Why are Right-Wing Populists on the Rise?

Donald Trump is the clear leader in the Republican polls, and many people of the “correct” establishment claim that he is a genuine threat to US democracy, because of his fascist positions. He wants to build a border wall against Mexico, slap tariffs on China-imported consumer goods, and equip every Muslim American with some kind of criminal file. The latest statement in his rally was to limit internet access for young people (how paternalist!), so they are less likely to be exposed to terrorist material.

Only four years ago, such a radical right-wing discourse seemed very much impossible. But increasingly, we are witnessing that democratic politics in the US is undermined, but not only by their right-wing demagogues. What demagogues like Trump are doing is to channel the furious anger of the lesser educated classes against a political and economic system that is clearly rigged against them.

We can not only observe right-wing forces in the US, but see them also in France, where the Front National is expected to win three of the regional elections, and some speculate that Marine Le Pen might accomplish what her father had not, which is to win the presidential elections in 2017. Conservative and socialist parties attempt their cordon sanitaire by fielding only one candidate, either conservative or socialist, to ensure that FN candidates don’t win.

In Poland, the national conservative Law and Justice Party won the elections decisively this past October, putting Beata Szydlo in charge as prime minister, though some would suggest that it is really Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who wields the real power in the party. As a sign of their Euroskepticism, the government had removed the EU flag from their cabinet room. The new government is rather vigorous in opposing an EU quota for taking in new refugees.

In my hometown in Vienna, the right-wing FPO received 31% of the vote, coming behind the SPO with 39%. The people are voicing their anger and disgust about the refugee crisis, as many refugees end up in Vienna. The Social Democrats are in power, and are blamed for the perceived out-of-control growth of the refugee population. FPO has never been this successful, and I think they are one or two elections away from winning he mayoralty.

There is substantial evidence, therefore, that most western democracies are encountering a political challenge that it has not seen in its 70 years of existence. Why is democracy so fragile? To answer this question, I should first reject some possible answers.

It is highly unlikely that we can get some answers via essentialist bland statements, like people tend to be too stupid to discern the low-quality leadership of right-wing parties, or right-wing leaders are too charismatic and speak to the primal fears of the public. My problem with essentialist explanations is that they are not really historical. If any of these essentialist problems are so serious and so threatening to western democracy, one might expect that democracy is an experiment that should have long ago failed, and not only after more than 70 years.

If we want to explain the destruction of the democratic polity via right-wing ascendancy, we have to establish the historical developments that led to such destruction. I argue that immigration and neoliberalism are two valid explanations. In Europe, we can clearly point to the refugee crisis as a proximate trigger for the right-wing surge, but here we need to be cautious again, because the rise of the right-wing long preceded the most recent refugee wave.

Europe and the US have long become more diverse. The economic requirement of filling labor shortages, and demands from employers for more immigration, have resulted in rather liberal immigration laws for a certain period of time. Even as economic conditions changed, and immigration laws were toughened, it was rather difficult to convince the immigrants to return to ancestral homelands. Increasing diversity can occasionally be well managed, as is the case in Canada, where immigrants come according to a point-system, so that the immigrants turn out to speak better English and have better qualifications than the long-term native people.

In most cases, immigration tends to be highly contentious and rather bungled. Political leaders often have no clear idea how to integrate immigrants, even though that is what their Sunday speeches suggest. One usually hopes that over time, there is some adjustment process that is happening, and it usually does happen. But we know that integration is, in many cases, not so successful, which is partly due to native hostility, discrimination in school and the workplace, and immigrant frustration.

The frustration is particularly strong in the second rather than in the first generation. The first generation of immigrants never completely adjust to the local surrounding, they speak in a strong foreign accent, and they don’t have many native friends, but they are very grateful to their host country, because they might have escaped war, conflict or poverty at home. The psychological circumstances for the second generation are altogether different. They grow up along with the other kids in the neighborhood, and want the same kind of treatment and respect as those other native kids. The fact that this is inevitably not happening leads to enormous frustration, and we have by now witnessed several cases of terrorism by second-generation Muslims in Europe. These are the home-grown terrorists, which no amount of security controls can undermine.

The consequence of terrorism is that it gives right-wing politicians a justification to increase crackdowns on Muslim groups, and the people will become even more paranoid about the insecure situation that Muslim immigrants have apparently created. There is then a negative feedback effect of more suspicion, and more social withdrawal, occasionally resulting in violence. Right-wing populist parties gain more support, because they are articulating radical policies that seem to make sense, but are not doing anything to resolve the crisis.

The second major factor for the growth of right-wing political forces is the fact that there is a neoliberal consensus in the western developed world, which is marked by growing poor work conditions, economic insecurity, unemployment, underemployment, poverty and inequality. There is a strong tendency of a secular stagnation of the macroeconomy, where little economic growth is happening, and there are few incentives for companies to make substantial investments in job-creating production.

What is more likely to happen is that wealth is siphoned off into speculative bubbles, which is fed by the low-interest and quantitative easing policies of the central banks, which are doing all they can to flood the banks with liquidity but not help out the real economy. There is some evidence showing that QE tends to benefit mostly the rich assetholders, as they are best suited to use the loan capital to acquire assets cheaply. Most of the regular people, who barely own any assets can’t benefit from these asset bubbles. In fact, we struggle even more with finding affordable housing in the popular cities across the world.

