The rise of populism is a pure product of capitalist decomposition

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In Europe, the United States and just about everywhere else in the world, populist or more traditional far-right parties are enjoying electoral successes that seemed inconceivable a decade ago. This was clearly demonstrated during the European elections in June 2024: the Rassemblement National (RN) in France, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD - Alternative for Germany) and Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) achieved impressive scores. In Great Britain, Reform UK led by Nigel Farage (the main promoter of Brexit) could swallow large chunks of the Conservative Party, the oldest and most experienced political party of the bourgeoisie, at the ballot box. In France, Marine Le Pen's RN is expected to come out on top in the next legislative elections decreed in haste by President Macron and could potentially come to power for the first time. And this against a backdrop in which Trump flew through the Republican Party primaries, outclassed an increasingly geriatric Biden in their last debate and is seriously threatening to take back the White House next November...

The bourgeoisie is tending to lose control of its political apparatus

The European elections have confirmed the reality of a process of weakening which is affecting all the political apparatuses of the bourgeoisie throughout the world, not only in the most fragile countries on the periphery of capitalism, in the most prominent Latin American states such as Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, but also in the heart of capitalism, in the major democratic powers of Western Europe and the United States.

After the Second World War and up until the dawn of the 1990s, despite a context of ever deepening economic crisis, the bourgeoisie had maintained a certain stability in the political landscape, dominated most of the time by two-party systems, alternations or solid coalitions, as was the case, for example, in Germany (SPD and CDU), in Great Britain with the Tories and Labour, in the United States with the Democrats and the Republicans, or in France and Spain with the opposition of left-wing and right-wing parties. In Italy, the main political force guaranteeing the stability of the state throughout this period was Christian Democracy. This made it possible to achieve relatively stable parliamentary majorities within an apparently well-oiled institutional framework.

However, by the end of the 1980s, decadent capitalism was gradually entering a new historical phase, the phase of decomposition. The implosion of the "Soviet" bloc and the increasing decay of the system were to sharpen tensions within the various national bourgeoisies and increasingly affect their political apparatus. The deepening of the crisis and the increasingly obvious lack of any perspective, including for certain sectors of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, increasingly eroded the "democratic credibility" of the traditional parties. From the beginning of the twenty-first century, these elements gave rise to populist movements denouncing the "scheming of the ruling elites", combined with a rise in abstention and growing electoral volatility.

Gradually, the bourgeoisie's control over its political system began to show cracks. In France, after the "forced cohabitations", the push by Macron to counter the rise of the RN led to the collapse of the discredited Socialist Party, and the fragmentation of the traditional right-wing party. In the UK, the bourgeoisie tried to recuperate the populist pro-Brexit movement through the Conservative Party, leading to its present fragmentation. In Italy, the Christian Democracy also collapsed, giving way to new formations like Forza Italia (already headed by a populist leader, Berlusconi), and then to a slew of populist and far-right movements at the helm of the state (the 5 Star Movement, Salvini's Lega, Fratelli d'Italia). In the Netherlands, three of the four parties in the parliamentary majority are populist. In the United States, since Bush junior and his administration, populist tendencies have been increasingly undermining the Republican Party (such as the Tea Party, for example) and have led to the populist Trump's takeover of the party.

With the acceleration of decomposition in recent years, particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic, the populist wave is forcing more and more states to come to terms with bourgeois factions marked by irrationality, fickleness and unpredictability. Populism is thus the most caricatural expression of the decomposition of the capitalist mode of production.

The rise of populism is not, therefore, the result of a deliberate manoeuvre by the ruling class[1]. The ferment among the most "rational" factions of the bourgeoisie in the face of the populist upsurge expresses their real anxiety. Although populism is fundamentally "one of them" and its xenophobic and retrograde rhetoric is, in truth, a stinking concentrate of the ideology of the bourgeois class (individualism, nationalism, domination by violence...), the access of populist parties and their totally irrational and incompetent leaders to the helm of states can only further complicate the management of the interests of each national capital and aggravate the chaos which is already spreading all over the planet.

Populism, the product and accelerator of chaos and global instability

The rise of populism in several countries confirms what the ICC had already analysed in the Theses devoted to the analysis of the historical period of decomposition, in which we stressed " “the bourgeoisie’s growing difficulty in controlling the evolution of the political situation. Obviously, this is a result of the ruling class’ increasing loss of control over its economic apparatus, the infrastructure of society…The absence of any perspective (other than day-to-day stop-gap measures to prop up the economy) around which it could mobilise as a class, and at the same time the fact that the proletariat does not yet threaten its own survival, creates within the ruling class, and especially within its political apparatus, a growing tendency towards indiscipline and an attitude of “every man for himself”.[2]

