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  • Populism is Out of Control

    | Photo: AFP

“Populism” has become a contentious and deeply ideological term.

In political discussions in the media the word “Populism” is everywhere. Almost every single day we can read columns in the American, European and Latin American press warning the readers about a “Populist” menace threatening democracy somewhere, from Venezuela to Greece, from Spain to Argentina. Even in the U.S. politicians are regularly being accused of “Populists” these days. It seems like an unknown plague; it is everywhere and nobody can explain how it has gotten so big. But what does “Populism” really mean? Is there such a thing as a global “populist” threat against democracies?

“Populism” and the adjective “populist” were academic terms before they became concepts of common use among non-specialists. In turn, like many academic concepts, they had an earlier life as part of vernacular political vocabularies. “Populism” was initially used in the late 19th century to describe a certain type of political movement. The term appeared first in Russia in 1878 as Narodnichestvo, later translated as “Populism” in other European languages, to name a specific phase in the development of the domestic socialist movement. As historian Richard Pipes explained in a classic study, that term was used to describe the anti-intellectualist wave of the 1870s and the belief that socialists should learn from the People rather than trying to become its guides. Few years later Russian Marxists started to use it with a different meaning and a pejorative connotation, to refer to a local brand of socialist who thought that the peasants would be the main agents of the coming revolution and that the rural communes and traditions could be turned into the foundations of a socialist society. Thus in Russia and among the international Marxist movement, “Populism” came to be understood as a nationalist, peasant-leaning type of socialist thought and movement.

Apparently with no relation to the Russian precedent, “Populism” emerged as a political term in the U.S. after 1891, to describe the short-lived People's Party, of left-leaning, anti-elitist orientation, which was mainly supported by poor farmers. Like in Russia, the term “Populism” also referred in the U.S. to a rural movement and to an anti-intellectual disposition; uttered by the opponents of the People’s Party, it also acquired a pejorative connotation. As Tim Houwen has shown, “Populism” was of little use until the 1950s. It was then that American academics like Edward Shils and others adopted it, albeit with a totally different meaning. According to Shils, “Populism” was not a term applicable to a specific historical organization, or to rural movements, but to an ideology that could be found among both rural and urban movements and in societies of all types. Populism, for him, was defined as “an ideology of popular resentment against the order imposed on society by a long-established, differentiated ruling class, which is believed to have a monopoly of power, property, breeding and culture.” As a many-faced phenomenon, it manifested itself in Bolshevism in Russia, Nazism in Germany, McCarthyism in the U.S., etc. Mobilizing the irrational feelings of the masses to turn them against the elites: that was Populism. In other words, “Populism” became the name for diverse types of threats to liberal democracy, regardless of their differences. In the 1960s and 1970s other scholars also used the term with a different (although connected) meaning, to name a number of Third World movements of reform, particularly those of Latin America, such as Peronism in Argentina, Varguism in Brazil or Cardenism in Mexico. Although for some of these scholars the expansion of new rights for the lower classes was a central feature of these movements, the type of leadership – personal rather than institutionalized, emotional rather than rational, valuing unity rather than pluralism – was the key to defining “Populism.” In this respect, the implicit comparison with “normal” (liberal) democracies of the First World connected these studies to those of the 1950s. They all shared an implicit normative view of what democracy should look like.  

In academic life, then, the concept moved from a more narrow sense referring to certain types of peasants’ or farmers’ progressive movements to a wider ideological and political phenomenon. By the 1970s “Populism” could refer to actual historical movements, to a type of regimes, to a style of leadership, or to a ubiquitous “ideology of resentment” that threatened democracy. In all cases it had a negative connotation: even for scholars who accepted its socially progressive role, “Populism” still had a deficit in the domains of the respect of institutions and of pluralism.   

