of rebellions past, but by repeating the spirit of political and organisational innovation contained, albeit in a larval state, by the best products of that experience of rupture and contestation.
Article printed from Re-public : re-imagining democracy – english version: http://www.re-public.gr/en
URL to article: http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=230
URLs in this post:
[1] proclaimed some months ago: http://leblog.talk.newsweek.com/default.asp?item=587061
[2] inspired: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2007-07-25-sgard-fr.html
[3] the catchy slogan: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,21650073-2703,00.html
[4] in the words of Perry Anderson: http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/jsp/id/In_the_Tracks_of_Historical_Materialism/9780860917762
[5] André Glucksmann: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andr%C3%A9_Glucksmann
[6] Logiques des mondes: http://www.bief.org/?fuseaction=C.Titre&Tid=27481
[7] François Furet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran%C3%A7ois_Furet
[8] to borrow Wallerstein’s terms: http://www.monthlyreview.org/0703wallerstein.htm
[9] John Brown and anti-abolitionist politics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Brown_(abolitionist)
[10] Adam Curtis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Curtis
[11] Laing’s anti-psychiatry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._D._Laing
[12] The Trap: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trap_(television_documentary_series)
[13] New Left Review’s issue on the 10th anniversary : http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=354
[14] Jacques Rancière: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Ranci%C3%A8re
[15] show of fidelity: http://www.democratie-socialisme.org/article.php3?id_article=1189&titre=Kouchner-Sarkozy-le-cynisme-et-mai
[16] Grenelle accords: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accords_de_Grenelle