The populist moment

Don’t just think of it as a dirty word, says Richard Swift; a genuine populism of the Left is long overdue.


© Volker Straeter

Populism sure is getting bad reviews. All manner of evil is getting laid at its door: racism, xenophobia, authoritarianism, jingoism – and that’s just the start. The conventional view is that populism is an irrational and impatient response to modern dilemmas that are best solved by conventional politics and economics. There is much evidence linking current politicians and political campaigns deemed populist – Trump, much of the Brexit campaign, Orbán in Hungary, the far-Right parties across Europe – to simple-minded scapegoating as a way to achieve or stay in power. But throwing the term populism around so loosely is just a bit too easy and analytically lazy.

For a start – who is a populist? Looking over the span of decades since decolonization (the 1950s and 1960s) a plethora of leaders and their movements have earned the label. These include Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso. Here we have some of Africa’s most revered and effective leaders. Sankara (who did not have much time before his assassination) and the others earned their populist labels by their effort to forge a deeper, more self-reliant decolonization than so many African leaders were willing to settle for. Today, Ghana and Tanzania are two of the more coherently democratic societies in post-colonial Africa.

Pile of populists

More recently, in Latin America a wave of leftwing governments (referred to as Bolivarian) were swept into power by poor voters tired of brutal military rule that enriched the continent’s oligarchs and transnational corporations to the cost of everyone else. In country after country these ‘populists’ pursued egalitarian goals and significantly reduced both extreme poverty and inequality. Much (but not all) of this movement is now in retreat, suffering problems of bureaucratism and corruption that also plagued its more conventional predecessors.

Left populism’s recent difficulties have led to much crowing on the part of the privileged in capital cities of Latin America as well as in Washington, London or Ottawa. That harbinger of establishment anti-populism The Economist expressed delight that at least some of Latin America’s ‘spendthrift’ populists are fading from the scene. There is also a simple-minded tendency to lump all populists together: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina (where there is a long history of both Left and Right populism) with the indigenous radicalism that propelled the still-popular Evo Morales and his MAS party to power in Bolivia.

Drawing the ‘unwashed’ into politics is perceived as a threat by anti-populists, who prefer to preside over a mass of passive consumers and resentful taxpayers

Populist credentials often seem to hang on personal political style. It is much easier for a fiery balcony orator like Hugo Chávez (a lightning rod of the anti-populists) to carry the label than Uruguay’s José ‘Pepe’ Mujica (a former Tupamaro guerrilla) famous for his integrity and modest personal lifestyle. Yet both get dumped in the populist pile.

Also lost on the anti-populists is the absurdity of placing Silvio Berlusconi (the very model for Donald Trump?) in the same bag as Beppe Grillo of Italy’s popular Five Star protest movement that, whatever its faults, is opposed to almost everything Berlusconi represents. Their definition of populism is wedded to a loose notion of appealing to the people outside the conventions and structures of politics-as-usual. Drawing the ‘unwashed’ into politics is perceived as a threat by anti-populists, who prefer to preside over a mass of passive consumers and resentful taxpayers. But what gets missed in this blanket assault is that populism comes from all parts of the political spectrum, with widely varying philosophies, levels of integrity and preoccupations. Perhaps surprisingly, the simplest and clearest definition of populism comes from a lapsed aristocratic neoconservative, the Japanese-American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama. According to him, populism is ‘the label that political elites attach to policies supported by local citizens that they don’t like’.

Trapped in the centre

Maybe it’s easier to define what isn’t populism than what is. The ‘neoliberal consensus’ that spreads from the centre-Left to the centre-Right and champions the discipline of the global market as the best way of organizing human affairs is definitely not populist. The shrinking difference between Left and Right in contemporary politics is based on the notion that ‘there is no alternative’ to a system in which most people feel they have little or no control. A professional political class has usurped any notion that democracy is about the broad self-governance of the citizenry.

Fortunately people are stubborn in clinging to the notion that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds and that things could and should be different

Bill Clinton’s infamous campaign slogan ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ captures the flavour of it all. The economy and those who control it set the limits of democratic choice. In daily life, debt and poverty box in far too many. Bureaucratic states in combination with the corporate economy are set on an auto-pilot course of carbon-based growth, economic insecurity, inequality and ecological destruction. It is the champions of this system that so easily throw around the P-word to express a coded disdain for ordinary people and their political capacities. Their technocratic arrogance has provoked the current ‘populist moment’, most recently bringing us Donald Trump but also Bernie Sanders.

Fortunately, people are stubborn in clinging to the notion that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds and that things could and should be different. That some of these hopes turn in illusory and misguided directions and can be captured by monsters for their own dubious purposes is undeniable. How could it be otherwise in a system poisoned by the Hobbesian ethic of the ‘war of all against all’ – where the insecure are too easily manipulated to look down for scapegoats rather than up at the glamorous wealthy for causes of their grief? At their best, Left variants of populism draw a line between the besieged majority and ‘Old Corruption’ as the British radical pamphleteer William Cobbett used to describe it back in the day. For The People’s Party in 19th-century western US states like Kansas and Idaho, the main culprits were the banks, railroads and the gold standard. Today, Occupy calls it the one per cent, and Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos refers to it as la Casta (a scandal-ridden political class) – but it’s still Old Corruption in designer clothes. Populists are often accused of the crime of trading in the blame of ‘Others’, but it is one thing to be critical of corrupt political elites and big banks, and quite another to scapegoat vulnerable minorities: whether immigrants, refugees, Roma or Jews. The undoubted shortcomings of Left populism need to be leavened by a cosmopolitan tolerance and internationalism if it is to effectively undercut the jingoism of the Right.

While the intelligentsia will always be suspicious of populism of whatever stripe, these days, without Left populist parties and movements, the political polarization is between racist and xenophobic movements of the populist Right and the sterile consensus politics of the Centre Right and Centre Left. It is becoming apparent that this Centre simply cannot hold. The notion that we as a species are in profound crisis is rapidly spreading. The problems we face of wrenching inequality and the carbon countdown to climate degradation do not lend themselves to a little technocratic tinkering. The basic structures of capitalist society need a thorough rethink that must involve a broadening of democracy. A rough-and-ready and even impolite populism of the Left, unafraid of accusation and confrontation, could be an important agent in building such a sustainable future.

Richard Swift is a former co-editor of New Internationalist and author of SOS Alternatives to Capitalism.