Populism is not another player in the games between the parties of left and right; it exists because of widespread discontent that can find no means of expressing itself. It’s entirely on the political terrain of the bourgeoisie, but is based on opposition to elites and ‘the Establishment’, on antagonism towards immigration, distrust of left-wing promises and right-wing austerity, all expressing a loss of confidence in the institutions of capitalist society but not for a moment recognising the revolutionary alternative of the working class.
In the ICC’s “Theses on Decomposition” (https://en.internationalism.org/node/3253), published in 1990, we wrote about “the bourgeoisie’s growing difficulty in controlling the evolution of the political situation” and “the ruling class’ loss of control over its own political strategy”. Although the use of democracy has proven a very effective tool and ideology for the capitalist class, something in which their control of the political situation has been sustained, the latent tendency for difficulties to emerge for the ruling class has come more and more to the surface with the growth of populism.
The rise of populism, at a certain level, strengthens democracy with the discontented rallying to the populist parties, with others rallying to any force that will confront populism. However, the UK vote to Leave the EU is a reminder of the difficulties that populism can cause for the bourgeoisie’s political control. The ruling class uses democracy to try and give its rule some legitimacy, but populism undermines its attempts at validation. Populism poses dangers for the bourgeoisie because, as it develops, it brings unpredictable upsets in the democratic process
The British bourgeoisie faced with the problem of populism
We have often had good reason to emphasise that the British ruling class is the most experienced bourgeoisie in the world, able to manoeuvre at the diplomatic, political and electoral level in a manner that is the envy of capitalist states across the globe. However, in this case, the Brexit vote shows the limits of the abilities of the British bourgeoisie.
Although the UK has a long history of capitalism’s use of elections, it has had little use for referenda. After the EU referendum of 1975, apart from local referenda in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there was only the 2011 referendum on a new voting system before this year’s vote on Leave/Remain. This has been a wise policy for the bourgeoisie because there is always the danger that a referendum can be used as a focus for protest on any issue, regardless of the actual subject of the vote. In practice David Cameron’s calling of a referendum was a massive miscalculation about the growth of populism. Far from being limited to a battle with UKIP and Eurosceptic Tories, there were many from all and no political backgrounds drawn into the fray. This also accounted for the weakness of the Remain campaign. While it presented facts, common sense and rational considerations (from a capitalist point of view), the Leave campaign appealed, with greater success, to irrational emotions.
The Brexiters personalised the argument by focussing on the rich Cameron and Osborne who couldn’t understand the concerns of ordinary people; they said that people were fed up with experts and should trust their gut feelings; they portrayed immigration as a problem and one worsened by EU membership; and they promised £350m per week would be available to spend on the NHS (later saying this was a ‘mistake’). Against this the Remain campaign sustained its arguments on the need to continue the benefits of EU membership, displayed the analysis of armies of economists, and quoted the testimonies of businesses that recognised the importance of the EU. When Remain did approach questions like immigration they agreed with the Leavers that it was a problem, but insisted that the EU framework was the best way of further clamping down on the movement of people looking for employment or safety.
The unpredictable consequences of Brexit
After the EU referendum there will be no return to political ‘business as usual”. Neither side had a plan for what to do in the event of a Leave victory. Whatever happens those who will suffer most will be those who were suffering already. While Osborne was quick to announce a cut in Corporation Tax to attract business to Britain, it is clear that it will be the working class that will have to make the economic sacrifices, and that workers would bear the brunt of attacks whether Remain or Leave had won.
At the economic level there has been much speculation as to what could happen, how British capitalism can best defend its interests, how the countries of the EU can defend themselves against any collateral damage in the aftermath of the referendum. The implications are international. There will be attempts to limit the impact on the EU. The dangers of a Brexit contagion spreading to other countries are very real. There are forces in many countries that resent the dominance of France and Germany in the EU. A British exit could further deepen these centrifugal forces.
One other prospect opens up with the growth of separatist tendencies. With the Scottish vote in the referendum strongly in favour of remaining in the EU, and with the 2015 General Election leaving only a handful of Scottish MPs not in the Scottish National Party, the possibility of a further loss of control and the undermining of the Union has been the subject of much speculation. It’s a different situation in Northern Ireland, but a majority there also wanted to remain, which could also cause further difficulties for the United Kingdom.
On the political level there will be realignments, but there’s no guarantee that there’ll be a return to the unambiguous certainties of Left/Right politics. Parliament has 40 years of EU legislation to examine in a short period. After its internal battles the Conservative Party is not going to settle down easily. There was a big split in the Tory Cabinet during the campaign, and, after the referendum, the battle between Gove and Johnson showed a further division in the Brexit camp. Of the two women who are candidates for the Conservative leadership, May was for the Remain side but now says that “Brexit means Brexit”, while Leadsom, in 2013, said leaving the EU “would be a disaster for our economy”, but campaigned to Leave in 2016. The 150,000 members of the Conservative Party who will decide on the next Prime Minister might not be a predictable electorate, any more than the Labour Party was when it voted for Corbyn. (Editor's note: Since this article was written, the political situation has evolved yet again, with Theresa May now installed as Prime Minister, following Leadsom's withdrawal.)
The situation in the Labour Party is a microcosm of the overall political difficulties faced by the bourgeoisie. Labour is not being called on to fulfil any important government function at present, but it does have an important oppositional role and needs to be ready for the future whenever the working class begins to stir. There is a gap between the MPs who don’t support Corbyn as leader and the membership who do. The unions are not united, but they too will contribute to the situation, not necessarily to provide stability.
The UK’s EU referendum is a disquieting example to the bourgeoisie elsewhere. If the British bourgeoisie, across the spectrum, has difficulties in coping with the growth of populism then the same will apply to every other state. While democracy is one of the main means for containing and diverting the impulses of the working class and other social strata, the force of populism shows that the democratic process has its limitations and doesn’t always follow the will of the dominant factions of the bourgeoisie.
The working class in the face of populism
One of the reasons for the growth of populism is the weakness of the working class, at the level of its struggles, its consciousness and its sense of its own identity. If the working class was widely seen to present an alternative to capitalism then it would be an inspirational factor in the perspective of a human community. But this is currently not the case.
Not only that, many workers have fallen in with populism, taken in by the idea of the ‘people’ against the elites. It is significant that in those areas of old industrial Britain that have been most run down and neglected there was a greater working class tendency to vote Leave. The Labour Party has taken support in these areas for granted, and although a majority of Labour voters voted to Remain, the minority that didn’t was significant. These are the sections of the working class who have suffered most from the ‘neo-liberal’ policies which have displaced whole industries from the old capitalist heartlands, have turned the housing market into an arena for unrestricted speculation, and which subsequently offered austerity as the medicine needed to avert the disintegration of the international financial system.
Faced with this onslaught, often presented in the guise of a kind of capitalist ‘internationalism’, it is not surprising that whole sectors of the working class feel a very real anger against the establishment, but this does not in itself lead to the development of class consciousness. The appeal of populist demagogues, with their easy targets to blame, the EU, a metropolitan elite, immigration, foreigners, is quite concrete. Where capitalism is an abstraction, the populists can change their focus from EU regulations to Islamist terrorism to globalisation, even to the parasitic rich, without pausing for breath. Populism represents a considerable danger to the working class, because it does not have to be in any way coherent to be effective. It is a big challenge for revolutionaries to analyse the significance this whole phenomenon, and we are only just beginning this work.
The UK referendum, both campaign and result, is just one demonstration of a situation that is changing because of the growth of populism. It is a problem that can only get worse until the proletariat begins to appreciate its historic role, understands that it is not just an exploited class but that it has the capacity to overthrow capitalism and establish an international human community.