This is a transcript of a talk given to the European School of Politics in Istanbul, 30 September 2017. It pulls together many of the themes of which I have written in recent years.
The obvious point of departure for a talk on populism and immigration is last week’s German elections. The election took place under the shadow of the European Union’s migration crisis and the debate about Angela Merkel’s refugee policies. Merkel was retuned to power for a fourth term but considerably weakened. The social democrats, the SPD, plummeted to their worst electoral result ever. And the anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, AfD gained an electoral breakthrough, winning a swathe of seats in the Bundestag.
Many commentators had expected Germany to act as a brake on the surge of anti-immigration populism that has swept much of Europe. Instead, Germany was exposed as being not so different to other European nations. The irony, perhaps, is that the normalization of German politics was revealed through the return of the far right to the Bundestag.
In the wake of the AfD’s success, a debate has arisen in Germany similar to that in many other Western nations. Supporters of the AfD, like supporters of Donald Trump, or of Marine Le Pen, or of the UK Independence Party, view it as an insurgent movement of the little people against a callous and vicious elite. Liberal critics of the AfD, just like those of Trump, Le Pen and UKIP, see its success as an expression of the rage of racists and bigots fuelled by hate.
I want to suggest that what the success of such groups represent is neither what their supporters nor many of their critics believe. What we are witnessing, rather, is a simultaneous crisis of the political class and of the progressive opposition. I want to suggest, too, that this is not just a European or Western phenomenon, but a global one.
Populism is one of those terms easier to use than to define. What populism means today is different from what populism meant a century ago. Across Europe, populist parties vary greatly today, ranging from organizations of the far right to those of the far left, from nationalist movements to conspiracy theorists.
What defines a populist party today is not so much what it is as what it is not. It is not part of the mainstream. It is not part of the establishment. It is outside the liberal consensus. And it is for what they are not, rather than for what they are, that populist parties garner support. What attracts many people to the populists is not simply the policies but also the attitude, the sense of ‘sod them all’, which once was a slogan used by UKIP.
The emergence of such groups reveals more, however, than merely a widespread disdain for the mainstream. It expresses also the redrawing of Europe’s political map, and the creation of a new faultline on that map. The postwar political system, built around the divide between social democratic and conservative parties, is being dismantled. Not only has this created new space for the populists, but it is also transforming the very character of political space.
‘What we may be witnessing is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’ So wrote Francis Fukuyama in his seminal 1989 essay ‘The End of History?’ ‘With the fall of the Soviet Union’, Fukuyama continued, ‘The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.’
A quarter of century on, and there seems something a little absurd about the prediction. I will return shortly to the question of what Fukuyama got wrong. But it is worth remembering also what he got right. 1989 saw not just the fall of the Berlin Wall. It also signalled the erosion of the broad ideological divides that had characterized politics for much of the previous two hundred years. The developments that led to that erosion had begun before 1989. They can be traced to political and economic shifts that had emerged at least a decade earlier. But the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the crumbling of the Soviet empire and, shortly after, the Soviet Union itself, accelerated those trends, and reframed them. It seemingly crushed the possibility of an alternative to the market as a mechanism of economic regulation and hence to capitalism itself.
This inevitably transformed the relationship between left and right. The political sphere narrowed over the following decades; politics become less about competing visions of the kinds of society people want than a debate about how best to manage the existing political system, more a question of technocratic management than of social transformation.
One way in which people have felt these changes is as a crisis of political representation, as a growing sense of being denied a voice, and of political institutions as being remote and corrupt, as the creation of a democratic deficit. The sense of being politically abandoned has been most acute within sections of the traditional working class, whose feelings of isolation have increased as social democratic parties have cut their links with their old constituencies. As mainstream parties have discarded both their ideological attachments and their long-established constituencies, so the public has become increasingly disengaged from the political process. The gap between voters and the elite has widened, fostering disenchantment with the very idea of politics.
The new political faultline in Europe is not between left and right, between social democracy and conservatism, but between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – the more technocratic, post-ideological world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless.
