Left wing populism in Europe: The end of neo-liberalism? By Hamza Ali Shah

Left wing populism in Europe: The end of neo-liberalism?

Executive Summary:

Much has been said about the populist surge that has gathered momentum and occupied Europe in recent years. The general perception of populism in Europe is that it is right wing leaning. In fact, the multi-faceted campaigns that have capitalised on emotions and resentment and garnered support across Europe are largely right wing. However, a new wave of left wing populism is surfacing. Various left-wing political parties and movements are disseminating rhetoric with an anti-elite, anti-austerity and anti-establishment viewpoint, as the left wing populists seek to counter the augmentation of the right whilst concurrently marking a turning point for the left in politics, as the global economic state and how to counter the ramifications prevails on the agenda.


What is populism?

Populism contradicts the central elements of democratic thinking and practice. Instead of the inclusive and integrating concept of the ‘people’ as a group of citizens free and equal before the law, populism imposes a divisive idea of people that fractures society into antagonistic factions doomed to clash: there are ‘the people’, the oppressed, victims of the crisis, and the ‘non people’, represented by the elites, the caste and the oligarchy (Muller, 2016)

Whether of left or right, it seeks to unite the uncorrupted and the unsophisticated against the corrupt dominant elites by levelling anger, fury and disgust at them. It is guided by the belief that political and social goals are best achieved by the direct actions of the masses. Although it comes into being where mainstream political institutions fail to deliver, there is no identifiable economic or social set of conditions that give rise to it, and it is not confined to any particular social class.

Populists disseminate rhetoric that is anti-establishment and anti-pluralistic, as they believe they are an exclusive portrayal of the people, in a cunning game of representative politics. Indeed, populists speak effectively in the name of the people and it is implied amongst many populist parties that those who do not endorse their cause, are not part of the proper people (Brubaker, 2017).

Hence, the cornerstone of populism is the belief that politics should be the expression of the general will of the people, as evinced in the significant efforts to amass support from the general population that populist movements demonstrate (Muller, 2016).

Simply stated, populism is a view of the world and how it should be.

Populism in Europe:

Capitalism is taking its toll on democracy, and consequently, vast inequality in wealth and income, the collapsing of social mobility and a climate of insecurity has surfaced. Economic nationalism has taken precedence, and right and left wing factions across Europe are playing the blame game in an attempt to generate support (Berger, 2018).

The Brexit referendum, which was shaped by the exclusionary rhetoric that comes so naturally to right wing populists, allegedly provided the solution to all the issues that the European Union, – an institution that stands for solidarity, peace, cohesion, integration and equality – supposedly induced. Discourse that was concentrated on anti-immigration prejudices stirred up fear amongst the British public, became the major deciding factor and cemented the right-wing populist surge in Europe.

Indeed, several European countries took heed. Marine Le Pen, leader of the right wing party in France, The National Front, ran an election campaign in the name of ‘national interest’, which was brimming with bigoted sentiments, as she outlined her promise to reclaim France’s nationalism, which she alleged had been ‘dispossessed’. Le Pen followed right-wing populist protocol by mobilizing support by directing blame at immigration for the issues that the public made clear required attention: terrorism and unemployment. In the process, she painted a dark picture of France, as a country troubled by bureaucrats and niqab’s, as globalisation and Islamism commandeer influence (Nossiter, 2017).

These nativist, Eurosceptic and nationalistic sentiments are pertinent examples of the type of populist rhetoric that right wing factions have adopted, in a bid to identify with the wider public and kinder support, effectively directing blame at outsiders, such as migrants, for the economic hardship in their respective countries.

The new Left-wing:

However, populism is not limited to just the right. Left-wing populism is just as prevalent. Left-wing populist movements seek to end the problems that the mainstream neo-liberal order has induced and offer a more tolerant and inclusionary perspective. Consequently, new left wing movements are testing traditional democratic parties’ limits (Mouffe, 2018).

Syriza in Greece is a pertinent example. The political party, an acronym for ‘Coalition of the radical left’ started as a federation of smaller parties but became a single organisation in 2013 and then swept to power in the Greek elections of 2015. The political party that in 2009 only gained 4% of the votes dealt a blow to mainstream politics in Greece 6 years later.

Their attention is mainly centred on the Greek debt and the ardent ramifications it entails. For example, the current plan for Greece’s economy does not seem to be working: unemployment is at approximately 25% and youth unemployment is around 50%. The country is facing a health emergency and doctors regularly see people hospitalised because of malnutrition.

Syriza’s other priorities are to end the humanitarian emergency in Greece, reform the country’s economy, and fundamentally, to take on its political establishment.

Humanitarian measures emphasised by the party include reconnecting electricity supplies where they have been switched off by energy companies, due to non-payment of bills, and the introduction of subsidised food for the unemployed.

Proposed economic reforms include the promotion of workers’ cooperatives and the nationalisation of banks and privatised utilities.

The party also wants to secure better conditions for Greece’s marginalised groups as it is dedicated to protecting Greece’s migrant communities.

Hence, Syriza seek an alternative and coherent plan, which speaks in terms that the public understand and can relate to. Indeed, many of the parties’ supporters are not radical leftists, but were encouraged by the reasoned changes Syriza promise (Stone, 2015).

This is because they speak in egalitarian terms, in what can be considered a break from the usual centre left rhetoric that main political parties transmit.

In fact, the break from the centrist ideas regarding the symptoms of public debt is what constitutes this new left wing populist wave in Greece, and Podemos in Spain operate on a similar wavelength, and were actually galvanised by Syriza’s meteoric rise.

