The Meaning of Macron

Paris, April 25, 2017 | #Democracy #LePen #Macron

When I was reading your conversation (1), I couldn't help but in my mind begin to substitute the political parties with football clubs, and their managers for the candidates. Is Real still alive, now that Barca has taken a beating? Did we all underestimate Juventus? Will Chelsea trash Arsenal? Are we going to remember Guardiola as one of the greatest managers in history? Is the false nine on the verge of disappearing? And how will Bayern fare with Ancelotti?

The problem with politics is not just politics: it's the language of politics as well. The people have spoken? It doesn't sound like that. All that is being spoken is sports reporting: debating the performances of parties and their disappointing results, their failing strategies and their tactical errors, the missing team spirit and the poor showing of their superstars.

But in reality, there are no trends. Macron's 8.7 million votes, over Mélenchon's 7.1 million, don't mean anything, in a country of 66 million. There are no winners, other than the no vote. Abstention — not being willing, registered, or allowed to vote — is the only significant phenomenon in democracy today: It beat both Clinton and Trump, both Remain and Leave.

What does the no vote articulate? I have no illusions: it articulates nothing, not even the desire not to be governed. But lets account for all the things that, by remaining silent, the no vote refuses to say: That Macron is a "French Obama", "best compared with Canada's Justin Trudeau", whose "meteoric rise has few comparisons", other than with "the looks of an actor in a Truffaut movie". That Mélenchon's and Hamon's votes combined "would have been enough to take the left to the second round", to take another beating or be ripped to pieces. That "the French Left will vote Macron in May", that "May will trash Corbyn in June", or that come July, we will think of Obama "as one of the greatest presidents the U.S. ever had." That after the collapse of the Bush dynasty, and after the Clinton disaster, our hopes are with a "possible forthcoming Michelle". That 100 days into Trump, the Left must know that "you don't win elections unless you come across as capable of governing".

If it was true that "we need a pragmatist realist left", then the only realism left would be to abstain from all of the above. To be pragmatic would mean to insist that neither today nor "in hindsight", any of it matters. We've been watching a semi-final with Mélenchon, Macron, Fillon and Le Pen, we've been following this game for too long, it has no future, and almost everyone knows this. Nobody is waiting for September, for the "mother of all social democracies" to make a stunning comeback, produce another nailbiter, or suffer another devastating loss. You may still hope for Schulz to win, but he won't, because nobody is in need of additional evidence that there will be no surprises. You may still think of yourself as Marxists, but Merkel and Schäuble have long disowned you: There is no alternative, and elections change nothing.

Update, May 5:

And as for your bitter but welcome comments on this thread: Yes, of course politics is political theatre. It always has been, as thinkers from Machiavelli to Guy Debord have always been quick to point out. Jan Söderqvist and I even predicted in "The Netocrats" in 2000 that soon the U.S. would likely elect a game-show host as president as a result of politics going ironic and increasingly powerless (therefore turning into a "celebrity democracy"). In 2016 we were proven right. So you could easily regard our comments in this thread as "nothing more than football babble", if it was not for the fact that politics still controls, deals with and directs trillions of dollars worth in jobs and wealth between the world's nations and populations. Your nihilism consequently adds nothing to address these complex issues. So what do you want to say besides attacking fellow Nettime debaters for the apparent fun of it? Or was that all?

You're right: nihilism would in fact add nothing. And it's tempting to add nothing, undoubtedly. However, I'd be much more in favor of reclaiming the notion of "pragmatist realism". I'm not against voting, just against what comes before and after. Not only in the U.S., elections have become a serious threat to democracy, and that's not because people might end up voting for the wrong guy, which they did. Trump's presidency must not make us forget the horror of 2016: the neverending campaign, the indefinite suspension of democratic politics in the name of a democratic procedure. At the same time, last November, I would have voted for Hillary Clinton (more enthusastically than I would have supported Bernie Sanders against her), given that her opponent was openly inciting violence against women, African Americans, religious minorities and countless others. But of course, I'm not a U.S. citizen, and if I was, I wouldn't live in a place where my vote would have made any difference.

What can the French do against Marine Le Pen, next Sunday? There's a trivial answer to that question. It's just that in my eyes, it provides Macron with no meaning whatsoever. If you vote for the candidate who is not Le Pen, it doesn't matter if he's a neoliberal, an ordoliberal, a social liberal, an heir of Obama, a twin of Trudeau, or a grand-grand-grandson of Napoleon. If you commit to fighting fascism by all means, then the ballot is clearly one of them. But if that's what's to be done, then we should admit we're in Merkelworld, Schäubleland: there is no alternative, and the elections will change nothing.

For hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Somali migrants in Sweden and Germany at the moment, it makes a hell of a difference if these countries are run by social democrats or right-wing populists. And that is just the start.

