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6 November 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 12:41pm

How liberalism paves the way for populism

As long as liberalism helps ensure that discontent cannot be expressed satisfactorily through democratic party politics, populisms will proliferate.

By Akeel Bilgrami

The term “populism” is used to describe a diverse and even contradictory set of political tendencies. There are left-leaning populists, such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and right-wing populists, like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. There are pro-globalisation populists, including India’s Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and anti-globalisation populists, such as Poland’s Andrzej Duda and Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Historical populisms differed too: the Russian Narodniks of the mid-19th century and the American People’s Party, founded in 1892, were movements of the peasantry, whereas Peronism in Argentina sought to further the interests of the urban working class.

It is impossible to give a uniform account of contemporary populisms if we focus on the substance of their political positions. But it is possible to approach them in a broadly unified way if we focus instead on their structural causes.

To take the populism that drove Brexit as an example: while it is true that working-class dissatisfaction, especially in the deindustrialised communities of the Midlands and the north of England, was an underlying cause, this explanation is incomplete. Much ink has been spilt to explain what prompted the larger part of a population within a nation to sever itself from a supra-nation, in the form of the EU. Rather than rehearse that familiar and vexing question, let us ask a deeper one: why would the working people of Britain have wanted to be part of a supra-nation in the first place? What’s in it for them?

Suppose a worker in Nottingham or the Thames Estuary were to ask that question by first pondering the social safety nets and humane policies in education, health, housing, etc, adopted by the British government at the end of the Second World War. Suppose they were to ask: at what site were these policies devised and administered? They would have to answer: at the site of the nation. Suppose they were then to ask whether there has been any serious effort to conceive a supra-national site for such policies? What would the mechanisms to dispense welfare at a supra-national site even look like?

If these sorts of questions lie behind the dissatisfactions felt by working people in Britain, then we get a glimpse of the good side of populism, that which dictionaries define as “the rejection by ordinary people of the elites” – in this case the political and financial elites that have set themselves up in Brussels.

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Yet this sound instinct led many to quite illogical, xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants, who were perceived as threats to available opportunities and to the “national” culture. This was a failure of inference: sound instincts from which unsound conclusions were made.

But now let’s record another – seemingly quite unrelated – lapse in inference, this time by liberal critics of populism who have both disapproved of populist xenophobia, and chastised the irrational populist denial of climate change by Trump and his supporters. As Naomi Klein and a host of other commentators have argued, there is no way to adequately address the climate crisis without introducing changes that will amount to a terminus of capitalism as we know it. But no liberals have drawn this inference from their own worthy criticisms of the climate change deniers. So, a question arises: why is the populist climate change denier more irrational than the liberal? If p (there is a dire environmental crisis) entails q (only a radical revision of capitalism is sufficient to address it), why is it more irrational to deny p than it is to deny that p entails q?

There is something revealing about liberal criticism on these failed inferences. In the first inference, the liberal is highly and rightly critical of the conclusion, the xenophobia, but has no sympathy for the premise, the perfectly sound scepticism of the supra-national ideal. In the second inference, the liberal is highly and rightly critical of those who deny the premise of the man-made climate crisis, but will not embrace the conclusion – the need to transform capitalism. What accounts for this?

The answer should be obvious. In both cases, the liberal’s critical responses are limited to the issues that make no fundamental criticism of the globalised finance capitalism of our times. Where there is such criticism, the liberal withholds assent to it.

This is a telling point. I began by saying that one way to find a common element in the disparate populisms we see today is by examining the underlying causal conditions that prompt them, and as many have noted, one of these causes is working-class grievance. But what is less often recognised is that it has become a function of liberalism in both the US and the UK to ensure that there is a drumbeat of hysteria about Donald Trump and right-wing Brexiteers, so that a return to the orthodoxies of Obama or Blairite Labour seem to be the only realistic, electable options for the left.

After the 2016 referendum, there were numerous liberal opinion pieces calling the decision to hold a referendum on Brexit “Cameron’s blunder”, and declaring plebiscites to be a hyper-democratic reflex, whereas sober democracies would simply leave things to the routine quadrennial or quinquennial electoral clock.

All of this overlooks the fact that liberal elites on both sides of the Atlantic have long ensured that there is no serious possibility of deep social transformation through democratic party politics. This has left working people so disillusioned that many do not bother to vote in general elections – whereas when they saw that the Brexit referendum presented an opportunity to actually make their voices heard, they voted in large numbers (turnout in the 2016 referendum was 72.2 per cent).

[see also: Like most secessionist movements, Brexit shows that breaking up is hard]

This means liberal anxiety about populism is not just about mass politics, but about how to deflect a proper understanding of the discontent that gives rise to populism and of what would be needed to address it. Liberalism’s explicit and self-conscious role is to refuse to allow democracies the conceptual wherewithal to even raise fundamental questions about constraining (let alone overturning) capital.

As a result, ordinary working people have no recourse to anything available in the political zeitgeist to express their deeply felt dissatisfactions. It is small wonder that they turn haplessly to what is available to them: grotesque forms of nationalistic, fascistic demagoguery that promise a fabulously different zeitgeist. Since they feel the whole game is rigged, they want to upturn the whole board on which the game is being played.

It would seem, then, that contemporary populism is prompted not just by material desperation due to working-class wage stagnation, chronic unemployment, and broken forms of impermanent and part-time employment. It is also a reaction to the lack of conceptual space in our political culture to criticise and politically oppose the sway of capitalism in its current neoliberal, financially globalised phase.

Fredric Jameson once wrote that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”. Liberalism’s wilful limitation on our imagination, combined with the chronic suffering of working people under capitalism, provides the causal backdrop for the diverse and often contradictory populisms of our time.

Akeel Bilgrami is Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. He is the author of Secularism, Identity and Enchantment.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. 

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