The rise of the ‘populist right’ across established liberal-democracies may seem like a repudiation of social-democracy. I would argue it is nothing of the sort. I see it as a repudiation of the sort of centrist, globalising neo-liberalism that for the last three or four decades has left the working class and the lower middle class economically undermined and culturally alienated.
Neo-liberalism creates collateral damage: in the pursuit of ever higher profits and ever tighter margins, it is willing to push people aside and to pick up and relocate industry. It knows of no balancing virtues of place, family or community to off-set against the bottom line. The result is people who are frightened, stressed, angry and isolated. These are the raw materials – as Franklin Roosevelt reminded us – of which dictatorships are made. It only takes a sever economic downturn, like the financial crisis of 2008, to throw things into rather sharp relief. Desperate people with not much to loose are willing to take wild gambles. They are willing to vote for someone – anyone – who offers an alternative, even if that means kicking the whole barn down.
The neo-populist right is there in the wings, ready to seduce these voters with its nasty little ‘bait-n-switch’ game. The bait is good: jobs, economic security, and end to the worries and vexations that make your hard life that little bit more difficult. The populist right talks about the issues that matter to people, in plain and authoritative language. It’s honestly appealing, if you can break out of your cappuccino-and-croissants Guardian bubble and put yourself in the mind of, say, a factory worker or a cleaner with three kids and no savings. Unfortunately, the switch is wicked: rather than blaming the neo-liberal economic system for these very real worries, the right wing (which is, after all, bankrolled and fronted by oligarchs, and has little or no interest in really addressing the economic disparities) turns the blame elsewhere: onto the poor themselves, on to the refugee, the outsider. For now, at least, people are taking the bait and not yet fully aware of the switch. That moment of awareness might come sooner – and when it comes it will hit hard.
We have been in this situation before. In the 1930s (the last time we had an economic crisis of this severity, poverty levels this high, and such a wide gap between rich and poor) half the democracies in Europe collapsed. We remember Germany, but we often forget that similar things happened (albeit, perhaps, on not quite such a heinous scale) in Poland, Romania, Spain, Portugal and the Baltic states, all of which had fallen into some sort of right-wing authoritarianism by the mid-1930s. Everywhere, the pattern was similar: minorities and foreigners were scapegoats, civility broke down and ideologies polarised, politics turned sour and ugly, and truth was an early casualty. It led to secret police, book burnings, torture chambers, concentration camps, genocide, and millions of deaths, and it took an extremely costly and destructive world war to stop the madness and release half of Europe from its terrible consequences.
However, having been in this situation before, we also know how to cure it. Franklin D. Roosevelt, like Hitler, invested in infrastructure and put people back to work. He gave people hope and pride. He made people feel important and valuable again. The main difference is that he did this by defending democracy, not destroying it. He showed that it was possible to have full employment in a free society – indeed, that having a free society was conditional upon full employment. He showed that it was possible to build roads and dams without being, in the words of Eddie Izzard, ‘a mass-murdering fuckhead’.
The challenge for the left is to out-bid the populist right. We need a folksy, down-home left, that speaks to people’s immediate economic interests and soothes their worries and fears. As long as the left is dominated by a liberal elite, it will lose to politicians and parties of the right who are in touch with what ordinary people are thinking and feeling.
The first part of this challenge is to come up with a platform of policies that are simple, appealing, practical, and will make a positive difference in people’s lives. I don’t think this is as hard as it might seem: protecting workers’ rights, pursuing active state-led economic development policies that lead to full employment and higher wages, well run and well funded universal education and healthcare, and an effective system of social security that genuinely protects people from the economic hazards of life. That’s not revolutionary communism. It’s mainstream social-democracy. You don’t need a Che Guevara t-shirt or a coal-miner chic cloth cap to support it.
A lot of these ‘left-wing’ policies are quite popular, even amongst moderate conservatives. It’s interesting to note, for example, that while busily electing Trump, American voters in several states also passed referendums to increase the minimum wage. There are a lot of middle class as well as working class people who think they are getting a raw deal. Even Trump’s victory speech contained a pledge to invest in infrastructure and create jobs: a Keyensian, big-government stimulus package that must be music to the ears of blue-collar workers, but would be an anathema to orthodox believers in neo-liberal dogma.
Getting a fairer deal doesn’t even necessarily involve paying more tax – it just means reassessing spending priorities: the overall burden of taxation in Sweden, for example, is about the same as that in the USA, but Swedish citizens get a much better deal. The neo-liberal privatising state has proven to be more of a colossal waste of money than the social-democratic state ever was: it’s just that now that money goes into the private bank accounts of CEOs and shareholders rather than into the locally-spent wages of electricians, bus drivers and char-ladies.
What’s not appealing, however, is the left’s style and narrative. It alienates people. It has lost the common touch. It has come to care more about ‘mansplaining’ than about the wages of the working man. The fact is that, now, the left has capitulated to a sort of cosmopolitan liberalism. That’s fine when you have a spare grand or two rolling around your bank account, and you want to make sure that your organic humous boycotts Israel, but it is meaningless for the many millions – even those in relatively well-paying lower middle class jobs – who struggle to make it through the month and whose fears and priorities are of a more immediate and material nature.
The second part of the challenge for the left is for those social-democratic policies to be communicated in a language that appeals to people’s basically conservative instincts. When arguing for a real social safety-net that keeps people out of poverty, we should talk about our ‘duty’ to ‘protect’ the ‘whole family’ of ‘this nation’. When arguing for environmental protection, we should talk about ‘our responsibility’ of ‘stewardship’ for ‘that created by a higher power than ourselves’ in order to ‘protect our children’ from ‘the menace of climate change’. These are strong words. Words of paternal protection. Words that appeal to our deepest instincts and needs. The populist right has long understood this, but has turned this understanding to destructive purposes: appealing to the worst side of our nature. Social democrats need to understand it too, and turn it to good.