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Last September Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of the luxury conglomerate company LVMH, held a little “do” to mark the 60th birthday of the couture house of Dior. He spared no expense, with Dom Perignon champagne, caviar, 75 waiters for 25 tables, 14 cooks, 4,000 roses and 8,000 sprigs of lily of the valley (the late Christian Dior’s signature flower). But then the 270 guests were rather special too, including the justice minister Rachida Dati; the interior minister Brice Hortefeux and his wife, dressed by Dior; the mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe; the television news anchor Claire Chazal, also draped in Dior; former foreign minister Hubert Vedrine and the parliamentary leader of the governing UMP Party, Jean-Francois Cope; Elton John and Farah Diba, wife of the late Shah of Iran . Also present was the prime minister, Francois Fillon, who only four days later said: “I am in charge of a bankrupt state. This has got to stop.”
There is nothing new about billionaires indulging in conspicuous consumption. But the social portent of such festivities now reaches beyond the pages of glossy magazines. The election of President Nicolas Sarkozy last year heralded a new approach to the exercise of power, completing the merger of several parts of France’s elite: big bosses, opinion-makers and political leaders, right and left, providing they uphold free-market principles. Ideally they should be very rich too. Arnault is the richest man in France, worth an estimated $21bn in 2006. He is a personal friend of the president, whom he invited to the wedding of his daughter Delphine_a big occasion, with guests including six members of the government of the day, and Cope and Vedrine (who is on the LVMH board). A long truck was chartered to transport the bridal dresswithout creasing it. Arnault owns a financial daily, La Tribune, which he is selling to buy Les Echos, a more influential paper. The staff of both are against the project, but Sarkozy backs his friend. In 2006 LVMH handed out 1,789,359 stock options, including 450,000 to its boss. The government has recently awarded substantial tax breaks to the wealthy, including Arnault, perhaps as a token of its gratitude for holding down inflation by keeping tight control over pay. Many of those who manufacture Arnault’s luxury goods earn only the minimumwage.
Britain’s Labor prime minister, Gordon Brown, asks Arnault for advice, but in France the tycoon is convinced he is seen as a pariah: “The problem for business leaders in France is that the country has difficulty accepting a market economy. I think Marxist ideas still exert an influence. Over the last 20 years their influence has even increased in political discourse.”
Arnault must be living in a different France from everybody else. His friend is now president and even the Socialist opposition, following the example of its British counterpart, talks about little else but rehabilitating free-market values, individualism, merit and money. Meanwhile Bernard-Henri Levy_a neo-liberal, pro-US socialite, astute manager of an immense fortune and established star of intellectual show business_has just published a book , which he hopes will establish him as a key Socialist Party (PS) thinker. The book is “Ce grand cadavre a la renverse”, (Grasset, Paris, 2007), scheduled to be published in the U.S. next fall by Random House , under the title, “Left in Dark Times. A Stand Against the New Barbarism.”
The restoration marches on. France resembles a plutocracy; money is all that counts. The government abounds with corporate lawyers. Influential MPs such as Cope make no secret of their ambition to fulfil their public mission while making a fortune in business. With recurrent scandals in the stock market and finance, growing public fascination with billionaires and frequent lobbying, France is turning into another Monaco-style principality. The recent wedding of Socialist MP Henri Weber was an extravagant celebrity event attended by former leftists, such as Bernard Kouchner, who are now ministers in the rightwing government . Jacques Attali, once a special adviser to Francois Mitterrand, was also on the guest list. He recently accepted Sarkozy’s proposal to chair the newly established Committee for the Liberation of French Growth and is proving a keen advocate of competition and mass distribution.
On June 13, 1971, in a speech at the Epinay congress , Mitterrand condemned “all the powers of money, money that corrupts, money that buys, money that kills, money that brings ruin and money that rots even the conscience of men”.
Now Levy is suggesting that the PS should organize a congress to make a new start, an “anti-Epinay”. He does not see the corruption, death, ruin and rot in money, but rather “its ability to replace war with trade, closed worlds with open borders. Thanks to [money], negotiations, transactions and compromise take the place of impatience, violence, barter, rapine, arbitrary settlements and fanaticism” .
This definition of capital as a rampart against fanaticism is very much in vogue and seems unlikely to upset members of the property-owning classes such as Arnault, Arnaud Lagardere, the man behind the media and aerospace conglomerate of the same name, or Francois Pinault, owner of the PPR global retailing group. The last two are close friends of Levy, who has no qualms about tailoring his columns to suit their interests.
