Who predicted the rise of the populists? Part 1 – Edward Luttwak

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Democracy / Economics / Edward Luttwak / fascism / Globalisation / Party System / Philosophy / Politics / Populism

Edward Luttwak predicted the rise of populists in 1994

Looking at who predicted the victory of the populists in 2016 helps us sift through the deluge of ex post facto rationalisations.

First in the series is Edward N Luttwak. His 1994 book “The Endangered American Dream” made a series of bold claims about the results of globalisation. He believed it would undermine the traditional parties of both right and left. In his view neither could address the concerns of the losers from globalisation. Their failure would eventually open a space for parties of the far right. Luttwak called these parties ‘fascist’.

Luttwak’s predictions are summarised below and then evaluated for accuracy.

1994 : Edward Luttwak – Fascism is the wave of the future
In Luttwak’s view capitalism delivers growth via the destructive power of competition. In this way it creates space for more efficient structures and methods to rise in their place. While capitalism is the most efficient way to drive economic development, the change it creates can inflict more disruption on working lives, industries and their localities than individuals can absorb. It destroy the connective tissue of friendships, families, neighbourhoods, villages, towns, cities or nations.

The pace of structural change is accelerating because of globalisation. Any production that is globally competitive can expand enormously overnight, far beyond the limits of its domestic market. That means production somewhere else can be displaced just as quickly and the associated employment eliminated.

Luttwak believed that the rate of structural change exceeded the adaptive capacity of individuals, families and communities. When the children of steelworkers or miners are forced to become programmers, teachers and lawyers they have no reason to complain. But when the mechanism works so fast that the steelworkers and coalminers are themselves forced to change jobs, failure and anger are the likely result.

Conventional political forces had no answers. The moderate Right can only offer more free trade and globalisation, more deregulation and structural change. They promise to increase globalisation’s dislocation of lives and social relations. The moderate Left can only offer more redistribution and public assistance. It anyway focusses its concern on special groups who claim victim status.

Ergo neither the moderate Right nor the moderate Left can offer a solution to the central problem of our days: the unprecedented personal economic insecurity of working people.

This leaves a vast political space vacant for new far right (“product-improved fascist”) parties focussed on the economic security of the masses. These far right parties don’t need to be racist. They could focus instead on slowing social change and blocking globalisation.

Commentary : Luttwak correctly identified the huge developing opportunity for political parties outside the mainstream. He was also correct in predicting that these new parties would appeal directly to globalisation’s losers and challenge the elite consensus. Again he correctly anticipated that the populists would reject policies that maximise global growth while demanding local job security. 

Nonetheless it is a giant leap from these premises to the claim that these parties would be fascist. The urge to obstruct globalisation is in no way fascist. All Green parties share this aspiration. The primary goal of Social Democracy is the the softening of capitalism’s hard edges.

What really distinguishes the new populists from traditional opponents of globalisation is their willingness to sacrifice the interests of the whole for those of the part. For instance, UKIP doesn’t claim its policies are optimal for Europe as a whole. It doesn’t even claim its policies are optimal for everyone in the UK. Trump would not say that his policies suit China or Mexico. Contrast the internationalism of Green and Social Democratic movements. The traditional opponents of global capitalism appeal to universal values, the populists do not.

Populists and fascists have some commonalities. Both appeal to an ‘in group’. By implication there is a ‘out group’ whether they be “eurocrats”, Mexicans, gypsies, jews, muslims or economic migrants. 

How shocked should we be by the populist’s rejection of universalism? In truth, every political party appeals to sectoral interests. Each has an ‘in group’, together with a more or less well defined ‘out group’. The British Labour party traditionally celebrates the British working class and denigrates ‘city fat cats’. The Conservatives boost the middle classes while disapproving of benefit claimants. Populist rhetoric strays dangerously close to fascist territory when the denigration of the out group eclipses the bigging up of the favoured in group. Trump’s attacks on Mexicans and Muslims fall into this territory.

In hindsight Luttwak’ most important insight concerned the importance of job security. It is more important to voters than income or GDP. Economic arguments that claimed globalisation benefitted society as a whole in aggregate financial terms missed the point. A society could grow richer but still find itself with an electoral majority opposed to globalisation. International comparisons vindicate this view. France, for instance, has done far more to protect the economic interests of its ‘losers’. It has high levels of taxation, good public services and active redistribution of both income and wealth. And yet it faces a populist backlash to rival the US with some now talking seriously of a National Front government.

Part 2 – Richard Rorty – Is identity politics to blame ?

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  1. Pingback: Who predicted the rise of the populists? Part 2 - Richard Rorty - zwilo

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