Bonapartist Solutions

There is a strong case to be made that the Eighteenth Brumaire still holds the key to understanding contemporary French politics. For Marx grasped that the secret of bourgeois power in France lay in the division between urban and rural popular forces; their mutual fear and loathing benefited a highly concentrated ruling class claiming a universal civilizational mission while establishing an impressively lavish welfare regime catering mostly to those who needed it the least. This model originated in the Directorate, was developed under the first Bonaparte and came to full fruition in 1848.

As Cagé and Piketty point out in Une histoire du conflit politique (2023), a book that sometimes reads like a rerelease of Marx’s classic bolstered by reams of quantitative data, the Bonapartist structure was only really challenged in the early twentieth century by a militant working class led by a Communist Party that forced the political system into a left/right alternation. Since the early 1990s, however, Bonapartism has reemerged stronger than before. In Macron it assumes a classic form. The right of the Rassemblement National and the left of La France insoumise (the ‘extremes’, in the parlance of the quality press) balance one another, while the radical centre – the bourgeois bloc anatomized by Serge Halimi – is free to pursue its own interests, while also claiming to protect the dignity of the nation, wider humanity and now the ecosphere itself. A remarkable political formula, as Mosca would have put it.

This raises an important question. Why can the American capitalist class, certainly the most powerful in history, not reproduce it? The paradox here is that this class has become hamstrung by a party structure that served it well for many decades. Historically, the two-party system split the working class between Democrats and Republicans, with the resulting vertical blocs cemented by a combination of promised concessions and personalist demagogy. Once in power, though, the parties would typically jettison their electoral programmes and tack toward the centre. But what has occurred in the most recent period – a phenomenon related to the rise of what I call political capitalism – are intra-party revolts on both the right and the left, the former significantly more powerful than the later. This turbulence within both parties reflects the wider problem of a capitalist system decreasingly able to deliver material gains to the working class.

This creates a dangerous situation for the rulers in which they cannot easily find a vehicle to re-establish equilibrium. Thus, a set of curious political symptoms have appeared: quixotic third party projects with no chance of success, former Republican operatives trying to recruit upscale conservatives for Biden, retreads from the Bush administration appearing on MSNBC and so on. These are all people who would like to establish an American version of Macronism, but cannot. Why? Because in a political system where the duopoly forces a choice, and where the parties seem paradoxically to be strengthening (one of the strange ways in which the US is Europeanizing just as Europe is Americanizing), it is difficult to reshuffle voter loyalites to allow for a Bonapartist solution. Deprived of this option, the American bourgeoisie is doomed to work within the confines of a party system that has now become a dysfunctional relic.  

Read on: Dylan Riley & Robert Brenner, ‘Seven Theses on American Politics’, NLR 138.