To the Right of All of Them

Linsey McGoey

The proprietors of the bar in Montmartre were gregarious, warm, friendly. They made us the best drink of our week in Paris: tequila-based, garnished with a raspberry and a tiny, star-shaped, blue edible flower – I think a butterfly pea flower, but I’m not sure. It was late and dark, and it wasn’t my first drink of the evening.

Three sips later, the blue flower sagging on the ice in my glass as if it, too, was out too late, I asked: ‘Mélenchon, Macron or Le Pen?’ The first round of voting in the presidential election was four days away.

The friendliest, broadest-shouldered man among them – a moment earlier, the bartender had pointed him out to us as one of the new owners of the place – clenched his fist. ‘None of them! I’m to the right of all of them.’

‘You know,’ he added, as if the point followed logically, ‘the police will never do you any harm.’

I blinked. ‘Really?’ I looked closer at his outfit. He was in his late fifties, bearded and bald, in a red-checked shirt, army trousers, combat boots. Probably 110 kilos of solid muscle. I looked at the door. The other people in the bar – the whole place was only about ten metres long and five metres wide – minded their own business.

‘But they do some people harm, don’t they?’ I asked. ‘The police.’

‘Only the ones who deserve it. You know, I’m ex-military. In this neighbourhood, we have a role to play. We help the police to keep the peace.’ His tone was not at all menacing. The conversation was in English. He spoke earnestly, in an explanatory way. He seemed eager, in the way bar owners can be, to like us, and for us to like him. I scanned the room, feeling ill at ease but wary of showing it.

There were obvious signs, in hindsight, that it was a place where people to the right of Marine Le Pen might gather: graffiti of a skeleton outside, young white men in black toques and ankle-grazing trousers huddled by the door. I had thought, while standing outside on the cobblestoned street, that it might be a lefty punk bar.

Inside, facing the ex-military man, I don’t think I spoke out loud, but perhaps my face said: who are you?

Because his eyes narrowed and he darted very close to me and raised up his left leg, balanced like a dancer. He set his foot on a low rung of my bar stool, hitched up his trouser leg and jabbed a big finger downwards. ‘See. This. Quote. This means everything to me. This is who I am.

I looked at his tattoos. There were four short lines of verse, stacked like a ladder, the text illegible to me. My partner recalls seeing a skull tattoo, perhaps a Totenkopf, an SS ‘death’s head’ popular with neo-Nazis.

‘Maybe you could translate?’ I asked.

He nodded and began to speak, but the door opened, drawing his attention away from us as a young, clean-shaven man walked in with a slightly older woman, both neatly dressed. They joined a table of four much older men, all thickly built, in biker jackets and fatigues, with shaved heads and full beards. The proprietor drifted off to greet the incomers, who looked fresh-faced and incongruous among the older men – but they were clearly good friends and cheerful together. We drank up and left.

The next morning I tried to picture the tattoos he’d exhibited, his leg proffered like a business card. ‘This is who I am.’ Does it matter what the words were? Probably some sort of Nazi homage, but I can’t say for certain: it was late and dark. And neo-Nazis don’t have a monopoly on skeletons and other death imagery. The Order, for example, an undergraduate secret society at Yale University since the 1830s, uses a skull and crossbones as its emblem.

I doubt the bar owner is a Yale man, though I don’t know. I am certain, however, that if he were dressed like the younger man who came in just before we left, like a Yale man, he’d attract less notice. He’d seem less obviously intimidating. The barman wears his politics on his flesh. The Yale man is more discreet. But just as shaven-headed neo-Nazis don’t have a monopoly on death imagery, they don’t have a monopoly on authoritarianism either.

It’s also visible at Yale and other elite institutions, and in peer-reviewed publications, in the writing of scholars who call themselves ‘epistocrats’, believers in ‘rule by those who know’, in books like Against Democracy, published by Princeton University Press in 2016. This is the ‘polite’ side of authoritarianism, and it’s just as concerning as Totenkopf tattoos, perhaps even more so, because it passes more easily as ‘reasonable’ discourse.

