Saturday 12 November 2016

Short Notes on Populism

Brexit, Trump. Trump, Brexit. Brexit Brexit. Trump. Trump. What disasters. And it's not over yet, what with actual fascists lining up to take the presidencies of Austria and France. It's as if the 2008 crash was the nuclear explosion, and the collapse of political establishments across the West fold as the slow coming blast wave bursts them apart. Politics is poisoned, and it's difficult to see how it can be bent in a positive direction.

Offering their own solutions come Owen Jones for the left, and Ryan Shorthouse for the right. As you might expect, I'm inclined to concur with the former rather than the latter. Owen recommends that the left ride the populist, anti-establishment wave rather than leave it to the Farages of this world, and re-embed ourselves in our working class communities. This sounds like a very straight forward aim, but for one thing. Hasn't leftist populism already taken over the Labour Party? Jeremy Corbyn might be an unusual populist, when you consider his style is the very antithesis of the tub-thumping charismatic leader. He doesn't talk in simple soundbites like the new US president-elect, preferring instead policy-heavy talking points. And the Labour leader is very well aware the party has to push policies that deliver for our working class support. You see, Corbyn is a populist in as far as he opposes the aspirations and the interests of those locked out (or perceive themselves as such) of the system to a battered policy consensus that puts business and the markets above all else. It hasn't and won't likely fly with the media in the future, but that would be the case if a charismatic leader replaced Jeremy anyway. Trying to make the populism we've got work rather than wishing for a new one might be a good start to the left trying to take it seriously.

As for Ryan, coming from a conservative background he's occupying very different terrain. He opposes the populist wave and calls for a struggle against "anti-establishmentarianism". Almost as catchy as the 'for constitutional fidelity' strap line used by independent US presidential contender, Evan McMullin. Ryan's piece is useful because he offers a defence of the established order. For him, the establishment is a vital component of any functioning democracy, and the people who constitute it - the politicians, the top coppers and civil servants, the business folks and the bankers, etc. - are Very Decent People who've worked jolly hard to get where they are. Besides, if they were no good they wouldn't have made it in the first place. While it would be easy to lampoon Ryan's starry-eyed defence, there are plenty of liberals who, in an honest moment, would agree with him. 

Nevertheless, he does make an important point. Despite the flux in our politics, most people are relatively happy with their circumstances. This can mean one of two things. One, that the populist shift is a passing political phase, at least as far as Britain is concerned. Theresa May need not worry as she haphazardly patches up the Thatcherite settlement. Or the other, more frightening conclusion, is that people are satisfied with their own lives in the sense that they no longer blame shit things happening on themselves. Unemployment, not my fault. House prices, not my fault. Huge debt, not my fault. Insecurity, not my fault. The populist turn differs in its Corbynist and Farageist variants, mobilising as it does different groups of people around opposed political projects, but simultaneously they might well represent a rejection of individuating social problems. Hence the apparent incongruence between rates of self-satisfaction and the anti-political establishment mood. If you're in the business of salvaging a hegemonic project, seeing one of its key pillars in such a state of disrepair is enough to make any conservative ideologue nervous.


MikeB said...

I'm not sure what is meant by "populism" in this context, but I do agree that there is a shared impulse that links support for Brexit, Trump and Corbyn (gulp!). Marine Le Pen explicitly linked the rightists in her interview with Andrew Marr this weekend.

One thing that is shared is a sense of resentment at being excluded. Trump was right when he said that the US election was "rigged". Clinton consistently eschewed "populist" policies and rhetoric and by dropping Sanders in her favour, the Democratic Party machine signaled that it would prefer defeat to the possibility of running a candidate who they feared might be less than 100% amenable to continuing the neoliberal consensus - much the same attitude as the Labour Party's right has towards Corbyn, in fact. This high-handed attitude only serves to reinforce the sense amongst working class people that they have no control over their lives and that their opinions count for nothing.

Also shared is a feeling that communal identity has been lost as capital and labour become more mobile and internationalised. There is a tangible sense that people want to experience a greater sense of communal identity and togetherness.

The Right seek restitution through reconstituting "community" through "racial" identity, and inviting participation in the political process by identifying through proxies like the "men in the saloon bar", Trump and Farage.

The Left has to respond with reforming communal experiences around class and participation through democratising everyday life. That's hardly new. But we have to remember that emotional appeals and lived experience top intellectual argument and rationality every time.

Blissex said...

«people are satisfied with their own lives in the sense that they no longer blame shit things happening on themselves. Unemployment, not my fault. House prices, not my fault. Huge debt, not my fault. Insecurity, not my fault.»

Lots of voters say to all of that "good for me", rather than «not my fault». For voters who regard themselves as rentiers, in whole or part, higher unemployment, house prices, debt, insecurity are pretty significant benefits.

A large part of the delusionary left still have this cartoonish concept that except for capitalist plutocrats in top hats and overshoes "the masses" all have the same interests. But we live in an era of mass landlordism and rentierism.

Blissex said...

Two quotes to exemplify the political consequences of mass rentierism:

«To be fair the house owning majority will never vote for it either. Any solution that improves the housing situation for those who don't own them will screw those who already do.
I will put it bluntly I don't want to see my home lose £100 000 in value just so someone else can afford to have a home and neither will most other people if they are honest with themselves»

«Friend: How did you vote then, Dad?
Dad: I voted Out.
Friend: Dad! Why did you do that? The economy will crash! It'll cause chaos!
Dad: That won't bother me hen, I'm retired.
Friend: But it'll affect me! What about me?
Dad: (Long silence).»