The Varieties of Populist Experience

Emmanuel Macron’s decisive defeat of Marine Le Pen in the French presidential runoff was a major victory for liberal Europe. But it was a battle, not a war. The idea that one in three French citizens would vote for the National Front’s Le Pen was inconceivable only a few years ago.

Commentators have affixed the “populist” label to the wave of demagogic politics sweeping Europe (and much of the rest of the world). But, beyond the raucous style common to populists, what do these movements share? After all, Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza are of the left. France’s National Front, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) are of the right. Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement, says that his movement is neither left nor right.

And yet common themes run through all of them: economic nationalism, social protection, anti-Europeanism, anti-globalization, and hostility not just to the political establishment, but to politics itself.

To understand what this might mean for the evolution of European politics, consider the history of fascism. Benito Mussolini, the founder of Italian fascism in 1919, started as a revolutionary socialist. In Germany, the word Nazi was, we should recall, short for National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Initially, fascism was a nationalist, anti-capitalist movement. Later it confined its attack to liberal capitalism, especially “international finance.” And this soon shaded into anti-Semitism – what the German Social Democrat August Bebel famously called “the socialism of fools.” European fascism collapsed with the defeat of Germany in 1945, but less aggressive forms lived on elsewhere, such as Argentina with its Peronism.

The social base of interwar fascism made it reasonable to see it as a party of the right. At the time, the working class dependably supported parties of the left. The only political space left for fascism was the petit bourgeoisie: shopkeepers, small businessmen, and low-level civil servants.

Today, the social basis of left-wing politics has vanished. The classic working class has disappeared: social democratic parties and trade unions are shadows of their former selves. This means that left-wing populists are inevitably compelled to compete with right-wing populists for the support of exactly the same groups that turned to fascism between the wars: young unemployed males, the “small man” who feels threatened by the “oligarchy” of bankers, global supply chains, corrupt politicians, remote European Union bureaucrats, and “fat cats” of all kinds. Today’s populists, of whatever political stripe, increasingly target not just the same potential supporters, but the enemies as well.

How much space exists for populism’s further growth, and which variety – socialist or fascist – will attract the available votes?

The broad answer to the first part of the question was provided by former US President Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.” The EU has been the slowest of the world’s major economic centers to recover from the post-2008 slump. In France, the unemployment rate is 10%. Youth unemployment there is around 24%, and 34% in Italy – creating fertile recruiting ground for the extremes of left and right.

Though Macron is by no means an obsessive fiscal hawk, he wants to narrow the French government deficit from 3.4% to 3% of GDP, in line with the ceiling set by the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact. In the firing line are 120,000 civil service jobs. Yet he also wants to boost the economy with a €50 billion ($55 billion) stimulus package and extend the welfare state.

To square the circle, Macron needs growth, and he is relying on supply-side reforms to deliver it. He plans to cut the corporate-tax rate from 33% to 25% and exclude financial investment from wealth taxation. A vocal critic of protectionism, he will push for the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the United States. His support of the El Khomri law, which made it easier to fire workers, and his opposition to the 35-hour week, indicate his desire to increase the French labor market’s “flexibility.”

Despite talk of the “green economy” and calls for a Europe-wide investment program, Macron’s agenda is broadly neoliberal. Essentially, Macron is hoping that his agenda, if implemented at the EU level, will lift not just the French economy, but all European boats.

In fact, the likelihood is that such reforms will sink all boats, giving the populists their chance. In that case, which variety of populist will seize the opportunity?

The economist Dani Rodrik puts the appeal of populism into focus. He argues that democracy, national sovereignty, and global economic integration are mutually incompatible; at least one must be sacrificed. Given that many voters in Europe and the US feel battered by globalization, a populist party that aggressively puts the nation first has a head start against its rivals.

From this perspective, Macron was the ideal candidate for Le Pen to lose to. He embodies the globalist elite. He appears soft on immigration. And, assuming that his new political party fails to win a majority in next month’s National Assembly election, his government will require support from the mainstream parties. Over the next five years, establishment figures may well coalesce around failing policies, giving Le Pen the perfect target for the National Front’s 2022 presidential campaign.

To be sure, support for a leftist program certainly exists in France. About 20% of voters backed the left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the presidential election’s first round. In the second round, one particularly illuminating Twitter hashtag was #NiPatronNiPatrie (“neither boss nor country”), reflecting many voters’ dissatisfaction with the election’s choice between neoliberalism and nationalism. The task of the left is to direct attention to the truly problematic aspects of global economic integration – financialization, the prioritization of capital over labor, of creditor over debtor, of patron over ouvrier – without lapsing into reactionary politics.