Hipsters, Polanyi and the Rise of Populist Politics

INTRO: Since the great financial crisis of 2008, two phenomena grew exponentially in popularity: The hipster subculture and populist politics. Whereas one could easily dismiss the simultaneity of these two events as a pure coincidence, I could not help noticing that since 2010 both phenomena percolated across different cultures and countries, becoming global trends.

At first glance, hipsters and populist politics seem to have very little in common. However, the two are probably much interconnected than we think. I argue that they could be seen as different answers to the same issue: the need for some form of social protection from globalisation and the past 30 years of neo-liberal dogma. But first of all, allow me a jump back in time, to the year 2007. As a young graduate freshly arrived in the British capital, I had my first shared-flat in Brick Lane. Back then, the area was solely known for its cheap rents, Indian restaurants and the Sunday’s flea market…

When “hipster” was not even a thing…

I vividly remember the first day I arrived in London 12 years ago. It was a bright cold day in December. As I’d miscalculated the time difference between Italy and the UK, I was two hours earlier than the scheduled meeting with my friend, who was going to pick me up outside Liverpool Street Station. His mobile switched off and no way to communicate, there I was, standing like a fool on Bishopsgate, with two huge bags and a guitar case wondering what to do for the next couple of hours.

I dragged the two large bags — full of soviet-like clothes my mum insisted I brought — and the electric guitar case to one of the many “greasy spoon” cafes in the area. I sat down and ordered a coffee: you can imagine my surprise when I was served what looked like, to my Italian eyes, a pint of black boiling soup in a mug. Back in 2007, before the great financial crisis, artisanal coffee, pointy moustaches, and craft beer were definitely not a thing yet…

Fast-forward 12 years and Brick Lane, the area where I used to live, is now highly gentrified. The very greasy spoon cafe where I had my first London coffee experience is now a hipster coffee hub. Since the early 2010s, the hipster subculture has considerably expanded. If you look around, it is difficult not to stumble across a shop that does not reflect this trend. Let’s face it: hipster subculture has gone mainstream and we’re all part of it!

To Be (Literally) in Someone’s Shoes Without Being Aware of It

Hipster subculture has very fuzzy borders, embracing people from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. However, this is precisely the point; the hipster does not represent a specific social class, but rather a prevailing “mood” in our society, mainly popular among younger generations.

One could agree with Christian Lorentzen (Time Out New York) when he argues that, in its essence, “hipsterism fetishises the authentic”. Hence, hipsters long for “genuine” and “authentic” products and romanticise the past. One can see this trait in the recent fashion of second-hand clothes, vinyl records resurgence, and Habsburg–like beards. In the most gentrified neighbourhoods, you can now find city farms with locally grown vegetables, as well as complementary currencies, like the Brixton Pound. These phenomena go behind fashion, as they aim at building a sense of community at a socio-economic level. In other words: whereas hipsters and gentrification are often blamed for pushing out local communities, at the same time they also attempt to create communities based on the romanticised ideas of “authentic” products and a “local” economy.

It is because of this quest for building a local community with genuine products, that I see hipsters and gentrification as a phenomenon deeply intertwined with populist voters. The latter too aims at protecting traditional values and keeping communities together. Also, the two trends are complementary in terms of age; whereas hipsters are often associated with millennials (20s and 30s), voters of populist leaders tend to be in the 40 to 60 bracket. Whereas millennials do not have a first-hand perception of the world before globalisation and mobile phones, the older populist voters have this era still vividly present in their minds. Hipsters romanticise the past by wearing second-hand clothes, while populist voters wore those clothes the first time around, and know how the world pre-globalisation really looked like. The reason for the populist voters’ anger is that they have seen their values disappearing due to globalisation and economic downfalls.

Populism: Far-Right Politics with Leftist Tools? Polanyi 2.0

Polanyi’s milestone is “The Great Transformation”. Written 75 years ago (1944), his ideas have recently gained popularity again, especially after the great financial crisis, and in light of the new rising wave of populist politics. Polanyi’s main argument is called “double movement”, and is intrinsically connected with the first globalisation the world experienced from the end of the 19th century to the early 20th century. In his book, Polanyi put forward the argument that in the past the economy was deeply embedded in local societies, and connected to the community through redistribution and solidarity.

