Writing an article — very behind on an article — for an issue on populism and trying to get my head around what it is, where we are in this current moment. Because of course, as a community organiser looking to the Global South and particularly Latin America for inspiration and examples of massive and transformative social movement, populism did not seem a terrible thing. Europe, of course, might be another matter. And here we are today, Revelli captures quite nicely the discourse — and realities — we are facing:
“one government after another has been conquered by political forces that can be classified – or in any case, have been classified – as ‘populists’. And, here, this means a ‘populism’ riddled with xenophobia and strongly hostile to the last generation of civil rights measures.
Everywhere in the West, political systems have been shaken.”
And of course it is this brand of populism that raises huge challenges for anyone who believes in the slogan ‘all power to the people’ and direct democracy.
“The truth is that democracy and populism are interlinked by an unbreakable connection….we will discuss populism first of all as a ‘symptom’ of a deeper illness – even if one we are too often silent about – of democracy itself. It is the outward manifestation of a sickness in the contemporary form of democracy – the only one that has established itself in modernity, erected over the ruins of participatory utopias – that is, representative democracy. Whenever some part of ‘the people’, or an entire people, does not feel represented, it returns to one or another kind of reaction that takes the name ‘populism’…Today, it manifests itself as a ‘senile disorder of democracy’. For the thinning-out of democratic processes and the return of oligarchic dynamics at the heart of the mature democracies marginalise or betray the mandate of a people whose ‘sceptre’ of power has been taken away. Post-twentieth-century populism is, in a sense, a ‘revolt of the included’ who have now been pushed to the margins. In both cases, what we might call the ‘populist syndrome’ is the product of a deficit of representation. For this reason, one recent scholar of populism used a particularly felicitous expression when he defined it as ‘something like a permanent shadow of modern representative democracy’.4”
I like this. The problem is not democracy or the evil nature of the masses, but a broken system that has betrayed its promise. Populism as symptom…but what actually is it?
“It is not an ‘ism’ like the others that we have scattered over the course of modern history, in the manner of socialism, communism, liberalism, fascism and so on, which we either identified with (through belonging) or fought against (through opposition). It is a much more impalpable entity, less identifiable within specific confines or labels. It is a mood. It is the formless form that social malaise and impulses to protest take on in societies that have been pulverised and reworked by globalisation and total finance – what Luciano Gallino has called ‘finance-capitalism’ – in the era in which there is a lack of voice or organisation. Which is to say, in the vacuum produced by the dissolution of what was once ‘the Left’, and of its capacity to articulate protest as a proposal for change and an alternative to the present state of things.
This demands a focus on what this book defines as a ‘populism-as-context’. This constitutes, so to speak, a problematic defined by the ‘zeitgeist’: the political-cultural climate of our time, which impresses its own changing pattern upon the political life of whole national or even transnational communities…Then we will seek to define the other level of populism, what we could consider its – less generic, better-delimited – ‘inner circle’. This is what we could define as ‘populism-as-project’: the populism embodied in a more recognisable ‘political subject’ endowed with its own ‘political culture’ and which works not only to give voice to protest, but also to contend for government (and the exercise of power).”
This is a beginning that will be fleshed out further through the book. Populism as mood and as context, and then populism as project. I like this distinction, this allows attention to be paid to broad social forces as well as to those who work powerfully to shape and channel popular discontent into very specific forms. With the shifting of mass and social media, this is a visible process.
Characteristics of Populism
Revelli identifies three characteristics by which populism is defined: 1) idea of an entity known as ‘the people’, 2) who stand in opposition to the abuse or betrayal of a ‘them’, 3) who are working for an upheaval, a levelling to restore the will of ‘the people’.
A little more on each of these. First:
the supreme, paramount centrality assumed therein by the reference to the people, understood in its ‘warm’ dimension as a living community, almost a sort of pre-political and pre-civic entity, a Rousseauian ‘natural state’. An organic entity, which thus does not allow distinctions within its ranks – for they would be seen as damaging and reprehensible divisions. … a vertical one in which the logic of ‘above and below’ instead prevails. Indeed, in this spatiality, the protagonists in the conflict belong to different levels and, in some senses, opposed and self-referential life-worlds.
the idea of betrayal: with some abuse, some undue misappropriation, some conspiracy organised at the expense of the honest citizens. This conforms to a style of thinking that reframes conflict not only in political or social terms but also, primarily, in ethical’ ones: as the moral counterposition of the righteous and the ungodly, the honest and the corrupt, ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’… “connected to some moral construction of the antithetical ‘other’, in the conflict in which the constitutive values of the community of reference are ultimately revealed.”
