FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Spectre of Populism

London.

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of populism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre. Various political movements and politicians are described as ‘populist’ in the media and in academia. To name but a few: Nigel Farage’s Euroscepticism in Britain, Geert Wilders’s Islamophobia in the Netherlands, Beppe Grillo’s anti-elite campaign in Italy, Jobbik’s anti-Semitism in Hungary, Die Linke’s anti-austerity programme in Germany, Marine Le Pen’s Fascism with a human face or Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s pro-6th Republic in France. What do these political forces have in common? In truth, very little. Some are ideologically and politically poles apart. If these parties are politically different, why indiscriminately refer to them as ‘populist’?

What is ‘populism’?

Traditionally, the notion of ‘populism’ has been used to refer to the opportunistic exploitation of popular, sometimes demagogic, sentiments with a resonance amongst the masses. More recently, the label of ‘populism’ has been more loosely applied. In its current acceptation, populism essentially entails:

– A criticism of the forms and practices of liberal democracy;

– A movement that tends to draw its values from the past and which offers an ideological and sentimental landmark;

– A ‘Manichean’ worldview in which the ‘people’ are celebrated and the political elites are presented as ‘corrupt’ and ‘out of touch’. Populism is therefore about siding with ‘the people’ against ‘the elites’.

– Demagogy and ‘catch-all’ politics.

Such typology is not entirely enlightening. Firstly, to be critical of liberal-democratic institutions does not necessarily make a politician or a party an enemy of those institutions, let alone a threat to democracy. Secondly, mainstream parties arguably can also draw inspiration and values from the past. Think, for instance, of conservatives and traditional social-democrats. Thirdly, there is nothing wrong with popular movements singling out ‘corrupt’ and ‘out of touch’ politicians. Fourthly, virtually all parties across the political spectrum are desperate to be in tune with ‘vox pop’ and practice various forms of ‘catch-all’ politics. Otherwise, why would they bother to run focus groups and why would they be over-reliant on opinion polls? These preliminary remarks show that populism is a rather ambivalent concept and therefore one has to exercise a degree of caution when using it.

Until 15-20 years ago, studies on populism referred almost exclusively to Latin America. In the 1930s and 1940s, many regimes based themselves on authoritarian politics such as Getúlio Vargas’s Estado Novo in Brazil or Juan Perón in Argentina. Here, populism meant that leaders and political forces adapted to the prevailing mood of the nation, moving within the ideological spectrum from left to right several times during their political lives. From the 1950s, Latin American populism managed to capture high levels of working-class support, notably when it was associated with left-leaning petty bourgeois nationalism.

A perceived threat to representative democracy

Over the past fifteen years or so, the word’s meaning has changed quite considerably. Nowadays, it rarely defines authoritarian regimes which appeal to the masses, but rather designates left-wing or right-wing movements which are seen as challenging the dominant ideas or policies. What is more, critics of populism worry about the mobilisation of the people in politics. Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, recently observed that ‘the mantra of the moment is “listen to the people” – a call for populist politics dressed up to look like a demand for the genuine democracy which is said to be denied to Britain by an unrepresentative and remote elite.’ According to this line of reasoning, popular democracy seems unnecessary and it can even be dangerous. It certainly has to be mediated though a professional political elite who is wiser and knows better.

More than anywhere else in Europe, the notion of populism has been used aplenty in French politics and academia. This is largely due to the persisting electoral successes of the Front National, an extreme-right party, from the mid-1980s onward. It is quite ironic to note that the reference to populism in French media and academia is inversely proportional to the presence and visibility of the ‘people’ in politics (understood as working-class or ‘popular’ classes). In other words, the less represented the ‘popular’ classes are in political parties, in parliament or in government, the more ‘populism’ is branded a threat for French society.

Talk about ‘populism’ culminated in 2005. After a politicised debate nationwide, 55% of French voters rejected the European Constitution. Mainstream parties and media had all called for a ‘yes’ vote. They were prompt to reprimand an ‘irrational’ and ‘immature’ electorate which had followed ‘populist’ politicians from the right and from the left. Hardly one year later, the Lisbon Treaty – a repackaged version of the European Constitution – was adopted by heads of state behind closed doors. This time, the French government did not consult its people. Nicolas Sarkozy, then French president, publicly admitted that had he organised a new referendum, the French would have opposed it again. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht: by voting ‘the wrong way’, the French ‘people had forfeited the confidence of the government’. As the government could not possibly ‘dissolve the people and elect another’, it opted to impose its decision in this most undemocratic manner.

Distrusting the people

There is more to it than the question of people’s ‘political immaturity’. The ‘populism’ tag subliminally signals that the popular classes are morally corrupt and dangerous. Evidence of this is that they support demagogues. By labelling political movements as antagonistic as UKIP, the Five Star movement, Jobbik, the Front National or Die Linke, one tends to demonise forces which have only one thing in common: they disagree with mainstream political parties’ policies. In so doing, one confuses political movements which are historically antagonistic. For instance, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are both frequently called ‘populist’ in the media and by some academics. Yet their worldview and policies are totally at loggerheads. Le Pen’s politics is essentially ‘ethno-centred’ (end of immigration, anti-Islam stand, discrimination against foreigners), whereas Mélenchon’s politics is essentially a radical critique of neoliberal economics. By branding both politicians as ‘populist’, one rather insidiously suggests to the public that the Front National and the Front de Gauche are two symmetrical forces. In other words, they are the two flip sides of the same coin or the same rotten apples that spoil the barrel.

