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Neoliberal hegemony Is not undone in the space of a single election: Interview with Stefano Palombarini

Jean-luc-melenchon-20-

Stefano Palombarini is an economist and lecturer at Paris VIII. His books include Rupture du compromise social italien (Paris: Éditions du CNRS, 2001) and, with Bruno Amable, L’Économie politique n’est pas une science morale (Paris: Raisons d’Agir, 2005) and L’illusion du bloc bourgeois (Paris: Raisons d’Agir, 2017 – published by Verso Books with the title The Last Neoliberal: Macron and the Origins of France’s Political Crisis). Since he and Bruno Amable were the first to have understood the bourgeois bloc that formed around Emmanuel Macron in 2017, Positions web journal interviewed him to see whether this reading was still valuable today, or if the balance of political forces had to be analysed afresh.

Part One: March 2021

We know that you and your co-author Bruno Amable explained back in 2017 the historical and social foundations of the Macron sequence, summed up in a concept that has now become widely accepted, that of the ‘bourgeois bloc’. In your essay, however, you qualify this bloc as ‘illusory’. The 2022 presidential election will soon be upon us, and the space seems either more open than ever to the left or totally closed. Are we about to witness the dissipation of the illusion or its solidification?

What we called the ‘bourgeois bloc’ was a social alliance formed around a political project. You have to bear in mind the situation in France at the time Emmanuel Macron emerged in the political landscape. François Holland, the president elected by a bloc of the left, was very unpopular. Alain Juppé, with an openly neoliberal line, had been beaten in the primaries by François Fillon, who represented a more conservative and Catholic line. This was the perfect conjuncture to unite the bourgeois classes formerly aligned to right and left, and Macron was able to profit from this by proposing a programme of institutional reforms legitimated by a commitment to Europe. But we should not forget that this programme was backed up by a discourse that sought to be progressive in terms of individual rights and liberties. It should also be stressed that around the privileged classes, a small minority in social terms, who were directly favoured by his programme, Macron united a section of the middle classes seduced by the promise of social advance made possible by the perspective of a ‘modernisation’ of French capitalism, otherwise he would not have got through to the second round of the election.

The situation is very different today, even if the hard core of Macron’s programme, i.e. neoliberal reform, has not changed. Now Macron is openly addressing himself to a right-wing bloc: the progressive side of his programme has been buried beneath the police violence he has systematically supported and the liberticidal laws he has pushed through. The project of a bourgeois bloc was thus an illusion, which vanished very rapidly. Now it is possible that a section of the bourgeois classes, possibly the greater part of those who came from the left, will maintain their allegiance despite the rightward drift. But what is more tricky, and makes the president’s situation more fragile, is the transformation of the promise of social advance into a threat of downward mobility for the middle classes. Polls indicate a stable support for Macron at his level in 2017, but we should distrust these, particularly because the right does not yet have a designated candidate. This is the space that Macron is currently operating in. My conviction is that the right will present a candidate who is substantial enough to unite them, and that Macron’s support will rapidly collapse, perhaps even to the point of convincing him not to stand. In a hypothesis favourable to Macron, the right will divide among weak candidates, or even decide that the candidate best able to represent it is Macron himself. So it is this right-wing bloc that we have to deal with in analysing the president’s perspectives: the bourgeois bloc no longer corresponds to his project.

In order to be present in the second round, as you said, Macron had to unite a substantial part of the intermediate classes who believed that the left/right cleavage was outmoded. This is what could be called ‘populism from above’, as opposed to the ‘populism from below’ that the Le Pen dynasty has cornered. Do you think this populist moment is now behind us, so that if Macron is to get re-elected he will have to reactivate the left/right cleavage and position himself as a conservative candidate even though he arose from the technocratic centre-left, or can he still attempt to overcome the traditional cleavages?