Who cares about Levy? For the past 30 years his fan club has acclaimed his work and the media have made a fuss, yet no one would think of buying one of his books once the public relations barrage subsides. The title of his autobiography, “Comedie”, suggests that even he sometimes realises the wholeprocess is a farce.
In 1979 Cornelius Castoriadis admitted to being baffled by him: “How can a country with a fine, long-standing culture allow a writer to get away with such nonsense, with critics lauding his work and the reading public obediently lapping it up? No one silences nor imprisons those who point out it is all a sham, yet their words make no difference” He optimistically added: “This piffle will certainly go out of fashion. Much like all contemporary products it has built-in obsolescence.” Nearly 30 years later the piffle is still selling.
This trade in nonsense is doubly revealing of our current malaise. The excesses of Levy’s prose and its repetition on TV and radio no longer prompt any response. His habitual Targets — the “left of the left” and the writers least in thrall to the media — must have given up the struggle. Meanwhile his pro-US, free-market ideas are in tune with those of a growing number of socialist leaders. Diminishing resistance goes hand in hand with greater impact. Any cultural scene, and by extension public debate, that can allow a writer to accuse Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Etienne Balibar, Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek of being anti-semitic is in trouble. It is strange that any of them should be suspected of taking their cue from a “Nazi thinker” (see “Levy’s pet hates”). When the left starts taking its inspiration from Levy, it further proves that it is dead on its feet.
Levy’s friends have recently gratified him with favours (interviews with Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, a leading radio personality, and Jean-Marie Colombani, the former editor of Le Monde; an immediate review in the same paper, a huge spread in Paris Match, front-page coverage in Le Nouvel Observateur). But he has recruited new fans, who in their youthful enthusiasm are all the more eager to serve his cause. Nicolas Demorand, on the France Inter radio station, and Philippe Val, the editor of the satiric journal Charlie Hebdo, are no fools; yet when Levy calls key contemporary leftwing writers fascists, anti-semites or Nazis, they pretend not to notice. After encouraging Levy to make liberal use of insults and bad language, Demorand let him conclude by saying: “We are the guardians of words on this program.” Demorand may look forward to a long career.
Following its third consecutive defeat in a presidential election, the PS is tempted to lean even further to the right. Having embraced “realism” in the early 1980s, the idea of “breaking with capitalism” has become meaningless. But media and business leaders keep demanding that the party should go even further, espousing free-market values more absolutely. Last August this pressure led to an outburst from the MP Henri Emmanuelli: “How dare they ask a party that has produced the director of the World Trade Organisation [Pascal Lamy] and very probably the future director of the International Monetary Fund [Dominique Strauss-Kahn] finally to accept the market economy?”
In 1986, 1993 and 2002, the election defeats of the PS pushed the party line a few degrees to the left — a move it could afford, it hardly being possible to blame their electoral misfortunes on having strayed too far to the left. Nor did Segolene Royal lean far leftwards during last year’s presidential campaign (in which Levy was closely involved). In the face of Sarkozy’s aggressive rightwing policies, the PS could surely afford to adopt a more militant stance, however superficial it might be in practice.
Encouraged by the Blairist ambitions of several PS leaders, Levy has wheeled out his media battlewagon to ward off any such eventuality. He plans to dictate to any hypothetical leftwing government the ultimate theoretical basis for future neo-liberal, anti-revolutionary policies. In 1986 Levy supported the deregulation of broadcasting. In 1995 he condemned striking railway and public transport workers, highlighting the lack of responsibility of the public sector which was “in the process of assuming all the characteristics of what we once called a Soviet-style economy” . Two years later he mocked those who “demonize money and all those who deal in it”. Now he has written a book specially for the left, to rid it of its “poisons”. But the worst thing is that people actually listen.
The break with the past Levy proposes is no different from that promised by Sarkozy. “For reasons related to its past and the history of its national software [sic], the whole of France is resisting free-market principles,” he writes, rather as the president might. He adds: “The question of whether the revolution is possible has given way to another question that is even more disturbing and above all more radical, namely whether the revolution is desirable. The answer to this question has become ‘No’, clearly ‘No’.” Pierre Moscovici (who is close to Strauss-Kahn) promptly picked up the ball and wrote: “Bernard-Henri Levy concludes with an appeal to the melancholic left in opposition to the lyrical left, to a left stripped of its revolutionary Utopia, the ‘dream that always ends in a nightmare’… That is also my version of the left” .
