Category Archives: Populism

Populism is the result of global economic failure – Larry Elliott. 

The rise of populism has rattled the global political establishment. Brexit came as a shock, as did the victory of Donald Trump. Much head-scratching has resulted as leaders seek to work out why large chunks of their electorates are so cross.

The answer seems pretty simple. Populism is the result of economic failure. The 10 years since the financial crisis have shown that the system of economic governance which has held sway for the past four decades is broken. Some call this approach Neoliberalism. Perhaps a better description would be unpopulism.

Unpopulism meant tilting the balance of power in the workplace in favour of management and treating people like wage slaves. Unpopulism was rigged to ensure that the fruits of growth went to the few not to the many. Unpopulism decreed that those responsible for the global financial crisis got away with it while those who were innocent bore the brunt of austerity.

Anybody seeking to understand why Trump won the US presidential election should take a look at what has been happening to the division of the economic spoils. The share of national income that went to the bottom 90% of the population held steady at around 66% from 1950 to 1980. It then began a steep decline, falling to just over 50% when the financial crisis broke in 2007.

Similarly, it is no longer the case that everybody benefits when the US economy is doing well. During the business cycle upswing between 1961 and 1969, the bottom 90% of Americans took 67% of the income gains. During the Reagan expansion two decades later they took 20%. During the Greenspan housing bubble of 2001 to 2007, they got just two cents in every extra dollar of national income generated while the richest 10% took the rest.

The US economist Thomas Palley says that up until the late 1970s countries operated a virtuous circle growth model in which wages were the engine of demand growth.

“Productivity growth drove wage growth which fueled demand growth. That promoted full employment, which provided the incentive to invest, which drove further productivity growth,” he says.

Unpopulism was touted as the antidote to the supposedly failed policies of the postwar era. It promised higher growth rates, higher investment rates, higher productivity rates and a trickle down of income from rich to poor. It has delivered none of these things.

James Montier and Philip Pilkington, of the global investment firm GMO, say that the system which arose in the 1970s was characterised by four significant economic policies: the abandonment of full employment and its replacement with inflation targeting; an increase in the globalisation of the flows of people, capital and trade; a focus on shareholder maximisation rather than reinvestment and growth; and the pursuit of flexible labour markets and the disruption of trade unions and workers’ organisations.

To take just the last of these four pillars, the idea was that trade unions and minimum wages were impediments to an efficient labour market. Collective bargaining and statutory pay floors would result in workers being paid more than the market rate, with the result that unemployment would inevitably rise.

Unpopulism decreed that the real value of the US minimum wage should be eroded. But unemployment is higher than it was when the minimum wage was worth more. Nor is there any correlation between trade union membership and unemployment. If anything, international comparisons suggest that those countries with higher trade union density have lower jobless rates. The countries that have higher minimum wages do not have higher unemployment rates.

“Labour market flexibility may sound appealing, but it is based on a theory that runs completely counter to all the evidence we have,” Montier and Pilkington note. “The alternative theory suggests that labour market flexibility is by no means desirable as it results in an economy with a bias to stagnate that can only maintain high rates of employment and economic growth through debt-fuelled bubbles that inevitably blow up, leading to the economy tipping back into stagnation.”

This quest for ever-greater labour market flexibility has had some unexpected consequences. The bill in the UK for tax credits spiralled quickly once firms realised they could pay poverty wages and let the state pick up the bill. Access to a global pool of low-cost labour meant there was less of an incentive to invest in productivity-enhancing equipment.

The abysmally low levels of productivity growth since the crisis have encouraged the belief that this is a recent phenomenon, but as Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, noted last week, the trend started in most advanced countries in the 1970s.

“Certainly, the productivity puzzle is not something which has emerged since the global financial crisis, though it seems to have amplified pre-existing trends,” Haldane said.

Bolshie trade unions certainly can’t be blamed for Britain’s lost productivity decade. The orthodox view in the 1970s was that attempts to make the UK more efficient were being thwarted by shop stewards who modeled themselves on Fred Kite, the character played by Peter Sellers in I’m All Right Jack. Haldane puts the blame elsewhere: on poor management, which has left the UK with a big gap between frontier firms and a long tail of laggards. “Firms which export have systematically higher levels of productivity than domestically oriented firms, on average by around a third. The same is true, even more dramatically, for foreign-owned firms. Their average productivity is twice that of domestically oriented firms.”

