A triumvirate of fools, Le Pen, Trump, and Putin threaten a new darker age…
In France, Emmanuel Macron defeated the populist movement’s darling, Marine Le Pen, with a bit over 58% of the vote-no mean feat considering the frantic worries revolving around polling that suggested hidden Le Pen strength in the north of France. This election, which arguably may be considered the most important choice for the French and Europe (some would argue the Free World) was tarnished with the news that it marked the lowest participation among voters over the last two decades. It is suspected, however, that the lack of turnout favored Le Pen and the holdouts were more aligned with the stability and anti-Putin sentiment among Macron supporters. We will see. For all their complaints about Macron and his haughtiness, the French took stock and decided on which side they preferred their croissant buttered. Since 2007 Macron is the only president to be elected to a second term. The Le Pens have been at it, father and daughter, since 1973.
Meanwhile in America the right is actively suppressing the vote because they fear free and open elections. In both cases, the party representing a minority of their electors is playing with fire. In betting that their chances of success rely on hyper-activism among their bases, they are forced to maintain a prolonged enthusiasm that is difficult to focus on current issues. Republicans in the House and Senate avoid pressing issues like funding the government, voting rights and civil rights et.al., because their solution would be disadvantageous to their real base of white, wealthy, powerbrokers who finance their own welfare with someone else’s money. Isn’t that the Trump trick? Isn’t it how the rich get richer in an environment that is always beneficial to them? Good times, bad times happen to the rest of us, but for the 1% bad times are only relatively so.
The populism of the right both here and abroad is really an oxymoronic confection. Like similar terms such as the pretentious inelegance of shabby chic, or the Orwellian concept of Doublethink, cognitive dissonance is the purpose. The far right would have us think that their policies and allegiances are tied to the lunch-pail crowd, when nothing of the sort is true. Marine Le Pen’s populism is counterpoised by her ties to Putin and the financial support of the authoritarian dark funds that support her movement- the very same are the bane of the people who are lured to support populist movements.
The Neo-feudalism Hypothesis
The source of the dissonance, of course, lies within the insecurities and fears that the authoritarians who require followers to act against their own best interests. It is no accident that these movements are basically white, multi-phobic, and racist. Their old order is about to be replaced by a poly-ethnic horde once ghettoized but now integrating the fabric of society. Diversity threatens them enough to join forces with their former overseers and victimizers to help them remain in power. In retrospect, it is the same game played for centuries.
It can be argued that we are at the crossroads of a delicate transition, one that is precarious because of the importance of our choices. The battle currently being waged in Ukraine is but one of the symptoms of a race by conservative actors to retain power in a neo-feudal world. In her essay Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism? Jodi Dean wrote:
For conservatives like Kotkin, the neofeudal hypothesis helps them identify what they want to defend — carbon capitalism and the American way of life — and against whom they need to fight — that segment of the capitalist elite that is enriching itself at the expense of the middle class, namely, green high-tech entrepreneurs and their allies in finance. Neofeudalism is part of a diagnosis aiming to enlist working-class support for a particular section of the capitalist class, namely, fossil fuels, real estate, and big agriculture.
— Jodi Dean, in LARB, May 20, 2020
Dean’s essay on neo-feudalism cites conservative geographer Joel Kotkin who describes the emerging societal structure:
The new class structure resembles that of Medieval times. At the apex of the new order are two classes―a reborn clerical elite, the clerisy, which dominates the upper part of the professional ranks, universities, media and culture, and a new aristocracy led by tech oligarchs with unprecedented wealth and growing control of information. These two classes correspond to the old French First and Second Estates.
Below these two classes lies what was once called the Third Estate. This includes the yeomanry, which is made up largely of small businesspeople, minor property owners, skilled workers and private-sector oriented professionals. Ascendant for much of modern history, this class is in decline while those below them, the new Serfs, grow in numbers―a vast, expanding property-less population.
