Meanwhile, in Europe … Wilders, Le Pen, and Illiberal Liberalism

by Richard King

800px-Le_Pen_Paris_2007_05_01_n2Not much fun is it – the age of Trump? The walls, the calls, the travel bans – it's all too much to process, don't you find? Alec Baldwin does his best to cheer us up, but this shit is about as funny as an orphanage on fire. Some mornings I can't get out of bed. My hair is coming out in clumps.

I wish I could spread a little sunshine, but I fear things may be about to get worse. Next month is almost certain to see a win for Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, where anti-immigration sentiment is running at alarming levels. Then, in April, we have the first round of voting in the French Presidential elections. The National Front's Marine Le Pen looks set to progress to the second round, where she'll likely face off against Emmanuel Macron. It's possible she'll lose, of course, and that Wilders will lose or be unable to form a government, but I wouldn't put any money on it.

Trump. Wilders. Le Pen. That's three bad hombres, right there.

More worrying still, for those of us whose socialism is rooted in a qualified respect for the legacy of bourgeois liberalism (ah yes! now I'm feeling better) are the terms in which these golden-haired demagogues attempt to flog themselves to the demos, especially in the European context. Indeed, I think we need a new term with which to capture this discrete political language, a language that mashes up disparate ingredients into a sickly ideological paste, which is then forced down the public gullet like grain down the neck of a Strasbourg goose. I propose "Illiberal Liberalism".

What do I mean by "Illiberal Liberalism"? What I don't mean is the tendency of liberals and progressives to assume that their values are universal and true and to shout down anyone who doesn't share them. That is a thing, and it's irritating – as irritating as columnists who begin their articles with sentences like, "Not much fun is it – the age of Trump?", as if anyone who can read is bound to regard The Donald as a pus-filled boil on the arse of humanity, which, by the way, he absolutely is. But it's not what I'm referring to.

No, what I mean by "Illiberal Liberalism" is the way these European boils ooze lyrical about such liberal verities as freedom of speech and respect for women and LGBT rights and tolerance, but do so in a way that draws a thick black line, and drives a wedge, between "them" and "us", with the "them" being black or brown or dusky and the "us" being white as a moonlit sail: a form of civic fascism, if you like, the aim of which is to weaponise the adornments of the universalist tradition in the cause of nativist bastardry. (I'm aware, by the way, that the universalist tradition has always been invoked by power, especially in the cause of empire; but this rightwing mutation of social liberalism is, I submit, something quite new.)

Geert_Wilders_op_Prinsjesdag_2014Both Wilders and Le Pen are fluent in this language. Wilders in particular affects to mount guard over the cause of free speech – an endeavour to which the Dutch authorities were happy to lend a helping hand by putting him on trial for hate speech. He managed to beat that rap, just, though he was convicted in December of last year of inciting discrimination against Moroccans in a post-election speech in 2014. In response to that verdict, he lamented the loss to "democracy and freedom of expression", which is the kind of thing he says. Like a rightwing version of the anarchist peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – "Help, help I'm being repressed! Now we see the intolerance inherent in the system!" – he seems to get a kick out of martyrdom. And it doesn't do his numbers any harm.

Freedom and democracy? Wilders proposes five-year moratoria on the immigration of non-Western foreigners and the establishment of new mosques and Islamic schools. He wants a permanent ban on preaching in foreign languages and the expulsion from the country of fundamentalist Muslims. In 2009 he proposed a Hijab tax, suggesting that the money raised could be used to promote female emancipation (nice touch). Oh, and on the issue of free expression: in a newspaper article in 2007, he called for the Quran – "a fascist book" – to be banned. Free speech martyr, my arse.

2014-07-01-Europaparlament_Marine_Le_Pen_by_Olaf_Kosinsky_-104_(2)As for Le Pen, she's scarcely less obnoxious. She too has adopted progressive positions on civil unions for same-sex couples, abortion and the death penalty, and likes to talk about gay and women's rights as core values of the French state. She has even reached out to the Jewish community, which her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, did his best to alienate by dismissing the Holocaust as a "detail" of World War II. But, again, the rhetoric is exclusionary, with French secularism in particular serving to delineate Muslims as a dangerous, and inherently un-French, fifth column. In 2010, Le Pen went so far as to compare Muslims in the streets after Friday prayers with Nazis during the occupation, and while she is careful, these days, not to sound (quite) so unhinged, her shtick is still that French nationality is either inherited or merited, with "merit" reduced to wholesale assimilation into the principles and priorities of Republican France.

1024px-Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peupleIn one sense, Islam is a gift to the right-populist, especially in countries such as France and the Netherlands, where history and identity are bound up with the liberal Enlightenment. Both countries have in common with the US a central role in the rise and dissemination of the liberal-capitalist global order, France as the site of the second great revolution of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy, the Netherlands as one of the principal seedbeds of Protestantism and merchant capital. The Muslim is always already at odds with aspects of these national self-images and in times of stress can fulfil the role of national and religious other, out of step in some fundamental way with French laïcité or Dutch iconoclasm. It is thus possible to blame the Muslim not just of taking nationals' jobs but of undoing the project of nationhood itself, of exacerbating globalisation's twin assaults on living standards and national solidarity. Not only does the ruling elite care more about immigrants than the working class, claim writers such as Eric Zemmour, a purveyor of the grand remplacement theory that sees France and other jurisdictions eventually overrun by Muslims, but in doing so they undermine the raison d'être of France herself. The mindset is caught in the title of Zemmour's book, Le Suicide français. It is a powerful, and very coherent, message, especially in wake of the Hebdo murders and subsequent terrorist assault on Paris.

800px-Paris_2006-02-11_anti-caricature_protest_bannieres_dsc07473It also sets a trap for the left. For what politicians like Wilders and Le Pen do is to identify and exploit a tension that exists in all liberal societies between the liberal ideal of free speech and the progressive ideal of tolerance for people from other traditions and faiths. "We can't tolerate intolerance" say the illiberal liberals, and progressives are immediately caught between the fact that certain reactionary attitudes to do with women and homosexuals are indeed over-represented in immigrant communities, and the desire not to license native prejudice against those immigrant communities in general. That many European progressives can only think about social justice in what we might call "post-material" terms serves greatly to exacerbate the problem. For whereas a strong material left could register this reality while insisting that one of its principal causes is the economic inequality that afflicts immigrant and native alike – for why should the poor and excluded sing the praises of the Fifth Republic? – the progressive doubles down on the centrality of responsible speech to social cohesion. To be sure, Zemmour isn't totally wrong about progressives' abandonment of the working class, except it's less the working class that's been abandoned than the concept of materiality itself. Having invested so much in the power of "discourse", the contemporary left is always susceptible to the charge that it is "politically correct".

At any rate, the stage is now set for another crucial confrontation, and if their recent statements are anything to go by, neither Le Pen nor Wilders is looking to turn in an understated performance on the night. A few days ago, the FN's leader blasted the "two totalitarianisms" of globalisation and Islamic fundamentalism, and invited her audience to deplore the assault on French "identity" and "civilisation". A few days before that, Wilders reiterated his warnings about the "Islamisation" of Europe, referring in particular to the threat it poses to – guess what? – women and the LGBT community.

Such are the intellectual phenomena one encounters in the age of Trump. Having fun? No, nor am I.


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