The Origins of Populism: Bogus-Democracy and Capitalism

By Seren Selvin Korkmaz and Alphan Telek - 03 January 2018
The Origins of Populism: Bogus-Democracy and Capitalism

The reality of racism, hatred, anger, insecurity and inequalities is spreading irresistibly. There is no way of escaping from all these daily phenomena unless there is an alternative systemic project to challenge it.

In the past, when a country was suffocating, it could be aired by opening the windows to neighboring countries. But now we do not have this resource any more. In neighboring countries the air has become as unbreathable as in ours. 

The concept of ‘left-populism’ that has been attributed to emerging democratic and justice-based political movements throughout the world, including such entities as Podemos, Syriza, France Insoumis, the Five Star Movement, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour and Bernie Sanders' alternative political agendas, involves a misconceptualisation. We offer a new concept called “left-transformation” to explain the policies of those movements and argue that they are not populist, and that their programs are in fact anti-populist and based on justice. In this first piece, we will focus on the concept of populism, elaborate its origins and invite the reader to rethink the concept. Our second article will explain why we use the concept of ‘left-transformation’ and why it is a more radical way of forming a political strategy for those movements.

It is apparent that global society is experiencing a severe oscillation in its political, social and economic spheres. This oscillation stems on the one hand, from inequality, precarity, poverty, the resurgence of racism and the rise authoritarian regimes throughout the world; on the other hand from democratic and justice-based movements whose goal is to ensure equality, liberty and fraternity in their societies. That is to say, the polarization is deepening and societies can now be divided into basically two camps: conservatives and progressives. "The tyranny of the majority" which is becoming the hegemonic power in many countries threatens the notion of “plurality” and targets minorities, intellectuals, democrats and migrants as enemies. Under these circumstances, the uncertainty of the future both politically and economically rattles the everyday life of people, inhibiting any expectations they may have of prosperous lives.

The aura of the current era has created an illusion in academic and political debates, which has led to its being described as "the age of populism". However, we argue that populism is just a morbid symptom of this age. In his famous work Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci argued that "the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear ." Today, once again humanity encounters a crisis while capitalism is in its death throes and the new order cannot emerge. However, we believe that as Milton Friedman opined, " only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.” The history of the world has witnessed progressive movements arising from periods of crisis, resulting in gains for basic human rights and producing democratization waves.

Today, there are similar signs of the emergence of new progressive movements throughout the world such as Podemos, Syriza, France Insoumis, the Five Star Movement in Italy, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and Momentum, and Bernie Sanders's alternative political groups in the US. These movements are based on issues of justice and equality. However, they have faced two dangers: (1) the fusion of populist politicians and international mainstream institutions and media, and (2) academic mischaracterization of such movements.

With regard to the first threat, populist and mainstream leaders often label newly formed democratic movements “utopic” or “politically impossible” in the political realm. The movements headed by such figures usually base their power on fear and anxiety and often successfully persuade the masses into believing that “there is no alternative”, to inhibit the spreading of hope and courage. As for the second threat, in academia, those movements are described as “left-wing populist”. Using the notorious concept of "populism" for these movements undermines their progressive ideas and capacity to change. Hence the need, spelt out in our second article for the concept of “left-transformation”.

What is populism?

Today, populism is addressed as a dominant political phenomenon throughout the world. We argue that populism is a real threat to the consolidation of justice and democracy, deepening polarization in the society and manipulating information. Although it is a very popular topic in academia and a rising phenomenon in politics, the literature on populism is scattered. Theoretical debates on populism have not reached a consensus over the definition of the concept: instead there is a consensus on its vagueness and elusiveness. Thus, to define the anti-populist and progressive characteristics of left-transformation movements we will explain our approach to the concept.

Populism is mainly explained in the literature as a political strategy, discourse, ideology, and kind of policy.[i] Prominent academics like Benjamin Arditi, Benjamin Moffitt, Cas Mudde, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Margaret Canovan have explained the concept in various ways. We will elaborate populism as a kind of policy-making rather than a well-structured ideology. However, such policy-making, it is generally agreed, is a pathology of democracy.

