It is high time we – France included – drew some lessons from the 1930s.
In 1942, Georges Bernanos wrote in Le Chemin de la croix-des-âmes [The Path to the Cross of Souls]: “It is not we who return to the past, it is the past that threatens to return to us.” The 21st century is very different from the 1930s, but they are back with us, and democracies seem incapable of drawing any lessons from those inter-war years and ridding themselves of the wave of populism that poses a threat to political freedom.
At the present time, when history is world history, we may seem to be a million miles away from the 1930s with its massive deflation and the path it was taking towards war: capitalism has gone global, the 2008 crash did not degenerate into worldwide depression, the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century have disappeared, weapons of mass destruction are, for the moment, a deterrent that is preventing any major armed conflict, and the West has lost its monopoly of economic and geopolitical leadership.
And yet, the two eras have several points in common. Peace – wasted after 1989 as it was after 1918 – has not created a stable world order. There is rising violence and increased strategic threats from the démocratures [démocrature: a combination of democracy and dictatorship] and Jihadism. There are the after-effects of a major crash for capitalism. A technological revolution is overturning nations’ economic models and value chains in companies as well as the organization and forms of labor. We are seeing the atomization of individuals and, in developed countries, the unsettling of the middle classes.
Democracies are going through an existential crisis that brings our era close to that of the 1930s. Then, they were gripped in a vice between deflation and totalitarianism. Today, as capitalism veers eastwards and southwards, with a digital revolution and the increased success of the Chinese model – which combines the promise of development, security and stability with the denial of the rule of law and freedom – as well as religious fanaticism, democracies are being caught in the crossfire. The heart of the free world is under attack and divisions are appearing in democracies. The US is withdrawing into itself and Europe is breaking up under the shock of Brexit and illiberal democracies.
In the USA, Donald Trump is entering his presidential campaign from a position of strength because of the economic euphoria caused by uncontrolled budgetary and monetary expansion, and is using openly nationalistic and racist rhetoric. He treats opponents and foreigners as enemies of America, at the expense of fracturing the American nation and distorting its values.
Boris Johnson’s coming to office in the UK has put the cap on the direction taken by the June 2016 referendum; political life in the UK has become hostage to three demagogues: Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage. In Italy, Matteo Salvini is fostering the expulsion of immigrants – helped along by the inconsistency of the Five Star Movement – and is methodically preparing the dislocation of the anti-system coalition and his conquest of power at the head of a union of far-right parties.
Democracy is showing signs of resistance, both in the north – in the counterbalances at play in the USA, in civilian society in Poland and Hungary and in the stabilization of the far right in Germany and northern Europe – and in the south, with freedom demonstrations in Hong Kong, Algeria, the Sudan and Georgia. But the way in which populism has penetrated deeply into institutions and developed societies is daunting and disquieting.
France is an example of this for, since the election of Emmanuel Macron, it presents itself as a buttress against populism whilst being impregnated with it. Although the populist parties are not yet in government, populism already holds power in our country. There is fiscal and budgetary populism in the mad rush to eat up government resources by spending money in the social sphere, to excessively tax a minority whilst giving the majority widespread free access to services. There is legislative populism in the increasing number of special laws that infringe civil liberties. There is judicial populism in the decay of the rule of law and the annihilation of the rights of defense. Populism in the media is shown in the tyranny of social media. Institutional populism is manifest in the disregard shown in the highest places for any form of counterbalances, for Parliament or for civilian society. There is intellectual populism in the delegitimization of science and knowledge and political populism in the constant search for scapegoats, whether they be foreigners, wealthy people, banks or the ENA [a prestigious university]. And there is moral populism in the abandonment of critical thinking and debate, which creates indignation and emotion.
This is why is it high time we – France included – drew some lessons from the 1930s.
Democracy is not immortal. It is a complex, fragile regime whose stability depends on four factors: economic and social development, the rule of law, the primacy of moderation over extremism, and the population’s commitment to political freedom.
Populists have to be taken seriously. They should not be subjects of amusement or condescension, as was the case of Beppe Grillo, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. In periods of major historical change, populists can not only take power but also make history. Donald Trump has stopped the progress of international trade and launched de-globalization with his trade, technology and currency war. He has triggered a major confrontation with China and dismantled the world order that was the legacy of 1945.
The institutions and procedures that underpin the rule of law cannot protect us completely from demagogues who bend them to their will. Their failures – as seen in terms of the economy in Italy and in terms of the workings of government and national unity in the UK – do not bring about their downfall, they merely inflate lies and violence.
Populism cannot be beaten by populism. The only effective antidote is by renewing democracy in a new economic, social and citizens pact, as at the end of the 19th century with the emergence of salaried work, or after World War II with the coming of the welfare state and the Bretton Woods system. The citizens of democracies and free nations must regain control of their destiny, not by emotion, by getting carried away by collective passion or by idolizing force, but by reason, responsibility and by mobilizing themselves to defend freedom. Here and now.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 29th July 2019)