The winning French team is populated by players who had been captured by football academies at a young age, and they too had led curiously privileged lives and enjoyed their own elite formation.
There was once a certain style. Rereading the 1953 English translation of Albert Camus’s The Rebel, one is struck by its grandeur, its cosmic language where rebellion somehow expresses the contradiction of God. In a way it’s silly; in another way, one remembers how such language made one into an idealist, the sort that imagined Paris as full of neatly piled cobblestones, ready to be thrown at small and great contradictions.
Camus’s writing was the grand gesture for all adolescents, but the world has entered a late middle age of decrepitude. God is fake news. The earth is meanwhile flat. President Putin uses Botox. Unforgiving close-ups reveal the face of President Trump to be saturated with tiny broken veins. Circulation is a seepage, not a flow.
But the French President Emmanuel Macron, of the sort unimaginable to Camus, is young enough to look like the over-achieving teenager who would have invented a machine to prize up the cobblestones, having first privatized them. He seduced his schoolteacher while still her student, danced in Lagos with the son of Fela Kuti, leapt to his feet punching the air as France wins the World Cup, all while never needing to loosen his tie.
And, across the Channel, Prime Minister Theresa May — who never looks glamorous despite wearing Parisian couture — holds nominal court over a government that is so divided on issues of economic and cosmic destiny that the ministers resemble toads and frogs in the blazer pockets of Eton schoolboys. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, like the teacher brought out of retirement, remembers E.P. Thompson’s 1975 essay on Europe and takes to heart its warning 43 years later, when all of Europe and all the world has turned upside down and when reading Thompson is like reading a village romance that warns against the wickedness of the big city.
A FRENCH INTERLUDE
As for France, it had its great moment of contradiction after World War II. Its sophistication and sense of equality, in elite circles at least, attracted Miles Davis to Paris in 1949. He would walk around the city hand in hand with Juliet Greco and feel, on his first trip outside the United States, a free man. He was taken seriously and treated with respect. Until his death, he kept coming back.
If Camus wrote The Rebel in 1953, its antecedent and, in many ways, its template, was André Malraux’s Man’s Estate, published in 1933, about a group of revolutionaries who had gone to China to fight in the Shanghai uprising. The book’s sense is exactly that of equality. I cannot think of any earlier book where Chinese people are depicted as complete equals in their human capacities, ideals and failures, to any others. In particular, they kill with as much hesitation, and die with as much resignation, fear and courage as everyone else. They rebel against the cosmos but seek an equality on earth that fits perfectly Camus’s rendition of dying for others.
And, if one is to die for other human beings, why not for elephants? Romain Gary’s 1956 novel, The Roots of Heaven, pioneered what is now a global ideology of equality in an almost anthropomorphic sense. Only for Gary, the elephants were always that Great Other who, nevertheless, had a right to life. Gary, like Malraux, had been one of those dashing adventurers and war heroes who gave life to Camus’s idea of l’homme engagé, the fighting intellectual who was engaged with the world he contemplated. It all gave France a sense of sophistication, culture and cosmopolitanism in which morality reached outward.
Except that it didn’t. The war with Algeria, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, was a war of terror on both sides. The horrendous and suffocating French military tactics were emulated by South Africa in the 1980s as the last stand of apartheid reached out to stifle the capacities of surrounding countries to support liberation. In France itself, attempted coups shattered the capacity of the 4th Republic to produce a stable government. The strongman president, personified then by General Charles De Gaulle and by the constitution of the 5th Republic, gave all successive presidents almost Napoleonic power.
No other Western democracy has such a constitutionalized neo-dictator at its elected core, in which the president can never be completely outflanked. But in the outflanking and counter-flanking, ambivalences, if not contradictions, arise. The machinations of François Mitterand, the great complexity who became president of France in 1981, introduced a combination of sordid reality and residual idealism to the idea of politics. Suddenly, everything became worldly — not just in a philosophical sense, but with the attributes of cynicism.
In this, the descendant of Malraux, Camus and Gary is Bernard Henri Levy — the dashing opportunist who is so dashing, he doesn’t have time to think. Not deeply at any rate, but who produces an onslaught of ideas and interventions that mark the current era of France as one of style and flimsiness. It has to be flimsy to avoid the pitfalls of immorality, to skate over them, as if thought was now postured on thin ice. It produces a figure like President Macron, whose politics of theater may yet transform France, but not in the way that Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn might wish to transform the United Kingdom.
A Template for Leftist Thought
What exists as a template for leftist thought in Britain is in fact more English than fully British. It rejoices in its heritage of the English Civil War and the overthrow of Charles I. A form of parliamentary government was attempted against the backdrop of debates on equality and John Milton’s great poem in which Satan was right to rebel against God. These social and political liberties were threatened by the political economy of the Industrial Revolution, and it was E.P. Thompson who in 1963 stirringly wrote about the culture of resistance in The Making of the English Working Class.
