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Incurious, Privileged, Complicit: Centrists Will Be The Death Of Us All

By Petr Knava | Think Pieces | December 21, 2018 |

By Petr Knava | Think Pieces | December 21, 2018 |


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Pictured above: On the right, the horrors that were unleashed. On the left, the terrors that unleashed them. More will come.

December 2018. Paris burns. The city’s wide boulevards and avenues, carved into its heart by a Napoleon well over a century ago, usually a sea of twinkling, beckoning lights reflected in pristine surfaces of crystal, now stand illuminated instead by flares and flames. The fragile crystal hides behind hastily erected boards. Visible still in places is the militarily precise brand iconography—Louis Vuitton, Sephora, Disney—reminding you that though that world has momentarily receded, it has not gone anywhere. For now, however, things do look different. The avenues have been stripped, transformed into something atavistic. The Champs-Élysées, that broad slash of garish consumerism through the heart of the place that birthed the Revolution, now stands naked, emptied of vehicle traffic, swarming not with dead-eyed masses seeking a purchased injection of life but with a heaving human expression of rage and hopelessness. An expression clad in fluorescent yellow.

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The great triumph of the neoliberal project that began in the late 1970’s was that it didn’t just limit itself to the near-complete takeover of the international economic system, or to the subjugation of the democracies of the world’s nation states. It wasn’t content to simply dominate our institutions. It wanted to—needed to—colonise our minds as well, to reshape our way of thinking as well as our way of being. The neoliberal dream was all about human atomisation. Fragmentation. It craved the dissolution of societal bonds in the solvent of individual self-interest. That ancient, eternal pact, codified and given word by Enlightenment thinkers but stretching far further back to a time before language—that we would be each other’s keepers, sharing a heartbeat and watching each other’s backs against the cold and the dark and the toothed predators roaming out beyond the campfire’s reach—all that had to be rent and torn asunder, scattered by the winds of competition upon the fields of The Market. ‘There’s no such thing as society’ intoned the high priestess of neoliberalism Maggie Thatcher in 1987. Pandora’s box had been opened. Now, everyone had a price. Everything could be commodified. All societal relations could be measured and given a number. The market wasn’t just a utilitarian mechanism of exchange anymore, a cold sterile canvas. Now, it was God. Government’s job was to spread its gospel, vanquish the heretics, and get out of its way. It certainly could not be allowed to restrict or moderate in any way the machinations of business and the free flow of capital. If that meant subjugating the needs of citizens, so be it. Besides, they would be fine if they just apply themselves. ‘If they work hard enough, they will rise,’ went the mantra.

The system marketed itself thus as the ultimate meritocracy. It sang a seductive song that claimed that by removing regulation on business it would remove barriers to aspiration. The human spirit could soar, achieve its potential in entrepreneurship. The field would be levelled and equity of opportunity would follow.

It was all a rotten lie from top to bottom. A burnished hymn to drone and drown out thought and provide cover for a brutally efficient system of wealth transferral from the poorest to the wealthiest. How efficient? There are seven and a half billion people in the world at the moment. If things continue as they are, by the year 2030, 1 percent of those people will own two-thirds of the wealth of the planet.

But it wasn’t just the traditional right wing that fell for and propagated this system. The entirety of the political establishment of the Western world swung fiercely towards this twisted worldview. Ostensible ‘opposition’ parties embraced it with passion. The two great political triangulators of the modern era, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, both embraced free market economics in the name of a cross-party ‘end of history’ consensus. They did so by masking their dogmatic actions in a cloak of reasonableness and delivering it with a charming smile. They spoke of social liberalism but delivered policies that—whether through lax business taxation and regulation, military intervention, or social legislation—worked directly counter to progress. In their joyless, mendacious toil they helped to create a template for the great wolf in sheep’s clothing that stalks our political landscapes today: The centrist.

