Saturday, April 21, 2012

Party politics

The electoral campaign in France is nearing its end and we already know  the outcome. A few months ago, I would have said that the incumbent president's only chance was an islamist spree killer shooting at random in the middle of a schoolyard. The problem is that an islamist spree killer did shoot at random in the middle of a schoolyard and that didn't improve Nicolas Sarkozy's already minute chances of getting reelected.

His forced retirement won't really be a disaster for France. Even if his probable replacement is also likely to fail, he will do so in a much gentler way. Sarkozy wanted to be great and there is no place for greatness in times of decline.

There is more to this election than a rat race for an already empty power, however.

When General De Gaulle decided in 1961 that French presidents would henceforth be elected by the people, and no longer by the parliament, he wanted to reduce the influence of political parties upon the life of the nation and create a direct relationship between the people and its leader.

It has been a failure.

It would be stupid to deny that the personality of a candidate has an influence upon the result of an election, but it has become increasingly difficult to be elected without the support of a major party - another layer of complexity in a society which has accumulated an embarrassing surplus of them.

Political parties are dizzyingly diverse, ranging from the little disciplined American electoral machines to the totalitarian para-bureaucracies of the so-called socialist states. They all emerged during the nineteenth century from parliamentary factions, revolutionary more or less secret societies or even lobbies. In Britain, the two first parties – the Whigs and the Torries – coalesced formally in 1784 around Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger, respectively, even though the ideas they represented date back to to the Glorious Revolution and the advent of the Hanoverian dynasty.

In the United States, the two first organized political parties, the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties emerged around 1792 and more or less reflected their English counterparts, as Thomas Jefferson stated in a letter to John Wise :

Two political Sects have arisen within the U. S. the one believing that the executive is the branch of our government which the most needs support; the other that like the analogous branch in the English Government, it is already too strong for the republican parts of the Constitution; and therefore in equivocal cases they incline to the legislative powers: the former of these are called federalists, sometimes aristocrats or monocrats, and sometimes tories, after the corresponding sect in the English Government of exactly the same definition: the latter are stiled republicans, whigs, jacobins, anarchists, disorganizers, etc. these terms are in familiar use with most persons.

Those early political parties, both in America and Britain were structured around local and national leaders, rather than around mass of activists and party discipline was lax, to say the least. In both countries electoral franchise was limited to a small percentage of the population and since both countries were reasonably orderly, there was little point in trying to control the crowds.

France, as always, begged to differ. At the time of the French Revolution, it was ruled by a corrupt and bankrupt absolute monarchy headed by the weakest king in a century – a dangerous combination, at best. As a result, France’s transition to democracy was very chaotic, to say the least, and wasn’t completed until the fall of the Second Empire in 1870. All French regimes from 1789 to 1871 ended in violence, either insurrection or invasion. Fighting for change at that time meant exactly that : shooting at rather uncooperative troopers from behind a barricade. While France was only intermittently a real dictatorship during this period, opposing the government was still a dangerous business and republican meeting were banned more often than not – which prompted radicals to start a feasting campaign, with very long-winded toasts, a tradition which still survives in some circles to this day.

Of course, when both you and the Police know that the only way you can achieve your goals is by storming the royal or imperial palace, you are more likely to invest in conspiratorial cells and shooting skills than in party building. As for the supporters of whatever semi-authoritarian regime held the power at any given time, they relied upon loose parliamentarian coalitions, old boy networks and the continued influence of local notables.

It was only in 1901, after the definitive victory of the republicans, that the first classical French political party was formally established : the Radical Party, which, by the way, was anything but radical and is now mostly known for its attachment to secularism and its love of feasting.

The left followed its own way toward the establishment of organized parties after the debacle of the Commune (the last Parisian insurrection, crushed in 1871). The first socialist party, the Fédération des travailleurs socialistes de France was founded in 1878 by the Marxist Jules Guesde but split in the wake of electoral disaster.

The socialist movement remained divided into a collection of often rival groups until its reunification around Jean Jaures in 1905 in the Section française de l'Internationale ouvrière, out of which both the French Communist Party and François Hollande's Socialist Party latter emerged.

The left, had no network of notables to rely upon, however. Its roots lay in the Parisian tradition of insurrections, the nascent unions and the work of radical intellectuals such as Marx, Proudhon or Bakunin. Its goal was not to rule the country through parliamentary work but to take over it by organizing the people and uniting it around a common ideology.

This called for a very specific kind of organization, more reminiscent of a government than of a gentlemen's club, with a top down chain of command and a strict party discipline. Policies were defined in regular conventions rather than in local caucuses and elected officials were considered mandatees of the organization rather than notables with their own relatively independent power base.

