Beating the Populist Right with the Neoliberal Center Isn't Sustainable At All

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Beating the Populist Right with the Neoliberal Center Isn't Sustainable At All

The liberal world breathed a sigh of relief May 7 when France seemed to avert political disaster by choosing the pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron over the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen as its next president. With a margin of 66% to Le Pen’s 34%, the former banker is believed by many to have won a mandate to beat back the evils of “extremism” and “populism”—terms applied by the political establishment and mainstream media to socialists and neo-Nazis alike. “I will do everything to make sure you never have reason again to vote for extremes,” he promised in a vague speech about how he’d fix France’s problems. Unfortunately, if Macron pursues the policies to which he’s remained doggedly committed throughout his career—and thus far he’s shown he has every intention to—he will do just the opposite.

The recent history of France, the US, and the world at large have shown this to be true. Beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the present day, center-left and center-right politicians alike have pursued much of Macron’s platform, with disastrous results…if you define “results” in terms of the average person’s quality of life and not corporate rates of profit. Austerity, financial globalization, privatization, and the destruction of organized labor have contributed to wage stagnation, debt, wealth inequality, and an increasingly precarious and beaten down workforce. Manufacturing jobs have been relocated to the developing world, where corporations can exploit weaker labor laws. In the case of the United States, which lacks a national healthcare system, it has literally shaved years off people’s lives as they succumb to diseases they cannot afford to treat. The “recovery” from the 2007 financial crisis brought back some jobs, but most were unstable freelance gigs with no rights attached; the Uberization of the economy. (Fun fact: in most US states, it’s not even illegal to sexually harass a freelance employee. Talk about adding insult to injury.)

This widespread precariousness contributes to social ills like depression, anxiety, drug addiction, and alienation throughout the developed world, to say nothing of the exploitation that goes on in the developing world. Among statistically significant numbers of white voters in the west, this alienation has manifested as resentment towards immigrants and racial minorities, a resentment which right-populist demagogues like Trump and Le Pen have happily exploited. People of all demographics show their alienation by not voting. From the successful UKIP-inspired Brexit campaign to the election of Donald Trump, right-wing movements are gaining political power worldwide as certain groups of white people rebel against the establishment in all the wrong ways. At the same time, left-populist alternatives are beaten back by a professional-managerial elite committed to keeping its stranglehold on power at all costs.

While the people of France are faring better than those in some countries, largely due to the remnants of the welfare state, things aren’t great. Economic growth is weak. About 10% of the workforce is unemployed. For those under 25, that figure is closer to 25%. The jobs that are available to young people are mostly crappy, unstable freelance gigs that don’t provide the same protections as traditional jobs. The EU’s attempts to enforce its maximum debt ceiling on France are bumping up against hard won economic protections. A one-size-fits-all approach within the Eurozone means France is forced to follow the same rules as wealthier and more austere countries like Germany…which recently led France’s nominally socialist president François Hollande to pivot from his leftist campaign promises to launch a number of attacks on workers, unions and the welfare state, sparking widespread protests. Racism and Islamophobia are virulent in all corners of French society. Membership in the fiscally liberal, socially fascist Front National is growing.

If a wealthy graduate of the tony École nationale d’administration, Sciences Po, and Nanterre University who played a key role in shaping Hollande’s unpopular policies while serving as his economic minister seems like an unlikely person to triumph in this political climate, it’s because he is. Unlike the majority of French citizens, Macron thinks the solution to France’s woes is obeying the EU, cutting corporate tax rates, and “liberalizing” the labor market by weakening unions and workers’ rights. He wants to cut $65 billion in spending, largely by weakening the social safety net, which will have the added bonus of forcing people to take low-paying jobs to survive. He’s promised to axe 120,000 public sector jobs. He’s even willing to go after France’s sacred 35-hour work week, and one gets the sense he would raise the retirement age if he could. He wants to remove regulations on the same banks that caused the 2007 financial crisis, then got bailed out by taxpayers under Sarkozy, Bush and Obama in a massive upward redistribution of wealth. His closest political analog might be Obama: a mild mannered technocrat free of personal scandal whose progressivism ends where the economic interests of the ruling class begin.

