This essay, on the gilets jaunes protests, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on MSF being forced to end its rescue operations in the Mediterranean). It was published in the Observer, 9 December 2018, under the headline ‘A fear of cultural loss is fuelling anger with elites across Europe’.
‘Can we borrow him?’ Gary Lineker asked in April of the ‘charismatic, smart and ballsy’ Emmanuel Macron. The BBC presenter was far from alone in being besotted by the French president. ‘His basic message to the French people,’ observed the Liberal Democrats’ Vince Cable, is ‘exactly the formula that I and my party can offer.’ In Le Monde, Tony Blair showered praise on Macron’s ‘remarkable ideological clarity’.
Six months on, Macron cuts a different figure. The gilets jaunes protests engulfing France speak to a deep well of resentment at home. What began as a complaint about fuel tax rises has mutated into a challenge to presidential authority. Despite the violence, the protesters retain public support while Macron’s popularity has sunk to a new low.
There are many issues specific to France in the gilets jaunes protests. But the crisis confronting Macron speaks also to wider issues of disaffection and turmoil in Europe, from austerity to Brexit.
When Macron came to power he was lauded as the scourge of populism. This view rested not just on his defeat of far-right Marine Le Pen in the presidential elections, but also on the belief that the problem western nations face is that of the rational centre being assailed by atavistic forces of populist extremism.
The French, Cable suggested, were ‘tired and disillusioned by the traditional right and the traditional left’ and desired ‘something else which is moderate, middle of the road’. What has disillusioned people is not just the traditional left and right, but a political system deaf to their needs and interests. Macron, with his patrician attitude and Thatcherite reform policies, has only helped exacerbate this crisis of representation.
There are two elements to populism: disaffection with mainstream parties and institutions and the particular form that such disaffection takes. Much hostility to populism is hostility to the disaffection itself. Many dismiss the disaffected as uneducated or bigoted, their demands as backward or unreasonable.
Yet, it’s not populist disaffection that is unreasonable, but the policies and institutions that have created that disaffection. Policies that have driven up inequality and driven down living standards. Institutions that have excluded people from the process of decision-making. There has been much talk of ‘out of touch’ politicians. Little expresses that out-of-touchness more than the fact that for almost a decade politicians have spent more energy worrying about populism than about the policies that have nurtured disaffection. Macron has been derided for behaving like a king; contempt for ordinary folk is visible, however, in much of the debate about populism.
A key question often raised is whether disaffection is driven primarily by economic or by cultural factors. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ has increasingly been replaced by ‘It’s culture wot matters’. Disaffection, many argue, is the result of a sense of cultural loss, primarily as a result of immigration.
The French protests show, though, that the relationship between the economic and the cultural is more complicated. The immediate cause of the protests was economic – fuel tax rises. It was one expression of the anger at the erosion of working-class living standards endured across Europe. What worries people, though, is not just stagnating wages or cuts to public services, but also their loss of power in influencing policies that shape their lives. Material hardship is viewed through the prism of political voicelessness.
The decline of working-class power and labour movement organisations has helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems. Culture, rather than class, has become the medium through which social issues are now refracted. Working-class troubles have come to be seen less as products of class-based politics than of cultural loss. The cultural Other, whether migrants or Muslims, is increasingly viewed as a threat to the working class. This has allowed the far right to shape disaffection, and to gain electoral credibility.
So far, the gilets jaunes protests seem more anarchic than fascist. It is striking, though, that the most potent protests in France in recent times have bypassed both political parties and trade unions.
The question we need to ask is not, ‘How should we create a centrist bulwark against populism?’, but ‘How can we give progressive shape to people’s disaffection?’ Otherwise the left will either remain standing on the sidelines, allowing the radical right to take centre stage, or be driven, as has already happened, to promote illiberal notions of immigration, culture and belonging. Whatever the fate of the gilets jaunes, this wider issue – who will give shape to disaffection? – has still to be addressed.
The image is from AFP/Ouest France.
Quote: “What worries people, though, is not just stagnating wages or cuts to public services, but their loss of power in influencing policies that shape their lives. Material hardship is viewed through the prism of political voicelessness.”
The more new people that come into a country, the less say the original inhabitants can have at the ballot box because the new people might vote disproportionately a particular way. For the Labour Party or for the Democrats in the US for example. The politics can change too, with much more “intersectional identitarianism” and continual complaints about the racist host country and its majority population.
