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France and Colombia: The Center Keeps Trying (but Failing) to Hold

Democracies across the globe are suffering from an identity crisis that may be too fraught with contradictions to survive.

Banner with political propaganda in favor of Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro that reads “Petro presidente” attached to a man’s bicycle. © Yhaira Rincon/Shutterstock

As practiced in its most prominent democracies, Western politics has in recent years turned into something resembling both a battle and a game. Electoral campaigns now possess the feel of a brutal battle between powerful forces committed to their brand of good on a mission to vanquish their opponent’s brand of evil. Incumbents and challengers alike make solemn promises to set out in a new direction and deal with complex issues that imply resolute action and significant sacrifice.

As soon as the battle is won, the reality of politics in today’s democracies returns to its default status, that of a game. Once elected, politicians deploy their carefully refined skills that allow them to dodge anything that might tend towards implementing long-term solutions. 

Electoral battles leave the dead and wounded on the battlefield to be mourned, cared for or revenged. But like the pieces on a chessboard, in most cases they can be replaced on their initial squares. The political games that follow the battles have the effect of simply changing the order of the teams in the standings. In the game, the only thing that counts is the score when the final whistle blows as well as the corresponding W or L. The score-keeping device of democracies is called an election.

This past Sunday saw two significant elections in two very different settings. France completed its presidential-cum-legislative election cycle that, since 2002, ritually takes place every five years. The second election took place on the American continent, the country whose surreal political metaphysics were summed up by Gabriel García Márquez in 1967 in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad). 

Both of those elections produced shocking results, signaling the kind of reversal of trends that Olaf Scholz recently evoked when speaking about Germany’s foreign policy. He used the German word, Zeitenwende, a turning point in history. Scholz applied it specifically to the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: the newfound military resolve of Germany. Scholz thus evoked a top-down decision that foresees other top-down decisions to follow in the future. In contrast, Zeitenwende as reflected in the French and Colombian elections is likely to be more significant and with more long-term effects. They  both represent bottom-up examples of a historical “turning.”

The drama of France’s Cinquième République

The French legislative elections had the radical effect of breaking what until now was felt to be the fundamental logic of France’s Fifth Republic and a sacred tradition. The result of every presidential election in the Republic’s history was confirmed in the immediate aftermath by the same electors’ voting in a solid majority for the president’s party in the National Assembly. Within less than two months, the voters thus not only elect a supreme leader, but promptly empower the president to implement the announced battle plan. 

When, in May, 1981, François Mitterrand with a razor thin majority defeated the incumbent, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a month later the electorate provided him with a clear legislative majority. He immediately and boldly began implementing his announced plan to nationalize all the major French industries, including the banks. Mitterrand’s actions conformed perfectly to the model of presidential government foreseen by the constitution of the Fifth Republic a little more than two decades earlier.

Now, four decades later, the Fifth Republic has clearly run out of steam. On Sunday, for the first time a newly re-elected president, Emmanuel Macron, found himself deprived of the majority that will allow him to preside over a program of government. Macron will now be faced with the challenge of cobbling together some kind of coalition that will be given the label of a government. Most likely both Macron and his new government will be permanently occupied with managing a chaos of conflicting interests. That situation clearly contradicts the entire logic of the Fifth Republic.

Many are predicting that the Assembly will be dissolved within a year and new elections called to permit the definition of a stable majority. At that point, two things can happen. If the spirit of the Fifth Republic is still alive, the prospect of dissolution will provide Macron with the means of breaking the apparent deadlock by soliciting the population to endow him with a majority committed to his program and his leadership. Depending on how things play out, that will appear either as a clever or desperate gamble.

If, as the turning point seems to reveal, the spirit of the Cinquième République has effectively retired or died, it will mark a return to the most dramatic moment of the Fifth Republic’s history. That was the revolt of May 1968, an event President Charles De Gaulle had the temerity to malign with the word “chienlit” (shitting in bed). The Republic nevertheless managed to clean the sheets after May ‘68 and survive intact. This time feels very different.

The Colombian surprise

Even more astonishingly, the Colombian election marked an inflection if not a reversal of what appeared to be the eternal fate of Colombia: to be governed by a corrupt right-wing establishment permanently closely aligned with the foreign policy goals of the United States. The newly elected left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, alas does not have access to the luxury of newly elected French presidents who historically could count on an immediate legislative election to confirm the voters’ endorsement of the candidate’s program. 

The current bicameral Congress of Colombia is dominated by right-wing, centrist, and neoliberal parties. In other words, Petro will have a major challenge on his hands trying to get anything accomplished. Add to that the fact that the state security services and the armed forces are likely to resist Petro’s authority, and it appears likely that Colombia will be living through its own, but very different kind of chienlit.

Most observers see Colombia’s turnabout as simply part of the new “pink tide” in Latin America, a phenomenon in which more and more American nations are voting in leftwing leaders. It is expected to increase the chances later this year of a victory in Brazil for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – better known as “Lula” – over the current right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro. More broadly, Petro’s triumph confirms the increasingly visible sentiment in Latin American countries that it is time to break free from the invisible shackles of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) that have bound them to a state of subservience to the US economy for almost exactly 200 years.

The ambiguous question of NATO

When Chancellor Olaf Scholz evoked his Zeitenwende, he gave no details about its meaning. He appeared to be saying that the Ukraine crisis was a wake-up call forcing Germany to break with its policy of cultivating a long-term friendship with Russia as well as its post-World War II stance of keeping a low military profile. 

