Bonapartist solutions

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By DYLAN RILEY*

The US cannot adopt a Bonapartist solution. Thus, the American bourgeoisie is condemned to work within the confines of a party system that has now become a dysfunctional relic

There is considerable force in the argument that the book 18th of Brumaire still holds the key to understanding contemporary French politics. For Karl Marx understood 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 that claimed a universal civilizational mission while establishing an impressively generous welfare regime that served primarily those who least needed it. This model originated in the Directory, was developed under the first Bonaparte and came to full fruition in 1848.

As Julia Cagé and Thomas Piketty point out in A history of political conflict (2023), a book that sometimes seems like a reissue of Marx's classic reinforced by enormous amounts of quantitative data, the Bonapartist structure was only truly challenged at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, by a militant working class led by a communist party that forced the political system to a left/right alternation.

Since the early 1990s, however, Bonapartism has re-emerged stronger than before. With Emmanuel Macron it takes on a classic form. To the right of National Gathering and the left of France insubordinate (the “extremes”, in the press's terms) sway each other, while the radical center – the bourgeois bloc anatomized by Serge Halimi – is free to pursue its self-interest, while claiming for itself the role of protector of the nation's dignity , humanity and the ecosphere as a whole. A remarkable political formula, as Gaetano Mosca would have put it.

This raises an important question. Why is it that the American capitalist class, certainly the most powerful in history, cannot reproduce this formula? The paradox here is that this class has been paralyzed by a party structure that has served it well for decades. Historically, the two-party system has divided the working class between Democrats and Republicans, with the resulting vertical blocs being cemented by a combination of promised concessions and personalist demagoguery.

Once in power, however, parties typically abandon their electoral programs and move toward the center. But what has happened in the most recent period – a phenomenon related to the emergence of what I call political capitalism – are intra-party revolts on the right and the left, with those on the right being significantly more powerful than those on the left. This turbulence within the parties reflects a broader problem, of a capitalist system increasingly less capable of delivering material gains for the working class.

This creates a dangerous situation for governments, as it is not easy to find a vehicle to reestablish balance. Thus, a series of curious political symptoms appeared: quixotic third party projects with no chance of success, former Republican operators trying to recruit prestigious conservatives for Joe Biden, reappearance of Bush administration figures on MSNBC and so on. All these people would like to establish an American version of Macronism, but they cannot. Why?

Because in a political system in which duopoly forces a choice, in which parties seem to be paradoxically growing stronger (one of the strange ways in which the US is Europeanizing and Europe is Americanizing), it is difficult to rearrange voter loyalties to allow a Bonapartist solution. Deprived of this option, the American bourgeoisie is condemned to work within the confines of a party system that has now become a dysfunctional relic.

*Dylan Riley is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Author, among other books, of Microverses: Observations from a Shattered Present (To).

Translation: Julio Tude d'Avila

Originally published on the website of New Left Review.


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