PLAAS recently reposted three thought-provoking blog posts exploring progressive responses to the new wave of ‘populist’ politics that has risen to prominence since 2015: Ian Scoones’s overview of the activities of the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative, and Brian Levy’s reflections on the ‘four moral challenges’ of populist discourse, and on the nature of appropriate responses to the antagonistic and confrontational style of populist mobilisation.
Not surprisingly, these posts provide quite divergent analyses of what is going on, and on the nature of an effective ‘progressive’ or emancipatory response. It is hard to do justice to Scoones’s argument here, since he is surveying a large and diverse body of work within ERPI; but at bottom his argument is that the rise of populism needs to be understood as a reaction to the widespread anomie and social disintegration caused by the impact of neoliberal policies on rural communities. In response to this challenge, the activists and researchers that comprise the ERPI network have focused on exploring forms of popular mobilisation that could offer more ‘progressive’, pro-poor and emancipatory alternatives to the chauvinist, often hyper-masculinist and destructive politics proposed by the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro and Duterte. Levy’s blog posts have a different focus: he reads the ‘populist’ challenge as residing in the appeal of a new kind of confrontational, contentious and emotionally charged political rhetoric: one that mobilises powerful feelings of anger and disappointment in order to entrench an ‘us-and-them’ divide that, he argues, undermines the kinds of thoughtful, deliberative policy discourse and acceptance of the inevitability of compromise that he sees as an essential part of modern politics.
Both points of view have much to offer. I think that finding effective forms of popular mobilisation is an important part of the solution; and (as I have argued elsewhere) I agree with Levy that the tension between two very different kinds of political reason– contentious politics and techno-political deliberation–is at the heart of the challenge posed by these new developments.
At the same time, I think that it is necessary to go further. I suspect that both lines of argument underestimate the novel character of the political developments of the last few years–and of the threat they pose: meeting these challenges will require a more searching re-examination of the assumptions that have underpinned ‘progressive’ and ‘emancipatory’ politics for the last century.
Here, I should say that I don’t have any ready-made or better answers. My reservations flow more from ‘not knowing’ and from an insistent sense of doubt than from any perception that I am able to offer a coherent, alternative narrative. It may, however, be helpful for me to set out some of my doubts and hesitations, if only because this may be the beginning of a longer and fruitful process of debate and exploration.
First, I should say that I have long been deeply uncomfortable with the almost universal agreement that the new wave of right-wing politics can usefully be understood as ‘populist’. Here I am somewhat exposing my own priors as a person who came of age politically as a supporter of South Africa’s United Democratic Front, a genuine left-populist movement, with all the strengths and weaknesses that entailed. I am happy to accept that the term is vague and ill-defined and covers a multitude of political styles. But I think it’s worth remembering that it arose, since the 19th century, as a name for a style of politics of grassroots mobilisation that served above all else to unite disparate forms of local and sectional disaffection into a broad front acting in the name of a unified people. While there are some overlaps between populism and the politics of nationalism and fascism, I don’t think it makes analytical sense to lump them all together. While there may be populist elements in the discourse of the new wave of anti-establishment, anti-liberal and chauvinist politics that we are dealing with today, I don’t think that this populist rhetoric is what makes them distinctive and significant. I agree, in other words, with Cas Mudde, who has argued that the new wave of right-wing politics should rather be characterised as nativist or nationalist; and that far from being expressions of real popular anger, they provide powerful elite interests in society with ideological cover to attack vulnerable groups and undermine the rule of law and institutions of liberal democracy.
Secondly, contra Scoones and ERPI, I should say I am far from convinced that the roots of these new forms of chauvinist and nationalist politics are distinctively rural in any meaningful way. Certainly they have a distinct geographic dimension, often opposing left-behind regions (the South in Italy, the North in the UK, the American rustbelt, cattle farmers in Brazil) against a so-called ‘urban elite’–but the divide here is not between urban and rural, but between those who are plugged into the global networks constituted by Saskia Sassen’s ‘global cities’ and the people (from town and country) who are not part of these networks of influence, and who have been left out of new patterns of growth.
Thirdly, I suspect we need to go further than simply seeing what is happening today as the result of opportunist nationalists, racists and fascists capitalising on the disaffection and alienation created in marginalised communities by the failures of neoliberal developmentalism. Of course, this is part of what is happening. Certainly, the deep inequality, entrenched marginalisation and perennial precarity produced by the path of capitalist growth in recent times has diminished the credibility and appeal of the kinds of liberal and progressivist politics that were part of the mainstream in, say, the 1990s. But I think more is going on here.
