Paris is burning — and London too: World War IV and the crisis of democracy

These events are not disconnected, and not as far away as they look. The crisis of democracy just got hotter

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 15, 2018 12:55PM (EST)

Demonstrators kneel and gesture with victory signs as they take part in the demonstration of the yellow vests near the Arc de Triomphe on December 8, 2018 in Paris France. Anti Brexit protesters use illuminated signs as they demonstrate with placards outside the Houses of Parliament, Westminster on December 10, 2018 in London, England. (Getty/Jeff J Mitchell/Christopher Furlong)
Demonstrators kneel and gesture with victory signs as they take part in the demonstration of the yellow vests near the Arc de Triomphe on December 8, 2018 in Paris France. Anti Brexit protesters use illuminated signs as they demonstrate with placards outside the Houses of Parliament, Westminster on December 10, 2018 in London, England. (Getty/Jeff J Mitchell/Christopher Furlong)

We’ve seen plenty of media coverage over the past few weeks of the widening chaos in France and Britain. But there’s almost no sense that those events may be connected, still less that they have anything to do with the ongoing political turmoil in the United States. This is a critical failure: The longer political and media elites continue to act as if everything is normal, and claim that democracy is working more or less as intended -- and that what we are experiencing is not a systemic, global crisis -- the worse it will get.

I think the facts speak for themselves, if they are allowed to. British Prime Minister Theresa May survived a no-confidence vote within her own Conservative Party this week (although not by much), but still has no viable plan to extract the United Kingdom from the European Union by the March deadline and avoid the sudden economic shock of a “hard Brexit.” It appears that EU leaders have no further concessions to offer May, and also that no possible Brexit deal she can present to Parliament will actually pass.

Across the Channel, French President Emmanuel Macron ignored the “Yellow Vest” protesters for weeks, until it became clear that their outrage was not just about an increase in the gasoline tax and that the French public was overwhelmingly on their side rather than his. French historian Sophie Wahnich has compared them to the sans culottes, the commoners who staged an incoherent revolt in the first stage of the French Revolution and then became radicalized. After the Yellow Vests stormed through central Paris in the worst outbreak of urban rioting since May 1968, smashing shop windows and vandalizing the Arc de Triomphe, Macron capitulated on the gas tax and introduced a piecemeal package of economic reforms. He may survive this moment, but his aura of “Jupiterian” invulnerability and his international reputation as a democratic reformer are clearly gone.

Both May and Macron, in other words, have been weakened by internal opposition they cannot control, and undermined by crises they created themselves. It is entirely conceivable that both of them will be forced from office, one way or another, in the coming year. One could indeed look to Washington and see some clear parallels. But for many or most Americans, these events in Paris and London appear distant and more than a little baffling: They don't easily fit onto our simplistic, binary political map, which frames everything in terms of Democrats vs. Republicans, President Trump vs. his enemies.

Thanks to the fragmented and compartmentalized nature of the news cycle — and the cocaine-high mentality it fosters — these stories have been isolated from each other, labeled and put into boxes. May, Macron and Trump are different kinds of leaders who appear to represent different political tendencies, and who appear to oppose each other in important ways. In the media narrative, therefore, the fact that all three of their nations face a destabilizing structural crisis at exactly the same moment becomes a non-fact, or just an odd coincidence.

That's ridiculous coincidence. No graduate-level degree is required to perceive that these unfolding events in the three most important Western democracies, while unquestionably local or national in character, are not separate or disconnected. Throw in the slow-motion downward trajectory of Germany, with Angela Merkel on her way out and nationalism on the rise, and this process of decay clearly afflicts the four most important Western democracies.

These disparate political crises are all manifestations of the same deeper phenomenon, which is amorphous and threatening and admittedly difficult to talk about. This could be called the crisis of democratic legitimacy, which has been creeping towards us from the periphery of the Western world for some time and just accelerated abruptly. We see it right now, playing out in the state capitols of Wisconsin and Michigan, in the streets of Paris, and in the pseudo-medieval rituals of the House of Commons.

