Laurent Bouvet’s lecture at the Ye Bookstore on September 19 with simultaneous translation into Ukrainian
UW: Populist parties become more influential in times of the crisis in Europe. How they are changing the political landscape of modern Europe and what threats do they hide?
They are reshaping the political landscape in two ways. First, they are reshuffling the left/right divide by positioning themselves as new players, trying to escape the far-right corner, from where most of them come from. If they are, as usual, fighting against the opening of the borders to immigration, they oppose the opening to the capital and free market too, in a very similar way to what most of the European radical leftist parties do.
Second, they are surfing on the deep rejection of the political, economical and cultural elites of European countries – and United Europe, of course! The United Europe building and the globalization have added a “super-elite” to the national traditional ones. So this is a very good target for populist movements, as long as they could nurture their critics of globalization and open borders with an argument coming from the bottom against the top. These are the two dimensions of the populist phenomenon: horizontal (us against the others) and vertical (the people versus the elite).
UW: Disassociation from Moscow was a key factor for a structural transformation of the entire Western left movement before and especially after the fall of the Soviet Union. They have gradually integrated themselves into the democratic political process. How has this transformed the social basis and ideology of the European left-wing parties?
The first effect of the end of the communist world was the end of a kind of political leftist radicalism in the Western countries, i.e. the Moscow linked communism, but not of the end of all kinds of leftist radicalism.
While the communist parties (France, Italy…) had to transform themselves and lost almost all of their political appeal in the process, some very radical movements, small but very active, continue to exist. One is the anti-globalization movement in the 2000s.
READ ALSO: Communists Icons Lose Shine in France
But there is a more interesting evolution: The transformation of political leftist radicalism itself into a pro-minorities, multiculturalist and cultural liberal kind of movement. It follows a path initiated in the 1970s, but it has gained in range these last two decades thanks to the “normalized” economical program of the left after 1989 when “social liberalism” crowned the victory of social democracy in the different Western countries (under Blair, Schröder, etc.)
Today, the Western left wing consists mainly of social democratic parties with a more or less social liberal program, pro-United Europe, and with a very liberal and multiculturalistic agenda in terms of individual and minorities rights. On the left side of this main group stand radical and green parties. While challenging the economic program of social liberalism, they approve its social and cultural agenda. That’s why in most of the European countries, some of these parties are able to participate in coalitions to get office.
UW: In one of your articles in 2002 you wrote about the “left’s lack of understanding of the society” and that “only an honest engagement with its own society, with a globalized world, with a changed Europe, and with its own illusions, can free the French left from the immense weight of its own past”. How has this changed after over a decade? Do you think the French left are still far from problems of the society given the recent big scandal in the left-wing French government (Jérôme Cahuzac case)?
Yes… And that has been its main problem since it was back to office one year ago!
The same reasons why Lionel Jospin was defeated in 2002 after 5 years of left government are still here today, under François Hollande’s presidency. One of the sociological explanations of this lasting problem is that the Socialist Party people in office (party leaders, ministers…) are the same.
READ ALSO: Europe in Communism's Crosshairs
So, this is not only about corruption (like in Cahuzac’s case) but about a lack of understanding of what is at stake in the French society: Its youth, its innovative side, its complex desire for both protection and freedom, etc. Hollande’s victory last year was primarily about the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy since the French wanted change, not the left specifically.
UW: How transformations in the European left-wing movement affect the right-wing pole?
The transformation of the right in Europe lasting over a decade now could be seen as a paradox. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the idea of the end of ideology - the “End of History” in Fukuyama’s words - was dominant. But it has worked for social democracy only. Not for the far left and not for the right.
The right wing of the political landscape has seen radicalization.As the emerging new populist movement is a clear sign of this radicalization, most of the conservative West European parties now follow the same path. Not on economic issues, but on social and cultural ones. Liberals are losing ground against Social Conservatives, roughly the same way it has taken place in the US.
