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Progressive Neoliberalism and the Pull of Populist Politics

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In the wake of the turbulent US election, social theorist Nancy Fraser wrote that the progressive neoliberal politics of the establishment served as a major factor in ensuring the success of Donald Trump in ascending to the presidency.

In her article, ‘The End of Progressive Neoliberalism,’ [1] Fraser described the way that politicians like Hillary Clinton, and her forebears, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, embodied this concept. Their platforms vociferously included progressive stances on issues like LGBTQ rights, equal pay for women, and affirmative action as a means of coaxing the left-leaning masses into support at the ballot box. Meanwhile, their neoliberal economic policies are generally overlooked or even willfully ignored despite the fact that these have far more substantive impacts on the world at large.

Fraser concludes her piece by explaining that the American left’s approach to the issues facing the working populace is too obtuse in that instead of addressing their concerns, liberals dismiss them as backward or xenophobic. The result is that progressive politics become deeply intertwined with neoliberal platforms like that of Hillary Clinton, thus alienating the many ordinary people who are negatively impacted by the deregulation of the free market. Fraser, therefore, posits that the United States can combat the rise of the alt-right by assembling a ‘true left,’ one that is not going to bed with the corporate elite, instead critiquing the structures of capitalism as it ought to, whilst also advocating for the rights of minority groups.

The rise of rightwing populism in Europe makes the plausibility of Fraser’s proposed solution murkier. Surely, much of the same critique could be applied to the European Union, an institution that fundamentally marries progressive politics with neoliberal economics. With free and open borders, which challenge the problematic nationalist assumptions that ran amok hitherto its creation, many center left politicians and voters vehemently support the EU’s existence. Concurrently, there’s no doubting that the governing body of the EU is inherently undemocratic, and that its structures are predominantly in place to the benefit of multinationals and big banks.

Such is evident most acutely in Greece, which was forced into bankruptcy, largely thanks its entrapment within the Eurozone amongst a diverse set of more productive economies. To cope with its debt, Greece has since adopted oppressive structural adjustment programs as it attempts to pay back the bailout funds predominantly to private German financial institutions. In this way, the EU has formed a core-periphery model similar to what exists on the global scale between industrialized nations and developing ones, whereas wealth flows to the core, and those living on the peripheries are ridiculed for following the same current.

At the same time, the EU’s governing structures do little to take into account the interests of those living in the member states as a voting constituency.[2]  Between the powers of supranational law in decision making within the Eurozone and the 19% decline in democratic participation in parliamentary elections over the past 30 years, there exists a disjuncture between EU citizens and the institutions that govern them.[3] This sort of democratic deficit is in itself something that academics attribute to the rise of populism.

With all this in mind, it’s worth noting that a critique of progressive neoliberal politics is embodied under leftist political party platforms in several major EU member states. This means that voters already have the alternative that Fraser points out is lacking in the US, thus illuminating the fact that quelling the rise of the rightwing may, in fact, be lacking such a simple solution.

The UK

Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, the UK’s Labour Party offers a more nuanced alternative to xenophobic nationalism, the likes of which Fraser would perhaps even praise.[4] Prior to the Brexit referendum, Corbyn was known for his EU-critical stances, whilst simultaneously remaining unopposed to free movement within the Eurozone. He both aligned himself with inclusionary politics and attempted to shine light on the venal nature of the neoliberal political elite, saying, [5] ‘voters were being wrongly told by “the establishment” that migrants are to blame for pressure on jobs and public services, when the fault lies with politicians in Westminster.’ These sentiments were combined with his assertion that the UK must simultaneously, ‘tackle exploitation by unscrupulous employers’ on the domestic front. He suggests doing so through granting the government repatriate powers to intervene in struggling industries like steel.

Despite the existence of a platform advocating both for workers’ rights and tolerance towards minorities, the specter of immigration—particularly of non-whites – was unbearable to enough British people that they are willing to vote ‘Leave’ anyway. [6] The media has likely played a key role in fueling the xenophobic stances that many have taken with regard to immigration and the changing demographic composition of the UK. Post-Brexit, Corbyn himself faced significant backlash in the public arena from so-called progressive politicians as well as in British news coverage by and large. Thanks to his critiques, following Brexit, Corbyn was widely portrayed as a leftwing populist whose ideas discouraged people from voting remain. [7]

Overall, in the UK, sentiments against immigration seem to have outweighed economic critique as a sole motivator for political action, even despite the presence of a leftist alternative with more inclusive stances toward minorities. That said, though Corbyn may have come the closest of any mainstream politician in the UK by pointing out the neoliberal nature of those governing from Westminster, he wasn’t explicit in opposing the EU on the basis of this same tendency. Evidently, offering a clear and concrete economic critique of the EU that resonates with enough voters, without simultaneously suggesting the dismantlement of the EU altogether is a fine line that Labour has had a difficult time in treading. It can be concluded that leftist parties like Labour failed to do so in a way that resonated with the British to a significant enough degree to garner support for its agenda.

