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We need inclusive, not fake, populism

28 June 2019

Rather than seek refuge in charismatic leaders, people can bring change from the ground up, says Angus Ritchie


A protester is arrested during the Battle of Cable Street, in east London, in 1936

A protester is arrested during the Battle of Cable Street, in east London, in 1936

IN 1936, Oswald Mosley declared that his British Union of Fascists was going to march through the heart of the parish of St George-in-the-East, intimidating its large Jewish community.

This was the catalyst for the Battle of Cable Street, in which a crowd of local people stood side by side to prevent the fascists from passing. The Rector of the parish, Fr Jack Boggis, stood at the heart of the crowd and had his nose broken while resisting Mosley’s fascists.

This solidarity did not emerge spontaneously. It had been woven over many years through action on issues of common concern — primarily pay and housing. For example, Jewish organisations had fed the children of Irish dockers when they went on strike in protest at their poverty wages.

What we saw in the organised resistance to fascism at the Battle of Cable Street was an authentic, inclusive populism; a populism which built relationships across difference; so that ordinary citizens could be active in promoting their common interests, discerning a common good, and shaping and tending a common life. For, as Pope Francis explains, populism has more than one meaning: “In Latin America, it means that the people — for instance, people’s movements — are the protagonists. They are self-organised.”

Pope Francis contrasts such a populism with the debased version which emerged in Europe in the 1930s, in which people did not organise themselves but rather sought refuge from their fears in a “charismatic leader.”

As Luke Bretherton writes in Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, citizenship and the politics of a common life, this latter form of populism “circumvents the need for deliberative processes and the representation of multiple interests in the formation of political judgments”. A charismatic leader “rules by direct consent without the hindrance of democratic checks and balances or the representation of different interests. . . The throwing off of established authority structures is the prelude to the giving over of authority to the one and the giving up of responsibility for the many”.

Precisely because the people are rendered passive in this kind of politics, I have called it “fake populism.” Such fake populism is on the rise today in Western democracies, in ways that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. The rise of Vladimir Putin from 1999 onwards; the place of Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, and Marine Le Pen in 2017, as runners-up in the French Presidential Election; the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States; and the rise of Nigel Farage are disturbing and interconnected phenomena. (I think it is important to make a distinction here between Faragism and support for leaving the EU; and, indeed, one of the most dangerous developments in contemporary British politics is the tendency to suggest that wanting to leave the EU is intrinsically connected to some wider, nativist project.)

ALL of these various forms of fake populism share three defining characteristics.

First, in fake populism, wealth and power remain in the hands of elites. For all that fake populism harnesses the anger of a mass of citizens who feel disenfranchised and disempowered, it does not redistribute either wealth or power in their direction.

All four so-called populists are members of the very elites that they decry: Donald Trump was a property magnate, Nigel Farage was a City trader, and Vladimir Putin was a leading figure in the Soviet security services. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of a politician.

Second, fake populism involves a politics of grievance which seeks scapegoats. This is one of its most inevitable, and most dangerous, features. Because it harnesses the anger of people who are disenfranchised and economically insecure — and yet does not in fact redistribute any wealth and power — there is an inherent instability in fake populism. It will never deal with the root causes of the popular anger which it feeds off. So, it must provide scapegoats: ethnic minorities, refugees, migrants, Muslims, and (as in the 1930s) Jews.

Third, in fake populism, the people remain passive and isolated individuals. As Bretherton explains, the rise of a charismatic individual leader — a “one” such as Trump or Putin — involves “the many” casting off their responsibility for discerning a common good and building a common life. In his words, the goal of the process is “personal withdrawal from public life so as to be free to pursue private self-interests rather than public mutual interests”.

Each of the three features of “fake populism” is contradicted by the politics of Jesus in the Gospels.

  • Where fake populism leaves wealth and power in the hands of the elites, Jesus places the poorest at the heart of his mission.
  • Where fake populism foments grievance and seeks scapegoats, the politics of Jesus is provocative and yet ultimately peaceful.
  • Where fake populism leaves the people as passive, isolated individuals, Jesus draws them together, into one Body — building a people of power.

