Friday, 14 February 2020

Mob rule versus mob rules

Today's Guardian has a concern troll at the gates. The concern is presented as
While populism itself has received an enormous amount of media attention over the past several years, anti-populism has not. Yet this is somewhat curious, given that anti-populism – with its call for a more sensible, moderate politics – has become one of the most widely held views across the western political mainstream.
I'm sure many readers were clicking their cogs for a critical analysis of status quo sellout policies that lead to the social and political conditions observable today. Some likely got what they wanted. That's how the concern troll rolls. What I have come away with is rather a tedious recent history lesson that has replaced "centrist" with "anti-populist".

Observe and consider the following:
Unlike other “isms”, anti-populism is not a clear ideological disposition or mode of governance, but rather an odd mix of ideological and strategic allies pulled together in a temporary coalition. Anti-populism can draw together politicians from all over the left-right spectrum. They don’t have a shared view of the role of the state, military intervention, fiscal regulation and so on – but what they do share is a broader vision of how politics should be “done”.
I see. They don't share a view on military intervention and fiscal regulation, they just agree that in order to "do politics" they need to agree to regulate fiscally so that nothing ever stands in the way of intervening militarily. It's easy to see why this cannot be a critical view of centrism, because centrist politics also just happens to require the involvement of politicians from "all over the left-right spectrum", albeit with every last one of them claiming the mantle of moderation, never to utter the words left or right unless disparaging opponents as extreme. Journalists will often refer to these self-styled moderates as center-left or center-right, especially in Europe, doing the dirty work of making up additional, ostensibly more precise labels that also happen not to fit.

Here the editorial purview is a much needed look at anti-populism, whose ostensible history extends no further back than the last pair of election cycles, but with a refreshing allusion of witty journalistic irony that hearkens back to the ancient history of last century's nineties! Calling that centrism would defeat the purpose of centrism, which is to appear to be moderate, which also just happens to include granting the Executive, who you've been declaring a dangerous game-changing right wing populist, more money than he asked for to execute whatever interventions you can agree to, or agree to abdicate your authority on. This last bit, however, is not general enough for the article, already proudly purporting to be a part of something called "the Long Read".

Since the news is meant to be educational, the consumer of the news needs to know what populism is in order to understand where this thing called anti-populism comes from:
Although populists on the left and right clearly have very different stances, there are a number of things that tend to unite them – and mobilise anti-populists’ concerns.
No pun intended, so no Freudian slip, but the leaders of multinational concerns do share an anti-populist worldview, even if some of them use populist messaging to poison the populace with their products.

First, while populists appeal to “the people” against “the elite”, anti-populists see this as a crude and patently false way to divide society. The political theorist Jan-Werner Müller argues that populists’ “idea of the single, homogenous, authentic people is a fantasy”. Instead, anti-populists argue that we should acknowledge that there are many overlapping, competing characterisations of “the people” in society, and that such collective identities are only ever made up by individuals anyway.
Bonus points for citing a science-y strawman to point out that corporations are people, but couching it in terms that remind us that big business is run by elite lives that matter. At least that's what the anti-populists might say. Our journalist continues the lesson:
Anti-populists also tend to object to the nationalist and even isolationist visions that that idea of “the people” implies. While populists of both the right and left tend to be critics of globalisation – variously blaming it for increasing migration, weakening national sovereignty or lowering wages – anti-populists tend to defend a world of free markets and free movement of peoples, as well as acknowledging the important role of transnational economic and political bodies in our globally interdependent era.
Now that we know that populist both left and right "tend to" be united on certain things, the implication implied with the scare quotes here is "das Volk!" The tendency of anti-populists, on the other hand, is to acknowledge something important. They do not acknowledge "that something is important". Our journalist takes the importance as a given. The Long Read doesn't have time to get into the minutiae of those things that tend to unite anti-populists. Surely the reader is smart enough to understand the importance of transnational economic bodies in an era of global interdependence.

