The lessons the left should (and shouldn’t) take from the victory of Macron

Anna Berezovskaya, Abduction of Europa (2015)

In 2016 populism burst upon liberal democracies like a whirlwind. Yet, since Trump’s election in November of last year the storm appears to have passed. There was the defeat of the far right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer in Austria (of all places) in December of last year followed by the loss of the boldly pompadoured (which seems to be a thing now on the right) Geert Wilders in parliamentary elections in the Netherlands a few months back, followed by the seeming victory of the Kutcher faction over the Bannon faction in the Trump administration, and now, the loss of Le Pen in France. Whew- glad that’s over.

Of course, it’s not over, for it leaves us with the same unaddressed problems that gave rise to popular discontent in the first place. The one and only danger of the populist fever peaking too soon is that it will feed the very complacency among elites that gave us this wave of destructive popular anger in the first place. The fever will just come back, and perhaps next time in a form much worse should manage to sweep 2016’s craziness under the rug.

As of yet this wave of anger, despite its ugliness or the views of its more vicious fans, hasn’t been so much fascists as populists. This distinction, as distinctions often are, is important. John B. Judis, one of the first to see the populist wave coming in his book The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics.

I’ll get to fascism in a moment, for now, let me note that the distrust of elites driving the populist explosion makes perfect sense given the almost two decades of failure of the power elite from  9-11, to the Iraq war, to the 2008 financial crisis, to the Euro crisis, to the implosion of Syria and the refugee crisis. These acute crises are combined with more structural ones, such as the fact that elites have either twiddled their thumbs, turned the other way, or themselves enabled the erosion of the middle class and the flat-lining of that class’ income growth despite economic gains, in developed countries since the 1970’s. At the same time the political system has grown increasingly sycophantic and corrupt.

As Mark Leibovich pointed out in his book This Town elites in Washington enact the play of hyper-partisanship even as both Republicans and Democrats engage in an incestious government-coporate revolving door. The way the financial sector played the US government that the former head of the IMF compared what happened to a Third World coup. 

Trump twisted his way into the White House on the claim that “he alone” was able to overturn this system. Instead, what his election seems to mean is that the US is now fully and completely free to join other countries such as China where the distinction between the interest of the rich and the common weal do not exist. Wealthy classes in China and elsewhere understand the new American way of politics very well.

Macron who Trump-like staged his own coup against the declining French political parties was himself an investment banker and his candidacy was as much a desperate by the French an EU establishment as any move towards real and democratic reforms.

The fact that Trump’s populism has proven as artificial as the man’s skin tone along with the fact that other populists, most especially the dangerous figure of Marine Le Pen, have lost in recent elections present the left with an unprecedented opportunity. But it’s an opportunity that can be seized only if the left can come to understand that not all, or even most, of the supporters of Trump or Le Pen are fascists- a prospect that would require massive and likely violent political resistance in order to ensure the survival of our political and social freedoms.

It’s here where Judis’ book becomes so helpful. In The Populist Explosion Judis identifies the defining feature of populism as anti-elitism. He explains that the early 21st century populism which grew out of the financial crisis hasn’t just come from the right, but also from the left. The left-wing Podemos in Spain is a populist party, as is Syriza in Greece. Both left-wing and right-wing share a disdain for elites they believe have failed us.

For Judis what distinguished right leaning from left leaning populism is that the former adds the category of an enemy minority – Muslims, Mexicans etc that elites supposedly coddle to the detriment of the larger population. (The first step right-wing populism takes towards becoming fascist.)

To step away from Judis for a moment, one of the ideas now becoming dangerously popular among liberals is that populists’ distrust of experts is equal to ignorance and a disdain for science and even rudimentary facts. What liberals don’t acknowledge is their own role in the growth of such mistrust. Elites have promoted the idea that economics is akin to science when it’s closer to astrology. The scientists perhaps best known to the public are those who have made careers out of attacking widely held beliefs by making claims beyond science’s purview.

The mainstream media, the bane of populists everywhere, has indeed been guilty of colossal failures- such as the run up to the war in Iraq, and continues to have a disturbing fetish for American bombs and power.  The last few years have revealed an intelligence apparatus not only frequently incompetent- having missed 9-11, and the Arab Spring to name just two recent failures, but a bureaucratic machine seemingly uninterested in preserving our constitutionally guaranteed rights. In conditions as they stand, mistrust of elites is no vice.

As Judis explains it populism was invented in the US in the 1890’s in the revolt of mid-western farmers against their economic strangulation by financial powers in the East. The drama even gave America what is perhaps its most outstanding fairy-tale- The Wizard of OZ.  

Since then, the US has had a whole series of populist- most from the right. In the 1930’s there was Huey Long and Father Coughlin, in the 1960’s there was George Wallace, in the 1990’s Ross Perot (perhaps) and Pat Buchanan. Now we have Trump- the first populist to actually break his way into the White House- a fact that is surely a symptom of just how decayed our political system has become. Judis points out how, since the 1970’s this formerly uniquely American form of politics became a global affair. So here we are.

Judis, in my view rightly, is at pains to distinguish right-wing populism from its ugly cousin fascism. What made fascism of the 1930’s variety, which remains our template, distinct from populism and so incredibly dangerous was that it used the full powers of the state to hunt down and destroy its internal enemies- fascism was born in states that were in conditions of revolution and civil war. Fascism, also unlike populism, was characterized by openly expansionist that aimed to overturn the geopolitical order rather than merely withdraw from it. Populism isn’t fascism so much as it points ” to tears in the fabric of accepted political wisdom” as Judis so sharply puts it.

This is not to say that right-wing populism cannot morph into fascism or that left-wing populism can’t evolve into communism (more on that another time) it is that a perhaps greater danger that the system can not be shocked into fundamental change at all- that we seem incapable of freeing ourselves from the ultimate logic of the economic and political artifice in which we are embedded- despite the fact that we are acutely aware of the depth of its unsustainable contradictions.

Judis was among the first to see 2016’s wave of populism coming, yet I think his much needed attempt at drawing a line of historical continuity between populism in the last two centuries and our own perhaps obscures what makes populism in its current manifestation unique. For that we can turn to another recent book on the subject, David Goodhart’s Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. In that book Goodhart makes the case that what is perhaps today’s primary political cleavage is between those who have thrived in, benefited from, and identify with, globalization and those who define themselves in terms of place. He calls the former group “Anywheres” because they seem to have fully embraced global mobility in the search for success as individuals, which does not mean they have abandoned all collective identities such as culture or religion and especially family only that they see their range of action encompassing the whole earth.

Somewheres by contrast are communitarian rather than individualistic in their identities. They remain deeply connected emotionally to their homeland, their culture, and sometimes, their ethnicity and derive their self worth primarily through this collective identity rather than their own personal accomplishments.

Obviously these are ideal types and all of us in the modern world have some of each about us. Yet Goodhart’s two types does seem to capture something essential about politics not just in the US or the UK but globally. We have these great global cities interconnected with one another and more diverse in their populations than ever before while at the same time possessing neglected hinterlands where the growth engendered by globalization largely does not flow.

It’s quite clear that the Anywheres have the moral high ground over the Somewheres when it comes to their embrace of diversity. What is much less clear is if Anywheres can actually be the basis of a functioning social democracy for they seem to lack the kinds of communitarian virtues a thriving democracy requires as they remain focused on their own material and social advancement. It might be the case that the type of political order that best fits a world of globally mobile self-seeking individuals happens to be something other than a democratic one.

The economists Dani Rodrik actually has a name for this- he calls it the globalization trilemma, which goes like this:

…countries cannot have national sovereignty, hyper-globalisation and democracy; they can only ever choose two out of the three.

Given the huge global economic disparities between regions and cultural differences and disputes we could have hyper-globalization with open markets and the free movement of peoples under either a system of empire and enlightened/liberal despotism or under a democracy that was truly global in scope. From where I sit the former seems much more likely than the latter.