Centrists cast themselves as eminently reasonable, enlightened individuals, unshackled from the limiting labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’, floating serenely above the messy dogmas of the old world. In their minds, everything can be solved just by re-jigging a few pieces in the right way, by getting everyone to the table for a nice, reasonable chat, and by making sure that no one ever goes ‘too far’ in any direction. There is no room for anger or radical action in the centrist’s world. It is difficult to determine when they lost their self awareness—or indeed whether they ever had it—but whether it is politicians or mainstream media commentators, the vast majority of self-described centrists find themselves quite significantly to the right of anything that could be termed the political centre. Even if they don’t believe that is the case, their obsession with political tinkering, with gentle changes, marks them out as true believers in the underlying dogma of the ruling classes. Ostensibly ‘left wing’ or ‘liberal’ publications like The Guardian or The Independent in the UK or The New York Times or The Washington Post in the US prove themselves time and time again to be fundamentally aligned with the status quo. It makes sense after all—those are all large capitalist undertakings that have benefited greatly from the existing world order. Those newspapers, and other similar media outlets, are filled to the brim with centrist journalists who steadfastly refuse to engage with seismic changes happening in the world. Even after the great crash of 2008 brought the edifice of that order down, exposing its rotten core for all to see, centrist commentators stopped short of calling for the kind of radical overhaul of our financial systems that the world clearly cried out for. There was a brief moment of clarity and remarkable reflection that happened immediately after the crash, where a pragmatic radicalism crept into the narrative—and a similar thing happened upon the Corbyn-led Labour Party’s astounding election result in Britain’s 2017 General Election where mainstream pundits suddenly adopted a measure of humility in attempting to understand a world outside of their privileged bubble—but in both cases this vanished quickly and brutally to be replaced by business as usual. This kind of deeply incurious thinking is another mark of the centrist, but we will get to that a bit later.

For now we look to France. Because to look at the thousands assembled there in protest is to see something that is not meant to happen anymore, something that runs counter to the neoliberal diktat. An aberration of direct and collective action. The people harmonising in yellow vests. The system was meant to have splintered them, isolating them in silos of discordant apathy and mutual distrust. Yet there they stand communal, united. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ There can be no more succinct a description of what is happening in Paris, and across France. The struggles playing out there are a microcosm of the world at large. France is a nation of 67 million people and 643,801 square kilometres. From the Atlantic-whipped coast of Brest to the lavender-streaked valleys of Provence, the arm of austerity and neoliberal economics reaches far and touches all. An ever-widening gap between rich and poor, a decades-long squeeze of living standards, a loosening of labour laws allowing for greater exploitation—the people subject to this agenda did not vote for it, they did not consent to be governed this way, and they can only be pushed so far before they react; if the rulers step outside of the agreed barriers of play, so too will those they rule over. The inciting incident in France? A regressive fuel tax that shifts the burden of climate change onto working people, introduced by France’s President Emmanuel Macron. Faced with the prospect of looming, catastrophic climate change, the French administration decided not to target the big businesses that create the vast majority of the pollution that causes climate change, but instead the ordinary working people who depend on their cars in an economy that is stubbornly being held back in a carbonised past. So the people donned yellow jackets and began to march.

How has the state responded?

This then is the bloody repressive legacy of the man who was to be our saviour. The centrist messiah, Emmanuel Macron, whose rather pathetic victory in the French presidential elections 18 months ago I wrote about here:

In France, this was an election that saw the lowest voter turnout in nearly four decades. 65.3% of the voting public went to the polls to have their say. In 2012 it was 72%; in 2007—75.1%. The crisis of democratic disengagement seen throughout the Western world, engineered by a political class deliberately aligning its interest with those of supranational capital and in direct opposition to the majority of its national populations (or perhaps arrived at by chance because of it, depending on your affinity for tinfoil) has not bypassed the traditionally enthusiastic French voting public. One third of all voters chose neither Macron nor Le Pen. There were 12 million abstentions. 4.2 million spoiled ballots.

