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This is a populist moment, no doubt of that, and the right has seized it. How? By stoking fears, among those like the former industrial working class and telling them the source of all their troubles is immigrants and racial “others.” It worked in the Brexit vote, throughout Europe and for Trump in the U.S. Why mess with success? The question is: will there be a left populist alternative?

Start with the U.K. It’s a real possibility there. Jeremy Corbyn leads the official opposition, Labour, and has a populist rebuttal to race-baiters. He acknowledges the damage done to workers by trade deals and globalization but denies the culprits are “others” or that expulsion’s a solution. The problem, he says, lies in the deals themselves and in government inaction. His position on Brexit was Remain but Reform. Critics in his own party say he was half-hearted in his support for the EU, which is one of the best things you can say about him.

It amounts to having a left populist position already in place and set to go. So of course Labour’s elite — MPs, officials, The Guardian etc. — are trying to dump and replace him with their own version of David Cameron. But Corbyn’s doing well in polls, has support from the grassroots membership, and unions. His predecessor, Ed Milliband, who says he should quit, had no perceptible guts. It’s precisely Corbyn’s obstinacy about his principles — whatever they are — that helps colour him populist. If he can survive his party, some good could come of this.

Elsewhere in Europe, right populists have feasted on the shamelessness of social democratic parties, which embraced the austerity and neo-liberalism of the right. Left populist parties rose in response but they’re encountering problems. Syriza wasn’t up to it when they took power in Greece, Podemos stumbled in Spain’s election last Sunday.

As for the U.S., there’s Trump but there was also Sanders. What potential that suggested. I think no one, Bernie included, expected it. But in the end, it’s the Clintons who’ll fill the void. And as Yves Smith of nakedcapitalism.com says, they, like the Bourbons, have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

A word on youth’s role in all this. In the U.K., “they” supposedly backed Remain in contrast to the old fogeys of Leave. But “they” also were massively for Bernie, who’s skeptical about globalization and trade deals. Maybe the best thing you can say about youth is you should be wary of saying too much.

And so to Canada. Odd place. There’s been no substantial populism here yet. Harper struck a few xenophobic notes but no dominant, antiglobalization, chord. He remained a neo-con at heart. Justin Trudeau has resurrected conventional liberal politics and may manage to smooth over the worst effects of trade deals, to which he’s betrothed. But a poll this week said only 25 per cent of us actually support NAFTA, which sounds about right as a proportion of those who may’ve gained from it — or at least haven’t been seriously harmed.

If the NDP had a brain hidden somewhere, it’d stake out a strong left populist position on trade and the economy, well before Canada generates its own Trump or Farage. Maybe, like the Tin Man, they’ll be awarded a facsimile.

The smug response to Brexit populism by antipopulist commentators on all sides wasn’t reassuring. At their most empathic, they acknowledged that the populus feel genuinely hurt and afraid, but no way do they have an actual point.

On CBC, former top civil servant Mel Cappe declared that globalization is here to stay. But globalization was always here to stay, from the first spread of Homo sapiens out of Africa through Marco Polo — long before NAFTA and the EU. The real issues are: which forms of globalization and to whose benefit?

Cappe also decried referenda because these issues are soooo complicated. (Switzerland has about 12 a year without going into shock but never mind.) What qualifies Corbyn and Sanders as populists is they don’t, in Cappe’s patronizing way, invalidate critiques by “the people” against NAFTA or the EU. What makes them left populists is their rejection of all racism and xenophobia accompanying those critiques.

What’s amazing overall is how long it has taken the populus to finally turn against that kind of fatuous, derisive, largely fact-free hectoring from their betters, which has been thrown in their faces for decades.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: flickr/Sleeves Rolled Up 



Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.