An old Chinese curse is “May you live in interesting times!” – interesting times are the times of troubles, confusion and suffering. And it seems that in some “democratic” countries, we are lately witnessing a weird phenomenon which proves that we live in interesting times: a candidate emerges and wins elections as it were from nowhere, in a moment of confusion building a movement around his name – both Berlusconi and Macron exploded like this.
What is this process a sign of? Definitely not of any kind of direct popular
engagement beyond party politics – on the contrary, we should never forget that such figures explode with the full support of social and economic establishment. Their function is to obfuscate actual social antagonisms – people are magically united against some demonised “fascist” threat.
Decades ago, Vaclav Havel was the first to blurt out this dream: when, after being elected a President, he first met Helmut Kohl, he made a weird suggestion: “Why don’t we work together to dissolve all political parties? Why don’t we set up just one big party, the Party of Europe?” One can imagine Kohl’s skeptical smile.
This weird phenomenon is one of the visible effects of the long-term rearrangement of the political space in Europe. Until recently, the political space was dominated by two main parties which addressed the entire electoral body, a right-of-centre party (Christian Democrat, liberal-conservative, people’s something-or-other) and a left-of-centre party (socialist, social democratic something-or-other), with smaller parties addressing a narrow electorate (ecologists, neo-fascists, and so on).
Now, there is progressively emerging one party which stands for global capitalism as such, usually with relative tolerance towards abortion, gay rights, religious and ethnic minorities; opposing this party is a stronger and stronger anti-immigrant populist party which, on its fringes, is accompanied by directly xenophobic groups.
The exemplary case is here Poland: after the disappearance of the ex-communists, the main parties are the “anti-ideological” centrist liberal party of the ex-prime minister Donald Tusk and the conservative Christian party of Kaczynski brothers. The question now is: which of the two main parties, conservatives or liberals, will succeed in presenting itself as embodying the post-ideological non-politics against the other party dismissed as “still caught in old ideological spectres”? In the early Nineties, conservatives were better at it; later, it was liberal leftists who seemed to be gaining the upper hand.
This process brings us back to Berlusconi and Macron: new movements emerge out of nowhere when none of the old big parties, conservative or liberal, succeeds in imposing itself as the agent of the new “radical centre”, so the establishment is caught in a panic and has to invent a new movement in order, precisely, to keep things the way they are.
Already the names of their respective movements (more than just parties) sound similar in their empty universality which fits everyone and everything. Who wouldn’t agree with “Forza Italia”! or with “La Republique En Marche!” – they both designate the abstract sense of a victorious movement forward without any specification of the direction of this movement and its goal.
Both exploded as reactions of the establishment in a panic. There is, of course, an obvious difference between the two, a different accent: Berlusconi entered the scene when, after the big anti-corruption campaign, the entire traditional political configuration in Italy collapsed and ex-communists remained as the only viable force, while Macron entered the scene alongside le Pen’s xenophobic populism. His role is best described by a word used by some of his supporters: in the last years, Marine le Pen gradually came to be “de-diabolised”, that is to say perceived as part of the “normal” (acceptable) political space, and the task is to “re-diabolise” her, to show to the political public that she remains the same old xenophobe not to be tolerated by society.
Such a gesture of (re)diabolisation is clearly not enough: instead of just focusing on that, one should immediately raise the question of how such a leader could have emerged in our society (in le Pen’s case, le Pen is a reaction to the policy whose embodiment is Macron). The function of “diabolisation” is precisely to obfuscate this link, to locate the guilt in an agent outside our democratic space.
Historically, it was the task of the left to raise such questions, so no wonder that, with the diabolised enemy, the radical left conveniently disappears from the picture. Recall how, in the last elections in France, every leftist scepticism about Macron was immediately denounced as a support for le Pen. So we can venture the hypothesis that this elimination of the left was the true aim of the operation, and that the demonised enemy was a convenient prop.
Julian Assange recently wrote that the reason the Democratic Party’s establishment has embraced the “We didn’t lose – Russia won” narrative is because if they didn’t, then the insurgency created by Bernie Sanders during last year’s presidential election would dominate the party. And in the same way that the US Democrats diabolise Trump to get rid of Sanders who poses a threat to the Democratic establishment, the French establishment diabolised le Pen to get rid of the potential leftist radicalisation.
The UK is a special case here, since it is one of the big old parties – the Labour party, under Corbyn’s leadership – which is emerging as the main threat to the establishment. So we can perhaps imagine a new anti-Brexit “radical centre” composed of the Blair wing of the Labour Party, Lib Dems and anti-Brexit conservatives which will explode under the pretext of containing the Brexit threat, but in reality destined to get rid of the Labour threat. We do indeed live in interesting times.
This essay originally appeared in The Independent.