Society and Culture

On populism and ‘People Power’

These aren’t great times for the left. ‘Right-wing populism’ is said to be on the rise everywhere. First Brexit. Then Trump. Then Norbert Hofer in Austria, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, who did not technically ‘win’, but who came a lot closer than they could have, say, a decade ago. This will probably be true of Marine Le Pen in France as well. So it is perhaps unsurprising that social spaces dominated by the left, especially social media and university campuses, have become even angrier, even more hysterical places than they already were.

These are, of course, not great times for free-market liberals either. ‘Right-wing populism’ means different things in different places, but broadly speaking, most of what currently goes under that label has a marked statist streak, especially on economic issues. Donald Trump is an unapologetic protectionist, and a Big Government Keynesian, with a general contempt for the rule of law. And you don’t have to be a politically correct virtue-signaller to oppose his immigration policies.

Brexit is a different story. There is, and there has always been, a perfectly sensible, classical liberal brand of Euroscepticism. But let’s face it, this is not the brand that won the referendum. As the Spectator’s Alex Massie points out:

“If you think the pubs of Sunderland and Basildon were stuffed with people thirsting for the opportunity to live in the Singapore of the West you are, I am afraid, deluding yourself. Your idea of Brexit was not the dominant view of Brexit. And if you’re interested in being honest with yourselves, you know this is true.”

As for the other instances of ‘populism’, Geert Wilders may be a somewhat different phenomenon, but Norbert Hofer explicitly campaigned against free trade, and Marine Le Pen is economically on the far left anyway.

Nonetheless, among free-marketeers, there has been nothing like the despair and outrage that we have seen on the left. Bryan Caplan’s laconic response has been quite representative in the respect: “Policy will be terrible under Trump. But in my view, policy is always terrible […] I have to choose between being miserable all the time, or striving to be happy when policy is terrible. I have long made the latter choice”. The response from our side of the spectrum has been sarcasm, eye-rolling, snide remarks, but otherwise, business as usual. What explains this difference in reactions?

The main difference is that most free-market liberals acknowledge, and accept, that our policies are not particularly popular with the general public. The public sometimes accepts free-market policies, but rarely embraces them enthusiastically. They accept them in the way you accept the need to go to the dentist. I moderate the comment section of our blog. When a comment starts with “I found your article so inspiring!” or something to that effect, I delete it immediately, because I know that it has to be spam. No real person would say that. If somebody finds our articles ‘persuasive’, ‘logical’ or ‘well-argued’, I’m already happy, because that is as good as it gets. Nobody finds the stuff I write ‘inspiring’, unless they want to sell fake watches or pills.

In contrast, it is an important part of the left’s self-image that they see themselves as the true voice of The People, especially working-class people, while other parts of the political spectrum speak for The Elites. This is already expressed in the names they give their organisations and policies: The People’s Assembly, People’s QE, The People’s Daily, The People’s Supermarket, People Power, and so on, a habit which has been adopted from (former) socialist countries. In the GDR, even the police could not just be called ‘the police’; it had to be the People’s Police (Volkspolizei), while the army was the National People’s Army (Nationale Volksarmee), the marine was the People’s Marine (Volksmarine), and so on.

The obvious question, then, becomes: if the left speaks for The People, why do The People so often speak out against themselves? Yes, there is the old ‘false consciousness’ explanation – but why is it getting worse? Why is The People’s false consciousness becoming even falser?

The left’s explanation goes something like this:

Decades of neoliberal policies, topped off by years of austerity, have brought the working classes to the brink. The well-paid, secure, fulfilling jobs they once had have been replaced by zero-hour contracts on the minimum wage, which they have to top up with groceries from the food bank and payday loans. Welfare benefits have been slashed. Public services have been slashed. Their public libraries and community centres have been closed down, and handed over to developers to build luxury flats. People are angry. People are frightened. People are desperate. They don’t know why this is happening to them.

This is where ‘the mainstream media’ (or ‘MSM’) and ‘the populists’ come in. They deflect people’s anger away from those at the top of society, who are really causing our problems, and towards those at the bottom. They tell people: ‘Don’t blame the one per cent, the corporate fat cats, the bankers and the tax-dodging billionaires. Don’t blame those who have really caused your misery. Blame the poor instead! Blame immigrants! Blame Muslims! Blame the homeless, blame the disabled, blame people on benefits. Let the elites off the hook, and turn on your neighbour; turn on those who are even worse off than you.’

