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he weather has settled after the howling wind and thrashing rain that accompanied the UK general election held on 12 December 2019–– the first election to be held in the month of December since 1923. The oppositional parties are taking time to reflect on this decisive Conservative majority. There is a general feeling that things are looking bleak. Between the intensification of climate emergencies in the world and climate-change deniers in power, it is difficult to imagine what kind of world is emerging and what forms of resistance are best placed to break through the politics of populism. However, perhaps the failure of the opposition in reigning in right-wing English nationalism at this general election can remind us that there are ways of being political beyond populism.
Writing about the shift to the right in 1979, just before the general election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power, Stuart Hall predicted that the new ‘authoritarian populism’ would lead to ’a new balance of forces, the emergence of new elements…new political configurations, new programmes and policies’ (1979: 15). Indeed it did. Yet in the early 1980s, Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques (1983) argued that whilst Thatcherism had an electoral majority, it never had a ‘popular groundswell’ of support. In January 2020, the Conservatives have been in power since 2010; this is the fourth time they have secured a Conservative Prime Minister, in this case with 43.6% of the vote (as against Labour’s 32.2%). But what the Conservatives represent has changed substantially in that time, with three different people serving as leaders, the party modifying its public stance on austerity in response to rising levels of inequality, and wrestling over its response to the decision in 2016 that the UK should leave the European Union.
The political struggles in the UK have also taken place in relation to the surge of populist movements in several countries worldwide, namely right-wing movements that seek to extend military power and repudiate the idea of ‘the people’ as ethnically and culturally plural. As International Relations theorist Cynthia Weber (2017) describes, they mobilize resentment towards ‘women, queers, people of color, people with disabilities, and migrants’ – those deemed as polluting the ‘culturally homogenous ordinary people’. In the UK, this movement has authorized itself around the claim that ‘the people’ want to leave the European Union. This poses a problem for oppositional movements, as making arguments for a cosmopolitan politics, a supra-national account of citizenship, and the movement of people across borders is now equated with rejecting the view of ‘the people’. However, the response to that quandary cannot be to return to accounts of people with roots (who do not move), who live in communities (that do not change), and who are somehow positioned as outside of power (rather than entangled within power’s styles and tactics).
Populist movements emerge from a disenchantment with ‘politics as usual’ (Panizza, 2005: 9). Just as Hall described in 1979, they involve a change in the terms of political discourse and of previous identity categories. Although ‘populism’ has meant different things in other historical contexts––such as Latin America in the 1930s and 1940s–– Jacques Rancière defines the current politics of populism along three lines. He argues that populist movements i) use a style that addresses the people directly, going around the usual channels of communication; ii) set up politics as a struggle between the elite and the rest; and iii) channel an ‘identitarian rhetoric’ that is for the people – and therefore (implicitly or explicitly) against outsiders. In this election, this included Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, refusing to carry out a long interview with the BBC, as party leaders have all traditionally done, and refusing to appear on panel debates between representatives of all the political parties. These decisions did not dent his appeal. The Conservatives argued that they did not want to participate in a format that is ‘tired and broken’. On this, they had a point. Appreciating the ways in which the languages and styles of doing politics are shifting, Channel 4 News, in its leadership debate, replaced the missing figure of Boris Johnson with an ice sculpture––a symbol of the climate emergency. Their shrewd response acknowledged how affective style was outplaying reason-based critique (Anderson, 2017). It also recognized that politics involves connecting with people on the basis of more than reason: it requires story-telling, mobilization and imagination.
Whilst there is an overlap between populism and some of the founding ideas of ‘bourgeois democracy’ (De Genova, 2017), as representing ‘the people’ is what democracies are designed to do, populism’s way of talking about ‘the people’ is nevertheless significantly different. It allows for very little movement, disagreement and questioning of who the people are. Yet in this election, oppositional parties were drawn into this framing of politics as a struggle between the elite and the rest, and occasionally reached for an ‘identitarian rhetoric’. This included urging us to ‘Vote against the establishment’ (the Labour Party) and asking whether we were ‘Sick of Westminster chaos?’ (Plaid Cymru). This may have made some people feel included, but it excluded those who did not see themselves in narratives of a pure opposition. Both the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru toyed with ideas about the people as unmoving, constant and wholesome, borrowing ideas about places ‘left behind’ from power, either ‘up north’ or ‘in wales’. It suggested it was possible to resurrect a politics of class / identity and bypass the problem that these categories are also racialised constructs (Shilliam, 2018). Yet these categories, narratives and the account they offer of power and resistance bears little relation to how people live, work, make their lives meaningful and build alternatives. Who wants to identify themselves as from a passive, unmoving class / identity whose only hope is for a party that will come along and speak for them? In this dreary context, the idea of the people as plural, educated, experienced, creative and active, as well as crucially, made up of differences largely disappeared. Whilst others have argued that populism does not align with any particular programme for government and so it can be claimed by a left-wing politics (Mouffe, 2018), we need to remind ourselves that a politics of transformation does not have to work within these terms. Oppositional movements can also focus their efforts on recovering other ways of being political.
The strategic use of populism
What the opposing parties’ rhetoric in this election demonstrated is how far populism has come in determining the terms of debate. On this point, the French sociologist Éric Fassin argues that there are problems in making strategic use of populism on the left. For him, it represents both a political and a tactical problem. First, he claims it assumes we can convert ‘far right populists into left-wing voters’. But in the effort to lure these voters, ‘you will try to avoid antagonising them on issues such as immigration or minority rights’. Such issues will get deferred as best addressed after the election. Second, he posits it as a tactical mistake, as a vast amount of energy is poured into persuading those voters who might be tempted by the right rather than winning over other constituencies, such as non-voters. What we might add to this analysis is that a political solution based around a territorialised identity plainly also fails to address the geographies of how people work, live, love, struggle and experience life. It may be a strategy, but it has no long-term vision. Must we commit to an identity to build a progressive movement?
