Essay On Populism

Coinciding with the release of a revised edition of The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition, William Davies argues that the recent surge in ‘populism’ must be understood in relation to the structures of political, cultural and moral economy, in particular the inability of neoliberalism to sustain the myth of a level playing field or a sense of shared reality between those who constantly ‘win’ and those who are set up to repeatedly ‘lose’.

Populism and the Limits of Neoliberalism

The surge in so-called ‘populism’ over the past year, largely of a right-wing variety, has provoked an ongoing debate as to how we should characterise its central driver. To put this somewhat crudely (though not much more crudely than some of the debate’s protagonists), the choice comes down to a simple binary: economics or culture? Class or identity? An awkward new category of ‘the left behind’ has emerged in political discourse to capture the unexpected supporters of Donald Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen and other nationalist movements.

This debate cannot be resolved on these terms, for one simple reason. The economy is cultural: class and identity constitute each other. This is why the perspective known as ‘cultural economy’ (or ‘cultural political economy’) is now more valuable than ever, if it can illuminate the ways in which markets, property rights, work and consumption produce distinctive identities and affects, not as side-effects or as false consciousness, but as integral components of how they operate.

For example, welfare reforms over recent years do not simply operate with a cold logic of efficiency, which has the unfortunate side effect of making people feel responsible for their own inactivity and suffering. That feeling of responsibility is internal to how they work, and therefore to the broader project of fiscal and labour market reform.

The deep resentment that has become visible in rural, ex-industrial and ex-mining regions in Europe and the United States was a surprise to many people, but to comprehend it, two things are essential. Firstly, we need to accept that it has most likely been brewing for many years, but without an adequate outlet. Secondly, that it is cultural-economic and, I would argue, moral-economic (for reasons I will explore in a moment).

The research for my book The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition was conducted over 2007-10, meaning that it did not address much of the long aftermath of the global financial crisis, including austerity in Europe, and did not explicitly anticipate the political fallout of 2016. There are, however, a couple of ways in which I hope the book can support the type of cultural-economic and moral-economic enquiry that I think is needed right now, which I outline in the new Introduction written in September 2016.

First of all, the book treats ‘neoliberalism’ as a devotedly anti-political project, albeit one that can only be advanced by the state, producing various paradoxes as a result. It is anti-political in the sense that its intellectual framers (such as the Chicago School) shared a pessimistic view of political life, in which deliberation collapses into misunderstanding and ultimately violence.

By contrast, economic calculation (including the price system of the market, but also the various techniques of measurement and audit that characterise contemporary governance) is viewed as safer, more transparent and more honest. Hence, I define neoliberalism as the ‘disenchantment of politics by economics’. In my account, neoliberalism is less about the promotion of markets than a certain style of technocracy.

There are various reasons why this project cannot fully succeed, not least that it is executed by sovereign agencies, whose full power and authority is not reducible to economic logic. But I think populism indicates another reason: this economisation of public life creates a vacuum and a longing for something other than technocracy and efficiency. We need to avoid romanticising politics, and recognise that this longing can manifest itself in some ugly ways. In that respect, we need also to recognise some of the value in the neoliberal position: politics can and does authorise violence.

However, the sudden jolt of Brexit and Trump is partly due to identities, voices and needs being ignored or disenfranchised for so long that the desire for political agency became overwhelming. Populist agendas are condemned by mainstream voices as ‘unrealistic’ or even as ‘post-truth’. Yet – as my book details – neoliberal government involves careful delineation of what counts as ‘economic reality’, overseen by certain schools of economic expertise but not others. Where economic policy and regulation are concerned, stipulating what is ‘true’ is an important function of the technocrat. It is no surprise that a rebellion against this will be characterised by an apparent refusal of certain notions of truth, especially when those notions are as abstract as macroeconomics.

The second major contribution of the book, I hope, is to focus attention on the moral-economic logic of neoliberalism, which makes competition the basic normative principle of society and competitiveness the ultimate individual and collective virtue. Crucially, this logic is not limited to the sphere of market exchange, but is treated as a moral and political rationality that can be extended into all spheres of life, such as urban governance, education reform and personal responsibility. The prevalence of league tables, coaching, branding and auditing in various non-market domains is testimony to this.

