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In Search of Populism

So-called populist movements are on the rise, from the US to Turkey. But this prompts the question: is ‘populist’ just a label people attach to views they dislike, or does it reflect a consistent political position?

Some definitions of populism may make it sound reasonably attractive, such as, ‘A political doctrine or philosophy that proposes that the rights and powers of ordinary people are exploited by a privileged elite, and supports their struggle to overcome this’ (Wiktionary). But the term is subject to various interpretations, and it can be very hard to pin down what if anything unites those termed populists.

One account of populism is by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser in 'Populism: a Very Short Introduction', where they describe it as ‘thin-centered’, meaning that it is not by itself a complete political position. Rather, it has to be combined with other ideas, which may include nationalism or agrarianism, and even racism. Populists, then, can support a range of different policies and proposals.

Another useful contribution is Jan-Werner Müller’s book 'What Is Populism?'. His main argument is that criticising and opposing elites is part of populism, but that there are other essential aspects too. Specifically, populists are anti-pluralist in that they believe that only they represent the people, with their opponents being ‘enemies of the people’. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán said earlier this year that ‘2018 will be the year of the restoration of the will of the people in Europe’, and of course only he and his party know what that will amounts to.

Moreover, 'the people’ here does not mean the whole population or even the non-elite majority of the population. Rather, only some people really count as ‘the people’ (sometimes qualified as ‘the common people’ or ‘the pure people’). Thus Nigel Farage claimed that the Brexit vote represented a ‘victory for real people’, so excluding from this category those who voted to remain in the EU. Müller gives a 2016 quote from Donald Trump that is bizarre even by his standards: ‘the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.’ Moreover, many – though not all – populist movements see the pure people (of whatever nationality) as being white and indigenous, with immigrants excluded. And an ‘underclass’ of unemployed or benefits recipients may be regarded as not part of the real people either.

Other typical characteristics of populist parties that Müller identifies include: belief in conspiracy theories, with the elite conspiring in various ways against the people and their true representatives; being internally monolithic, with the general membership subordinate to a single leader; seeing enemies everywhere and still acting like victims even when in office. Not all such parties will adopt all of these, however.

The main text of his book was written before Trump’s election as US President, but he is still able to say quite a bit about how populists behave when in charge of government, on the basis of developments in Hungary, Poland and Turkey. One point is that they tend to ‘occupy’ the state, which might mean appointing their supporters to supposedly non-partisan civil service positions, making the court system far more responsive to government policies, and capturing institutions that oversee the media. This is usually done quite openly and brazenly, rather than in the more subtle way that traditional parties might operate. In Hungary Orbán argued that anyone who criticised the government was in effect criticising the Hungarian people, who had elected it. In Bolivia Hugo Chávez more or less set up his own ruling elite, in the name of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’.

Another important issue, one not really dealt with by Müller, is just who are the elites that populists attack. It is primarily the political establishment, career politicians who are often viewed as corrupt and far removed from the concerns of hardworking people. But it rarely extends to the capitalist class and the millionaire and billionaire members of the one percent. Some American workers have described Trump as ‘one of us’, because he is not part of the political elite, but this of course overlooks the fact that he is a capitalist and does not share the interests of US workers.

This issue of the status and make-up of the elite is discussed more fully by Mudde and Rovira. They note that there are a number of other examples of populist leaders who have been capitalists, such as Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Ross Perot in the US in the 1990s. But they present themselves as political outsiders, as honest individuals who have made their fortune despite the corrupt politicians and so are part of ‘the people’, not part of the despised elite. Some populists in the US distinguish between Main Street and Wall Street, but without making a real distinction between workers and capitalists.

As noted, the ‘thin-centered’ nature of populism means that it can form part of a range of views. It is mostly coupled with various right-wing positions, as with UKIP and the Tea Party in the US. In France the Front National has succeeded in bringing issues such as immigration and ‘law and order’ onto the political agenda; it is extremely centralised, and so differs from the Tea Party, which was more of a social movement. On the left, Occupy Wall Street was also a social movement, but it has never really gone beyond this. Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are other examples of left-wing anti-austerity populist parties.

The Wiktionary definition quoted earlier illustrates the point that populism tends to have a far more positive image in the US than in Europe. This is largely due to the history of the People’s Party, also known as the Populists, who had quite an impact in the 1890s; their candidate gained over a million votes in the 1892 presidential election. Their politics involved supporting farmers, in particular against the banks and railway companies who charged high rates for loans and transport, and advocated government control of railways and the telephone system. The party faded after it merged with the Democrats in 1896, but some of its policies were adopted by the major parties. Müller, however, claims that the People’s Party was in fact not populist, apparently because they did not really claim to stand for ‘the people’.

Given the range of positions taken up by populists, and the fact that populism is  an attitude as much as a real political stance, it can clearly be difficult to provide a simple discussion of populists’ views. It might be said that, while much else they say is objectionable, they at least offer some critique of a society divided into an elite (however defined) and the rest of the population, and that workers who are contented with their lot do not support populist parties and movements. They must in some sense be angry and resentful, even if they choose the wrong targets as the focus of their anger. But crucially, supporters of populism have no conception of the nature of capitalism and of their own status as exploited workers. Vague appeals to some variation of ‘the people’ are no substitute for genuine class consciousness, for seeing those forced to sell their labour power as a class with a shared interest in getting rid of the wages and profit system.

Left-wing variants of populism are little different: in power, Syriza in Greece was unable to do much to challenge the socioeconomic system they encountered. The Occupy movement in the US has been described as ‘a genuine grassroots movement for economic justice’ (David Graeber: 'The Democracy Project'), but in practice it had few clear demands and never formulated a real picture of a future society that went beyond capitalism. Doing so needs much more than simply objecting to inequalities of power and wealth: it needs a realisation of the class basis of capitalism and of what a class-free society can be like.

PAUL BENNETT