Contours of left-wing populism

It’s gone beyond cliché to state that in 2015 the European left experienced confirmation of the rise of a ‘new kind of politics’. This was initially visible in Syriza’s Greek general election victory, and confirmed through the rise of Corbyn and by Podemos’ third place in the Spanish general election. The rise of Sanders suggests this phenomenon is not restricted to Europe. It’s not enough to either indulge in jubilation or complain about obvious shortcomings.

It needs to be understood these developments have deep social roots; that some variety of ‘the new politics’ is here to stay, presenting severe problems and limitations, as well as a root of vaunted optimism for the left. A strategy must be formulated and popularised that can take the methods of mobilisation which achieved a mass base last year, and its language of social justice and fairness, into a potentially viable confrontation with capital and the state.

Populism classically revolves around the ability of charismatic leaders to wield power over diffuse social groupings who were otherwise incapable of organising themselves into a political force, and then using state power to offer them sufficient rewards to maintain a client base of support. We’re far from a European variety of Peronism, but popular figures espousing appealing ideas that resonate with the common sense of a significant and disaffected layer of society have been a vital part of what made the recent left movements possible and important.

Rather than a traditionally understood populism, it’s an emergent major subculture in increasingly polarised and fragmented societies that have sustained these movements. During 2010 and 2011 much was made of ‘graduates without a future’, not least by Paul Mason’s despatches from Greece.

What appears to be maturing now is a section of urban-based, educated young people facing struggles in labour and housing markets with cultural values that could be loosely described as collectivist or social democratic. Crucially, they’ve a broadly favourable view of taxation, public sector and welfare state, and a commitment to the principle the economy should be shaped by state regulation with egalitarian social and political objectives.

To greater or lesser extents, this section is not completely atomised from the rest of society. Syriza and Podemos’ ability to play to national historical traditions relating to partisan struggles and Spanish Republicanism, and Corbyn’s huge election rallies demonstrated a political and social connection with the remainder of the politically active and conscious working class and labour movement organisations.

Given these developments, it seems clear that the ideas ‘Corbyn is a flash in the pan’ or ‘Syriza won’t last’ are wrong-headed. These movements are manifestations with a manifest base and the product of world-historic social processes. Whether the specific formations that have already individually mobilised hundreds of thousands of people last is, of course, important and consequential.

However, even if they crumble it seems unlikely that the brand of politics they have fostered will disappear. Whilst the demand for ‘a new politics’, ‘social justice’ or the Spanish Indignados cry of ‘real democracy now’ which inspired Podemos are aloof and abstract, there are concrete realities behind them. In particular, a complete rejection of the existing political institutions and an explicit linking of the unaccountable workings of big business and finance with them are present.

In comparative historical terms, this leaves us in the startling position that, in their political form, Corbyn’s ‘new kind of politics’ is far less based on seizing the levers of the British state than old fashioned ‘Labourism’, even in its Bennite variety. Yet its economic demands are profusely more moderate than Militant’s infamous call to ‘nationalise the 200 monopolies’ or even the 1983 Labour manifesto’s proposals for public ownership and taxation.

Whilst this is an indication of the setbacks endured in three decades which saw the erosion of the limits on the market and redistribution of wealth, it is also demonstrative of the emergent subculture’s lack of a clearly identified social subject and projection beyond struggling to achieve a level of social and economic ‘fairness’ via a politics of ‘authenticity’. At this point the emergent left-wing subculture doesn’t have a replacement for the industrial working class which provided the hopes and means for social democratic and communist projects.

This is truer in some countries than others. In Barcelona and Madrid, it was left-wing coalition of social movement activists who organised in a variety of struggles including major campaigns against house repossessions that succeeded in the municipal elections. In Britain, Corbynism almost feels like the product of the dearth of either workplace or social movement mobilisation following the intense student and union activity of 2010-2011.

These different stages of development make it clear that while there are shared processes, there are distinct traditions and dynamics between each state. Lucio Magri and Wolfgang Streeck’s arguments on the historical and contemporary need for a European solidarity that can respect varying national approaches are clearly validated.

But it also seems evident that a feedback process will be needed between the expressly political and emergent forms of social and workplace protest for serious, sustained advances to be made on any front. The biggest danger of the present situation, especially within the British context, is that despite much talk of social movements in the abstract the lack of obvious, concrete struggle has embellished large-scale illusions in the capacity of governmental, as opposed to state, power.

Despite the experience of the 2008 crisis and the banks essentially holding a gun to governments’ heads, and the more recent events in the Eurozone, the essential belief that a left-wing government in itself would be enough to enact massive social transformation seems to have grown firmer. This is particularly pronounced in relation to the popularised conception of a ‘basic income’ which in theory could erode the power of capital to force us to work.

Acknowledging these difficulties doesn’t mean disregarding ‘the new politics’ by any stretch. Its hostility to the political status quo and setup, rather than just a disregard for predominant policies or parties, is particularly important in this respect. The language of ‘the new politics’ often reads more like the demands of nineteenth century Chartism or the French ‘social republic’ than twentieth century social democracy.

As with the case of these historical reference points, contemporary demands are for a political transformation of the economy which will fulfil predominant conceptions of fairness, rather than the forms of industrial organisations and more incremental change and use of the existing institutions that characterised the last century. This is a big opportunity to present a counter-hegemonic conception of how the economy should be reintegrated with society and ran according to democratic principles if it can be seized effectively.

Our challenge is to draw up a vision of creating new institutions that will act to oversee this transition effectively and establish that sort of oversight and control, integrating the democratic impulse behind ‘the new politics’ with a concrete variety of the ‘social justice’ it espouses. It’s on this terrain that the subculture might be able to break out of being subaltern. The British general election result still hasn’t been fully processed given the excitement, organisation and fire-fighting we’ve had to do since. But the core point that suburban England didn’t vote Labour because it was convinced Ed Miliband’s modest proposals for wealth distribution and slightly higher taxes for the wealthy were a threat to their household’s wellbeing and British economic and political stability needs to be registered.

The new circumstances open up a different scenario. Labour is now in the hands of a section of society and a leadership which reject the Tory economic arguments in their entirety. The challenge is to present a vision which extends beyond the subculture, and enthusing voters, especially workers, who don’t share its cultural values, by presenting a vision of the economy and politics that captures their own frustrations about the aloofness of politics, and the travails that they and their family face at work and in finding a home.

This will only succeed in coordination with developing social movement and union mobilisation, demonstrating the exercise of power against capital and its allies in political power, and shattering illusions that they are unbeatable. Building the material forces and political consensus behind the vision ‘the new politics’ will be a project that potentially takes decades, but the recent developments have shown it’s a struggle in which we are organising for the potentially possible.

Ewan Gibbs is a PhD researcher at Glasgow University studying the political-economy and social impact of deindustrialisation. He is a Labour, Unite Community and UCU activist

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