Monday, 15 October 2018

Varieties of Populism

Populism isn't a form of governance but a style of rhetoric employed when seeking power in a representative political system. It opposes the people to an elite and suggests that the latter are unrepresentative and therefore illegitimate. It is a critique of institutional democracy. Though the term has acquired a pejorative meaning equivalent to demagoguery, it's worth remembering that the most successful populist movements of the last fifty years were those of the insurgent centre. Margaret Thatcher presented herself as the leader of a long-suffering people who sought freedom from an establishment of civil servants and trade unionists, while Tony Blair claimed to lead a "radical centre" that better reflected an emergent "young nation" than a discredited Tory elite and an antiquated socialism. The rhetoric can be sincere - Thatcher remained a populist loose cannon even as she increasingly suffered monarchical delusions - or it can quickly prove to be insincere, as in the case of Blair (though to be fair, the creeping disillusion of New Labour looks tame compared to the speed with which Emmanuel Macron has disappointed the French). The contemporary "populist moment" is less a revival of something thought consigned to the past than the spread of a particular electoral strategy beyond the political centre.

With the centre ground emptied by the intellectual funk of neoliberalism after 2008, attention has focused on the populism of the "extremes", and in particular that of the right. Unfortunately, this is too often confused with what has come to be known as "illiberal democracy", a particular form of authoritarianism in which the regime monopolises power while allowing the formalities of opposition and democratic elections. Illiberal democracy tends to employ the language of right-populism but in a notably paranoid register: it aims to redefine the actual establishment as the tribune of the people against an "other". For example, Viktor Orban presents Hungary as being under threat simultaneously from George Soros, Islam and the EU. What has changed in recent years is that whereas right-populist rhetoric was adopted by dominant parties as they transitioned towards illiberal democracy (recall that both Putin and Orban emerged from the political centre), it is now being adopted by right-wing parties that make no bones about their intention of creating an illiberal democracy, such as in Brazil.

Where right-populism has secured office but the liberal democratic state remains fundamentally unchanged, as in the US, the rhetoric focuses less on the threats to the regime, which are likely to be dismissed as "lame" anyway, than on the celebration of the regime's achievements: "we got a great deal", "we're doing great things". Donald Trump will continue to employ populist rhetoric for as long as he is in the White House, both because he can do no other and because he is still running against the establishment. Where right-populism remains insurgent but not dominant, as in the UK, the rhetoric tends towards hyperbole. This is evident not just among extra-parliamentary populist movements like UKIP, which has started to employ the language of illiberal democracy, but among the established parties of the right who are trying to shore up their electorate or otherwise opportunistically leverage populist rhetoric for positive media coverage (e.g. Jeremy Hunt, the British Foreign Secretary, if you can credit it, claiming that the EU is like the Soviet Union).

Right-populism is based on the presumption of a legitimate demos that is not wholly inclusive (the "decent people" rather than everyone) and the assumption of an irreducible antagonism (the friend/enemy distinction of Carl Schmitt). The "we" of right-populism is essential, hence it usually maps to national identity, ethnicity or social class (e.g. "taxpayers"). There will always be an irreconcilable "them", made up of both enemies within and without, and thus there will always be antagonism. In contrast, left-populism tends to be transactional and material. Where neoliberalism promotes the rewards due to individual effort and qualifies rights with responsibilities, a worldview that is also adopted by right-populists but within essentialist parameters, the left-populist theory of just deserts focuses squarely on collective entitlements: the rights inherent in community, such as housing and a living wage. Left-populism is congruent with democracy and equality, a point made by theorists like Chantal Mouffe, which means that it is a reproach to liberal democracy but not a threat to it. It opposes the people to an oligarchic elite that seeks to curtail those entitlements, including democratic representation, but it differs from right-populism in making the "we" elective and the relationship agonistic - one of struggle - thus holding out the possibility of resolution.

One of the more striking characteristics of the current "populist moment" is that while left-populism has revived the positive language of collective deserts and entitlements in areas such as income and housing, indicating the degree to which neoliberal hegemony has been challenged, contemporary right-populism has moved away from the material towards the metaphysical. Though it still trades in the rhetoric of grievance, it has largely dropped transactional demands in favour of emblematic policies whose material benefits are uncertain. As recently as 2009 in the USA, the Tea Party was demanding that the government did not bail out subprime mortgage-holders and thereby increase taxes and/or national debt. While there was an obvious racial angle to this demand, it was also a rationally material one given the Tea Party's supporters self-identification as put-upon taxpayers. By 2016 the right-populist movement was marching under the banner of "Make America great again", which is no more substantive than a third way campaign slogan. The rich are obviously benefiting from tax cuts and deregulation, but the populism of Donald Trump appeals to voters primarily on the basis of identity rather than material interest.

