Two English historians of political movements, Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, have produced a lucid, dispassionate account of the rise and character of the present populist wave in the West. The authors examine the common features of populist movements in the U.S. and Europe that have aroused alarm among both the mainstream media and the established political class. They show that populist leaders have benefited from invoking “the four Ds” in addressing their followers: a more “direct” democracy; deprivation as result of economic inequality; distrust of the elitist character of liberal democracy; and de-alignment from traditional political parties.
Although national populism plays on all these themes, there is an aspect that requires more discussion. The attraction exercised by current populist movements comes from their ability to marry the concerns of both the traditional left and the nationalist right. This is possible because what the authors call the “liberal democratic establishment” has ignored the white working class in building its electoral and economic bases. The establishment eagerly promoted intersectional politics and coupled it with Third World immigration, partly in order to create a reservoir of cheap labor. It also sought to weaken traditional social and national attachments by stigmatizing them as bigoted and unenlightened.
In this new class conflict, the battle is no longer workers demanding higher wages from factory owners. Instead, the traditional working class and critics of leftist identity politics oppose economic and media elites allied to an underclass of Third-World immigrants.
Eatwell and Goodwin end their work with what may be an overly optimistic message, namely that the populists and the liberal democratic establishment will seek some accord after the establishment recognizes the populists as fit political partners. Although this may be beginning to happen in Austria and Italy, the Western European establishment parties have generally built a cordon sanitaire against the populist intruders they identify as the “extreme Right.” The German, English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Belgian situations, where this association ban is still very much in existence, may be far more common than the coalition-building that is underway in Austria and Italy. It is also doubtful whether the national populists can exert much lasting influence in places where the mass media, cultural and educational institutions, and government administrations are passionately against them.
One of the many merits of this work is that it explains why the term “liberal democracy” has fallen into disgrace on the populist right. It has become a code word for the alliance between the Deep State, the cultural left, and interlocking global interests. Although among American elites this term remains in favor, among European nationalists it is becoming a swear word.
[National Populism and the Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin (Random House) 349 pp., $19.95.]
Milton Friedman was wrong, according to Oxford professor Colin Mayer, who asserts that the don of the Chicago School of Economics led generations of business leaders, and thus their nations, down a poisoned path by convincing them to focus on profits above all else. Mayer proposes that corporations should instead fulfill broader purposes, including non-financial goals, to address problems both societal and ecological.
Mayer’s book comes amid a growing conversation about corporate values. Recent revisions to The Business Roundtable’s statement of purpose add four “stakeholders”—customers, employees, suppliers, and communities—ahead of Friedman’s sacrosanct shareholders.
I wish Prosperity better added to the conversation about how to promote long-term thinking into the corporate system, but unfortunately this hastily edited screed tinged with statist, populist, and Luddite ideas is not the work to educate Chronicles readers. There are, however, occasional glimmers of interesting suggestions buried within the book. One is to improve our corporate and national accounting systems to reflect non-financial forms of capital on balance sheets and profit statements. Another is to change the regulation of companies based on their business activity, rather than their corporate form. But Mayer doesn’t do enough to fully explain these ideas, instead relying on the nebulous specter of another financial meltdown to warn that something must be done.
Broad thinking about value is important for stockholders and citizens in the context of decisions with long-term consequences. Recent changes in markets, regulation, and legal structures have begun to reflect these issues. Societies should assess whether their current tax, legal, and regulatory approaches support or impede optimal behaviors and organization. While these and other questions are important, Mayer falls short of generating a compelling read. Instead, he presents a rushed off position paper, albeit one with potential.
[Prosperity: Better Business Makes the Greater Good by Colin Mayer (Oxford University Press) 288 pp., $24.95.]
Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.
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