- Interview by
- David Broder
Recent weeks have seen a shock to France’s elites. President Emmanuel Macron’s fuel tax hike sparked widespread protests, with road blockades across the country and violent clashes with police in Paris. The gilets jaunes movement (so named after protesters’ distinctive yellow vests) imposed a humiliating climbdown by the liberal president, who was forced to abandon the tax and raise the minimum wage.
These protests have given voice to often-ignored parts of French society. But while much media has shown its contempt for those involved, the movement has found a vocal ally in Pamela Anderson. The former Baywatch star and Playboy model has spoken out on multiple causes before, from her pro-animal rights work with PETA to her environmental stances and support for earthquake relief in Haiti. Now she has become a keen backer of the revolt against austerity.
In her tweets and blog posts Anderson emphasized the wider importance of the protests, terming them a battle against the “politics represented by Macron and the 99% who are fed up with inequality, not only in France, all over the world.” She similarly responded to claims of protester violence by tweeting “I despise violence . . . but what is the violence of all these people and burned luxurious cars, compared to the structural violence of the French — and global — elites?”
Showing her broad interest in the political upheavals currently gripping the continent, she has in recent days also voiced her support for left-wing UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn while also sharply criticizing Italy’s far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini for his racist agenda.
In an interview with Jacobin’s David Broder, Anderson and philosopher Srećko Horvat discussed the French protests, Europe’s crisis, and Anderson’s own activism.
The gilets jaunes protests in France have drawn a lot of scorn from media and political elites, but your comments have been supportive, noting that this “revolt has been simmering for some years.” What do you think these protests represent? Do they respond to a mood that you see in France more generally, since you’ve been living there?
My comments were at first provoked by the images of violence. Everyone was hypnotized. Why? And why did it come as such a surprise? What stands behind the violence? I wanted to understand. I know it’s not easy to accept me as I am. I stir things up in an unconventional way, and will continue to do so.
A few days after the protests broke out in France, I traveled to Milan. There I found Mr. Salvini in the newspapers saying that “Macron is a problem for the French.” But I see it differently. I think it’s a European problem. In the same way, the rising xenophobia in Italy is a European problem. Not just an Italian one.
Just before I arrived in Italy, the top Italian chef Vittorio Castellani was told not to use “foreign recipes” on his TV show. I love Italian food. But what is Italian — or any — food without “foreign influences”? I am sure Mr. Salvini enjoys “foreign food” too. OK, we moved on from the gilets jaunes . . .
But this is an excellent detection of the problem. This actually started in 2009 with Silvio Berlusconi’s campaign against “non-Italian” food in Italy, it is a continuous process of “normalization” — the slow introduction of measures or even laws which in a near future will seem “normal.”
If I remember rightly, it was Vittorio Castellani who, already then, almost ten years ago, pointed out that there is no such thing as authentic “Italian food,” because tomato came from Peru and spaghetti from China. So, without foreign influence “Italian food” would literally taste different. When you say that Salvini probably enjoys “foreign food” then you name the true problem.
As with the case of Macron talking to gilets jaunes from his salon doré surrounded by gold decorations, there is a disconnection between the political elites and the people. Moreover, this is utter cynicism on the part of the ruling elites. As for France, it became obvious that the “world-spirit on the horseback” (as Hegel saw Napoleon, and Jürgen Habermas sees Macron) is nothing other than Jacques Lacan’s king who is mad to believe he is a king.
When a cabinet minister from Macron’s party, trying to show the gulf between the working poor and political elite, complains that Paris dinners cost “€200 without wine,” it is another clear sign of the disconnect between the elites and the people.
The gilets jaunes believe, and they are right, that Macron doesn’t live in the “real world.” At the same time, these days you could have seen, as if it came from the alternate reality of the Situationists themselves, a graffiti simply saying “Pamela Anderson Présidente!”
French government officials and some media claim that the protesters are ignoring the need for environmental protection. As someone with a keen interest in conservation, do you think the gilets jaunes‘ own demands can fit together with a green agenda?
I do not think the poor should pay for climate change. Yet it is the poor who are paying the biggest price. Some say that the protesters in France protested so they could continue polluting the planet. But I do not think this is true. They protest because the rich keep destroying the planet. And the poor are paying.
In 2013, after the devastating earthquake, I visited Haiti to distribute aid. I visited a children’s hospital and refugee camps. Again, it was the poor paying the price. Since then, many grassroots projects have been going on in Haiti that show what a green transition could look like.
The protests in France started when President Macron announced an increase in carbon and air pollution taxes. This was supposed to collect more money for the state budget and also motivate people to use alternatives to diesel-fueled cars. Macron would like to ban diesel cars by 2040. But the French state encouraged people to buy diesel-fueled cars for many years.
For example, in 2016, 62 percent of cars in France were diesel cars, as well as 95 percent of all vans and small lorries. So it is no wonder that many people view the new policy as a total betrayal.
Getting a new car is probably not a big deal for President Macron and his ministers. But it is way too difficult for many people who are already financially stretched. Many poor people will not be able to get to work, especially if there is no reliable public transport in place. Many old people will not be able to get to the shops or to the doctor.