I try for my part to limit the use of the term ‘populist’, which is truly polysemic. It can refer to totally different or even contradictory phenomena: either to a mere anti-elite rhetoric, or to a reduction in the role of intermediate bodies and a verticalisation of power, or even to the idea of a direct democracy that restricts the power of elected representatives. In the ‘populist moment’ we saw in France, and also elsewhere, there has been a bit of all these things, and this is above all due to a political crisis to which a solution has still not been found. Is Macron a populist? Yes, but in a particular sense of the term, one that refers to the messianic mission that he felt invested with, and that led him in his decisions to flout not only the parliament, but also his own party and his government. This attitude, which to avoid any confusion we should call authoritarian rather than populist, is unlikely to change in the coming period. Now, for reasons that I indicated, he will be forced to relocate himself again on the left/right axis, and in fact he has already done so. I believe that almost no one views him otherwise any more than as a president of the right. And this completely changes the basis of the political problem he faces. As artisan and representative of the bourgeois bloc, he spoke in the name of a social alliance that was a minority but was relatively homogeneous. On the right, he finds himself in a space that is broad but fragmented. You need only study the adjectives used to qualify the ‘conservative and republican right’. Macron is not a conservative, as his essential objective remains the complete neoliberal transformation of French capitalism. But there are at least three different positions on the right that are hard to reconcile. There certainly is a neoliberal right, which thinks that public action is essential to expand market logic to the whole of social life, and believes the state has a key role to play in guaranteeing capital a favourable balance of forces in its conflict with labour. But there is also an ultra-liberal right, whose base is fundamentally constituted by heads of small and medium businesses as well as sole proprietors, and which simply demands a substantial cut in public expenditure in order to guarantee a generalised reduction in taxation. And finally, there is a more working-class and conservative right, opposed to any overthrow of existing social relations, but attached to social protection and the public services that the French state has been able to offer until now. The other adjective used to qualify the right, i.e. ‘republican’, is clearly becoming increasingly problematic. In the quest to overcome the contradictions of a socio-economic order that I have mentioned, the right, the whole of the right, from the Rassemblement National to Macron, is trying to shift the debate onto themes of identity, and in doing so does not hesitate to take great liberties with the ‘republican values’ that it claims to want to strengthen. The current debate in the National Assembly on a law that changes its name from month to month, but has the sole objective of stigmatising French Muslims and immigrants, is clear proof of this. This weakening attachment to republican principles has the significant political consequence of fully integrating the Rassemblement National into the space of the right. If there is still a pseudo-republican barrage in France, it is now against the anti-neoliberal left.

So there is a shift occurring in the alliance you describe. The ‘republican front’ was an alliance between left and right governmental parties against the far right, the Front National. The new ‘republican front’ would then be an alliance between Macron and Le Pen against the threat of an anti-neoliberal left. This would normalise the Rassemblement National in the camp of the classic right, and re-centre Macron’s LREM on the centre-left, bringing about an Americanisation (Republicans/Democrats) of the political space. That is an interesting idea, but do you really think this situation would be tenable, given that Marine Le Pen would be at the head of this new far right?

The normalisation of the Rassemblement National is already a fait accompli. Its favourite topics are central in public debate, and in the daily broadcasts of leading media platforms such as CNews or Valeurs Actuelles, Marine Le Pen’s party even seems to hold more moderate positions in this field. This doesn’t mean that the RN, Les Républicains and LREM are fated to ally, still less to merge into a single party. Simply that these are parties that situate themselves in the same political space. This has two major implications. On the one hand, we should expect a growing mobility of the electorate between these parties; on the other hand, the anti-neoliberal left is their common enemy. No conspiracy is needed, for example, to explain the systematic focus of the government’s attacks on Mélenchon, even though the polls suggest he is not the main threat to Macron in the coming election. Similarly, it is reductionist to think that Marine Le Pen is preserved because she is an opponent easy to beat in the second round. The reality is that in the recomposition under way, the differences between the political programmes of the RN, LR and LREM are rapidly dwindling, whereas the distance from the genuine left is growing. The political debate simply reflects this reality. As far as the personal qualities of Marine Le Pen are concerned, these are well known. Even her electors know that she has inherited the leadership of a large mass party without having the qualities to fill a governmental role. I don’t know if this is any reason to rejoice. Certainly, her personal profile is an obstacle for the RN, which could rise still further with a leader of a different calibre. But I do not believe it is a sufficiently major obstacle to prevent a victory by Le Pen in the presidential election. If she wins, we will find ourselves with a far-right and totally incompetent president, which is certainly not a happy perspective.

