Reading the news this last couple of weeks you would be justified in believing that Western Civilization, the World Economy, our Shared System of Values and Beliefs, the European Union and the Powers that Be, all at once, had barely budged a lethal bullet and been saved of their imminent demise. The tide of populism, extreme far-right ideas, acceptance of inequality and rejection of the Enlightenment worldview had probably crested and were expected to start the precipitous decline whose opposition to the universal impetus of a never ending progress condemn them to.
Or so would like to think the lazy peddlers of secondhand, never-too-well-analyzed, opinion generally known as journalists. We beg to differ. First, let’s look a bit more in depth the apparent cause of such glad sighs of relief: the first round of the French presidential elections that took place on Sunday, May 23rd saw a moderate, pro-European centrist (Emmanuel Macron) take the first place, to compete in a run-off with the much-feared head of the Front National, Marine Le Pen. A runoff in which he will, almost assuredly, trounce her, as famously happened with her father in 2002, when all the forces of the “reasonable”, “established” political spectrum joined against him (as they have already joined against her, with one notable exception, that of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon).
According to the received opinion, Mrs. Le Pen was cut from the same cloth as Donald Trump and the anti-EU politicians who caused “Brexit” at the other side of the Channel (Farage, Johnson, Gove). A dangerous extremist, an anti-Semite, a traditionalist set against the unstoppable progress of mankind, had she won she would have caused the doom of the decades long European integration project, the collapse of globalization, the return of national enmity and conflict to the continent, the confrontation with the resurgent Islam at Europe’s doors, the return to the demonic forces of nationalism that tore the continent apart a bit more than half a century ago.
Mr. Macron, on the other hand, which every respectable pundit is telling us should be voted, talked up, promoted, actively endorsed and praised, is your run-of-the-mill technocrat, not clearly affiliated with any of France’s traditional parties, somewhat nebulous about which precise policies he may pursue once at the helm of the country, whose main merit seems to be (other than the already mentioned non-affiliation, which definitely has played an oversized role in his rise) not at the head of any kind of avowedly “fascist”, modestly “far-right” (for the tastes of the commentariat) party. What seems clear is that he essentially promises more of the same: continuity in foreign affairs (that is, permanence in a European Union increasingly dominated by its more and more powerful Northern neighbor, more so after Britain’s departure in two years, regardless of the decades long suffering imposed by the policies more favorable to such neighbor for France’s dwindling industrial base), continuity in the economy’s direction (a modest liberalization and slow reduction of France’s public sector and a very gradual attempt to lift some of its comparatively cumbersome labor regulations), even continuity in the cultural realm (France is distinctively great, but such greatness is not to be too openly flaunted, especially in front of people “from other cultural traditions” -i.e. its own Muslim minority- lest they feel alienated or slighted). And that more-of-the-sameness is what troubles me and makes me think if the overwhelming consensus of the opinionators may not be wrong after all.
With that I’m not saying that I myself would vote for Mrs. Le Pen were I in a condition to choose. She has her own baggage, her own morally dubious choices (not least a potential corruption scandal involving a European Parliament stipend she didn’t have a problem bagging, while thunderously campaigning against the institution) and a certain dodginess that leaves me uneasy. But regarding the program of her party, the much derided, scorned, attacked, vilified and pilloried FN? I don’t see anything there that makes me want to run for the barricades, or that I would be surprised to see in as little as 2-4 years in the plank of any respectable center-right party that ends up governing a major European nation, without anybody as much as blinking an eye for it.
What’s all the fuss about, then? Well, for starters, I think it helps analyzing the situation in the light of the political philosophy dimensions that I identified in my last post. So let’s ask ourselves where do Mrs. Le Pen and her acolytes stand regarding our age’s dominant reason. Are they against it? I don’t think so. She seems to be OK with “the pursuit of happiness” as the ultimate goal of life, and with a certain form of well-ordered society where the police ensure everybody stays in its place, and do not try to overstep their station in life. She also seems to be perfectly happy with the idea of money (or property) being the main determinant of social rank, and with the desire for social improvement as the main (actually, as the solely intelligible) spring for action, the main socially sanctioned desire. I may be reading too much here, but if I’m right so far, that would mark her out not as a nationalist (that would think that it’s only genius, or rather a particular kind of genius born of a distinctive attunement with the ancient Spirit of nation, blood and soil, which should determine every person’s station in life) but as a more prosaic populist. What she is essentially telling her likely voters is that the values ruling our lives are OK, but the result they’ve produced (all those Muslims, and immigrants in general milking the generous State’s udder and mocking the sacred creed of national unity that built that State in the first place with their alien culture and traditions) has been thwarted and perverted by a twisted cabal of multiculturalists and internationalists, that dreaded “elite”, that is siphoning off the hard earned euros of the middle and lower-classes and showering with largesse a bunch of undeserving female genital mutilators.
