Monday, 12 December 2016

Populist Superficiality

Beyond the Balrog

John O'Sullivan has written an insightful piece in National Review Online in which he analyses the present brouhaha over the "wave of populism" allegedly sweeping Europe.  It turns out that the label "populism" is like using a six inch brush to paint a Faberge egg.
Europe has gotten tired of being anguished about Donald Trump and has now moved on to being anguished about itself. The question being asked by all the Big Think editorials and news magazine programs runs: “Is Europe going populist too?”  . . .

“Populism” is a scare word meant to delegitimize rebellions against political establishments and mainstream elites. It draws together under the same big, scary tent parties and causes that have a little in common otherwise. There is no “populist” ideology that unites these various dissidents the way Marxist ideology united international socialists for more than a century.
What all these manifestations of "populism" have in common is a desire to change the status quo--but the precise character of the status quo differs somewhat from country to country within Europe.  Thus "populism" can look like a multi-headed hydra.  The Establishment fears and loathes every one of the heads--and that is about all they have in common.

Brexit, for instance, was a campaign to recover Britain’s status as a self-governing democracy. Opinion polls showed that a clear majority of Leavers supported it for that reason. It was backed by members of all British parties — including UKIP, which, however, is not a protectionist party. For practical purposes, Nigel Farage is a Thatcherite in economics, and so were most of the Tories backing Leave. They don’t overlap ideologically with the Five Star movement (a fun-anarchist party of the Left whose main ideologist is the late Dario Fo, the author of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay), nor with Hungary’s far-right Jobbik, nor with the welfare-protectionist Danish People’s party. Most of these parties have only the occasional issue in common with each other or with the Trump insurgents.
What, then, is going on?  There are a few broad brush generalisations which O'Sullivan believes to be accurate and representative of what is actually going down in Europe.  One of these is a continent-wide decline of the Left. This, however, is not just a European phenomenon--it is more widespread than that.
What is most striking in almost all European countries is the decline of the Left – a Left that according to conventional thinking should have benefited enormously from the 2008 financial crash. Instead the Left has vanished almost entirely in parts of eastern and central Europe – notably Poland, which now has holds electoral contests between an urban liberal party and a rural conservative one. Hungary is only slightly more favorable to the Left: A dominant conservative government there faces an opposition divided between a weak Left coalition and a rising far-right populist party. And the Left is weak almost everywhere else – with the perhaps significant exception of Germany.
O'Sullivan suggests that France provides a very instructive case study.  Both major parties have followed essentially socialist, big-government policies for decades.  With the election of Hollande to the presidency, however, he attempted to apply traditional socialist solutions to the general economic malaise in France, and made things much worse in the process.  Essentially, this has ruined the credibility of both major parties.
It is the forthcoming French election, however, that offers the most instructive example. Both parties have been officially committed to statist and interventionist economic policies known as the “social model” for several decades. But both have found it an obstacle to the economic policies their supporters wanted and tried to move it slightly towards either more welfare socialism or more (market) reformism.

Neither could succeed – in part because of France’s membership of the euro and the EU. Hollande brought in a 35-hour week, but he had to abandon it because it was adding to the unemployment that he had promised to bring down. He could neither devalue a non-existent franc nor bring in tariffs to protect the market share of industries that were damaged by the resulting labor costs.
The upshot is that the blue-collar segment of the electorate has tuned in more and more to the National Front.  But the Republican Party has been moving more and more to espouse traditional economic liberalism.  Both developments are deemed populist--yet they are ideologically very different and distinct.
These recurring failures, however, have gradually produced a new party system. Blue-collar workers (and others) have moved towards the National Front, which has taken traditional welfarism and economic protectionism from the Left and wedded it to a tough nationalism, opposition to multiculturalism, and control of immigration, all expressed in the rhetoric of revolutionary and republican France that was the national orthodoxy until yesterday. It was a package that neither the Socialists nor the mainstream Right — committed to Brussels, the euro, and supranationalism as both were — could seemingly match.

While this was happening, however, the Right in opposition recovered some of its nerve, delved into French history before the Revolution, and in the recent party primary selected a candidate who evokes French traditions both older and different from the red cap. Fillon will now fight the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in next year’s election.

A former prime minister, Fillon combines two qualities very rarely found in French politics (at least together in the one person): He is both a candid market reformer who doesn’t disdain the label “Thatcherite” and a bold Catholic traditionalist who opposes same-sex marriage and rejects the political correctness that has restrained the French Right from defending the conservative moral values of many of its supporters.
Labels like "populist" and deploying broad brush generalizations do not help much.  Developments in France appear to reflect far more French history and culture, rather than an international wave of populism
. . . Fillon is getting a warm welcome from voters and now looks like the man who will emerge as president in the second round. He may be tapping into sentiments that have not been taken seriously since 1848 or even 1789. Fro the first time in a long time, two traditions in French politics have a champion who is unambiguously on their side: In economics, the liberal tradition of Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant, and in morality, the Catholic tradition of provincial Frarnce (where, not coincidentally, Fillon is a longstanding local mayor).

So the presidential election next year will be between a Catholic traditionalist and Thatcherite, representing a conservative Right, and a radical egalitarian nationalist, representing a populist Right. Strip away the contemporary trappings of television debates, polls, and focus groups, and the smoke lifts to reveal a battle between Jacobins and the peasants of the Vendee.
We continue to believe that the Eurocrat "experiment" will fail.  It will fall apart.  Progressivism has only one solution to everything at the end of the day--more central government control, rule, regulations, and approvals.  The more centralist power grasped, the more bizarre, inept, and stupid it manifests itself to be.  In the end, the only driving animus remains the soaring ambition and gross arrogance of the European Commissioners and their vast army of attendant bureaucrats.

Like the Balrog on the bridge at Khazad-dûm, it shall not pass.

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