You have the same problem in Germany. It’s great that many German cities are banning the use of diesel cars. But do you know where they will be exported? Mainly to the Balkans and Eastern Europe. And you can’t blame those people for buying diesel cars, because it’s cheaper and they already live in precarious conditions. So, as always with capitalism, you don’t only have the internal divide, inside of Western European societies, between the metropolitan rich and the rural- or banlieues-poor, there is also a divide between the center and the periphery of the European Union.
According to air monitoring databases, those living in the part of Europe where I come from are usually breathing in more toxic particles because of air pollution than those living in Western Europe. If you look at the map, you will see Germany, France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, parts of the UK, have better air quality, and Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Poland have toxic air.
During these winter months the air pollution crisis in Sofia or Sarajevo is becoming the new normal. So while Western Europe is heading towards a “green transition,” the economies of the countries of Eastern Europe are still heavily dependent on exploiting coal reserves.
At the same time, despite the Energiewende [energy transition], Germany remains heavily dependent on imports of fossil fuels. Taking all this into consideration, we can see that the solution for our current problems is not a national-based “green transition;” we need a European Green New Deal, as advocated by DiEM25. Moreover, we need a global Green New Deal.
In a recent post you defended the idea of “Lexit”: a Brexit organized in a way that defends ordinary people, and also spoke up for Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a general election rather than a second referendum on Brexit. What do you hope Corbyn can do?
It is vital that the European Union is thoroughly and fundamentally reformed. Europe deserves a much better form of organized cooperation. And I would really support the UK attempting to create an alternative for Europe. But retreating to nationalistic tendencies is not an alternative. The only road to freedom is via a joint fight of the unprivileged. This means foreign workers included.
The current deal proposed by Theresa May does not offer such an alternative. I joked that I’m sure I could have negotiated better conditions than this dumb deal. I have been negotiating with Hollywood for decades. I could handle Mr. Michel Barnier [the European Union’s chief negotiator].
Did you see Theresa May not being able to get out of her car while Merkel was waiting outside? That’s the best metaphor for Brexit. In such a situation, the solution is not a second referendum, but a general election. And I hope Jeremy Corbyn will be the next prime minister.
It’s a good question what Corbyn will be able to do. The solution, in my opinion, is not the retreat to national-based politics, but for Labour to continue working in close ties with other European progressives.
It is an interesting question how Labour will relate to the upcoming European elections in May 2019 [the elections will not take place in Britain, assuming the country leaves the European Union by the end of March], where I think they could play an important role. And at the same time, I think we should all campaign in the UK, showing why the European elections are of major relevance for the UK as well.
Unless the deep crisis of the European Union is solved, which is not only internal but also concerns its foreign policy, I am afraid we will see the situation deteriorating even more. So instead of the simple “Lexit” solution, I think we need more trans-national politics, not just an inter-national politics (between nations), but a trans-national one. We need to go beyond the nation state.
Both Brexit and the gilets jaunes protests saw people who don’t normally dominate the headlines making themselves heard. But despite Pamela’s own past activism, some media seemed surprised that she spoke out on these issues. Why do you think this is?
My only surprise is that anyone is surprised, she has been active for years in various campaigns or visiting places devastated by earthquakes. Of course, I can understand that people still connect Pamela to Baywatch or Playboy and they might be surprised she has an opinion on Brexit or the gilets jaunes, but isn’t that precisely the beauty of it?
If Baywatch, a TV show that was watched weekly by 1.1 billion people in 148 countries, gave Pamela a platform to raise her voice and not only comment but intervene in today’s dire political landscape, then we should embrace it.
I still remember, how in the 1990s, during the war in Yugoslavia, me and my sister watched Baywatch and how for us, kids of a country which was disintegrating into pieces just in front of our eyes, television was often our escape into a possible and desired future.
In the case of Baywatch it was the alternate reality of the “happy 1990s”: now that “actually existing socialism” was finished, we were on our way to reach “actually existing capitalism.” Yes, of course, Baywatch was full of sharks, serial killers, and earthquakes, but for the kids from Yugoslavia, the jobs that Mitch Buchannon (David Hasselhoff) and C.J. (Pamela Anderson) had as lifeguards on the beautiful coasts of California were the embodiment of the “end of history.”
Of course, as young kids, we didn’t know what the “end of history” meant and we didn’t know yet that Pamela, incidentally or not, did her first Playboy cover precisely in 1989, the year when Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay. We also didn’t know that the post-Yugoslav transition from communism to capitalism wouldn’t turn this part of Europe into a new California. Yet there is no one among my generation, and many other generations, who wasn’t watching Baywatch. There is no culture without popular culture.
Do you think you have a responsibility to use your public platform to speak up for these causes?
I hear a lot of these kinds of stories from remote parts of Zimbabwe. Baywatch was watched in tents surrounded by native people. And in dangerous areas all over the world, including America. We just weren’t aware we were infiltrating [these places] in our own way — yes, with the dream of a “good” life. The beach. California. Escapism. I was part of it. But this gives me the privilege and opportunity to raise my voice for the many issues I believe in.