‘Public anger’, in this view of the world, is like a jet of water from a hose: those who hold the hose can direct it in whichever direction they like. If they told the public that people whose name starts with the letter K are the source of all our problems, the public’s rage would probably turn against those people, too. The rich and powerful are using a classic divide-and-rule strategy. They sow discord among The People, because as long as we are busy fighting each other, nobody challenges their power.

You can see why this worldview makes its adherents a bit tense. The implication is that if only the Sun, the Daily Mail, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson would shut up for a few weeks, the scales would fall from people’s eyes, and the Corbynista revolution would finally sweep the country. People would awake from their trance, realise what is really going on, and rally around the red flag. It must be extremely frustrating to believe that the realisation of your political goals is always so close, and yet so far away.

Free-marketeers find it much easier to face up to the fact that our ideas are not popular, because we don’t believe that this is the result of a media conspiracy, or the doings of any other manipulative elite. Of course we believe that the incessant anti-capitalist nagging does not help us, but it is a symptom as much as it is a cause. Free-market ideas are just counterintuitive. Statism feels good; it connects with people on an emotional level. Economic liberalism does not.

This is, of course, also true of in-group/out-group sentiments and fear of being taken advantage of by free-riders. These are natural human inclinations. The media and ‘populists’ pander to them and probably exacerbate them, but they do not create them.

But this is an unromantic explanation. The idea that The People are pure and noble, just fooled and manipulated by a corrupt elite, has a strong appeal. It feels good to believe that. Not least because actual people are a lot messier to deal with than The People, i.e. the romanticised abstraction. But in times when populism is on the rise, this mindset creates an awful cognitive dissonance. And cognitive dissonance causes mental agony. It can be rationalised away, but to do so is hard work.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

5 thoughts on “On populism and ‘People Power’”

  1. Posted 21/03/2017 at 09:21 | Permalink

    Kris – Your article has inspired me to tell you that I find it persuasive, logical and well-argued!

  2. Posted 21/03/2017 at 11:51 | Permalink

    Hi Kristian, do you think there’s any hope people might be inspired by ‘freedom’? Don’t young people want to be rebels, start their own band, say and do what they want, get mum and dad off their back?

  3. Posted 21/03/2017 at 16:55 | Permalink

    “Free-market ideas are just counterintuitive. Statism feels good; it connects with people on an emotional level. Economic liberalism does not.”
    Do you believe this is intrinsically the case? Or is it rather the consequence of generations (say post WW2) who have been brought up in the warm embrace of Statism – State education, NHS, cradle to grave welfare – and so know nothing else and can’t conceive of anything else? If the clock were rolled back further would one find that economic liberalism was the intuitive choice by virtue of being more normal?
    I’m not sure that Statism is intrinsically a more intuitive position than free market liberalism.

  4. Posted 21/03/2017 at 22:15 | Permalink

    On People Power and its shaky relationship with experts — try this article: “The larger discussions, from what constitutes a nutritious diet to what actions will best further U.S. interests, require conversations between ordinary citizens and experts. But increasingly, citizens don’t want to have those conversations. Rather, they want to weigh in and have their opinions treated with deep respect and their preferences honored not on the strength of their arguments or on the evidence they present but based on their feelings, emotions, and whatever stray information they may have picked up here or there along the way. ”

  5. Posted 23/03/2017 at 18:49 | Permalink

    In all free economic systems if labor increases then wage rates decrease and the money concentrates. Further increase in money increasing to the already wealthy, decreases the ability of people who depend on labor for income and inhibits upward mobility.
    Yes blame the immigrants because they depress wages, Yes blame the wealthy who militate for increased immigration and by their actions increase their own wealth by increasing poverty IN YOUR OWN Country.
    Market Economics is basic to this understanding. Te problem Is TOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND MARKET ECONOMICS, or are a SHILL FOR THOSE WILLING TO ACTUALLY DERCEASE innovation and increase poverty.

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