Bottom of the class

In the second part of our series on poverty, Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford argue that the g

Who cares about the poor? David Cameron says the Conservatives do. Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, is worried that the Tories are not simply raiding Labour territory, they are declaring war on its reason to exist. Through 100 years of disputes about what Labour is or should be about, Field says, "most have agreed that [it] exists to protect and advance the interests of the poor". That consensus is now open to question.

The Welfare Reform Act 2009 received royal assent last November. There is no better time than now for the centre left to ask itself a few difficult questions about its relationship with the poor. In the final vote on the bill, the Commons rejected Lords amendments that sought some protection for the most vulnerable. Those who are sick, even very ill, will be expected actively to seek work, or face sanctions. Sanctions also apply to mothers of very small children and to those suffering serious mental illness. But the biggest shock to those who campaigned for a more humane approach to welfare reform was the silence of the labour movement. Was this through lack of interest, or tacit support for the measures?

Government ministers rigorously defended the bill, claiming that William Beveridge would have approved of it. This is wrong. Beveridge described his 1942 plan as "in some ways a revolution, but in more important ways it is a natural development from the past". The revolutionary part broke with the ruling welfare ideology and created a "new type of human institution". Beveridge called it "social insurance", which implies both that it is compulsory and that "men stand together with their fellows" by pooling risks. The implementation of this universalist principle and its ethic of
solidarity was an exceptional event in British history. The Welfare Reform Act undermines both the principle and its effect.

Yet there is some truth in the government's argument. The rhetoric of welfare reform is in keeping with some of the "natural developments" that influenced Beveridge, including the idea of an "undeserving poor" and the belief that it is the dysfunctional behaviour of the poor that is responsible for their poverty. The punitive treatment of Incapacity Benefit claimants and the belief in the curative powers of work have their roots in the late-Victorian idea of a "social residuum". New Labour revived a disciplinary approach to welfare, concerned with controlling rather than supporting individuals.

Its intellectual lineage - represented by figures such as Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, the late-Victorian social investigators, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb - is steeped in a technocratic and rationalist notion of progress. Its driving ethos was not so much social justice as that the "degeneracy" of the poor got in the way of the efficient drive towards a perfect society. Sidney Webb railed against the falling birth rate and feared that the country would fall "to the Irish and the Jews".

Moral panic

Beveridge was a member of the Eugenics Education Society, set up in reaction to the threat of "degeneracy". Its "first object", wrote its founder, Francis Galton, "is to check the birth rate of the unfit instead of allowing them to come into being . . . The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the fit by early marriages and the healthful rearing of their children." In his 1907 pamphlet The Problem of the Unemployed, Beveridge argued that men whose "general defects" make them "unemployable" should be made "dependants of the state". In return, they must pay with "complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights - including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood".

Labour has historically lacked the political ideology to counter the legacy of utilitarian, disciplinary welfare. Its own political culture has been imbued with the Puritan work ethic. As Richard Tawney has argued, 17th-century Puritanism prepared the way for capitalist civilisation and brought with it a new punitive attitude towards the poor. Labour, like the wider social-democratic tradition, has been unable to build a counterculture that can offer an alternative ethics of living and working. As a result, it has colluded in distinguishing morally between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor.

History has shown us that economic crises generate middle-class panics about a "dangerous" underclass and its racial and sexual transgressions. In the 1980s, the new right embarked on a project to theorise an underclass in Britain. It drew on the work of the American political scientist Charles Murray, whose research had revived eugenicist debates about race and intelligence. Murray was invited to Britain by the Sunday Times in 1989 and his ideas were taken up by Digby Anderson's Social Affairs Unit. The American academic Lawrence Mead was also influential in reviving the belief that poverty was about behaviour and dependency, rather than economics and justice. The problem was not environment, but individual failing. The work of the new right laid the foundations for New Labour's welfare reforms.

Electoral collapse

The government calculated that it could triangulate the Conservatives and subject the underclass to punitive measures without alienating Labour's core supporters. Its refrain of "hard-working families" attempted to codify this division. But the so-called underclass is not a class apart as the new right and the social investigators of the 19th century tried to prove. It is an imagined body of people - chavs, hoodies, junkies - projected on to single mothers, the sick and parts of the working class impoverished by the impact of recession and unemployment.

Welfare reform has generated insecurity beyond those it has targeted. It has helped to create support for the BNP among low earners who fear the same abyss of unemployment and culture loss. The government's treatment of the poor has become an electoral liability. Statistical evidence about the numbers taken out of poverty will not undo the distrust and the feeling that Labour is "not on our side". How will Labour rebuild its base?
The centre left needs answers. The Tories discuss recapitalising the poor, while the government can only talk about harsher penalties. Across Europe, centre-left parties associated with the neoliberal transformation of the nation state are paying a heavy political price.

In Germany in 2002, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) launched the reform of the benefits system with its "Hartz IV" laws. The introduction of greater conditionality speeded up the downward trend in the party's electoral support. Membership collapsed and its working-class base deserted it. Oscar Lafontaine exited to form the Left Party, culminating in the SPD's catastrophic defeat in last September's federal elections. New Labour has followed a similar path. It must face the possibility of similar losses to its support come the election.

Jon Cruddas is the MP for Dagenham
Jonathan Rutherford is professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University

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This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously