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Biden the populist

Why are so many rightwingers plastic populists?

Artillery Row

Populism is a very old force, one that dates (at least) to Ancient Rome, when powerful generals would seek to win the love of the masses with populist rhetoric and policies. Then as now they were feared and despised by the patrician classes, who condemned their populist foes as ill-informed, irrational enemies of the Republic and its laws. 

To forgive debts represents an assertion of citizenship and justice

This legacy is salutary to those who want to engage with populist politics today, because it shows both the dangers but equally the purpose and significance of populism. The institutions and structures of the Republic acted to favour the interests of the economic and political elites. Hence the tensions between populists and patricians. At the same time it was precisely the constitution of Ancient Rome, with its flexibility and strong executive functions that provided the scope for continual reform and over time extended citizenship, empowered directly represented representatives (the tribunes of the plebs) and provided economic concessions to the mass of the poor. The collapse of the Republic was no gift to the populists, as outside of its frameworks populism became impossible. Eventually it gave way to military dictatorship and the rule of ambitious warlords. 

What did (and does) populism consist of, outside of a vague rhetorical opposition to the “elites” and a penchant for charismatic leaders? Fundamentally it was a war for civic dignity and economic redistribution, and an intuitive recognition that arguments based on precedence and procedure benefited the privileged over the marginalised. In the early Republic a crisis grew up around the number of poor citizens under nexum or debt-bondage. It was especially cruelly felt because many ended up in a state of quasi-slavery and debt due to the burdens of military service, and those who had shed blood for the Republic ended up as slaves to its wealthiest citizens. 

The forgiveness of debts is a fundamentally populist move, one that is closely associated with our Christian history. The idea of the “jubilee” originates in the Old Testament. It referred to a special year of forgiveness in which criminals were pardoned, sins forgiven and debtors released from their obligations. Debt was recognised in Ancient Rome, and Christian Europe, as an inherent threat to human dignity, free citizenship and the cohesiveness of society. To forgive debts represents an assertion of citizenship and justice over the letter of the law. Usury was a sin in Catholic Europe, but this realisation began with Aristotle, who saw in the predatory logic of money lending the death of political life and citizen rule. 

It is no coincidence that our increasingly post-Christian, low-trust and non-participatory democratic societies in the West have a shared debt crisis. This is especially extreme in Britain and America where private debt has exploded, house prices have soared upwards, and student debt has become a silent tax on middle earners and a check on the social mobility of the young. University is presented as the necessary condition to enter public and economic life, but it comes with a burden of debt that undermines those very aspirations. This inherently usurious system is a natural target for modern populism. 

Biden has proved a far better populist than many on the right

As populism in English speaking countries has struggled to break through the deadlock of the modern parliamentary system, it has been captured by the elites who dominate centre right politics. This tame populism has been channelled into serving or at least not threatening the interests of big business and the capitalist and managerialist classes. Populism, we are told, means low migration (which as Brexit showed never seems to actually be delivered) and low taxation, but certainly not any challenge to the economic elites. Their radically liberal social values are increasingly imposed by private and public institutions of every kind, and they have done most to create a regime of open borders for both capital and labour. 

The fakeness of much English-speaking populism has been amply demonstrated by the US right’s reaction to Biden’s forgiveness of a significant part of student debt. This clearly populist measure, which strikes against the system of debt and economic elitism which dominates our societies, was vehemently opposed by a tiresome tirade of sophistic nonsense from supposed voices of the masses. 

We heard, from these champions of private enterprise and advocates for tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy, that it was “unfair” that middle class young people be released from their debts, when the children of the working class are so much less likely to seek university educations. We were also told, smugly, that if young people had not wanted crippling debt burdens they should not have taken on loans which they were not prepared to repay.

The first argument is the purest of sly bullshit — it is an oligarchic argument that says we should provide no assistance or help the middle classes on the basis that they are not the very worst off. It’s more an emotive and cynical attempt to divide middle and working classes than it is an actual argument. It ignores the common benefits of a large, well-educated middle class, and open pathways to social mobility for the most capable. 

This highlights the cruelty and moral viciousness of the second objection — that students should know better. Young people are endlessly told by parents and educators that they need a degree to make it into well-paid employment. It is not a serious choice for most ambitious youngsters, but rather a concealed tax on the young and middle class for spending longer in education — education that despite the proliferation of many low quality degrees, remains of crucial economic and social value to society. 

If more and more students are now failing to pay off loans, that is a sign that the deal — debt now for a big payoff later — is no longer working. To look at an increasingly predatory and unavoidable system of loans, and conclude the victim is at fault, reveals the paucity of the modern right and its fetish for “personal responsibility”. Issues like student debt swiftly expose this for what it is: a flattering face for abandoning people in trouble, and holding the weak to account for the failings of the strong. 

A real conservatism and real love for personal responsibility, would seek to create citizens who have the capacity to be active, responsible members of society. That means not being a debt serf stuffed into a tiny flat without the means to start a family or the leisure to participate in public life.

Biden has proved a far better populist in this instance than many on the right who would claim that label today. The US right needs to seriously consider what economic populism would look like, and draw on America’s deep populist traditions, whether that is the fiscal and debt farmer-labour populism of the 19th century people’s party, or the anti-trust populism of Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Party. 

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