In principle, I agree — but as you say: that's just the start. Beyond that, it sometimes makes no difference at all. Germany, for example, is run by social democrats and right-wing populists. For a few weeks in 2015, the country was forced to temporarily adopt a more pragmatic and realistic approach to immigration. Who deserves credit for that? Social democrats? I must have missed something. In 2011, in another short and sudden display of pragmatic realism, the German government abandoned nuclear energy. Was the Green Party in power? I don't think so. The German welfare state was dismantled in 2004. Why didn't the social democrats oppose it? For the same reason that the pacificst Greens didn't oppose bombing Yugoslavia in 1999: Because they were in government. The Green foreign minister's justification? Auschwitz must never repeat. (2) The social democrat defense minister's argument? In Serbia, they slice up pregnant women and roast the fetuses, they decapitate men and play football with their heads. (3) No right-wing populist would have politically survived such outrageous statements — and for hundreds of thousands in former Yugoslavia, that would have made a hell of a difference.

What remains is your assertion regarding "the utter lack of corruption scandals" among social democrats, at least in the protestant North. Lets imagine the following scenario: In November 2020, Donald Trump, who has been pushing for the construction of a new Russian gas pipeline in the last year of his tenure, is voted out of office. Less than two months later, he receives a phone call from Vladimir Putin, and on the same day becomes the new chairman of the board of the Gazprom-owned pipeline consortium. Mike Pence, shortly thereafter, accepts the job of a political consultant for the largest competing pipeline project. I don't want to speculate too wildly about the public reaction to this imaginary scenario; in a polarized political climate, some might call it "treason", but I'm pretty certain that the term "corruption" would come up as well. And obviously, I'm only making this up because it's a true story: you just have to replace the the President of the United States and his Vice President with the last social democrat chancellor of Germany and his Green Party vice chancellor.

Of course, you can argue that it's hard for anyone who leaves public office to not immediately get lost in a maze of revolving doors. The two most prominent German social democrats of the past twenty years even entered national politics through such a maze: They were both members of the board of the world's largest car manufacturer before they became chairmen of their party. You may insist that there are structural forces at work here, rather than outright corruption. But I can guarantee you that in the unlikely case that the German Left ever "regroups into a responsible but straight-forward welfare-state-defending basic-income-promoting, budget-keeping democratic Marxism", social democrats and Greens are going to have sleepless nights, because they know that the Left is never going to forgive them. Forget about Putin, or personal enrichment, or the "Agenda 2010"; lets say that neoliberalism was simply in the air, a global zeitgeist, and that the invisible hand of the market forced their hand in return. But when social democrats and Greens destroyed the German welfare state, they were free to delegate that job to, and name the result after, anyone of their choosing; they could have made an honest effort to at least put some lipstick on that pig. Instead, they had the chuzpe to pick the most emblematically corrupt unionist and human resources expert in the entire country, best known for "kickbacks to Volkswagen managers from bogus companies doing real estate business", "the use of prostitutes at the company's expense, sometimes in company-owned apartments and under the influence of Viagra, which had been prescribed by the company's medical service", "convicted to a prison term of 2 years, but set free on probation, and to a fine of €576000". (4)

So much about the absence of corruption. If the world came down to a final vote between Hartz and Hitler, I'd know what's to be done, but that's about it. And okay, Hitler never won a majority in a democratic election, but lets not digress. I'm not bringing up any of the above to suggest that the last two decades of social democracy were more disillusioning than the ones that preceded them, or that my examples from Germany were particularly scandalous. Anyone in France, in the UK or in the U.S. can tell you the same stories, or worse, and no-one in Italy even bothers anymore. (In fact, more than half of the 18- to 34-year old Europeans say that they would actively participate in a large-scale uprising — 61% in France, 63% in Spain, 67% in Greece (5) — and even though I don't trust these numbers, don't think that filling out a questionnaire and violently overthrowing a government are the same thing, and don't want to know what percentage of the pro-revolt respondents vote UKIP, Le Pen or AfD, my feeling is that this is not totally fake news either.)

The only purpose of my little sketch of a larger German Sittengemälde is to illustrate why I think that "hold your nose and vote" is a losing strategy, and that it can be useful not to vote, if only to make sure that certain parties that self-identify as center-left remain left of center: in opposition, rather than in government. At the same time, it is clear that even a strategic non-vote has its limits. Is the Front National more dangerous as an opposition party? Is it going to be enlightening to find out, and better to be proven right than wrong? Will Macron move to the right when under pressure from the Left? People are tired of politics as football, of coaching their favorite losers from a seat in front of a screen, or devising ten-dimensional chess moves according to which, for example, Trump and Le Pen must rise to power as early as possible, to demonstrate how useless, if not already impossible, it has become to govern, so that they're just out of office and politically discredited when the next financial bubble hits the fan.

All of that is just whistling in the dark. What makes living through 2016/17 such a terrifying, often visceral political experience is not only the return of fascism in the West, but the fact that we are beginning to sense what an enormous upheaval the pragmatic-realist best-case scenario is going to be. Capitalism as we know it is finished, but here is what's eerie: die Spatzen pfeifen es bereits von den Dächern. (6)






(6) German proverb. "The sparrows are already singing the news from the rooftops", meaning: it is all over town. But this time, they literally do. Regimes of production come and go, empires rise and fall, wars start and end. Geological eras usually don't.