Competition exerts moral force, because it stipulates that victors will have earned their rewards (as the ideal of ‘meritocracy’ proposes), but also that others will have earned their failure. Viewed from within the neoliberal framework, those regions, cultures, individuals now routinely known as the ‘left behind’ are not simply unfortunate or inefficient: they are less morally worthy because they are less competitive. The competitive ‘game’ that the state has been enforcing since the 1970s has revealed them to be losers.

The success of talent shows over the past fifteen years gives a glimpse of the moral framework of neoliberalism. For while those programmes are ostensibly about identifying ‘winners’, they do so through a steady stream of eliminations, often featuring emotional outbursts from the losers. It is one thing to suffer a misfortune or to choose a less ambitious path in life. But psychologically and morally, it is quite another to inhabit a society where ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are constantly being fought over, and another thing again to be constantly saddled with the latter.

The emotional and political outbursts of the past year only make any sense if this is carefully reflected on, not only in terms of economics but in terms of political, cultural and moral economy. One of the ‘limits of neoliberalism’ is its inability to carry on producing the sense of a ‘level playing field’, as inequality mounts up and becomes reproduced via intergenerational mechanisms. Another, as we’ve now discovered, is the inability to maintain a sense of shared ‘reality’ amongst those repeatedly ‘winning’ and those repeatedly ‘losing’, especially where the latter are a growing majority.

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Note: This article was originally published at LSE Review of Books and it gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: marycat879 (CC-BY-2.0).


About the author

William Davies – Goldsmiths, University of London
William Davies is Reader in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London and Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre. He is also author of The Happiness Industry: How the Government & Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing (Verso, 2015).


There are long decades in which history seems to slow to a crawl. Elections are won and lost, laws adopted and repealed, new stars born and legends carried to their graves. But for all the ordinary business of time passing, the lodestars of culture, society and politics remain the same.

Then there are those short years in which everything changes all at once. Political newcomers storm the stage. Voters clamour for policies that were unthinkable until yesterday. Social tensions that had long simmered under the surface erupt into terrifying explosions. A system of government that had seemed immutable looks as though it might come apart.

This is the kind of moment in which we now find ourselves.

Until recently, liberal democracy reigned triumphant. For all its shortcomings, most citizens seemed deeply committed to their form of government. The economy was growing. Radical parties were insignificant. Political scientists thought that democracy in places like France or the United States had long ago been set in stone, and would change little in the years to come. Politically speaking, it seemed, the future would not be much different from the past.

Then the future came – and turned out to be very different indeed. Citizens have long been disillusioned with politics; now, they have grown restless, angry, even disdainful. Party systems have long seemed frozen; now, authoritarian populists are on the rise around the world, from America to Europe, and from Asia to Australia. Voters have long disliked particular parties, politicians or governments; now, many of them have become fed up with liberal democracy itself.

Donald Trump’s election to the White House has been the most striking manifestation of democracy’s crisis. It is difficult to overstate the significance of his rise. But it is hardly an isolated incident. In Russia and Turkey, elected strongmen have succeeded in turning fledgling democracies into electoral dictatorships. In Poland and Hungary, populist leaders are using that same playbook to destroy the free media, to undermine independent institutions and to muzzle the opposition.

More countries may soon follow. In Austria, a far-right candidate nearly won the country’s presidency. In France, a rapidly changing political landscape is providing new openings for both the far left and the far right. In Spain and Greece, established party systems are disintegrating with breathtaking speed. Even in the supposedly stable and tolerant democracies of Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, extremists are celebrating unprecedented successes.

There can no longer be any doubt that we are going through a populist moment. The question is whether this populist moment will turn into a populist age – and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt.

When democracy is stable, it is in good part because all major political actors are willing to adhere to the basic rules of the democratic game most of the time.

Some of these rules are formal. A president or prime minister allows the judiciary to investigate wrongdoing by members of his government instead of firing the prosecutor. He puts up with critical coverage in the press instead of shutting down newspapers or persecuting journalists. When he loses an election, he leaves office peacefully instead of clinging to power.