On the other article about saving the migrants trying to cross the Med in small boats – I’d just like to see the whole thing being discussed fully. If we are to send ships just off shore from Libya, then you have to ask why don’t the ships just put into dock there and take people safely away from that country. Maybe we should be redirecting ferries to pick people up from Libyan ports every day. And if ferries, why not planes taking them direct to their country of choice?
There’s a picture of London mayor Sadiq Khan holding a sign that says “Refugees Welcome”.
I think he should state in which London boroughs. As far as I’m aware, every borough in London has a very tight council housing situation. So where should these refugees go? Into housing run by private landlords I suppose.
Who is going to pay the bills while the refugees find their way into jobs? Do like the Germans are doing?
I’m in Zimbabwe, and was thinking about this on a long bus journey yesterday. Lots of Zimbabweans have gone to Europe to claim asylum, but the country is pretty safe now. So should people from this country be even eligible for political asylum? If they made their way to Libya, should they be allowed to move to Europe permanently?
It’s not a popular idea amongst the majority of Europeans. Only the radical left support such change.
The UN would like to bring about easier world wide immigration though with its “Immigration Pact”, but that’s going to have a lot of opposition.
Damon, you may not intend to, but you illustrate Kenan Malik’s central argument beautifully. The reasons for the UK’s housing shortage, and in particular shortage of council housing, lie in Margaret Thatcher’s policy of forcing local authorities to sell off council houses, followed by chronic failure to build, and financial policies are under both main parties that led to a fivefold increase in housing prices between1987 and 2007.
You suggest, understandably, that immigrants are a drain on the host nation’s economy. From everything that I have read, the reverse is the case. You might have made the excellent point that immigrants create pressure on public services such as schools, health, and transport; again,there are real problems but they arise, not from immigration but from chronic underfunding, again a result of policy decisions.
Having said all that, you articulate a cultural argument against immigration that will resonate widely. I wonder how Kenan, one of many descendants of recent immigrants who have done much to enrich our culture (disclosure: I would place myself in the same category) would respond to this.
Another reason for the housing shortage is ALSO that the country’s population has gone up by several millions. We didn’t build enough and there’s loads of new people.
It’s easy to say we should just have built millions of more houses, but in a country like Britain that’s not great at doing things like that in a hurry and getting all the additional infrastructure right, then there’s not much point about being overly ideological about things. When you have an existing city, even if it’s actually a spread out low density one like London, you can’t just go “infilling” and increasing the density without upsetting the people who are already living there. There’s a council estate at the top of the road where I grew up. Maybe about fifteen hundred homes surrounded by playing fields and woods.
You could have doubled the size of the estate by building on the football pitches and tearing down some of the woods, but a lot of the people who live there now aren’t going to like that.
Particularly as it’s a dead end up there and all the traffic in and out has to use the road my family home was on. There’s a bottleneck at the bottom where that road meets a main road.
The nearest railway stations are one mile and three miles away. It’s a bus or your own car, and the traffic can be horrible.
I’m not against immigration myself particularly, as I’ve decided to try and spend as much time as I possibly can in cheaper (more interesting) countries. I find England to be too expensive and too crowded.
Also, I can’t be bothered with that “culture wars” thing we’ve got going on there now.
See last week’s Guardian for examples. The greater the diversity, the greater the calls are to change the horribly racist country into one that’s “more representative”. You could quite possibly end up with a kind of sectarian situation they have in the US to a degree. Like where you have “anti-gentrification” campaigns where a mob of people will turn up and smash the window of a “white yuppie” coffee shop, like happened in a Hispanic neighbourhood in LA recently. They also objected to “white art galleries” moving into their neighbourhood and changing the demographics and the property prices.
And while I can sympathise with working class Hispanics not wanting to be priced out of their own neighbourhood, American capitalism doesn’t work like that and things change all the time.
And America’s success was the reason all those Hispanic people went to the US in the first place.
As for immigrants being a net boon to their new country. Then how come probably at least half of the twenty most deprived boroughs in Britain are the most ethnically diverse ones?
“The cultural Other, whether migrants or Muslims, is increasingly viewed as a threat to the working class.”
It is in fact a threat to the working class, at least in Germany where I live. Businnes organisations are allready asking the government to lower the minimum wage to make integration of migrants into the labour market easier. If you want to rent an appartment in any major city you have to compete with the state, who pays any rent to get houses for migrants. Migrants have acces to state financed social care which is mainly paid by the working class without ever having paid anything themselves.
There is a class war going on, and the migrants are the soldiers of the capitalists.
If you dare to protest the entire media call you a racist. We ar egtting sick of this.
