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 MPIfG - Featured Research - Opinion



Is There a Link Between Right-Wing Populism and the Financial Crisis?

Colin Crouch

Why, we all asked ourselves, did the financial crisis of 2008 and its consequent crises for welfare states, combined with evidence of growing inequality and the concentration of extreme wealth in the hands of a global plutocratic elite, not provoke a political attack on neoliberal hegemony? We are now learning the answer: such an attack is occurring, but on both sides of the Atlantic it is taking the form of xenophobic populism.
With some sociological hindsight we can now work out what has been happening. First we must understand that it is not easy for the great majority of ordinary, non-political people to relate themselves to major things going on in the economy and the world at large. This is especially true when events seem to require criticism of powerful ruling elites, quite a scary thing to do. Second, we must remember how it was that, usually at some point in the 20th century, people overcame these hurdles and became political citizens, voting and holding general political views. They mainly did this because social identities that they well understood received political significance, usually because they were implicated in conflicts over exclusion and inclusion in citizenship rights. For example, property-owning, bourgeois people of the dominant religion in a country acquired a partisan identity by wanting to exclude from various rights those who did not share these characteristics. Those thereby excluded acquired a connection to the political world through their resentment at that exclusion. Identities were often more complex than this, and many groups felt cross-pressured. But out of all the complexity arose what we came to take for granted in the second half of the 20th century: that the large majority of citizens knew who they were in a political sense.

« Social identities that they well understood received political significance, usually because they were implicated in conflicts over exclusion and inclusion in citizenship rights. »

Once the main battles over inclusion were concluded by the achievement of universal citizenship, these identities began to lose their raison d’être, but so deeply rooted had they become that they remained the basis of democratic electoral politics. Paradoxically therefore, democracy depended for its vigour on forces that its achievement then weakened. The inevitably declining power of these identities was then reinforced by two major changes. First came the rise of the post-industrial economy and the creation of many occupations that have no resonance with the struggles of the past, and whose practitioners cannot easily relate their social identities to politics at all. Second has been (in Europe but not the USA) the decline of religion and therefore of the identity struggles surrounding it.
But one social identity with political implications remains untouched by these changes, like a hard igneous rock left as a mountain peak following the erosion of softer sedimentary material: nation, possibly expanded to mean race. Not only this, but defence of nation and race seems to present a rational response to the main threats facing people’s lives: a global economy controlled by a cosmopolitan elite, mass migration, waves of refugees, Islamic terrorism. It is not fully rational, because, unless a country becomes like North Korea, the dream of barricading it against global influences is impossible. Also, the different causes of disquiet are not related: refugees are not to blame for the financial crisis. But arguing that is not our present task; it is rather to understand how national identity has enabled certain politicians to link them.
All the xenophobic movements, from Donald Trump in the USA to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Norbert Hofer in Austria, link their attacks on immigrants to those on the national elites implicated in the crisis. In turn, those that began as non-xenophobic critics of elites, like il Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy, find that they can get more traction if they include immigrants and refugees in their attacks. Groups like UKIP in the UK or Alternative für Deutschland, which started life as critics of the European Union, have found success by concentrating their attacks on immigrants and Moslems.

« Only national identity has given large numbers of people the courage to join challenges to governing elites. »

Only national identity, it seems, has given large numbers of people the courage to join challenges to governing elites. The challenge is safe, because its rhetoric includes a new struggle over inclusion, in which those making the challenge are safely among the included, seeking to exclude various foreigners from participation in our society. The criticism of elites is enfolded in this second theme, and eventually becomes far less important and even forgotten – just as Adolf Hitler achieved in the 1930s.

Colin Crouch is an English sociologist and political scientist. He has coined the post-democracy concept in 2000 in his book Coping with Post-Democracy. Colin Crouch is currently Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick and External Scientific Members at the MPIfG.
Research Interests: structure of European societies, with special reference to labor market, gender and family issues; economic sociology; neo-institutional analysis; local economic development and public service reform.

Suggested Reading
  • Colin Crouch: Society and Social Change in 21st Century Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, London 2016.
  • Colin Crouch: Die bezifferte Welt: Wie die Logik der Finanzmärkte das Wissen bedroht. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 2015.
  • Colin Crouch: Jenseits des Neoliberalismus: Ein Plädoyer für soziale Gerechtigkeit. Passagen, Wien 2013.
  • Colin Crouch: Das befremdliche Überleben des Neoliberalismus. Suhrkamp, Berlin 2011.
  • Colin Crouch: Postdemokratie. Suhrkamp, Berlin 2008.



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