the imaginary of upheaval: chasing out the usurper-oligarchy – i.e., removing the ‘foreign body’ – and restoring a popular sovereignty that is finally recognised. This sovereignty is no longer exercised through the mediation of the old representative institutions, but thanks to the action of the leader (who tends to be a charismatic leader or in any case emotionally linked to ‘ordinary folks”
Where these three characteristics exist, there continued to be the distinction made earlier between populism as context and populism as project:
populism as a generic (and generalised) mood – attached to a still-vague attitude of distance from, and hostility toward, institutional actors and the establishment – and, on the other hand, populism as a true and proper political culture unto itself, determined to seek power in a strategic manner, on the basis of a specific political programme. With this second, less generic sense of populism, awareness has grown of the sharp divergence in the various ‘souls’ of this phenomenon. Or, if you prefer, between ‘political families’ that are so distant from one another (and essentially, counterposed) that they can no longer be brought together under the same term.”
I quite like this distinction between left and right wing populism drawn from John B. Judis – The Populist Explosion — he’s not often cited among references to Müller, Mudde, Kazin and Laclau on populism but from reading this he sounds quite interesting:
“Left-wing populists’, Judis writes ‘champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top.’ Conversely, ‘rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.”
More from Judis (via Revelli of course) on the ‘family of the Right’, the entanglement of race and borders and segregation…exactly what I have been working on for so long:
that component which…constructs the unity of the people conceived ‘as a whole’ using techniques that are particularly dear to organicist and, in general, nationalist political cultures. These latter tend to favour an ethnic, racial or in any case strongly identitarian connotation of ‘people’ and its ring-fencing or ‘spatialisation’ within societies that are enclosed behind strongly drawn borders and boundaries. This connotation does apply to political phenomena like Trump in the United States; Orbán in Hungary and the political formations on the rise in the Visegrad region more generally; Marine Le Pen in France; Matteo Salvini in Italy; and the AfD in Germany – but certainly not to movements like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. This book will focus especially on this former group, those in which what we have called ‘populism-as-project’ is most evident.
While he focuses on populism-as-project, which I confess I also find most interesting, the context cannot be forgotten. He describes the changes between today’s populisms — what he calls the ‘populism of the new millennium’ — and those of earlier periods in terms of the new post-2008 financial crash (discussed also by both Judis and Müller). That moment we thought everything might come down but instead things have been shakily taped together even as this swing to right (and left) has intensified. The difference is
its ‘genetic’ relationship with an unprecedented systemic crisis. This is a crisis of representation and, at the same time, a crisis of the legitimation of contemporary political systems, which have suddenly been left without any ideology to justify them. They seem incapable of keeping faith with their own promises or remaining true to the fundamentals that convinced their respective citizenries to trust in their mechanisms of government, beginning with the first foundation of ‘democratic government’: popular sovereignty.
For Revelli, Andrew Jackson was the first US populist as founder of the Democratic party and known by the nickname of ‘King Mob’. There is a lot more to be thought through here connecting his project of genocide to open up lands for the poor and rebellious whites of the colonies with current populism, but I will think that through later. Or maybe return to Roediger who details all of this so beautifully in relation to the formation of white and working class identities. The forms populism takes surely follow some of these ruts laid down over the centuries. But the actual populist movement in the late 1800s offered some hope for a little while.
Anyway, like for Laclau, there is needed an antagonistic frontier, a struggle between two Americas. For Ravelli on the one side is Trump’s countryside, of peripheries and old industrial towns, rust belt, abandoned by the Left. These aren’t perhaps explored as much as I would like — what are these geographies, how does class and privilege work within them now? The numbers show, and Revelli states very clearly, that this is not a revolt of the poor. Instead it is a revolt of the middle and upper classes of whites, who feel not just loss, but that others have actively divested them of key aspects of their lives and identities: male privilege, income, social status, recognition of work, respect for faith and country, their place in the world. Lumped together as ‘them’ are the worlds of finance and banks, the forces of globalisation, the swamp of Washington, LGBT activists, Hollywood celebrities, people of color. As Revelli writes, those who mobilised for Trump the winners of the previous era now increasingly facing hard times. This curious collection of ‘others’ along with more traditional cleavages of race and gender help explain what I still find slightly hard to understand.