For whereas the latter would require peoples embedded in democracies to willingly surrender their control over their own affairs to other people’s who did not share in their history of priority- a transformation of politics that would probably require something like a global civil war- the former can emerge from mere inertia as the power of democratic and other states is slowly eroded away making global actors and individuals the de-facto if not dejure seat of sovereignty.

If the European Union is our best current, if geographically limited, experiment in what hyper-globalization might ultimately look like, then Macron’s defeat of Le Pen offers us a second chance to test whether such integration can also be made truly democratic in the way we currently have with nation-states. Should the EU not embrace democratic reforms in light of his victory and learn to create a new home for the Somewheres this chance might just be its last.


In the birthplace of democracy

“The mortgage-stones that covered her, by me Removed, — the land that was a slave is free;
that some who had been seized for their debts he had brought back from other countries, where
— so far their lot to roam, They had forgot the language of their home;
and some he had set at liberty, — Who here in shameful servitude were held.”

                                                                                                                      SolonPlutarch’s Lives

When the history of the conflict between the market and democracy is someday written, the events in Greece this Sunday will almost certainly be seen as a major victory for market forces. There, the Greek parliament, under enormous pressure from the financial markets along with Germany and France committed what may amount to political suicide in the upcoming Greek elections. Members of the Greek parliament are willfully taking the country into what is in effect a deflationary induced depression in order to avoid the default and exit of Greece from the Euro-based economies.

Opposition to the draconian cuts necessary to secure funding support by bond holders, European governments and the ECB quite literally set Greece ablaze.

As in the ancient myth, Greek society is caught between Scylla and Charybdis.  Their only choices seem to be that of the chaos that would likely be the result of  a default, and a self-induced economic depression. The latter might prove preferable if it were likely to work in the long-run to restore, and  therefore secure the long term prosperity of Greece.  Such an outcome, is sadly unlikely.

The democratic process is now dictated by the electric speed of the international markets. Greek politicians were in a race against the clock before markets opened on Monday.

 Despite the German’s ridicule of the Greeks’ spendthrift ways, the Greek social system has its origins in the history of the country, which for decades endured brutal right-wing rule opposed only by a defiant left. The social-rights of Greeks were in effect the price to be paid for the left’s acceptance of the fact that Greece was to be a normal rather than a revolutionary country. Dismantling this system is a denial of history, and on par with the most utopian of top-down social transformations. Here the market is at war not just with democracy, but with history itself.

The German view of “lazy” Greeks also fails to take into account the very structural imbalances between Germany as an export economy and almost everybody else in Europe as playing a major contributing  role in the crisis. German exporters are greatly helped by the weakness of a currency they share with backward countries such as Greece. The Greeks get no such benefit, suffering a much stronger currency than would otherwise be the case. The real gain of Greece sharing a currency with mighty Germany has been Greek access to cheap debt. That is over now, and turned out to be not such a good thing, after all.

Rather than being isolated, the Greek crisis is symptomatic of the current state of capitalism, both globally and in Europe. As Robert D. Kaplan pointed out way back in 2009, as Greek riots were already starting to occur before the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street movements had even been imagined:

It’s tempting to dismiss this as a purely Greek affair that carries little significance to the outside world. But the global economic crisis will take different forms in different places in the way that it ignites political unrest. Yes, youth alienation in Greece is influenced by a particular local history that I’ve very briefly outlined here. But it is also influenced by sweeping international trends of uneven development, in which the uncontrolled surges and declines of capitalism have left haves and bitter have-nots, who, in Europe, often tend to be young people. And these young people now have the ability to instantaneously organize themselves through text messages and other new media, without waiting passively to be informed by traditional newspapers and television. Technology has empowered the crowd—or the mob if you will.

Likewise, a European Union that could have served to shelter the European social system from the relentless leveling of market forces has shown itself instead to be the most powerful instrument in the hands of such forces able to bring, despite the resistance of history, whole governments, and the societies upon which they rest to heel.


Eulogy for the European Union

Pericles, the last of the European Commissioners, appeared before the crowd in Athens. The mass was silent as he took the stage in the cool, dark December evening with yellow lights from the crowd flickering like fire-flies. He was there to announce the dissolution of the European Union.