These are not insignificant numbers, and they speak to some very potent truths. Namely that the teeming mass of people that make up the governed can only be herded successfully for a limited amount of time. Sooner or later, they will feel something is wrong, and then they will know it, and then they will articulate it, and then they will act on it. They will demand solutions to problems. They will look for them, and dangerous elements within society will pretend to offer them—sometimes via inflammatory rhetoric and the promise of revolutionary change, and sometimes with a soothing tone and a reassuring smile.

The mainstream media raptures with which Macron was welcomed upon his limping over the finish line reveal much about the desperation of the centrist dream. In no coherent analysis of the situation could Macron’s election be seen as a victory for him or his politics. Rather than a vindication of the anti-union, business-friendly, patrician Macron that the centrists would have us believe this was, the numbers tell a different story: This was a refutation of the rising far-right, not an affirmation of centrist Macron. Quite possibly the last refutation before the people are so sick of the status quo that they turn to the darkness from sheer despair. Yet despite the feeble nature of Macron’s coronation, the establishment press went into overdrive when it was announced that he had just about made it. To them, there was no greater sight than this well educated, photogenic, professional bureaucrat taking power in a country haunted by the looming threat of ‘populism’. Never mind that in their framing of the situation a fascist like Marine Le Pen was classed alongside the socialist Jean-Luc Melenchelon as a ‘populist’ threat while someone like Emmanuel Macron—who by most measures would be seen as an anti-labour free market extremist—is cast as a reasonable defender of ‘moderate’ politics. In the centrist’s assessment of the situation, there is often minimal nuance, minimal distinction between socialist politicians who seek to level the playing field between capital and people and the forces of the far-right who would see the revival of xenonationalist fascism. There is simply reasonable centrism, and the rest is barbaric madness.

And indeed this reveals a lot about the underlying assumptions of the centrists’ closeted, privileged worldview: That the political and economic system of the last forty years has been basically fine—perhaps at most in need of a bit of tinkering. To the centrist, the political earthquakes of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were strange, aberrant outliers, the products of an all-powerful Kremlin infowars campaign or some other cheap trick that a nefarious external villain played on our otherwise fair and just society. They jump on superficial explanations that stymie introspective interrogation and take oxygen away from an actual analysis of a deeper, structural malaise. One of the greatest dangers of both Brexit and Trump is that the narrative be allowed to be hijacked by people who will use the turmoil created by these events to reset the bar, to paint the horrid behaviour of someone like Trump as a counterpoint to how great things were before, instead of a logical endpoint of our corrupt, bankrupt systems. In Britain, the chaos stirred up by Brexit has already led to centrist commentators using absurd benchmarks like the 2012 Olympics as an example of a halcyon time to which they wish that we could return. In 2012 we were two years into an austerity-imposing Tory/Lib Dem coalition who were presiding over a hostile environment for immigrants, who had tripled tuition fees, who had begun to see homelessness and child poverty explode; in 2012 we were three decades in to the neoliberal nightmare that had seen the dismantling of the welfare state, the sell-off of public assets to private capital, the mass siphoning off of wealth from the poor to the rich, and numerous wars of aggression abroad—but yeah, sure, we had a lovely Olympic ceremony with fireworks and James Bond and the Queen so everything was peachy. The myopia is truly astounding. We are at a civilisational crisis point, with the excesses of late-stage capitalism dovetailing with onrushing climate apocalypse; if great, revolutionary change is not enacted quickly then we face truly cataclysmic times ahead. To enact that change, we need clear vision and brutally honest self-diagnoses, not rose-tinted spectacles and bloodless sentiment.

Emmanuel Macron is a man who was hailed as the saviour of the reasonable centrist establishment, yet within months of his election he did exactly what close observers knew he would do: he cracked down on labour and the unions, and he cosied up to big business. According to Jacobin:

Immediately upon reaching office, Macron abolished the Solidarity Wealth Tax (ISF), giving €4 billion to the richest; and has strengthened the Tax Credit for Solidarity and Employment (CICE), a tax cut and exemption program transferring €41 billion a year to French companies, including multinationals. Shortly afterwards, with the 2018 budget bill, Macron established a flat tax that allowed a lowering of taxation on capital, handing another €10 billion to the richest.

