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“It’s become sloppy to the point of meaningless, an overused epithet for multiple manifestations of political anger.”
New York Times columnist Roger Cohen exhibited in July some rare self-reflection about the ubiquitous term “populism” in the organs of the transatlantic liberal media.
He continued: “Worse, it’s freighted with contempt, applied to all voters who have decided that mainstream political parties have done nothing for their static incomes or disappearing jobs or sense of national decline these past two decades.
“’Populism’ is a dismissive term for everything metropolitan elites can’t quite find the energy to understand.”
Still, despite the intellectual lethargy an enormous amount of effort continues to be spent on pumping out this non-explanation. It runs from academic seminars to a risible series of pieces last week on the “defining idea of our time” in the house journal of lazy liberalism in Britain, the Guardian.
One problem with this “defining idea” is that it lacks anything like a meaningful definition.
Indeed, the “post-Marxist” theorist of populism Ernesto Laclau wrote in his On Populist Reason that it was characterised by “empty signifiers” — words expressing abstract concepts defying all efforts to reduce them to concrete instances.
A rather large difficulty for Laclau’s claim, however, is that it is blindingly obvious that his discussion of populism emerges from trying to explain a very concrete political phenomenon in his native Argentina. That was the movement around Juan Peron and how it was able to eclipse the traditional parties following the second world war.
But Laclau is a model of consistency compared with the cottage industry of books and articles on populism over the last two years.
The overarching theme is to lump together all manner of political developments arising out of the systemic crisis that was intensified by the 2008 crash under the single term populism.
Hence Syriza — a social democratic evolution from Greek communism — is “left-wing populist” while the neonazi Golden Dawn is “right-wing populist.”
Or Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump are both varieties of populism — the real estate crook and the allotment renter are just two peas in a pod.
Meanwhile, there is no hint of irony from the liberal-capitalist propagandists when they seek to flesh out what is meant by the populist insult.
So we are told that populists are always invoking “the people” as some kind of undifferentiated mass and that they explain away political outcomes they don’t like as the result of some sinister outside interference.
This comes with a straight face from those who are agitating for an undemocratic second Brexit referendum and calling it a “people’s vote” and who account for the result of the first one through the influence of Vladimir Putin.
The messaging is out of the Blair-Campbell stable. Remember those “anti-populists” who navigated difficulties facing the royal family upon the death of Princess Diana by posthumously branding this rich and entitled aristocrat the “people’s princess.”
Then there was one of the key defining speeches made by Tony Blair as he abandoned the traditional class groove of the Labour Party — honoured, it has to be said, historically more often in the breach — and railed instead against “forces of conservatism.”
By that he meant both crusty old Tories, whom Margaret Thatcher had also targeted as lacking free-market dynamism, and “conservatives” in the labour movement — trade unions and socialists “resistant to change.”
What was that contrast between vested “elite” interests and the common people — middle Britain straddling right and left and of all classes — if not an instance of populist rhetoric?
The reason why it is rarely considered as such goes to the heart of the deployment of “populism” by liberal-centrists.
It’s also why they do not consider as populist French president Emmanuel Macron, who has styled himself a kind of People’s Jupiter, king of the gods standing above and uniting a fractured nation. The stench of tear gas on the streets of Paris on Saturday showed just how successful that is proving.
Macron is a former investment banker, technocratic and for neoliberal reform. Therefore he cannot be “populist.” Nor can Hillary Clinton advising that the way to defeat right-wing “populism” in Europe is to deport more non-Europeans and raise higher the barbed wire around the continent.
Populism cannot refer to the political stratagems of capitalist elites because its actual, practical meaning today is in dismissing the massive opposition to those elites and the growing desire for radical change.
“Anti-populism” is the conservative ideology of a failing political order.
And it is a cover for inability to grasp why that order is breaking down. It puts cause and effect the wrong way around.
Far from populism causing the breakdown of liberal capitalism, it is the multiple breakdowns of neoliberal capitalism that are driving eruptions of anger and dramatic political events.
That comes as a surprise to defenders of the corporate capitalist order especially because for two decades they interpreted a temporary historical period as a “new world order” (George Bush Snr), “the end of boom and bust” (Gordon Brown),or even “the end of history” (Francis Fukuyama, who now says it didn’t end after all).
There was some lip service paid to the increasingly class-divided reality in the wake of the crash of 2008, but, just as with mainstream politicians saying they would listen to what the Leave vote in deindustrialised Britain was telling them eight years later, it proved fleeting.
As soon as the economy entered an anaemic recovery, thanks to nationalisation of banking debt while leaving the casino economy still in private hands, almost all the traditional governing forces of centre-right and centre-left returned to business as usual, now with added austerity.
But it was the years from the late 1980s to early 2000s that saw the hollowing out of official politics that the liberal anti-populists complain of.
There was a new Gilded Age for the billionaire class — a convergence of the traditional parties on a post-ideological, free-market consensus, politics reduced to identifying fabled swing voters while bedrock support was taken for granted and more areas of life from local to international handed over to unelected bureaucrats.
Is there any wonder that so many felt left behind, lacking any control over their own lives and alienated from the traditional parties?
It’s not some new populism we are seeing but the return of the big ideological questions about society’s future and of mass politics. It’s a process that began with the movements against corporate globalisation and war at the start of this century.
Both of those, incidentally, were derided in the pages of the Economist and similar journals as populist, offering simplistic solutions — such as not going to war — to problems so complex that only those with a Harvard MBA could begin to fathom.
The return of the big political clashes of the 20th century means a polarisation between left and right. A deep feeling of “us and them” poses sharply the question of what we mean by those terms.
Opposition to racism in all its forms defines the left. It is nothing short of slander to equate the renewed popularity of socialist ideas with the orchestrated efforts to build an international far or even fascist right — a task eased by the turn of governing parties of all kinds to racist policies and rhetoric.
It is the beginning of wisdom for today’s left to place itself firmly within the popular rejection of a failed elite, but it cannot be left there. There is an enormous battle of ideas to make an internationalist and anti-capitalist outlook dominant in popular anger.
It ranges from the sharp political fight in the current French fuel protests to guide them to the radical left not the siren voices of Le Pen’s fascists through to explaining that it is capitalism itself that is the cause of suffering, not some secret cabal of “bad capitalists.”
This is a battle the left can win provided it firmly rejects the elitist disdain for the working class and their opinions.
There is a useful deployment of the term populism. It’s by historians looking at similar phenomena on both sides of the Atlantic in the later 19th century.
There were, for example, the Populist Party of small farmers in the US, the middle-class Narodniks agitating among Russian peasants or the efforts by Britain’s Liberal Party to draw in mass support as the franchise was extended.
In different ways each expressed in rudimentary form popular discontent at the economic distress and dislocation brought by industrial capitalism as it concentrated wealth and power as never before.
In two of those cases, socialists, often influenced by Marxism, were successful in constructing a mass force out of these contradictory movements — revolutionary in the case of Russia, parliamentarist in Britain.
The US working class continues to pay a price for that not happening on sufficient scale.
It is the possibility of similar developments again in the old capitalist economies that worries today’s robber barons as it did their predecessors.
That’s why the railing against populists — they are against the idea that socialism can again become popular.
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