What the oppositional parties did in this case was return to their comfort zones, mobilising on behalf of their respective people (the ‘working people’, ‘real people’, ‘the people of Wales’, ‘the people of Scotland’). This meant that other people left the frame –– such as those that have been made to register for ‘settled status’ as their citizenship is called into question, and the populations described as refugees and asylum seekers that so many mobilized passionately on their behalf before the 2016 EU referendum. Thousands of people remain trapped on Greek islands living in detention camps as European governments refuse to agree what to do with people on the move. Europe, therefore, also excludes. What has to be opposed then, is a form of politics that pits one set of people against another, organises people into categories, and authorises some people as having more rights than others to live, work and dream. Even when a territorial frame is claimed as a tactical step towards getting through a general election, reaffirming accounts of people who live here (not there), and who are the same (not plural) obscures all the ways people already live and build support networks in plural and cosmopolitan ways.
Yet, there was always more at stake than institutional change. This can embolden us to think of all the everyday ways in which we can mobilize, align with and sustain other possible futures.
Imagining change in an age of anxiety
Reflecting on the ambitious manifestos presented by the oppositional parties in this election, with their large-scale economic programmes of transformation, I also wonder whether - in this age of anxiety - the electorate had had enough of large-scale promises of social change. Such proposals need political stability, they also require people to feel stable in their everyday lives. In this election people were presented with a choice between two temporal experiences: get something done in the short term or believe in something transformative over the longer term. When people already find it difficult to think how bills will be paid, should we really have expected them to sign up to changing everything rather than getting something done?
So much of what is presented to us as positions arrived at because of the force of identity are in fact the result partial tendencies, chance, and a complex mixture of habits, leanings, conversations and leaps of faith. Such an assemblage of emotions, histories and affects can absolutely be tipped in other directions.
Brexit will now be carried out on the 31st of January––though we are still no closer to learning what this might mean. What will remain beyond this bruising election is people who live, work and have desires that exceed and outpace national frameworks. As Étienne Balibar argues, ‘nationalist populism’ still has no answers: ‘it poses in unreal and discriminatory terms the question of place; that is, the question of the spaces in which we live, work, meet and struggle’. A globalised world has to work out questions of work, energy, health and social security at a global and local scale, and in relation to environmental urgencies, colonial histories and people’s meaningful cultural ties. The struggles against this new, and further shift to the right will have to be more imaginative and cosmopolitan than a revived British social contract––which is what was on offer as an alternative at this election. Just as Stuart Hall, in 1979, rejected the explanation that the right had ‘duped unsuspecting folk’ (Hall, 1979: 20), we need to consider people as ‘creatures of affect’ (Amin and Thrift, 2013: 15) and therefore moved by more than calculating reason, but also by more than their rooted, unchanging identities. We need to recover other forms, styles, structures and spaces of being political. This is not difficult: those alternative social and political initiatives, meeting places and attachments, between citizens and non-citizens are present in small scenes, unlikely alliances, and gentle acts of courage already around us. Overall, thinking and pursuing change is not as painful as a general election would have us believe.
Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift (2013) Arts of the Political, Durham: Duke University Press.
Ben Anderson (2017) ‘The affective styles of Donald Trump’, unpublished but available at academia.edu
Étienne Balibar (2017) ‘Populism in the American mirror’, Verso blog, 10 January, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3039-etienne-balibar-populism-in-the-american-mirror
Nicholas De Genova (2018), ‘Rebordering ‘the people’: Notes on theorizing populism’, The South Atlantic Quarterly 117 (2):357–74.
Éric Fassin (2018) ‘Left-wing populism. A legacy of defeat: Interview with Éric Fassin’, Radical Philosophy, June, with Martina Tazzioli, Peter Hallward, Claudia Aradau, https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/article/left-wing-populism
Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques (eds) (1990), ‘Introduction’, in S. Hall and M. Jacques, The Politics of Thatcherism (eds), Lawrence and Wishart in association with Marxism Today, London: 9-18.
Stuart Hall (1979) ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, Marxism Today, January: 14-20.
Hua Hsu (2019) ‘Affect Theory and the New Age of Anxiety’, The New Yorker, March 25, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/03/25/affect-theory-and-the-new-age-of-anxiety?verso=true
Chantal Mouffe (2019) For a Left Populism, London: Verso.
Francisco Panizza (2005), ‘Introduction: Populism and the Mirror of Democracy’ in Panizza (ed) Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, London: Verso.
Rancière, Jacques (2017) ‘Attacks on “Populism” seek to enshrine the idea that there is no alternative’, Verso Blog, 2 May.
Robbie Shilliam (2018) Race and the Undeserving Poor, Agenda Publishing.
Steven Swinford and Henry Zeffman (2019) ‘Boris Johnson won’t appear on Andrew Neil’s ‘tired’ interview show, Tories say’, The Times, December 6.
Weber, Cynthia (2017) ‘Right-Wing Populism, Anti-Genderism, And Real US Americans In The Age Of Trump’, The Disorder of Things Blog, July 6, https://thedisorderofthings.com/2017/07/06/right-wing-populism-anti-genderism-and-real-us-americans-in-the-age-of-trump/