In ‘The End of History?’ Fukuyama grasped important truths about the post-Cold War world. In the quarter of a century since Fukuyama wrote his essay, politics, particularly in the West, has indeed shifted away from ‘ideological struggle’ – certainly in the traditional sense – towards ‘the endless solving of technical problems’. What he failed to grasp, however, was the importance of politics and the significance of collective ideals. ‘Economic calculation’ and ‘the endless solving of technical problems’ have not, and cannot, replace ‘the struggle for recognition’ or ‘the ideological struggle’. What he also failed to grasp was how, as the old ideological struggles faded, new struggles for recognition, much darker, much less negotiable, emerged.
In the post-1989 world, a world in which few people believed any longer in alternatives to capitalism, both left and right have had to remake themselves. The changes are most obvious on the left. Communist parties in West have long since gone, social democratic parties seem similarly destined, trade unions have weakened and social justice campaigns eroded.
No longer able to root itself in old-style class politics, the left responded to the new political terrain in one of two ways. The first has been to look to bureaucratic or managerial means of creating a more progressive society, in a sense to grasp the Fukuyama argument that ideological struggle and idealism would have to be ‘replaced by economic calculation [and] the endless solving of technical problems’. The second has been to look to the politics of identity – to create new struggles for recognition.
Many on the left had always looked to the state as the key means of enforcing social change. As the power of labour movement organizations and social movements waned, this became an even more significant strategy. It was not just the national state, but transnational organizations, from the EU to the International Criminal Court, that became important as vehicles for social change. Where once, those on the left may have looked to labour strikes and trade union muscle to improve and enforce workers’ rights, now they were more likely to look to the European Commission or the Strasbourg Parliament to implement progressive change and to ensure that reluctant governments complied.
The second response to the challenge posed by the demise of class politics was to embrace ‘identity politics’. Identities are, of course, of great significance. They give each of us a sense of ourselves, of our grounding in the world and of our relationships to others. At the same time, politics is a means, or should be a means, or taking us beyond the narrow sense of identity given to each of us by the specific circumstances of our lives and the particularities of personal experiences.
There are two ways in which one can think of the relationship between identity and politics: On the one hand, of one’s identity as arising out of one’s political ideals, and, on the other, of one’s political ideals as arising out of one’s identity. Both are inevitably part of the relationship between identity and politics. In recent years, though, the balance between the two has shifted, and political ideals have come increasingly to be defined in terms of one’s identity.
The roots of contemporary identity politics lie in the new social movements that emerged in the 1960s to challenge the failure of the left to take seriously the issues of racism, homophobia and women’s rights. The struggle for black rights in America, in particular, was highly influential in providing a template for many other groups to develop concepts of identity and self-organisation. Squeezed between an intensely racist society, on the one hand, and a left often indifferent to their plight, many black activists seceded from civil rights organisations and set up separate black groups.
In the 1960s, the struggles for black rights and women’s rights and gay rights were closely linked to the wider project of social transformation. But as the labour movement lost influence and radical struggles faltered, from the 1980s on, so the relationship between the promotion of identity rights and broader social change frayed. Eventually, the promotion of identity became an end in itself, an identity to which an individual’s interests were inexorably linked.
The shift towards managerialism highlighted the sense of the remoteness of political institutions and of a yawning democratic deficit. The shift towards identity politics reinforced the sense of a more fragmented society in which the old social bonds had snapped. Many sections of the working class found themselves politically voiceless at the very time their lives had become more precarious, as jobs have declined, public services savaged, austerity imposed, and inequality risen.
Consider Britain. In 1950s Britain, manual workers accounted for 70 per cent of the male workforce in Britain. Nearly ten million people belonged to trade unions. The Labour Party had strong links to the working class. The so-called ‘postwar consensus’ – the cross-party acceptance of Keynesian economics, the public ownership of industries and services, and the welfare state – allowed union leaders to influence government policy. All this helped incubate in working class communities a sense of identity and solidarity, and fostered a belief that ordinary people could shape the political process.
All that is no more. The world seems much more precarious. The postwar consensus was shattered in the Thatcher years of the 1980s through the entrenchment of free market policies. Britain’s manufacturing industry has all but disappeared. Public services have been savaged, and austerity imposed. Trade unions have been neutered.
The forms of social organization that once gave working class lives identity, solidarity, indeed dignity, have disappeared. Much the same developments can be seen in many other European nations. ‘One of the biggest failures’ of contemporary mainstream political parties, the American philosopher Michael Sandel has observed, ‘has been the failure to take seriously and to speak directly to people’s aspiration to feel that they have some meaningful say in shaping the forces that govern their lives’.
The result has been the creation of what many commentators in Britain call the ‘left behind’ working class. In France, there has been much talk of ‘peripheral France’, a phrase coined by the social geographer Christophe Guilluy to describe people ‘pushed out by the deindustrialization and gentrification of the urban centers’, who ‘live away from the economic and decision-making centers in a state of social and cultural non-integration’ and have come to ‘feel excluded’. Both these terms are, in my view, problematic, but both also give a sense of the social, political and existential changes that have been wrought.
Immigration has played almost no part in fostering the changes that have left so many feeling disaffected. Immigrants are not responsible for the weakening of the labour movement, or the transformation of social democratic parties, or the imposition of austerity policies. Immigration has, however, come to be a means through which many perceive these changes.
The so-called ‘left behind’ have been left behind largely because of economic and political changes. But they have come to see their marginalization primarily as a cultural loss. In part, the same social and economic changes that have led to the marginalization of the ‘left behind’ have also made it far more difficult to view that marginalization in political terms. The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class and the weakening of labour organizations and social democratic parties, have helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems. And as culture has become the medium through which social issues are refracted, so the ‘left behind’ have also come to see their problems in cultural terms. They, too, have turned to the language of identity to express their discontent.
Through this process, the meaning of solidarity has transformed. Politically, the sense of belonging to a group or collective has historically been expressed in two broad forms: through the politics of identity and through the politics of solidarity. The former stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture. The latter draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal. Where the politics of identity divides, the politics of solidarity finds collective purpose across the fissures of race or gender, sexuality or religion, culture or nation. But it is the politics of solidarity that has crumbled over the past two decades as social movements have eroded. For many today, the only form of collective politics that seem possible is that rooted in identity.
The question people ask themselves today is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong.
Or, to put it another way, as broader political, cultural and national identities have eroded, and as traditional social networks, institutions of authority and moral codes have weakened, so people’s sense of belonging has become more narrow and parochial, moulded less by the possibilities of a transformative future than by an often mythical past. The politics of ideology has, in other words, given way to the politics of identity. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world are defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘English’ or ‘European’. Even identities such as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ are seen now as cultural as much as they are political categories.
The language of politics and of class, in other words, has given way to the language of culture. Or, rather, class itself has come to be seen not as a political but as a cultural, even a racial, attribute. Sociologists and journalists talk often today about the ‘white working class’, but rarely about the black working class or the Muslim working class. Blacks and Muslims are regarded as belonging to almost classless communities. The working class has come to be seen primarily as white, and white has become a necessary adjective through which to define the working class.
Once class identity comes to be seen as a cultural or racial attribute, then those regarded as culturally or racially different are often viewed as threats. Hence the growing hostility to immigration. Immigration has become the means through which many of the ‘left behind’ perceive their sense of loss of social status.
A recent opinion poll in the USA conducted by the University of Virginia, found that fewer than one in 10 supported ‘white nationalism’, and that barely one in 20 supported the so-called ‘alt-right’. The overwhelming majority of respondents – 89% – agreed that ‘all races should be treated equally’.
At the same time, though, 31% of respondents thought that America had to ‘protect and preserve its White European heritage’, while an even larger figure – 39% – believed that ‘White people are currently under attack’ in America.
Polling by the US research organization Public Religion Research Institute at the time of the 2016 Presidential election showed that 65% of white working-class Americans believed that American culture and way of life has deteriorated since the 1950s. Nearly half thought that ‘things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country’.
What such attitudes express is a sense of a world out of control, and of a lack of agency in being able to shape their world. And little seems to express that sense of uncontrollable change than immigration. That is why Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall on US-Mexican border resonates so deeply with his supporters. It is a physical symbol of their desire to bring their world under control.
Similarly, one of the key slogans of the campaign for Britain to leave the EU in the Brexit referendum was ‘Take back control’. It was derided as hollow and meaningless by pro-EU campaigners. For many sections of working class voters, however, whose world seemed to have been turned upside down by forces they could not shape, it was a sentiment that resonated deeply. And for many, ‘taking back control’ became translated into a desire to protect borders, defend national culture and keep out immigrants.
