Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Liberals, the Populist Right & the Politics of Imperialism


Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, Pelican Books, October 2018

How to respond to the rise of national populism? The phenomenon is evident not only in Trump’s US but throughout Europe, as shown in this book’s comprehensive review of changes in mass opinion. The book also attempts to provide a solution to the problem, one that will defend democracy, but in doing so it inadvertently highlights the bankruptcy of the liberal outlook. They detail how, over the past two decades and more, new political forces have undermined support for the traditional political parties in the West, and especially for the social democratic parties of western Europe. Yet their ‘solution’ is to make concessions to reactionary views in order to ‘engage with’ the concerns people express in opinion polls. Like many liberal commentators, on the face of it they will have no truck with racism. But they seem to be fine with the nationalist mentality and an anti-immigration stance, and they persistently raise the question of ethnicity in national politics.
The book’s real value is in documenting how pervasive are reactionary opinions in the West. They show how the success of Trump, et al, cannot be put down to ‘angry old white men’, who will all die soon anyway, or simply to those who have lost out economically with ‘globalisation’, and who may then be attracted to a left-wing party’s plans for economic reform. The political problem in the West is far deeper, and more depressing. As they put it: ‘people who support national populism are not merely protesting: they are choosing to endorse views that appeal to them’ (p 39).

Four D national populism

Eatwell and Goodwin organise their work along the lines of what they call the Four Ds. This is how the ‘elitist nature of liberal democracy has promoted distrust of politicians and institutions’, how ‘immigration and hyper ethnic change are cultivating strong fears about the possible destruction of the national group’s historic identity and established ways of life’, how ‘neoliberal globalised economics has stoked strong feelings of what psychologists call relative deprivation as a result of rising inequalities of income and wealth in the west and a loss of faith in a better future’, and finally, the ‘weakening bonds between the traditional mainstream parties and the people, or what we refer to as de-alignment’ (pp xxi-xxiii).
If you are already finding your blood beginning to boil with a phrase like ‘immigration and hyper ethnic change’, then I recommend taking a few deep breaths because things get worse. Worse because of the reality they describe, not because the authors are closet racists hiding behind academic language – although in some of the things they write, they will come close to readers interpreting them that way. Towards the end of the book, they sum up the argument as follows:
“The ‘Four Ds’ have left large numbers of people in the West instinctively receptive to the claims being made by national populism: that politicians do not listen to them, even treat them with contempt, that immigrants and ethnic minorities benefit at the expense of ‘natives’, and that hyper ethnic change and in particular Islam pose a new and major threat to the national group, its culture and way of life.” (p 272)
I will deal with these D issues a little later, but first it is worth covering some of the characteristics of voters that the authors set out. In the end, these are the decisive people in a democracy.
Having paid a lot of attention to the social dimensions of voting, they note that the unemployed and those very dependent on welfare payments tend to vote less than average, that the youth vote also tends to be below par and that, at least in the past, white workers without degrees were under-represented in samples taken of popular opinion, which helped lead to the poll surprises of Trump and Brexit. In their view, it is the ‘middle educated’ who are most open to national populism – those who are not uneducated, but who do not have university degrees.
This middle group also tends to feel more vulnerable than others, being above the unemployed but below the middle class economically. In the UK, it was the group focused upon in the Conservative Party’s term ‘just-about-managing families’. However, this is not to say that better off workers did not vote for Trump or Brexit, or for populist causes in general, or that support only came from white (male) workers. They show that national populism also gets significant, if usually minority support from younger people, women and ethnic minorities.
One reason is that the national populists also address welfare issues. This helps undercut the traditional capitalist state-dependent approaches to national politics of more left-wing parties and groups. For example, the leader of the conservative, populist Sweden Democrats argued that ‘The election is a choice between mass immigration and welfare. You choose’ (p71).

