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Human Rights in the Age of National Populism. Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiots? Justine Lacroix et Jean-Yves Pranchère.

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Les droits de l'homme rendent-ils idiots ? - Lacroix - Pranchère ...

 Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiot ? (2019) Justine Lacroix et Jean-Yves Pranchère.

“This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.”

Karl Marx Capital Vol 1. Chapter 6. The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power.

Earlier this year Benjamin Ward, of Human Rights Watch, wrote,

The government’s new Attorney General Suella Braverman, its top legal adviser, is on record recently arguing that the courts’ ability to hold the government to account should be restrained, and expressing her criticism of human rights.

It’s increasingly clear that Johnson plans to water down the Human Rights Act, which keeps us safe from government harm, and make it harder for British courts to intervene when the state tramples on people’s rights.

“Human rights are no longer popular”, Justine Lacroix and Jean-Yves Pranchère begin Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiot ? with this statement from a former  judge at the European Court of Human Rights, Françoise Tulkens. That they are not a “priority” for governments. Not only have we seen national populist leaders, on both sides of the Atlantic, in practice undermine human rights protections, but scorn for  “droits-de-l’hommisme” has grown. The idea that rights-culture, rights-ideology, is a feature of the “nouvel ordre néolibérale” , an alliance between capitalist economics and social liberalism, remains influential on the left. Individual rights lead to individualism, people “sans appartenance et sans obligation à l’égard de la collectivité” (without belonging and without obligation to the collective)  The “culture of narcissism” a demand for “respect” without concern for others, undermines the family, and “respect d’autrui” (others). The “multiplication” of rights, and obsession about them,  has created bad citizens and a world of “incivilité”.

Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiot ? is a defence of human rights on the “champ intellectuel”. This is a crowded field. The authors begin by warning that national populism, or, as they call it,  “illiberal democracy”, puts forward an ideal of “l”homogénéité nationale” in countries like Poland and Hungary that moulds politics against  what Carl Schmitt called “the enemy”. This is in contrast to the democratic principles though by the thinker Claude Lefort. For the former Socialisme ou Barbarie thinker democracy comes from everybody, but democratic (institutional) sovereignty is an “empty” space (lieu vide)  in that no party in the name of the people can permanently occupy it.  Efforts, from identifying ‘the’ people with one party, or determining politics through a totalitarian one-party, one person, “égocrate” eats up the very incertianity that breathes life into democracy.  Lefort, as they later outline, is a touchstone for the idea that human rights are self-created, part of a long process he called the “democratic revolution”. Human rights are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to create this democratic world, one  that everybody can live in.

Lacroix and  Pranchère do not cite Jacques Rancière. But the radical philosopher’s asserted  that human rights are constantly redefined, through “dissensus”  from the “outside” by the “plebe”, the “rights of the rightless” (Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?). “In this way, the ‘‘abstract’’ and litigious Rights of Man and of the citizen are tentatively turned into real rights, belonging to real groups, attached to their identity and to the recognition of their place in the global population”.This underlines the way that those excluded from the homogeneous sovereign people of national populism create new demands. Written in 1791 Olympe de Gouges’s Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne is one such claim followed by her calls to abolish slavery,. First and foremost she demanded the right for women to be equals in politics, “A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform.” The Guillotine did not stop her voice ringing  throughout the ages.

Neoliberalism is an economic project, a belief in the efficiency of markets, not a belief in human rights. Hayek was opposed to human rights and any kind of social “constructionism”, opposing human rights in the same vein as Edmund Burke, with a experimental knowledge rooted in tradition. Only  “néolibéralisme est responsable pour le néolibéralisme.” Against this Lacroix and  Pranchère praise a side of John Stuart Mill and Benjamin Constant’s political liberalism, their resistance to authoritarianism. They can help indicate to those who draw on the human rights thought see  the need to balance “liberty and equality”.

