Left Q&A debates the rise of the populist right

February 11, 2017
Moreland Socialist Alliance councillor Sue Bolton spoke at the Left Q&A.

Trump’s unstable executive orders loomed large at 2017’s first Left Q&A on “The rise of the populist right and the anti-globalisation backlash”. Common talking points at the February 4 forum held in Melbourne’s Trades Hall were Trump’s xenophobia, the demise of the Labor Party, the breakdown of consensus across the West and the new rejection of neoliberalism.

Panellists from the left lauded the worldwide anti-populist protests, legal battles and upsurge in left-wing action, while advocating an Australian left unity project.

Speakers included: Arran Gare, Associate Professor in Philosophy and Cultural Inquiry at Swinburne University; Sue Bolton, Socialist Alliance councillor on Moreland City Council; Graham Dunkley, an economist at Victoria University of Technology; and Louise O’Shea from Socialist Alternative.

Professor Dunkley, author of One World Mania: A critical guide to free trade, financialization, and over-globalisation, defined a “peculiar and curious populism” that was “a merging of overlapping circles of ideology from both left and right groups, changing all the time”.

He advised left counter-forces to be smart about populist anti-global movements, such as Brexit as there are a huge variety of views. “[Populists] may spell it out differently,” he said, “but what they are against is imports, welfare cuts and neoliberal policies. As for Trump supporters, past the vulgar American cultural issues, economics is the primary concern for many working people — maps of voting patterns overlay with manufacturing rust belts and job losses.”

Socialist Alternative’s Louise O’Shea emphasised that the right populist ascent was a result of the global two-party system and their unwillingness to break from neoliberalism.

“The collapse of the centre and a breakdown of consensus allowed the right to fill the space,” she said. “Parties like the Democrats said ‘everything was fine’ and ‘America was great’ under capitalism and were not critical; whereas populists said, ‘everything is actually not great’.”

Socialist Alliance Councillor Sue Bolton outlined the themes of anti-globalisation populism in Australia. The anti-globalisation movement originated from a neoliberal and corporate backlash from the left, workers and unions.

Meanwhile, “the right populist groups, fostered by racist rhetoric about immigration, opened up a space for Pauline Hanson and populists to re-emerge.”

In 1998 and the early 2000s, it was Asians and the Asian Financial Crisis. This time it is Muslims. Divide and conquer racism and Global Financial Crisis turmoil allowed the populists to become more and more extreme. Not all One Nation and Trump supports are racist, “they just blindly put aside the racism and focus on the slim picking [from the right] around jobs and pensions”. But “the left has had recent upsurges in Spain and Greece, as well as the international Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements”.

Gare labelled the current move to the right as a “rebellion” against the elite but also “paranoid nationalism”.

“New realism of the left led to new barbarism” as “Labor parties embraced neoliberalism. It’s bizarre” and “undid 100 years of left aspirations and policy”. 

Gare took issue with the “trendy postmodernist” rejection of social democracy and uptake of the hyper-individualist consumer and rights agenda that broke the left solidarity movements.

“Also, it’s politically incorrect for some reason to evoke nationalism and is one of the reasons why the left is failing,” Gare said. Left-wing parties once spoke of “sacrifice and nationalism and provided a plot story. The left needs a new story.”

The left response to the crisis has been encapsulated by people marching on the streets and at airports from day one of Trump’s presidency, said O’Shea. Modern populist regimes “generate resistance and for millions of individuals Trump is a step too far”. Left opportunities will present when the right’s policies fail and people begin to look elsewhere.

Dunkley agreed that citizens would seek more truthful economic policies which would come from their natural home — the left. “If you look at capitalism, the left was largely right about capitalism,” he said.

Bolton contended that a left focus on the continuing economic and job crisis, alongside welfare and pension cuts, would spark an enormous mind shift. People voting for One Nation and Trump will have to start to re-evaluate “as the race card can’t solve the real issues”.

Also, “the left had to be on the offensive and go out and win something — for example with the Medicare fight back against [Tony] Abbot’s budget".

Parliamentary elections had brought in socialist and grassroots responses and, in US state elections, of progressives said Bolton, one of three socialist councillors in Australia.

The panellists suggested the major left response to the crisis in recent years had played out in Greece. Whereas the British and US rightists abandoned the neoliberal program the Greek socialists stuck with the EU, the IMF and bailouts. The panel agreed that leftists must abandon any global neoliberal responses. Dunkley said, “We are afraid to be protectionist, but we need a moratorium on trade agreements.”

Audience members pointed out that the problem with the left was it was fragmented. In response, panel members said a united front was needed between socialist and social democratic parties. 

As the Left response to the rise of the right gathers strength, Left Q&A might just be the space to kick start a left unity project in 2017.

[Left Q&A is a monthly program from the New International Bookshop. The next meeting, on February 23, is on Rethinking Socialism for sustainability.]

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