Much ink has been spilled attempting to explain the recent resurgence of populism—of both the right-wing and left-wing varieties—in countries like Spain, Germany, the UK, and the US. For our money, one of the most persuasive and illuminating explanations comes from Richard Seymour, writing for the website of the radical UK-based journal Salvage. See a snippet of his analysis below, or the full text here.
To put it succinctly, in ‘normal’ political circumstances, ‘the people’ are equivalent to their representation as such in the capitalist state. That is the representative link in its broad outline. The breakdown of the representative link in recent decades is one of the dysfunctions of neoliberalism. In their assault on social democracy, the neoliberals have sought to reduce the democratic capacities of the state, and expunge the ‘resistances’ built up within the state by working class and left-wing forces. They have sought to reorganise the inner life of the state along ‘market’ lines, the better to exclude effective democratic control over decision-making. And they have sought to discipline parties of the centre-left, the better to foreclose political options not congruent with neoliberal forms of capital accumulation. In so doing, they have driven down parliamentary political participation on all fronts, from voting to party membership to party identification. Party politics increasingly became the business of electoral-professionals, pollsters, focus groups, spin doctors and party knuckle-crackers. Meanwhile, the leadership of parliamentary parties depended less and less on public support and more and more on their embeddedness in the apparatuses of the state for their legitimacy. The upshot of this is that the class coalition that is effectively, in one way or another, ‘represented’ in the state, has become much narrower. Likewise, the representation of representation has become narrower, and more people feel excluded from the political landscape policed by the media.
This chronic degeneration has become an acute crisis in the austerian aftermath of the credit crunch, in which previously dominant political parties have faced implosion – Pasok in Greece, Labour in Scotland, the Socialist Party in France, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in Ireland. The mirror of democracy cracked and warped, so that ‘the people’ indeed no longer recognised themselves in it. These are the conditions in which populist insurgencies are made. Populism seeks to summon an alliance of subaltern class elements, by flattering them as the virtuous ‘people’, and to unify and direct their lines of political force for a reorganisation of the existing power bloc. In doing so, it usually aims its fire as much at the ‘mainstream’ or ‘establishment’ media as at politicians, and derives a lot of its support from being castigated in that same media.
Image via Salvage.