Becoming popular by opposing populism: A progressive’s task – The Guardian

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A few days ago I received an email from the Guardian: “We’re putting a panel together of writers and thinkers following the announcement that Jeremy Corbyn is planning to relaunch his image and policies as a leftwing populist. We are asking for 300 words in response to the question, “What should Corbyn’s leftwing populism look like?”. Here is the response that I, and others, provided:

Yanis Varoufakis: It’s not whether Corbyn can be populist – it’s whether he can become popular

Yanis Varoufakis.

The Sun and William Shakespeare are both popular but only one of the two is populist. Jeremy Corbyn cannot be made over into a populist any more than the bard could. The question is whether he can become popular. If some form of makeover is necessary, fair enough. But it is pure mischief to portray this as a slide toward populism.

When I scored the largest parliamentary majority in Greece’s general election two years ago, I too was portrayed as a populist. For the establishment, anyone who does well electorally by challenging its favourite sons and daughters is dismissed as a populist. But this lets populists off too lightly. A populist promises all things to all people, while preying on their superstitions and fears. In contrast, when I ran for parliament I quoted Winston Churchill in promising “blood, sweat and tears” as the price of our liberation from debt bondage and from Greece’s oligarchy. In financial terms, I did not promise a single euro to anyone making more than €700 monthly. The election outcome proved that anti-establishment politicians can gain popularity by eschewing populism.

Populism’s recent rise is due to the establishment’s inane handling of a crisis it caused. Populists need the establishment to remain relevant, while the establishment depends on the fear of populists to hang on. The real opposition is between progressives, such as Corbyn, and the never-ending feedback mechanism between the establishment and populism.

The key to success is universal respect for the concerns of those who are feeling weak, abandoned, discarded. Poorer white people must not feel that we care less for them than we do for ethnic minorities or LGBT people. If we make them feel so, we can then convince them that immigration is not the problem and xenophobia is not the solution. But this requires also an economic blueprint that breaks with austerity and secures the resources necessary to fund not only the innovators who will produce the next killer apps but also the unsung maintainers who clean sewers, lay down rail tracks and wash our hospitals’ dirty sheets.

Maya Goodfellow: Crafting a populist message rejecting migrant-bashing won’t be easy

Maya Goodfellow.

Populism in the UK has become synonymous with the far right and anti-immigration politics. As the country lurches towards Brexit, once enthusiastically pro-EU MPs are tossing freedom of movement out of the window in a desperate bid to show they “understand people’s legitimate concerns” on immigration. In this climate, it seems almost impossible to imagine a politics that challenges this, but that’s what Labour has to do.

The term “populism”, regularly bandied about in political commentary, has a meaning well beyond Nigel Farage and his xenophobia. It should be about siding with the public against the elites. There is no reason why populism should be anti-immigrant, particularly when it is the elites (economic, social and political), not migrants, who are the cause of this country’s problems.

One of the reasons xenophobic populism has flourished is because there’s been no effective counter-narrative from Labour. Well before Brexit, New Labour pursued draconian asylum policies, while Ed Miliband promised to clamp down on migrants claiming benefits, even though the number of people doing so was minuscule. The party has been echoing parts of the rightwing populist message for too long.

It’s a tactic that is a demonstrable failure, only validating anti-immigrant politics. Instead, Labour should tackle head on the issues that immigration is used as a proxy for: anxieties about an insecure labour market, unaffordable housing and a declining sense of community. That means directing blame away from migrants and outlining an explicit anti-racist strategy, because anti-migrant feeling cannot simply be reduced to economics.

Crafting a populist message that rejects any form of migrant-bashing won’t be easy. But given the sharp rise in hate crimes and the severe economic cost of cutting migration, any other strategy would be deeply irresponsible.

Mark Seddon: Use Corbyn’s authenticity to catch the zeitgeist

Mark Seddon.

Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest attribute is his authenticity. Millennials can see that, even if sections of a myopic parliamentary Labour party and the Westminster lobby can’t. So it would be pointless to “relaunch” him as though Corbyn were some kind of product, but there is every point in getting more people to hear and see him, along with many of the impressive, new members of the shadow cabinet.

I would urge Corbyn and his team to closely observe the brilliant social media campaign of another authentic leader: Bernie Sanders. He came within a breath of being the Democratic party’s presidential candidate, and who knows what might have happened had he done so.

