Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tunisia, viewed from the left

Olivier Besancenot is just back from Tunisia, and he's excited about what he saw there. It was his first trip: unlike foreign minister Alliot-Marie, he doesn't spend his vacations jetting around there with rich friends. He doesn't even own a vacation condo, like Socialist Party honcho Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Instead, as he reports to the NPA membership in this video, he spent his time hanging around on street corners, where as he notes, political discussions sprang up spontaneously at all hours. "One or two people start talking, then more, soon 40 or 50 people are there discussing politics--a general assembly on every corner." In a rare personal moment, OB notes that, although a revolutionary since the age of 14 or 15, this was his first chance to participate in an actual revolution, and the atmosphere obviously suits him.

What insight has he brought back? Unlike most commentators, he is not so interested in the sectarian questions. Rather, this uprising, along with the one in Egypt and the possibility of others, points to a new stage of the globalized economy, the moment when people start to fight back against the precariousness and inequality globalization has brought them. He sees a revolutionary wave forming in the wake of the global crisis, a wave that has by no means crested. Is this an accurate assessment? I'd say it's too soon to tell, but an interesting counterweight nonetheless to the mainstream commentary, which chooses to localize these events as a phenomenon of the 'Arab street.'

Less consciously, though, OB's simple joy to be part of the popular discourse on the streets of Tunis may say something more substantial about the sort of revolution he isn't shy about calling for in France. In that revolutionized world, we will all be outside on street corners, talking about politics with our neighbors. We will all be as absorbed in public questions as the handful of party activists are today. We will care about process and policy and all the arcana that disappear, in our sub-revolutionary worlds, into the black box of public administration. This is the utopian vision of the NPA, the new, wholly participatory democratic socialism that would have almost nothing in common with the closed process of yesterday's politb├╝ros. Could such a truly engaged populace be sustainable in a new social order? Perhaps not, but it speaks to the fundamentally democratic impulse in Besancenot--so often maligned as a party centralist, an authoritarian, a would-be commissar--that what he likes, what moves him, is the fact of masses of people taking their destiny into their hands. Some find that threatening, but I join him in feeling the exhilaration.


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