It looks like it's not just Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party who are trying to re-brand themselves as populists: the Illuminati are at it, too. At this year's World Economic Forum at Davos – a semi-secretive event held annually in the Swiss Alps where members of the global political and business elite meet to discuss how many tons of human flesh they're going to process for meat in the next year, or whatever – the event's founder, Klaus Schwab, has announced that "it's important to listen to the populists", and expressed a desire for incoming US President Donald Trump to attend next year.
This might sound surprising. The current populist wave seems to derive its strength from a sense that economic globalisation is favouring "elites" and failing "ordinary working people", and must be halted in some way (by, for instance, curbing immigration).
You'd think the people behind the World Economic Forum at Davos would want to shut the current populist wave down. After all, if anyone is a member of the globalising elite, it's the "Davos Man" (this is apparently a genuine phrase they use to describe each other): a jetsetting "master of the universe" who conceives of their identity in truly international terms.
But actually, the World Economic Forum's newfound curiosity about the possibility of allying populist sentiment to the interests of global political and financial elites is, if anything, lagging slightly behind the curve. After all, Trump himself is a globetrotting businessman – or at least he used to play one on TV. And although Trump's movement in many ways caught US party insiders off-guard, if the Davos Men want someone to teach them how an established political party can co-opt populist sentiment in order to fortify their rule, there's no better teacher than the event's headline act from earlier today: Theresa May.
May's Davos speech largely played up her soft, "centrist" one-nation side: the side that, when she first came to power, tricked broadsheet hacks into thinking she was a "safe pair of hands". But her posturing over Brexit, which reached a new apogee on Tuesday with her soon-to-be-infamous "that right, it's Scorched Earth Brexit!" speech, is thoroughly populist.
May's rhetoric pitches the will of the "ordinary British people" – who, on her understanding, want to leave the European Union (and thus "regain control of our borders") at any cost – against the "experts" and "metropolitan elitists" who love immigrants and want to stay. May is a career politician. She campaigned to Remain (admittedly, at a volume so quiet as to be imperceptible). She is nevertheless pitched, both in her own rhetoric and in the triumphalist right-wing press, as the one true defender of the interests of ordinary people – the "New Iron Lady", as Wednesday's Daily Mail front page puts it; the one destined to deliver the Brexit deal that can restore prosperity, settle all grievances and make Brussels pay.
Any attempt to think critically about this massive, self-inflicted and basically pointless political upheaval is met with hostile dismissal. A lot of May's sabre-rattling is directed against parliament, who she never wanted to give a vote on Brexit to begin with. The judges who ruled that she had to were notoriously derided on another Mail front page as "Enemies of the People". In her speech on Tuesday, May made bullishly clear that her government would not be providing a "running commentary" on Brexit negotiations, i.e. that she had every intention of keeping anyone who might call her plans into question as in the dark as possible.
And guess what: it works. May has used populism to consolidate political power and is, despite basically every other relevant factor in play here, extraordinarily secure as Prime Minister. Her party has only a very slim parliamentary majority, and as premier she lacks any sort of electoral mandate. The Tories have presided over a wretchedly sluggish economy for years now; England's public services are clearly disintegrating; there's a constitutional crisis in long-neglected Northern Ireland and, once Brexit hits, there's undoubtedly going to be another one in Scotland as well. Despite this, May is doing brilliantly in the polls and has somehow managed to carve out a position where she has carte blanche to instigate major constitutional change with only minimal parliamentary oversight.
Call it "Illuminati Populism". By managing to maintain the pretence that they are governing in the interests of "real" people, the Tories have found themselves in a position to be able to remodel the UK basically however they choose to – which of course means in the interests of people like themselves: wealthy members of the political and financial elite. The latest ruse is to use Brexit to make the country into a tax haven – an idea that can only possibly be in the interests of the super-rich. But there's nothing anyone can do about it, because this is, you see, what the people have demanded.
There was a moment of mystical significance last year when the will of the British people was gauged, and in all the open-ended emptiness of that decision its force has been fixed forever, and now it can be used to justify whatever the Tories want it to – provided that the decision in question is related, however tangentially, to leaving the European Union. Of course, most things in the UK will be altered by our leaving the European Union, so that's an awful lot of things that Brexit can be used to lever out of the usual channels of political decision-making – just wait until they try and use it to destroy the transport unions, or privatise the NHS.
All of this, of course, puts Labour's own recent dabbling with populism into perspective. Corbyn was supposed to be re-launched in the new year as a (presumably) Sanders-style "left-populist", but as yet all this has amounted to is a pledge to introduce a wage cap, alongside some mild – but still horribly discouraging – xenophobia.
Can there really be a "left-populism"? Well, there are certainly examples of this working around the globe – in Latin America historically, and more recently in Greece and Spain. But in the UK, "the people" are defined as the group whose desires only ever play into the hands of those already in charge. Perhaps a responsible opposition would focus less on trying to capture this anger as a force for themselves, and more on speaking up against the nightmare politics that this anger is being used to unleash – to stand up, in particular, for those that May's Illuminati Populism excludes.
More from VICE: