A report in the Financial Times on President Trump’s inauguration compared populism to President Obama’s first inauguration and declared, “Obama radiated hope. Mr Trump channelled rage” (Luce, 2017).
This is factually correct. But if so, the fact needs explanation. Why hope then and rage now? An obvious answer is that the hope was not fulfilled, leading roughly half the electorate to conclude that neither Obama’s anointed successor in the Democratic party nor the Republican party would fulfil it either.
Brexit seemed to channel a similar rage against the UK’s political establishment. The list of those who supported both the Remain vote and Hillary Clinton (both in the primaries against Sanders and in the presidential elections) reads like a roll-call of corporate and banking elites: the IMF, Wall Street, OECD, the governor of the Bank of England, George Soros, etc.
It is important to bear this in mind when considering how and why ‘populism’ has become a term of opprobrium. Its simple definition – ordinary people’s opposition to elites – is insufficient to explain it. After all, democracy is intended to give ordinary people a chance to counter elites through representative politics. What today’s populism adds to democracy is a concerted resistance to the ways in which unelected officials with specific economic interests seem to dominate the formation of government policies, with the general acquiescence of elected representatives.
But this still does not capture what we instinctively recoil from in populism. How can it be wrong to oppose elected lawmakers’ implicit surrender of sovereignty to the non-elected representatives of elite financial interests?
Brexit is a good place to start if we want to be as clear as possible about the issues we face and why ‘populism’ has become a pejorative term. The underlying issues raised by Brexit concern the working classes’ relationship to the European Union. If we truly want to understand what happened in the United Kingdom, we need to step back from that particular referendum to ponder the EU’s position as a supra-national site of political economy.
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a worker or someone currently unemployed in Nottingham (or for that matter in Palermo or Seville). Suppose she or he were to consider the humane policies that some nations in Europe embraced after World War Two; policies which created or expanded social safety nets (whether health, education, or housing) for working people. This hypothetical worker might well ask how and where these safety nets were implemented and administered. And the answer would be clear: the nation. This worker might then ask whether a supra-national body has ever administered such safety nets and, if so, what the operating mechanism would even look like.
As Joseph Stiglitz says in his book on the European Union (2017), there are two ways for nations to respond to the present crisis that populism is reacting to throughout Europe: to withdraw from the union or to strengthen ties with the union. But in light of the excellent questions posed by our hypothetical worker in Nottingham, it is hard to see how the second option, strengthening ties, would be appealing.
What these questions reveal is that it has never been explained why a single market that previously functioned perfectly well moved on to promote further integration through a common currency without a clear understanding of the wider institutions of governance that would be needed for such integration. Our hypothetical worker’s sceptical questions, reflecting fundamental concerns that most European adults share, reveal the positive side of populism: the side which argues that ordinary people stand up for themselves in opposition to the elites that seek to control their lives.
Of course, such a person may go beyond these shrewd questions to reach more troubling conclusions, associating supra-national affiliation with immigrant hordes who not only deprive him or her of economic opportunities, but dilute centuries-old national cultures that are a source of pride. But there is no logical connection between that initial scepticism and these trumped-up anxieties. It is perfectly possible to pose those questions without answering them in this way. Unfortunately, though, the confused thinking that links them together happens all the time. This is the negative side of populism.
This leads us to a question of our own: Where does the compulsion to make this non-compulsory connection originate? Here we must resist the temptation to blame the individuals themselves. When people make this connection, it is not due to any feebleness of mind, but rather to a wide variety of distortions presented in the media, which come from the political class – not just its extreme elements but also the establishment itself. We must not forget that Prime Minister David Cameron’s Remain campaign ratcheted up the immigration theme to prevent it from being owned by his more extreme opposition, just as Barack Obama’s rhetoric on immigration during his presidential campaign in 2008 was worse than that of his opponent John McCain, once again with a view to disrupting Republican ownership of that issue.
There is an important lesson to be learned here. Even if we identify what we recoil from in contemporary populism as the unnecessary linking of sound questions with unsound anxieties, this connection cannot simply be attributed to an intrinsic incapacity in the judgement of ordinary people, but must instead be attributed to a failure of public education for which universities, the media, and the political class are all to blame. It is not possible to believe in democracy and dismiss the electorate as vile or stupid, for the electorate is shaped by the knowledge it possesses.
