So Marine le Pen’s Front National has won one in three regional elections in the first round. This reflects a trend across Europe. Populist parties on both the right and the left are on the rise and have been for some time. There are a number of contributing factors, but the main impetus is a sort of inarticulate protest by people who feel ‘left behind’ by globalisation, at the ways in which globalisation is negatively impacting their lives. Things like mass migration, outsourcing of blue-collar jobs, weakening of nation states in favour of regulation at the global level, the widening gap between rich and poor in many countries, the tottering state of social democracy as the welfare state Ponzi scheme starts to come unstuck.
For most people, the willingness to see globalised consumer capitalism as a Ponzi scheme is inversely proportional to how much you expect to gain from the system. That is to say, the more you are likely to get out of how things are, the less likely you are to see anything wrong with it. That’s just human nature. The elites trying to merge the EU as a superstate have everything to gain from continuing as they are; the 50% of Spanish youth consigned to long-term joblessness may take a different view.
There’s also a conflict between the elite view of communities, which sees them as random groupings of people within a specific geography, and that of most ordinary people who experience a nation or their own community as bound by ties of culture, tradition, interpersonal relations and shared practices. That leads to a situation where those in power think nothing of importing a million people from elsewhere – because we’re short of workers and the birth rate is low, so why not? – and those on the ground who feel anxious and threatened by the sudden arrival of large numbers of people with whom they have no shared bonds of family relation, cultural practice or often even language. Then the latter view is demonised, again by the elites, as uneducated, ignorant, bigoted, racist when in fact it’s quite rational on its own terms.
The reaction of many is to look nostalgically backwards to a time when everything was peachy (Even if that time never actually existed) and then to try and reverse-engineer the imagined conditions of that time. This doesn’t work: conservatism after the fact is always doomed. But there’s a real problem brewing in the failure of the elites driving (and benefiting from) globalisation to hear the objections coming from the masses. Ultimately refusal by the ruling class to accommodate the concerns of the people results in civil unrest and even revolution. We’re not quite there yet but the widespread nature of public unhappiness with the direction of travel is very worrying.
Globalisation is happening, whether we like it or not. But what we need is an open discussion about the best forms of social organisation to handle that, and to ensure the interests of ordinary people are taken into account given the huge impersonal forces of global change we face today. The elite viewpoint is that nation states are an obstacle to ‘development’, focusing as they do on the interests of a geography rather than transnational changes or agreements. This underlies the current trend toward neutering and even trying to dismantle nation states; popular resistance to it is demonised as ‘populism’ or ‘racism’, a narrow-minded, uneducated fixation on one nation as opposed to global concerns. But to me, from the point of view of the little guy, dismantling nation states is a major problem. Nation states define a community of interest based in a particular geography; without that definition, how can we have a meaningful electorate, voting for any but the vaguest policies? And without an electorate or proper policies, how can we have any kind of meaningful democracy? The utopian vision of world government looks downright creepy and totalitarian to me, and I’d prefer to keep things a bit messier and small-scale.
I will be very surprised if Le Pen gets anywhere near actual government, at least this time round. But the anti-politics, anti-globalisation, populist trend is there across Europe. Pankaj Mishra argues, in a related theme, that the rise of ISIS is part of the same trend. Though I have concerns about the way these issues get dumbed down into ‘bloody foreigners’ or ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ I think they have a voice that needs to be heard, as they point to a debate that is not being had and whose suppression will result in far worse unrest than we’ve seen yet.