Populism Now – The case for progressive populism, by David McKnight

Max Ogden reviews  Populism Now! – The Case for Progressive Populism.

He suggests a "broad-based" left populism to combat neo-liberal populism is very timely, as is confirmed by another recent book suggesting the same thing.  Dennis Altman also reviewed the book in the Sydney Morning Herald on 27 April 2018.


David McKnight has done an enormous amount of research for this book which is well worth reading.  His figures on inequality, the rise of the super-rich, tax, banks, are stark, and the more up to date the starker the figures.

He talks about how neo-liberalism has come to dominate economic thinking, but how people such as ex PMs, Keating and Rudd, once beholden to those theories, are now saying they have failed. My observation, however, is that while they have failed to deliver a better society, that is not what Hayek, Buchanan and company ever had in mind. They have been incredibly successful in shifting wealth to the wealthy, privatizing government processes, undermining democracy, unfortunately at times with the help of Labor Party leaders.

David is realistic in calling for a more humane capitalism. I have argued similarly in recent years, in saying that our aim should be a society like Norway, which is still capitalist, but even that will take 50 years if we start now with that as a strategic objective. David’s important contribution is the proposal for a progressive populism, to challenge the term currently being used as if it is only the Right who embraces populist causes. His populism would unite all forces who embrace reasonably progressive causes such as climate change, progressive tax, protecting the commons, democratic rights, decent living standards, racism, better treatment of asylum seekers etc.. There is a very broad range of society who would agree with such an agenda, who should come together, not to form new parties or permanent organisations, but to campaign around a minimalist program.

Co-incidentally there is a review in the Guardian Weekly of 7 July of a book by Chantal Mouffe, titled, For A Left Populism, which suggests the idea might be of its time. She suggests that crises occur so quickly now, that there is little time to generate new theories to match the moment. She suggests that everything comes down to strategy and tactics, and the ability to seize the initiative.

To me, a big problem over the last couple of decades has been the sudden eruption of anger and action e.g. the Wall St. Occupy Movement, the 1% Movement, but these are never sustained and disappear, and often without a trace. Her reviewer says that she offers no guidance regarding Left Populism on the question, as he puts it, “Yes but how?”. I think that this is what should pre-occupy the progressive movement, the how of developing a left populism.

David’s book is a useful start to tackling that question. Because of the great amount of up-to-date research and facts, this book should be read by the average punter as it would shock a lot of them, but unfortunately, they are not likely to be the ones to read it. The rather new problem is how it has become popular to reject facts as false news or extoll alternative facts, how is this problem to be overcome?

That suggests the first challenge is taking the book’s contents for popularizing among our average punter. This might be the first step to developing David’s suggested broad, progressive popular movement, which we should all give thought to over the period to the next federal election, to work out how the campaign, and possible ALP victory, can be the basis for building that movement.