Germany

In Germany, the notorious rightwing populist faction, Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) has certainly been gaining ground, and experts note that over the past couple of years, they have been drawing voters from political parties across the spectrum [8] on a fairly even keel. In addition to rural populations, the main demographic to align with AfD is Germany’s lower middle class, whose way of life is most vulnerable to economic downturn in a globalized economy. As a result, a populist political platform would seem of natural appeal, but AfD isn’t the only party to align itself with the economic woes of ordinary people.

For instance, a robust critique of progressive neoliberal nature of the EU is generally considered common sense amongst the German left. Of late, Die Linke, [9] one of the more prominent leftist parties in the country, has largely predicated its platform on the idea that it can fight the rise of the extreme rightwing by providing a non-xenophobic alternative to those who are critical of EU neoliberalism. [10] Still, Die Linke has struggled to surpass AfD in popularity in many parts of the country. [8]

Furthermore, up until the election of Martin Schulz, the leftist Social Democratic Party (SPD) has lost voters to AfD as well. That said, according to polls, Schulz’s successful campaigning seems to be drawing many back to the left. Perhaps he can offer a glimmer of hope in embodying Fraser’s ideal for leftist organization and leadership that is strong enough to dissolve growing rightwing xenophobic fervor in Germany. Schulz has successfully shifted discourse away from issues surrounding immigration thanks to a tactful rebranding of SPDs platform. This point remains tenuous, however, as AfD still made headway in Saarland’s recent election while Germany’s quintessential establishment party, CDU secured 5 new seats in parliament, SPD gained zero, [11] and Die Linke lost two. [12]

Spain

One country that seems to defy all odds in terms of the rise of rightwing populism is Spain. Considering that its economy never recovered from the 2008 recession [13] and that popular opinion of establishment politics has plummeted thanks to a series of corruption scandals, [14] it would seem that Spain was poised for the rise of rightwing populism a la Germany or the UK.

Interestingly, despite these conditions, there has been no significant surge of collective anger directed at the presence of immigrants—whose numbers spiked during the years leading up to the recession– nor towards globalization more broadly.[15] According to a report in the Financial Times, [16] ‘“People here worry about jobs, not about migrants,” says José Manuel Carmona, a member of the Villacañas local council for the centre-right Popular party, the ruling party in a minority government. “If they blame anyone for the crisis it is the politicians.”’

What’s more is that Spain’s most prominent leftist party, Podemos, which is staunchly anti-austerity, has gained the most traction of any political faction in the country [17] securing 21% of the popular vote in 2016. [18]  Thanks to the recent reign of Franco’s fascism, the Spanish harbor a lot of skepticism towards rightwing nationalism, which naturally conjures starkly negative associations. [16]

For politicians, the regional fragmentation between different groups—Catalonian and Basque—makes appealing to a sense of collective Spanish identity even more futile, as these groups continually challenge its legitimacy. That in mind, Spain’s rightwing Popular Party already has a scapegoat in these groups so directing blame for Spain’s problems onto immigrants hasn’t been necessary.

As for popular opinion about the EU, Spaniards generally feel that Spain should stay part of the Eurozone. Indeed, unlike Germany or the UK, which have both functioned as two of the EU’s leading economies, Spain benefitted from EU sanctioned aid as its own declined during the recession. [19] Not to mention, there exists little tension around the idea that foreigners are stealing resources like housing and welfare subsidies, as Spain doesn’t have such established systems in place as in other EU member states.

Experts and analysts believe that the current political climate in Spain is unlikely to turn towards rightwing extremism in the future, either. Still, the Spanish model doesn’t offer much help to other countries where rightwing populism is on the rise, as many of the conditions existing in the country are embedded in its unique historical and cultural context, [20] and are therefore, are not easily replicated elsewhere.

France

Perhaps the most topical example regarding the rise of rightwing populism and a growing skepticism of the EU is France. With a highly contentious election just days away, the whole of Europe and beyond waits as the results are cast because many believe they could decide the fate of the Eurozone in its entirety. With the increasing popularity of extreme candidates on both sides of the political spectrum, we see the clearest backlash against the progressive neoliberal politics of the establishment.