Recently, when Deutsche Welle asked me to support their campaign about the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19, the declaration in favor of free expression, I spoke about Julian Assange, who is still in “arbitrary detention” (as defined by the United Nations itself) and who faces extradition to the United States.
I have the responsibility to speak about these issues. Everyone has. Without freedom of speech and independent journalism, including organizations such as WikiLeaks and whistleblowers, there is no chance to build a better world.
You’ve been active in campaigns for PETA as well as in earthquake relief in Haiti, and recently you’ve published some more political interventions. What kind of activism are you involved in at the moment? What publications do you read, and what thinkers or writers have most influenced you?
I read books, I watch movies, I am learning French, I am traveling across the world — a mysterious and wonderful place. But a very worrying place. I am worried about climate change. About extinction. I am still active in supporting Sea Shepherd and organizations for helping refugees. And I think of Julian Assange often, especially now that Christmas is coming and he can’t be with his family and friends.
I think it is all connected. I am more and more concerned about Europe, a place I love. When I was in Italy in the last few days, just before my comments on Matteo Salvini’s government, I was reading Umberto Eco’s essay “Eternal Fascism” from 1995.
There he defines fourteen general properties of fascism, which for him wasn’t a coherent system. So he speaks of “Ur-fascism” and characteristics such as the “cult of tradition,” “fear of difference,” “appeal to a frustrated middle class,” “obsession with conspiracy,” “contempt for the weak,” and “machismo.”
Look at leaders such as Trump, Bolsonaro, and Salvini and you will see exactly these properties. They are destroying the Amazon, the Arctic, the whole planet in “real time.” And there is no planet B.
Except for those white male libertarian utopians from Silicon Valley who might escape to Mars, while the rest of us will inhabit an actually-existing dystopia. I think Pamela is right. Whether you call it “post-fascism,” like Enzo Traverso, or you call it “Ur-fascism” like Eco, the fact is that fascism never died. It is a small step from the “Black International,” from the twentieth century to the formation of an “axis of the willing” between Italy, Germany, and Austria proposed by Austria’s current prime minister Sebastian Kurz.
Add to this the technological advances from AI to automation, from Silicon Valley to Cambridge Analytica, and you get an explosive combination for something that might be even worse than traditional fascism. Probably the best historical figure who embodies “ur-fascism” is the Italian poet and warmonger Gabrielle D’Annunzio, who occupied the Croatian coastal town of Rijeka. He invented a bizarre fascist utopia or dystopia there, which wasn’t just fascist (Lenin even called D’Annunzio the “only revolutionary in Europe”), but all the fascist properties were already there plus the embrace of new technology.
He practically invented the “balcony speeches” (which Mussolini would adopt), but Marconi let him transmit a message to the world from his yacht. He also invented a fascist form of “narcocapitalism,” even before the Nazis did tons of Pervitin — Fiume was full of drugs. Or as Pasolini used to say, the true anarchy is the anarchy of power.
Thanks to the recent renewed interest in D’Annunzio — for instance Lucy Hughes Hallett’s seminal biography The Pike, Bruce Sterling’s science-fiction novel Pirate Utopia, and the work by Croatian filmmaker Igor Bezinović — I hope the lessons of this short historical period can slowly be uncovered.
I was talking to Adam Curtis recently, when we visited Rijeka together, saying that it’s too easy to dismiss this crazy and mad period only as an early manifestation of fascism. What makes it truly traumatic but tremendously interesting is that D’Annunzio’s Fiume can’t be described either as dystopia nor as utopia — for it was both at once.
In a lot of countries the far right is on the rise, but at the same time there is a radicalization on the Left, shaking up the old political certainties. What do you think is behind all this?
After visiting the burning streets of Paris, Jerome Roos recently published a magnificent analysis saying that gilets jaunes have blown up the old political categories, which presents both dangers and opportunities. He reminds us of a beautiful and appropriate quote by Saint-Just who said: “The present order is the disorder of the future.”
Unfortunately, after all the “Springs” we have witnessed, we must turn it around and ask what if the current disorder — all these libidinal energies and revolutionary potential — will not turn into a new order of the future?
The “state of exception,” as defined by Carl Schmitt and elaborated by Giorgio Agamben, is already a rule — not an exception — across Europe. After the G20 protests in Hamburg, Europe’s leaders where already advocating for a pan-European “register for activists.” A kind of Minority Report in order to preserve the order. Or the anarchy of power.
I agree with Srećko. As I said, when I was commenting on the gilets jaunes, the real question is whether the disobedience can be constructive, what comes the day after: can the progressives in France, and all over the world, use this energy so that instead of violence we see equal and egalitarian societies being built? It was a wake-up call.
I have a dream of a society in which people devour books and art. We have a responsibility to fill our hearts and minds with music and art, not with PlayStations. Human connections are dying out. When we forget how to make love. This is where we forget each other. Let’s fight together. And learn together.