Faced with this new conservative and reactionary space, how do you see the recomposition of progressive forces, or of the left in general, in 2022?

I see this recomposition as rather difficult. I would almost say improbable, but we have to keep a bit of optimism. You need only point to the tensions on the left to realise that the perspective of a recomposition, in the short period before the election, is highly uncertain. There are several fault lines within the left, which express themselves not just in politics but also in the intellectual, academic and media fields, and these respond to different logics, as in each case what is at stake is a particular form of power. However, while not insisting on a single reading of these, which would be wrong, we can interpret these confrontations on the basis of a structural contradiction that undermines the unity of the left. Perhaps you think I’m going to refer to the question of Europe, as I did four years ago in my book with Bruno Amable. It is true that the left remains divided over the EU and the euro, but far less so than previously. The unconditional supporters of the EU are now with Macron. The whole of the left is critical, but in various ways, and we should also realise that the constricting effect of the budget treaties is less strong now than it was a few years ago. Of course, when the crisis is over, we may see the Commission demanding a fresh round of austerity, which would reactivate the division on the left over a possible break with the EU. But today I don’t think the main factor of division is the European question. The main contradiction comes from the increased potency of the topics of the far right in the structuring of the political debate. This forces the left to put at the heart of its discourse its own definition of secularism or republican identity, to combat the way that immigrants, Muslims or other minorities are made into scapegoats, to denounce the authoritarian deployment of the police, and to defend threatened liberties. Clearly it is desirable and indispensable that the left does not weaken on any of these themes. But we should also see that this amounts to accepting a structuring of political debate defined by the right. A hegemonic left would wipe out any margin of debate on these questions, since it is clear that republican principles leave no room for doubt when the question is whether to accept or not freedom of research in the academy, to respect the rights of immigrants, to adhere to one religion or another, to have one origin or another. And a hegemonic left would impose cleavages of another type, connected with social and economic questions: what perspectives for social protection and the right to work, what future for the pension system, what changes in taxation, and so on. These are the themes around which a massive, popular and emancipatory opposition to Macron could be constructed. But here we are, hegemony is currently with the right and far right. Hence the contradiction and difficulty that I mentioned. To situate ourselves on the terrain defined by the right is to a certain extent a position we are forced into, but to accept that the political cleavages are those that the right imposes makes a shift in the balance of forces very improbable. And we have to realise the difficulty of waging together the struggle needed on the right’s favourite themes, which it imposes as dominant, and the equally necessary struggle to highlight other themes. In the different fields that I mentioned, political, media, academic, intellectual, any suggestion of a possible way of simultaneously waging these two struggles runs a strong risk of finding a weaker echo for these positions than does privileging one over the other. Since what determines strategies in these different fields is the accumulation of a specific form of power, it is more profitable for political, media, academic or intellectual actors to choose one particular battle and devote all their forces to this. But we should not collapse into pessimism. For example, I greatly admire the ability Bernie Sanders has shown to oppose the authoritarian, racist and identitarian drift of Trump while managing to propel his own themes to the front of the stage, addressing the working class without distinctions of origin, religion or colour. This is not easy, but it is possible to achieve.

If, as you have said, the debate is structured around cultural and identitarian themes, i.e. by the hegemony of the right, what would be the best response for a left offensive, and in particular what classes or bloc should these responses be based on?