Immigration, racism and nationalism

The authors are clear about their perspectives, which should help readers also to clarify what they think about these issues. Take the question of racism. I raise this question, because, when the authors do talk about racism, they appear to cross the line into endorsing what a United Nations Convention would call ‘racial discrimination’.[1] The UN defines such discrimination as being on the basis of ‘race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin’ and, in discussing popular political views, the authors write:
“We do not think that the term ‘racism’ should be applied solely because people seek to retain the broad parameters of the ethnic base of a country and its national identity, even though this can involve discriminating against outside groups” (p 75).
Unless the word ‘broad’ somehow lets them off, ‘retaining the broad parameters of the ethnic base of a country’ would indeed be racial discrimination according to the UN!
Are they only describing how such views exist, rather than endorsing or advocating them? I found the focus on ethnicity to be a strange one for these UK academics to spend much time on since, in the Brexit debate, for example, it was clear that race and ethnicity had little or nothing to do with the anti-EU case. Instead, popular views were much more concerned about competition in the jobs market from low wage, white East European workers – the ‘Polish plumber’. Of course, the coverage in this book is not just of the UK, and not just of Brexit. But the authors are not just describing how there is opposition to other ethnic groups. While they do not explicitly share these concerns themselves, they go out of their way to say that these are valid. For example:
“Too often the left view this immigration angst solely as a byproduct of objective economic grievances when it is in fact a legitimate concern in its own right and … is rooted in broader subjective worries about loss and relative deprivation.” (p 222)
and, on popular anxiety about immigration and ethnic change:
“While many of these fears are exaggerated – especially in the case of Muslims, who as a group are often damned for the sins of a very small minority of Islamists – we need to appreciate how people feel. Given ongoing immigration and rapidly rising rates of ethnic, cultural and religious change, it seems to us unlikely that these anxieties will fade.”
“It is important to try to engage with their concerns, particularly for those on the centre-left who, to avoid further losses, will need to make short-term concessions. Meeting the demand for tighter borders or modifying the type of immigration … is compatible with progressive politics.” (pp 281-2)
Basing their stand on the evidence from numerous opinion polls, they can correctly dismiss as mistaken the views of the established political parties and of the left that if workers can be given ‘more jobs, more growth and less austerity, then their support will return’. Yet that leads them to argue that policies should be adopted to address and deal with ‘people’s concerns about immigration and rapid ethnic change’ (p 261).
If the authors escape the charge of endorsing racism, they still remain guilty of accepting and working within a framework of nationalistic politics. The irony running throughout this book is that they have set up national populism as a political challenge to liberal democracy and then have taken on board the concerns of the national populists.

Imperial politics

The authors do not ignore capitalism in their analysis, or the wider political trends. They cover quite a lot of ground in a summary historical review of how capitalism has developed, the different forms of politics that emerged in the West that helped to endorse the system in the eyes of the population, and of earlier forms of populism. They also note the different phases of immigration into the US and the UK over the past hundred years or so, and the more recent trends in a wide range of European countries.
I was pleasantly surprised to find some brief mentions of the term ‘social imperialism’, describing how capitalist parties and governments in the late 19th and early 20th century countered the appeal of socialism and attracted support from workers by ‘a combination of welfare measures to help poorer people, such as the introduction of old-age pensions, and the celebration of national greatness and expanding Empire’ (p 228). But this remained only part of their historical review and did not seem to have much implication for their discussion of more contemporary trends.
It would have been more consistent for them to spell out how masses of people in the richer countries remain wedded to the social imperialist outlook. Welfare provision by governments in rich countries has grown far beyond what it was in the early 20th century, and it has been a key pillar of what is effectively a ‘social contract’ between the national working class and the capitalist state. In other words, workers will remain loyal to the capitalist system and the national state, including support in wars, as long as the state provides some basic economic security.
That deal has now been undermined by two important developments. Firstly, the growth of the global market, aside from its dysfunction and destructive tendencies, has also shown for capitalist business that there are cheaper ways to get things produced than depending upon welfare-supported workers in the richer countries. Employment conditions have been undermined by outsourcing, supply chains and worse labour contracts, with only some privileged areas remaining relatively unscathed, in high level engineering, technology and some other monopolistic sectors. Secondly, more stagnant economies over the past decade or so have thrown into sharper relief the accumulation of debts, and state spending deficits in particular. Accentuated by problems of an ageing population in many countries and capitalist pandemics like obesity, welfare provision is under pressure.
But these developments have not led the mass of people in richer countries to realise that the game is up and capitalism no longer works for them. Instead, they have turned towards reactionary politics. This can hardly be much of a surprise, since, as the authors themselves note, there have been longstanding racist and nationalist opinions. Liberal views were often more supported by the social strata that were made comfortable by the system, while the remainder kept relatively quiet as long as things were ticking over for them. Now that the capitalist markets supported by the working class have come back to bite them, they have spoken out.
This is the relevant background to the authors’ focus on ‘hyper ethnic change’. The popular reaction to a rapid influx of immigrants seen over the past few decades, and especially in the past 10-20 years (after 2004 in the case of the EU, following the accession of several new Eastern European members), reflects the worry of the ‘native’ masses about their social and economic welfare. They don’t stop for a moment to consider the many fires that their governments have started in and the destruction they have brought upon countries in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, nor of the collapse of living standards in many East European countries when they were incorporated into the western capitalist markets.

Culture and privilege

Privileges enjoyed by the mass of people in the rich countries are being taken away, so they blame Mexican or East European workers, Chinese and Asian goods, and they wrap that up in moans about the threat to their ‘way of life’ and culture, especially from the Muslim community. As the authors put it, using apologetic brackets to distance themselves: ‘most national populists see the quest for lower immigration and slower ethnic change as an attempt to stem the dwindling size of their group, to advance its interests and (in their eyes) avoid the destruction of their culture and identity’ (p 162). Let us consider this culture question for a moment.
I do not know whether any of the myriads of opinion polls cited by the authors have ever asked the question of whether Muslims, or other groups considered unwelcome in these polls, are believed to have a stronger sense of community than the anti-immigration respondent. The ‘native’ reaction is to a different group, whether that distinction is made visible by them using a different language, religion or something else. But it raises the question of what they are really protesting about.
‘Native’ working class culture has been disintegrating for the past 40 years or more in many western countries. Even before, it was nothing to brag about, and the latest decline has nothing to do with immigration, ‘hyper’ or otherwise. The protracted crises of the 1970s and 1980s dealt a blow to many traditional industries and forms of employment that were the centre of settled working class communities, from mining to manufacturing, from steel making to shipyards and transport, and the hollowing out of jobs in many areas. There have also been changes in technology and work practices, a reduction of trade union membership and the creation of many new service sector jobs less covered by trade unions. These and other, more recent developments, sometimes labelled the ‘gig economy’, did not come from immigration. Popular sentiment has nevertheless found immigration as something to focus on, since it was never far from a nationalistic and sometimes racist mindset in any case.
What is it about ‘culture and identity’ that popular sentiment wishes to save from ‘destruction’? The population has done little or nothing done to combat the capitalist market trends that have undermined them, and instead it has been absorbed by mass consumer culture. It is only now, when the economic foundations of an acceptable life are being taken away, that the pro-imperialist working class protests. It fights back by demanding that the capitalist state cuts or stops immigration. The authors say that even if more ‘jobs and growth’ were created then ‘tensions over perceived differences in culture and values will remain’ (p 152). But that is because a large section of the working class has chosen to try and defend itself by relying on ‘their’ state to take action against foreigners. The truth is that it is in no position to hold up anything in its own culture worthy of respect.

Political climate

This book gives a systematic overview of contemporary political opinion, especially that underlying the support for national populism. It helps to clarify the depth of the political problems faced by those who do not like what is going on, but the solutions offered by the authors end up endorsing the concerns of the reactionary populists! When the capitalist system is pissing down on everyone from a great height, they join in the argument about the distribution of umbrellas and raincoats, and wonder if immigrants should be given any if that risks the ‘native’ workers going without.

Tony Norfield, 19 December 2018


[1] The United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1966, of which Article 1 of the Convention defines racial discrimination as: ‘... any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life’.

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