The fact that the rage of the deprived could identify with a billionaire – his wealth built on rent – is in a sense the watershed between the original populism and the populism that follows the end of the twentieth century. Such is the oxymoronic clash between ‘on top’ and ‘down below’ that has risen from the ashes of the twentieth-century Left/Right pairing.
I know far more about the US of course than the UK, an next to nothing about the populism now rising in France, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere. This was a great introduction to these even if I still need to do more reading to see whether I fully agree. But he is pursuasive that most of these follow much of the same pattern with their own historical and geographical constellations of factors. The geographies of Brexit show the strength of feeling within the same industrial heartland, rural periphery and areas of greatest social suffering. Immigration is, of course, a key politics in both.
What is interesting for the UK is that the most important indicator in terms of the distribution of the vote turned out to be the provision of public services and policies for balancing the public accounts. In UK, where cuts had come the hardest, the vote for Brexit was strongest.
What lay behind the polarisation of the British referendum, then, was not ‘political cultures’ that had already clustered together. It was not driven by hardened and stable identitarian blocs, or by loyal electorates massed in solid political containers. No: there was a diffuse mood and a generalised sense of discontent (or instability). Above all, there was a fragmented society that struggled to find the words, the language, to express and identify itself.As a geographer I couldn’t fail to love this:
“It provides further confirmation of the fact that if we want to ‘read’ the populist phenomenon in the new millennium, maps are more eloquent than tables of statistics: not only the socio-economic map, but also the historical one. As we already saw in the American and British cases, the longue durée dynamics tend to re-emerge over the ruins of the political cultures of the twentieth century, revealing older dividing lines. Revealing, in the Polish case, is one such dividing line that dates back to the period immediately subsequent to the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the territorial partition of Poland among the Empires.”
A brief look at Italy, which is perhaps the most fascinating:
“In fact, in Italy, populism appeared not in one variant but three, which followed one after the other in (relatively quick) succession. We could call these three ‘forms’ and three ‘figures’ of neo-populism by the names of their eponymous ‘heroes’: Berlusconism, Grillism and Renzism. The three differ in terms of the timing of their ‘rise’ and their ‘period of hegemony’, as well as in terms of their ‘political culture’ – if such a weighty term can be applied to such phenomena. But they are also united by certain traits they have in common, and not only at a formal level.
With Grillo’s M5S to the left and ‘encouraging participative citizen democracy, defending a universalist welfare state, and protecting and championing common and/or public goods (citizens’ income and standing for investment in school and public healthcare)’ while the other two are very different indeed. Yet all populist, and all with another characteristic:
All three of these political experiences are characterised by a strong personalisation.
So to summarise. The geographies of populism:
This map of malaise, which takes account of the reduction in both ‘disposible income’ and ‘market income’, can almost entirely be traced onto the map of the insurgent political phenomena classified as ‘populism’. And this malaise applies to both ‘capital’s side’ (in particular financial investment and productive activities) and ‘labour’s side’. The former was hit by the conjunctural effects of the crisis and the latter was already heavily penalised relative to capital by structural transformations which had been taking place during the long gestation period that preceded the subprime explosion.
Altogether, they form a multitude of the dissatisfied and enraged – above all, the ‘betrayed’, or those who consider themselves as such – transversally distributed across Western societies, extraneous to the traditional political cultures since none of them still represent the new conditions of the masses. These latter are themselves out of place, as they find themselves in the unprecedented condition of the politically homeless. Humiliated by the distance that they see growing between themselves and the few who stand at the top of the pyramid (despite their small numbers, the only ones visible in the media space that has replaced all previous public spaces). Lacking in a language suitable for communicating their own stories, or even to structure an account of themselves, they are thus consigned to resentment and rancour.
It is these characteristics, and perhaps that across the board this is emerging from those who were ‘winners of the previous era’, that characterises what still for me remains so paradoxical:
Almost everywhere, the neo-populist agitation from below is openly exploited by those who in fact stand up above, without any seeming contradiction. And perhaps this explains the reason why Europe’s governing elites, and with them the greater part of the ‘system’s information system’, in fact dedicate themselves much more energetically and effectively to fighting and destabilising the only experiences that have proven a convincing and credible factor for combating this type of contagion.”
That would be the left and its alternatives.
[Revelli, Marco. (2019) The New Populism: Democracy Stares into the Abyss. London and New York: Verso]