Populism is seen as irrational and reprehensible. It is neither. It seems entirely rational for the bottom 90% of the US population to question why they are getting only 2% of income gains. It hardly seems strange that workers in Britain should complain at the weakest decade for real wage growth since the Napoleonic wars.

It has also become clear that ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing are merely sticking-plaster solutions. Populism stems from a sense that the economic system is not working, which it clearly isn’t. In any other walk of life, a failed experiment results in change. Drugs that are supposed to provide miracle cures but are proved not to work are quickly abandoned. Businesses that insist on continuing to produce goods that consumers don’t like go bust. That’s how progress happens.

The good news is that the casting around for new ideas has begun. Trump has advocated protectionism. Theresa May is consulting on an industrial strategy. Montier and Pilkington suggest a commitment to full employment, job guarantees, reindustrialisation and a stronger role for trade unions. The bad news is that time is running short. More and more people are noticing that the emperor has no clothes.

Even if the polls are right this time and Marine Le Pen fails to win the French presidency, a full-scale political revolt is only another deep recession away. And that’s easy enough to envisage.

The Guardian

An Example for NZ. The Dutch GreenLeft party shows new ideas can turn the tide of populism – Rutger Bregman. 

Wake Up Andrew! Labour is fast becoming irrelevant. 

Let’s be honest, rightwing, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders is this election’s real winner.

We seem to be forgetting that his party gained five additional seats in the Dutch parliament. And more importantly: over the past 10 years, Wilders has wrenched most of the other parties toward his position on the fringes – particularly the fiscally conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the culturally conservative Christian Democratic party (CDA), both mainstream parties with widespread support.

Suppose a denizen of the 1980s had stepped into a time machine and travelled to watch the runup to these Dutch elections. Imagine how surprised – or, more accurately, dismayed – they would be. So-called progressive and moderate politicians are currently making pronouncements that would have put them behind bars for inciting hate 30 years ago.

In 1997, a Dutch judge sentenced the far-right politician Hans Janmaat for saying “As soon as we have the power and the opportunity, we will eliminate multiculturalism.” Pretty tame compared to Wilders, who’s constantly denouncing “palaces of hatred” (mosques) and “Street terrorists” (Moroccan youth).

At the start of his campaign, current prime minister Mark Rutte of the VVD said he hated the idea of a “multicultural society”. Rutte hasn’t prevailed over the populist right, he has joined its ranks.

Remember: real politics isn’t about figureheads and seats in parliament. Real politics is about ideas. And there can be no doubt regarding the extreme ideas that have been gaining ground in the Netherlands for decades.

This election’s outcome also offers little that’s new on the economic front. A neoliberal, technocratic cabinet is departing, and a new one will take its place.

As always, the business-friendly VVD will cater to the banking and tobacco lobbies, big business and high finance. The more progressive D66 is still toeing the economic line of the 1990s. And this election barely touched on the real challenges of the 21st century: climate change, growing inequality and the rot at the heart of our banking industry.

So is there no hope? There’s always hope.

The Netherlands’ proportional democracy offers a wide menu of political flavours, and it functions significantly better than the US and British systems. And the party with the gravest dearth of ideas – the social-democratic Labour Party (PvdA) – has been mercilessly punished for it. Never before in Dutch history has a party lost so many seats.

Meanwhile, the big winners on the left are GreenLeft and the radical Party for the Animals (PvdD). Their victory isn’t enough to compensate for the swerve to the right, but it has increased the chance that the Netherlands will take serious new steps toward a sustainable economy.

The big question now is how we can turn the tide. How can history once again move in the other direction – the direction of bridges over walls, open over closed? As always, change will have to start with new ideas. Radical ones, because ideas tempered by “as long as” and “except for” won’t change the world. We now know where the strategy of the middle, of the Hillary Clintons, Tony Blairs and Lodewijk Asschers (the leader of the Dutch Labour party), leads: nowhere.

New ideas rarely come from the moderate parties in The Hague or Washington, in Brussels or Westminster. The world’s political centres are not the breeding ground for true change, but rather where it comes home to roost. Just as Wilders has been yanking the Netherlands rightward for years, Dutch politicians such as GreenLeft’s Jesse Klaver and Marianne Thieme of the Party for the Animals can pull things in the opposite direction. To do so, they can draw on new ideas – from a participatory democracy to a universal basic income, from a progressive system of taxation to a healthcare system based on cooperation and trust.

