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2 September 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 11:27am

Why culture wars are an elite device

Plutocratic populists reduce economic conflicts to questions of belonging.

By Jan-Werner Müller

Half a decade on, “Brexit and Trump” remain shorthand for the rise of right-wing populism and a profound unsettling of liberal democracies. One curious fact is rarely mentioned: the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Remain in 2016 had similar-sounding slogans, which spectacularly failed to resonate with large parts of the electorate: “Stronger Together” and “Stronger in Europe”. Evidently, a significant number of citizens felt that they might actually be stronger, or in some other sense better off, by separating. What does that tell us about the fault lines of politics today?

Conventional wisdom has it that cultural divisions now matter most, and that plenty of people feel they have nothing in common with liberal, supposedly “globalist” elites. Yet that idea is not only empirically dubious; it also uncritically adopts a cultural framing of political conflict that plays into the hands of the right, if not the far right. The divisions that threaten democracies are increasingly economically driven, a development that has been obscured by the rhetorical strategies of a right committed to plutocratic populism.

Democracies today face a double secession. One is that of the most privileged. They are often lumped together under the category of “liberal cosmopolitan elites”, which is an invective thrown around by populist leaders, but also a term employed by a growing number of pundits and social scientists. This designation is misleading in many ways. While it is true that certain elites are mobile, they are not necessarily cosmopolitan or liberal in any strong moral sense – if by cosmopolitan we do not mean folks with the highest frequent flyer status but those committed to the idea that all humans stand in the same moral relation to each other, regardless of borders.

Value commitments are not necessarily related to travel patterns; the world’s most influential cosmopolitan philosopher, Immanuel Kant, never left his hometown Königsberg. While plenty of wealthy people make a big show of international charity work, one would search in vain for advocates of what in political philosophy might possibly be called genuine global justice. And we should not forget that, in the 1990s and early 2000s, globalisation was justified not by emphasising its beneficial effects on the world but the advantages it would bestow on individual nations.

Economic and administrative elites still follow education and career paths that are distinctly national. My students at Princeton University might go to work for a multinational company and be posted overseas, but they cannot go “anywhere” – they cannot simply decide, for instance, to join the French elite. It is of course flattering for academics and journalists to think that democracy’s fate is in their hands, and that if only liberal elites somehow cared more for white working-class men in the American Midwest or the north of England, all might be well.

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The point is not that cultural elites are not important – of course they are. The point is that simplistic divisions of society into “anywheres” and “somewheres” – famously put forward by David Goodhart in The Road to Somewhere (2017) and endlessly repeated by liberals eager to flaunt their capacity for self-criticism – systematically obscure that actual decision-making elites remain far more national and far less liberal than is commonly thought.

[See also: How Raymond Williams redefined culture]

Globalisation has not brought the end of nationalism but opportunities to retreat selectively from society – something from which economic and financial elites (again, not particularly liberal in their views) have especially benefited. They appear to be able to dispense with any real dependence on the rest of society (though of course they still rely on police, halfway-usable roads, and so on). With the globalisation of supply chains and trade regimes, workers and consumers do not have to be in the same country, and, as a consequence of the shift away from mass conscript armies, one also does not depend on one’s fellow citizens to serve as soldiers.

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An openly avowed, though also quite cartoonish, version of this secession of the economically powerful is provided by the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Thiel self-identifies as libertarian (and ended up not only as an adviser to Donald Trump but as one of the figures trying to adorn Trumpism with a philosophy). In a programmatic statement published in 2009, he wrote that “in our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms – from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy’”. He put his hope in “some sort of new and hitherto untried process that leads us to some undiscovered country”. Since, alas, there appear to be few undiscovered countries, Thiel bet on cyberspace, outer space, and, in case none of those spaces work out, “seasteading” (as in: settling the oceans).

Thiel’s dismissive remarks about the demos provoked strong reactions – in particular, his sentence that “since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women – two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians – have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron”. He later clarified that he did not advocate for disenfranchising citizens. Indeed, the whole point of his thinking was that the demos as such had to be written off as hopeless; the best one could do was to seek distance from ordinary folks – or, put differently, secession.

Thiel’s pining for undiscovered countries corresponds with the sordid reality of transnational accounting tricks. As two distinguished economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman observe, “US firms have in 2016… booked more than 20 per cent of their non-US profits in ‘stateless entities’ – shell companies that are incorporated nowhere, and nowhere taxed. In effect, they have found a way to make $100bn in profits on what is essentially another planet.”

[See also: Pensées by Bryan Magee]

These kinds of secessions are not undertaken by “citizens of nowhere” (the money does not really end up nowhere); nor does any of this have anything to do with cultural or moral cosmopolitanism, even if right-wing populists, ever ready to wage culture wars, portray things that way. But the populists’ critique does contain a kernel of truth: some citizens do take themselves out of anything resembling a decent social contract, for instance relying on private tutors and private security for their gated communities. In France, an astonishing 35 per cent of people claim that they have nothing in common with their fellow citizens.

