Thursday, September 08, 2016

Revolting populism

I've been enjoying my break in Greece and have neglected most of my writing, including this blog.

I want to pick it up again because of something that I have noticed more and more. It's becoming a bit of conventional wisdom amongst some on the left. This is the idea that both Brexit and the support for Trump are mainly benign working class rebellions. This article by Martin Jaques is a typical example.

It uses a superficial definition of populism:
This popular revolt is often described, in a somewhat denigratory and dismissive fashion, as populism. Or, as Francis Fukuyama writes in a recent excellent essay in Foreign Affairs: “‘Populism’ is the label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like.” Populism is a movement against the status quo.
Then he puts Brexit into that category.
Brexit is a classic example of such populism. It has overturned a fundamental cornerstone of UK policy since the early 1970s. Though ostensibly about Europe, it was in fact about much more: a cri de coeur from those who feel they have lost out and been left behind, whose living standards have stagnated or worse since the 1980s, who feel dislocated by large-scale immigration over which they have no control and who face an increasingly insecure and casualised labour market. Their revolt has paralysed the governing elite, already claimed one prime minister, and left the latest one fumbling around in the dark looking for divine inspiration.
And desperate to fit the Trump and Brexit phenomena into his class analysis he asserts,
Brexit, too, was primarily a working-class revolt.
We still don't have a proper academic study of voter behaviour in the referendum, but three things are apparent from a look at the figures and they don't bear Jaques out.

1. The working class Brexit vote was subject to the same demographic divides as the vote as a whole. It was weaker amongst younger voters and in the major cities, and was strongest in marginal or "left behind" areas. It was the product of a divided, not united working class.

2. Despite the presence of this vote, it was a minority in the Brexit vote as a whole. Far more votes piled up in the prosperous areas of the South than they did in poorer areas of the North. This was not primarily a working class revolt, it was a quintessential Conservative revolt. It's main base was affluent, suburban and rural, older voters.

3. That revolt was supported by a substantial number working class voters whose discontents have been ignored and whose views have been patronised.

I think that this is important too, however real the basis of working class voters discontent is, it does not mean that they are right about the solution. Trump and Farage are not their saviours. The interests they promote are those of the wealthy. Leaving the EU and curtailing immigration will not improve their lot and may make it worse.

What this working class sentiment does is present the political left with dilemmas. How do you gain the support of a large group of potential voters who have left Labour without alienating others? Thirty per cent of Labour voters may have voted to leave the EU, but that means seventy per cent voted to remain. How do you build a coalition with both? Without either, defeat is certain. In my eyes, too much conventional wisdom is favouring the minority, paying lip service to regressive sentiments. The poverty and insecurity that besets so many of these communities has to be decisively defeated, but how? We need intelligent engagement and respect, not empty slogans. It won't be easy. I doubt if EU membership is a high salience issue, but immigration certainly is. Once again, the answer lies in creating a credible alternative political economy. I see little sign of it at the moment.

The task is urgent. We should reject Jaques' flabby and superficial definition of populism. In this excellent piece, Jan-Werner Müller gets populism absolutely right.
There is a tragic irony in all this: populism in power commits the very political sins of which it accuses elites: excluding citizens and usurping the state. What the establishment supposedly has always done, populists will also end up doing. Only with a clear justification and, perhaps, even a clear conscience. Hence it is a profound illusion to think that populists, as potential leaders of Gray’s “revolt of the masses”, can improve our democracies. Populists are just different elites who try to grab power with the help of a collective fantasy of political purity.
It really is worth reading the article in full. Let's think historically. An alliance between disaffected workers and the petit-bourgeoisie was the class base of fascism. We aren't there today, but there are some unpleasant movements on the march. This isn't a time for complacency.

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