Gordon Brown’s first act after he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997 was to grant the Bank of England operational independence.
The move was meant to signal a newfound pragmatism in Labour’s approach to the economy – no more reckless spending, no more excessive borrowing, no more outlandish leftwing demands for full employment. Instead, in stark contrast to the behaviour of previous Labour governments, the Blair-Brown administration would be a responsible steward of Britain’s national finances.
This must have seemed like a smart idea at the time. What better way to shore-up Labour’s fiscal credentials than by handing power over a key economic lever – monetary policy – to a panel of experts?
In fact, it was catastrophically misjudged. By insisting that strict inflation targets and ‘sound money’ be enforced by committee, rather than overseen by parliament, Brown was telling voters that some issues were simply too important for them to decide. And that, as it turns out, is not something voters particularly want to hear.
Two decades on, New Labour’s technocratic obsession with budgetary discipline – an obsession enthusiastically shared by subsequent Tory governments – has been drowned out by the Brexit rallying cry of ‘take back control.’ But take back control of what, and to whose benefit?
In her concise, timely, and provocative new book, For A Left Populism, the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues that capitalism – at least in its current, radically deregulated form – has been bad for democracy.
The convergence of established social democratic parties around a Thatcherite economic consensus – privatised industries, finance-led growth, weak trade unions, and global free trade – has robbed the public of a clear choice between right and left, more inequality or less, leaving the space for collective decision-making critically reduced.
The result, Mouffe says, has been the rise of a new kind of adversarial politics that promises to restore ‘sovereignty to the people’ by overturning a failed status quo. At one end of the spectrum stand Brexit, Trump, and Europe’s various ascendant far-right organisations. At the other, there’s Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, and the anti-austerity movement, Podemos, in Spain.
Mouffe’s account of populism turns the dominant liberal analysis on its head.
According to prominent centrist writers such as Ian Bremmer and Yascha Mounk, populism is an inherently authoritarian ideology that aims to subvert traditional constitutional checks and balances in order to concentrate power in the hands of a single political party or personality.
But for Mouffe, it is a necessary vehicle for democratic renewal: western countries are already ruled by tiny, self-selecting elites whose policies have laid waste to the planet’s resources – in the absence of far-reaching political and economic change, there will be very little freedom left to defend.
“Instead of seeing the populist moment as a threat to democracy, it is urgent to realise that it also offers the opportunity for [democracy’s] radicalization,” she writes.
Mouffe rejects the notion that all populisms are the same: while the right whips up anger towards immigrants, foreigners, and other blameless minorities, the left rails against the real source of crisis – an economy run by the ultra-rich, in the interests of the ultra-rich, at everyone else’s expense.
If progressive forces are actually going to win, however, they will have to ditch the old consensual model of Third Way politics championed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in favour of a more assertive and polarising approach.
Mouffe cites Jeremy Corbyn’s pointed attacks on the British political, media, and financial establishments – “the oligarchy,” as she calls them – as a leading contemporary example of the left-populist style, and notes how effective populist rhetoric has been in bringing a fresh generation of activists into the party fold.
“It is very telling that for the recent electoral campaign, [Labour] used the Blairite slogan ‘For the many, not the few’, but re-signified it in an agonistic way as constructing a political frontier between ‘we’ and ‘they’,” she says.
“Corbyn has been able to attract a huge following among young people [which] testifies to the capacity of left populism to give a new impulse to democratic politics.”
In some respects, Mouffe’s argument in For A Left Populism is just a cautiously updated version of the thesis she has been developing since the mid-1980s, when, alongside her late husband, the Argentinian academic Ernesto Laclau, she published a series of highly influential essays exploring ‘post-Marxist’ socialist theory.
Yet it is a testament to the tremendous prescience of her thought that the ideas she and Laclau first articulated more than 30 years ago remain so resonant today – perhaps more resonant than ever, in fact.
Mouffe’s early work grappled with the challenge posed by the burgeoning ideological hegemony of Thatcherism after the collapse of post-war social democracy. But in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, that hegemony itself has begun to fade, which explains why so many centre-left parties that still uncritically subscribe to it are now struggling in the polls.
The bracing central assertion of this book is that neoliberalism is fast approaching its expiry date – and that whatever comes next will be shaped either by the radical left or the authoritarian right. One way or the other, though, the era of stifling centrist managerialism is dead.
This article is a review of For A Left Populism by Chantal Mouffe.