Is Brexit the manifestation of a right-wing populism? Certainly, some of the key motivations that appear to stand behind Brexit, which include concerns about immigration, a desire to see Britain ‘great’ again, xenophobia (especially towards ‘Europeans’), a distrust of (liberal) political elites, social conservatism veering towards authoritarianism, and so on, are all characteristics of right-wing populism.
Of course, Brexit is also about opportunists, both on the mainstream right and on the (not quite so mainstream left), who see Brexit as a chance to pursue their own political agendas, and for whom all those Brexit voting foot-soldiers are just cannon fodder. But then again, that’s what the conservatives in Nazi Germany thought when Hitler came to power: they saw him as a useful idiot who would help them implement their conservative/authoritarian policies. It’s not quite clear how long they carried on thinking this, but by the time they realised they were the useful idiots it was too late. It remains to be seen who will have the last laugh when it comes to Brexit.
The reference to Nazi Germany is instructive in other ways too. To start with it highlights the left’s misreading of Hitler and the Nazi party (which they saw as a form of fascism) as an attempt by the (bourgeois, capitalist) ruling class to retain their grip on power by smashing the working class and the possibility of the proletarian revolution. What they seemed to forget was that Nazism was the product of disillusionment, of humiliation, of a sense of betrayal, of alienation from the democratic process, and of the nihilism born out of the First World War.
And this is the problem, I think, with the ‘liberal (left)’ reading of Brexit. In my previous post on this subject I highlighted the research of Eric Kaufmann who argues that Brexit is far more about personal values than economic inequality and the marginalised ‘left behind’. However, are these values simply those of nationalism and social conservatism, or is there something deeper and perhaps more disturbing at play here?
As a number of writers have noted, one of the key elements of right-wing populism is constructing the dichotomy between ‘the people’ and ‘the (elitist, bureaucratic, corrupt) government’. As Chantel Mouffe notes, the idea of the sovereignty of the people, which is (supposedly) the basis of democracy, has been superseded by the amalgamation of the twin strands of free markets and human rights, which together constitute the basis of liberal democracy.1 She goes on to argue that:
What we are witnessing, actually, is the triumph of a purely liberal interpretation of the nature of modern democracy. According to many liberals, democracy is secondary with respect to liberal principles. As Charles Larmore, for instance, puts it, ‘Liberalism and democracy are separate values whose relation, it seems to me, consists largely in democratic self-government being the best means for protecting the principles of a liberal political order.’2
The problem here is that as liberal democratic governments are becoming increasingly incapable of dealing with the problems of the very societies and economies they were instrumental in creating in the first place, i.e. globalisation, free movement of capital and people, the erosion of national identities and communities, and so on, more and more people become disillusioned with ‘the system’, which they see as distant, corrupt, and elitist, and turn increasingly to other solutions. However, instead of attempting to understand and engage with such disillusionment, governments attempt to construct a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around themselves in order to exclude the rising wave of discontent, which is increasingly manifesting itself in the form of right-wing populist movements. Furthermore, argues Mouffe, rather than confront such movements and political parties on the ground of politics itself, liberal democratic governments are increasingly demonising them as the ‘evil Other’. In other words, this becomes a discourse of exclusion based on morals rather than politics.
The problem here is that the more such (right-wing) populist movements and parties are excluded from the mainstream the more this justifies their positon of being ‘the people’ versus ‘the establishment’. In other words, this is just what the populist right want, because they can argue (with some justification) that the ‘people’ are not being listened to. And so a vicious circle is set in play, with the government and the rest of the (liberal) establishment becoming increasing defensive and perplexed by the growth of right-wing populism which in turn feeds the sense of ‘the people’ being excluded and oppressed by the elites. And, as Nekoosa Blanuša points out, this sense of mistrust and mutual antagonism gives rise to an increasing number of conspiracy theories, especially on the side of the excluded, to explain the growing crisis of legitimation and failure of the status quo. This is turn feeds the growing sense of alienation and paranoia on the side of the excluded ‘Other’.
Of course, one of the ironies here is that this sense of exclusion actually works both ways: right-wing populist movements thrive on the notion of ‘us (the people)’ versus ‘them (the establishment)’. Consequently, once such movements gain real political power, either through hijacking existing political parties to pursue their own radical agendas (Trump and the Republican party, ‘Brexiteers’ and the Tory party), or gaining power in their own right, then they quickly go about excluding those who had previously excluded them or whom they felt had been given special treatment under the previous regime, i.e. members of the liberal establishment, immigrants, minority groups, etc.
In the context of Brexit (and perhaps many more ‘Brexits’ to come) the key point here is that this not simply about ‘the left behind’, ‘the marginalised’, ‘ignorant northerners’, etc. It is about the failure of politics itself, and especially liberal democracy. It is perhaps worth remembering that there is nothing inevitable about democracy (liberal or any other kind) as Europe found out to its cost in the 1930. This partly goes back to Mouffe’s argument that ‘liberal democracy’ itself is actually an uneasy (and unstable) alliance between economic liberalism and a form of democracy that is based on parliamentary representation, the rule of law, human rights and universalism. Since the Second World War this alliance has largely held up in Western democracies, but the cracks have been appearing for some time. Interestingly enough, a lot of the theorising about the populist right was starting to appear in the early 1990s, and even Mouffe’s ideas that I cited are around twelve years old. And yet it is only now that the cracks appear to have become irreparable.
So what’s happening? Why is liberal democracy failing? This is a complex question, but part of the answer is undoubtedly economic. Free-market economics (the ‘liberal’ bit of liberal democracy) and globalisation have essentially failed to deliver. For example, the gap between the rich few and the poor many is getting ever wider; the position of more and more people, including those in traditionally ‘safe’ and ‘professional’ types of employment, is becoming increasingly precarious; and the western economies in particular are still feeling the aftershocks of the crash of 2008. In other words, the type of government associated with free market economics and globalisation simply isn’t working in the interests of the many. And further more, the ‘many’ are growing in number all the time.
The danger here, however, is that this can easily revert back to the ‘left behind’ type arguments so beloved by the liberal commentariat in order to explain Brexit and Trump. Therefore, and to go back to my original question: is there something else at play here as well? This is something I want to explore in more depth in my subsequent postings, but by way of introduction perhaps it might be helpful consider the following.
If we start with ideology rather than with economics or even political economy, and if we also avoid the temptation to reduce ideology simply to the expression of the economic interests of a particular class (a position that still seems to prevail in many left and Marxist circles), then what exactly constitutes a populist right-wing ideology? In other words, and if we take seriously Althusser’s conception of ideology as a representation of the subject’s imaginary relationship to their real (or perhaps we should say Real) conditions of existence, then what exactly are these (Real) conditions? Perhaps another way to pose this question is to ask: what is the trauma, that kernel of the Real, that right-wing populist ideology is trying to articulate? Furthermore, how does this ideology, this articulation of the trauma, link to right-wing political action? And, finally, why is liberal democracy apparently so helpless in the face of this ideological and political onslaught from the right? In other words, if, as I suggested above, liberal democracy has failed to deliver for the many, for the people, why can’t it simply learn from its mistakes and offer a better alternative?