Populism and its others: After Neoliberalism
The Graduate Center
City University of New York
For much of the past decade, neoliberalism and in particular neoliberal globalization has been the focus of anthropological concern. Now a new phenomenon is taking center stage—the political movement being characterized as populism. Previously it was the rise of, and the opposition to, neoliberalism which was at issue. Now however, it’s the failure of neoliberalism and what seems to be succeeding it that is becoming a principal concern of the discipline.
What seems to be succeeding neoliberalism are various forms of populism. But populism is only the political expression of a much deeper civilizational malaise which includes economics, morality and culture. Previously, populist movements had only gained control of the state in weaker countries in the world system. But this was when the crisis of neoliberalism was local or confined to select regions of the world. With the election of Donald Trump this has clearly changed—neoliberalism had undermined its own ‘performance legitimacy’ and the crisis had become global. Populism had now captured the pinnacle of political power in the global system and it is hardly possible to open the media today without seeing an article or hearing a discussion on the rise of populism. Generally, this refers to the rise of Trump and other political leaders like Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, the Five Star movement in Italy, and Le Pen in France. As is apparent, this is applied principally to political leaders and movements on the Right but not exclusively so. As Kofi Annan has pointed out, there is much room for the rise of populism in the developing world (Annan 2018).The late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales are also frequently instanced as examples of ‘leftwing populism,’ while in France, Jean-Luc Melenchon and his La France Insoumise movement are placed in the same category. How are we to understand these developments and what do they portend (Fieschi 2012; Hawkins August 2009; Weyland July 2013)?
Populism and Neoliberalism
The point of note is that all these movements in one way or the other, whether Right or Left, focus on one thing: the crisis in the economy, society and culture created by neoliberal globalization. And all are claiming that they and only they have found a way of rectifying the failures of neoliberal globalization and of developing a distinctive (‘right-left’) approach to public policy in order to protect all the various social strata, cultural and national interests threatened by its juggernaut-like expansion. Not much analysis is needed to realize that this turn to new political movements on the Right and the Left has coincided with the failure of neoliberal globalization to deliver on the promises it held out for large parts of the population of Europe and the United States, setting aside the global south. Neoliberalism never claimed to be a social program—on the contrary it was opposed to the “tax and spend” welfare state and championed an ethic of self-reliance. But it did promise to deliver the economic goods: privatization and deregulation would release large scale investments which would expand employment and lead to an overall increase in wages (Robotham 2009). Nothing of the sort has happened—the rising tide only lifted the yachts at the very top. The ‘stagflation’ of the 1960s has been replaced by a runaway capitalism in which there is no such thing as ‘inclusive growth’ (El-Erian 2017; Whitehouse 2018). While providing untold wealth for the 1% of the 1%, neoliberalism has led to median wage stagnation and relative decline, and the expansions in the labor market which have occurred have been largely at the lower end—in the fast food sector and other temporary forms of service employment.
The issue before us when we discuss the rise of populism therefore is really the issue of the failure of neoliberalism, in a broad civilizational sense. What is to replace it?
In answering this question it is critical to note that this is a very Western way of posing the issue. This is not at all how the situation appears in Asia, and for good reason. Having devastated “the global south” (outside of Asia) for decades, neoliberalism has now had severe social and economic consequences in “the global west” in which one may include Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. But generally speaking, this has not been the result in Asia. China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, the Philippines are all experiencing rapid economic growth which is lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty even as it has produced a new and prosperous Asian middle class (Iskyan 2016). This is typical of the long-standing tendency of capitalism to uneven development in which first the economy of one region then another, expands, often at the expense of the other (Van Bavel 2016).
