On Resigning from Power

On December 2, Emmanuel Macron returned to Paris from the G20 summit and looked down from the Arc de Triomphe on a city ravaged by riots. The night before, gilets jaunes protesters had ransacked the Champs-Elysées and tagged the base of the triumphal monument with slogans, including a now-familiar call for the president’s resignation: “Macron Démission.” What began in November as a protest movement against an unpopular fuel tax has now increasingly targeted Macron in person. The gilets jaunes’ demand that the president resign offers Macron an exceptional political opportunity, were he to recognize it and claim the strategic advantage.

France Protests

Place de l’Étoile, December 2, 2018 (Thibault Camus/AP/SIPA)

As the gilets jaunes movement has grown and spread, the protesters’ grievances have also broadened; the fuel tax now appears to be merely the precipitating factor of a general revolt against Macron’s neoliberal policies and an economic order that favors the wealthy. But the most interesting political question raised by the protest movement lies precisely in the original controversy over fuel prices and the gilets jaunes’ claim that the government’s ecological carbon tax was to blame for high fuel prices. As it turns out, that belief was largely mistaken, since the tax increase accounted for only a fraction of fuel’s rising cost, as Le Monde’fact-checkers have pointed out. And while the protesters’ broader grievances are surely legitimate, the violent revolt against a relatively modest carbon tax is ominous, to say the least. The events in Paris — an “insurrection” and “revolution” in the words of Mélenchon — raise the alarming prospect of popular resistance to future climate change legislation. The dangers are hard to overestimate; during the coming years the world’s transition to low-carbon energy will likely demand unprecedented sacrifices on the part of people accustomed to the comforts and conveniences of consumer-based economies and the supposedly cheap fossil fuels that prop them up. No doubt the burden of those sacrifices should not fall on the poorest. But in demanding cheap fuel, the gilets jaunes are inadvertently denying its catastrophic cost. In this sense, the car-drivers’ protests run fully counter to the progressive agenda on climate change.*

Climate change is nothing less than the high price of supposedly cheap fuel finally coming due. More broadly, the shattered illusion of “cheap” goods has now wholly discredited the cost/benefit ledger of fossil capitalism. As it happens, Macron’s fateful December 2 was also the opening day of the annual UN Climate Change Conference. A mere three years after the much-vaunted 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, the landmark Paris Agreement now appears hopelessly weak; as the IPCC recently warned, the Agreement’s aspirational 2 degree limit on global warming is far too modest to avert climate disaster. That gross failure of world governance is now in repeat mode: on the eve of this week’s Climate Change Conference, the science editor for the Observer grimly warned that “Climate catastrophe is now looking inevitable.” Recent events in Paris give us a sense of the social calamities that may accompany such ecological disruption. An ominous symbol emerges, pregnant with “condensed” meanings, as the psychoanalysts say: “Paris” is shorthand for a disaster we have unleashed on the future.

As Macron looked down from the Arc de Triomphe, was it a future of social unrest in an overheated world he glimpsed in the wreckage on the Champs Elysées? And as he considered his role in the green movement, might he have envisaged for a moment the opportunity to resign with honor?

*

It seems that only fiction is up to the task of imagining the challenge that confronts us today: the surrender of capitalism and the resignation of the powerful in the face of ecological necessity. But since it may be too late now to avert a disorderly outcome, standing down from power might also entail a ‘resignation’ to the inevitable and an avowal of hopelessness. This double resignation would require the invention of a political rhetoric that exists only in literature.

A short story of Mark Strand’s imagines just such a scenario. First published in 1979, “The President’s Resignation” is in many ways an absurd send-up of political discourse, though the tone of goofiness only underscores the story’s challenge to its readers, programmed as they are to understand politics in terms of human “reality.” Read in the present context, the story seems uncannily prescient, as Strand’s hapless head of state has sacrificed all his power and authority to the apparently pointless task of observing the weather: “His critics,” Strand says, “accused him of spending too much energy on such exercises.”** The story consists essentially of the president’s farewell speech, interspersed with applause.

Who can forget my proposals, petitions uttered on behalf of those who labored in the great cause of weather–measuring wind, predicting rain, giving themselves to whole generations of days–whose attention was ever riveted to the invisible wheel that turns the stars and to the stars themselves? How like poetry, said my enemies. They were right. For it was my wish to make nothing happen. Thank heaven it has been so, for my words would easily have been wasted along with the works they might have engendered. I have always spoken for what does not change, for what resists action, for the stillness at the center of man (32-3).

If the outgoing president had a mission, it was to advocate for “what does not change,” he says (33). And since weather is by definition changeable, the head of state’s focus on “what does not change” is a strong clue that “The President’s Resignation” implicitly aims beyond mere weather to address the preeminent political challenge of our time. This makes Strand’s story an invaluable document for the fight against global warming. Indeed, a close look at the story reveals that behind the president’s seemingly idle preoccupations about the weather is nothing other than the looming question of climate and its transformations over the course of human history. We learn, for instance, that the president’s focus on the history of climate was especially controversial: critics of the president “were especially severe,” the author says, “about his wasting public funds on a National Museum of Weather, in whose rooms one could experience the climate of any day anywhere in the history of man.” This enterprise might seem eminently pedagogical, and one imagines in retrospect (forty years after “The President’s Resignation”) what public education on the prehistory of the Anthropocene might have done to avert worsening climate change — to say nothing of the president’s much-maligned “‘gas crusade'” (31). But far from serving as a model for action, or even for that matter much activity of the mind, “The President’s Resignation” stands as a model of righteous inaction in an age of frenetic busyness. Strand’s nameless president is a latter-day Bartleby; like Melville’s do-nothing government functionary, he ‘preferred not to’ assume his office for a month and a half, a space of idle time that became fifty-one national holidays, or as he puts it, “the glorious fifty-one that now belong to the annals of meditation.”

“How like poetry.” The author slyly gestures to his own work as poet here, and even anticipates his later stint in the corridors of power (Strand was named US Poet Laureate in 1990). But we would be mistaken to understand the reference to the president’s “enemies” as indicating political rivals in an opposing party — or even a rioting populace. The president’s rivals should be understood instead as anyone with a practical mindset, who understand words only as prose and mistake fiction for mere “stories” — those, indeed, who have the sorry ambition to do anything at all. Accordingly, the president concludes his resignation speech with the calmly insurrectionary warning to anyone with a job or career: “weather shall always exceed the office of our calling” (35).

* *

Is this a viable political option today? Can the challenge of climate change be met in the mode of poetic idleness? And is it feasible to imagine a similar resignation of our would-be overlords, including the much-criticized Emmanuel Macron? It may well be, I am suggesting, that only an inspiring abdication from power can move the public to abandon hope in a capitalist future. At the end of his twenty-year, nine-volume inquiry into politics and biopower in the post-Holocaust era, Giorgio Agamben concludes in nearly the same tone as Mark Strand’s outgoing president, who strove to “make nothing happen.” This is perhaps not surprising; Agamben, after all, is a great admirer of Melville’s Bartleby. Fittingly, the words are found on the final page of Agamben’s concluding book. And although this may not be the last thing Agamben ever writes, we might well imagine the philosopher as signing off for good, that is to say resigning, with these closing words on the secret power of idleness:

The properly human life is the one that, by rendering inoperative the specific works and functions of the living being, causes them to idle, so to speak, and in this way opens them into possibility,” says Agamben. “Contemplation and inoperativity […], in liberating living human beings from every biological and social destiny and every predetermined task, render them available for that peculiar absence of work we are accustomed to calling ‘politics.’***

Or, as Strand’s resigning president artfully puts it, “Thank you and goodbye” (35).


*The gilets jaunes protests are commonly referred to as the largest French street protests since May ’68. It is worth keeping in mind that the May insurrection fell apart once the government reprovisioned the gas pumps, as Cornelius Castoriadis points out. In this account, the counterrevolution was not only a victory of the forces of order but was the political consecration of carbon-based individualism: “Order was finally reestablished when the average Frenchman was once again able to drive in his car, with his family to his favorite picnic spot.” Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Movements of the Sixties,” in The World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination, David Ames Curtis, ed. and trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 49.

** Mark Strand, Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 31.

*** Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, Adam Kotsko, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 278.

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