Archive | September 2016

Why populism is unlikely to deliver just and effective social policies

Note: Another essay on populism – this one is currently under review at the Journal of European Social Policy. Comments more than welcome as always!

Why populism is unlikely to deliver just and effective social policies

The recent rise of populism in Europe raises the question of the efficacy of the social policies proposed by these movements. This essay is critical of populist social policies and contends that (i) they tend to be poorly conceived and unfeasible, (ii) are likely to provoke domestic and international discord and (iii) are tied to unethical wider goals. The prospects of a renewal of interest in social policy amongst mainstream parties are discussed in conclusion.


Social policy is back on the agenda. Near a decade after the outbreak of economic crisis, widespread discontent with orthodoxies has led to the rise of political movements that eschew neoliberal approaches to social policy. This phenomenon has hardly assumed the form expected by scholars however. Though post-2008 assessments of neoliberalism often anticipated backlashes to the approach (Crouch, 2011), the most successful programmes for the reinvigoration of social policy have come from outside the social-democratic left and have been made by populists. Populist parties have emerged on both left and right (Kriesi and Pappas, 2015) and, in addition to their mistrust of neoliberal social policies, have been distinguished by hostility to elites, advocation of extra-parliamentary sources of authority and emphasis on grassroots demands (Albertazzi and McDonnell, 2008: 3).

The populist-left have enjoyed breakthroughs across Europe. In the south of the continent discontent with austerity has fuelled the rise of movements like Syriza and Podemos, whilst in the north the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has revolutionized British politics. The populist right have also made marked advances. In Poland and Hungary interventionist approaches to social policy have been cornerstones of the strategies of otherwise reactionary Governments, and in Western Europe anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic movements such as Front National and Danish People’s Party have enticed voters with generous social packages.

The rise of these movements poses a conundrum to researchers convinced of the need for just and effective social policy. Though the interventionist policies proposed by such groups are appealing, the association of these movements with extremist goals gives many pause for thought. Many scholars of social policy have nonetheless supported populist parties, or have at least not been moved to condemn them outright. This is particularly true of the radical left; the likes of Syriza and Podemos have exploited a seam of sympathy for Marxism amongst scholars (Transform Europe, 2015) and have populated their front benches with academics. Categorical opposition to these movements, of the kind that right-populists attract within academic circles, is also thin on the ground.

The populist right have nonetheless found support in certain quarters. Though such parties traditionally provoke opprobrium amongst academics and this reaction remains strong in Western Europe, in countries like Poland and Hungary certain scholars either support right-populist Governments or refuse to condemn distributive elements of social policy programmes (O’Sullivan, 2015;, 2016). Experiences in central and eastern Europe (CEE) indeed suggest that, were a right-populist party to come to power in Western Europe and reverse neoliberalism in social policy, they would find a more equivocal reception in academia than one might suspect.

Given the rise of populist social policy and the related question of the reaction of scholars, it is an opportune time to review the potential contribution of populism to social policy regimes in Europe. This essay is critical of populism and contends that the social policies of these movements (i) tend to be poorly conceived and unfeasible, (ii) are likely to provoke domestic and international discord and (iii) are tied to unethical wider goals. I treat populism as a single phenomenon. Some may regard this as controversial yet, consistent with academic definitions (Albertazzi and McDonnell, 2008: 3), I consider left and right-populism to share a range of characteristics. Aside from a common rejection of neoliberal social policies, both wings of populism regard existing elites and certain ‘others’ as corrupt or dangerous, emphasize extra-parliamentary forms of authority and privilege grassroots demands. Care is nonetheless taken to distinguish between left and right-populism and different national varieties of the phenomenon. Analysis is confined to EU member states though, as contemporary developments in a country such as the United States make clear, relevance is by no means confined to these contexts.

i) Populist social policies tend to be poorly conceived and unfeasible

A distinguishing mark of populism is its rejection of prevailing forms of governance. Populists of left and right differ in their emphasis, yet both consider political classes corrupt and existing institutions as protecting the interests of establishments. Social policies are also interpreted in these terms. Rather than regimes which protect citizens from the vagaries of market forces, right-populists regard social policies as serving minorities, whereas left-populists emphasize the residual character of protection and consider this consistent with the interests of the rich. Populists consequently advocate measures which attempt to tighten popular control over social policy. The manifestos of such movements often feature pledges on which there is a division between elite and mass opinion, and referendums on social issues are a common populist demand.

