«Forget Populism. The Real Threat is Social Disintegration»
Simone Disegni 31 January 2020

Western societies are torn apart. Populism is no ideology, but just an unstable, “opportunistic” movement seeking to politically exploit such underlying condition. If liberals want to see that defeated, they should concentrate their efforts on nothing else but repairing the social tissue. Not an easy task, but a feasible one. First on the list: compensating intolerable economic imbalances. One of the most renowned American social scientists, Craig Calhoun has led for long years the US Social Science Research Council, prior to becoming director and president of the London School of Economics (2012-2016), a privileged observatory on British political hurdle. On the day when Brexit becomes a striking reality, he discusses with ResetDOC the lessons learnt from that saga, and the challenges ahead to save democracy.

Prof. Calhoun, for all the illusions that would never actually happen, Brexit is here. Otherwise said, Britain returns to be an island really. On the other side of the Atlantic, on the very same days, a president many thought of as a temporary nightmare has the wind at his back again and may seriously be heading towards reelection. Are we witnessing the institutionalization of populism?

I’d rather talk of the institutionalized results of populism – producing, in my view, damage that will be enduring. That is because I think populism is inherently unstable and can go in different directions. It may be seen as a social movement, a phenomenon without a very clear set of ideological directions that gets captured by other political parties or ideologists or demagogues. Populism is nothing like a political party: ideology, a set of tactics etc. The short-term flourishing of such big movements is in many ways expressive, and there are lots of people mobilized without very clear objectives; then there’s the potential for it to be captured, steered and made it into the basis for more structural change. That is exactly what happened in Brexit. The Leave campaign was able to mobilize lots of voters to vote in that way, to become angry about Europe, without there being any clear basis or understanding of what would happen. But there’s also a displacement; because even if people were somewhat upset about Europe, the anger in many cases wasn’t just about Europe. Anger about inequality was really anger at London and at the system. It is no coincidence that lots of the heavy populist vote came in places that suffered deindustrialization, which felt they lost the part in British society and economy they once had. The shops on the main street are boarded up, the jobs are gone, the union hall is gone, the sense of local identity is gone. And one of the mistakes of many liberals was to just say «Oh, those people are backwards» – rather than to find ways to reach out to them. And ultimately as a demagogue, Boris Johnson was able to reach them.

«Get Brexit done», was his claim. He did. So what such institutional consequences shall we expect?

London will decline as a financial center, firstly, and Britain will in fact become a much less important country in the world. But there’s more for the UK: Ireland will probably be reunified; Scotland may break away, and England will become dominant therein. The paradox is that a fairly short term of shifting attitudes produces a very big lasting consequence. I think this is happening in different ways in the United States. Already Donald Trump has done a lot of damage to the government of United States and to its institutions and proposes to do more damage, by getting rid of expertise in institutions that do things like manage the testing of food and drugs, so that companies can do whatever they want with marketing genetically-modified foods or pharmaceuticals etc. This is an extension – already the government was close to business – but it’s a change too because the anger against the educated elite and against expertise in government has turned to weaken these institutions rather than to improve the way that they work for people.

So you claim essentially that this was the victory of popular anger, not of a return to the community in any of its different forms, be that national or local; disintegration of society, rather community integration.

Exactly. People may be suffering from a feeling that they have lost community, a sense of belonging, even national integration. But this doesn’t do anything in itself to recreate them. It expresses that anger in a way that allows for these demagogues to rule. And yet they rule in ways that don’t fix the underlying problems.

Among the factors that helped disintegrate communities is most certainly the invasion of technology in our daily life. You were one of the first scholars to point to such a problem. «As it becomes possible to conduct economic and other affairs without entering into the company of strangers, we lose both cross-cutting ties and of the bases of democratic public life», you wrote as early as December 1986[1]. A gloomy yet acute prophecy… 

I think the problem that I pointed to has been realized, and become in fact much worse than I anticipated. We are all enmeshed in huge systems, in which we do things without interacting. It’s partly indeed because of the way we are using computers and other devices, but also because they enable things like Amazon and other logistical systems in which we don’t have to go to a shop and talk to anyone to buy things; we just order online and there is a delivery, and there is no social interaction. At the same time, there are no jobs created locally in that shop. There is a job for a driver of the truck and the warehouse, but this is centralizing things and undercutting community relations and knowledge of each other, so that we don’t even know each other. And it’s somewhat ironic because in a way the new communications techniques give us the capacity potentially to learn a lot more. But we don’t. So the capacities were huge, but there was a more or less complete failure to counterbalance the possibilities created by the technology with efforts to restore social solidarity, to maintain strong face-to-face relationships. Instead, these were undercut in lots of ways. And that contributes to the rise of so-called populism and other political responses that are based on trying to search some kind of view of things without a grasp of real connections.

The United States is arguably the country now experiencing the most serious case of polarization. A truly divided society, as we shall discuss in the next ResetDOC-promoted convening in New York. Do you see any chance of re-establishing a common ground?

A very extreme divide, indeed. This is one of the degenerations I talk about in my forthcoming book[2]. But it’s not just polarization; it is letting polarization become political enemies, thinking that people who are your opponents, who are different from you, are your enemies and you have to defeat them. What we see in the United States now is this kind of attitude, that other people are not really American, they’re not even doing things that are legitimate. This is true of many people on the populist side, but it’s true of many people on the Left too, thinking that there are some enemies that must be defeated, and defeated permanently. It’s a kind of ‘winner take all’ struggle. But I and we all also think in this book that there are some bases for common ground, for renewing conversation with each other; but it’s not just talk. In order to have more unity, we would have to change some of the conditions, and we would have to try new programs and new mechanisms to do it. We won’t find common ground just by doing opinion polls or having a short discussion. We have to renew our local community. We have to make changes in the way the media work. We might need to do things like introducing national service or other kinds of mechanisms to try to create unity and pursue a great national project. When you look at the history of democracy, you can see that there have been times before when there was a huge deterioration in these underlying conditions; and it has been possible to recover, although not easy.  So, the message we want to send is democracy could very easily die, but it doesn’t have to. It is possible to do something.

Take the other half of the model now specifically in deep crisis, liberal democracy. Do you see any path for liberalism – in the European sense: basic freedom of individuals, groups etc. – to ever become more popular again?

I hope so, but not by itself and not just as liberalism. The European Union’s meaning of liberalism also includes economic liberalism, and part of the problem with the political liberalism is it systematically ignores the economic conditions. This is what we mean by citizen efficacy. It’s not enough to be told you’re free if some people are free with billions of dollars and you are free with no job. That’s the classic point of Karl Marx: what’s the point of bourgeois freedom? It means you can only choose which bridge you want to lie under to die. So I think that there will be no big success for liberal values just as political values or cultural values by themselves. They must be coupled with social democracy or to some kind of social remaking of the social conditions. What we forgot is that liberalism depended on those social conditions. We thought that it would just be a change in attitudes: «Oh, if people would just think this way and be more educated and cultured, they would think in liberal ways, never mind what the social conditions were». I think there is no recovery for liberalism unless there is also a project of creating the social conditions that make it meaningful for ordinary people.


[1] C. Calhoun, “Computer Technology, Large-Scale Social Integration and the Local Community,” Urban Affairs Quarterly, vol. 22 #2, pp. 329-349, 1986.

[2] C. Calhoun, C. Taylor, Degenerations of Democracy, Harvard University Press, forthcoming


Photo: International Science Council / FLICKR

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