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The end of tolerance and the new populism

Talk of growing Eurosceptic fringe groups masks ideological difference behind a single label of reactionary populism. Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen urge the left to show its new face

June 30, 2014
6 min read

Reflections on the 2014 local and European election results have heavily stressed the rise of the populist far right. Clearly they have emerged as a leading political force at home and abroad, but this is not the whole story.

UKIP, the French Front National and the Danish People’s Party have declared an end to tolerance of ‘the others’. This refers both to migrants and asylum seekers invading ‘our’ space, and the elites hidden in Brussels and Strasbourg governing without ‘our’ consent. Whether ethnic others or political and cultural elites, they are not part of ‘us’, and our intolerance of them is promoted as natural.

Seen from the mainstream and from the left, these parties capitalise on the anxieties experienced within communities increasingly subject to internal social diversity and external economic control. Although UKIP et al. present themselves as rebels against ‘establishment politics’, they are nothing more than its monstrous offspring. This is the same politics that has allowed democratic accountability and participatory citizenship to take the backseat as neo-liberal interests dominated Europe.

The old parties are clearly in crisis and losing electoral ground to new parties, right, centre and left. Concerned politicians of the mainstream parties are calling meetings to tackle the problem. In their minds, the challenge no doubt has little to do with them and the neo-liberal policies they have been backing. It is a challenge that has, for some time now, been dismissed as ‘populist’—a description which writes it down to the ignorance and fears of the ‘peoples’ of Europe.

Bridging the divides

The success of the radical left has drawn less attention, but there has been steady progress towards an alternative ‘populist’ discourse. Like the populism of the far right, the narrative of these groups is also intolerant of current political elites, and cast in the name of the peoples of Europe.

Mainstream politicians currently accord both the far right and the left the same label: Eurosceptics. But the new left populism that is slowly winning ground across Europe is rooted in different legacies and pursues a very different vision than the more successful far right. Whatever their success, one thing is sure: enough of traditional politics.

New parties, coalitions and movements are developing across Europe. In the south there is Syriza in Greece (26% of the vote in the EU elections); Izquierda Unida (9.9%) and Podemos (7.9%) in Spain; the Five Star Movement (21.2%) and L’Altra Europa con Tsipras in Italy (4.3%). To the north: Die Linke (7.4%) and Front de Gauche (6.3%) in Germany and France respectively.

The popular mobilizations that have followed the economic crisis in southern Europe contain a new (anti-)political discourse attacking the customs of representative politics. The Spanish indignados and Greek aganaktismenoi entertained the possibility of direct, participatory democracy through people’s assemblies. In Italy, the Five Star Movement brought into play the non-political, anti-establishment outsiders. Even in the UK, neo-liberal political and economic logic has been attacked by the Occupy movement and anti-austerity campaign groups.

Although these protests have now left the streets, their motives are still alive in the minds of European peoples. Political organisations on the left are trying to channel the indignation at every level from the local to the supranational.

In southern Europe particularly, the left has had to rethink its definitions of a ‘party’ and engage with grassroots networks that extend beyond traditional limits. Where the left was previously divided, it is uniting to form coalition parties which embrace the whole spectrum of socialist ideals.

Syriza in Greece emphasised not only the importance of electoral politics but also the creation of solidarity networks cutting across ideologies and social groups. The Izquierda Unida party in Spain has set aside fetishized issues to declare itself as a vehicle for social change coming from below—in response to the biggest surprise of the Spanish elections, Podemos, a non-party arising from the indignados movement. In Italy new party-coalitions, such as Sinistra and Ecologia y Liberta are forming. In France, the Parti de Gauche is broadening to become the electoral coalition Front de Gauche.

Vox populi

Two forms of populism, two forms of intolerance: one right, one left. While the far right has embraced the populist label, the left is sceptical. The two cannot share the same kind of populism, but it would be dangerous to cede its language to the right.

Where they speak in the name of the people as the ethnic nation, the left must articulate a different collective idea. What do ‘the people’ mean for the left? Against what is ‘the people’ set?

Where the far right is intolerant of difference, the left must embrace it; where the far right is reactionary and regressive, the left must be progressive; and where the far right complains about politicians, the left must complain about the political system. Switching from Cameron to Miliband to Farage does not make the political system more inclusive and participatory. This is where the new alternative forms of left politics can make a real change.

The left must not cede the populist voice to the right, but embrace it. It must do so not in fear of the other or in fear of change, but in the name of the people and against the political and economic elites. The left should embrace progress—things ought to precisely not be what they used to be.

Like populism, tolerance is no univocal idea. As the ‘end of tolerance’ gains ground, left-wing populism has a twofold objective. First, to stand firmly against the far-right populism. Second, to dispel the myth that politics must continue as it always has. People demand to be heard and their anxieties and grievances have to be taken seriously. A new left is taking shape, one that has been with these people in the streets of Europe.

Dr Marina Prentoulis lectures in Media and Politics at the School of Political, Social and International Studies, University of East Anglia. Dr Lasse Thomassen is a Senior Lecturer in Politics & International Relations, Queen Mary, University of London.

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