Thursday, 26 January 2017

The populist surge and democracy in today’s Europe

Giorgos Katsambekis

If we believe top European officials like Herman van Rompuy or Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as mainstream media, populism is now ‘the greatest danger’ for our democracies. Indeed, during the years of crisis and austerity there has been a significant rise of populist parties in Europe, with some of them winning elections and disturbing previously established hegemonies. In this sense, the populist challenge has a ‘real,’ concrete base, as populists of various orientations are gaining ground. Interestingly, this ‘populist surge’ has brought renewed intensity to the debate around the crisis of democracy itself and the capacity of existing institutions to express and empower citizens. If people are turning to populist challengers, who seem overly radical, or even ‘extremist,’ then something must be wrong with our democratic-representational systems. This, at least, seems to be a common suggestion on the lips of politicians, pundits and academics.

To be sure, populists are identified on both sides of the political spectrum. Starting from the right, the Front National (FN) under Marine Le Pen poses as a viable contender of power in France, the Finns Party in Finland are participating in a coalition government, holding significant cabinet posts, the Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) candidate, Norbert Hofer, was only narrowly defeated in the recent Austrian presidential elections, while Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s hegemony in Hungary seems unchallenged.

At the same time we have witnessed a new surge, characterised by the emergence of populist parties that belong to the Left. The austerity-hit European South has been at the forefront of this new trend. Political parties like SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain rode the waves of massive grassroots anti-austerity movements and significantly expanded their electoral support, with the former being already in power for two years and the latter consolidated as a major player in Spain’s political scene.

But is this trend something good or bad for democracy? And what are the prospects of populism from now on? To deal with such questions we have to start from defining populism. Drawing on the emerging consensus among academics that use discursive or ‘ideational’ approaches, we can sketch the main characteristics of the phenomenon.

First, populism entails the discursive construction of ‘the people’ as a collective subject. ‘The people’ are called upon as the only ones that can legitimise democratic decision making; as the key-subject of social change and radical subversion. The second characteristic of populism is its sharp antagonistic worldview: the representation of society as ultimately divided between ‘the people’ and the ‘establishment.’ Populists are placed on the side of ‘the people,’ pledging to serve the popular will and reinforce popular sovereignty, accountability and participation, against power holders and ‘oligarchs.’

This formal understanding of populism gives us a precise illustration of its political logic, but it does not tell us much regarding the content of populist politics. Indeed, populism’s contents may vary, depending on the ideology to which it is attached, as well as the socio-economic environment in which it develops. This explains the fact that we have historically witnessed many different forms of populist articulation: populisms that favoured statist economic programmes and others that were free-market oriented; populisms that emerged from the grassroots and populisms that were concentrated on charismatic leaders and top-down hierarchies; populisms that put forth demands for democratic expansion and social inclusion and populisms that defended authoritarian logics and social/ethnic exclusion.

Accordingly, the way in which populists speak about ‘the people,’ can vary significantly, as some consider the people to be a mono-ethnic community bound by relations of common culture, language or blood, while others see it as a political community, plural and heterogeneous, bound only by a sense of common fate and a shared set of values. Moreover, the way in which the antagonism with the ‘enemy’ is signified can also acquire different content: in some cases, an unresponsive ‘elite’ can be blamed for its economic injustices and corruption, or it can be castigated for opening the borders and allowing invading ‘others’ to ‘take over’ the country.

In this context, taking into account the vast heterogeneity of the phenomenon, I believe that it is wrong to denounce populism per se as a pathological and anti-democratic form of politics. In fact, it might be better to understand it as one way, among many others, to appeal to groups of people in order to mobilise them against named opponents, while offering some kind of incorporation.

Now, what we may call ‘populist incorporation’ can be exclusive and identitarian (‘you’re one of us, as long as we share the same ethnic origins’), or it can be inclusive and pluralist (‘you’re one of us regardless ethnicity, religion, etc., as long as we stand together against an oppressive elite’). Admittedly, this is a simplified version of possible articulations, based on the two broader trends that seem to crystallise in Europe. In any case, this function tells us something crucial regarding the conditions of emergence and probable success of populist projects.

And it is here that the notion of ‘crisis’ enters our discussion. Kenneth Roberts, for example, has linked populist ruptures to certain crises of representation. One of the scenarios that he describes is the situation where a political system is characterised by lack of responsiveness or accountability. In this case, while democratic institutions formally work, the rule of law is respected, liberties are secured and parties can freely compete in elections, citizens are left with a feeling of lacking alternatives or of not being heard; they thus do not feel included, incorporated.

This is due to the fact that mainstream parties that dominate the political scene have converged to such an extent that it does not really make a difference to vote for one or the other. And this seems to be the case today in many European countries. Moreover, citizens in Europe have often witnessed the imposition of policies sharply opposed to their mandate, due to external pressures and constraints. Take for example the Greek referendum of July 2015, where, despite the people’s clear decision to reject a new bailout deal premised on further austerity, such a deal was imposed on the Greek government under the threat of a complete economic collapse and international isolation.

In such a context, where citizen feel misrepresented or not represented at all, where there are serious doubts about the moral integrity of the political elite and the policies being implemented have little to do with the popular vote, populists can claim to better understand and express the frustrated people, against a political system that has become self-serving and alienated.

Hence, instead of trying to account for populism as a ‘threat,’ there might be a much more important lesson to draw from the success of populist parties and movements, and this has to do with the quality of representation itself; with the responsiveness of political actors and institutions.

