First published in Le Monde. Translated by David Broder.
Since Emmanuel Macron’s election to the presidency, the media have been swooning over the "novelty" of his programme. According to them, by transcending the separation between Left and Right, Macron is going to solve the age-old blockages in French society. His La République en Marche vehicle is supposedly going to bring a new democratic revolution able to liberate all the energy of progressive forces, up till now held back by the traditional parties.
All the same, it is rather paradoxical that what is being presented as the remedy to the deep crisis of representation hitting the Western democracies is in fact precisely the kind of politics that gave rise to this same crisis. For this crisis resulted from the adoption, across most European countries, of the Third Way strategy theorized by the British sociologist Anthony Giddens and put into practice by Tony Blair’s New Labour.
Declaring the Left/Right divide obsolete, this strategy advocated a new form of governance called the "radical centre." According to Tony Blair, we were "all middle class now," the old antagonisms had disappeared and the antagonistic model of politics had become obsolete. There was no longer a left- or right-wing economic policy, but only "good" and "bad" policy. This "post-political" perspective was itself based on Margaret Thatcher’s famous TINA ("There Is No Alternative") doctrine, the conviction that there was no alternative to neoliberal globalization.
The Coming of the Centre-Left
After having first been greeted in Germany by Gerhard Schröder and his Neue Mitte (New Centre), Blair’s Third Way was gradually adopted by most socialist and social-democratic parties, who now defined themselves as centre-Left. This was how a centrist consensus was established in Europe, wiping away the boundary between Left and Right and thus denying citizens the possibility of choosing between different projects come election time.
This absence of alternatives was the very origin of many of the problems we are facing today: the discredit into which democratic institutions have fallen, the rise of voter abstention, and the growing success of Right-populist parties. Claiming that they would give the people back the power that the élites had stolen from them, in numerous countries these latter forces succeeded in establishing themselves in a lasting fashion. As for social-democracy, this drift toward the centre-Left proved fatal, and it has sunk into crisis almost everywhere across Europe.
But as we have known ever since Machiavelli, in each society there are irreconcilable interests and positions, and merely to deny these antagonisms by no means suffices to make them disappear. The purpose of a pluralist democracy is not to reach a consensus, but rather to allow dissensus to express itself, with the help of institutions that allow for an "agonistic" contest to play out.
Giving Form to the Division in Society
The contending forces in the agonistic struggle treat each other not as enemies, but as adversaries. They know that there are questions that they will not be able to reach agreement on, but they respect each others’ rights to fight for the victory of their own side. In this perspective, the role of democratic institutions consists of providing the framework for "opposition without massacring each other," as the anthropologist Marcel Mauss has emphasized.
In the republican tradition, the opposition between Left and Right — whatever content we attribute this opposition — is the means of giving form to the division of society. Pluralist democracy is the site of a tension between the ideals of freedom and equality, a tension which must be constantly renegotiated in the agonistic confrontation between Left and Right. It is this confrontation which allows for the expression of popular sovereignty, which is one of the pillars of the democratic ideal. It is here that we find the stakes of an authentic democratic politics.
If we can indeed say that we are today living in "post-democratic" societies, that is because with the triumph of neoliberal hegemony, popular sovereignty has been deprived of the scope which it used to enjoy. The post-political consensus only leaves room for the exchange of government between centre-Left and centre-Right, both of which serve the diktats of neoliberalism. All the parties that do not accept this landscape are dismissed as "extremists" and accused of endangering democracy itself.
Emmanuel Macron pushed this logic yet further. His supposed "novelty" quite simply consists of removing the semblance of contestation that still existed in the two-party system. From now on the very possibility of contestation is rejected, and the distinction between Left and Right disappears. This is truly the highest stage of post-politics.
But since there is no politics unless there is a frontier between an "Us" and a "Them," he is forced to set up another boundary, between "progressives" and "conservatives." Such a division does not establish a political-level relationship between adversaries. Bypassing the configurations of power, it simply serves to delegitimise the various forms of opposition by assimilating them to one same term — the "conservatives." Emmanuel Macron thus provides himself the means of dismissing the great numbers of French people opposed to his policy as
"conservatives," and ignoring the demands of "the France down below."
He seems untroubled that such a policy will inevitably lead to the revolt of the popular categories. Such a blindness is really mind-blowing, for far from blocking the Front national’s path, as he imagines it will, this recycling of the Third Way could instead strengthen it and even lead to its victory in 2022. Fortunately, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s very good score in the presidential election and the popular enthusiasm around La France insoumise show that another way out of the crisis is possible, by means of a citizen revolution.
Chantal Mouffe has theorized left-populism, including in her work L’Illusion du consensus (Paris: Albin Michel, 2016). She inspired La France insoumise and the Spanish radical-Left movement Podemos.[book-strip index="1" style="display"]