Professor Azmanova: Key Driver of Populism Is Insecurity Rather Than Inequality

Professor Albena Azmanova, a distinguished academic in Political and Social Science at the University of Kent.

In an exclusive interview, Professor Albena Azmanova emphasizes that the ascent of populist parties finds its roots in widespread economic insecurity rather than mere inequality. She contends that the fear of job loss affects not only the unemployed but also those with stable jobs and good pay, emerging as the primary catalyst for societal insecurity. She critically examines the term ‘populism,’ expressing reservations about its negative connotations, and advocates for a linguistic shift. Azmanova argues that the term “populism” is misleading, diverting attention from the actual transformations in ideological orientations. Instead, she proposes a reframing of the political divide, suggesting the lens of opportunity versus risk, transcending conventional left-right categorizations.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Albena Azmanova, a distinguished academic in Political and Social Science at the University of Kent, underscores that the rise of populist right-wing parties is rooted in widespread economic insecurity rather than mere inequality. The fear of job loss, she contends, affects not only the unemployed but also those with stable jobs and good pay, shaping the primary driver of societal insecurity. 

The interview navigates through key themes from Professor Azmanova’s articles, such as the intersection of precarity, populism, and the prospects for a green democratic transformation. She posits that left populism has the potential to counter right-wing populism by focusing on economic stabilization policies that appeal to a broad spectrum of the population. Delving into the intricacies of populism, precarity, and the evolving global political scenario, Professor Azmanova sheds light on her insightful analyses and research and challenges conventional perspectives and offers a nuanced understanding of the socio-political forces at play. 

In her exploration of the shortcomings in the left’s response to the rise of populism, Professor Azmanova introduces the concept of ‘democratic prejudice’—a tendency to interpret history as a cyclical progression of democracy and crises. She critiques the left’s focus on combatting inequality, urging a shift towards addressing economic insecurity, which she identifies as the real and enduring issue affecting people across classes. Professor Azmanova introduces the term ‘precarity’ to highlight a distinct form of insecurity politically produced by specific policies. According to her, this form of disempowerment goes beyond general unpredictability and significantly affects people’s livelihoods, lives, and cultural spheres. The discussion unveils the societal implications of precarity, impacting the ability to manage diversity, navigate crises, and govern itself.

The interview further explores Professor Azmanova’s proposition in her book, "Capitalism on Edge," where she contends that the present state of capitalist democracy holds the potential to subvert capitalism itself. She calls for a recognition that insecurity, politically induced by specific policies, can be politically undone, offering hope for a more resilient and equitable future.

Addressing the term ‘populism,’ Professor Azmanova critiques its negative connotations and advocates for a shift in terminology. She argues that the label is misleading, as it obscures the real changes in ideological orientations. Instead, she proposes framing the political divide as opportunity versus risk, transcending traditional left-right distinctions.

Professor Azmanova addresses her concerns about the surge in support for far-right parties in upcoming European Parliament elections but attributes the trend to the refusal of centrist parties to address popular concerns. She emphasizes the need for a responsive and inclusive political approach to navigate the evolving political landscape.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Albena Azmanova with some edits.

Insecurity Significantly Affects and Troubles People

Professor Azmanova, thank you very much for joining our interview. Let me start with the first question: In your analysis in the article published in 2019 and titled “The paradox of emancipation: Populism, democracy and the soul of the Left,” you mention the Left’s struggle to harness anti-establishment energies and channel them into leftist politics despite the fertile ground created by the Great Recession. Could you elaborate on specific shortcomings in the Left’s response to the rise of populism, and how the phenomenon of ‘democratic prejudice’ might be impeding its effectiveness in appealing to voters?

Albena Azmanova: So, Nietzsche’s famous ‘democratic prejudice,’ which I believe is indeed obscuring our vision, hinders us from making an accurate diagnosis of the current time. Let me explain. Nietzsche observed that in the modern West, we have a reflexive tendency to interpret history as the continuous progression of democracy and its subsequent crises. The recurring pattern is evident: democracy advances, encounters a crisis, and our response is to restore it. However, this perspective carries a conservative intuition about history, implying a constant need for repair and a simultaneous backward and forward movement.

