Sunday, April 15, 2007

France will go to the polls on April 22 to elect a president in the first round of balloting. An even baker's dozen of candidates have presented themselves on the ballot for the first round. By the French electoral law if no candidate wins a majority in round 1 then the two candidates with the highest number of votes will run again in round 2. The 4 favoured candidates include Nicolas Sakozy of the governing conservatives, Segolene Royal of the Socialists, the centrist Francois Bayrou and as a distant fourth the far right Jean-Marie Le Pen who upset the political scales in the last election by qualifying for the runoff- provoking the slogan "vote for the crook rather than the fascist" as the French left lined up behind the conservative candidate in opposition to Le Pen.
The other 8 candidates are a truly rainbow lot, two Trotskyists, one traditional communist, one Green Party candidate who is none too popular amongst her own activists. One of the Trots, Olivier Besancenot of the LCR, has been the subject of vituperation by other Trotskyists for publically admitting "some" of Trotsky's many faults and for expressing tolerance towards "libertarianism and syndicalism". There is also a candidate for the traditional rural french way of life, with emphasis on game shooting and another traditionalist that is more of a left wing rather than right wing populist. There's even a rightist who is trying to squeeze his way into what may be an imaginary slot between the conservatives and Le Pen.
But the most interesting candidate of all is the only one running as an independent, Jose Bove, who once described himself as an "anarcho-syndicalist". Say what ? To see a professed advocate of "anarcho-syndicalism" running for any political office, let alone the presidency of a country should set off anybody's "oddity detector". What's behind all this ? The answer lie in Bove's activist career. So here goes.
Despite the image that he projects Bove was not born to the land. He was the son of two university professors, and even though he was born in Talence, near Bordeaux, he grew up in many places across the world including the USA. He attended a Jesuit high school where he was expelled for holding libertarian views on drugs. (Molly note. I survived the Jesuits as well, and despite my best efforts they never expelled me. Beat me up maybe, but never tried to get rid of me). After earning his bachelor's degree he signed up for a philosophy course in Bordeaux, but he spent little time in classes, preferring political activism. He frequented the left Catholic and pacifist libertarian circles. His main influence was the theologian Jacques Ellul (see also the Jacques Ellul homepage)who taught at Bordeaux University. His main focus was anti-militarism. Here he acquired a distaste for the far left groups squabbling about who should seize state power. As he said,
"It's always the people who end up being shot. We certainly don't want total freedom for those who are armed to the teeth."
Bove tried to claim conscientious objector status to avoid the compulsory military service in the French army, but he was refused this status in 1974. Despite what is said in the Wikipedia article on Bove, he did not flee France at this time but instead took to hiding out on a farm in the Pyrennes. In 1975 his appeal was successful, and he came out of hiding. Meanwhile a group of farmers in the Larzac plateau had decided to squat abandoned farms that the military had bought up in hopes of expanding a nearby military camp. Bove and his wife of the time volunteered to become squatters. The conditions were primitive to say the least, but Bove and his wife persisted and in the following years they passed through raising sheep for meat, through numerous protests against the military base's expansion and through the birth of a daughter Helene and on to a change to milking ewes which led to the Bove family becoming Roquefort cheese producers. They began to sell their cheeses at local markets which was unheard of in the area as the farmers had become dependent on selling milk to the large Roquefort dairies.
The following years were full of anti-militarist and union struggle. The main farmers' union in France, the FDSEA, agreed in Feb., 1981 to a small expansion of the disputed military base, and the more radical farmers and supporters walked out. In June of that year, however, the position of the right wing unionists was undercut as President Mitterand kept one of his election promises and cancelled the extension of the military camp. The left wing opponents went through many reorganizations. One of the new groups to be set up was the Confederation Paysanne (Farmers' Confederation) in 1987. Bove served on the National Secretariat until 1991, when he stepped down in accordance with union rules against permanent posts. He remained on the National Committee until 1997 when he once more stepped down. Today the Farmers' Confederation is the second largest farmers' union in France, and it continues to grow relative to the more conservative groups.
Bove first came to international attention with the demolition of a McDonald's in Millau (Aveyron) in 1999. For this action he served 44 days in prison(the original sentence was three months) This brought him instant fame, and he has taken full advantage of this to become quite the globetrotter and, yes it has to be admitted more than a little bit of a glory hog. Since then he was sentenced to serve ten months in prison in 2003/2004 for destruction of transgenic crops. This sentence was reduced due to public protest. He was present along with other French farmers at the World Trade protests in Seattle1999, and was involved in a large action of destruction of transgenic crops in Brazil in 2001. In 2002 he was deported from Israel where he had met with Yasser Arafat and taken part in a protest against Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In February, 2006 he was detained by US Customs when he entered the USA to attend an event sponsored by Cornell University's Global Labor Institute. He was denied entry to the USA and sent back to France. The number of protests and meetings he attends is phenomenal, and nowadays he spends barely a month a year on the farm back in France. The farm, however, is run as a collective, and his input isn't required. He is very active today with the international farm coalition Via Campesina. This organization is sponsoring the International Peasants Struggle Day this April 17th.