In Asia, the issue of doing away with neoliberal globalization does not arise and is greeted with a shrug. It is the domestic economies of western nations that are now on the receiving end of the tendency to uneven development as neoliberal globalization has undermined the standing of large sections of society. It is also upturning the global political system and giving Asian countries a centrality to the global order which they have not had in several centuries (Dadush and Shaw 2011). One researcher estimates that “by 2030, Asians will constitute two-thirds of the global middle-class population” (Kharas 2017). This too is an important factor in the rise of populism in the West: ressentiment at the rise of Asia and a vague sense that white people can no longer take their global hegemony for granted, is an important factor in the rise of Western populism. At the same time, it is worth noting that complacent assumptions that this rise of an Asian middle class would be accompanied by an inevitable turn to liberal democracy, have so far proven unfounded: none of the above Asian states show much sign of becoming paragons of liberalism. Rather these seem to be political cultures in which varying brands of authoritarianism and populism have no difficulty in flourishing—which is not to say that liberal constitutionalism is a lost cause in Asia. What is more, as many scholars have noted, the posture of the Chinese seems to be changing. The role of the state and the Chinese Communist Party in controlling the economy and the entire society seems to be growing significantly (Hornby 2018). They no longer see their political and economic system as something peculiar to China. Increasingly, unlike in the days of Deng Xiao Ping, the current regime sees “the Chinese model” as exportable and of high general relevance especially in the global south. It is early days yet so this economic buoyancy and political assertiveness is yet to produce a cultural renaissance. But, in time, this too may come.
Not Only Economics
It was only to be expected that the deep socio-economic and cultural transformations wrought by neoliberalism would be bound to evoke a strong political response, especially in strata of the global north which have long taken their economic prosperity and social status nationally and in global society for granted as simply a given part of reality. But this should not be understood narrowly as a purely economic process. On the contrary, neoliberalism is civilizational and the aims of populism too are civilizational: alongside neoliberalism’s economic effects are its moral and cultural effects which, among other things, include an assault on homophobia, sexism, racism, and national chauvinism, the expansion of abortion and other rights for women, combined with a far-reaching relativism of values. This is why it makes no sense, as Gidron and Hall as well as Cherlin point out, to ask whether the support for populism is due to economic pressures, or a loss of social status or resentment at new cultural norms at Mutz seems to argue (Mutz 2018): It’s all of the above. The areas in which the cosmopolitan ‘flyover’ mindset prevails, are strongly identified with the east and west coasts of the United States which are also the bastions of neoliberal globalization (Gidron and Hall 2017; Cherlin 2018).
Neoliberal globalization in this broad civilizational sense has now made it clear that neither the traditional cultural norms nor economic and social status, nor political institutions of postwar capitalism can be taken for granted. There is a real prospect of the West being surpassed by Asia and its rising middle class especially as the increasingly rapid application of artificial intelligence and other automation technologies to the production process gathers speed. It should not escape our notice that the first group to experience these processes in the United States was the black working class in the steel and auto industries of the 1960s. Even as the civil rights movement was rising to a crescendo and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were becoming law, Japanese competition (followed later by the South Koreans) was already leading to a harsh deindustrialization in places such as Gary, Indiana—the home of US Steel and a long standing stable black working class community. Detroit was ground zero: here the entire social base of the black community collapsed as the automobile industry came under Japanese competitive pressure. The descent into crack-cocaine and repressions via mass incarceration, led to the collapse of black community life and was the first casualty in the expansion of the global economy. The destruction of the black working class in the first round deindustrialization in the United States, which followed until restrictions were imposed on Japan with the Plaza Accord of 1985, was thorough-going. This is why it makes little sense to oppose race to class— it is both race and class. The black working class has suffered and is suffering far more than its white counterpart. Today the lower and middle strata of the black population are in a very different position from the members of the top quantile of black income earners. The latter have experienced substantial improvements in their economic and social positions relative to their white counterparts, although with a considerable way to go (Bayer and Charles 2016).