This question is a bit of a trap, as it takes things in the wrong order. We should not start by identifying a social base, and then looking for a discourse that can seduce it. This leads nowhere. True, from a theoretical point of view, there are things that can be ruled out. For example, it is impossible to rebuild the old bloc of the left in the same way, given the adherence of a section of the bourgeoisie to Macronism. Likewise, to imagine that all the popular classes can be united in a single bloc is outside the realm of the possible, given how these are traversed by contradictions that are not only of a cultural or ideological order, but that also bear on economic expectations. I heard Bruno Amable recently say on a radio broadcast some very pertinent things on the subject of the left and the struggle against neoliberalism. If we want to speak to a substantial section of the population, we have to stick with very concrete questions: the number of hospital beds, social protection, the pension system, redundancies, the right to unemployment pay, the norms of health and safety at work. The role of the left, if it is to exist, is first of all to develop a coherent programme that shows the real possibility on these questions of a response strictly opposed to that of Macron and the rest of the right; and then to make known this programme. On the first point, I must say that La France Insoumise is practically the only movement to have done its homework. L’Avenir en commun can certainly be criticised, and is open to improvement; but it exists. As for making it known beyond groups of militants, this is more complicated. Of course, the dominant media, including the public ones, prefer to give all their space to questions that are politically meaningless, such as that of separatism, instead of comparing party programmes on those themes that directly affect the conditions of life of French people. But after all, the dominant media are only doing their job when they protect the dominant class. What the left needs, in order to counter this, is a strong and widespread presence across the country, and here we can gauge how much it is paying for the disappearance of the old structures of the former political parties, so much decried. To come back to your question of the social base. My response is that if the left is in a position to put forward and make known a coherent and credible project that is a radical alternative to neoliberalism, based on principles of solidarity and dignity of work, taking into account the imperative of ecological sustainability, and giving precise responses to the concrete questions I have mentioned, it will find a very broad echo among the population. The profile of the bloc can be examined once it exists, that’s not the starting point. And you know that an analyst has to remain very modest. It is one thing to analyse a bloc that exists, or has existed, the reasons why it came into being or entered into crisis. It’s a completely different thing to bring about an alliance that is not yet here. It’s the whole art of politics to bring this about, and that is not my trade. In the coming period, all that my role enables me to do is emphasise the contradictions that are undermining certain projects. As I said, the reconstruction of something identical to the old left bloc and the emergence of a popular bloc that mirrors the bourgeois bloc seem to me both equally illusive. But this does not mean that a renewed left bloc cannot form itself in the coming years, with a profile still impossible to define.

To end with, a forecast for the first round of the coming election?

It’s very complicated, as it is hard to foresee the extent to which the social effects of the economic crisis will make themselves felt before the election. We can see however that the regime is in full panic mode. It knows that its reforms are unpopular, and that the support extended to attenuate the social consequences of the recession cannot be continued indefinitely. It reacts to the perspective of possible collapse by multiplying far-right provocations, like those committed daily by Darmanin, Blanquer, Vidal and co., and by far-right policies on the maintenance of order and civil liberties. I find it hard to imagine that a strategy of this kind can succeed. The themes that Macron is pushing in the debate favour Marine Le Pen, who will in all probability get through to the second round. But the other place is still open. It’s here that there is greater uncertainty. If in the coming months the right finds a solid candidate, a conservative able to convince people that they will be able to reform without the brutality of Macron, and offering more guarantees than Le Pen, their perspectives will be excellent. But, at the moment, the right lacks a candidate who is up to the mark. On the other side, given that social suffering is set to increase, there is a real space for a left capable of orienting the debate differently, and showing that this suffering is not simply an effect of the crisis, but also of the neoliberal policies and reforms that have accentuated its effects. But let’s be clear: there is now a real barrage against a left of this kind, in which the Macronists, Les Républicains and the far right all participate, supported by the whole of the dominant media, from France Inter to CNews. It is truly astonishing to see such a broad front assemble against forces that are a minority in the polls, but it is certainly the sign that the possibility of a collapse of the Macron presidency and the opening of a substantial space for the anti-neoliberal left is being seriously taken into account.

Part Two, February 2022

Stefano, we ended our discussion in March with your forecast of a very probable presence of Marine Le Pen in the second round, with the other place open and the possibility of the anti-neoliberal left winning this place. Since then, we can see the candidates more clearly. Independently of the polls, do you think that the dynamics at work have changed since March last year?

