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Politics after Populism and the Pandemic

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The pandemic signalled the end of one era, and the beginning of another.

While the collapse of the markets in 2008 exposed the decay in neoliberalism — and led to a rise in anti-austerity movements — the Covid-19 outbreak made clear that a model of politics and economics had reached the end of its road. As the prevailing system struggled to cope with the pressures of another historic crisis, the question many have been asking is: what comes next?

As the populist moment of the 2010s fades away, it leaves behind greater political polarisation. On the one hand, the anti-establishment left is larger today than at any time since the 1980s. On the other, it has fallen behind a resurgent Right in the battle for state power — and struggled to adapt to a landscape increasingly dominated by questions of nationalism and sovereignty.

In this interview, Paolo Gerbaudo, author of The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic speaks to researcher Giorgos Venizelos about populism’s legacy and what the coming years might look like.

What does the emergency situation generated by the pandemic teach us about contemporary politics, and what does the post-pandemic political landscape look like?

I think that the 2010s populist moment is fading away, and that it’s about time to clarify the nature of its populism and the dynamic it produced. In my book, I argue that what we described as ‘populism’ indicated not only a strategy but also a structural condition that has forced both left and right to refocus on lower income brackets—on the squeezed downwardly-mobile middle class, and the impoverished working class.

Contrary to those who see populism as a shorthand ‘horseshoe theory’ of ideology, where left and right unite in the same cauldron, the 2010s populist moment has been a phase of extreme polarisation, with the Right going back to nationalism, and the Left reclaiming socialism. In the present moment, it’s increasingly clear that populist formations that had tried to escape this divide, such as the Five Star Movement, are now forced to position themselves either on the left or the right.

The populist moment has been decisive in reorganising political space, and populism will be with us for as long as mass democracy exists, but after having saturated that political space it’s no longer the main element of distinction among emerging political actors. Now the battle has turned much more towards questions of substance: material demands, class interests, and what kind of coalition can be built.

With the critique of globalisation and the markets, and with the climate crisis, we’re witnessing the return of the nation as a central political force. Is this the terrain of the Right, or can the Left compete here? If so, how does the leftist vision of the nation differ?

This return of the nation is happening regardless of people’s views about it. It is the result of the implosion of globalisation, and the fact that that implosion was accompanied by a liberal discourse about the need to overcome the primacy of national sovereignty. Now, as happened during other crises of capitalism, that edifice is crashing down. Global supply chains have been proven to be very fragile, for example, and the risks they entail are now considered unsustainable.

What’s more, the US no longer has unrivalled dominance as the only world superpower. The confrontation between China and US will facilitate a tendency towards a renationalisation of some industries and the regionalisation of international markets.

In this context, the Left should question the vapid liberal cosmopolitanism that it sometimes embraced during the aegis of globalisation. A true left internationalism starts from place and sense of belonging, and acknowledges that political communities are still organised along national lines, just as governments are still defined by and large as nation-states. Democracy is both demos and topos, people and place.

It’s obvious that when confronted with the chaos that stems from a failing globalisation, people want to reclaim forms of political control and social and economic protection at the national level. Throughout their history, before the neoliberal era, socialist and communist movements have fought for national autonomy and national self-determination—so what’s required is a return to what was the standard line for the Left until the triumph of market ideology.

In your work you claim that the neoliberal paradigm is eroding. What comes after it?

My thesis is that capitalism is moving from neoliberalism to neostatism—that is, toward a model of capitalism where the state is far more interventionist than it was during the golden era of neoliberal globalisation. We saw this during the pandemic: there were levels of state mobilisation in the form of lockdown measures, mass vaccination campaigns, and furlough schemes for workers who would have otherwise been laid off.

This was a very instructive moment. It showed that if the state wants to take radical measures, it can. These actions constitute a stark departure from the narrative of political impotence often used by neoliberals as part of their ‘There Is No Alternative’ discourse.