During his time in office, the current center-left president, Francois Hollande has experienced pitifully low approval ratings, that have at times hovered close to zero. [21] Most remarkable in his innocuousness as an emblem of the status quo, the Socialist Party’s replacement candidate in the impending election is the centrist Emmanuel Macron, who ranks first in national polls by a slim margin of only about 1%. [23] His platform includes the typical neoliberal leanings of his predecessors. [22]  Despite this, analysts predict that he will secure a win in the election because a majority–albeit a slim one– will vote defensively against the ultra-rightwing National Front’s Marine Le Pen who has aggregated 23% of popular support [23] thanks to the nationalistic appeal of her political platform. [22] The other noteworthy neoliberal establishment candidate is The Republicans’ Francois Fillon, who currently trails Macron and Le Pen, with 19% of the country in favor of his ascent to the presidency. [23] As we have seen in various cases throughout Europe and in the US, Fillon has lost favor due to corruption and scandal, including the nepotistic ‘Penelope Gate’. [24] With these contenders in mind, it is no surprise that many are seeking something altogether different.

Under the radical Left Party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon offers a robust critique of the EU specifically as a neoliberal and undemocratic institution. [25] He has emerged from the fringes, rising to third place in the polls behind Macron and Le Pen, with a 19% rating. [23] While for very different reasons, Melénchon has taken his EU critical stances to the same extreme as his rightwing counterpart, threatening to leave the EU altogether if it doesn’t undergo fundamental change. Unlike Le Pen, however, his anti-EU focus does not lie in an opposition of multiculturalism, but in EU wide austerity. He has been known, for instance, to use the prospect of Frexit as leverage to change the way that Germany imposes structural adjustment on other member states. [25] Mélenchon also proposes to finance a greener economy through the redistribution of resources from France’s wealthy. [25] His success in capturing voters’ disgruntlement towards the establishment and the EU has garnered him more popularity than other pro-EU Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon who hasn’t disentangled himself from more traditional leftist political strategy. [22] That said, Mélenchon’s appeal has yet to outweigh that of Le Pen’s rightwing populism, as she remains the second contender to Macron. [23] Still, his extreme leanings and anti-EU stances could lead France and Europe at large into an uncertain future, particularly if he and Le Pen were to go head to head in the second round of the elections.

Conclusion

The many nuances present in the European political situation suggest that the solution to combating the rise of the rightwing might be more complicated than Fraser’s analysis implies. In several European countries, there already exist leftist platforms that are both critical of neoliberal policy whilst simultaneously progressive when it comes to issues related to the rights of minorities. Even though this kind of leftwing populist alternative exists, there are many other factors at play, which dictate whether the rightwing gains traction within a given society. Such is demonstrated in the above examples, whereas the culmination of social, political, and economic conditions seem to have at least as much sway.

It is certainly a compelling idea that the presence of a ‘true left,’ which successfully reveals the connection between the oppression of the worker and the oppression of the minority, calling for substantive structural change rather than meager incremental reform, is the key to staving off the rise of rightwing extremism. In reality, this is only one small piece of the puzzle. Even in in the American context, it would seem that Fraser herself even overlooks this notion in ignoring Bernie Sander’s failure to secure the Democratic Party nomination.

Combating the rise of rightwing populism is a complex situation with no one-size-fits-all solution applicable from one country to the next. Economic insecurity is a fundamental aspect of this phenomenon, and there is a growing skepticism among member states about the functionality of the EU as a governing body. Nevertheless, it would appear that more case by case social science research is necessary for understanding how to mitigate the rise of the rightwing in Europe and beyond.

Sources:

  1. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/progressive-neoliberalism-reactionary-populism-nancy-fraser
  2. Eur-Lex, 18 December 2016, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/summary/glossary/democratic_deficit.html.*
  3. Scharpf, Fritz W, (1999), Governing in Europe: Effective and democratic?, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford University Press, p. 6.^
  4. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2041905817702715
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/22/corbyn-final-pitch-referendum-voters
  6. http://researchspace.bathspa.ac.uk/9330/
  7. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/newe.12028/full
  8. https://pollytix.de/wahltrend/
  9. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/978-1-137-59643-7_7
  10. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09644008.2016.1189532
  11. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-election-saarland-idUSKBN16X00S
  12. http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2017/03/26/Merkels-conservative-party-wins-German-regional-election/1931490556227/
  13. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0297.2012.02534.x/full
  14. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13608740903356541
  15. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/176893/summary
  16. https://www.ft.com/content/414246f6-dbe4-11e6-86ac-f253db7791c6
  17. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01442872.2015.1073243
  18. http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/index_en.htm
  19. http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/index_en.htm
  20. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/176893/summary
  21. http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21709508-fran-ois-hollandes-approval-falls-4-abyss
  22. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2041905817702736
  23. https://ig.ft.com/sites/france-election/polls/
  24. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/27/penelope-gate-casts-dark-shadow-over-fillons-presidential-prospects
  25. https://newrepublic.com/article/142110/rise-jean-luc-melenchon-frances-post-democracy

 

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