Sunday, 25 November 2018

Take Our Test

The Guardian's 'How populist are you?' online test has provided much fun, not least the revelation that respondents, and presumably the paper's readers in particular, are in aggregate closer in their thinking to Pablo Iglesias than Emmanuel Macron on a four-quadrant chart that maps left/right against populist/non-populist. However, I wouldn't place too much value on this because the questions are so transparently ideological that I suspect even Ed Miliband would find himself cast towards the left-populist corner. If you answered 'Strongly approve' to the free market and free trade questions, but 'Neither agree nor disagree' to all the rest, you end up slightly to the right of centre on the political axis and in the middle of the populist axis. You are apparently a centrist, even though you may be a free market fundamentalist. If you strongly agree that politicians need to listen to and engage with the public, but that government serves special interests, doesn't necessarily improve the lives of the people and keeps information from them, then you are most definitely a populist. Your views on conservatism versus socialism, plus emblematic issues such as renewable energy, church authority and gay marriage, will then determine whether you are of the populist left or populist right.

Stripping out the questions intended to place you on the traditional left-right spectrum, the definition of populism that emerges is one centred on a cynicism about representative government and a lack of respect for the political class. In other words, you have failed to adopt a realistic attitude about the practical limits of representative democracy. This indicates that the underlying paradigm is still essentially that of the neoliberal, scolding 1990s. In keeping with that quiztastic, self-actualising era, your reward for answering these questions is to be matched up with your "ideal" politician. Given that the positioning of these epitomes on a biaxial chart is based on the opinion of the quiz-setters (and their thinking isn't explained in sufficient detail to critique), this is no more reliable than being told that the pop star you most resemble is Taylor Swift because you think people should be paid a decent wage. Laughably, both Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron are positioned slightly left-of-centre. The extremes are occupied by Bernie Sanders on the left, and Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini on the right (poor Luigi Di Maio still doesn't get a look in).

No attempt has been made to position current British politicians, though Nigel Farage is predictably included as a reference point because of the unwritten rule that says he must always be on the panel. A possible reason for this omission is that Jeremy Corbyn would have ended up in the sweet spot of the aggregate responses, much to the chagrin of the paper's editorial team. For a laugh, I answered the questions as I thought Tony Blair would and ended up next to Angela Merkel in the non-populist centre-right. Significantly, the aggregate response also clusters on the populist side of the dividing line, which suggests either that populism has reached pandemic proportions or the definition of the term is so generous as to be near-meaningless. I suspect it's the latter. Evidence in support of this came as the week progressed and the Guardian started to link populism to conspiracy theories. In among the routine madness of crowds, we find a mistrust of authority (including that of journalists) as an indicator of a conspiracist mindset. Predictably, social media is also put in the frame, despite being as effective in debunking conspiracy theories as promoting them. Presumably the aim is to suggest that non-centrist politics is founded on unreason, and that incidentally you should rely more on newspapers.

The problem with this approach (or at least the way it has been presented) is that it fails to provide a typology of conspiracism, in particular the distinction between malign paranoia, benign fantasy and healthy cynicism. For example, a belief that the government is secretly working to replace the native population with Muslim immigrants (le grand remplacement - a conspiracy theory with its roots in traditional French antisemitic fears of Jewish integration) is clearly malign. In contrast, a belief that extra-terrestrials have contacted Earth but the government has covered it up is benign, being essentially harmless, while habitually distrusting journalists is both rational and empirically justified. The result is that perfectly reasonable opinions are deemed illegitimate, thus: "The most widespread conspiracy belief in the UK, shared by 44% of people, was that 'even though we live in what’s called a democracy, a few people will always run things in this country anyway'”. Given the tenacity of the British establishment and the self-replicating nature of the politico-media class, such a view seems relatively uncontroversial.

There is an obvious irony in the Guardian's hyperbolic approach to populism, not least its belief that this is a hitherto hidden dimension that explains the reality of contemporary politics - a classic conspiracist trope. In suggesting that populism is a coherent political theory, rather than just an opportunistic affectation or a rhetorical manner, and in giving prominence to all those stories about Steve Bannon's coordination of the nationalist right, it seeks to construct a unified enemy where there is little more than hot-air and grift. The academic studies that the Guardian has relied on are not publicly available, as far as I can determine, though the limited explanations of their methodology suggest that they've treated populism in practice as a style of political rhetoric that is adopted by a broad and fluctuating set of parties, including those of the centre. Likewise, the research into a belief in conspiracy theories doesn't clearly support the strong linkage the newspaper makes with populism, despite its careful segmenting of the data between remainers and leavers in the UK and Trump and Clinton voters in the US. As with the various theories of Russian involvement in Brexit, there is a lot of fervid speculation that the data doesn't really justify.

