Saturday, November 15, 2014

Can populist parties ever win?

A Spanish journalist asked me recently what I thought of populism, as opposed to the danger of plutocracy (under which most of us already live). Here is what I wrote.

It is not surprising that we see the rise of anti-systemic parties  and populism since the current crisis has exposed how distant from the average voter as well as incompetent and corrupt are most politicians and political parties.  As always in crises, new parties try to fill the void.

There is a difference between right- and left-wing populist parties. The former are nationalistic and xenophobic and their main animus is directed at immigrants who are seen as cause of job loss and low wages. They do not like globalization  either because it puts them in competition with people who can do the same job at half the wage. Hence, they are naturally in favor of erecting barriers at the level of nation-state and hiding under the nationalist slogans. After all, their way of life and income depend on their living in a rich country. The difficulty of their situation is that, without such international exchange, their country will not remain rich for a very long time. Thus they basically feel caught.  

The right-wing populist parties are successful in pushing the center-right parties in taking gradually more extreme right-wing positions in order not to lose voters. They are typically, the surveys tell us, parties of the unhappy petty bourgeoisie like Poujadists were in France in the 1950s, and of the disaffected workers who used to vote for the parties of left until the left threw in towel and disappeared from the political life some thirty years ago. But if right-wing populists  ever came to power, their only realistic policy is anti-immigration.  They are too enmeshed in the world of capital, funded by those same capitalists,  to do anything more serious (like leaving the Euro). Farage may be an exception, but even that I doubt.

Populist of the left are different because their disdain is reserved for the top income classes, including politicians, who basically see politics as a way to enrich themselves. The left-wing populist are in effect the new left, the left of the early 21st century. Their ideal policies are progressive: more equal election funding, ban on political incumbency (or less of it), greater spending on health and education, higher taxes on the rich, cracking down on tax evasion, institutionalized support of labor vs. capital. They have a typical socialist array of measures combined with some progressive radical stances on equality between genders, races, sexual orientations, migrants and natives.

If they ever came to power, they would have problems implementing their policies because the past 30 years of neo-liberalism have  created international structures that one cannot leave easily and that are, even if reluctantly,  supported by most of the population. (Mitterrand tried it last in 1981 and failed.)  Essentially, left-wing populists  face the same problem that  Lenin and Trotsky faced one hundred years ago: the rule of the left in one country only is impossible. The country is bound to be ostracized by the world of capital, the party will be undercut in its own country by the coalition of those who are against it  (remember Allende?), and is bound to lose power in a spectacular way, in a coup or at the ballot box, that would make its return to power unlikely for many years to come.  Thus to survive the new left needs to win in several important countries at once. This seems a very distant possibility.  So, trying to leave the euro, or to run afoul of the Maastricht  criteria by one country (unless it is a very big one, like Germany) would be suicidal. The left-wing parties are "imprisoned" within the international system.

Both the left and right populists are “caged in” with very little room to maneuver. The only feasible policies that would accord with their preferences are, in one case, to try to stem immigration, and in the other to (somewhat) clear the Aegian stables of politics. Other than that little seems achievable.

In conclusion, even if they won, neither would be able to conduct their policy.  Since they all know it, they are not too keen to win. In order to win, you have to believe that you want, and can, change things and you have to have self-confidence. But both sides know that they can only win now in order to lose two or four years later.

This is why I am pessimistic. Neither of the populist wings will come to power but the political atmosphere will increasingly become "poisoned" with many people either joining the populists or turning away altogether from social engagement.  And the centrist two parties, which are in many respects but just one party,  will continue to rule but with low approval rates and amid general disdain, derision and indifference.

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