Book review: The great setback: politics after populism and the pandemic by Paolo Gerbaudo
In The big setback: politics after populism and the pandemic, Paul Gerbaudo explores how the crises of populism and the COVID-19 pandemic are giving rise to a “great setback” of neoliberal globalization, leading to the return of the state and notions of sovereignty, protection and control. As Gerbaudo describes how the left can seize this moment to build a care society committed to overlapping visions of equality and security, Marco bitschnau is still not convinced by the book’s interpretation of the long-term impact of populism and the pandemic.
The big setback: politics after populism and the pandemic. Paulo Gerbaudo. Back. 2021.
The future is uncertain and the end is always near
– The Doors, Roadhouse Blues (1970)
Times of crisis are times of change – but also times to contemplate the nature of that change, to discuss it and put your thoughts on paper. Paolo Gerbaudo is one of those who seize such an opportunity by The big step back, addressing the issue of systemic transformation against the backdrop of two major crises: populism – the rise of populist actors and increasing demands for policies based on people-centrism – and COVID-19 pandemic. How will they shape the world of tomorrow, he asks himself, providing an answer in the nine chapters of this 288-page book. Or, in more concrete and politically charged terms: what comes after neoliberalism?
This question is central for Gerbaudo, who follows many other left-wing thinkers in identifying “neoliberalism” as the dominant ideological structure of the present, a “political and economic doctrine that has dominated the world since the end of the Cold War”. (18). But now, he argues, he’s collapsing. As the aforementioned crises show, his “free competition game plan seems unsuited to current dilemmas” (19) and a “systemic change of ideological space” (38) which converges around the return of state power. (neo-statism) is about to replace it. With each social certainty succumbing to the pressure of the crisis, each iteration of market forces failing to mitigate its impact, each instance of the political center giving way to the demands of the populist periphery, this shift becomes more visible. Ultimately, it is only a matter of time before the neoliberal signifier of freedom gives way to the neo-statist “master-signifiers” (40) of sovereignty, protection and control. . Gerbaudo devotes a single chapter to each of them, retracing their history and mapping their meaning.
However, there is more that unites than separates these signifiers, first of all their common root in experiences of helplessness and alienation. The thirst for sovereignty, for example, is described as a reaction to democratic preferences subjected to the primacy of the market: it is a revolt against the neoliberals who conceive the term as a “steel envelope stifling the capacity of the individuals to determine” (80) their own destiny and do not hesitate to dig into the promise of democracy. The same is true of protection, a concept which may seem “foreign to those who spent most of their adult life before the great crises” (99) of the last decade but which has today become a necessity to repel the threat posed by the laissez-passer. just capitalism. Control, the third signifier, is basically a more practical form of protection, revolving around the perception that “political control […] has been lost ”, hence the demand for“ a return to order and stability in a world caught in chaos ”(141).
In practice, Gerbaudo admits, the three concepts are closely related and can best be imagined as different aspects of a passage from exopolitical To endopolitical, from outward-looking politics to that mainly concerned with the collective self. Debates once centered on future possibilities are increasingly dominated by a desire to preserve and protect, with more and more people responding to the precariousness of modern life by calling for the intervention of a powerful state. Right now, says Gerbaudo, there is a historic opportunity for those who advocate radical social change. After all, what better way to get out of this misery than a “socialism that protects” (252) and offers a real alternative to the masses? The ground has already been prepared – now the left must overcome its internal divisions to bring about change and build a care society, in which the commitment to equality and the search for security complement each other harmoniously.
Photo by Tamanna Rumee on Unsplash
While it might sound impressive at first, one can’t help but remember the aftermath of Lehman Brothers’ 2008 bankruptcy. At the time, almost everyone on the left seemed equally convinced that this was the start of the game. ‘a new era ; as from the ashes of casino capitalism, a different society was doomed to be born, a more egalitarian society in which the wild beast of financial markets would finally be tamed. But despite these prophecies, it didn’t take long for the global economy to recover, for bankers to return to their offices and Occupy Wall Street protesters to pitch their tents in New York’s Zuccotti Park. Not the slightest sign of revolutionary change, not even a fierce outcry from the mythical 99%, but much disappointment for those who were premature in their judgment and were seeking the salvation of a future that never saw the light of day.