Many on the left remain suspicious of human rights. Some of this goes back to the early years of socialism. Marx’s famous reference to human rights in Capital was accompanied by support for the “legal limitation of the working day”, a modest Magna Carta. In the passage heading the present review, Jeremy  Bentham was as an unlikely figure to muster in support of human rights. He was, the authors note, as hostile to the French Revolution’s founding declarations as De Maistre and Edmund Burke. More so in fact, in Anarchical Fallacies Critique of the Doctrine of Inalienable, Natural Rights (1796), he dismissed them” Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, — nonsense upon stilts.” Perhaps Benthan advocacy of the workhouse could be seen as a means to ensure the greatest good, through a felicific calculus of pleasure and pain, but of human rights ideology, there was none.

Justine Lacroix and Jean-Yves Pranchère offer this way of looking at Marx’s views. In the celebrated statement that the  “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” implies that we base on the liberty of all on the liberty of each individual, and not the other way around. (Il s’agissait bien de fonder le liberté de tous sur la liberté de chacun, et non l’inverse.” (Page 94)

Lacroix and  Pranchère are academics, who have published on political theory and human rights. They are both  based on Brussels. But, references to (mostly) French language controversies aside (they offer important insights into the writings of Marcel Gauchet for example)  Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiot ?  has striking echoes of near- identical debates in Britain and the anglophone world. In part this is the result of the curious reprise of US polemicist Christopher Lasch’ writings on the “therapeutic” roots of narcissistic politics,  by, amongst many others,  the French ‘original socialist’ Jean-Claude Michéa, who considers that the original fault of French socialism was to have aligned with liberalism. But, as we have indicated with PM Boris Johnson’s potential attacks on human rights legislation, these are not only issues stuck in the world of ideas. From here we move to the global ‘culture wars’, and to clashes on battle-grounds of American liberalism and conservatism, Bolsarono’s Brazil, and back to Europe’s illiberal states and national populists.

There is , it could be argued, increasing convergence between the ideas of conservatives and a certain nationalist or “sovereigntist” left. This has a more limited range, perhaps to Europe. where the stakes have involved parties of the left with  influential socialist traditions that are marginal in the USA. Every one of the book’s broader account of the claims against human rights and the “culture wars”  they are held to foster, every linkage between neoliberalism and human rights, every complaint against ‘ interfering’ laws and gender politics, is to be found on the Spiked Magazine (run by former Revolutionary Marxists ) site, Blue Labour (whose views on the family could be inserted into many paragraphs), in the writings of the Full Brexit supporters and in groupuscules like the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiot ?  makes a case that has its counterpart in Britain, and elsewhere, despite our obvious different historical relationship to the first French Republic’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. A defence of human rights as part of a strategy of solidarity (“une politique de la solidarité”) and internationalism open to defending both individuals and social groups fighting injustice. Justine Lacroix and Jean-Yves Pranchère are to be congratulated on showing some of the way.

See also: Review: Les droits de l’homme rendent-ils idiot ?


Anne Applebaum, “Performative Authoritarianism” and Populism. Some Thoughts.

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Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism – A ...


“Those, however who were always truculently at loggerheads with their teachers, interrupting the lessons, nevertheless sat down, from the day, indeed the very hour of their matriculation, at the same table and the same beer, in male confederacy, vassals by vocation, rebels who, crashing their fists on the table already signalled heir worship for their masters.”

Theodor Adorno. Minima Moralia.  No 123. The Bad comrade.

““By the early 1950s, all was grey. ”  Anne Applebaum revisited the lands of the post-war Soviet glacis, ” War-damaged capitals of the ‘ancient states;’ of the region, to use Churchill’s phrase, were patrolled by the same kind of unsmiling policemen, designed by the same socialist realist architects and draped with the same kind of propaganda posters (Iron Curtain. The Crushing of Eastern Europe. 1944 – 1956. 2012.

Applebaum portrayed the violent imposition of Soviet rule over Eastern Europe,”The nascent totalitarian states could not tolerate any competition whatsoever for their citizens’ passion, talents and free time.”(Page  185) Totalitarianism aimed to create “politically homogeneous” societies. “They “really did think that sooner of later the working-class majority would acquire class consciousness, understand its historical destiny and vote for a communist regime.”

