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The Establishment Fundamentalists

When centrists claim to be guided by common sense over populism of ideology, they ignore that their loyalty to a bankrupt status quo is a fanaticism of its own.

Labour leader Keir Starmer and Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting have attacked left-wing policies as 'ideological'. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The current leadership of the Labour Party likes to pride itself on the idea that it has ditched the ‘populist’ approach to politics championed by politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

‘Populism’, on this view, involves simplistic appeals to a homogenous group of people in opposition to an external enemy. Liberals argue that the populism of the Left, which attempts to unite working people against economic and political elites, is the same kind of politics as the populism of the Right, which attempts to unite certain ethnic groups against alien enemies.

Liberals claim to abhor populism and instead take a sensible, moderate approach to politics that doesn’t fall into the ‘good guys vs bad guys’ thinking of both Left and Right.

Rather than attempting to mobilise a homogenous group of people in opposition to an external enemy, they claim to pursue an ‘evidence-based’ approach to policy. They then attempt to ‘sell’ these policies to the electorate, which can be segmented into a number of different competing interest groups who select political parties much as they select among different brands in a supermarket.

In this universe, the liberals claim, there are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ — only individual human beings pursuing their own interests.

The issue with the liberal view is that its description of ‘populism’ is actually just a description of politics. Consciously or not, all political movements seek to describe — and therefore construct — their desired political agent.

Those on the right constantly talk about ‘identity’ politics because they’re trying to encourage us all to think about society in terms of a divide between ‘insiders’, who belong here and obey the rules, and ‘outsiders,’ who seek access to political communities in which they don’t belong, thereby undermining the homogeneity of the group.

Meanwhile, those on the Left focus on the dynamics of production in a capitalist economy, because we’re trying to encourage people to think about society in terms of a divide between those who own the stuff and those who have to sell their labour power to survive — with the most marginalised social groups the most exploited.

In other words, if the main debates in society centre on the nature of production within a capitalist economy, then the Left has already won. As soon as you see right-wingers attempting to defend owners as ‘wealth creators,’ they’ve lost.

In this sense, politics is really a struggle over defining — and thereby constructing — different social identities. And liberalism is no exception.

While liberals claim that their political philosophy contains no heroes or villains, there are plenty of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in the liberal imaginary — they’re just never explicitly named.

The ‘good guys’ in the liberal imaginary are the sensible, moderate voters and policy-makers who make decisions using evidence and ‘common sense.’ The ‘bad guys’ are ideologues: those who, according to the liberal, ignore ‘evidence’ in favour of simplistic moralising and emotive appeals to tribal political identities.

The contradiction here is very obvious: liberals construct their own tribal political identity based on the claim that they do not appeal to tribal political identities.

And this tension doesn’t simply play out in theory, but in practice too. Just look at the way Keir Starmer has brutally crushed all opposition to his leadership within the Labour Party. He has achieved his aims using astonishingly anti-democratic techniques, from expelling members and MPs who oppose him, to centralising the selection and policy-making processes, to claims of vote-rigging.

Many of the victims of these processes have rightly called out the extraordinary double standards at play among Starmer and his supporters. Liberals were among the first to attack Jeremy Corbyn for ‘purging’ the Party to promote his supporters — something that Corbyn never actually did. Yet those same people are now cheering Starmer for conducting his own — much more successful — purges.

The hypocrisy at play here relates to a much more fundamental contradiction at the heart of liberal politics. Liberals do not see themselves as ‘political’ at all. They believe they are simply trying to implement ‘sensible’ policies that align with evidence and ‘common sense,’ in contrast to their opponents who seek to govern based on nothing more than ‘ideology.’

But liberalism is, of course, an ideology. Yet many of the assumptions that underpin liberalism are never made explicit because they are assumptions shared by the vast majority of people in positions of power.

Some of the ideas that underpin liberal ideology include a belief in the importance of methodological individualism, the construction and defence of free markets, the separation between states and markets, limited, representative democracy, and a legalistic, rights-based approach to justice.

As I argue in my book Vulture Capitalism, there are many issues with these liberal shibboleths. Within capitalist societies, markets are not free, and governments and legal systems are not neutral and objective. Instead, outcomes within both the market and the state reflect the balance of power within society — and in a capitalist society, that means that those who own the means of production tend to get their way.

But these issues are invisible to the liberal, because liberals don’t ‘see’ class — they only see free individuals competing in markets to maximise their utility. This choice to ignore the fundamental inequalities of power and wealth that characterise all capitalist societies is a major blind spot of liberal political philosophy.

Because they are surrounded by those who share their own worldview, liberals do not see the Left’s critique of their ideology as legitimate. Instead, they see unhinged, irrational enemies seeking only to undermine democracy and win power.

And yet, in dividing the world into ‘populists’ and ‘rationalists,’ liberals unwittingly succumb to their own form of populism.

This liberal populism was made painfully obvious when Wes Streeting referred to those who have criticised the current Labour leadership as ‘middle-class lefties’ and ‘keyboard warriors on their ideological hobby horse.’

Streeting views those who disagree with him as irrational ideologues who cannot be reasoned with. Yet his most vocal opponents are former doctors and nurses — like Dr Julia Grace Patterson — who have criticised his calls for greater private involvement in the NHS.

Ironically, Streeting’s critics are the ones marshalling evidence showing that private involvement costs more and undermines patient care, while Streeting hits back with personal insults and ideological attacks.

Ultimately, liberal centrist politics is still politics — and therefore still relies upon the construction and defence of particular social identities and the maligning of others. And the liberal’s main enemy is the ‘ideological’ leftist who seeks to cause trouble — whether by encouraging worker or community organising or street protests.

This is the new liberal populism. We should expect to see much more of it when a Starmer government comes to power. The Left shouldn’t allow the haranguing of liberal populists to stop us from organising.