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Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Ebb Tide

A defining characteristic of the right-wing, populist surge in Western democracies in recent years has been its unpreparedness for power and its ineffectiveness when presented with electoral victory, which distinguishes it both from the Fascist wave of the 1930s and the more traditional authoritarian regimes, employing populist rhetoric, that have come to power in Eastern Europe since the millennium. This is specific to the right. The one left-wing success that could be classed as populist, Syriza, was based on an established policy platform (reflate, protect social services, write-off debt), whose very familiarity probably made it easier for the "troika" to counter. Though the media tends to frame populism in terms of personalities and righteous anger, the initial success and then the stalling of the far-right in The Netherlands and France was because of an absence of credible policies: first the failure of centrist parties to offer meaningful change to the neoliberal consensus after 2008, which gave the populists their opening, and then the failure of the far-right to advance from opposition to proposition.

The Dutch decided that Islamophobia was not an adequate basis for government, while Marine Le Pen was obliged to campaign negatively against Emmanuel Macron because quitting the euro and EU are simply not popular in France. Though her vote is a significant advance on her father's performance in 2002, it proves once more that Fascism can only prosper when enabled by the conservative establishment. The rumours that she intends to drop the FN brand and try and reinvent herself as a more conventional conservative (a little less racist, a little more pro-euro) is a sign of the institutional weakness of the far-right as much as the normalisation of previously rebarbative attitudes such as Islamophobia among the centre-right. The result is likely to be further fragmentation on the right, mirroring that on the left. Just as the first-past-the-post system in the UK promotes a duopoly, so the French two-round system encourages party plurality and thus the dominance of the party of state - i.e. the technocratic bureaucracy of which Macron is the representative.


Where the populist right has achieved electoral success the consequence has been either co-option by the conservative establishment or implosion, reflecting its nature as an emotional spasm rather than a programme of action. The farce of Donald Trump's first 100 days is being attributed to his personal shortcomings but the sense of cluelessness is clearly a wider phenomenon, as we've seen in Britain since last June. Trump's lack of a coherent domestic agenda beyond soundbites has allowed established conservative factions to fill the policy vacuum with old and discredited remedies such as pro-rich tax cuts, not to mention the fluff of the Laffer Curve. As a supposed insurgent, he has failed not only to seize the state and appoint his own loyalists but has allowed himself to be absorbed into the Republican Party's dysfunctional structure. The successful fightback by the national security establishment in Washington reflects Trump's vanity and opportunism rather than any intellectual victory by neocons over the "nationalists" gathered around Steve Bannon's busy whiteboard. The emerging dynamic is that of court politics.

As Corey Robin notes, the liberal characterisation of Trump has devolved from a Fascist via an authoritarian to an ineffective despot. This should not come as a surprise. Trump is obviously lazy and his "business experience" has been mostly words rather than deeds for decades, ever since he became a brand-for-hire and TV celebrity. He is the product of ideology, not an ideologue. He remains an uninformed commentator on politics, not a politician, and he was never serious enough to be a real Fascist. The focus on bling (those gold doors) and sensuality (that beautiful chocolate cake) evokes a latter day Sun King, divorced from reality and driven by narcissistic whims. But this framing is clearly self-interested, as it was when GOP grandees levelled the same royalist charge during the primary. It casts the liberal "resistance" as enlightened and progressive and so avoids discussion of the failures of neoliberalism that fuelled the populist surge. This bad faith has extended to anglophone commentary on France, with Melenchon supporters condemned as facilitators of Fascism and Corbyn harangued for not bowing down in awe before Macron.

What the US and UK share is a degraded institutional resilience combined with an electoral system that preserves a duopoly. This allowed one established political party to be hijacked by a joyrider and another to be stampeded into an ill-considered referendum. A key enabler of these developments, and the underlying institutional decay, has been the growing power of autonomously partisan media since the 1980s and the way in which this has been amplified rather than diluted by the Internet. The media have always been partisan, but this meant supporting a particular party or faction and taking an ideological lead from politicians. Since the 80s, and the growing profusion of media driven by privatisation and technology, partisanship has become a commodity in its own right. This has encouraged media owners to become ideological sponsors (e.g. Brexit), or even active players (e.g. Berlusconi), and has made them more promiscuous in their factional support (consider the flip from Johnson to May). It is no coincidence that France lacks a press equivalent to the British tabloids (note the bland coverage of the 11th hour leak of the Macron campaign emails) or that Dutch TV still bears the imprint of the old institutional pluralism known as "pillarisation".

One clear difference between the US and UK on the one hand and France and The Netherlands on the other is that older voters favoured populist arguments in the former countries but not in the latter. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen's support was highest among the 30 to 49 age-group, while it was the over-50s that were decisive for Trump and the leave vote. This isn't because of the memory of Nazi occupation (you'd have to be over 90 for that), nor youth unemployment (higher levels haven't advanced the far-right in Southern Europe), but because of the normative role of a largely centrist and pro-EU media. People don't massively change their opinions with age, but they can be convinced that their values have been affronted, hence the importance of a narrative of loss and restoration - make America great again, take back control - and the salience of immigration as a symbol of social change. Ageing societies and a differential propensity to vote have made the old more electorally significant, but it is the British press and US cable networks that have turned them into shock-troops for populism. On the continent, the far-right has benefited from new media, hence the uptick among younger groups, but nowhere near to the same extent.


While European voters remain sceptical about neoliberalism and globalisation, many have resigned themselves (once more) to the idea that "there is no alternative", suggesting that the long game played by the EU Commission since the start of the Greek fiscal crisis is finally coming good politically (another reason why they won't be inclined to bend over backwards in the Brexit negotiations). This doesn't mean that neoliberalism has regained intellectual credibility but that neoliberal hegemony has proven resilient, just as the institutions of the French Fifth Republic have, which owes much to the embedded nature of globalisation and resulting scepticism about the feasibility of protectionism. The social democratic revival hasn't come to a complete standstill, but it is clearly running out of steam, something that became obvious in the Spanish elections last year. While Labour's likely defeat in June will be blamed on Corbyn, historians will probably note the less than radical nature of the party's manifesto compared to the carte blanche demanded by the Tories.

What this highlights is not the lack of a coherent programme on the left but the lack of policy ambition. There has been a reluctance to tackle the big issue of wealth inequality head-on, which means addressing property as a store of value as well as housing. Too many on the left have succumbed to na├»ve determinism, imagining that the Internet and robots can positively transform society if we just implement a basic income to smooth the transition. You could argue that this is simply the nature of social democracy - capitalism's manager rather than its challenger - but it is notable that even those parts of the left that consider themselves to be in the radical tradition, such as Melenchon in France, have offered up uncontroversial domestic policies, relying on anti-Americanism to provide some edge. If the left is to prosper electorally (and it must, given that the industrial domain has largely been lost and social networks have been commoditised), then it must do so by offering transformative policies rather than just amelioration. Labour will probably commit to building a million new council houses in its manifesto, but it might do better to promise a land-value tax to replace national insurance.

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