Gerbaudo is no diviner, and his analysis is finer than the utopian dreams of the Occupy crowd. And yet there are some striking similarities, including his belief that we are witnessing a real paradigm shift rather than a flash in the pan. A bold statement, given that his argument is based on a rather exaggerated interpretation of the two crises. Populism, if ever relevant, has clearly entered a phase of stagnation and even decline. Since ‘Trump’s peak’ in 2016, populist challengers have lost high-profile elections in France, the UK and the Netherlands, populist parties have been ousted from power in Austria and Norway, and populist positions have fallen. lost much of the “forbidden fruit” status which contributed to their appeal. They no longer represent serious challenges to a sclerotic status quo but rather corruption and incompetence, from Donald Trump’s obscene narcissism to Heinz-Christian Strache’s adventures in Ibiza.
At the same time, the perception of COVID-19 is also changing in some countries from that of an unprecedented health crisis to that of a daily nuisance. With the deployment of mass vaccination campaigns, the lifting of mask warrants and the proclamation of “Freedom Days”, the pandemic is increasingly loosening its grip on many societies and begins to fade from the center of attention. public. There is no doubt that it leaves lasting scars, but there is little reason to agree that we are “probably witnessing a phase of outright de-globalization” and an “existential challenge” (52) to global capitalism as the supports Gerbaudo. Not only is this the most robust (albeit uneven) economic recovery in 80 years, there is very little empirical evidence to support the de-globalization thesis. In fact, prominent economists such as Pol Antràs have called such predictions “hyperbolic” and the pandemic “not likely to constitute a significant de-globalization force ”(2021: 2). Are all of these experts simply propagandists for the neoliberal cause – or could it be that Gerbaudo is rather a prisoner of his own argument?
Apart from this macro-criticism, there are other points to emphasize. For example, it is still not clear to what extent populism and neoliberalism really oppose each other. Gerbaudo builds such opposition when he presents populism as a “negative counterpart of neoliberal elitism” (21), but the truth is that populist parties do not form a monolithic bloc and some of them are even more pro -market than the average center-right party.
Likewise, one could question the view that COVID-19 triggered a pro-statist consensus. It is certainly true that most governments were riding a wave of support during the first phase of the pandemic, but it is also true that this support has waned since then, with lockdowns and mandatory vaccinations giving rise to anti-sentiment. state and mistrust of politicians. establishments. And even if one were to assume that there is a real “return of the state”, would this necessarily amount to the end of neoliberalism? Even left-wing thinkers such as Miloš Šumonja have doubts, suspecting that “the corona crisis might, in retrospect, appear as yet another capitalist crisis, integral to its life cycle” (2021: 220).
What is more, Gerbaudo’s argument is in places built around vague notions. He writes extensively on sovereignty, protection and control, but the relationship between them remains opaque and many details seem superfluous. at Jean Bodin Six Books on the Republic are still worth reading – but do you really have to go back to the sixteenth century to grasp the meaning of sovereignty, a term that is ultimately little more than a “signifier?” [that] is filled by a variety of signifieds ”(93)? In addition, the analysis of “speeches, public statements, political documents and campaign messages” (39) is sparse and the tone sometimes controversial. Obviously, Gerbaudo is no friend of the markets, but asserting that they “can only be effective if they are protected by active state patronage” (199) or that free trade is ” submission to the rapacious logic of international capitalism ”(214) does not exactly mean helping to advance one’s argument. It only conveys a reductionist account of economic issues.
Always, The big step back is not without merit. It draws on in-depth theoretical resources, provides thought-provoking material – for example, the concept of long ideological waves – and does not mask its argument in incomprehensible jargon. Gerbaudo would also be wrong to regard him as an apologist for unrestricted state power; he even warns’ not to fall into the opposite trap [and worship] the state as an infallible actor ”(201). It would only have been beneficial if he had extended the same caution to the rest of this book. Maybe he’s right, and we’ll be hearing the Leviathan’s roar for many years to come – it just doesn’t seem very likely.
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Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.
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About the Examiner
Marco bitschnau – University of Neuchâtel
Marco Bitschnau holds a BA in Sociology, Politics and Economics from Zeppelin University and an MA in Sociology from the University of Cambridge. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Neuchâtel and a doctoral candidate at the National Research Skills Center (PRN) – on the move.