All posts by Gildas Hamel

république

Postscriptum by George Bensoussan to his Les territoires perdus de la République where he repeats his cry for help—help for everyone—by everyone, I mean the children, the vast segments of the population that feel abandoned, and even the so-called elites. It took six months for the initial book to be heard, or reviled. In it, he and his collaborators detailed the main reasons they saw for the catastrophic events in France since 2000 or so.

The most important reason, from his point of view, is the long, secular antisemitism found in Maghreb Islam, which became more virulent already at the end of the nineteenth century when Jews chose to be integrated via the schooling system, administration, political identity, and even army. and thereby escaped their fate as “protected minority” within Islam. The root for this is religious: the claim that Islam, after Christianity and Judaism, makes to be the only faith with access to final truths. This antisemitism was worsened by the resentment caused by having lost control of their own affairs and being demeaned and abused by colonial powers. It reached new levels in the French situation especially since the nineties. The author argues in this postscriptum that even without the existence of Israel, this antisemitism would still exist. I don’t disagree completely, but I think it would not have the murderous force it has taken in the past twenty years. The policies of Israel regarding Palestine cannot be factored out. Still, it remains that the author is right to insist that one cannot explain the surge of violence only by the memory of colonialism and the terribly unequal socio-economic situation found in many banlieues.

He sees a number of social factors at work, mixed with cultural aspects. The Maghrebi family and community model has seen paternal and male power diminished and humbled. I would tie these new forms of abasement to the historical humiliation of colonialism and modernist heyday associated with enlightenment and separation of powers. Education in public schools threatens the structure further. Girls may emancipate themselves in all sorts of ways. Integration and rationalism undercut or sap tradition. The return to a more virile, anti-rationalist, original, salafist version of religion and culture is tempting. Add the civic and economic troubles, the absence of jobs, the difficulty in landing one when they exist. Legal, educational, and political institutions lose completely their meaning and are replaced by criminality and violences, including among Muslims themselves (inter-gang and inter-family territorial fights).

Lastly, there has been the silence and avoidance cultivated especially by intellectuals and elites, though perhaps not at the highest level? Out of mauvaise conscience regarding WW II and especially the terrible crimes of colonialism, as well as regarding social inequities? and a cheaply acquired bonne conscience translated by minutes of silence, Shoah reminders and plaques, etc., that become occasions of revolt and insults on the part of angry, radicalized youth. Contempt, or rather mauvaise conscience also regarding the large majority of the rest of the population that has to live with a feeling of losing it. The Front national has become the first “working class” movement in France, no matter Macron’s victory… Elites and middle class avoid having their children in at-risk areas, schools, or jobs.

Dans le brouillard, sous les branches ballantes des séquoias sombres,
j’ai retrouvé la bibliothèque où deux livres m’attendaient:
le rêve mosaïque d’un vieux savant allemand
et le cri d’un juif français sur la faillite de la république.
Les pruniers sont en fleurs dans la cour du Pharaon,
On attend les cerisiers.

totalitarian language

I’ve been reading Victor Klemperer’s journal (Tagebücher 1933–1941 and Tagebücher 1942–45). It has numerous philological discussions on the evolution of German (LTI: lingua tertii imperii, a book he published in 1947 on the basis of his notes). I don’t have Jean-Pierre Faye’s Les langages totalitaires at hand (1972; 2d ed. 2004) to see what use if any he made of Klemperer’s work. As Camus said in Poésie 44 (1944): “mal nommer un objet, c’est ajouter au malheur de ce monde.” American language is evolving under the kind of political pressures that existed under the nazis. Even without the kind of economic pressures that existed in Germany in the twenties and thirties, our president speaks of “great victories to come” very much like Hitler. Hitler talked about “meine Soldaten” while Trump mentions “his generals.” Two small items among dozens or hundreds of rhetorical and semantic changes. There is nothing surprising in the existence of cracks and shifts in our language. It becomes worrisome when they reveal it to be a dried, thin shell that we cannot trust to carry us and will let us fall at any given moment into the lava flow.