The various commentary articles linked to the populism series play fast-and-loose with history and the particularities of national politics. For example, John Henley says of Austria, "the Freedom party, a far more straightforward far-right movement founded by a former Nazi in 1956, won more than 20% of the vote for the first time in 1994 and is now in government, as junior coalition partner, for the fourth time." This is the conventional thumbnail sketch of the FPO outside Austria, emphasising its Nazi roots and its current closeness to power, but it's one that eschews context. The FPO was not created ex nihilo but evolved out of the VdU (Federation of Independents), which was founded in 1949. Though it targeted former Nazi Party members (who had been barred from voting in the first postwar election in 1945), its ideological heritage was the National Liberal camp of Austrian politics, which was opposed to both clericalism and socialism (it was the "third way" of its day), a tradition that goes all the way back to 1848. The FPO first tasted power in coalition with the Social Democrats in 1983. In the late 80s it turned to the right under Jorg Haider, after which it typically entered coalition with the conservative OVP. It has danced around the centre.

Henley describes the membership of Syriza as "radical leftwing populists". This ignores that the party is (literally) the Coalition of the Radical Left, whose participants are a mix of socialist, Marxist, workerist and ecological groups. In other words, typical of both Greek and wider Southern European leftist traditions. While Syriza undoubtedly employed populist tactics in its critique of the Greek state and political establishment, these were in no sense novel either for the left particularly or for Greek politics generally. Indeed, as with the leftist Podemos in Spain and the essentially liberal M5S in Italy, Syriza's "populism" is little more than the embrace of social media and a vocal disrespect for the established parties of the centre. Talking of Italy, Henley's take on the country ignores the historic decline of the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party after 1989, which was about changes in society more than just corruption or mismanagement, and fails to note that the reaction to the failures of Berlusconi's centre-right and the neoliberal centre-left, embodied in the "unlikely coalition" of M5S and La Lega, is in many ways a return to the traditions of Italian liberalism.

The degree to which the current populist moment is an expression of the frustrations of the political centre, rather than an uprising by the politically marginal, is one of the Guardian's blind-spots. Consider this: "Mainstream Nordic parties have long resisted forming coalition governments with rightwing populists, but have been forced to give ground in Norway, where the Progress party has been in government coalitions since 2013, and Finland, where the small Blue Reform party – an offshoot of the populist Finns – is also in coalition." Oddly, centrist parties in Northern Europe rarely feel "forced" to enter coalition with leftwing parties, even when the latter aren't populist. Matthijs Rooduijn, the political sociologist the Guardian has relied on for much of the comparative data, thinks the absence of leftwing populism in Northern Europe is "possibly because the generosity of the Nordic countries' welfare systems makes a radical leftwing message less relevant", while the strength of leftwing populism in Southern Europe reflects their weaker economies and the greater impact of the financial crisis.

This suggests that contemporary leftwing populism (if it can be said to exist) is essentially material, which makes it hard to see how it possesses sufficient common characteristics with rightwing populism to allow both to be analytically lumped together. A key point Rooduijn makes is that in Eastern Europe "populism generally did not bob up at the fringes of the political spectrum, but in the centre. Parties such as Fidesz in Hungary, and Law and Justice in Poland, started their political lives as mainstream parties". This isn't peculiar to Eastern Europe. Just as Berlusconi's populism was an attempt to modernise the mainstream Italian right in the neoliberal era, so UKIP under Farage sought to force change on a Conservative Party reluctant to acknowledge the widespread Euroscepticism of its membership (UKIP might be embracing the far-right now, but the majority of its support returned to the Tory fold after the EU referendum). Likewise, Emmanuel Macron secured the French Presidency through a classic populist campaign in which the failings of the establishment and an appeal to patriotic republicanism were front and centre.

The truth is that populism is both a flexible, perjorative term employed by liberals to defend the political establishment from "outsiders" and a style of rhetoric opportunistically embraced by those same liberals. That Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and Matteo Renzi tell us that Europe needs to "curb immigration" in order to defeat the populists makes the second point. That the Guardian's series on populism appears to have been designed in part to try and rehabilitate these "centrist heavyweights" reinforces the first. There is no populist theory, in the sense of a coherent body of political thought, merely a populist practice: a series of rhetorical tropes that can be deployed as easily by governing parties as by those in opposition. The rise of populism since 2008 is less the eruption of a dormant tendency within the polity than a failure of the political centre to control popular anger by pointing it in time-honoured fashion at the poor and the marginal. Focusing on populism shows that centrists remain keen to avoid the left-right axis and material concerns. Focusing on immigration shows their determination to once more direct popular anger against the disadvantaged.

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