At the same time, the government has increased the General Social Contribution (CSG) income tax to be paid by pensioners, while pensions themselves have ceased to be indexed to inflation (and thus to retirees’ ability to buy consumer goods). It has got rid of the subsidized contracts (which allowed large numbers to work on contracts partly financed by public bodies) and lowered by five euros a month the amount of housing contributions (APL) for the most disadvantaged.

Not content with that Macron then decided to pay lip service to climate action by imposing punishment-by-taxation on the working people who had minimal hand in causing that climate change, and who could ill afford to pay that price.

More from Jacobin:

[T]he new “carbon tax” [weighs] five times heavier on the budgets of the middle classes than on that of the upper classes. Yet the government has taken no steps to counterbalance this obviously unequal treatment — for example by giving aid to the families on the most modest budgets.

Building on policies already implemented by presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, the effect has been to produce a further massive increase in inequalities. Over the last two decades the largest fortunes in France have increased tenfold, while according to a recent study by OFCE and INSEE, French families’ average “purchasing power” has fallen by €440 a year since the 2008 crisis. In this context, it is unsurprising that a sense of injustice and humiliation has spread, as well as that of an arrogant “president of the rich.”

The camel’s back broke, and people took to the streets. In response, Macron deployed the brutality of the police state. His true colours, already revealed by his legislative agenda, now shone as brightly as the flames springing up on the Champs-Élysées. At the same time as the people of France were expressing their rage in the streets, in neighbouring Spain, the polls reflected a disaffection with the status quo as the far-right, anti-immigration, anti-abortion Vox party won 12 seats in the Anadalucian parliamentary elections. This was the first time that a far-right party had done so in the country since the death of Franco in ‘75. On hearing the results, Marine Le Pen sent Vox warm congratulations. She was not the only one to communicate immediately with the party. So too were the other parties vying for power in Anadalucia, as their eagerness to kick off the long-ruling socialist (in name only) party proved far more powerful than any distaste they might have had at allying with fascists. As per The Independent:

The election was won by the socialist PSOE party, which has governed Andalusia for 36 years. But with the votes counted the centre-left group does not have enough seats to command a majority, even with the support of its left-wing allies.

The results mean that the only path to ousting PSOE is a deal between Vox, the conservative People’s Party (PP), and the liberal Citizens party.

The prospect of teaming up with the far-right does not appear to have disturbed the centrists, however. After the results came in Citizens’ national leader Albert Rivera suggested a deal could be done, promising to “throw the socialists off the council”.

The old order is dying. The neoliberal consensus of the late twentieth century, unjust by design from its inception, rotted from within and, unable so sustain its own excesses or contradictions, had its facade collapse in spectacular fashion a decade ago. Despite this catastrophically revealing ground zero, there are still segments of society who function as de facto champions of this bankrupt status quo that continues to poison the planet and rob its people of the wealth that is rightfully theirs. There is no doubt that some people—perhaps most people—who describe themselves as ‘centrists’ mean well. They see the excesses of history and they want more than anything to prevent us repeating the sins of our past. It is an admirable but foolish position to hold, as it ignores the fact that we are not starting from a neutral place. They are staring from the middle of an Overton Window that has been forcefully shifted far, far to the right. We stand at an incredibly unjust, desperate juncture. The changes required are dramatic and urgent, and ‘centrists’ fall into one of two camps, neither of which are helpful in getting us out of the bind we’re in. They are either people who actively enforce a violently extractive capitalist status quo and who align themselves with repressive forces of state power (Macron), or they are the complicit agents who enable that repression (the far-right-teaming centrists of Andalucia). By failing to challenge the status quo and ignoring the calls of increasingly desperate people for radical change, the former type of centrist enables the rise of the far-right as much as the latter.

