With the advantage of hindsight, four recent books bring to bear diverse perspectives on the West’s current populist moment. Taken together, they help us to understand what that moment is and how it arrived, while reminding us that history is contingent, not inevitable.
Heinrich Geiselberger (Editor), The Great Regression, Polity, 2017
Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reason, New York Review of Books, 2016
Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Penguin, 2017
Jan-Werner Mueller, What is Populism?, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016
How can we make sense of a world that has changed dramatically over the past decade, defying the widespread (and almost immutable) assumption among policymakers and intellectuals that an immutable global order, however imperfect, had emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War? While the four books under review here represent four approaches to answering that question, all begin from the premise that the key change has been the West’s loss of unity and coherence. And each, despite bringing to bear distinct perspectives and emphases, wrestles with three common issues at the centre of the West’s current political malaise.
The first is a growing intellectual and popular awareness that something is amiss in Western societies. In his introduction to The Great Regression, Heinrich Geiselberger, an editor of the German publisher Suhrkamp Verlag, quotes the late Ulrich Beck: “When a world order breaks down, that is when people begin to think about it.” Beck is referring to liberal market capitalism, the order that was ascendant during the “Golden 1990s” and well into the 2000s – a supposedly post-historical period that had begun with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our unconditional certainty about that order came to a sudden end with the 2008 global financial crisis.
The second issue is the collective failure of economic and political elites across countries and regions. Regardless of whether elites came to power through prowess or privilege, meritocracy or heredity, they are the de facto stewards of society. When they become too self-serving, or are seen as lacking moral authority, citizens begin to seek avenues of redress, some more productive than others.
The third issue is reactionary ideology – the various shades of populism and exclusionary nationalism stemming from endemic feelings of frustration and disappointment – which political entrepreneurs, mostly on the right, but also on the left easily exploit. When people feel politically adrift and neglected against a backdrop of rising economic inequality, they may act on their resentments by ratifying populist politicians’ fanciful agendas.
The breaking point
There is no question that the world of 2017 is different from that of 2007. But where exactly are we, and how did we get here? It is worth remembering that peace didn’t last long after the Cold War ended. With the threat of terrorism and new wars in Central Asia and the Middle East came new insecurities. And then the three decades of globalisation during which China emerged as the world’s second-ranking economic power came to a sudden halt with the 2008 crash.
The financial crisis turned out to be the world’s largest economic stress test since the Great Depression, and the greatest challenge to social and political systems since World War II. It not only threatened financial markets and currencies, but also laid bare a multitude of public-policy shortcomings and ushered in a period of tightening austerity, rising unemployment, and beleaguered social-security systems. Globalisation seemed to be in jeopardy, along with the so-called Washington Consensus of neoliberalism. Some commentators, such as the German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, even proclaimed the imminent end of capitalism itself.
At the same time, the Internet, social media, and other technological advances have brought the world closer together, and profoundly changed how people communicate. And yet, while people are undoubtedly freer, they are also less secure. As such, some have responded to political and economic marginalisation by joining what Streeck calls the “great unwashed,” or what Hillary Clinton memorably called a “basket of deplorables.”
During this period of epochal change, global – or at least Western – elites apparently lost their script, and with it their grip on citizens’ allegiance. To figure out what, if anything, can be done about it, requires understanding how this happened.
The great anger
In Age of Anger, the Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra offers an unusual and ultimately puzzling diagnosis for a disease that, apparently, has no remedy. Mishra examines the present through the history of ideas, and concludes that what we are experiencing is nothing less than the latest consequences of the long-term failure of the Enlightenment, and of the modernisation process that it unleashed on the world.
In Mishra’s telling, the history of modernisation is not one of steady improvement in wellbeing and the inevitable realisation of liberty. It is a history of brutality and domination – domestically by a self-serving, devious elite, and internationally by Western arrogance and colonialism. Mishra marshals thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Georges Sorel, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Friedrich Nietzsche to show where elites repeatedly erred and made matters worse. And he draws an unwavering line of destruction from the bloody revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the even bloodier reign of fascism and Stalinism in the twentieth. The present era, then, is merely the latest chapter in a long tale of ignorance, terror, and brutality meted out by Western elites.
Mishra writes with a burning pen, and his argument is, at times, searing. But it is also deeply flawed. His evidence is patchy and selective at best, as is his reading of the many philosophers and thinkers he consults. For Mishra, the legacy of the Enlightenment is not embodied in today’s free, individualistic, and civil societies, but rather in the perversion of selfish elites – full stop.
In making this broad, imprecise claim, Mishra evinces little interest in empirical evidence, and hardly bothers to consider counter-arguments. But to buy into his claim, we would have to agree that the modern European Union’s integrationist project is of a piece with Stalinism; and that Western countries’ political and economic track records have been almost entirely negative. Ultimately, Age of Anger is a frustrating book, owing to its many flaws and its refusal to offer any solutions. Beginning and ending in anger, it is, at least, true to its title.
