Understanding the new politics of the Great Recoil requires us to return to the question of ideology – ideology not in the form of Karl Marx’s false consciousness, but as Antonio Gramsci conceived of it: a world-view that informs various political outlooks and is deeply interwoven with the commonsense prevalent at any given time.1
The issue of ideology has remained below the political radar for decades: we were told that we lived in a post-ideological era, where politics was no longer guided by grand narratives, as had been the case in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when liberalism, socialism and fascism emerged, but inspired instead by realism, pragmatism and consensus politics. But the impression of a post-ideological era was false. Ideological conflicts seemed to be resolved not because of the end of ideology, but because of the victory of a single ideology – neoliberalism – over all others; its triumph and subsequent colonisation of the public mind gave the false impression that ideology as such had disappeared.
Neoliberalism is a blanket term encompassing the political and economic doctrine that has held sway over the world since the end of the Cold War. Shaped by the ideas and teachings of conservative thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, it came to command the political arena when Margaret Thatcher won
power in the UK in 1979, followed by Ronald Reagan in the United States the following year. As the prefix ‘neo’ suggests, neoliberalism involves a revival of nineteenth-century notions of laissez-faire economics that had been largely discredited after the 1929 crash and ensuing Great Depression. The novelty of neoliberalism lay in the fact that it broke with the Keynesian consensus of the post-war period, when both right and left agreed on the need for government intervention and the welfare state in order to guarantee basic standards of living to all, and to steer the economy towards socially desirable ends. Neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, free trade and globalisation came to be widely adopted the world over under the aegis of the so-called ‘Washington consensus’, which reigned supreme between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the financial crash of 2008. Neoliberalism acquired the status of a master ideology that inflected leaders and parties across the political divide. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Romano Prodi and Gerhard Schröder all came to share Thatcher’s commitment to free markets and property rights, in what became known as a Third Way between market conservatism and social democracy. The received wisdom of neoliberalism asserted that the market was more efficient than the state in delivering prosperity, and that policy-makers had to foster opportunity, entrepreneurialism, flexibility and openness.
The contemporary political horizon is defined by the collapse of this neoliberal consensus. The Great Recession of 2008–11 was followed by prolonged stagnation and now the corona-crash, and these together have profoundly upset the premises of the neoliberal project and its capacity to explain reality. Much as the emergence of stagflation – the coincidence of stagnation and inflation – in the 1970s presented an insoluble problem for Keynesian approaches, opening the way to monetarism and other capital-friendly policies, the current economic situation presents paradoxes that are impossible to solve within the neoliberal framework. With an economy marked by stagnation and deflationary pressures, which massive injections of liquidity and quantitative easing programmes have so far been unable to assuage, and while interest rates remain at an historic minimum, the neoliberal playbook of free competition seems unfit to address present dilemmas. While some authors have tried to capture this crepuscular phase as a partial readjustment of neoliberalism, as expressed by notions such as ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ or ‘punitive neoliberalism’, my argument is that we have now entered
a phase of ‘post-neoliberalism’, when the neoliberal horizon is crumbling around us, opening the way for a new set of ideological coordinates to replace it.2
Figure 1.1 Neoliberal thesis, populist anti-thesis, neo-statist synthesis
The contemporary ideological horizon is defined by the clash between neoliberalism and populism and the rise of an interventionist neo-statism which attempts to overcome this deadlock.
The crisis of the neoliberal consensus has manifested for many years in the rise of populist movements of the most disparate sort. From Occupy Wall Street to the Gilets Jaunes, from the new movements of the radical right to the resurgence of a socialist left, including Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and millennial socialism under the influence of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, populism has been seen as the defining trend of contemporary politics. Despite their ideological differences, these various phenomena have shared a common enemy in neoliberalism and appealed to ordinary people against the elites. As I will argue in this chapter, the so-called populist moment has not been a phase of ideological convergence between right and left as argued by pro-market centrists seeking to smear socialists. On the contrary, it has been a phase of strong political polarisation between a new nationalist
right and a new socialist left, both moving away from the neoliberal centre in different directions.
