Populism and Rewriting the Grammar of Democracy

IWMPost Article

Populism responds to the crisis of political representation in contemporary democracies. Populists argue for the primacy of politics over economics. Common sense is central to populist politics.

The dominance of populist politics today in various parts of the world has surprised liberal political observers and analysts. Part of the reason is the astonishingly rapid decline of the institutional core of representative democracy. Another part is the equal rapidity with which populists filled the vacuum. The situation is also marked by a failure of the traditional left globally to step in with its own agenda.

Populism is not a specific phenomenon of the right wing in politics that builds on liberal democracy and then becomes authoritarian by focusing on conservative themes such as family, religion, and tradition, and by using racist or xenophobic slogans. Left-wing populists would not even label such a politics as populist, but rather as reactionary and nationalistic. Moreover, the understanding of populism in the Global South and the policies associated with it deviate remarkably from the prevalent perception of populism in the North. Populism as a broad general phenomenon is rooted in specific local experiences of contentious politics as well.

The problem populism wants to address centers around the much discussed crisis of political representation. The question of representation was present from the democracy’s inception. In the past, there were other ways than populism to make sense of this crisis. These were ways of making self-rule possible, even to make a different society that one may label as “counter-democracy,” in the style of Pierre Rosanvallon. As a living phenomenon, populism has an active relation with the past as it continuously challenges our understanding of the past and suggests a different story of its genesis, an alternative tale of the legitimacy of democracy in politics.

The features of the crisis of representation are well-known. People no longer think of their rulers as their representatives and show their annoyance by voting for far-right or populist parties. At times, they demand more direct forms of representation. Representational theory, whatever form it takes, believes in a social body of the people awaiting representation. For populists, there is no such thing—instead, they are the people who will make the government. Outside of the populist platform in which people and leadership merge, there cannot be any natural unity of people and their representatives, and thus there cannot be any “evidently coherent totality” of representative democracy. Only after the populists have given an identity to the people can it be said to have been constituted. This is where populists mark themselves out as distinct from parties, unions, and various pressure groups, through which individuals are supposed to feel connected to larger bodies and the state, and thereby feel represented. Populist platforms do not simply mirror existing preferences of people. They damage, and when possible, destroy the old representational dynamics, or at least mould these so that these acquire new meaning and coherence.

Individuals no longer feel represented by their rulers due to the incapacity of political parties, unions, knowledge institutions, and academic and policy discourses to structure society for the good of the people and offer individuals an identity, as distinct from the identity of the institutions and agencies of representation. The lack of participation of citizens in politics has to do with control of various associations and institutions, social surveillance, and the consequent distrust of citizens for these institutions and associations. The problem thus is not how to represent people in power but how to make the people an organic and coherent collective.

This puts the populists in permanent attrition with the received past of democracy, because the history of democracy is at loggerheads with what is now termed as the history of the political. The latter is built on a more dynamic notion of political life. It enables us to view politics beyond the received history of institutions and to focus on the present political moment in a way in which the political acquires immanent character.

Populism urges society to read and understand itself in an immanent way. This is a political urge as it adds to the power of the society. Populists through this mode try to escape the representational bind. Their mission is to enable society to acquire a new coherence.

While the core of the populist endeavor is the particular way in which it responds to the crisis of representation, the populist agenda varies around the world. The following remarks on populist governance draw primarily on experiences in the Global South, especially the long populist tradition in Latin America.

The populist venture of creating the people has as its engine a specific mode of governing, which, rather than drawing on elaborate analysis and intellectual sophistication, is based on common sense and realizations from historical experience.

First, there is the realization that democracy is meaningless unless it has what Ibn Khaldun called asabiyya: a feeling of solidarity for which the members of the group needed proper education, historical awareness, shared protocols of life, and awareness of the value of thrift. There is also the historical realization that this sense of solidarity has the power to act as an obstacle against the domination of the ideas of the rich and the democratic elite, for whom democracy is a game of managing the demos.

Second, their experience of governance has taught the populists that if one does not want to overwhelm the people, erode their autonomy, and put politics in the hands of the financially strong classes, the economy must not dominate the government. There has been very little study of the way populist economics works and how its logic stands up to neoliberal financial logic. Economists have been most guilty in underestimating the stakes populists have in what can be called economic common sense: an understanding of economics that is not based on scholarly laws but on historically grown normative beliefs about what constitutes a meaningful economic activity. To mainstream economists, even when they understand the social background of populism, the population’s insistence on common sense is just a transitional phenomenon toward modernity and scientific wisdom. They are also overwhelmed with anxiety about inflation and hence are against giving money to the poor. With their almost single tool—the interest rate—which they apply almost uniformly to all sectors and to all regions, mainstream economists are obsessed with the allocation of capital by financial institutions and corporations, which seek the highest risk-adjusted rate of return, not the public good. Thus, social spending takes a back seat, wages remain stagnant, and labor is deregulated. And, as the transition that economists expect never happens, populists move away from mainstream economic wisdom.

Finally, historical experiences have also taught the populists to value welfare. However, the populist welfare agenda should not be confused with the post-Second World War emergence of the welfare state. In the latter welfare was a mode of redistribution of wealth from the bourgeoisie to the working class. In the case of populist governance, welfare is a form of protection of the poorer classes in face of debt, austerity, and wage crunch. Welfare/protection is an ethical duty of, and justifies, government. The ever-expanding agenda of protection in the face of the marauding forces of globalization and neoliberalism quickly became the mark of populist rule.

Clearly populist government is not liberal government. It is not also socialist government, because it is far removed from planning for the structural transformation of economy. Planning presupposes sovereign power and definite and precise economic goals. Populism does not have the necessary sovereign power nor does it aspire to it. Instead, it concerns itself with the protection of the people and aims to build an economy where the government will be in the driving seat.

One of the early expressions of such formulation was by Stuart Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show,” Marxism Today, January 1979, pp. 14-20.

Pierre Rosanvallon, Counter Democracy: Politics in an Age of Distrust, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Stuart Hall spoke of “populist common sense,” ibid., p. 17.

Ranabir Samaddar is distinguished chair of migration and forced migration studies, Calcutta Research Group, and recurrent visiting fellow of the IWM.