There are solid reasons why the populist tendency in politics now seems ubiquitous
20/10 2015 A quick formulation for the phenomenon of political populism could be: a tendency that gains in traction to the extent it departs from reality. To flesh this idea out it will be important to define what “reality” stands for in this equation. More of that to come.
First, some laboring of metaphor. Populism allows for a politics of aspiration, cut loose from the anchor of pragmatism. It’s an idea of a polity adrift that assumes eventually it will have to be hauled back to the dock. This means someone like Donald Trump, currently frontrunner by a wide margin in the Republican race for US Presidential nominee, cannot in the real world be the captain of the ship. Or he could be, if he became a different Donald Trump, one whose insalubrious personality and “policy views bordering on gibberish” became subordinate to the time-honored protocols and procedural methods by which the real business of government happens in the US. You see the problem here?
Like an America that cheered raucously for the Pope on his recent visit there, mostly because he represents his own special category of celebrity, the Trump phenomenon exhibits specifically American characteristics of being overblown and pretty much indifferent to the facts. By contrast, recent events in Greece provide a more European example of traits inherent to the populist tendency. In July this year, upon receiving diktats from another pulpit, that of the so-called Troika, for bailout conditions that include ongoing harsh austerity measures, the ruling Syriza party used a referendum to ask the Greek people whether to accept the terms. When the result of the vote was “no” (over 61%), the party promptly turned around and accepted an even harsher deal to secure the Troika’s bailout. “SYRIZA” may be an acronym that stands for Coalition of the Radical Left, but the political party that acts under its name can’t escape the fact of its membership in a transnational economic order, one that supersedes the interests of any one nation state that might benefit from the lifeblood of its own capital. This conflict between the will of the Greek people, succinctly expressed in the July 5th referendum, and the acceptance by its elected leaders of the bailout’s punitive economic measures points to a wider dilemma. In an article in which Slavoj Žižek calls Syriza’s response heroic (because pragmatic), he also writes: “The “contradictions” of Syriza are a mirror image of the “contradictions” of the EU establishment as it gradually undermines the very foundations of a united Europe.”
Shifting down to a micro-level, I draw personal anecdote to suggest a parallel between the situations in Greece and the US. A friend in New York, highly regarded by me, recently told me she would consider voting for Trump but never Hillary Clinton because she “takes money from Monsanto.” Throwing caution out the window, I’ll go ahead and say I believe Hillary Clinton, like Barack Obama, are both progressive politicians. Yet to state such a belief is to strain my own standards for credulity because of the degree to which both are in the pocket of corporate interests. Even if Clinton takes money from lobbyists who also work for Monsanto or Exxon this is simply a necessity, a reflection of the massive scale of resources required to run for President in the US (unless you are a billionaire). Taking this into account is not meant to excuse Clinton, but it certainly does provide an example of the “reality” I mentioned earlier. In both countries, legacy political institutions are more or less functioning according to the global standard, and yet remain mired in the “three C’s” of politics when conducted as usual today: complexity, compromise and outright corruption. As Žižek, well-known expert on the topic of the Real, says: “The lesson of the Greek crisis is that Capital, though ultimately a symbolic fiction, is our ultimate reality.”
If I used nautical metaphors earlier on in this text to evoke the idea of a political moment losing its connection to reality, I’ll revisit the concept but with on-the-ground imagery this time. In a previous post, I spoke about the risk innate to populist politics of the polity straying into “uncharted territory.” What this means is concessions made to the immediatedemands of the voting public as channeled by a populist politician are arguably incompatible with the larger legislative workings of government. Events in Greece provide a very recent example here in that no short term mechanism exists to implement the people’s desire for change expressed by the July 5th referendum. This includes the option of a so-called Grexit, which Zizek points out in a follow up article was in fact “the enemy’s plan.”
By the same token, concerns such as the everyday effects of our era’s massive income disparity lack an obvious democratic remedy within the current system. The politician or political party ready to acknowledge these facts1 will get voter traction, but at the same time be considered not serious candidates by the political establishment. The reason for this is apparently that mainstream political operatives exist simply to function as the respectable face of the economic system that backs them. Against the prevailing sense of deadlock this situation creates, our moment sees many proposed alternatives emerging. If they are in inchoate form, that’s okay. To state merely that an alternative is needed is the first step. This after all would seem to be the gambit made by the Occupy movement, which proposed itself as a model form of direct government. Working in a self-organized fashion and without mediation of a political representative, its gesture was to occupy the ground of the present. If Occupy has moved on to other initiatives, it’s important to recognize that the movement anticipated many of today’s developments, not least the addition of the term 99% to our vernacular. It’s a conceptual tool that may prove decisive in the emerging political landscape to come.
This is one of ten posts written to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).
1) For instance, the currently surging in the polls, independent US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Sanders was interested less in academic arguments…than in hard numbers that “exemplify the disparities he sees and feels and hears about from people.”