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.

10 thoughts on “The Populist Papers: 29 Years of Populism

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  2. Nice one. (Minor typo: “look after those who…” should be “that” because otherwise the Lattlay-Fottfoy acronym doesn’t work.)

  3. Lots of good points here. One other point from me. You write “Populists demand that the government takes sides among its citizens, that it acts in an explicitly partisan manner” and tie this into the idea that populism asks for personal exceptions for favoured groups. So let’s ask the question why a partisan state and personal exceptions would seem attractive to large numbers of people in high-trust societies in the US and Western Europe. Surely one answer is this: that it appears to those people that, contrary to the ideals of liberalism, conservatism and what have you, in fact the state was already being partisan and was already making personal exceptions – but for the wrong people. There was money to bail out the banks, but none for the coal mines; council housing for immigrants but not for natives; taxpayer-funded jobs for MEPs and the proponents of multi-culturalism, but none for Merthyr Tydfil; protection for the professions but not for the fishermen; and so on and so on. These are all examples of state action or inaction that are, I am sure, capable of justification under a model of the state as apolitical, but you can see that they are also explained by a model of the state as being inclined to look after you in direct proportion to how likely you or someone in your family is to read PPE at Oxford or live in Islington (even if you’re poor – you have better life chances being poor in Islington than in Hartlepool). In short, it is possible that the populists learned what you call the technology of populism not what their enemies believe, but from what their enemies did.

  4. taxpayer-funded jobs for MEPs and the proponents of multi-culturalism, but none for Merthyr Tydfil

    Speaking as someone who has actually been to Merthyr Tydfil, I’d guess that there are a huge number of taxpayer-funded jobs there. There’s a massive Welsh Government office there for a start. And Merthyr council is the biggest employer in town.

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  6. As someone who saw the Yugoslav wars up close and personal, your reference to ’89 really resonates. So I would add “The Broken Promise” of the post-WWII order. Neither the West nor its Soviet counterpart couldn’t maintain the socio-economic rewards of vanquishing fascism for more than a generation. The citizen-based welfare state is almost gone with the passing of the “Greatest Generation’s” children and so the grandchildren are looking to Populism.

  7. Excellent post. It seems to me, though, that this is an abstraction problem. When ‘computer says no’, what happens next depends largely on the failed applicant’s confidence in the design of the system. It’s in most cases impossible to know exactly, and the base classification of any abstraction is whether it is ‘fair’ or not. Hence strivers vs scroungers.

    Politics is limited by the level of abstraction understood by the electorate, which seems to have been particularly at play in Brexit.

    Beyond those abstractions, any activity will be assessed more on whether it appears to care, than anything else. (‘I was looked after well by a nurse, therefore the NHS is amazing’). Populism fights at this level – ‘I care about you, everything will be better if I’m in charge. Don’t worry about the complexity’. Making America *great* again. Hope, change.

    Wouldn’t surprise me if the most cost-effective way to sway a government’s approval rating is to throw a bit of money and training at the departmental call centres.

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  9. Superb analysis!

    I wonder now how we move out of this emotionally-charged politics, low-trust society and repoliticized state.

    A similar analysis on the tenets of post-populism or the fall of populism, would be fascinating. What historical examples exist of states climbing out of a low-trust society, or becoming more depoliticized?

  10. Thought-provoking and interesting. It led me to much the same conclusion as “Further or Alternatively” above: If people are convinced that the state’s language of principles is overwhelmingly just rhetorical cover for being nice to their mates and screwing the rest, then a lot of them are going to react by deciding that they want someone in power who’ll be unprincipled in their favour, or failing that at least against people they don’t like.

    I hate to say it after his ridiculous performance on Brexit, but that kind of suggests that people like Corbyn are the long-term solution to populism, doesn’t it? Or at least half the solution. Being undeniably principled is a good start, but to finish the job he’d also need a reputation for getting things done.