What is populism and what does it mean for the future of capitalism?

From Rust Belt America through Brexit-riven Britain to Greece, Poland and Hungary, the rise of a movement that is anti-establishment and anti-status quo is shattering previously unchallenged assumptions about democracy, capitalism and globalisation. Political parties as diverse as Syriza, Podemos, the Five Star Movement, Golden Dawn, Alternative für Deutschland, the Sweden Democrats, the Danish People’s Party, UKIP, and elements of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party have all been variously described as populist, or at the very least prone to adopting populist tropes in their rhetoric. What is populism and how can it link these disparate voices from across the political spectrum?

At first glance, there seem to be at least as many differences as there are similarities. The rhetoric of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump is rooted in nativism and isolationism, while Jeremy Corbyn rejects nationalist sentiments and embraces international solidarity. All rail against a ‘rigged’ system yet disagree about whom it is rigged in favour of. 

In his essay ‘Ur-Fascism’, Umberto Eco grapples with the problem of defining fascism given the many differences between the various national fascist movements in the twentieth century. Nazism, for example, was fundamentally neo-pagan and anti-Christian, while Falangism in Spain placed a strong emphasis on Roman Catholic identity. Eco observes that:

[T]he fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change. The notion of fascism is not unlike Wittgenstein’s notion of a game. A game can be either competitive or not, it can require some special skill or none, it can or cannot involve money. Games are different activities that display only some “family resemblance,” as Wittgenstein put it.

Individual iterations of a pattern (A and C) may thus appear to have little in common in isolation, but put together with other examples they acquire a group identity by transitivity — A shares some features with B, which shares features with C, and so on. It is easier to define populism in these terms rather than describe a fixed set of shared characteristics. Nevertheless, it is possible to outline some features which can be observed in most populist movements and so define what Eco might have called ‘Ur-Populism’:

  1. Populists, argues Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, consider society to be separated into two homogenous, antagonistic groups: the common people, who are presented as decent, honest and hardworking, and the corrupt elite. The political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart argue that populists distrust elites and institutions, viewing ‘ordinary people’ as homogeneous, inherently good, and guided by common sense and collective wisdom.

  2. Populist politicians argue that politics should be an expression of this volonté générale (general will) and position themselves as the authentic interpreters of the will of the silent majority.

  3. Populists view themselves as providing common-sense, simple answers to questions that have been overcomplicated by the elite out of self-interest. A characteristic trait of populism, therefore, is scepticism of ‘experts’, who are viewed as elitist and undemocratic. 

  4. This intolerance of dissenting points of view means that populism is essentially majoritarian rather than pluralistic. Diversity of opinion, argues the Princeton academic Jan-Werner Müller, is distrusted as a tool of the elite. Dissenting views are thus seen as attempts to thwart the will of the people that need to be crushed rather than accommodated. 

But another way of looking at populism is that it is not, in fact, a political ideology at all, but an attitude towards authority that can colour any political ideology. Populists see a world run by shadowy elites in their own interests — this much unites Trump supporters on the right and Syriza voters on the left — but there is no consistent populist narrative explaining who these elites are and why they exist. As a result, as Cas Mudde observes, populism is a tendency that exists within other ideologies, such as nationalism or nativism on the right and socialism and anti-capitalism on the left.

This gives populist politicians the uncanny ability to cut across traditional political divides and tilt traditional politics on its axis. In Britain, support for leaving the European Union is often presented as a right-wing phenomenon rooted in xenophobia and isolationism but it also found support among some left-wing voters (the so-called ‘Lexiteers’) who viewed the EU as a bastion of neoliberal capitalism. In the US, an estimated 12 per cent of Bernie Sanders supporters ended up voting for Trump, who was ostensibly Sanders’ political opposite on the traditional left-right political axis.

What implications does this have for capitalism? The market economy depends on stable political and economic conditions as these give businesses and individuals faith that contracts will be honoured and that private property will not be arbitrarily expropriated. More than this, a vibrant capitalist economy thrives within a liberal culture in which dissenting opinions, innovation, and ‘creative destruction’ are celebrated rather than denigrated. Although the forces of competition create winners and losers in the short term even as they increase prosperity for society as a whole, in a healthy and well-managed capitalist society those who lose out from technological progress are helped to retrain so that they can contribute in new ways.

Populism undermines these conditions since it encourages people to think about complex issues in emotional and ideological terms, to distrust new ways of doing things, to view dissenting opinions as threats rather than opportunities, and to view trade and negotiation as zero-sum games. Anger at elites can easily turn into anger at the market system as a whole, especially if people feel that markets are rigged in favour of a wealthy and powerful minority. This feeling may indeed be justified: there are many reasons to believe that the capitalist system in wealthy western countries such as the UK and the US is not working as it should, as this project shall explore. But the irony of anti-capitalist populism is that by dividing people into conflicting groups it undermines the liberal values that are essential for capitalism to work properly, further entrenching the divide.

Fixing capitalism will require us to return to the liberal values of competition, rational debate, and tolerance of dissent. There are legitimate grievances with the way in which markets are currently run in the UK but these are not because of outside forces that must be overthrown but the result of the failure of government and regulators to keep up with the pace of change in today’s rapidly evolving economy. The problems of stagnant income growth, unaffordable housing, the changing nature of employment and corporate tax evasion can be solved through informed public policy making. Only by reinvigorating capitalism can we put the genie of populism back in its bottle.