Roving thoughts and provocations

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French Strikers & the Tea Party: Mark Lilla Responds

Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators walking past a damaged car as they protest against France’s government pensions reform, Lyon, October 18, 2010

Those who responded so strongly to my post obviously spent more energy objecting to its title (not mine, by the way) than thinking about the modest comparison I made between the Lyon protests and the Tea Party protests. They are similar in only two, but to me important, respects.

One is that they are both about more than they seem to be because a certain switch has been flipped in the national psyche. The Tea Partiers translated their economic worries and growing distrust of government into a phantasmagoric socialist threat posed by the Bush-Obama bailout and stimulus; the CGT and other French unions take a genuine concern over flat wages and high unemployment and whip it into a phantasmagoric coup d’état permanent led by corrupt right-wing politicians and the wealthy classes they protect—or, as Shea Ahna writes, with some reason, “the endemic corruption of a state and the increasingly unjust economic order that it underwrites.” Rather than respond to the limited problem at hand, they pull their folkloric costumes out of the closet and reenact the national passion play.

The other similarity is that they have nothing to offer as an alternative. The Tea Party groups have been silent about just what should have been done in the face of the financial collapse of 2008, and don’t bother to enter into the complicated details of what actually was done. The French unions have offered no plausible alternative for dealing with the demographic reality that people are living longer, which not only means most can work longer (though not in some jobs), but that they will be drawing benefits longer from a shrinking workforce. Something has to give, and soon, well before the rules of global capitalism can be rewritten (as if that’s going to happen). In short, there is a childishness evident in both movements, a stubborn unwillingness to grapple with messy reality and reason about it. (Contra Michael Dietz, political discourse can be, and must be, more than competing speech acts.)

In response to Mr. Dilettoso: French workers are perfectly free to use their vacation or sick days to attend protests and will not be docked. And from the beginning the streets of Lyon have been filled with school kids marching (I saw large groups of them) and, in more recent days, tossing bricks when they are supposed to be in school.

And as for calling the Tea Party “crypto-fascist,” “nationalistic,” and “race-centric,” a solvent for such clichés can be found in my critical piece on the movment in the Review, “The Tea Party Jacobins,” (May 20, 2010).

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