We have also seen a shift from manufacturing toward service-sector employment. This trend should theoretically be rather unremarkable, because a shift in the employment structure is normal to the working of modernization and a capitalist economy. But the shift is remarkable insofar as most service sector jobs are of low-quality, whereas the jobs that are lost in the manufacturing sector tend to be rather well-paid. Now, you could say that someone, who screws auto parts together is not intrinsically more productive than someone who wipes the backs of old people in nursing homes, but the former is still getting paid more than the latter. So what is happening here is that low-paid workers in the service sector have less organizational clout (trade union power) than workers in the declining manufacturing industry.

But even workers in the manufacturing industry are giving away many concessions. The pressures tend to be twofold: first, manufacturing jobs can be lost with the threat of outsourcing to cheaper countries. In many cases, managers do not outsource, but they are sure to put pressures against the workers to give concessions in collective bargaining. Opening up new non-union plants and closing down union plants are classic capitalist strategies to generate the cheaper labor force. This is a rather ruthless strategy, which is commonly known in the US, but it has application elsewhere too.

The second threat is more serious and involves the power of automation. As time goes on, robots are taking over more and more activities that used to be done by the workers. The value-added of many routine-type jobs, which do not require human input, is much diminished. The few workers that remain, ironically, see an increased labor productivity, because if the same or higher quantity is produced with fewer labor inputs, then this means there is a higher labor productivity. Some companies work out automation agreements to guarantee that some of the increased company profits flow back to the workers in the form of retraining schemes and higher wages and pensions for the workers, but such outcome is highly dependent on the overall strength of unions.

Automation rather than outsourcing could be a factor that increasingly encroaches on service-sector employment itself, and some examples are the automated check-outs in supermarkets and the self-driving cars. If the service sector is lost to humans, then the competitive labor market pressure in the few remaining jobs will simply become fiercer, and that keeps a check on the overall wage level, which makes a higher minimum wage more important than ever.

What is even worse in the labor market is that the millenial generation (those born after 1980) belong to the most precariously employed generation while being the most educated generation in the entire history of the world, not only based on the facts that we know (welcome to Wikipedia), but also based on the amount of credentials that we have, which increasingly includes higher education.

It violates the sensitivity of some people that more education should result in more poverty. After all, does more education not result in better-paid employment? The aggregate statistics in the US still show that workers are better off if they have a higher education than if they drop out of high school, but aggregate data hides the fact that college-level wages have been stagnant for about 20 years, and that the fall of high school dropout wages explains much of the rising college wage premium. In terms of practical advice that means: you cannot afford not to go to college, even though a college diploma might give you nothing else but a fifty-fifty chance to get a cushy middle class job, but also an equal chance to have the entry-level qualification to flip burgers at McDonalds.

The one genuine hope that does exist is that the well-educated poor will at least not vote right-wing populist, though this option is not completely precluded. Right-wing leaders usually have suspicion against people, who are too well-educated, because they think too independently and authoritarian right-wing rulers don’t like that. As Paul Mason (2013: 283) writes,

You can have political and economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations, but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving, you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

But one never knows. The fact that this economic system is increasingly producing losers, who have no other venue to vent their economic frustration but at the voting booth, does not bode well for regular democratic policymaking. People on the streets, who lack job security and are one car breakdown away from financial ruin, are rightfully asking themselves why the regular democratic process still makes sense for them if the mainstream parties continue to do the bidding of the bankers and the big corporations.

The people may not understand that to properly deal with the problem it requires more taxation of the rich and the corporations, and creative solutions like infrastructure investments for job creation and a universal basic income to ensure that everyone can enjoy a reasonable life. In fact, if people were to understand it, they would not support right-wing leaders, but left-wing parties. As Henry Ford says,

It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.

But people do understand very well that the system is not working well for them, and the only parties which talk a different game seem to be those on the right-wing. In times of economic and social crisis, there is also the possibility for the left-wing parties to make their case, and we see that in the US with Bernie Sanders, in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn, in Greece with the Syriza party (which was brutally crushed, and now carries out austerity with even greater vigor), and in Portugal with the new Socialist-Communist government.

But it is not altogether clear whether the left has a strong and unified response on how to deal with the crisis of capitalism and neoliberalism. As I like to say, the objective of the left is usually quite noble, but because they are interested in more fundamental transformation of the political economy, encountering more uncertainty and veto points (Lenin did not know what proper Bolshevik economic policy was), it is harder for the left to have a simple and appealing program.

My experience with left-wing groups is that, of course, they are more intellectual than most of the technocratic leaders and right-wing demagogues, but they also tend to quarrel more among each other. The bigger the requested change from the status quo, the better the potential outcome might be, but the less likely it will be for all people even within the same party to agree on a program. One might consider Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonald to be moderately left, but they are already splitting the Labour Party in two, as there are still some Blairites within the Labour Party.

It is certainly true that right-wing parties, which purport to solve all problems by shutting down the borders, hunting down real and imagined terrorists, and crowning an almighty dictator have no real solutions to offer on their own, but their vision contains a certain simplicity, which is well appreciated among the masses. The masses hunger for a solution, and I am not sure that those on the left are currently well-prepared to offer it to them. For those of us, who believe that a better world is possible, there is no choice but to resist right-wing forces and propose better alternatives.

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