The Politics of Protection

The Politics of Protection

In The Great Recoil, Paolo Gerbaudo argues that the left needs to speak to people’s fears and connect them to hope.

President Joe Biden speaks at Mack Truck Lehigh Valley Operations on July 28, 2021 in Macungie, Pennsylvania. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. In this edition, Sarah Jaffe talks to Paolo Gerbaudo, the author of The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic (Verso).

The 2008 financial meltdown and the global economic crisis that followed put thousands of cracks into what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”—the idea that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The neoliberal era appeared to be at its end. But it staggered on; the next decade saw most Western states respond with the typical neoliberal playbook.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic has made it even easier to imagine the end of the world, and the response of those same states has been quite different. Is neoliberalism actually ending? And what comes next? Political theorist Paolo Gerbaudo explores those questions in his new book, The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic. We sat down recently to discuss the book, the class composition of the new politics, whether the left should embrace the nation, and more.

Sarah Jaffe: Give us a quick rundown on the argument of the book.

Paolo Gerbaudo: In the aftermath of the 2010s—which were dominated by populist insurgencies of all kinds—and the COVID-19 crisis, the rules of political discourse and policymaking have changed. We are in a new ideological era beyond neoliberalism, which has lasted for forty years. Capitalism itself is changing its logic. Politics, both right-wing and left-wing, is dealing with new social demands that are different from those dominant in the neoliberal era.

Jaffe: Before we get beyond neoliberalism, can you explain it?

Gerbaudo: Neoliberalism is an economic and political doctrine that centers around the view of the market as superior to the state. It advocates minimal intervention on the state’s part except for defense, policing, and creating and regulating markets. It’s both a coercive state and a regulatory state.

For many years, neoliberalism was the dominant ideology, permeating the entire political space. While its rise is associated with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, many of its ideas—trickle-down economics, privatization, and so forth—also infected the center-left, through figures like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Gerhard Schröder, in the 1990s and early 2000s. That was the crystallization of this neoliberal consensus.

Jaffe: You write that the populist outbursts of the last ten years or so have been the dialectical negation of neoliberalism, and that the rise of right and left populism acts as an antithesis to neoliberalism.

Gerbaudo: The so-called populist decade of the 2010s was a breeding ground for a new left and a new right. The new right is a nationalist right—Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini—that attacks neoliberalism mainly on its cultural premises, and partly on the front of global trade, but with no reference whatsoever to redistribution or social protection. I call it propertarian protectionism: what they want to defend is the nation and property. The nation is the bulwark of property.

On the left, neoliberalism is attacked mainly on its economic premises. Security is framed not in the sense of coercive security but in the sense of social security, environmental security, and addressing the angst many people feel. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says her job is safeguarding people; Germany’s Social Democratic Party uses the slogan “social and secure.”

Jaffe: You write that neoliberalism targeted people’s desires, while the emerging post-neoliberal formation targets their fears. That dovetails with my argument about work; the neoliberal model is that you should love your job (as opposed to Fordism, which didn’t expect you to love work at all), but now we’re hearing about a “great resignation” and labor shortages. Do you have any thoughts on what a post-neoliberal work ethic will be?

Gerbaudo: Under neoliberalism, debates on labor, work, and the economy in general were framed in terms of competitive upward social mobility and meritocracy. [Politicians] targeted the upper strata of the middle class, who were ambitious and hoped that they would become entrepreneurs. And this became a model for the lower-class strata.

Jaffe: Like Uber: “Be your own boss!”

Gerbaudo: Entrepreneurship is very much about individual desire and solving your problems individually. Hobbes and other political theorists argue that politics is based on desire and love. But it is also based on negative emotions: fear and anger. Progressives tend to think that negative emotions are reactionary—that negative sentiments fuel divisive and incendiary politics.

