Having charted the background and growth of British populism from nineteenth-century worker agitation to discontent with the gig economy of the 2010s, this chapter offers a concluding prognosis of the possible future of UK liberal democracy in the wake of Brexit-based populism. Bringing together the two threads of cultural denigration and economic marginalization of the working class, the question arises: how can contemporary populism be channelled into a renewal of democratic political culture? Here I consider the complex and influential interventions of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2016) and Paul Mason (2015), which have in common the notion that the current wave of automation sweeping through the global economy has the potential to lead us out of the prevailing pattern of mass material scarcity and deprivation. One of the mechanisms seen as pivotal to such a transition is a radical and scalable programme of universal basic income (UBI). I reject this solution as untenable, in part because it represents an extension of André Gorz’s (2012) earlier and, I contend, implausible argument that the very idea of the ‘working class’ should be abandoned as automating technology and structural unemployment make work a less politically significant reality. While leftist commentators and theorists may criticize the legacy of Marxism for enthroning a ‘labour theory of value’, the lived reality of the working class cannot be so easily severed from its connections to socially meaningful work. In other words, progressive populism cannot, I contend, take the form of a world beyond work.
I begin the analysis of populism by outlining and defending a certain conception of democracy. This does not involve a typology of forms of democracy – direct as opposed to representative democracy, and so forth – but rather delineates what I consider the animating principle and, to some extent, paradox of democracy, namely popular sovereignty. Here the theory is largely drawn from two sources: on the one hand, from the democratic theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe and, on the other, from the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière. While there are important differences between these thinkers, the crucial commonality is an idea of democratic politics as based on radical dissent that constantly contests given political legitimacy. What Rancière, in particular, highlights, is the inherent tension within any democratic polity between the bureaucratic managers and the enfranchised electorate. The former project a ‘born to rule’ sense of entitled social and technocratically grounded political legitimacy, while the latter contest this privilege in the name of no qualification other than their being present within the political community. This latter claim on behalf of an ‘unqualified’ electorate lies at the heart of the intersection between constitutional democracy and populism. On this basis, it is argued that populism is an inalienable feature of democracy and not an extraneous element bent on its destruction. In other words, populism is construed as essential rather than alien to democracy.
This chapter focuses on the far right’s imaginaries about “the East” in the context of the history of Heimat, the politics of renaturing and the national socialist and new right-wing views on natural habitats for the German ethnos and German flora and fauna. Western Germans are recruited to move to the white enclaves in the East, as the land is cheap, institutions easy to take over and the country so unpopulated that social control is minimised. The land stands for more than just agricultural opportunities: the blood and soil logics amount to a geo-determinism, the idea that a people ‘belongs to’ a particular land. Unless the right people till the soil and defend their habitat, the habitat will be lost and the people will go extinct. We explain what it is like in parts of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg in ‘white’ villages, and hear from a hunter who explains that the AfD is not about to solve the problem of representation but is still more attractive than any other party. The turn of nationalist (West) Germans to the East to repopulate the imagined ‘empty lands’ goes hand in hand with ideas of ‘purification’ of German territories and strong anti-immigration, anti-globalisation, anti-system and anti-cosmopolitan attitudes. As we talked to different people who were, in some way or another, affected by the wolf issue, among them farmers, hunters, local residents in rural areas and conservationists, the micro-politics that relates to the wolf problem is revealed.
How are we to understand the recent rise of populism in Britain and beyond? In this book, philosopher Brian Elliott traces the roots of contemporary populism back to the waves of intensified globalization and deindustrialization that began in the 1970s and early 1980s. This period of our political history witnessed a radical transformation of democratic party politics, where the potential for organized labour to influence high-level politics was diminished. The Reagan–Thatcher era brought about a neoliberal reconfiguration of the democratic state that weakened or destroyed traditional sources of working-class social and cultural capital. In the UK, the Labour Party was transformed through a ‘Third Way’ agenda under the leadership of Tony Blair. The long-term consequence of this has been an inexorable undermining of working-class support for the party and a notable drift towards Conservative-led anti-European Union sentiment. Populism, in the UK and elsewhere, should not simply be attributed to increasing nationalism, nativism and xenophobia among the working-class electorate. It also gives voice to a desire to make the political class more directly accountable to the people it is meant to serve. At the same time, the populist wave is a reaction to a decades-long denigration of working-class lives and culture. Charting seminal episodes in the rise of the British working class in light of recent sociological and political analyses of the nature of work, the analysis offered in this book grants to contemporary populism a deeper and more coherent meaning.
The final chapter summarises the argument of the book and provides answers to our guiding questions. What does the trope of the wolf tell us about the state of democracy in Eastern Germany? Why is anti-establishmentarianism prevalent in rural areas? And why does it seem to be more prevalent in Eastern Germany? And ultimately, how can we understand the re-emergence and strengthening of nationalist and xenophobic attitudes and political actors in Eastern German in more depth?