Sadly, the dynamics we saw at work have been confirmed and even accentuated. To make a rapid tour of the landscape, we need first to emphasise the crisis of neoliberal strategy in its ‘progressive’ version. This was the line with which Macon won in 2017, but he is no longer following it at all. The campaign of Anne Hidalgo, who might have picked up the baton, got nowhere, and attempts to assemble the whole left around Christiane Taubira bordered on the ridiculous. On the other side, neoliberalism in its authoritarian and repressive version has the wind in its sails. Macron, Pécresse, Zemmour and Le Pen, despite different tonalities, are all in this space, sufficiently broad to be occupied by four different candidates, all well placed in the polls. Finally, there is the left. The new ‘republican barrage’ against La France Insoumise, which we spoke about last March, has operated at full strength in the last twelve months. It may be that today the Ecologists and Socialists, who joined in with this hoping to legitimise themselves in the eyes of a hypothetical ‘left’ fraction of the bourgeois bloc disappointed by Macron, realise that they made a bad calculation. We should remember that the president’s compression of civil liberties did not prevent the electorate he inherited from the Socialist party from remaining loyal to him. On the other hand, the anti-LFI barrage has contributed to dividing and weakening the whole of the left, which really had no need of it. The last element in the landscape is more anecdotal than significant. Media such as Marianne, pressure groups such as Printemps Républicain, promised a radiant future for a ‘republican’ left able to show firmness on security, secularism and immigration – a firmness that should be understood as complete alignment with the ideology and policies of the right on these topics. Arnaud Montebourg believed it, one day even speaking openly of the need for a policy that would be ‘a bit of right, a bit of left’, and we saw the result. Hidalgo fell to some extent into the same trap. And in a campaign that, up to now, has hardly had anything happy about it, we have at least had irrefutable proof that the positions of Printemps Républicain amount to pure ideology – of the right – and not analysis.

Can we stop, first of all, on Macron and his ‘progressive’ strategy of 2017. You are right to point out that Macron has swung sharply to the right during his five-year term: gilets jaunes, pensions, violence towards immigrants. If the centre-left strategy seems to have basically failed in terms of the concrete situation and its results, is it not possible to imagine that the appearance of Zemmour and the increasing extremism of the whole of the right will enable Macron to recentre himself and regain his 2017 position on the political chessboard? The weakness of the Socialists and Jadot between him and Mélenchon also appear very similar to 2017 and the left around Hamon. Could that not paradoxically assist a return to the 2017 situation?

The balance of political forces is in fact remarkably close to that which characterised the French landscape five years ago. We need to remember that, at that time, Hamon and Mélenchon were each credited with between 10 and 13 per cent in the polls. If we add up Jadot, Taubira and Hidalgo on the one side, Mélenchon and Roussel on the other, we find exactly the same situation. The real novelty is in the extreme radicalisation of a right that keeps the very broad space it had in 2017. Is it possible for Macron to react to such a situation by recentring and regaining the position of his previous campaign as a ‘progressive’ socio-liberal? Everything suggests the opposite. Of course, if he were to find himself in the second round against Le Pen or Zemmour, he would not flinch from playing the defender of the same liberties he has trampled over throughout his term. But Macron’s concern today is to get through to the second round, which is not yet a fait accompli. And he is behaving as if he is convinced that he will not lose any electors to the left. Neither Hidalgo nor Jadot have succeeded in picking up those ‘disappointed by Macronism’, and that is not for want of trying. Macron is thus playing on the ground of the right, against a right that has radicalised, which will lead him, and in fact has already led him, to radicalise in turn.

Doesn’t this radicalisation of Macron’s, which we saw before the appearance of Zemmour and Pécresse, risk losing his ‘republican right’ wing, led by Édouard Philippe, to the benefit of Pécresse? Is the bourgeois bloc, which you understand better than anyone else, still solidly behind Macron, or does it risk breaking up and dividing between Macron and Pécresse?

