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The Oxford Handbook of Populism (multiple editors), and Inclusive Populism, by Angus Ritchie

03 April 2020

Nick Spencer reflects on ‘populism’ in more than one sense

WE, THE people. . . Power to the people. . .The people have spoken. Of course. But which people? The question lies at the epicentre of populism, hurled like a rock into the West’s comparatively calm political pools.

The answer is never straightforward, but has become especially thorny of late. Churned up by large-scale immigration, the pooling of sovereignty, the absence of an obvious common enemy (e.g. USSR), historical amnesia, widening economic inequalities and social divisions, the decentralisation and marketisation of news provision, and then — spectacularly in the UK — the blurring of representative and plebiscitary models of democracy, Western countries are in a muddle about who the people are, what they want, and who speaks for them.

That this is not simply a Western issue is admirably highlighted by The Oxford Handbook of Populism, which brings together 38 scholars to discuss the theory and reality of populism. The book is unapologetically academic in tone and focus, and there is much discussion of the development of scholarship over the past 30 years, as well as on a future possible research agenda. But there is, none the less, material on the origins of populism and its connections with religious identities which will interest a wider audience. Perhaps most helpfully, the manner in which its geographical section dedicates only two chapters to Europe and the US, compared with seven on other regions, underlines how this isn’t simply a Western issue.

That recognised, rightly or wrongly, most readers of the Church Times (and, I dare say, the Oxford Handbook) will know populism primarily in its North Atlantic guise, if only because it has so disturbed the liberal politics that seemed to emerge supremely self-confident from the 20th century. And it is that liberal politics that Angus Ritchie has in his sights in his short book Inclusive Populism.

Funeral marches for liberalism have been the background music of recent years: Christian and secular critics alike have lined up to bury rather than praise it. Ritchie stands in their ranks, but the meat (and the strength) of his book lies not in its theoretical critique of liberalism, but in the practical response that he offers.

Truth be told, Inclusive Populism is not a book about liberalism or, indeed, populism, but about Community Organising. Wise publishers no doubt decided that a book badged in that way would do better than one describing itself as the result of a research project on Community Organising in east London. But if that is the price of getting more people to know more about the topic, it is one worth paying, because Ritchie presents us with an admirably detailed, honest, and self-critical study of a grounded, concrete, and realistic movement whose successes and failures have much to teach us.

Community Organising has its origins with Saul Alinksy, the mid-20th-century American activist and provocateur, and his work with the Industrial Areas Foundation. Alinksy is a bête noire for many a conservative and Christian, on account of his openness to Marxist analysis, his confrontational approach to power, and, no doubt, his decision to dedicate his book Rules for Radicals to Lucifer. Nevertheless, his early partnership with the Roman Catholic bishop Bernard James Sheil and his friendship and correspondence with the influential theologian Jacques Maritain underline how closely tied and mutually fruitful the Christian-Community Organising relationship has been.

Community Organising is institution-based, drawing on the existing institutions of civil society, many of which, of course, are deeply religious. It is inclusive, eschewing the kind of “progressive test” beloved of so many on the Left (“We’ll only work with you if you are ‘sound’ on abortion, sexuality, women’s rights, etc.”) in favour of a relational test (“Are you willing to negotiate with those who are different from you?”). And it is interest-based, favouring not the big abstract transformation of, say, the Occupy Movement, or the admirably altruistic causes of many a historic Christian campaign, but straightforward self-interest. It seeks the kind of change that straightforwardly improves the lives of its members.

The way in which (very different) religious groups have collaborated in their local settings to achieve specific, measurable, desirable goods — such as a commitment to a living wage, affordable housing, or local land use for local groups —underlines what this kind of politics can achieve. No less significantly, however, it severely undermines the secular liberal claim that politics must keep out such highly personal and contestable religious commitments for fear that, once admitted, they will fracture and devastate our allegedly common, reasonable, public life. Hence the inclusive populism of the title: a politics that draws on genuine popular commitments, excludes no one on principle, and puts in the place of the “secularising liberalism”, that has so transparently failed to be our saviour, a “negotiated pluralism” of action, co-operation, and self-reflection.

As a solution to what is ailing our public and political life, Community Organising remains embryonic, tiny, fragile, limited, and vulnerable. But in a world awash with sophisticated analyses, it is at least some kind of solution.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.


The Oxford Handbook of Populism
Cristo´bal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, and Pierre Ostiguy, editors
OUP £110
Church Times Bookshop £99


Inclusive Populism: Creating citizens in a global age
Angus Ritchie
Notre Dame Press £28.50
Church Times Bookshop £25.85

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