Catalonia

Large demonstration in Catalonia yesterday, perhaps 350,000 people, double or treble that number according to some participants. The images are extraordinary. Hundreds of thousands of people reached for the Spanish flag as symbol of unity, while being well aware of its fraught history. Another demonstration in Madrid called for dialogue and cooperation. Its flag was white. On which side would Casals be today? The present prime minister of Spain is a right winger who has long showed but contempt for autonomy and independence. Hate and scorn are now increasing on all sides. What will happen if, as is still possible, the parliament of Catalonia declares independence tomorrow (Tue) and starts moving toward the formation of a new state? Does Catalonia’s government immediately follow with an application for membership in the EU? Not surprisingly, The German chancellor supports the prime minister of Spain. She calls for the dialogue that has been missing all along but declares she is against the independence of Catalonia, which means that the first item of a real dialogue on independence is off the table. Her call also implies that Catalonia’s application to EU membership is doomed from the start. Offices of several banks and large companies might move out of Catalonia. No discussion in the papers I read this morning of the economic pressures that global interests put on national states and their constituencies. Could Catalans in an independent Catalonia stay the global logic of labor exploitation, automation, and inequities better than Madrid and Brussels—which is not saying much—, or would their independence accelerate the logic at work? What is going to happen?

fascism

Our present government is not populist but slouching toward fascism. In appearance, it is proto-fascist, as presidential “executive orders” are not dictatorial orders. These orders cannot quite mask and do away yet with the rule of law. The situation is evolving day by day. We are in a struggle that is a world-wide expansion of the conflict between elites and workers. It has been going on for over a century and a half now. Demagogic, racist, antisemitic appeals to middle and lower-middle class have long been used to counter socialist mass movements. For a while, particularly in the aftermath of world wars in which armies were made of global levies of whole nations, economically stressed workers could appeal to social democratic elites and demand that the most negative effects of the capitalist system be blunted. Rule of law, basic financial protections, regulated pensions, free or cheap public education systems, universal health-care systems were devised in such a way that the privatization of profits and socialization of risks could proceed, though somewhat held in check. These protections and more generally a sense of shared social obligations and security are being systematically erased since the late seventies. Cooperative and socializing movements have been systematically marginalized. To unionize has been disparaged, attacked, radically weakened. The result is that many wage earners today see little alternative to exploitation and insecurity, except brutal, racist, nationalistic fascism. Trump et al oblige.

homo deus

Harari’s recent Homo deus plays with predictions of the collapse of the barrier between animals and machines, What is one to think? Another form of cartesianism? Will biochemical processes take second seat to big data that have been submitted to new barrages of algorithms? Will liberal humanism and its granting of a special privilege to human capacities, desires, and needs, become parochial or even go extinct? It is easy to see the dark side of a three-century old enlightenment and show how its belief in the power of reason—a large river or rather eddies—may have excused if not helped bring about the rise of communism and marxism. Harari is not really making serious, weighted arguments. He is writing for a general reader who is wont to toss large ideas on complicated topics that are not amenable to univocal answers. The takes on parenthetical topics like obesity or sugar—a grave danger—mean that I can safely leave the book aside. And more important, the para-scientificity seems to be a simplistic cover for the acceptance of traditional social frameworks and the absence of real political thinking.

fascism?

Trump got a hearty welcome two days ago in Phoenix from an audience that had been selected among his most fervent supporters. It was a strange campaign event, with the president fanning hate of the elites, news media (whom he seeks for broadcasting), duly elected Republicans, and above all immigrants. Build a wall, a transparent one, a see-through wall! Two political representatives were on hand. Trump wanted to have them on stage. One got up, shook hands, while the other remained seated for a while then got up, awkwardly. Worried about shaking hands with someone who can turn against them, worried about the 2018 elections? Whom do they represent? Many middle-class people retire in Phoenix. The city has a big share of expansive suburbs, apartment complexes, retirement homes, entertainment venues. How many retirees in this audience? They are not threatened by emigrants, at least economically. If anything, they are served by them. Yet, they choose to be led by feelings of hate rather than thought and, gasp, reason. Trump has been using the fascist playbook all during his campaign and resorts to it everytime he needs consolidation of his “base.” He tried it with the boy-scouts and got some results. The appeal to the gut works. Are we on our way to a new form of fascism? I would like to safely believe that the passion of a football-like event will die soon enough and cannot compete with the draw of sofas and Fox watching. And yet, I also know full bellies and guts can rage the more they silence hearts and heads.

southern strategy

It was shocking to read the unambiguous quotations in today’s Charles Blow’s NYT article on the fundamental racism of the modern Republican party. Most striking to me was a quotation of John Ehrlichman’s 1994 interview with Dan Baum regarding the southern strategy in Nixon days and ever since:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