From the point of view of Europe, the story is similar though with its own specifics. There the question has been the austerity imposed by Germany on southern and Eastern Europe considerably complicating the transition from state socialism to capitalism in the former Socialist Bloc. The experience of Greece, Italy, and France has been critical and continues to be so. At the same time, economic and socio-political developments towards right wing populism in Hungary, Poland, Italy and other states have been even more crucial. Where all this will end is anyone’s guess. It suffices to note that we are only in the very earliest stages of this socio-political, cultural and economic upheaval which is unlikely to be concluded any time soon—Act I, Scene I, so to speak. The transformations in question are deep and far reaching—likely to have the most profound impact on particular social strata, local, regional and national cultures and nation states and the global system as a whole. Many twists and turns are to be expected with the final outcome being determined by the social and political forces and movement which prove able to resolve the contradictions of our time. That is why it is a mistake to expect populism to simply fall victim to its own contradictions—or for its supporters to abandon the movement because of outrageous behavior by its leadership. The roots of the turn to populism are deep and if, as is quite possible, their economic policies seem to achieve some short term success (as is the case in Poland and Hungary) then their ‘performance legitimacy’ will certainly increase, strengthening the turn to the Right nationally and globally.
The rise of what is being called populism is an immediate political reaction to such challenges. Chavez in Venezuela and Lula in Brazil, within the framework of their individual nation states, mounted a defense against the neoliberal onslaught. In Greece, Syriza also tried to resist neoliberal austerity but in 2015 was coerced into surrender by the superior forces of German finance capitalism. The consequences for all these regimes and their populations have been unforgiving. Social strata and political movements observing these crises from their vantage points in Spain, Portugal and elsewhere have to be forgiven for concluding that there is simply no way to resist neoliberalism within the normal framework of liberal democratic parliamentary politics. Hence the rise of new political movements outside of the liberal framework which are being categorized as populist.
Immediately the problem arises of what is meant by populism and how are we to understand its political consequences. In particular, what are the consequences of populism for liberal democracy—is it a ‘pre-fascism’ with all the dire implications of such a term? Many definitions of populism focus on its political style and its consequences for liberal democracy (Abts and Rummens 2007; Mudde and Kaltwasser 2013). Populist leaders are said to use a highly emotive demagogic vernacular designed to keep the populace in a permanent state of political mobilization and semi-hysteria. Indeed, one body of research in the Philippines could be taken as confirming that view: a sense that the former populist Estrada and the current president Duterte, both at home in the urban vernacular, are “men of the people” is an important source of their political support especially with working class voters in Manilla (Garrido 2017).
Another common approach—not mutually exclusive—stresses the tendency of populists to draw a sharp distinction between those who belong to “the people” and those who belong to “the elite.” According to this line of analysis, populist claims to mobilize a homogenous “people” against a treacherous “elite” and, further, defines those who ‘truly’ belong to the people in moralistic and essentialist cultural terms. Thus from this viewpoint, populism abhors and attempts to erase the heterogeneity of society and is inherently opposed to pluralistic liberal political systems which seek to tolerate the widest possible public and personal diversity consistent with public order. Therefore, those who use the term “illiberal democracy” are held to be conceding too much to populism since, according to this view, liberalism is an inherent part of democracy and to constrain liberal pluralism is itself to attack democracy (Muller 2016).
But this is approach still focuses too much on political styles and culture rather than on ideological substance. Stephen Bannon, for example, conscious of the specifics of the United States and always harboring the thought of recruiting more Hispanics and African Americans to the populist cause, insists that he is no ethno-nationalist. Rather, he argues that he formulates his populism in purely political terms: if you are an American citizen then you are eligible to join, is what seems to follow from his approach. But few would accept these glib assurances of a civic populism as anything other than examples of “strategic non-essentialism.”
