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.


What democracy’s future shouldn’t be


As William Gibson has famously pointed out, the job of the science fiction writer is not to predict the future but to construct one plausible version of it from the pieces already laying around.  I assume that Malka Older was trying to do this deliberately low key Gibsonian thing with her novel Infomacracy, but given the bizarre nature of this current election cycle she instead, and remarkably, ended up anticipating not merely many of its real or feared events, but even ended her novel on the same note of exhaustion and exasperation and even dread resulting from the perceived failures of representative democracy now expressed by many among the elites, and from another the other angle, the young.

In terms of setting and plot, Infomacracy takes place in an imagined near future when democracy, with some notable exceptions, has gone global. As a consequence of some never quite explained crisis, the major powers we associate with political power today- The US, China, the EU, and Japan are no more. The world’s governments have been replaced by a global democratic order in which a variety of corporate and NGO based political groups compete with one another for electorally generated power. Given the absurd, and disturbing shape of current politics, and not just in the US but globally, one would be forgiven for thinking Older is out to describe a Utopian vision of the future, but you would be wrong.

Instead she describes global democracy dying almost the moment it is born. Sabotaged by an almost successful attempt to hijack a world election by the ruling party which is likely to lose called Heritage, or to ride to the majority through the resurrection of historical hatreds- the intent of the corporatist party named Liberty. I shouldn’t have to mention that there’s a party called Philip- Morris, to convey that Older is not describing a political order any small d democrat would look forward to. And all of this takes place within a world where it appears that the vast majority of media and knowledge are mediated by a sort of super-Google known simply, and perhaps as a shoutout to James Gleick, as Information.

Within the midst of this story Older ends up anticipating a number of the actual and potential cyber assaults on the democratic process during the current election. In Older’s imagined world computer hacks are a political weapon, challenges to democratic legitimacy are a trump card (pun intended), and an internet behemoth has become the arbiter of truth.

Whatever complaints I might have about the believability or depth of the novel’s characters, it did manage to make explicit something I hadn’t really thought through before. Few of us living in prosperous, liberal- democratic societies wouldn’t hope that at some point in the future the kinds of rights and capacities we take for granted will not be extended to all of the world’s peoples. And we think this even if we’ve finally learned the tragic foolishness of freedom compelled from the barrel of a gun.

Yet such faith and hope in the world’s democratic future probably should seem strange given how exhausted many of us have become with the sophistry and theater that defines electoral politics. It’s not just the exhaustion of being ruled by ad men, it’s ad men who don’t care what we want and are corrupt and incompetent besides. That American political consultants find it so easy to move between our system and that of deeply corrupt or authoritarian societies should be a troubling sign.

Older manages to capture this, but rather than imagining some truly democratic alternative ends up giving us the view of Plato refracted through the lens of the information age. After all, the heroes of her novel aren’t really in pursuit of political freedom, but are chasing an ideal world where the right course of action arises from an honest wrestling with the facts themselves, rather than, as in any democratic order worth its salt, emerging from conflicting human values.

One of these characters, Ken, is a high ranking member of the PolicyFirst party whose platform is about reasoned solutions along with a deliberate avoidance of the politics of personality and persuasion. Whereas the protagonist of the novel, Mishima, works for Information whose role it seems is not just to bring under one roof all the world’s knowledge and communication but to actively rid the world of falsehood and propaganda.

Whatever the outcome in the novel its underlying message seems to be one of resignation. With this pessimism Older seems to have joined the growing chorus of thinkers who think the way the internet’s democratic promise has imploded since the year zero of 2011 proves Plato was onto something. Let’s hope they’re wrong and that there are alternative versions of digital democracy waiting in the wings, but things don’t look good.