“What sadder, and yet more relevant place, to announce the end of our grand European project than here at the very birth place of our civilization? From Hellas, and especially from Athens, came the seeds greatest and most unique contributions of our civilization to the inheritance of the world; our philosophy; our science; our democracy and love of freedom.

Our civilization was united only once under the stern, lawful dominion of Rome. A rule that appeared eternal, but like all that is human, or the work of human beings, did not last forever. What Rome left us was a dream of unity, a dream that was adopted even by the Germanic tribes that shattered the empire, and began the story of new European peoples.

The Roman dream was also kept alive by the Catholic Church which preserved for all Europe the grandeur and tradition of Rome, while, as it always is with irony and cunning of history, lit the kindling in the hearts of men, which burned with the desire of egalitarianism and individualism, and burst forth in the fires of the Protestant Reformation. The end of the Wars of Religion meant that Europe would never be united under a single spiritual banner.

Even in the midst of the howling winds of chaos the light of reason lit first by the Ancient Greeks was kept alive and grew bursting forth with modern science, exploration and discovery; enlightenment; capitalism and industrialization: European legacies that have so changed the world that it will never be the same again.  Under the powers brought by its knowledge Europe very nearly conquered the whole of the earth and brought at last Nature herself under man’s dominion. The reign of the West was littered with  contradictions: that of prosperity and enslavement; health and barbarity; power and impotence. But even though it ruled a world Europe still remained divided within.

The new Cesar, Napoleon, emerged and with his armies almost united Europe. Here too, the contradictions of history brought themselves to the fore. Here a republican army led by an autocratic dictator brought free government to Europe through the force of arms. Yet, rather than create a united, free Europe, the French lit the fires of nationalism that would seemingly divide the continent forever.

The First World War was yet a second attempt at uniting Europe this time under the banner of the ascendant Germanic peoples. The Great War was an unparalleled disaster for Europe and cast it from the pedestal of world power it had occupied since the beginning of the modern age.

The new chaos which descended upon Europe brought forth demons from the abyss- Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism- that sought to solve the contradiction of the need for European unity and the diversity of its peoples by destroying all of its differences.

It was only here, during the Second World War, that a truly democratic movement for the foundation of a united Europe, based on the diversity of its peoples, truly existed in the form of the European resistance movements to Nazi rule. There, in the words of Hannah Arendt”:

“As Jews we want to fight for the freedom of the Jewish people, because ‘If I am not for me- who is for me?’ As Europeans we want to fight for the freedom of Europe, because ‘If I am only for me who am I?’ (Hillel) [first century A.D. Jewish sage]. (Jewish Writings 141-142).

 “If any monument to the war dead of the European Union had been built it should have been dedicated to these martyrs for a free and united Europe.

The hope that such a world would emerge out of the ashes of the War was smothered by the big powers at the War’s end who wished for no new political structures in Europe, and instead saw Europe split in two by an iron wall.

It was in the wake of War that it was decided that the fate of Europe was best left to its elites. This too was part of the European tradition. Plato, who walked here, had his Guardians, the Church bound Europe with its in a trans-European clerical elite, the brotherhoods of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment were pan-European in nature.

For the modern denizens of unification from above by the steady hand of the more Enlightened, globalization seemed to show the way. What was needed was a single market rather than a single demos, what was required was a shared currency, not a shared parliament.  Some, and I count myself among the naive here, thought the European Union, offered a hint at the solution to the contradiction of modern politics- how to have a democratic form of society in a globalized world. In the end the Union seemed to offer little but the oppression of the small by the big powers, and the subservience of both to the all powerful global markets.

And thus it was, after the default of Greece and its exit from the Union was followed by similar events in Italy, Ireland and eventually Spain, that our project came to a tragic end. Unable to make our new empire as free and our loyalty to it as strong as that in and for our traditional nations, we returned to more narrow visions as the source of our aspirations, with the idea of Europe extinguished until futures far distant.”

Here Pericles ended his speech to crowd who remained silent.

Rick Searle

November, 21, 2011