Neoliberals and populists: a toxic marriage for Europe

Having spent the last eight years in Orbán’s Hungary, I have become increasingly interested in the convergence of two, seemingly incomparable ideologies: populism and neoliberalism. In popular terms, these two ideologies are wide apart, and some even argue that they follow one another: the crisis of neoliberal hegemony led to a populist upsurge. I was observing how Orban`s ìlliberal democracy`was turning my country into a schizophrenic, paranoid empire of the new national bourgeois, where everything is for sale and everything is possible that the strong handed `leader`and his court wants. I noticed a lot of patterns that was greatly described in Naomi Klein`s book The Shock Doctrine which describes perfectly the mechanism of how a national crisis is used to advance further the neoliberal agenda.

I understand neoliberalism here as an extreme form of capitalism. It is an ideology that will maximize profit at the cost of people and the environment. As George Monbiot said once:

“Neoliberalism exempts billionaires and large corporations from the constraints of democracy, from paying their taxes, from not polluting, from having to pay fair wages, from not exploiting their workers”

In the run-up to a decisive EU Parliamentary elections in May 2019, the debate about the future of Europe and the neoliberal hegemony that sucked the life out of the continent and pushed it into multiple crises keeps coming up.  It is exciting to see this democratic moment to become so important, instead of just being a proxy for the next national elections. First time for a long time now, the EU Elections has its own stake and that is a great opportunity for a serious debate about the future. At first, it looks like the campaign will be a standoff between the traditional political elite who had been running the EU up until now and the eurosceptic right wing, nationalist populists like Orbán, Sebastian Kurz, and others who will reclaim it for the people.  The EU is portrayed as a fortress that needs to be taken back from the liberal elite who had used it to pursue their own advances against the people`s interest. National governments or even more precisely national leaders emerge again as the only genuine representative of the people.

This is in itself a strange thought in Europe, where the common historical experience of the people is state oppression and violence, but totally understandable given the last decade of neoliberal hegemony and technocratic governance in Europe, which created massive social inequality, devalued environmental protection and climate action and left millions of people in a huge uncertainty about their future. Except, that this neoliberal hegemony was present not only in the EU Commission but also in national governments – left, right and centre. In most cases, national governments bailed out banks, implemented austerity policies with the support of the EU institutions. There was a widespread consensus on this across the national and European political elite over the last decades so blaming the EU alone is an attempt to escape responsibility.

So, will the newly emerged nationalist populists get rid of the neoliberal hegemony? This is the question that needs to be answered to make the right choice for the new Parliament. The EU parliament as the democratically elected body representing EU citizens, and not national interests, should be a great place to start reclaiming the Union from the oligarchs and the corporate elite.

Strangely enough, we hardly hear anything about this challenge from contemporary right-wing populists. In their reading of the world, everything is fine, except that we have to get rid of the security and identity threat of Islam and claim back power from the EU to its member states.

So let’s just see how neoliberalism and populism relate to one other, and what can we expect if we grant power to these newly emerged populist leaders in Europe. According to Chantal Mouffe:

“Populism is a way of doing politics and can have many different ideological forms.”

This definition for her opens up the possibility of a left populism which for her is a radicalisation of democracy, that manifests itself in different forms in Southern Europe since the early 2000s, but has the potential but has not managed to achieve a significant disruption of neoliberalism on the continent.

Will Davies in his lecture about the neoliberal spirit of populism points out that there is a great paradox in 21st-century populism, as many of its figureheads are millionaires who are attacking and discrediting experts, journalists, civil society and politicians claiming that they are the source of truth and wisdom to interpret the world. The resentment of modern populisms ( left and right) seem to be against traditional forms of representation and not against the upper class and the elite.

Davies assessed this question, and confirmed the thesis of Hannah Arendt, that protesting hypocrisy seems to be a bigger motivator for political action than injustice. This result in the awkward situation, that a deprived person can more easily associate itself with an oligarch than with a public official, and that the most deprived regions who are most dependant on redistribution of wealth vote against the very elites who are managing the redistribution.  Neoliberalism also produces and builds on resentment when challenges the role of experts, knowledge centres and other forms of traditional representation. It redefines the concept of competition too: market competition has shifted to become competitiveness as a governing principle. The pluralism of liberal economy has transformed into monopolism, therefore competition is now a zero-sum game and equality and mutual existence in our out of the game. Davies concludes, that

“Nationalist populism is a radicalization of neoliberal ethics: competitiveness and the survival of the fittest. “

Kurt Hayland in a study of Latin American and Eastern European populisms finds that they show the following commonalities with neoliberalism:

  1. Both see individuals and not groups as the building blocks of economy, politics and advocate for an unmediated relationship between individuals and the state.
  2. Both have an anti-status quo orientation.
  3. Both find democratic institutions a burden and ready to strengthen the executive branch and weaken rival institutions like the parliament. The strengthening of the presidency is in their vested interest, to give more freedom to the populist leader and to be able to instigate structural reforms affecting many groups and individuals when necessary.

Building on Davies`research, in relation to right-wing populism we can also add to this list the ethical dimension:

4. Competitiveness and not coexistence, sovereignty instead of governmentality, zero-sum instead of a positive sum game drive actions and leads to the motivation of elimination and not of competition with others.

Hayland also says  – like Naomi Klein – that deep crisis provides an opportunity both for neoliberals and populists to pursue their agenda. Of course, not all populists (not even all nationalist populists) are neoliberals, but we do see pretty obvious connections already in the German AfD and the Austrian FPÖ. We can also observe neoliberal policies being implemented in Hungary, a showcase for Steve Bannon, a political consultant and global opinion former who is strongly associated with Trump and the US Republican Party. When it comes to climate action and environmental protection we can also see a clear demarcation line. Right-wing populists do not see a need for systemic change to stay within the environmental boundaries of the planet. None of them questions the global free market or global inequality, nor have they answer to tackle these, even at the national level. Some are outright climate denialist and demonizes climate protection as the strategy of the elite to oppress `real people`. The Polish government – just like Trump –  uses desperate workers of the dying fossil fuel industry to protect the interest of the elite. Populism for them is nothing but rhetoric, to justify xenophobia that plays on people`s fears and insecurity.

Electing more right-wing nationalist populist to the EU Parliament is no guarantee to get rid of neoliberal hegemony – read social insecurity, precariousness, and the degradation of democracy,  environmental and human rights in Europe. It will only conserve the status quo. One might even say that it will advance the conditions for neoliberalism to spread even further, by paralyzing the democratic body of the EU that is directly elected by its citizens.  It is up to us whether we let the European Union become the perfect manifestation of Hayek’s neoliberal utopia. Or we reclaim what we have and create a real Union of the People out of it.



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