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Jean-Luc Mélenchon: It’s Time to End the Dictatorship of Short-Termism

Writing in Jacobin, French leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon argues that we need long-term planning, not market-based incentives, to fight climate change.

Leader of La France Insoumise and presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon takes part in a televised debate on September 23, 2021. (BERTRAND GUAY / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

If you don’t like political philosophy, you can skip this post. No big deal. Otherwise, get on board quick.

As many of us know, climate change dominates the current political moment. But many people still think of its effects in the old ways, like back in the days of long and regular cycles of nature and the human activities attached to it. But there’s more to this problem than the transition from one climate to another. It won’t be like that. Everything is changing — even the change itself. We are now immersed in a wholly new situation, one of permanent and “structural” uncertainty — i.e., one now linked to the very nature of the course of events.

Let me reassure my readers: here I’m not going to enter into a meditation on the nature of time, after what I already wrote on that from a political standpoint in my book L’Ère du peuple. I will only cite the general idea: time is a property of the social universe in which it unfolds. There are, then, dominated times and dominant times. In this way of thinking, ecological planning is a reconquering of long time, which we wrest from the dictatorship of short-termism that governs the capitalist society of our present era. I spoke of “collective ownership of long time” through ecological planning. I set this in counter-position to the private ownership of time that exists when the short-termist rhythms of the market and of “just-in-time” market society impose themselves on each of us. Having said that much, I’ll now turn to the challenges that this way of seeing things is itself facing in the current era of uncertainty.

Lost Certainties

Taking collective ownership of long time — and making this a priority in the rhythms of society — makes it possible to harmonize the cycles of human activity with those of nature. This is the main goal under the Green Rule. Moreover, the Green Rule puts it in a nutshell: “Don’t take from nature more than it can replenish.” In this case, the production cycle is aligned with the specific temporality (duration) that it takes for nature to replenish what has been taken from it. All this depends on one essential condition: predictability. And this in turn has a precondition: there must be a stable relationship between cause and effect.

In concrete reality, this relationship often appears direct and automatic. But it’s no more than highly probable, even though we don’t realize it. If cause A corresponds to effect B in 90 percent of cases, the possibility of not seeing it happen is almost zero. But it’s not totally certain, even if we don’t know it. This uncertainty (weak, in this case) is a property of the material universe. It is insurmountable. Climate change breaks the strong chain of cause and effect — for example, when the seasons no longer produce the same effects in terms of rain, wind, or temperature. I say “for example” for good reason.

Thus, most of the traditional knowledge that was based on observing connections between facts and regular occurrences is turned on its head. These regular conditions were noted, captured, and progressively transmitted thanks to their coincidence with stellar or solar positions. The rising of the star of Sirius corresponded to the flooding of the Nile. Indeed, all sorts of natural events, such as flowering and animal seasons, corresponded to the Nile flood, and also all sorts of social and political events. For example, the setting of taxes after the measurement of the new ground surfaces left behind by the floods. Or the resumption of river transport of large building stones due to the rise in water levels and thus of the building sites that used them. Here, the predictability and harmony of natural, religious, political, and economic temporalities reached a very high level of probability. Perhaps that’s why the periods of ancient Egyptian civilization each lasted so long. It’s as if the stability of the essential conditions of life was a kind of unstoppable metronome.

Similarly, the circulation of seawater between the poles and the equator has for thousands of years determined the cycle of climatic and thus agricultural and social events. The melting of the ice caps at the poles and the ever greater warming of the tropics unravel the correspondences between the position of the stars and the occurrence of essential events such as rain and fine weather, the favorable period for ploughing, or for picking this or that berry . . . I was taught about this situation by the discussions I had with the French and Bolivian researchers I met on Lake Titicaca last April. But they also took me back to a personal reflection that I’ve been undertaking for a very long time.

