Book review: National Populism (2018) and The New Populism (2019)

Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin
National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (Pelican Books, 2018);

Marco Revelli
The New Populism: Democracy Stares Into the Abyss
(Verso, 2019)

Reviewed by: Chamsy el-Ojeili, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version will appear in Thesis Eleven Journal, available soon on the T11 Sage website)

In volume 149(1) of Thesis Eleven, the authors of an introduction to a special section on populism note the way in which the concept has fast become a ‘dominant topic in scholarly work’ (Baptista and Urribarri, 2018, p. 3), as well as the ‘severe challenges’ faced in the search ‘for a coherent theorization and systematic assessment of populism’ (p. 5). The four articles in that section do terrific work critically considering the first of these challenges, while the two books under review ambitiously seek to provide the latter. Both National Populism and The New Populism are tremendously expansive, marshalling a very wide range of evidence and argumentation, both take aim at liberal commonsense in nuanced treatments of this variegated object – though from rather opposed political vantage points – and both could have benefitted from a careful engagement with the critical-theoretical questions raised in this journal.

National Populism- The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy

On this last issue, immediate conceptual doubts are raised about the object of investigation itself. As D’Eramo (2013) has noted, the term, used with increasing frequency since the collapse of ‘really existing socialism’, is highly politicized, used as a contrast to a reasonable, consensual liberal centre, functioning as a brake on the imagination of alternatives, and resonant with class hatred, with fears of a ‘mob’ or ‘rabble’, viewed as virulent, aggressive, and irrational. Revelli is clearly well aware of these issues – the emptying of the term, its use to condemn everything that might challenge neo-liberalism, the way ‘populism’, like its cognate ‘totalitarianism’, is often deployed so as to equate far-Right and far-Left. Still, he goes with it. ‘Populism’ is never clearly defined, Revelli briefly looking at the history of the term, the difficulties of definition, and arriving, ambiguously, at a more recent, three-featured ideal-type: 1. The people as organic entity, set against an extraneous, hostile element – an above-and-below logic; 2. the notion of betrayal, with political conflict interpreted primarily in moral terms; and 3. an imaginary of upheaval, an upheaval necessary to the restoration of popular sovereignty. Throughout the early pages of Revelli’s book, a cautious and variegated approach is suggested: a distinction between ‘populism as context’ or ‘generic mood’ and ‘populism as project’; a note on populism’s ‘various souls’ (p. 26); the inherent interlinking between populism and democracy; a distinction, despite congruencies, between our populism, populism 2.0, from its 19th century antecedents. In the end, Revelli settles on populism as an ‘impalpable entity’:

It is a formless form that social malaise and impulses to protect take on in societies that have been pulverised and reworked by globalisation and total finance … in the era in which there is a lack of voice or organization (p. 11).

Eatwell and Goodwin (2018) take a rather different approach, abandoning ‘populism’ pure and simple, and suggesting a modification, ‘national populism’. This national populism, they insist, must be viewed as “a distinct tradition of thought in the West” (p. 47), as against the common view of populism as merely a style, as lacking any programme, as the realm of conspiracy theory, charisma, and an apocalyptic imaginary. National populism, Eatwell and Goodwin claim, ‘is an ideology which prioritizes the culture and interests of the nation, and which promises to give voice to a people who feel that they have been neglected, even held in contempt, by distant and often corrupt elites’ (p. 48). Populism has three major component parts – popular will, plain, ordinary people, and corrupt and distant elites. It is, then, at some distance from fascism, whose three core themes are holistic nationalism, the new man, and an authoritarian third way. National populism adds a nationalist component, ‘a strong desire to preserve national identity from radical change, and to promote the national interest’ (p. 78), which is, again, of a different order to fascist nationalism.