There is indeed a phenomenon properly designated as populism which looks behind the stylistics and discourse or the political moralism identified by Muller. This is a politics which rejects a class (or interest group) approach to politics which was the norm in Europe for many decades, including in the postwar period. In the United States, this class based politics was less clear but in general it was the case that big business and establishment conservatives led the Republic party and that the working and middle class and the Black and Hispanic populations as a whole, found a home among the Democrats. As in Europe, these distinctions are no longer firm as substantial sections of the white male working class have gone over to populism and critical sections of the establishment are alienated from a Trump-dominated Republican party. Concurrent with this has been the political realignment in Europe and the United States which Thomas Piketty has described as the rise of a “Brahmin Left vs a Merchant Right” (Piketty 2018). This is the idea that social democratic parties now cater to the well-off culturally cosmopolitan professionals in the big cities while the establishment conservatives are thoroughly neoliberal. As a result, it is argued, large sections of society—working and middle class, and especially, rural society now find that none of the established parties represent their interests. But it is unclear that such sweeping generalizations are supported by the data.
Save for the populists. They argue that it is possible to find economic, social and political solutions to the problems of the day which do not privilege a particular section of society and which are neither ‘Left’ nor ‘Right’ (or are both) but serve “the people” as a whole. One nation, under God, indivisible, so to speak, but minus the succeeding words--“with liberty and justice for all.” Further, this position argues that the everyday existing common sense of the people provides a template for public policy, the success of which is above all to be measured by its popularity—the extent to which policies meet with public acclaim. From this point of view, populism is a particular type of extreme nationalism and is not primarily about attacking a national elite, except and in so far as that elite becomes ‘comprador’ —agents of a foreign power, or is promoting an alien ‘metrosexual’ culture. Populism is about addressing the problems created by neoliberalism.
Although, therefore, most political scientists seem to argue that the opposition between “the people” and an alien domestic elite is at the core of populism, this is not necessarily so. Often “the elite” in question is presented as an external one—Eurocrats, or ‘Jewry,’ “rootless cosmopolitans,” or immigrants—profoundly alien to the “true people”—La France profonde. The internal problem arises, according to this view, when immigration threatens cultural identity and when some minorities of the people become contaminated by these external influences and become alien viruses in the body politic. Then, drastic surgery is justified to remove ‘the cancer’ and to restore the body to its pristine state. But the key point is not so much the demagogic attack on an elite, whether internal or external, but this political, cultural and economic conviction: that there is in reality such a thing as “one nation, indivisible” (the original formulation), that the nation-state is the political expression of this entity, and that therefore there are solutions which exist for “the people as a whole,” despite the existence of diverse individual and group interests in society. And, indeed, this kind of ‘inclusive growth’ was the case in many capitalist countries in both north and south during the postwar period of expansion. Now, outside of Asia and the Central European populist regimes, the benefits of economic growth overwhelmingly accrue to the 1% (Piketty, Saez et al. 2016; Whitehouse 2018).
Populists, whether in advanced capitalist countries like the United States, or in Turkey, Hungary, or Venezuela, face this contemporary crisis and claim that they have rediscovered solutions which are solidary, once “the elite” is excluded. In the United States, given the hegemonic position over the entire global neoliberal system, the position is necessarily different. Here the global neoliberal elite coincides with the national elite hence in this case there is a particular focus on the need to combat this powerful cosmopolitan group and “the deep state” which protects it.
Thus the critical point for this account is the ‘left-right’ nature of populism. Sometimes this outlook is rationalized moralistically; at other times ethnically or racially, or economically and politically. In other words, populist movements are particular types of cross-class alliances which deny that they are an alliance of conflicting interests. Where they recognize diversity of interests at all, they argue that these are fundamentally harmonious and that only they have developed the formula to reconcile these interests. Populists do not argue, as is the norm under free market capitalism, that giving precedence to the interests of the capitalist class, serves the interests of all of society. Instead they claim to be seeking to arrive at a line of policy which serves all members of “the people” as a collective whole, which is “neither capitalist nor socialist, neither Left nor Right.” Given that in practice diverse interests exist within this collective, which classes, strata and ethnic groups constitute what is in fact an alliance (as recognized by Fidesz in Hungary where their secondary title is “The Hungarian Civic Alliance”), and which dominate the leadership, is therefore crucial. This will determine who “the people” are understood to be, and will often determine whether this is a ‘left’ or a ‘right’ populism. If the dominant forces in the movement are from segments of the urban lower-middle and working class and their main socio-political opponents are the upper strata on the Right, then populists naturally turn Left, as in Venezuela. On the other hand, if the movement is led by conservative segments of the provincial middle classes and rural society and the political-cultural opponents are on the Left, then populists unhesitatingly hew to the Right, as in Poland and Hungary.
