POPULISM – THE WORD – is surging. It has become the label of convenience for journalists, commentators and politicians to pin on any and all deplorable politicians, policies or voters.
A broad consensus has it that Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, the Brexiters, One Nation and a dozen similar political outfits abroad are all populists – and I have two problems with this proposition. First, putting all these oddball movements into one basket is just plain lazy – it illuminates nothing. Second, it’s an insult to history. There have been good and bad populisms over the past two hundred and fifty years, and there still are good people proposing good populism today.
Outraged at this word-hijacking, President Barack Obama said last year that ‘you don’t suddenly become a populist because you say something controversial in order to win votes – that’s not the measure of populism. That’s nativism, or xenophobia, or just cynicism.’ American political writer Jim Hightower also bristled at besmirching the term by using it to describe Trump. ‘For some two hundred and thirty-eight years,’ Hightower writes in his newsletter, populism ‘has been the chief political impulse in America’s body politick – determinedly democratic, vigilantly resistant to the oppressive power of corporations and Wall Street, committed to grassroots percolate-up economics’ rather than the furphy of trickle-down, ‘and firmly rooted in my old daddy’s concept…that “Everybody does better when everybody does better”’.
I published The Hightower Lowdown from 1999 until 2013, when I returned to Australia after thirty-seven years in New York. From its very first issue, our newsletter proudly proclaimed its ‘progressive populist’ point of view. Jim Hightower was born and raised in rural Texas, where folks with a political bent still talk about the American Populist Party, formed by farmers and workers in 1892 to stand up to the corporate robber-barons of the late 1800s. The same populist determination was what compelled the established powers in the US to grant the vote to unprivileged people, first white men without wealth, then, nominally at least, men of all races, and then in 1920, female suffrage. American people’s movements also won award wages and the eight-hour work day, direct election of US senators by the people, the elimination of poll taxes and reading tests for voting, pensions for returned soldiers, a graduated income tax, outlawing bosses’ union-busting armies, saving America’s natural resources from uncontrolled private speculators, and – in my lifetime – the civil rights movement, decriminalisation of abortion, the defeat of President Nixon and the subsequent withdrawal of US forces from South-East Asia after they had killed 1.5 million people, and the many liberations of the lesbian, gay, bi and trans communities.
Not all these advances have survived incessant fightbacks by corporate lobbyists and backsliding by politicians, but the core truth is that regular people – not magnanimous board members or idealistic politicians – redefined American democracy so that ‘Equal justice under law’ became more than an inscription in granite in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC.
In Australia, while no one hoisted the flag of a populist party, most of our transformative social advances were also the work of anti-establishment people’s movements: the miners who won the right to vote in 1854 as a result of their Eureka Stockade uprising against taxation without representation; crusaders such as the Chartists, whose ‘chart’ listed six requirements for full electoral equality; working-class warriors who fought for the right to unionise, leading to the founding of the Labor Party in 1904; women and men who demanded and won female suffrage (just after New Zealand did) as well as the right for women to stand for parliament (before any other nation) in 1902; and the activists who demanded a national plebiscite giving Aboriginal Australians the vote, which passed overwhelmingly in 1962. All these changes were forced on the establishment by resolute people’s movements, sometimes by seemingly apolitical organisations such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which, by the late 1890s, put woman’s suffrage at the top of its agenda (next to abstinence from alcohol).
Many nineteenth-century migrants from the British Isles came to Australia in part because they wanted to live under a government that was not just of the people but run by the people. One such reformer was the self-educated orator, writer and politician Henry Parkes, who emigrated to Sydney aged twenty-three in 1839 and spent the next five decades stirring the political possum in Australia. Having arrived as a penniless young populist Chartist from Birmingham, Parkes went on to be elected premier of NSW five times, and led the movement that made Australia a federated nation. Like many with a passion for pushing political change, Parkes strayed from the ideals of his youth from time to time – for example, by campaigning against Irish, Catholic and Asian immigration – but he was at his best as a feisty people’s politician, not the besuited and bewhiskered Sir Henry who stared out at us imperiously from the pages of our high-school history books.
In fact, all these social and political movements and activists with a radical reform agenda shared the experience of being scorned by the mainstream media of their day, much as popular uprisings are today (think Shut the Gate, Invasion Day, most things green, same-sex marriage). And that may be the real nature of the new usage of the term populism: it refers to political positions that are outside the policy boundaries of the two or three major established parties in each country, and therefore outside the comfort zone of the established media.
