Populism versus Project Fear (design partially stolen from Richard Seymour)
by Peter Hill
in the OLR blog series on the Corbyn Campaign
This wasn’t supposed to happen. This reaction, from the people who think they ought to run politics, is becoming a familiar one. We saw it with the near-Yes vote in the Scottish referendum; we saw it with the OXI vote in the Greek one; we are seeing it now as a Corbyn victory becomes ever more likely. Sweaty palms sliding off the levers of power. Gasps of astonishment, from Blairite MPs, from Guardianistas, from businessmen, from European politicians and technocrats – then splutters of outrage, threats, pontificating, desperate scrambles to retrieve the situation, vindictiveness after the event. This wasn’t supposed to happen – But you can’t – How DARE they? Don’t they listen to the mainstream media, don’t they hear what the politicians, the banks, the financial analysts are saying? Has it not yet sunk into their thick skulls – that austerity, neoliberalism, imperialism are the only way, that There Is No Alternative, that any attempt at real change will only make things worse, that we know what is good for them better than they know themselves? That you just can’t win, in the 21st century, without the Murdoch press, without Barclays, Lord Sainsbury and the ECB?
‘Trusting people is risky because people can be wrong.’ The quote, by Patrick Diamond, comes from a book put out by the right-wing Labour think tank, Progress (funded by Lord Sainsbury) in 2010. It still seems to sum up the attitude of a particular kind of political manager: we, in our special-advisor, think-tank, policy-wonk world, know how politics works, we’ve got the connections and the knowledge, we’ve seen the polls and talked to the press, we’ve triangulated the angles and said the right spells, we’re in the loop for Christ’s sake and you lot aren’t, you don’t know the first thing about this so you’ll get it wrong, inevitably, tragically, and it’s our job to save you from that and from yourselves. It is the view from inside, from within the Westminster bubble. But the sound of bubbles bursting is all around us now, and in the place of that stuffy, constricted atmosphere, something else is opening up: what begins to look like a populist age.
Not definitively, of course: the power of the political and media machines, the threats of the financiers, remain strong. We are pushing our enemies harder than before, and we can see now, in the panic reactions – Scotland, Greece, now Labour – how strongly they are prepared to push back: the arsenal of scares and smears, the utter disregard for democracy when it votes the ‘wrong’ way. When ‘Project Fear’ scrambles back to its feet it will want blood – witness the punishment being meted out to Greece. This is where we still are: within the struggle on the one hand to break out of the old bureaucratic, behind-the-scenes kind of politics, and on the other to put the new left-populist movements firmly back in their box.
Lord Mandelson summons the forces of darkness
There are bigger dangers further on, too, if the other side gives up on Project Fear and embrace the populist age – for this can benefit the UKIPs and the Golden Dawns as well as the SYRIZAs and Corbyns. The enemies of the future may not be the airbrushed machine politicians, but the charismatic ‘mavericks’ who claim to offer something different. And populism poses difficulties within our own movements: most obviously that of the gap between a resurgent but amorphous radical mood and the single figurehead or core group around which it clusters. How can this gap be filled, and an organic, democratic link between leadership and grassroots forged, rather than the echo-chamber of demagogy? Do we have the time and the resources, in this fragile moment, to lay the foundations of a strong and democratic movement, with staying power for the fights ahead? Or will it all tail off into muffled Labour-Party infighting, recrimination and compromise? And there are the older questions. How to prevent the familiar pattern of relapse into disillusion and apathy: the grim determined core soldiering on while the numbers fade away? How to maintain or revive the strengths of the old kind of Left while embracing the potential of the new kind of activism? What about party lines, alliances, pluralism, Scotland? Are the dangers of international ‘encirclement’ by finance capital too great, anyway, for any single left-populist national government? (See Corbyn’s answer to this question here.)
There is an impressive sense of hope now on the English left, a willingness to work together, a sense of common purpose. But the real story of the Corbyn Campaign is not about the ‘usual suspects’ of the organised left at all. It is about its power to engage people who are utterly uninterested in the old machine politics, that drab spectacle of ‘the bland leading the bland’. It is this that makes this moment, in England, new and precious – an equivalent, perhaps, to the period of the independence campaign in Scotland. It is an opportunity, perhaps a fleeting one, for radical politics to break out of the familiar activist ghetto. Project Fear is on the run, we have an opening, a breach – the feeling is palpable – but we need to think hard about how to exploit it.
Peter Hill is a DPhil student working on Arabic literature and history at Oxford University, and an Associate Editor of the Oxford Left Review.
OXI rally, Syntagma Square, Athens, 29 June (Wikipedia)