In Red Famine, Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017) Applebaum wrote of the 5 million who perished in the Holodomor (Hunger-extermination in Ukrainian) alone. In 1933 starvation hit the USSR as Stalin’s forced collectivisation reduced the peasantry to forced labourers and destroyed agriculture. In this country,  mass starvation reached a peak, a “famine within the famine” that she argued was “a disaster specifically targeted at Ukraine and Ukrainians.”(Page 193) 

Both books, and her earlier Gulag: A History, (2004), are memorable indictments of Soviet-led Communism. They  are challenging works for those seeking some saving aspects in the regimes of ‘actually existing socialism’, or consign this recent past to history.

Applebaum has now turned her attention to populism.

Writing in the Washington Post during Donald Trump’s election campaign  in 2016 she looked at new political wave.

..this loose group of parties and politicians — Austria’s Freedom Party, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the UK Independence Party, Hungary’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law and Justice, Donald Trump — have made themselves into a global movement of “anti-globalists.” Meet the “Populist International”

What was the programme of this new international? Appelbaum used something of the tone taken a couple of years on in Madeleine Albright’s warning about modern ‘fascism’,  somebody who ” claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary – including violence – to achieve his or her goals” (Fascism. A Warning, Madeleine Albright. 2018.) Like the former US Secretary of State she underlines the lack of limits, that is disrespect for the normal rules of law, of populists. They may not be fascists but…

the parties that belong to the Populist International, and the media that support it, are not Burkean. They don’t want to conserve or preserve what exists. Instead, they want to radically overthrow the institutions of the present to bring back things that existed in the past — or that they believe existed in the past — by force. Their language takes different forms in different countries, but their revolutionary projects often include the expulsion of immigrants, or at least the return to all-white (or all-Dutch, or all-German) societies; the resurrection of protectionism; the reversal of women’s or minorities’ rights; the end of international institutions and cooperation of all kinds. They advocate violence…

Appelbaum’s latest book is, or at least, as a paint it, as much about her former friends and colleagues who have joined this “populist international”, as the national populism itself. A world of highly educated, hosts and hostesses, those of her circle in Eastern Europe, above all Poland (her husband’s home country), bravely stood up to disintegrating and increasingly powerless Communist states, and achieved the ends of liberalism with the regimes’ demise. Many of them, amongst her Republican circles in the US, in Poland and Hungary have moved to Trump and the national populist right  of the Law and Justice Party and  Orbán. They are both ornaments and technicians of governments that claim, or aim to, overthrow globalising elites. The word she uses for them is, “collaborators”.

Is “their fealty to the new order”, a conversation with Nick Cohen suggests,  the result of a “lust for status among resentful men and women, who believe the old world never gave them their due”? Anne Applebaum: how my old friends paved the way for Trump and Brexit. Or are their career paths,  one might suggest to an author who uses Adorno’s studies in the “authoritarian personality”, following the mundane tracks of youth becoming part of authority?

The nationalist strain in the views of her British Conservative, ‘Burkean’ friends, the charming dilettantes of the Spectator, and the winsome, if self-regarding, Boris Johnson, were  a hidden ideology in full view.

The late Roger Scruton, caught up in the author of Reflections on the Revolution in France‘s contract between the “living and the dead” and Barrès’ “la terre et les morts” was a nationalist whose final books repeated a message he had polished over decades.

When we wish to summon the ‘we’ of political identity we refer to our countryWe do not use grand and tainted honorifics like la partie or Das Vaterland. We refer simply to this spot of earth, which belongs to us because to belong to it, have loved it, lived in it, defended it, and established peace and prosperity within its borders.”( Where We Are. The State of Britain Now. Roger Scruton.  2017) 

That  should have been obvious.

One does not have be seized with class hatred (although it might help) to nod at James Bloodworth’s review of the book,

While Applebaum and her friends were revelling in the triumph of liberal democracy in the 90s — breathing in the pieties of the new world from the rarefied atmosphere of Manhattan cocktail parties, diplomatic lunches and garden parties at the Spectator — deindustrialised regions in Britain, America and parts of Europe were being devastated by institutional breakdown, poverty and despair. But this is surely pertinent to any discussion of contemporary populism; as Michael Lind has written for UnHerd, “the heartlands of populism are often deindustrialised former manufacturing regions such as the North of England and the American Rust Belt”.

Who paved the way for the populists?

To explain populism is an ambitious research-programme. It raises a pile of issues, as the score of so books on the topic reviewed on this Blog alone indicates.

