Can Europe Make It?

Same the whole world over?

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.

Barry Hindess
4 November 2016

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in campaign rally November 3, 2016, in Selma, N.C. John Bazemore/ Press association. All rights reserved.

"It's the same the whole world over/ Isn't it a crying shame?/ It's the rich that get the pleasure,/ It's the poor that gets the blame."

(Also known by the unpleasant title 'She was poor but she was honest'.)

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 corporations 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 so far as to suggest that the answer to the problems posed by economic liberalisation is more economic liberalisation, while Stiglitz notes that it’s too easy to confuse the effects of changes in technology on manufacturing employment – robots replacing people on assembly lines, carbon-fibre components displacing steel – 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 (many of which are resolutely vocational), 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 to follow the advice of UK suits other than Farage, Gove and Johnson. In these cases, the term is used so loosely that 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. It is however 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.

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