Populism and the question of political time

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, comments on the quickening pace of politics in the context of a resurgent populist movement.populismoriginalThe many remarkable political developments of the last year – most notably the vote in favour of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as President – are less extraordinary than they may seem at first sight if we regard them as recent moments in a longer-term acceleration of political time. It was Harold Wilson who (supposedly) said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, but fifty years later this seems like an understatement. The pace and rate of political change today seems unprecedented.

One way in which we might view the current success of ‘populist’ political parties and movements is that they are a response to this acceleration of political time. Populists often berate politicos obsessed with the minutiae of political intercourse, hooked on Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. But of course, there is a paradox here: populists have come to prominence and to power precisely by the use of those media that most readily lend themselves to the acceleration of political time. Donald Trump’s victory would not have been possible thirty or even twenty-years ago: not just because of the direct line he had in the election campaign to his followers on Twitter, but by the saturation coverage he received in the ‘mainstream’ media.

Populists have thrived on the permanent election campaign that has come to characterise the politics of democracies. It was not their invention. Nor was it a simply technologically-driven process, made possible by innovations in broadcasting and digital communications. Rather, the permanent election campaign is a central feature of neo-liberal governance. The logic of neo-liberalism transforms citizens into consumers, and political knowledge into a marketable commodity. Political knowledge was once tough to digest and even tougher to produce; but today it has been broken down into eminently digestible, often tasteless nuggets, and virtually anyone can add to the stock of knowledge through a tweet or by posting in the comments section on the website of a national newspaper.

Populism seems like a reaction against neo-liberalism. But, in fact, in its most prominent contemporary form – that is, the populism of the authoritarian nationalist right – it follows the same relentless logic of commercialisation and de-politicisation. A politics that promotes dissent, or even that calls for careful deliberation of important matters is routinely dismissed by populists. It promises instead to outdo the technocrats by providing quick and ‘simple’ solutions to what are deeply complex, and often intractable problems. Most obviously in the shape of Donald Trump, it offers the prospect of an effective politics by adopting the ruthless efficiency of the modern corporation (or at least what is supposed to be its ruthless efficiency, which in reality often masks inefficiency, inertia, and corruption).

By appealing to an idealised past of social harmony and effective authority, populists may seem to venerate a simpler and more authentic world, where politics was not driven by the permanent election campaign. But this is a veneer – populism in its contemporary forms is very much a product of a (hyper-) modern world of accelerating political time and diminishing public space. It is driven along by these transformations rather than presenting a challenge to them.

Populism might prompt us to think more seriously about the question of political time, because it may frame certain central problems about how we are governed in the present. Despite its avowals, populism does not slow down political time but accelerates it to the point of permanent crisis and reaction. We are seeing the manifestation of this ever-greater acceleration in the multiple crises of politics. How we slow down political time is a question now worth asking.

. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , , ,

A day in the life of…. Dr Anthony Roberts

As part of Science Week 2017, Dr Anthony Roberts from the Department of Biological Sciences at Birkbeck gives an insight into a day in the life of a scientist. 

I get up… bright and early with our son. He’s two, and has yet to learn the art of the lie in. Depending on whether I am doing the nursery drop-off, and on the temperament of the Victoria Line, I usually arrive at Birkbeck between 8.00 and 9.00am. The first thing I do is switch on the lights in the laboratory, and think about what experiments the day will hold.

My research investigates… walking proteins. These molecules have legs one hundred million time smaller than ours, and walk along filaments inside the individual cells that make up our body. It has emerged that they are important for human health: their dysfunction is associated with a number of currently untreatable diseases, such as neurodegeneration. The ability of these proteins to walk correctly is vital, because they transport key materials in the cell to the right place at the right time. We want to know how this works at the molecular level.

I teach… mainly to students doing research projects in the laboratory. This is exciting, because it is teaching while attempting to discover something new at the same time. I also lecture to MRes and PhD students on the main techniques we use in our research, particularly microscopes that enable one to view individual molecules.

My typical day… has no predictable pattern, and this variety is one of my favourite parts of my job. Some days will be spent mostly in the laboratory, for example purifying the proteins that we study. This work has a pace not dissimilar to cooking, with multiple stages and incubations – although alas less delicious smells! Others will be on the microscopes, or analysing data. As the lab grows, I spend less time doing experiments myself, and more time talking to others about their data, and preparing grants, research papers, and seminars. The data we obtain from our research is very visual: thinking about ways to extract and present the important insights is a nice balance to these literary tasks.

I became a scientist… in a somewhat roundabout way. As a child, I wanted to be an artist. This interest in the visual remains a strong part of who I am. Later, I became curious about biology, and enjoyed the hard answers that maths and chemistry could provide. I did an undergraduate course in Biochemistry, really engaging with it as it transitioned from memorising facts to solving problems. In hindsight, it makes sense that I gravitated to what I work on now, as it combines all of these elements, but a number of fortuitous events made it happen. Chief among them were training with terrific mentors during my PhD and postdoctoral studies: Stan Burgess, Peter Knight and Samara Reck-Peterson.

My greatest professional achievement to date has been… obtaining the Sir Henry Dale Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust and Royal Society, which enabled me to start the laboratory at Birkbeck. The scale and flexibility of its support are a great help towards realising research ideas.

After work… it is nice to do something completely different. We like finding new places to eat and drink around where we live in east London, cooking, music, art and design, and relaxing.

My favourite part of my job is… the first glimpse of a new discovery, to be shared with lab members, students, and other scientists.

. Reply . Category: Science . Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,