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Canadians Take Note: Left Populism Is Rising Up

From Europe to Uruguay, inequality crusaders yank discourse from neoliberals.

By Crawford Kilian 13 Aug 2015 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

It's called the "Overton window" -- defined by Joseph Overton, an American political thinker, as the range of political ideas the public is ready to consider. Here in Canada, the Overton window has been pulled sharply to the right since the first Harper government took power in 2006.

But when the solutions available through Harper's Overton window can't deal with our problems -- climate change, poverty, housing, inequality -- it's very possible to pull the window back to the left.

That seems to be happening in Europe and may yet happen in Canada: the rise of a left-populist movement.

"Left populist" seems like a contradiction in terms. Populism since the 1920s has been a largely right-wing phenomenon, the response of impoverished populations to the threat of "outsiders" -- Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, intellectuals, immigrants, foreign powers -- as well as "insiders" and "elites" who enrich themselves by impoverishing the populists.

Right populism doesn't have much respect for social institutions perceived as benefiting those insiders and outsiders. When a populist wave gains power it does what it can to undermine them: the courts, the legislature, the free press.

Left populism, by contrast, focuses on elite insiders and sometimes their foreign backers. It attacks them for exploiting the people it impoverishes, gaming the tax system, and subverting social institutions to justify that exploitation.

But since World War II, left populism has suffered from guilt by association with Soviet communism; right populism, detached from defeated fascism, has recruited both workers and middle classes whenever they sense themselves threatened by economic events.

More than a quarter-century after the fall of the Soviet Union, left populism is beginning to recover. Seen through an Overton window dominated since the late 1970s by the neoliberal right populism of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, left-populist leaders like Hugo Chavez look like invaders from another planet. They can't be blamed as tools of the Kremlin, as Fidel Castro was, but they can still be framed as dangerous freaks.

Even so, right populism has left some countries on the brink of collapse, and they have begun to turn to the left. Significantly, those countries don't turn to armed revolution. They work within democratic institutions but outside the narrow limits defined by the neoliberal Overton window.

Poor man's president

One of the first such countries was Uruguay. In the 1970s that small South American country was locked in a vicious and violent war between right and left. One of the leftists was José Mujica, an urban guerrilla who spent over a decade in military prisons during the military dictatorship.

In 2010, age 75, Mujica was elected president -- clearly the least pretentious president on the planet, donating 90 per cent of his salary to charity and remaining on his suburban farm rather than moving into the presidential palace. He commuted to work in his 1987 VW Beetle, and among his achievements he made marijuana a state-controlled substance available to registered consumers who would be able, like alcoholics, to call on treatment when needed.

Significantly, Mujica left office last March in a routine transfer of power -- not through a coup.

Other left-populist leaders have led more turbulent administrations. Alexis Tsipras, head of the left-populist Syriza coalition, won power only after Greece had suffered through years of austerity imposed by its European Union creditors. For five years the EU, led by the Germans, has made austerity the only way to redemption, though both evidence and common sense suggested this was folly -- like bleeding a patient who's already lost blood. Evidence and common sense are apparently outside the EU's Overton window.

The election of Syriza caused consternation precisely because austerity has been the only option inside the Overton window for years. To question austerity was to think the unthinkable. Tsipras has bought his country time, though at a high price, and Greece may yet leave the Eurozone. But Syriza has opened a serious debate on the validity of austerian policy, moving the window a little to the left.

Spain's Podemos (We Can) movement remains eager to continue that debate. Emerging from the "indignados" who were the Spanish Occupy movement, it has won some important municipal elections and is a factor in national politics. In Chile, young communists like Camila Vallejo are working as elected politicians to move their country's window toward free education.

Rescuing the Labour Party?

The most striking current expression of left populism is in the fractured hulk of the British Labour Party. Since its May defeat at the hands of the David Cameron Tories this May, Labour has faced a real crisis. Margaret Thatcher had moved the window of British politics, and Labour had accepted her view. Under Tony Blair, "New Labour" had even gained power.

But Blair joined George W. Bush in the war against Saddam Hussein, despite the hundreds of thousands who marched in the streets against the war. Two elections and two leaders later, Labour looks like Canada's Liberals after Paul Martin -- out of ideas, out of energy and out of credibility.

Now in a four-way leadership battle, Labour has surprised everyone with the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn -- an old-fashioned left-wing backbencher who is easily ahead of his three more conventional adversaries.

A columnist for The Economist finds Corbyn an old lefty inspired by Margaret Thatcher:

"He and his supporters see British history not as a long process of mostly organic social and economic change, but as a succession of lurches forward propelled primarily by concerted vanguards of campaigners. ... In other words: they believe will power can overcome political gravity."

While the columnist admires Corbyn's grasp of the Overton window and his basic conservatism, he finds Corbyn "boring" -- a judgment open only to one still comfortable within Thatcher's window.

Corbyn's will power is aimed at a new round of nationalization -- of the National Health Service, the railways, and the welfare state. In effect, he would have Britain lurch back to pre-Thatcher Britain.

This has brought predictable criticism from other leadership candidates, which he recently answered in The Independent:

Deficit denier? "If anyone is in denial it is those who deny the true economic crisis -- the crisis of rising poverty and homelessness, and falling productivity."

Unelectable? He's been an MP for 32 years through eight elections. "I think an honest, straight-talking politics can win back support from the Conservatives, Ukip [United Kingdom Independence Party], the Greens and SNP [Scottish National Party]."

Anti-business and hates the rich? "I'm absolutely not relaxed about a few people being filthy rich while others are destitute. I detest inequality and injustice."

No one will work with him? "I don't do personal abuse -- I want to lead a more inclusive and united party. After all, when the dust settles we are all still Labour."

No glamourpuss

Corbyn is no glamourpuss. His beard is far greyer than Tom Mulcair's, and he dresses with the fashion flair of José Mujica. His open-neck shirt sags with the weight of the phone and pens in the pocket.

But his success in attracting new people to Labour reflects the political alienation that Britain has experienced since Margaret Thatcher. It's not in the desperate condition of Greece, but young people and minorities have been living in a low-grade depression for decades. They have literally nothing to lose.

Whether Corbyn wins or loses the Labour leadership, Britain is on notice that its present power elite -- Conservatives, Labour, whoever -- has worn out its welcome. If Corbyn loses, someone else will come along; if he wins, Britain is in for the kind of transformation last seen in 1945 when the Tommies, home from the war, voted Churchill out and Labour in.

Is such a left-populist lurch in Canada's future? Not immediately. The last left-populist movement was the NDP Waffle, an NDP faction that arose in 1969 and went nowhere. The only truly successful Canadian populism in the last half-century has been the Reform/Alliance/Conservative movement whose "concerted vanguards" launched an obscure right-winger into a decade as prime minister. Stephen Harper pulled the Overton window rightward, and his vanguards pushed Canada through it.

Someone like Jeremy Corbyn, however, is what we may expect if Harper wins yet again. A large fraction of Canadians -- women, young people, First Nations, working people -- will be indefinitely marooned in poverty while the rich get richer. Existing opposition parties will seem feckless and futile.

In that case redemption will not come from a glamourpuss in a good suit or a bearded grandpa in a bad one, but from someone -- man or woman, old or young, attractive or not -- who calls bullshit on the present system and yanks the Overton window back to the left.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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