The republican frontier dividing the governmental right from the far right has ceased to exist for a long time. When Charles Million accepted the votes of the FN to keep the presidency of the regional council of Rhône-Alpes in 1998, there was a violent shock. But a great deal of water has passed under the bridge since then. Sarkozy already viewed the far right and the left as political opponents that he refused to choose between. And to come back to today, Ciotti  obtained an excellent result in the primary while making repeated nods in the direction of Zemmour. When it comes to voting, we see then that there is no longer a barrier, right-wing electors are happy to shift from one party to another according to the conjuncture, without caring at all about ‘republican values’, which now play a merely instrumental role on the front pages of newspapers. The space of the right, which runs from Macron to Zemmour, is relatively homogeneous, even in its radicalisation, and Pécresse is no exception. Nonetheless, there are still specificities in terms of the social composition of the respective bases. In LREM, executives and higher social categories are clearly over-represented. If Les Républicains has not collapsed, this is due to the massive support of pensioners. And the specificity of the RN is that it is so far the only party in this space able to obtain the support of a significant fraction of the working class. But all these parties, including Zemmour, now offer very similar policies, which we can calmly classify under the label of authoritarian neoliberalism. This relative lack of differentiation makes any prognosis difficult, and still more extreme positions are likely, particularly in terms of restriction of liberties and violations of a state of law.

To use your terminology, we are faced with a ‘conservative bloc’ with different nuances, which is ideologically coherent, yet far less coherent sociologically, if in its majority it combines ‘pensioners’ and ‘CPIs’, and with Marine Le Pen a large number of wage and salary earners. Did this form against a ‘progressive bloc’? Or are the parties of the left condemned to run after conservative ideas in order to pick up electoral crumbs?

Let’s start with the bloc that we can qualify as authoritarian-neoliberal. As you pointed out, this is a composite alliance in sociological terms, but there is nothing surprising about that. Social blocs regularly draw on different classes. The strong homogeneity of the bourgeois bloc is an exception and not the rule. The fundamental point is the identification of those variables that enable such an alliance to hold together. On the one hand, the continuity of neoliberal policies and reforms is a direct response to the expectations of the upper classes. Yet these sense that there is a rising social contestation; the gilets jaunes sent a very strong signal of this, but there were others as well; we can also point to the movements in education and the health service, or the enormous disappointment generated by the total failure of the government on climate issues. The idea that neoliberalism can have a ‘progressive’ content no longer convinces many people, even those who defend it. The upper classes have shown, under President Macron, that they are really prepared for anything to suppress social contestation and protect their dominant position. This explains the failure of strategies that aim to recuperate a ‘left’ bourgeoisie who may have been disappointed by Macron. The facts show that the opening that this element of the bourgeoisie showed in the past, its attachment to civil liberties and even its ability to support genuine social progress, which did indeed exist, come up against a clear limit in its refusal to envisage the least renunciation of the privileges it enjoys. Insofar as Macron is perceived as the guarantor of continuity in relations of domination, the former left bourgeoisie will remain with him, even if demonstrations are handled with the brutality we have seen, even if the state of law is trampled on, even if the separation of powers is buried. But within this authoritarian-neoliberal bloc we also find sections of the working class, and a large part of the middle classes to whom neoliberalism may offer some advantages, but which it threatens above all with social decline. To explain this important and counter-intuitive phenomenon, we have to escape from the view of state policies as simply an exchange between electoral support and the satisfaction of expectations entirely inscribed in socio-economic positions. It is because neoliberalism is hegemonic that the authoritarian-neoliberal bloc has come to be so strong. This hegemony is expressed chiefly in two ways. On the one hand, alternatives to neoliberalism are perceived as unrealistic. Workers in a precarious and dominated position, students who need funds to finance their studies and pay rent, may for example see ‘flexible’ work relations imposed by neoliberalism, without the least social protection, as a sad but necessary condition for their survival, given that they cannot see any alternative. And the fact is that, in the neoliberal world in which we live, they are often right. As long as the possibility of a major rupture in the orientation of government policies does not appear as something concrete and immediate, neoliberal hegemony will not really be threatened. The other dimension that hegemony plays on is the hierarchy of social expectations. You do not need a detailed analysis to perceive the immense work the major media and regime intellectuals perform in the interest of sidelining economic and social questions, and pushing themes like immigration, security and French identity to the fore. This is how this bloc finds its coherence. The upper classes, as I indicated, now see authoritarianism as a necessary condition for the continuity of neoliberal policies that benefit them. But a substantial section of the middle classes, despite being threatened by neoliberalism, and even fractions of the working class, not only believe that there is no realistic alternative to neoliberalism in terms of social and economic policies, but that immigration, security, etc. are major problems that require an authoritarian and repressive response.