Going further back, insisting on the maintenance of educational segregation in the US in the 1960s was the defence of a real privilege with tangible benefits. In contrast, advocating lower immigration today is not a policy that will deliver reliable gains, despite talk of tighter labour markets and less pressure on housing and public services, and is likely to have the opposite effect by reducing aggregate demand. You can argue that anti-immigrant policies are proxies for more existential concerns, such as protection against terrorism and crime, or that a sense of community and security is a valuable good in itself, but it is difficult to see contemporary right-populism as anything other than an identity politics increasingly divorced from popular material interests. The same pattern is visible elsewhere, from Hungary to Italy. The people are promised the restoration of national status, perhaps leavened with modest tax cuts and the protection of the benefits of the "decent" (such as pensions), while the rich proceed to loot the public treasury. Beyond the substitution of the rhetoric of national pride for that of personal development, this is still neoliberalism.

Significantly, where the modest material benefits go into reverse, as with Russia's pension reforms, national pride proves to be an inadequate compensation. This suggests that the identity basis of right-populism, its essentialism, may be weaker than liberal critics (who dominate populism studies) have imagined. Rather than the somewhere/nowhere dichotomy and the pathologies of the "white working class", what may ultimately matter are tangible concerns like wages and housing, issues that the political centre has failed to represent except in scolding, moralistic terms (i.e. you have no right to any of this - you must earn it through right behaviour). The weakness of right-populism's material agenda allows appalled liberals to treat it as an irrational, reactionary spasm: a desire for the restoration of an older social order embodied in the "angry, white male". For some, it is a full-blown rejection of the Enlightenment and thus a threat to democracy (this is a non sequitur: popular democracy was abhorred by most Enlightenment thinkers): "They rose up against the demand imposed by modernity – that we use reason to figure things out for ourselves – and replaced it not with the old rules, but with impulse itself, with the vengeance and cruelty and rage that Trump so brilliantly embodies".

As it became clear that right-populism in both the UK and US was going to be incoherent and largely ineffective, a view emerged that such populist eruptions might be a periodic and necessary corrective: "These revolts against remote elites are essential to the vitality, and viability, of modern democracy – even as (and precisely because) they challenge the status quo, destructive though that challenge may be". This has traditionally been a position that liberals have treated sceptically, concerned as they are with the implied threat to pluralism, but it has the advantage of being fundamentally transactional and therefore comprehensible: though crudely expressed, the claims of the people are "legitimate" and amenable to negotiation. One reason for the contemporary prominence of this view is the growing suspicion that the ultimate beneficiary of the "populist moment" may turn out to be the left rather than the right, precisely because of its material agenda and transactional approach, something that has certainly seemed more likely in the UK since 2017. This view reflects two assumptions: that right-populism is impulsive and emotional, so it is likely to blow over, and that the more pragmatic left-populism can be bought off through negotiation.

The problem is that this interpretation can easily slide towards thinking of right-populism as a necessary purgative, or simply as bad political weather that must be endured until it passes, which then leads to the equanimity displayed by The Wall Street Journal towards the prospect of Jair Bolsonaro becoming the next President of Brazil. Bolsonaro's antagonistic rhetoric towards a variety of "social deviants" sounds like hyperbole, but the risk that he is a right-populist ramp for an illiberal democratic coup is very real. You shouldn't be surprised if a guy who lauds the former military dictatorship ushers in a new military dictatorship, even an informal one that features more suits than fatigues. Left-populism is not a threat to liberal democracy, despite the pearl-clutching claims of centrist commentators who espy a cult or a threat to free-speech. Right-populism, on the other hand, may be a threat because it can serve both as a precursor to, and as a mode of expression for, illiberal democracy. In that light, the liberal media's indulgence of the spectacle of right-populist demagoguery, from Nigel Farage to Tommy Robinson, looks particularly foolish.


  1. I disagree slightly with your assessment in that populism was at one time a genuine ideology with a base in social classes and groups that were sceptical of or opposed to metropolitan political elites, capitalist economic 'progress' and state intervention/taxation. As these groups (usually small farmers, petty bourgeois small business or semi-independent craftsmen) have disappeared or declined, 'populism' has been appropriated as a cynical device by career politicians and/or dissident members of the elite, which is why you're right to stress the role of the centre.

    Where I think 'centrists' are currently disorientated by 'right' populist rhetoric is in the fact that it actively undermines their own myths about the 'iron link' between bourgeois democracy and developed capitalism. In the past they could attribute the rise of fascism to the remnants of past social formations such as frustrated aristocrats/gentry, peasant farmers and uneducated lumpenproletarians. Though they still try to trace 'right' populism to the uneducated poor, the other elements are almost eliminated and it is increasingly impossible not only to deny that many of the wealthy and privileged are sympathetic towards 'right' populist arguments, but also not to realise that with any organised threat from the left this will break into open fascism. That's why I think the centre is so paralysed. While some are willing to compromise openly with the right because they cannot countenance any threat to economic privilege, others prefer to maintain their moral self-regard by casting abuse on anyone that seeks to employ rhetoric against the status quo.

  2. Unrelated, but my crisis of confidence did lead to a Labour loss in the local elections. Well, not really, since the margin was >> 1. But my Derby ward went from Labour -> UKIP.

    And that's after the referendum, after rUK dumped them. *Sigh*. So Derby.