In the middle of the 19th century, European politics was about the role of the monarchy, nationalism, democracy, capitalism and the emerging political consciousness of urban working classes. The latter is where communism found its opening. In America, politics was about slavery, sectionalism, the territories and protectionism. Monarchism was obviously not of any interest to Americans, but neither was communism. It is a good reminder that politics is always local to both time and place.
It does not always feel that way though. If you were a Frenchman in 1970, the big debates were about the same stuff as they were in the 1940’s. Sure, the Algerian question was a hot topic in the Fourth Republic and not so much in the Fifth Republic, but the ideological landscape was the same. Similarly, US politics settled into a center-left consensus after World War II and remained so throughout the Cold War. The topics changed from decade to decade, but the ideological landscape did not change very much.
I picked these two periods for a reason. The Revolutions of 1848, or the Springtime of Nations, was a time when old ideological frameworks were collapsing and new ones were emerging. The remaining feudal arrangements were being toppled in favor of nationalist arrangements.The post-war period a century later was a time when the new arrangements, the Pax Americana, were settling in across the West. The point being is that all epics have a start and a finish, with the former beginning in the latter.
It is generally assumed that we are living in an age where the old order is under pressure and new challengers are rising up to offer an alternative to the status quo. Is this just the the Pax Americana unraveling as the United States staggers along into decline as the world’s remaining super power? Are we seeing the emergence of a post-liberal consensus built around supra-national organizations controlled by global elites? If so, is the nationalist reaction just a rearguard action? Or is this the end of the liberal era entirely?
One thing seems clear and that is American Progressivism is dead as an ongoing ideological movement. The managerial class still uses the language and tactics of the Left, but they are fully committed to global capitalism. Hillary Clinton is the face of the Left and she is wholly owned by Wall Street. Her embrace of open borders cuts what is left of the cord linking Progressives with the labor movements out of which they grew in the prior century. A liberal from the 60’s, looking at the current Left, would be horrified.
The remaining radicals on the Left are just posers. These are the people who embrace things like structural racism, gender identity, sexism, climate change, and economic inequality. Guys like Ta-Nehisi Coates are just ornaments for managerial class types to decorate their cultural institutions. Since most of what these people say and write is nonsense, they can be indulged. Again, a Hillary Clinton can be seen with a copy of a Piketty book, on her way to give a speech at Goldman Sachs.
Similarly, the European Left is a dead man walking. The British Labour Party now looks like a comedy skit from Monty Python. The Lib-Dems have collapsed entirely. The two main British parties are the SNP and the Tories, both embrace technocracy. It is a similar story on the Continent as the the main stream parties, both Left and Right slowly fuse together in defense of Europe against the rise of nationalist parties. As in America, the European Left is married to global finance and managerial authoritarianism.
What the 19th century made clear is that constitutional monarchy was just a transition phase, from aristocratic rule to liberal rule. Something similar may be true about social democracy. The Left has always dreamed of one-world global socialism. Communism was always intended to obliterate national borders. Socialism, in its various national manifestations, may simply have been a transitional phase. Once the nations of the West are ruled by like minded technocrats, the next logical step is merger.
Alternatively, this could be the end phase of the radicalism born in the French Revolution. The rise of traditionalist, reactionaries and nationalists all over the West could be a classical liberal reaction to the restoration of a new aristocratic system of rule. Instead of a ruling elite selected by magic blood, the restored aristocracy will be a mandarin system based on the acquisition of credentials, only attainable by the sons and daughters of the managerial elite. Instead of inherited titles, they have legacy admissions to elite colleges.
This is all idle speculation, of course, but like the people of the mid-19th century, in the midst of the revolts, we are witnessing a great transition away from the old system to something new. The Left that has been a feature of the West, the cornerstone of the ruling consensus, is going away. Socialist economics are dead. Communism is a museum piece. National liberation, a staple of post-colonial radical politics in the last century, has been thrown down the memory hole. All that’s left of radicalism is nostalgia.