Like the New Democrats of the US, Macron touts entrepreneurship and education as the key to individual prosperity, using the idea of meritocracy to justify a wildly unequal society. (He also wants to shut down mosques believed to be incubating jihadists, in case anyone thought he was an anti-racist candidate.) He ascribes a theological virtue to hard work, as if toiling in a job you hate is inherently better than raising children, volunteering in one’s community, or simply enjoying life. Measures aimed at preserving the dignity of workers—compromises between labor and capital predicated on the acknowledgement that most people only work because they have to—are against his religion.

Macron did not win the French election because the majority of French people support his policies. He won because he happened to be running against Marine Le Pen, whose brand of nationalist authoritarianism scares them more than Macron’s economic terrorism ever could…at least for now. According to polling company Ipsos, 43% of French citizens voted for Macron purely out of opposition to Le Pen, while just 24% did so because they support his policies. 61% of those polled do not want his policies to go through. A record number of voters abstained or entered blank ballots; it was the lowest turnout since 1969. As of the Ipso poll, nearly half the country believed neither finalist could fix the country’s unemployment problem in any satisfactory way. But even if Macron’s “reforms” are going to fix everything, is it really in the spirit of democracy to force unwanted “reforms” on a country on pain of fascism?

Like the Democrats under Hillary Clinton, Macron coerced a recalcitrant populace into supporting him by putting the onus on them to vote against Le Pen, whether or not he had anything to offer them. (Which, to be clear, was the right way to vote in this instance, if utterly uninspiring.) One of his campaign ads was literally just footage of smug liberals saying Clinton was going to win, then Trump taking the prize. That he succeeded where Clinton failed does not mean France is going to lie down and behave. The slogan “Macron 2017=Le Pen 2020” means exactly what you think. The wealth is not going to trickle down, and everyone is not going to become an entrepreneur. Macron’s policies will only make workers poorer and angrier. And poor, angry people vote against whoever they believe made them that way.

The numbers that contain the most likely possibilities for France’s future are not those of the winner, but the runners-up. On the right, Le Pen managed to more than double the number of votes her party got the last time it made it to the second round in 2002. Given this upward trend and her alarming share of the youth vote, it seems likely the FN will continue to gain, should the underlying conditions stay the same or worsen. Frexit, stage right.

More hopefully, leftist challenger Jean-Luc Mélenchon missed the top two by just a few percentage points, a remarkable showing for a former member of the Communist Party with virtually no support from mainstream media or politicians. While many have tried to paint him as a dangerous radical, he’s actually a reformist who wants to save capitalism from itself via redistribution, internationalism, and a renegotiation of the social contract. While he, like Le Pen, is skeptical of the EU, he doesn’t necessarily want to scrap it, just renegotiate its terms to reflect that people have the right to move around, but capital must be subservient to humanitarian and ecological needs. He would stimulate the economy from the bottom up via a Keynesian package administered by a public bank. He would raise the floor and lower the ceiling on wages and passive income, so that the richest citizens would not be more than 20 times richer than the poorest. Does that not sound more appealing than working yourself to death or becoming a Nazi? Ni banquiers, ni fascistes.

Of course, it’s uncertain whether Europe’s current economy could sustain such a massive redistribution, which means these reforms could just be a step on the way to abolishing the wage system altogether. Which, come to think of it, sounds like a win-win.

While France’s presidential election was a temporary extension of a status quo that is hanging on by a thread, the U.K.’s upcoming election brings tidings of the future. Unlike in the U.S. or France, a bona fide social democrat actually made it to the final round, and it’s becoming a case study in what happens when disingenuous liberals are faced with a choice between left and right populism. Spoiler alert: they’re about as helpful in vanquishing the far right as they accuse Susan Sarandon of being.

In a pairing that should thrill anyone who knows in their soul that #berniewouldhavewon, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is facing off against budding right-populist Theresa May for the Prime Ministership and majority control of Parliament. While she was once a grim center-right functionary who supported the “Remain” campaign, May is now riding the tiger, as it were, and winning back voters from U.K.I.P. by stepping up her anti-immigrant rhetoric and promising “a Brexit with dignity” that preserves all the “good” parts of the EU membership (free movement of British capital, beneficial trade agreements) and none of the “bad” (free movement of people, outsourcing). If one doesn’t listen too closely, some of her language even sounds like socialism and not the combination of racism, xenophobia and austerity she’s actually offering. Like the time she called the Brexit vote a “revolution” and claimed it was “a vote not just to change Britain’s relationship with the European Union, but to call for a change in the way our country works, and the people for whom it works, forever.” Whatever you say, Nazi lady.

