22.07.2019 | Youssef Rakha
Populism – an organic excess of democracy itself!?
Dear far-flung friends,
Let me start by confessing that I’ve found it much harder than I expected to contribute to our colloquy. This could be partly due to unrelated circumstances – my mind has been on other, less political things, for example – but mainly I believe it’s because the more I think about it the more I feel that populism is an aspect of rather than an attack on the Western liberal-capitalist model. Now since this model is what most people mean when they talk about “democracy”, and since I think we can agree that – notwithstanding “democracture”, the erosion of the unilateral world order and the emergent fight for world dominion – that model remains secure as the default “legitimate” mode of managing human affairs today, it seems paradoxical that, rather than an external encroachment on democracy, populism should turn out to be an organic (and, scarily, more and more significant) outgrowth of it. But as Agnes points out, the new populists (whatever we choose to call them) have come to power by and large through the ballot box. And, as Michael argues, they respond to a genuine need for clarity and security among an overwhelmed and often disenfranchised populace.
Regardless of actual Modis and Erdoğans, though, for a long time before this conversation I’d been thinking somewhat philosophically that a vote by its very nature reflects the lowest common denominator in a given society at a given time, and that, considering the compromises and the lies inevitably required of politicians in a complex and media-crazed environment, even when it is free of economic and cultural constraints, this is likely to place power in the hands of some of the least rational, least moral people. Let me say, preemptively, that I don’t know of a system that would be fairer or more sensible per se. But as long as value is assessed numerically, it seems self-evident to me that interactions will reduce to transactions, discourse to advertising and democratic process to a species of consumerism.
Aren't populists simply the Big Macs and Coca-Colas of the political marketplace?
In this sense, aren't populists simply the Big Macs and Coca-Colas of the political marketplace? These thoughts seem to concur with Yvonne’s as well as Ágnes’s: in the absence of “a cultural elite” (a class of discerning consumers privileged or widespread enough to make a difference, and one that arguably was never allowed to develop sufficiently or even exist in the postcolonial world), why should we be surprised at “the majority” choosing caricatures and criminals?
But, aside from my theoretical issues with ballot-box democracy, one crucial issue that has not really come up is identity: ethnic, religious, tribal or, of course, national. Conceived in opposition to a helpless other who is held responsible for some imagined fall from grace, identity seems to drive any populist support base more than any other single factor. Its constructions always involve a nostalgic hankering to a mythical, purer and more prosperous past (the caliphate for Islamists, Ayodhya for Hindu nationalists, “making America great again” for rednecks, etc.) which is itself, ironically, a phenomenon of the hyper-accelerated present. But regardless of their historicity or rationality – by and large they are fictional and perverse – these narratives seem to fill a gap not in the kind of objective, material wellbeing that Jonas feels should suffice for the Swiss constituency to steer clear of populism but of a subjective sense of purpose or meaning once embodied by community, tradition, creed and other unifying factors. Evidently neither technological advances nor individual freedoms have been able to replace those subjective requirements. And so a sensible strategy for avoiding “cruelty” – from freedom of belief to free health care – will be presented as a concession to them and a betrayal of us. Identity politics deserves its own symposium, of course. But for now let’s see what we can do with populism.
I can only count on an older, better established mode of populism to save the country and my life in it.
But before I get into the meat of my letter, two brief, somewhat oblique remarks that I think are very relevant: (1) It’s important to distinguish American college campus-led liberalism from what, erring on the side of convenience, I’m going to call Enlightenment values: reason, empiricism, secularism and egalitarianism. The former has devolved into a demagogic space for micro-identity and discourse-regulation politics that is at best of impossibly narrow significance. It is certainly true that people have lost their jobs and worse for perceived breaches of the dogma of political correctness. But, apparently unlike Yvonne, I’m not enough of a postmodernist to feel we can simply discount Enlightenment values as unnecessary or culturally specific, especially not in the light of the unequivocally devastating effects of tribalism, sectarianism and nepotism on my part of the world. But college campus liberalism, I feel, has contributed to making the liberal status quo an alienating and inquisitorial space not only for “the masses” but for intelligent and open-minded intellectuals as well. And (2) I think it should be clear by now that democracy is not penicillin. By that I mean that – unlike the products of the natural sciences, which can be trusted to function more or less totally regardless of culture and psychology – the political science recipes peddled out to “the developing world” by monolithic “global” institutions can evidently be trusted only to perpetrate disaster. Before it begins to inspire faith as an alternative to populism outside the West, or as anything more than a cosmetic foil for the dictatorship of global finance within it, the ubiquitous mantra of Democracy, Human Rights and Rule of Law needs to be critically parsed in specific contexts.
