Show Hide image

No Panthéon for Camus

French president Sarkozy's attempt to honour Albert Camus has backfired

Normally, honoring a writer as conventionally admired as the Nobel-prizewinning French author Albert Camus (1913 -1960) fifty years after his accidental death in a car crash should not be a controversial matter. But these are not normal times in France. The author of The Stranger, The Fall, and The Plague was proposed in mid-November by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for honorary reburial in the Panthéon, the vast monument in Paris' Latin Quarter which entombs many Gallic heroes, from Voltaire to Pasteur. In response, Jean Camus, 64, one of the late writer's twin children, told Le Monde newspaper that he feared Sarkozy was attempting an "appropriation" (récupération) of his father through a "misinterpretation" (contresens). In France, the concept of "droit moral" (moral rights) means that if Camus's son is opposed to the idea, the writer cannot be disinterred from his current resting place, in the cemetery of Lourmarin, a town in the Vaucluse department, in southern France, where he had a summer home.

Even preceding Jean Camus's reaction was one by the far-right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, who accused Sarkozy of trying to lure away supporters of his National Front party by honoring Camus, a white Frenchman born in Algeria, or as Le Pen described him to the AFP, a "Pied-Noir writer," referring to the colonists of Algeria who were obliged to leave at the end of the Algerian War in 1962. A more common reaction came from Jeanyves Guérin, a Sorbonne professor and editor of the scrupulously detailed "Albert Camus Dictionary" (Dictionnaire Albert Camus), published in November by Robert Laffont in Paris. According to Guérin, interviewed in Le Nouvel Observateur, "Sarkozy is the friend of Bush, Gaddafi, Putin, Berlusconi. His politics are the antithesis of the values and ideas defended by Camus." The reliably middlebrow Bernard Pivot, formerly host of the popular TV literary program Apostrophes, also objected, although less antagonistically, in the Journal du Dimanche: "Reinter Camus' remains in the Panthéon? For a Mediterranean who always celebrated the sun, it would be quite cold there. Everything in the writer's life and work suggests that he would not have appreciated this kind of honor and official display which has no rapport to literature..."

Camus was indeed highly suspicious of political power and panoply, believing it corrupted those who possess it, and his play Caligula alleges that "to govern means to pillage, as everyone knows." Having known poverty in his own youth, Camus defended the rights of the poor and downtrodden, and while considering himself a leftist, criticized the Soviet system of gulags in the 1950s, which can make him look prescient today, at least compared to blinkered Communists among French intellectuals like Sartre and Beauvoir. Unlike the free-market capitalism strenuously advocated by Sarkozy, Camus was a devout libertarian, some writers remind us. Yet does this really matter? Other observers point out that in a few decades, few if any will remember under which French presidency Camus was reburied in the Panthéon, with accompanying hoopla. The philosopher and radio personality Raphaël Enthoven asked in L'Express: "Why deprive Camus of a hero's burial, after having accorded Sartre a papal funeral? Why deprive Camus of what was given to Rousseau, Voltaire, Hugo and Zola?" The filmmaker Yann Moix concurred in the political journal La Règle du jeu, pointing out that since the Panthéon is the "Académie française for dead people," these days Camus is surely both "sufficiently academic and sufficiently dead to repose there." Moix adds, ironically assuring readers: "His works, great, lovely, and noble as they are, will not dynamite anything. Camus is not a dangerous author."

Yet he has turned out to be dangerous for Sarkozy, because even more than any putative political clash, Camus has reminded the French public of Sarkozy's own rapport with literature, which has been, in a word, disastrous. In other nations, politicians are not expected to be well-read or even functionally literate, but France is still an exception - or was until recently. During his campaign in 2006, Sarkozy notoriously dismissed the 17th century French novel La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de La Fayette, arguing that civil service entrance exams should not include questions about such painfully irrelevant subjects. A great crowd of unsuspected Madame de La Fayette fans arose, holding marathon public readings of La Princesse de Clèves and following the satiric "Sarkothon" campaign of the writer Jacques Drillon, who, mocking both the current government and TV charity telethons, wrote that since poor Nicholas has never read anything, French citizens should immediately mail him books.

As if in defiance, Sarkozy multiplied his aggressive comments about literature and those who spent what he saw as excessive time reading it. In 2007, Sarkozy told students in a speech: "You have the right to study classic literature, but the taxpayer is not obliged to pay for your studies in classic literature," thereby striking at the heart of academic subjects which are not immediately remunerative. A year later, at a press conference during a state visit to India, Sarkozy offended wide swathes of readers by claiming: "You can like [fascist French writer Louis-Ferdinand] Céline without being anti-Semitic, just as you can like [Marcel] Proust without being homosexual." Apart from the crude parallelism of anti-Semite/homosexual as two entities comparably offensive to Sarkozy, his reductive approach clearly typed him in the minds of the French as a book hater. Or, as Drillon explained in a September online chat, Sarkozy's critics "do not reproach him for [not being a great reader]. He can read or not read, that's up to him. We reproach his hatred for books, which is something different. We reproach him for despising books and readers."

Here is the crux of the problem, and the peculiar reason why Albert Camus will not, at least in the immediate future, be reburied in the Panthéon.

Benjamin Ivry is author of biographies of Rimbaud, Ravel, and Poulenc, and translator of books by Gide, Verne, and Balthus.

 

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.