SO, WHAT TRAITS do the commentariat find deplorable enough to earn the populist label? First, policies built on prejudices – racial, sexual, religious or similar; second, any opposition to globalism as it is practiced by large multinational corporations and their attendant politicians; and third, politicians who cynically appeal to the rawest fears of their voters. Sometimes these traits overlap, as when Pauline Hanson, sensing many in her community are uncomfortable with people who might respect their religious laws more than ‘our’ secular laws, turns the fact of a small minority of Muslim Australians into the threat that the whole country could all soon be living under Sharia law as practised by the macho murderers of ISIS. That’s part prejudice and part pandering, as it is when her fellow senator Malcolm Roberts says that the science on anthropogenic global warming is wrong. Is he cynically telling his Queensland punters what they want to hear, or do he and his voters really believe that the experts and intellectuals are bamboozling us with weird facts and figures in pursuit of their plan to make Agenda 21, the United Nations’ recommendations for sustainable living, the new rules that globalists will make us live by?
Regardless of why the commentariat picked up Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ and called it populism, the crucial common factor among Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and the current crop of other would-be nation-savers is that they are all responding to the global crisis of representative democracy – they are not the cause of it.
Given this, I offer the following memo to editors, reporters, columnists, opinionators, bloggers, politicians and candidates: stop demeaning the term and revealing your own shallowness by describing something as populism, or a person as a populist, unless you qualify it with at least a word or an adjectival phrase. ‘Populism’ becomes useful in discussing our politics if, for example, you call Trump a ‘sham populist’, as John Cassidy did with irrefutable explanation in the 10 March 2017 issue of The New Yorker; or you could validly characterise Geert Wilders, who advocates banning the Qur’an, as ‘leader of the Dutch anti-Islam party’. Or you could invite politicians to qualify themselves if the label is applied to them, as South Australian senator Nick Xenophon did for The Sydney Morning Herald in 2016: ‘If populism means you listen to people and do the right thing in terms of jobs and economic benefits by being hard-headed on trade deals… I’ll wear that as a badge of honour’. Often, Xenophon demonstrates a finer understanding of our widespread disillusionment with politics than our mainstream media does.
As for Bernie Sanders, it is clearly unfair and unhelpful to put him in the same basket as the likes of Trump, Wilders, Hanson and Le Pen. Through all of his twenty-six years in Congress, Sanders has called himself a democratic socialist, but the political platform he offered was built of more than old-school twentieth-century democratic socialism. Bernie never told his followers to follow him, his mantra was that ‘we’ – the American people – must take back a due share of the country’s great wealth from the billionaire businessmen and their trillion-dollar corporations, because most of that wealth was created by previous generations of American workers, and the super-rich (including Trump) are using it above all else to further enrich themselves. Sanders also argued that we need to reject those so-called ‘free-trade agreements’ (NAFTA, CAFTA, TPP and the rest) not because free trade is bad, but because these particular trade deals are written not by or for the people, but by multinational corporations for multinational corporations; they are the basic building blocks of the global corporate program to supersede nation states, national laws and local cultures.
While it is governments that sign these agreements, over the past few decades Western governments have been largely taken over by a corporatocracy, turning most politicians in the US – and increasingly in Australia – into faithful representatives of corporations and business organisations. This was a view Jim Hightower and I found we shared when we first met in the late 1990s, and I told him I was planning a political newsletter in which members of Congress would not be identified by the state or district they supposedly represented; rather, I would call John McCain the senator for the telecommunications industry and Joe Biden the senator for credit card companies. ‘That’s very good,’ said Hightower, ‘and I’ve just broadcast a commentary in which I’m calling for every member of Congress to wear their sponsors’ logos on their outfits, just like NASCAR drivers do…’ This is also how Sanders and tens of millions of Americans saw the US during last year’s election, especially those under-thirties who voted in the Democratic primaries for Sanders (70 per cent) over Hillary Clinton (30 per cent). They see the Clintons and the mainstream Democratic Party as captives of global corporatism, just a tad less corrupt and socially backward than the Republicans.
WITH THE LIBERAL-NATIONAL coalition and the ALP adopting the same roles as the two major parties in the US, this is also how a growing portion of Australians sees their political system operating today. Senator Nick Xenophon is pitch perfect when he calls them the Coles and Woolworths of Australian politics. Since Whitlam, Australian governments have devolved into being water carriers for global corporations in their worldwide campaign to pillage more resources, exploit ever-cheaper labor and evade or eliminate more regulations.
The ‘left wing’ legacy parties – Labor in Australia and the Democrats in the US – keep dutifully giving the corporates what they want while promising voters more jobs and wealth. Amazingly, most of the highest-level politicos in both the Labor and Democratic parties continue to believe their own sermons, about how more giveaways to global corporations will make us all richer, even as a swelling majority of voters see through the smoke.
