This is my preface to a new book on European Populism and Winning the Immigration Debate. Edited by Clara Sandelind, and published by the European Liberal Forum and Fores, the book brings together many contributors including Matthew Goodwin, Mikael Hjerm, Andrea Bohman, Jamie Bartlet, Meindert Fennema, Sjoerdje van Heerden and Sarah de Lange. It is launched today at a roundtable discussion at the European Parliament and available free online from the ELF or Fores.
European Populism and Winning the Immigration Debate
Golden Dawn in Greece. The Front National in France. UKIP in Britain. Sweden Democrats. The True Finns. Throughout Europe groups once seen as fringe organizations are dominating headlines, and often setting the political agenda. The challenge that such groups pose to mainstream political parties, and the instability they have unleashed upon the mainstream political arena, has created a sense of panic about the rise of ‘populism’.
But what is populism? Why is it a problem? And how should it be combated?
What are considered populist parties comprise, in fact, very different kinds of organizations, with distinct historical roots, ideological values and networks of social support. Some, such as Golden Dawn, are openly Nazi. Others, such as the Front National are far-right organizations that in recent years have tried to rebrand themselves to become more mainstream. Yet others – UKIP for instance – have reactionary views, play to far-right themes such as race and immigration, but have never been part of the far-right tradition.
What unites this disparate group is that all define themselves through a hostility to the mainstream and to what has come to be regarded as the dominant liberal consensus. Most of the populist parties combine a visceral hatred of immigration with an acerbic loathing of the EU, a virulent nationalism and deeply conservative views on social issues such as gay marriage and women’s rights.
The emergence of such groups reveals far more, however, than merely a widespread disdain for the mainstream. It expresses also the redrawing of Europe’s political map, and the creation of a new faultline on that map. The postwar political system, built around the divide between social democratic and conservative parties, is being dismantled. Not only has this created new space for the populists, but it is also transforming the very character of political space.
The broad ideological divides that characterized politics for much of the past two hundred years have, over the past three decades, been all but erased. The political sphere has narrowed; politics has become less about competing visions of the kinds of society people want than a debate about how best to manage the existing political system. Politics, in this post-ideological age, has been reduced to a question more of technocratic management rather than of social transformation.
One way in which people have felt this change is as a crisis of political representation, as a growing sense of being denied a voice, and of political institutions as being remote and corrupt. The sense of being politically abandoned has been most acute within the traditional working class, whose feelings of isolation have increased as social democratic parties have cut their links with their old constituencies. As mainstream parties have discarded both their ideological attachments and their long-established constituencies, so the public has become increasingly disengaged from the political process. The gap between voters and the elite has widened, fostering disenchantment with the very idea of politics.
The new political faultline in Europe is not between left and right, between social democracy and conservatism, but between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – the post-ideological, post-political world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless. These kinds of divisions have always existed, of course. In the past, however, that sense of dispossession and voicelessness could be expressed politically, particularly through the organizations of the left and of the labour movement. No longer. It is the erosion of such mechanisms that is leading to the remaking of Europe’s political landscape.
The result has been the creation of what many commentators in Britain are calling the ‘left behind’ working class. In France, there has been much talk of ‘peripheral France’, a phrase coined by the social geographer Christophe Guilluy to describe people ‘pushed out by the deindustrialization and gentrification of the urban centers’, who ‘live away from the economic and decision-making centers in a state of social and cultural non-integration’ and have come to ‘feel excluded’.
European societies have in recent years become both more socially atomized and riven by identity politics. Not just the weakening of labour organizations, but the decline of collectivist ideologies, the expansion of the market into almost every nook and cranny of social life, the fading of institutions, from trade unions to the Church, that traditionally helped socialize individuals – all have helped create a more fragmented society.
At the same time, and partly as a result of such social atomization, people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become defined increasingly not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. The relationship between the two is, however, complex and fluid.
As the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change eroded, so the two questions have come more and more to be regarded as synonymous. The answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions we want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that we imagine we are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ defined less by the kind of society we want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly we belong. Or, to put it another way, as broader political, cultural and national identities have eroded, and as traditional social networks, institutions of authority and moral codes have weakened, so people’s sense of belonging has become more narrow and parochial, moulded less by the possibilities of a transformative future than by an often mythical past. The politics of ideology has, in other words, given way to the politics of identity.