For over two millennia, philosophers have been saying the central ethical question is ‘What should we do?’ But in our own complex times, the more crucial question has become ‘What should we know?’ It is not entirely surprising that universities and the media fail to provide much help in this regard.
I recall how, on the very first day I arrived at my college in Oxford, the Master of the College, Christopher Hill, said to me with his characteristic inward-looking smile, “You do realise, Mr Bilgrami, that Oxford has a centuries-old tradition of producing the ruling class?” It is evident that the mainstream media have spent the last several decades doing their part to also sustain that ruling class.
It is misguided to expect academia and the media to be sources of much-needed public education on the fundamental matters shaping the common good in our societies. When the public has received that kind of education, it has tended to come from movements on the left, broadly speaking, whether from long-lasting European social democratic tradition and union organising in the United States; or from the so-called new social movements like the civil rights, anti-war, and women’s movements in the decades following World War Two; or from the prolonged anti-colonial movements in the global south.
We can identify two underlying causes of contemporary populism’s increasing influence: Firstly, a chronic economic crisis and secondly, the failure of the left to find an adequate response to that crisis. Populism is a reaction to the neoliberal drift of the last few decades. The inability to create sufficient employment; the generation of acute and seemingly irreversible inequalities; the systematic destruction of labour’s bargaining power; the undermining of national sovereignty over economic matters; and the transformation of immigration, which could be a source of strength for national economies, into a deep source of anxiety and complaint among working people.
The failure of the left to mobilise an adequate response to these crises created an ideological vacuum. And so nationalist movements on the extreme right, that is to indicate ‘populism’ in the pejorative sense of the term, stepped in to fill it. Such a vacuum no doubt derives from a failure of imagination on the part of the left. To be fair, however, leftist movements today are increasingly constrained by the turn that political economies have taken over the last few decades.
First of all, old-style movements based on trade union activism are hardly possible because ever since financial capital supplanted industrial capital as the driving force of the global economy, traditional trade unions have only possessed a residual form of agency. Where such unions are still in place, they have been beaten down by neoliberal economic policies which generate chronic unemployment by increasingly making work impermanent and informal all over the world, depriving labour of its old bargaining power by way of the obvious opportunity for corporations to tap the unemployed population if the employed population bargains too hard.
Most crucially of all, given the tremendous increase in the mobility of capital in the decades following the Bretton Woods agreement, even if a working-class movement manages to propose progressive policies, those possibilities can’t be implemented, for the most part, because of the fear of capital flight.
To give one example, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected on the basis of a very progressive platform in Brazil, as the result of a working-class movement, but was ultimately unable to implement it due to fear of capital flight. From the perspective of the global left, if that kind of platform is implemented, triggering the threat of capital flight, the only solution would be for comparable working-class movements to be waiting wherever such capital might flee. Sadly, that form of international solidarity is not a realistic possibility at the moment. Indeed, the mind boggles at the prospect of truly global labour movements emerging to oppose global finance capital.
What I see as more plausible at least for nations of the global south which are suffering from the oppression of neoliberal financial globalisation, is the idea of ‘de-linking’ – at least partially – from the global economy and regaining a measure of sovereignty over their own political economies. This idea should be explored in serious detail. This could require the creation of new credit agencies, alternatives to the IMF and World Bank, and ‘south-south’ links in order to protect some of the global south’s smaller economies. These are all under-explored innovations worth thinking about. But it would take significant imagination from the left to actually produce tangible results.
1. Populism in international perspective
Although I have thus far focused on common underlying causes of worldwide working class dissatisfaction and the populist upsurge, this is not to imply that the character of populism in different parts of the world is exactly the same.
In fact, it is substantially different. For example, in the United States and the United Kingdom, populism has been opposed to globalisation, whereas in India and Turkey it has cheerfully promoted it. Indian populism is characterised by enthusiastic support for Narendra Modi from the middle classes, who do not seem to grasp that it is not globalisation, as Thomas Piketty’s analysis makes clear, that has made upward mobility possible (2014).
India and Turkey have fused the pro-globalisation populism of growing middle classes with a revivalist stress on majoritarian religious identities. Indeed, in Turkey, it is the integration of such religious identities with a commitment to neoliberal globalisation that prevents the extreme forms of so-called ‘anti-imperialist’ Islamism – in the past, characteristic of Iran, as well as various Arab jihadi movements like Al Qaeda – from gaining ground.
