Akeel Bilgrami | November 6, 2020 | New Statesman
The term “populism” is used to describe a diverse and even contradictory set of political tendencies. There are left-leaning populists, such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and right-wing populists, like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. There are pro-globalisation populists, including India’s Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and anti-globalisation populists, such as Poland’s Andrzej Duda and Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Historical populisms differed too: the Russian Narodniks of the mid-19th century and the American People’s Party, founded in 1892, were movements of the peasantry, whereas Peronism in Argentina sought to further the interests of the urban working class.
It is impossible to give a uniform account of contemporary populisms if we focus on the substance of their political positions. But it is possible to approach them in a broadly unified way if we focus instead on their structural causes.
To take the populism that drove Brexit as an example: while it is true that working-class dissatisfaction, especially in the deindustrialised communities of the Midlands and the north of England, was an underlying cause, this explanation is incomplete. Much ink has been spilt to explain what prompted the larger part of a population within a nation to sever itself from a supra-nation, in the form of the EU. Rather than rehearse that familiar and vexing question, let us ask a deeper one: why would the working people of Britain have wanted to be part of a supra-nation in the first place? What’s in it for them?
Suppose a worker in Nottingham or the Thames Estuary were to ask that question by first pondering the social safety nets and humane policies in education, health, housing, etc, adopted by the British government at the end of the Second World War. Suppose they were to ask: at what site were these policies devised and administered? They would have to answer: at the site of the nation. Suppose they were then to ask whether there has been any serious effort to conceive a supra-national site for such policies? What would the mechanisms to dispense welfare at a supra-national site even look like?
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