“This is not the end, but the beginning of our movement,” Klaver wrote yesterday. But for that to be true, it’s essential to avoid the freefall that has plagued the country’s Labour party since it joined the ranks of those in power: the plunge into moderation, into monotony, into wine watered down to the point of tastelessness.

Today, in the afterglow of the people’s endorsement, the heady aroma of power is understandably intoxicating. But consider this: the most influential Dutch politician of the past 15 years – Geert Wilders – has never been a part of the country’s ruling coalition.

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Rutger Bregman is the author of Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There

The Guardian

The 1930s were humanity’s darkest, bloodiest hour. Are you paying attention? – Jonathan Freedland. 

Even to mention the 1930s is to evoke the period when human civilisation entered its darkest, bloodiest chapter. No case needs to be argued; just to name the decade is enough. It is a byword for mass poverty, violent extremism and the gathering storm of world war. “The 1930s” is not so much a label for a period of time than it is rhetorical shorthand – a two-word warning from history.

Witness the impact of an otherwise boilerplate broadcast by the Prince of Wales last December that made headlines. “Prince Charles warns of return to the ‘dark days of the 1930s’ in Thought for the Day message.” Or consider the reflex response to reports that Donald Trump was to maintain his own private security force even once he had reached the White House. The Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman’s tweet was typical: “That 1930s show returns.”

Because that decade was scarred by multiple evils, the phrase can be used to conjure up serial spectres. It has an international meaning, with a vocabulary that centres on Hitler and Nazism and the failure to resist them: from brownshirts and Goebbels to appeasement, Munich and Chamberlain. And it has a domestic meaning, with a lexicon and imagery that refers to the Great Depression: the dust bowl, soup kitchens, the dole queue and Jarrow. It was this second association that gave such power to a statement from the usually dry Office for Budget Responsibility, following then-chancellor George Osborne’s autumn statement in 2014. The OBR warned that public spending would be at its lowest level since the 1930s; the political damage was enormous and instant.

In recent months, the 1930s have been invoked more than ever, not to describe some faraway menace but to warn of shifts under way in both Europe and the United States. The surge of populist, nationalist movements in Europe, and their apparent counterpart in the US, has stirred unhappy memories and has, perhaps inevitably, had commentators and others reaching for the historical yardstick to see if today measures up to 80 years ago.

Why is it the 1930s to which we return, again and again? For some sceptics, the answer is obvious: it’s the only history anybody knows. According to this jaundiced view of the British school curriculum, Hitler and Nazis long ago displaced Tudors and Stuarts as the core, compulsory subjects of the past. When we fumble in the dark for a historical precedent, our hands keep reaching for the 30s because they at least come with a little light.

The more generous explanation centres on the fact that that period, taken together with the first half of the 1940s, represents a kind of nadir in human affairs. The Depression was, as Larry Elliott wrote last week, “the biggest setback to the global economy since the dawn of the modern industrial age”, leaving 34 million Americans with no income. The hyperinflation experienced in Germany – when a thief would steal a laundry-basket full of cash, chucking away the money in order to keep the more valuable basket – is the stuff of legend. And the Depression paved the way for history’s bloodiest conflict, the second world war which left, by some estimates, a mind-numbing 60 million people dead. At its centre was the Holocaust, the industrialised slaughter of 6 million Jews by the Nazis: an attempt at the annihilation of an entire people.

In these multiple ways, then, the 1930s function as a historical rock bottom, a demonstration of how low humanity can descend. The decade’s illustrative power as a moral ultimate accounts for why it is deployed so fervently and so often.

Less abstractly, if we keep returning to that period, it’s partly because it can justifiably claim to be the foundation stone of our modern world. The international and economic architecture that still stands today – even if it currently looks shaky and threatened – was built in reaction to the havoc wreaked in the 30s and immediately afterwards. The United Nations, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, Bretton Woods: these were all born of a resolve not to repeat the mistakes of the 30s, whether those mistakes be rampant nationalism or beggar-my-neighbour protectionism. The world of 2017 is shaped by the trauma of the 1930s.

The international and economic architecture that still stands today was built in reaction to the havoc of the 1930s

One telling, human illustration came in recent global polling for the Journal of Democracy, which showed an alarming decline in the number of people who believed it was “essential” to live in a democracy. From Sweden to the US, from Britain to Australia, only one in four of those born in the 1980s regarded democracy as essential. Among those born in the 1930s, the figure was at or above 75%. Put another way, those who were born into the hurricane have no desire to feel its wrath again.

