Re-weaving solidarity in the age of polarisation?

Angus Ritchie, Inclusive Populism: creating citizens in the global age, Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 2019, pp xiv and 188.

Reviewed by Jess Jones

Joy – or at least satisfaction – for the victors. Disappointment and some despondency for the losers. Elections always mean that supporters of one party or another will experience such emotions.

But the fallout from the December 2019 election involved more than this. Feelings were sharp, fierce – and personal. For many Labour activists and voters, there was real shock and pain from the devastating loss of seats. Negative gloating ensued on twitter from those who’d voted Conservative, and distasteful responses from the left filled my phone.

All this came after campaigning which many ordinary voters felt was made up of catchy slogans on all sides, lies, and cheap media slander. Much of the time, we heard more about Boris’s shopping habits and where Corbyn chooses to sit on a train than about their actual policies for government.

I remember feeling that, even when ‘politics’ was being debated, things had somehow become about something other than which policies people supported. People were being asked to use their vote to make a kind of statement about their personal identity, and about who they were.

Some of the post-election gloating and blaming therefore took the form of personal criticism. My response: to switch off my phone, focus on work and try to wait for the whole thing to blow over.

The UK 2019 general election is just one of many recent global events which demonstrate that we live in an increasingly polarised political climate. The rise in the strength of ‘populism’ is often talked about in relation to this, and there’s no shortage of academic analysis about what that might mean for us …. but there aren’t many books like this one: Angus Ritchie’s Inclusive Populism: Creating Citizens in the Global Age both discusses the issues and presents an alternative possibility.

The book begins with a survey of today’s political crises. Ritchie describes the dissonance there has been both globally and here in the UK following a whole series of economic shifts. It’s easy to name a few of the symptoms of this dissonance: Brexit; the rise of far-right parties from Hungary to France, sometimes reshaping mainstream politics without actually getting into government; Putin’s hold on power; Trump’s election – the list goes on. Ritchie claims that ‘the failure of political leaders across the spectrum to respond effectively to these democratic, religious and economic shifts has exposed the underlying inadequacies of an approach to politics’ which he terms ‘secularizing liberalism’.

Ritchie proposes the alternative of ‘community organising as inclusive populism’. He gives a distinct and well-laid out plan of what this could be. He states that ‘the crisis of our times is above all a crisis of relationships …[which] requires a solution that is focused on the re-weaving of solidarity and trust’.

He contrasts his approach to the right-wing and left-wing populisms which he says propose a direct relationship between a charismatic leader and relatively atomised individuals who make up ‘the people’.

Instead, Ritchie maintains that the vision of inclusive populism must be based on institutions, connecting organisations and networks which are already established. For examples, he draws heavily on his own work of developing spaces for inter-faith interaction, highlighting the success of pluralism in those projects. When he is describing the importance of ‘inclusive’ approaches, Ritchie does not use this as a simple or easy ‘buzzword’: he understands the challenges of doing this properly. Being willing to work with those who are different to ourselves is not easy.

Ritchie’s model is also interest-based: any practical and effective approach to ‘re-weaving solidarity’ cannot simply be an appeal to abstract principles. It has to focus on peoples’ needs and wants in order to maintain both buy-in and motivation. Inclusive Populism embraces tension and difference, calling for the ability to hold space in uncertainty: as Ritchie says, ‘untidiness is essential in democratic politics’.

As well as setting out practical models of community organising, the book lays out a rigorous and widespread examination of relevant theories. Ritchie does an excellent job of answering the questions that arise naturally from his earlier chapters. He addresses issues such as whether community organising can be seen as regressive, through the unintended side-effect of letting existing powerful interests ‘off the hook’ ; whether divisive “wedge” issues are likely to be used to dismantle the solutions he is proposing; the role of immigration; Islamophobia; and many other important matters.

The theories shaping this book are not new ones: Ritchie draws on a very wide range of ideologies and thinkers, going back to Plato’s descriptions of collectivism and taking in Karl Marx’s proposals for redistribution of power alongside a consideration of the very different liberalisms of John Rawls and Robert Nozick. However, the resulting application of theory is no mish-mash: it is coherent and modern and relevant in the way that it is applied to contemporary issues. There’s no call for current politics to be dismantled, in the manner of oppositional populists. Ritchie’s book reworks a time-old vision of democracy, identifying ways that its important values can be implanted into the situations we find ourselves in today.

It is largely written from a theological perspective, and the book relies heavily on examples from the work of religious groups and religious pluralism. Ritchie answers and counters the problems he identifies in ‘secularizing liberalism’ from what many people will see as an idealistic Christian worldview.

My view is that there are many possible applications of Ritchie’s ideas in the secular world – and Ritchie does address the way these could work, though in brief. I was left wondering how our nation’s hardened atheists and cynics would respond to Ritchie’s vision of community, tolerance and social responsibility. His text suggests that his approach in the first instance would be to engage sceptics on the basis of their ‘self-interest’: to appeal to ‘the practical things they care about and about which they are clearly motivated to act’. Through resulting collaboration and interaction, the possibility could then be built for positive joint-endeavour between people of different faiths and those of none.

However, I find myself feeling as though there will be limited response to Ritchie’s proposals in today’s increasingly individualistic worldview. There’s success to be had, of course, and the book demonstrates many concrete examples of how community organising in action produces social development and community cohesion. This doesn’t mean that all people in that community were engaged or affected. People will be left behind, I suspect by their own choice.

I found my mind casting back to some of the themes which came out of the 2010 General Election. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ appeared to propose a comparable vision of community organising and some redistribution of power to smaller community-led initiatives. This was welcomed by some as a genuine relinquishment of power from our government to create opportunity and entrepreneurial spirit at grass-roots level. It was criticised by others as nothing more than a political campaign. Ritchie argues the failure of the Big Society was due to its application, and that the vision of inclusive populism cannot result from ‘top-down’ approaches. But how do we redistribute power if it is not first given to those places which it is to be redistributed to?

I enjoyed reading this book, and found myself absorbed by and attracted to Ritchie’s vision of a better, more tolerant, more capable world. His positive vision is clearly described, and honestly tested – there’s almost little to argue with it.

Even so, I find myself questioning whether it’s ‘sellable’ as an ideology – ‘post-truth’ is something our political culture still has to tackle.

Votes are cast on ‘gut feelings’ rather than on the basis of the kind of careful judgements that would be needed for Ritchie’s vision to work. He is asking folk to take the harder route, to enter the ‘grey areas’ and embrace complexity. These directions are admirable and necessary – but when pitched against easy-to-vote-for slogans like ‘Make America Great Again’ which fit neatly on a hat, I wonder whether, unfortunately, the invitations of Inclusive Populism will only ‘turn people off’.

Review published March 2020

Illustration shows an event organised by The East London Citizens Organisation (TELCO)

About the reviewer:
Jess Jones is an Outreach Manager at Huddersfield Students Union; a Peace and Development studies graduate from the University of Bradford; a theology student and a wife. Her teenage years were spent in the wake of the 2001 Burnley riots: this period shaped her worldview and has driven her passion for equality, cohesion and debate. She tweets @jessjones655