The first round of the French election confirmed what should now be clear, a profound political realignment is underway across Europe and the US. Yet the nature and extent of that realignment is being continually distorted because it is looked through the left-right prism of the past, or its current version, “globalism versus nationalism”.
The French election has been described as a break in the upsurge of right wing nationalism from Brexit to Trump but that requires a mis-reading of both those events. The French election and the recent Dutch election were more of the same, a breakdown and unravelling of the old political order than the emergence of anything new.
The fact that this political order was seen as “globalism” was more a result of that long-standing decay, which meant national politics became increasingly defensive, technocratic and hollowed out. National governments still pursued their interests on the global stage, naturally. They just did it in a shame-faced way. No better example was the European Union where constant nationalist squabbling behind closed doors still carried on, just needing less justification to the electorate – wise, given the discrediting of the nationalism of states like France, Italy and Germany during the 20th century.
In the UK and the US, being spared the worst of the humiliations of the last century, straight up-front nationalism can still be more viable, but has nowhere really to go. In the absence of any leadership from those who led the Brexit campaign, it was handed to those in the political class who had no interest in it, so they can smother it. In the White House, an isolated President has one thing going for him, the complete ineptness and unpopularity of the Republicans and Democrats who oppose him.
In Europe, if anything, the trend in the UK and the US is even more pronounced. While the anti-immigrant right have made some gains, but not as much as some expected, the traditional parties are even in more disarray. In the Netherlands, so focussed was attention on Wilders that no one seemed to notice the collapse of the 70 year-old Labour party. In France, not only did the Socialist party collapse, but the best the establishment right could muster was a scandal ridden candidate that got barely 20% of the vote and meant that the establishment parties had no candidate for the second round for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic.
Instead, the “hope of liberalism” now rests with a candidate whose party, like his candidacy, appeared out of thin air. It did so because he seemed an acceptable form of anti-establishment candidate. The trouble is that now as the discredited establishment rallies around him as their only hope, that important benefit will fade. This is not reassuring.
The nationalist right has no real dynamic other than filling the vacuum, but what is going on in the left is in many ways more degenerate – even if it seems to some like a revival.
If the emergence of Macron seemed out of nowhere, the rise of Mélenchon was even more rapid. Mélenchon is being seen as part of the new “left populism” to counter the unpopular populism of the nationalist right, and sees its echo in Sanders in the US, Corbyn in the UK and (less talked about these days) Syriza’s Tsipras and Podemos’s Iglesias in southern Europe.
While they are seen to represent a new left they are actually the inversion of the old. Whereas the old left emerged from social forces looking for representation in the political sphere, this new left populism manufactures “movements” in the political sphere that have little real connection to society. Even in Spain where it could be argued that Podemos was a product of something approaching a genuine social movement, Podemos has been less about representing it than usurping it.
Nowhere has this quite reached the level of parody as it has in the UK. Having come to the leadership due to a meltdown in the confidence of the party leadership, Corbyn is now merrily leading the party to electoral disaster. It is merry because the millions of voters deserting the party is nothing compared to the thousands of activists that are joining it. This “movement”, cunningly disguised as Momentum, represents not something new in society but a 120 year-old party going up its own political jacksie and disappearing from view. It suggests that rather than being afraid of this new left populism, all the anti-immigration right has to do is manage to stand still. Again, this is not reassuring.
“Unpopular populism”: How Brexit/Trump exposed a crisis in political thinking, in the autumn Meanjin now available.