India and Turkey are both compulsively authoritarian in ways that border on fascism. They demand distinctive explanatory accounts, and I will restrict myself to India. Indian Hindu nationalism today, which bears alarming similarities to the nationalism of 1930s Italy and Germany, represents a radical departure from the nationalism that characterised the long struggle against British colonial rule. This needs to be explained in more detail.
An indirect means of examining this realisation is to explore why Mahatma Gandhi, for almost the entire duration of the nationalist movement resulting in Indian independence, never claimed to be a secularist in the way Jawaharlal Nehru did. Gandhi believed that secularism had arisen from the distinctive nature of European history, and because this history had no Indian equivalent, Indian secularism should not be seen as compulsory. In his view, the rise of the new sciences and their increasing centrality in European culture, beginning in England and then moving across Europe, had made justifications of state power focused on the divine right of the state, personified by its monarch, untenable. At the same time, a new form of political organisation was emerging in the wake of the Westphalian peace.
These developments converged to produce a radically new political outlook. State power now sought legitimacy in a far more mundane source. Legitimacy came no longer from theology, but for want of a better term, from political ‘psychology’. It rested on a presiding feeling in the people over whom it exercised power.
This was not a feeling for the state itself, but a new entity created by the Westphalian peace: the nation. Being defined to some extent in terms of territorial boundaries, the nation overlapped with the state. But the nation’s development was not complete until it had fused with a new form of state, integrating, through centralisation, scattered forms of power from previous eras.
Thus it was that the nation and the state became existentially combined, incapable of decoupling from one another, a fact signified by the hyphen that came to link them conceptually in the ‘nation-state’.
The population’s feeling towards the first half of this hyphenated construction, the nation, bestowed upon its second half, the state, a new form of legitimacy for the exercise of power.
Later, this feeling came to be referred to as nationalism, and the justification it provided for state power became both fundamental for and unique to modern Europe until it began to spread to other lands via colonial conquest.
Gandhi emphasised that understanding the emergence of secularism as a doctrine required closer scrutiny of the strategy by which this political psychology was generated across Europe. There was a method had its apotheosis in Germany during the Third Reich, although its essential work had been accomplished long before.
Nationalism was stirred up through the identification of an external enemy within the territory, an ‘enemy within’ described as a despised outsider to be policed as ‘the other’. Of course, by the time this method achieved its hideous culmination in Germany, religion played a reduced role in its application. The rhetoric of race loomed larger. However, in earlier European nation-building (and state-legitimisation) exercises, religion had often been a central factor.
When statistical forms of discourse were then applied to studies of social governance, the notions of majority and minority were developed and implemented, an approach described as majoritarianism.
Religious majoritarianism would often generate a religious minoritarian backlash. The violence this led to meant that nationalism founded on religious majoritarianism no longer appeared to be the source of the problem, even if it had been the fault line’s origin. Instead, religion itself came to be seen as a negative influence, contaminating the polity. Until religious influence was contained within the domains of civil society and personal life, far away from state power and the polity more generally, strife would continue. In this way, the doctrine of secularism emerged predominantly as a corrective measure, a counterweight to a process that had begun when nationalism was founded on religious majoritarianism.
As a consequence of Gandhi’s perspective on European history, he argued that because India had never undergone the nation-building exercises which resulted in the damage secularism was devised to repair, embracing it on the subcontinent would represent a pointless mimicry of Europe. As he argued in his 1909 book Hind Swaraj, which he later translated as Indian Home Rule, India had long been an unselfconsciously pluralist religious society with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians living side by side in a syncretic culture. Therefore, there was no need to impose the kind of self-conscious secularism that is only necessary when pluralism gets destroyed by religious majoritarian nation-building exercises, as had been the case for European nationalisms (Gandhi, 2009).
Gandhi sought to preempt the emergence of European-style nationalism in India by equating nationalism with a different idea, anti-imperialism. He aimed to build a movement drawing on India’s pluralistic religious traditions in order to oppose colonialism. Early twentieth-century India was, therefore, a place in which secularism had no relevance. India, since the 1980s, has been emphatically different in this respect, especially over the last few years. Under Modi’s leadership, India has replicated the worst of 1930s European nationalism, making secularism urgently important.
Besides the identification, despising, and subjugating of an enemy within – Jews then, Muslims now – several other similarities are worth noting.
