Possibilities and challenges

Are Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn and Marine Le Pen from the same mould? Kevin Bean completes his analysis

Donald Trump is no Hitler and his supporters are no Brownshirts

Following Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 The Economist produced one of its striking cover illustrations portraying Trump, Vladimir Putin, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen in the style of late 18th century revolutionaries marching through the fog of war and summoning the masses to the populist colours. Trump and Farage were shown beating the militant drums of insurgency, accompanied by Putin sounding the tocsin on the fife, whilst Le Pen brandishing a tricoleur, in the guise of Delacroix’s Liberty leading the people, brought up the rear.1

In the accompanying editorial and supporting articles the paper explored many of the explanations for the rise of these new forms of populism that I considered in the first part of my article last week.2 However, amongst what have become now familiar arguments about the impact of globalisation, economic change and the generational and culture wars between the cosmopolitan, outward-looking young and the fearful, pessimistic old, two different themes were also given prominence: the emergence of new forms of ‘populist nationalism’ internationally; and their impact on mainstream politics beyond the extremist fringe.3

In Britain these elements were perhaps best encapsulated in Theresa May’s speech to last year’s Conservative Party conference, in which she moved further on to UK Independence Party territory by arguing that “those who still believe Britain has made a mistake in leaving the EU are just patronising members of a liberal metropolitan elite”. She further developed this populist identification between her party and ‘the people’ by making common cause against these rootless elites and suggesting that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”4

This rhetoric of rootedness and belonging was not confined to the Tory leadership. Similar national-populist themes, expressed in a language of community and patriotism, had emerged in the 2010s, as Blue Labour argued that a commitment to “family, faith and flag” would enable the Labour Party to rebuild its electoral base amongst “the white working class”.5 Another more influential, although related, position was developed by David Goodhart, who suggested that “the rise of populism” reflected a new type of political division between “the people from Anywhere” with a “mobile ‘achieved’ identity” and the “marginalised, roots-based identity of the people from Somewhere”.6

What Theresa May, Maurice Glasman (of Blue Labour) and David Goodhart all share in common is a sense that ‘populism’ represents a serious challenge to the existing political status quo and that ‘forging a new politics’ means engaging with and adapting to this new social and electoral force.7 This also chimes with other currents in bourgeois thought that see populism as a threat to capitalism internationally - partly as a long-delayed reaction to the Great Recession unfolding since 2007-08, but, perhaps more importantly, a reflection of a related, developing crisis of political legitimacy and authority of much longer duration.8

New normal?

These arguments suggest that there is a distinctive ‘populist moment’ with its own particular characteristics and forms developing in response to the current political and economic crisis. They also seem to suggest that the various populist movements are more than episodic outbursts or reactionary spasms.

The various movements, whether defined as ‘left’ or ‘right’, it is widely argued, are united by more than a common rhetoric and style which pits ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’.9 Rather they present something of a more permanent, serious threat to the established political order: they are, in effect, ‘the new normal’.10 Whilst it is understandable that bourgeois politicians and mainstream commentators should be alarmed by the political and electoral impact of these populist challengers - consider, for example, the implications of the Trump presidency for the wider economic and strategic interests of the United States ruling class or the impact of the Brexit referendum on British politics and the future direction of British capitalism - Marxists should be more sober in their assessment of ‘the populist moment’ and what its likely trajectory tells us about the nature of capitalism’s political and economic crisis.11

Whilst recognising that populism is a valid description of an historically contingent political form that has emerged at particular times and in particular places, we should be wary of its indiscriminate use in the contemporary world, especially when quite distinct and radically different processes, such as ‘the revolt of the rustbelt’, which possibly brought Donald Trump to power, and the surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership elections are lumped together as simply two examples of the same phenomenon.12 Perhaps, as American commentators Max Fisher and Amanda Taub suggest, “miscalculations, surprises and uncertainty, more than populism … [are the] new normal in western politics”.13

However, this identification of contemporary politics with the ‘populist moment’ by certain politicians and commentators might be more than simply miscalculation or a misunderstanding of the surface phenomena of these very different movements. Whether politically motivated and ideologically driven by the bourgeois parties and their social democratic allies, or disguised as impartial comment or objective research by their sounding-boards in the media, the academy or ‘independent’ think tanks, the dominant common sense in mainstream politics since 1989 has been a narrative of general depoliticisation and the collapse of the left internationally.14 Although explanations for and responses to these fundamental changes, such as Fukuyama’s celebrated ‘end of history’ thesis or the Clinton-Blair ‘third way’, were either undermined by events or ultimately discredited by imperialist adventures overseas and the fall-out from the global financial crisis of 2007-08, the relatively muted response of the working class movement in the advanced capitalist world to these developments, alongside the continued weakness of an ideologically coherent left politics, did little to shift the analytical assumptions of bourgeois politics.15

Left populism?

Whilst certainly a little less complacent and self-assured after 2007-08, it seemed to many politicians and commentators that after the small local difficulty of the financial crisis, the imposition of austerity and bailouts in various forms to the banks and financial sector, the storm had been weathered and politically it was back to business as usual for the capitalist parties.16

However, when in response to these crises a series of oppositional movements and parties began to emerge and challenge the dominant consensus, with varying degrees of seriousness, one response was to label them ‘populist’.17 Although this tag reflected the shock and disdain that the established parties and technocratic politicians felt both towards these upstart challengers and, more importantly, the rebellious electorates who voted for them, there were a number of organisational and rhetorical elements in these movements that might justify some limited comparisons with historical populist movements.

Three features of ‘left’ populist parties and movements, in particular, seem relevant to these comparisons:

  •  a charismatic leader or figurehead operating with little democratic control by the ‘membership’, embodying, for these supporters (or followers), the essential characteristics of the movement;
  •  a ‘movement culture’ based on an emerging ‘consensus’ developed organically (usually top-down from the leadership) rather than through the formal, traditional party structures and democratic organisation;
  •  a broad, poorly defined political ideology, usually encapsulated in some key slogans, which claims to speak on behalf of ‘the people’ (rather than the working class) and directs its fire against ‘elites’ in the broadest terms rather than a specifically capitalist class.

These characterisations of ‘left populism’ clearly resonate with the experience of Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and aspects of the mobilisation of Corbyn’s support in the British Labour Party.18 Thus, by understanding how these characteristics of the forms of populist politics - found historically in the peripheral, colonial and semi-colonial regions of the capitalist world - are present in some contemporary European left currents, we can assess their weaknesses and programmatic limitations. In so far as they reflect these relatively undeveloped political, ideological and organisational forms, they show how far the working class movement in general and the left in particular has fallen back in the last 30 years.

Whilst we must be realistic in our assessments of ‘the populist moment’ and understand why such a variety of political currents from right and left place such great emphasis on the concept, both as an opportunity and a threat, Marxists should also understand the deeper connections between these populist movements, the current moment and the future patterns of politics in Europe. With all their contradictions and limitations, left populist currents are more than a transient episode or the latest rhetorical fad for the commentariat: in outline they represent the first stirrings of opposition to capitalism after a long period of retreat and reveal the possibilities and potential of the new and as yet inchoate forces, which could develop to rebuild and rearm our movement.

Notes

1. ‘Trump’s world: the new nationalism’ The Economist November 19 2016.

2. ‘Understanding the “populist moment”’ Weekly Worker August 31 2017.

3. League of nationalists’ The Economist November 19 2016.

4. J Crace, ‘Theresa May treads the Brexit path of empathy and righteousness’ The Guardian October 5 2016.

5. See, for example, I Geary and A Pabst Blue Labour: forging a new politics London 2012; T Hunt (ed) Labour’s identity crisis: England and the politics of patriotism Winchester 2016. These currents enjoyed some publicity in the aftermath of Labour’s 2015 general election defeat, but were somewhat eclipsed by the growth of the Labour left during the leadership elections in 2015 and 2016. Although much weakened, Blue Labour still retains some support amongst the Labour right.

6. D Goodhart The road to somewhere: the populist revolt and the future of politics London 2017.

7. A Pabst in I Geary and A Pabst op cit pp1-2.

8. See, amongst many others, P Mair Ruling the void: the hollowing of western democracy London 2013; J Ganesh, ‘The trick with populists is to see them in perspective’ Financial Times March 26 2016; L Elliott, ‘Populism is the result of global economic failure’ The Guardian March 27 2017; M Roberts, ‘Crisis, capital and Corbyn’ Jacobin June 2017; and A Beckett, ‘How Britain fell out of love with the free market’ The Guardian August 5 2017.

9. For example, see L Parkin, ‘Why Jeremy Corbyn is like Donald Trump’ New Statesman March 3 2016; and P Stephens, ‘Trump and Corbyn join hands against the liberal world order’ Financial Times August 31 2017.

10. T Blair, ‘Against populism, the center must hold’ New York Times March 3 2017.

11. A good example of perhaps wishful apocalyptic thinking of this type was a (possibly) humorous column at the time of the Stoke by-election, which foresaw how Labour, under Corbyn’s leadership, might be replaced by 2030 as the party of ‘the traditional working class’ by a Paul Nuttall-led (remember him?) Ukip! See Bagehot, ‘How the slow death of Labour might happen’ The Economist February 2 2017.

12. ‘Fascist’ and ‘Nazi’ are related ‘boo’ words, whose indiscriminate use likewise devalues and blunts their analytical value. For contemporary examples of this tendency to equate Trump, populism and fascism see V de Grazia, ‘Many call Trump a fascist.100 days in, is he just a reactionary Republican?’ The Guardian April 30 2017.

13. M Fisher and A Taub, ‘Uncertainty, more than populism, is new normal in western politics’ The New York Times June 20 2017.

14. There are numerous accounts, both of this process and of the ideologically framed explanations for it. As a ‘Eurocommunist’ Eric Hobsbawm both contributed to and explained this depoliticisation. See E Hobsbawm The age of extremes: the short twentieth century London 2004 and How to change the world: tales of Marx and Marxism London 2011.For a critique of these and other ‘revolutionary reformist’ analyses of this period see J Conrad Which road? London 1991. For contemporary assessments of developments in the 1990s-2010s see The Leninist and Weekly Worker archives at weeklyworker.co.uk/worker.

15. For one insider’s account of how bourgeois politicians and European Union technocrats saw this crisis and the politics that emerged from it, see Y Varoufakis Adults in the room: my battle with Europe’s deep establishment London 2017.

16. For accounts of the nature of the crisis and some discussion on the drawn-out response to it by the working class, see P Mattick Business as usual: the economic crisis and the future of capitalism London 2011; and M Roberts The long depression: how it happened, why it happened and what happens next Chicago 2016.

17. For a survey of recent struggles and responses to austerity throughout Europe, see C Príncipe and B Sunkara Europe in revolt Chicago 2016.

18. See, for example, ‘Where left populism leads’ Weekly Worker December 11 2014; ‘Syriza and the left’ Weekly Worker July 30 2015; ‘Things have just got even better’ Weekly Worker June 15 2017.