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Thoughts on left wing populism

Demagogues cannot offer solutions

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Brexit, the recrudescence of nationalist sentiment throughout Europe, rule of law crises in at least a couple of EU Member States, rising xenophobia and euroscepticism, and growing support for a securitarian agenda in the struggle against jihad-inspired terrorism. The items that dominate the public debate are [anti-]migration, an oversimplified question of how to roll back the powers of ‘Brussels’, and how to calcify Europe’s borders while reinforcing the security and surveillance apparatus. Politics in Europe seldom are about practical ways to ensure transnational solidarity, provide for system-wide macroeconomic stabilisation, guarantee openness and foster democracy on a continental scale. These are dismissed as the fancies of “rootless cosmopolitans” or some naive liberals.

Ultra-conservatism is on the rise. It manifests both as the resurgence of overt far-right parties and the dominance of radicals over moderates within the established centre-right. The political centre is shifting rightwards. What we witness is a battle to grab the headlines, often unfolding within the limits of 140 characters. It is about returning to some ostensibly glorious past when the nation reigned supreme. Fiction matters more than facts on the ground and historical experience. We hardly ever see any concrete proposal on how to address the actual shortcomings of the European Union and its nation states.

Meanwhile, progressives are on the defensive. They are dragged in a debate that is alien to their values. How to manage closed borders, how to restore the primacy of the nation state as an end in itself, how to prevent the EU ‘bureaucracy’ from trying to enforce standards and principles, and so on. They have no cogent arguments because (i) they do not own that narrative and (ii) some of them falsely think that their movement has to adapt its views to the ultra-conservative zeitgeist or risk irrelevance. The latter is exemplified in the growing sense that the answer to the right-wing juggernaut is some variant of left wing populism. A more ‘polite’ version if you will.

That would still be the politics of negation. No creative thinking, no regard for a longer term strategy. Just desperate reactions. Instead of committing to programmatic initiatives and concerted action on the policy front, the progressives would resort to sophisms and opportunistic demagoguery. Their rhetoric’s difference to that of the ultra-conservatives’ would only be one of degree, not substance.

There is no such thing as populism with an appropriate content. There are policies that take you closer to your ideals and others that distance you from them. In the long run, being simplistic only guarantees failure.

Internationalism should encompass governance

Part of the progressives’ problem consists in the identification of globalisation with internationalism. The latter is treated as the worldview of open borders, of undermining the [nation] state in order to bring about some leftist utopia. Perhaps the left, broadly understood, is to blame for such misunderstandings. The open borders agenda, as it has been realised hitherto, belongs to the neoliberal establishment. The leftist version of internationalism is one of cross-border solidarity between peoples. Helping each other out in struggles for control over the means of production and governance.

Whereas neoliberalism has practically been a mixture of policies to:

  1. enable multinational corporations to siphon their profits across borders while avoiding taxation;
  2. undermine the capacity of the state to impose social and labour standards by increasing the power and influence of ‘free’ markets (highly structured and regulated in the interest of a select few);
  3. dampen labour rights and erode the bargaining power of worker unions by shifting the balance in favour of capital owners, under the pretence that they are the archetypical rational economic agents.

The “losers of globalisation” are the middle and working classes. It is the mass of people who cannot benefit from the cross-border power vacuum, or legally grey area, in which multinationals operate. These people do not need populist fireworks. What they would truly benefit from is governance that can tackle the challenges of the present, especially as pertains to the accumulation and distribution of wealth. Since the issues tend to be of a cross-border nature, so must governance. As we can see with the EU’s resolve to force Apple into paying its due taxes in Ireland, part of the answer lies in strengthening supranational institutions as an antipode to global capital’s destructive tendencies.

Populism of a leftist sort is a fool’s gambit. Internationalism is—or has to be—about the formalisation of politics on a scale commensurate with that of global capital. The politicisation of inter-state affairs, which means democracy that is at once normatively rooted in nations and formulated at a level above them. The European Union is such a domain, despite its evident flaws. It would be an egregious error to oppose the EU on the premise that it weakens the nation state in its struggle against internationalised capital. Isolationism, manifesting as economic nationalism, can only benefit those with the luxury to relocate with ease, i.e. big capital. Besides, the nation state will still need allies and will thus have to offer further ‘incentives’ (favourable regulation) for foreign investment. A retreat to national borders is not in the interest of the “losers of globalisation”.

To this end, and insofar as Europe is concerned, the progressive wing’s focus should be on how to reform the EU, how to refashion it into a driver for social cohesion. This implies a shift in the debate. Reform is about understanding the existing institutional order and putting forward a realisable alternative. We still do not have a perfectly clear understanding of what the left’s vision for the Economic and Monetary Union is. Is there a version of the euro that can benefit society at large? How would the European Central Bank operate if progressives were to amend the Treaties? Would the European Council—intergovernmental politics in general—continue to be the midpoint of the integration process? The list goes on. Each issue represents a challenge to think in concrete terms. To go into the specifics, which is the exact opposite of what a demagogue would do.

Avoid binary thinking

The left, broadly considered, can ill afford to internalise the binaries and metanarratives of the resurgent right. National is good, while everything else, including quotidian European politics, is bad. That kind of mentality, the hallmark of authoritarianism, has always led to disaster.

Globalisation is not just about the free movement of capital on a global scale. The international community is repeatedly called to rise up to a certain challenge. Mediate towards the end of armed conflicts. Address climate change. Provide for certain universal principles of legality/morality. It is far from perfect, but that can always be improved upon. Democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights were never served to us on a plate. These are not givens, nor are they realised without considerable effort.

The fact that the world has a greater sense of self-awareness is not a problem per se. Again, the issue is about the specifics of policy, in particular the continued dominance of the neoliberal paradigm now coupled with the iron first of fascist (‘strong’ leader) conduct. In practice, the struggle starts from home and extends therefrom. The EU must be considered the realm of domestic or ‘proximate’ politics. Important elections are on the horizon. Much is at stake. This is an opportunity to revisit the European debate. What can be done within the scope of the Treaties. How can the present institutional order of the Union be focused on social cohesion across the continent.

Ultimately though, the rise of ultra-conservatism is a reminder that complacency can have deleterious effects. There was a time not so long ago when many on the left side of the political spectrum, social democrats in particular, took neoliberal economics for granted. Some objective reality rather than ideology. This is partially reflected at the level of the EU, where many policies pertaining to the Economic and Monetary Union invigorate—indeed define—the agenda of austerity. This too is an ideological figment presented as objective reason.

A leftist variant of populism would constitute the continuation of such complacency by other means. It would be allowing the most vociferous among the ultra-conservatives to set the terms of the debate. That would most certainly have negative implications on the efforts to bring about social justice and establish a system that leaves none behind.