After the cascading weirdness of recent Western history, the results from France’s presidential election were strangely … normal. All the hours that Trump-traumatized commentators spent imagining how Marine Le Pen could get from the low 40s to striking distance turned out to be wasted: Her tumble to just 34 percent, and the cruise-control victory for Emmanuel Macron, was about the outcome you would have expected if there had been no Brexit, no Trumpening, no Syrian refugee crisis and Continental terror wave, no sudden sense of capital-H History awakening from its sleep.
Of course if you prefer anxiety – and some Americans dealing with the James Comey madness may have that preference – you can spin the outcome differently. Le Pen almost doubled her father’s vote share from 2002, Macron was running his own kind of (pretend) outsider’s campaign, the two main French political parties look wrecked, and the neophyte president faces the same array of daunting challenges that had certain dotty pundits considering the case for Le Pen.
But I would still submit that the basic normalcy of the French landslide, the populist challenge’s hard rebuff, is a useful indicator for observers trying to answer the great question of the moment: Is ours really an age of deepening Western crisis – as it has certainly seemed, of late – or beneath all the populist sound and fury, does our society actually remain in a kind of stasis, stagnant but not close to revolution or collapse?
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Since the Berlin Wall came down and Francis Fukuyama announced the End of History, “stasis” has had by far the better of the argument. From 1989 onward Western political arguments were conducted within extremely narrow lines, with radicals and reactionaries thoroughly excluded. Liberal democracy lacked plausible ideological challengers, in the West and elsewhere: Neither radical Islam nor Putinism had anything like the appeal of Marxism and fascism in their heyday. The contradictions of capitalism inspired plenty of criticism but little in the way of active resistance. And every time a seemingly world-historical crisis came along – Sept. 11, the Great Recession – it turned out to just circulate the same groups of elites in and out of power.
I don’t need to rehash all the ways in which the last few years in Western politics have broken with this pattern, how our populist moment has elevated unexpected and extreme-seeming forces from Warsaw to Westminster to Trump’s Washington.
But more important than the political developments, potentially, has been the widening of ideological possibility, the sense on both the younger right and left that ideas from way outside the neoliberal center are up for consideration once again.
So things definitely feel different than just five or 10 years back. The intersectional left is purging campuses, reactionary thought is getting the cover treatment in New York Magazine, the language of the 1930s (“America First!”) is on the lips of politicians, the kids are into socialism and integralism and even once in a while the Islamic State, there’s a whiff of tear-gas in the streets of Berkeley and talk of schism in Catholicism and a strange sort of nationalist international in play in geopolitics.
But how different? This is the hard question, because in Western politics, what sometimes seems like a sea change may still turn out to just be a spasm – more significant than Buchananism or Occupy Wall Street or the last Le Pen breakthrough but ultimately contained and managed and defused.
A glance at the stock market shows that’s how the West’s moneymen are betting, and not without some reason. In Britain, Theresa May’s embrace of Brexit has left the far right without a cause and the Corbynite left poised for a devastating defeat. In the United States, Donald Trump’s nationalism seems to be collapsing back into zombie Reaganism at home and the usual post-Cold War management of rogue states abroad – the former shadowed by the possibility of impeachment, the latter seasoned by incompetence in various terrifying ways, but neither representing the kind of highly ideological, post-post-Cold War revolution that Trumpism once seemed to promise.
In France, Le Pen’s disappointing performance came after years of attempting to inch toward the liberal center; for all the talk about the republic in the balance, she was running as a secular Gaullist, not a fascist. On Europe’s peripheries, Poland’s far-right Law and Justice has not yet set up a Catholic monarchy, nor Greece’s far-left Syriza a people’s republic. The new illiberalism everywhere has its limits, and may not always be genuinely illiberal at all.
Meanwhile, as someone who reads widely in (and has sympathies with) neoliberalism’s critics, I’m not sure any of the theoretical attempts at a post-liberal politics have yet escaped what you might call the Steve Bannon trap, in which name-dropping figures from the more ideologically exciting past substitutes for actually devising a new blueprint of one’s own.
The alt-right “counterculture” profiled in New York Magazine, for instance, includes a few genuinely radical figures – the much-cited Mencius Moldbug really does want monarchy, of a sort – but often its subjects are just a little more populist or a little more race conscious or a little more intemperate than the normal run of post-Goldwater American conservatives.
Likewise the campus left has added transgenderism to its list of causes and some new words to its vocabulary of enforcement, but otherwise its recent inquisitions feel more like a replay of the 1990s P.C. wars than a 1960s-level convulsion, with the internet amplifying the attention they garner but not necessarily their real scope.
The role of the online realm in this moment is generally ambiguous. It is clearly a place where the extreme and heterodox can find one another, where reaction and radicalism can flourish unpoliced. But there’s a sense in which the internet’s virtual forms of political engagement, its slacktivism and Twitter mobs and meme wars, might also limit online radicalism’s real-world reach, encouraging 1930s playacting and recondite debates that never leave the realm of pixels and nostalgia.
This matters because real historical turning points require both structural crises and usable philosophies, an intersection of events and ideologies – industrialization plus “Das Kapital” plus World War I, for instance – strong enough to dissolve all the habits and fears and status-quo biases that keep a given order going.
I argued last week that Europe seems closer to such a moment than America – the tensions within its version of the liberal order are more profound, the weak points of its system more obvious, its social-cultural decadence somewhat more advanced, the external pressure more severe. Le Pen’s larger-than-expected defeat doesn’t change this reality, nor weaken the case that European elites should learn from their populists lest a future deluge carry them away.
But in neither Europe nor America do post-liberal ideas look anywhere near fully ripe, and in both Europe and America there is a “first as tragedy, then as farce, then as online flamewar” quality to the way they’ve entered into political debates.
Nor do the pressures on the system from social fragmentation and economic stagnation yet look strong enough to overcome the stabilizing effects of the developed world’s great wealth, the risk aversion bred by age and habit, the fearful memories of what the last age of illiberalism wrought.
That’s the case, in brief, for betting on continued stasis, and for interpreting our moment’s perturbations – Trump, Comey and all – as pointing toward a real crisis for the West that still lurks a generation or more ahead.
But we won’t really know the safety of that bet until the next recession hits.