Such a dynamic is not entirely new: writing about French aristocrats, the 18th-century political theorist the Abbé Sieyes observed that “the privileged actually come to see themselves as another species of man”. In 1789, they discovered that they were not (just as some today will eventually discover that there are no
undiscovered countries).

The other secession is even less visible. An increasing number of citizens at the lower end of the income spectrum no longer vote or participate in politics in any other way. In large German cities, for instance, the pattern is clear: poorer areas with high unemployment have much higher abstention rates in elections (in the centre of the old industrial metropolis of Essen it is as high as 90 per cent). This de facto self-separation is not based on a conscious programme in the way Thiel’s space (or spaced-out) fantasies are, and there is no “undiscovered country” for the worst-off. Tragically, such a secession becomes self-reinforcing: political parties, for the most part, have no reason to care for those who don’t care to vote; this in turn strengthens the impression of the poor that there’s nothing in it for them when it comes to politics.

***

How does all this relate to the rise of right-wing populism and today’s threats to democracy? Like all parties, populist ones offer what the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu once called a “vision of divisions”: they provide, and promote, an interpretation of society’s major political fault lines – and then seek to mobilise citizens accordingly. That is not in itself dangerous. Democracy, after all, is about conflict, not consensus, or what James Mattis, Donald Trump’s ill-fated secretary of defence, called “fundamental friendliness” (which, lamenting the lack of “political unity” in his country, he was sorely missing in the second decade of the 21st century).

The promise of democracy is not that we shall all agree, and it does not require “uniformity of principles and habits”, as Alexander Hamilton had it. Rather, it is the guarantee that we have a fair chance of fighting for our side politically and then can live with the outcome of the struggle, because we will have another chance in a future election. It is not enough to complain that populists are divisive, for democratic politics is divisive by definition.

The problem is that right-wing populists reduce all conflicts to questions of belonging, and then consider disagreement with their view automatically illegitimate (those who disagree must be traitors; Trump’s critics were not so much wrong on merit as, according to his fans, “un-American”). Populism is not uniquely responsible for polarisation, but it is crucial to understand that its key strategy is polarisation. Right-wing populism seeks to divide polities into homogeneous groups and then insinuates that some groups do not truly belong or are fundamentally illegitimate.

In this world-view, instead of being characterised by cross-cutting identities and interests, politics is simplified and rendered as a picture of one central conflict of existential importance (along the lines of “if the wrong side wins, we shall perish”). Thus, disquiet about the double secession is channelled by right-wing populists into collective fear or even a moral panic that “the country is being taken away from us”. In the US in particular, that fear helps to distract from questions of material distribution; what the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have called “plutocratic populism” combines relentless culture war with economic positions that are actually deeply unpopular even with conservative voters, but which are continuously obscured by conjuring up threats to the real – that is, white, Christian – America (or white Christian England, for that matter). While some Republicans speak out for a kind of “working-class conservatism” – just as the Conservative Party has its advocates of “red Toryism” – there is no way that the Republican Party in its present form will implement any such agenda. In this respect, Trump was typical: stoking the feelings of socio-economic-cum-cultural victimhood of his supporters, and then passing a tax cut of which 80 per cent went to the upper 1 per cent. While the jury is still out on Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda, the fact is that One Nation Toryism has also often remained mere talk.

***

Here, then, lies the gravest danger to democracy: in the face of what they perceive as an existential threat, citizens are more willing to condone breaches of democratic principles and the rule of law (it is easier, for instance, to portray judges as “enemies of the people”). The Yale political scientist Milan Svolik cites a revealing “natural experiment” in social science to make the point: on the eve of an election in Montana in 2017, the Republican candidate Greg Gianforte “body-slammed” a Guardian reporter. Plenty of people had already voted by absentee ballot; only those going to the polls on election day – by which time three major Montana newspapers had withdrawn their endorsement of Gianforte – could directly punish the GOP politician for his behaviour. And what happened? In highly partisan precincts, party loyalty trumped respect for democratic norms. Populists seek to deepen a central division in society and simplify it into a question of whether you are for or against the leader. Thus they make it more difficult for their supporters to put democracy and the rule of law above their partisan interests.

So how should liberals and the left fight back? For one thing, they should resist an uncritical adoption of the anywheres-versus-somewheres frame. What’s more, they should resist the mainstreaming of the far right, or racism lite, that some European social democrats think promises a revival of their electoral fortunes. Some point at Denmark and the mostly symbolic measures adopted by a nominally left-wing party to prove its toughness on immigration and Islamism. But, as the French economist Thomas Piketty and others have shown, most of those who abandoned social democratic parties did not defect to the far right. Instead, since the 1970s, they stopped going to the polls altogether.