The new populism

Conceptual differences aside, Revelli and Eatwell and Goodwin have their sights set on the same forces – Trump, Brexit, the FN, Lega, the Sweden Democrats, the AfD, Orban, the Austrian Freedom Party, the various people’s parties, and so on. They both, then, exclude the idea that such ‘populism’ is part of a wider ‘post-fascist’ (Traverso, 2019) atmosphere or constellation – an interpretative option that, to me, makes more sense, given the commonalities and connections between Right-wing nationalist parties, the alt-Right, and hard white nationalism. Nevertheless, the careful, nuanced portraits composed here are extremely valuable, particularly in the common effort to think closely and widely about the constituencies in play, about who populism is appealing to and why.

For Revelli, the various forces of populism can be understood primarily through the power of maps. Exploring, for instance, the ‘Trumpocalypse’, Revelli underscores the pivotal interpretative pairing of centre-periphery – Clinton taking the centres of the centres of metropolitan America by a wide margin, Trump triumphing in rural areas and in small and provincial centres. This was not, though, as is often suggested, a revolt of the poor – Clinton leading easily with those on under $ 30,000 a year, and Trump with a clear advantage among those on incomes over $50,000, and, especially, with those on between $100,000 and 200,000 per year. What the vote represented was more like ‘the revenge of those who had been divested of something’: ‘their male privilege, part of their (however high) income, their societal status, recognition of their work, respect for their faith or their country, their place in the world, their power, their hegemony’ (pp. 72-3). Those posited as doing the divesting are various – ‘finance, the banks, the “swamp” of Washington, gays and lesbians and transgender people, Hollywood celebrities with no morals, the Hispanics who eat in their gardens, the Blacks who drop empty bottles in the streets, Muslims who have more faith than they do, the Arab oil magnates who buy up their cities and finance the throat-cutters’ (p. 73). Place and class intertwined, here, with race and gender – Trump winning 67 per cent of the non-college-educated white vote, against Clinton’s 28 per cent, but only 37 per cent of women against Clinton’s 54 per cent.

We find congruent patterns in other populist cases. Brexitland, for example, largely maps onto the distribution of UKIP support: weak in wealthy London, strong in sparsely populated peripheries, but also in medium and large cities with the ‘deepest industrial roots’ (P. 87) and in those places hardest hit by neo-liberal and globalizing transformations, as well as by austerity policies; weak among the young and more educated, strongest where wages were lowest, where public services were less available, and among skilled and semi-skilled manual workers. In France, meanwhile, Paris, and other large cities, showed little openness to the Marine Le Pen, although the FN’s vote has advanced significantly across the electorate and has increased its appeal with blue collar workers, the less educated, and those on lower wages. The map of AfD support, similarly, is signal to the angst of the peripheries, with more votes in the East, in lower-density areas, among older citizens, the less educated, those on lower incomes, and men, alongside some exceptions in Westward areas with high levels of manufacturing. The harder-Right and more successful populists of the ‘Third Europe’ (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Austria) are treated much more briefly, but their patterns of support conform to the predominant trends already noted.

Subsequently, Revelli turns, at some length, to his homeland, Italy, a ‘collective laboratory … of populism’ (p. 32), beginning with Berlusconi’s 1994 electoral victory, now viewed by Steve Bannon as the centre of an epochal turning point, and, until recently, governed by the peculiar, ‘bipolar’ populist coalition between M5S and Lega. The Italian case, in particular, draws our attention to a crucial feature of the post-GFC populist earthquake – the devastation of the mainstream parties of both Right and Left. Wiped away or eroded spectacularly in Italy by the political scandal that engulfed them in the early 1990s, the general crisis of the centrist parties on both sides of the spectrum is central in the rhetoric of the populist parties who set themselves against a distant cartel of political elites of both Right and Left. Connected to commentary on the rise of ‘anti-politics’ in the west in the 1990s, and to contemporary discussion of post-politics/post-democracy (falling voter turnout, declining party membership, growing distrust of politicians, bureaucrats, and parties), this is precisely the moment specified by Gramsci (2000) as hegemonic crisis, where ‘social groups become detached from their traditional parties’, in which ‘the traditional parties … are no longer recognized by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic “men of destiny”’ (pp. 217-218).

