The Populist Papers: 29 Years of Populism

Thinking about Brexit, the Donald, Austria having a presidential election replay, and other things, it struck me that in a sense I’ve lived through a Populist Era, a parallel history to the official narrative of ever-closer European union and what we might call ever-closer Western union. The starting point is hard to place. Jörg Haider’s party joined the Austrian government at the end of 2000. Silvio Berlusconi was first elected as Italian prime minister in 1994. In the same year, the BNP won and lost its first local council seat. But we’d be fools to ignore what was happening further east – Vladimir Meciar’s third term as Slovak prime minister from 1994-1998 is an example, and some people argue Slobodan Milosevic from 1989 onwards was the very first. Then you have to deal with the FN’s electoral breakthrough, at the French parliamentary election of 1987. Jean-Marie Le Pen achieved a score that time his party wouldn’t equal until 2015.

Since then, they’ve come thick and fast and all over the world, in societies as various as Thailand and Australia, or Bradford and Dresden. They are as diverse as the societies that gave rise to them, and the degree of success they have achieved varies enormously. It is commonly said that the word “populist” just means a political party others don’t want to accept, but I disagree with this. It is true that they differ dramatically in their content. Leaving the European Union is obviously not a priority for the newly elected bishop-mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella. Yet Crivella is recognisably a populist and would fit nicely on a platform with Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Beppe Grillo, or Donald Trump.

Instead, I think, what unites them is a way of doing rather than a way of seeing. You can look at this as an aesthetic style, or as a technology for winning elections. It doesn’t matter; style, after all, is founded on technique. But looking at it as a set of style tropes and technical solutions has the advantage that we can understand it as such. Technology diffuses. Once it is invented, sooner or later, it spreads, and it spreads the faster the more people feel able to try it out and to adapt it to their own aims, aims which are themselves changed by the process of trial. We know quite a lot about the sociology of innovation diffusion.

So I want to pick out the minimal common elements of the technology here. So far I’ve got:

Politics against method

Most types of state have some form of universal ideology, a body of ideas that are meant to guide the citizenry in all they do. Conservatism in Burke’s sense claims this is embodied in old institutions, which must be defended. It therefore aligns the power of the state with the authority of those institutions. Liberalism demands that the institutions get out of the way of the citizenry in the name of liberty, and therefore sets up the power of the state as a sort of depoliticised referee whose mission is to guarantee that liberty. In this sense, socialism or at least social democracy is the sturdy child of liberalism – rather than merely asserting the equality of citizens and sitting back to let them get on with it, the state aims to actively ensure their equality in the name of positive liberty. Even beyond this, most states also believe in some form of technocracy, in economic or administrative principles and techniques that represent the state of the art and can be rolled out around the territory for the greater good.

One of the most interesting features of populism is that it rejects method. This goes well beyond the now quaint idea that what matters is what works. Method is both a source of power, and a constraint on power. If it doesn’t work, you can’t do it. On the other side, it is entirely acceptable to argue that you are pursuing “politics for the little man” and immediately offer a massive tax cut to the richest, justifying this on libertarian grounds, and then demand that the state subsidises petrol prices. I remember Jörg Haider doing all these things in the same speech. Method is a construct of the boring, and a tiresome constraint on rhetorical creativity. Instrumental rationality is subordinated to expressiveness. This is one of the reasons why populism is often described as “post-modern”.

Method is also a force against one of populism’s most important aims, which I am about to discuss.

Repoliticising the state

Liberalism, very broadly defined, likes to see the state as a neutral force, hanging “above the parties” as the Germans say. Conservatism and socialism both see it as a force for universal good, differently defined. They all, however, believe that it is different from partisan politics. This does not mean that it is apolitical, just that it is different. Parties and interest groups come and go, but the state endures, and at least claims to serve the public good. One way to look at this is as a depoliticisation of the state. Rather than being defined by opposition to an enemy, it is defined by the inclusion of its citizens.

Carl Schmitt argued that the fundamental political act was to define friends and enemies. He is an example of a long-running counter-tradition in Western political thought that fears this depoliticisation and wishes for a partisan state. Populists demand that the government takes sides among its citizens, that it acts in an explicitly partisan manner. They want to feel that the state is on their side, not because it serves the public good, but because they personally get took care of. Following any particular method obstructs the state in doing this, as it requires that the state acts in accordance with rules.

An important concept here is victimhood. I covered this in a previous post on my own blog. In an important way, populism democratises access to the category of people who feel justified in demanding state help. This is a consequence of the rejection of method; if there is no determinate standard of victimhood, then everyone can feel justified in wallowing enjoyably in it.

Many other writers on populism, from Richard Hofstader onwards, have observed that it arrogates to itself the right to define the people. This is primarily important, though, because it permits them to use the state in the manner that great political thinker, the Salford Machiavelli, Dominic Noonan advised: Look after those that look after you, fuck off those that fuck off you. It shouldn’t need saying that the EU is a prize example of an institution built on method that tends to depoliticise the state, as is NATO, NAFTA, and the WTO. Interestingly, the German ultraconservatives of the 1920s thought the same about the League of Nations.