Where, in the Republican movement, policies were debated in local clubs and masonic lodges – a major force in early twentieth century France – formation (read indoctrination ) was a key element in socialist strategy.

And of course, it still had something of a conspiratorial mindset, an attitude which will flourish in Lenin's Bolshevik Party.

This model was soon hijacked by the other radical force in French society : the revolutionary right which was beginning to replace the old reactionary and aristocratic right, which had until then led the fight against the heritage of the French Revolution. Born from the unholy alliance of German Romanticism and of a few heretical sections of the French left, this new current birthed Italian fascism and its German monster child : National-Socialism.

For totalitarian movements in Berlin, Roma or Moscow, mass parties, as developed by the left, were very convenient and provided the blueprint for the fanatical political armies which roamed Europe during the thirties and the forties. This pattern continued long after the war in Communist parties all over Europe. Quite often, their strategies where decided in Moscow and local activist's only prerogatives were to implement them, to that point that a minister could say that the Communist Party was not on the left, but on the east.

There was, however, another factor at work. The flow of cheap and abundant energy that flooded our society after the industrial revolution triggered a fantastic wave of growth and complexification in all organizations, and political parties were no exception. As more resources were available in the society at large, political parties could divert more and more of them to feed their internal bureaucracy.

At first the rational was to get things done, or better done, by hiring professionals often recruited among activists, and it is not absurd. Even my own, tiny and ineffectual party, has developed a mini-bureaucracy paid for by state subsidies (the French state grants money to political parties in function of their electoral results), elected officials' wages' or even public money, as elected officials may have assistant which will be used for party business.

The result is that sooner or later, the necessity to feed the bureaucracy will supersede any other concern and the bureaucracy itself will become a major player in internal politics. Of course, the bottom up elaboration of policies through local clubs and debates could not survive this evolution and was replaced by the interplay of ideological factions and think tanks.

Now the decisions about what is to be debated in electoral campaigns are made by professional politicians and small coteries of party bureaucrats under the influence of lobbies of often dubious representativity. The only thing the population can do is getting interested, or not.

This is one of the reasons why peak oil, and more generally resource issues, played no role in the French presidential campaign, despite Jean-Marc Jeancovici's courageous but ultimately futile appeal. Neither party leaders nor their entourage of bureaucrats and advisers were interested in raising them, for the same reason they were uninterested in talking seriously about the debt. They would have had to promise the Moon – and we already have a Larouchie for that – or speaking hard truths to a population, which, they believe, is not ready to hear them.

Unfortunately, it is not going to change. Peak energy and the subsequent resource shrinkage will reduce the amount of wealth available, but, if there is something history teaches us, it is that those in power will use their not inconsiderable influence to minimize the impact of a crisis upon their own income.

Political parties, their leaders and their bureaucrats are not the only powerful organizations in French society, but they control most of the political debate, which means they will do everything to ensure the survival of their apparatus and will most probably succeed despite the growing distrust of the population. And yes, that is also true for our own bureaucracy, a bureaucracy I belong to, by the way, even I happen to be on the wrong side of a factional divide.

This is, by the way, not a conspiracy, even if there are a lot of cynics in the political world. Politicians are great at self-delusion and sincerely think that the party bureaucracy is indispensable to the furthering of goals they sincerely think are good for the country. As for party bureaucrats, they are often as dependent upon their job as your average corporate ladder-climber. Most of them are trapped in a career they chose by idealism long before divorce and mortgages raised their ugly heads.

What that means, also, is that even those who talk about participatory democracy are very unlikely to implement it, because it would mean renouncing their power and accepting the shrinkage of their own income – I don't know of any group in history, which has done that.

Of course, at some point, when peak energy will make the situation intolerable for common people and the political establishment's promises as hollow as a dentist's, this will disastrously backfire and bring a strongman or another into power. We may even have a lamppost day or two.

What we are unlikely to have, however, is what we need : a return to a community based democracy with a continuous dialogue between the mandators and a mandatee, who will answer only to them, not to party bureaucrats such as myself.


  1. Mr. Perrotin

    I think you would be very interested in Chris Hedges' most recent column where he compares the French election to the American and doesn't find much difference.

  2. Thanks for the link, it is indeed interesting and it is true that both Hollande and Sarkozy are hollow. Now, Melenchon is hardly different. His goal is basically a green-washed state-run economy, with bureaucrats replacing capitalists. More important, this state-run economy is not, for him, a temporary measure to mitigate the crisis but a gateway toward some kind of socialist workers' paradise ("La Sociale").

    We have tried this way many times in the past century. The results, to use an understatement, have not been good.