From Republican Political Culture to Republican Democracy: The Benefits and Burdens of History (1)
Howard, Dick, French Politics, Culture and Society
Marx called France the political nation par excellence, as contrasted to economic England and philosophical Germany. But Marx arrived at his mature theory only after a stern critique of a "merely political" view of revolution. And some of his most important insights are developed in analyses of the failures of revolution in France. While Marx's observation is insightful, the theoretical conclusions he drew from it are problematic. The monarchy in France was not absolute because it was all-powerful or arbitrary; its power came from the means by which it dominated all spheres of life, transforming an administrative and territorial entity into a political nation. In the wake of the Revolution, the republican tradition became equally absolute; it came to define what the French mean by the political (a concept whose use differs from what "Anglo-Saxons" define as politics). Today, "globalization" (in its various meanings) seems to threaten the power the French attribute to the political. Two interpretations of the nature of this threat to the autonomy of the republic are possible. Either the nation-state, whatever its history, is simply unable to resist the untamed logic of the world economy; or the French tradition contains resources permitting it to transform itself internally in order to provide a unique way to deal with the changed environment. In other words, is the priority of the political a benefit or a burden?
The French political tradition is challenged also from within. The bitter quarrels over political legitimacy that began in 1789 are said by many to have ended when the Left came finally to power in 1981 (or when it co-habited with the Right, in 1986). Yet this political success bas not eliminated a crippling social anomie, designated by the category of "exclusion." Exclusion does not refer simply to economic conditions; it suggests that the republican political project has not been realized. An ambiguity in the republican political tradition is revealed by this new situation. The republican quest for national unity is threatened constantly by the appearance of particularity; the obligations of the citizen clash with the rights guaranteed to the individual. When the economic conjuncture was positive, both the state and the individual could be satisfied. When conditions worsened, the difficulty was hidden by an aversion to the ("Anglo-Saxon") vision of an independent judiciary imposing its will in the place of the general will. That attitude has changed as political scandals have undermined the legitimacy of the political elite while permitting the judiciary to acquire a new independence. As a result, individual claims against the state have acquired increased legitimacy (most famously, in the tainted blood affair). Such rights are not welfare grants from on high; they permit the kind of self-activity that in principle could integrate the excluded. If this process is successful, it will transform the inherited French political culture into a republican democracy that may indeed be able to face up to globalization.
The French Revolution and the Primacy of the Political
The French Revolution sought to replace one form of unitary sovereign power with another. Drawing on the analogy to Christ as the head of the Church Universal, the absolute monarch was the head of the nation, whose permanence transcended in principle his merely temporal activity. But the terms could be inverted. Court life, with its culture of conversation and politesse, reached its heights under Louis XIV. This culture was political only by default; it had been made possible by the destruction of all autonomous political life (whose "feudal" particularity hindered the political progress of national unification). The Sun King's domestication of his nobility in the artificial and formal world of Versailles, at a safe distance also from the people of Paris, was a triumph bought at a price that would be paid with the Revolution. …