And this general evolution is largely followed by the populations in the Western European countries. After the 2008 financial and economic crisis, in spite of the failure of financial capitalism and its values, social democracy didn’t win the elections but the right wing did! Not on its economic program but on social and cultural issues. The growing success of the new populist parties – let’s see the coming European elections in June 2014 – is another clear sign of this deep evolution.
READ ALSO: Estonia: New Parliament Heralded Decisive Shift to the Right
UW: Former Tony Blair's political strategist Matthew Taylor, who now promotes the “Enlightenment of the 21st century” claims that modern politics became alike sports when politicians are thinking only about electoral victory, but not about the ideas. Does European politics need to return to the basic ideas of Enlightenment or should it reinvent itself completely?
The “basic ideas” of Enlightenment are the basis of all our modernity. It is not about the left only but about the overall evolution of Western and other countries. So, this is our common heritage, and one of our collective roles is to maintain these ideas and values, and to keep them alive - especially against all sorts of threats, wherever they come from: religious fundamentalism, racism, etc. Every communitarian or identitarian claim against these core Enlightenment values or ideas has to be fought, firmly and with determination.
But this is not enough. We have to reinvent ourselves and to take into account the new world we are entering in. This world is no longer the one we have known for centuries with modern Western values and ideas dominant, if not hegemonic. Now the globalization process must be a part of our way of thinking and making politics. This is clearly not enough in the case with social democratic parties.
UW: Some experts argue that modern Europe needs new charismatic faces in politics. Is there a crisis of political elites in European countries?
I am not sure that “new charismatic faces” could be the best way to solve the European crisis, and especially the crisis of elites in Europe.
The main problem with the elites today is not their existence – they are always necessary in society – but that they are now less legitimate in the eyes of people. That is because they ask for sacrifices and impose tough rules (economic, social…) on people while not following these rules themselves.
The gap between the elites and the people is widening, and a “common world” seems not to be possible anymore or is, at least, disappearing. This “common world” is precisely the one built on the Enlightenment values and ideas.
READ ALSO: Europe in Communism's Crosshairs
UW: You often mentioned the lack of cultural protection of the French people in terms of globalization and immigration flow. How can European nations sustain or protect their national identities in post-modern times?
The idea of “a lack of cultural protection” or “cultural anxiety” is closely related to the elite/people problem we just discuss. This comes from the confidence put by the people in their elite – their national elite – as a part of the social contract that plays a very important role in terms of protection and security. The elite and the border are closely related one to each other.
How can people be confident in elite from outside that speaks another language, has a totally different way of life, defends cosmopolitism against national bonds, etc.?
“Cultural anxiety” is not just subsequent cultural consequence of immigration and economic opening of the border to capital, goods, services and people. This is a deeper issue, concerning the way of life itself, the values of the people who no longer have an opportunity to enter the elite and escape their condition, no opportunity to become a part of this globalized super-class which gets the full benefit of globalization.
The closing of the social elevator, the feeling that the world is hostile because it produces only more economic and social difficulties - all this feeds resentment against globalization and its fruit, such as escalating movements of immigrants or other cultures in the world (especially Islam) who are perceived as becoming very prominent, if not dominant. However, this also nurtures resentment against the elites who support all these new comers and 'other cultures' against their own 'national' fellow citizens.
The Western left have a specific responsibility in this phenomenon. By criticizing the globalization while accepting its logical consequences, both economically and culturally, it has abandoned the 'ordinary' people, those inside the national borders who cannot benefit from the globalization and are forced to obey the new rules and adopt the new ideas. Moreover, these new rules and new ideas are promoted by the elites in the name of the Good and the Progress, saying that those who oppose them are not only conservatives but racists, etc.
This evolution of the left represents today the most powerful engine of new populist movements in Europe. That's why these movements are a mortal threat for the European left.
Laurent Bouvet is Professor of Political Science and Theory at University of Versailles and Director of OVIPOL (Observatory of Politics) at Jean-Jaurès Foundation (Paris)
interviewed by Oleksandr Pahiria