The erosion of the old ‘political containers’ (p. 10) (political homelessness) is one significant factor in Revelli’s explanatory repertoire. On one score, then, populism is a ‘senile disorder of democracy’ (p. 3), provoked by a ‘deficit of representation’ (p. 4). This, though, is in turn deeply tied to neo-liberal globalization: the declassement of the middle class (the ‘ballast’ (p. 200) of the formerly stable, moderate Western political sphere), the pulverization of work (precarity) and class disaggregation, class war from above and its effects – massive polarization (a €120 billion a year shift of wealth from wages to profits in the West between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s) and oligarchy. All of this has left a disoriented mass of people ‘consigned to resentment and rancour’, a ‘diffuse feeling of rage, unease and suspicion’ (p. 202), without an available language to map these feelings to social conditions, and prepared to ‘entrust themselves to a winner’, to those who ‘stand up above’ (p. 203).

Eatwell and Goodwin’s analysis converges with Revelli’s at many points. However, they tilt decisively away from the terrain of Marxian explanation – populism as crisis-induced, as anti-systemic protest, as class politics in another guise – the terrain on which Revelli however softly treads. For instance, rejecting the thesis of populist voting as generalized protest, Eatwell and Goodwin argue that supporters ‘are choosing to endorse views that appeal to them’ (p. 39). Up-front, Eatwell and Goodwin seek to dispel these and other myths surrounding populism: populism interpreted, variously, as flash, temporary protests, as the refuge of bigots, jobless losers, rednecks, angry old white men, as idiot’s socialism, as empty of substance, as anti-democratic, as nasty. National populism is complex, and there is no one type of supporter or single motive: numerous national populist forces are received well among the young; a good number of white women support populist forces; and we can identify five ideal typical groups that backed Trump – Staunch Conservative, Free Marketeers, Preservationists, Anti-Elites, and the Disengaged. Against common myths, we must, as well, think national populism as a ‘deep’ and ‘long-term’ (p. vii) phenomenon. Eatwell and Goodwin’s suggested device for thinking this is what they call the ‘four Ds’ – distrust, destruction, deprivation, and de-alignment.

Distrust is crucially about the widespread sense among citizens that people like them are without a voice, that they are not represented, as well as a growing scepticism about politicians, parties, and other institutions. Drawing widely on polls to bolster these contentions, Eatwell and Goodwin also note that in 2017 an all-time low of 3 per cent of British MPs had had blue collar jobs, while, in 2014, over half those elected to Congress in the U. S. were millionaires. This falling identification, trust, and sense of voicelessness is particularly marked among the less highly educated – one of the consistently core factors marking out populism’s constituency. Distrust is clearly intertwined with de-alignment, as in Revelli’s work – the weakening of bonds between citizens and traditional parties, declining party memberships, disaffection with both centre-Right and centre-Left (60 per cent in a 2016 American Values Study indicating neither major party reflected their opinions), more volatile electoral contests. In a similar way to Revelli, Eatwell and Goodwin clearly give a fair load of explanatory weight to the role of the neo-liberal policy convergence of established parties in populism’s success.

Such trends, Eatwell and Goodwin insist, must not be mistaken for anti-democratic tendencies within national populism. In fact, many populist parties champion more democracy, especially in the form of referenda, drawing attention to the undemocratic fault lines of a liberal democracy now clearly dominated by culturally liberal, educated, urban elites. These popular concerns over the fate of democracy, along with distrust and de-alignment, are intimately threaded together with a third D – deprivation. As noted by Revelli, this is not an absolute deprivation, populism as the revolt of the worst off; it is a distinctively relative deprivation, a ‘diffuse sense of cultural, political and social loss’ (Eatwell and Goodwin, p. 215). Again, this is tied to global neo-liberalism and its impact on ‘people’s perceived levels of respect, recognition and status relative to others in society’ (p. 212). Thus, the frequent appeal of national populists against what Marine Le Pen has called ‘savage globalization’. Here, again, polls are used to signal the trends – 6 out of 10 people across EU states viewing globalization as increasing social inequality, large numbers of people possessed of a sense of societal brokenness or decline (52 and 67 percent in France, 66 and 60 per cent in the US, respectively).

