Challenging the populist right - European precedents

The European left should be the most committed and consistent advocate of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in order to prevent discrimination. But further than that, it should espouse a cosmopolitan politics to manage diversity in a progressive manner. And that politics is inconceivable unless the individual citizen is understood to represent its basic unit.

Robin Wilson
10 August 2012

There is a widespread concern across the European left that, as in the 1930s, a structural crisis of capitalism, far from automatically precipitating a radical shift in public opinion, risks being successfully exploited by the populist right. This would not only destroy what is left of the post-1945 social-democratic consensus but would redefine politics, in polarised Schmittian terms, against the immigrant/refugee enemy ‘other’— while leaving the real author of the crisis, the banker in Keynes’ capitalist casino, scot-free.

There is a particular fear that social democrats who have spent decades catching up with the emancipating social movements of the 1960s now find themselves undercut, as their core proletarian support looks for reassurance in the slogan of ‘security’—however illusory—in a labour market where many hard-won protections have been whittled away as a supposedly unavoidable response to globalisation. Indeed, well before the crisis broke, in the French presidential election of 2002 it was clear that a significant proportion of the proletariat had voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen and since then, his daughter, Marine, has strived hard to reach out further to les classes populaires.

This, however, is not a new challenge: in the earlier phase of globalisation, before World War I, immigration turned Vienna into a multinational city like so many across Europe today. It was in this context that the Austro-Marxists developed the idea of the ‘personality principle’, by which each resident could decide as to their nationality upon reaching voting age and which recognised the labile character of cultural identity. The liberalisation of citizenship in Germany effected in 2000 under the previous social-democratic government was based on this philosophy. This recognition of what the late political philosopher Norberto Bobbio was to call the ‘individualistic concept of society’ was to be at the heart of the anti-fascist consensus, perhaps best embodied in Italy, following the second world war. The norms which the Council of Europe was founded to embed in 1949—democracy, human rights and the rule of law—are inconceivable unless the individual citizen is understood to represent the unit of politics, the bearer of rights and the subject of justice. They run fundamentally counter to the metaphorical—and, next, actual—rounding up of whole populations of individuals labelled and homogenised by a stigmatised group affiliation.

The continuing capacity of this normative golden thread to turn the political tables on the immigration issue was evident in 2010 when the right was isolated in the European Parliament on a Socialists and Democrats motion condemning the deportations of Roma from France. Then, albeit after some delay, came the remarkable dressing down for the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, from the European justice commissioner, Viviane Reding—who had the temerity to allude to the transportation of Jews to the camps under Vichy. Part of the answer for the European left is thus to be the most committed and consistent advocate of these universal norms, which coalesce in this context in the idea of non-discrimination. But further than that, in a globalised era the left should espouse a cosmopolitan politics to manage diversity in a democratic and progressive manner.

This is not a politics of rootlessness as in the conventional understanding of the term but, as David Held has defined cosmopolitanism, is characterised by the triple requirement of equality of citizenship, reciprocal recognition of our common humanity and impartial public authority to arbitrate competing cultural claims. It implies, as Ulrich Beck has argued, a political philosophy of ‘constitutional tolerance’ which ensures the state can be home to individuals from a range of nationalities.

A weakness of the 60s movements was not their individualism, still less their anti-authoritarianism, but the relativism and particularism which often accompanied the ‘identity politics’ representing one of the emergent strands. A naïve support for multiculturalism from the left often associated it in the public mind with an incoherent mix of minority cultural ghettoes—the US Democrats suffered particularly from this image, to the extent that, pre-Obama, there was an unspoken consensus that only a white southerner could be a credible presidential candidate. This, in turn, facilitated the reappearance of the ‘integral’ nationalism favoured by conservatives in the previous period of globalisation, which assumed individuals from minority communities would assimilate to the prevailing national ‘ethos’—or go elsewhere. The infamous call by the former UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, for ‘British jobs for British workers’ fell into this category, as did the futile debate Sarkozy launched on French ‘national identity’.

Instead the left should hold out a vision of a truly integrated society, which benefits economically from the cultural dynamism successive decades of immigration have brought to the US but which blocks the easy path for employers of a race to the bottom by exploiting migrant labour, formally or informally. The high road is one where strong employment protection and universal welfare based on progressive taxation—traditional social-democratic themes, particularly in the Nordic countries—can allow enterprises to maximise their human resources in the face of global competition while simultaneously progressively freeing labour from mere commodity status. It is no accident that the xenophobic right has emerged as an electoral threat in Sweden in the context of a centre-right government which, while unable to dismantle the welfare state, has increased inequality through tax cuts for the wealthy. Now that social democrats across the continent have been liberated from the ‘third way’ accommodation to a discredited neo-liberalism, they must answer the cry for ‘security’ by pledging to refurnish ‘the people’s home’ with the proceeds of taxes on socially useless financial transactions and on high incomes squandered on positional goods.

There are signs—though it is hard to look more than a month ahead, as the eurozone teeters on the brink of collapse—that the fortunes of the left are reviving in Europe. The fiercely anti-immigrant administration in Denmark, driven by its dependence on the populist right-wing Danish People’s Party, was displaced last year by a coalition led by the social democrats. Francois Hollande’s victory for the Parti Socialiste in the French presidential election was also a significant win. But it has been almost as if the best one can achieve from the progressive side is a return to the ‘normal’ government Hollande promised. This may reflect an entirely healthy disdain for the demagogy of figures such as the ousted Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. But the populist appeal of such figures across the continent remains a very serious challenge to be confronted.

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