I discussed the problem of epistocracy in the two talks I was in Paris last week to deliver. My main topic was the problem of economic inequality, and how people who dismiss the gravity of it are helping to fuel political instability and unrest. ‘Economic inequality,’ Steven Pinker writes in his recent book Enlightenment Now, ‘is not itself a dimension of human wellbeing.’

‘What brings you to Paris?’ the bartender asked us that evening in Montmartre. She was young, attractive, black kohl lining her eyes, with runic tattoos on her wrists – also symbols, as my partner reminded me, co-opted by the far right.

I mentioned that I was there to give two talks, but I didn’t elaborate. If I had, would she have cared? Had I said that I study inequality, I think she might have looked at me a little pityingly: aren’t you a bit late?

Pinker’s claim that economic inequality isn’t related to human wellbeing would be laughable if it weren’t so widespread. For far too long, the problem of deepening wealth inequality was belittled. (Peter Mandelson said that the Labour Party was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes’; those taxes were not high.) Even after concern finally reached the mainstream, thanks to people like Naomi Klein and Thomas Piketty, other thinkers have directed considerable energy at insisting that concern about inequality is overblown. Media outlets owned or managed by rich elites tend to prefer Pinker’s Panglossian status-quo populism (things are better than ever!) to Piketty’s calls for wealth distribution.

After Piketty’s Capital was published, the Financial Times claimed that his data ‘overstated’ wealth inequality in Britain. ‘Was Piketty wrong about inequality?’ the BBC asked, countering his pessimism with a report claiming that wealth inequality was soon likely to ‘reverse’. The report was by the investment bank Morgan Stanley.

Persistent myopia towards inequality has left a deep vacuum. That vacuum is now attracting impoverished men and women to align themselves with the political right, voting for Trump or Le Pen, whose rhetoric about helping the have-nots is propagandist and duplicitous – Trump’s time in power was a boon to the mega-rich – but at least makes disaffected workers feel as if their pain is being recognised rather than ignored.

Left-wing politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have tried to offer support to exploited workers, middle-class professionals with deteriorating pensions, and the unemployed. They proposed reasonable policies to redress wealth gaps. But the inequality denialists tend to be even more derisive of the leftists than of people like Trump.

That doesn’t mean that Pinker et al. are ‘to the right of Le Pen’. But it does mean that their inequality denialism has helped to fuel the rise of the far right. The time for denialism is over. We need wealth taxes, corporate taxes on fossil fuel giants, energy nationalisation and debt cancellation. Either we confront the gravity of inequality or we face the crushing of democracy under a combat boot.


  • 13 April 2022 at 3:36pm
    roger gathmann says:
    Paris is no place to find the far right - Le Pen garnered 5 percent here. In Montmartre, or the 18th arrondissement, it was no contest: Melenchon overwhelmed Macron by 41 percent to 29 percent. So, you found a pretty uncharacteristic bar to talk politics in.

    • 14 April 2022 at 12:27pm
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ roger gathmann
      No doubt you are correct, but it doesn't refute the author's point, that inequality is toxic.

      Leaving Pinker aside for the moment, a common thread uniting the Putins of this world is their accumulation of wealth, at the same time as accusing others of decadence. Putin's Russia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and it is infested with nepotism. And yet he focuses on gay rights in the West as a sign of moral decay and his own corresponding virtue. In the US, the right focuses on trying to ban abortion. In Britain, the right is obsessed with immigration.

      A common thread is that these concerns play well with a large part of the electorate and serve to deflect attention from the rottenness within the right wing establishment. If you can persuade someone that you are fighting homosexuality/abortion/immigration, you can pick their pockets without being detected.

    • 15 April 2022 at 11:07am
      Rory Allen says: @ roger gathmann
      From an LRB article of 24 February, 'Fanning the Flames': "His [Zemmour's] campaign launch was held on 5 December at a convention centre in the Paris suburbs in front of a wildly enthusiastic crown of 13,000."

      Given that by any standards Zemmour is to the right of Le Pen, it doesn't sound to me as though "Paris is no place to find the far right." That may have been true once, but it seems your assessment is out of date.

    • 15 April 2022 at 11:08am
      Rory Allen says: @ roger gathmann
      Sorry that should have been 'a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 13,000'.

