Paris, May 2th 2016
The light of a new day is covering Paris with gold. There are two obelisks in Place de la Concorde. The first one is the physical one, in granite, in the middle of the rectangle. The other one is projected by its shadow, stretched by the low sun on the biggest square of France.
Philip Wade is listening to the sound of the water in the Fountain des Fleuves, a foolish imitation of the Seine, which is flowing a few meters away. The street lamps are still on but they are useless with the sunlight. It is getting stronger and it comes from the East; and towards the East, the statue of Luis XV – destroyed during the Revolution – was once turned. Among the few cars allowed in the pedestrian area, Phil cannot avoid recalling that historical period. It happens every time he comes here; this place was renamed Place de la Révolution in 1792. The guillotine was in this place.
A king’s head fell here, Philip thinks. In this place, a long time ago. The Jacobins’ revolutionary power went on stage here. The foundations of modern politics were laid here.
Nothing remains of all this. Those foundations are like ruins, ruins of French citizenship and of the Republic. History fades away, similar to the calm darkness of the birds’ resting place in the Tuileries.
Holland is chasing the right-wing, Professor Wade thinks. The Socialists keep going around in the centre. When the attacks took place, on the 13th of November, the President did not even mention the great French Revolutionary Tradition that was once able to resist the enemy.
Nothing but fear. Noting but the relentless shift to the inclined places of security policies, the amendment of the Constitution, and the declaration of the state of emergency. The “security state” replaces the system of democracy, also in this case. This model reduces citizens’ participation to guarantee their security. Generally speaking, it’s a paradox. A paradox with tragic wrinkles.
It seems that nothing has remained, Philip thinks, while he stops and closes his eyes to the first warm rays of sunshine. And nothing will remain of Hollande’s presidency: the extreme ramification of the centrist illusion, Gidden’s Third Way, the death of social democracy and of the 20th century. The death of my century and of my epoch.
Phil opens his eyes. He is blinded by the light, but he can see Liverpool, where he grew up, his father’s working class, and the walks along the River Mersey. He can see when he was in Rome, studying with Federico Caffè, he spent a lot of time in Paris for academic reasons. The sun is now too strong and he has to turn his back on it.
He keeps walking and building up theories on the present and the future. They say that nothing will remain of the social democratic shortcut because it is overwhelmed by political chaos. And such chaos is deeply rooted in the economic system and leads to fragile majorities, ungovernable countries, non-political forces looking for representatives to assault the European Union.
“Paris is changing, but nothing changes in my sadness” the Poet said. The light of this new day looks like that of a delicate sunset.
No, I do not have the flâneur’s eye, Philip thinks, while he walks down the Champs-Élysées. I might still have a good eye but I have lost the required, lazy objectivity.
Something prevents him to slow down, along the sidewalk. He feels anxiety and urgency. Look, understand, think. The shop lights here are artificial. The sun is up high on Paris, it has almost reached the zenith but it does not seem to embrace everything. It rather seems far away. And also the boutiques seem too far, however, with a few steps only he could reach them. High fashion, commercial chains and examples of fast fashion are mixed together, one window after the other. The transparency reflects his image, which is captured and reproduced among bags, perfume bottles and freakish mannequins. The electric power gives all lights the same intensity. Until the night comes and the shop closes, or even further. The artificial illumination, Philip thinks, does not allow us to notice the passing of time. In addition, there are no wall clocks in shops. They invite you to consume luxury, or luxury illusions, during day and night, while they are consuming in turn.
Philip Wade – Professor at Brirbeck, University of London – stops in front of a big store that stands out as a cathedral. It seems full – he smiles bitterly – but it’s actually empty. It conveys a message of presence but it is actually absence, because these windows do not show that mass consumption has been replaced by new strategies. A more sophisticated extraction system that has corroded the middle class, who was the architecture on which centrism and social pacification were based, in the name of a continuous access to consumption. The end of that dream coincided with the end of the centre. And the process of radicalization began: sovereignist and racist motions, the revival of extreme-left politics that had been anesthetized by the Keynesian economics of the 20th century.