But many of these rules are informal, making it less clearcut when they are violated. The government does not rewrite electoral rules months before an election to maximise its chance of winning. Political insurgents do not glorify authoritarian rulers of the past, threaten to lock up their opponents or set out to violate the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. The losers of an election refrain from limiting the scope of an office to which an adversary has been elected in their last days in the job. The opposition confirms a competent judge whose ideology it dislikes rather than leaving a seat on the highest court in the land vacant, and strikes an imperfect compromise about the budget rather than letting the government shut down.

In short, politicians with a real stake in the system may think of politics as a contact sport in which all participants are hustling to gain an advantage over their adversaries. But they are also keenly aware that there need to be some limits on the pursuit of their partisan interests; that winning an important election or passing an urgent law is less important than preserving the system; and that democratic politics must never degenerate into all-out war. “For democracies to work,” Michael Ignatieff, the political theorist and former leader of the Liberal party of Canada, wrote a few years ago, “politicians need to respect the difference between an enemy and an adversary. An adversary is someone you want to defeat. An enemy is someone you have to destroy.”

In the US, and many other countries around the world, that is no longer how democratic politics works. As Ignatieff put the point, we are increasingly “seeing what happens when a politics of enemies supplants a politics of adversaries”. And the new crop of populists who have stormed the political stage over the past decades shoulder a lot of the blame for this.

The rise of political newcomers is as likely to be a sign of democratic health and vitality as it is of impending sickness. Political systems benefit from a thorough competition of ideas and from a regular substitution of one ruling elite for another. New parties can help in both ways. By forcing long-neglected issues on to the political agenda, they increase the representativeness of the political system. And by catapulting a new crop of politicians into office, they inject the system with fresh blood.

Even so, there is good reason to think that the recent thawing of the party system is far from benign. For many of the new parties do not just provide ideological alternatives within the democratic system – they challenge key rules and norms of the system itself.

One of the earliest populists to rise to prominence was Austria’s Jörg Haider, a slick, charismatic politician from Carinthia. But the degree to which he was willing to undermine core norms of liberal democracy became apparent whenever he engaged in a sly revaluation of Austria’s Nazi past. Speaking to an audience including many former SS officers, Haider claimed that “our soldiers were not criminals; at most, they were victims”.

Breaking political norms is also a speciality of Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Freedom party (PVV). Islam, he has argued, is “a dangerous totalitarian ideology”. While other populists have sought to outlaw minarets or burkinis, Wilders, determined not to be outdone, has gone so far as to demand a ban on the Qur’an.

By comparison to Haider and Wilders, a figure like Beppe Grillo seems far more benign at first blush, promising to take power from a self-serving and geriatric “political caste”, and to fight for a more modern and tolerant Italy. But once the Five Star Movement gained in popularity, it quickly took on an antisystem hue. Its attacks on the corruption of individual politicians slowly morphed into a radical rejection of key aspects of the political system, including parliament itself. Anger against the political establishment was sustained by a growing willingness to engage in conspiracy theories or to tell outright lies about political opponents.

The reason why populists and political newcomers are so willing to challenge basic democratic norms is in part tactical: whenever populists break such norms, they attract the univocal condemnation of the political establishment. And this of course proves that, as advertised, the populists really do represent a clean break from the status quo. There is thus something performative about populists’ tendency to break democratic norms: while their most provocative statements are often considered gaffes by political observers, their very willingness to commit such gaffes is a big part of their appeal.

But their recklessness is no less dangerous for all of that. Once some members of the political system are willing to break the rules, others have a big incentive to follow suit. And that, increasingly, is what they do. While some of the most spectacular attacks on basic democratic norms have come from political newcomers, the representatives of old, established parties have also become increasingly willing to undermine the basic rules of the game.