Both these developments have helped make the ‘left behind’ feel more left behind. Atomization has played into the hands of the deracinated middle class. Identity politics have helped foster communities defined by faith, ethnicity or culture. For many working class communities these two processes have helped both corrode the social bonds that once gave them strength and identity and dislocate their place in society.
The ‘left behind’ have suffered largely because of economic and political changes. But they have come to see their marginalization primarily as a cultural loss. In part, the same social and economic changes that have led to the marginalization of the ‘left behind’ have also made it far more difficult to view that marginalization in political terms. The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class and the weakening of labour organizations and social democratic parties, have helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems. And as culture has become the medium through which social issues are refracted, so the ‘left behind’ have also come to see their problems in cultural terms. They, too, have turned to the language of identity to express their discontent.
Once class identity comes to be seen as a cultural attribute, then those regarded as culturally different are often viewed as threats. Hence the growing hostility to immigration. Immigration has become the means through which many of the ‘left behind’ perceive their sense of loss of social status. It has become both a catch-all explanation for unacceptable social change and a symbol of the failure of the liberal elite to understand the views of voters. The EU, meanwhile, has become symbolic of the democratic deficit in many people’s lives, and of the distance (social, political and physical) between ordinary people and the political class.
In an age in which progressive social movements have largely crumbled, and in which there is widespread disenchantment with the very idea of collective social transformation, people’s political anger often finds expression not through opposition to a particular policy or government, or even to capitalism, but through a generalized hatred of everything and everyone in power. That is why populist groups position themselves as ‘anti-political’ parties. They play upon on and fuse together many of the themes that have become so corrosive of contemporary politics: not simply the contempt for mainstream politics and politicians, and the sense of voicelessness and abandonment, but also the perception of a world out of control and as driven by malign forces, of victimhood as a defining feature of social identity, and a willingness to believe in conspiracy theories. The result has been the creation of an indiscriminate rage that is not just politically incoherent, but also potentially reactionary. Inchoately kicking out against the system can all too easily mutate into indiscriminately striking out against the ‘Other’.
So, how do we challenge the populists? First, we need to stop being so obsessed by the parties themselves, and start dealing with the issues that lead many voters to support them. It is true that many of the policies, even of relatively mainstream parties such as UKIP, are repellent, and many of their leaders hold obnoxiously racist, sexist and homophobic views. It is true, too, that many of their supporters are hardcore racists. But this should not blind us to the fact that many others are drawn to such parties for very different reasons – because these seem to be the only organizations that speak to their grievances and express their frustrations with mainstream politics. Given this, simply exposing UKIP or Front National politicians as racists will change little, especially given that virtually all politicians are busy stoking fears about immigration. It is not that such exposés should not be done, but that they are futile if wielded as the principal tactic.
Engaging with the concerns of potential UKIP or FN voters, rather than simply dismissing them as racists, does not mean, however, caving into reactionary arguments or pandering to prejudices. It means, to the contrary, challenging them openly and robustly; challenging the idea, for instance, that immigration is responsible for the lack of jobs and housing, or that lower immigration would mean a lower crime rate, or that Muslims constitute a social problem for the West.
Yet, mainstream politicians have generally done the opposite. What has made their assault on parties such as UKIP and the FN particularly ineffective is that at the same time as attacking them as racist, mainstream politicians have themselves assiduously fostered fears about immigration and adopted populist anti-immigration policies. All this has merely confirmed the belief that the populists were right all along. It has engorged cynicism about conventional politicians. And since immigration has not been primarily responsible for the ‘left behind’ being left behind, it has done nothing to assuage the sense of marginalization and voicelessness that many feel. Indeed, by stoking new fears about immigration, it has merely deepened the sense of grievance. To combat the populists, we need to challenge the rhetoric and policies not simply of UKIP or the FN but also of the Conservatives, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, of the Parti Socialiste, the UMP and the Nouveau Centre. It is the anti-immigration rhetoric of the mainstream parties that make people receptive to the anti-immigration rhetoric of the populists.
Finally, we need to establish new social mechanisms through which to link liberal ideas about immigration and individual rights with progressive economic arguments and a belief in the community and the collective. Those who today rightly bemoan the corrosion of collective movements and community organizations often also see the problem as too much immigration. Those who take a liberal view on immigration, and on other social issues, are often happy with a more individualized, atomized society. Until all three elements of a progressive outlook – a defence of immigration, freedom of movement and of individual rights, a challenge to austerity policies and the embrace of collective action – can be stitched together, and stitched into a social movement, then there will be no proper challenge to the populists.