The ideological hole

We – denizens trapped in this world – are clearly in an alt-right moment. Just this week:

  • Andrew Scheer, the conservative party candidate for prime minister, went to a Yellow Vest rally that was heavily attended by white nationalists and said: we’re with you, after which he posed near a Trudeau: wanted for treason poster. Scheer is leading in polls, after Trudeau was exposed for leaning on the Justice minister not to prosecute a favored corporation for its crimes.
  • Mario Salvini of the League Party, who is the interior minister in Italy, has been trying to summon other hard right parties, like Germany’s Afd, to a common block that will put up candidates for the EU elections.
  • Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading hard Brexiter, has been recommending an Afd video to his followers. Meanwhile, polls show that Boris Johnson is the most popular politician in the UK at the moment.
  • And to round this up, Macron’s Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, has been echoing Salvini’s conspiracy notion that certain NGO’s are acting to pass migrants into France illegally. Since NGOs are the only groups that defend migrant rights, this is a pretty heavy handed signal. It might not be a coincidence that Macron has been talking a lot to Sarkozy lately.

Our bullet points have ignored Trump, Orban, Netanyahu, Bolsinaro, et al., because we can just check them present and noxious, in the headlines every day.

I am interested, though, in the fact that the Left is either disorganized or a minority in every country where it used to form that one real opposition party or, sometimes, even the governing party. From the 40s to the 70s, even in countries like Italy, where the Christian Democrats tenaciously held onto power, the tide was to the left. From social policies to real advancement towards economic equality between the working class and capital, this was the direction the world was moving in.

But since the 80s, the movement is all the other way. And instead of forming an opposition, the Left has taken on a role as facilitator.

I suspect that the alt right moment is the result of this huge fucking hole in our ideological choices – in Europe, in the Anglosphere, in Elsewhere. The tear is evidently caused by Lordon’s paradox: Left parties systematically moving right, while retaining the label and symbolic capital of being Left. My name for it comes from Frédéric Lordon, the French philosopher and economist, who stated it in a scathing review of a book by a well known French historian and political philosopher, Pierre Rosanvallon, who was one of the co-founders of Fondation Saint-Simon in the eighties. Rosanvallon has always been associated with the Socialist Party in France, but the FSS was very actively against the kinds of things that socialism is traditionally associated with : namely, understanding the limits of the market – and never taking the market as a model for the social whole. These precepts were reversed. And instead of simply supporting the right, these intellectuals remained on the “left,” becoming a vector for propagating a neo-liberal message into the Mitterrand era coalition of the « Left ». That message was wrapped in moral scolding : the idea was that the Left in the twentieth century had been criminally complicit with Stalin, and then with, oh, Pol Pot, and the only way to purge its sins was to embrace Milton Friedman.

This is a caricature, but not a very broad caricature. If you read Débats, the journal associated with FSS people, you get the message.

That historians figured so strongly in it – Francois Furet was also a cofounder – was essential to the project, since the de-legitimisation of socialism was laid out on revisionist historical lines : thus, beaucoup attention was paid to the terror under the Jacobins of the French revolution, and zip attention was paid to the 150 years of terror endured by the African population that was shipped to Haiti, whose stolen labor, shortened lives, broken families and tortured rebels – not to speak of the hundreds of thousands of bodies littering the Atlantic from collateral casualties – provided much of the wealth of the ancien regime. If attention were paid to the latter, then it was easy to claim that political correctness was messing things up, and perhaps the objections were even connected to Stalin, Lenin and that arch-criminal, Marx. The FSS historians held up the American Revolution, minus the genocide and the slavery, as a model, and the French revolution was downgraded to an advertisement for the coming attractions of the Gulag.

All of these elements were noticed by Lordon, who asked: why has nobody ever examined, with sociological seriousness, this strange interior hollowing out of the Left?

My own tentative theory is that the historical argument mounted in the 80s was, in a way, window dressing; what was really happening was that, within the parties of the Left, the leadership and policy was captured by a group that  was, by family ties, education, and outlook, indistinguishable from the  bourgeoisie who ran rightwing parties. The old influence of the working class – by way, for instance, of unions, or politicians who came from the working class – at the highest levels of the left was no longer a ‘thing’. The suspicion, or dislike, of the working class, common to the bourgeois right, was shared, less overtly, by the bourgeois left. There was a family resemblance between the two establishments.

In 1959, Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslavian dissenter, wrote a book entitled « The New Class » about the party bureaucrats in the communist countries who, in effect, had become a governing class, with all the perks, due to their position as the elite guard of the « revolution ». This book was immediately enrolled in the arsenal of the Cold War. See, communism leads to feudalism. And since the end of the Cold War, it has been forgotten. But the new class, in broad outlines, does provide one answer to Lordon’s paradox. It explains one aspect of the  ideological hole in our present political spectrum.

In one country after another a kind of third way became the norm: globalization, massive wealth and income inequality, and the neoliberal penetration of capitalism into every sphere of private life, was embraced by the third way. Which still claimed, however, a tenuous link to the Left. But if the Left did not represent the working class, who did they represent?