At times, established parties on the left have given in to the temptation of violating democratic norms. In the US, Democrats have long engaged in unacceptable forms of gerrymandering. And during the Obama presidency, the executive continued to expand its role in some worrying ways, prosecuting a record number of journalists for handling classified information and using executive orders to bypass Congress in policy areas from the environment to immigration. Even so, most political scientists agree that the Republicans are now, by far, the best example for a concerted attack on democratic norms perpetrated by a nominally establishment party. Just take what happened in the wake of the 2016 gubernatorial elections in North Carolina. Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate, won a highly contentious election by an extremely narrow margin. But instead of recognising that this gave him a mandate to rule for the next four years, Republicans decided to rewrite his job description. North Carolina’s governor used to be responsible for appointing 1,500 gubernatorial staffers; according to a law passed by the outgoing Republican legislature, he would henceforth be permitted to appoint only 425. The governor had previously been charged with appointing up to 66 trustees to the school boards of the University of North Carolina; now, he would be permitted to appoint a grand total of zero.

The naked partisanship of these actions is undeniable. So is their import: Republicans in North Carolina have effectively rejected the notion that we resolve political differences by free and fair elections and are willing to submit to the rule of our political rivals when we lose.

Citizens are less committed to democracy than they once were; while more than two-thirds of older Americans say that it is essential to them to live in a democracy, for example, less than a third of younger Americans do. They are also more open to authoritarian alternatives; two decades ago, for example, 25% of Britons said that they liked the idea of “a strongman ruler who does not have to bother with parliament and elections”; today, 50% of them do. And these attitudes are increasingly reflected in our politics: from Great Britain to the US, and from Germany to Hungary, respect for democratic rules and norms has precipitously declined. No longer the only game in town, democracy is now deconsolidating.

That conclusion, I know, is hard to swallow. We like to think of the world as getting better over time, and of liberal democracy as deepening its roots with every passing year. That is perhaps why, of all my claims, the one that has elicited the most scepticism is the idea that young people have been especially critical of democracy.

For good reason, Americans and the British find it especially hard to believe that young people are most disaffected. After all, young people heavily leaned toward Hillary Clinton, the candidate of continuity, in the last US elections: among voters below the age of 30, 55% supported Clinton while only 37% supported Trump. The story of Brexit was very similar. Whereas two-thirds of pension-age Brits voted to leave the European Union, two-thirds of millennials voted for the status quo.

But the attraction of the young to political extremes has grown over time. In countries like Germany, the UK and the US, for example, the number of young people who locate themselves on the radical left or the radical right has roughly doubled over the course of the past two decades; in Sweden, it has increased by more than threefold. Polling data for populist parties bears out this story as well. While young people were less likely to vote for Trump or Brexit, they are much more likely to vote for antisystem parties in many countries around the world.

Marine Le Pen, for example, can count young people as some of her most fervent supporters. In this, France is hardly an exception. On the contrary, polls have found similar results in countries as varied as Austria, Greece, Finland, and Hungary.

One possible explanation for why a lot of young people have grown disenchanted with democracy is that they have little conception of what it would mean to live in a different political system. People born in the 1930s and 40s experienced the threat of fascism as children or were raised by people who actively fought it. They spent their formative years during the cold war, when fears of Soviet expansionism drove the reality of communism home to them in a very real way. When they are asked whether it is important to them to live in a democracy, they have some sense of what the alternative might mean.

Millennials in countries such as the UK or the US, by contrast, barely experienced the cold war and may not even know anybody who fought fascism. To them, the question of whether it is important to live in a democracy is far more abstract. Doesn’t this imply that, if they were actually faced with a threat to their system, they would be sure to rally to its defence?

I’m not so sure. The very fact that young people have so little idea of what it would mean to live in a system other than their own may make them willing to engage in political experimentation. Used to seeing and criticising the (very real) injustices and hypocrisies of the system in which they grew up, many of them have mistakenly started to take its positive aspects for granted.

Ever since philosophers began to think about the concept of self-rule, they have put particular emphasis on civic education. From Plato to Cicero, and from Machiavelli to Rousseau, all of them were obsessed with the question of how to instil political virtue in the youth.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the small band of patriots who dared establish a new republic in America at a time when self-government had all but vanished from the earth also thought very hard about how to convey their values to the generations that would come after them. What, George Washington asked in his Eighth Annual Address, could be more important than to pass civic values down to “the future guardians of the liberties of the country”?


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