Bove has been criticized by many for his grandstanding, not least by some of his former allies in the Confederation Paysanne and his ex-wife. His abandonment of farming for public figure led to a rather messy divorce.
Which brings us up to the Bove of today. Bove has sometimes expressed his admiration for the syndicalist tradition. The best example that Molly has come across is on pages 140-141 of his book(coauthored with Franscois Dufour) 'The World is Not For Sale' (Verso, London, 2001) where he contrasts the different concepts of unionism embodied in Marxism and the Jura Federation who opposed Marx in the First International. He goes on to say that the Farmers' Confederation draws on the lessons of the Jura workers and also the Spanish anarchosyndicalists as well as more recent experiments in self management in modern France. Well and good, but the astute reader will notice where he first became sympathetic to anarchism, under the influence of personalist theology such as that of Ellul. There is a whole trend in modern anarchism that derives from personalist influences, and this trend contrasts vividly with the more traditional anarchism embodied in such things as anarchosyndicalism. Not that this trend isn't fully anarchist (it is) nor that it isn't intelligent (it is as well). It is the source of all the intelligent ideas that the American fad of primitivism has distorted into an ideology with a dose of unintelligible language, a dollop of high and hysterical rhetoric, and mountains of arrogance and apocalyptic wishful thinking. Primitivism bears the same relation to personalism as Stalinism bears to Marxism with all that implies. What it never borrowed, unfortunately, was the pacifist ethics of the personalists.
Herein lies the rub. Bove learned his anarchism from pacifists. Traditional anarchosyndicalism has not just been non-pacifist and revolutionary. It has also formulated a "code" that barely grants the exploiters the status of humanity. It is an ideology of struggle, and its militants cling to their code of ethics, one of which is non-participation in electoral politics, which is reinforced by a heavy concentration on the economic side of anarchist struggle. The danger of this is that its militants rarely know when it is necessary to participate in politics, at least in the sense of "supporting a lesser evil". Molly has referred to this in an interrupted series of posts titled 'Why I Am Not a Revolutionist'. This sense of moral superiority led at least the anarchists of Spain to abandon all principle when they were confronted with the inevitable necessity of collaboration with other forces in the fight against Franco. The forces aligned around the Treintistas who could have built up a practice of intelligent and limited collaboration were outmaneuvered with the CNT by the forces around the FAI. When push came to shove the Spanish anarchists saw no middle ground between revolutionary purism and total collaboration. The latter became their guiding principle. One may hope that the new syndicalism arising around the revival of groups such as the Spanish CGT, the Swedish SAC and others within and without International Libertarian Solidarity will avoid this trap of excessive purism.
That's how one side of this coin fails. The other side, however, as embodied in personalism harbours an excessive belief in the efficacy of ideas alone and an excessive goodwill towards not just the "enemy of the day" but also to those of "good will" who try and advance their causes by means other than direct action. Where they fail to learn the lessons of history is in imagining that good will is enough, and those of such good will will remain uncorrupted by power. Hence, like Bove, they are prone to dabble in politics not just when it is necessary but when it is manifestly unnecessary and useless at best.
Bove has perhaps become far too addicted to the spotlight. Fame is an addictive drug, and continued doses of it can destroy the good sense of even the most committed radical. They soon become deluded enough to imagine that simple media attention is the advancement of their cause rather than being simply a means to same. They lose contact with what they actually want to accomplish. Bove's bid for the French presidency is, of course, utterly and completely hopeless. Is it a good "propaganda opportunity". Look carefully at the 12 eggs in the French egg carton. There is nothing that Bove can advance as a "political program" that is not already advanced by any number of the parties running, whether the Greens, the Trot groups, the more traditional agrarians or even the Socialists. What he cannot run as a "political program" is self-organization and self-management because this is the creation of day to day patient struggle by the people themselves. It isn't given by a government. It can only be created by popular initiative. Playing the political game should be restricted to encouraging other political forces which may open up certain opportunities with the ever present threat of withdrawal of support. Encouraging self organization by committees of the state would, at best, create a hollow and empty extra career ladder for the ambitious to climb. Thus Bove is wrong in what he is attempted.
It is not that anarchism should always and everywhere refuse to "play with the devil". It's just that it shouldn't put too much on the table when the dice are loaded and there's nothing to gain.

1 comment:

Larry Gambone said...

I think you hit the nail on the head with this analysis of Bove. I too was saddened by his decision to run. Had he run as a united left candidate, that might have been a different kettle of fish, but parties being what they are, this was not possible - so the left is divided once more.