Populism, anti-politics and the left

Anti-political movements and new left parties like Podemos and Syriza are only inconsistent opponents of the system, writes James Supple

Mainstream politics is in crisis. Tony Abbott’s government had faltered just as quickly as Rudd and Gillard’s Labor governments before it. Although he survived a leadership spill in February, he is bound to face another challenge if his popularity does not recover following the budget.

Both major parties are flailing in the face of their inability to win popular support. Populist parties are sweeping elections in Europe and across the developed world.

Elections last year to the European parliament saw the fascist National Front top the poll in France, as well as the far right People’s Party in Denmark and UKIP in Britain. Left party Syriza has taken government in Greece, and Podemos in Spain is a serious challenger in elections scheduled for the end of this year. Figures like Russell Brand have captured the popular mood by saying “I regard politicians as frauds and liars” and calling for revolution.

All of them rail against the political establishment, now widely seen as corrupt and out of touch with ordinary people.

The same phenomenon has also been obvious in Australia, with the disillusionment with Labor and Liberal feeding the populist antics of Clive Palmer, while The Greens have established themselves as a political force on Labor’s left.

Trust in politicians and the political system have fallen to very low levels. Just 34 per cent believe “people in government can be trusted” according to the Australian Election Survey compiled by ANU academics after the 2013 election. Another ANU poll last year showed only 6 per cent of people expressed “a great deal of confidence” in federal parliament. Even the banks were more trusted. At the same time the general level of satisfaction with democracy remains high, at 72 per cent.

The support for the two major parties is in long-term decline. The number of “rusted on” voters who say they have always voted for the same party has fallen from 63 per cent in 1987 to 46 per cent 2013, according to the same ANU poll. Labor has been hit particularly hard, with lifetime Labor voters falling from 32 per cent of people in 1969 to 24 per cent.

An increasing number of people don’t vote at all. This is particularly obvious in countries where voting is voluntary. But even in Australia, the combined total of those who voted informal and didn’t register to vote for the 2013 federal election was 20 per cent, one of the highest figures on record.

This fact that less people can be relied on to vote consistently for one party means the number of people willing to switch their vote between elections or to vote for new parties has grown. The result is a growing number of one term governments, and what commentators like to call “electoral volatility”.

Peter Mair, in his book Ruling the void, points to a wealth of data showing that this is consistent across Western Europe. He argues that, “for the first time in postwar political history, the political class itself has now become a matter of contention” across a large number of democratic countries.


The reason for this is not hard to find. Since the end of the post-war boom in the mid-1970s the parties of government have all implemented neo-liberal policies, cutting back on government spending on social services and attacking unions and workers’ rights. There has been less room for major reforms that improve people’s standard of living.

Instead there has been a slow erosion in workers’ living standards and an increase in job insecurity, as business has demanded more “flexible” hours, forcing people to work longer hours and on weekends.

This has seen a huge gap open up between popular attitudes and the policies supported by the political mainstream, in Australia as much as in Europe.

A look at some results from recent Essential polls demonstrates this. Just 22 per cent think privatisation is a good idea, yet there is a bipartisan commitment to it. Only 12 per cent supported cuts to services to balance the budget, yet 68 per cent would back higher corporate tax. But there is a consensus between Labor and Liberal about the need for budget austerity of some form, rather than taxing the rich. Even more tax on mining companies gets the backing of 62 per cent of people.

A major study by social research company Ipsos Mackay in 2011, Being Australian, found that people’s, “big worries were about what you might call economic justice”, according to one of the research team.

The Sydney Morning Herald summed up the report’s conclusions as showing that Australians, “generally embrace a social democratic world view, at least on the economy, the workplace and public services”. This echoes the findings of previous Social Attitudes surveys carried out by academics.

The political consensus amongst Labor and Liberal over the underlying policies needed to manage the economy means there is very little choice between the two major parties. As a result many people have come to see them as both part of a single political elite, and the credibility of the political system to serve the interests of the majority of people has been eroded.

This has caused the most acute problems for Labor, given it historically was more strongly associated with the idea of using the state to improve people’s lives and that its support base has been among the unions and the working class.