The existing literature on populism has consensus on three main characteristics: First, populism divides the society into two camps: “the people” and “elites”. Second, the people and elites are in an antagonistic relationship as two homogeneous groups: "the pure people" versus "the corrupt elite". Third, populists argue that people should be the sovereign in politics and all obstacles against this notion should be removed.[ii] However, is it possible to label any political movement a populist one just because it is against the establishment and refers mainly to “the people” in its discourse? How can we distinguish the inclusive and justice-based political programs of the transformative movements under this general heading?

In this respect, we believe that Jan-Werner Müller’s comprehensive conceptualization is helpful to define the distinct characteristics of populism. In his book, “What is populism”, which was published in 2016, Müller argues that populists divide society in two but attribute legitimacy only to themselves and the people who support them. By people, populists refer to "people like us"; others are illegitimate and a potential enemy. Populist politics asserts that the main source of the existing problems in society lie in those intellectuals, journalists, academics, judicial members and terrorists and whoever else are captured by them into one very large spectrum. Thus, populism is based on an exclusionary perception towards sections of society. It is a moral way of imagining the political world, and this kind of politics of morality cannot as such be consolidated. [iii]

Muller points out that not everyone who criticizes elites are populists. Populists are anti-pluralists by claiming that they alone represent the people and all other political competitors are essentially illegitimate and not part of "the people". According to Muller, populists do not aim to create a participatory democracy. Their resort to referendums is not a path taken to encourage the participation of people in government, but arises from their wish to be confirmed by “the people” for their acts of power. Populists argue that only they can determine the will of the real people.[iv] Muller asserts that when populists govern, they engage in occupying the state, mass clientelism and corruption, and suppress civil society. They can write constitutions but those constitutions are designed to keep them in power in the name of the popular will. [v]

It is obvious that populism is a pejorative term in the sense that it is accepted as “a pathology of democracy”, and populist leaders are recognised as political manipulators who act on behalf of their own interests by using “the common people” to their own ends. On the other hand, there are also ongoing debates on the necessity of populism as a catalyst for ultimate democratization, and on populism as the “inevitable product of democracy”.[vi] Muller argues that populism is not a corrective for liberal democracy but that it does help us to understand the reasons for the current proliferating problems of the existing system. Furthermore, we believe that the rise of populism heralds the simultaneous emergence of progressive movements in politics which can recognize the sources of populist tendencies in society.

The origins of populism

We believe that there are two main reasons for the emergence and rise of populism: bogus-democracy and capitalism. While the former creates and deepens political inequalities, the latter attains the same end in the economic realm. These two aspects are not interdependent from each other but interrelated. The rise of populism mainly stems from people's search for a new form of representation as a result of a political and economic impasse. However, populism does not offer a solution for these inequalities and insecurities: instead it deepens the existing problems. Furthermore, populist movements have prompted the suppression of basic rights. Populists in governments combine with contagions of bogus-democracy and capitalism to create countries where people are more precarious, fearful about their future, frustrated, lonely and angry.

We argue that populism is based on a very specific way of reading social conflicts to use them to disseminate and consolidate their ideas. Albert Hirschman defines two kinds of social conflicts: one is the conflict of “more or less”-“divisible”, the other is the conflict of “either-or”-“non-divisible”.[vii] It can be argued that until the 1980s, class politics still had an influence in the political arena. Class politics is based on the conflict of “more or less” and this conflict can be overcome with a politics of redistribution. To be specific, working classes demanded a more just distribution and equality in both politics and economics by using their unions and political parties as intermediaries. Although class politics has a conflict at its roots, it does not terminate the political discussion on such conflict. However, “either-or” conflict does not allow any discussion. In politics and society, this conflict can be formulated as: “you are religious or not, you are like us or not, you will participate like us or you will leave the country.” This strict division of society is the highest level of identity politics. The demise of class politics and the rise of identity politics since the 1980s has severely narrowed the political spectrum. Worse, identity politics has been turning into a politics of finger-wagging morality under the impact of populism.

The predominance of identity politics has created a political and social crisis and triggered populist movements. Populism as a kind of policy-making pursues “either-or” divisions and does not attempt to create a policy agenda that gets rid of conflicts. Furthermore, today we have reached a stage of bogus-democratization, whereby the democratic principle has deteriorated and the participation of people in politics has been constrained to a democratic shell. By bogus-democracy we refer to a political system where democracy is confined to a voting mechanism, checks and balances in the system are undermined and political and economic power is in the hands of the establishment, the barons of the established order, a fusion of plutocrats and political elites.