The new reactionaries
In The Shipwrecked Mind, the Columbia University political scientist Mark Lilla offers an altogether more thoughtful and measured assessment of the present moment. He, too, consults the writings of great thinkers, including Franz Rosenberg, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss, each of whom responded to the political, social, and economic changes of their time as reactionaries, rather than as revolutionaries.
To Lilla’s mind, reactionaries need not be politically conservative. They can be, and often are, radical, but they object to modernity’s tendency to push human institutions in directions they deem objectionable or unwise. They swim against the current, and thus end up “shipwrecked” before too long. Precisely because they are incapable of actually turning back the clock, reactionaries serve a useful purpose as a counterpoint to heady revolutionaries. Their idealisation of the past helps to shape the present – or at least our reading of it.
Reactionaries like to pose the retrospective question: “What if?...” And as Lilla’s exquisite chapters on the Reformation show, this question prompts readers or listeners to take stock intellectually. For example, how would Western civilisation have evolved if Martin Luther’s theses had triggered a reform of Catholicism instead of the birth of Protestantism?
To be sure, the Thirty Years’ War would not have devastated Europe in the seventeenth century. But an even more profound possibility is that, without the Protestant work ethic, capitalism would not have developed as it did. Luther’s own country, Germany, might not exist today in its current form; and colonialism – which enriched Europe, and especially England – might have taken a different course entirely.
But is this kind of historicist exercise useful for understanding the world today? Consider Lilla’s chapter on France. Since the late 1960s, France has experienced changes “that almost no one is happy with, and neither the left-leaning intellectuals nor the centrist politicians seem capable of addressing them satisfactorily.” History tells us that, when this happens, reactionaries will fill the political-interpretive void, by furnishing a framework and alternative worldview for understanding the public’s deep-seated unhappiness.
Today, reactionary French intellectuals and writers such as Éric Zemmour and Michel Houellebecq are filling the narrative vacuum. So, too, is Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, to say nothing of the American conservative thinkers who have thrown their hats in with the “alt-right.” Clearly, reactionary politics can be as consequential as revolutionary politics, especially when reactionaries make use of modern forms of communication. As populists past and present have taught us, cutting-edge methods can always be used to deliver atavistic ideas.
The populist mind
Reactionary intellectuals are often just a step away from being populists – or at least from being captured by populist ideologies. But what, exactly, is populism? That is the question Jan-Werner Mueller, a political scientist at Princeton University, has set out to answer in What is Populism?
Mueller argues that populism is the leading ideology behind the democratic backsliding that is so apparent in countries such as Russia, Hungary, and Poland, as well as in mature democracies such as the United States, France, Germany, Finland, and Austria. His book provides a concise and jargon-free analysis of the phenomenon, as well as a thorough definition of the term.
Populists, Mueller explains, “insist that only they themselves are legitimate representatives” of “the people.” They are “antielitist” and “antipluralist,” and their positions are “immune to empirical refutation.” Their only interest in democratic processes is to be “confirmed in what they have already determined the will of the real people to be.” And they will often engage in “occupying the state, mass clientelism and corruption, and the suppression of anything like a critical civil society.”
In addition to providing a timely and clear explanation of populism, Mueller offers a recommendation to “defenders of liberal democracy.” In his view, anti-populists should identify and close the gaps in democratic representation that populists often exploit. Winning back dissatisfied voters will require realistic policies that address their concerns directly. This is admittedly a long-term project, and success may depend on whether and how soon the new wave of populism loses depth and crashes against the sands of political reality.
Practically, then, it is the wrong strategy to focus on why Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or US President Donald Trump are unfit for office, or how much damage they could inflict on the world. It is better to focus on their followers, and to speak honestly about the sources of public discontent, as Emmanuel Macron did when he unexpectedly won the French presidency this spring.
Democracy’s autoimmune disease
The Great Regression, a multi-author volume of essays, offers perspectives spanning cultural, political, and economic concerns. In “Democracy fatigue,” American anthropologist Arjun Appadurai sets out to explain why liberal democracy is increasingly being rejected in favour of populist authoritarianism. For starters, he observes, populist leaders have placed a new emphasis on cultural sovereignty. In Russia, calls for a “unified cultural space” are not unlike what one now hears in Turkey, India, some European countries, as well as Trump supporters in the US. In a globalised world, Appadurai points out, economic sovereignty is no longer a relevant basis for national sovereignty. As such, populist leaders are apt to “promise national cultural purification as a route to global political power.”
But while voters may agree with populist calls for “purification” to a certain extent, they also may be using their vote as a way to “exit” from democracy. As the economist Albert O. Hirschman’s demonstrated in his 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, voters who are dissatisfied with a system can withdraw from it (Exit), or they can try to change it (Voice). Appadurai concludes that while populist leaders reject democracy because it impedes their pursuit of power, their followers are largely victims of “democracy fatigue.” Each finds common ground by embracing the nationalist cause of cultural hegemony.
