The Prekariat – the Radical Right Populist Parties’ Voter Base?

Participating lately in a series of extremely stimulating conferences and personal discussions with other researchers in the field, I had to acknowledge that the traditional explanations with regard to who are the supporters of radical right populist (RRP) parties appear to fail to account for a much more complex and diverse situation.

A few remarks on the profile of the archetypal voter of RRP parties come forward from a quick review of the literature in the field – if one wishes such a reference to oversimplifying categories. Most scholarship points out that the radical right populist parties are generally finding their support among the so-called “net losers of globalization processes”. More concretely these are considered to be overrepresented among the low-skilled working class men who are educationally disadvantaged (lower to middle levels of education).

For this purpose I would dare to suggest perhaps a bit more innovative way of looking at the supporters of the RRP parties. I would argue that at a closer investigation, their social background is much more diverse than generally acknowledged, in the sense that the RRP party supporters come not only from a working class environment, but theirs is a rather mixed one, encompassing also lower middle class representatives, and even what is generally considered to be a sort of “solid middle class” background. Indeed, it is not only the proletariat that votes for the RRP parties from its disillusionment with the allegedly uncontrollable globalization processes, but also the lower middle class and even the “solid” middle class which had previously bought into the laissez-faire capitalist thesis that led to the latest economic meltdown. What are the implications of such diverse social backgrounds and how does this intersect with gendered and ethnicized hierarchies? Perhaps, and this is my main argument, what the voters of RRP parties have in common is their very precarious position.

In other words, I would recommend for the use of the umbrella term of “ perceived prekariat” gathering all these diverse origins. The term derives from the Latin precarium, which in Antiquity was name of a legal contract among civilians, by which the owner of a thing at the request of another person, gave her/ him a thing to use as long as the owner pleased. French and German sociologists have used the term to refer to a new social grouping defined by “vulnerable employment and unemployment” (French sociologist Robert Castel, German sociologist Franz Schultheis, Italian union and media activist Alex Foti, to name just a few). However, they use the term in a slightly different manner than the one I would suggest. My assumption connects social and economic precariousness with the specific political preference for RRP parties, and enlarges the specter of the definition to accommodate for perceived aspect of precariousness, thus widening the definition to encompass not only workers in precarious low skilled positions but also lower middle class artisans and entrepreneurs and lower level bureaucrats.  My argument is that the precariousness of the aforementioned social groups is exploited by the RRP parties for political gains, which usually combine what commonly scholarship in the field labels as “welfare chauvinism” (which postulates that only those born within the welfare system have an inherent right to access the welfare benefits, while immigrants are portrayed as a mere financial burden, if not epitomizing the source of the system’s crisis) and “social-conservatism” (generally understood as an appeal to renouncing to gender equality efforts, stricter social control – oftentimes aimed directly against women’s rights over their own bodies – and an enforcement of law and order, in short a return to a nationalist patriarchal brotherhood). In my view the two are thinly disguising xenophobic attitudes, generally argued to be simple appeals for protecting national solidarity as a base for preserving the national welfare.

In this context, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, not only men in low paid positions are supporting the RRP parties at the ballot box, but even women with a tertiary education degree, who experience firsthand discriminatory gendered hierarchies on their attempts to find a job that corresponds to their level of education, and come to overlap globalization with manly dominance and embrace populist radicalism as a means to regain their dignity and as a way to protest against a fossilized system centered on the overprivileging of  men – as evidenced by Andrea Pető (Central European University) in her recent research presented at the second ECPG in Budapest.

Nonetheless this these just some preliminary thoughts and I am determined to discuss them further with my fellow researches and with non-academics alike who are genuinely interested in the matter at hand. Thus the question I am asking: Is this type of perceived prekariat the radical right populist parties’ voter base?

Tags: , , , ,

Monday, January 24th, 2011 Research

5 Comments to The Prekariat – the Radical Right Populist Parties’ Voter Base?

January 24, 2011

I first heard the term ‘precariat’ a couple of years ago and was told it comes form Japan – this Japan Times story might be the origin of that: Do you know if they took the idea from one of the sociologists you cite, or whether the term was coined separately there and means something a bit different?