Most importantly, the powerfully sinister paramilitary organisation of the RSS can be seen shaping the government’s ideological outlook. No other right-wing nationalism in the world has anything quite like this influence.
There is also the menace of a vigilante youth group, the ABVP, mimicking the Balillas of Mussolini’s Italy by bullying campus students who raise questions about caste, economic inequality, or Kashmir, etc. Critics of the government are branded ‘treasonous’ and ‘anti-national’.
Constant talk of caste purity echoes the racist attitudes towards blood and lineage of European fascism.
Finally, in precise correspondence with Mussolini’s definition of fascism, a convergence of corporate and state interests is demonstrated by the Indian government’s strident neo-liberal aspirations, which enjoy widespread – including middle class – support. This last point brings us to the fact of Modi’s compulsive authoritarianism.
We can make a safe generalisation from the history of nations over the last century: Democratic capitalist states, unlike authoritarian states, maintain order through what Gramsci called ‘hegemony’. The ruling class is able to hold sway by convincing other classes that its interests represent theirs. Authoritarian states lack this form of consent.
Either the current Indian government lacks the popular consent characterising Gramscian hegemony, or, despite having the consent of a broad swathe of the population, still tends towards authoritarianism. I believe that latter to be true and that this authoritarianism is pathological in a way that we may appropriately equate with fascism.
Let me ask why fascism is so puzzling. The problem is that we cannot explain its emergence as a by-product of tendencies within capitalism. The crises generated by capitalism may represent preliminary conditions for fascist developments, but they are not sufficient to explain them. Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik’s recent book importantly demonstrates how imperialism is central to capitalism (2016). The reason fascism is more mysterious to us than imperialism is that capitalism is not enough to explain it; we need to explore other factors.
2. US populism and the limits of modernity
Returning to the United States, it is hardly news to say that Trump is a xenophobe, a racist, and a misogynist. Both his personal statements and his policy proposals reflect these traits. Of course many were dismayed by his election, leading to protests of heartening scope. But the deeper issue is not how terrible Trump is as a person or leader, but why he was elected.
What does Trump’s election teach us about the American electorate’s instincts and dissatisfactions?
Trump’s most loyal support has come from working-class white voters. From the left’s point of view, this represents a classic case of false consciousness because the odds of his government concretely addressing working-class dissatisfaction are slim.
We might also remember that an even more classic expression of alienation played out when the African-American population voted in far larger numbers for Hillary Clinton than Bernie Sanders. Sanders would have done more for both working and unemployed black voters than Clinton, and this was a case of identity politics dominating over material interests.
It was Bill Clinton, in fact, who signed an infamous bill depriving many African-American and white citizens of welfare provisions. Hillary Clinton subscribed to the same neoliberal economic ideology as her husband had two decades earlier, despite the strategic concessions she made due to Sanders’ unexpected success. The Clintons are not racist in the social sense, but their approach to government would have resulted in more structural racism than a Sanders victory. Sanders paid the price for honourably refusing to engage in identity politics because it was largely the African-American vote that nominated his opponent, particularly in states that were bound to vote Republican in November.
The hand-wringing and hysteria which surrounded Trump’s election and post-election statements, although perfectly understandable and justified – the man is undeniably monstrous – could nevertheless promote a retroactive impression of intrinsic merit in the political establishment the Clintons personified. Trump’s constant attacks on the Clintons do not make them any more worthy of support than when pollsters declared Hillary president-in-waiting. To believe otherwise would be complacent. One reason Trump achieved upset electoral expectations was his repeated equating of the Clintons with the political and financial elites so many Americans had come to despise.
Unlike India, the United States has a two-party system that has traditionally seen consensus on fundamental questions of statecraft, in spite of the continual news cycle of party-political conflict. In C. Wright Mills’ words, Republicans and Democrats are ‘competing power elites’. Although they compete, they tend to find more agreement than is seen in democracies with some form of proportional representation. This makes it hard for anybody else to break in. Sanders made it as far as anybody working within the two parties could have done. Predictably, Democratic party leaders undermined his campaign. The party worked against him throughout the primaries, in subtle ways initially, and then more openly once he gained support. Clinton was favoured for the nomination, by the party, by Wall Street, and by just about everyone in the mainstream liberal media. While many well-educated progressives supported Sanders over Clinton, it was working-class voters who made him a serious threat to her candidacy.