The immediate impression this gave, eagerly welcomed in Washington, is that Germany would even more securely adhere to NATO. But in the background, there may be an even more significant turning point, which could have a deeper meaning. The current move may be more like a chess gambit designed to further a goal Germany already shares with France that consists of creating an autonomous European security framework no longer dependent on US leadership imposed through NATO. 

Reinforcing NATO would hardly justify the idea of Zeitenwende. In contrast, Europe breaking free from Anglo-American domination, especially after Brexit and the increasingly obvious revolt of many poorer nations and emerging powers, would truly mark a turning point in European and German history.

Was it all foretold by William Butler Yeats in 1921?

Speaking of Zeitenwende, this may be an appropriate moment to revisit a poem of anguished foreboding by Irish poet William Butler Yeats published just over a century ago. Here are the first ten lines of The Second Coming.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

Yeats’s poem has remained one of the most memorable literary pieces of the 20th century. These lines have been quoted by political commentators at various times over the past hundred years to sum up the state of Western civilization. Yeats’ message in the immediate aftermath of the First World War was dire. At its core, in the third line, was a somber double assertion: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

Oswald Spengler had already reflected a similar sentiment that had been growing for some time in Europe. In 1918, he published the first volume of his Decline of the West, a work he had begun composing much earlier. In 1922, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land appeared after being strenuously edited and ultimately “crafted” by Ezra Pound. It offered a panorama of the cultural and indeed civilizational confusion that had overcome Europe in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

The Waste Land took over first place and never relinquished it in the race to establish “the 20th century’s “greatest poem in the English language.” Nevertheless, thanks to a succession of political events that seemed to bear out Yeats’s description of a broken system, the Second Coming has probably earned more references in the media than Eliot’s masterpiece. As the history of the twentieth century advanced, at various critical moments, things really did seem to be falling apart.

Just as Zeitenwende itself can be interpreted in various ways, so can Yeats’s assertion that “the centre cannot hold.” Yeats believed that the core of Western civilization was beginning to unravel like the twine below the leather surface of a baseball that has been torn asunder. His prescience was justified by the events listed above. But the unraveling is still incomplete. Most people are now aware that it could come to absolute fruition with an impending climate crisis, already making its marks, or perhaps even more quickly thanks to a nuclear “accident” provoked in the context of the increasingly nerve-racking standoff in Ukraine.

Defining the center

Sunday’s elections in France and Colombia provide a hint that what people thought of as the stable “center” of their global and local political systems is losing its grip. The center has gone off kilter, leaving the impression that it can no longer hold. As a concept, the center can be defined as a normative idea of how governments, with decent enough efficiency, carry on managing forces that are so complex and powerful they defy the ordinary citizen’s understanding. The center can thus be defined essentially as the inertia at the core of any establishment that keeps things ticking over from day to day.

The idea people have of the center implies belief in notions such as fair competition, free markets, reasonable government regulation, rule of law, free and fair elections. These cultural ideas are trotted ouy to reassure populations that their leaders are doing a decent job. At the same time, the guardians of the center spend much of their energy warning voters to be wary of personalities who deviate from the center. If given a free hand, these deviant personalities might upset the precious applecart. That is why Barack Obama intervened two years ago to prevent Bernie Sanders from winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Joe Biden was chosen, clearly an avatar of “the center,”. Jeremy Corbyn suffered a fate similar to Sanders’ in the UK. In France, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon were both labeled extremist. But these deviants have now returned to squeeze the life out of Macron’s vaunted center.

The political center in the West’s democratic countries has long assumed the task of defending and protecting the existing balance of economic and coercive power. It’s a system that has evolved, in an increasingly oligarchic fashion, around the productive forces of a neoliberal system designed specifically for the needs of the consumer economies promoted in the West. Additionally, over time, the question of security and the growing needs of the military-industrial complex have tended to set the tone and influence all the major decisions of the center.

Leaders such as David Cameron in the UK, Angela Merkel in Germany, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden in the US, and Emmanuel Macron in France, epitomized a center that had clearly become oligarchic and increasingly plutocratic at its core, but democratic in its formal constitution. 

And then something happened. Six years ago a series of events set in motion the feeling that the center might no longer hold or no longer deserve to hold. Various political personalities came to prominence whose style and bearing challenged the idea of “centerness.” Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Bernie Sanders, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and others, with contrasting levels of seriousness and surging popularity, dared to deviate from an ideology built around the idea of trusting the “tried and true” to keep things on a relatively even keel. Paradoxically, that turned out to be  the key to Macron’s success in 2017, when the former pillars of the hard center – that included the traditional parties of the left and right – had fallen into discredit. The young interloper, aided by a runoff with the extremist Marine Le Pen, appeared to be a safe alternative to the existing sclerotic system.

Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, both ambiguously perceived by their own establishments, have adopted policies respectful of the oligarchic power base that defines the center. But in their own way, they have both undermined the credibility of the center, in part by being too close to its oligarchic interests, which people have come to suspect, and in part because they have deviated from the cultural norm associated with the center.

The long and the short of it is that, within the Western block of respectable democracies, the center is rapidly losing its grip. At the same time, the periphery around that Western core is beginning to drift away from the traditional grip of the West, a grip that began with colonial conquest half a millennia ago. 

In its reporting on the Colombian election, The New York Times quotes a television director who lives “in a wealthy part of Bogotá.” “It’s been a long time,” he recounts, “since we had an opportunity like this for change. If things will get better, I don’t know. But if we stick with the same, we already know what we’re going to get.”

That may be the clearest sign that, even those who have benefitted from the status quo the center was designed to protect, are beginning to understand that “the center cannot hold.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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