Populist social policies are nonetheless likely to be hamstrung by their eschewal of prevailing governance methods. Though populists consider the replacement of elites a means of ameliorating socio-economic outcomes, such a course of action would in probability be significantly debilitating. Academic literature on this point is clear; numerous studies emphasize the value of continuity in policy processes (Crouch, 1993) and the importance of elites (Tsingou, 2015) to effective governance. Populists may care little for these articulations, yet there are numerous concrete examples of the abrupt overturn of establishments merely exacerbating existing problems. Amongst the most telling is the experience of CEE countries after 1989. Despite the fact that Communist era elites were widely considered corrupt and, in many contexts, a ready-made alternative governing class had for years matured in dissident circles, profound governance problems were encountered during transition processes. These issues were so severe that the co-option of pre-1989 elites into democratic politics was in many cases inevitable. Significant difficulties therefore follow the substitution of elites and, if one assumes contemporary governing classes to be less expendable than Communist apparatchiks, these problems would today be severer.

Social policies advocated by populists also tend to be economically unviable. As a result of the tendency of such movements to adopt simplistic views of policy processes and the mass energy they unleash, they are prone to make commitments they are unable to honour. The promise of the British Leave campaign to redirect the UK contribution to the EU budget to the National Health Service (NHS), widely derided during the campaign and dismissed by UKIP leader Nigel Farage on the morning of the result, is the most infamous recent example. The incompatibility of populist policies with international economic realities also make the programmes of such parties impracticable. The Syriza U-turn on cooperation with austerity, performed in February 2015 after creditors impressed the gravity of the Greek financial situation upon the Government, is a paradigmatic instance and evoked the first Mitterrand Presidency. Though the latter was less populist in orientation, its 1983 volte-face on a series of socialist policies, made after markets lost confidence in the French government, has long illustrated the dangers of radical, unilateral reform. Indebted states have particularly slight room for manoeuvre in this regard. It is indeed ironic, and unfortunate for the movements concerned, that populism has taken root in European countries with elevated debt levels.

The referendums populists advocate are also problematic. Even if one considers referendums on constitutional issues such as EU membership legitimate, the use of the instruments for more quotidian social policy issues, advocated by the likes of the Italian Five Star Movement (openDemocracy, 2014) and Lithuanian Order and Justice Party (Balcere, 2011), is conceptually flawed. Citizens possess no special expertise in questions which are often highly technical, inadequately grasp wider financial pressures and such votes are likely to suffer from low turnout. Referendums are indeed vulnerable to manipulation by sectional interests; some groups have a particular interest in participating and may take advantage of low turnout to exert undue influence. Such votes are also prone to be used to bolster the bargaining positions of governments rather than enforce the popular will; Hungarian and Greek referendums on immigration and EU financial rescue are choice examples of this tendency. Parliaments remain the most auspicious forum for social policy making. Even if one considers political systems to have become unduly influenced by multinational business interests in recent years, a reasonable apprehension (Streeck, 2014), elected representatives remain uniquely able to consider specialized issues and govern in the national interest. The solution to these concerns therefore lies not in the further emasculation of parliaments, but rather in strategies which reassert parliamentary control over international capital.

ii) Populist social policies are likely to provoke domestic and international discord

A key characteristic of populism is its tendency to lay blame at the door of ‘others’. Populists hold rival ethnicities and classes culpable for the problems that afflict their electoral base and, in the case of social policy, often advocate measures that penalize stigmatized groups. Right-populists tend to fault minorities. Such movements mobilize on ethno-national grounds and therefore regard rival groups, typically minorities concentrated within national boundaries, the source of socio-economic problems. The left-populist ‘other’ is based on class; the Marxist tradition after all expounds class conflict and movements like Podemos and Syriza consider richer classes to be their adversaries. The social policies proposed by populists reflect these worldviews. The measures advocated by right-populists involve penalization of minorities and redirection of resources to members of the ethnic constituencies of these parties, whereas left-populists propose policies which radically redistribute resources from capital to labour.

Such policies nonetheless tend to provoke domestic conflict. Because right-populist programmes attempt to codify ethno-national differences into social policy, they are likely to provoke reactions from stigmatized groups. Various measures undertaken by the Hungarian and Polish Governments, involving penalization of demographics like Roma, refugees and single parents[1], can thus scarcely be said to have led to social peace. They have rather soured community relations and increased resentment towards the Government within groups targeted by the policies. The impetus such programmes unleash may indeed lead to loss of official control. In the wake of the UK Brexit vote, following a campaign in which immigrants were repeatedly demonized and guarantees were made to redistribute resources to British citizens, a spike in racist incidents followed the vote. Many commentators considered this the result of the tone set during the campaign (Khaleeli, 2016).