That term is accurate enough, but I’ve always liked the more dramatic metaphor introduced by the late Jean Baudrillard, who understood the 9/11 attacks as the beginning of a new phase of history in which the Western world “has become suicidal, and declared war on itself.” He called this new era World War IV. (World War III, in his schema, was the Cold War, which ended with the defeat of Soviet communism in the early 1990s.)

Mind you, this phase or iteration of World War IV is very different from anything Baudrillard could have envisioned in 2002. Islamic terrorism and the global “war on terror” have receded in importance as political issues, although Baudrillard was right to warn that their effects would be immensely destructive to the West's purported ideals of freedom and the rule of law.

Instead we have seen the unexpected resurgence of all kinds of “isms” that appeared to have died out before the turn of the century: nationalism, populism, fascism and socialism, to name a few. (Racism and jingoism are also enjoying a comeback, but I don’t think anyone would argue they ever went away.) Meanwhile the norms and institutions of democracy have come under sustained attack, not just from pseudo-fascist leaders or right-wing voters or street protests but seemingly from all directions at once. Only those in the elite classes who are directly concerned with managing and supporting those institutions still claim to believe they are functioning smoothly for the betterment of society.

Whether the worsening economic inequality found throughout the Western world is the fundamental cause of the current crisis of democracy, or is more like a symptom of an underlying disorder that is cultural or psychological or even spiritual in nature, is not a question we can resolve here and now. I would say that the two things go hand in glove: Our debased political and civic culture, in the decades since the Cold War, has unleashed the most rapacious tendencies of capitalism, which has continued to degrade the public sphere and reduce human beings to consumer units and micro-marketing targets.

In order to see events in the U.S., Britain and France as more similar than different, we have to look past the personalities of the leaders involved, and also past a set of convenient political delusions. Viewing the entire world through a lens of Trumpism, or through conventional American definitions of “left” and “right” (which have become distorted by our peculiar history) is ultimately not helpful, and leads to befuddling questions that have no easy answers.

Why isn’t the British Labour Party, now under the leadership of longtime leftist Jeremy Corbyn, pushing harder to undo the Brexit vote and keep the U.K. in the EU? (Short answer: Because both major British parties and their voters are divided on this question, and the radical left dislikes the EU almost as much as the radical right.) Are the Yellow Vests, or gilets jaunes — named for the safety vests all French motorists must have in their cars — a bunch of small-minded, right-wing reactionaries in the Trumpian vein, rejecting a “carbon tax” meant to alleviate climate change? (Short answer: Some are, some aren’t. But that’s no longer the core issue, and probably never was.)

Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May have been presented on the world stage, to varying degrees, as alternatives to Trump or opponents of Trump. At the very least, they seem to be “normal” political leaders with a familiar range of opinions and policies, not zealots or bigots or wannabe dictators bent on destroying every democratic norm. That’s not entirely wrong, but it may not be as important as it seems to Trump-obsessed Americans. It definitely isn’t decisive when it comes to understanding what has befallen their respective nations.

Although the circumstances are different, all three of these leaders are in power today because the conventional system of party politics in all three countries has imploded. As a friend recently observed, they also all came to power by way of false premises and fake news, promising things they could not deliver and likely did not believe. (I don’t think I need to argue that case regarding our current president, do you?)

If anything, and despite Donald Trump, this collapse is less pronounced in the United States than in the other two cases: As the midterm elections made clear, the Democratic Party and its voters are staging a forceful counterattack, largely based on the premise that normal democracy can still be restored. That remains to be seen: As you may have noticed, the other major American political party was consumed from within by a zombie virus, its so-called ideology has been revealed as a sham, and its entire agenda now seems to involve holding onto power after losing elections.