As already discussed, another segment of centrist thought exists in the mainstream media. In many ways it typifies precisely what is wrong with centrism as a whole. The mainstream corporate media—certainly in Britain where this effect is most dramatically seen though it is a phenomenon replicated around the world—is made up primarily of affluent, white, male professionals. The media has always been a closed boys club, but though there have been some advancements in terms of gender parity, the profession has via a series of factors been progressively closed off to people who cannot afford to enter its ranks. According to British author and journalist Owen Jones:

Just 7% of the British population are privately educated. But according to the Sutton Trust in 2016, 51% of Britain’s top journalists are privately educated. Just 19% attended a comprehensive school — unlike nearly 90% of the population.

According to the ‘Elitist Britain’ report — published by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in 2014, 43% of newspaper columnists are privately educated; just 23% went to comprehensives. Two thirds of new entrants to journalism came from managerial and professional backgrounds: more than twice the level of the rest of the population.

According to another government study, journalists are second only to doctors when it comes to the dominance of those from professional or managerial parental backgrounds. In other words: journalism is one of the most socially exclusive professions in Britain.

The type of political centrism that so many journalists seem to subscribe to is a product of their privilege. They look at the crises the world is currently facing and they wring their hands and think, ‘Where did we go wrong? Things seemed to be going pretty well.’ They think that way because for them, things were going well. When you benefit from the status quo it is very difficult to question it, because you see no need to. Yet for forty years a neoliberal establishment has made life progressively worse for the vast majority of people—with the worst impacts aligned with existing gender and racial power dynamics—and the best that the centrists could think of doing was tinkering at the edges. Entertaining ‘both sides of the debate’. Not doing anything too drastic. The New York Times ran a piece recently asking how ‘we’ missed the rise of the far-right. It was rightly torn to shreds. In Britain the media consistently misjudge the mood of the nation and in doing so attempt to dictate it. They lament the state of homelessness or wealth inequality and yet when someone actually radical comes along with a manifesto for change they do everything in their power to keep them down. Theirs is a technocratic, managerial, patrician ideal of democracy that essentially treats people with contempt, not trusting the masses with self-determination. As Noam Chomsky wrote in his seminal work ‘Manufacturing Consent’:

Walter Lippmann […] described what he called “the manufacture of consent” as “a revolution” in “the practice of democracy”… And he said this was useful and necessary because “the common interests” - the general concerns of all people - “elude” the public. The public just isn’t up to dealing with them. And they have to be the domain of what he called a “specialized class” … [Reinhold Niebuhr]’s view was that rationality belongs to the cool observer. But because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason, but faith. And this naive faith requires necessary illusion, and emotionally potent oversimplifications, which are provided by the myth-maker to keep the ordinary person on course. It’s not the case, as the naive might think, that indoctrination is inconsistent with democracy. Rather, as this whole line of thinkers observes, it is the essence of democracy. The point is that in a military state or a feudal state or what we would now call a totalitarian state, it doesn’t much matter because you’ve got a bludgeon over their heads and you can control what they do. But when the state loses the bludgeon, when you can’t control people by force, and when the voice of the people can be heard, you have this problem—it may make people so curious and so arrogant that they don’t have the humility to submit to a civil rule [Clement Walker, 1661], and therefore you have to control what people think. And the standard way to do this is to resort to what in more honest days used to be called propaganda, manufacture of consent, creation of necessary illusion. Various ways of either marginalizing the public or reducing them to apathy in some fashion.

The problems that we currently face as a society are long in the making and they require radical, urgent solutions that target complicit individuals and organisations, not centrist tinkering. Nothing will be solved by taxing the billionaires an extra 1 or 2 percent but doing nothing about the system that creates them and allows them to behave as they do in the first place. The Corbyn-led Left resurgence in Britain’s Labour Party, and the Green New Deal currently being championed by Alexadria Ocasio-Cortez in the U.S. are examples of a step in the right direction, but there need to be many more made, and quickly, because it’s not just the case of our children facing a dire future soon to come—for many that future is already here and has been for some time.



Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.


Header Image Source: Getty Images


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