Most of these dynamics are long established, but now there is another element at work. As the 30s move from living memory into history, as the hurricane moves further away, so what had once seemed solid and fixed – specifically, the view that that was an era of great suffering and pain, whose enduring value is as an eternal warning – becomes contested, even upended.

Witness the remarks of Steve Bannon, chief strategist in Donald Trump’s White House and the former chairman of the far-right Breitbart website. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Bannon promised that the Trump era would be “as exciting as the 1930s”. (In the same interview, he said “Darkness is good” – citing Satan, Darth Vader and Dick Cheney as examples.)

“Exciting” is not how the 1930s are usually remembered, but Bannon did not choose his words by accident. He is widely credited with the authorship of Trump’s inaugural address, which twice used the slogan “America first”. That phrase has long been off-limits in US discourse, because it was the name of the movement – packed with nativists and antisemites, and personified by the celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh – that sought to keep the US out of the war against Nazi Germany and to make an accommodation with Hitler. Bannon, who considers himself a student of history, will be fully aware of that 1930s association – but embraced it anyway.

That makes him an outlier in the US, but one with powerful allies beyond America’s shores. Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale and the author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, notes that European nationalists are also keen to overturn the previously consensual view of the 30s as a period of shame, never to be repeated. Snyder mentions Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, who avowedly seeks the creation of an “illiberal” state, and who, says Snyder, “looks fondly on that period as one of healthy national consciousness”.

The more arresting example is, perhaps inevitably, Vladimir Putin. Snyder notes Putin’s energetic rehabilitation of Ivan Ilyin, a philosopher of Russian fascism influential eight decades ago. Putin has exhumed Ilyin both metaphorically and literally, digging up and moving his remains from Switzerland to Russia.

Among other things, Ilyin wrote that individuality was evil; that the “variety of human beings” represented a failure of God to complete creation; that what mattered was not individual people but the “living totality” of the nation; that Hitler and Mussolini were exemplary leaders who were saving Europe by dissolving democracy; and that fascist holy Russia ought to be governed by a “national dictator”. Ilyin spent the 30s exiled from the Soviet Union, but Putin has brought him back, quoting him in his speeches and laying flowers on his grave.

European nationalists are keen to overturn the view of the 1930s as a period of shame, never to be repeated.

Still, Putin, Orbán and Bannon apart, when most people compare the current situation to that of the 1930s, they don’t mean it as a compliment. And the parallel has felt irresistible, so that when Trump first imposed his travel ban, for example, the instant comparison was with the door being closed to refugees from Nazi Germany in the 30s. (Theresa May was on the receiving end of the same comparison when she quietly closed off the Dubs route to child refugees from Syria.)

When Trump attacked the media as purveyors of “fake news”, the ready parallel was Hitler’s slamming of the newspapers as the Lügenpresse, the lying press (a term used by today’s German far right). When the Daily Mail branded a panel of high court judges “enemies of the people”, for their ruling that parliament needed to be consulted on Brexit, those who were outraged by the phrase turned to their collected works of European history, looking for the chapters on the 1930s.

The Great Depression

So the reflex is well-honed. But is it sound? Does any comparison of today and the 1930s hold up?

The starting point is surely economic, not least because the one thing everyone knows about the 30s – and which is common to both the US and European experiences of that decade – is the Great Depression. The current convulsions can be traced back to the crash of 2008, but the impact of that event and the shock that defined the 30s are not an even match. When discussing our own time, Krugman speaks instead of the Great Recession: a huge and shaping event, but one whose impact – measured, for example, in terms of mass unemployment – is not on the same scale. US joblessness reached 25% in the 1930s; even in the depths of 2009 it never broke the 10% barrier.

The political sphere reveals another mismatch between then and now. The 30s were characterised by ultra-nationalist and fascist movements seizing power in leading nations: Germany, Italy and Spain most obviously. The world is waiting nervously for the result of France’s presidential election in May: victory for Marine Le Pen would be seized on as the clearest proof yet that the spirit of the 30s is resurgent.

There is similar apprehension that Geert Wilders, who speaks of ridding the country of ‘Moroccan scum”, has led the polls ahead of Holland’s general election on Wednesday. And plenty of liberals will be perfectly content for the Christian Democrat Angela Merkel to prevail over her Social Democratic rival, Martin Schulz, just so long as the far-right Alternative Fur Deutschland makes no ground. Still, so far and as things stand, in Europe only Hungary and Poland have governments that seem doctrinally akin to those that flourished in the 30s.

