Halfway through her autobiography The Years, French novelist Annie Ernaux gives her readers a political panorama of the mid-1990s:
The rumour was going around that politics was dead. The advent of a “new world order” was declared. The End of History was nigh. . . The word “struggle” was discredited as a throwback to Marxism, become an object of ridicule. As for “defending rights,” the first that came to mind were those of the consumer.
First published in 2008, Ernaux’s book appeared shortly before Lehmann Brothers went bust. An English translation only came about in 2017, already at the close of the “populist” decade. When it first was published, Ernaux’s work diagnosed a world in which people had retreated into privacy; where politics was relegated to the back burner while technocrats were in charge.
Tony Blair simply claimed that opposing globalization was like opposing the turning of the seasons. “We didn’t quite know what was wearing us down the most,” Ernaux recalls this moment, “the media and their opinion polls, who do you trust, their condescending comments, the politicians with their promises to reduce unemployment and plug the hole in the social security budget, or the escalator at the RER station that was always out of order.”
Ten years and a decade of populist turmoil later, Ernaux’s testimony reads both familiar and unfamiliar. The rapid individualization and decline of collective institutions she diagnosed has not been halted. Barring a few exceptions, political parties have not regained their members. Associations have not seen attendance rise. Churches have not filled their pews, and unions have not grown precipitously. Across the world, civil society is still mired in a deep and protracted crisis.
On the other hand, the mixture of diffidence and apathy so characteristic of Ernaux’s 1990s hardly applies today. Joe Biden was elected on a record turnout; the Brexit referendum was the largest democratic vote in Britain’s history. The Black Lives Matter protests were mass spectacles; many of the world’s biggest corporations took up the mantle of racial justice, adapting their brands to support the cause.
A new form of “politics” is present on the football pitch, in the most popular Netflix shows, in the ways people describe themselves on their social media pages. To many on the Right, society now feels overtaken by a permanent Dreyfus Affair, cleaving family dinners, friends’ drinks, and workplace lunches. To many in the center, it has created a longing for an era before this hyper-politics, “a nostalgia for post-history” in the 1990s and 2000s, when markets and technocrats were exclusively in charge of policy.
An era of “post-politics” has clearly ended. Yet instead of a reemergence of the politics of the twentieth century — complete with a revival of mass parties, unions, and workplace militancy — it is almost as if a step has been skipped. Those that were politicized by the era marked by the Financial Crash will remember when nothing, not even the austerity policies imposed in its wake, could be described as political. Today, everything is politics. And yet, despite people being intensely politicized in all of these dimensions, very few are involved in the kind of organized conflict of interests that we might once have described as politics in the classical, twentieth-century sense.