The Left populist experiment is now very much over. From Bernie Sanders’s failure to obtain the Democratic nomination for President in 2020 to the destruction of Corbynism, from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s unsuccessful bid for the French presidency to the capitulation of Syriza, the waning of Podemos, and the eclipse of Die Linke by Alternative für Deutschland, Left populist movements that once held promise have now been decisively defeated across Europe and beyond. Left populism typically presented itself as an alliance of young, educated, and energetic activists on the one hand and older working-class voters alienated from neoliberalized, establishment parties on the other.
What will become of this fragile coalition now that its moment has passed? Who might be interested in continuing the Left populist project, and where might they be able to take it?
The case of the British Left in this context is illustrative. Corbynism represented a numerically large movement that was able temporarily to conquer a long-established national political party. After his surprise victory in the Labour leadership contest that followed Ed Miliband’s defeat in the General Election of 2015, Jeremy Corbyn’s political and personal appeal brought a large influx of new members to the party. Membership of the Labour Party leapt from around 200,000 to a peak of over half a million (for context, the Conservative Party claimed only 180,000 members as of July 2019).
Despite the revitalized party (at least in numerical terms), Corbynism did not prove successful at the ballot box nationally. There are a number of different ways to read the failure of Corbynism to translate from a movement within Labour to a ruling political force. The first is that the movement collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions, unable to maintain the alliance between young, urban, and university-educated progressives at the core of the new membership and of Momentum, and the ordinary working people catalyzed behind the new leadership.
A more critical reading goes further: the project was actually a class project of the lower half of the progressive managerial class, who ventriloquized the working class (and in some readings despised them). In either case, the proximate cause of Corbynism’s political downfall was clearly an insufficient commitment to enacting the democratic vote of the 2016 referendum; instead, proposing a second referendum was seen as too great an electoral temptation to resist. With Corbynism obviously dead by mid-2019 (if not earlier), Labour got predictably obliterated in the 2019 General Election, falling to their worst result since 1935.
The Left populist coalition contained at least three tendencies: the first were the reluctant neoliberals, who have emerged as the dominant group of the three. Though they played along during the Corbyn moment, they are more at home in Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. Notwithstanding their new hold on the party, their weakness is illustrated by the fact that despite his widely-criticized treatment of Covid, Boris Johnson still leads Starmer in the polls. Without a positive political project, their greatest hope remains not a political defeat of the Tories but rather that Johnsonism will collapse under the combined weight of its own contradictions and repeated failures in tackling Covid. A coalition between Labour’s neoliberals and the remaining Left populists seems unlikely, not least given the struggle within the Labour party between the two groups that has left a lot of bad blood and mutual mistrust.
The second tendency is a much smaller group of communitarian thinkers around the Blue Labour group, and to a lesser extent the re-launched Social Democratic Party, who see themselves as vindicated by Brexit and the 2019 election result. In both cases there is an attempt to engage with working-class voters: in the case of Blue Labour in order to achieve a revitalization of the Labour Party through a reconnection to its working-class supporters via culturally-conservative proposals, and in the case of the SDP to represent “neither capital nor labour” but rather rebuild a social-democratic nation state. One central challenge for either of these projects is that Johnson’s “One-Nation Tory” program has begun to appropriate many of its core ideas, and will likely continue to do so once it returns to post-Covid “business as usual” (whatever that might look like).
The culturally conservative orientation of Blue Labour or the SDP are likely to be totally unappealing to Left populists. A signal example is the almost entirely hostile reception to an important account of the Left’s recent failings, Paul Embery’s Despised. Any useful political analysis in Embery’s account was overlooked by responses that dismissed the argument wholesale by pointing out the “racism” or “xenophobia” of various Blue Labour positions on culture wars issues.
The third group consists of the defeated Left populists themselves. Left on both economics and culture, the Left populists have been abandoned by the neoliberals on economics and by Blue Labour on culture. Less sympathetic analysts predict that this group will more or less rapidly starve, like orphaned emperor penguin chicks, without political patrons to support their project. At the same time, the activist base for Left populism—the “lower PMC” of university-educated urbanites finding only insecure employment and unable to afford housing in the metropolitan centers where the high status and “interesting” or socially valuable jobs they seek are overwhelmingly clustered—will not disappear.
It is likely that many of the people energized and enthused by Corbyn or Sanders will be depressed by the experience of often vicious party infighting and political failure. Although some might advocate an embrace of this depressive affect, it is more likely that a large fraction of the Left populists will be depoliticized and drift away from politics. If Left populism was (or is) an attempt to bring politics back into the realm of the material—and the associated idea that politics can be something that you engage in to improve your life—then the defeat of the Left populist project could make the enterprise of politics as a whole less convincing.
Another option for the remaining Left populists is to shift from politics into the NGO world, with Corbyn himself making this move already through the founding of the Project for Peace and Justice. Those who remain within the Left populist framework, perhaps advocating a continuity project such as “Corbynism after Corbyn”, will continue to be faced with an essential difficulty: although the economic distance between the “lower PMC” at risk of workerization and the working class might be decreasing, the political and cultural distance between these groups is, if anything, growing.
Looking to the future, the main question that is likely to determine the political fates of the defeated Left populists is how this cultural and political divide is approached. Although far from a foregone conclusion, there are already signs that many on the Left are in fact keen to increase the distance between themselves and their intended working-class constituencies. On the one hand, working-class voters are dismissed as irrecoverably xenophobic, racist, or jingoistic, while on the other a set of highly particularistic policies (such as defunding the police or canceling student debt) and ascriptive identities are put forward as central.
The logical endpoint of this development is that if tensions between the PMC and working-class voters cannot be resolved, then non-majoritarian justifications for policies and political decision-making will be required. Already, groups on the fringes of Left populism such as Extinction Rebellion have advocated Citizens’ Assemblies as a way to go “beyond politics”, and these “consultative” mechanisms of political participation could easily spread, aided by a theoretical turn towards more innovative or deliberative forms of democracy. (Another possibility is the retreat from the political level of the nation-state, and national majorities, to the politics of the city and more geographically-constrained urban struggles, celebrating forms of social economy or mutual aid above national coalition-building.) If these or similar anti-majoritarian, morally-inflected ideas (most likely anti-fascism and environmentalism) are embraced as central to a Left populist continuity project, then the political value of majority decisions can be undermined (due to the racist, fascist, xenophobic, or other imputed motives of voters) and any future, post-Covid mobilization can be managed. If this course is taken, then in one sense Left populism will then have come full circle: from the initial task of rethinking mobilization for an age of demobilization, the goal will instead be to manage mobilization in an age of potential remobilization.