By Kumar David –
Modi surges, Trump purges, Durante splurges and Europe diverges: Divergent trends in New-Populism
It took time and dogged persistence to internationalise the neologism New-Populism (NP); it was a harder sell than the Single Issue Common Candidate slogan because the latter was local argot. NP is now accepted after Durante-Brexit-Trump, Geert Wilders’ defeat in Holland, and not quite Modi. Sadly, the hoi polloi has little grasp of the nuances underlying the term. Yes, “far-right” has been in vogue in Europe for over a decade to denote a trend in France (National Front, NFF), Britain (Independence Party, UKIP), Denmark (Party for Freedom, PvV), Austria (Freedom Party of Austria FPO) and others. But it is simplistic and needs to be deepened.
It is theoretically erroneous to call them fascist or semi-fascist; they are not. European fascism ravaged the Continent in the particular circumstances of the inter-war years; neither social, nor economic, nor political, nor cultural conditions now exist for its recurrence. Sometimes NP seems to sail close to a fascist wind, Rodrigo Durante for example; sometimes it has a more looney than Mussolini ring as with Donald Trump. I have emphasised the difference between NP and fascism for long, but only now has the penny dropped as empirical evidence and divergences between NPs becomes evident even to the politically near sighted.
We need to define what we mean when we say right-wing; is Modi more right-wing than his Congress predecessor? All NPs manifest a pro-capitalist economic orientation; they possess certain social and nationalist features; anti-immigration national conservatism, anti-liberalism, anti-globalism, Euroscepticism in Europe, cultural revanchism (in Austria and Germany) and in the case of Trump but not France’s Marine Le Pen, an economic plan to cut social welfare and medical coverage for the poor and ladle out tax breaks to the well to do to pay for it. Crucially, they all ride a wave of frustration with government, revulsion of politicians, rebuff of ruling elites, rejection of the prevailing economic order and repugnance of the ethnic “other” be it colour, faith or language. These features give them commonality as an early Twenty-first Century singularity.
But this is not fascism. What marks off fascism from all other state forms is that it pulverises every other institution. Parties, trade unions, citizen’s organisations, learned societies and churches are crushed. Where they are allowed to exist as shell entities they are a mere extension of the Fuhrer, Il Duce, Gestapo or the Italian corporate state. The characteristic, the defining feature of inter-war fascism is that it pulverised every organisation that was independent of the fascist state. This is far different from Tsarist autocracy, pre-capitalist absolutist monarchies, Marcos, the one-party state in China, and the worst that MR–Gota would have been had the former been re-elected. (MR is Lanka’s version of New-Populism). Others that bear characteristics similar to fascism are Stalinism, Sadam Hussein, North Korea, and Gorilla military regimes that littered Latin America in the days when Pax Americana reigned supreme.
The spectrum of New-Populism (NP)
It is an oversimplification to rank NP movements on a linear scale from more centrist to more far-right, but crude measures are starting points. I suggest that Modi is centrist and mass-populist and Trump a fake populist much further to the right. Durante and Le Penn (if she is elected) inhabit the centre ground. Modi has no choice but to be homo economicus (economic man); history will judge him, and his legacy will depend, on how well he delivers to ‘the common man’ on the economic front. His policy thrust is ameliorating poverty, improving mass standards of living and making India modern and moderately prosperous. His survival depends on authentic populism in the proper sense of the term. It is his anti-Muslim communal depravity that pushes him, morally, into the genre of ugly populism. His choice of Yogi Adityanath as UP Chief Minister confirms this.
Modi has the psychological challenge of economic success in China hanging over him. China pulled 300 million people out of poverty in 30+ years and maintained double-digit growth rates for two decades. This is impossible for Modi to match, though he is likely to win a second term, but he must achieve a goodly fraction of this to consolidate his legacy. This priority and pledge, allow Modi to bend to the pressure of Indian big capital only within limits. These reasons make Modi a centrist sensitive to mass pressure. Demonetisation though a gamble was a political victory in the eyes of the masses; the moneyed and propertied classes abhorred it. My Indian and some of my Lankan friends misread these events because the demonetisation-populism nexus was too complex for them to grasp.
Trump is different. I don’t mean his idiosyncrasies, his psychological instability, his lies and the possibility that he may be impeached before the end of his term. En passant I need to mention that friends have cautioned that Trump still has a firm grip on the extremist, fed-up-with-the-establishment base, that propelled him to power and I have been warned that it is too early to write off a second term for Trump. Yes, but this does not alter the fact that he is a fake opportunist-populist and his scuttled healthcare bill and recently unveiled budget will hit the poor and throw money into the arms of the rich. His fictitious populism is a cloak for a capital friendly strategy; his is a different category of populism from Modi’s.
The font of Durante’s popularity is his killing machine. Surprisingly nearly all working class Philippinos have no qualms about eliminating 7000 drug pushers and users by vigilante squads egged on by the state. Durante has promised to go after corruption next. The drug culture in the Philippines is as deep as in Mexico and corruption is nearly as widespread as in Sri Lanka. (Big time crooks in Lanka need to thank the gods that Srisena and Ranil are so sloppy). Preoccupied with his adventures, Durante has no economic programme other than some infrastructure spending and tax cuts for the top end. The constitution entitles him to only one six-year term so he will depart leaving the economic landscape much as he found it. He is a Robbin Hood populist.
Le Penn is unlikely to win the presidency but some hypothetical remarks are in order. The mass base of NP movements in Europe lie in the traditional working class, marginalised by advancing technology, globalisation and the moral bankruptcy of capitalism which has thrown it on the garbage dump. The same is true in the US states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But a Le Penn presidency will not turn in favour of capital or against masses welfare benefits as sharply as Trump has done. Why? The Republicans, big capital and a diehard rural lump does not influence the National Front in the way that backward America constitutes Trump’s base. Actually the French NF is an urban party with little rural support. The point is that Le Penn is neither as far right nor as looney as Trump. She will however match him and Modi in hatred of Muslims.
These four sketches are signposts as befits a short essay. Readers can reflect, elaborate and build a fuller picture.
Disappearing Left-Right confrontation
The rise of New-Populism has hollowed out the traditional left-right divide at home and abroad. Observe that JO+MR versus UNP+Liberals has replaced both the labour versus capital and the JVP+Left versus bourgeoisie storyline. Instead of left-right and socialism-capitalism skirmishes the next five years will see a shift of the principal debate to the following dialectics.
- Balancing culture, ethnicity and race against openness, pluralism and cultural globalism
- Balancing identity concerns and dread of immigrants with an internationalist mindset
- Defining the role of the state in the economy while ensuring innovation and investment
- Managing capitalist wealth creation to inhibit gross inequality of wealth and income
- Rationalising nationalist anxieties so as to benefit from globalisation and technology
- Devolving administrative power while retaining efficacy and effectiveness
- Comprehending that modern social and class dynamics are encapsulated in these issues
New-Populism has thrown a challenge to established ways of thinking. Though crass, ugly and repugnant it may be in its Trump avatar, NP is a reflection of crisis in the real world. But NP is only the messenger of a deeper sickness; that is the (capitalist) world order itself. I put the C word in brackets to appease my liberal readers since the sentence can stand without it. My Marxist friends will say, approvingly or otherwise, that my bullet points are old wine in new bottles. Exactly! Only new bottles can capture the style of the times. The left finds it awkward to talk about the first two points; but it’s time to set aside embarrassment and take them on, head first. Alas the left in Lanka, JVP included, is lost; it is too mule headed to appreciate that unifying into a single party is the only way it can climb out of the pit of irrelevance it has sunk into.