That amounts to frowning on the fearful, something that only people who have no reason to be afraid— because they are sheltered by their own wealth or job security—can afford. Other people have good reasons to be fearful. General prospects for social mobility have declined; we have precarious generations in a condition of almost ontological insecurity. They have a different mentality. This has been exploited by the right, which speaks to this fear of decline and channels it by blaming migrants.

In the book I want to rescue the ideas of protection, security, and safety, which I don’t think are naturally reactionary political instincts. At times of decline, at times of environmental threat, it’s only normal that people would have reasons to be afraid. A leftist politics needs to speak to that fear and connect it with hope.

Jaffe: Can you expand on your idea that sovereignty, protection, and control are the key signifiers of this moment?

Gerbaudo: On the right, sovereignty means national independence, strong borders, and anti-migration. It’s often connected with a chauvinistic narrative of foreign forces, most notably immigrants, interfering with national sovereignty. It’s a defense of territory.

On the left, this term is mobilized to speak to a sense of a loss of political control. Globalization has gutted the mechanisms through which people usually assert a collective will. The state has gotten rid of industrial policy. Decisions on economic policy are being outsourced to technocrats and lobby groups. This sovereignty discourse is a yearning for a return of political power, which runs counter to the neoliberal rollback of the state.

Sovereignty branches out into two other terms: protection, which is the purpose of sovereignty, and control, which is the means of sovereignty. Politics, before anything else, is about guaranteeing the conditions for the survival and health of a political community.

Protection is an idea that looks conservative, but there’s plenty of discourse around it on the left. Social protection. Social safety nets. Environmental protection. Protection of minorities. Safe spaces. There are social vulnerabilities that need to be collectively safeguarded or addressed. Protection on the right speaks to protecting national identity or protecting the opportunity of the people. These solutions speak to the same basic social angst.

On the right, control is individual; it’s about property and defending one’s own space, and it is articulated at a national level through a politics of territorial control and power. Think about policing, about COVID-19 policies, and how we articulate different visions of what state control over people should be. Take vaccine passes. Some consider such state control illegitimate. Others say that, in emergency circumstances, it is only natural for the state to assert control on an individual level.

Jaffe: The right has ideas about what should be done with immigrants; they mostly want to keep them beaten down and ensure they have very few rights in order to exploit them. You don’t say as much in the book about how the left should talk about the free movement of people.

Gerbaudo: The left’s position should be that the way the right has used immigration as a safety valve to unleash anger and fear is unacceptable. Recently I’ve done studies on the populist right and their online communication, and I saw how obsessively they targeted the issue, and how rewarding emotionally it is for them to make that issue much bigger than it is.

The left needs to rethink the way immigration is understood and talked about. What certain people, including sectors of the working class, mainly resent about immigration is that they perceive that it is not connected with community desires or community solidarity. Let’s take the case of Britain, Polish immigration, and the Brexit referendum. It was not so much the fact of Polish immigration that led people to develop this anti-immigration sentiment, but rather that it happened in a neoliberalized job market, where many of the social protections, mechanisms, and institutions created by the labor movement were severely weakened.

The left should accept that migration is a reality and the result of capitalist inequalities. People are not moving because they are happy to go to rainier and colder countries, but because wage differentials pushed them to do that. Or escaping from torture, violence, and war forced them to do that.

Jaffe: Escaping from floods and fires and other climate catastrophes.

Gerbaudo: Some sovereigntists go to the extreme of saying that you have no responsibility beyond the citizens from your own political community. That’s ludicrous. People, regardless of which country they’re citizens of, have duties to uphold human rights.

But it’s important to note that immigrants are not people who are moving across borders. They move to a country and stay there. People like Ilhan Omar, who are refugees, are not “citizens of nowhere,” to use Theresa May’s slogan.

In Barcelona, Mayor Ada Colau uses the term vecinos, or neighbors, which is a category that doesn’t just include citizens but also residents, including migrants for whom citizenship should be easier to obtain. The left response to the right discourse should break apart this idea that migrants are citizens of nowhere. No, they are people who are part of the country.

