Springtime for Populism

12/09/2016 08:35

Liberal democracy in the UK is not in good shape. Fears that our once triumphalist political culture is now falling apart are suppressed. "Uncertainty" serves as stop-gap euphemism for deeper disquiet. There is talk of new opportunities and proud self-determination, much patriotic bravura. But minorities suffer abuse, violence and even murdered, and there are portents of worse to come.

We not not alone. Globalisation and its discontents ring true as the prime mover of a wider malaise in Europe and the USA. But what aspect of globalisation is the root problem: its cultural or economic impact, transnational production or financial services, the information economy or networked societies, China or laissez-faire Ireland? As my old Irish Professor would say "all very amorphous". The last two decades of globalisation have seen a dramatic reduction in poverty in many countries. If China is taken as an example, a bad press for globalisation is unwarranted.

We are certainly in the domain of complex, amorphous and global causes but I would rather plump for Populism, mainly of the Right, as the prime culprit. At least it is a half decent political concept involving political agency deployed to explain a political sea-change Perhaps a little deceptive; democracy implies that the people decide, so how come popular becomes a negative quality and populism a pejorative description? Snobbery, elitism, we know best? We, being, cosmopolitan well educated people like myself with a good income.

If you want a definition of populism just watch Trump and Farage, or Trump with Farage in their recent double act. What is the world that they conjure up? Pride of place, centre stage, are themselves, the embodiment and voice of the people. Not any old people, but the virtuous, silent and silenced majority, all of one mind, the homogenous mass of the forgotten righteous, put upon; a sidelined, victim people controlled by the rich and greedy, but with their instincts of virtue still intact.

Who has done this to the sovereign people? Who are the perpetrators? Different elites who control everything, corporations, tycoons, intellectuals, experts, EU civil servants, but most notably politicians and "foreigners", all trying to undermine the values, way of life and identity of the people, whittle away their rights, reduce their pay and public services and shut them up.

There are, of course, particular socioeconomic and political conditions that favour this toxic ideology, not least the parts of it which plausibly highlight features of the contemporary reality. The first is obviously a dominant political culture in which it is acceptable to be intensely relaxed about inequality, a society in which stunning wage differentials between top and bottom express not just greed but contempt for the work of the poorly paid. The second is a minority of politicians whose behaviour encourages a rejection of political parties and politics itself as the common sense approach to life; "they are all the same", "the political class" as the class enemy. A third is failed policies to integrate migrant labour and asylum seekers in a world of porous national boundaries.

But none of this would be enough to account for the Front National, France, Vlams Blok (Vlams Belang from 2004), Belgium, Alternativ fur Deutschland, Germany, Lega Nord, Italy, and the cults past and present of Berlusconi, Haider, Farage, Orban, Trump and Wilders, without their echo chamber and amplifiers, the mass media. This is not simply a matter of providing the political branch of celebrity entertainment, and there is plenty of that outside Europe too, for example in Philippines where poor vigilantes and police, with President Duterte's blessing, hunt down less poor drugs dealers in a version of the Hunger Games.

The language of the tabloids builds and plays into populist ideology. Thus the "chattering classes", the "Westminster bubble"; "scroungers" and so on. The grosser the sentiments expressed, the greater the coverage. The journalism of resentment, cynically manipulated by members of the very elite that is condemned in their papers, has played a key role in amplifying xenophobia and reinforcing in the readers' mind immigrants as the enemy "other", a central plank of the populist performance.

As if politicians did not go out canvassing, hold town-hall meetings and regular surgeries in which they encounter some of the most alienated and destitute members of society, meet racism and anxiety about immigrants, as if none had children who went to school or ended up in A & E on a Saturday night, or parents in care homes, as if none had come into politics for public service and, often, motivated by a vision that involved,as first priority, the alleviation of poverty.

One consolation is that populist movements wax and wain. The latter when they assume power in coalitions. The immediate danger is that, as with Nicolas Sarkozy and the Tory Brexiteers, the Centre-Right tacks into the prevailing wind and goes to the country on core parts of the populist discourse. And by so doing legitimates xenophobia and anti-minority sentiment. That in large measure was how Brexit happened. Now Britain finds itself in the dilemma adumbrated by the Hungarian political scientist, Karl Polanyi, in the 1930s, the compatibility of democracy and capitalist growth. The rest of Europe should take note. Britain is about to demonstrate the high price of populist politics for economic and social stability. UN Human Rights Commissioner Zaid Ra'ad al Hussein is right: the populist zeitgeist is a menace for liberal democracy.