Philp moves closer to his own image reflected in the window. In the era of extractive capitalism, he thinks, politics have turned into guerrilla warfare between very different ideologies, and centrist are trying – without success – to negotiate. The centre is not the future. It will probably lead to an unknown land of sharp conflicts, where the battles against economic inequality and for the rebalance of the ecosystem are critical. The lights of these windows are lies, tricks without paradise. It is certainly not the light of the third canto, Dante’s beatitude does not belong here. This light does not illuminate, it rather obfuscates.
Shadows, in the stomach of Paris.
Professor Philip Wade got off the underground and is now walking in the underground tunnel, along the neon-illuminated corridors that lead to the surface. Shadows, around him. Phil knows that the city’s nickname, Ville Lumière, popular all over the world, is the opposite of its nature of dark and dangerous city. Such a name derives from the fact that, in 1825, it was the first case of public illumination, which hid its past of fear and uncertainty.
But fear and uncertainty usually come back. And they are coming back to Paris – and not only – on the legs of migrants and people condemned to the margins of citizenship, or even expelled: from Western cities suburbs to the South of the World.
Shadows, around him. Of the Beurs who are coming out, after the journey. And of the migrants who are enjoying the space after the underground oppression.
Phil walks among them; he thinks that the South of the World has always been the most important extraction basin of predatory capitalism. But since the number of wars is increasing, people need to escape from war and destruction. What is the difference between asylum-seekers, economic migrants and marginal ones? There is no difference, he answers, while he gets on the slow escalator. Migrations are the consequence of illogical extractivism that led to the destruction of the environment, to new wars for the division of raw materials, and that has helped the rogue states colluded with the economic élites of the First World. What are Darfur, Libya and the whole Middle East?
Beyond the shoulders of an Algerian boy, Professor Wade reads a sign: Tenez votre droite. They say that, nowadays, in the globalized West, a new, winning centre is not possible: the centrifugal forces are too strong, and the centres, who recognize conflicts without properly managing them, are unable to handle the situation. The escalator leaves him in front of a tobacconist kiosk. An ad with a brand of lighters illuminates the wall.
The crowd has gathered around Marianne, with her toga, in Place de la République. The demonstrators look like a single spot in the sunset: students, unemployed and occasional workers, but also man and women of the middle class.
Philip Wade watches the last daylight passing away, as are passing away left liberalism and social democracy. He thinks that the proposed solutions sound like an unlucky stammering: the welfare demolition considered an unavoidable phenomenon, the work depreciation considered necessary, the privatization of public assets considered as a progress, the pollution described as a necessary consequence. Ridiculous, Philip thinks. And what do we get for this impoverishment? Permanent connectivity or sharing economy? It’s a fake compensation, a fake bluff, and the most active parts of the Old Continent are becoming aware of it. There are different ways to oppose the liberal left wing. Centrifugal forces have a single enemy but tend towards different directions: the French Front Nationale, Boris Johnson and the anti-UE network, populists. Even the election of Sadiqh Khan it’s a gap in the centrist’s plan. Such wild oppositions are based on the ‘enemy category’, they define closed and opposed fields, feed mutual hatred and harbour anguish for the future.
And the American presidential battle is based on this.
Below the delicate trees, Phil joins the young and less-young people gathered to confront each other and fight.
He sees the Nuit debout opposing the coming night.
Different battles are merged here, against the new employment law proposed by the French government. In this moment, in this place, they say something is happening. People are going to the street. They are ready to oppose the politics of Holland and Valls. Not only here, also in other squares, all over the country. Women and men are together in this experience.
Professor Wade compares this with other movements of the recent past. Occupy Wall Street, Gezi Park, the Indignados in Spain. According to what he heard in the frame of the buildings of the nineteenth century, Nuit Debout wants to be a step forward. The voices of Place de la République want to re-write the Constitution from outside the Parliament. There is a Communard spirit above the street lights. All fights, one fight.
The square is full, people are arriving. They are talking under the starry sky. Philip goes away, in the Parisian night, with his hands in his pockets. The day is gone, he thinks, and so is my century of origin. And even if this is not my period, I feel that there might be a new beginning under this sky.