Thursday, November 27, 2008

"it's a party": last thoughts for now

28 November 

In an interview published yesterday in l'Express, Olivier Besancenot was asked (not for the first time) what the positive goals of his anti-sounding party were. His answer: "Socialism updated for the 21st century, ecosocialism, workers' self-management ["autogestion libertaire"], and democratic communism." Later on he added a 5th principle: internationalism. On Wednesday night I listened to three hours of debate by NPA 14e members on what should be the party's platform, and though it will take more meetings before anything like consensus is achieved, what I heard gives specific content to Besancenot's stated principles. So let me explore them briefly in the light of the debate I heard:

1) An updated socialism in a sense embraces all the rest: it must be democratic and thus freed from the control of a small central committee--that's why the localized structure of the NPA will be so important, and why groups like NPA 14e are so intent on seeing how their suggestions are received at the national level.  And that new socialism must be creative in the economic tools it uses: I heard detailed arguments for and against lowering or abolishing the VAT (as opposed to taxing income in a directly redistributive fashion), for and against the LCR demand to prohibit lay-offs. Many question whether the LCR demand to increase income by E300/month across the board has any meaning without price controls, and whether the latter should be general or quite selective. And so on. The NPA's economic and social platform is still in the early stages of development, but that is precisely the '21st century' mode: not bureaucratic, centralized diktat but flexibility and debate.

2) What 'ecosocialism' will mean in this context is also largely uncodified. On issues such as nuclear power and genetically-altered crops the NPA will certainly follow its activist base. Will it also take a more general stand against 'productivism' (and thus for a 'small-is-good' sort of  economy), in favor of local and organic agriculture (and thus for some form of protectionism)? Renewable energy is a given, but will it call for radical reduction in carbon-based non-renewables, and can this be done without jeopardizing France's economic standing by classic measurements? NPA's capitalist critics taunt it as the party of a "European Cuba," but for ecosocialists the transformation of Cuba's economy since the early 90s is one of the few successful models of sustainability anywhere in the world (and we in the US, whose government considered climate change a fraudulent theory until 2006 (!),  have absolutely nothing to be proud of in this regard). 
3) As I understand "autogestion libertaire"--a term I associate with Italian anarchist theory dating from the '70s but correct me if I'm wrong--it is the corrective for the state bureaucratic planning that worked so dismally in previous socialist experiments. Besancenot has been clear that his "service public bancaire" would not be a 'nationalized,' i.e. state-run, banking system, but a financial sector run by 'users,' 'employees,' 'the people.' Likewise industrial management is understood in theory to be the domain not of a national ministry but of workers' councils. As I understand it 'democratic communism' is closely related: a communalism governed from below. What would this look like? The most that can be said is that it would not resemble in any way the socialisms of the 20th century, of the Soviet system or China. 'For the 21st century' means incorporating the openness of a modern society, using decentralized technologies like the internet, in ways that are unprecedented. This is not a question for next week or next year. But as I discovered on Wednesday, the activists at the base typify the highly-informed and passionately-engaged citizenry such a system would hope to will into existence. My NPA 14e camarades would be really good at autogestion (though they'd spend a lot of time doing it).

4) Finally, no one imagines that France will head off in this direction by itself. I heard some useless talk on Wednesday about how companies could be kept from relocating elsewhere if they didn't like France's revolutionized economy, but in reality the smallest scale on which the NPA imagines its revolutionary transformation could take place is Europe. That is why the 'Other Europe' question is so important, and why the European Parliamentary elections next June will be a major focus: NPA needs to help form an anti-capitalist bloc within the EU, whose long-term goal will be to build a Union that will accommodate the France envisioned by the NPA. 

That is one prong of NPA's internationalism. The other is North-South solidarity. Though less immediately in view, the party imagines a whole new relationship between the fully industrialized European nations and those less developed in this way, among them its former colonies: fair trade, regulated immigration and work visas, and cultural exchange are parts of this redefined relationship. The emergence of Chavez and Morales and a somewhat 'anti-capitalist' bloc in Latin America is also of great interest: asked who he most respects among global political leaders, Besancenot named sub-commandant Marcos of the Zapatista Army in Chiapas.

A third side of the internationalist question--relations with the world's most powerful country, an insular nation in decline and therefore particularly dangerous--are very little mentioned. It has been hard to imagine a 'democratic communist' France or Europe in dialogue with the US of Bush and Cheney. It is still hard to imagine in the 'Obama era.' In some pathetically small way I have hoped that these posts would help to clear a space for that eventual conversation, many years from now. Perhaps they will. It is a long road the NPA is just about to embark on. Only those who believe in history and have some hope for the future of our species would set foot on it. En avant!    



At November 29, 2008 at 9:01 AM , Blogger Leo said...

this strikes as just another nice utopia like we have witnessed since (put your date here).
I am afraid that like ALL previous utopias it would end in chaos and blood.
Let's remember that Politics is the Art of the Possible, the domain of the realists, not the realm of the day-dreamers.
Have a safe journey home.

At November 29, 2008 at 3:25 PM , Blogger Eric Brandom said...

i think that autogestation (as an idea, as well as a word) has a long history in france itself (Proudhon?). in fact, i think you could go so far as to say that there has been franco-italian collective thinking on bottom-up labor organization at least since the first years of the 20th century.

embarrassing about this is the fact that Mussolini came from this very franco-italian syndicalist-socialist world. which is not to say, with leo, that such utopias always end in chaos and blood. the market economy is a utopia too, after all. politics can certainly be the art of the possible, but if that is the case then we need to think a great deal harder than we sometimes do about what is, in fact, possible.

hence the value of this blog. i have greatly appreciated it.

At November 29, 2008 at 6:55 PM , Blogger brent whelan said...

Thank you Leo and Eric for your comments, critical, supportive, and informative. I would love to continue observing this NPA process as a participant--hélas-- but will do the best I can at a distance.

At December 16, 2008 at 11:49 AM , Blogger John Mullen said...

Dear Brent

I was interested to read your comments. I am an activist from the NPA in the South West of France. If you are interested to read my blog, you can find debates and news about the NPA. I am also in the process of writing in English an article for anglophone activists across the world, which will be posted on my blog in early january. You can find my blog at



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