However; the reason for populism is not confined to identity politics and the politicians who exploit it. Another important cause is the capitalism which creates severe inequalities and insecurities which are reflected in everyday life. Rent-seeking barons who dominate the economic and political areas benefit from profits; but the burden of the loss is carried by ordinary people. Each person carries this burden of financial and political crisis in their everyday lives. Although there is some amelioration after crises, the continuity of systemic crises, the never-ending passion for rent-seeking and the remorseless commodification of basic resources have created and deepened poverty, resentment, frustration and exasperation in society – feelings that soon turn to anger.

The commodification of basic needs and the expansionist notion of a rent-seeking capitalism as well as political inequalities within and across countries create both domestic and regional wars. Politicians and international institutions who are expected to prevent those wars either support the wars, or become incapable of preventing them. As a result of this, people have to leave their home countries and become refugees.

Migrants are exposed to exclusion in host societies that lack social and political justice. The future which is on offer from the populists promises people an image of better living conditions by getting rid of the refugees, minorities or any possible perceived threat to their future. The idea of “sharing the bread which is already too little with the strangers” is used by populists as a fear that underpins the unequal and unjust hegemonic order of the current age. Moreover, the increasing flow of migration and governments’ failure to provide inclusive migration policies exacerbates the polarization and racism in host societies. Migrants are specifically targeted as the source of those inequalities and conflicts in society.

There is another story in the non-western countries. This time it is not the refugees but the opposition labelled as terrorists who are coded as the source of all problems. While the migrants are coded as the source of social and economic unrest by western populists, the progressive opposition become the targets of populist demagogues in the non-western countries by being labelled ‘terrorists’. Intellectuals, journalists, academics are marked out as the main reason for insecurity, precariousness, poverty, and exclusion in society.

Seeking those who are guilty for the existing crisis is a recurring historical phenomenon. After the Great Depression of 1928, fascism raised and created violent consequences for humanity as a whole. Today, in the lack of inclusive and alternative agendas to cope with problems, people embrace populist ideas throughout the world. Even the developed countries which are known as the front-line of western democracy experience the rise of populism such as Trump’s leadership in the US, the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Alternative for Germany.

To sum up, the world is in a systemic stalemate. The reality of racism, hatred, anger, insecurity and inequalities is spreading irresistibly. There is no way of escaping from all these daily phenomena unless there is an alternative systemic project to challenge it. However, these inequalities, which stem from bogus-democracy and the dynamics of capitalism have simultaneously established the ground for alternative movements that have the potential to transform the daily lives of people and show them the possibility of an alternative perception of a just society where they can live prosperously as equal and free members. Their programs focus on the establishment of social and political justice. Although they are coded as left-populism both in academia and in the political arena, we insist that they are not populist. In the second article, we will explain why we refuse to apply the term to these alternative movements and why this distinction is a must for all people who desire to live in a just future society.



Seren Selvin Korkmaz is Fox International Fellow in Macmillian International and Area Studies at Yale University. She is the co-founder and vice-chair of Political and Social Research Institute of Europe (PS:EUROPE). twitter:@selvinkorkmaz Alphan Telek is a PhD candidate at Science Po Paris and Boğaziçi University, İstanbul. He is the Director of Turkey Office of Political and Social Research Institute of Europe (PS:EUROPE). @AlphanTelek

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[i]  Yunus Sözen(2017) Demokrasi, Otoriterlik ve Populizmin Yükselişi, p.10.

[ii] Yunus Sözen (2010) Politics of the People: Hegemonic Ideology and Regime Oscillation in Turkey and Argentina, Unpublished Dissertation, New York University, Department of Politics. pp.237-238

[iii] Jan-Werner Müller (2016), “What is Populism”, University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 38.

[iv] Ibid. p. 101

[v] Ibid. P.102

[vi] Christa Deiwiks (2009) “Populism.” Living Reviews in Democracy.

[vii] Albert O. Hirschman (1994). Social Conflicts as Pillars of Democratic Market Society. Political Theory 22 (2):203-218.

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