Otherwise, for the most part our journalist presents what he claims to understand and believe as the views of two opposing sides. I am always at pains to figure out whether I should give such presenters of things the benefit of the doubt. The journalist bears no such burden and can thereby present the opposing views as if they are unbiased and honest. Keep in mind that this is supposed to be a critical look at anti-populism. As such, the next paragraph is key to the critique and would be promising had it not contained the biggest lie about centrism, which is why it's being masked in this piece as anti-populism:
Yet it is worth asking the question: when it comes to politics, what is normality anyway? Behind such calls for consensus and order, there are some significant problems with anti-populism. For one thing, there is little questioning of who this particular consensus actually worked for. Some would argue that the alleged consensus of post-cold war politics was actually the result of the capitulation of the centre-left to the right, rather than any real moderation.
Some would argue that the center-left was actually always anti-populist policies from all over the political spectrum whereby in order to build their consensus no extreme was left off the table. By dint of constantly stated differences comes their post-hyphen appellation,  but the extremity of their consensus is about as far-right as one can get. The people, or rather "the people", don't get to see that because of the consensus of the global interdependence of transnational economies.

The ultimate convergence of the cruelty of the corporate military state is tucked away abroad, and usually overseas, from that state's headquarters, and the extent to which one can read about the suffering it causes confirms the freedom the reader has to obscure the harsh realities of their rational consensus politics with an addiction to the products and services that enrich the corporate military state, one service of which is the anti-populist threat of populism. At least you would think that's as popular as ever these days.

The editorial goes on to, I suppose rightly, note the similarity of the neither-left nor-right nineties' "third way" politics to current anti-populism and frames it as an innocent desire to stem the tide of the extreme right, again giving those politics the benefit of the doubt. Then, in stating the false equivalence of left and right populism, the author claims:
It is true that anti-populists usually acknowledge, correctly, that the threat posed by radical right populists, with their often explicit threats against minorities, tends to be far greater than that posed by populists on the left, who focus their anger on the economic elite.
No. It is not true that anti-populist usually bother to draw such distinctions. It is true, however, that the author has just implicitly stated that populists of the left tend to be dangerous, if far less so.
Yet that doesn’t stop some of the more fervent anti-populists drawing an equivalence between the populist left and right. Take, for example, the Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s comments, from 2019, about populist sentiment in the US: “It just kind of turns you against the system in general, and then you’re more likely to want to vote to blow up the system. Which could lead you to somebody like Bernie, and it could lead you to somebody like Trump. That’s how we got where we are.” The message here is that Trump and Sanders are the same in being expressions of democratic discontent: the subtext is that such anti-system sentiment is immature, destructive and dangerous.
Just as the subtext of the previous paragraph was exactly the same as the subtext the author now chooses to criticize.

An additional trouble with anti-populists, so our author, is something they share with populists. Namely, it would be wrongly pitting "liberalism (with its rule of law, freedom of speech and checks and balances) and democracy (with its popular sovereignty and majoritarianism)" against each other.
But this opposition is too simplistic. As the political theorist Chantal Mouffe has argued, the very strength of liberal democracy is that it is characterised by the productive tension between these two forces. If we go too far towards majoritarian-style democracy, we end up with mob rule; if we go too far towards liberalism, we end up with detached technocracy. Instead, we need liberalism and democracy to keep one another in line – pushing the other back when it oversteps its mark or is out of balance.
I again note the author's use of "mob rule" for the dreaded populists versus the much more liberal, benefit of the doubt granting "detached technocracy" on behalf of those who circumvent the will of people.

Then, after recapitulating the anti-populists' selective adoption of right wing populist immigration policies, so as to apparently demonstrate that anti-populism does not work (this leaves so much room for a "no true anti-populist" argument), he connects this to a conclusion about populism:
The populist temptation is strong for a reason: the elite often deserve their unpopularity and disdain; the media landscape favours populist messaging; and we seem to be pinballing from crisis to crisis. All of this plays into the hands of those who can speak cannily in the name of the people against the elite.
And this plays into the hands those elite who profit from the pinball game.
Anti-populism, by contrast, struggles in this context. It is clear that we are not living in times conducive to consensus politics. Rather, it seems that populists and anti-populists alike are driven by a nostalgia for days gone by. Populists seek a simpler imagined time, where jobs were plentiful, national sovereignty was intact and borders were stronger. Anti-populists, too, are stuck in the past, imagining a time of consensus politics, a supposedly sane and rational period where consensus reigned, and representatives worked together to solve political problems for the greater good.
The reality is that we are no longer living in either of these situations. The question is which side will snap out of its daydream first – and in the long term, what the ultimate cost will be if we choose to stay asleep.
That's a turn I didn't anticipate. This egalitarian view of the need to snap out of it-ism looks like a centrist argument that argues against itself in spite of its not being called centrist. Let's agree to disagree.