Against ‘Left Populism’ and Sovereigntism.
Parliament now “Taking Back” the Country.
A decade or so ago it was smart to hold Abigail’s parties, complete with prawn and grapefruit cocktails, diced cheese, salted biscuits, and bottles of Blue Nun and Mateus Rosé.
There is no post-modern irony in the present enthusiasm for restoring ancient Sovereignty. It is not just UKIP, the Patriotic Alliance, and the diehards of the Conservative and Unionist Party who look back to the days of British Constitution ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. In the wake of the reverse evolution of the former ‘revolutionary communists’ of Spiked-on-line into the best activists for the national Parliament, a section of the left has persuaded itself that there is much to be said for critics of ‘liberal elites’.
With Brexit, now is the time to ‘take back control’ from the European Union. Concern with their electoral backing has led them to offer a ‘left wing’ defence of national sovereignty. Their retro-party, the People’s Brexit, does not seem to have attracted many guests as yet. But it is causing deep divisions on the left, turning people’s attention backwards and fuelling the growth of national populism.
Populism…An article in the latest New Left Review, a critique of the Jan-Werner Müller’s recent What is Populism? (2016). The book is described in the ‘Programme Notes’ as a “German contribution to a burgeoning genre on opponents of the liberal order.”
The author, Marco D’Eramo, whom one assumes is not German, although the notes on the contributors fail to mention his nationality, marks its main point by assaulting the claim that populism has an essence. That it marked by charismatic Leaders is exclusive, and the People into the ‘real’ people, which they alone stand for. That it is, as a result, anti-pluralist, promoting an exclusive form of identity, actual or potential ‘occupancy’ of the state, suppression of civil society and pluralism. It is, above all, a “moralistic imagination of politics. With the aid of the latest discoveries of nominalist philosophy and Port Royal epistemology, They the People (New Left Review 103. 2017) shows that Müller, like so much political science’s ‘ideal-type’ of populism, is wrong footed. It is not just ideal (as its inspirer, Max Weber, would, we cautiously suggest, accept), but an abstract universal taken for reality. (1)
There are well-aimed shafts at a theory, and hints that the book verges towards a view of fascism as a “populism plus”, and which tries to encompass Latin America and shunts to a footnote the inclusive ‘populism’ of Evo Morales’ Bolivia (a government not without its faults, from child labour to its recent development plans).
But he fails to extend his view from a defence of would-be left populists of Podemos to an examination of those who have taken Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s writings on the subject as textbooks for building another movement in France, la France insoumise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. This is no longer an issue of political science, but of political strategy. Could Mélenchon’s Constituent Assembly, having swept away “la caste”, politicians and oligarchs, instituted “protectionnisme solidaire”, and taken the country out of existing European Treaties, establish “l’indépendance de la France”?
Marco D’Eramo’s argument is essentially that ‘populism’ – insofar as it has any fixed meaning amongst its nominalised splinters – results from neo-liberalism. And where might be the hottest point in their confrontation? We come back to Europe, where the technocrats of said economic policies have been implemented by a “political and financial oligarchy”.
Müller, he suggests, all to clearly reflects the modern German consensus against the “decisionist’ sovereignty of ultimate power in the Nation (crudely, Carl Schmitt), and a “distrust” of “not only any idea of popular sovereignty but parliamentary sovereignty too”. Haunted by the totalitarian past he has been led to calls to “constrain democracy”, adding, in his Constraining Democracy (2011) “supranational constraints to national ones”, that is, the rule of the oligarchs fronted by a German style Grand Coalition. Hostility to the European Union that incarnates this prospect is surely shared by Mélenchon, who does not hide his dislike of Teutons, or… ‘Anglo-Saxons’.
We have been there before. From Jürgen Habermas to David Held’s “cosmopolitan democracy”, there have been a number of idealistic ‘post-sovereignty” theories. In 1994 Held advocated “cosmopolitan democracy” which could perhaps serve as a paradigm. This would be a world based on a kind of empirical version of Kant’s picture of human autonomy, in which “sovereignty can be stripped away from the idea of fixed borders and territories and thought of as, in principle, malleable time-space clusters. Sovereignty is an attribute of the basic democratic law, but it would be entrenched and drawn upon in diverse self-regulating associations from state to cities and corporations. Cosmopolitan law demands the subordination for regional, national and local sovereignties to an overarching legal framework, but within this framework associations may be self-governing at diverse levels” (2)
Supporters of ‘strong democracy’, that is systems with more definable locations than, “malleable time-space clusters” would not warm to Held. But from the late 1980s to the turn of the new millennium for much of the centre and ‘post-Marxist’ left, and not just academics ‘self-organised’ civil society, the basis for “associative democracy”, was a popular idea.
