The Chatroom Society

Though there may not be a great writer left, literature still rules. Though it may be the age of the Xbox, reality TV, blogs, and Dan Brown (of whom Salman Rushdie recently said, with a very British sense of humor, that it’s bad to murder writers . . . except maybe him), this is still the age of belief in literature—judging by the resilient power of utopias, the overwhelming wave of fictions, the grip of the same old storylines on our commodified lives, and the civilized consensus about the need and virtues of “culture.” People read less, but ideas once derived from books, and now turned into circulating rumors, are all they have. Nowhere does this appear more clearly, more spectacularly, and more like a caricature than in France, the country where CEOs and politicians alike will be truly successful only when they finally turn to writing, where each year the literary awards of the fall season turn into a national trauma, and where real heroes are not medieval knights and war resistants but their literary creators. Jean-Paul Sartre revealed (in his 1960 autobiography, Words) that he chose very early to be a writer rather than a real-life hero after briefly comparing his physical and writing abilities, and France is like this. We are also the country, most recently, where one single long and rather hermetic text bitterly divided every party, every company, every family and neighborhood: the 489-article EU Constitution, rejected by an unexpectedly high 55% of French voters when submitted for their approval in the May 29 national referendum.

The pros and cons of this fateful constitution were being debated everywhere, with the usual blackmail and frightening lies serving to keep citizens democratically addicted to their elected officials, but also with an unprecedented feeling of live democracy, both in the streets and in newspaper columns. The pros: continuing the EU construction process without selfishly endangering it; building a united world-class entity able to resist both American imperialism and the Chinese economic boom; adopting an abstract yet open-minded treaty (full of great clauses on the “fundamental human rights” of European citizens) in order to give it soon enough a substantial political reality. The cons: levelling down fiscal and welfare policies at the expense of member countries who have a strong tradition of state regulation; favoring financial markets over social priorities and low inflation over high employment; endorsing the long-standing EU philosophy of open markets (including in our century-old public sectors) and technocratic rule without even trying to build an alternate Europe by and for the people.

The text of the constitution could be read in either direction, depending on where you looked among its many sections, its warm principles and cold-blooded statements. And while the whole process of EU construction has amounted to favoring deregulated markets over social solidarity, defenders of the latter (hence of the No vote) in the referendum campaign used bad faith and cynical tactics to misrepresent the text in order to boost their political careers.

Despite such a proliferation of readings (was there a class for this text?), the stunning democratic victory on May 29—with all due disrespect to the Eurocentric, neo-Kantian notion of “democracy”—was the victory of a positive No over an enslaved Yes, of silent subalterns over experts of the Word, of lower classes over higher incomes, of small provincial towns over large cities and Paris. The victors were a scattered and invisible “multitude” (even though Antonio Negri, the father of that concept, favored the Yes vote), which is both scary and exhilarating—as they were in fact made up of an unprecedented mix of Le Pen’s fascist admirers, right-wing nationalists, Trotskyists from two competing leftist parties, and anti-globalization aficionados from all sides.

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