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3 February 2021

Populism in the pandemic age

Will the Covid-19 crisis fuel populism, or extinguish it?  

By Jeremy Cliffe

Since shortly after the outbreak of Covid-19, two theories about the pandemic’s likely impact have been circulating. One – let’s call it the “bread thesis” – maintains that the crisis will reinstate respect for seriousness and competence. It will remind everyone that the nations of the world are interdependent and that the politics of expertise puts food on the table and keeps the diners alive.

The other – let’s call it the “circuses thesis” – suggests that, with borders tightening, economic and social turmoil exacerbating old inequalities and anger over lockdowns rising and being directed at elites, the pandemic will benefit populists stirring culture wars.

The big political question this decade will be which thesis is more accurate. Enter Michael Burleigh, a British historian and recently the inaugural Engelsberg Chair in History and International Affairs at the London School of Economics. From his lectures in that post, Burleigh has composed Populism: Before and After the Pandemic. This slim book ranges across many of the subjects of his previous works – 20th-century Germany, decolonisation and the Cold War, the decline of the West, the uses and abuses of history – but concludes with reflections on Covid-19 and what comes next.

It sits at the juncture of three current publishing trends: globetrotting think-pieces on Covid-19 (Ivan Krastev’s Is It Tomorrow Yet?, Fareed Zakaria’s Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, Slavoj Žižek’s Pandemic!), populism explainers (Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy, Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit) and explorations of post-imperial identity (Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland, Robert Tombs’s This Sovereign Isle). Readers looking to understand the transformations brought about by the virus should start with Krastev’s effort, but Burleigh’s book is a spirited, readable and thought-provoking tour through the forces defining our age. Populism only gets to the pandemic in its pessimistic conclusion, a short epilogue that follows three discrete but interlocking essays.

[see also: The fall of the Roman republic is a warning about today’s degenerate populists]

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Burleigh begins with an account of the recent populist wave and how elite interests have ultimately become the progenitors and beneficiaries of movements purporting to rally the masses against the rich and powerful. The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde has written that populism is a “thin ideology” which can bind itself on to other political traditions (nationalism, socialism, conservatism, even liberalism) and Burleigh examines its many different international forms in that spirit, neither demonising populist support nor wrapping it up in sentimental odes to “real people”.

The second essay compares the post-imperial experiences of Britain and Russia. While Burleigh does not labour the parallels, he notes an important similarity. In both countries the carapace of empire obscured the nation underneath – the Russian Soviet republic had no formal capital nor a communist party of its own, as England today has no parliament of its own – and the retreat of empire is prompting new reckonings with that underlying identity.

The third essay takes in Poland, Hungary, China, South Africa, Britain and the US to show how history is being politicised in order to “unify… populations, or to divide them into rooted patriots wedded to myths versus elite cosmopolitan subversives”. All of which resonates in the wake of the “statue wars” in 2020 and the storming of the Capitol in Washington, DC – where the Confederate flag was held aloft within its walls for the first time ever.

Populism displays Burleigh’s eye for enlivening and memorable aperçus, anecdotes and factoids. He compares the similarities between different forms of populism to “the Habsburg jaw in portraiture”, and Norman England’s supranational, Francophone aristocrats to “Davos man in armour”. The Chinese Communist Party, he informs us, once produced a boxed DVD set for its cadres on what Mikhail Gorbachev did wrong in the last days of the Soviet Union. By 2007, 20 years after Ronald Reagan abolished balanced reporting rules for broadcasters, 91 per cent of US radio stations had a conservative bias. Emmanuel Macron based his listening tour following the “yellow vests” protests of 2019 on a similar exercise by Pierre Poujade, the original French populist.

This mastery of the past helps with predicting the future. Burleigh sees Vladimir Putin, who, after a referendum last summer, can now stay in office until 2036, adopting a form of back-seat power akin to that of Deng Xiaoping in 1980s China. In the shortening of global supply chains due to the pandemic he sees similarities to the breakdown of large-scale tile and glass production in the late Roman empire. And in Brexit and the quandaries about Englishness he sees a risk that Britain will follow Russia in resolving its post-imperial identity by forging a new one defined sharply and antagonistically in opposition to Europe. That a bureaucratic dispute over vaccines between the EU and a post-Brexit Britain has so quickly degenerated into a culture war and merged with emotive debates about the future of the union lends weight to that argument.

[see also: The Big Squeeze: How financial populism sent the stock market on a wild ride]

All of which brings him out at the pandemic-era epilogue. Burleigh gives the case for the bread thesis ample space, citing the chaotic scenes after India’s populist prime minister Narendra Modi announced a national curfew with four hours’ notice, forcing millions of Indians to travel back to their home villages in scenes that resembled the chaos of partition in 1947. Such misgovernment, he notes, naming instances in Italy, Brazil, Britain, Russia and elsewhere, shows the limits of populist rule – Donald Trump’s election defeat being a prime example.

Yet the book’s conclusion sides with the circuses thesis. Culture wars are bubbling even during lockdowns. Protracted economic downturns will come when emergency fiscal support is pulled and bankruptcies and unemployment soar. “Unlike after the financial crisis of 2008, there will be no popular patience with further austerity,” writes Burleigh. “Any signs that economic inequalities are not being addressed this time will not be so passively received…” He cites France, where a combination of previous socio-economic grievances, the economic blow of the pandemic, waning patience with lockdowns and a search for scapegoats could put Marine Le Pen “back on track to attack Macron as the incarnated representative of the global rich exploiting the couches populaires”. Recent events support this. The storming of the Capitol spoke to the enduring disruptiveness of Trumpism. The vaccine nationalism rising in Europe hardly augurs a new age of enlightened international cooperation. In France, a recent poll put a Macron-Le Pen run-off in next year’s presidential election at 52 per cent to 48.

The message of Populism is not entirely pessimistic. Burleigh argues for a more robust defence of liberal democracy, a confrontation with the forces of inequality and division, and a scepticism about the notion that we are slaves to historical precedent. But, as his compelling book argues on its detours through time and space, there is also a case for realism about what the coming period of turmoil might bring. Bread does not always beat circuses.

Populism: Before and After the Pandemic
Michael Burleigh
Hurst, £10.99, 152pp

This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy