As populism and polarization have become part of the common vocabulary of political writings, their meaning has become less provocative. There is a general acceptance of its existence which no longer shocks the senses. But anti-system retains a powerful emotive force for the political scientist. It catches the reader off guard and gains their immediate attention and focus. This is where we begin as we examine the forthcoming work from Jonathan Hopkin. The title alone captures the imagination.
It helps to recognize the idea of anti-system politics is not entirely new. Anti-system politics begins with the theory of anti-system parties developed by Giovanni Sartori. Hopkin is fully aware of Sartori and recognizes his influence. It is no surprise his first citation references Sartori’s classic work on political parties. It is a cruel irony how democracy allows for the paradoxical participation of parties who campaign against the political system itself. This tradition extends back to the democratic vacillations of the early republics in France where monarchists actively campaigned against democracy. An inclusive democracy allows for a vibrant opposition who not only rejects official policy but may even refuse to accept the legitimacy of the political system. A political system where they have chosen to participate.
Hopkin’s central thesis is anti-system politics emerged from a lack of democratic options due to a neoliberal consensus in Europe and America. He is not alone in this assessment. Sheri Berman has written extensively about the “lost left” and the “decline of social democracy.” Again, Hopkin is quite aware of her perspective. He relies on her earlier book as a key source which is repeatedly cited throughout his work. Indeed, there is a lot of truth about the inevitable emergence of populism out of the neoliberal paradigm. Earlier this year, Ganesh Sitaraman wrote about the similarities between the populism of the radical right and the neoliberal doctrine. But unlike Sitaraman, Hopkin recognizes there are significant differences between the anti-system politics of populism and the neoliberal paradigm.
It helps to understand how modernization theory laid the groundwork for the emergence of the neoliberal consensus. It is natural to refer to a widely cited paper from Seymour Martin Lipset where he found a correlation between per capita income and democracy. But this idea did not originate with Lipset. There was a long tradition of scholars who recognized the emergence of democratization followed industrialization and the emergence of a prosperous middle class. But Lipset uncharacteristically focused on the economic relationship without consideration for the social or cultural consequences of industrialization. Many scholars have zeroed in on the relationship between economic development and democratization without any consideration for the “social and cultural changes that make democracy increasingly probable.”
Samuel P. Huntington reoriented our sense of modernization away from economic development and toward the transformation of political institutions. But Emile Durkheim had recognized the social transformations of the industrial revolution long before modernization theory became fashionable. He understood how the division of labor changed the relationship between people to each other. He referred to a shift away from mechanical solidarity where people formed a sense of identity based on similarities to an organic solidarity where people were connected through economic linkages. The division of labor requires a greater diversity in lifestyles which undermines the original social bonds but replaces them with economic ties that foster a closer reliance on other people.
The point of my digression is to explain how modernization is primarily a social rather than an economic transformation. The decay and collapse of the institutions of the Ancien Régime brought about a necessity for the emergence of a replacement. Liberalism gradually became the foundation for the political institutions of the new epoch. Of course, these transformations began with the birth of an economic revolution which began with the erosion of feudal society. But the change in economic relationships between a feudal and a capitalist economy is first and foremost a social change. Capitalism reorients people from a tie to the land toward a job, trade or career which becomes an economic transaction. But people do not view their career simply as a transaction. It becomes a part of who they are and forms an important aspect of their personal identity. The creative destruction of capitalism does not respect this deeply personal relationship between work and the sense of self. Capitalism uproots communities toward more efficient economic purposes. It compels people to migrate for better opportunities. It encourages people to retrain as their old jobs become obsolete. But a person does not easily accept the necessity to change their job or career because it requires a wholesale reexamination of their own self-worth.
Liberalism is often misinterpreted as a commitment to human rights and individual freedoms. But the writings of the social contract theorists like Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau were focused on the origins of law. Hobbes saw a strong state as necessary for the preservation of law. But Locke recognized there was a problem when a monarch was given the right to legislate and execute the law. They became above the law. Hobbes had accepted this reality as a necessary evil, but Locke believed it was possible to have an equality under the law. Liberalism gradually became identified with this idea referred to as the rule of law. But it was Rousseau who recognized how the rule of law established a new sense of relationship between people. The law became its own unique institution with its own communal interests. His ideas fostered an intellectual link between the rule of law and democratic governance.