I think the left is currently perceiving the damage caused by neoliberalism, which includes the politics of labor market and product liberalization and the opening of economies. This policy package entails deregulation, privatization, and economic liberalization. The left predominantly identifies the damage in terms of heightened inequality, viewing it as an epidemic undermining democracy. Therefore, the response is to combat inequality, which is the typical left reaction. We hear a lot about fighting inequality, and it has even manifested in academic programs such as master’s degrees in equality studies. The approach is to heal our ailing societies by reverting to a policy set reminiscent of the welfare state’s glorious times—inclusive prosperity, less inequality, and numerous inclusionary policies achieved through growth and redistribution. However, this inclination seems to be rooted in a nostalgic instinct to return to the familiar and typical left solutions. This is evident in the frequent use of direct rhetoric involving class struggle and calls to tax the rich.

All these diagnoses and proposed solutions hinder us from grasping the precise changes in the world and the evolution of our societies. Through my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that insecurity, rather than inequality alone, significantly affects and troubles people. While inequality is undoubtedly a problem, the widespread insecurity presents a different and more challenging dimension. To illustrate practically, consider the rise of Trump in the working class in 2016. The states where he gained support, such as Alaska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Utah, and Michigan etc., had experienced the smallest increases in nationwide inequality since 1989. However, these states faced economic challenges due to a lack of stable employment opportunities.

The primary driver of this insecurity is the fear of job loss, which affects not only the unemployed but also those with stable jobs and good pay. This fear has been palpable for years, evident in events like the 2005 Polish plumber mobilization in France against the European Constitution. Workers were driven by the fear that cheaper labor from Eastern Europe would compromise their job security and wages, leading to social dumping. This understanding shapes my perspective on the current situation, emphasizing the need for different policies and solutions aligned with the diagnosis of widespread insecurity.

The Left Must Transcend Traditional Class-based Approaches

In your article titled "Precarity, Populism, and Prospects for a Green Democratic Transformation," you assert that "left populism would finally be able to eclipse the xenophobic, exclusionary right-wing populism, and offer a constructive alternative to neoliberal capitalism." Considering the current global trend of a rise in far-right parties not only in Europe but also worldwide, how do you envision the realization of this prophecy?

Albena Azmanova: Unfortunately, it’s not a prophecy in the sense of prediction; it’s an advice. It serves as guidance for the so-called progressive forces to address the real issue affecting people: massive economic insecurity. The right is currently responding to these fears of insecurity, job loss, and loss of livelihood by implementing policies that prioritize physical security. This includes increased crackdowns, increased surveillance, and stricter immigration controls. Although they address these concerns with stabilization policies, it’s important to note that these are not focused on economic stabilization. 

What the left needs to do is focus on economic stabilization policies, emphasizing stability. This approach should aim to appeal to a much broader section of the population than its typical electorate, as economic insecurity affects nearly everyone— not just the working class, professional classes, but also the middle and even upper-middle classes. The traditional class struggle narrative cannot fully capture the diverse concerns of individuals, as seen in the recent protests by farmers and the Yellow Vests movement. Those taking to the streets were not solely the working class; they included property owners and individuals deeply troubled by the challenges in managing their lives under mounting pressures. So, the strategy needs to adapt accordingly, moving beyond the traditional class-based approach.

In the article, you introduce the term ‘precarity.’ Could you provide a clear definition of ‘precarity,’ and elucidate how its dynamics intersect with populism?

Albena Azmanova: That is a very special form of insecurity. I use the term "precarity," a not-so-pleasant term, to highlight a distinct form of insecurity. It’s not the conventional unpredictability or uncertainty of modern life. Instead, it’s a unique kind of disempowerment that is politically produced. It represents insecurity, but it cannot be equated with general uncertainty. I refer to it as "precarity"—disempowerment rooted in politically produced threats to livelihoods, lives, and cultural life worlds. Nowadays, people are primarily concerned with threats to their livelihoods, their sources of income, as jobs even in conditions of lower unemployment become increasingly insecure. 

Additionally, the pressures on job holders escalate. I understand precarity as an incapacity to cope, rooted in a discrepancy between mounting responsibilities and our capacity to fulfill them. Growing obligations but deficient resources and limited abilities to fulfill them. In academia, for instance, academics are expected to take on more teaching, administrative work, and even student recruitment, for which we are not adequately trained. We’re pressured to publish more, teach more, and engage in tasks for which we lack qualifications simply because it is cost-effective for universities to press workers to do more with less. This misalignment between work pressures and resources creates a massive incapacity to cope. In this context, people with well-paying, seemingly secure good jobs, like doctors and nurses, also experience precarity due to the pressures they face beyond their fully equipped capabilities. Therefore, precarity, understood as politically generated disempowerment, affects not only our material well-being but also the psychological welfare of individuals and operates on a societal level. It hampers society’s ability to manage diversity, handle challenges, navigate crises, and, consequently, govern itself.