Corbyn, like Sanders, can catch the zeitgeist. There should be a focus on a few key issues: saving the NHS from perfidious Tory privatisation; building 500,000 affordable homes with rent controls; a wealth tax; a basic universal income; restoring student grants; a huge programme of investment in infrastructure and job creation and an unremitting attack on an economic system that is impoverishing millions and is being used by the right to encourage the deprived to turn upon the even more deprived.

Under Corbyn, Labour has become a mass party, with hundreds of thousands of people with hope and enthusiasm, prepared to turn the tide. And if Theresa May attempts to cut and run with an early Brexit-focused election, Labour should firmly fight on its ground. The referendum result was a howl of protest. Voters by and large have moved on, having done what was asked of them.

Now, surely is the time for all good Labour people to come to the aid of the party. Oh yes, and its leader. With no apologies to Trump: “Let’s Make Britain Fair Again!”

Aditya Chakrabortty: Playing at populism is laughable

Aditya Chakrabortty.

Jeremy Corbyn must do more than play at populism. To see why, read a recent essay by one of the great authorities on populism, Jan-Werner Müller.

Writing in the London Review of Books, Müller makes the fundamental point that, while all populists declaim the elites, not all anti-elitists are populist. “Those who draw a lazy equivalence between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump fail to recognise that populists don’t stop at protesting against Wall Street or ‘globalism’. Rather, populists claim that they and they alone speak in the name of what they tend to call the ‘real people’ or the ‘silent majority’ … Populists accuse all other political contenders of being illegitimate … They make it personal.” Trump promised to jail “crooked Hillary”, even while lining up a cabinet in which the 17 members so far announced have more money than a third of all American households put together. Populism, American-style.

So what’s populism in the hands of our Little Englanders? It means to keep schtum while the Daily Mail calls independent judges “enemies of the people”. It is to ape Nigel Farage and claim that leave voters are the “decent people”. It is to send round vans telling immigrants to “Go Home”.

Fantasists might pretend a leftwing populism would be “oh-so-different”; recent history tells us otherwise. I bet somewhere in your bank of cringe you too recall Gordon Brown banging on about “British jobs for British workers”, Ed Miliband flogging anti-immigration mugs and, yes, an Oxford- and Harvard-educated intellectual protesting plummily that he felt nothing but “respect” for drivers of white vans. Which only proved that he’d never seen one actually driving.

Such attempts at a populist style never touched the problem that still dogs Labour. Like so many social-democratic parties in the 90s and 00s, it embraced the inequality that marks neoliberalism – only to find that it blew apart its electoral base.

Playing at populism is laughable when the existential threat to Labour is how to represented a shattered working class and a middle class that is fast dissolving. A mainstream left party that breaks with the dumb centrism of the past 20 years? I’m all for it. An opposition that finally accepts our bust economic model is bust? Excellent. But a Labour leader playing the same rhetorical and tactical game as a Trump or a Farage? Give me a break. Both Britain and Labour are in too big a hole for such nonsense.

Chantal Mouffe: A left-populist approach is the only way to renew radical politics

Chantal Mouffe.

Social democracy is in crisis all over Europe. In France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Sweden, the leaders of the centre-left parties have suffered serious defeats. They have lost the support of the popular sectors, which are increasingly attracted by rightwing populist parties.

Could social democratic parties survive this crisis or should we come to the conclusion that they are beyond repair? This is what I was inclined to think until very recently, but the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party has brought me hope that things could be different in Britain. And the recent announcement that Corbyn is going to adopt a left-populist approach indicates that he has understood that this is the only way to renew radical politics.

Refusing to acknowledge the democratic character of those demands and the need to address them has given the possibility to rightwing populists to formulate them in a xenophobic language. The only way to stop their rise is by offering a discourse able to give a progressive answer to those demands, articulating them to the other democratic demands existing in society. The aim is the creation of a “collective will” that could mobilise collective efforts towards equality and social justice. Such is the nature of a leftwing populist project and if Corbyn is able to move Labour in that direction, the consequences for the whole European left will be incalculable.

Ayesha Hazarika: Focus on the things really annoying voters

Ayesha Hazarika.

Given the rise of populism that is sweeping the world, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour could seize the moment and ride the political wave. But he needs to listen to what people are saying and tap into their hopes, fears and anxieties.

Much of Corbyn’s appeal is a leftwing populism. But he and his team need to ruthlessly focus on the things that the public really care about. That doesn’t mean abandoning his principles at all. It means following the Lynton Crosby strategy – get the barnacles off the boat. Populism is about defining yourself against the establishment, which is what Corbyn excels at.