I guess it depends on what it means, as to whether it helps describe the RRP’s voter base. I had always supposed that the precariat I see in Finland for example would be core Green voters.

Jan Dobbernack
January 24, 2011

Thanks for this, Cristian, this is very interesting. I’ve recently been quite interested in Robert Castel on Poujadisme in France and on the FN in this tradition. But reading his stuff and now your post made me think about the place of ideology in all this—I haven’t gotten very far admittedly, but maybe there’s one point worth saying (or putting as a question): how useful is the concern with socio-economic positions for getting to the bottom of the appeal of RRP?

What you hint at with ‘perceived precariousness’, it seems to me, is that insecurity has become and is mediated as a broader cultural experience. The ideas that articulate a sense of loss have appeal across classes or socio-economic backgrounds, not only to those who actually have lost out or face a material risk of doing so. Indeed, quite a few of the new populisms that I can think of, the various Europhobic movements in Britain or the new illiberal-liberal Islamophobia all across Europe, can draw on cross-class support and quite significant support among socio-economic and intellectual ‘elites’. So if the notion of precariousness can still play a role in explaining this stuff, wouldn’t it be necessary to look at how ideas of insecurity and decline really capture the imagination of various audiences, rather than just speaking to some populations that we define as particularly ‘vulnerable’ to those ideas? Looking at the relevant movements, wouldn’t this make more empirical sense? So I suppose this would mean paying attention to ideas and to the way insecurity and precariousness have become fairly pervasive cultural experiences, not matter what socio-economic position you look at.

O Cristian Norocel
January 24, 2011

Well, Toby, in the sociological sense of the term I am myself a member of the aforesaid prekariat – I do not have a work contract but some funding entity and my financial (well)being depends on the fancies of this funding institution. However, I am not a RRP supporter.

My point was that in the case of RRP supporters we see a strong reference to a “perceived precariousness” which may or may not overlap with effective precariousness. Take for instance the city dwellers in a rather well-off neighbourhood in a city with a migrant population who need not experience precariousness as an effect of globalization processes per se (temporary job contracts, unemployment, higher social costs, immigrant infractionality) but they may have “perceived” themselves as victims of precariousness and as such end up in the reassuring arms of RRP politicians.

And Jan, well this is the puzzling part I must admit. While sections of the proletariat do experience precariousness firsthand, the RRP parties gather votes also from those who see themselves threatened by a possible condition of precarity that may arise in the not so distant future. So perhaps you are right, insecurity is culturally loaded and politically exploited by these parties. I do research on the parties themselves, but at times I am surprised by the heterogeneity of those who vote for them.

Peter Ucen
January 25, 2011

Cristian, Obviously, you are looking for an overarching term for PRR supporters vis-a-vis necessity to list various groups of what you found out is a pretty heterogeneous bunch… I am a bit skeptical here. Prekariat is a term originating from sociology – I have come across is several times in case of leftist, socially critical authors. It usually refers to the uncertainty of contracts and the jobs of (lower) middle class being disposable. It is right that the fact of being the member of that group is not a cause for developing a preference for PRR. In this sense, perceived precariousness is really better approach, but I am afraid that prekariat will only become another group you have to list when talking about the PRR support base. Namely, its middle class component. The middle class is nowadays torn between a(n old) dream of rising up to the higher class and the(ever more probable)fear of being pauperised and relegated to the lower class. Under certain conditions the latter may cause the preference for the PRR (or other parties outside of the mainstream). Precariousness is certainly an important part of an explanation of the middle-class sources of the “weird” parties’ support.

O Cristian Norocel
January 25, 2011

Thank you Peter for your very insightful comment. Indeed, it took some time before I decided to write this down, precisely because what prekariat used to embody in sociological studies a social critique. To mark a departure from that was precisely my intention when I emphasized the “perceived” thus highly subjective nature of precariousness of the middle classes especially. But you are right, I am not sure how persuasive is this new term, but I felt the need to look for something that can more accurately describe this heterogeneity of backgrounds.