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Beware the Radical Center

“You watch the neighborhood, we’ll watch the skies” reads one particularly curious web image which include pictures of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron and Martin Luther King Jr. superimposed over the Manhattan skyline. Though the image’s exact origins are unclear, it is a perfect representation of the latest repackaging of neoliberalism: the “radical center.” The radical center doubles down on the neoliberal project which, after complicity in myriad crises, is sputtering to a grinding halt. At the forefront of this “radical” movement to maintain the political and social status quo are the wunderkind Macron, Trudeau and, occasionally, Angela Merkel, always represented by the mainstream media as confident, friendly and competent. From the perspective of the radical center, these custodians of our brave new world are more than just leaders of our global order – they transcend it. In contrast to the likes of Trump and Corbyn, who attack the status quo for its shortcomings, Macron and Trudeau are the figureheads of a harmonious, peaceful, intelligently designed world system that has, luckily for us, transcended the petty partisan divides that have hitherto stifled human development. The latent message which underpins this new movement is that neoliberal capitalism is not just the only way, it is the right way.

“The Future of American Politics”

To begin, what is the precise difference between the traditional political center and the radical center? In terms of substance: not a lot. We can, however, chart one core difference between the new paragons of the radical center and previous centrist politicians; it lies in the way that contemporary radical centrists stake out their political project in opposition to a politics of extremism and division. The radical center is specific to the way that neoliberals have articulated their project following the inauguration of renewed rightist, and leftist, energy following the election of Trump, Brexit and Corbyn’s impressive electoral challenge. The term, sometimes synonymous with Blair and Clinton’s “Third Way,” became a more complete political project following the publication of Ted Halstead and Michael Lind’s 2001 book The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics. In it, Halstead and Lind lament the partisan gridlock which plagued American politics and offer up the “radical center” as their ingenious political solution. This “radical” political proposal is, despite its name, a mere repackaging of centrist, neoliberal political goals which were, at the time, pervasive in the American system. These goals included the privatization of social security and the granting of $6,000 to every child at birth (in lieu of a more extensive suite of social programs). The radical center, then as now, is the standard privatization and de-regulation of neoliberalism, yet presented as a sort of transcendent salvation to atavistic partisanship. The thread between the radical center of the early 2000’s and the emergent radical center today is precisely its claim to transcendence of an ineffectually polarized and partisan political system. Macron, Trudeau and Merkel all support a kind of “progress,” though this progress is never defined in positive, explicit terms. Rather this progress is defined negatively, against the headwinds of emergent far-right, and far-left, movements. What the politicians of the radical center neglect to tell you, however, is that the cure is worse than the disease.

A Politics of Transcendence

At the official launch of his Presidential campaign, Macron passionately announced that what his new party, En Marche, wants “is not to unite the left, it is not to unite the right; it is to unite France!” This pronouncement embodies perfectly the essential kernel of the radical centrist narrative – the narrative which predicates the radical center’s claim to be the solution, rather than the problem. Unlike the petty partisan ideologies of left and right, the radical center considers itself to be a sort of science rather than a political movement that favours a particular set of social relations over others. This scientific and pragmatic dimension emerges from the radical centers claim to apolitical transcendence, a transcendence that elevates radical centrist thought and leaders above existing social cleavages and political coalitions. Macron, and his proponents, provide the perfect example of this phenomenon. Macron claims to be “neither right nor left,” but, instead, for France. This vague proclamation obscures Macron’s actual political program by appealing to the ethic of fraternité – a fraternité carved out in ostensible opposition to the divisive rhetoric of his then opponents, Le Pen and Mélenchon. What Macron’s narrative of post-partisan unity neglects is, of course, the deeply divisive and inequitable political program that his election has inaugurated. The first major policy announcement by his government is a set of tax reforms which amount to an enormous transfer of wealth to France’s richest citizens. Such a policy should be no surprise, given Macron’s complicity in the implementation of the anti-labor, anti-union El Khomri law in 2016.

