The problem with populism



This is the second of three reviews I’ve been writing looking at books on the far right published during the lockdown. Yesterday it was Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers, tomorrow I’ll take a look at Evan Smith’s No Platform. Today, it’s Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter’s new book Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right became mainstream.

Unlike the other two books, this is a work of political sociology. Mondon and Winter are writing about the present not the 1930s or 1970s. Their focus is international (Mondon has previously written extensively about the right in Australia) – although in practice the majority of their examples come from Britain, the United States and France.

Their book explores how after 1945, racism regrew in Europe and the US, using case studies of Republican electoral racism in America (Nixon, Reagan), GRECE and the project to make the far right palatable in postwar France, and UKIP in Britain. In each case, the authors argue the dominant mode of racism was contemporary rather than “traditional”: racists rejected the overt, biological racism of pre-1945. They sought (in an American context) to exclude black voters from electoral registers because they were poor, because they had criminal convictions, rather than expressly because they were black. The dominant mode of racism, they argue, was “liberal” rather than “illiberal”. Indeed “illiberal racism” (the extreme right) often functioned as a “convenient enemy” – so that Thatcher or Farage could insist that anti-racists should vote for them because only they could protect you against the phantom scourge of the far right.

A chapter on “liberal racism”, reminds readers that economic racism is endemic: in each of Britain, France and the United States, black people suffer high employment rates, are more likely to be incarcerated, live in worse housing, etc. Indeed liberal racism, the authors argue, has provided the key ideological openings through which the far right has recently advanced. So, since 2013, the dominant way in which racism has justified and deepened itself is by way of false claims that Muslims are sexist, homophobic, etc, for which they should be punished with state harassment. Further, liberal commentators (even if they would vote for a centre-left or centre-right party themselves), have repeatedly championed the rights of illiberal racists to their right to cause offence, insisting that their free speech rights are a more urgent priority than any rights of the black or Muslim people they denounce.

Another chapter of the book looks at the way in which liberal thought uses the category populism. Mondon and Winter’s concept of “reactionary democracy” explores essentially the same phenomenon as (say) the Guardian does in speak of “populism.” In either case, we are talking about a politics which claims to speak in the name of the people while using its success for reactionary purposes (i.e. to support the rich when they seek to transfer resources from the poor, to support racism and sexism, etc). But the reason they reject the term populism is that liberal politicians and journalists have repeatedly used it as a weasel word: to assume that populists must always succeed because they have the ear of the people – and to blame ordinary voters for the delusion of voting for Trump, Brexit or whatever else. In that way liberalism and much of today’s social democracy ends up reversing the old starting point of the postwar left (the people are always right, in the end), with almost the opposite assumption. Mondon and Winter insist that Republican voters were richer than Democrat ones; that the majority of Brexit voters were more affluent than the average, lived in South East England, etc.

Reactionary Democracy is well-written and nuanced. The authors are people who have been thinking about the far right for many years, and the political and intellectual conclusions they draw are good ones. I regard them as co-thinkers engaged in a similar project and I hope they think the same about as me. In that spirit, I want to set out some “devil’s advocate” points which occurred to me when reading theirs.

Because the title of their book is “Reactionary Democracy”, it makes the concept of reaction central to their work. But I didn’t find any coherent definition of reactionary ideas in their book, and I think without one the left is vulnerable to the criticism that a person can be labelled reactionary if they argue for ideas or causes that we personally disagree with. Now, I think there’s a solution to this and a way of showing that our theories aren’t special pleading: the term reactionary has a history on the left, with villains (Kautsky) and heroes (Marx, Benjamin…). But it’s something you need to argue, it’s not something you can just assume.

I felt, reading it, that there was an affinity between the ideas in the book and a kind of anti-racist critique of anti-fascism that was important in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m thinking here of something like the chapter on RAR in Gilroy’s There Aint’ No Black in the Union Jack. Mondon and Winter are criticising, amongst other things, a lazy liberal anti-fascism in which the far right is always emerging outside of normal politics, and normal politics is essentially a patient in good health (save that it is being attack by a disease from without). The result of such liberal anti-fascism in France is that politics has become semi-permanently a choice between two authoritarian projects, one of liberal origin, one of (distant) fascist origin. Liberal anti-fascism has rewritten the political camp into once which distinctly favours the far right. And yet, there is also a place for anti-fascism – an anti-fascism which is alive to the risk that the present non-fascist far right might indeed mutate into something more like fascism, but which does not cease its criticisms of the fascists’ mainstream sponsors. To the extent that they critique anti-fascism, Mondon and Winter are making valid points – without ever integrating back into their analysis as much of anti-fascism as still needs to be retained.

Mondon and Winter seek to refute the argument that the FN, Trump or UKIP have been class parties of the poor. But, in arguing that, I felt there were selective arguments at work. For example, they argue that the FN vote isn’t a significant class vote by pointing that while the FN (now the RN) has received a very high proportion of workers who vote, this proportion is less, once it is compared to the much larger numbers of voters who don’t vote at all. This is true, but it is an impossibly high standard which we on the left would almost never apply to political forces (Corbyn, Sanders, Mélenchon) of which we approve. It is far better politics, in my view, to acknowledge that the right has established a definite base within the working class, to see that clearly and without self-delusion, and to try and win that audience back.

Finally, Reactionary Democracy assumes – without expressly arguing – that the main category which the left should be fighting is racism. This is our evil, the raw material on which all reactionary traditions are based. That approach seems to me to narrow what the far right is – yes, fascism was racism, but it was equally nationalism, sexism, homophobia, etc. And beneath all of these its ideology was one of a radical inegalitarianism, that women existed in order to serve men, that the poor and workers existed ultimately in order to serve the interests of an economy (i.e. of the business owners) and that they could be employed functionally, like the cogs of a great machine, to serve the fascist aims of military conquest and racial war. And something like the same mindset applies (with less concentrated purpose) in our own non-fascist times.

[For anyone who has enjoyed this post; on Friday at 6pm BST, I’ll be speaking at an event on the New Authoritarians and Covid with Sita Balani. Details here:]

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