Given the actually real socially heterogeneous composition of “the people”—ideological protestations of “indivisibility” notwithstanding—policies being pursued will necessarily defy a clear ideological designation, except in one respect: populists all operate within the framework of a market economy and, most importantly, on the basis of the nation-state. Even in Venezuela, rhetoric notwithstanding, this has been the case. The rise of the so-called ‘Boliburguesia” has been frequently commented on in the literature (Rathbone 2017). Indeed, this is part of their popular appeal, especially in societies like the United States in which capitalist ideology is profoundly rooted in all social strata, including the working class. This is also why protectionist economic policies which curb free trade always arise in populist movements, wherever possible. Protectionism appeals both to sections of the Right (“unfair competition”) as well as to sections of the Left (“deindustrialization”) and has as its stated goal to strengthen the national capitalist economy even if it means to some extent undermining the global neoliberal free trade order and replacing it with some form of ‘managed trade.’ State intervention in the economy via large infrastructure programs to help the populist base will therefore be combined with private outsourcing of construction contracts to sweeten the pot for particular groups in the business elite. In other words, we arrive at this conclusion: populism is the ideology of national movements which seek to uphold the autonomy of the nation state against neoliberal globalization while remaining firmly within the framework of a market economy and not encroaching on the rights of property. Populists reject the idea that the nation state is powerless in today’s neoliberal global world or that the only way to combat the ills of globalization is to pursue reforms at the international economic level, for example, via reforms of rules of the World Trade Organization (Scheuerman 2011).
The eclectic combinations of left and right policies pursued by Fidesz in Hungary under Orban are classic examples. Sharp reductions in the budget deficit and other standard neoliberal policies have been combined with a public works and jobs program (particularly beneficial to the Roma and rural society) which has reduced unemployment in Hungary more rapidly than in any other Eastern European country—750,000 jobs have been created in a country of 10 million people. Relatively generous social benefits—free school books and lunches—complete the picture. Although much has been funded by the European Union ‘cohesion’ budget and could fade if this support is reduced, it is no mean achievement. At the same time, great emphasis has been placed upon entrenching respect for private property rights and the rule of law at the level of the lower courts. The government claims to have redistributed 3% of annual GDP from capital to wages since 2011 (Bershidsky 2018). Writing in Bloomberg View, Bershidsky stated further:
“When I asked Gyorgy [a Presidential advisor] if he saw a contradiction between such a leftist, redistributive economic policy and Orban's resolutely right-wing political stance, he protested. "It's not a leftist policy, it's a balance-setting pro-capitalist one," he said. "We don't want to give money to the poor unconditionally, we want to create a balance between capital and wage earners to give people a decent salary and enable them to consume more" (Bershidsky 2018).
So, it is “balance” which is being sought—‘capitalism with Hungarian (or Italian, or Polish) characteristics’—a point to which I shall return. With these achievements, no one should be surprised that Orban has been able to increase his electoral and popular support. He has achieved what the liberal Hungarian Left with its dutiful adherence to EU ‘pure neoliberalism’ failed hopelessly at—he has rescued the Hungarian economy, esp ecially the well- being of rural society, at least for the time being (Szombati 2018)(Szombati 2018). Consequently, the liberal left in Hungary has been discredited for the foreseeable future. Despite railing against the European Union, Orban is careful not to tread on the toes of German investors with whom he enjoys excellent relations and who act as a restraining influence on any potentially punitive policies which may emerge from the German state and from Brussels. He is also careful to maintain close ties with the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union—his recent rebranding as a ‘Christian Democrat’ speaks volumes—which serves also to protect the regime from political pressure emanating from Brussels. Paradoxically then, a certain type of Keynesianism turns out to be far from incompatible with populism or authoritarianism, as many historians of Nazi autobahn construction policies after 1933 have pointed out (Tooze 2006).