Meanwhile, the ‘right wing’ major parties (Liberal-National and Republican) have pushed essentially the same agenda while winning more votes by using the very tactic they accuse the fringe ‘populists’ of using – cynically suggesting that out-groups such as refugees, Muslims, Mexicans, indigenous people, ‘gender-benders’ and intellectuals are responsible for middle and below-middle salaried workers losing their jobs and their savings, and for taking all our tax monies in benefits and foreign aid. None of these assertions stand up to the facts, but the meme has served conservatives extremely well.
Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, John Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull (or at least his puppeteers) and Donald Trump all used ‘dog whistling’ about these out-groups to win elections after which they slashed their voters’ living standards. The term ‘dog whistling’ emerged in the late 1980s to describe words and phrases deployed in political campaigns to send a message to a subset of the electorate without offending the broader voting community, as when Reagan decried ‘welfare queens driving Cadillacs’ to blame black Americans for taking white people’s money. (They weren’t.) British conservatives in their 2005 election used the ultimate dog-whistling slogan – ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ – to likewise blame out-groups for widespread pain that was actually caused by the depredations of global finance and assorted business behemoths.
When John Howard repeatedly spoke of ‘the Australian people’ or ‘all of us’, his dog whistle excluded, as James Jupp put it in Meanjin in 1998, ‘those defined as “others” – immigrants, Aborigines, Asians, welfare dependants, elites, cosmopolitans, the latte set, chardonnay socialists, intellectuals, politicians’. Mixed drinks aside, Howard certainly projected a persona that wouldn’t mix with those ‘other’ people; they were not Aussie battlers, that’s for sure, and they should be defunded and then prosperity would…prosper. At the time, Pauline Hanson was blaming our cultural and financial downfall on Asians and refugees. Howard squirmed a little distance from her but he was really saying: I agree with her but can’t say so.
Hanson engendered a fair bit of handwringing back then, in her first incarnation, much of it in the same vein as today. Only a few commentators noted the rise of economic rationalism – that is, laissez faire works while managed economies don’t – and its negative impact on the economy as the real cause of voter distress.
In the 1980s and ’90s, many millions of Brits and Americans had voted for Thatcher (1979–90) and Reagan (1980–88), thinking they were getting rid of the trouble-making unions, welfare cheats, dole bludgers and foreigners, and that somehow their lives would be transformed into a vision of days gone by when everyone they encountered spoke the same language they did and women and children did what they were told. What they didn’t know was that Thatcher and Reagan had promised a quite different agenda to global corporates: to make them the managers of all things. The agenda included the globalisation of labour markets, an undermining of union power everywhere and the violent suppression of non-corporate nationalisms (aka invasions) across the planet – all in the name of free trade in the wonderful world of laissez fairyland. Oh yes, also with a skim-coat of exported democracy.
In Australia, it was Prime Minister Bob Hawke (1983–91) and his Treasurer Paul Keating (also prime minister from 1991–96) who launched the union taming, bank privatising, free-trade dirty dealing and the corporatisation of everything. John Howard was happy to pile on, along with Liberal state premiers such as Jeff Kennett; and Malcolm Turnbull is pushing the same pile uphill today.
Whatever the goals of this agenda – now called neoliberalism – were, the results have been, in the high labour-cost nations such as Australia, the UK, Europe and the US, a vast enrichment of a tiny financial elite, the defunding of socially advantageous programs and regulations, the privatisation of art, culture and (what had been seen as) essential government services – and financial decline for the majority of the citizenry.
THE CRISIS ACROSS the breadth of the overdeveloped world is not that we are threatened by populism, but that many millions of people have realised we’ve been conned into buying the corporate globalists’ dream – which has worked fabulously for the global giants, but not for the rest of the population. The fulcrum moment was the financial meltdown of 2008 and the fact that, other than in Iceland, none of the banksters was seriously prosecuted and none went to jail. A follow-up game-changing moment came in 2011, when Occupy, another populist movement, succeeded in institutionalising the notion of the division between the majority and the top 1 per cent.
Over this period of the corporatisation of everything, the richest 1 per cent in Australia and in the US vastly increased their wealth while average incomes of the 99 per cent have stagnated or declined. Wealth has transferred upwards, and jobs have been lost to lower-paid workers in less developed countries, and increasingly to automation. This crisis is global and accelerating, and there is another dimension of dysfunction we need to acknowledge as well: the foundations of our economy and our politics are not just shaky but, in profound ways, delusional.
With very few exceptions, economists, politicians and their media monitors have long colluded in a shared fiction that the world community, the natural environment and the global financial system are all stable and benign, when in fact they are not, and that our nation’s governing systems can handle any tremors or subsidence in our foundations, which they cannot.