It is a consensual conception of power and hierarchy so deeply rooted in the culture and so prevalent in the collective psyche that it supersedes modern rational and moral imperatives.
Since 2011 I’ve come to believe that, contrary to oppositional discourse in the Arab world and political-science theorizing about conditions there, this is not – or at least not just – a matter of “tyrants abusing the people” or corrupt individuals ruthlessly seeking self-interest at the expense of the common good. It is rather a consensual conception of power and hierarchy so deeply rooted in the culture and so prevalent in the collective psyche that it supersedes modern rational and moral imperatives. (I honestly have no idea what it would take to change that, but unlike many Arab Spring activists I’m disinclined to risk open-ended civil war to see if that might work.) For one thing there seems to be a need for the figure of the all-good, all-powerful patriarch at the top of the social pyramid. Even when the people revolt against a given “leader”, this need ensures they will be looking for another to grant him the same status, tolerating the same abuses from him for as long as possible and remaining in denial about their fear of power changing hands. For another, there seems to be a tendency to regard contractual and civic law as a matter of appearances, an external garb that – unlike common, martial or religious law – can neither reflect anything of value nor effectively regulate life. Until these mechanisms for abnegating responsibility and subverting modernity are exposed and the cultural-psychological issues associated with them dealt with, no amount of protest, rights discourse or democratic procedure can change the picture.
The populist appeal was the only factor in Egypt in the 2012 election.
Perhaps – if you feel it’s relevant – there will be space to get into the ins and outs of the revolution itself in another letter. For now I want to focus on the fact that – even though this had started out precisely as a call for democracy, human rights, rule of law and other “universal values” – with the exception of extra-electoral intervention, populist appeal was the only factor in the 2012 election.
(By “extra-electoral intervention” I mean a Qatari-funded Obama administration eager to hand over the entire republican Arab world to representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood – hence my own moment of Trump-win schadenfreude! – and the Muslim Brotherhood itself, having pledged not to run in the presidential election, now publicly declaring that if its representative, the late Mohamed Morsi did not win there would be blood on the streets.) Building up to 2012 there had been 18 months of non-stop chaos, verbal and physical violence, demonstrations, counter-demonstrations and media campaigns in which by and large no policies, rights or issues (such as the police abuses that triggered the protests in the first place) were ever seriously discussed, let alone resolved. In effect the only question was who should be handed the reins, and the debate centred on the Brotherhood and/or its allies’ divine vs the army and/or its supporters’ historical right to power.
Predictably considering such polarization and desperation, the run-off vote was between Mubarak’s last prime minister (a former army general) and Morsi. In a subsequently contested result which was arrived at under duress anyway, the latter won by a small margin. And so began a period of absurdly aggressive Islamist democrature through which the Islamists shot themselves in the foot in every imaginable way (having complained of torture in political detention for decades, members of the Muslim Brotherhood ended up torturing protesters, notably Christians on the streets!) To this day it remains unclear how anyone, not excepting “the revolutionaries” (or, naturally, the liberal world community that supported them and/or was prevailed on to support the Muslim Brotherhood) could see this this as an improvement on Mubarak. “Egypt’s first elected, civil president” was the representative of a terrorism-touting if not terrorist, openly sectarian and largely anti-state, anti-civic law organisation whose effect on human rights and rule of law could only be disastrous. And, true enough – to cut a very long story short – by the time the late Mohamed Morsi was ousted following huge mass protests, due largely to Islamist aggression, duplicity and excess, there was a very real threat not only of complete institutional collapse but also of civil war (a mini civil war did break out and is ongoing in Sinai). This was all the army needed to step in for the second time, embraced by a sweeping majority of people now readier than ever to deify a new inviolate patriarch and start a new cycle of the same old story…