To the contrary, those who blame migrants, rather than social and economic policy, for problems of stagnating wages or resource shortages are ‘the soldiers of the capitalists’. Migrants have not introduced austerity policies, or squeezed living standards or destroyed the power of labour movement organizations or ensured that social democratic parties cut their links with their traditional working class constituencies. Nor was it migrants who refused to introduce the minimum wage in Germany until just three years ago.
Yes, businesses try to drive down the minimum wage (in fact all wages). The arguments German businesses deployed over many years against the introduction of the minimum wage were not predicated on migrants at all. We need to resist all such attempts to attack working class living standards. But simply seeing migrants as the enemy, rather than challenging the economic and political policies, that impoverish and marginalize the working class, is to hand business another weapon.
There is a coincidence of interests betwwen migrants and capitalists, definitely. Would you deny that?
Yes most certainly I would. The claim is the rightwing equivalent of the left’s ‘To support free speech is to support the far right’.
You mocked me for suggesting that the Guardian has a lot of power and influence, and should have used them to expose the Rotherham scandal. Well, here’s a good example of the power and influence that you sought to deny:
Congratulations to the Guardian and Observer. But I think it’s shameful that they’re so selective about which evils they seek to expose in modern Britain.
From your forceful and admirable article on Fortress Europe:
It was the most shameful piece of news from the past week. Yet it was barely covered. The charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been forced to end its rescue operations in the Mediterranean because of pressure and harassment from European nations, most notably Italy.
But this is precisely where your bourgeois fetishization of “free speech” leads. When we give “free speech” to fascists like Salvini, guess what? Fascists like Salvini win power. Salvini has now leveraged “free speech” and white racism to become v. popular with whites in Italy.
Consider the progressive alternative. If the right laws had been in place, Salvini and other key figures in the fascist League would now be in jail and Italy would be welcoming as many people across the Mediterranean as possible, then granting them unconditional citizenship. With a large and growing BAME voting-bloc in Italy, fascism would be fatally undermined and so would the fascist-friendly manure of “free speech”. It’s not flipping rocket-science, as Jeremy and Diane would be happy to tell you.
So blinded have European authorities become by their obsession with immigration that they have lost the ability to recognise the most basic of obligations to other human beings. A few thousand drowned Africans and Asians every year is, for many, a price worth paying to keep the lid on the immigration debate at home.
Yes, 100% agree with your condemnation of the Eurocrats. But I would add: So blinded has Kenan Malik become by his obsession with “liberty” that he has lost the ability to recognise his own complicity in fascism.
Why can you not see that “free speech” is only good for racists and haters, not for progressives? I beg you: read a biography of Lenin. He did not become the greatest Marxist of all time by granting “free speech” to bad people. He became a giant by unshakeable force of will and unflinching belief in progress. I am a Marxist and a Leninist, not a Voltairist or a Jeffersonist. Please join me and my comrades and stop assisting fascism.
Cabler Strada, if I remember rightly, Lenin’s enterprise did not end well
” If the right laws had been in place, Salvini and other key figures in the fascist League would now be in jail and Italy would be welcoming as many people across the Mediterranean as possible, then granting them unconditional citizenship.”
That is exactly what the far right from lepen to Orban to Salvini say the left wants to do; bring as many migrants as possible ti Europe, give them the right to vote and silence any resistence of the european peoples to the neoliberal-left multiculturalist future.
Thanks for speaking out clearly.
Know where your enemy stands.
I know you’re obsessed by the Guardian, and you can’t let go of a discussion in a thread on a post a month old. No doubt on my deathbed, you’ll pop up with ‘But, but, but, the Guardian…’ Be that as it may, what you’re confusing here is good investigative reporting with the notion of ‘power and influence’. Yes, Amelia Gentleman did good investigative journalism on the Windrush cases (as did Andrew Norfolk on Rotherham). But Gentleman’s reporting does not mean that the Guardian’s ‘power and influence’ is such that people have changed their views on immigration or that they now support the ‘Guardian view’ on immigration (whatever that may be given the diversity of Guardian writers’ views on this issue, as on many others).
Your original point, all those weeks ago, was that the ideas of social workers and policemen in Rotherham were set by the Guardian. You provided no evidence for that, and have not done so since. My response was that it was far more likely that some Guardian writers and social workers may have drawn on a common set of liberal ideas. Nothing you’ve written challenges that.
You’re right, the Guardian (and every other publication) is often selective about ‘which evils they seek to expose’. There are many issues I wish it would pursue. But that’s a very different argument than your original claim about Guardian’s huge ‘power and influence’ over the authorities in Rotherham.
