Why the ruling classes afraid the Left populism of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders more than the Right populism of Donald Trump
Leo Panitch, Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar at York University in Toronto, explains to Gregory Wilpert and the Real News, the huge difference between Left populism and Right populism and why, at the moment, the global neoliberal regime afraid the Left one much more:
Populism in general needs to be understood as an appeal to the masses, to the working classes, to farmers, to peasants, etc., of a kind which targets the existing political and economic establishment, derides them, denigrates them, engages in promises to make those people's lives better, but does nothing to organize and mobilize them as powerful social forces from below. It's an attempt to ride on the discontent of the great mass of people in a way that doesn't increase their power vis-a-vis either the populace or the existing establishment. And to some extent, it may actually involve decreasing their power, insofar as it disorganizes their organizations, whether it's trade unions or farmers' movements or what have you.
That type of populism is very different from left populism, of the kind that the Davos people would identify Jeremy Corbyn as representing, or Bernie Sanders as representing, which is explicitly oriented to motivating, educating, and organizing forces from below. So it's a very different type of populism, and I think the ruling classes in Davos are as worried about the right-wing version as the left at the moment. But in the long run, they will always be much, much more worried by the left, because it may be oriented, and often is oriented, at taking away their private property, taking away their capital, taking away their means of production, distribution, and exchange, which they use to exploit people.
That's not the case with right-wing populists, for the most part, as Trump obviously shows. That said, the danger is that they're playing with nationalist fire. Since globalization doesn't involve bypassing nation-states, all of the ruling classes, political establishments in each nation-state who have bought into neoliberal globalization have had to coexist with a reproduction of national identity, a legitimation of the notion of the national interest, even as they've opened up their economies, their societies to the free movement of capital, to treating foreign capitalists the same as domestic ones, etc.
By reproducing that national consciousness, they have, in the wake of the delegitimation of neoliberal globalization, they have left the door open for a nationalist populist type of rhetoric and politics that we've seen in the United States, in Germany, in France, in Eastern Europe most explicitly, etc.
You know, they're afraid of that, because the danger is that they will not be able to control some of the figures who may indeed turn out to be the kinds of nationalists who would turn inwards. We have no evidence that that is happening yet. We don't even have evidence that in Hungary and Poland that is happening. What they are doing, of course, is behaving in an extremely ugly manner vis-a-vis the human rights of refugees, of migrants, and indeed of minorities who have been in their societies as significant elements for millennia, not least the Roma and so on.
This is something that's distasteful to them. This is something they look at carefully, but I don't think that they think it's over either. They're probably more afraid now by what Corbyn represents than the danger that Le Pen appeared to represent, but I don't think they think it's over.
As has been described in previous article, it is quite evident that the far-right in the West managed to gain significant power, not only because it grabbed the role of the central anti-establishment force, but because it has stolen all the basic positions of the leftist ideology and transformed them into easily-consumed slogans for the masses.
The far-right leaders frequently attack on bankers and the political-economic elites, yet they direct their main rhetoric firepower against the usual victims: vulnerable parts of the population, like immigrants.
The fact that the far-right has stolen the positions of the left and put them into its own framework, permitted the establishment apparatus to put under the sign of 'populism', almost anything that resides between, say, neo-nazi formations, up to the non-parliamentary far-left, except of course the traditional political powers that faithfully serve neoliberalism to date. However, this broad range of ideological shades includes numerous and often opponent ideologies.
Furthermore, the concept of 'populism' itself had to be changed. The establishment apparatus had to 'relocate' some basic features of populism, away from the new conditions that the elites want to impose.
Therefore, it is 'unrealistic', for example, to believe that healthcare should be provided by the state for everyone (which is something taken for granted less than two or three decades ago), simply because the rich want to pay less and less taxes in order to gain more and more. It is 'irresponsible' to support people in just keeping their benefits under the pretext of economic instability. The economic chaos of course always comes from this system that propagates this perception.
As a result of all these, people who are coming from the left and speak about pro-people policies, are stigmatized by the establishment apparatus as 'populists' who try to manipulate the masses. They have been placed next to far-right politicians who have totally different agenda and actually do the dirty job for the elites. In reality, these leftist politicians are just trying to defend what has been conquered with struggles and blood by the people in previous eras, against this new brutal onslaught of neoliberalism.
The ultimate goal of the establishment is simple: drive the electorate away from the 'dangerous' and 'radical' left, back to the neoliberal center, which is promoted as the only 'serious' and 'realistic' political regime capable of running societies efficiently.
The conclusion here is that the neoliberal regime has to deal with the Left populism first, exactly because it represents a direct threat to current status quo by supporting, mainly, a radical wealth distribution from top to bottom.