We are also witnessing the recuperation of Keynesian policies, not only on the left, but also on the right. Regardless of their ideologies, mainstream political leaders like Biden in the US and Johnson in the UK are adopting measures related to deficit-spending, major infrastructure investment, and even industrial policy and planning—ideas long abandoned during the neoliberal era. It’s evident that policy-making no longer corresponds to the view pushed by neoliberals, and that neoliberals themselves face an epistemological crisis: they are now unable to explain how society works.

But that shift doesn’t necessarily create a better society. The post-neoliberal future will be a capitalist future: capitalism has existed in many ways or forms, and is not tied to neoliberalism as the only viable model. It can also thrive under a regime of state interventionism, as seen in the Chinese model of state capitalism, which many policymakers in the West are now trying to mimic.

The question for the Left is how to exploit the political opportunities that a more bogged-down and national capitalism offers in terms of demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and more efficient public services. We have the chance to construct a progressive and democratic statism; if we don’t, the statism we get is likely to be the corporatist, exclusionary one the Right demands.

The pandemic proved the challenges the Left faces in building a potent alternative to alt-right claims for ‘freedom’ and ‘liberties’. How do we tackle that challenge?

As Janan Ganesh has written in the Financial Times, the pandemic showed us that many on the populist right, beginning with Donald Trump, were not really authoritarian but rather libertarian. Many who had until then campaigned for national sovereignty and stronger state intervention turned against the state precisely at the moment the state demanded some small sacrifices from its citizens.

To me, anti-vax and anti-lockdown sentiment is the regurgitation in extreme form of typical neoliberal motives: suspicion of bureaucracy; possessive individualism; and a cult of choice that disregards how many phenomena we are immersed in are fundamentally collective.

The measures taken by governments were certainly extreme, but what would have been the alternative? Ultimately, governments took these decisions not because they wanted to, as argued by former left philosophers turned conspiratorial, such as Giorgio Agamben; to the contrary, they did so because society was faced with a very serious threat—a pandemic that to date has killed over five million people.

What is remarkable about all this is that, despite very vocal dissent by anti-vaxxers, they have been proved to be a tiny minority, with the large majority of the population abiding by anti-pandemic measures. This majority often ‘stayed at home’ not because of government injunctions, but because of their own fear of getting infected. This is something anti-vaxxers do not want to accept. It was not imposed by governments: it was citizens in their majority that demanded it, and the state complied.

The (left) populism of the 2010s was a response to neoliberalism. Some argue that after Syriza and Podemos, left populism has failed. Should we proclaim its death, or should we expect it to re-emerge in a different shape and with different frames? What does the left populism of the 2020s look like, and what is its future after institutionalisation and normalisation?

The 2010s form of left-wing populism seems to have expired for the time being, but it has not necessarily failed. It sprung from the particular conditions of the early 2010s when people were furious about the financial crisis, and the fact that austerity policies wanted ordinary people to pay for bankers’ mistakes. Since mainstream political parties were complicit with the super-rich, that led to a widespread popular outrage reflected in the occupation of public squares, and then the attempt to find new political parties and candidates to champion those popular demands.

This is basically what populism in the 2010s was about. It was a sudden upsurge of popular contestation cracking the sclerotic political system. And that explosion has had profound effects.

On the left specifically, it has contributed to rising concerns about economic inequality, and has made people more aware of the need to take state power. It has also contributed to reviving socialism and giving it a sense of actuality and timeliness that it had long lost. Many of the characters of the new socialist wave—from Corbyn to Sanders, and from AOC to Ilhan Omar—reflect in their way of doing politics the cultural and psychological change that the populist moment brought.

As things stand, we seem to be past the populist moment, and we are witnessing a revival of more traditional left identities. But as Laclau and Mouffe have taught us, populism is a transhistorical phenomenon, and one which is inherent in the character of contemporary democracy. That means we are very likely to soon witness new populist phenomena. In fact, if we look, they are already there—just not in the progressive form we might like.

Giorgos Venizelos researches populism and social movements. He is the author of Populism in Power: Discourse, Performativity, Identification (Routledge, March 2023). @GiorgoVenizelos, www.giorgosvenizelos.com

Paolo Gerbaudo is a sociologist and political theorist at King’s College London. He is the author of The Digital Party (2019) and The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic (2021) out with Verso.