The decline in union membership and a much lower level of strikes and industrial action have eroded the bedrock of Labor’s support.

Historically, voting Labor has been an expression of working class consciousness and a desire to reject at least some elements of capitalism. In the past union membership provided a base of activists able to shape public opinion independently of the ideas transmitted by the mainstream media. But union decline means their ability to do this is much weaker today.

Labor MPs have become much more out of touch with popular attitudes. This is reinforced by the decline in its mass membership, so that today’s MPs are almost exclusively career apparatchiks, who work their way through jobs in a union or party office into parliament. Their links and exposure to ordinary working class communities and attitudes are far weaker than in the past.

Labor’s shift to the right has alienated a swathe of its former supporters. As John Rees wrote about British Labour back in 2001, “In many ways working class reformist consciousness has remained remarkably consistent since the 1970s. But mainstream reformism can no longer deliver these aspirations. As a result ‘reformist’ consciousness now finds itself confronted with a crisis of political representation.”

This same process is also eroding the support base of the mainstream right-wing parties.

Pauline Hanson’s short-lived electoral success with One Nation came largely at the expense of the Coalition. One Nation’s racism allowed Hanson to tap into the same vein of opposition to economic rationalism and privatisation that has fed more recent populists like Bob Katter.

Similarly in Britain, UKIP draws a significant amount of its support from former Tory voters who now feel no one in the political mainstream represents them. As Andy Jones’ analysis in International Socialism shows, “polling figures consistently show that it is the Tories’ support that is affected to a greater degree than Labour’s”.


One popular way of describing this political disengagement and disaffection is to talk of an anti-political mood. Some of the social movements, as well as new electoral parties, fired by the disgust at political parties and the political system, are driven by a desire to reject “politics” altogether.

The classic example of this was the 15M movement in Spain in 2011, where hundreds of thousands of people took over city squares demanding “real democracy now” instead of a system run by the politicians and the bankers. In the early days the rejection of politics and organisation meant even left-wing parties’ newspapers and union flags were banned from the squares.

There is a healthy element in this kind of disgust at mainstream politics. And socialists need to engage with these movements in a constructive and patient fashion. But it is a mistake for social movements to ignore theory or political strategy.

The direction taken by the new left parties that have emerged in Spain and Greece as a product of movements against austerity show why.

In both cases the impasse reached by the social movements and strikes, where despite their scale they have been unable so far to inflict decisive defeats on the austerity agenda, have fed the rise of left reformist responses that pose winning power through parliament as the solution.

Podemos is the clearest case where a left-wing party has arisen as a result of a social movement and built its support as a challenge to the existing political elite, and its corruption and failure to stand up for ordinary people. It has even adopted forms of organising, like its local circles, that echo the mass assemblies (but alas not the democracy) of the 15M movement .

But electoral success has led to a growing focus on taking government as its aim. Podemos’s leadership, centred around media star Pablo Iglesias, have moved to moderate the party’s demands in order to present themselves as “responsible” enough to take power. In doing so Podemos is following the path taken by Syriza in Greece, which is now engaged in a process of “renegotiating” the debt memorandum with the EU rather than tearing it up.


But the disillusionment with mainstream politics does not simply feed “anti-political” responses. Because it is a product of opposition to neo-liberalism, parties that offer hopes of a break with this agenda can also benefit.

The Greens in Australia have risen since 2001 to occupy a space to the left of Labor, with a consolidated support base of just over 10 per cent. Their success has been partly based on providing a more consistent, principled alternative to the major parties. But it has also relied on a clear stance on specific political issues: refugees, the Iraq war and climate change for instance.

In the case of Syriza in Greece it was precisely its call for a “government of the left” to bring an end to the austerity measures that secured its rapid rise in the polls. It did not simply stand against the existing political system but won support on the basis that if it took power it could provide a solution.

As Alex Callinicos has pointed out, this same mood of disgust with the political mainstream fed into the powerful movement for a yes vote in last year’s Scottish independence referendum. The campaign was fired by a belief that independence could lead to a break with neo-liberal policies and the imposition of austerity from London.