Thus, the core claim of populism is that it has found the solution to the challenges posed by neoliberal globalization, including the cultural dilemmas posed by cosmopolitanism. This solution is comprised of a combination of economic and social policies which are neither Left nor Right or, more accurately, are both Left and Right, combined with ethno-cultural chauvinism and a strong anti-immigrant demagogy. Indeed, populists would argue that it is the ideological dogmatism on both the Left and the Right which is preventing them from arriving at a solution to the economic, social and cultural crisis: one wants social democracy and the other hyper-capitalism but they seek “balance.” By abandoning this search for ideological consistency and not hesitating to combining policies traditionally held to be ideologically and economically incompatible, populism claims to have arrived at the solution for the central problem of our time. Eclecticism and pragmatism are their watchwords and also their strategy: by this means they hope to solidify a mass base and at the same time to retain considerable elite support.
Thus in the very nature of the populist case, there will be slippage from Right to Left—an ever-present tendency for a Right course to (occasionally) veer Left and vice versa—the so-called ‘quer-left’ phenomenon. In the course of its life, as different groups struggle for supremacy, one tendency will become more prominent than the other but this is not likely to last. At the end of the day, one tendency wins out and while the other doesn’t completely disappear in policy terms, it becomes a very secondary feature of the regime. It was not for nothing that there were ‘left’ Nazis like the Strasser brothers who had to be purged. Nor is it wishful thinking for those on the Right in the US to plan how they can pull large numbers of the libertarian left or even parts of the Hispanic and Black community, over to their side: Links ist da, wo der Daumen rechts ist!1 This feature springs from the fact that populist movements invariably have a working class component in its political base even though the leadership and large part of the membership originate higher up in the social order.
Populism, Liberal Democracy, Social Democracy
As already mentioned, one of the most important issues which have arisen concerns the nature of the threat which populism poses to liberal democracy and whether the term “illiberal democracy”—coined by Orban to describe his regime, has validity. Mudde’s and Muller’s argument that the term “illiberal democracy” should be rejected, since there can be no democracy without liberalism, is problematic. Here we run up against the well-known problem of liberalism that it tries to draw a sharp line between itself and any other form of democracy—whether of the Right or the Left, illiberal or social. In order to do this political theorists who champion liberalism often present constitutions as arising out of a rationalistic, pluralist, convention as was the case in the United States. What this obscures is that liberal constitutions, in fact, often arose out of armed struggle and war and mass movements which bear a striking resemblance to mass populist movements. Liberal constitutionalism prevails in Germany and Japan today because it was imposed by the bayonets of the victors in World War II. Likewise, liberal constitutionalism is non-existent in China and Vietnam because the Chinese and Vietnamese communist-led movements won those wars, not the forces backed by the West. The fact that India is a liberal constitutional democracy is due to a moment of unprecedented turbulence and mass destruction (at Partition). Moreover, unlike in China (and later in Malaysia and Indonesia) the Marxist left in India was incomparably weaker and in no position to dictate political terms at the time of independence in 1947. In the case of the American constitution, the precondition for the deliberations in Philadelphia in 1787 and the later amendments of the Bill of Rights was the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. The 13th amendment abolishing slavery, the 14th amendments establishing citizenship and due process and the 15th establishing the right to vote irrespective of race and color required a civil war—arguably a highly populist affair. Likewise for the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920 arose out of a mass non-parliamentary movement. The Voting Rights Act did not emerge from a graduate seminar in law: it took intense popular mobilizations such as the civil rights movement in which society was sharply divided and people were killed. In other words, many if not all of the civil rights celebrated by liberal constitutionalism arose from struggles principally outside of the parliamentary arena and framework, in which liberalism was only one ideological tendency—the one which triumphed. It is therefore quite evident that liberal constitutionalism has been both a help and a hindrance not just to the extension of democracy but to the formal-legal entrenchment of civil rights themselves. Liberal parliamentary constitutional by itself would never have been able to establish a liberal constitutional order.