In the mid-1980s, the French political scientist Pierre-André Taguieff presented the Front National as a ‘National-Populism’; a notion originally used in the United States to describe the New Right [1]. He was adamant that the Front National was no longer ‘extreme’ or ‘fascist’, but simply ‘radical’. This is a contentious interpretation. The Front National in the mid-1980s was a party which had been founded ten years earlier by a ragbag of Monarchists, former Nazi collaborators, Maurrasians, former OAS members (French terrorist organisation in Algeria), and whose leader had been condemned several times for publicly expressing racial and anti-Semitic abuse. Critics saw it as an attempt to water down the Front National fascistic legacy (Vichy and Pétainism, French Algeria), as well as the extreme nature of some of its policies (on immigration and nationality law). Indeed to call the Front National ‘populist’ sounds less extreme and threatening. It somehow gives the party an air of ‘respectability’. Some have contended that it helped kick-start a long process of ‘de-demonisation’ of the French extreme right.

The categorisation of the extreme right as ‘populist’ has above all helped discredit both the left and the popular classes themselves. In the mid-1995, Pascal Perrineau talked of ‘Gaucho-Lepénisme’ to explain that a significant fraction of communist voters had transferred their votes to the Front National [2]. If true, this would demonstrate that the ‘two political extremes’ converge and are politically compatible. Furthermore, it would confirm the idea that blue collar workers are racist and authoritarian, and therefore politically unreliable. Annie Collovald has demonstrated that this was a far-fetched interpretation [3]. Marine Le Pen may have received 31% of the working-class vote in the first round of the 2012 presidential election; the truth of the matter is that 69% of them did not vote for her. Furthermore, the notion of ‘Gaucho-Lepénisme’ overlooks two important factors. Firstly, a very large number of working-class voters abstain from voting altogether. Secondly, since the 1950s, there have always been a fair number of working-class people who have rejected the left in France. So there is nothing new here.

Populism and demophobic feelings

‘Reasonable’ commentators in France suggest that the popular classes switch their allegiance from mainstream parties to the extreme right or the radical left for essentialist reasons; because they are allegedly ‘racist’, ‘authoritarian’ and politically ‘immature’. Few wonder whether this vote transfer might not have to do with the socio-political environment, such as the economic policies implemented by mainstream parties (austerity), the economic crisis, unemployment, the loss of class identity or politicians’ corruption and broken promises. As for the so-called ‘authoritarian’ penchant of the popular classes, the ‘reasonable’ mainstream parties only have themselves to blame. Both Parti Socialiste and Union pour un Movement Populaire have for so long put at the heart of their programmes and rhetoric the issues of immigration and law and order, both advocating a ‘tough stand’ on crime.

It is tempting to point out that the accusation of ‘populism’ for some betrays hardly concealed ‘demophobic’ feelings. Those who constantly fear or lament ‘populism’ seem indeed to believe that voters – notably of modest extraction – cannot be trusted to make the right political decisions. Thus when they do not vote the way the political elites had anticipated, their opinion is null and void. The 2005 referendum in France famously illustrated this point. Furthermore, mainstream parties as well as governments and international organisations have a tendency to project their own interests as ‘national interests’ while the interests of their opponents are belittled as ‘corporatist’ and ‘narrow’, or to put it in one word as ‘populist’.

Ambiguous and ill-defined, the notion of ‘populism’ offers little heuristic value. It furthermore fails to grasp the various backgrounds and motivations of anti-systemic parties as well as the nature and density of their conflict with the dominant social, economic and political institutions in our societies. The use of ‘populism’ is today problematic. In some quarters, the fight against ‘populism’ seems to be a convenient pretext to dismiss whoever challenges the ideas of what Alain Minc once optimistically called the ‘Circle of Reason’. Others call it the ‘Circle of Neoliberal Thought’.

Philippe Marlière is professor of French politics at University College London (UK). He tweets @PhMarliere

Notes. 

[1] Pierre-André Taguieff, ‘La rhétorique du national-populisme (I)’, Cahiers Bernard-Lazare, no 109, June-July 1984, p. 19-38 and (II), Mots, no 9, octobre 1984, p. 113-139.

[2] Pascal Perrineau, Le symptôme Le Pen. Radiographie des électeurs du Front National , Paris, Fayard, 1997.

[3] Annie Collovald, Le populisme du FN, un dangereux contresens, Editions du Croquant, 2004.

 

More articles by:

Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Twitter: @PhMarliere

December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
Jasmine Aguilera
Lessons From South of the Border
Manuel García, Jr.
A Formula for U.S. Election Outcomes
Sam Pizzigati
Drug Company Execs Make Millions Misleading Cancer Patients. Here’s One Way to Stop Them
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Agriculture as Wrong Turn
James McEnteer
And That’s The Way It Is: Essential Journalism Books of 2018
Chris Gilbert
Biplav’s Communist Party of Nepal on the Move: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian
Judith Deutsch
Siloed Thinking, Climate, and Disposable People: COP 24 and Our Discontent
Jill Richardson
Republicans Don’t Want Your Vote to Count
John Feffer
‘Get Me Outta Here’: Trump Turns the G20 into the G19
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail