According to many, we are currently living through a new “populist moment,” or rather witnessing the impacts of a “populist explosion” setoff by the 2008 financial crisis.  The proximate emergence and unpredicted success of numerous candidates, parties, and movements colloquially considered as “populist” has led many to suggest that the 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent failure to address its structural roots unleashed a wave of antiestablishment sentiment that effectively set the stage for various charismatic and illiberal leaders like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and the like claiming to speak for the ‘true’ interests of some vaguely defined ‘people.’

Popular accounts typically center on one of two competing explanations for this widespread populist backlash.  One emphasizes conventional economic factors, arguing that increased economic inequality and continued process of globalization have collectively led to unprecedented levels of economic insecurity and disenchantment with the entrenched political and economic status quo.  Others claim that these various mobilizations are simply the most recent episode within the ongoing “culture wars” between progressive and traditional values that have raged-on since the early-1970s.

While both perspectives provide valid insights, this dichotomy is expectedly limited.  Economistic accounts rightly identify the underlying structural factors contributing to this most recent wave of existential social unrest, but typically start from problematically vague notions of populism as any and all movements or candidates that take seemingly antiestablishment positions and claim to speak for ‘the people.’  So-called cultural accounts, on the other hand, continue to spend a great deal energy debating the least common denominator(s) that qualify something or someone as populist.  Consequently, such works spend far more time discussing various populists rather than populism, and consistently downplay the politico-economic crises they nonetheless claim ignited the given populist trend.

Together, this stark, and ultimately false divide, only serves to undermine prospects for an alternative and explicitly leftist political project.  On a more fundamental level, this false dichotomy exemplifies a common tendency to neglect the socially constructive force of collective mobilization and politics more broadly.  It is far more productive to consider the dynamic and ultimately contingent means by which such mobilizations make legible socioeconomic cleavages that otherwise carry no innate political valence.  Or, to paraphrase Gramsci, it is political parties and movements that interpret and translate the socioeconomic into the political form.

The crises often associated with these recent populist mobilizations are an endemic feature of capitalism and essential to the continued reproduction of capitalist world-system.  As so aptly put by David Harvey, “[it] is in the course of crises that the instabilities capitalism are confronted, reshaped and re-engineered to create a new version of what capitalism is about.”  Such crises are never fully resolved, but are simply “moved around” by various temporary fixes that gloss over the critical contradiction(s) fueling the particular crisis at hand.  In the same text, Harvey notes that these consistent episodes of social upheaval spark…“dramatic changes in ways of thought and understanding, of institutions and dominant ideologies, of political allegiances and processes, of political subjectivities, of technologies and organizational forms, of social relations, of cultural customs and tastes that inform daily life. Crises shake our mental conceptions of the world and our place in it to the very core.”  Such crises disrupt accepted views of the world, challenge widely held causal assumptions, and have the potential to upend peoples’ previously established views of their own political interests.

While such systemic crises are an endemic and defining feature of global capitalism, their social manifestation, consequences, and eventual resolution are by no means predefined. Some argue that the response to a given crises is fundamentally a matter of reestablishing conditions favorable to the accumulation of capital, while others emphasize the role of particular causal ideas and crisis narratives that political actors attempt to mobilize in their favor.  However, in keeping with a common theme of this critique, this too is a problematic false dichotomy.  While collective efforts to strategically reshape the political terrain are constrained by the broader historical social context, they nonetheless have the capacity to adjust their respective projects to include competing attributions of blame for the same contradiction-fueled crises of contemporary capitalism.

This type of strategic blame-game is particularly evident in competing and ongoing partisan responses to the 2008 financial crisis.  In the UK, for example, the Labour and Conservative parties have both responded by calling for more responsible governance.  Defining what exactly constitutes “responsible governance” however is the very stuff of politics.

Since at least the 1990s, Labour sought to frame this notion of responsibility in terms of depoliticized decision-making, fiscal prudence, and light touch regulation.  However, the Brown government undertook a series of inconsistent economic policies in response to the crisis that collectively led to a massive surge in public sector borrowing and emphasized a need for greater policy cooperation throughout the European Union.  When these initiatives proved unsuccessful, the government blamed the behaviors of other EU states and self-serving bankers rather than accepting the failure of their own policies.  This all led to a particular view of the crisis as an unavoidable result of others’ irresponsible policy decisions, namely the EU, and therefore beyond the practical reach of Brown’s Labour government.

On the other hand, Conservatives have consistently aimed to articulate a vision of responsible governance by fusing the Party’s historical project of ‘one-nation Toryism’—a philosophy that celebrates paternalist government led by some uniquely capable social elite—with the principles of individual responsibility often associated with the Party under Margaret Thatcher.

The uneasy coexistence of these principles has greatly hindered the Conservative Party’s ability to develop and adjust a resonant interpretation of the crisis, leaving the Party in a rather tenuous position.  The one-nation rhetoric of elite responsibility has been noticeably redirected toward the EU and mobilized to frame the crises in blatantly partisan and Eurosceptic terms.  At the same time, the free market principles instilled under Thatcher continue to influence the Party’s wide-ranging cuts to government spending and domestic austerity policies.  The continued interplay between these contradictory ideas has led the Party to advance policies that appear relatively ambivalent toward Europe despite claiming that the EU is primarily responsible for the crisis itself.

The road to Brexit begins to take shape in a different light when these competing partisan projects are considered together and situated within the broader context of global neoliberalism.  Despite both major parties consistently expressing a certain degree of discontent with the EU, neither have made a real effort to reform UK-EU relations and thus passively conspired to kick the Europe questiondown the road.  The UK Independence Party (UKIP) effectively emerged to fill the void opened and neglected by the narrow visions of the Labour and Conservative Parties.  With the two major parties divided on Europe, and the already anemic Liberal Democrats wrapped up in a struggling Conservative-led coalition government, UKIPand their leader Nigel Farage successfully amplified existing Euroscepticism in tandem with a pointed critiqueof the establishment’s apparent failure and/or unwillingness to prioritize the fundamental interests of the British people.  Though UKIP has had little electoral success in its own right, it nonetheless brought the issue of Europe to forefront of British politics, exposed the ambivalence and supposedly misplaced prioritiesof the political establishment, and pressured the government to hold the referendum that triggered the UK’s departure from the EU.

Though by no means complete or fully developed, I believe the ideas proposed here provide a fruitful starting point for future studies and discussions of electoral populism. By centering this discussion on the role of political parties, future endeavors are likely to find that many of the apparent contradictions associated with these populist mobilizations are themselves a product of the contingent, historical trajectories of partisan political development.  The British case considered here also highlights the mutual significance and dialectical interplay between institutional structures and creative political action.  While politico-economic crises are an endemic feature of global capitalism, their manifestation is contingent upon the various structures and historical legacies in which they are creatively translated.  Moreover, though these cases are often seen as victories of the political right, I believe the approach introduced above may also reveal a number of insights and opportunities for us on the left as we continue our own responsive mobilization.

Colin P. Arnold is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia.

This article summarizes Colin P. Arnold, “Regrounding Populism: Moving Beyond Questions of Definition and Content,”Journal of World-Systems Research 2018.

Image: “Banksy Does Brexit,” May 9, 2017. Photo by Duncan Hull. (Released)