There is the additional fact that, again as has been commonly argued, one of the purposes of liberal constitutions is precisely to constrain an unrestricted democracy. Much has been written about this in the case of the US constitution and its thrust to prevent “mob rule” and to protect minority rights. The late Christopher Hill also wrote at length of how (in the UK) a more democratic concept of liberty was undermined and in effect captured by men of property with the result that private property became the supreme ‘liberty’ (Hill, Liberty versus the Law). The most forceful recent statement about the conflictual relation of liberalism to democracy is contained in the work of Yascha Mounk. Writing about “the democratic myth that has long underwritten the stability of the American republic,” he states:
“The political systems of countries like Great Britain and the United States were founded not to promote, but to oppose, democracy; they only acquired a democratic halo in retrospect, thanks to more recent claims that they allowed the people to rule…
The undemocratic roots of our supposedly democratic institutions are clearly on display in Great Britain. Parliament was not designed to put power in the hands of the people; it was a blood-soaked compromise between a beleaguered monarch and the upper echelons of the country’s elite…
For the Founding Fathers, the election of representatives, which we have come to regard as the most democratic way to translate popular views into public policy, was a mechanism for keeping the people at bay. Elections were, in the words of James Madison, meant to “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.” That this radically curtailed the degree to which the people could actually influence the government was no accident. “The public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people,” Madison argued, “will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.” In short, the Founding Fathers did not believe a representative republic to be second best; they found it far preferable to the factious horrors of a true democracy” (Mounk 2018).
None of which is to be taken to mean that liberal rights are unimportant to advocates of social democracy and socialism—on the contrary. Altogether we must reject the critique of liberal democracy deriving from Carl Schmitt which some on the Left seem to find so appealing (Schmitt 1976; Schmitt 1985; Scheuerman 1999; Bernstein 2011). This is the idea that because the rights of liberal democracy are formal rights under the law, therefore, such rights are empty, hypocritical and of no value. This, indeed, is a criticism from the Right not the Left. Who can seriously deny that, all their limitations notwithstanding, the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, not to mention the earlier Brown v Board of Education, represent extremely important achievements for the black population in particular and, indeed, for all people around the world. All of these are achievements of liberal democratic constitutionalism—of the legal system in particular. They need to be safeguarded at all costs and extended not scoffed at as vacuous expressions of formal bourgeois law—the notorious “empty chatter of the bourgeois liberal.” Likewise for the Bill of Rights and the 19th Amendment. Critiques such as Schmitt’s look backwards to an age when authoritarianism was unquestioned and its legitimacy uncontested. They critique the formal nature of liberal rights as ‘hollow’ and they expose the concrete power differentials which it concedes. By espousing a seductive realism the aim is to reconcile us to accepting the inevitability of such power inequities and the authoritarian, ‘decisionistic’ regime of the Right which is its inevitable corollary. The Left viewpoint is actually the opposite of this: it recognizes the power differentials which liberal rights conceal but with a view to the removal of these socio-economic and political (and not purely legal) impediments to democracy. It looks forwards to building a new society and seeks not to do away with liberal rights but to extend them into the substantive socio-economic and political realms. What this highlights is that a purely defensive posture with respect to the preservation of liberal democracy is unlikely to be effective. Liberalism has to demonstrate that it is open to being extended to more social forms of democracy and that is capable of resolving the economic, social and cultural crises of our time. Liberalism will not be preserved from within a purely liberal position by itself. In order to protect liberalism, it will be necessary to go beyond it.