This is particularly important in today’s Europe, where mainstream political forces seem to have lost their links with civil society, becoming increasingly attached to the administrational workings of the state; what Peter Mair has described as the ‘cartelisation’ of political parties, which has spread to the EU itself, making it a ‘protected sphere,’ unaware of people’s needs and grievances. In one way or another, populists are gaining ground against such ‘cartel’ systems around Europe, and they are doing so not only in cases where economic hardship has been severe, but also in cases where the economy has performed well and institutions are stable and efficient.

In the South, the populist Left has found a favourable environment to put forth demands against austerity, rising inequality and impoverishment, in favour of re-including the marginalised people. In the North, the populist Right has managed to attract voters that were frustrated with mainstream parties, channelling social anxieties through identity issues, stressing the need to return to strong nation-states that provide protection to ‘their own.’ It would be impossible for such parties to succeed, if a ‘gap of representation’ wasn’t there for them to fill.

To sum up, any discussion regarding populism in Europe cannot be productive if we don’t take into account the inherent ambiguity of the phenomenon: both threat and corrective, both fulfilling a democratising promise and susceptible to authoritarian turns. The a priori demonization of populism that ignores its specific content and message, is doomed to backfire, since along with dismissing the populist ‘devils,’ one risks dismissing ‘the people’ themselves, their worries, frustrations and grievances.

In this sense, mainstream parties ought to take seriously the demands of populists on the issues which they raise, from participatory democracy to transparency, and from wealth distribution and social protection to popular accountability. And they do not just have to take them into account, but they ought to respond to them with concrete policy proposals and with discourses that can aspire positive passions of hope among citizens that struggle in conditions of stagnation and impasse.

You can read the full article The Populist Surge in Post-Democratic Times: Theoretical and Political Challenges here.

Monday, 23 January 2017

The SNP's progressive dilemma

David Torrance

It was the former Labour politician David Marquand who identified what he called the ‘progressive dilemma’ in British politics, that is the reluctance of UK voters to support parties – usually Labour or the Liberals – whose broadly progressive values and policies they otherwise claim to support.

Superficially, the Scottish National Party (SNP) – currently approaching its tenth anniversary in devolved government – would appear to be an exception. Three times it has fought elections for the Scottish Parliament on a “progressive” platform, and three times it has emerged as the largest party, once with an overall majority.

On closer examination, however, the SNP is subject to exactly the same dynamic as its progressive counterparts on the UK stage. Indeed, as I argue in my essay for the most recent edition of Political Quarterly, when it comes to Scottish Nationalism there is in fact a twin dilemma: in order to achieve independence, the SNP has needed to win political power, and in order to achieve political power it has had to win elections, and orthodoxy dictated that winning those in Scotland involved offering voters a centre-left agenda.

But over the past five years it’s become increasingly clear that the SNP’s two goals, winning (and subsequently retaining) office and ultimately securing independence, are often in conflict. Indeed, two recent events illustrate the point, the devolved Scottish Government’s latest Budget and the publication of its “Brexit” paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe.

The first is significant – “historic” in Finance Secretary Derek Mackay’s own word – because for the first time Holyrood will have (almost) complete control of income tax bands and rates north of the border. Now although the SNP has always subscribed to the low-tax orthodoxy of British politics, its rhetoric about “social justice” and “progressive” values have rather created the impression that, given the chance, it would be more redistributive.

But in the most recent Budget, all the Finance Secretary did was forego the Treasury’s planned threshold increase for the upper rate, which means middle earners in Scotland will end up paying a little more than those in the rest of the UK. On the 50p rate, however, the SNP had in the past supported its restoration, only now it uses George Osborne-like arguments about the dangers of fiscal flight.

The SNP is not stupid; it knows its electorate well, and it fully realizes that while Middle Scotland likes to think of itself as “progressive” and more left-wing (i.e. better) than Middle England, it’s not really prepared to translate that conceit into higher taxes. In other words, the secret of the SNP’s electoral success since 2007 has been a New Labour-like ability to articulate the desires of Middle Scotland and thus win political support.

Increasing taxes and welfare payments (now also within its gift) risks offending moderate voters and therefore not only diminishing the party’s grip on devolved government but also support for independence. In the run up to the last referendum, for example, the SNP went out of its way to moderate its message, suddenly becoming pro-NATO, stressing its support for the monarchy and promising that independence would not mean higher taxes or lower public spending.

And now Brexit has increased the chances of another independence referendum, the SNP remains in safety-first mode. The essence of the Scottish Government’s long-awaited Brexit paper, meanwhile, is also that of compromise. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is acutely aware that a large chunk of her own supporters voted Leave in June’s referendum, thus she now accepts that Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, is set to leave the European Union.

So instead her government’s paper argues that the UK and, failing that, Scotland, ought to remain part of the EU Single Market. With respect to Scotland, however, this goal is quixotic, for sub-state units (i.e. a devolved Scotland) are not eligible to join either the European Economic Area or European Free Trade Association. And even if it were possible, it’d need the approval of all 27 EU Member States, which seems unlikely, particularly in the case of Spain.

There are also broader tensions. The SNP might depict the UK as innately regressive, prone to Conservative, reactionary governments, and the EU as generally progressive, in spite of its economic treatment of Ireland and Greece, but the point remains that the former’s fiscal transfers give the Scottish Government significant leeway to sustain universal benefits like free personal care and free university tuition, while Scotland – independent or not – would likely be a net contributor to the EU.

Those on the Nationalist left, however, comfort themselves with the belief that once independence has been achieved, the SNP will dispense with Blairite triangulation and govern according to properly progressive principles. That aspiration, however, rather betrays the reality that it hasn’t thus far. The party’s twin dilemma will continue until, and perhaps even beyond, another independence referendum.

You can read the full article here.