Theresa May stumbled into Downing Street after the Brexit referendum of 2016, which surely ranks among the greatest moments of political hubris in history. She and most other major figures in both the Conservative and Labour parties opposed Brexit and assumed the referendum would fail. On one hand, Brexit was built on a seductive package of lies; on the other, it tapped into a deep and unfocused current of popular bitterness, unease and resentment. (See also: You know who.) After David Cameron’s post-referendum resignation, May wound up with the short straw, tasked with implementing a policy she clearly believes is a bad idea.

As a hilarious Twitter thread by (London) Times columnist Hugo Rifkind explains, 52 percent of the British electorate voted to build a submarine out of cheese, and now the entire political class has to pretend that’s a reasonable thing to do, and develop elaborate plans for the least bad cheese-submarine design. At this writing there is no submarine and no design, and May is scouring the cupboards of Europe for the last mouse-nibbled rinds of cheese. She is a shameless hypocrite who deserves no one’s compassion, but whatever happens now will be painful and humiliating for the British public, who have been failed by their political leaders across the board.

Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential election of 2017 as a charismatic centrist insurgent, after the near-total electoral collapse of the traditional center-left and center-right parties. His newly-invented party has no clear ideology and a meaningless name: En Marche, or “On the Move.” His campaign manifesto was actually called “Revolution,” a word that carries even more historical force in French than in English. He modeled himself more than a little on Barack Obama and was embraced around the world as a counterweight to Trump, a youthful and energetic reformer who was pro-Europe, pro-democracy and pro-diversity.

Well, OK. But there were signs from the beginning that much of that was an illusion: Macron was a former investment banker and former government minister with entirely conventional economic views, hardly a rebel outsider. In the first round of the presidential election, he won only 24 percent of the vote, amid a bewildering welter of candidates and the lowest voter turnout in nearly 40 years. In the second round, Macron easily defeated fascist-lite Marine Le Pen, France’s closest Trump cognate — but turnout was even lower that time around, and 4 million people who did show up handed in blank or spoiled ballots, a remarkable symbol of discontent that might be viewed now as the Yellow Vests’ first protest action.

Whatever the millions who did vote for Macron thought they were getting, it presumably wasn’t “a continuation, by more brutal means, of the politics of deregulation and austerity that his predecessors had championed.” That comes from an essay by French journalist Sylvain Cipel for the New York Review of Books, the best explainer in English I’ve found anywhere. If the fuel tax was seen by many middle-class and working-class French people as the final straw, it came at the end of a list of outrages: Macron had already abolished the “wealth tax” on the richest 0.9 percent, lowered corporate taxes and until faced with widespread rebellion had refused to raise the minimum wage or increase retirement benefits. (Nearly half of French retirees, Cipel reports, live on less than 1,200 euros a month, or roughly $1,400.)

Neither the left nor the right can claim the Yellow Vest movement, as Cipel makes clear: France’s political parties have played almost no role, and the protesters are a highly heterogeneous group who “have resisted attempts at political co-optation.” Whether the Yellow Vests are a “progressive” development or not is a question of interpretation, and perhaps not relevant. But those in the so-called political center who have sought to defend Macron as a tribune of progress and reason, and depict the protesters as dangerous reactionaries — I’m looking at you, David Frum and Neera Tanden — need to understand what they are advocating.

In Cipel’s words, Macron’s “revolution” has “merely accelerated financial capitalism’s reign,” a regime of “more insecurity, less collective solidarity, each man for himself.” Throughout the Western world, we have tied the entire concept of democracy, and all its norms, institutions and machineries, to a specific version of globalized capitalism that keeps on promising universal prosperity and never delivers it.

What we see now, in America, France, Britain and around the world, is the long-delayed and often incoherent blowback for that historic error. If “democracy” now depends on ordinary people constantly making sacrifices to the gods of the market, who after a long process of fattening will one day lead us to paradise, then it needs a new name. Because nobody, anywhere, ever voted for that.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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