This analysis of the authoritarian-neoliberal bloc helps to outline a strategy for constructing an alternative bloc. First of all, it is not just illusory, but totally counter-productive, to imagine an alternative that ‘takes seriously’ security or identity questions as these are presented by our opponents. A policy on these themes that is ‘a bit right’ simply amounts to strengthening the hegemony that we have to combat. A social alliance concerned with the defence of working-class interests must bring the social question back to the heart of political conflict, which means first and foremost asserting loud and clear that immigration or security, which certainly have to be the object of specific and rational policies, are in no way the main problems of the French people. But this is not enough. We also have to convince people that on the questions of purchasing power, hospitals, schools, pensions, etc. there are possible and concrete solutions to hand that break completely with neoliberal logic. This is necessary not only to break a section of the middle and working classes away from the authoritarian-neoliberal bloc, but above all to mobilise abstentionists. An accent on the programme is therefore key, along with the determination to escape from the European treaties that are one of the factors that lead such a break to be seen as unrealistic. The radical left is presented by the media as an extreme and therefore minority component of the political landscape. But there can be no reconstruction of a left bloc without a break with neoliberalism, which is also indispensable if we seriously envisage at the heart of the new alliance a response to the ecological emergency. Clearly, in a context of neoliberal hegemony, this project will face major obstacles, and probably demand more time than the few weeks that we have before the presidential elections. But the time of an alternation between a ‘reasonable’ right and a supportive left is over, and there is no other way to construct an alternative to authoritarian neoliberalism, whether it has the face of Macron, Le Pen, Pécresse or Zemmour.

It does seem however that there is still a sociological base made up of intermediate classes, with higher education and not yet quite declassed, disappointed by the ‘left’ Macron that they imagined capable in 2017 of refounding a centre-left. These classes are substantial, and have sought, with the ‘popular primary’ for example, to refound a left that would not be radical and confrontational, but cushions and repairs the violence of big capital in crisis. In 2022 this left seems to have difficulty in breaking through, but can it definitively obstruct any perspective of constructing a radical left pole? Do you not think that this left could in due course present an alternative to Macron, perhaps in 2027, as Biden did in the USA?