That leaves the US, which dodged the bullet of fascistic rule in the 30s – although at times the success of the America First movement which at its peak could count on more than 800,000 paid-up members, suggested such an outcome was far from impossible. (Hence the intended irony in the title of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.)

Donald Trump has certainly had Americans reaching for their history textbooks, fearful that his admiration for strongmen, his contempt for restraints on executive authority, and his demonisation of minorities and foreigners means he marches in step with the demagogues of the 30s.

But even those most anxious about Trump still focus on the form the new presidency could take rather than the one it is already taking. David From, a speechwriter to George W. Bush, wrote a much-noticed essay for the Atlantic titled, “How to build an autocracy”. It was billed as setting out “the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path towards illiberalism”. He was not arguing that Trump had already embarked on that route, just that he could (so long as the media came to heel and the public grew weary and worn down, shrugging in the face of obvious lies and persuaded that greater security was worth the price of lost freedoms).

Similarly, Trump has unloaded rhetorically on the free press – castigating them, Mail-style, as “enemies of the people” – but he has not closed down any newspapers. He meted out the same treatment via Twitter to a court that blocked his travel ban, rounding on the “so-called judge” – but he did eventually succumb to the courts’ verdict and withdrew his original executive order. He did not have the dissenting judges sacked or imprisoned; he has not moved to register or intern every Muslim citizen in the US; he has not suggested they wear identifying symbols.

These are crumbs of comfort; they are not intended to minimise the real danger Trump represents to the fundamental norms that underpin liberal democracy. Rather, the point is that we have not reached the 1930s yet. Those sounding the alarm are suggesting only that we may be travelling in that direction – which is bad enough.

Two further contrasts between now and the 1930s, one from each end of the sociological spectrum, are instructive. First, and particularly relevant to the US, is to ask: who is on the streets? In the 30s, much of the conflict was played out at ground level, with marchers and quasi-military forces duelling for control. The clashes of the Brownshirts with communists and socialists played a crucial part in the rise of the Nazis. (A turning point in the defeat of Oswald Mosley, Britain’s own little Hitler, came with his humbling in London’s East End, at the 1936 battle of Cable Street.)

But those taking to the streets today – so far – have tended to be opponents of the lurch towards extreme nationalism. In the US, anti-Trump movements – styling themselves, in a conscious nod to the 1930s, as “the resistance” – have filled city squares and plazas. The Women’s March led the way on the first day of the Trump presidency; then those protesters and others flocked to airports in huge numbers a week later, to obstruct the refugee ban. Those demonstrations have continued, and they supply an important contrast with 80 years ago. Back then, it was the fascists who were out first – and in force.

Snyder notes another key difference. “In the 1930s, all the stylish people were fascists: the film critics, the poets and so on.” He is speaking chiefly about Germany and Italy, and doubtless exaggerates to make his point, but he is right that today “most cultural figures tend to be against”. There are exceptions – Le Pen has her celebrity admirers, but Snyder speaks accurately when he says that now, in contrast with the 30s, there are “few who see fascism as a creative cultural force”.

Fear and loathing

So much for where the lines between then and now diverge. Where do they run in parallel?

The exercise is made complicated by the fact that ultra-nationalists are, so far, largely out of power where they ruled in the 30s – namely, Europe – and in power in the place where they were shut out in that decade, namely the US. It means that Trump has to be compared either to US movements that were strong but ultimately defeated, such as the America First Committee, or to those US figures who never governed on the national stage.

In that category stands Huey Long, the Louisiana strongman, who ruled that state as a personal fiefdom (and who was widely seen as the inspiration for the White House dictator at the heart of the Lewis novel).

“He was immensely popular,” says Tony Badger, former professor of American history at the University of Cambridge. Long would engage in the personal abuse of his opponents, often deploying colourful language aimed at mocking their physical characteristics. The judges were a frequent Long target, to the extent that he hounded one out of office – with fateful consequences.

Long went over the heads of the hated press, communicating directly with the voters via a medium he could control completely. In Trump’s day, that is Twitter, but for Long it was the establishment of his own newspaper, the Louisiana Progress (later the American Progress) – which Long had delivered via the state’s highway patrol and which he commanded be printed on rough paper, so that, says Badger, “his constituents could use it in the toilet”.

