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Controlling our lives by shaping them together

This article was published in the special edition of re-publik here. Through an analysis of Sarkozy’s politics as a struggle for attaining cultural hegemony, Noel Hatch attempts to outline a counter-strategy for European social democratic parties.

Like most countries in Europe, France has become a fragmengrated society – where electoral choice is dominated by a dual paradox of fragmentation and integration. The French want a dynamic economic model where everyone can access opportunities and be rewarded on merit, a society which empowers them to shape their lives and ensures mutual respect and social justice. These patterns, previously predictable and individually coordinated are now increasingly fluctuating and interdependent of one another. Shaping these contradictions has become easier than keeping them in shape. I will try and explain how this paradox is at the key of Sarkozy’s strategy for cultural hegemony and how French and European social democracy can recast Sarkozism and reclaim the story about enabling people to control their own lives, by shaping them together.

A narrative of rupture for counter-revolutionary hegemony

Sarkozy has not only co-opted some of the personnel of the left, he has co-opted its rhetoric. He has lifted the Gramscian notion of “cultural hegemony” – political domination via the domination of ideas. The difference is that Sarkozy seeks hegemony not over ideas but over values, personified in the slogan “work more, earn more”, which appealed so much to France’s “silent majority”. In other words, letting people believe that the treadmill can be a vision of the good society.

By invoking a cultural rupture which reflected the revolutionary narrative of both the far left or extreme right, he was better able to consolidate the status quo of a conservative counter-revolution.

He started sowing the seeds of this rupture or clash of values both within his own party and civil society before launching it as a platform for the electoral campaign. He was therefore ideally placed to show how he embodied the change he wanted to see in the world.

The promise of freedom from fear or the privatization of the public realm

Through his nationalist sirens on French identity, Sarkozy evangelises a nostalgic nimbyism, echoing “the promise of freedom from fear and the tranquillity of the chez soi”. This “privatization of our economy and of our hopes and fears” inspires social fragmentation and consumerist populism. Sarkozism embodies a political “consumerism (that) cleverly compensates us for the loss of our collective ability to act. Like any form of compensation, it provides us with the rewards that we readily embrace.”

Exit, voice and loyalty or the personalisation of politics

Sarkozy compensates this lack of collective ability to act by personalising the political and politicising the personal. Rather than devolving power to local communities and democracy, Sarkozy frames himself as a saviour by an emotional hyperproximity and circumstantial melodrama. Rather than enabling people to take control of their lives and shape a better society together, he frames himself as the gatekeeper by a blind hyperactivism and instrumentalisation of victims. However, this non-politics is an ideological smokescreen hiding the invisible hand of the market and the paternalist clutch of the state.

Sarkozism and the state: Me, myself and I

By exaggerating the decline of the power of the state, Sarkozy can even better justify its revival to impose a “top down” and authoritarian approach to social change. On the other hand, when Ségolène Royal started letting go of the myth of the state and replacing it with a narrative of civil society, for the people that depended on it, it felt like the party was letting go of them – substituting the dominance of financial capital with social capital.

While the state is so central to the French imaginary, civil society is seen as the ill man of the Republic, frightened of the world and frightened of itself. Sarkozy promised to “liquidate the values of 1968″, represented by social autonomy, devolved power and European integration and professes the return of social authority, centralized power and statist nationalism. If Sarkozy won the elections on this platform, then why would anyone support the values of social democracy?

Recasting Sarkozism and “la grandeur de la France”

However, in France there is always been a very mixed picture of fragmented and overlapping identities and allegiances within a body of republican values. In many ways, the Socialist Party, through its political journey since 2002 and the participative campaign, can learn from the contradictions that exist within these identities, and the need neither to dilute nor to deny them, but to promote these differences less as threats than possibilities, “sharing experience on the basis of meaningful, palpable identity”. This will be critical to recast Sarkozism and reclaim the story about how we can live together.

A narrative for the next generation: Controlling our lives by shaping them together

We need to recognise our mistakes and learn the lessons. This doesn’t mean instinctively thinking that if we lurch to the other side of the political spectrum, the grass will be greener. What we think works or doesn’t at any certain time needs to be seen through the context in which we live in, with the ever changing and ever more complex needs and expectations of our citizens, not through the lens of empty pragmatism nor prescriptive dogma.

Trying to minimise these expectations or targeting exclusively individualistic approaches to common problems do not resolve issues that are interconnected between citizens and dependent on common endeavour. However, neither does denying people’s need for individual autonomy in choosing how they participate in this common endeavour.

Why should I join your revolution if I can’t dance?

We need to channel those expectations through facilitating easier and better ways for our citizens and communities to influence the “body politics” and the “body society”. In other words, if we are to engage in a hegemonic battle for values, then this also has to be a battle for political equality. Especially when the lowest social classes engage four times less in civic activism and twice as less in civic participation as the highest social classes. Indeed, to paraphrase a cult socialist proverb, if the people can’t dance, they won’t want to join our revolution.

An invitation to the party: Seeing the good society as our citizens do

We have a duty to invite, inspire and involve all social democrats into shaping the narrative, especially those excluded from political and civic participation. This invitation needs to make sense to our citizens and connect to their everyday lives and values. It needs to be worthwhile for them and make a difference in a way which is accessible. It needs to instil a sense of enthusiasm and hope, that by working with others towards this common endeavour, they can contribute to emancipating others by emancipating themselves towards “a society where everybody has access to the resources they need to live a good life” .

We need to build this consensus by walking the talk towards the good society:

1. enabling everyone to shape a manifesto for the good society so we can better connect with the public and campaign in the political and social arena – building on examples such as Compass’ Programme for Renewal , Désirs d’Avenir’s “participative campaign” or PASOK’s “open democracy”

2. reaching out to those who share our values but not our party into the progressive coalition - learning the lessons of coalitions such as London Citizens and acting as a community hub but also inviting them to complete a regular “external audit” of our direction of travel which we are accountable to respond to, like the one carried out by the Swedish Social Democratic Party - SAP.

3. devolving power to the members so their everyday experiences and connections into communities can inform our party and our policies – building create two-way channels of communication to the people our policies aim to help, such as the Belgian PS’s “best local practice” or the Swedish SAP’s “devolved party democracy”.

4. provide a flexible and accountable approach to renewal by all party structures - where everyone is tasked with identifying their “roadmap for renewal” from the leadership of our political parties (such as a charter of trust) to the grassroots - and what support they need to implement it

5. engaging people in a way which reconciles the tensions between their interest in social issues and distrust of party politics and enabling them to better experience democracy - people want the opportunity to participate when they want to and to not have to participate when they don’t want to – such as Spanish PSOE’s “ideas mapping”.

A lurch to the good society

We need to reconnect with the individual to better motivate common endeavour. We need to go beyond the nostalgic nimbyism of the right and foster a more inclusive civic pride which recognises the fluidity and diversity of the world we live in, where social justice is where we want to go and participative democracy is how we want to get there.

We need to combine idealism and pragmatism, turning the interconnections of individual self-interest into a common endeavour, translating socialist values into the narrative of everyday experience and linking rights and responsibilities through the lens of a new social contract of participation and a redefinition of our framework of values. In short, we need to embody and act the change we wish to see in the world.


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