Debating populism at an elite institution

My speech at the Oxford Union 21 February 2019

I was proposing the motion together with, among others, Brandon Davis, former DNC chief of staff. We lost. Youtube version coming. Check against delivery…

“The neoliberal economic system is broken. What I mean by that is a system that prioritises market forces over the human being, which for four decades has coercively introduced market norms and behaviour into all parts of human life.

When it worked, it worked so well that it convinced millions of people there was no alternative. In 2008 it blew up — and almost destroyed the global finance system.

The response of policymakers was to keep the system on life support; to pump $16 trillion dollars worth of central bank money into the system. Property prices rose, real incomes stagnated.

But while you can keep an economic system on life support, you cannot keep an ideology on life support.

The human brain demands coherence. People want to know: how does my kid have a better life than I had? How do I make my wages rise? How do I stop my local high street looking like the set of a zombie movie?

From the liberal centre came: no answer. Before 2008 the message was: it will be like this forever, only better. After 2008 it was –it will be like this forever, only worse.

When a religion no longer explains the world, people look for an alternative. And what’s happened, in Europe, in America, in Turkey and Brasil — is they have gone back to the old religions: of racism, nationalism, misogyny, xenophobia. And the worship of powerful crooks.

So now the financial crisis of 2008 has become a social crisis.

And I don’t measure it in the demonstrations and riots. I measure it in the racist incidents recorded daily on social media: the Syrian kid in Huddersfield, the black family in Salford last week, their door painted with the slogan No Blacks. And in the rising narrative of misogyny.

So we on the left — we have to mobilise a political movement that will end neoliberalism, replace it with an economy where the human being and the planet are prioritised over market forces and the needs of global finance.

And when we tried to do so — what happened? I stood on the streets of Athens in 2015 as the Eurozone and the IMF tried to smash Greek democracy. It shut off the bank accounts of 11 million people.

In its revolt against austerity Syriza, the party of the radical left in Greece, had revolutionised democracy: in villages that had been strongholds of corrupt, millionaire-backed parties for decades: somebody for the first time held a meeting, listened to the people.

And what was their reward: destruction. The Slovak finance minister got it right in his famous, deleted tweet after the Troika imposed billions of new austerity measures: “the deal was tough on Greece — it’s the results of their Greek Spring”.

Well very soon we are going to see a global Spring– and I want the students of Oxford University to get ready for it, and to join it.

Today there’s a right wing international alliance calling the shots: open racists and woman haters, allied to corrupt business people and repressive regimes. What they rely on is what Hannah Arendt called “the temporary alliance of the elite and the mob”.

What we need to defeat them is a mass movement of progressive people; people who want to defend rationality and science against the climate deniers and the anti-vaccination brigade. People who will defend women’s rights — not just to equal pay but to choose abortion and to live any kind of sex life that they want.

Our movement will defend the universal rights written into the 1949 declaration. And it will pursue the deepest form of social justice possible — laws that ensure everyone has the right to a job, to an income they can live on, to a rent they can afford, to a planet that does not burn.

I don’t call that populism. Academic studies define populism as

· mobilising something called “the people” against “the elite”; and say that

· it redefines democracy as the “will of the people” — overriding constitutions, human rights and the rule of law;

The problem is, there is an elite — and one so disconnected from most ordinary people’s lives that it is losing its rootedness and legitimacy in the civil society it operates within.

But to remove its power we need to use parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. To do that we need to control parties big enough to take power. To do that we have to build a broad popular alliance and take control from the people who ran these parties on behalf of the elite. And for that we have to mobilise people.

For me the agent of history is not “the people” — it’s the poor people, allied to the educated networked people, allied to everybody who can’t live with the alt-right dystopia that’s coming.

We can’t just mobilise their existing anger, their existing prejudices, their desire for things to go back the way they were.

We want to destroy the economic logic of the free market, but not logic itself; we want to take control of our political parties away from remote elites; to unleash the justified force of the people — but we have to teach them to do it in the way the crew of a warship does, not as a mob.*

In the new, carbon-zero, socially just society we want to build there will, eventually be experts, cold technocratic administrators, boring politicians.

But there will no longer be an elite — not in any way recognisable to today’s oligarchs.*

The scale of this task means the we need the people, not the electorate, or — as my old BBC bosses call them — “the audience”. We need some audience participation.

* Skipped in delivery