All this was tolerated by Long’s devotees because they lapped up his message of economic populism, captured by the slogan: “Share Our Wealth”. Tellingly, that resonated not with the very poorest – who tended to vote for Roosevelt, just as those earning below $50,000 voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 – but with “the men who had jobs or had just lost them, whose wages had eroded and who felt they had lost out and been left behind”. That description of Badger’s could apply just as well to the demographic that today sees Trump as its champion.

Long never made it to the White House. In 1935, one month after announcing his bid for the presidency, he was assassinated, shot by the son-in-law of the judge Long had sought to remove from the bench. It’s a useful reminder that, no matter how hate-filled and divided we consider US politics now, the 30s were full of their own fear and loathing.

“I welcome their hatred,” Roosevelt would say of his opponents on the right. Nativist xenophobia was intense, even if most immigration had come to a halt with legislation passed in the previous decade. Catholics from eastern Europe were the target of much of that suspicion, while Lindbergh and the America Firsters played on enduring antisemitism.

This, remember, was in the midst of the Great Depression, when one in four US workers was out of a job. And surely this is the crucial distinction between then and now, between the Long phenomenon and Trump. As Badger summarises: “There was a real crisis then, whereas Trump’s is manufactured.”

And yet, scholars of the period are still hearing the insistent beep of their early warning systems. An immediate point of connection is globalisation, which is less novel than we might think. For Snyder, the 30s marked the collapse of the first globalisation, defined as an era in which a nation’s wealth becomes ever more dependent on exports. That pattern had been growing steadily more entrenched since the 1870s (just as the second globalisation took wing in the 1970s). Then, as now, it had spawned a corresponding ideology – a faith in liberal free trade as a global panacea – with, perhaps, the English philosopher Herbert Spencer in the role of the End of History essayist Francis Fukuyama. By the 1930s, and thanks to the Depression, that faith in globalisation’s ability to spread the wealth evenly had shattered. This time around, disillusionment has come a decade or so ahead of schedule.

The second loud alarm is clearly heard in the hostility to those deemed outsiders. Of course, the designated alien changes from generation to generation, but the impulse is the same: to see the family next door not as neighbours but as agents of some heinous worldwide scheme, designed to deprive you of peace, prosperity or what is rightfully yours. In 30s Europe, that was Jews. In 30s America, it was eastern Europeans and Jews. In today’s Europe, it’s Muslims. In America, it’s Muslims and Mexicans (with a nod from the so-called alt-right towards Jews). Then and now, the pattern is the same: an attempt to refashion the pain inflicted by globalisation and its discontents as the wilful act of a hated group of individuals. No need to grasp difficult, abstract questions of economic policy. We just need to banish that lot, over there.

The third warning sign, and it’s a necessary companion of the second, is a growing impatience with the rule of law and with democracy. “In the 1930s, many, perhaps even most, educated people had reached the conclusion that democracy was a spent force,” says Snyder. There were plenty of socialist intellectuals ready to profess their admiration for the efficiency of Soviet industrialisation under Stalin, just as rightwing thinkers were impressed by Hitler’s capacity for state action. In our own time, that generational plunge in the numbers regarding democracy as “essential” suggests a troubling echo.

Today’s European nationalists exhibit a similar impatience, especially with the rule of law: think of the Brexiters’ insistence that nothing can be allowed to impede “the will of the people”. As for Trump, it’s striking how very rarely he mentions democracy, still less praises it. “I alone can fix it” is his doctrine – the creed of the autocrat.

The geopolitical equivalent is a departure from, or even contempt for, the international rules-based system that has held since 1945 – in which trade, borders and the seas are loosely and imperfectly policed by multilateral institutions such as the UN, the EU and the World Trade Organisation. Admittedly, the international system was weaker to start with in the 30s, but it lay in pieces by the decade’s end: both Hitler and Stalin decided that the global rules no longer applied to them, that they could break them with impunity and get on with the business of empire-building.

If there’s a common thread linking 21st-century European nationalists to each other and to Trump, it is a similar, shared contempt for the structures that have bound together, and restrained, the principal world powers since the last war. Naturally, Le Pen and Wilders want to follow the Brexit lead and leave, or else break up, the EU. And, no less naturally, Trump supports them – as well as regarding Nato as “obsolete” and the UN as an encumbrance to US power (even if his subordinates rush to foreign capitals to say the opposite).

