The Indiscreet Charm of Populism

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Boris Kagarlitsky

Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements

The word “populism” has been increasingly often used by political analysts who write about the developments in Western Europe and the USA. This concept denotes nearly every new movement, both left and right, which have been emerging at lightning speed.

Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbin stage massive rallies and gatherings of their young supporters across the USA and the UK, respectively. In Spain and Greece brand-new political parties Syriza and Podemos put competitive pressure on the traditional left-wing parties. A new popular movement Nuit Debout, which opposes the labor reforms, has been taking shape in France. It has been developing, however belatedly, along the same lines as Indignados in Spain, which has evolved into Podemos.

Populist movements can also be found on the right wing. This label has been applied to the French National Front, the Italian Lega Nord or the True Finns, to name just a few. Interestingly, every now and then we find new left and right parties which are like two peas in a pot. In America Donald Trump is the spitting image of Bernie Sanders; the Spanish Ciudadanos is hardly distinguishable from Podemos. And should the left Nuit Debout evolve from a protest movement which staged protests this spring, into a political party, it might become the right National Front to the life.

Some organization which are reminiscent of fascism, are taking shape even further to the right. Take, for instance, the Alternative for Germany. Both left and right parties and groups are expanding rapidly and, more importantly, they derive support from similar groups. Their constituents often belong to the same social layer.

Accordingly, their leaders are massively called “populists”, with their personal traits, eloquence or the ability to work with the masses being the focus of attention.

But what does this actively exploited term used by the press denote? The easiest way would be to accuse journalists and fellow political scientists who hardly ever supply their interpretation, of the superficial approach and the wish to apply a simple pattern, which is easy to consume and digest, to complex events. But as a matter of fact we are, indeed, witnessing a new global trend which must be accounted for.

We only need to study the implication of the word “populism” for every author.

Liberal commentators believe that populism stands for everything that they dislike and the masses for some reason fancy. Obviously, neoliberal reforms are unpopular, while the calls to increase wages and create jobs resonate with citizens.

Following the liberal way of thinking, we can deduce that measures that do not draw popular support are still needed. At the same time, the measures to improve people’s lives which receive approval of the majority, are doomed to fail, merely because this verdict was given a priori by groups of ideologically driven experts.

Naturally, they omit to mention two factors.

On the one hand, they keep their silence that “populist” measures are often, albeit not always, successful, with demand increasing, economy rejuvenated, growth rates on the rise. In their turn, neoliberal traditional methods have invariably failed over the last decade. The global crisis was so grave, protracted and large-scale because all the key states conducted “unpopular but necessary reforms”. In theory, they were to significantly accelerate global economic growth, but in practice they led to a slowdown.

On the other hand, proponents of liberalism condemn weak support of the measures which reduce living standards and the quality of life, and turn the blind eye to real beneficiaries – financial capital and transnational corporations – which traditionally back these policies.

A liberal economist relies on the central premise that there is a set of “universally applicable solutions” regardless of their possible beneficiaries. Paradoxically, it is not consistent with the political liberal theory stating that freedom and democracy should be based on the competition of versatile interests. The matter is that they are mindful only of private and personal interests and take no notice of social groups.

Does it mean that “populism” is a myth constructed by liberal publicists? By no means. The matter is that the real implication of populist policies has very little to do with the interpretation of its liberal critics.

Populism arises amid weak institutions in atomized societies with flexible class systems where social solidarity is not effectively fostered on the daily basis. Traditional class solidarity theories promoted by social democrats since the mid-19th century have relied on the specific production patterns and social structure as well as the thousands of conscious activists, converting a “class in itself” into “class for itself”, to borrow Marx’ terminology.

Critics of Marx’ interpretation may use Weber’s approach. The result would be the same. Class cohesion is underpinned by numerous horizontal ties, which become consolidated, institutionalized, structured and symbolic over time, while constantly benefiting people who are part of the system.

Alas, such a situation characteristic of the late 19th century and most of the 20th century became a thing of the past. New technologies and the emergent global division of labor undermined the traditional industrial organization, marginalized many professions and forced change in people’s lifestyles, their motivations, as well as job responsibilities. Societies failed to come any closer to its classless ideal. Conversely, with the erosion of the welfare state along with the old proletarian movement and left-wing parties, tensions are mounting.