Insofar as there was an internationalism, this was apparent in the long twilight of belief in Stalinism, until the evidence of gulags and massacres became too great, but was continued in subscription to the “actually existing socialism” of Yugoslavia. Thompson’s brother, Frank, had been executed by Fascist collaborators while fighting alongside Tito’s partisans, and E.P. himself had been part of the youth brigades that, after the war, came to help build Yugoslavia’s railways. In between England and Yugoslavia was this thing called Europe, which seemed to be uniting its industrial and corporate classes in what is now the European Union.
The makings of the various European working classes and their own cultures of rebellion were unknown to Thompson and, in his famous argument with the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, it was Kolakowski who took almost sarcastic delight in pointing out (in a very long 1974 essay) that Thompson knew next to nothing about Eastern Europe, the realities of socialist doctrine in Communist application and the intellectual culture of resistance outside England. In short, Little England was as much a preserve of the left as it remains of the English right in its current Brexiteering against Europe.
In this stylized and stylish hypocrisy, our only hope is for a Europe of the future — a Europe that stands against the dictators as they carve out spaces in the world.
In this, Jeremy Corbyn, who would remember at first hand the impact of Thompson, is as one with those around Theresa May. If it is England first (Scotland and Northern Ireland voted very much against Brexit), then it echoes that curious Anglophonic isolationism and self-righteousness that is heard in Donald Trump’s USA: “America First,” meaning in both the US and England a blue-collar, working-class sense of resistance to the outside, to the Other, to difference and to anything that is not part of its own corporatist ethnocentricity and ethos.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the left has lost the working class but dares not admit it. Mythologies that have replaced thought would crumble. There is, at it were, a Trump card against all thought.
This leaves the new great dictators of the world to carve out their large corners. Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, even little dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will have their slice. Xi’s China will survive trade wars with the US and may even emerge from them stronger than America. Putin is very obviously a rival to the US, but his assiduous portrayal of himself as strong and manly has gripped the American imagination as a key desideratum of leadership. It is something that seems so desperately desirable in the vacuum of thought and the seeming refusal or incapacity to think — manliness is projected into the corpulent and combed-over frame of 72 year-old President Trump who, as evidence of manliness, gropes women almost as an obligatory performance of male strength and leadership. Locker-room talk? Only strong men inhabit locker rooms.
An emaciated Europe without Britain will face Russia, and a reckless US will face China. Within 10 years we shall know who owns the new morning of future history.
MEANWHILE IN THE BANLIEUE
When President Macron cheers his national team, this is not necessarily a president at one with his people. The elite formation of French leaders leaves little room for identification with poverty in the poor suburbs. When Frantz Fanon, at the same time as Camus, was writing about trauma on the part of the oppressed, his research had begun precisely in the migrant communities of France.
However, the 2018 winning French team, although composed it seemed of people from the banlieue, was in fact populated by players who had been captured by football academies at a young age, and they too had led curiously privileged lives and enjoyed their own elite formation. But street cred is declared and performed as much as something actual and structured, and Macron knew about the values of performativity. Even so, the French president has reinforcements that no World Cup winner or other citizen can have.
So what is there finally about France in the nest of the world’s perfidies that still makes it — with complaints and gestures of despair — something like the best of all possible decrepitudes? Not just a president who looks less wooden than the young Tony Blair when he attempted his Cool Britannia phase. And the French have their own long history of perfidies without a trace of English irony.
I think it is the absence of detachment, which begs the question as to whether elite engagement is better than none at all. But the impersonation of Macron in the French team’s dressing room was not only performatively convincing, but more convincing altogether than Theresa May’s inability to meet the survivors of the Grenfell Tower inferno, when she had to be prompted to go back to do so, after first having met only the fire crews and rescuers. And it is more convincing than Donald Trump’s desperate and naked search for validations and confirmations he is somehow not only great, but greater than anyone else. Being one with the people as a performance is not the same as being all things to all people as a pathology.
In this stylized and stylish hypocrisy, our only hope is for a Europe of the future — a Europe that stands against the dictators as they carve out spaces in the world. Not for obvious and “universal” human rights such as liberté, egalité and fraternité (and hopefully sororité), but against the gross turpitude of obvious governmental wrongs against a free judiciary, free expression and free organization whence all else flows. Outside the mandate of scriptures and handed-down mythologies is the possibility for people to carve their own way and establish their own sense of class, history, future and their own cynicism as they reflect on their own failures and self-achieved hypocrisies; within, new legends that the next generation may freely dispute and dismiss.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.