For historians of the period, the 1930s are always worthy of study because the decade proves that systems – including democratic republics – which had seemed solid and robust can collapse. That fate is possible, even in advanced, sophisticated societies. The warning never gets old.

But when we contemplate our forebears from eight decades ago, we should recall one crucial advantage we have over them. We have what they lacked. We have the memory of the 1930s. We can learn the period’s lessons and avoid its mistakes. Of course, cheap comparisons coarsen our collective conversation. But having a keen ear tuned to the echoes of a past that brought such horror? That is not just our right. It is surely our duty.

The Guardian

Europe’s Centre-Left Risks Irrelevance – Sheri Berman. 

JUST LIKE NEW ZEALAND’S, LABOUR NEEDS TO WISE UP!

Europe today is in crisis. Economically, much of the continent suffers from low growth, high unemployment and rising inequality, while politically, disillusionment with the European community as well as domestic institutions and elites is widespread. Partially as a result, right-wing populism is growing, increasing political instability and uncertainty even further. Although many have noted a correlation between the rise of populism and the decline of the social democratic or centre-left, the causal relationship between them has not been sufficiently stressed. Indeed, to a large degree the failures of the latter explain the surprising popularity of the former.

The historical role of the centre or social democratic left

Although the decline of social democracy and the rise of populism have become particularly noticeable since the financial crisis that began in 2008, the roots of both lie much earlier, in the 1970s. During this decade economic and social/cultural changes began unsettling long-standing voting and political patterns. Economically, the postwar order was running out of steam, and a noxious mix of unemployment and inflation hit Europe. However, social democrats lacked well thought out plans for getting economies moving again or for using the democratic state to protect citizens from the changes brought by ever-evolving capitalism.

Such plans, of course, had been precisely what social democracy had offered after 1945. Back then, social democrats had not only insisted that it was possible to reform and even improve capitalism – they devised concrete policy proposals for accomplishing this task. These policies enabled governments to contain and cushion the most destructive and destabilising consequences of markets without fettering them entirely. In contrast, during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, social democrats offered either rearguard defences of socioeconomic policies that may have made sense decades ago but which are now out of touch with the realities of a changing global economy, or else watered-down versions of neoliberalism (such as the English “Third Way” or the German “Neue Mitte”) that left many citizens wondering why they should bother to vote for the social democratic or centre-left at all.

The absence of a distinctive, effective social democratic response to economic problems allowed a neoliberal right that had been organising and thinking about what it saw as the drawbacks of the postwar order to begin freeing capitalism from many of the restrictions that had been placed on it beginning in the 1970s. And this unfettered capitalism, in turn, not only helped create the financial crisis of the early twenty-first century, it also drove many voters to the populist right which explicitly promised to reign it in and protect “true” citizens from its harshest effects.

At the same time that European economies were changing, so were European societies. Social and cultural changes unleashed in the late 1960s threatened traditional identities, communities and mores, a process further exacerbated by growing immigration. Together these trends helped erode the social solidarity and sense of shared national purpose that had supported the social democratic postwar order and helped to stabilise European democracies in the decades following the Second World War.

Historically, social democrats recognised and indeed promoted social solidarity and a sense of shared national purpose, identifying these as necessary to the legitimacy of high taxes and a strong welfare state. During the last decades of the twentieth century, however, this basic fact was all too often forgotten or wished away by a centre or social democratic left that lacked distinctive, effective responses to the social, cultural and demographic changes that weakened the sense of solidarity and shared national purpose across one European country after another.

The absence of a distinctive, effective social democratic response to growing diversity allowed the extreme or multicultural left to become the loudest left-wing voice on this issue. This camp tends to see society as divided into irreconcilable groups, with different values and traditions all around. Efforts to find common ground or ease differences, in this view, are undesirable and counterproductive.

This emphasis on the “politics of recognition” – as opposed to the centre-left’s traditional emphasis on the “politics of redistribution” – was bad for the left and bad for democracy. It led many intellectuals away from a focus on economic issues and fragmented the left in a way that makes it hard to build majority coalitions and win elections. It also makes it almost impossible to generate the social solidarity or shared sense of national purpose that is necessary to support the rest of the centre-left agenda or healthy democracy more generally. And of course, a stress on the primacy of racial, religious, or sexual identity over class or even national identity, along with the implicit and often explicit denigration of those worried about the rapidly changing nature of their societies, has also helped to drive many voters to the nationalist, populist right.

