The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
For the past 29 weeks, every Saturday in France has centered on the demonstrations of the yellow vests. The left, the right, and the politically unclassified and unclassifiable have participated in these demonstrations, which have at times descended into violence on the part of either the demonstrators or the supposed forces of order. Whatever the politics of the participants, there has been one common denominator: bottomless hatred for French President Emmanuel Macron.
The right believes that Macron is turning France over to European bureaucrats and opening its doors to immigrants; the left views him as the president of the rich. To all who protest, and not only them, he is someone with no understanding of, or concern for, the average French citizen. And so, every week like clockwork, he has been reviled and insulted at weekend marches across France.
The European elections, which took place May 23–26, could not have come at a worse time for Macron. The elections would be a plebiscite on Macron’s rule, and the opposition saw them as a golden opportunity to humiliate him. The situation was ripe for a political turning, and the further growth of the far right seemed certain. A transformation of French and European politics was in the offing.
Except it wasn’t. Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National came in first, narrowly edging out Macron’s La Republique en Marche, but the two parties finished first and second in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections as well, and their shares of the vote barely moved. Le Pen’s party rose from 21.2 percent in 2017 to 24.52 percent in 2019, while Macron’s party fell from 24.01 percent to 22.84 percent. This was hardly an earth-shaking swing—after months of calling Macron’s leadership into question, the president’s opponents had hoped for far more. There is a cliché that applies here, at least at the top: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The most significant shifts, however, occurred below the top. France’s traditional center-right party, Les Républicains, dropped precipitously from 20 percent in 2017 to 13.05 percent. The left-wing La France Insoumise saw an even sharper collapse, falling from 19.58 percent to 7.94 percent. The Socialist Party, allied with the new Place Publique movement, held steady around a miserable six percent. The moribund Communist Party had hopes of returning to the stage with its dynamic young leader, Ian Brossat, but the party failed to gain a single seat, and fell below the three percent of the vote needed for the government to cover their electoral costs. An already cash-strapped party is now deeper in the hole. Yet the French Greens, who in 2017 allied with the Socialists, refused to do so in 2019 and more than doubled the score of their erstwhile allies, receiving 13.47 percent of the vote—a 50 percent increase from their share in the last European elections, although still a drop from their best result, the 16.28 percent they received in the 2009 European election. The same trends were evident elsewhere in Europe, with old-line conservatives falling before the onslaught of the Euroskeptic right, while the already weak left lost out to green parties, the real victors in Europe.
In tough economic times, with immigrants and immigration prominent among their concerns, French and European voters sought answers in three directions: more of the same, a further slide into right-wing nationalism, and the vagaries of the green parties. Few were interested in the solutions offered by the left. The European United Left/Nordic Green left, the left-wing group in Strasbourg comprising parties like Greece’s Syriza, Spain’s Podemos, and La France Insoumise, lost 14 seats and is now the smallest group in the European Parliament.
Analyses of the decline of the left tend to examine the personalities and messaging of the leaders of the various parties. Robert Zaretsky, in his analysis of the French political scene in Foreign Affairs, pertinently examined the ideas motivating the campaign of Raphaël Glucksmann, the left-wing Place Publique leader and joint Socialist/Place Publique candidate. Glucksmann opposed neoliberalism and Macron’s acceptance of the unfettered will of the market, and insisted that France needs to “reweave the bonds that keep us together,” bonds smashed by the advances of twenty-first-century capitalism.
Zaretsky also describes Glucksmann’s “unexceptional” public appearances, and their effect on his ability to got his message across. He writes that his “rumpled clothing style—black jeans, open-necked shirts—and unshaven visage match his rumpled speaking style.” No one, Zaretsky writes, “expected [Glucksmann] to rival the titanic [Jean] Jaurès,” the greatest leader of the Socialist Party, who was assassinated on August 1, 1914, as World War I was beginning.
Yet problems with style and leadership have played only an ancillary role in the decline of the left. Zaretsky’s use of Jaurès as a point of comparison sets the bar high, but it also sets it in a different world, one that barely resembles the world of today. If the left in France, Europe, and indeed around the world has declined to irrelevancy, it is largely because it has remained tied to a vision of reality that no longer obtains. The left has become a mass of typewriter salesmen: it is selling a product that, although fine in its time, is outmoded, and which no one wants anymore.
Jaurès was a titanic figure because he was the greatest voice of a mighty movement expressing the will of a rising class, the industrial proletariat, with a great future before it. That world is dead and buried. If Glucksmann’s clothing were well pressed and his speeches dynamic, would his message inspire the masses to vote for socialism as they once did? How could it, when everything upon which socialism was historically based, and which still serves as the foundation of left-wing politics today, has been obsolete for decades?