Left-populist social policies are problematic because they tend to alienate better-off citizens. It is a point seldom made, yet the consent of middle classes to welfare reforms is a crucial precondition to their sustainability. The middle classes particularly benefited from the welfare regimes that were erected in Europe after the Second World War (Judt, 2005: 76), and this coalition of class interests formed the backbone of the social-democratic consensus that prevailed in following decades. Proponents of welfare state universalism were acutely aware of this; it was a mantra of the post-war British left that policies that benefited only the poorest were unlikely to endure. By adopting positions that overly penalize better-off citizens, left-populists are thus unlikely to achieve lasting change. Relations with multinational business interests are, in a twenty-first century context, particularly crucial. The consent of these parties to social policies, or at least not their determined opposition, is vital to their viability and left-populist programmes, by virtue of their adversarial attitude towards business, are less likely to achieve this feat.

Populist social policies are also prone to sow international discord. Many of the minorities targeted by right-populist measures are nationals of other countries, and relations with these other countries are correspondingly liable to deteriorate. Policies that target minorities from particular backgrounds, whether the target is CEE nationals in the UK or minorities in the Baltic States, have therefore drawn sharp responses from the Governments of the countries from which the minorities originate. International censure may also follow policies aimed at groups without national homelands. Hungarian victimization of Roma, including the introduction of an unemployment assistance regime which discriminates against these citizens, has thus been repeatedly condemned by international organisations and NGOs. This condemnation is scarcely likely to curry favour with investors who, notwithstanding a general disinterest in human rights, prefer countries to be domestically tranquil and internationally respectable.

Left-populists are also liable to antagonize international partners. Because such movements espouse adversarial worldviews and unleash popular energy, they too are prone to unpredictable behaviour in the international arena. The record of Syriza during the European sovereign debt crisis is illustrative. After the party put the terms of a deal between Greece and creditors to a referendum, a move condemned by critics as irresponsible given the delicacy of the situation, they incurred the consternation of Germany, the EU public authorities and financial markets. Nor are left-populists above nationalist rhetoric. The contention of Syriza that Germany continued to owe war reparations to Greece, reported widely in the German and European press and echoing similar comments made years earlier by Jarosław Kaczyński, hardened attitudes within Germany towards Syriza and undermined the Greek negotiating position.

iii) Populist social policies are tied to unethical wider goals

A final objection to populist social policies is that they are linked, often inextricably, with unethical wider goals. The problems with right-populists are well-documented. As this essay has emphasized, the social policies of these movements involve discrimination against vulnerable groups. A series of broader right-populist goals are also ethically problematic. Such parties are opposed to a series of liberal democratic freedoms and, internationally, are linked to authoritarian regimes such as the Russia of Vladimir Putin. Front National has indeed been financed by sources linked to the Kremlin (The Economist, 2015).

Left-populist programmes are also ethically difficult. Though the social policies proposed by these movements do not involve distribution of resources away from minorities, several of the wider goals of these parties are questionable. Jeremy Corbyn has faced repeated scrutiny concerning his links with anti-Semitic and terroristic political groups and many moderate commentators consider his protestations unconvincing (Bloodworth, 2015). Left-populists are also associated with authoritarian regimes. Podemos have faced sustained criticism for their sympathy for the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez (ABC, 2016), whilst Syriza have developed particular links with the Kremlin and are lukewarm towards NATO (Financial Times, 2015). The latter organization may be disdained by the far-left, yet social-democrats will continue to regard the alliance as vital to the maintenance of liberal democracy, particularly in a period of Russian expansion.

The defence that individual policies can be supported without acceptance of broader goals, often proffered when populism is debated, raises a series of problems. In the case of right-populist measures that directly redistribute resources from victimized groups towards favoured demographics, recent manifestos of UKIP and Front National contain a number of such pledges (Front National, 2016; UKIP, 2015), this apology is admittedly seldom made. This is because a condition of these programmes is discrimination; proposals such as those made by UKIP and Front National to favour natives when allocating housing cannot be defended without acceptance of prejudice. Such ‘pure’ examples of these policies are somewhat uncommon however. Populist social policies often deal in indirect discrimination, as in the case of the Polish 500+ policy, or confiscate in one policy area whilst redistributing in another; it is this indistinctness that allows certain progressives to back right-populist social policies. In the case of left-populist redistributive measures, in which ethical pitfalls tend to be associated with wider orientations of the movements, support for isolated measures is yet more tempting.