Her articles and reviews of the new book suggest that Anne Applebaum has important things to say.

But on the evidence the writer and historian seems to begin from the assumption that this turn is recent, located if not entirely in the last decade, at least not stretching much beyond the present century. But  how far back can one go to find the political and social origins of right-wing populism?


The vocabulary it uses has  contorted origins. Elites, a term whose sociological and political use has roots in the Italian far-right writer Vilfredo Pareto and “oligarchy”, in Robert Michels’ iron law, could be seen as positive terms, as well as an inevitable bind of democratic politics. Who knows, somebody outside management studies might rediscover the merits of the Pareto Principle of concentrating on the minority that is the best,

Another issues comes from that many European populist parties have indeed had electoral weight only since the beginning of the new millennium. But there is an important exception. Marine Le Pen’s National Populist party, the Rassemblement National (RN), first peaked under her father’s leadership in the 1986 French legislative elections,  9.8% of the vote and (under Proportional Representation) 35 seats in the National Assembly.  Since its rebranding as the RN in 2018 the rally  is trying to move from the ‘anti-system’ far right to a less extreme right that poses as a national government-in-waiting.

A convincing account of the RN’s electoral performance over the years (Marine le Pen in 2017 Presidential contest received  the largest share of support of all French parties from working class voters, a statistic that is not unchallenged.)  and prospects cannot be written in terms of phrases about a new populist international and the “seduction of authoritarianism”. To cap this, there is the phenomenon of “red-brown” support, former leftists who now identify with national populist identity politics, and (in the case of France, and the UK), back populist parties, most visibly the British Brexit Party of Nigel Farage,

Yet, there is a rejoicing in left-wing heaven at repentant republican Appelbaum’s criticisms of Donald Trump’s “performative authoritarianism” and European national populism.

One can find a degree of common ground in the need to combat rather than understand it. The left populists who hoped to funnel the streams of resentment into their own channels of popular and socialist sovereignty, often seem to forget that point….


From the Decline in Working Class Politics to Labour’s ‘Civil War’.

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Labour CIVIL WAR: Keir Starmer already facing party revolt ...

What We Don’t Need is a Labour “Civil War”.

After the Conservative landslide at the December elections there has been a flood of commentary about the decline of traditional support for the Labour Party.

Phil offers an outline.

The  collapse in class consciousness on the part of millions of working class people who’ve entered into retirement over this last decade was a long time in the works. It was assiduously deconstructed, deracinated and deposited in the receptacle of history.

The one brake on this process preventing the collapse from happening earlier was not their links to the present, i.e. the lives of their offspring, but the living relations to the past. Their parents were their conscience, a reminder not only of where they came from but their exposure to a set of values that hadn’t changed: a collective and small p political culture of working class consciousness with a fidelity to local community, the union, and, crucially, the Labourist reflex.

As this generation dies they fade into memory and the obligation to vote the right way dies with them. Indeed, some might have felt a frisson of transgression when they ticked the box next to the Tory candidate back in December, but ultimately what mattered more to them was feeding the fears and delusions and cruelty inculcated in them over the past 40 years.

Obligation and Class Consciousness

He suggests that, ” we have the rise of conditional and transactional politics. To put it simply, larger numbers of people vote not out of party loyalty but because parties are offering and doing something they want.” (Conditional and Transactional Politics).

This voting behaviour was observed back in 1971 by Barry Hindess in The Decline of Working Class Politics. After having seen that within the Labour Party “the determination of local policy is now very largely in the hands of activists in the more middle-class areas”, and that politics, at that time did not offer a choice outside of a narrow consensus (a 1960’s version of “post-politics”),

the electorate are now less likely to vote out of a sense of class solidarity and more in terms of a sober calculation of material avantages. (Page 148)

The idea of ‘instrumental politics”, the rise of calculation made by ‘affluent workers’ in the 1960s, and, even more prominently  during the Thatcher years, might offer some explanation for the detachment of people from class to individual voting. Blair and Brown made an appeal to this hard-headed constituency in order to restore “trust with the public”. They claimed to offer progress, a capacity to compete in a globalised world, based on what Peter Mandelson has called, a “A constructive partnership with business.” (Revolution revisited.2002)

Nobody would present the last election as a battle within consensual limits. Nor was what people “wanted’ and voted for clearly based on economics. Political scientists may talk of historical support patterns becoming “unglued” and the way that Johnson “Though Johnson was widely unpopular, his party also moved to the centre on economic issues, a strategy that helped sideline Corbyn’s class-based appeal. But, he “emphasised the largely identity-based fight over Brexit.“(Vox)

What did those whose identity politics led them to back ‘Get Brexit Done’ and to “Unleash Britain’s potential” cast their ballots for?

