A Dirty Word: In Defence of ‘Populism’

As major political events have played out in the Euro-American world over the last half decade, the mainstream commentariat’s denunciation of populists and populism has never been far behind. From Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders and Boris Johnson to Jeremy Corbyn, self-declared ‘adults in the room’ have sought to discredit the harbingers of populism, those they regard as threatening to a sensible political settlement characterised by figures like Tony Blair, Barack Obama and David Cameron. Speaking of populism, Anton Jäger writes that ‘American and European elites are now converging on an intrinsically pejorative understanding of the term’. While a cursory glance into the opinion pages of The Guardian, The New York Times, or it’s British namesake, shows this to be generally true, what is often less clear is what is precisely understood by ‘populism’.

Stanford academic Niall Ferguson defines populism as isomorphic to the political strategy of scapegoating or demonising a particular minority, setting that group up as a repository for the anxieties of a discontented majority, ‘The People’. Examples of such a strategy can be found littered throughout history and across the world, and these examples highlight how large groups of ‘ordinary people’ can sleepwalk into acquiescence with abhorrent ideologies. The progressive ostracisaiton and eventual mass murder of European Jews during World War Two will perhaps forever serve as the most awful example of this, a singularly horrific event highlighting the fragility of civilisation itself.

Often, the figure of opprobrium against which ‘the people’ are rhetorically figured is highly abstract and thus readily malleable to different times, places, and political climates.The image of an near-omnipotent, shadowy global elite, nefariously pulling the strings of the world economy while dismissing the lowly concerns of anyone but their exclusive cadre, is one with which we are all familiar. Again, history shows how easily such abstractions can be superimposed onto minority groups. It is imperative that those who identify as political progressives take care as they articulate critiques of this figure, lest their righteous indignation propel them, unwitting, into a reactionary political mode.

This said, however, the slick equation of far-left with far-right — fascism with anti-fascism, for instance — is a nonsense that demands address. There is something both irritating and dangerous about the argument that Trump and Bernie Sanders, for instance, are ‘two sides of the same coin’. Where there exists an overlap is only in the mutual conviction of both voter-bases (those of Trump and Sanders) that the bipartisan political settlement in the US has stopped working for the majority of Americans. The playing out of this conviction constitutes a demotic denunciation of what Chantelle Mouffe calls the ‘post-democratic condition’ of political life in much of Europe and the US. The denudation of place and community as sites of legitimate personal investment, alongside a relative decline in living-standards (while a small number of individuals become grotesquely wealthy) only adds to this feeling, the very basis of mass-discontent.

The way each ‘base’ is affectively and ideologically mobilised, however, is quite different. One demonises migrants, casting them as scroungers of social security and threats to national security, while the other demands the radical realisation of their rights; one cuts welfare and education spending, while the other proposes their expansion by means of progressive taxation. Where, in response to regular mass shootings, Sanders supporters wish to see more stringent gun control, Trump’s base regards this as a violation of their Second Amendment rights, part of a sleepwalk into communism and a betrayal of the constitution. The former campaign for massive public investment in education, while the latter see large cuts as a permissible means to further swell federal military spending

Another way to put this is to say that the content of one populism differs vastly from the other, and in saying this, one also makes the obvious if often neglected point that ‘populism’ isn’t an ideology, but rather a political logic. In the technical jargon of late, Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau, there is, where populism as a political logic is concerned, an ‘indeterminacy of the relation between ontic content and ontological function’ — that is, the ‘function’ (a movement of ‘the people’) can be performed by ‘content’ of vastly differing political signs. According to Laclau, a movement is ‘populist’ where myriad grievances coalesce around a popular identity or ‘quilting point’. This equivalence and coalescence of demands in a ‘chain’ occurs in tandem with the constitution of an internal frontier, dividing society into two camps: the claimants and those against whom the claim is made.

Laclau is at pains to emphasise that the construction of a ‘chain of equivalence’, its ‘quilting point’, and the ‘internal frontier’ are products of an inescapably hegemonic operation. Up for contest and re-articulation, the ‘chain’ — like democracy itself, in theory — is a work in progress for which a full and perfect articulation is impossible. It is, rather, in the effort of negotiating and renegotiating the simultaneous articulation of multiple claims through a novel master signifier, that populist demands, properly speaking, become legible. The ‘99%’, the ‘Many’, or simply ‘The People’ are examples of such signifiers, whose content is not predetermined.

With this description in mind, the apparently go-to characterisation of populism as a ‘degraded form of democracy’ (as political philosopher and Guardian columnist Jan Werner-Muller puts it) seems perplexing. And nor, as others have claimed, does it preclude a progressive global outlook. The populism embodied in the Sanders movement urgently proposes a new settlement in which worker-, citizen- and human-rights do not come second to those of a global oligarchy class and their shareholders. It is, then, a tragedy that the DNC seems to have instead thrown its lot in with an utterly uninspiring — not to mention morally-compromised — continuity candidate.

“It hardly makes any difference who will be the next president”, a former Chair of the Federal Reserve said before the presidential election of 2008, “The world is governed by market forces.” Although Alan Greenspan was unusually candid in this remark, it basically corresponds to the lessons learned by the US electorate from Reagan on: Your vote doesn’t really matter. While the two-term Obama presidency was symbolically significant, it did little to radically usettle the impression of a bi-partisan pact at the heart of US politics that promises largely superficial and merely placatory change.

“If basic economic issues are removed from the table”, writes American journalist, Thomas Frank, then “only social issues remain to distinguish the parties”. With Biden, it is likely that — as with Clinton in 2016 — that economic issues will indeed remain off the table. His is the sort of vague, bloodless, morally-thin liberalism that inspired the electorate’s turn to Trump. Until the Democrats endorse a program incorporating at least elements of a progressive and radical left populism, they will continue to lose elections. While populism remains an unequivocally dirty word, however, this seems unlikely.