Earthquakes and Landslides: Jorge Tamames on Left Populism

Jorge Tamames reflects on the writing of For the People and on left populism in the current political landscape. 

In a not too distant future, the years between 2008 and 2020 will be remembered as a fragile interlude between two crises that shook the foundations of the political and economic order in Europe and North America. This particular configuration of liberal democracy—grounded on an economic consensus that upheld international markets as optimal arbiters of social relations—was a contingent arrangement. It was rooted in the demise of Keynesianism during the 1970s and reinforced in subsequent decades, but became manifestly untenable in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis.

It should come as no surprise that the financial crash was followed by political rumblings on either side of the Atlantic. In some cases—like Brexit or the election of Donald Trump—these rumbling became earthquakes that benefitted a previously dormant radical right. In others, such as Emmanuel Macron’s France, the centre held—at the price of sacrificing the country’s political party system. In Spain, it was the left that was originally energized as the economic crisis and subsequent austerity policies exposed the faultlines entrenched by decades of pro-market policies.

The first reason for writing this book has to do with the combination of hostility and lack of introspection with which these political landslides were met. Mainstream accounts tend to clump critics of the status quo as ‘populists’ with equally demagogic and undesirable agendas. ‘Populism’, in this view, is everywhere and always a threat to liberal democracy. What this simplification gets wrong is that, while most political newcomers do claim to speak ‘for the people’, the implications of their rhetoric vary immensely depending on who they consider ‘the people’ to be in the first place.

Radical right populists claim hardworking patriots are threatened from above – by cosmopolitan elites – and below – by religious and racial minorities. Examples abound: from Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalism goes hand-in-hand with violent persecution of India’s Muslim community, to Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán, who have cemented their holds on Brazil and Hungary through fraught cultural wars waged on exclusionary terms.

Against these essentialist narratives, populists on the left pit economic and political elites on one side, and an inclusively defined ‘people’ on the other: the 99 per cent versus the one per cent, in the slogan popularised by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Making their vision compelling, however, requires integrating different social groups into a common project, as well as a political style and rhetoric that makes the connections between their respective struggles intuitive. This is a considerable challenge in an age of increasing atomization.

That populists of all stripes share an adversarial conception of politics tells us something about the state of affairs they oppose. As the Austro-Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi observed in the 1940s, societies tend to push back—first spontaneously, then through political institutions—against the unmitigated advance of market forces. It is in this reaction against decades of economic inequality, rather than in a skilful use of demagogic rhetoric that dupes unsuspecting voters, that the origins of today’s populist parties are found. But as Polanyi warned, societal ‘countermovements’ don’t always lead to more just and democratic outcomes. The last time Western societies found themselves in such a juncture, they sought profoundly different—and incompatible—alternatives: the New Deal in the U.S., fascism across Europe, and Stalinism in the Soviet Union.

The second rationale in writing For the People, then, was to develop a political economy of populism: a theory of social change that links the rise of new parties and movements to the forces unleashed by economic transformations dating back to the 1970s. I argue that the phenomenon is best understood as an earthquake: an event with a short time horizon of outcome—that is, immediate consequences—but a long time horizon of cause, in which economic processes act as tectonic plates that created profound faultlines and cleavages, dramatically exposed in the aftermath of 2008. My focus is on left populist movements that, far from presenting an existential threat to democracy, offer alternatives to the policies that have led to present circumstances.

The third reason for writing this book has to do with my own experience. Living between Spain and the US throughout the 2010s, I witnessed parallel upsurges in both countries: Podemos and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. That two different societies produced similar movements at the same time and with a comparable trajectory—an unexpected appearance, followed by impressive electoral gains that raised high hopes, and which ultimately remained unmet—suggests that their emergence speaks to socio-economic issues that define the nature of our time, not just opportunism or electoral tactics. With the left populist insurgency coming to a close in both countries, now is the time to reflect on its limitations, but also to acknowledge what have been often dramatic and widely unforeseen advances. 

Jorge Tamames is a PhD candidate at University College Dublin and Managing Editor at Política Exterior. His writing has appeared in El País, Jacobin, and The New Statesman. Previously based in New England, he now lives between Spain and Ireland.