Immigration has clearly brought major changes, in the physical character of European cities, in the rhythm of social life and in the sense of what it is to be British or German or Swedish. But immigration is not alone in driving social changes, nor is it even the most important driver of social change. Had not a single immigrant come to Britain or Germany or Sweden, Britons and Germans and Swedes today would still be living in a vastly different nation from that of half a century ago. Feminism, consumerism, the growth of youth culture, the explosion of mass culture, the acceptance of free market economic policies, the destruction of trade unions, greater individual freedom, the atomisation of society, the decline of traditional institutions such as the Church – all have helped transform these nations, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But it is immigrants who primarily have become symbolic of change, and of change for the worse.
The symbolic character of hostility to immigration can be seen in voting patterns. In the German election, many voted for the AfD because of its strong opposition to refugees. Yet there was an inverse relationship between the presence of refugees and support for the AfD. Support for the AfD was highest in those areas with lowest numbers of refugees and lowest in areas with greatest numbers of migrants.
The central government in Berlin allocates refugees to different regions according to their prosperity. The wealthier a region, the more refugees that are housed there. The AfD gained support primarily in the least prosperous regions, particularly in the east. But these were also the regions with fewest refugees. What drove support for the AfD was not the actual presence of refugees, or their impact on resources in the local area, but the fear of refugees and their impact, and their symbolic role as emblems of unacceptable change. A similar pattern can be see in the support for UKIP in Britain, or for Donald Trump in America.
The symbolic power of immigration derives not just from the way in which the politics of identity has come to dominate political discourse. It derives also from the way that the issue of immigration has been framed by politicians on all sides. On the one hand, politicians have recognised a need for immigration. On the other had, they have promoted the idea of immigration as a problem that must be dealt with. And at the same time, politicians often express disdain for those who express anxieties and fears about immigration, anxieties and fears that politicians often present as mere bigotry and racism. This poisonous mixture of necessity, fear and contempt has helped both to stigmatize migrants and to create popular hostility towards the liberal elite for ignoring their views on immigration.
Consider the European Union. The EU prides itself on promoting freedom of movement. The quid pro quo for such freedom of movement within the EU, however, has been the creation of a Fortress Europe, a citadel against immigration, watched over by a hi-tech surveillance system of satellites and drones and protected by fences and warships. When a journalist from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine visited the control room of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, he observed that the language used was that of ‘defending Europe against an enemy’.
When EU policy plays to the image of a continent under siege, is it any wonder that there is widespread hostility to freedom of movement?
Despite the sense that the migration crisis that Europe is facing today is unprecedented, there is, in fact, nothing new in either the crisis or in the incoherence of the EU’s response. The roots of the current crisis go back to the 1980s, and to Spain’s entry into the EU.
For decades Spain had had an open border with North Africa. Migrant workers would come to Spain for seasonal work and then return home. But when the newly democratic Spain joined the EU in 1986, it had, as part of its obligations as a EU member, to close its North African borders.
The closing of the borders did not stop migrant workers trying to enter Spain. Instead, they took to small boats to cross the Mediterranean and smuggle themselves in. In May 1991, the first bodies of clandestine migrants were washed ashore. Since then, it is estimated that more than 25,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean while trying to enter Europe.
Spain possesses two imperial outposts in Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla. After joining the EU, Spain built a €30m bulwark to seal off these enclaves from the rest of Africa. The EU began paying the Moroccan authorities to round up and detain any potential migrants, often with great brutality, so much so that in 2013 the charity Médecins Sans Frontières pulled out of Morocco in protest at government violence against migrants.
The Spanish approach came to provide the template for subsequent EU migration policy: in essence, a three-pronged strategy of criminalising migrants, militarising border controls and externalising controls by paying non-EU states, from Libya to Turkey, from Morocco to Eritrea, huge amounts of money to act as Europe’s immigration police; in effect, relocating Europe’s borders for the purposes of immigration policy to beyond Europe.
