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.

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I don’t feel like dancin’

This post was written by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies.

‘Margaret Thatcher is Dead: This lady is not returning!’ is one way of the calmer statements celebrating Thatcher’s demise on my Facebook page. I can’t join the clamour singing ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’, trailing as it does its horrific historical sexism. More sadly, I can’t see anything to celebrate. Whilst this once formidable Tory trailblazer is dead, her ideas are more resurgent than ever. Neither Cameron nor Osborne will ever be damned as a warlocks or necromancers – this rarely happens to men – yet it is thanks to them that Margaret Thatcher dies triumphant. Thatcher’s success, like that of her pal, Ronald Reagan, was that through a combination of shrewdness and luck she could ride the high tide of corporate capital’s determination to increase profits by rolling back all the popular gains of the postwar settlement. She was neoliberalism’s willing tool, rather than something unique, evil or otherwise.

What is truly extraordinary about these times is that while Thatcher’s economic legacy has imploded, her ideological stance – which as she said was always her main agenda – is more viciously enforced than ever. “Markets know better than governments”, was her pivotal mantra, the rest flowed from this. Oh no they do not! You would think we must all have learned this from the catastrophic economic collapse in 2008, when so many banks had to be bailed out by governments, only to be returned as quickly as possible: old bonuses intact; new regulations nonexistent. All too quickly forgotten is the revelation of the cruel absurdity of the economic collapse set in motion by the buccaneers of the finance sector that Thatcher had ‘liberated’ in October 1986, with all the reckless gambling and belief that ‘toxic debt’ was itself a tradable commodity. Or at least, any such knowledge is drowned out by the continued combination of Coalition rhetoric baiting Gordon Brown and the Labour Party, together with relentless media attacks on the ‘undeserving’ poor, or any other scapegoats conjured up to misdirect people’s sense of resentment, fear and insecurity: ‘Crisis: Blame the baby boomers, not the bankers’, was a typically absurd headline in The Times when Irish Banks banks were on the point of collapse at the start of 2010, summarizing the argument by their chief economic analyst, Anatole Kaletsky.

In these topsy-turvy times, any thoughtful, reforming responses to the crisis, no matter how carefully argued and widely supported by fellow economists – such as those put forward by the highly respected American economist, Paul Klugman – are tossed aside in the UK. No reference to Keynesianism or any policies for decreasing the obscene inequality that helped generate the crisis are considered. Instead, after so much mayhem, Thatcher’s worship of market values rules supreme, motivating vicious cuts in welfare and the surreptitious turning over of what remains of the public sector to the private, even as the crisis in market forces and the finance sector continues to deepen, especially in Europe.

Of course there have been impressive flurries of resistance, and for a while in the wake of the Occupy movement, grass-roots dissent was back on the political agenda. Networks of resistance are active around the country, especially in defence of the NHS. Yet those eager to dance on Thatcher’s grave have much thinking to do, when there remains such a lack of connection between protesters and mainstream politics. Indeed, as Paul Mason admits in his book celebrating all the new protest movements around the globe, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, most of the people he interviewed ‘were hostile to the very idea of a unifying theory’. Yet it is surely some sort of compelling counter-ideology and alternative strategy to the ubiquitous rule of market forces that we are desperately in need of if we are ever to safely bury Thatcher. Although the rich few get richer and the rest of us poorer, the left has yet to strike any real chord with the broader public. We know that it was Tony Blair, or ‘Blairism’, which – as Thatcher knew – did so much to entrench her legacy: with his seamless endorsement of market values and public veneration for wealth and celebrity, even as it furthered cynicism about politicians and politics generally. We have headed so far down that stream, it is hard now to turn things around.

It took the extraordinary conditions of the Second World War to create the Labour Party’s comprehensive commitment to welfare, albeit of a conservative and authoritarian kind. The reforms and nationalizations inaugurating the British welfare state, post 1945, were based on the deliberate spread of a consensus that it was economic insecurities and domestic unhappiness that created unhappy societies: ‘many of the maladjustments and neuroses of modern society’, as Bevan explained when Minister of Health, arose directly from poverty and insecurity. When will our politicians say these words again? Any direct action, movement politics or coalitions of resistance we build today has to find ways to influence national government to reaffirm that mind-set, hopefully with more creative agendas than hitherto, before we can bury Thatcher. And since I began with a feminist note, let me also end there. Some women have argued that it was Thatcher who provided the best role model for helping women release their true potential. No she did not. She was the perfect role model for the ever deepening gulf between women, as the privileged few have been able to rise to the very heights of political or corporate power, even as the majority of women, affected at every turn by the rolling back of welfare and the politics of individual success she promoted, are ever more firmly left at the bottom of the heap.

Lynne Segal’s new book Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing will be published by Verso in the Autumn.

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