Last weekend’s G7 summit of political leaders from the world’s largest democratic economies opened with a surprise, as the French host Emmanuel Macron invited Donald Trump for an impromptu tête-à-tête on a hotel terrace in Biarritz. Speaking in English, Macron laid out an ambitious agenda including crises in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea and Iran, the current malaise in the global economy, the need for greater gender equality, management of the digital economy and the challenge of addressing climate change.
Trump said that ‘we actually have a lot in common, Emmanuel and I’, said the weather was great and complimented the beautiful conference venue.
Macron, of course, sees himself as the embodiment of the French nation, the ‘chosen one’ (to abuse a recent Trumpism) charged with restoring the grandeur of la République by leading France into the twenty-first century. Trump is a practical politician, looking for tangible ‘wins’ that he can bring home for the people who elected him. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between Europe and America. Europe has nations. America, like England and Australia, has only people.
In the weeks before the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the French revolutionary leaders Sieyès and Mirabeau were discussing whether to declare themselves the representatives of the ‘people’ or the representatives of the ‘nation’. Mirabeau preferred the ‘people’, by which he meant the 24 million individuals who lived in France at that time. Sieyès argued for that singular, amorphous entity called the ‘nation’, and he won the day.
Thus the French people got saddled with a National Assembly, without all the bother of elections and accountability to the people themselves. A hundred years later, the Bolsheviks would pull the same trick with the ‘nations’ of the Soviet Union.
Sieyès, the lapsed priest ironically known to history as the Abbé Sieyès, also got the ‘nation’ inserted into the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which asserts flatly that the ‘principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation’. There has never been any ‘We the People’ for France (or, for that matter, for the rest of continental Europe). The current French constitution may open with ‘the French people proclaim’, but it was dictated by Charles de Gaulle.
The people can speak for themselves, but who gets to speak for the ‘nation’? In 1789, it was Sieyès, whose ambitions were frustrated by his own National Assembly. Later it was Robespierre, then Napoleon. In 1940, and again in 1958, it was de Gaulle. Go abroad, and the list is endless: anyone can claim to speak for a ‘nation’ because a nation exists only in the abstract. You can poke a person, and you can poke all of the people in a country one by one, but you can’t poke a nation.
What you can’t touch, you can’t count, and what you can’t count, can’t vote. So the Declaration of the Rights of Man turned to Rousseau’s idea of the ‘general will’ to represent the will of the nation. Rousseau’s general will is nothing but an old-fashioned term for political correctness, for the consensus wisdom of elite society. In the United States today, the general will means the opposite of anything Donald Trump wants, no matter how crazy it may be to oppose it. In the United Kingdom, it means ‘bollocks to Brexit’. In Australia, it means green energy, indigenous recognition and the celebration of diversity. It means anything except the will of the people. Only a racist (sexist, homophobe, etc.) would put the general will to a popular vote.
The nationalism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was the first incarnation of modern identity politics. Frenchmen like Sieyès wanted a nation to speak for, so they went out and made one. Today’s identity politicians are similarly leaders in search of constituencies to lead. Not content to speak for themselves, they claim to speak for women, gays, transsexuals, immigrants, natives or any other group they can lay claim to. A person claims to represent the gender non-binary ‘community’ can demand greater media attention than one who speaks only for (to use the term of art) zirself. A person who claims to represent ‘people of colour’ can speak for almost the entire world.
Most ambitious of all are those who do indeed claim to speak for the entire world: the climate catastrophists. If it is useful for a gender or racial activist to claim to represent a group that has no opportunity to vote zir out of office, it is gold for a climate activist to claim to represent the very Earth itself. Like Hume’s God and the Queen in Parliament, Mother Earth is the ideal constituent: wildly popular, highly sympathetic and completely silent.
The Abbé Sieyès was famous for the maxim that ‘confidence should ascend from below and authority should descend from above’. That’s still the principle that powers the European Union today. Luckily, it has never held much sway in the Anglo-Saxon world. Here where authority ascends from below, there is always the opportunity to throw the bums out. Identity politicians can claim to represent whomever they want, but come polling day, it’s what the people want that counts.
That’s why identity politicians try to keep as many issues off the electoral table as possible. Shunt a major policy decision out of parliament and into an expert commission or intergovernmental panel, and the identity politicians can claim to speak for millions. Keep it in parliament, and its one person, one vote.
As Margaret Thatcher said in 1987, ‘there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.’
No one can truly say who best represents Mother Earth, the nation, or the general will, not even Emmanuel Macron. But the people can and do speak for themselves. We’ll see what they say about Trump next year.
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