Why was this? Working class voters blamed the establishment for the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath when politicians bent over backwards to help the bankers responsible for creating the crisis in the first place, rather than the ordinary people most hurt by it.
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign drew upon advice from a wide range of economists, including progressive figures like Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich. But immediately after winning the election, Obama basically zipped himself up in a Clinton suit and turned to figures like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, who had been bound up with the crisis. This made it clear that, for all of Obama’s rhetoric about hope and change, he was intent on acting as part of the political establishment. His onetime primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, was effectively anointed his natural successor in the Democratic party. It is perfectly understandable that working-class people fed up with the establishment would reject Hillary – whether they preferred Sanders or Trump – simply because they were tired of the status quo.
Although I agree that Clinton would have been better than Trump, repeating this risks reinforcing the idea that the US political establishment has intrinsic merit. A better way of resisting Trump’s abominable victory is by working to rejuvenate the Democratic party by steering it away from the neo-liberal orthodoxies of the Clintons. Sadly, that is unlikely, not only because the Democratic party seems incapable of learning from its mistakes, but because its leaders – as well as their mainstream liberal media stand-ins – continue to sneer at Sanders’ populism, as if it were every bit as distasteful as the right-wing brand Trump has so effectively exploited.
What requires far more careful analysis is not just the suffering of ordinary working people, but how deeply a sense of alienation has come to permeate virtually every society on the globe since the emergence of neoliberal economic policies in the 1980s. Alienation is, of course, a centuries-old phenomenon, but what has happened since the 1980s is a disheartening backlash against the humanitarian efforts of the post-war era when substantial gains were made in making the world more liveable.
When histories of political economy are written two or three hundred years from now, they will remark on how strange and eccentric a deviation the three decades after World War Two were, in the context of modernity’s long trajectory, and the rise of European capitalism in the early modern period through to its subsequent diffusion by imperial conquest. The top-down implementation of Keynesian demand management and accompanying support for humane constraints on capital now appears shockingly out of step with capitalism’s development, even though it had seemed to represent capitalism’s logical evolution to many at the time.
Present-day populism is rooted in the systematic dismantling of the post-war order, and should provoke reflection on alternative trajectories for the chronic forms of alienation seen in contemporary societies.
The reversals of the last three decades bring to light a remarkable and long-standing fact of political modernity: As soon as the Enlightenment had expounded the two great ideals of liberty and equality, it immediately developed them in theoretical terms that placed them in permanent and irreconcilable tension with one another. The Cold War was a crude and highly visible symptom of this tension, with each side accusing the other of pursuing one ideal at the cost of the other.
The more subtle form of this tension occurs within societies committed to liberty. Over the past seven decades, efforts to constrain capital in the wake of social-democratic or progressive electoral victories have been repeatedly frustrated by capital’s intolerance of restraint. Exceptions, on Keynesian grounds, have only occurred for short periods of time when major crises have demanded them.
I believe populisms of the sort we are witnessing now are both good and bad and will continue to recur whenever societies most feel the effects of failures to institutionalise capital constraints. This will continue unless we sustainably transcend the tension between our commitments to liberty and equality.
I do not believe that we can achieve this goal if we remain confined by the theoretical framework of modernity within which these two ideals were developed.
In order to extricate ourselves from the framework of modernity and conceptualise liberty and equality in a more productive way, we require a paradigm shift in political theory. Social democracy and the constraints it makes possible are incapable of going deep enough. In fact, the periodic return of social-democratic governance, honourable though it may be when sincerely pursued, is itself a symptom of the recurring tension between liberty and equality. It cannot be the solution if it is also part of the problem.
I believe the ceaseless trade-off between liberty and equality will never be halted without making the ideal of an unalienated life more central than the ideals of either liberty or equality. We need to reframe liberty and equality, not as ends in and of themselves, but as the necessary conditions for this more primitive, less abstract, and more human ideal.
Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy; Professor, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University
Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2005). Multitude. New York: Penguin Press.
Nehru, J. (2016). The Discovery of India. Cyber City, Dehli: Penguin Books India.
Patnaik, U. and Patnaik, P. (2016). A Theory of Imperialism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Piketty, T. (2014). Capital. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 Gandhi would later be echoed by Nehru in his 1946 book The Discovery of India.
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