But if Corbyn wants his leftwing brand of populism to become popular he should focus on the things that are really annoying people up and down the country; not get distracted by hobby horses but focus on the key bread-and-butter issues that make people tear their hair out. Corbyn was right to focus on social care at PMQslast week. More of that, please. Caring for older relatives is a major headache. Getting time off to take older parents to hospital appointments is also stressful.

And childcare remains one of the biggest challenges for parents – not only finding care that is good quality and affordable but the drama of how to cope when your kid gets ill and the fear of asking your employer if you can have a day off or work from home. Transport is another massive headache for people, especially with the horror of Southern rail. Labour should focus on a radical rail policy to bring down ticket prices and drive up standards.

These are the kind of basic policy ideas that Corbyn should have a laser-like focus on, because they tell the stories of people’s lives.

Rafael Behr: The challenge to transform Corbyn’s image is huge

Rafael Behr.

Relaunches are mostly futile in politics. Candidates who don’t fly the first time tend to sustain too much damage in the crash landing for public opinion to give them a second go. Ed Miliband was relaunched a couple of times in the last parliament. So was Nick Clegg. Jeremy Corbyn’s team think the leftwing populist framework – the Labour leader as maverick outsider fighting an unjust establishment – is radical enough to defy the usual patterns of political gravity.

There is a certain logic: the Brexit vote indicated frustration with the political and economic status quo, for which EU membership happened to be the proxy. In theory, that anger could be mobilised behind a more inclusive, egalitarian agenda. But how? It isn’t obvious that a public mood so far expressed as reactionary nationalism, preoccupied with immigration, can be harnessed to a party that is widely associated with open borders and led by a man who is perceived to be squeamish around traditional symbols of patriotism. Perhaps it can be done. But the challenge in terms of transforming Corbyn’s image is huge. And that task must precede policymaking because all the evidence suggests people tend not to heed messages if they have no confidence in the messenger.

But aside from that practical obstacle, there are principled reasons to avoid populism of any kind. The premise is flawed and dangerous. It posits a homogeneous, corrupt political class and a unified mass whose abiding common interest is the overthrow of their rulers. The truth of pluralist, democratic politics is that there is no single, easily aligned “will of the people” but rather a complex bundle of competing interests.

A responsible democrat recognises the need to balance those interests, making difficult choices, negotiating compromises. The populist imagines – or cynically pretends – that no compromise is required because everyone’s desires can be satisfied once the wicked “establishment” is overthrown. As Brexit has shown, a populist agenda quickly unravels on the acquisition of power. It turns out there are no simple answers. Populism is a platform for endless, irresponsible opposition, not government and, as such, it is a con. Rightwing populism has coarsened and degraded British politics. It is doubtful that a left equivalent is the antidote.


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  • In Defense of Nationalism
    Dec. 21, 2016 The concept of nationalism in the modern world remains largely misunderstood.

    By Jacob L. Shapiro
    Two overly reductive tropes are developing around the concept of nationalism. The first is the idea that “nationalism is rising.” In this conceptualization, nationalism is a kind of primordial haunting that has begun to possess various segments of society. It comes about via spontaneous generation, infecting the minds of those susceptible to notions of ethnic or religious superiority. Once sparked, it can be very difficult to stop and often ends in war and global catastrophe. The second is the way nationalism is often used in the same breath as words like authoritarianism, chauvinism and xenophobia, as if these concepts are synonyms, and nationalism is just one concept in a basket of “deplorables.”

    Nationalism is rising, but an increase in nationalist sentiments is often a symptom of increased instability, not a cause. Nationalism began to emerge with the American and French revolutions, but nationalism as an ideology came to maturity as a political force in Europe in the 19th century. It is no coincidence that nationalism became powerful at the same time that massive economic dislocation was occurring because of the Industrial Revolution. What began in Great Britain as factories replaced cottage industries in the production of textiles soon spread across the Continent, fundamentally changing the structure of the family and the life of the typical worker, and bringing teeming numbers of workers from farms into rapidly growing cities.

    The Industrial Revolution was a massive discontinuity. It had many effects, but two of the most salient were the ways it undermined the security of the individual and the stability of political society. Not coincidentally, at the same time that the individual worker was having his traditional role turned upside down, a new conception of the inherent worth of the individual was crystallizing. Individuals had basic human rights that had not been appropriately recognized by various kings, czars and enlightened despots of the time. A new mode of political organization was necessary based on a social contract between those who ruled and those who were ruled. A basic part of that contract was that leaders could be replaced. Nationalism was an integral part of that ideology. Nationalism gave the high-minded ideals of the Enlightenment the practical tools it needed to create new political regimes based on these principles. The individual had lost a sense of identity and security, but the nation gave new meaning to the life of individual citizens.