The fundamental beliefs of Podemos are enshrined in the need to take back power from self-serving elites and hand it over to the people.

Before Podemos, Spain faced the prospect of becoming like Greece, with its disintegrating welfare state, crumbling middle class and rampant inequality. After years of economic growth, the financial crisis burst Spain’s construction bubble. Countless corruption cases – which included some of Spain’s prominent parties, the Peoples Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) – stoked widespread anger towards the established political class, with the public calling for a change in the political system.

The head of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, who is deeply influenced by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, needed substantial votes in order to achieve such a feat. Hence, he aroused the emotions of the public, by organising protests and disseminating the rhetoric that the political order and its elites do not represent the people. Thus, him and his party delivered a shock to the political system, winning 69 seats and 21% of seats in the 2015 general election, and in the process, dealt a blow to the popularity of the conservative people’s party.

Podemos called for a new political identity, a united front, which is no longer about left or right but the people-oligarchy, up-down approach whereby it is the citizens against the state.

They took a leaf out of Syriza’s book and accentuated their anti-austerity viewpoints, in a bid to reach out to the plethora of disgruntled citizens.

Resultantly, in both Spain and Greece, the economic crisis asked questions of the establishment, which were not answered adequately, and political parties such as Syriza and Podemos have tapped into the collective will and offered realistic solutions to the problems.

Notwithstanding, the new left wing populists are not limited to just political parties. Stand Up in Germany is a movement hoping to unite those whose voices have been ignored in mainstream politics, and unite the divided left.

Stand Up hope to generate significant support from ‘protest voters’, those who strongly oppose the direction Germany is heading in. Polls in Germany indicate that the general population demand better pay, better pensions and an upgrade in the standard of living.

Hence, Stand Up are seeking to make a progressive breakthrough and alter the political direction of the country.

Commander of the new movement and leader of Germany’s Left Party, Sahra Wagenknecht, has asserted that several German citizens are becoming disillusioned with the current state of politics, and Stand Up will be available for those who are discontent with the sluggish activity of the left, but simultaneously don’t agree with the xenophobic sentiments of the right, such Alternative for Germany (AFD).

She has emphasised that the movement will be strongly advocating for the courage to overcome the neo-liberal mainstream and promote a social policy in the interest of the majority (Janjevic, 2018)

Importantly, what distinguishes these new left wing movements from the traditional left is there are no general viewpoints that are applicable to every single one. Every movement caters for the needs of their respective countries.

For example, Syriza and Podemos adopted an approach focussed on restoring economic sovereignty in light of the crisis and debts that engulfed their countries.

In relation to Germany, Stand Up is left wing in its viewpoints, but the movement has made it abundantly clear that they are hoping to limit the number of migrants that make the transition to Germany, a policy that would usually be associated with the right wing.

This was prompted by events in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel has witnessed her popularity decrease because of her open door policy, which saw Germany accept up to 1 million asylum seekers into the country in 2015. Hence, the will of the people is to have greater control of the borders, and Stand Up are willing to uphold it.

Nevertheless, Momentum are also a significant representation of the new left wing populist movements.

The campaign group Momentum was born out of Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to run for the Labour leadership. The group, which sits outside of the party, garnered its supporters from organisations and individuals that had campaigned against Labour in the preceding general election.

A plethora of left wing supporters threw their weight behind Momentum and Corbyn, because the principles they adhere to provide an opportunity to reverse the direction the Labour Party had taken, and transform it into a real force of left wing politics.

Momentum has a broad set of objectives including redistribution and class initiatives, opposition to privatisation, worker support, action on climate change and an end to discrimination. It also strives to promote the interests of minority groups in British, hence mirroring Corbyn’s ideas.

Indeed, reacting to the concerns related to the Labour Party has proved an effective strategy, and one of the fundamental reasons as to why by virtue of Momentum, Corbyn has generated substantial support. This was demonstrated in the landslide victories Corbyn achieved in the two Labour leadership elections, in 2015 and 2016.

The appeal of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party since his appointment is largely attributable to the leader being viewed as an authentic and ideological politician with a positive and hopeful message, as well as youth-friendly policies, as opposed to the Conservative Party. For example, promises like scrapping tuition fees and reintroducing maintenance grants caught the eye of a plethora of young people.

Hence, groups of people who were otherwise sidelined and ignored by mainstream political parties are being given a say by new left wing movements who cater to their needs.

Thus, the traditional form of left wing politics is in crisis, as social democrats and their centre left political parties are not providing appropriate answers to the issues that have plagued their societies, and the people are losing faith.


Therefore, what appears to have surfaced is a form of identity politics, whereby new left wing movements are providing progressive answers for their respective predicaments in the hope of achieving equality and social justice. Indeed, the political revolution Bernie Sanders alluded to, whereby the people need to be educated and organised against the system in a bid to deliver wholesale change that benefits the majority and not the few, appears well under way (Karon, 2016) .

The left has been able to capitalise and inspire backing because those impoverished, alienated and dissatisfied with politics after decades of neo-liberalism, opted to support the right wing populist movements that emerged because they provided the only option (Hamburger, 2018). However, the left now presents an opportunity to provide an alternative for the anger that the people feel, but without the xenophobic and racist expressions that the right employ.

Indeed, whilst some of their principles diverge, what much of the new left wing movements do have in common is their stance on anti-austerity, which suggests an increasing antipathy for the symptoms of capitalist neo-liberalism. Therefore, if the left can succeed in building movements that speak in terms of “the people,” against the oligarchy or the 1 percent, there may be scope for them to not only defeat the racist and xenophobic populisms of the far right, but also create a new political order beyond neoliberalism (Mouffe, 2018).



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