To complicate things further, Post-Marxist philosopher Ernesto Laclau proposed yet another meaning for the term, completely different from previous usages. In Laclau’s influential work, the notion of class struggle as a fundamental binary opposition produced by the very nature of class oppression was replaced by the idea that there is a plurality of antagonisms operating in society, whether economic or not. It cannot be taken for granted that all the popular-democratic demands will ever become a unified option against the ideology of the dominant bloc. There is an indispensable role to be played by the political plane when it comes to “articulating” that diversity of antagonisms. Discourses are fundamental for this task. In Laclau’s work, diverse demands should be “articulated” so as to produce a “People” composed of the many in opposition to the privileged few. Thus, such “People” is understood as the effect of the discursive appellation that calls it into being, rather than a pre-existing political agent. In his political vision, articulating a People against the dominant bloc, that is, turning a variety of demands into a binary opposition, was fundamental for the “radicalization of democracy” (and expression that, for Laclau, had a positive connotation). In one of his latest works, “On Populist Reason” (2005), he decided to call such appellations “Populist”: “Populism starts –he wrote– at the point where popular-democratic elements are presented as an antagonistic option against the ideology of the dominant bloc.”

Such label was not indispensable: he could have called the specific style of appellations that he studied simply “popular-democratic,” or give it some other name. But by calling it “Populism,” contrary to earlier scholarly works, Laclau gave that term a positive connotation. In his philosophy, it became synonymous with the much-needed “radicalization of democracy.” As a consequence of this decision, in the past few years some spokespersons and intellectuals of progressive social movements started to call themselves “populists,” thus defying the conventional wisdom on that term and adding seemingly real “proofs” that there are actual “populists” at the gates of the citadel of liberal democracy.

As the term “Populism” became popular for the general public, increasingly so in the past two decades, this already expansive academic concept went out of control. Almost everything and everybody can be labeled “Populist” in the press today. It has become a sort of banal accusation in the political arena, simply aimed at associating adversaries with things that are considered corrupt, illegal, authoritarian, demagogic, vulgar or dangerous. Certain Latin American governments that have criticized US foreign policies or international monetary institutions are of course the favorite target. Venezuela, Nicaragua, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Brazil are (or at some point have been) attacked as a “populist” threat to democracy. But then Silvio Berlusconi – who was no enemy of the U.S. and of big business at all – was also a “populist.” Why so? As The Economist argued, because his government was based on bonds of “patronage and corruption” or, as another commentator put it, because he spoke “the language of the ordinary man on the street.” According to the New York Times, in Europe “populist” are those who want to restrict inner migration and are Euroskeptics; those two features are enough to gain you the label. And the Italian Beppe Grillo is definitely a “populist” as he criticizes the political establishment. It does not matter your ideas on other affairs: you speak the language of the common people, or you criticize the U.S., or you have issues with the European Union or with your local politicians: you are a “populist.” And it does not matter either if you are a radical left-winger or a right wing extremist. In Greece, they tell us, Syriza is of course “populist,” but so are their neo-Nazi enemies of Golden Dawn. Their ideas are totally opposite in every single possible way, but somehow they both belong to the same family.  

But did you think that “populism,” whatever it meant, was a political phenomenon? Think again, because economists like Rudiger Dornbusch have also put forward the idea of “Macroeconomic Populism,” according to which you are a “populist” if your approach to economics “emphasizes growth and income distribution and deemphasizes the risks of inflation and deficit finance, external constraints and the reaction of economic agents to aggressive non-market policies.” This may seem as a specific family of economic policies. Yet, in recent public debates almost any idea or comment that could be interpreted as not totally friendly to businessmen has been labeled “Populism.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce declared that “populist” was any person who strived to “do away with the system of open and free capital.” Obama has been accused of being one simply because he said that he would like millionaires to pay a little more taxes. The Wall Street Journal called Hilary Clinton a “populist” when she said, “Better for Congress to focus on jobs and wages for middle class families.” That was all the newspaper needed to hear. In fact, for that newspaper the very concern for the issue of “income inequality” is a symptom of the “populist” disease (as incomes are a private matter, you see). Add to this the assertion by Jim McGuigan and others that there is also a current of “Cultural populism” that emphasizes the value of popular culture over “serious” Culture (with a capital C). Populism seems to have pervaded all areas of social life.

