William Wallace writes…Plutocratic populism

The Anglo-Saxon version of authoritarian populism is ‘plutocratic populism’, or pluto-populism .  A Princeton professor described it, in the Financial Times last week, as ‘consisting of policies that mostly benefit the top 1%, in combination with relentless culture wars which distract from economic ideas’.  Trump is, of course, the model that he and others are describing.  But we have faced a similar phenomenon in the UK, and we need to think carefully about how to combat it here.

Money, media and loose electoral regulation fuel pluto-populism.  The US  Supreme Court’s decision to free political fundraising from the constraints that Democratic Administrations had enacted has entrenched the power of money in US politics.  Right-wing billionaires, benefitting from lax rules on foundations and favourable taxes, fund think tanks and lobbies.  The Murdoch press has also fuelled its rise, above all through Fox News, with its relentless attacks on ‘the liberal elite’, its openness to conspiracy theories and its willingness to support ‘alternative facts.’  Trump rose to political prominence through television, and has exploited social media to consolidate his appeal.

Constraints on spending in British politics have not yet broken down, but in recent elections and in the 2016 Referendum the rules have been successfully bent.  Conservative HQ sent targeted mailings and media messages to marginal seats, not accounted for under constituency expenditure.  Semi-autonomous bodies mounted media campaigns to underpin Tory messages and to influence voters away from other candidates.  Peter Geoghegan, in Democracy for Sale (2020, well worth reading), tells us that ‘College Green Group’, run by the son of a wealthy Tory MP, placed pro-SNP messages in Jo Swinson’s constituency and pro-Labour ones in LibDem target seats in the South-West, as well as similar negative messages in Caroline Lucas’s seat. 

The Electoral Commission has tried to tackle some of the abuses of recent campaigns.  But it’s underfunded, and now under sustained Conservative attack.  Amanda Milling MP, co-chair of the Conservative Party and herself the subject of sharp criticism from the Electoral Commission, has suggested that it should be abolished.  The Speaker’s Committee for the Electoral Commission now has for the first time a Conservative majority.  The 2016 Referendum saw well-financed campaigns break the rules of democratic campaigning.  And we still don’t know where Arron Banks’s money came from – except that it came from somewhere in the shady offshore world.

The Murdoch press, in Britain as in the USA, has peddled a narrative of resentment against ‘the establishment’ – defined, not as the rich, but as the intellectual class, against whom the left behind and city traders can find common cause.   In Australia 500,000 people have recently signed a petition calling for an enquiry into Murdoch influence on public debate.  In the UK, it’s still expanding into radio and TV.

Right-wing think tanks feed their messages of low taxation, privatization and deregulation into our public life.  Many do not declare where their funding comes from; some certainly comes from American billionaires, some from rich Russian residents.  David Goodhart, who blames the ‘anywhere’ liberal elites for alienating the ‘somewhere’ left-behinds, is a fellow of Policy Exchange, which is probably funded by the multi-national companies and offshore financiers from whom he thus diverts criticism.

Pluto-populism in the USA benefits from the historical resistance to strong state action in the American small-town narrative, which persuades poor voters to support low taxes.  Boris Johnson’s pluto-populism faces a greater challenge, between the libertarian commitment to tax cuts and privatization and the expectations of newly-won supporters that London will ‘level-up’ by investing in public infrastructure and economic regeneration.  But the populist narrative that the woes of the left-behind are due to the meritocratic and over-educated is deeply entrenched.  We will have to work hard to shift that narrative – perhaps by being more populist ourselves in attacking offshore elites.  But first let’s be clear in identifying our illiberal enemies.


* William Wallace has fought five parliamentary elections in Manchester and West Yorkshire. He is a former president of the Yorkshire regional Liberal Democrats.

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  • You have identified the illiberal elite. We now have to combat them vociferously to influence the debate. It will be a continued project.

  • William Francis 15th Nov '20 - 12:17pm

    I do believe Martin Wolf also used the term “pluto-populism” in 2017 when talking of the republican tax plan of the time.