But is Levy really best placed to suggest solutions to suit most people? His book hardly ever deals with the economy or finance, inequality, relocation of production, occupational hazards or purchasing power. Apart from a 10-page chapter on France’s underprivileged housing estates, there is no mention of social issues. A few ideas, essentially comparing his opponents to fascists, float past, unrelated to their causes. He devotes half a chapter to the Khmer Rouge (in Cambodia), pointing out that they “sampled the work of [Charles] Bettelheim, Althusser, Lacan”, but overlooking the fact that the US war in southeast Asia increased their power at least as much as the three French writers did.
No one can be blamed for their origins, but it is unlikely that Levy has suffered a great deal from inequality. So why does his manifesto for the left so completely disregard the topic? During an interview in 1984 he explained how he works: “I do not write in cafes, but in hotels. All over the world. In Paris, in a room at the Pont-Royal, number 812, because it looks out over the roofs, commanding a view of the city. Also room 911 at the Georges-V. … My stamping ground reaches from the Jardin du Luxembourg, where I live, to the rue des Saints-Peres, where we are now, or the Recamier, where I often lunch. In the afternoon I like the Twickenham, or otherwise the [cafe] Flore, and [the flat in] Rue Madame” .
Since then his home ground has reached into other enchanted worlds. At the wedding of Pinault junior, in 1996, he “arrived in style, landing on the lawn of the chateau in a helicopter”. When he married the actress Arielle Dombasle, in 1993, “a plane was chartered to transport guests to La Colombe d’Or, the mythical hotel in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Paris Match obtained exclusive rights to cover the event, with a six-page spread worthy of a royal wedding, not to mention the front page which featured an emotional Arielle in a white dress with a low-cut back, designed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel” . Guests included Liliane Bettencourt (then the richest person in France), Jack Lang, the former minister, and Alain Carignon, then mayor of Grenoble, as well as the columnist Louis Pauwels and Jean-Luc Lagardere.
Levy believes we forget how much we owe to capitalism. “We think we are attacking George Soros,” he warns, “but in fact we are murdering Gavroche” (a key figure in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables). Here again Levy has something in common with Sarkozy, who rolls out a succession of reforms, the better to thwart his adversaries, unable to counter-attack on all sides simultaneously. The writer piles on names, approximations and historical wisecracks. The historian Pierre Vidal-Naquel noted this habit in 1979: “Whether he is dealing with the history of the Bible, Ancient Greece or even contemporary affairs, Levy displays, in every field, the same alarming ignorance and stunning presumption” . Levy had written that Heinrich Himmler, who actually committed suicide in May 1945, gave evidence six months later at the Nuremberg trial. In another instance he presented Francois Guizot, a conservative, free-market thinker in Restoration France, as one of the forerunners of the Paris Commune when he had infact supported its bloody repression.
Many on the French left have praised Levy’s latest book. “The left we have yet to reinvent should draw inspiration from this work. It has a fresh, youthful energy I particularly appreciate,” said Jacques Lang . Moscovici, Vincent Peillon and Manuel Valls, all of whom are vying for the leadership of the PS, joined in the praise. Valls was one of those to whom Sarkozy offered a cabinet job. This came to nothing, but nevertheless suggests that the two men see more or less eye to eye. Valls subsequently hailed the policy statement of the incoming prime minister, Francois Fillon, as “on a par with the country’s expectations”, adding that he was prepared to “support the majority provided it listens to us” (the PS). He supports the current reform of special pensions and is calling for a change in the party’s name. In his book Levy pays tribute to Valls: “Although many socialists still cling to their socialism much as a repertory actor hangs on to a familiar part — the most lucid among themManuel Valls, the MP for the Essonne, springs to mind — know there is no salvation for the left without a clean break with the past, and consequently a change of name.” Valls quickly wrote a review of this “brilliant book” for Les Echos, though he failed to mention that in so doing he was merely returning the author’s compliment. He even singled out for special praise the passage in which he was mentioned .