Jaffe: It’s right-wing policies that keep them unrooted: guest-worker programs and all of the various ways that the right keeps people from assimilating and then blames them for not assimilating.

Gerbaudo: The right always counters any attempt to integrate people, whether it’s by lengthening the timeline for obtaining citizenship, or by making it more difficult for people to get the right to vote. The best measure of integration is whether people feel that they have a stake in their community, that they have a say in its decisions, and that they are accepted. The right consciously cultivates a more unwelcoming terrain, in which it breeds.

Jaffe: The question of “the state” is one that the populist moment, and the left in particular, really hasn’t dealt with. In this book, you are in essence arguing that we have to think seriously about the state.

Gerbaudo: There’s clear proof that the dismantling of social security has led to the state engaging in more coercive security and policing. Clinton is the most infamous example; he perhaps did more than Reagan to do away with social welfare, and under his administrations incarceration rates skyrocketed.

Jaffe: And border controls increased.

Gerbaudo: In many countries, the United States most prominently, you saw social spending—excluding pensions, which have ballooned for demographic reasons—going down, and security spending going up. Defense spending, obviously, went up enormously during the War on Terror.

What that tells you is that, in a society that doesn’t provide everyone a lifeline, order will be maintained at the point of a truncheon. There’s a tradeoff between social security and police security.

Jaffe: Some people use the shorthand that neoliberalism is about a smaller state, so others respond that “we just need a bigger state.” That’s not a sufficient argument, as you lay out.

Gerbaudo: Due to neoliberalism, generally, public spending has gone down. Certain areas of state spending have been particularly sacrificed: education, social welfare, and infrastructure. Yet as Grace Blakeley rightly cautions in the latest issue of Tribune, social spending is not socialism. Social spending can simply subsidize corporations or ramp up the military, or it can create a corporatist state.

In the United States, social spending peaked in the 1960s, and then it went down steeply in the 1970s and onward. Which is why now you go to the United States to see the past, while in the past, you were going to the United States to see the future. You see infrastructure so rusty, subways past their due dates, bridges collapsing.

Infrastructure is important for social purposes. Not only because it creates lots of jobs, but also because it is the policy means through which we can address climate change: electricity, charging stations, the grid, production of food. Because of the climate emergency, the 2020s are likely to be years of big state spending. This is a change in conditions from the neoliberal era. The question for the left is how to direct it toward progressive ends.

Jaffe: During Occupy Wall Street and the movements of the squares across Europe and in Egypt and elsewhere, we saw people reclaiming public space, public political togetherness—the opposite of what neoliberalism told us to do for so long. This year, after the killing of George Floyd, and the Kill the Bill marches in the United Kingdom, there was a return to that reclamation of public space after we’d all been forced inside.

Gerbaudo: This resurgence of the identity of the people—an inclusive identity of collectivity—was characteristic of Occupy Wall Street and other movements of 2011 and the following years. There was also a reclaiming of popular sovereignty, the sense that the people have the power, that ordinary people have a say in things. That demonstrated itself in direct democracy, in assemblies; it was also an assertion that the people need to use the state.

What was surprising, if you look at the official declarations of the Occupy Wall Street assembly, was that even though the tactics were anarchist in many respects, like occupation and consensus-based decision making, the discourse was also neo-statist. People were talking about the need for a just government, which set them apart from the anti-globalization movement of the 2000s, which said that society needs to do it, because the state cannot do it—because of globalization the state doesn’t have any power anymore. After the 2008 financial crisis, there was a realization that the state has power—it bails out companies and pumps out all this money through quantitative easing programs—and that therefore an active citizenry needs to occupy the state as well. The Sanders and Corbyn movements were logical extensions of that.

Jaffe: Anti-vaxxers and anti-mask protesters are also reclaiming space after isolation. In an anti-science and violent way, but there is something in common there.

