Populism is a rampant phenomenon in our world today. Many consider this situation to be a failure of liberalism. Liberalism and populism are opposing forces operating in divergent directions. Populist sentiments are being fuelled by myopia, and a reinvigoration of subnational and ethnic differences. Liberalism, on the other hand, is based on the fundamentalism of market mechanisms. It allows capital to move freely but restricts the movement of people being displaced by liberalisation. Despite these opposing traits, however, neither populism nor liberalism offers much hope to ordinary citizens.
Populism is a political ideology which aims to appeal to ordinary people, who feel that their concerns are being disregarded by their established national elites. Populists often simplistically allude to the elite as a homogeneous entity, who place their own interests, and often the interests of other groups (foreign countries or immigrants) above the interests of the ordinary people.
Technically, populist parties and politicians can be anywhere on the political spectrum. Venezuela’s late president Chávez and the Podemos party in Spain have been labelled as populists, for example. Yet, increasing populists factions today are veering towards the far right. Marine Le Pen in France or Viktor Orbán in Hungary, amongst others, are trying to combine populism with anti-immigrant sentiments and authoritarian ambitions.
We have our own brand of populism in the Indian subcontinent. For instance, Bhutto’s brand of autocratic populism in the 1970s. More recently, the right-wing, religiously-tinged populism of the Modi-led BJP has managed to secure a second term in office in India.
Cultural theorist Stuart Hall had coined the term ‘authoritarian populism’ to refer to a specific form of conservative politics. Authoritarian populism, he argued, was characterised by the construction of a contradiction between the common people and elites, which is then used to justify the imposition of repressive measures by the state. In authoritarian and populist states, social movements, activists, and dissidents find themselves experiencing increasingly brazen forms of repression.
The rise of such populist authoritarianism is based on the opportunistic manipulation of the hard-working ordinary people, who feel betrayed by liberal ideas of freedom, justice, and prosperity. While the failure of neo-liberalism has manifested itself in rising populism across Europe, the US as well as other parts of the world, this populism with its xenophobia and authoritarian tendencies evidently lacks the potential to improve the lives of marginalised citizens.
This sudden rise of populist leaders is understandable given the failure of the socialist state. Now markets have become increasingly intrusive and pervasive, but been unable to deliver fair outcomes. Consider, for instance, the growing inequality around the world, where the benefits of growth fail to trickle down adequately, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to grow. Donor aid, which often comes with strings attached, or private and corporate philanthropy, is not reasonable alternatives to the welfare state.
There are alternatives to traditional socialism and capitalism, which can offer more promising models of governance. It is possible to combine a market economy with social control of capital and employees’ control of workplaces. Exploitation need not be an essential feature of market transactions.
A model of the socialist state which considers politics as a form of dialogue between citizens, and institutions of governances, and which places constitutional limits on majority rule is possible to achieve. Scandinavian countries have been able to form such governments to a large extent, and Bernie Sanders in the US is now running another election campaign espousing similar principles. The current government in Pakistan may claim that it is also offering a similarly enlightened alternative path of governance, but its detractors would be quick to categorise it as being populist and authoritarian instead.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2019.
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