Getting people to re-engage in politics is fiendishly difficult. But in their contrasting ways Boris Johnson’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings and the strategists of the Spanish left-wing upstart Podemos proved that it can be done. You can bring citizens to vote who appear to have checked out of the political system entirely, if you offer them an image of their interests and identities that they can recognise. There is Trump’s talk of “finding votes” in the sense of election subversion, but there is also the genuinely democratic practice of finding votes by seeking out those who consider themselves abandoned. And, once again, there is nothing undemocratic about drawing clear lines of conflict: criticising other parties is not the same as calling them illegitimate, populist-style.

Any social democratic programme that seeks to re-engage voters must not be neoliberalism lite, in which deregulation is the default, along with low taxation and disciplining of workers through harsh incentives to accept more or less any job (all policies adopted by Gerhard Schröder, for instance). It must also involve a serious effort to explain which basic interests are shared by those who ceased participating altogether and those who abandoned social democratic parties for Green parties, or even the centre right (in some countries such as Germany).

It is not a mystery what these interests might be: most obviously, functioning national infrastructure and an education system that puts serious resources into helping the worst-off (the vast inequalities of existing systems, where wealthy parents can simply bring in more tutors, was cruelly demonstrated during the pandemic, when even affluent parents faced realities they had never confronted before).

It is not naive to think that Joe Biden might be providing the right model here. He has resisted getting mired in debates about cancelled children’s books, critical race theory, and other topics relentlessly promoted by right-wing culture warriors. Instead, he is making a surprisingly serious effort to address the secession at the top of society, going after tax avoidance. He is even trying to drag countries along which have made tax avoidance a national business model, and, for good measure, he might be able to drag the Thiels, Musks, Bezoses and Bransons of this world back down to earth.

It would be wrong, though, to conclude that liberals must disavow so-called identity politics and leave minorities to their fate (or at least their own devices). The most prominent movements of our time – Black Lives Matter and #MeToo – are not really about identity in any substantive sense; they are about claiming basic rights which others have long taken for granted. They are also not just about “resentment at indignities”, as Francis Fukuyama claims – as if these were all emotional issues where narcissistic folks should simply pull themselves together. Nor are they just about “abstract values”, as Adrian Pabst recently charged in these pages. There is nothing abstract about not wanting to be shot by police or be harassed by powerful men.

***

Less obviously, it is also not true that claims by minorities are somehow more likely to lead to polarisation and irresolvable political conflicts. It is conventional wisdom that one can negotiate over material interests more easily than over identity, as trade unions and employers reliably did during the heyday of postwar European social democracy. For many there is also a seemingly self-evident lesson from recent years: if you don’t want populist-authoritarian white identity politics, you should shut up about the identity of black and brown people, for otherwise you are simply providing more ammunition for populist race and culture warriors.

Yet identity and interests cannot be so neatly separated. That is true today, and, if we didn’t suffer so badly from historical amnesia, we would not claim that things were all that different in the golden age of social democracy. Socialist parties never fought only for wage increases and better working conditions; they also struggled for dignity and collective respect. Think for instance of Red Vienna, made by socialists into a showcase for working-class culture and uplift during the interwar period.

[See also: The West isn’t dying – its ideas live on in China]

Even when conflicts are about identity, this does not mean that compromise and negotiation are automatically impossible. We do not necessarily all assume that there is an inner, true, unchanging self, as a romantic conception of identity would suggest. People are able to rethink their political commitments and what really matters in both private and collective life; what is regularly ridiculed by the right as “woke” today is only one example of how political self-perceptions – and hence identities – can change.

Conversely, it is far from obvious that conflicts over material interests can always be resolved in a rational, amiable manner. We have forgotten to what lengths the owners of concentrated wealth might go to defend themselves from claims to redistribution (and we are not fully aware of what they are already doing today: the political scientist Jeffrey Winters refers to expensive lawyers and accountants specialised in tax avoidance as a powerful “wealth defence industry”).

One reason why we have forgotten this is that no political leader has seriously tried to take anything from secessionists at the very top; Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama were part of a long historical arc of neoliberalism in which some progressive change was possible but the basics of the Reagan-Thatcher revolutions were never seriously questioned. In the United States, the Republican Party has been radicalised in recent years and is bent on undermining democracy through voter suppression and election subversion – even though, economically, there hasn’t been much of a threat to its backers yet. That is an ominous sign of what reaction a genuine liberal commitment to addressing the double secession might provoke.

Jan-Werner Müller is professor of politics at Princeton University. His most recent book is “Democracy Rules” (Allen Lane).

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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future