What these examples show is that the mood of disillusionment with the political system is not coherently anti-capitalist or anti-system, and can be drawn behind left reformist political parties or movements.

This is because the mood is not simply “anti-political” but is driven by disillusionment with neo-liberal policies.

The rise of parties like Syriza and The Greens in Australia show something else important about the so-called “anti-political” mood.

The vast bulk of people breaking in disgust with the mainstream left-wing parties, like Labor in Australia, remain reformist.

That is, they continue to believe that change can come through reforms to the existing parliamentary system, for instance through the election of Greens or new left governments to power.

Although they are disgusted at the political mainstream they are overwhelmingly not moving directly towards a revolutionary socialist worldview. For this to happen, workers need to move into struggle outside parliament on a mass scale, so that they can begin to see their own struggles and forms of working class power as an alternative.

Anti-politics in practice

Supposedly “anti-political” parties that are focused on winning seats in parliament are bound to disappoint their supporters. The closer they get to power, the more the new reformist parties come to resemble the old parties they replace.

We have already seen The Greens in Australia suffer as a result of the experience of minority government with Labor after 2011. The process saw them drawn into defending an indefensible government and emphasising their willingness to be “responsible” parliamentary players just like the major parties.

Even in Spain and Greece where the level of extra-parliamentary struggle in recent years has been much higher, the parties that have been the immediate beneficiaries, Podemos and Syriza, have moved away from their earlier radicalism.

Spanish socialist Andy Durgan has written that for Podemos:

“with the party’s spectacular growth, with now over 300,000 supporters subscribed on line, and prospects of electoral success, it has begun to defend more moderate policies. Gone are the promises of nationalisation of key sectors of the economy, retirement at 60, a universal wage for all citizens or the cancellation of the debt.”

Syriza in Greece has made increasing compromises with the austerity policies demanded by the European Union since its election in January.

This shows that the old argument about whether change can come through parliament or whether struggles outside it are necessary to change society remains relevant.

Forming government through the existing parliamentary institutions exposes any left-wing party to immense pressures to compromise with big business and the state.

Even when a left government controls parliament, it does not have control over the economy, which remains in the hands of a small, wealthy elite.

Big business will resist efforts to take back the wealth they have plundered to create jobs or expand health and welfare services. So far all the indications are that parties like Syriza and Podemos are willing to compromise.

Socialists insist that it is only by building the power of mass movements and the working class outside parliament that society can be fundamentally changed.

But electoral parties like Syriza and Podemos have worked to frustrate this. The focus on winning power through parliamentary elections has gone along with undermining and winding down the struggle outside parliament. As Spanish socialist Luke Stobart has written, Podemos now treats the mass movement in the squares in the Spanish state as, “belonging to a past phase… now followed by a mainly institutional phase”.

Syriza has moved to undermine struggles seen as damaging to its electoral chances, like the teachers strike in 2013, and will hardly be encouraging workers to continue fighting austerity policies as it now implements them.

Without a focus on building the class struggle, even populist left-wing parties that benefit from the anti-political mood are ultimately going nowhere. It is all too easy for them to be re-absorbed into the political system and embrace the compromises that they once rejected.

But it is in the struggles of workers, students and the oppressed that the hope for a real alternative lies. Trying to work within the existing state institutions, and accepting the reality of control of the economy by the 1 per cent, is a dead end.

The fight against cutbacks and austerity can only be solved by increasing the level of strikes, mass protests and struggle from below.

Workers could seize control of the wealth in society by taking the factories and offices out of control of the bosses and the rich and beginning to run society themselves. This would require a revolution to break the power of the state institutions that defend the power of the rich. Such a solution to the crisis of capitalism has been posed again and again at highpoints of struggle.

For this to happen, revolutionary socialist groups need to constructively engage to win an argument for building a political alternative for fundamental change based on democracy from below—in the squares, but most importantly in the factories and workplaces.

The widespread disillusionment and disgust with the mainstream of politics is a good start. But to bring about a real challenge to capitalism and inequality, it needs to develop into the mass workers’ and social movements that alone have the power to change the world.


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