Populism is crucial to understanding the genesis of the present political realignment. But capturing the spirit of post-neoliberal politics cannot stop at the analysis of populism as a negative counterpart of neoliberal elitism. It requires a focus on content, on the substantive political visions that are emerging out of the present crisis. Specifically, it involves exploring the neo-statism that has emerged out of the confrontation between neoliberalism and populism. It is in this neo-statism, namely a recuperation of the importance of state intervention, that we can find the key ingredients of an emerging post-neoliberal political order. The new battle for consensus, as will become clear, revolves around the notions of national sovereignty over the economy, social protection and democratic control. This protective statism is not a partisan ideology advocated by only one political camp, but more like a meta-ideological horizon, which, like neoliberalism at its zenith, infuses the entire political space.
Contemporary ideological commonsense is no longer just neoliberal, but increasingly neo-statist. The main political tendencies dominating the Western political landscape must all address the basic concerns at the heart of contemporary neo-statism: shelter from the vagaries of the global economy, protection from the international market, the economic development of depressed regions, democratic control over all levels of government, health and social security, and the provision of basic goods that cannot be left to the market. Hence, the new framework offered by neo-statism seems to offer a response to many urgent issues that neoliberalism appears unequipped to address. But while prefiguring a new post-neoliberal consensus, neo-statism is also a battlefield in which very different visions of the state and its mission are emerging; and a space in which new burning ethical and political dilemmas are coming to the fore.
The Populist 2010s
The rise of populism in its multifarious and contradictory forms has been the most important political manifestation of the declining ideological hegemony of neoliberalism. According to theorists like Chantal
Mouffe and Cas Mudde, the 2010s were a ‘populist moment’ or ‘populist zeitgeist’ in which populism seems to have been stronger and more prominent than ever.3
Scholars have battled over the exact meaning of the term, some seeing it as an ideology, albeit a thin one,4
while others have interpreted it as a ‘discursive logic’,5
or as a matter of style or rhetoric;6
some attributing populism only to the nationalist right, while others have understood it as a generalised political tendency. This scholarship tends to share a formalistic approach,7
identifying minimum common characteristics of populist movements, such as their reliance on the rhetorical opposition between people and the elite, rather than exploring the structural and class underpinnings of these phenomena.
When the media speak of populism, they are usually referring to the populist right represented by the likes of Donald Trump in the United States, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and their political allies in several other countries. Using chauvinistic arguments and xenophobic rhetoric targeting migrants, foreigners and all varieties of minorities, this new brand of right-wing politics achieved spectacular success in the second half of the 2010s. The victory of the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum and Boris Johnson’s subsequent rise to power; the election of Donald Trump as 45th US president in November 2016; the rise in popularity of Salvini in Italy in the aftermath of the general elections of March 2018; the election of Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian presidential elections in November 2018 – were all key populist moments of the last decade. They have informed the impression that we live in an ‘age of anger’, to use the words of Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra, in which popular discontent plays all too easily into the hands of right-wing demagogues who are ready to use all the basest tactics to shore up their power: circulating
fake news, scapegoating minorities and pandering to all sorts of social anxieties.8
But populism is not a phenomenon associated only with the nationalist right. For example, while the 2018 elections in Italy briefly put the League and Salvini in government, it was the populist but centrist Five Star Movement that commanded the largest number of seats in the Italian parliament; indeed, it controlled many government posts, including the office of prime minister, held by self-described ‘people’s lawyer’ Antonio Conte, who has run the country during the pandemic in a centre-left coalition with the Italian Democratic Party, until being replaced by a technocratic government led by the former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi. Furthermore, in recent years populism has been associated with many left-wing campaigns and political parties, often described as manifestations of a ‘left populism’. If anything, the leftist version of populism can claim a longer history than its national-populist doppelgänger. Populism has been entrenched in Argentina and other countries since the mid twentieth century. Today, to most people in Latin America, populism means the populist left of the 2000s and figures like Hugo Chavez and Luiz Iñácio Lula da Silva. Similarly, in the United States, populism has a progressive tradition, embodied by the proto-socialist People’s Party of the late nineteenth century, which brought together farm workers and industrial workers against moneyed elites and robber-barons, and for a decade represented an alternative to the Democratic Party.
