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 of 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.