“fascist techniques are identical everywhere: the presence of a charismatic leader; the use of populism to mobilise the masses; the designation of a base group as victims (of crises, of elites, or if foreigners); and the direction of all resentment toward an ‘enemy’. Fascism has no need for a democratic party with members who are individually responsible; it needs an inspiring and authoritative leader who is believed to have superior instincts.”

Rob Reimen, To Fight Against this Age

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National Populism – Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin

Though it makes for uncomfortable reading this book is a powerful corrective to the left-liberal narrative around issues like immigration, the EU and national populism.

Eatwell and Goodwin take an evidence-based, considered but emphatically sympathetic look at the reasons why national populism is on the rise in the form of Brexit, Trump, Le Pen and elsewhere across Europe. Their view throughout is that voters for national populists have legitimate reasons for doing so that left-liberals moralise about and so not only misunderstand but also fuel. Specifically, they argue that there are four underlying causes for the rise:

Distrust. A political elite and wider business and cultural elite has become so far removed from the wider public, and especially manual workers and those without degrees, that they appear to forward their own values and interests, meaning people have little trust in them to do what they think is right for them or the county. Eatwell and Goodwin argue that people aren’t necessarily turning against democracy but actually national populism is offering a deeper, participative form of democracy precisely because the representative version has failed.

Destruction. In probably the most controversial chapter, Eatwell and Goodwin argue that the last few decades has seen the destruction of national cultures by successive waves of immigration that threaten the sense of national identity and culture. They make the point that many national populist voters aren’t necessarily racist, nor are they motivated by the self-interested fear of losing resources to immigrants, rather they value the national culture and it’s the destruction of that culture they fear.

Deprivation. Also over the last few decades, they argue, inequality and globalisation have together created a feeling of relative inequality especially among less educated and blue collar workers. This has not only fuelled anti-immigrant feeling but also led to those people supporting parties which promise more protectionist policies and public spending that will benefit them.

De-alignment. Amidst all of this change, there has also been a massive move away from the traditional party loyalties of the post war era. Many blue collar voters in particular have moved from social democratic parties to the right, especially to anti-immigrant protectionist parties, while the liberal left has fragmented somewhat, meaning national populists are able to poll better than they would have a couple of decades ago. Nothing is set, they say, as mainstream parties start to use the language and policy direction of populists, but today the trend remains de-alignment and volatility.

This book is well-written, packed full of data and evidence, and I think it’s a book that lefties and liberals ought to read to understand what’s going on among large numbers of voters. Eatwell and Goodwin are willing to talk seriously about the issues many people feel are important but cannot speak about for fear of being labelled racist, and that’s refreshing and important.

I think at times they go too far – are too generous to voters, giving them a consistent ideology when it might not really be there, and especially to national populist leaders like Farage or Trump or Le Pen who do stoke the flames of nationalism and division, making claims about immigration and the economy that they surely know will have a detrimental impact on many individuals and the country as a whole – and they do it as much for electoral gain as ideological belief.

Chantal Mouffe was spot on in the The Return of the Political 25 years ago. Think everything from the Boston Tea Party to Brexit, Le Pen to Trump…

“The growth of the extreme right in some countries in Europe can only be understood in the context of the deep crisis of political identity that confronts liberal democracy following the loss of the traditional political landmarks.”

and

“A healthy democratic process calls for a vibrant clash of political positions and an open conflict of interests. If such is missing, it can be too easily replaced by a confrontation between non-negotiable moral values and essentialist identities.”

The Retreat of Western Liberalism – Edward Luce

In many ways, this is a well written refutation of Fukuyama’s end of history thesis. Where Fukuyama saw that the end of the Cold War signalled the triumph of liberal democracy, Luce (like many others) points to the ways the world – especially the West – has moved away from that model, with Trump the latest and most dangerous indication yet.

He breaks his book into three main parts:

Fusion – where he argues that people were satisfied with liberal democracy as long as it provided them with material wellbeing.

Reaction – where he argues that people are turning to populist leaders like Trump because elites are no longer running a system that meets their needs, and this is because capitalist success elsewhere, especially China, is exacerbating inequality in the West.

Fallout – where he argues that what’s at risk is not just the rise of populism and illiberalism, but all-out war, as the nationalisms of the US, China, Russia and elsewhere clash. 

Although I feel I’ve heard much of this before, perhaps with the exception of the third section, it’s a well written, wide ranging and wise book. It’s hard not to agree with much of it.

There was, though, a lack of political imagination – an assumption that liberal democracy is what we ought to hope for and aspire to, without recognising that discontent with Western systems of government might result in support for something more radical or progressive: Corbyn, Sanders, or something bolder still.

For political thinkers like Chantal Mouffe, too, the move toward the middle ground, the consensus on globalisation and democracy, that we saw in the 90s and early 2000s resulted in differences being suppressed and then re-emerging in anti-democratic and dangerous ways. It may well be that which we’re seeing now or, more positively, we might in fact be seeing the start of a new era where differences in politics are more evident and so disagreement can be played out in a political arena. Maybe. The point is that there’s more to think about than whether Trump, China and Russia signal the end of liberal democracy.

Faith of the Faithless – Simon Critchley

Faith of the faithless

Read July 2014 

This is a fascinating book, though in my view it is perhaps overly complicated.

The fascination comes from Critchley’s excellent close readings of a variety of thinkers: Rousseau, Badiou, Zizek, Benjamin, St Paul. I learnt a lot from his readings of each, they were full of insight and he was able to bring alive some of their ideas in compelling and often counter-intuitive ways. His section on his argument with Zizek – which he points out is essentially the ongoing argument between Leninism-Marxism and anarchism – is interesting, and he offers a revealing picture of Zizek’s politics.

The complication comes because Critchley seems to find it difficult to sum up his own arguments. This might be because what he is arguing isn’t just one straightforward thesis, as he says early in the book, or because the full depth of his thought is necessarily complex and can’t be captured in a sentence or two.

Both those points are true. Nevertheless, on my reading there does seem to be a theory that he is advocating which he could have set out more clearly at some point (if only to show me that I’ve not completely misinterpreted him!):

First, because people aren’t ‘rational’ economic actors who contracted to the social order (as for liberals Locke, Rawls etc) people need a civil religion to bind them together – something that people have faith in that is based not in a different world (heaven or wherever) but in the here and now. Strangely perhaps, he refers to US constitutionalism – celebrating the flag, singing the national anthem etc as an example of this.

Second, though, the civil religion shouldn’t come from existing ideas and discourses. People need to clear their minds, to see beyond current hegemonic discourses as far as is possible. The belief that ought to animate people is a demand for something better – what he calls an infinite demand, a demand that is unattainable yet something that the people believe in, even though they don’t know what the outcome will be.

Third, politics occurs when different groups of people, with different interests, look beyond their individual or group interests and form an association based on an infinite demand, through which they challenge the state or capital. It might be in the interstices of power, it might be outright resistance – Occupy, worker co-ops, the Zapatista’s fight for autonomy are all examples of politics.

Fourth, place is important: an association, a civil religion and the infinite demand requires a locality to bind it together, to give it content. In line with much anarchist thought, Critchley says politics needs to be kept local to work: it might be in a workplace (a co-op experiment), in a city (the Occupy movement) or in a region (Zapatista resitance in Chiapas).

It is useful, too, to think about this in terms of the similarities and difference between Critchley’s and Badiou’s politics: for both, what’s required is the people to express fidelity to, or absolute faith in, an impossible demand, the outcome of which cannot be known; but whereas for Badiou this ‘event’ is rare and universal (the Paris Commune), for Critchley it can occur more regularly, when people form an association and find local spaces to resist the power of the state and capital in the name of an infinite demand.