However, since the late 18th century, the market and the economy have become progressively more and more disembodied from the local societies. Eventually a great transformation occurred: the market became the centre of the world. This act of separating the market from society is at the root of the double movement theory. This is a dialectical process in which, after globalisation has occurred, the suffering communities attempt to re-embed the economy within the society. The first globalisation wave ended in the Great Depression of the 1930s. The masses sought to regain social protection via nationalism and economic autarchy, ultimately relying on strong leaders like Mussolini or Hitler. In the same fashion, Trump and his copycats present themselves as strong leaders capable to create a social shield from the broken economic system,. They promise to restore the “glorious” past by boosting middle-income jobs in the manufacturing sector or fighting trade wars.

More worrisome is that they do so by hijacking leftist tools! Think about it: how is it possible that Donald Trump is the one who stood up to defend the right of traditional leftist voters, like coal miners and steelworkers? How did it happen that Matteo Salvini, the (now former) Italian far-right Deputy Prime Minister, has carried out a reform on pensions, lowering the minimum age to retire in Italy? New populists, who do not necessarily fit in the classic left/right equilibrium, have perceived the concerns and frustrations of the masses and used all the tools available to take advantage of them by promoting a (false) sense of social protection among their electors.

Do Not Look Back in Anger

In my view, populism is only one side of the same coin. We are all looking back at some idealised, golden era. Populist politicians may appeal more to those in their 40s, 50s or 60s, who have witnessed their world and values progressively eroded by globalisation. However, millennials are not immune to the same urgency for social protection, they just express this sentiment differently: by romanticising objects from a past that they never lived. Also, by drinking local craft beers, they try to re-embed the economy in society. Is then the latter a better way to express this disenchantment with our current economic system? Not necessarily. The market has already captured this sentiment. Big corporations have chased this trend and make great profits, producing perfect replicas of local and artisanal products for consumption. For example, Guinness started producing a unique series of beers with craft-like labels, and even Poundland has started selling fake late 19th century, Edison-style light bulbs.

The issue at stake here is that we are not rethinking our economic system, but just pretending to do so. We are still on the same neo-liberal track, at the mercy of cycles of boom and bust, and the consequent double movement so eloquently described by Polany. For example, hipsters have often been accused of driving up housing rents, and replacing fish-and-chips shops for vegan bakeries. However, what is overlooked, is that they are also very likely never to buy a house. In addition, gentrified neighbourhoods are only falsely thriving: a new financial crisis could quickly drive most of these new “hip” shops out of business.

The Great Divide

We are living in times of great polarisation. However, this generational divide could be interpreted as different ways of looking for the same thing: a sense of social security to protect ourselves from the free-market. As illustrated above, some differences between millennials and the older generations seem more artificial than we think. It is not hard to imagine that, if there is to be no reconciliation between generations, we may experience dramatic consequences, as seen during Polanyi’s times.

In a time of divisions, there is no point in accusing one party or the other, blaming hipsters for pushing out communities, or labelling Brexit voters as ignorant and uneducated. This is the time to call for mutual understanding and unity, and to demand policymakers reconstruct a well-functioning social policy that involves long-term planning, starting from social housing to continuous education for all. Polanyi told us this 75 years ago: he thought that Economics meant more than just “the science of scarcity”. Polanyi believed that Economics is, ultimately, how a society is able to meet people’s needs. Therefore, whether the romanticised past is a source of inspiration or nostalgia for you, whether you are now sitting in a hipster coffee shop or whether you voted for Brexit, it is clear that we should stop looking back in time, face ahead, and join forces to recreate robust and inclusive forms of social protection for all.

This article was originally commissioned in August 2019 for “The Mint Magazine: Fresh thinking in economics” — Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

I am an independent researcher who focuses on monetary economics, digital life & financial innovations. All views my own.

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