Though advocacy of populist social policies is in these circumstances alluring, this should be done, in my view, with extreme caution. Individual measures cannot be viewed in isolation from broader programmes; such a manoeuvre is philosophically difficult and ignores wider ethical imperatives to opposition. The example of the 1930s is illustrative. Expansionary economic programmes were pioneered by authoritarians of left and right during the decade and attracted many Western apologies. Subsequent events, in which such regimes were wholly discredited and their liberal apologists compromised, illustrate the dangers of support for isolated policies without taking account of wider programmes.

The picture is admittedly complicated by the conditions in which populist social policies come into being. Though populists have taken over Government in Greece, Hungary and Poland, in other cases the means by which such movements exert influence is subtler. In countries like Finland populists are influential as parts of governing coalitions, whilst in other contexts the programmes of mainstream parties change in response to populist pressure. The extent to which individual parties are objectionable is a further muddying factor. Questions like whether UKIP is less noxious than Front National or Syriza more radical than Podemos, commonly debated amongst factions in the European parliament, at core therefore touch on the permissibility of partnership with such movements.

Though decisions must be taken on a case to case basis and in some circumstances collaboration may be unavoidable, opponents of populism should keep in mind that the European strain of the phenomenon will not last forever. The energy such movements unleash and exploit makes them inherently unstable; the rise and fall of Latin American populism in the last fifteen years attests to the transitory character of these parties. It is thus vital that voices advocating robust social policy are not tainted through collaboration with failed populist experiments. If this were the case, it might discredit this agenda and facilitate the return of neoliberalism.

How can populist social policies be moved beyond?

Critics might object that this essay has downplayed the extent to which similar problems afflict the social agendas of mainstream parties. It is admittedly the case that the tendencies I have underscored are not unique to populists; for as long as liberal-democracy has existed, traditional Governments have at times also adopted poorly designed social policies that involve ethical difficulties. Recent trends towards populism have also infected established parties. Across European countries, Governments of classic hues have implemented social policies that penalize groups like immigrants and the unemployed and there has been a tendency to avail of populist instruments like referendums (The Economist, 2016). UK Governments have been egregious offenders. Not only did the Cameron Governments adopt policies which stigmatized several demographics, but referendums were availed of repeatedly.

In the light of these trends some might speak of an age of populism, rather than the existence of discrete movements that leave the mainstream uncontaminated. Though it is true that traditional parties are not unaffected by populism, it would be disingenuous to pretend that there is no historical or contemporary difference to the movements this essay has called to attention. The right and left-populists that have emerged in recent years specialize in the pathologies I have underlined; such parties primarily appeal to voters in these terms and many emerged as movements preoccupied with single, illiberal issues.

A further objection to the arguments advanced by this essay may be that populists are often the only movements taking social issues seriously, and that advocates of decent social conditions are consequently left with little alternative political choice. It is difficult to deny the charge that social affairs have long been neglected by the mainstream. For decades neoliberalism has been the dominant social policy paradigm in Europe and, in this time, established parties of left and right have retrenched welfare states and deregulated labour markets. Populists have challenged the logic of these programmes and, in many countries, have brought social affairs back into frontline politics. In some cases the differences between populists and their opponents are especially stark. In Poland, following successive neoliberal Governments, the nationalist PiS Government has markedly strengthened social protection whilst opposition parties remain wedded to neoliberalism. It is partly for this reason that, a year into their mandate, PiS dominate polls and their record in the social field is defended by certain scholars.

Though support for populists in these circumstances is tempting, a more satisfactory course of action is pressure on mainstream parties to better incorporate social goals into their agendas. This potentially represents the best of both worlds; it averts pitfalls associated with populism yet also aids efforts to strengthen social policy. Apologists for social policy have admittedly undertaken this endeavour for many years, often with little success, yet there is reason to think that the door is now more open. The rise of populism and events like Brexit have shaken elites across Europe and a consensus seems to be forming that, so as to stave off further populist assaults on liberal democracy, social policy needs to be galvanized. It is no coincidence that, following the Brexit vote, the UK’s new Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May outlined an agenda that included plans to fortify social policy.

If a historical perspective is adopted, it is indeed conspicuous that the last major reinforcement of European social policy regimes, in the decades after the end of the Second World War, was preceded by years of left and right-wing popular extremism. It goes without saying that it is imperative that the barbarity which preceded those years is avoided, yet the recent upsurge in populism provides a parallel opportunity to strengthen social policy. If this comes to pass future generations may have reason to thank the populists of the early twenty-first century.


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[1] The Polish PiS Government’s ‘500+’ child welfare policy provides a monthly 500 Zloty payment for each child from the second onwards. The policy has consequently led to complaints of discrimination against single parents (Onet biznes, 2016).