The Futility of Populism

The Contradictions Continue

On May 13 the Oval Office in DC was graced by the presence of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban is known for his defense of ‘Christian Europe’ against invading migrants along with the accompanying ‘virus of terrorism’ and for what he calls ‘illiberal democracy’, which includes such initiatives as restricting press freedom, undermining judicial independence, and shutting down Central Europe University, while circulating some obvious anti-Semitic propaganda around its founder George Soros. Donald Trump, as could be expected, gave Orban a grander reception than he receives in most European capitals, rambling:  ‘Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many ways. Highly respected. Respected all over Europe, probably like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s ok. That’s ok. You’ve done a good job, you’ve kept your country safe.’ Then adding ‘I know he’s a tough man, but he’s respected and he’s done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration. And you look at some of the problems that they have in Europe that are tremendous because they’re done it a different way than the Prime Minister.’

Of course, Orban is far from the first strongman to receive a red carpet in Washington. The list of such specimen who have gotten a warm reception at the White House is too numerous to count. The House of Saud has been an honored guest for decades. What brought the spotlight on this encounter is that Orban is mentioned as being part of a vast resurgent right-wing populism with which Trump himself is often grouped. Meanwhile days after Orban’s visit, the Brexit crisis finally brought down Theresa May with her Tory government in Britain still trying to square the circle on Brexit having already received two extensions in the process. Shortly after May’s announcement right-wing parties, including in Britain with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, made significant gains in the EU parliamentary elections.

Since the Brexit vote in June 2016 innumerable gallons of ink have been spilled on expanding right-wing populism, governments that bill themselves as everything from ‘nationalist’, along with its corollary ‘anti-globalist’, to ‘illiberal.’ Trump was elected in November 2016. Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency of the Philippines in that May. In Italy an alliance of the Five Star Movement and The League (formerly the Northern League) assumed power in May 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was convincingly elected in Brazil five months later. In Poland the Law and Justice Party won a parliamentary majority in 2015 (it previously was the largest party in parliament 2005-2007). Orban has been in power since 2010.

Like all narratives this one is prone to overstatement. On May 20, 2019 the New York Times had this on its front cover:

And in India, where the world’s biggest parliamentary election… the electorate seems poised to bring back Mr. Modi (Narendra Modi), extending the wave of victories by right-wing populists around the world… Around the world, it has become the age of the political big man, and no one disputes that Mr. Modi is the biggest force India has produced in decades.

Modi did indeed go on to win a landslide reelection on the back of Hindi nationalism and in the aftermath of a military confrontation with Pakistan. Yet Hindi nationalism has been building in India for decades and tension with Pakistan has been endemic since the partition back in 1947. Can a strong comparison truly be found with Trumpism in the U.S.? Such differences stand out between all these figures. Duterte and Bolsonaro were elected in the midst of very bad crime waves on ‘law and order’ platforms that emphasize ‘zero tolerance’ for alleged criminals and drug users. Both rail against ‘feminism’, ‘social justice’, and ‘socialism’ when convenient, which is often, especially in targeting the opposition to their bloody crime fighting policies (Duterte recently proclaimed he ‘cured himself’ of being gay, Bolsonaro publically proclaimed the importance of Brazil not being a ‘gay tourism paradise’). Immigration plays no part in their message. Bolsonaro pleaded ignorance on the economy, claiming only ‘superficial understanding’ and handing it off to University of Chicago trained economist Paulo Guedes as ‘Super Minister.’

Opposing Muslim immigration is the largest pillar of Orban’s and Polish President Andrezej Duda’s platform, their anti-EU rhetoric centering on negotiations during the migrant crisis of 2014-2015 and its aftermath. Their emphasis on sovereignty is in opposition to EU attempts to quota migrant settlement among EU countries. Orban’s government was successful in building a border fence along hundreds of miles of Hungary’s southern border. Orban also instituted a jobs program for his rural base, along with free school books, paid for partially by a tax increase. The Five Star/League coalition in Italy’s messaging also largely centers on anti-immigration, as does the appeal of the far-right Alternative for Germany which has made impressive gains since the migrant crisis. Trump too was elected on border security, with the same reactionary rhetoric about migrants, and he also brought a strong anti-free trade position to go along imagery about ‘American carnage’, occasional rants against political correctness, and appeals to ‘those were the days’ patriotism- infamously during the protests of NFL players during the national anthem.

Besides the noxious loudness of their collective personalities, along with perhaps the admiration of Steve Bannon, the one thread that runs through all of it is ‘anti-elitism.’ On the surface this translates to an obvious resentment of the influence that wealth has over governance. Trump ranted against the influence of Goldman Sachs, given the lucrative speaking fees it gave Hillary Clinton, before he appointed several Goldman figures to his cabinet. Yet the idea is vague and fluid enough to be extended in any direction.  Given this easy fluidity elites are those who favor everything from immigration to secularism to environmentalism to socialism. Hence the pejorative ‘liberal’ is often attached to ‘elites’ both for clarity and scorn’s sake. In fact ‘elite’ has more or less become a replacement for ‘liberal’, the elite aspect a sort of red meat to working class cultural conservatism- ‘not only do they think you’re stupid they have more money than you do.’