This inevitable advance of capitalist decomposition also explains the failure of the measures taken by the traditional parties of the bourgeoisie to halt the rise of populism[3]. For example, the British bourgeoisie tried to redirect the "Brexit" disaster by replacing Boris Johnson and Liz Truss with a more responsible prime minister, Rishi Sunak in 2022. But the "reliable" Sunak responded to defeat in local elections by bringing forward the general election, which many analysts have described as "political suicide" for the Tories, once the emblem of the world's smartest and most experienced bourgeoisie. The same can be said of a Macron, supported for years by all the political forces of the French bourgeoisie (including the left, which voted for him, remember, with a "clothes peg on its nose" to prevent Le Pen coming to power) and who, by hastily dissolving the National Assembly, is potentially paving the way for the RN and, whatever happens, unpredictability and chaos. This scorched-earth policy is completely at odds with the interests of the factions that claim to be the most responsible within the political apparatus, as evidenced by the divisions within the right-wing parties and the hasty formation of a New Popular Front on the left, whose course is uncertain. Finally, in the United States, Trump's ousting in 2020 has not helped the Republican Party to find another, more "predictable" candidate. Nor has the Democratic Party known how to react, and now has to rely on an 81-year-old Biden to stop Trump.

The fact that the leaders of the main capitalist states are playing poker, engaging in irresponsible adventures with unpredictable results, in which the particular interests of each clique, or even of each individual, take precedence over those of the bourgeoisie as a whole and the global interests of each national capital, is revealing of the lack of perspective, of the predominance of "every man for himself".

The consequences of this loss-of-control dynamic are bound to be a major acceleration of global chaos and instability. If Trump's first election had already marked an increase in instability in imperialist relations, his re-election would mean a considerable acceleration of global imperialist chaos by, for example, reconsidering US support for Ukraine or unreservedly backing Netanyahu's scorched earth policy in Gaza. Trump's return to office would further destabilise institutions and, more generally, fragment the fabric of society, as did the assault on the Capitol in January 2021. The economic crisis is also likely to worsen, with increased protectionism not only against China but also against Europe.

This would also have a major impact on the European Union (EU), which is also torn apart by growing tensions over the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza, as can be seen in particular in the row between France and Germany over the sending of troops to Ukraine. These tensions are likely to increase with the rise of populist forces, which tend to be less hostile towards Putin's regime and less inclined to support Ukraine financially and militarily. What's more, the EU's policy of economic austerity (limiting budget deficits and debt, etc.) also clashes with the economic and social protectionism advocated by the populists in the name of "national sovereignty".

The bourgeoisie is trying to turn the effects of its decomposition against the proletariat

Whatever difficulties the various bourgeoisies encounter in maintaining control over their political apparatus, they try by every means to exploit them to block the development of workers' struggles, to counter reflection within the proletariat and thus prevent the development of consciousness within it. To do this, they can count on the left, which deploys its entire ideological arsenal and puts forward false alternatives. In England, the Labour Party is presenting itself as the "responsible" alternative to stem the disorder caused by successive Tory governments' irresponsible handling of Brexit. In France, faced with Macron's unpredictable decision to call elections, the vast majority of bourgeois forces on the traditional and more radical left have united in a "New Popular Front" to oppose the rise of the far right. By exploiting the opposition between sectors of the bourgeoisie in the face of the rise of populism and the far right, it is trying to divert the proletariat from the only struggle that can lead to the liberation of humanity through the overthrow of the capitalist system, and to promote the false perspective of defending democracy. While voting mobilises workers as atomised "citizens", the left presents electoral results as a reflection of the state of class consciousness. The bourgeoisie often displays maps showing the growth of the populist vote in working-class neighbourhoods in order to hammer home the idea that the working class is the cause of the rise of populism, that it is a crowd of ignoramuses with no future. It also sows the seeds of division between workers from ethnic minorities who are allegedly the victims of "privileged, white" workers.

It is therefore clear that the increased political difficulties for the bourgeoisie in no way mean an opportunity for the proletariat to use them to develop its own struggle. This situation will in no way lead to an automatic strengthening of the working class. On the contrary, it is an opportunity used and ideologically exploited by the ruling class.

The proletariat needs to politicise its struggles, but not in the way advocated by the left of capital, by committing itself to the defence of bourgeois "democracy". On the contrary, it must refuse to take part in the the elections and fight on its own class terrain, against all the factions and expressions of the capitalist world which threaten to condemn us to destruction and barbarism.
Valerio, 1 July 2024


[1] See How the bourgeoisie organises itself, International Review no. 172 (2024).

[2] Theses on decomposition, International Review 107

[3] There is no fundamental difference between populists and the far right and the classic parties of the bourgeois state. The rhetoric may be more blunt or cynical. The former frequently unleash their racist bile, while the latter subcontract the closure of their borders to torturer egimes such as Turkey or Morocco. Populists are often climate change deniers. The "responsible" parties are not so crass, but all they are prepared to do is come up with "antics" like the recent climate summit in Dubai.


The political apparatus of the ruling class