These ‘foundation myths’ of ours must be named and unravelled.
Myth One: Nature is free. A staggering number of folks still cling to the fantasy that nature, or naturally occurring things, is free and infinitely tolerant of whatever our selfish species does. Economists who are embedded in capitalism call air, water, sunshine and soil ‘externalities’ and don’t count them in their accounting. So when a paper company cuts down a million hectares of trees, there is no assumed cost for the impact on our ecosystem. Carbon dioxide itself is an externality, and if you dare tax it as a cost, you could be voted out of office.
Myth Two: War is inevitable. The production, distribution and sale of arms, and maintaining armies, navies and air forces across the planet, is estimated to cost US$1.8 trillion each year. Add to that the immeasurable costs in damage to human lives and health, damage to every ecosystem in sight and destruction of infrastructure, and wars are clearly the largest waste of time, money and resources of any human activity. Some say that the world’s militaries create things, like jobs and new technologies, which is true, but it’s like arguing that armed robberies redistribute wealth.
Myth Three: It’s only money. The global ‘finance industry’ involves way more money than even war and armaments – about US$15 trillion a year. Money itself is a myth we all agree to believe in so we can trade in a civilised way, and over the long arc of its history it has manifested in ever more numerous and complex forms – from shells to coins, paper bills to webs of debt and obligation – long ago losing any apparent correlation to material goods or services. And then, in the 2000s, it revealed a new form: computerised trading of absurdly complex variables for no useful purpose other than to steal trillions from the 99.9 per cent to further enrich the 0.01 per cent. That was the point at which the progressive populist in me said it’s time to tear down this Wall Street.
Myth Four: It’s just politics as usual. What we now call ‘politics’ is incapable of facing up to these first three myths, which means we need collectively to redesign politics so we can better manage the unfolding new realities in our lives.
I DON’T SEE our present rule by representative corporatocracy being seriously challenged by some form of Australia-firstism, featuring Hanson, Bernardi, Christensen, Katter or whoever, but the present system is manifestly unable to handle the new world of global warming by industrial pollutants or global warring by Trump, Putin and the many furies of religion and tribalism. I see our best hope in a new, progressive populism akin to that which is emerging now among the online generations – those who voted for Sanders in the US and are tending toward the Greens here. But the transformation we need goes much further than a different-coloured party.
There is, globally, an inchoate movement for reclaiming management of all things from the men of big business and the men of war, and their parliamentary representatives. In Australia, online and community groups are rising. GetUp! has more members – one million – than all of Australia’s political parties combined (about 110,000). In the past year, GetUp! raised $8.36 million, most of which came from individuals donating, on average, seventeen dollars. MoveOn in the US has eight million members, and Avaaz.org, a worldwide online ‘progressive’ organisation with no government or corporate affiliations, has 44.5 million members.
These online activism sites rarely ask more of their members than signing a petition or contributing money (probably amounting to millions of transactions every day), but that’s more participation than most members of mainstream political parties experience, and clicktavists often exert themselves in both electoral politics and in more grassroots actions. The Eco-shout online directory of active groups lists over one hundred independent, community-based environmental and social justice groups around Australia ‘working for real social change’. It includes people’s movements such as Lock the Gate, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Australian Youth Climate Coalition, Change.org, Engage Media, Equality Rights Alliance, First Nations Liberation, Open Table, Safe Schools Coalition, 350.org and Greenpeace.
The internet also offers us a road to transforming representative democracy from what it has become – a system that mostly represents business interests – to allow the people to be more involved in decision-making on what our political system does and how it does it. Australia already has several online-democracy parties, which promise that any of their candidates who get elected will vote in parliament as party members direct them to. But that too is primitive technology. Direct online voting on any and every issue, and voting on which issues should be on the screen, is now being trialled using blockchain security pioneered in bitcoin and similar virtual transaction systems. Of course, given how scared the powers-that-be are of special interest and marginal parties, this kind of online democracy will incite rabid resistance.
Technology can reinvent and reinvigorate democracy – and this transformation itself needs to be one of the very many subjects for public discussion to be aired in the new commons, online and in all the meeting venues of modern life. We need the kind of populism that brings together all initiatives that share an understanding that planet recovery must be at the top of our policy determinates, with an operating system that empowers we-the-people to take charge of managing our collective future. This is the challenge of our era – not headscarfphobia or who to bomb next.
Time is running out on our tenure on this planet, and for what’s foreseeable far into the future, we have nowhere else to go.
31 May 2017
Level 4, Griffith Graduate Centre
South Bank, Campus – Griffith University
Sidon Street, South Bank 4101 Australia
South Bank Campus, Griffith University
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