On Populism

politics centrism, liberalism, populism, far right

The Guardian’s recent series on populism has been surprisingly enlightening; but not, however, in the way they probably intended. Previously I’d just considered the term to be more-or-less meaningless, or rather, having whatever meaning the speaker wished it to have. However, the Guardian’s series, and particularly their ‘How populist are you?’ quiz, has corrected that.

Plotting the Guardian’s idea of a ‘populist’ on one axis of a graph, with the other axis representing how ‘left’ or ‘right’ they are,1 has highlighted that to a significant extent, ‘populist’ simply means either to the left or the right of the political mainstream, beyond a particular arbitrary point. In that sense, it seems like a revival of the ‘horseshoe theory’, the assertion that the far-left and far-right have more in common with each other than it might otherwise appear, and in particular more in common with each other than the centre.

Looking more closely at the definition and methodology they used seems to me to confirm this. The first two points of their definition, ‘praising the common people’ and ‘anti-elite/anti-establishment sentiments’ really seem to apply to any criticism of the post-Thatcherite/Reaganite consensus (followed by Blair and Clinton) of privatization, globalization, technocratic government—in short, of neoliberalism. However, these critiques come from very different places, and take very different forms. Indeed, one can argue that none of their examples of right-wing populists pay more than lip-service to the idea of anti-elitism (billionaire Trump, public schoolboy Farage) or respect for the common people (usually limited to that section of the common people that is white and male). Fundamentally, the right-wing opposition to the status quo is only really that the wrong people are in charge (i.e., not them), rather than any desire to change the system itself. As such, the idea of grouping these distinct political positions together makes sense only if the intention is simply to delegitimize anything outside the political mainstream. I’m left with the impression that the researchers started with the conclusion they wanted to reach, then found a definition of ‘populism’ that met the requirements.2

This theory is borne out when looking at other articles in the series, such as the interview with Clinton and Blair. By now, of course, the vacuousness of Clinton’s ideas for defeating the far right has been pointed out repeatedly—her political career being, after all, most notable now for her failure to do so.3 The substance of her proposals, too, demonstrates the fundamental shallowness of centrist/liberal politics: in short, that the right will win unless the centre4 implements exactly the same kinds of anti-immigrant policies that the right is demanding anyway. This is the same kind of claim that was made repeatedly around Labour, especially in the Miliband years; it’s not made clear exactly why anyone would vote for one party over the other in that situation, where politics is essentially reduced to a game of two identical opposing teams identified only by their colours. Blair, of course, is impossible to take seriously as a critic of the left—his post-Parliamentary career has consisted mostly of doomsaying about the leftward shift in Labour that is more-or-less explicitly due to a rejection of his legacy. His position on the right, on the other hand, aligns with Clinton’s—that is, that immigration is a ‘legitimate concern’ that cannot be ignored (and so we should give the right what they want). The third interviewee, Matteo Renzi (about whom I know little), manages to escape this trap, and notes that immigration is only a concern because the right (I would argue with the complicity of the centre) has made it one. Blair’s position basically involves deflecting attention away from his own failure (intentional or not), in ten years as Prime Minister, to control or reframe the right-wing narrative (not to mention his direct involvement in the destabilization of the Middle East that has led to the war in Syria and created the refugees in the first place). The contradiction here seems to have gone unnoticed: ‘taking people’s concerns seriously’ is identified as the only possible defence against the right, while simultaneously ‘listening closely to the problems of the people’ is presented as pathological, a symptom of the ‘populist’ disease.

It’s notable, in this series, how little is being said about left-wing populism specifically; and this seems to me to support the idea that it’s a reframing of the horseshoe theory. The Blair/Clinton/Renzi interview refers to the dangers of right-wing populism; another article’s title mentions ‘the rise of the far right and populism’. A clear danger is presented in the form of the far right, then the term ‘populism’ is deployed in order to include the left within the same category; but no danger actually presented by left-wing populists is ever clearly explained. Any genuine threat that the left might pose (i.e., to the capitalist establishment) is left unmentioned;5 conversely, the genuine threat that the far-right poses is overlooked (and, indeed, considered to be an acceptable policy for the centre-‘left’ to adopt), leaving them presented instead as a non-specific threat, little more than a bogeyman. None of this does much to alter the long-established perception on the left that liberals/centrists would soon side with the far-right when threatened from the left.6 Put simply, the far-right does not present a threat to the underlying power structures in the same way as the left does; rather, it abandons the ideological justifications for those power structures (ideas of equality, democracy, etc.) in order to maintain them. The concept of populism thus allows tying the easily-perceived threat of the right, albeit one which can more-or-less safely be ignored by those in power, to the left, which is fundamentally a threat only to those in power.

I’ve so far not really addressed the extent to which the ‘left-wing populists’ they discuss actually present a threat to capitalism. The fact that Bernie Sanders might be somewhat outside the mainstream of American politics does not mean his positions are actually extreme in a historical context; similarly, the Guardian’s favourite bugbear, Jeremy Corbyn (strangely overlooked in this series) generally advocates policies that would have been considered rather moderate social democracy before the 1980s. Generally, the goal seems to be a ‘kinder gentler capitalism’, with all the contradictions that entails, rather than the end of capitalism. Yet that’s not really the point; “[t]he Established Church, for instance, will more readily pardon an attack on thirty-eight of its thirty-nine articles than on one thirty-ninth of its income. Nowadays atheism is a culpa levis [a relatively slight sin, c.f. mortal sin], as compared with the criticism of existing property relations”;7 even a mild shift to the left is perceived as a threat, and centrists will abandon any pretence of liberal–democratic principle to prevent it. Thus, for example, Blair’s support for the EU and yet willingness to end free movement of people: it’s free movement of capital that matters.

This, fundamentally, is the flaw of centrism: it can and will compromise on everything that might have appeared to be a principle, except for the ones that actually matter to people. It will gladly pander to racists by carving ‘controls on immigration’ on its own tombstone (a policy which has never worked), but is incapable of comprehending why people might vote for a party or a candidate that promises to re-nationalize the railways, restore the NHS, or reduce student debt. Perhaps those require politicians whose priorities extend beyond the maintenance of their own careers.