Janen Ganesh on ‘the trick with populists’,a comment by Political Reporter

The invisible, indeed erased, central protagonist of Mr. Ganesh’s carefully massaged political history is Neo-Liberalism. It can’t be mentioned, its centrality in the Economic Catastrophe of 2008, is politically inconvenient to Mr. Ganesh’s polemic about the ‘mass rejection of elites’, a favorite trope at the Financial Times.

A selection of his -I won’t call them arguments –  polemical thrusts:

We are living through a mass rejection of elites. We know this because everybody says so. And magically, the reasons for popular rage always cohere with our own resentments.’

The utter collapse of the codified Neo-Liberal Dogmas remain strategically off stage. The appeal to the popular imagination, place that rejection in the realm of the madness of crowds. And resentment, rather than anger, over fraud and abuse of power, not to speak of outright theft, takes its central position.

‘If only governments had worked through each item of the personal manifesto that you — or I, or the next columnist along — have touted for years, this populist fever might not have America and much of Europe in its clammy grip.’

This is a personal struggle, it has no relation to the notions of law, justice or fair play: to the central concerns of the democratic state, but the subject to the moods, the animus of the rebels. Note ‘populist fever’ and ‘clammy grip’ equaling a disease state and the monstrous.

‘“Wonderful explanation machines” is the philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s synonym for human brains. We are “capable of making sense out of almost anything” and “generally incapable of accepting the idea of unpredictability”.

A handy philosophical commonplace that has found its way into this polemic, that does need some garnish, some ballast.

McCarthyism swarmed through mid-20th century America, just as Pierre Poujade was luring French voters to an ornery politics that would eventually take his name. These two things probably had nothing to do with each other.

I can’t comment on Pierre Poujade’s political career and politics, but McCarthyism and its practitioners  can be described by the names of McCarthy,Nixon,Mundt and  McCarren. This alliance used as its political slogan ‘A Generation of Treason’ to attack the New Deal and its civic actors, not to speak of its Socialism as un-American.  Eisenhower even chose the vulgarian Nixon as his running mate, so as to placate the McCarthyite wing of the Party.

‘Even if anti-elitism does weave together today’s political sensations, neither they nor that cause are successful enough to define our age. The era of Trump, Corbyn and Le Pen is, less excitably, the era of Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel. These mainstream pragmatists have won general elections in recent years.’

Again the polemical line is not about  rational, critical thought, but about sensation,emotion. And the political rise of Trump, Corbyn and Le Pen are the products of this irrational root. But note that Ganesh compares Corbyn to two Fascists,Trump and Le Pen: he seeks by rhetorical proximity to impugn Corbyn, as part of an expression of that political irrationalism: to place Corbyn beyond the pale.  And then Ganesh compares his trio to the  steady, reliable, not to speak of politically rational actors, dubbed pragmatists: Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel. The problem being that this characterization of ‘pragmatists’ is not even close to adequacy, as they are Neo-Liberals. Perhaps call them Neo-Liberal pragmatists if political honesty were of paramount import?

‘Politicians of a similar cast will probably succeed them. The combined vote share of Britain’s two establishment parties went up not down between 2010 and 2015. Given the severity of the crash and the remedial austerity that came after, the telling thing about this populist howl is its relative muteness. Voters feel anger but not enough to addle their judgment in elections that actually matter.’

‘ Given the severity of the crash and the remedial austerity that came after,the telling thing about this populist howl is its relative muteness. Voters feel anger but not enough to addle their judgment in elections that actually matter.’ 

Voters are angry but not angry enough to ‘addle their judgement’ even though, so the polemic evolves,  produces a muted  populist howl. Yet in the latest political controversy on welfare cuts the Financial Times has this to say:

David Cameron and George Osborne have repeatedly declared since their election victory in May that the Conservatives will govern as a “one nation” party serving all of the British people. Ten months into their second term, however, many Tory MPs feel this commitment is being seriously undermined by Mr Osborne’s position on welfare, especially as regards those of working age.

First there was his plan — since abandoned — to save £4.4bn through cuts to working tax credits. Now the chancellor has been forced within days to scrap one of the central planks of his Budget: the decision to take £1.3bn out of the disability benefits bill.

In both cases, the worry has been that the government is failing to live up to its own rhetoric about everyone being “in this together” — a charge flung at Mr Osborne by the outgoing work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith when he resigned in a fury late last week. In particular, MPs fret about the way the government seems prepared to penalise those of working age while protecting the elderly with higher pensions. The disability cut even had an extra whiff of toxicity: it was accompanied by cuts to capital gains taxes that generally benefit the better off.’