The classes you refer to certainly have a very strong ability to play on the construction of opinion. If you held a poll among journalists, or among influencers on social media, you would find high levels of support for this ‘left’, which found an expression in Macron in 2017, but is looking for something else today. The organisers of the ‘popular primary’, who transferred start-up techniques into politics in the same way that Macron did five years ago, have in their majority exactly this profile. Now, the optics here should be distrusted. Despite its capacity to impact public opinion and the media, in which the false primary of the left became a major event because journalists decided it was, it actually remained a small bubble that said little about the real movements within society. For my part, at present I think that there is no longer a political space to construct a social bloc around what I call the supportive left. I don’t see the left bourgeoisie breaking massively with Macron and throwing themselves into the arms of Taubira, nor the working classes that voted for the Socialists falling back into the trap from which they escaped. I say ‘at present’, as in the longer term you cannot rule out a development such as we have seen in Italy. To put it briefly, this development involves the complete transition to neoliberalism capitalism, the disappearance of the left, and the massive abstention of the working classes. The ideal type of this configuration broadly corresponds to the political landscape in the US before the emergence of Bernie Sanders. If the ‘popular primary’ generated such hostile reactions, it is because France is not yet at that point. A single candidate justified by fear of the far right, which was the initial objective of this primary, which has since changed its nature entirely, does correspond to the polarity between a neoliberalism that seeks to be open, progressive, and ‘cultivated’, and a neoliberalism that is authoritarian, repressive, and in general more oriented to the working class. But the term ‘left’ no longer really means anything in this context, unless you can find the least element that enables leaders such as Blair, Clinton, Schröder or Renzi to be called left. So, my reply to your question is as follows. Today there is no possibility of reconstructing a bloc similar to that which enabled the Socialist party to govern, i.e. an alliance hegemonised by the left bourgeoisie but incorporating a substantial working-class component. In a few years’ time, there may be something in a strong position that we will continue from habit and inertia to call ‘left’, but will actually be a new edition of the bourgeois bloc, one of the two blocs supporting neoliberalism. But for this to happen, neoliberal reforms would first have to be carried through to the end, the working classes that directly experience their consequences would have to retire from the game of representative democracy, and the radical left would have to disappear from the landscape. This is the perspective in which we should interpret the media echo of the ‘popular primary’, in which there was a great deal of naivety, but certainly also some lucid spirits who knew that the real opponent in the battle they were waging was not the far right but the radical left, and that to win this battle today could contribute to opening the gates of power to them tomorrow.

In our last interview, you ended by saying that ‘the possibility of a collapse of the Macron presidency and the opening of a substantial space for the anti-neoliberal left is being seriously taken into account’. We have seen that Macron’s position has not changed much in relation to 2017, when the three candidates of the right-wing bloc (Le Pen/Fillon/Dupont-Aignan) stood at 47 per cent. Today it is at about the same level, but with an additional candidate. The ‘supportive left’ seems to have died a death, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon indisputably represents the anti-neoliberal left. Isn’t this configuration far more favourable to this left than in 2017? Do we have reason for hope?

I have always regarded the 2017 result as exceptional, and it is a political mistake not to have judged it immediately as such. The nearly 20 per cent for Mélenchon opened up a concrete perspective for the construction of a social alliance able to put a halt to neoliberal reforms and negotiate a political turn in the direction of solidarity, equality, and ecological responsibility. This is no similar opportunity today in other European countries. The reaction of the ruling class and its allies was vigorous, as could only be expected, and gave rise to an anti-LFI barrage that we spoke about in the first interview. To note five years later that the balance of forces remains basically the same is rather a relief, and a result that should be put to the credit of a movement, La France Insoumise, which despite the attacks has conceded nothing on either the social terrain or that of civil liberties. Clearly, there is no guarantee of Mélenchon again reaching 20 per cent in April. But, in this respect, I am fairly optimistic. Mélenchon’s campaign was of an exceptionally high standard, and started from a strong foundation, given the mediocrity of his main competitor on the left, Hamon, and I don’t think that Taubira, Hidalgo or Jadot would have done any better. It is true that the presence of Zemmour is likely to lower the threshold of access to the second round. But these considerations should not let us lose sight of the fact that the right is still hegemonic. I dream of a second-round debate between Macron and Mélenchon, which would be a real confrontation between two opposing political visions. We can only hope for this, as we have the right – I would even say the obligation – to hope for a victory in the second round, even if this remains highly improbable. I say this without seeking to discourage anyone. On the contrary, we have to be aware that in any case this is not just a struggle of a few weeks. Neoliberal hegemony will not be undone in the space of a single election. In the most optimistic hypothesis, with Mélenchon elected president, we would in any case have to be prepared to counter attempts of a scarcely imaginable force to block his action and delegitimise him. The coming presidential election is certainly a very important milestone, but in any case simply a single battle in a long confrontation. Neoliberalism is hegemonic in this confrontation, but this hegemony is fragile because based on making the social suffering it generates invisible. I place my own hopes in a victory on the level of hegemony that will not come all at once, but will come in the end if the radical left, whether it wins or loses in 2022, sticks to its course as it has done in the last few years.

First published at: https://positions-revue.fr. 

Translated by David Fernbach

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