For the People

Jorge Tamames on the hope represented by left populism. 

This is an extract from For the People: Left Populism in Spain and the US, published by Lawrence and Wishart this week. 

The rise of populism is not a short-term phenomenon resulting from the sudden appearance of demagogic politicians, but a reflection of a deeper, societal response to growing economic inequality and ‘austerity’. Drawing on the work of Karl Polanyi, I frame populist parties as part of a ‘double movement’ that seeks to contain market logic and adapt it to the needs of societies imperilled by its advance. Following Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, I view populism as a political logic based on the establishment of internal, agonistic frontiers – an us and a them – between ‘the people’ and political and economic elites, and the creation of bonds between different groups that face a common adversary. This logic is susceptible to becoming galvanised under specific social and economic circumstances, generating a populist moment.

My focus is on left populist movements, which are frequently presented as equatable to their radical right counterparts in spite of immense programmatic and ideological differences. I argue that the former, far from presenting an existential threat to liberal democracy, offer effective alternatives to the processes and policies that have led to economic inequality, political instability, and the rise of the radical right.

None of this makes populist claims inherently inclusive or democratic. The populist logic can be harnessed to mobilise disenfranchised citizens against corrupt elites, but it can just as easily be deployed to inflict violence upon marginalised communities. Radical right populists construct ‘the people’ as hard-working patriots threatened from above – by cosmopolitan elites – and below – by immigrants and religious and/or racial minorities, as well as the advance of feminism and LGBT rights. Examples abound: from India’s Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalism goes hand-in-hand with violent persecution of the country’s Muslim community, to Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán, who have cemented their respective holds on Brazil and Hungary through fraught cultural wars waged on exclusionary terms.

Against the essentialist narratives of the populist right, populists on the left draw a frontier based on material conditions: 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. Articulating this frontier, however, requires cooperation, solidarity, and the integration into a common project of heterogeneous societal groups, as well as a political style and rhetoric that makes these connections intuitive – no small challenge in an age of increasing social fragmentation.

That populists of all stripes adhere to an adversarial conception of politics tells us less about them than about the brand of politics they oppose – a decades-long consensus between the centre right and centre left, over which time the free market has become increasingly exalted as the optimal arbiter of social relations. We have come to associate this socio-economic model with liberal democracy, but it is a historically contingent arrangement, rooted in the demise of Keynesian economics during the 1970s, consolidated by the left’s embrace of ‘third way’ politics – that is, a tacit acceptance of neoliberalism – and reinforced throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, becoming manifestly untenable – if nevertheless still applied – in the aftermath of the 2008 crash.

Recovering the left’s raison d’etre demands refusing its neoliberal reinvention. Making a left project meaningful and appealing today requires combining the left’s original, transformative ethos with the confident praxis it expressed throughout the post-war period. There is reason for cautious optimism. During the onset of neoliberalism, progressives and the left struggled against a coherent, well-structured assault on embedded liberalism and the post-war Keynesian consensus. Today they find themselves in a different setting. Neoliberalism has lost traction since the 2008 crisis. New economic ideas today – on the relationship between inequality and meritocracy; on the nature of value and the public sector’s role in its creation; on how to tax wealth and combat climate change in an effective way – come from the left, not the radical right or the centre. What is needed is a lever to enact this agenda of radical social democracy, politically as well as culturally.

In a well-known poem, Bertold Brecht tells the story of the tailor from Ulm, who in 1592 designed a device that would allow people to fly. Challenged by the bishop to prove its usefulness, he strapped the contraption to his back and jumped from the roof of the town’s church. It was a premature attempt to storm the heavens, and it ended with the tailor flattened against the pavement. But this gesture, Brecht suggests, was not in vain. Four centuries later, humankind learned to soar across the skies.

The parable is touching, but it requires an update in light of present attempts to storm the heavens. The political, economic, and environmental transformations our societies must undergo if we expect to have a future worth living cannot be postponed for another four hundred years. Given liberalism’s indifference and the centre left’s reluctance, left populists must provide the critical impulse for this paradigm shift.

In For the People: Left Populism in Spain and the US.Jorge Tamames offers a stimulating comparative study of Spain’s Podemos and the Bernie Sanders movement in the US. Tamames argues for left populism as a potential powerful antidote to rising inequality in both Europe and America. 

‘A fascinating study into our tumultuous times, full of insight and compelling historical detail, underlining that the populist moment is not a passing aberration. Critical to any understanding of this age of upheaval.’
- Owen Jones