The Financial Times editorial board points to the very real contradiction, in a budget that cuts aid to the most vulnerable, yet cuts capital gains tax to the ‘better off’. ‘In this together’ is hollow political rhetoric/sloganeering : rhetorical territory that resonates with  Ganesh as practitioner of the same self-serving political whitewash.

‘This premise zooms by so fast that, before you can test it, you are signed up to a cycle of causation in which governments are always culpable. If there is something obvious that would calm a seditious electorate, only venality could explain a leader’s failure to do it. That something varies from pundit to pundit — jail the bankers, close the borders — but their confidence in its properties as a salve does not.’

‘Governments are always culpable’: he mocks accountability, allied with this admixture of ‘jail the bankers’ and ‘close the borders’. Mr. Ganesh can’t make the key political  distinction between Left and Right, or is that dreaded distinction part of the point of his polemic against the Populist Menace?

‘This populist moment cannot be deep, cross-national and eminently solvable all at the same time. It is complex to the point of intractability. Coherent demands are hard to glean from the hysteria of a Trump rally, or the mystifying text of a Corbyn speech or the counter-establishment campaign for Brexit, where free-market Tories chafe at EU state aid rules proscribing subsidies for Welsh steel.’

What is beyond Mr. Ganesh’s grasp is that politics as practiced or barley even realized as argument or slogan, are both confusing and shot through with contradictions and conundrums: Trump rally,Corbyn speech, Brexit campaign, Free Market Tories & EU state proscription of  subsidies for Welsh steel. All this adds to the confusion Mr. Ganesh hopes to foster in the readers mind about the point of Populism’s thrust of the primacy of ‘intractability’, which is proof of the centrality of nihilism, in a constructed Populism authored by Ganesh.

‘True, some followers of these causes are on the bladed end of wage competition, automation and the social flux wrought by worldwide transfers of people and capital. But if the problem is as large as globalisation, the only convincing answer is a state-enforced turn away from the world or something comparably drastic. Most voters, rightly, desire no such thing.’

…the bladed end of wage competition, automation and the social flux wrought by worldwide transfers of people and capital. The preceding claim is a product of  Neo-Liberalism’s failure in the guise of Globalization: the consolidation of corporatist power. Also the claim of  a… turn away from the world or something comparably drastic.’  is simply a shabby defense of that corporatism as inevitable. Smith and Hume imagined capitalism as emancipatory, an alternative to a suffocating  British Feudalism. Ganesh offers a defense of the present corporatist feudalism.

‘If this reads like a counsel of despair, then despair is not always misplaced. Rich democracies may have to live with a caucus of permanently aggrieved voters amounting to a quarter or a third of the whole.’

The quarter or third  ‘of permanently aggrieved voters’ is the price of the politics advocated by Ganesh. Yet in the political volatility created by this quarter or third – one wonders at Ganesh’s naivete: what kind of political alliances might be born out of this continuing phenomenon? To state the obvious, this ‘counsel of despair’ could be the harbinger of the end of the Eternal Toryism, that Ganesh advocates or more realistically acts  as propagandist.

Perhaps the answer is here?

Politicians can ease their grievances with pragmatic adjustments in policy, of the kind Britain has always deployed to stem revolutions at source. But a lasting fix implies changes too draconian for the majority that has never lost its preference for sound government.

…pragmatic adjustments in policy cannot mean an end to the foundering iterations of  Neo-Liberalism, Austerity etc., of the present? Nor the voter’s preference for sound government. Mr. Osborne’s recent budget being indicative of that sound government?

‘The trick is a strategic humility about how much governments can really do for people. The mood in Britain and America soured under leaders who raised impossible expectations.’

Note the trivialization in the phrase the trick is a strategic humility. A political policy of honesty is not what Ganesh supplies, he is the canny, indeed cynical political operative: His model the redoubtable Lynton Crosby, a student of Karl Rove. See his essay of  December 28, 2015:


The naive bombast of Tony Blair and Mr Obama gave way but not before hearts were broken. Their legacy is not just Mr Corbyn and Mr Trump, but the bloodless common sense of Mr Cameron and Hillary Clinton. They seem to sense that populism is a chronic condition to be managed, not cured — that a seething minority is still a minority.

Is there anything like the consistent condescension, or more accurately the scorn of Ganesh? Its like that once perfect peach, that looks inviting, but when in the hand reveals itself to be rotten on the underside. Blair and Obama were heart breakers, their particular brands of politics were not as advertised: Corbyn and Trump are the natural inheritors their misbegotten  politics. Cameron and Mrs. Clinton can see clearly that the political malcontents are manageable.Mr. Ganesh leaves no doubt, in the readers mind, that his view of politics is the one dimensional view of the  Lynton Crosby/ Karl Rove school of political strategists. UCLA football coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders once remarked ‘Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing‘.


Political Reporter









About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
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