The many faces of populism - Zeitgeister - Goethe-Institut Max Mueller Bhavan | India

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06.12.2019 | Michael Zichy
The many faces of populism

Michael Zichy Foto: Herbert Rohrer, Wildbild
Dear friends,

After rereading your contributions so far, I’m rather amazed at the rich and inspiring assortment of observations and reflections prompted by our conversation. I wish I had a whole year to neatly dissect and rearrange all the thoughts that are gathered together here, to take up an idea here, pursue another argument there, until I can put them down again and gradually work them into an orderly, well-packaged overall construct, into a theory that will give me the feeling of having come to grips with it all. Not only do I not have the time, but, more precisely, I know full well that the very next response from any of you would cause my beautiful construct to come apart at the seams, for there would still be some loose threads sticking out here and there, which you would inevitably pick at, pull on, and unravel the whole fabric.

But isn’t this the whole point of a conversation? Which leaves me with the much nicer task of taking up one idea or another as I see fit, connecting up one thing with another, intermingling them with my own thoughts in order to articulate new questions that will shape the course of our conversation.

Let me try to sum up a bit what’s been said so far. First of all, we have come to know populism in many of its manifestations, in Switzerland, Hungary, Kenya, Egypt, Russia, Brazil and India. It has become clear that there is no single monolithic type of populism, as we suspected from the beginning, but lots of different types. But above all, it has become clear that there is a fundamental difference between the brand of populism that has hit Western-style liberal democracies and a more primal populism that is the dominant paradigm of politics in large parts of the non-Western world, with respect to which the West actually constitutes an exception to the norm.

Politics in India, for instance, as Naren points out, is informed by a master-and-servant relationship between the ruling elite and the dominated masses; Egyptian politics, reports Youssef, is marked by a consensus-based conception of power and hierarchy that is deeply rooted in the culture; Yvonne gives us to understand that populism is the norm in Africa, especially in Kenya; and last but not least, as may be gathered from Maria's contribution, it also appears that Russian populism can fall back on age-old patterns of the “pact between feudal lord and vassal”. Which makes us wonder: isn’t the new populism in the West so successful precisely because it has fertile ground to thrive on here too: archaic conceptions of rulership that have been papered over, and certainly not stripped away, by a thin veneer of liberal democracy?

Experience Also revealing are the various takes on populism. While flatly rejected by the interlocutors amongst us who’ve had positive experiences of Western democracies – except maybe Ágnes, who believes “good populism” is a possibility, at least in theory –, those of us with first-hand experience of populism as the political norm tend to take a more nuanced view.

One reason for that seems to be negative experiences of democracy in many cases: so many (externally imposed) attempts at democratization have failed miserably, and Western democracies, instead of bringing freedom and peace as promised, often bring oppression and even (civil) war. Instead of the Holy Trinity of democracy, human dignity and the rule of law, they bring an unholy quaternity of tyranny, torture, despotism and corruption. Democracy is "not penicillin”, as Youssef puts it, capable of destroying the bacillus of oppression all by itself. So it is not surprising that Youssef should pin his hopes not on abolishing or democratically overcoming populism, but on an "older, better established mode of populism”, i.e. a populism in which the rulers actually see themselves as guardians of the people and do not behave (only) as self-enriching traitors to the interests of the people.

Isn’t the new populism in the West so successful precisely because it can thrive on archaic conceptions of domination covered only by a thin layer of liberal democracy?

Secondly, our conversation includes a number of useful remarks as to the defining traits of populism:
  • (a) forceful identity politics that emphatically distinguishes between "us", the people (howsoever this may be defined), and "them", the enemies of the people, who are assigned a scapegoat function. “Them” generally includes the intelligentsia and the (cultural) elite as well as their value system, regarded as a “fifth column”, the “enemy within”. An essential element of identity politics is that populists claim to be the sole legitimate representatives of "us", the true champions of the true interests of the true people.
  • Another characteristic is (b) the triggering of base instincts, the appeal to all those primitive instinctual forces which civilized society seeks to suppress and rein in through reason and enlightened education, through conditioning and social control (and yes, through political correctness, too). This acute form of emotionalization leads to acute polarization, creating rifts that run through society – even right through the middle of families, as Carol says of Brazil. These divides are not only a consequence, but a tool of populist politics.
  • We mustn’t forget some other distinctive features of populist politics: (c) its penchant for trumpeting simplistic strong-arm solutions, and (d) as Youssef and Maria clear-sightedly describe it, the delusory promise of a return to the idealized good old days of a glorified past, which goes hand in hand with a return to old feudal power relations between rulers and passive subjects who are freed from any responsibility. This delusory promise also goes hand in hand with a realistic pledge at least not to change the status quo. Or, as Ágnes sees it, the aim of populism is chiefly negative: it feeds on the rejection of everything that is unknown or not our own: other people, other cultures and customs, other times, even the future itself can only be imagined as a repetition of the past.

Thirdly, we’ve also given some thought to the causes of populism: the current political, social, economic and cultural upheavals, which hardly anyone can cope with, the great uncertainties, insecurity and acute "emotional shocks" they have engendered, as well as a deep-seated resentment that feeds on the suspicion of having been unscrupulously deceived and left hopelessly behind by the moneyed and political elite, who are always showing off their life of ease and luxury.

What next? If, as Maria puts it, we are really in the throes of a "profound cultural shift" that has “changed the very contours of the present", and if, as Yvonne says, we are really going through a "major human existential crisis" – and there is a great deal to suggest that we are indeed seeing the death of the old order and the dawn of a new one – so if we are really undergoing a sea change, can’t the populist frenzy that has seized the planet be interpreted as a mechanism to dispel the fever that has taken hold of us all? Isn’t the appeal of populism precisely that it either denies the problems we face (man-made climate change: fake news) or vaunts simplistic remedies (refugees: don't let them in or, better yet, shoot them!)? Is populism a symptom of the refusal to admit harsh realities, a triumph of the pleasure principle over the reality principle?
But enough of diagnoses and interpretations. For I would like to turn to some important questions you raised in your contributions:
  1. Are there any positive sides to populism? Or, to put a slightly different twist on Yvonne and Youssef’s intuitions, if populism is an inevitable outgrowth of liberal capitalist democracies, isn't a populist outbreak ultimately curative – like the bursting of a long-festering abscess? Furthermore, is populism a consequence of our own blind spots, a backlash resulting from collective denial? In other words, doesn't populism force us to take a long hard look at ourselves where it hurts? To look, for example, at those who have no desire whatsoever to fit in with our self-image as enlightened democracies and who are, as a result, all too readily ignored? In short, is populism a symptom that might be viewed as a corrective?
  2. How can we counter populism? Our contributions include some suggestions, which, interestingly enough, all agree on two points: First of all, responses to populism need to express exactly what people feel, to take their "emotional upheavals" seriously, address their "subjective needs" for meaning and purpose, for recognition and a sense of belonging to a community, tradition and religion. Secondly, the suggestions all assume that a response to populism must be truthful. Yvonne is looking for "words that cut to the bone”, for "a complete grammar […] to truly see what routes out of such an abyss are etched out in truthfulness". Carol calls for credibility for citizens to “regain confidence that more moderate politicians will fight and work for them”. And Ágnes calls for a “cultural elite” that distinguish themselves by their "spiritual accomplishment, commitment to human dignity and understanding".
  3. Do we need a cultural elite to counter populism, or just a critical mass of protestors possessed of “grim determination” and prepared to pay a heavy price for their ideals? And a related question: What role are we to play, we who are engaged in this conversation and doubtless belong to the cultural elite of our countries and societies? What should, what must we do?

Kind regards
Michael Zichy