What has created the current migrant crisis is not that migrants have suddenly started arriving at Europe’s borders. Rather, two foctors have changed. First, the spawning of savage conflicts in an arc from Afghanistan to Nigeria, the collapse of civil authority in much of that region, often as a result of Western intervention, the rise of Islamism, and particularly of the Islamic State, have all pushed much larger numbers to flee to Europe. The Syrian civil war has been the most critical factor in pushing up numbers.
Yet, large though they are, it is worth putting into context the numbers of refugees coming to Europe. A million refugees represents not much more than 0.2 per cent of the EU population. There are already 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon – 20% of the population. That is the equivalent of Europe playing host to more than 100 million refugees. Turkey already hosts more than 3 million refugees. Pakistan and Iran each have over 1 million. And, in the space of barely a month, half a million Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar.
Some of the poorest countries in the world already bear the greatest burden. If these countries were to adopt Europe’s attitude, there really would be a migrant crisis. And that is perhaps the most reprehensible aspect of the EU’s policy: at its heart seems to be the idea that dealing with migrants and refugees should be an issue only for poor countries.
The second factor in the current migrant crisis is the political context into which today’s migrants come; the context of the economic, social and political transformations about which I have already talked. It is not, as is often suggested, that hostility to immigration has created disenchantment with mainstream politics, parties and institutions. It is rather that the form that the form that political disenchantment has taken is hostility to immigration.
Why? Partly because it was the breakdown of the left and of broader forms of social solidarity that helped fashion the wider disengagement between sections of the public and mainstream institutions and the political elite. At the same time, as I have argued, many people have come to see their economic and social marginalization primarily as cultural loss, and come to see immigration as symbolic of social disruption and immigrants as the Other. Europeans have not suddenly become bigots and xenophobes. Genuine political and economic grievances have, however, in absence of wider, more progressive vehicles through which to make sense of them, and to turn them into the fuel for social change, often come to be recast as hostility to immigration.
The right, almost as much as the left, has been reshaped by the end of the Cold War, adopting forms that mirror those of the left. There has been the emergence, on the one hand, of a managerial, technocratic, form of conservatism as exemplified by Angela Merkel, and, on the other, of a politics of identity rooted in nationalism and hostility to immigration, as in the AfD. Such movements often link a reactionary politics of identity to economic and social policies that once were the staple of the left: defence of jobs, support for the welfare state, opposition to austerity. Feeling abandoned by the left, many traditional working class voters have abandoned the ideals of the left, looking instead to populist politics as a means of regaining a voice, of seemingly taking back a modicum of control.
What is expressed here is a dual crisis: a crisis both of the political class and of progressive opposition to it. As a result, anger and disaffection from mainstream institutions has become shaped primarily by reactionary forces. To return to Francis Fukuyama’s thesis, the current tumult is the result of struggles for recognition that remain unshaped by progressive movements, of ideological struggles in a post-ideological world. That, not populism in itself, is the problem with which we are confronted.
It is tempting to view all this as a purely Western phenomenon, the product of racism and xenophobia in Europe and America. Yet, we can see similar developments right across the globe. In many African, Asian and South American countries, too, the old order is under pressure from populist forces. Here, the ‘old order’ is not represented, as in Europe and America, by the parties of right and left that shaped the postwar consensus.
It is represented, rather, by the organizations that led struggles for freedom from colonialism, such as the Congress Party in India or the ANC in South Africa, or by the ideologies that claimed to represent the identity of the free nation, for instance Kemalism in Turkey or Nasserism in Egypt. These organizations and ideologies have become senile or corrupted.
Just as in Europe and America, people have become disaffected with the old order. And just as in Europe and America, many of the opposition movements that give voice to that disaffection are shaped not by progressive ideals but by sectarian politics, and rooted in religious or ethnic identity. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Hindu nationalist BJP in India are the equivalents of the Front National in France or the alt right in America.
How we confront this dual crisis, not just in Europe, but globally will, it seems to me, shape the character of the coming period.
The images are, from top down: A crowd in motion (my photo); ‘Diagonal fracture’ by Alexander de Moscoso; Konstantin Yuon, ‘New Planet’; LS Lowry ‘Returning From Work’: Lisa Reinke, ‘Hymn to the Masses’; ‘And the Migrants Kept Coming’, the final panel in Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series; ‘Voyage’ by Euan Graham; and Mark Rothko’s ‘Red, Blue Over Black’.