Yet the line between social groups became blurred, with all former connections severed. Societies have turned atomized, fragmented, and disorganized. Programmers or freelancers working at home may be lulled into complacency that they are self-employed. Qualified workers tend to discriminate between themselves and migrants sweeping streets. Left-wing intellectuals bemoaning the fate of migrants day and night will never enquire after these workers or even a former fellow student with a lower academic rank.

In the very beginning such fragmented and demoralized society turned out to be very manageable. Indeed, the ruling class was one of the few remaining formations characterized by sustainability and relative consolidation. It became fully aware of its objectives and managed to make systematic efforts to achieve them, for instance, by supporting reputable and authoritative groups of liberal intellectuals, both left-wing or right-wing, adopting the same ideological line to generate further tensions within society.

While postmodernism came into intellectual fashion, social analysis –class-centered and other ones – became outdated, as if society as a cohesive body had ceased to exist. Thinkers and essay writers jumped on the bandwagon of Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society!” motto to transform it into their methodological pillar.

Old arrangements created to maintain class alignment showed signs of faltering or were left hanging in midair, with a division coming into being. Trade unions and lower social organizations preserved substantial, though smaller, parts of their social base. As a result, they were not subject to change. Rather, they were losing their relevance, thus enabling people to reasonably regard them as atavism of the epoch drawing to its end. On the contrary, intellectual and political institutions – parties, academic circles, the press, literary communities – previously considered a reliable partner of left-wing forces, disengaged from “the organized masses” which by the way were no longer their electorate. In that case, these actors started receiving all kinds of support from the establishment. Undoubtedly, it did not happen immediately or openly, otherwise the defection would have been pointless. But in practice these players became embedded in the government.

However, the question was what exactly they were going to rule.

Unfortunately, the world crisis revealed a darker side of the social order to the ruling class. It turned out to be extremely unstable. Moreover, all the institutions, people and organizations that capitalists had extensively bought off proved to be dysfunctional. Capitalists became venal due to the fact that they had lost touch with society. But following this, their ability to control the general public was far limited.

Atomized societies which were left to the mercy of fate by elites of all stripes and suffered the blow of the crisis, began to huddle, forming crowds or gangs. Here a truly charismatic leader comes to the fore, but he or she may differ from those figures which the 20th century witnessed. People do not need a speaker with a loud voice. Rather, they want to see a person capable of outlining the popular interest generating social cohesion and striking a chord. He or she also should understand where the subjective overlaps with the objective, needs overlap with sentiments and interests overlap with desires. In the end, this leader should show that it is possible to solve problems easily.

For all the claims of liberal essayists, new populism’s ability to ensure that its promises are fulfilled constitutes the strong point. Another thing is who makes pledges and what these pledges are. Whereas left-wing forces avow their ambition to redistribute wealth and resources in favor of education and healthcare, and build roads thus creating demand and jobs, right-wing movements give their word to close borders to migrants and crack down hard on criminals. Whatever liberal intellectuals state, in practice both manifesto commitments can be met. Moreover, France’s National Front is trying to push forward both the left-wing and right-wing agenda.

The strength of populist movements, which implies the opaque structure, spontaneous character and dependence on the leader, is also their weakness. Greece shows how impotent the populist party which has been elected to power can be. But the reason is not unfeasibility. Rather, its leadership can be weak, unstable and devoid of ambitions. However, in those countries where a movement relies on old class structures and organizations – as it happens, for instance, in Great Britain – the result can be completely different. Leaders who have links with mass protests derive their power from them, while participants themselves can acquire necessary skills.

Social atomization may result either in further degradation or social restructuring. Given the current global economy, the world division of labor and social and professional roles are subject to real transformation. Creating new sustainable and adaptable structures is a task which may affect the future of capitalism (or another system which will replace it) and the survival of the whole civilization. In such an epoch political populism is natural and inevitable. It amounts to part of a transit which, for good or ill, we are bound to end up in.

But depending on which type of populism prevails, this process will lead either to establishing new social structures and practical forms of democracy or ultimate collapse.

This article first appeared on UM+

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