I’ll make you a deal

It follows that the response to a problem or an injustice is not necessarily to solve it, but rather to make an exception. Schmitt, again, held that this was precisely the attribute that defined sovereignty, and perhaps that is why populists are so attached to the idea of sovereignty. Populism is a system of exceptions. If you do not believe it is possible to get anything right systematically, and you do not believe in the institutions, you can still hope you might be able to get special treatment for yourself. As such, it is something of an indicator-species for a low trust society. Soviet citizens were constantly trying to get treated “po chelovek”, on a personal basis.

Donald Trump, of course, tries to cope with literally everything this way. The F-35 project is far too complicated and is costing too much? If you yell at Lockheed-Martin hard enough, they might give you a discount for the sake of quiet, and of course you can also take care of them by ordering more airframes down the line when everyone will have forgotten. You can’t compete with German exporters? Jump the counter and yell until they offer you a deal. But it’s not just him. Haider offered cheap Libyan diesel around come election time; Theresa May has taken to distributing cash whenever a charismatic exporter threatens to leave the UK. This can also be done in a negative sense, by calling someone in and publicly humiliating them.

It is worth noting that a problem, in this view, is an opportunity to make yourself indispensable. There’s a reason why low-trust societies don’t function well.

Bullshit, and the rejection of constraint

If you reject method, and reduce politics to a system of individual customer-retention gimmes and theatrical humiliations, it follows that you don’t have much use for facts. In some sense, a fact arises because of a method. I think this may explain why the rejection of constraint is so important to populists. Nigel Farage affects to believe that cigarettes are good for you. Donald Trump grabs ‘em by the pussy. I asked a Brazilian friend of mine who voted for Crivella, and she thought for a moment and said “People with big white trucks who live in Zona Oeste”. This remark needs a bit of unpacking; the socio-cultural references packed in there are meant to evoke a petty bourgeois or nouveau riche aesthetic, but I’d like to focus on the truck.

If there’s a constraint they like to reject above all others it’s anything to do with energy, the climate, and hence transport. In part this is explained by the fact there are major funders available who hand out cash to people who reject this constraint. Beyond cynicism, though, is it too impressionistic to imagine that some people feel experts in general just want to take their trucks and make them listen to the doctor and stop smoking? I think this is interesting, because the populist target market tends to be the same around the world – rather well-off but not particularly educated fifty-somethings, not coincidentally also a demographic that likes to jump the counter and demand a deal, and that consumes a lot of ambient media.

That said, I also don’t believe Farage really thinks Craven “A” don’t affect your throat. Instead I think this is a performative statement. Harry Frankfurt famously defined bullshit as speech that doesn’t bear any relationship with truth, not even the negative one lies do. The great thing about bullshit, in Frankfurt’s telling, is that it offers so much creative freedom to the bullshitter to come up with what his audience would enjoy hearing. Populist bullshit arises because it’s fun and it gets the desired audience on your side. Farage’s audience would like to feel, for a while, that cigarettes are good for you and that they might get a special offer.

Club within a club


One official said Eurogroup chair Jeroen Dijsselbloem would make a statement following the meeting of the 19 before a further meeting of the 18 with creditor institutions, including the ECB and IMF.

Greece is excluded from that latter meeting. Greece is a member of the IMF. The IMF’s Articles of Agreement give the first of its purposes as –

To promote international monetary cooperation through a permanent institution which provides the machinery for consultation and collaboration on international monetary problems.

Is there a precedent for the IMF sitting in on a meeting of a currency union, minus one of its members, for the purposes of agreeing some kind of currency quarantine of that member?

Send lawyers and money

ReutersGreece admitted on Wednesday it will struggle to make debt repayments to the IMF and the European Central Bank this year as Germany’s finance minister voiced open doubts about Athens’ trustworthiness. A day after euro zone finance ministers agreed to a four-month extension of a financial rescue for the currency bloc’s most heavily indebted member, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis gave a frank assessment of Greece’s financial position.

“We will not have liquidity problems for the public sector. But we will definitely have problems in making debt payments to the IMF now and to the ECB in July,” he told Alpha Radio.

He put no figure on the funding gap. After interest payments this month of about 2 billion euros, Athens must repay an IMF loan of around 1.6 billion that matures in March and about 7.5 billion for maturing bonds held by the ECB in July and August.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, revelling in his role as the euro zone’s grumpy paymaster, said no further aid would be paid out until Greece fulfilled the conditions of its bailout programme.

This situation is bringing a major — and strangely under-remarked upon — issue to the foreground.