People do not vote for the AfD because they are Eastern German, but the narrative of a colonised and ‘left-behind’ East near a demographic collapse – threatened by an ‘invasion’ of ‘criminal foreigners’ and the return of ravenous wolves alike – is being taken up by a variety of parliamentary and non-parliamentary far-right entrepreneurs who frame “the East” as the real, genuinely German Germany. Whilst they consider the West as ‘lost’ to cultural decadence and ‘Islamisation’, the East has become a screen of projection for the far right’s visions of ‘national rebirth’ and as the future vantage point for ‘reconquering’ Germany. The rise in nationalist sentiment has manifested in an increase of racist attacks and far-right demonstrations. The summer of 2018 saw the comeback of one of the worst aspects of life in the East: the return of public affrays, pogroms and racist demonstrations that had been so common in the early 1990s just after the peaceful revolution. One of the aims of far-right splinter groups is to take over the public sphere in Eastern Germany by taking over urban spaces through highly visible ‘peace marches’ (against migrants), ‘silent marches’ (on the occasion of violence by refugees) and demonstrations commemorating ‘the slaughter of Dresden’ in 1945. Pogroms are not always publicly organised, however, though they are never as spontaneous as their defenders claim. They are demonstrations of power, they are intended to undermine the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of force and they serve to intimidate the left and liberal members of civil society. We show that the political standing of Saxony, and of the Eastern German states in general, remains complicated.
Since 1990 the wolf has been a protected species in Germany; killing a wolf is a crime punishable by a prison sentence of up to five years. In Eastern Germany, where the political ground is shifting to the right, locals argue that the wolves are not German but Western Polish, undeserving of protection since they have invaded Saxon territory and threatened the local way of life. Many people in Eastern Germany feel that the wolf, like the migrant, has been a problem for years, but that nobody in power is listening to them. At a time when nationalist parties are on the rise everywhere in Europe, The wolves are coming back offers an insight into the rise of Eastern German fringe political movements and agitation against both migrants and wolves by hunters, farmers, rioters and self-appointed saviours of the nation. The nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) represents the third-largest party in the German federal parliament, with representation in the vast majority of German states. It draws much of its support from regions that have been referred to as the ‘post-traumatic places’ in Eastern Germany, structured by realities of disownment, disenfranchisement and a lack of democratic infrastructure. Pates and Leser provide an account of the societal roots of a new group of radical right parties, whose existence and success we always assumed to be impossible.
This chapter shows how Owen Jones’s (2011) book Chavs documents the denigration of working-class solidarity and, in so doing, accounts for the rise of populist sentiment among the British working class. In popular news and entertainment media – amidst a landscape of exponential corporate consolidation – portrayals of the working class are transformed from a celebration of integrity in the face of adversity typical of the 1950s ‘kitchen-sink drama’, to a lampooning of feckless social welfare dependency and antisocial behaviour by the 1990s and beyond. Complementing Jones’s account of the denigration of working-class lives, Richard Sennett (2006, 2008, 2012) incisively portrays the demoralizing impact of neoliberal conditions of work. Most recently, these conditions have come to attention under the banner of the ‘gig economy’. While this economy is defended by the executives of disruptive start-ups in the name of corporate flexibility and employee choice, the stark reality of precarious employment readily undermines this rationalizing of employment casualization and worker precarity. In this connection, Angela McRobbie’s (2016) probing analysis of the ‘creative industries’ offers a further, devastating critique of the New Labour project. Contemporary work conditions offer thereby a powerful and concrete context in which the seeding ground of contemporary populism can be located.
This chapter provides an overview of the book’s themes and focuses on the following question: why did a party that historically emphasised compromise and cooperation, rather than exclusion and confrontation, shift so dramatically and in a relatively short period of time to a strategy of exclusion? It provides an overview of Conservative statecraft towards the unions and the organised working class, explaining why the shift from accommodation took place when it did. In essence the party concluded in the 1970s that the demands of governance and governability had to take precedence over efforts to sustain the traditional strategy.
By 1964 the party leadership and membership seemed to be converging on a common diagnosis of ‘the union problem’. The failure of Conservative experiments in government with tripartism stimulated further the existing interest in legal reform. This was reinforced by the bitter conflicts over incomes policy and union reform that characterised the 1964–70 Labour Governments. Drawing on a trend in Conservative thinking that emerged in 1958, by 1968 the Conservative Party seemed committed to the extensive legal reform of unions and industrial relations as part of its determination to address ‘the British disease’. When the Conservatives entered government in 1970, this, and a seeming commitment to a more free-market approach, appeared to herald a radical departure from post-war governance. However, under the pressure of events the essentially pragmatic Heath Government speedily changed course in a number of key policy areas and also found itself in direct conflict with the trade unions, first over the Industrial Relations Act and then over incomes policy. This culminated in the ‘who governs’ election of February 1974 that precipitated the fall of the Heath Government.