Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Left populism

Here are a few of recent articles on populism. I found both of them especially interesting because they deal with the question of left populism.

Dani Rodrik, What Does a True Populism Look Like? It Looks Like the New Deal New York Times 02/21/2018

Anton Jäger, 21st Century Americanism Jacobin 02/22/2018

Andrés Velasco, Why Economic Recovery Won’t Defeat Populism Project Syndicate 01/285/2018.

Velasco's column does a good job of describing how populism can be left or right:
As is frequently pointed out, populism is a style of politics that creates an “other” on which society’s ills can be blamed. In the left-wing variety, the “other” is the elite – whether economic, financial, or political. For right-wing populists, foreigners, immigrants, or ethnic and religious minorities serve the same purpose.

The phenomenon is far from new. Populism was widespread in the US in the late nineteenth century; twentieth-century European fascism was a variety of right-wing populism; and left-wing populism has of course been a feature of Latin American politics from Getúlio Vargas [Brazil] and Juan Domingo Perón [Argentina] decades ago to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner [Argentina] and Nicolás Maduro [Venezuela] today.
In Europe and the US, populism is often used as a synonym for demogoguery and rightwing politics. Velasco does much better.

The one thing in that section that I would put differently is that his quote implies that left populism always set up the Elite as the antagonist of the People. Ernesto Laclau's excellent work on populism describes it as a style of politics that sets up a dichotomy of the People and the Elite. But that is true of rightwing populism and the left variety. Donald Trump campaigned against Wall Street and corporate-deregulation "trade" treaties, although he didn't describe the latter that way. The image of the Elite in present-day Republicanism is a vague combination of the mainstream media, college professors, Mean Libruls, the Clintons, George Soros, etc. And Trump made use of that rightwing notion of the elite.

On the other hand, left populism doesn't have to always call the elite by that name. In Juan Perón's first Presidential election in 1946 he made the then US Ambassador Spruille Braden. He even used the slogan "Perón or Braden," setting himself as the defender of the Argentine people against the oligarchy backed by foreign capital symbolized by Braden.

Anton Jäger talks about populism in the context of the American left. He makes some good observations. He discusses a speech by Kenneth Burke, a left-leaning literary critic, in 1935, in which he talks about the image of the People as a political myth, apparently more-or-less in the sense Georges Sorel understood it. He quotes Burke:
“Myths” may be wrong, or they may be used to bad ends — but they cannot be dispensed with. In the last analysis, they are basic psychological tools for working together. A hammer is a carpenter’s tool; a wrench is a mechanic’s tool; and a “myth” is the social tool for welding the sense of interrelationship by the carpenter and the mechanic, though differently occupied, can work together for common social ends. In this sense a myth that works well is as real as food, tools, and shelter are.
This has a resemblance to the part of Laclau's notion of populism that I find untenable, which is the idea that a political alliance has to be understood in linguistic terms as a collection of political actors including voters who subjectively decide to coalesce around a definition of political myth of the people, the working class, Perón's descamisados, or other symbols, without looking for any sociological causation in those affiliations.

Burke in 1935 was speaking in the context of discussion of the "popular front," which in Europe meant the Social Democrats and the Communists making a political alliance together along with perhaps smaller left-leaning parties. France was governed by a Popular Front government under Leon Blum for a year in 1936-37.

In the US, the Socialist and Communist parties had relatively minor influence on national politics, although there were some alliances that resembled the European ones, such as the merger of the Farmer-Labor of Minnesota which was strong at the state level, at one point hold a state legislative majority. It also elected Senators, Congresspeople, and Governors.

From my perspective, Jäger gets a little lost in his wrestling with the notion of left populism. "The scenario of a populism that never goes beyond identity — the same gambit as that of the alt-right — remains a serious threat," he writes. His concern is that vital economic and class issues will get overshadowed by identity concerns like race and gender.

Dani Rodrik, though, sees the New Deal as one of the models for a left populist movement, and he also uses the notion of populism in Laclau's sense of being a potential political style for both right and left:
It wasn’t until 1933 that the [original] Populists’ main plank, the end of the gold standard, was adopted. By then the United States was mired in the Great Depression, and Franklin D. Roosevelt had decided the economy needed the monetary boost that adherence to the gold standard precluded. Internationalists complained that Roosevelt acted unilaterally, but he had little patience with orthodox economic ideas or shackles — foreign or domestic — on his conduct of economic policy. At home, he had to fight conservative courts to put his New Deal reforms in place.

By his day’s standards, and perhaps also today’s, Roosevelt was an economic populist. But the New Deal reinvigorated the market economy and saved capitalism from itself. It may also have saved democracy, as it helped staved off the dangerous demagogues and chauvinist ideologues, of which there were plenty (such as Father Coughlin and Huey Long).
Rodrik is an economist, and it's kind of a professional hazard for economists to look for economic explanations of electoral results. And economic factors do loom large in political movements and voter choices.

But, as journalists and social scientists have been documenting in detail, other factors of social conditions and psychological factors also weigh heavily. the role of authoritarian tendencies is a major factor in understanding and opposing current far-right populism like Trumpism in the US or Victor Orbán's in Hungary.

The Five Star Movement in Italy with Luigi Di Maio as its lead candidate is one of the major contenders in Italy's national elections this coming Sunday. Whether Five Star is left populist or right populist or an uncomfortable mixture of both isn't clear to me. They have been very critical of the euro currency and have advocated stimulative economic policies in opposition to the dominant neoliberal consensus. But, as this PBS Newshour report indicates, they may be flirting with some rightwing populist themes, as well, How a rising populist party could shake up Italian politics 02/25/22018:

See also: Gregory Viscusi, The Many Faces of Five Star Are Winning Votes All Over Italy Bloomberg Politics 02/01/2018

Pierre Briançon, Italy resigns itself to the euro but risks remain Politico EU 02/22/2018

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