Understanding populism

Mike Phipps reviews Populism: Before and After the Pandemic, by Michael Burleigh, published by Hurst.

So much has been written about populism recently that one wonders if another book will have anything fresh to say. In fact, I found Michael Burleigh’s insights concrete and useful.

In What is Populism? (2016), Jan-Werner Müller described the phenomenon as a “particularly moralistic imagination of politics,” that sets a pure, unified people “against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior.”

Burleigh agrees: “Populism involves a sleight of hand in which the People must be sub-divided into the authentically real ones, who intuit what is right, and the cosmopolitan unrooted who could be everywhere and nowhere, as prime minister Theresa May notoriously put it, echoing the British journalist David Goodhart.”

What’s interesting about this, however, is the way populism’s claim to be the authentic voice of the people reflects that of liberalism in decline. Hillary Clinton for example dismissed half of Trump’s supporters in 2016 as a “basket of deplorables… racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic —Islamophobic—you name it.”

Ironically, Clinton was committing the cardinal sin of elitism of which she had accused Obama in 2008 when he too appeared to dismiss and arguably delegitimise the concerns of working class voters: “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them… And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

In fact, what Obama said is in some ways worse: the jobs have indeed “gone”, not as a result of some natural phenomenon, but because of policy decisions by a political elite neglectful of the needs of the same working people it purports to represent.

These decisions, in line with neoliberal market principles, are presented as unavoidable, inherent to a globalised economy, in which the loss of relatively well-paid manufacturing jobs in the Global North is unstoppable and inevitable, rather than a political choice.

Referring to Müller’s book, Jorge Tamames notes, “Perhaps his sharpest insight is that populism constitutes the reverse mirror image of technocracy, and its rise is a reaction to the technocratic drift of liberal democratic regimes.”

He quotes Müller: “Technocracy claims that there is only one correct policy solution; populism claims there is only one authentic will of the people… For neither technocrats nor populists is there any need for democratic debate. In a sense, both are curiously apolitical.”

There is a laziness in some attempts to analyse populism that parallels the tendency to disparage its supporters. Burleigh cuts through this.

Firstly, contrary to a popular misconception, most populists are not anti-democratic. They can’t get enough of voting: “One effect of populism, whether in Latin America, Britain or Germany, has been to revitalise democracy, in the first case by empowering indigenous peoples excluded by Hispanic elites, in the second and third by coaxing lifelong non-voters to the ballots, often meaning voting AfD [Alternative für Deutschland] or Brexit Party. It is hard to deplore political apathy and then object when people vote in record numbers.”

This helps explain populism’s success: “Nowadays populist parties are part of every third European government, with two in sole power (Hungary and Poland), and half a dozen in ruling coalitions. According to the authoritative Swedish Timbro index for 2018, such parties are supported by roughly a quarter of European voters. To adopt a football metaphor, many have expanded beyond the early hooligans to the regular family fans.”

Secondly, populism speaks to real concerns. Political and economic elites really do have a lot to answer for – not their supposed cosmopolitanism, but their elitism, their belief in their right to rule. ”Elites discredited themselves,” says Burleigh, “whether through the lies told to legitimise the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then Libya in 2011, or serial corruption scandals.”

It was easy for people outside this political class to label them “la casta” (the caste) as both Italian comedian and founder of the Five Star Movement Beppe Grillo and the radical left Spanish party Podemos did.

And for all the talk about the media being part of the ‘liberal establishment’, it is the same media that helped populist ideas reach a wider audience. Despite minimal support initially and not even being an MP, in the decade to 2014 Nigel Farage was the most frequently invited guest on the BBC current affairs show Question Time.  In France, fringe figures like Renaud Camus have been given inordinate media coverage to promote their racist conspiracies that liberals are seeking to replace the population of Europe with Third World immigrants.

Burleigh observes, “The Brexit campaign similarly conflated intra-European migration with the threat of 80 million visa-less Turks.”

Derogatory comments of the kind cited above by Obama and Clinton enable populist politicians to play up the ‘victim status’ of those they seek to represent. For UK populists, Britain is a world of ‘political correctness gone mad’, where the most hallowed symbols of national identity – from Drake to Churchill – are now trashed by the ‘woke’ elite as imperialist slavers and racists, which of course they usually were.

 In Poland, this is more insidious where the ruling Law and Justice Party has “sought to criminalise (with fines and three year terms of imprisonment) anyone who spoke of ‘Polish death camps’ rather than Nazi German death camps situated in occupied Poland.”

What’s especially interesting about Burleigh’s book is how real world events have impacted on these movements. “Most of the world’s populist leaders have not had a ‘good’ pandemic crisis,” he notes.

Indian premier Narendra Modi gave 1.3 billion people four hours to prepare for a long curfew. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro insisted that COVID-19 was just “a meany little flu” and sacked his health minister, the most popular politician in the country. Putin surrendered dealing with the crisis to regional and city governors.

In Britain, “a delusional wartime nostalgism cannot mask chronic failures of policy, despite Britain being ‘best’ at everything. A cabinet chosen for its orthodoxy on Brexit meant that it consisted of second and third-raters whose incompetence is revealed almost daily.”

In Italy, where the abrasive Matteo Salvini once seemed unstoppable, his party’s support has fallen by 7%, not least because one of the worst affected regions is Lombardy, its stronghold.

To this list we could add Trump’s America and many more. But while populist regimes have floundered in the face of the pandemic, this is also true of other regimes that are not populist, but merely neoliberal in their disregard for public health care.

Burleigh lumps left-wing Mexican President Manuel López Obrador and others into his list of populist leaders who downplayed the pandemic. But the case for an authentic left populism is more controversial, and if such a thing does exist, it has very different characteristics to the right wing phenomenon discussed so far.  

Müller for one denies there is a left populism because, notwithstanding the borrowing of some of the discourse about castes and elites and the deployment of moral indignation, the left is actually more focused on policy content. Behind the superficial appearances of popular presentation, projects from the left tend to be more programmatic and pluralist.

And what about centrist populism? As I pointed out in the Introduction of For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power(OR Books, 2018), “centrist populism can be just as authoritarian, as the post-election trajectory of French President Macron indicates. Blair was populist too in his day, railing against the forces of conservatism, cashing in on fashions for rebranding and technocratic managerialism, celebrating all things new and basking in the inevitability of globalisation, the end of ideology and the triumph of an eclectic postmodernist pragmatism.”

Populism is undoubtedly a response to elite rule, but there is no doubt that Trump’s occupation of the White House encouraged and empowered many authoritarians around the world, whether populist or not, to violate the rule of law and extend the reach of their power.  Trump’s exit may undermine those who took advantage of the climate he created.

Even so, ultimately, it may be premature to talk of the decline of populism as a political force. The global economic elite remains largely unaltered and is likely to push for orthodox budget cuts and austerity in response to the looming international recession. That may provoke something as angry and intolerant as we have yet seen, leading to a new wave of authoritarian movements – unless the left is able to rise to the challenge with a clear and popular alternative.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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