I believe this is why the medical crisis with Covid transformed into a social crisis—our public services, particularly healthcare, were underfunded and unable to handle the pressures. The gradual reduction in healthcare funding over the past decades left our hospitals ill-equipped to confront such a crisis. The healthcare sector, as a whole, faced an incapacity to cope due to specific policies redirecting funding. While a lack of capacity to cope is understandable in the face of a natural disaster, our specific vulnerability resulted from the repercussions of neoliberal policies. Driven by the goal of enhancing global economic competitiveness, these policies entailed cutting funding for social services. This approach prioritized economic competitiveness, compromising social infrastructure and resilience in the process.

The Solution Entails Undoing the Politics and Policies Generating Precarity

In your book "Capitalism on Edge," you assert a straightforward proposition: that the present state of capitalist democracy harbors a discernible potential for subverting capitalism itself. Could you delve deeper into the specifics of this claim? Are we witnessing the culmination of capitalist democracy as it has been understood so far, and what implications does this hold for liberal democracies? 

Albena Azmanova: Two crucial points to consider and understand for a more optimistic perspective amid the prevalent precarity: First, it’s essential to recognize that this insecurity, this precarity, is politically induced by specific policies, often dictated by the imperative for competitiveness in the globally integrated market economy. Since it is politically produced, it can be politically undone. Thus, the solution involves more than just building resilience against general insecurity; it entails undoing the politics and policies generating precarity.

Secondly, as I previously mentioned, precarity affects almost everyone. It’s not exclusive to the working class or the poor. To put it bluntly, even the successful individuals find their lives impacted by these pressures, hindering their ability, what they’re educated to enjoy the life they aspire to—a life of leisure, friendships, and travel—due to fears of job loss and work pressures. This reality forms a substantial societal alliance with a shared interest in combatting precarity and addressing its root causes, including the pressures of competitiveness and, fundamentally, the profit motive, which stands as the primary driver of capitalism. It is crucial to recognize that we have sacrificed too much in the pursuit of profit.

So, my hope lies in this alliance of social forces that transcends traditional classifications—a substantial shift that could occur. However, realizing this potential requires the right political forces and effective leadership to respond to this available opportunity and potential.

People Bear Increasing Responsibilities but Have Diminishing Power 

What factors contribute to the understanding of the peculiar nature of the most recent populist upsurge in particular in Europe?

Albena Azmanova: Populism today possesses a distinct nature, with economic insecurity serving as its primary grievance, even when manifested as xenophobia. This animosity towards foreigners is not cultural, but primarily economic, rooted in the fear of job loss. Addressing this fear offers hope that people may be more receptive to progressive reform ideas. For instance, the farmers’ movement, evident in protests across Europe, highlights economic insecurity as the central grievance. Listening to the farmers reveals concerns about their struggle to cope with mounting regulations from the European Commission and increased competition from cheap imports originating from Ukraine and other parts of the world. These grievances revolve around their incapacity to handle these pressures. 

This connection to populism becomes apparent when individuals, under such pressures, narrow their thinking to the immediate present, diminishing their capacity to plan for the future and reducing their ability to engage in solidarity, as the instinct becomes one of self-preservation. This introversion and loss of future perspective result in a permanent crisis management mode. People, due to precarity, end up supporting leaders who promise quick solutions to their problems, such as stopping immigration and enhancing political and military security. Economic reforms, which take time, often get overlooked in favor of immediate measures. This links populism and precarity.

Therefore, I define populism as precarity—responsibility without power. People bear increasing responsibilities but have diminishing power to fulfill them. The opposite of this, power without responsibility, aligns with autocracy, which is precisely what populist leadership represents. These two concepts are two sides of the same coin. 

You argue that ‘What is being currently demonized in the mainstream media as “populism” can be seen, therefore, not as a transient expression of discontent, but as an expression of broadly shared and lasting anxiety triggered by perceptions of physical insecurity, political disorder, cultural estrangement, and employment insecurity.’ First why do you think ‘populism’ has been demonized in the mainstream media, secondly why do you think it is not transient?

