French vote doesn’t secure democracy

(John McCann)

(John McCann)

In December last year the electoral rout of liberalism by the far right, still crowing after Brexit in June and the election of Donald Trump in November, was stopped, by the flimsiest of margins, in Austria. In March this year the far right was beaten by a bigger margin in the Netherlands. Now the far right, in the form of a party formed as an explicitly fascist project, has failed to take the presidency in France.

The election in France was frequently described as though it was some kind of referendum on the Enlightenment, as though the liberal consensus was the organised expression of the commitment to reason, equality, liberty and democracy.

Emmanuel Macron tied his success directly to the Enlightenment. In his victory speech he declared: “Europe and the world expect us to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment, threatened in so many places.”

Macron, a former investment banker with youth and a philosophy degree on his side, was the candidate of the established order. He offered no path towards the subordination of capital to society and, thereby, overcoming the material basis for racist forms of authoritarian populism.

His rival, Marine Le Pen, heads a party that, like much of the European far right, has replaced anti-Semitism with Islamophobia. Le Pen is enthusiastic about Brexit, Trump and the wider turn to openly racist populism in the United States and much of Europe. She poses a racist nativism against the globalisation of capital and people.

As in the American election last year, much of the electorate was distinctly unenthused about the choice before them. Millions didn’t bother to vote and there was a record number of spoilt votes. But for many the election of a liberal rather than a fascist was received with a sense of real relief. Politics does, after all, often come down to imperfect choices that, nonetheless, carry real weight.

And France is already an intensely racist country. African migrants often live in segregated zones governed by colonial modes of policing. Three months ago the zones of racial exclusion and subordination were lit with the fires of riot after a young black man was sodomised with a police truncheon. The election of Le Pen would have been a catastrophe.

But the imperative to hold the line against the likes of Le Pen offers no alibi for complicity with the pretence that the rule of capital is inevitably beyond the reach of democratic authority. It is precisely this fiction that, in much of the world, has undergirded the turn towards reactionary forms of nativism. If democratic authority cannot challenge technocratic forms of rule, and extend its reach into the economic realm, the demagogues pandering to the worst prejudices of their audiences will not prove to be a temporary aberration.

Yet the crisis of liberalism in much of Europe, as well as the US, is not solely consequent to the reduction of democracy to a choice between which group of technocrats will rule in the interests of capital.

It is also, fundamentally, about race. And in the more sophisticated language of contemporary racism the idea that countries such as France, Britain and the US, have a unique claim to descent from the Enlightenment is often a coded mechanism for repeating colonial ideas about civilisational superiority.

Of course the Enlightenment was hardly a solely European innovation. It drew from the philosophy of the ancient Mediterranean world, which included parts of what are now Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe, via Arab scholars. It also drew on contemporary currents in Jewish and Islamic thought. And, as recent scholarship, most notably that of Jonathan Israel, has shown, the Enlightenment was a contested project with what Israel refers to as radical and moderate wings.

Figures such as John Locke and Baruch Spinoza, both born in 1632, and both often credited as laying the foundation for the Enlightenment, had profoundly different politics. Spinoza affirmed radical democracy and radical equality. Locke affirmed the enclosure of common lands, colonial appropriation and slavery.

The liberalism that emerged from figures such as Locke, and later John Stuart Mill, was fundamentally racist in theory and practice. As Domenico Losurdo has shown, it consistently operated with a distinction between sacred and profane realms, initially understood spatially- and later racially.

The rights that it affirmed were not thought to apply in the realm of the profane, a realm in which the human was not distinguished from nature. Liberal revolutions in Europe and the US were accompanied by an extension of slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean.

France is no exception to this. When the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was proclaimed in Paris on August 26 1789, the rights announced in such ringing terms did not apply to all. Thomas Jefferson, a significant influence on the Declaration, ran his plantations in Virginia with slave labour. The first line of the Declaration — “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights” — was not taken to apply to Africans enslaved on the French plantations in the Caribbean. 

When enslaved Africans won their freedom in Haiti, after 13 years of war, their victory was, the Haitian historian Michel-Rolf Trouillot wrote, simply incomprehensible for “even the extreme political left in France”. The systemic inability to grasp the agency of enslaved Africans was, Trouillot argued, not a matter of empirical evidence but of “an ontology, an implicit organisation of the world and its inhabitants”.

When the reality of the revolution was finally comprehended, the response had nothing to do with liberty, fraternity or equality. In 1825 the French sent their warships to demand that the new Haitian republic compensate the plantation owners for lost property. This debt, $21-billion in today’s terms, was only finally paid off in 1947.

The second great French contribution to modern ideas of freedom, after the revolution that began in 1789, was the Paris Commune of 1871, of which Karl Marx famously wrote that the political form of the emancipation of labour had, at last, been discovered. But although the universal meaning of the Commune is frequently affirmed by French intellectuals the simultaneous insurrection against colonial rule in Algeria is seldom mentioned.

The war fought against fascism in the first half of the 1940s did not mark a universal opposition to racism and authoritarianism. The soldiers who first took Paris from the Nazis in August 1944, veterans of the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, were under the command of General Philippe Leclerc who, immediately after the war, went on to take command of the colonial army in Saigon.

When the Free French forces were about to cross the Rhine into Germany in October 1944, Senegalese soldiers were sent back from the front in what was described, in official documents, as “the whitening” of the now victorious army.

In November, Frantz Fanon, a soldier in the Free French forces, was wounded in the Battle of Alsace in Eastern France. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre. The citation was signed by the commanding officer of his regiment, Raoul Salan. The soldiers from the Caribbean were excluded from the victory celebrations and Fanon and his comrades were sent back to Martinique in a boat that had been used for transporting cattle.

After the end of the war, Salan, like Leclerc, sailed to what was then Indochina where he would, in time, take command of all the French forces in East Asia. In May 1954 the Viet Minh decisively defeated the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. In September 1956, an uprising in Algiers began a new anti-colonial war. Execution and torture, including rape, were rapidly institutionalised as routine forms of colonial domination. Salan was given command of the French forces.

Fanon, and many others, found that, in colonial Algeria, affirming the same values that had guided the anti-fascist struggle in Europe could get you killed. For Algerians, things were no better in France. In October 1961, six months before the final defeat of the French, the police massacred Algerians who had gathered in Paris to protest against the extraordinarily brutal colonial war. Many of the bodies were thrown into the Seine.

From Haiti to Vietnam and Algeria, freedom for the colonised was seized from the French only in battle. As Aimé Césaire argued in Discourse on Colonialism, his incendiary pamphlet first published in 1950, Hitler had scandalised enlightened opinion in Europe because he “had applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively” for the colonised, people placed in the realm of the profane, outside of the count of the fully human.

The radical Enlightenment was an extraordinary moment in the history of thought. But French liberalism, like English and American liberalism, descends from its conservative rivals, a current of thought invested in the conflation of Europe, the West and people of European descent with the human and the universal.

If the French election was a victory for this Enlightenment, neither those who are excluded from French society because of how they have been raced nor those who assume that how they have been raced should guarantee them inclusion will feel themselves at home.

Just as democracy will not endure capitalism, at least in its current form, it will also be unable to survive the racism that has always accompanied liberalism. For democracy to flourish, liberty, fraternity and equality must be for all.

Richard Pithouse is the senior researcher at the unit for the humanities at Rhodes University, and a visiting researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research

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