The Era of Populism Is Upon Us - Both in Israel and Abroad

The masses in Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Marseilles and Beit Shemesh feel helpless, and this is turning into rage, and the rage is leading to the adoption of vile opinions and irrational political positions.

'Leave' supporters hold banners and flags as they stand on Westminster Bridge during a campaign stunt in favor of Brexit, London, U.K., June 15, 2016.
Matt Dunham, AP

LONDON - The sky didn’t fall on London. The Thames still flows. The Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace stand still and silent, the buses are red, the cops polite, the tourists take photos. The two-week-old decision to withdraw from the European Union didn’t cause the United Kingdom’s immediate breakdown nor disrupt normal life.

The pound sterling is weaker and the stocks are cheaper, but the markets didn’t collapse. The Labour Party may be crumbling and the Conservative Party may be divided, but democracy is stable. After the shock of the first two days, many have gone back to routine matters – the Euro soccer games, a retired television star, the weather.

The sky didn’t fall, but the earth shook. Members of Parliament are still agitated and cannot understand why their voters chose to jeopardize the economic and political future of what was once Britain the mighty. Senior administration officials talk about government turmoil, the likes of which hasn’t occurred for decades. Businesspeople tell horror tales of foreign investments blocked overnight and of an expected exodus of financial and human capital.

The combination of strategic and political uncertainty with economic uncertainty creates a most risky mixture. The prevalent assumption is that a dire economic slowdown is inevitable and is likely to become a full-fledged recession.

But on top of all these comes an identity crisis. After the boiling eruption of chauvinist passions, many Britons lost their self-confidence. Who are we, they ask themselves. What have we become?

The British referendum was amazingly similar to the 2015 election in Israel. Just as Israelis voted against Tel Aviv, English people voted against London. As the Israeli periphery voted out of fear of Arabs, so the English periphery voted out of fear of foreigners. Give us back our country, a taxi driver told me. Stop the immigration that’s about to drown our island, said a couple in a pub. This dramatic referendum wasn’t about the European Union, people tell me in every intense conversation; it was about immigration and globalization and universalism. About belonging to a place versus belonging to the world. Brexit was a sort of peasants’ revolt against the metropolis and against the foreigners and against the world economic order that left masses outside its circle of prosperity.

So the British earthquake joins the Sanders, Trump and Le Pen phenomena and a host of other populist movements in the West. Global capitalism benefited billions in the Third World and the top percentiles in the West, but the same borderless regime trampled hundreds of millions of struggling workers in the West, whose wages froze, whose work places were jeopardized and whose countries’ national identities were blurred.

The masses in Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Marseilles and Beit Shemesh feel helpless, and this is turning into rage, and the rage is leading to the adoption of vile opinions and irrational political positions. This is what happened in the Republican Party primaries and in the British referendum, and this could happen in the next elections in Europe.

The danger is clear: a vicious cycle, in which populism (chauvinist, socialist or combined) gives rise to a leadership whose reckless, blundering policy intensifies the populism.

In Israel this vicious cycle is already in motion. In Britain the cycle is leading to a dangerous future. Most Western states face a similar threat. As the era shaped by the alliance of economic neoliberalism and political liberalism nears its end, the shadow of the new era at our doorstep gives rise to a sense of dread.