In many of these recent public uses, “Populism” appears simply as catchphrase that gives conceptual credibility to earlier, less fancy notions – like “demagogy”, “authoritarianism,” “nationalism”– or simply seeks to discredit certain political decisions or unorthodox economic policies by associating the politicians and countries who made them to nasty things – like Nazism or xenophobia. In other words, it is a term that groups together things that don’t belong together. And by the same token, it creates and artificial wall between political and economic ideas and policies that are perfectly comparable. Why should progressive governments that are building the South American Union and generally have welcoming laws regarding immigrants be grouped together with conservative European xenophobes and Euroskeptics? Why is taxing the rich a sign of “macroeconomic populism” unless it is done in a country like Norway, where it is simply “social-democratic”? How come Perón’s economic policies were “populist” but Roosevelt’s New Deal – after which Perón modelled many of his measures – was just “Keynesian.” So corruption and patronage are signs of “populism?” Why is Podemos in Spain “populist” then, and not the utterly corrupt PP? Argentina’s current government is often associated to Chavismo as two extreme forms of “populism.” But in reality, in terms of political styles, institutional arrangements and actual policies, the Kirchnerist government is more similar to the Uruguayan Frente Amplio than it is to Maduro’s Venezuela. How come Uruguay is rarely listed as part of the “populist” menace? There is no actual reason, other than the fact that Uruguay remains a friendly country for the U.S.

“Populism” has become a contentious and deeply ideological term. In current usages it refers to a family of ideologies, a variety of political movements, a type of regime, a ruling style, an economic model, and a particular mode of political appellation. All of that mixed and with no analytical clarity. “Populism” obviously works as a derogatory term, discrediting those who are thus labeled. But more importantly, taxonomic concepts are aimed at grouping together social phenomena to make them more comprehensible. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, provided that they group them according to what they actually are. But as a taxonomic concept, “Populism” works the other way round. The only feature that all the allegedly “populist” phenomena share is not something that they are, but something that they are not. They are grouped together not because they have actual features in common, but simply because none of them (each of them due to different reasons) correspond to the kind of the movements, styles, politicians or governments that Western liberals tend to appreciate. In current debates, “Populism” means little more than being lower-class-friendly – whether discursively or in actual policies – and doing things (or having styles) that political, cultural or economic élites dislike. Let’s assume for a minute that that would be in itself a deviation from “normal” democratic ideals of pluralism and of cordial negotiation of differences. So much so, that it requires a special concept to name it: it is not “democracy” but “Populism.” How come there is no name for the opposite, that is, attitudes, styles or policies that are close to higher class manners and produce behaviors, discourses or policies that lower classes dislike? How come that would be just one of the variants of acceptable “democracies” and that pluralism and cordiality are not compromised (or at least not so much as to require a special name for it)? The normative intention of “Populism” as concept becomes evident.

There is no such thing as “Populism” out there. There is no actual “populist menace” haunting democracy. In fact, there are several, diverse dangers that may threaten democratic life. And there are also diverse models of democracy. “Populism” makes us believe that this complex scenario is actually a simple one, divided into two fields. On one hand, liberal democracy (the one and only democracy), and on the other, the ghostly presence of anything that does not correspond to that ideal (and therefore should be rejected without further consideration). In other words, “Populism” invites us to rally around liberal democracy in order to fight against a single monster composed of everything else, an indiscernible amass of Neo-Nazis, Keynesians, Latin American caudillos, socialists, charlatans, anti-capitalists, nationalists, you name it. And the problem is that this way of reasoning conceals two basic facts. Firstly, that within that amass of allegedly “Populist” elements there are some which are definitely a threat to democracy, but also ideas, political experiments and organizations that have the potential to offer better, more substantial forms of democracy for contemporary societies. And secondly, that liberalism itself, with its individualistic values, productivist ethos and pro-business orientation, is actually one of the major threats that democracies are facing today.

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