The argument here presented is that the rise of populism (left or right) is a direct result of the principal challenge of the day: the crisis of neoliberal global capitalism as it assaults not only the economic and status conditions of millions of people around the globe, but as its cosmopolitanism shatters long-held moral and cultural assumptions. At the end of the day, the economic, status and moral-cultural challenges are one unified whole in so far as every way of life and moral universe require certain economic foundation for it to be viable and have a future. But neoliberal globalization has brought precisely this into question and in a particularly brutal and unforgiving manner. In a previous paper I discussed the rise of neoliberalism and argued that this was not a voluntaristic event but arose out of the recovery of the postwar capitalist economy (Robotham 2009)(Robotham 2009). By the 1960s, this recovery had led to the economic and political strengthening of capital, putting an end to its 30 year postwar subordination to social democratic ‘tax and spend’ policies. This capitalist ‘restoration’ which is what neoliberalism represented, culminated in what it has always culminated in: a financial crisis this time, in 2008, with the Great Recession only escaping the total collapse of 1929 because of the existence of the Chinese economy and the resort to extreme Keynesian reflation of the Western economies, led by the United States. All of this has further intensified the basic crisis of our time: the conflict between globally developed productive forces on a hitherto unheard of scale (global supply chains, robotics, artificial intelligence) and the private ownership of these ultra-modern, global means of production. This remains the fundamental contradiction. From this point of view the rise of extreme inequality documented by Piketty and others, remains but a symptom: before the 1% could accumulate such wealth, it first had to be produced and they first had to have an iron clad entitlement to the fruits of the entire global production/financial system.
What this means is that this conflict can only be solved by the transformation of production relations—in other words by encroaching on the rights of private property. This is the problem of liberal democracy, from the angle of political economy. Because, the crucial feature of liberal democracy is rightly seen as its emphasis on individual rights, the rule of law and the protection of minority rights against the dangers posed by an overbearing majoritarian rule. But what upholders of liberal democracy are clear on is that the foundation of this system of rights, especially the rights of the individual, rest on one basic cornerstone right: the deeply entrenched and uncontested right to private property. This Lockean “possessive individualism” is at the core of the system of rights which is liberal democracy and any encroachment on it necessarily poses a challenge to liberal democracy itself (Macpherson 1968)(Macpherson 1968). What then happens when the economic and social problems posed by advanced global capitalism raise above all the prospect of an encroachment on private property rights—either through restrictions on ‘free trade,’ increased taxation, more social provision, re-nationalizations, or through policies which separate income and social status from economic relations such as an effective guaranteed minimum income or extensive job programs? This is a conundrum to which liberal and social democracy, not to mention ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ have yet to find a convincing answer, although there is considerable historical and contemporary experience to go by (Caldwell 2000; Fraenkel 2010).
Into this void, comes rightwing populism and various forms of ‘authoritarian liberalism’ (Scheuerman 2015)(Scheuerman 2015). They declare, with their ideological eclecticism, that they have found the solution to the economic and cultural dilemmas of our time. All is needed is to curb the extremes of neoliberal globalization and to return to a form of national capitalism dominated by the nation-state, and which seeks to strengthen the global position of national capital—the classic “strong state, strong economy” formula championed in the authoritarian pre-fascist jurisprudence of Carl Schmitt but now adapted to an immeasurably higher development of the productive forces (Dyzenhaus 2003)(Dyzenhaus 2003). It naturally follows from this that this approach must justify these policies in terms of extreme forms of nationalism, including ethno-nationalism, and far more aggressive stands have to be taken by ‘the Great Powers’ both vis-à-vis each other and smaller nations, in a manner reminiscent of 19th century Europe. It would be the height of folly to think that this approach is incapable of achieving certain short term results. The example of Hungary discussed above show this is far from being the case. Nonetheless, this populist eclecticism resolves nothing and ultimately will result in the further immiseration and subordination of its working class base and an even greater enrichment of the 1%. Those who wish to preserve the hard won rights of liberal democracy as well as those on the Left who struggle for more social and cultural rights need to take heed
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Left is, [the hand] where the thumb is on the Right.↩