Actually, Corbyn’s project is socialism, not populism

Populism Now! The Case for Progressive Populism
David McKnight
New South, 2018
177 pages, rrp $29.99

David McKnight’s Populism Now! catches a wave of discussion about the chances for a progressive “populism”, writes Jonathan Strauss.

Also in the spray, for example, is a June Quarterly Essay piece by the Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss “Dead Right: how neoliberalism ate itself and what comes next” and the previously post-whatever Chantal Mouffe’s musings on “left populism”.

The bulk of McKnight’s book is a recounting of the litany of woe that we know as neoliberalism. This is told well enough, with the virtue of journalistic succinctness.

The radical outlier here is McKnight’s take on climate change. He poses this as an epochal challenge that involves conflict with corporate interests and requires a widely-supported social movement that takes mass political action to carry out the major social and economic transformation needed.

Yet, according to McKnight, “fossil-fuel-dependent energy supply … has been driven by the private sector and state ownership alike”, so “the immediate problem is not capitalism as such. Rather it’s a particular form of capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, which makes a fetish of small government … and always looks for a market solution”.

To blame capitalism, he argues, is to repel potential movement supporters. That is, then, the original sin of not just presumably dogmatic ecosocialists, but also, for example, the rather popular anti-capitalist writer Naomi Klein. As a result, no one is listening to them — a fact clearly untrue in Klein’s case. _

This points us towards what the book has to say about politics, not policy. McKnight suggests populism, in contrast to neoliberalism, proposes a stronger role for government. His progressive populism is in contrast to the populism of Trump and others because it does not scapegoat migrants, minorities (or majorities: women) and the media.

McKnight’s examples of populism include Greece’s Syriza, Spain’s Podemos, Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. More surprisingly, he includes the Australian Labor Party in the list — for him, this is at least a possible, if not an emergent, populism.

The book focuses on the latter three, but particularly on Sanders. This allows for a “compare and contrast” with Trump, but also means the waters are muddied: for the time being, the historical context of US politics forces any attempt to achieve mass interest into some type of populist language.

Even more than Sanders, Corbyn celebrates what he perceives is a change in mainstream politics, a change in which he is directly involved. On the other hand, McKnight cites ALP leader Bill Shorten as also discussing concerns about people being driven away from mainstream politics.

Yet what Corbyn represents politically is far from populism. He is critical of the mainstream media, attacking it as unfree due to its control by the rich. More importantly, as exemplified by the July 4 addition to his Youtube channel, Corbyn sees the British Labour Party as “back as the political voice of the working class, in all its diversity, all across Britain”, reflecting its values, such as solidarity, and expressing its interests.

A politics based explicitly on class is distinct from the type of thinking associated with populism.

It is likely that McKnight has heard Shorten’s denials — on a recent ABC Q&A, for example — that he is similar to Corbyn. For Shorten, given that the popularity of Corbyn’s politics had been shown, that was an honest statement.

And for that reason, it was all the more remarkable. Corbyn, in more than three decades in the British Labour Party, has built a reputation for authenticity through opposition to the party establishment. For him to become the party’s leader in 2015 required an upsurge of, and transformation in, the party’s membership.

The members directly elect the leader, and the chance to elect a leader like Corbyn, then to be in a party led by the likes of Corbyn, has resulted in Labour growing hugely to more than half-a-million members — the largest party in Western Europe. The same opportunity to elect a figure like Corbyn does not exist in the ALP.

Therefore the premise of Populism Now! is wrong. It is not dealing with populism after all, and it makes no case for a “progressive populism”.

The case to be made is actually for socialism — one rooted in a mass movement of working people. Corbyn shows the need for this to be expressed and experienced in terms “the many” might readily understand.