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Brexit and the rise of populism

Populist nationalisms are replacing social democracy and Christian democracy across Europe. But we cannot, and should not, attempt to resuscitate these traditional models of governance.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias in the Spanish parliament. Photo: Francisco Seco / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserve Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias in the Spanish parliament. Photo: Francisco Seco / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reservedSurely the biggest political winner from the UK Referendum must be ‘populism’ in its various forms. It is firmly entrenched in the UK, across Europe and in the USA. So it is important to come to terms with what populism means. Within post-Second World War Europe, the two principal political movements that drove both domestic politics and international cooperative moves were social democracy and christian democracy. These two political movements supported liberal internationalism on the one hand, and European integration on the other. But both are in decline if not finished. Social democracy hangs on in a residual form in some Scandinavian countries, while the remnants of christian democracy can be found in Germany, Holland and to some extent Italy. Social democracy requires a strong trade union movement and accommodating Keynesian macroeconomic policies to support it, but both of these institutions have crumbled. Any project to try to revive social democracy is thus doomed: it cannot be re-invented under contemporary conditions or their foreseeable futures. Progressives and the Left must recognise this fact. One sad aspect of the UK political scene is the way the so called ‘Labour heartlands’ of the Scottish central lowlands, the Welsh Valleys and the Northern post-industrial districts are still referred to as such and considered the ground for a social democratic revival. But these have vanished: they are now firmly in the grip of either nationalistic projects or UKIP type overtures. They cannot be won back to social democracy (or the Labour party, one suspects).

What is replacing the twin paradigms of social democracy and christian democracy? Populist nationalisms are in ascendency across Europe, and in danger of completely eclipsing them. And these are popular nationalisms of the left as well as of the right variety. Left populism’s legacy in Latin America is one of economic disorder and democratic decline – which bodes ill for its future in southern Europe. The classic political technique of populism in plebiscitary nationalism: an example of which we have just witnessed in the UK. Thus as populist nationalisms spread we are likely to see many more calls for referenda (as currently with Scotland). This is often accompanied by proclamationism, as edicts are widely dispatched and leaders sycophantically praised as saviours.

Both right populism (e.g., UKIP in Britain, FN in France) and left populism (e.g. Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece) stress the distrust of ‘elites’. Elites are the enemy.Both right populism (e.g. UKIP in Britain, FN in France) and left populism (e.g., Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece) stress the distrust of ‘elites’ (the ‘Westminster elite’, the ‘Brussels Bureaucrats’). Elites are the enemy. The populous or multitude is afforded a homogeneity (‘us’) and set against an equally homogeneous but corrupt elite (‘them’). And sometimes this ‘them’ are foreigner/immigrants. But there are no differences or fractures amongst the people, the elite or the immigrants. Recent events in the UK have demonstrated the elite was fractured: business was split over the referendum, as was the political class, as was the media, as was the City financial community. There were similarly vast differences in attitudes amongst the voting populace. This does not distract populism from its customary insistence on an underlying unity.

Left populism stresses ‘solidarity’ with other groups and peoples, whereas right populism is thoroughly ‘nationally exclusive’ if not xenophobic. And of course there are differences in the national configurations of populism: early US populism was mainly (and perhaps still is) anti-trust and anti-monopoly. Even Donald Trump riles against these. Continental European populisms were corporatist and fascistic in origin and sentiment.

I draw attention to the common features of populism to stress that fundamentally populisms share an underlying ideological unity, despite the differences in origin and between contemporary left and right versions. I suggest this underlying unity is a dangerous one, that it should be recognised for what it is, and that continuing illusions about the virtues of ‘left populism’ amongst progressive intellectual liberals needs to be combatted. But with what?

There is no easy response to this question. However it must involve a recommitment to pluralism. That we live in a pluralistic society is surely beyond doubt – there is no necessary unity amongst either the ‘neoliberal financial-political elite’ or the ‘popular masses’. The differences amongst these groups can be exploited for a progressive purpose, alliances across traditional divides fostered and new civic institutions built – from both the bottom up and the top down (exclusivity given for either of these routes will only weaken the task). Political pluralism is not the same as either ‘individualist Liberalism’ or ‘collectivist Socialism’ in their various guises though it overlaps with them. It needs to invoke a new commitment to ‘associative democracy’, fostered by the early British Pluralists in the 1920s, and championed more recently by the late Paul Hirst. Any detour into full blown populisms will spell a disaster across Europe and beyond. Any attempt to revive social or christian democracy will only lead to a nostalgic longing for a past that is impossible to recreate.


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