Gerbaudo: The anti-vaxxer movement bespeaks a sense of a lack of control, which is also present in many other conspiracy theories. In a society in which people have lost control over many things—over the home they’re renting, their job where they could get laid off at any minute, a chaotic environment, their locality, the things they consume—the last thing they can control is their body. They take their body as a territory to be defended against external agents that are seen as dangerous. It is an imaginary solution to real problems.

Jaffe: It makes me think of Greg Grandin’s book, The End of the Myth, and the American idea that freedom is the freedom to oppress. You would see this in the early anti-lockdown protests—people with signs that said, “I want a haircut.” It was not just that they wanted to be free, but that they demanded people be there to serve them.

Gerbaudo: It’s also about protecting property. In a situation in which upward social mobility has become more difficult to attain, we hear more defenses of the propertied classes from attempts to redistribute wealth.

Jaffe: Some people on the left will argue that we have to only talk about bread-and-butter issues and not get trapped in the culture wars. But then you can end up just capitulating to cultural conservatism, which is never just cultural. Take the Texas abortion ban. If people in Texas cannot get an abortion, it will be a very real material, physical, and, yes, economic thing that happens to them.

Gerbaudo: How does the left regain footing in sectors of the working class that have moved over to right-wing populists? Some people argue that the left needs to adopt cultural conservatism. That is wrong politically and analytically. It presumes that the reason why working-class voters, especially peripheral working-class voters, moved over to the right is because of cultural issues. We know that in the 1960s and ’70s, many rural working-class people were culturally conservative. Yet they voted for the left nonetheless, because of the social and economic promises that the left made. And since the left delivered on those promises, these voters didn’t prioritize cultural issues.

A left that is socially liberal and takes strong stances on serious issues yet reneges on economic demands will only be seen as hypocritical, especially by voters who are not that into progressive cultural views. So you need to win voters over on the economic side, on economic policymaking, while abiding by a progressive vision on civil rights and social issues.

Jaffe: This is a good moment to bring up the new class fractions that you write about. There’s a bunch of people in the United States who love to talk about “the PMC,” but you make the point that managers and professionals are actually worlds apart.

Gerbaudo: Ultimately, managers and professionals have different class interests, though they work in the same companies sometimes, or may share similar income levels. Professionals are, on average, lower paid. There are a lot of professionals that are poor—graduates without a future. They are part of a squeezed middle class, and they are not on the housing ladder. A degree doesn’t guarantee you a bourgeois condition.

With managers, there are different power relations going on. Managers make decisions about tasks, about working conditions, about the mission and purpose of the company. Professionals are subjugated to these decisions. Managerialism has gutted workers’ control over the firm and working conditions by weakening firms and by diminishing workplace democracy. This situation is particularly acute for professionals.

The left these days is a coalition of middle class and working class, but it always has been. In the 1950s and ’60s, even Communist parties didn’t have just the working-class vote; they also had some of the middle-class vote. The question is how to build a coalition across the middle class and working class.

Jaffe: You write about the split between the old industrial working class, which has been more attracted to the right, and service and care workers, who are much more progressive. My reporting bears out that even industrial workers are largely split on racial lines.

Gerbaudo: There has been a recent reorientation of electoral campaigning around working-class voters; in the neoliberal era the middle class was seen as the decisive electorate. The first place Trump visited after his election was a factory. Biden now is doing the same. He’s visiting factory after factory in Rust Belt states. He’s getting photographed with big Mack trucks.

Globalization does not just mean that a global market has been created and therefore national economies have lost some of their unity and internal coordination. It also means that there’s been a counter-distribution of economic power. There’s been a dispersion [of where production is located] not just between countries, but also within them.

That’s why blue-collar workers are now more associated with conservative views: they are industrial workers living in more peripheral areas, and they feel threatened because manufacturing is particularly vulnerable to international competition, much more than the service economy, which is, by its nature, more localized and face-to-face.

Jaffe: Zooming back out from the local to the national, people talk about reclaiming a kind of progressive patriotism, and you write about the necessity for a politics of place on the left. But, of course, those politics are very different depending on where you are. Are there lessons in the politics of place and nation from countries that have had to fight anticolonial struggles?