Taking Backing Control looks like a lifebuoy many new Tory voters grasped at when pinned down and asked what they were backing.

The cultural reasons for this support would be better looked at in terms of a wider shift away, with different degrees of sympathy amongst different electorates, to national populism across Europe, That is, while the UK Conservatives  are a special case (not least as the oldest political party in the world) , they share part of the ideology that, as two authors sympathetic to the ideas expressed state, “”national populists prioritise the culture and interests of the nation, and promise to give voice to a people who feel that they have been neglected, even held in contempt, by distant and often corrupt elites.” Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, (National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy. 2018)

It could be suggested that one way to look further at he forces behind this it is through comparative studies, looking at similar de-alignments in countries whose working class history and politics resembles in some ways Britain’s.

One book is Didier Erbion’s Returning to Reims (2018, original,Retour à Reims 2008/2019)

“I tried to understand this milieu in which I had lived, my parents’ milieu, which traditionally voted for the Communist party, and how they came to vote for the Front National, why their vote was transferred to the right and the extreme right.”

Erbion does not just focus on support for the far-right, but on the wider ‘transactional’ switch in working class support for political parties, including for the classical right-wing President Sarkozy (and which could be extended to a minority who voted Macron not Marine Le Pen).

Bearing in mind these parallels, which could be extended to more volatile, and declining support for social democratic, socialist and (the largely vanished) Communist parties across Europe,  might offer a better beginning than staying within British politics.

Civil War.

Will the left follow Phil and ask the kind of cliché-free questions he, and others, have put on the table?

For the moment this is overshadowed by this news.

Labour is now in the throes of what the Guardian today calls a “civil war” (Antisemitism settlement plunges Labour party into civil war).

Labour’s decision to pay a six-figure libel settlement to ex-staffers who claimed the party was failing to deal with antisemitism has plunged the party back into civil war, with Jeremy Corbyn publicly condemning his successor’s decision to settle the case.

Corbyn’s statement caused astonishment among the litigants in the libel action, with the Panorama journalist John Ware confirming to the Guardian that he was “consulting his lawyers” and raising the prospect of another costly court battle over Labour and antisemitism.

The anti-semitism issue, made worse by some people’s hard-line anti-Zionism, and a fringe that indulges in conspiracy theories. are serious problems.

The ‘Hobbyist’ left, which is said to have dominated Labour politics in ways that Hindess (who wrote in 1971,  at a time when leftist influence inside the Party was at a low point) could not have dreamt, has come in for a great deal of criticism. Those who believed that they were bringing the fight against the ‘Iron law of Oligarchy’ into Labour structures, are sorely disappointed.

Apart from a divisive, and futile,  battle against ‘Starmerism’, a range of hobby-horses are being run. The American inspired Black Lives Matter movement has some real targets. But other culture wars, cancel culture, a pile of words stacks up about issues that are as clear as mud . Some of the ideas floated are as odd as the 19th century socialists who were interested in Theosophy. Or worse.

Momentum Camden Calls for NEC Motion of No Confidence in Keir Starmer

Starmer’s statement that he needs “unconscious bias” training, is both an admission and misdirection: His racism has been conscious and consistent and has no place in an antiracist party. In the process he makes racism a personal psychological problem and not a systemic social disaster.  He has brought the Labour Party into disrepute with some of its most loyal supporters, BAME communities.”

This is a superb motion I will try and use the motion in a blog post.#

If this is one side….

We do not need this civil war.

There is little doubt however that laying the blame on Corbyn will only help those who wish to turn back to the days when Peter Mandelson and his friends ran Labour policy for ‘apirational’ people.