THESE three features of Jesus’s practice offer us the framework for an authentic and inclusive populism. A concrete example of this inclusive populism is the practice of broad-based community organising.

As part of Citizens UK, there are community organising alliances in a growing number of towns and cities around the country. An alliance is a formally constituted organisation consisting of churches, mosques, schools, trades unions, and other civic organisations which have agreed to work together for social change in a particular place.

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In practice, community organising involves each member institution undertaking “one-to-one” meetings within and beyond its walls. In organising, action emerges from the shared interests of local people. Out of these many conversations come the actions and campaigns which deliver change.

Member institutions join together at regular intervals in “assemblies” to share the results of their conversations and to agree shared priorities for action. The actions may start small. Besides being valuable in themselves, these actions build a community’s confidence to imagine more substantial changes.

Community organising offers a practical way of placing the poorest at the very heart of the Church’s life, not as a “them” for whom a more middle-class “we” are advocates (whether on Twitter, in the pulpit, or in political campaigns). At St George-in-the-East, we have experienced the potential of community organising to develop grass-roots leaders, grow a congregation of and not just for the poorest, and build solidarity with our Muslim neighbours (not least through a successful campaign for affordable housing on Cable Street).

THE person who has taught me most about the slow, patient process of organising is Fr Sean Connolly: a Roman Catholic parish priest in Newham, the East London borough that contains the main park used in the 2012 Olympics.

Fr Sean arrived in the parish just before those Games. One of the churches in his parish was celebrating its 150th anniversary. Because of the impending Olympics, the council was unwilling to put up any new road signage. Fr Sean’s parishioners felt strongly, however, that their church needed the same public recognition as many other local institutions had already received, and hence that this prohibition was arbitrary and unfair.

These parishioners led a community organising campaign: “We Don’t Want A Miracle, We Just Want A Sign.” The good-humoured action received significant media coverage, and led on to an agreement by Newham Council to provide the road sign. Although it was a small victory, it was a tangible one. Every time parishioners attended the church, they were reminded of what could be achieved by collective action.

Through the process of one-to-ones, the growing team of grass-roots leaders in the church identified housing as an issue of widespread concern; so they decided to hold an accountability meeting at the church with their local councillor, presenting testimony on the issue.

It was at this point that Lucy Achola got involved. Ms Achola is a mother of three who was facing eviction from her home at the hands of Newham Council. This displacement would have had huge consequences: she would have had to move far from the area where her two daughters sang in the school choir and her son was an altar server. Ultimately, she would have been left without a place to live, away from her friends and community.

One of the leaders involved in the sign campaign went on to have a one-to-one with her, and she agreed to share her testimony along with three others at the accountability meeting. The acknowledgement of her struggle itself gave her hope and joy: as she put it, “I was so happy — the whole parish was behind me.”

The action taken by the parish led the council to revoke the eviction order, and this experience of support and solidarity from the parish led Ms Achola and her family to welcome another parishioner facing homelessness into their home. Ms Achola is now also playing a leading part in the campaign to increase the proportion of genuinely affordable housing built on the site of the London 2012 Olympics as it is redeveloped.

THIS slow, patient process of organising runs counter to the angry and impatient culture of our times — an impatience that is shared both by the fake populism of Trump, and by many of his loudest opponents.

Like Jesus, it is important for today’s Church to confront the unjust and oppressive rulers of our age; but, like Jesus, it is important that we remember where the heart of God’s Kingdom actually lies — not in the battle to seize command of this world’s palaces and fortresses, but in the lives of the multitude that this world overlooks and counts as naught.

Canon Angus Ritchie is director of the Centre for Theology and Community and Assistant Priest at St George-in-the-East. His book Inclusive Populism: Creating citizens in the global age is to be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in September.

This is an edited extract of his Micah Lecture “Populism and the Politics of Jesus”, delivered on 10 June at Liverpool Cathedral. A recording is available at www.liverpoolcathedral.org.uk/home/exploring-faith/cathedral-urban-lecture.aspx.

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