In the essay “Majoritarian futures,” the Bulgarian social scientist Ivan Krastev addresses the paradoxes of liberal democracy in a context of deepening globalisation. In today’s liberal democracies, he notes, citizens feel increasingly powerless, and this has made them cynical about the system itself. The result is that free elections, while ensuring political inclusion for minority groups, have also started to undermine established majority blocs as working-class or rural voters become more receptive to right-wing movements and populist parties.
Another paradox is that the populist turn is being fuelled largely by the left’s traditional constituencies. Owing to demographic change and a perceived “migrant’s revolution,” working-class voters fear that their moral order is crumbling around them. According to Krastev, it is this perceived normative threat, rather than actual events on the ground, that is triggering hostile reactions toward outsiders, as we have seen in many European countries’ response to refugee inflows.
Populism may manifest itself differently from country to country. But, as Krastev shows, the majoritarian regimes that have emerged in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere have common features, not least the separation of democracy from liberalism, and the dismantling of institutions that check and balance the exercise of power.
In another essay, “The return of the repressed as the beginning of the end of neoliberal capitalism,” Streeck unleashes almost Lenin-level invective on our current era. In his view, the rise of neoliberalism – including the establishment of free markets and global-governance systems – was not simply beneficial, but also inevitable. The problem is that neoliberalism did not deliver on its promises. Instead, Streeck argues, it facilitated a transition to post-democracy, and ushered in an age of post-factual politics in which “expert lies” are used to secure popular consent and silence resistance.
Streeck sees this process as having started long before the rise of “fake news” and contempt for experts that we witnessed in 2016 with the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and Trump’s election in the US. The return of the “great unwashed” from political apathy to the ballot box, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, is evidence of widespread discontent with globalisation and neoliberal narratives generally.
To Streeck, painting such voters with a broad-brush term like populism is not particularly helpful, because it ignores international elites’ own cognitive failure to see the “return of the repressed” coming. Streeck sees the populist label as a way to dismiss a new opposition, while affirming the moral authority of liberal internationalism and global capitalism. But this is not to say he believes the populists will be able to end the crisis of capitalism. Rather, they will merely complicate the current “interregnum.”
Ultimately, Streeck concludes that “anti-national re-education from above produces anti-elitist nationalism from below.” Projects such as European integration can succeed only with the support of citizens; they cannot simply be imposed. Political elites are advised to heed the concerns and respond to the needs of a re-awakened electorate.
From history to the future
To their credit, all four books are eminently readable and not overly weighed down with jargon. They are strongest when their claims remain focused and modest, as in Appadurai’s and Krastev’s essays; and they are weakest when they overreach, as in Mishra’s case. Overall, more “what-if” thinking in the mode of Lilla would have been welcome, not to entertain alternative realities, but to apprehend where things started to go wrong in the West.
When reading these books, one is reminded of Alexander Gerschenkron, the great Russian-American economist, who famously argued that there should be a fine on words such as “necessity” or “necessary” in historical writings. Few events or developments are ever necessary or inevitable, because history is not predetermined, or driven by some iron law that leaves no room for alternatives.
The global financial crisis, for example, was not necessary; it could have been prevented with better financial governance. Likewise, the Arab Spring was not bound to fail; better diplomacy may have brought about a very different outcome. Even Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933 was not inevitable, given that the Nazi Party won only around one-third of the vote in the 1932 federal election. Hitler’s rise was abetted by the extreme brinkmanship of German political elites at the time. And the rest, as they say, is history.
By the same token, one should be careful when predicting the demise of the West, the end of capitalism, or the downfall of liberal democracy. It is well within elites’ power to make decisions that benefit all of society, rather than narrow interests. Elites have surely failed in this regard over the last quarter-century, but they need not continue to fail in the future.
After all, history is replete with examples of societies that corrected course. In the US, affirmative action was established to redress the country’s legacy of slavery and racial segregation. In Europe, the EU was created to transcend a long history of nationalist enmity and war. In South Africa, apartheid was eventually abolished in such a way as to reconcile the white minority with black-majority rule. In Germany, Ostpolitik prepared the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Spain, the death of the dictator Francisco Franco enabled the emergence of a vibrant constitutional democracy. Argentina and Greece followed similar paths after the collapse of their ruling juntas. And in Canada, the government has maintained national unity through compromise with Québécois separatist movements.
On occasion, elites have made a positive difference in the world; and sometimes, they have acted in ways that prevented cultural drift, protected traditional sources of identity, and addressed political grievances. When deciding whom to entrust with the stewardship of our societies, it may be understandable that so many people, roiled by the growing precariousness of their lives, livelihoods, and identity, focus on a recent train of perfidy. But that isn’t the only record worth bearing in mind.
This column was originally published by Project Syndicate on 20 October 2017.