    • 17 April 2022 at 4:57pm
      Felix Schulte says: @ roger gathmann
      Melenchon represents the authoritarian and Putin friendly left.

    • 19 April 2022 at 4:17pm
      nlowhim says: @ Lexa Hypatia
      A quick note on the Russian narrative I’ve heard: that the 90s were really bad and any semblance of order was welcomed. From all stats, that still means it’s just as corrupt but that has little effect on the the people so that’s what they go with. The despot over corrupt elites (when the despot is just as corrupt, but perhaps knows to sound certain and tell the right stories and give a few more crumbs than otherwise). This isn’t a fully working theory but it’s something to consider.

    • 19 April 2022 at 4:20pm
      nlowhim says: @ roger gathmann
      All those choices. Really goes to show that we need new voting systems. Ranked choice or preference voting might work better. The French system is much better than the American one, but still seems non optimal.

    • 20 April 2022 at 8:37am
      roger gathmann says: @ Rory Allen
      Well, a Paris suburb is no more Paris than Long Island is New York City. And it was in the working class suburbs of Paris that Melenchon cleaned up. He actually topped Macron in the Ile de France department. Sometimes I wonder whether the Anglosphere can even locate France on a map, the reporting is so wierd.

    • 20 April 2022 at 8:44am
      roger gathmann says: @ Lexa Hypatia
      The Putins of the world? I'm not sure what that means. Was George Bush, the famed torturer and invader of Iraq, one of them? In terms of autocratic power, Macron is about the most autocratic president France has seen since the 70s. He is not as bad as Orban, granted, but his contempt for democracy - from his normalizing "emergency" measures to his attack on Islam in the far right Valeurs Actuelles to his astonishingly arrogant campaign in the first round, which was meant to take all the air out of it, shows that he thinks of democracy as a rhetorical ploy. Early in his regime he told his aides that he was going to be Jupiterian - and like Jupiter, he has tried to rule as the king of the Gods. Knowing that he is unpopular among the great unwashed and "losers" - he has done as much as he could to have a second round exactly like this, where the choice is between him and a toxic dump. The Anglosphere centrists see him as just the kind of friend to the upper middle class they adore, and overlook the odious rhetoric and policy.

    • 25 April 2022 at 12:48pm
      Rory Allen says: @ roger gathmann
      A Paris suburb is not Paris? You sound like Humpty Dumpty, who can make a word mean exactly what he wants it to mean.

    • 25 April 2022 at 2:15pm
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ Rory Allen
      I think you are missing the point. Like most men, Mr Gathmann does not like to be contradicted and so has to find a way to prove you wrong, however deviously. And by the way, assuming that you are a male Rory rather than a female one, exactly the same remark applies to yourself.

    • 25 April 2022 at 5:50pm
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ roger gathmann
      I did not explain the phrase 'the Putins of this world', you are right to draw attention to this. I was referring to a certain brand of populist, but it is easier to give examples than to define the species in terms of its essence (I am with Karl Popper in being sceptical of essential definitions). Being a 'Putin' involves whatever the following people have in common with him: Trump, Erdogan, Modi, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Maduro, Lukashenko and there are probably others out there that I have fogotten including the former Soviet 'stans' which are run in much the same way.

  • 16 April 2022 at 9:32am
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    You are quite wrong. I'll admit that, back in 2016–7, things were looking a bit dodgy for us epistocrats. The plebs were revolting, and it really did look as if we might have to start actually dealing with big and intractable issues like globalisation, cultural change, and the decline of the welfare state.

    But there was really nothing to worry about! We heard their voices (at least, we jabbered amongst ourselves on Twitter about how important it was to hear their voices). And we found that all those disgruntled people who voted for Brexit, Trump, or Corbyn had nothing to complain about; they had simply been deceived by conspiracy theories. In fact, everything bad that's happening now is because of conspiracies, I mean conspiracy theories.

    So, "the working class are being left behind by globalisation" became "the working class feel left behind". (An easy move: we in the political elite have long experience in mistaking our own feelings for reality, and others' realities for mere feelings.) All we need to do now is to persuade them to "feel listened to", so we needn't face the trauma of having to actually listen to them. Fortunately, we have lots of experts with names like Pshaw working on exciting new ways of rewiring their brains to achieve just that.