    Another moment of nationalism that is often brought up shook the world between World War I and World War II. The scars of those conflicts are still fresh, but the root cause was not nationalism. Nationalism was one of the ways that those who lived through a moment of extreme economic dislocation rationalized their experiences. The years preceding Hitler’s rise to power were dominated by a global depression that brought Germany, in particular, to its knees and that was felt most intensely by the working classes all over the world, who had no buffers from economic dislocation. In addition to this economic instability, the goal of the Treaty of Versailles was not to sustain peace among equals, but rather to keep Germany crippled. An imbalance in power relations between Europe’s (and Asia’s) major powers existed, and Germany was both embarrassed by its previous defeat and scared of a future at the mercy of the French or any other historical enemy surrounding it.

    When we say nationalism is rising today, what we really mean is that the world is increasingly unstable and that nationalism is increasing as a result. The 2008 financial crisis continues to reverberate throughout the world. It manifests in decreased growth prospects for exporting countries, in the European Union’s inability to form a coherent union-wide strategy towards overcoming the crisis, in declining purchasing power by the middle and lower-middle class in the United States, and in economic dislocation and job loss driven by globalization affecting the working classes than on anyone else. The U.S. is the world’s only global power, and its would-be peers are all too weak to challenge the U.S., which creates fear that can be used by leaders of those countries to boost their legitimacy as they struggle with domestic economic issues. These factors in turn delegitimize international institutions, as many begin to realize that if something is everyone’s responsibility, it is no one’s. The desire to assert what limited control one can over the fate of one’s nation is an inevitable outgrowth.

    This desire is not by itself authoritarian, chauvinist or xenophobic, nor does it necessarily lead to violent conflict. For example, nationalism and authoritarianism can go hand in hand, and in countries like Russia and China, they often do. Both are vast countries in terms of landmass, but also ethnic composition and the gap in wealth between the richest and the poorest. There is a reason Russia and China were ruled by czars and emperors and have not made a transition to liberal democracy. But nationalism isn’t the reason. Nationalism props up the legitimacy of authoritarianism just as it binds together the citizenry of liberal democracies. There is nothing inherent within the concept of nationalism itself that leads to war or conflict. Human beings do that on their own, and they fought wars for sovereigns, kings, clans and pharaohs long before nationalism was thought of. Power imbalances, scarcity of resources, fear and lack of trust of a neighboring power are all far more consequential dynamics that can lead to violence. When they do, nationalism is an excellent ex post facto ideology to graft onto those conflicts.

    None of this is to deny the powerful role that nationalism – or any ideology – can play in exacerbating conflict, especially once conflict has already broken out. It is also not to deny the consequences nationalism can have at the domestic level. The concept of a nation can be a unifying principle, but the flip side of that principle is that rules must be set for who is considered part of the nation and who isn’t. Current economic imbalances in the world mean this can manifest in ugly ways toward immigrants or refugees fleeing conflicts. There is of course another perspective. The citizens of one nation want to protect their own, and as unfortunate as it is that others don’t have that protection, why should a nation look out for refugees, especially if doing so poses a tangible threat.
    Too much nationalism on top of political and social instability can lead to the rise of a regime like the Third Reich. Too little nationalism can lead to the current situation we see in Syria. “Syria” is a fabrication, a flippant creation of European imperialism. When Syria came apart at the seams in 2011, the result was the proliferation of a dizzying number of rebel groups that to this day are as busy fighting among themselves as they are with resisting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The humanitarian horrors in Aleppo are a reminder that the international community’s promise of “never again” has not been kept. National self-determination is not just a principle enshrined in the U.N. Charter, it is also, for better or for worse, the best way political communities have found to secure power in the modern world. Many in the West are nervous about the rise of nationalism; the Syrian rebels in Aleppo would gladly take some of that nationalism if they could.

    Nationalism is ultimately an ideology. Ideology very rarely drives geopolitics; it is almost always the other way around. The fact that nationalism is rising today is a signal that there are tectonic shifts happening at fundamental political, social and economic levels that are causing individuals and nations to feel insecure about their place in the world. These challenges can also lead to authoritarianism in some countries and bigotry in others, but these are all separate phenomena. The important thing to remember is that increased nationalism comes not from the ether but from instability, and that it is not synonymous with various other “-isms” that many lop into one large category of poisonous ideologies. The world is built on nation-states. Take out the nation and you’re left with a house of cards.