Against (the concept of) populism

A spectre is haunting contemporary democracies – the spectre of populism. The major institutions of established democracies have entered an unholy alliance to exorcise this spectre, centre-left and -right parties, serious print and broadcast media, Tony Blair and Christine Lagarde. But what is populism and what do they have against it?

Populism is a concept that I have never been able to take seriously but I am happy to agree that it is widely regarded as a bad thing, although as Maxine Molyneux and Thomas Osborne note on the openDemocracy website (22 November 2016), the term can be used in a positive sense. To understand the predominantly negative connotations of the term, it is useful to go back to the treatment of democracy in the history of Western political thought. For much of this history, as Jennifer Tolbert Roberts reminds us in her insufficiently appreciated Athens on Trial: the Anti-Democratic tradition in Western thought (1994) democracy has not been well regarded. Of the three forms of government distinguished in Aristotle’s Politics, by the one, the few or the many, the last was seen as most prone to distortion and thus a threat to the general interest – a view of the people that has sometimes been resisted by anarchists and Marxists, notably in Hardt & Negri ‘s celebration of the multitudeThis was because the poor and, for the most part, poorly educated people were seen as unskilled in the evaluation of argument and therefore as particularly susceptible to the unprincipled appeals of demagogues.

This generally unfavourable Western view of democracy changed over the course of the nineteenth century as the meaning of democracy itself shifted from government by the people themselves to representative government. In the late eighteenth century, the American Federalist Papers, while noting the importance of keeping the work of government out of the hands of the people in their collective form, nevertheless assumed that the people could be trusted to appoint those from a better class of person to represent them. In the same period, the English radical Tom Paine argued in favour of ‘representation ingrafted upon democracy’, which he preferred to pure democracy. Representative government offered a version of government by the many that promised to avoid the risks of corruption associated with government by the one or the few while also keeping the people ‘in their collective form’ out of the practice of government

By the beginning of the twentieth century, democracy, while still in some left-wing contexts, retaining its earlier meaning of government by the people themselves, had also come to designate ‘representative government’, a complex system of government by networks of elected representatives and unelected public servants, operating through combinations of representative, vaguely consultative and hierarchical institutions. The long-standing Western fear of the people is central to this second sense of democracy, which generally involves institutional arrangements – a free press, rule of law with a moderately independent judiciary, representative government with a system of ‘responsible’ political parties – expected to both promote popular participation and keep its impact under control. Grahame Thompson (openDemocracy, 22 November 2016) describes these ‘four institutional manifestations of a civilized democratic life’ as the principal targets of populist rhetoric. When the World Bank , international development agencies, and Western political leaders favour democracy promotion, it is usually this second understanding of democracy that they have in mind.

What does all this have to do with the contemporary discussion of populism? My sense in reading as much as I can bear of this discussion, is that the term ‘populism’ is used to condemn any appeal to the people that seeks to circumvent the institutional arrangements noted above, whose role is to contain the impact of the people on the actual work of government. Where Thompson identifies these institutional arrangements as the central focus of populist rhetoric, my point is almost the obverse: that political organisations or programs that attack these institutions get to be labelled populist. The condemnation of populism serves, in effect, to celebrate what we now call democracy. Populism is thus seen in: British, American and Australian attacks on the press and on what passes in these countries as an independent judiciary; Australian Governments’ efforts to undermine the Human Rights Commission and, in New South Wales, the Independent Commission Against Corruption; Donald Trump’s occasional threats during the 2016 Presidential campaign to rapidly (without due process) incarcerate or expel millions of hispanic migrants, to send his opponent to jail and not to accept the election result; the British LEAVE campaign’s pretence that a favourable referendun result could trump, no pun intended, the sovereignty of parliament; President Dutterte (Harry!) of the Philippines encouraging police to hunt down and kill drug traffickers.

All that unites these different populisms is that they are labelled as such by critics. While it is not always possible to choose the terms in which public debate is conducted, we should recognise that this labelling game is, at best, uninformative and, at worst, seriously misleading. We should not allow our dislike of many ‘populist’ attacks on parliamentary democracy, the party system, the press or the rule of law (Thompson’s four ‘institutional manifestations of a civilized democratic life’) to lead us into the view that there is little objectionable about these institutions as they stand today. While freedom of the press sounds good – anyone is free to start up and run a paper or journal – it has a significantly different meaning when, as in Australia and Britain, the press is dominated by a single proprietor. Or, imagine trying to explain the beauty of the rule of Law to indigenous peoples in Australasia and N. America, the many unfortunate souls trapped in Gitmo by a Republican controlled Congress or in what Australia euphemistically calls ‘immigration detention’ but not prison or, for that matter, to Chelsea Manning, condemned by the US military to solitary confinement, in effect, for trying to escape her punishment by taking her own life.

Same the whole world over

Its the same the whole world over/ Isn’t it a crying shame?
Its the rich that get the pleasure,/ Its the poor that gets the blame. (C19 english song.Also known by the unpleasant title ‘She was poor but she was honest’. Consider what the conjunction ‘but’ does here?)

