Since the election of Donald Trump and Brexit referendum, ‘populism’ has dominated discussions about the state of global politics, even being revealed as word of the year in 2017 by the Cambridge Dictionary.
The connotations of ‘populism’ are negative and often associated with Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Pauline Hanson and others with an illiberal, nationalistic agenda. But as academic Cas Mudde points out, populism has been conflated with the radical right and nativism has been ‘whitewashed’ as populism. There are leading figures on the Left such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders who are seen as populists but from a progressive tradition.
In Populism Now! David McKnight makes the case for a progressive populism in Australia. He argues that neoliberalism has generated the conditions for populism and that unless progressives put forward their version, it will be right-wing populism that will take advantage.
McKnight lays out the failures of neoliberalism for working people in detail which make up most of the book. He lays out the extent of inequality in Australia, the power of the super wealthy and the fossil fuel and mining industries. The failures of privatisation such as the scandalous deregulation of Vocational Education and Training he mentions are all too well documented and we should all be concerned about its expansion into human services. For those following the Change the Rules campaign, the deregulated industrial relation system that has resulted in rampage wage theft and use of the migration system to undercut pay and conditions will not be new. Nor will the extent of tax avoidance by corporations and the oligopolistic and predatory nature of our banks be a surprise.
McKnight argues that challenging neoliberalism will require a broad-based movement to overcome the power of elites and corporations and a populist approach is how that broad-based coalition can be formed. In advocating a progressive populism, McKnight is clear that he views populism not as an ideology or detailed program but rather, as he describes, “a way of seeing the world and a style of arguing for ideas”. He does, however, outline that certain values should underpin a progressive populist approach.
While he does cite the academic Chantal Mouffe in explaining populism, it is odd that her late partner Ernesto Laclau is not mentioned. McKnight draws on a conceptualisation from both Mouffe and Laclau who saw populism as a form of political logic and discourse to set up a conflict between an “underdog” and a “power”. According to Laclau, what holds a heterogeneous underdog coalition together is a set of specific demands. Laclau believed that what “a situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially coexist, creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture.” It is clear from neoliberalism’s failures that the conditions exist for such a rupture in Australia.
While strong on contemporary situation, the broader local context feels missing. Progressive populism is treated as an American tradition and there are a few fleeting references to left-populist parties overseas. Other than a reference to a debate over whether the Labor Party should have been called the People’s Party, the progressive populist tradition is Australian history is glossed over. The Labor Party’s origins as a labour-populist party and the parallels with the 1890s does raise the question about whether a historic homegrown tradition of progressive populism could inform today’s approach.
McKnight also mentions both right-wing and progressive populism but there is nothing on the populism of “the centre”. The populism of the liberal centre was the logic and discourse used by Emmanuel Macron, presenting himself as an anti-establishment outsider against “vested interests” that need to be fought, including trade unions. In Australia, it is characterised by Nick Xenophon and previously the Australian Democrats. It is a logic and discourse that can be and is used against the Left.
McKnight’s idea with real potential that is worth exploring further is a progressive populist response on climate change. It has the potential for that heterogeneous formation with specific demands that can tackle the interlinked crises of climate, inequality and democracy locally. It has the potential to bring groups together not necessarily seen as traditional allies. Less clear is how such a populist response can be developed at a global level, a challenge given the global nature of the crisis.
Nevertheless, Populism Now! is a handy synthesis of the failures of neoliberalism and does encourage an overdue rethink of populism as a strategy that Australian progressives should be using rather than as a pejorative used against opponents.
Populism Now! The Case for Progressive Populism David McKnight NewSouth, $29.99
Originally appeared in Challenge Magazine