Albena Azmanova: Well, journalists and academics have done us a disservice by creating this negative connotation of populism. Initially, populism was not a negative label. For instance, take the US People’s Party in the late 19th century, known as the Populist Party, was a left-wing agrarian political party with a rather progressive agenda advocating for a gradual income tax, collective bargaining, and a shorter work week. They aimed for federally controlled warehouses, embodying the idea of taking care of the people. Actually, I find it very hypocritical because if populism is equated with making political promises that cannot be fulfilled, look at our centrist parties. They keep promising us to address issues like greening the economy and addressing the ecological crisis, prosperity for all, which everybody knows is not feasible without enormous resources. So, if that is not populism, I don’t know what is. This label is not helpful in identifying the actual problems.

It is not transient because the rise of what we call populism has been around for 30 years, drawing attention with the financial crisis in 2008. However, unconventional parties and anti-establishment protests had already started to rise in the 1990s, a decade marked by economic prosperity but also significant destabilization in our Western societies due to neoliberal policies like privatization and deregulation. My first analysis of this trend was written in 2003, published in 2004, much before the economic meltdown of 2008. I observed how it took the shape of very unorthodox anti-establishment protests that combined elements of both left- and right-wing policies in response to people’s grievances like political disorder, physical insecurity, cultural estrangement, and employment insecurity—issues that cannot be neatly defined as either left or right.

The Term ‘Populism’ Is Misleading

You suggest that we should stop using the lazy and misleading label populism. Why do you think the term populism is misleading? What do you propose instead?

Albena Azmanova: The term "populism" is misleading as it hinders us from understanding the real changes in people’s ideological orientations. For ordinary voters, the traditional left and right labels no longer make much sense. The real divides are not about a regulated versus free market economy or liberal values versus traditionalism. If you look at any of those formations that are forming this insurgency now, they combine the narrative centers around open versus closed economies—whether to embrace or protect against global capitalism. It’s not about state intervention in the economy or the extent of privatization; it’s about protecting our capitalism against global capitalism. On the other side are those who believe in global integrated capitalism because they’re reaping its benefits. I prefer viewing it from the perspective of opportunity versus risk, rather than a traditional left-right divide. The central division in people’s perceptions lies in whether to fear the reforms or the neoliberal policy set or to profit from it. As I mentioned, an increasing number of people find themselves on the losing side of this dynamic.

In terms of cultural values and social agenda, the dichotomy is mixed. On the opportunity side, voters embrace the benefits of the global economy, IT revolution. However, on the risk side, there’s a growing demand for more welfare protection, but specifically for us, not for strangers—referred to as welfare nationalism. Culturally, it takes an opposing stance. For instance, the far-right opposition to Islam justifies itself as a defense of our liberal values, presenting Islam as traditionalist. Thus, we claim to defend women’s rights and homosexual rights. An example is Pim Fortuyn, the first populist leader in the Netherlands, who was a homosexual. Trump, in his criticism of Wall Street and globalists, blends social protection and cultural defense of Western liberal values in an exclusionary manner due to the fears and pressures people are unable to cope with.

Therefore, populism is a lazy term that prevents us from seeing the emerging divide. The traditional left-right divide, which has structured ideological understanding for at least two centuries, is being replaced by a new divide—opportunity versus risk. On the opportunity side, there is a mixture of former left and right values, and on the risk side, there is also a blend of left and right preferences.

How do you define the Ataka party in your native Bulgaria? Is it a populist or a racist party?

Albena Azmanova: Alright, so you’re essentially asking whether we should discard the term "populism" and how we should refer to these parties. Well, many parties labeled as populist in a negative sense are essentially nationalist. They advocate for the welfare state for "us" at the exclusion of “others,” often involving white supremacism. For instance, if we consider Ataka in my native Bulgaria, it is undeniably nationalist, but it also incorporates a left-wing critique of globalization. Despite its clear racist elements, I would prefer to characterize it as nationalist rather than use the term populist.

How concerned are you about a possible explosion of in far-right parties’ support in the upcoming European Parliament elections? 

Albena Azmanova: Well, I’m concerned, of course, but not surprised. I believe the sweeping victory for right-wing parties is a trend that began in the 2004 European elections. The popular support for populist and right-wing parties has been growing. I would blame that on the centrist parties that simply refused to listen to the popular concerns.

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