— Dean, LARB
If we look closely at our choices and the options that lie ahead, it becomes rather clear that the fog enveloping the world right now is in part generated by all of us, even on the left. Let me return to the French election that I began with. Generally, a vote margin of 18% or so would be considered a healthy, even dominant victory. Yet, columnists in Europe and here at home were inspired to take an alternative position-Le Pen in losing, somehow won. Headlines like the breathless “News Analysis: The far right lost in France’s election. It also won” by John Leicester, an Associated Press columnist for the LA Times. Aljazeera proclaimed “Macron wins election but Le Pen’s far right goes mainstream.” Marine herself echoes the fabrication with the classic line of doublespeak in her concession “The result represents a brilliant victory…” she lied, the result was an 18 point loss.
The Oracle from Queens
Apparently, pretending to win is a greater accomplishment among the right. It bears the added benefits of maintaining alleged grievances while avoiding responsibility of leadership. Donald Trump has perfected the lie that feeds one’s ego and ignores the truth. Le Pen, animated by Trump’s victory in 2016, gushed that the Trump election was “an additional stone in the building of a new world destined to replace the old one.” In her 2017 election, the “stone” had stated she was the strongest candidate, reminding folks in his best imitation of an enigmatic Delphic reading of the French electorate:
“Whoever is the toughest on radical Islamic terrorism, and whoever is the toughest at the borders, will do well in the election…”
— Donald Trump, April, 2017
In 2022, Trump lent his prognosticating talents to Le Pen’s right wing opponent. Eric Zemmour, advising him in a 40-minute phone call to shun the mainstream media:
— according to Zemmour spokesman, Guillaume Peltier
As always, Trump hedges his bets and in so doing promotes his own skewed world vision as it was somehow etched in alternate realities unavailable to the rest of us. His followers take it on faith, the sane take it for what it is. Read his quotes above again…his predictions didn’t happen and his advice was in service to an also-ran. For these populist poseurs not only does the truth not matter, truth is irrelevant — -it morphs like a shapeshifter in the blink of a lie.
Back to the Future-the Darker Age
The new lurking triumvirate, if the world refuses to right itself, portends a nuclear, more dangerous Dark Age. A Trump-Le Pen-Putin world order with the multitude of acolytes they have groomed is a quick trip back in time. For those of us of a certain age, Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine is a good enough metaphor for the anachronistic policies of the leaders whose last original thought occurred sometime in the 20th century. Back then, even Moose and Squirrel were aware of the dangers of the earlier iterations of Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale, and Fearless Leader. As Rocky and Bullwinkle once noted:
Rocky: Hey Bullwinkle, we’re in real trouble now!
Bullwinkle: Oh good, Rocky! I hate that artificial kind!
The “Back to the Future” vibe that is inherent in neofeudalism makes the most sense when it identifies the contributions we all share in creating our current dilemma. As Jodi Dean notes in her prescient article, there is a complexity to the solutions that demand unflinching self-awareness and nuance:
For those on the left, neofeudalism lets us understand the primary political conflict as arising out of neoliberalism. The big confrontation today is not between democracy and fascism. Although popular with liberals, this formulation makes little sense given the power of oligarchs — financiers, media and real estate moguls, carbon and tech billionaires. Viewing our present in terms of democracies threatened by rising fascism deflects attention from the fundamental role of globally networked communicative capitalism in exacerbating popular anger and discontent. Underlying the politicization toward the right is economics: complex networks produce extremes of inequality, winner-take-all or winner-take-most distributions. The rightward shift responds to this intensification of inequality… It makes us reckon with the fact that billionaires hoarding trillions of dollars of assets and walling themselves into their own enclaves while millions become climate refugees and hundreds of millions encounter diminished life prospects, an intensifying struggle just to survive.
— Dean, LARB
Knowing we share in the consequences that should befall us all if we go down this route, it is imperative that to separate the evildoers from their dupes. The wise are few and agonizingly deliberate at times. Fools work quickly but their labor is hardly worth the effort. Our futures are bound together and catastrophe is not an option-we either all win or we all lose. As Einstein once said,
“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”
Knowing what is right is only half the battle-and it is the easier half. It is a fool’s errand for progressives and moderates to battle over degrees of progress when the battle is to convince the rest that progress is the only solution that benefits us all.