Some Versions of Utopia

Eliot Blondet/Sipa USA via AP Images

French Socialist Party presidential candidate, Benoit Hamon, delivers a speech during a campaign meeting at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris on March 19, 2017.

The literary critic William Empson wrote a book called Some Versions of Pastoral. The French presidential election this year might be called “some versions of utopia.” Each of the five principal candidates offers his own. “If you want to build superhighways for the French,” Charles de Gaulle said, “you’ve got to give them poetry.”

Start with the most pastoral of the lot, Benoît Hamon. Hamon conjures up a future of diminished toil, mutual succor, and harmony with nature. Although he proposes a dose of Keynesian stimulus to put the unemployed back to work, he simultaneously adheres to an explanation of persistent French unemployment that has nothing to do with chronic underinvestment. Technology has made mankind too productive, Hamon’s program insinuates. We don’t need to work as much as we currently do to meet all our needs. Hence workers should be encouraged to negotiate with employers to reduce the number of hours they work. The legal work week in France is currently 35 hours. Why not pare this back by 10 percent to 32?

Unstated but central to this vision of a brighter tomorrow is the notion that there exists an identifiable core of authentic human needs. Productivist ideology seeks to conceal this core by resorting to a variety of techniques such as advertising to stimulate artificial needs. Once the futility of these meretricious desires is recognized, man will rightly content himself with less and thereby cease to ravage the planet. If, under current relations of production, this leaves some without sufficient wages to trade for their subsistence, the community as a whole will supply a basic minimum income sufficient to survive. Ultimately, productive processes will be overhauled and the wage structure will adjust in a more egalitarian direction until a just equilibrium is achieved, taking from nature only what is required to accord to each what is necessary to satisfy all authentic needs and no inauthentic ones.

This is Hamon’s “eco-socialist” utopia. It has attracted the enthusiastic support of some young voters while dividing the Socialist Party, whose primary Hamon won handily against the less inspiring economistic “realism” of former prime minister Manuel Valls. Aware that a frankly utopian program is always vulnerable to the attacks of self-styled realists, however, Hamon has enlisted the support of a cadre of intellectuals including economists Thomas Piketty and Julia Cagé and sociologist Dominique Méda, who have labored mightily to supply the missing budgetary arithmetic.

Meanwhile, to Hamon’s left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of La France Insoumise, is proposing a more traditional left-wing version of pastoral. In a mass rally at the Place de la République, on the symbolic date of March 18, the anniversary of the Paris Commune, Mélenchon proposed nothing less than a withering away of the state, a “citizen revolution” that would establish in France a “Sixth Republic” stripped of the overweening power of the executive and ruled directly by the people. The candidate, who knows his history, should know that the periods of allegedly direct democracy that so vividly illuminated his rhetoric—the Terror and the Commune—were hardly the stuff that dreams are made on. But the crowd of 130,000 cheered wildly, demonstrating that the utopian identification of ruler and ruled retains its hold on the imagination.

Meanwhile, on the right, François Fillon, despite being sandbagged by scandal, continues the romp in the neoliberal Arcadia that won him the Republican primary. Whatever is wrong with France can be righted, he claims, by shrinking the size of government, reducing taxes on the wealthy, and deregulating wherever possible. Immigration should be reduced to a trickle, and in the meantime aliens living in France should be integrated by compelling the schools to abandon the critical teaching of history in favor of a more patriotic version of the French past as a steady, progressive march from conquest to conquest. Global history is to be banished because it fails to install France in its rightful place at the center of the world. Traditional values are to be emphasized, and while it would be too disruptive to repeal the law legalizing same-sex marriage, there is no harm in expressing sotto voce disapproval not only of gays but also of women who seek abortions.

Still farther to the right (if these spatial metaphors retain any meaning in today’s much-distorted political landscape), Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the Front National, has found a lofty label for her version of utopia: patriotism. She is a patriot, because she would restore French sovereignty by withdrawing from the European Union, repudiating the euro, expelling illegal immigrants, tightening borders, and giving priority in hiring to the native-born. Her rivals, on the other hand, are “globalists.” With the opposition between patriots and globalists she insinuates that any attempt to integrate France into the European and global economies is treasonous.

Finally, there is the centrist utopia of Emmanuel Macron. Explicitly eschewing the left-right divide, the 39-year-old candidate claims to take the best of “both left and right.” He has organized his nascent party, En Marche!, as an entrepreneurial start-up, replete with venture-capital financing. On the stump he exudes the confidence of a dynamic founder, speaking with the inspirational, at times mystical, verve of a Steve Jobs burnished by the whiz-kid credentials of a Bill Gates. He excelled at school, made a killing in the private sector, and served as a minister in government, all before turning 40. His utopia is, oxymoronically, the utopia of realism, the utopia that claims the only way to achieve a brighter tomorrow is to stop dreaming of what it might look like and get down to work. To set a distant destination is illusory. Road-building is the only reality.

Tonight, March 20, these five contrasting versions of utopia will confront one another in televised debate. Each candidate will try to cast the others as deluded fantasists in the grip of an unreal vision of the state of France, the nature of politics, and the likely consequences of alternative courses. It is a difficult balancing act: to make one’s own dream shimmer in the minds of voters while casting the other four as mere pipe dreams. In this year of extraordinary voter volatility, whoever succeeds best in this impossible exercise will take a decisive step toward becoming France’s next president.

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