There is a whole earnest literature on these topics, by writers such as John Keane, out there, waiting, neglected, to be rediscovered. One hesitates to nod at D’Ernamo’s sneers at constraints, or put better, institutional frameworks that guarantee pluralism. Much of this writing, sometimes possibly self-serving from those competing to win positions within post-Communist societies, was concerned with the very real oppressions and problems of ‘totalitarian’ societies. Its lasting legacy is not empty droits-de-l’hommisme but the defence of the democratic rights of those who are not, and will never be, sucked up in the single Sovereign Power of the People. (3)
Attention turned elsewhere. It might be argued that it was the growing perception that ‘globalisation’ was not extending the capacities of “self-governing associations”, but the national economic management that underpins states’ legitimacy, led to the erosion of those limited circles who followed Held’s cosmopolitan hopes to the full. That ‘governance’ of the economy remained poised between the national states, and, in Europe, the EU, while appearing battered by global financial, distribution and production flows, forced democratic thinking back to the nation. There they would rediscover Parliaments and Sovereignty.
Supporters of ‘strong democracy’, that is systems with more definable locations than, “malleable time-space clusters” would not have warmed to Held. Elections over a range of decision-making institutions, not just councils and Parliaments, or associations, but a wider range of public service bodies, have however taken place, as Police Commissioners have been open to the popular vote, with the extension of democratic participation that has not been universally greeted. Few today advocate workers’ self-management, the extension of democratic principles into private companies.
Sovereigntism and the Left Today.
Sovereigntism has in fact little to say about the extension of democracy. It is a programme for national concentration and depriving everybody but the backers of populist parties of an effective voice, illiberalism against the ‘liberal order’. But cultural and political issues (ones which have led to a great deal of often abstract debate about the nature of the ‘people’, and the ‘imagined community’ of the nation) are only one part of the problem. For the right and for the left populists economic governance is the prize.
The body administering these processes, the State, is ‘capitalist’, that is, is institutionally wrapped around the existing power structure. It is organised to promote the interests of business. WE do not need an elaborate theoretical framework to see this. Every day shows that in the UK the administration is a ‘privatising state’ with several decades of institutional aid to companies who live off prebends for delivering ‘services’. That alone would make it a poor instrument for a radical left sovereign power. If it remains united, or is divided into the separate ‘nations’ of the British Isles, no People’s Brexit will penetrate its existing Conservative dominated legislative agenda.
The sovereigntists of the left are obstacles to wider democratic change. Many have concentrated on the nationalist populist drift of many of their supporters. For all the claims to “federate the people” these echo all too clearly the faults of populism outlined by Müller. The General Will of the People, cannot be found. Their ideal constituency, turn out to ‘the workers’ as the real’ people and the rest, as the ‘elite’, a moveable object with no clear class basis at all. The link of the Organiser of Trades Unionists Against the EU with the far-right Westmonster indicates that at least some of them feel comfortable with xenophobic dislike for migrants. If they lack charismatic leaders, they make up for it with their own blustering rhetoric.
But the difficulties lay deeper. Politics in the West does not work day-to-day through Peoples and Movements, it works through, imperfect, representative democracy which articulates, give voice to, a variety of interests strongly inflected by class. If, through the mechanisms of election and public pressure, from protest onwards, a left government may transform it, it is less than probable that any form of democratic socialism will govern without sharing sovereignty. Making legal and economic agreements with other powers. It would need some kind of transnational union, for commerce, for migration, for finance, complete with agreed regulations. Beginning with perhaps, Europe…
(1) Page 106. “technically speaking, I am trying to construct an ideal type in the sense suggested by Max Weber.” What is Populism? Jan-Werner Müller. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2016.
(2) Page 234. Democracy and the Global Order David Held Polity Press. 1995.
(3) Democracy and Civil Society. John Keane Verso 1988. John Keane (ed.), Civil Society and the State (Verso, 1988);