  • Christopher Haigh 15th Nov '20 - 12:46pm

    Populists are the type of people who say ‘we won get over it”. Liberal pluralists would say ‘ we must accommodate the interests of the minority’. The populist EU leavers have never taken the views of the substantial minority of remain voters into account in their subsequent control of government. The arch populist Cummings also hates elites such as the civil service and the Conservative Party.

  • One of the most bizarre elements of this scene is the way that many people (including many of the poorest in our communities) will not have a word said against billionaires and plutocrats because they would quite like to swap their own lot with that of the filthy rich. This means that “populist” attacks on offshore villains need very careful crafting.

  • I think a large part of the problem is the rise of a group of super-rich, whose wealth is based not on organizing the production of real goods and services but on moving money around. Producers have an interest in a stable business environment and access to a large market. They naturally think about what products will make good profits 5 years from now. On the other hand, financiers are mainly interested in maximum freedom to do whatever they like with their money. They think about how asset prices are likely to change in the coming days and weeks. They can make money even if prices go down by means of short selling. This increased financialization is a result of computer and internet technology, globalization and deregulation. It is especially bad in Britain because of the importance of London as a financial centre. The big money people have become cut off from the real world. They live in a world of mathematical formulae, computer programmes and simple abstract ideas about free markets, individual freedom, deregulation and small government. By spending a small part of their money on propaganda they are able to have great influence on society and politics.

  • I think that in Britain the alliance between super-rich libertarians and ordinary people is likely to be fragile. Ordinary people in Britain can easily be stirred up to vote against foreigners, but they are also strongly committed to a welfare state that looks after ordinary British people. Unfortunately I am afraid that when the grass-roots nationalists, who provided the votes that made Brexit possible become disillusioned with their super-rich leaders they will not turn to Labour or the Lib Dems, but to a socially oriented version of the far right – from national libertarianism to national socialism.
    On the other hand, in America libertarianism has stronger historical traditionalist roots in the memory of the Wild West. The idea is that an enterprising young man could go West, take over unused land or resources and build up a successful business entirely by his own effort. Therefore, it was his exclusive property and the government had no right to place a significant burden of tax or regulation on him. This idea may be rather over-simplified, but it is popular. People think that this is how their country became great and so it is how they can Make America Great Again.

  • Peter Chambers 15th Nov '20 - 2:21pm

    Another good book on the subject, focussing on the mechanisms built in the USA is Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money”, ISBN-13 : 978-1925228847.
    This describes the evolution of a libertarian plutocrat network from individual donors trying various things, through so-called think-tanks, to a very business like broker network connecting political operators, donors, PR firms, astroturf groups, election campaigns, de-regulation efforts, and engagement of the climate of opinion. What they found after 30 years was the best results were obtained by synergistic efforts and using business methods to reward successful political operators and actors. Failure is dealt with ruthlessly and the next donation or grant is always contingent. Operators are never given a comfort zone.
    Interestingly the value granted to them by tax deductibility is the window for journalists. Who knows what truly off-book outfits got up to?

  • Steve Trevethan 15th Nov '20 - 6:00pm

    Just follow the money.
    “Current monetary systems have been “captured” by wealthy elites who, with the collusion of regulators and elected politicians, have undermined society’s democratic institutions and now govern the financial system in their own narrow interests.” (The Production of Money (How to break the Power of Bankers) by Ann Pettifor)

  • To my mind there is a problem in discussing the problems of having elites is that for those of us who live in the United Kingdom we are part of the elite. The figures are clear. The biggest share of the pollution caused to our planet – the environment – the air we breath, the food we eat, the water we drink – is caused by the rich of the world.
    I remember at school when I stayed for school dinners, being lectured to by teachers about our duty to eat everything up because there were children starving in China. Never did understand what they were talking about.
    I am starting to understand now as I sit here at home and see the television images of conditions in so many parts of the world where real children are really starving by the million still in our present day.
    I am trying to give up the idea that in some way I understand things others don’t. People know the reality but try to hide it from themselves, or hide behind strange abstract words like populism.
    And of course you don’t have to travel to Africa, South America or wherever to see poverty.