One of the things that I miss in Scoones et al‘s initial statement of the problem and Borras’s more recent synthesis is a systematic and coherent analysis of what is distinctive or significant about the new wave of right-wing politics. There’s in my view not enough of an attempt to understand it in its own right aside from the broad characterisation of it as being a ‘reactionary’ response to (supposedly rural) popular disaffection. Linked to this is an odd tendency to subtly downplay the racist, chauvinist, hypermasculinist or nationalist character of these movements – as if these are an unfortunate but non-essential aspect of their character or meaning: a bug, that is, not a feature. I have a sense that we need to confront much more fully the racist and essentialist identity politics we find in these movements; that we need to recognise that these aspects are core to their meaning and significance; and that we need to better understand the larger political agendas in service of which they are being mobilised.
In particular, I think these analyses underestimate the graveness of the danger constituted by the new wave of right-wing politics. I fear we are watching a profound process of global re-ordering, and the development of a new kind of governmentality on an international level. It may be that we are witnessing a shift whereby the post ‘cold-war’ political order (a global pact around a set of arrangements seeking to stabilise the world for ‘neoliberalism’ capitalism in the long-term) is making way for a much more cynical, even nihilist agenda, in which a coalition of plutocrats and kleptocrats seek to subvert that stability to find temporary and private advantage in disordered times.
I suspect that the climate crisis is at the heart of this new politics. It is of course true that many of the new right-wing leaders are formally climate change denialists, and that denialism forms part of the rhetoric of these new political movements. But it is quite evident that this denialism exists mostly as part of a ploy to undermine the attempts of progressive policymakers to develop coherent responses that can safeguard broader social interests and protect the poor and vulnerable from the externalisation of the costs of growth. At the level of actual planning and strategy, from the forecasts of the Pentagon to the risk modelling of finance capital, calculating the costs (and opportunities!) associated with climate change and ecosystem collapse is part of the order of the day. The real danger posed to poor and marginalised people in the world by the politics of climate change is not that the denialists will prevail, but that denialism will give way to a much more sinister project: a right-wing climate politics that seeks to strengthen the walls between the haves and the have-nots.
I fear that at least part of what’s going on, in other words, is the systematic political working-out of the implications of the realisation that, as Bruno Latour put it in an article tellingly entitled ‘Europe as Refuge’, there’s no longer a planet able to fulfil the dreams of globalisation. What happens when the billionaires and politicians realise that the imaginary castles of endless global growth have been built on air? And that therefore the underlying assumptions that informed the grand narratives of inclusive development and stabilised the neoliberal world for the last thirty years no longer obtain?
Latour believes that this new vision of the world–a vision in which, as he puts it ‘we are all deprived of land,’ (because the limitless Earth that could support ‘our’ global dreams simply does not exist)–should lead to what he calls a ‘new realism’. He predicts a politics ‘grounded in reality’ where everyone understands that ‘we are going to change the entire way we live’ because that is the only way in which it is possible for everyone to co-exist at all.
Of course, that is not the only possible response. Another way is not ‘denialism’, but a dystopian realpolitik in which the ‘haves’ seek simply to entrench the grounds of privilege: to grab what they can, seek safety for themselves and their families in their private Elysiums, and to kick away even the rickety ladders and drawbridges offered to the global poor by the policymakers and cheerleaders of inclusive capitalist progress.
If this is one of the dynamics driving the rise of chauvinist politics, we need to go beyond the answers offered by Levy and by the activists and thinkers of ERPI: not because they are wrong, but because those answers are not enough. I believe Levy is correct to warn about the dangers of polarisation that follow from ‘populist discourse’ and against the destruction of political institutions condoned or invited by contentious politicians and activists of both the left and the right. Like Levy, one of my reservations about chauvinist politics, both here in South Africa and elsewhere, is that they amount to a kind of hyperpolitical anti-politics, a refusal to engage with the complexity and compromise involved in governmental deliberation. But if the powerful emotional challenge of this kind of contentious politics is to be met, that will require more than incremental promises (‘strengthening ladders of opportunity… support to those left behind to navigate social change’ and so on). A convincing answer will have to be found to the crisis of the narrative of inclusive growth; a story based in reality which does not merely rely on recycling the last crumbs of social democracy.
And while I agree that any pro-poor politics of the future will need the effective forms of mobilisation ‘from below’ as advocated by ERPI, these on their own are not enough, because on a limited planet, with limited resources, and multiple conflicting legitimate demands to be met, the problems of government and political order do not go away.
This is the problem of our time: The world will not become less ‘global’. The desire of its human population to survive and thrive will not be denied. The biophysical systems that underpin those hopes are in crisis. And this means that the answers to the problems of political order developed by the great 20th century wave of transnational progressivism–answers that linked hopes of emancipation to the prospects of limitless economic growth, technological advance, social and political inclusion, all stewarded by ‘good government’–no longer are convincing.
What will take their place?