Now classical liberalism does emphasize free trade and economic freedom, but they are secondary to civil liberties and the rule of law. Socialism arose from the liberal tradition but decoupled civil liberties from economic freedom. Rather it reinterpreted economic freedom as a positive right rather than the purely negative rights of laissez faire capitalism. Neoliberalism became a response to the intellectual dominance of socialism. On the surface it was similar to classical liberalism but reoriented civil liberties and the rule of law as secondary to economic freedoms. It largely took for granted fundamental rights like freedom of speech and assembly. Its focus was almost purely on economic deregulation, privatization, fiscal restraint and a reduction in taxes.
Many of these policies offered a necessary counterweight to the growth of the public sector. Excessive regulation is both a sign of poor governance and corruption. But a process of healthy deregulation is different from the absence of any regulation. The neoliberal philosophy glorified economic success. Its relentless focus on economic efficiency left no room for contrary systems of value within society. Economic failure was interpreted as a failure of personal responsibility. Wealth became a symbol of strong moral qualities and virtue. This paradigm left those who refused to leave their communities with a crisis of identity. Capitalism rewards those who uproot their lives for better jobs. It rewards those who train for new careers and abandon the declining industries their parents had relied upon. But those who remain are punished for their commitments. Parents are faced with a challenging dilemma. Their children may either become successful in a new community or remain with fewer and fewer opportunities.
Hopkin is right to recognize immigration is not the primary cause of anti-system politics. But he falls short when he argues it arose out of a failure of the left to offer a more expansive fiscal policy. It is the fast pace of social change which has angered voters. Many of these social changes are tied to economics. And some are tied to fiscal austerity. But it is not the fiscal policies which have angered voters but the loss of their own sense of identity. West Virginia does not want a guaranteed income. They want to reopen the coal mines, so their children have the same opportunities in the same community that was once taken for granted. Voters want to reopen the factories which once anchored their community so their children will move back home. They want their work to remain as important today as it was in the past. Hopkin is right to recognize the role of the market to undermine the liberal order, but he seems to believe its solution lies in a left-wing political agenda. But it is not clear how social welfare policies would have offered a solution to the crisis of identity within the United States and Britain.
It is useful to understand how neoliberal institutions are fundamentally liberal. The WTO and the EU are largely based on universal principles which become enshrined in law. Conflict is resolved through arbitration rather than war. Anti-system politics have worked to erode these institutional frameworks. This is why the same populist zeitgeist which led to Brexit has brought about a trade war between the United States and China. As anti-system political ideas have become mainstreamed, there is a genuine threat to the democratic order. Institutions change and evolve but they largely reinforce one another. The desire to bring about the demise of neoliberal institutions may lead to the disintegration of the foundations of democratic institutions as the acquittal of Donald Trump largely signifies.
Jonathan Hopkin offers a well-researched book which identifies connections between the anti-system politics in the United States, Britain, Greece, Spain and Italy. He finds there is a clear divide in how Northern and Southern Europe express their forms of anti-system politics. But he demonstrates how they both have common threads which tie them into a common zeitgeist which has affected the Western political tradition. This is quite an accomplishment. Readers will find Hopkin challenges them to apply key concepts to multiple political experiences. But there is a sense his theoretical framework might have gone even farther to offer greater explanatory power. There is a sense of nostalgia for the political agenda of the old political left. There is a sense of missed opportunities for what might have been. But the study of politics forces us to accept the world for what it is. And the events of world history shape the narrative of the moment. Seymour Martin Lipset concluded his masterpiece Political Man with a chapter called “The End of Ideology?” But like history, ideology did not come to an end. An era of polarization was less than fifty years away. It remains unclear how the future may reshape the political theories of tomorrow.
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