  • The “anywheres’ include those who left Britain to work overseas of which there are a considerable number. Actually some retain strong links with Britain, something that increases over the years. The traditional image of overseas Britons was that of a true blue. That is less and less true, however the true blue view that the country is going to the dogs seems to reflect current realities.

  • John Marriott 16th Nov '20 - 7:19am

    Populism can be found in phrases such as:
    “I’m not racist but….”
    “You know*, a lot of people are getting tired of…”
    *Farage often starts his replies with these words
    “People often tell me….”
    “I’ve got a little list….”
    “We are only a small island so ……”
    “Get back control”
    “Hard working people have had enough..”
    “I don’t see why I should be paying for other people’s kids”
    “Where are the fathers?”

    Perhaps some of you could suggest a few more

  • I have recently become aware of the 99% organisation, founded by Mark E Thomas, whose ideas are set out in 99%: Mass Impoverishment and How We Can End It, ISBN: 9781789544527, and further elaborated at 99-percent.org.
    This book received widespread glowing reviews in 2019, when it was published, but doesn’t seem to be mentioned as often as I’d expect in articles such as this one, with which it harmonises.
    What the 99% organisation potentially offers is a focus for people fighting populism, “post-truth” and (as the subtitle suggests) mass impoverishment.
    It is not a political party and is not party-political affiliated, but is a movement that other organisations could work with.
    I would urge anyone in sympathy with its aims to acquaint themself with the book and/or website and help to strengthen the movement.

  • John Marriott 16th Nov '20 - 8:56am

    I agree with Lord Wallace’s definition of populism. The phrases I have just cited have been picked on by the so called elites to consolidate their positions. The arrogance of Cummings and his non elected wide boy cronies is typical as is the ‘bread and circuses’ approach of people like Trump. Nigel Farage a ‘man of the people’? You must be kidding me. I wonder where he keeps his money? His fellow traveller, Richard Tice, like his Brexit Party colleague, Ben Habib, used to earn his crust, I believe, in property development, and it could be argued that they could benefit mightily if a no deal Brexit were to have an adverse effect on property prices, especially around London, which could theoretically be obtained at knock down prices. The question “What is there in it for me?” takes on a whole new significance.

  • We have the infrastructure in the media including social media to counter populism in any form. What is needed is the will, finances and resources to see it through. Many arguments are still that in many minds though some seek to portray them as a done deal. Honesty, transparency and truth have taken a battering recently though as basic human traits are still alive if dormant and eager to grow again given favourable conditions.

  • On the theme of the growth of populism in the world can I once again draw your attention to a book that left a mark on me, and sorry if you have seen my post on this before, it is a black novel by Eric Vuillard on the rise of the Nazis in the 1930,s called ” Order of the Day”, in it there is statement which says, great catastrophes creep up on us in tiny steps, I have never forgotten that sentence and says a lot about our present world.
    Also perhaps Boris Johnson could take advice from my golf swing manual with his constant rambling pronouncements, less is more!

  • What is the difference between populism and democracy?

    Intuitively I appreciate the danger of ‘populism’ (although at the root, I think, this is the same eternal conflict of ‘society’ vs the individual) but how we can avoid the danger of labelling any opposing policy or party politically more successful than our own as ‘populist’? It’s an tempting way to dismiss something with a lazy pejorative rather than have to win the argument.

    I note Lord Wallace closes his article by proposing we counter one form of populism with another – this suggests that populism isn’t inherently wrong, it’s the other person’s type of populism that’s wrong.

    Does leave Populism is a means to an end and it is the ends that define the moral value?

    I can see an argument that populism is a method of subverting representative democracy through appeals to direct democracy/appeal to the majority/mob rule. But are the institutions of representative democracy not liable to capture by special interests/elites and so need to be held accountable to the will of the people?

    A head scratcher.

  • Interesting William talks about plutocrats… and our old friend John Marriott asks, where does Farage (friend of Trump) get his money from ?

    I might have a clue to help him.

    I’ve only had one conversation (short and unresponsive) with the Blessed Nigel…. in Brandhoek New Military Cemetery in Flanders. A group of us called in to pay our respects to Dr Noel Chavasse V.C. and Bar, M.C. who is buried there.