Chaos

My first book (À la conquête du chaos), published in 1991, dealt with phenomena whose course is not linear — i.e., do not proceed in a regular way, or, put another way, whose effects are not proportional to their causes. This type of phenomenon is often captured in the example of a butterfly flapping its wings in Madrid and triggering a hurricane in Tokyo. But I know that this definition is very awkward, despite its brilliant simplicity. I personally prefer the definition of a vehicle traveling at a constant speed on a straight road whose driver is stung by a wasp. A single tiny factor intervenes and the whole system is set on a different course. This in turn causes dozens of totally unpredictable events on its new route. This is no marginal phenomenon but an extraordinarily widespread one in real life. In terms of a dynamic system, this can be summed up in one word: it produces a bifurcation. In such a situation, there is great uncertainty over the link between causes and effects.

Another consequence of this situation should also be noted. If traditional knowledge is put into question as climate change unravels age-old connections, this is not the only knowledge under challenge. Scientific knowledge about the operational relationships between the elements of a global system like the climate also relates to dynamics which are becoming highly nonlinear and subject to bifurcation. The climate is a metastable global system — i.e., one on the fragile boundary of equilibrium. If it deviates from its trajectory, it shifts toward a different overall condition. But this new condition may itself be even more unstable in the way it evolves. Uncertainty reigns in unpredictable time frames and forms. Henceforth, the time and conduct of politics, but also the content of planning, take on a completely different form. They are governed by a particular, insurmountable uncertainty. This uncertainty cannot rely on our tools or reasoning to understand what is happening. It depends on the very character of the events. I wrote an article in Le Journal du Dimanche about this uncertainty while I was in Bolivia. I regret that it was not discussed by the planetary ecologists (for there are many of them).

I come back to it because this awareness must lead to a renewal of thinking about how to govern. The pandemic shows how an integrated global system such as the economic system we live in can take on an entirely new trajectory due to a small and fortuitous cause (a virus — even though the continued economic causes of zoonoses greatly increase the likelihood of such an event occurring). The full consequences of this bifurcation are not yet clear. And we can be sure that future impacts of this nature will affect the world system again. For now, I have learned a partial lesson at least.

Plan

Planning brings into play material processes of construction, production, and consumption. It cannot alone suffice, because it will itself be affected in the process by the direct or indirect consequences of unpredictable climate change. It is therefore urgently necessary that we reorder our thinking and understand that the management of things is worth nothing without the involvement of people in a plan — not in its particular details but in the plan taken as a whole. The long era of technocrats and bureaucracies has accustomed us to reducing politics to measures or figures, as if the essential thing were always the quantifiable.

Quantities are the realm of technocrats. But their production, transport, and distribution are highly vulnerable to uncertainty. So it is time we said that the most fruitful and realistic effort should be focused on the management of people rather than the administration of things. In other words, a mobilized society is the most sustainable and effective response to the occurrence of numerous unforeseen events. For this to be a deep-rooted mobilization that takes place in an informed, knowledgeable, and spontaneously solidaristic manner, first the right conditions have to be prepared.

For me, the political debate is a question of these conditions — first of all, to reduce the level of inequalities that undermine trust and mutual respect in society and, above all, give some people the illusion that “each man for himself” could be an effective way to run a society. “Each man for himself” supposes the objects he has acquired for his own use: tankers, generators, stocks of goods. But in truth, all this depends on production and logistics chains — sure to be the first networks disrupted by the events that climate change brings. In this sense, such an option is risky and largely illusory. However, it is also likely that its proponents are the most undisciplined elements and the most likely to resort to force against the constraints of collective action. In other words, they should be seen as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

On the other hand, the technical qualifications of the population as a whole should be raised. This will make it possible to provide a large number of resource personnel to deal with the destruction and the reconstruction that needs to be organized. This is true in all social environments. This demands a wide-ranging reordering of the structures of public vocational education, in which the trades would finally be understood as practical sciences. It seems to me that this is necessary in order to increase the population’s capacities for spontaneous self-organization.

Finally, we would need powerful instruments of human solidarity fostering a mass-scale education in unconditional mutual aid. To this end, we need a new enrollment of the youth, enlisting everyone in ecological and civil security intervention brigades. But here we also need to involve contributions of artistic and cultural production and sport. For they are one of the essential vectors for the construction of human beings and their solidarity. The harmony that must be built between human beings, and between human beings and nature, is thus concretized in the ecological challenge and the dangers it poses. And that depends on a greater humanization of humans.