Building on this tradition of progressive populism, there has been much debate in recent years on the need for a ‘left-populism’ as a means of developing a coherent response to the Trumpist right. Chantal Mouffe has argued that ‘instead of seeing the populist moment only as a threat to democracy, it is urgent to realize that it also offers the opportunity for its radicalization’.9
Similarly, Grace Blakeley in the UK has written that the left ‘must develop a populist narrative, which shows that working people are being made worse off by an exploitative and extractive capitalist model that sees wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite’.10
In the US, figures such as left journalist and essayist Thomas
Frank have argued that the Democratic Party has lost ground because it has betrayed working people by focusing on the constituency of urban professionals, and that it is necessary to embrace populism rather than reject it.11
Similarly, Harvard economist Dani Rodrik has counterposed to the cultural populism he attributes to the right an economic populism he associates with the left.12
Movements such as Podemos, La France Insoumise, Syriza and Labour under Corbyn were all seen as progressive incarnations of this populist moment with the adoption of populist discourse providing a means to revive traditional redistributive motives of the left.13
Since 2010, social movements from Occupy Wall Street to the French Gilets Jaunes have embraced egalitarian populism in a redoubled form. Wearing the safety vests of road workers, French protesters have emphatically demanded that power be taken away from Macron, ‘le président des riches
’, and returned to the people. Thus, contemporary politics is marked not only by the conflict between neoliberalism and populism, but by the competition between two radically alternative strands of populism. Trump’s former strategist, Steve Bannon, was not too far off the mark when he said that the defining political fight of our times was between the nationalist populism represented by Trump and his European allies and the socialist populism he identified with Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.14
The question of whether the left should ‘go populist’ occupied much debate among progressives during the 2010s. Many on the left resisted such a move, insisting it would amount to pandering to the nationalism and xenophobia of the right. This suspicion was echoed in tirades by neoliberal centrists such as Tony Blair’s protégé Yascha Mounk, who argued that left-wing populists were just the same as right-wing populists – echoing a customary neoliberal trope in which political extremes
join hands, all to reaffirm the importance of the political centre. But these discussions betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding.
References to a populist left and right did not mean that they were converging ideologically in a sort of cross-over populism. If anything, the populist moment has been marked by strong political polarisation with a new ‘real left’ and ‘real right’ moving further apart from the neoliberal centre. The explanatory power of the idea of a populist moment lay in the fact it captured first and foremost a commonality of structural conditions which carried the need for similar strategies and rhetoric developing at opposite ends of the political spectrum. It reflected the gaping divide between an economic oligarchy that had amassed the spoils of neoliberal globalisation and the vast mass of people, who had seen their conditions stagnate or decline. It was from this impoverished working class and the squeezed middle class that both the new right and new left emerging in the populist moment strove to draw new bases of support. Populist discourse mobilised by new political actors thus contained an implicit class, or ‘plebeian’, appeal. It suggested that the centre of gravity in the battle for electoral consensus had moved from the aspirational middle class that was the decisive swing electorate at the height of the neoliberal era to voters affected by socioeconomic decline.
Some recent events seem to point to the fact that this populist moment may be fading, giving way to a post-populist phase. The coronavirus pandemic has negatively affected many leaders and groups that are part of the populist right because of the perception of their mismanagement of the pandemic, and of the irresponsibility of an anti-science libertarianism that the right has often stoked. Furthermore, Trump’s humiliating exit from the White House in the aftermath of the Capitol Hill riots may hamper the appeal of right-wing populists in the short term. At the same time, many centrist and left-populist political efforts have been defeated, or have entered into centre-left alliances – for example, the Five Star Movement alliance with the Italian Democratic Party, and the alliance between Podemos and the Spanish Socialist Party. Populism seems to have been either defeated or normalised.
These tendencies do not mark the ‘end of populism’ in any absolute sense. Populism is a perennial feature of mass democracies, in which the notion of the people constitutes the universal subject.15
In turn, the
character of populism varies according to historical circumstances. In the twentieth century, it was an anomalous political tendency in Latin American countries facing economic underdevelopment and with high shares of the population living off the informal economy. In the twenty-first century, it appears in the core countries of the capitalist West, afflicted by ‘hyperdevelopment’ in a landscape of stagnation, falling living standards and appa...