For the People: Left Populism in Spain and the US by Jorge Tamames (Lawrence and Wishart, £17)
Most populist movements and parties are right wing: Fidesz in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, Trump supporters in the US, the Bolsonaro government in Brazil. At the same time, some left-wing organisations are described as populist, such as Syriza in Greece and the former Chávez government in Venezuela. Here Jorge Tamames examines two particular cases of left-wing populism, Podemos in Spain and the support for Bernie Sanders in the US.
Unfortunately it is not entirely clear what he means by ‘populist’. He claims to follow the view of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, according to which it involves people going beyond addressing individual problems such as racism, unemployment and evictions, and joining together as a movement. In Tamames’ words ‘The result is a community mobilising to protest against an entire status quo, not merely asking for a few policy tweaks’. But it is not spelled out just how this is supposed to apply to the movements he discusses or how it relates to the features usually claimed to distinguish populism, the distinction drawn between the elite and the people, and the opposition to pluralism and separation of powers.
Podemos, of which Tamames is a member, means ‘we can’. It was formed in 2014 and received over a million votes in the European Parliament elections in May of that year. Despite its supposed populist objections to an elite, on the ballot papers it was not the Podemos logo that was used but the face of its leader Pablo Iglesias, who had become a well-known contributor to TV discussion shows. Since earlier this year, it has been a junior partner in the government run by the PSOE, which is roughly the equivalent of the Labour Party. Podemos’ programme has included increasing the minimum wage and raising taxation for the rich, so it is hard to see how they are protesting ‘against an entire status quo’, as suggested above.
Sanders, who has a fairly positive view of Pope Francis, has said that he wishes to stand up to ‘the billionaire class’. His policies included implementing universal health care, raising the minimum wage and breaking up the largest banks. In 2019 he extended this to the Green New Deal and abolishing student debt. All this is probably fairly radical in terms of US politics, and he had more support in 2016 from those under forty-five than Hillary Clinton did, but it obviously remains within the limits of capitalism, and he has twice failed to win the Presidential nomination.
As the author says, ‘I refer to Podemos and the Sanders movement as “left” populists because their agenda, while more ambitious that that of contemporary centre-left parties, is nevertheless reformist and not vastly different from that of a Western European social-democratic party in the early 1970s’. So all the fuss about left populism boils down to it being more or less the same as the Labour Party under Harold Wilson! The book gives some useful background on the impact of austerity and rising inequality, but it unsurprisingly fails to show that populism of whichever brand has anything to offer workers.