SO233      Half Unit
Reactionary Radicalism: Populism and Authoritarianism in the 21st Century

This information is for the 2017/18 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Michael McQuarrie STC.S217a


This course is available on the BSc in Social Policy and Sociology and BSc in Sociology. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.


No specific pre-requisites, but this course is only open to second and third year students in Sociology and other programmes. It is not available as a first year option.

Course content

This half-unit course will take up the emergence of a new brand of populist politics. The course will examine the link between political economic, demographic, and cultural changes and the rise of new varieties of ethnonationalist and anti-systemic populism. It will examine the nature of populism, why it is a prevalent language of political mobilization, and its limitations as a political project. The course will examine the relationship between populism and authoritarianism, populism and racism, populism and classism, populism and technocracy, and populism and neoliberalism. This discussion will be undertaken in the context of an overarching theme of the relationship between new varieties of populism and the economic geography and class structure of neoliberalism with an emphasis on the link between socio-economic transformation and political mobilization. Finally, the course will take up the issue of populism and its relationship to intellectuals and academics with a focus on the problems this creates for research.


25 hours of workshops in the LT.

Course Outline

1. Introduction: what is populism and why has it emerged as such a powerful political force in the early 21st century?

2. Who are the Populists? Voting patterns in the US, France, and Britain and the new economic geography of neoliberalism.

3. Inequality and Politics: The founding problem of capitalist democracies: integration without equality. The various institutional and ideological efforts to cope with this problem. We will focus on the technocratic welfare state, racism, populism, and fascism.

4. The included and the excluded: this class will juxtapose the neoliberal and welfare state eras with particular attention to the shifting logic for valorizing people and places.

5. Race, prejudice, and populism: here we take up the issue of race and difference directly. In general we will assess the hypothesis that populism is actually a new expression of racism in response to the emergence of immigration or the emergence of a more multicultural society.

6. The authoritarian personality: this class will focus on the Frankfurt School hypothesis, trends in authoritarian attitudes, and possible explanations for those trends.

7. From political moderation to political extremism: Here we return to some issues of conceptualization in understanding political motivation and political action with a particular interest in the limits and advantages of a rationalist framework. We examine the question of whether the emergence of extremist politics is because people were extremist all along or because circumstances have made extremist politics more attractive.

8. The Political Economy of Despair: This class will focus on changes in 21st century political economies and the institutional mechanisms that are designed to cope with the negative effects of those changes.

9. Parties and Populism: Here we take up the issue of established political parties and their response with a particular focus on their inability to police the boundaries of electoral politics.

10. The Rust Belt Revolt and its Challenge: This class will focus return to the economic geography of the populist revolt but with a particular focus on its timing and its racially specific composition. We will then turn to contemporary debates about strategies for dealing with it on both the Right and the Left.

Formative coursework

Students are expected to read, and prepare in advance, for each of the workshops and to be working on their summative assignments over the course of the term.

Indicative reading

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Daniel Bell, Post-Industrial Society

Ulrich Beck, The Risk Society

Josh Pacewicz, Partisans and Partners

Jake Rosenfeld, What Unions No Longer Do

Kathy Cramer, The Politics of Resentment

Michele Lamont, The Dignity of Working Men


Essay (60%, 2500 words) in the ST.
Other (20%) and other (20%) in the LT.

The essay (2,000-2,500 words) (60%) is to be submitted at the beginning of ST.

The other assessments are: 1) A presentation or poster (20%) to be completed over the course of the term, and 2) Essay outline, annotated bibliography, and thesis statement due at the end of LT (20%).

Assessed essay due Wednesday of Week 2 in ST. Two hard copies of the assessed essay, with submission sheets attached to each, to be handed in to the Administration Office, S116, no later than 16:30 on the day of submission. An additional copy to be uploaded to Moodle no later than 18:00 on the same day.


Key facts

Department: Sociology

Total students 2016/17: Unavailable

Average class size 2016/17: Unavailable

Capped 2016/17: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills