I went to Lille in northern France a few days before the first round of the French presidential election to attend a rally held by the socialist candidate François Holland. It was a depressing experience. Thunderous music pulsated through the ugly and poorly heated Zenith convention hall a few blocks from the city center. The rhetoric was as empty and cliché-driven as an American campaign event. Words like "destiny," "progress" and "change" were thrown about by Holland, who looks like an accountant and made oratorical flourishes and frenetic arm gestures that seemed calculated to evoke the last socialist French president, François Mitterrand. There was the singing of "La Marseillaise" when it was over. There was a lot of red, white and blue, the colors of the French flag. There was the final shout of "Vive la France!" I could, with a few alterations, have been at a football rally in Amarillo, Texas. I had hoped for a little more gravitas. But as the French cultural critic Guy Debord astutely grasped, politics, even allegedly radical politics, has become a hollow spectacle. Quel dommage.
The emptying of content in political discourse in an age as precarious and volatile as ours will have very dangerous consequences. The longer the political elite—whether in Washington or Paris, whether socialist or right-wing, whether Democrat or Republican—ignore the breakdown of globalization, refuse to respond rationally to the climate crisis and continue to serve the iron tyranny of global finance, the more it will shred the possibility of political consensus, erode the effectiveness of our political institutions and empower right-wing extremists. The discontent sweeping the planet is born out of the paralysis of traditional political institutions.
The signs of this mounting polarization were apparent in incomplete returns Sunday with the far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, winning a staggering vote of roughly 20 percent. This will make the National Front the primary opposition party in France if Holland wins, as expected, the presidency in the second round May 6. Jean-Luc Mélenchon's leftist coalition, the Front de Gauche, was pulling a disappointing 11 percent of the vote. But at least France has a Mélenchon. He was the sole candidate to attack the racist and nationalist diatribes of Le Pen. Mélenchon called for a rolling back of austerity measures, preached the politics "of love, of brotherhood, of poetry" and vowed to fight what he termed the "parasitical vermin" who run global markets. His campaign rallies ended with the singing of the leftist anthem "The Internationale."
"Long live the Republic, long live the working class, long live France!" he shouted before a crowd of supporters Saturday night.
Every election cycle, our self-identified left dutifully lines up like sheep to vote for the corporate wolves who control the Democratic Party. It bleats the tired, false mantra about Ralph Nader being responsible for the 2000 election of George W. Bush and warns us that the corporate technocrat Mitt Romney is, in fact, an extremist.
The extremists, of course, are already in power. They have been in power for several years. They write our legislation. They pick the candidates and fund their campaigns. They dominate the courts. They effectively gut regulations and environmental controls. They suck down billions in government subsidies. They pay no taxes. They determine our energy policy. They loot the U.S. treasury. They rigidly control public debate and information. They wage useless and costly imperial wars for profit. They are behind the stripping away of our most cherished civil liberties. They are implementing government programs to gouge out any money left in the carcass of America. And they know that Romney or Barack Obama, along with the Democratic and the Republican parties, will not stop them.
The abrasive Nicolas Sarkozy is France's oilier version of Bush. Sarkozy, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has done the dirty work for bankers. He and Merkel have shoved draconian austerity measures down the throats of Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Spain and Italy. The governments of all these countries, not surprisingly, have been deposed by an enraged electorate. [Editor's note: On Monday, the Netherlands' prime minister and his Cabinet resigned after the government failed to agree to austerity demands from the European Union.] And if the new governments in these distressed European states continue to be ineffectual—which is inevitable given the sacrifices demanded by the banks—the instability will get worse.
Politicians such as Obama—and, I fear, Holland—who carry out corporate agendas while speaking in the language of populism become enemies of liberal democracies. Labor unions, environmentalists, anti-war activists and civil libertarians, blinded by the images and lies disseminated by public relations offices, stop watching what these politicians do. They mute their criticism to give these politicians, whose rhetoric is rarely matched by reality, a chance. The result accelerates our disempowerment. It is also, more ominously, a discrediting of traditional liberal democratic values. The longer the liberal class does not vigorously denounce expanded oil drilling, our corporate health insurance bill and the National Defense Authorization Act, simply because these initiatives have been pushed through by the Democrats, the more marginal the left becomes. If Bush had carried these policies, "liberal" pundits would have thundered with feigned outrage. The hypocrisy of the American left is too blatant to ignore. And it has effectively left us disempowered as a political force.
The political theater staged by the Democrats and Republicans, bloated with corporate money, will not work much longer. The game will soon be up. There are four countries in Europe with socialist governments—Belgium, Austria, Denmark and Slovenia. All have had to implement austerity programs. None have effectively defied the power of the banks. This paralysis is a ticking bomb both in the U.S. and abroad. And when it explodes it will be far more deadly than anything cooked up by a group of radical jihadists.
Paris was convulsed by riots led by unemployed youths in 2005, many of them immigrants living in the depressing high-rise housing projects in the poor suburbs of Paris known as banlieues. These riots swiftly spread across France. The French government declared a state of national emergency. Now, the simmering rage of the underclass could easily boil over again. The French unemployment rate of 10 percent is the highest in 12 years, but for those in the banlieues the rate is more than 40 percent. We in the United States have similar numbers, only without France's health care system or safety net. And public unrest could soon pit the disorganized rage of the dispossessed against organized crypto-fascists such as Le Pen, who once compared Muslims praying on French streets in front of overcrowded mosques to the Nazi occupation.
A breakdown of liberal democracy, which seems to be where we are headed, may not bring with it a salutary change. The most retrograde forces within the corporate state, such as the Koch brothers, will lavish racists, homophobes, demagogues, birthers, creationists and gun-carrying, flag-waving idiots with money once the political center crumbles. The left in Europe, and most certainly in the United States, could prove to be too weak to battle against figures like Le Pen or those in the U.S. who rally around the perverted ideologies of the Christian right and the tea party and who receive tens of millions of dollars in corporate backing. The left, in short, may find that it has done too little too late to be an effective counterweight. And widespread discontent could very easily be manipulated by the corporate elites to ensure our enslavement. I watched this happen in the former Yugoslavia. This is the real battle before us. And it has nothing to do with the election charade between Obama and Romney and, I expect, Holland and Sarkozy.