Predictively when it comes to practical results populism thus far has come up short. Bolsanaro’s poll numbers are in freefall and the Brazilian economy has flatlined. Duterte’s slaughter may be producing an impressive body count but history clearly shows that ‘wars on drugs’ no matter how brutal hardly put a dent in drug trafficking. Trump constantly railed against the U.S. trade deficit during his campaign. In 2018 the deficit reached an all-time high. While the number of migrants crossing the border has declined greatly since the early 2000s, the numbers during the Trump presidency have surged to the highest they’ve been in over a decade. In December 2018 the Italian government backed off its debt exploding budget proposals in the face of EU sanction threats. Currently it is toying with a pathetic ‘mini-bot’ (mini Bills of Treasury, essentially IOUs) program to reduce its debt. None of the ‘Euro-skeptic’ parties are campaigning to leave the EU and the recent EU parliamentary election, by no means the most significant of elections, more often a forum for simple protest votes, saw about an equal increase for left wing parties, such as the Greens, as populist parties. In fact the Euro-skeptics, such as Italy’s hard-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, often cloaked themselves under the banner of saving Europe rather than leaving. Hungary  and Poland have long been among the largest recipients of EU funding. Plus the European populist parties have their own divisions, primarily about the ‘Russian question’ with those parties in Western Europe, such as Marie Le Pen’s National Rally favoring warm relations with Vladimir Putin’s government and those in East cool to the idea.

The antagonists to the elites in populist imagery naturally would be the working and middle classes, any distinction between them simply blurring under the banner of ‘those who work.’ It is important to note that lack of distinction is due to the fact that this kind of producerism, defined as a conviction that the wealth produced in a society should belong to its producers, targets the allegedly parasitic poor masses just as much as it targets the rent seeking elites. The highpoint of the original Populist movement is often said to be the Omaha Platform which launched the Populist Party back in 1892. While the Omaha Platform properly railed against war and trusts there was the resolution that read:

That we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners; and we denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and demand the further restriction of undesirable emigration.

Much was made of Trump’s support from the white working class and though this proved to be overstated he did win his election through the Rust Belt. Much of the support from Brexit came from Britain’s deindustrialized heartland. In the context of working class displacement, low wages, capital flight, the endless quest for cheaper labor around the world for greater profits and shareholder value, the ‘globalism’ being railed against by the populists is simply another name for capitalism, hence the reason why these economic ‘nationalists’, who loudly wave the capitalist banner against the specter of creeping socialism, never quite get around to saying what it is they actually intend to implement. After all capitalists are perfectly free to argue that the elite doing what is in its interest is the key that unlocks prosperity for everyone but not to argue that capitalism is anything but elites ultimately doing what’s in their interest.

For instance, the economic power of China has become a pivotal issue in American politics. Indeed, if there is an actual proclaimed area of bipartisanship it is that China is an economic opponent whose progress has come at least partially, if not more so, at the expense of the United States.  A study by the Economic Policy Institute estimates that the explosive growth in the trade deficit since China’s entry into the WTO in December 2001 has cost the U.S. 3.4 million jobs, 74 percent of them in manufacturing.  Populists have seized on such numbers. An example comes from a piece in the New English Review titled ‘More Than a Trade War with China.’ There Brandon J. Weichert writes, under a subheading of ‘Death to American Manufacturing! All Hail China’s State Capitalism!:

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the first round of free trade deals was signed between American companies and China that would eviscerate the American manufacturing sector and help build China’s massive middle class. It was during this period that China also became the workshop of the world…There is a direct connection between the collapse of the American blue-collar community due to deindustrialization and the propulsive rise of the Chinese middle-class. Meanwhile, the coastal enclaves in the United States, where manufacturing was not as important… benefited most. It was in these bastions of prosperity where the policies to push those industrial jobs out of the American Midwest and into China were made—and these coastal metropolises rarely saw the negative downsides of these decisions. As American policy was increasingly determined by a conglomeration of corporatists, globalists, foreign-funded lobbyists, and airy academicians…

Obviously the author has never been to coastal enclaves such as New York, where deindustrialization caused the poverty rate to spiral in the last 40 years, or Baltimore where the effects of deindustrialization continue to devastate the city. The author’s use of ‘State Capitalism’ is instructive, clearly meant to distinguish it from ‘real’ capitalism thus save capitalism from itself from the criticism. If meant as a pejorative about state subsidies it obviously overlooks the fact that the U.S., much of Europe, and Japan heavily subsidize their agricultural sectors. Much is also made of technology transfers that China has required in joint ventures with multinational corporations. This again is largely theater: Last year when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked countries on how well they protected intellectual property China scored above Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, and the Philippines. According to the Heritage Foundation annual index of ‘economic freedom’ the Chinese government intervenes less than American allies in India, Vietnam, and Brazil.

No threat of violence or death, nor certainly any concern for human rights, caused the global economy to make China the world’s factory, only the promise of cheap labor and great profit. Technology deals with Chinese partners were considered well worth it. As if global capitalism would bypass the country with the largest amount of surplus labor and the largest consumer market. In the end the Trump administration’s tariff war vs China won’t accomplish much in terms of bucking these trends, nor will the other populists succeed in stemming the underlying causes of the discontent they are exploiting such as uneven development, capital flight, and migration. However deep the populist moment goes it will pass. The contradictions of global capitalism will remain.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Read other articles by Joseph.