The drug “war” was waged for entirely politic reasons. It was meant to disenfranchise black people and by extension poor people, streamline and scare the middle class into stupefied silence, fear or concern, and ensure that the profitable, unjust and unwise decisions in favor of capital and manufacturing be made by the “right,” entrenched political party. The moral or even health concerns that were sometimes expressed were cover in effect for a much nastier goal of maintaining power and ensuring the continued, expansive, extraction of riches from labor and environment in all kinds of way, including health insurance schemes and continuous need for expensive, cruel, wrong-headed, and wasteful wars. Many in the democratic party participate(d). It continues today with Sessions’ and Pruit’s policies as well as the sophisticated redistricting and gerrymandering that “big data” now allows. The present quiet and speedy removal of southern confederacy monuments triggered by the scandals of alt-right demonstrations at Charlottesville and Trump’s bigoted comments is part of a much larger struggle to allow all to reclaim the right of disposal of labor and body in dignity and not have them stolen and vilified by capitalist institutions whose visage (or at least one of its faces) is Trump’s.

net neutrality & FCC

Here is how to file an opinion with the FCC re their plans to destroy net
neutrality. The deadline to file is this month. Let the FCC know that you want them to back off and continue to enforce net neutrality.

Go to gofccyourself.com. It will take you directly to the fcc website, bypassing a lot of unnecessary fluff.

When you get there, click on “+ express” in the right field, Fill in the resulting form, with your name, address, etc, along with your comment. For instance, “I support strong net neutrality backed by Title 2 oversight of ISP’s.” Mine was more verbose: “Net neutrality backed by Title 2 oversight of ISP’s is a fundamental right. The main tools for net creation and expansion were created by universities, physics research institutes, and the army, all with public funds. I strongly support the continuation of net neutrality.”

They’ll send you a confirmation. Circulate.

trust and hope

Macron and his friends are going to face great difficulties in building a workable coalition in the house of representatives in June (= Chambre des députés). He has to co-opt ex-socialists from the center and left and beg them to run for and with him. And at the same time he has to find center and center-right incumbents or people he can work with. In other words, he has to woo many people still defined by their party’s machines and echo chambers. I’m not familiar enough with the inner workings of the parties and regional politics to venture a prediction but I think the window of opportunity Macron has right now (the large numbers that voted for him) will close quickly. He is quite aware of it and said so on Friday night before the final run.

The larger issues are economic and cultural. Trust within institutions like schools and health system, corporations, and political groups, was maintained according to a mix of religious and political makeup of France until the eighties. Even more important, probably, was the heritage of the “trente glorieuses” (post-WWII thirty years) that had brought significant economic development to French people, right into the seventies. Superficial perhaps but mappable and vouchers of stability. This trust and hope are under considerable pressure, including among immigrant communities. Systems of rationality inherited from the Enlightenment, reinforced by a top down education system (Sciences-Po or ENA, after Polytechnique et al) that shapes Macron and other elites, cannot generate trust or fidelity and hope, or at least I don’t see how they can. Religions and political systems (various -isms, a phenomenon often analyzed especially since the so-called fall of communist political entities) have become very marginal. However, rather than creating enthusiasm, the faith placed in social calculus fosters suspicion. The description of the sober reality of migratory flows, for instance—as in Hervé Le Bars’ L’âge des migrations (Paris: Autrement, 2017)—doesn’t make a dent into the emotions poured out over the topic. Once more, emotions are in danger of replacing political analysis and commitment.

I think about those matters with my very recent experience of the French health system and end-of-life apparatus in mind. My older brother passed away in April. He was in a medicalized unit for which he paid about 2,000€/month on top of the payments by the national health system, in a very complicated situation in which one is left to wonder not so much who owns but who profits and how much. For example, special bedding is sub-contracted to private companies or mixed (national/private) companies. It seemed very murky to me, in spite of the regulations for which France is famous in the US. As for death: the mechanics of funerals and the contracting with private companies that sell an ersatz of dignity for very high sums of money have become ubiquitous. There was also a Catholic funeral mass in this case. It was celebrated by two priests in their eighties, helped by two able older women. The cost was small, 180€. I should mention that all through this process, from hospital to the cemetery, the people we met (nurses, doctors, insurance agents, Catholic priests and lay workers) were helpful, supportive, and trustworthy. Nevertheless, I have a sense of drift in which human lives, characterized in the case of my brother by fidelity, steadfastness, judgment, and strenuous work or social involvement, have become near-pure matter for the maw of financial and production systems that escape rational judgment even while justifying themselves as rational. It is especially grating to consider that my brother’s values, not simply his work and productivity, could be relied upon by such partial systems and turned into financial advantage and power over others (he was a site supervisor, working on big concrete sites).

My sense of where all of this is going to go is rather somber, in spite of the high score by Macron (66.1% vs 33.9% for Le Pen). I did see some genuine signs of hope, that is, people working indefatigably to repair the fractures that are so prominent in French society. Macron is well aware of those fractures and repeatedly mentions their healing as the first order of business. I hope people of good will manage to come together to create a more just, peaceful, and integrative political program, while keeping at bay the powerful forces of neo-liberalism.