That makes the contest between Mrs. Le Pen and Mr. Macron a rather uninteresting competition between two camps of cheerleaders of the current reason. In France there are no neoliberals (although some sentences of the candidate for en Marche! May be construed as willing to imperceptibly tilt the behemoth of the French State in a more liberal direction), so the discussion essentially takes place between people willing to change things even more imperceptibly, be it towards a more bureaucratic, redistributionist past (social democrats), towards an uncertain future where the main difference is stepping out of the single currency straitjacket (those have to be the populist) or towards doing nothing at all and hoping that a sustained improvement in the foreign markets will miraculously lift the economy and exogenously solve France’s unemployment problem (conservatives). No kidding the social democrat and traditional conservative’s (that initially rallied under the banner of the Gaullist François Fillon who, marred by a small scandal of his own, couldn’t get them in a number enough to pass to the knockoff stage) recommend frantically voting for Macron to block a potential Le Pen presidency (who is but a square further from them in my little map of political sensibilities). No kidding either that the truly leftist part of the electorate (who in the first round voted for the unreconstructed Marxist Jean-Luc Mèlenchon) are more hesitant to follow suit, as they see Mr. Macron perched between neoliberalism and conservatism, as far from their own sensibility as Mrs. Le Pen populism (which, as she astutely has observed, may be made to appear to include some left-leaning elements that would made it clearly more palatable).
However, the result (for what it’s worth, I forecast a slim victory for Mr. Macron, at least five percentage points less than what the press consensus predicts but still enough to get him to the Élysée Palace) is unlikely to change much or make any noticeable difference in the life of the French. This is still an exhausted social system, whoever wins. France’s economy, like the rest of Europe’s, will limp along for a few more years (and Mrs. Le Pen wasn’t likely to trigger a “Frexit” right away). Demographic growth, the rate of technological innovation and productivity improvements will not resume in the near future, and in their absence the lackluster growth in wealth will keep on being monopolized by a shrinking minority. In France, with its moderately robust State and redistributionist policies as in the UK (without any of those) or in the US (ditto on steroids). And the concomitant growing inequality will accelerate a negative feedback loop of even less demographic growth, less innovation and less wealth creation…
Until the system is exposed for the fraud it already is, the column of proponents of the dominant reason gets emptied (there stops being anybody defending it, outside of the super-rich one percenters that are revealed as its only beneficiaries) and there are no more neoliberals, populists, conservatives or social democrats, and only revolutionaries (under the generic banner of anarchists, although I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still Marxists around, their chiliastic faith has survived worse…) and reactionaries (the true ones, wanting to go all the way back before the start of the Enlightenment) remain. By the way, interesting article by Andy Sullivan in the New York Review about neoreaction, kudos for distinguishing between reactionaries and conservatives: Taking those crazy reactionaries seriously... seriously? although what he calls reactionary would be, in my terms, either a nationalist (back to the romantic reason of great Nations with a distinctive Geist -oh, well, it was always about race anyway), a Marxist (back to the good ol’ State deciding who gets what or, in Lenin’s as unforgettable as pithy definition of politics, giving an answer to “Who? Whom?”) or a full alt-righter (back all the way to absolute monarchy, when men lived for a possible everafter, surely much happier regardless of being dirt poor and mostly condemned to a life of endless toil without parole or reprieve).
Be it as it may, when we judge of the impact of a populist win we shouldn’t forget that, unable to change the exhausted dominant reason that got us in this mess in the first place, the only questions of interest are a) how long will they maintain the fiction that all that is wrong (that, for such reason, can only boil down to the lack of robust, equitably divided growth in material comforts) is the fault of an evil cabal of outsiders that can be easily countered and b) what happens when the mask falls on that (historically, it tends to not end well for the populist in charge, which will usually turn their aims to new foes increasingly more complex to vanquish, until they lash out to foreign enemies and vast, cosmic-scale conspirations that require the engagement of all the Nation’s forces to counteract them… and we also know ha that one ends). What populist typically do not produce are viable, vibrant, healthy alternatives to the inert dominant reason that enabled their initial ascent. So not many causes for cheerfulness. Even after the Front National is defeated (again) in a couple of days, it is only a matter of time until its ideology (populism) triumphs, in France or anywhere else, tilting more to the right (to better ally itself with credulous conservatives) or more to the left (idem with hopeful but equally naïve social democrats).
Meanwhile, we will still be busy trying to formulate the true alternative that may deliver us collectively from such evils. Not too likely to succeed, but at least it won't be for lack of effort.