A piece written for The Hill by David Anderson entitled Why the ‘radical center’ must be the future of American politics celebrates Macron-style centrism and provides us some additional insight into the self-perception of this new re-packaging of tried-and-true neoliberalism. Anderson writes that “the radical center does not regard itself as a “centrist” position at all. It doesn’t really sit in between left and right.” He goes on to suggest that the “radical center transcends left and right but takes important elements of both sides.” What exactly these important elements are is left to the readers imagination – instead, Anderson goes on, at length, about the importance of naming this movement something other than the radical center because “the language of the “radical center” does not play well in the United States.” Here, the vacuous nature of the radical center is apparent: the radical center fails to offer positive policy alternatives to the status quo. Rather, it merely provides a new aesthetic treatment to crisis-prone neoliberalism. The radical center points fingers at partisan political movements and positions itself above them – reasserting the Blairite claim to centrist transcendence over political and economic matters. This transcendence is, of course, an unabashed lie. Macron and, as we will discover below, Trudeau, are inarguably partisan politicians whose political programs are reiterations of the disastrous status quo which has produced simultaneous social, economic and environmental crises.

Staying the Course

The narrative of the radical center, as we have seen, relies on a rather noxious sleight-of-hand. The same type of policies and social relationships which have produced the vast array of crises our world faces are given a new aesthetic treatment – and presented as the solution to the impending cataclysms they, themselves, generated. Justin Trudeau’s recent Earth Day escapade provides a further example to illustrate this process. On Earth Day, Trudeau kayaked on the Niagara River – the perfect opportunity to demonstrate Trudeau’s commitment to protecting, and enjoying, the environment. While the outing was a pleasant surprise for several passers-by, this particular act of political performance erases the political reality of Trudeau tenure as Prime Minister of Canada and of neoliberalism more broadly. Trudeau’s government is responsible for accelerating the climate crisis thanks to his government’s decision to approve the Kinder Morgan Pipeline, an oil pipeline connecting Canada’s environmentally disastrous oil sands to its west coast. The Trudeau present on Earth Day told a different story by imbuing himself and, by extension, his government’s record with an environmentalist aesthetic. In spite of his clearly unsustainable politics, or perhaps because of them, this media venture was used by Trudeau as a platform to speak about the urgency of the climate crisis. In a video taken shortly after his kayaking expedition, Trudeau urged global action against the impending array of ecological disasters that his government has been complicit in expediting. In his speech Trudeau lamented the damage already done to the environment, but reasserted his hope for a greener future. Still wearing the life jacket from his kayaking expedition, he announced that “the future is still bright for those who have the courage to confront hard truths and the confidence to stay the course.” The truth of this articulation of Trudeau’s radically centrist political vision, and others of like it, lies in Trudeau’s suggestion that confidence is required to “stay the course.” What is absent from this speech, of course, is the fact that the course being charted by Trudeau and his colleagues has directly produced the impending climate crisis. The view that supporting extractive capitalism somehow requires “confidence” on the part of both the government and individuals nullifies a broader, systemic critique which sees the climate crisis as actively perpetuated by the same agents of capital which Trudeau, and his radical centrist brethren, are happily in bed with. Instead, the solution offered by the radical center is merely “staying the course,” a phrase that ironically smacks of Hillary Clinton’s pathetic “America is already great” retort to Trump’s fascistic nostalgia.

The redoubling of neoliberal efforts to shore up global capitalism, in the form of the radical center, creates both opportunities and challenges for the global left. The likes of Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have been wildly successful in selling an image of their political programs as “progressive” to the global media establishment. The incompetent, destructive spectacle of Trump’s tenure as President of the United States provides a convenient referent to the suave, intelligent demeanor carried by both Trudeau and Macron, making them and their politics attractive, by comparison, to burgeoning right-wing populism. The radical center’s narrative will surely be difficult to disrupt given the scale with which the mainstream media has bought into it. Despite these challenges, the left will do well to point out the contradictions in the radical center’s founding narratives (such as its claim to apolitical or post-partisan transcendence) and continue to offer genuine policy alternatives to the continuation of neoliberal extraction, exploitation and violence. The manifesto of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party represented a decisive rupture with the past three decades of British neoliberalism – and it was a tremendous success. Left political programs that contest neoliberalism’s destructive tenure by drawing a strong continuity between our current global crisis and neoliberalism’s politics of austerity and de-regulation will be successful in dismantling the radical centrist media narrative that is unabashedly celebrating the recent victories of Macron, Trudeau and their utterly exploitive political projects.

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Ryan Shah is a student of political science at McGill University and the editor-in-chief of the McGill Left Review.

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