Sometimes it feels as if, on top of the impact of climate change, the same problems appear ‘the whole world over’: the rich and large corporation are reaping the benefits, while the poor are paying the price and sometimes pushing back. The losers from this process have not had a good press lately. Commentators have accused them of supporting Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the occupy movement, Donald Trump & Bernie Sanders in USA, Marine le Pen in France, AfD in Germany and extreme-Right parties all over Europe. The details of the story differ from case to case but the basic structure is fairly simple. Those who have lost out from globalisation, neo-liberal economic reform, European integration and policies of free trade fundamentalism are seen as being behind a global rise in anti-political populism, protectionism, anti-immigrant sentiment, racism and xenophobia. They have supported Trump, Sanders and Corbyn, and belong to a broader movement against mainstream politics and economic liberalisation.

This last development has been deplored by a host of liberal worthies, European and American contributors to Project Syndicate, including Joschka Fischer, Christine Lagarde and Joe Stiglitz, Jochen Bittner, a political editor at Die Zeit and NYT columnist, and Timothy Garton Ash, a professional liberal internationalist based in Oxford – and, unlike the conditions against which they were reacting, cautiously welcomed by writers more clearly on the left. Most liberals agree that the impulse to populism and especially, the anti-free-trade animus should be resisted but usually without suggesting what could be done to protect those left behind by globalisation. Garton Ash goes as far as to suggest that the answer to the problems posed by economic liberalisation is more economic liberalisation, while Stiglitz notes that its too easy to confuse the effects of changes in technology on manufacturing employment with those of free-trade/globalisation and that the label ‘free-trade agreement’ often masks deals designed to favour large corporations.

This broad literature suffers from three serious and interrelated problems: first, both liberal and left commentary are tempted to generalise, one searching nostalgically for a lost anti-capitalist internationalism and the other finding its culprit in the flip-side of this romance, the utterly conventional, but insufficiently recognised, prejudice of Western political thought against the great unwashed, the untutored masses who are seen, following Aristotle, as a standing threat to the stability of any political regime. Second, we observe a careless use of evidence. Commentators have been tempted, for example, to account for Britain’s Brexit vote in terms of the reactions of depressed areas of the industrial North of England. Yet, while many in these areas voted LEAVE, the decisive weight of LEAVE votes were cast in the more prosperous South of England. There is, in other words, no reason to blame the English losers for the decision to LEAVE.

Or again, the fear of the untutored masses leads to a belief in the civilising effects of education – a view that underlies many academic defences of humanities education and the familiar observation that susceptibility or otherwise to populism is a function of education: people with less education are more likely to embrace populist politics than those with more. We are told, for example, that surveys show American professors are generally more liberal – in the American sense, that is, more likely to vote Democrat – than other Americans and that, in the current presidential campaign white males with two-year college degrees, are far less likely to support Trump than those without. This last seems entirely plausible but, far from it supporting the civilising function of education narrative, it is a stretch to count as education a degree in such intellectually demanding disciplines as commerce, counselling, marketing, office management or hospitality.The key difference between those with vocational two-year degrees and those without is less a matter of education than of labour market opportunities. In this sense those without college degrees are clearly disadvantaged. It is this rather than lack of education that leaves them open to Trump’s and Sanders’ appeals.

Third, this literature suffers from weak conceptualisation, most obviously in relation to neoliberalism and populism. The latter is widely used to account for the rise of Trump and Sanders in the US and even of Corbyn in Britain, ‘extreme’ right- or left-wing parties in parts of Europe, and the failure of British voters too follow the advice of UK suits other than Farage, Gove and Johnson. In these cases, reference to populism indicates little more than that mainstream politics is in trouble, thereby presenting tautology as explanation: mainstream politics is in trouble because mainstream politics is in trouble. As for neoliberalism, this is a notoriously difficult notion to pin down, in part, because it is a pejorative term and rarely used in a neutral or positive sense. Thus, the occupy movements in America, the growth of Syriza in Greece and the British vote for Brexit could all be read as exemplary forms of resistance against the same thing, neo-liberalism, and used as templates for interpreting developments elsewhere.

However, to argue that, climate change aside, there is no reason to believe that ‘its the same the whole world over’, is not to deny the impacts of neoliberalism, whatever that might be, rampant inequality, free-trade, globalisation and even of populism but it is to suggest that, rather than indulge in bold generalisation, their alleged impacts need be established in each individual case. ‘Populism’, to take just one example, is often used to account for the white nationalism and xenophobia of Trump’s white male supporters without two-year college degrees: they are said to feel that their own once-privileged positions are under threat at home from Blacks and Latinos and from lower-paid foreign workers through the impact of untrammelled free trade. In responding to such analyses, we should take care to distinguish between the targets of people’s anger – Blacks, Latinos, the very rich, big corporations,Wall St., free trade, foreign competition, etc – and whatever produces the conditions – technical change, poor services, mainstream political indifference, dubious ‘free trade’ deals and competition from foreign imports – to which this anger is a response.