To recap: I think half this tale has never really been told, to cop a Bob Marley line.  I think it is the story of the march of the New Class through the New Left in the late 60s and 70s, in various stages: the moral stage, which involved indignation about the Gulag and the identification of anti-colonialism with Pol Pot and Ayatollah Khomeini; the pragmatic « liberalism » of the 80s, which accepted Thatcherism but proposed to soften it; the final rejection of egalitarianism as an ideal in the 90s (which implied that social democracy as a political structure could rest on an economic framework resembling the Gilded age of the 1920s), accompanied by slowing down investments in public goods while the Left intellectuals wished for an era of more sweeping privatizations – in the argot, “reforms”.

Often, this tale is told without putting it into the global context of the foreign policies pursued by the “former” imperialist countries. Here, too, there is an important third way element. In the late 90s and 00s, the corpse of the much reviled Tiers-mondist was finally completely replaced by the ideology of human rights “interventions”. The humanitarian interventionists provided that sales campaign for recapitulating the colonial order, but on the cheap. This is not to say they had things all their way: the makers of the interventions were the usual coterie of corporations and military types who intended to profit. The h.i. were, instead, the preliminary propagandists, laying down their barrages in the media. Much was made of the monstrous torture chambers of the selected dictator, and little to nothing was made of the instruments of destruction, the shock and awe, the drones, the new doctrine of long distance assassination.  Then the show was over. Mostly, the country broke apart – as in Iraq and Libya or starved to death – as in Yemen – and no investment whatsoever on a scale to make up for the breaking apart, not to speak of the human disasters, took place. Victory was declared, and the Others in Elsewhere had to clean up the bodies and wonder whether the three hours of electricity per day was enough to make a meal or heat water in. Besides, of course, wondering what paramilitary would be out tonight, and whether the kids would survive.

Meanwhile, in the “humanitarian intervener” states, investment in the industrial-military complex in the U.S., and sales of military equipment to the Gulf states, did make for profits all the way around. Of course these were matters that the humanitarian interventionists, who always seemed to have a lot of press space,  chastely turned their eyes away from.

And so it came about that even the New Left concern with human rights was turned, in the neo-liberal order, into a series of aggressions and profit opportunities. Elsewhere, it should be mentioned, struck back: under the delusion that paramilitaries in the Middle East, armed to the teeth, would never dare strike Europe, Francois Hollande, for instance, ordered bombing in Syria without, for instance, consulting the population at large or hinting that France had declared war against Daech, while helping other paramilitary groups that were ideologically close to Daech even as they were fierce rivals. Nor did the French seem to think that they were vulnerable to the kind of attacks Daech made in Syria and Iran – just as Spain did not think that it was vulnerable to al qaeda in 2004 when the Madrid train stations were attacked. In Spain’s case, the ruling party was Franquist. In France’s case, the ruling party was socialist, and seemed entirely unaware of what had transpired in the 00s, except that

This, too, tore a hole in the former ideological balance of Left and Right. The Left’s enthusiasm for military strikes, combined with its enthusiasm for multi-national corporations – its pilgrimages to both the Pentagon and Davos – were decisive breaks with the old anti-colonialism and the old internationalism of labor. It was the internationalism of the consumer that the Left elevated.

I am of course painting in broad strokes. There is another broad stroke I should add, because it is crucial to the alt-ness of the alt-right. If the Left no longer represented the working class, the new left’s establishment have a constituency: an educated, middle to upper class that understood and assimilated, at least mentally, the demands of the civil rights struggles of the 60s. This was the one great positive advance of the New Left. And so it was made the core of a new, non-working class oriented politics. Yet even this advance brought with it unsuspected dialectical problems.  

The first was the notion of a tacit exchange. Just as liberals and leftists  adopted the economic precepts of the Chicago school, so they convinced themselves that the Right adopted the civil rights results of the 60s onward – that officially, at least, the right condemned sexism, racism, and even homophobia.

The second was in the self-image that the Left erected. Because if the Left bourgeoisie was hip to women’s, or gay, or black cultural products – if they were especially sensitive to verbal abuse of formerly oppressed groups – that does not mean that they were hip to changing the structures that underlay homophobia, sexism or racism. When Third Way politicos were able to get elected, they thus had a hard time reconciling the abandonment of egalitarianism with civil rights. For example, if the Obama administration could, on the one hand, came finally to embrace gay marriage – full civil rights for gay people – on the other hand, they had no problem pioneering the babies-in-cages policy at the border. They did this without, as it were, seeing it. If the Left constituency abhorred and watched for verbal racism in the public forum, they were blind to, or even helped facilitate, the mass incarceration of African-Americans. I’m using American models, but one can find similar patterns in Blair’s Labour, and Hollande’s PS. Meanwhile, the ranks of the political establishment in the Left remained persistently dominated by white males.   

This provides a general outline, I think, of positions within the EU and the Anglosphere, where the left has collapsed the hardest. Without that collapse, this moment would look much different. We might even, given a real Left, be able to act on the fact that climate change is going to be the greatest catastrophe human beings have ever faced. And do something. Instead of retro-paddling into the 30s. The environment requires a separate note, I think.

About Roger 56 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

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