Corbyn offers a real left challenge to May on every issue that’s important to voters. May wants to impose further austerity on the poor and the elderly, while Corbyn wants to increase taxes on the wealthy, pump money into public housing, education, childcare and the underfunded NHS, and implement a ten pound per hour minimum wage. May wants to drastically restrict immigration, while Corbyn favors freedom of movement for EU citizens and refugees, even taking on members of his own party on the issue. May operates on dog whistle racism, while Corbyn is explicitly anti-racist. May wants to beef up military forces, while Corbyn favors policies of non-interventionism. Like Mélenchon, he wants to heavily tax top earners, cap the amount that bosses can make in relation to their employees, and strengthen labor unions. The bottom 95% of the population would see no increase in taxes under a Corbyn-led government; the top 5% certainly would. (The Mirror has a summary of his awesome Labour manifesto.)

Corbyn’s views on Brexit are said to be too nuanced for the average voter. He has long been critical of the EU’s role in enforcing neoliberalism and austerity on its member countries, but was wary of the “Leave” campaign’s open xenophobia and what it might do to the U.K.’s economy. He campaigned “Remain,” with major caveats. Now that the Brexit is definitely happening, he wants to go about it in a way that protects freedom of movement and workers’ rights. The nerve.

Like some other left-populists we know, Corbyn has tremendous popularity among young people. About 250,000 of them registered to vote before the May 22 deadline, mostly so they could vote for him. The “Grime4Corbyn” campaign has inspired many fans of the U.K. dance music genre—many of them young, underrepresented minorities—to get involved in politics for the first time. The video of him meeting with grime artist JME is becoming a minor viral hit.

It’s disappointing, yet unsurprising, that the elite of Corbyn’s party have done everything in their power to undermine him despite the will of their own constituents, who voted him Labour leader by a 40 point margin after he could barely get enough MP support to get on the ballot. Numerous members of his own party have resigned in protest and colluded with the mainstream media to create a steady stream of disinformation about him. They are reportedly trying to figure out a way to exclude him from the ballot in the next election. They would rather see their own party—and indeed, the world—go up in flames than entertain Corbyn’s common sense program of social democracy. Like the establishment Democrats in the U.S., they’d rather be out of power forever than betray their class interests.

If Labour loses big to the Tories like a bunch of the media is predicting (which should naturally be taken with a grain of salt), it will be due to any number of factors: fear of a bad Brexit deal, fear of instability, fear of “the other,” renewed fear of terrorism in the wake of the horrific Manchester attack. It will also be because Labour kneecapped its own democratically elected leader rather than give up on decades of failed, cruel, fascism-feeding policies. It will not be, as they will try to say, incontrovertible proof that people don’t want social democracy.

If Labour wins despite all this, however—and the latest polls show they are closing in—it will be a referendum on the power of left-populist movements to vanquish both enemies on the right and frenemies in the center. On the power of democracy to call elected leaders out on their bullshit. On the power of populist politics to unite working class people across lines of identity, rather than divide them. We saw this when the miners and the LGBT community united against Margaret Thatcher. We will see it again.

The cards are all on the table. It’s no longer possible for the center to cry “but the right!” when it won’t lift a finger to help when the roles are reversed. People know their elected officials hate them, and they’re not pleased. Try as Macron, Obama, and Merkel might, social forces are moving away from the center. The question now is, which way will they go?

The center cannot hold, but it can choose in which direction it collapses. If “anyone but Trump/Le Pen/May” is a serious belief and not just a way to emotionally blackmail the left into supporting them, centrist parties will stop fighting the Bernies, Mélenchons and Corbyns of the world and the masses they represent, and let them take a turn at battling the far right and reforming our economic system in a way that values human dignity and breathable air. Hell, they could use their piles of money and influence to help. The choice between socialism and barbarism should not be difficult.

Or they can continue on their undead way, staying just strong enough to quell challenges from the left, but not strong enough to face the gathering storm. Will they choose pragmatism over ideology?

The system might be rigged, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be hacked. A vote for social democracy is a vote for the only thing that can rip out fascism by its rotten, ugly roots. Maybe the real extremists are the ones who remain fanatically committed to a discredited ideology after decades of disastrous results. If they really cared about the creeping threat of fascism, they’d be re-evaluating their whole approach, not plugging their ears, humming Katy Perry songs, and telling the angry hordes to Uber their way up the socio-economic ladder.

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