Gerbaudo: It is really tricky terrain in the United Kingdom or the United States or France or any European nation with an imperialist past. Belonging needs to be accepted as part of politics, as part of democracy. Democracies are locally rooted, and they are nationally rooted, because of history, because of language, and because the state and institutional apparatuses are defined on a national basis. The demos is defined by the topos. It’s not defined by the ethnos, as would be the right-wing view, but by the place of residence.

Patriotism, in the broad sense of belonging and identification with a place and with a nation, is already in many progressive movements. Think about the new municipal socialism. It is a municipal patriotism, often infused with a sense of belonging and pride in your city. Like Barcelona, for its tradition of struggle, for example, or Madrid, or London; there is this sense of, “I’m a Londoner, I’m proud of being here; I identify with my neighborhood, with my city.”

The same thing needs to be accepted at a national level. In Latin America, it’s clear where progressive movements have mobilized a sense of pride and a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of a culture. Like Perú Libre, they often carry the name of the country. Many political theorists have evidence that one of the failures of socialist movements was that they didn’t manage to process the fact of the nation.

In the new discourse of socialism, people such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar are articulating a different view of patriotism. Omar has been really clear on this, with the message, “I’m patriotic, I’m a U.S. citizen, and because I’m a refugee I’m a quintessential U.S. citizen.”

I think reclaiming the nation as an open, inclusive, and hospitable community is the right answer to discourses that cast the nation as exclusive, jealously territorial, and aggressive.

Jaffe: You note that international institutions have not actually solved any of the problems of nationalism. How should we understand internationalism now?

Gerbaudo: Internationalism, as it was already understood in the socialist movement, is true to the term inter-nations. It creates a fraternity of nations. Nations have existed historically only for a limited amount of time and will at some point, perhaps, expire. But in the short and medium term, nations are, as sociological research demonstrates, still a very important unit of attachment for people. A unit of solidarity.

That raises many questions with regard to migration and climate change. During the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, many countries took the stance that they didn’t want migrants because there was no space for them, or because people didn’t want them. But some countries not led by left governments—like Germany—took a very different strategy. They hosted a million Syrian refugees, and part of the discourse was, “We Germans are proud to host these people, especially because of our past.” That was extremely divisive in Germany, but the majority of Germans accepted it.

In the 2020s, with the climate crisis, this needs to be the guiding vision. There needs to be an acknowledgment of the fact that people still see the nation-state as the most legitimate political institution of all the available ones, more so than supranational forms of organization. At the same time, we must promote the vision of a nation as an inclusive and open form of organization in which the immigrant is the quintessential member of the community because they are intentionally part of it.

Jaffe: The word “care” has come up a lot because of the pandemic. Do you have any thoughts on care as a newly emerging signifier, which has maybe gained ground since you finished writing this book?

Gerbaudo: Biden has made care an infrastructure issue as part of his program. A society of care must be a key pillar in the social-protectionist vision of the left. A fundamental component of a sense of social security and a sense of safety in the community has to do with the perception that you will not be left alone. Many people are afraid because they’ve been abandoned by the state, they’ve been abandoned by politics.

Jaffe: Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls it “organized abandonment.”

Gerbaudo: People are more inclined now to accept state intervention in new areas. A Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Americans say that the state should intervene more to solve issues.

That’s the best antidote to the chauvinist and divisive discourse of the right. If people feel abandoned, they are more likely to see a reality populated by threats. And it is easier to play the fear card with an older population. That is why social care and healthcare need to be prominent features of a left policy platform.

Paolo Gerbaudo is a sociologist and political theorist based at King’s College London where he acts as Director of the Centre for Digital Culture. He is the author of Tweets and the StreetsThe Mask and the Flag and The Digital Party in addition to The Great Recoil. He has written for the New Statesman, the Guardian, and other publications.

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at Type Media Center and the author of Work Won’t Love You Back and Necessary Trouble. She is the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast and a member of the editorial board.