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Pedant’s Corner

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde in a speech at Dublin Castle –

The Irish have always been visionaries. They have never been afraid to dream big. It was William Butler Yeats who said: “I have spread my dreams beneath your feet; tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” Over the past few decades, the dream of a dynamic, prosperous, confident nation became reality. And today, despite grave setbacks, this dream is still very much alive. 

But Yeats also said “in dreams begin responsibilities”. And those responsibilities are the co-responsibilities of Ireland and Europe.

Yeats didn’t say “in dreams begin responsibilities”. He wrote “in dreams begins responsibility” as an epigraph in his Responsibilities collection, a line which he attributed to an old play. The commonly cited quote that Lagarde uses is a Delmore Schwartz book title.

It’s sunk costs all the way down

Important Wall Street Journal article reporting that the ECB has changed its position on whether senior unsecured bondholders in insolvent banks can be bailed in:

The ECB’s new stance can also be explained by the different scenarios, including the existence of a bank-restructuring framework for Spain that didn’t exist for Ireland, and the fact that the Irish government, unlike Spain’s, guaranteed much of its banks’ debts.

But a chief reason [finance] ministers decided not to make more privileged bondholders take losses was the Irish precedent, two people said. Dublin has had to pump more than €60 billion, equivalent to around 40% of its annual gross domestic product, into several struggling lenders, forcing it to request a €67.5 billion bailout from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund in 2010.

Forcing senior creditors to take losses in Spain would have raised more questions in Ireland about why taxpayers were forced by the EU to take on the huge burden of repaying high-ranked bondholders.

So: Ireland’s critical error was to protect legacy bondholders who were completely stuck (the money was long since lent), but now that Ireland made that error, we can’t let Spain come up with a better policy because then there would be questions about Ireland.

Re:Publica Day 3

9:45:30 AM: Cool, it’s almost over and now the Wifi works #rp09

1:50:46 PM: Interesting talk about internet activism in the Middle East by an inspiring young woman – Esra’a Al Shafei of

1:54:44 PM: Esra’a Al Shafei the difference between digital activism in the East and in the West: here people are allowed to say what they want.

2:00:15 PM: Cory Doctorow paraphrased my diploma thesis of 2000 – so there was a way to turn it into a bestseller. Note to self: surfing is on the wave.

2:02:21 PM: Mary C. Joyce explained that online activism was a big thing for Obama, but it wasn’t what the election. The candidate was.

2:03:42 PM: That’s why it probably won’t matter that Angela Merkel has only about 6,000 supporters on her facebook profile…

2:05:16 PM: Later this afternoon, there will be an interesting discussion about an emerging European digital sphere.

2:05:30 PM: BTW, my twitter account is @almostadiary.

2:07:58 PM: But now: political blogs in Germany – and they put that in the agenda without any kind of question mark…

4:42:40 PM: The panel about the European blogosphere with Jon Worth and Jeremie Zimmermann was quite inspiring. Watch out for buses in Brussels.

Republica Day 2 – will there be WiFi? #rp09

10:35:40 AM: Didn’t get much out of the German Privacy Commissioner Peter Schaar’s talk except for “well, there’s more problems than ideas to solve them.

1:39:45 PM: Really liked Ralf Bendrath’s talk about emerging democratic structures in social networks with particular reference to facebook. #rp09

1:42:47 PM: The follow-up chat at the Privacy OS subconference was even better – intereresting technology from Kaiserslautern: “Hello world”

1:44:06 PM: Now it’s on to “growing up in the web” – Danah Boyd’s topic without Danah Boyd… let’s see.

2:36:36 PM: The Role of the State in the Digital Society… philosophy or criminology?

4:56:31 PM: Germany’s interior ministery wanted input from netizens but faced opposition due to lost trust that will be very difficult to rebuild. #rp09

6:10:15 PM: The problem is that people aren’t listening to Lawrence Lessig…

Re:Publica ’09 day 1

12:19:18 PM: I’m far too tired, but in Berlin, trying to cope with 140 character posts… let’s hope the WiFi coverage at the conference will get better.

3:21:56 PM: This seriously feels like 300bps. John Kelly of the Berkman center held an interesting talk about link structures in different blogospheres.

3:24:01 PM: He noted the prominence of neo-conservative bloggers in the Arab linksphere as well as the rise of a shiite theological blog cluster.

3:25:46 PM: Luckily he didn’t have much of an idea of the German blogs that he had mapped… that was taken care of in the following panel discussion.

3:27:32 PM: The usual suspects talked about the same things they have talked about since forever. In this case, shift ’09 didn’t happen.

3:29:17 PM: I asked penalist Stefan NIggemeier if he didn’t think it’s boring to keep having the same chat over and over, and he said, “in a way, yes”.

3:31:57 PM: The afternoon panel about “changing media” could have used at least one person with a bit of macro insight… like Thomas Knüver #rp09

3:34:49 PM: I learned about the A&R dropbox at EMI Australia’s at the presentation about

3:36:07 PM: And in the end, I realised I may be too old for some things, 4chan for example.