The Rise of New Populism
The death of politics
To the modern perception, extremes are damaging – on one side of the spectrum, they see communism as ideal in theory but as an unsustainable idealistic model which ultimately always results in poor growth and little incentive to work hard. On the other, they see an extremely nationalistic creed, intolerant of individualism and painting war as cathartic and purifying – fascism*. Maybe it was the Second World War that finally killed ideology, by showing the results of any philosophy taken to extreme lengths. But what is undeniable is that since the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the spread of neo-liberalism (actually closer to corporatism in reality) like a plague of locusts across the globe, the mainstream of politics has narrowed significantly. This narrowing has come from the left at first but increasingly, there are signs that the right is also having to reel itself closer to the centre of politics. In this essay, I shall examine ‘new populism’, which I define not as the Latin American model of populism shown by leaders such as Chavez and Morales who appeal to the people and who are seen as opponents of established interests and elites within society; neither do I define it as is increasingly common in the US as an ideology which merges social conservatism with economically left-wing views. Instead, I define it more as a sort of pragmatism, an appeal to the people as a whole rather than to certain sections of society.
Democratic socialism followed the “communism” of the USSR and Eastern European nations to a large extent. In Britain, the Labour Party was faced with a major crisis as it was defeated in 1979 and the leadership decided to take the party in a further left wing direction resulting in an even worse defeat in 1983. From then on, the party began a gradual shift from the left to the centre-left.** Unilateral nuclear disarmament was dropped in 1989 and was followed by Clause IV (the part of the Labour Party constitution dedicating it to attaining nationalization of the means of production) in 1994. It was only in 1997 that the bastardized Labour Party returned to power under Tony Blair – his appeal to the centre is seen by his merging of left and right wing positions; a good example is his promise to be ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’.
An even more extreme example comes from Albania, in which the Albanian Party of Labour, Hoxha’s party, were defeated in 1992 and promptly became the Albanian Socialist Party, adopting social democracy as the new party ideology. They then went even further in 2005, becoming a social liberal party and dropping their pretences to socialism altogether.
The left has lost the most in the new age of politics, being forced to accept the neoliberal economic model due to the loss of the most socialist element of society – the blue-collar proletariat. With the new sociological model of a large white-collar class, many would argue that socialism and communism are no longer relevant to the West. However, the left has simply found new causes to fight for in many cases – Labour, while having lost many of its socialist principles, implemented the first national minimum wage in British history in 1998 and also laid a major focus on reducing child poverty in the UK. While the services sector may now be dominant in the British economy, the perception of exploitation is still as rife as ever.
Seeing as populism is already by its nature close to the centre, this is harder to categorize than the left and right populism. However, there are some examples which can be identified as being somewhat centrist.
The best example, I think, would be the Popular Movement of the Revolution. The Zairian party declared itself ‘neither left nor right’ and even added in later years ‘nor even centre’. One of the main features of Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule was in fact his anti-politics. The only real constant strand of political thought the party had was its commitment to Zairianization (basically nationalism)***. It was, in effect, a vehicle for Mobutu who declared himself ‘Father of the Nation’.****
Currently, this particular strand of politics is very rare, but there are signs that it is set to become far more widespread.
With the current economic crisis, there are more and more signs that the right will now have to cede ground due to the failure of free market capitalism to prevent a massive financial storm such as that which has occurred in the last 3 years. The example I will use is that of the British Conservative Party. Thatcher once said that there is ‘no such thing as society’, instead there are just individuals and their families. Yet now, Cameron seems set to start on his project of building a ‘Big Society’ and has called for more social cohesion. Certainly a step away from Thatcherism, it would appear, though there are signs that the spectre of free markets still haunts the party – by its intentions to sell off Royal Mail for example.
It is too early to say for sure whether the right will move towards the centre, but currently, it appears that this may indeed be the case.
* - Yes, yes, I know libertarianism and communitarianism don’t fit into this spectrum, but I’m not going to go off into a rant about the political spectrum in this essay.
** - The Communist Party of Great Britain, meanwhile, did not make such a successful transition. It suffered a split in 1988 and subsequently disbanded in 1991 to be replaced with a think tank, the ‘Democratic Left’. This in turn went defunct in 1998.
*** - Or kleptocracy, if you want to be cynical.
**** - Although bizarrely enough, a ‘Union of Mobutuist Democrats’ does exist in the modern Democratic Republic of Congo and holds 9 seats in the parliament.