    Besides, some far-right leaders have failed to condemn Putin in the past, which is unacceptable, so everyone knows they could now be finished forever.

    (It should be noted that in her own more benign way, the writer of this piece is playing the same game: interpreting the rise of right-wing populism as a disguised protest against economic inequality, the explanation most acceptable to her own views.)

    • 19 April 2022 at 4:13pm
      nlowhim says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      Interesting take. I’d more squarely blame austerity for the rise of the right, or at least some form of austerity leads to unrest. Whether that’s a right wing one or left speaks to the polity affected. Plenty of other variables to chew on, of course. I wonder about the rise in temperatures and how that affects the brain. What’s your theory?

    • 27 April 2022 at 2:58pm
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      I think that behind this smoke screen of words, you are trying to say something quite interesting. I just wish you hadn't tried so hard to be clever, so that your real meaning is almost lost amid the irony (though an over-fondness for irony is admittedly a very common feature of the educated English upper classes, or at least of those who are keen to appear educated).

  • 17 April 2022 at 5:44am
    nlowhim says:
    Recently, pre covid times, I was in Italy when a waiter caught sight of the cover of my Mussolini's Canal novel. It had that man front and center and perhaps he took this to mean I was a fellow traveler. So he says to me, "we need a strong man to save us." No, none of that Hitler stuff. Just a strong man to put all these corrupt types in their place. You work hard, you get to keep what you earn.

    I observed and simply took it all in, as only a writer or coward could, but it was something I always sensed, and have indeed heard before. People really will take a despot over a corrupt inept ruling class. And a government unable to deal with inequality and the forces that want that inequality to remain will be labeled corrupt and inept, despite its intentions.

    Funny thing is we haven't even faced Climate Chaos in its real and unadulterated form. I can't imagine the types of parties that will coalesce then. None, I assume, will come close to actually dealing with the root problem itself.

  • 24 April 2022 at 6:15pm
    Seth Edenbaum says:
    Written in the tone born of generations of comfort and complacency. It doesn't matter if you picked it up in school, only that it comes from a world where politics is an avocation not a necessity. The Anglo and Anglophile academy comes out of the C of E, and it drives me nuts. You're the corollary to Pinker, Brennan, and Dawkins, all of you with the moralizing superiority of churchmen and schoolmasters. Inequality in one way or another is your first unexamined prior.

    If the French left had unified behind Mélenchon he'd be in the runoff.

    Outside London, The City, and Oxbridge, the UK is one of the poorest countries in Western Europe. Corbyn blew it by hemming and hawing on Brexit. He should should have gone all in. He should have made common cause with Greece and Spain, but that's a problem since Brits would have a hard time accepting that they belong with the south.

    Sanders and Corbyn lost by having the powers that be united in opposing them, and by being awkward and out of touch. Sanders refused to attack Biden because Biden had been one of the few senators who'd been nice to him early in his career. He chose friendship with a peer over his supporters. A realist would call it a human weakness. An idealist wouldn't even pay attention to the detail.

    If you want to talk about politics you need to talk about interests and anger. Ideas are games.

    • 25 April 2022 at 12:53pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Seth Edenbaum
      So, ideas don't count? Really? Can I remind you of Carlyle's comment on the French Revolution: 'thought is stronger than artillery parks'. Amid your contribution, the anger shows through all right, but I don't detect much by way of thought. But perhaps I have missed something amid all your sound and fury. In that case, please take a moment to compose yourself and then explain what you mean more clearly.

    • 25 April 2022 at 2:13pm
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ Rory Allen
      I find your comment rather rude. Isn't the full quote 'it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'? Mr Edenbaum's comment is certainly full of fury and perhaps not entirely comprehensible, but it is far from insignificant.

    • 25 April 2022 at 10:50pm
      Seth Edenbaum says: @ Rory Allen

    • 25 April 2022 at 11:24pm
      Seth Edenbaum says: @ Rory Allen
      I should have said ideas *become* games. Rationalism becomes romance. Empiricism is digging in the dirt.

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