The current crisis

It is now fairly commonplace to note the support given by traditionally left or social democratic voters to the populist right. This connection was on obvious display in the Brexit referendum, where many traditional Labour strongholds and supporters voted to leave the EU, and it has been a prominent feature of elections across the continent as working-class voters in particular have flocked to right-wing populist parties. And of course, a version of this was present in the United States, where Donald Trump garnered disproportionate support from less-educated and working-class voters. What is still worth stressing, however, is the causal connection between the failures or missteps of the centre or social democratic left and the rise of right-wing populism.

During the decades following the Second World war, centre-left and social democratic parties offered attractive solutions to the economic and social challenges facing European democracies. They promised citizens an economic order that neither erased capitalism (as many on the far left desired) nor gave it free rein (as classical liberals and contemporary neoliberals favour). Instead, they promised citizens the benefits of capitalist economic dynamism and innovation as well as to shield them from capitalism’s sometimes destructive effects.

The centre or social democratic left also promoted social solidarity and a sense of national purpose – welfare states would protect the health and well-being of all citizens and government would commit itself to creating an equal and prosperous society that benefited all. By the last decades of the twentieth century, however, the centre or social democratic left no longer had convincing responses to the most pressing economic and social challenges facing European societies, and voters accordingly began looking for other political alternatives.

For many former or traditionally left voters, the most attractive alternative turned out to be the populist right, which offered simple, straightforward solutions to citizens’ economic and social fears. Economically, the populist right promises to promote prosperity, via increased government control of the economy and limits on globalisation. Socially, the populist right promises to restore social solidarity and a sense of shared national purpose, by expelling foreigners or severely limiting immigration; diminishing the influence of the European Union, and protecting traditional values, identities and mores.

For those who bemoan the rise of the populist right, the challenge is clear: you can’t beat something with nothing and if the left can’t come up with more viable and attractive solutions to contemporary problems than those offered by its competitors it can expect to continue its slide into the dustheap of history.
Social Europe

Donald Trump, Putin, Duterte: Dangerous, populist leaders a ‘threat’ to world – NZ Herald. 

Campaigns such as Brexit and the rise of populist leaders including Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte have fuelled new levels of hate, intolerance and bigotry.

But the world will pay a heavy price for playing the politics of fear in 2017, a new report has warned.

The election of US President-elect Donald Trump after a “campaign fermenting hatred and intolerance” and the rising influence of political parties in Western Europe that reject universal rights pose a bigger risk to the world than ever before.

The Human Rights Watch 2017 World Reportreleased released today warns the politics of fear has allowed dangerous and popular leaders to flourish at the expense of the very people who elected them.

In the 687 page report’s introduction, HRW executive Director Kenneth Roth warns of “a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights not as an essential check on official power but as an impediment to the majority will.”

NZ Herald

Containing The Populist Contagion – Harold James. 

Trump promised in advance that his victory would be Brexit in spades; and, indeed, when he won, Dutch and French far-right political forces immediately saw his election as a portent of what is to come. So, too, did the “No” campaign in Italy’s upcoming constitutional referendum – upon which Italian Prime Minister Matteo Rentier has bet his political future.

An obvious historical parallel for today is the interwar period of the twentieth century, when Vladimir Lenin presented Soviet communism as a global brand, and founded the Communist International. Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascism, a response to Lenin’s movement, also adopted an internationalist stance: colored-shirt movements, imitating Mussolini’s Black Shirts, emerged in Europe, Latin America, and Asia, to elevate authoritarianism as an alternative model to liberalism.

While intensely nationalist movements such as Mussolini’s fascists and Adolf Hitler’s Nazis did compete with one another over who was more genuinely fascist, they ultimately united to oppose the liberal order.

Similarly, today’s political revolt may be following an unstoppable logic, whereby every country must close itself off to trade, migration, and capital flows, or risk losing out in a zero-sum game.

As countries reflect on these lessons, they could begin to form defensive regional blocs to protect themselves from the populist contagion. For example, China could start to speak for all of Asia; and the EU might finally find ways to unite against those who would tear it apart. At worst, this new regionalism could fuel geopolitical animosities and reprise the tensions of the 1930s; at best, regional integration could set the stage for sorely needed governance reforms, and thus clear a way out of the populist trap.

Social Europe