In the 1960s, thinkers of the New Left such as Herbert Marcuse and Cornelius Castoriadis theorized that the working class was no longer the engine of social change, that it had been co-opted into the system. Originally capitalism’s most ferocious enemy, the working class had become its strongest prop. And they were right: from Brexit to Le Pen to U.S. President Donald Trump, workers now constitute a substantial part of the right-wing base. Yet the left—those parties whose goal remains that of an egalitarian society, a goal the Socialist Party abandoned long ago—continues to act as if its base is still in the working class. It speaks to a fictitious working class of ideas and ideals, such as the shared interests of workers across borders, that are worthy and noble and that men like Jaurès once advocated, but which now fall into a void.
The shrinking of the working class, and its turn away from the left in favor of bitter nationalism and xenophobia, is not new. Why this turn has been ignored or dismissed by the left is a question perhaps best answered by the writer and philosopher George Steiner, in an essay for the Winter 1990 issue of Granta. Writing just as the Soviet bloc was beginning to collapse, Steiner argued that although Marxism had wrought “intolerable bestiality,” its most fundamental error—what he called its “hideous misprision”—was a “terrible over-estimate of man’s capacities for altruism, for purity, for intellectual-philosophic sustenance.” He went on to say that despotism’s collapse was “the vengeful termination of a compliment to man.”
The optimistic illusions of the left have been replaced by the dark imaginings of the nationalist right.
What Steiner said about Eastern Europe applies three decades later to the West as well. The left, however, cannot accept that its vision of the proletariat is based on a misprision—that the highest ideals of the working-class movement, of internationalism, brotherhood, and self-sacrifice for the common good, do, can, or will motivate the mass of society. The ideas, or more accurately sentiments, currently in the air have nothing to do with solidarity and inclusivity and the building of a better world. The optimistic illusions of the left have been replaced by the dark imaginings of the nationalist right. A world in which it was said that workers have no country has been replaced by one in which each nation places itself above all others. The Internationale has given way to what Mel Brooks, in his comedy sketch “The 2000 Year Old Man,” said were the words of his cave’s national anthem: “Let ’em all go to hell except cave 76.”
If the left is in terminal decline, what to make of the success of the green parties in much of Europe? The German Greens moved into second place, receiving 20.5 percent of the vote, and the French Greens, who didn’t even run a presidential candidate in 2017, moved to third place. Is this a sign of the left’s rebirth?
Not really. The Greens’ project is not to revive the traditional left but, rather, to bring about change while bypassing the working class and the socialist ideology of which it was the center. Having rebuffed any alliance with the Socialists, French Greens leader Yannick Jadot spoke on French radio of how “our leaders remain prisoners of the old world.”
In fact, although the Greens loudly sound the alarm for the safety of the planet, there is something safe and unthreatening to the existing order in their program. When Jadot spoke of the issues that existing parties fail to address consistently, he spoke of “animal suffering, pesticides, climate change, the transitioning of energy, [and] air pollution.” Inequality and social injustice figure nowhere on this list. The dangers of climate change are all but undeniable and must be confronted. Doing so, however, may be easier than dealing with the intractable divisions within society—between the rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots.
In April, Jadot made it clear that his movement was not one of the left, bluntly saying, “Ecology isn’t the left,” and that he's “an ecologist, not a social democrat.” That there’s nothing necessarily left-wing about green parties, and the environmental movement more generally, was amply demonstrated by Mark Lilla in his December 2018 essay on the French New Right in The New York Review of Books. Lilla described how the French right has adopted environmentalism, inspired by the 2015 papal encyclical Laudato si, “a comprehensive statement of Catholic social teaching on the environment and social justice.” Going back to the land is now as right-wing as it is left.
Lest we forget, a green measure of Macron’s—a tax on gas aimed at moving France toward cleaner energy—sparked the yellow vest movement to begin with. To think that other measures aimed at fighting climate change, but affecting the jobs and purses of ordinary people, will meet with a more positive reception would be naïve. As one of the yellow vests’ slogans went, “Macron is worried about the end of the world; we’re worried about the end of the month.”
The green movement is not an alternative left at all. That is its strength as an electoral force. But its aims are limited ones, and Europe is left without an alternative to the victorious market. The European elections show that the hopes of those, such as Glucksmann and those yellow vests who thought that their marches and demands would result in a reordering of the society and the economy, will remain unfulfilled for a long time to come.