This, of course, might bolster Marxian contentions about this Right as ultimately an efflux of class and capitalism. It is, though, in turning to the fourth D, destruction, that Eatwell and Goodwin really nail their colours to an anti-Marxian mast. It is also here that a reader on the Left will likely become uncomfortable. Destruction pivots around cultural issues, what Eatwell and Goodwin frame as ‘hyper ethnic change’ and concerns about the destruction of wider group identity and way of life. Here, Eatwell and Goodwin are unsparing with the liberal-Left critique of populists as racists, insisting that, on such cultural questions, national populists ‘tap into widespread and legitimate public anxieties’ (p. xii). A number of claims, some of them questionable, are made on this issue.

First, Eatwell and Goodwin strenuously reject the connection between national populism and racism. Some within national populism’s ranks ‘veer’ (p. xii) into racism, but racism has ‘broadly vanished from daily life in much of the West’ (p. 73). Even Trump is not ‘systematically racist’ (p. 76), and ‘only’ (p. 161) one in five of Nigel Farage’s supporters believe that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites. Many readers will hear sirens, at such moments. The authors’ reasoning here is to be located on something of a neo-communitarian path, suggesting, after David Miller, that states have the right to control borders and exclude immigrants on the basis of community goals and preferences, against the claims of an unrooted and individualist liberal-Left cosmopolitanism. Clearly, an empathetic and attentive human sciences approach that seeks to listen and understand, rather than ignore and contemptuously dismiss, is, as Eatwell and Goodwin continually insist, vital. This is, for instance, what is so powerful and unique in, say, Bloch’s work on fascism. Nevertheless, the accumulation of argumentation and phrasing will undoubtedly make Leftist readers uneasy at best. This unease, for me, was particularly heightened by Eatwell and Goodwin’s critique of ‘Playing the racism card’ (p. 162), by multiple uses of the word ‘instinctively’ – as in, people ‘feel instinctively negative about how their nations are changing’ (p. 146) – and by formulations, such as recent ‘unprecedented waves of immigration’ (p. 139), ‘halt the tide’ (p. 156), ‘endless low-skilled and non-contributory forms of immigration’ (p. 282). Again, such positions are argued from a more communitarian vantage point – the ‘common desire to live among one’s own people’ (p. 274), nations as ‘ethical communities’ (p. 169), the importance large numbers of people give to ‘sharing the nation’s cultural heritage’ (p. 157), the ‘right to choose to preserve what [people] … see as their national independence and identity’ (p. 170). I am quite certain I won’t be alone in feeling quite staggered by the lack of complication and problematization of these claims and formulations.

This is not, in any way, to diminish the worth of Eatwell and Goodwin’s book, which contributes a great deal, bringing together a very wide and differentiated array of data to coherently and subtly depict this controversial object. They are, undoubtedly, on very firm ground in busting many of the myths around what they call national populism, and in demonstrating the multiple shortcomings of many of the Left and liberal responses to this phenomenon. My preferences for Revelli are obviously shaped by political affiliation, but also by Revelli’s more dialectical approach, which, in contrast to Eatwell and Goodwin, is more evenly attuned to national populism’s dark side. Here, despite the quite mordant tone throughout, for Revelli, at the very least, populism, the ‘awkward guest’ (p. 30) at the liberal democratic party, might get us talking again about redistribution, social services, and wages, of a reformism that ‘now seems so “revolutionary”’ (p. 204).

References

Baptista AC and Urribarri RA (2018) Why populism(s)? Thesis Eleven 149(1): 3-9.

D’Eramo M (2013) Populism and the new oligarchy. New Left Review 82, July-August: 5-28.

Gramsci A (2000) The Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935. New York: New York University Press.

Traverso E (2019) The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right. London: Verso.

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