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Left-wing populist air castle

The populist manifesto
Swedish Göran Greider and Åsa Linderborg present an idealistic project, but ignore both today's economic context and significant historical criticism in their defense work for left-wing populism.


The dramatic political developments of recent years – from Brexit to Trump and the dramatic collapse of major government parties in countries such as France, Spain and Italy – are often analyzed as an expression of a right-wing populist backlash in the wake of the financial crisis. Large sections of those who bother to vote at all refuse to vote for traditional parties or candidates and protest representative democracy by voting against the system. They vote populist and turn their back on a political system that, across partisanship and the traditional right – left distinction, seems to have accepted neoliberal deregulation in favor of multinational corporations as the only viable policy. And that even after the financial crisis that did not result in any significant political self-criticism in the major government-supporting parties in the US and Europe. 

Populism – both the problem and the solution?

Over the past few years, neoliberal hegemony has been challenged by various parties and movements that stage themselves as opponents of the system, the so-called populists. Neoliberalism now has severe difficulties in reproducing itself politically (through electoral campaigns) and is forced to resort to technocrat governments (as in both Greece and Italy) or replace globalization with ethnonationalist rhetoric in an attempt to curb the dissatisfaction of the people. Wherever we look in the Old West, time stands in the sign of populism, with xenophobia across the board. In the United States, Trump is not only busy fighting the press and the FBI, at the same time handing out giant tax breaks to business and the very rich and imposing duties on foreign goods. In the US, neoliberalism is combined with protectionism in an unprecedented bizarre mix with a crazy Ubu Roi at the helm. It is not much better in Western Europe, where the large parties are in many places freely dropped or severely challenged by parties that present themselves as system critical and promise to protect the national communities.

The identity politics of the new left have alienated the workers and left them to the right wing, Greider and Linderborg claim.

With the book The populist manifesto the two Swedish journalists and authors Göran Greider and Åsa Linderborg intervene in this development. They strike a blow for left-wing populism, which must not only take up the fight against right-wing populism, but more importantly, get rid of the neoliberalism that is itself responsible for the current strength of populism. Populism is thus not only a problem, but also the solution, it turns out. The goal is to replace right-wing populism with left-wing populism. As they put it: "Populism signals a break from the market liberal paradigm." It's just a matter of giving populism a different direction. Greider and Linderborg want to use the (right) populist opposition to what they call market liberalism to breathe new life into social democracy and again make it a popular project that can bring the working class together. 

151 theses

Greider and Linderborg's book consists of 151 theses and is equal parts analysis of the ongoing development, right-wing populism's critique of market liberalism and the beginning of the formulation of a political program in the form of a left-wing populism that can reintroduce the social issue and replace identity politics with (working) class politics. The description of the emergence of right-wing populism as conditioned by the gradual dismantling of the post-war welfare society over the past 40 years, with a special focus on Sweden, is not uninteresting. The same goes for the analysis of neoliberalism. But unfortunately, both are rooted in an all-too-brief analysis of the political-economic developments of the second half of the 20th century. Greider and Linderborg have no eye at all for the structural economic constraints that set the framework for political choices, and they believe that everything is a matter of politics and ideology. If we now appeal to the people in a different way than the right-wing populists – in Sweden the Sweden Democrats, in Denmark the Danish People's Party, in Norway the Progress Party – then we can re-establish the post-war wage-productivity compromise where the capitalist state and labor unions created the national welfare state and transformed the communist threat into collective agreements, welfare and consumption (for the working classes of the Western national democracies). Greider and Linderborg are so enthusiastic about the post-war welfare state that they not only overlook the fact that the period's major reforms were implemented to avoid revolution, but also neglect that the workers never get what they fight for. May '68 is a good example where the dream of autonomy turned into precarious work and stress-inducing individualized self-optimization.

It is a distinctly nostalgic project the authors formulate.

Fighting against Trump and the Sweden Democrats for the right to lead the trip back to the 1950s seems to me a little socialist. And it is at least difficult to see what it has to do with the abolition of the nation state and the money economy. That was the program Marx and Engels presented in their time The Communist Manifesto, with which Greider and Linderborg initially compare their populist manifesto.

Back to class and nation state

However, the two Swedish authors are somewhat less ambitious than their predecessors. The individualisation of market liberalism and the ethnonationalism of right-wing populism must be combated with the notion of the national working class. In other words, we must return to class and the nation state. The identity policy of the new left has alienated the workers and left them to the right wing, they write. The task is thus to take over or win the National Democratic ideological interpellation, as Greider and Linderbog's source of inspiration Chantal Mouffe would put it. The Social Democrats must speak to the workers, to the national working class, just as Jeremy Corbyn does in Britain. Corbyn shows the way. He has taken a stand against Blair's third path and its kneeling for market liberalism in favor of a renewed class struggle rhetoric that speaks of social inequality and stagnant wages. This is the way Greider and Linderborg want. The worker and the nation must again form the cornerstones of a new (or old) social democracy that must turn down the worst racism a little and turn up the state's control of capitalism (but not try to abolish it).

It is a very idealistic (as opposed to materialistic) project presented by Greider and Linderborg, in the sense that the political is narrowed to ideological choices detached from an economic context. But it is also a distinctly nostalgic project they formulate. It is as if they would rather forget the important critique formulated by left-wing communism and the new left during the 1950s and 1960s of social democracy and Leninism that would give the worker control over the capitalist mode of production rather than dismantle it (in favor of communist distribution). Social democracy and Leninism hypostasized the industrial (white, male) workers and just wanted to take over the management of capitalism and not abolish it.

The basis for a reform of capitalism has disappeared

However, the political-economic development since the 1970s has removed the socio-historical conditions of opportunity for post-war welfare societies. The welfare state was dependent on a growing economy. It enabled it to absorb workers and expand. In the last three decades, however, the advanced economies have become increasingly smaller and can therefore not absorb workers but throw them out of the economy. This is the background to the long neoliberal emergency landing where social reproduction has been spared and the state's repressive side has been turned upside down in the form of surveillance, anti-terrorism and tight immigration policy. 

In the United States, neoliberalism is combined with protectionism in an unprecedented bizarre mix.

Even if the working class has a future as middle-class consumers ahead of it – and it will probably be in China and India – then the foundation for a reform of capitalism has disappeared. The dream of transforming the local working classes into a universal middle class is dead. And the choice now stands between more exploitation and the structural violence it entails, or a transgression of capitalism. Only a radical transformation of Western capitalist civilization as we know it can curb the swampy greed of capital from destroying the planet and all of us. Unfortunately, reformism is no longer an option. 

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Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.

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