Valls, suspected by some of his fellow travellers of harbouring rightwing sympathies, added: “Those who say this book is simply a celebration of neo-liberal values and a conservative left refuse to admit that it is a sincere attempt at introspection by a writer who quite certainly belongs on the left.” He did acknowledge, though, that Levy tended to disregard social issues. Not so long ago, anyone admitting, as Levy did, to being “slightly deaf to social concerns” would have been banished by the left. Such ostracism would now be considered archaic, or “Marxist” as Arnault would say.
Levy’s political ideas are clear enough. He promotes free-market values and condemns radicalism. While Sarkozy is in power, Levy manufactures for him a “moral left”, with plenty of emotion and indignation. Not the sort of left that might greatly hinder the government, which, in the words of a former captain of industry, is “methodically dismantling the program of the National Council of the Resistance”.
A final footnote on BHL’s nutty hit list
In his book Bernard-Henri Levy lists “laboratories brewing atrocities”. This list features, in order of appearance: Hugo Chavez, “whose anti-neo liberal rhetoric recalls ‘fascist or Nazi-style regimes’ according to Latin-America’s bishops”.
Etienne Balibar, Daniel Bensaid, Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida: they are held responsible for the “widely publicized rediscovery… of a theoretician, driven by his hatred of free markets to espouse Nazism: Carl Schmitt. He is presented as the saviour of a left that has lost its bearings.” S
lavoj Zizek and Peter Sloterdijk: “A significant number of European intellectuals have wholeheartedly embraced this curious, indeed hallucinatory, notion that a Nazi thinker [Schmitt] could rescue the left from its current problems. Heidegger used to say that only a god could save us. Now, echoing the idea, this leftwing fringe repeats that only a Nazi can save us.”
Emmanuel Mounier and Jean-Marie Domenach: “The idea [attributed to them] that the real danger was not the Soviet Union, but the United States, not communism but Americanism, resurfaces among the ideologists of the new right in the 1980s, and then in all the neo-Nazi sects, mentioned above, such as Nouvelle Resistance, and finally in [France’s] National Front.”
Le Monde diplomatique: “An editorial of Le Monde diplomatique explaining that America … has found a secret weapon for ‘domesticating souls’… almost exactly the same words as Drieu la Rochelle used [a French writer who headed La Nouvelle Revue francaise during the Occupation and advocated collaboration with the Nazi authorities.]…. Or here again, in the same issue … the foul stench arising from the condemnation of the ‘cosmopolitan establishment of bankers and corporate lawyers’ that dominates the US, and therefore the world. Maurras [Leader and principal thinker of the reactionary Action Francaise] . or nowadays Le Pen, would say the same… In yet another article, by Loic Wacquant and Pierre Bourdieu … how can one not react to the disturbing similarities with another strain of anti-Americanism, the one and only true variety, hatched by Arthur Moeller Van den Bruck, the man who invented the idea of the Third Reich.”
Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 “was no more than a variation on the old isolationist, populist, ultra-nationalist and chauvinistic ideas of Pat Buchanan and other rightwing US extremists”.
Harold Pinter: “You would think you were listening to Pinter, Chomsky, Bourdieu or a neo-Trotskyist. But no. The nerve, the investigative style, the obsession with manipulation … it all brings us back, I fear, to the ravings of the tsarist police fabricating its famous fake that supposedly proved Jewish domination of the world.”
Noam Chomsky: “this maniacal negationist”.
Olivier Besancenot and the Attac organisation: “Why have we never heard any of them, ever, telling us what they think about Iran’s president Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly says that he dreams of annihilating Israel?”
Referring to Levy’s publications in 1979, Cornelius Castoriadis found “a good sample of devious Stalinist techniques”. This is a severe criticism, particularly as Levy claims to write “without any sense of controversy”, though “I do of course simplify”, and even suggests the reader “look at things calmly and with a cool head”. He sees himself as being “trained, I think, to be curious and respectful”.
Levy defends the US industrialist Henry Ford, who inspired Adolf Hitler. As Levy himself acknowledges, his commitment to the cause of Darfur brought him into contact with “an increasing number of Islamic militants, sometimes even Islamists, linked in particular to Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.” (The preacher Louis Farrakhan is, among other things, an anti-semite.)
Perhaps it would be most effective to refer Levy to his own writings: “Sometimes, overwhelmed by exhaustion or disgust, it is just too hard to go on. What is the point in trying to make someone see reason, when they just will not listen?”
Translated by Harry Forster.
SERGE HALIMI is the director of Le Monde diplomatique. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair write: This article appears in the February, English language edition of the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, to be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.