Sunday, December 5, 2010

Reading Jean-Luc Mélenchon (part 1)

I've been reading Jean-Luc Mélenchon for several years now. It's a big job. Not just the steady flow of political essays in book form (which I haven't read), but the weekly blog posts (which I do try to keep up with), stretching to thousands of words each week, a deluge of words. "I think in writing," he remarked in a recent post--and this is a man who thinks a lot. Where else is there a politician of similar stature who is this committed to the practice of writing? And it's not just the quantity but the remarkably personal quality. This is not PR stuff put together under his signature but the real thing, an inexhaustible series of thinking-out-loud essays, stocked with philosophical quotation and pungent anecdote. One might instructively compare this practice to the growing tendency of American politicians to tweet their followers in 140-character bursts of sub-literate soundbite. Mélenchon by comparison is a Montaigne.

So what does he write about? I'll pass over the most recent polemic, a studied evisceration of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's legitimacy as a 'socialist.' Yes, partisan in-fighting is part of the genre, as is the routine nurture of a fledgling political party and the obligatory comments on recent events. But JLM (to the horror of his handlers, if he had any) doesn't scruple to go deeper. Over the last month, for example, he has been interrogating the concept of 'populism,' a word far more pejorative in French (where it seems to be a near-synonym for 'demagoguery') than in English. JLM has been tarred with this label as he questions France's membership in the EU and its role in the financial crisis (and as his growing visibility makes him a potential threat to his former PS comrades): one compared him to the xenophobic nationalist Le Pen (a particularly low blow), while another questioned his commitment to democracy.

Rather than repudiate the populist label in the face of these attacks, JLM has--rather shockingly-- chosen to embrace it, starting with its progressive appearance in late 19th-century North America, and continuing with the 'populist' experiments underway in Venezuela and Bolivia (he has been a visible supporter of both Chávez and Morales). The root of the term, he points out, is 'the people,' and the notion that power ultimately resides there. He traces this idea all the way back to the Aventine revolt of the Roman plebes, and makes the link to the sans-culottes of 1789. Le peuple is the proper subject of history, the agent of what JLM likes to call the "citizen revolution." This is particularly true when the people are identified with the 'précariat.' This term, fusing as he says the notion of precariousness with that of the proletariat, best defines the contemporary, historically significant identity of le peuple. Because of its precarious status (in English would we say 'at risk' ?), this subset of le peuple is the dynamic embodiment of popular sovreignty, and JLM's social program is derived from its needs. As a 'populist,' JLM charges himself to speak through and for the précariat. To do so is to align himself, from 1789 to Jaurès by way of the Commune, with the progressive path in French history.

Reading Mélenchon, in other words, is a bit like taking a short course in Marxist historiography (and so is interviewing him, as the TV host Jean-Jaques Bourdin discovered the other day). You can take it or leave it, but personally I find it a refreshing, and even amazing exception to the flattened and constrained norms of political discourse that deaden our own political life.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home