According to Arthur Borriello and Anton Jäger, the Euro-American left-populist cycle of the ‘long 2010s’ is now over, its forces ‘sullen and spent’. Their book, which draws on earlier joint pieces for Jacobin, sets out to explain the fortunes of five electoral movements—Syriza, Podemos, La France insoumise, Corbynism and the Sanders campaign—by placing them in the context of two overlapping historical crises: the financial crash and its aftermath, and the erosion of civil society effected by neoliberalism. By creating a chasm between rulers and ruled, these developments allowed outsider candidates to enter mainstream politics. But these outsiders had the unenviable task of building hegemony in an atomized social landscape. Their aim—‘to rethink mobilization for an age of demobilization; to organize for an age of disorganization’—was admirable; but their tactics came up short. Jäger and Borriello, young Belgian political scientists at, respectively, the universities of Oxford and Namur, assess the historical reasons for this failure and the lessons that the left of the 2020s might learn from it.
The Populist Moment begins with a simple diagnosis: left populism in the Global North was a response to a political scene shorn of an active labour movement and mass politics—a twin decline accelerated by the former social-democratic parties’ embrace of the neoliberal order. After the economic slump of the 1970s, elites conspired to bring down the membership-based organizations that were previously able to negotiate a degree of societal distribution of wealth and power. Parties, unions, clubs, community associations and churches were decimated, to be replaced by lobbies and advocacy groups. National democracy was overridden by multinational institutions. Liberal luminaries commented complacently on the increasing irrelevance of parliaments and elections, while cheap credit and financialization instated a new model of ‘asset citizenship’. In this conjuncture, Borriello and Jäger write, the left confronted the dilemma identified in 1985 by Adam Przeworski’s Capitalism and Social Democracy: either tie its project to productive workers, despite their diminishing numbers, or form cross-class alliances at the expense of programmatic coherence. Its partisans chose the second option—aware that the industrial proletariat, ‘driven not only out of the factory but also out of the public sphere itself’, had become an unlikely vanguard. In so doing, they looked to Ernesto Laclau’s conception of ‘populist reason’, whereby a charismatic leader uses a hegemonic signifier to cleave society into new binary fractions: the many versus the few.
Against the various misuses of the term—generally deployed to dismiss any challenge to the liberal mainstream, regardless of political content—Borriello and Jäger define populism as a politics that traverses class divisions, and in which no social stratum enjoys a privileged role. Its adversary is not capitalism but ‘oligarchic corruption’, and its preferred societal oppositions are not workers versus bosses, capital versus labour, but debtors versus creditors or people versus elites. Populism has flourished in situations ‘where a social-democratic option was either unavailable or discredited, the channels of democratic mediation were clogged, and the main social groups of a popular coalition were relatively fragmented and isolated, and so crying out for unification.’ Amid crises of political representation, it calls for ‘democracy’, however hazily defined, as the solution.
The meltdown of 2008 created an opening for this modality, as homes were foreclosed and faith in the Third Way was eclipsed. Rule-by-technocrats, which promised home comforts for the middle class in exchange for political quietude, was suddenly inviable. Following the imposition of austerity, an outraged youth flooded the streets: occupying Zuccotti Park, blocking the Gran Vía and almost storming the Hellenic Parliament. But lacking a unified agenda, even the most radical action yielded no concrete results. In the Eurozone, this impasse led to the establishment of new political vehicles, which displayed a common set of organizational features: nimble, digitized, top-down, electoralist. Under the two-party systems of the us and uk, similar movements tried to capture the machinery of the existing centre-lefts. ‘If initial claims of injustice were a reaction to the mismanagement of the economic crisis’, Borriello and Jäger observe, ‘the organizations that arose in response reflected and even mimicked the rampant hollowing out of civil society over the past several decades’. In the absence of dense social networks, populism sought to mobilize voters via social media platforms, replacing an ineffective horizontalism with a strategy based on online communications and the personal brand of the leader.
The authors go on to provide a sober account of the contingent circumstances in which these various left-populist projects surged and then foundered. Syriza won the 2015 election but caved to the eu’s austerity demands within two months. Podemos made steady gains up until 2016, yet its popularity was damaged by fierce internal divisions, the polarizations over Catalan independence and the rise of Vox. lfi, though more successful in surpassing its centre-left opponents, failed to gain a majority in the Assembly. Its autocratic structure prevents it from building a mass base and it appears to have no answer to the continual rise of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. Corbyn was catapulted to the top of the Labour Party against all odds, but he soon botched his Brexit policy as well as his response to relentless factional warfare and media smear campaigns. Sanders rejuvenated the American left with his first presidential campaign, before moving closer to the Democratic establishment during the Trump years and assimilating into it entirely under Biden.
As it turned out, the ‘pure’ populist approach, adopted most whole-heartedly by Podemos, was unable to create a durable power bloc. Borriello and Jäger identify three failed strategies that it employed. Leaderism—the personalization of the party—allowed a range of interests and frustrations to be condensed in a single figure, as Laclau had theorized; but these disparate constituencies went their separate ways as soon as the figurehead lost his magical aura. Digitalization could mobilize millions of disaffected or unaffiliated voters, yet it encouraged weak and ephemeral forms of activism which failed to educate them. Loose party structures enabled rapid decision-making, but they too deprived left populism of a strong organizational culture, creating political structures that were highly vertical yet lacking in discipline and accountability.
Overreliance on such methods helps to explain the outcomes of the populist moment in its various national contexts. Syriza, the authors write, was ‘neutralized’ by the eu. Corbynism crashed in the 2019 election and subsequently ‘disappeared’ from public life. Podemos has split and mostly abandoned its populist strategy, becoming ‘normalized’ as a parliamentary party by its role as junior coalition partner in Sanchez’s psoe government. lfi has succeeded in ‘reordering’ the French left, yet its power over other progressive parties is ‘majoritarian’ rather than ‘hegemonic’. And the Bernie movement has ‘splintered’, with the polarization between Democrats and Republicans causing many of its militants to be subsumed by the Biden apparatus, while others have spun off.