    The only other folk there turned out to be Lord Michael Ashcroft, offshore billionaire resident of Belize (and purchaser of VC medals) and his chum the Blessed Nigel. Ashcroft obligingly showed us the Chavasse medals, but when he asked if we would like a selfie with Saint Nigel we politely declined.

    I must confess to asking softly ‘Isn’t it time you got a proper job ?’ to Nige as he walked past me…. though it’s pretty obvious from the company he keeps he doesn’t need one.

  • Sue Sutherland 16th Nov '20 - 2:51pm

    It’s a very neat trick by which the wealthiest and most powerful 1% have made common cause with the poorest in our society. Who exactly are these modern eminence grises? The problem is that no one really knows, so it’s easy for them to point the finger at other more visible groups. The intellectual meritocracy is visible because of universities and students and people who front up programmes on the TV. In the past the elite aristocracy were highly visible in their castles and stately homes so even the peasants could identify them. In turn the industrialists were known by their work force, but now we have the invisibly influential who manipulate through their financial power and ability to hide their wealth from governments who wish to tax them. It’s a very good idea because if you look at the list of the previously wealthy and powerful many of them have lost that privilege when society changed and political power was more in the hands of the majority.
    In order to create a fairer society I believe we have to make these movers and shakers visible to the general public. One way would be to introduce higher taxes on those who earn income from work and investments that is greater than the present cut off point. Together with this, tax avoidance should be much more strictly regulated so the wealthy contribute more to society and perhaps have a greater community commitment. Regulation of financial services might also create more openness.
    At the moment we have an elite which seems to be free to influence policy decisions by backing research which supports them in their desire to be more and more wealthy and powerful rather than creating a fairer society for all. It’s time to shine a light on this invidious behaviour.

  • Clearly there is an issue about the Murdoch etc. press but frankly its not going away soon so we have to live with it.

    There is also a strong left now in the US. Much stronger and further to the left than it ever has been. AOC, Bernie, the Washington Post, New York Times, MSNBC, CNN etc. And the Biden presidency is likely to embrace action on climate change, and quite a lot of the Green New Deal, Sanders health care reforms etc. It will probably be to the right of the British Tory Government. But it is likely that it will be the most left wing administration ever in the US – certainly since FDR.

    The left in the US is raising a lot of money – probably as much or more than the right and lot of it is from individual donations.

    Here Labour do much the same as the Tories do but with the Unions. Using union phonebanks and Trade Union running adverts during the election and running effective campaigns on school funding etc.

    And thanks to the Sainsbury donation we out raised Labour in the last General election. That we got our strategy wrong is our fault not the Murdoch press.

    I always get hacked off with the term populist as a term of abuse. Well, folks, get real the aim in a democratic system is to be popular. And if we haven’t put our case in “populist” way recently then more fool us.

  • Peter Martin 17th Nov '20 - 4:25am

    However we might describe struggle to define Populism, we all know what democracy, albeit in its less than perfect state, actually is. The winners of elections are, usually, those with the most votes. Or at least most of the votes that are crucial. Progressives have tended to forget the basics and have accepted the rules of the establishment. Especially the economic rules of neoliberalism. Once progressive voices attempt to work within this straitjacket, as they have, any capacity to articulate meaningful change is lost.

    In the ’16 US election, the progressive voice was assumed to be the Democrats. Except this was personified by Hillary Clinton. Many found this to be too difficult to accept. They lost because the voters could not differentiate them from the Wall Street cabal that has controlled the USA for decades.

    Trump, for all his shortcomings, presented an anti-establishment voice, which was radical and compelling. Predictably, the reality of his Presidency turned out to be somewhat different but he crucially understood that an anti-establishment frame was essential.

    A similar argument can be made for the Brexit campaign. Both Trump and the Leave case had the appeal of restoring the nation-state against the global forces that have battered economies worldwide. Many of the problems we struggle with started with the 2008 GFC. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Even the left was as surprised as everyone else when it did. It was the right who used a failure of capitalism to its own advantage. Who would have thought that the left could miss out on such an opportunity?

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