John Clarke (Open University, Central European University)
A New Conjuncture? Nationalism, Populism and the Crises of Neo-liberalism
The recent success of insurgent nationalist-populist politics (in Europe and the USA, for example) raises new questions about the relationships between forms of neo-liberalism, forms of liberalism, and forms of the state. Being wary of pronouncing the ‘end of’ any of these formations, I suggest that these political developments point towards what Gramsci once called the ‘unstable equilibria’ of the life of the state. The state in question remains a nation-state, with particular implications for the painful dislocations between the globalizing and Europeanizing dynamics of neo-liberal economies, and the national social and political formations in which neo-liberalism has been lived. These dislocations have been the focus of attempts to ‘manage’ the demands and impacts of neo-liberal growth, decline, and crisis, contributing to crises of consent within national political systems.
The accumulating crises and contradictions of neo-liberalism have provided a fertile terrain for the insurgent combinations of nationalism and populism in new political projects. In this presentation, I will explore the ways in which the failures and fractures of neo-liberal politics and policies have enabled counter-politics articulated in the name of ‘ordinary people’ (the dispossessed, dislocated, disenfranchised and disenchanted). While giving voice to such disaffections, new populist political projects have tended to pit ‘the people’ against a selective series of others (liberal elites and the figure of the migrant, for example) while promising to restore economic development (as well as imagined past glories). In the process, a new politics of space, scale, and sovereignty has been imagined in which borders can be closed, supra-national institutions can be refuted, and the sovereign nation can be restored.
Drawing on recent work on Brexit, but with glances of other developments, I will explore the logics and limits of these populist incursions. In particular, I am interested in the question of whether they can address (much less overcome) the accumulated social, political, economic, and environmental crises deriving from the dynamics of neo-liberalism. I am also intrigued by the strange temporalities that have been brought into play through these new populist projects, and their implications for the future political landscape. Contemporary populist ‘structures of feeling’ centred on loss, disenchantment, and anger have been articulated in promises of change – independence, taking back control, putting the nation first, etc. These promises seem to take little account of what might be called ‘governmental time’ and offer the prospect of an even more disaffected public when the promises fail to materialize. In the same moment, other forms of disaffection – not articulated in these populist tropes – have been deepening, not least among those who do not count as the ‘ordinary people’ of the nation. Are we, then, entering a new conjuncture?