You may be obsessed by the Guardian, but I’m not. So, that’s my last word on this. I have no wish to continue this debate to my deathbed.
Only in a fantasy world does Salvini win because of ‘free speech’. The far right (and not just in Italy) has gained electoral support because the left has abandoned the working class, backing austerity programmes, public sector cuts, and policies that have demolished jobs and restrained wages. That’s why Italian workers who used to support the socialist and communist parties now wholesale support the Lega or the MS5.
France and Germany have the toughest free speech laws in Europe. I wonder how the far right is faring those two countries? Censorship does stop the far right. Giving the state powers of censorship only allows it to use those laws against its critics, including those from minority groups and working class activists (as is the case in both France and Germany). It’s not flipping rocket science, as you might want to tell your friends ‘Jeremy and Diane’. A Marxist who believes in giving the state greater powers of repression but doesn’t believe in political persuasion is a wonder to behold.
‘In a censorship law, freedom is punished. The censorship law is a law of suspicion against freedom.’‘The real, radical cure for censorship would be its abolition.’
I wonder who said that? Ah, yes. Marx. No wonder he also said that ‘If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist’.
” The far right (and not just in Italy) has gained electoral support because the left has abandoned the working class, backing austerity programmes, public sector cuts, and policies that have demolished jobs and restrained wages.”
I agree, but I can´t see how the left could change this without a new position towards migration. As long as the left calls for accepting more and more migrants into labour market and social security people will keep coming, lowering wages by more people looking for jobs and destroying social security system by bringing in more and more people receiving money without paying anything into the system.
Like Schroedinger’s cat, simultaneously dead and alive, you believe in Schroedinger’s immigrant who is simultaneously in employment (which means paying taxes and otherwise contributing to the economy), and idly sponging off a system to which they do not contribute.
I’m a Marxist, not a Freudian. But does one need to be a Freudian to find this slip of yours interesting?
Censorship does stop the far right.
Perhaps your subconscious is trying to tell you something.
France and Germany have the toughest free speech laws in Europe. I wonder how the far right is faring those two countries?
Much less well than in Italy. And the far right would not be faring at all if the AfD cadre were in jail and bankrupted by heavy fines.
You’re right, the Guardian (and every other publication) is often selective about ‘which evils they seek to expose’. There are many issues I wish it would pursue.
Such as campaigning for free speech and against multi-culturalism, yes? The Rotherham scandal is a perfect example of anti-progressive censorship and of corruption caused by the wrong kind of multi-culturalism. The Guardian and the left in general should own the issue of misogyny and abuse in BAME communities. Instead, the far right owns it and pondlife like Tommy Robinson can call the left hypocritical. Unfortunately, he’s right.
For me, free speech is speech that advances progressive causes. In Rotherham and a lot of other places, genuine free speech was stifled and an unknown but appallingly large number of girls and women, both white and BAME, have suffered as a result. The Guardian could have broken that censorship 20 or 30 years ago. It didn’t. That’s shameful but I understand completely your continued insistence that the Guardian / Observer have no power to shape events. Here’s another quote from Marx that is possibly relevant: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
The Guardian chose not to make history. I don’t deplore that simply as a Marxist: I deplore it as a moral being.
Yes, a typo (you’ll find plenty of them here), and, yes, more unfortunate than most. I fear, though, that your Freudianism is no more illuminating than your Marxism.
Nice try, but you can’t avoid the fact that in France, Marine Le Pen took 34% of the vote in the second round of last year’s Presidential election. And that in Germany, despite the historical revulsion towards Nazism, the far right is gaining ground. And doing so despite restrictive laws of free speech. The rise of the far right has nothing to do with free speech. Providing the far right with a few more free speech ‘martyrs’ is hardly going to hurt their cause. And, as ever, you’ve avoided the point that giving the state more powers to restrict speech only harms minority groups those fighting social change and against inequality and injustice.
In other words not free speech at all. ‘Free speech is what I declare is progressive’. There are sure going to be a lot of people locked up in your Utopia.
This twitter post was retweeted by British blogger and prolific Twitter poster Sunny Hundal.
Sunny is a hard liberal on the left. I think that would be fair. Into all good left causes and writes “mostly about identity and politics” he says.
Is the Channel 4 newsreader Fatima Manji’s question a fair one?
The photos were taken at last night’s vote.
To become an MP you have to be a member and a strong activist for one of the main political parties.
It’s no good complaining that the Liberal Democrat’s only had white MPs if hardly any black and minority people were members of the party.