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Substantive Populism

Against the devaluation of a term

In this article, Professor of History Federico Finchelstein argues that, despite its overuse and conceptual stretching, the category of populism is worth preserving if we want to understand our current political moment. The original Spanish version of this article can be found at Argentina’s newspaper Clarín. This piece was translated by Lucas Ballestin.

A policeman tells a political activist: “stop doing populism!” This recent scene, which took place in the context of the police’s repression of a protest at the gates of an occupied factory in Vicente Lopez, Argentina (the Pepsico case), may seem unique, but it is also a telling symptom of the current age of populism. The story is ephemeral, and in fact it’s the result of an equivocation: a police officer, whose daily job should be looking after the public’s safety, confuses Trotskyist politicians (themselves quite critical of populism) with populism as such. The policeman also reduces a theoretical and historical political concept to a tool for dismissing the defense (proper or improper) of popular demands.

This Argentine case of an anti-populist cop is connected with a number of presidential declarations ranging from Mauricio Macri of Argentina to Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico, along with several others, like Britain’s ex-PM Tony Blair. For all of these leaders, populism signifies a sort of illegitimate opposition, for it opposes the kind of exemplary politics that they pretend to represent.

These political leaders defend a problematic understanding of how society should be ruled and organized, which is to be run as if it were a large company. This view reduces problems and complex political situations to the idea that the market is above all, including the opinions of the citizens and social conflicts. As the German thinker Wolfgang Streeck put it, from this technocratic and neoliberal frame of reference, popular sovereignty is displaced by the sovereignty of markets. In political terms, this implies that all who disagree are cast as populists.

For their part, the populists in fact deny popular representation and democratic legitimacy to those who disagree with their ideas, their peculiar style and their authoritarian forms of leadership. The managers and those populist leaders who claim to be the voice of the people share a profound disinterest in the actual opinions of their citizens. To put it differently, they both disqualify their adversary, and by depicting them as either the anti-people (the populists) or as the enemy of specialized know-how (the technocrats). In short, the populists are those politicians who combine an authoritarian conception of democracy with messianic leaders. These leaders offer absolutist conceptions of the people as an extension of their own desires and fantasies, and cast their rivals as enemies of the people, traitors to the nation, and lackeys for, or members of, the elite.

The technocrats, who often imitate populist tactics, identify the populists as symbols of a demagoguery that is ignorant of the knowledge of the experts. Of course it is likely, though difficult to tell, that these rather philosophical issues are beyond the interest of our anti-populist police protagonist.

However, even in an era in which some observers dismiss the concept of populism because it is so often utilized merely as an insult — which leads them to conclude that this use of the term populism purely as a form of criticism disqualifies its usefulness as a conceptual category — in our everyday reality, the concept of populism remains part of the popular vocabulary.

The task is thus not to discard the concept of populism but rather to rethink it in terms of its history as an idea about politics, and of its uses and abuses in the public sphere. The hollowing out of the term through its purely negative use should not allow us to disavow the real phenomenon. To ignore the idea of populism leads historians back to a problematic debate with their sources.

This approach undermines our ability to properly understand the issues at hand. The issue is not to either reject or embrace populism, to become enraged at it or happy with it. If many of Trump’s followers or his detractors speak of populism, or if populism becomes a rallying flag, at first conceptually and then politically (as was the case of the late Argentine thinker Ernesto Laclau and his followers) our duty as historians is to interpret it. Deploying the concept of populism while simultaneously questioning its adjectivization can help us to better grasp what is happening today.

Thus, the case of the Argentine police officer who frames his actions as against populism might appear unique, but it is not. In the context of contemporary Argentina, this episode makes such positioning more relevant but, as is always the case in our history and our habits, few things are really new. Better said, Argentina may in any case broadcast or exemplify, to a greater extent than other countries, a certain political vocabulary that is already global. Argentina, it is well known, was a world leader in this respect: a cyclical factory of populisms, and of the dictatorships that opposed them. In the country where populism was founded as a regime in 1945, the first anti-populist dictatorships also emerged, from 1955 to 1976.

But if Argentina was a world leader in populism and other authoritarian forms of power regimes, it has now ceded this dubious first place to the United States. Trumpism represents the last version of populism in power and in this context, the use of populism as an adjective rather than a noun with a substantive historical meaning has intensified.

Populists and anti-populists dismiss each other yet need one another in their quest to gain power, doing politics through the banner of proper names and proper colors without clear programs; defining themselves through their opponents, and more importantly, occluding the possibility of doing democratic politics differently.

Federico Finchelstein

  • michael

    That’s all fine and good, but where is the actual interpretation of populism in substantive terms? I see no reference to any of the voluminous work on the topic, from Lefort, Kazin, Goodwyn and Morone to Canovan, Mudde, Taggart, Arditi, Näsström, Urbinati, Espejo, Rancière, Butler, Frank, Grattan, and numerous others. How about at least acknowledging the deep and enduring disagreement over the meaning and origins of populism—the one that Laclau purports to resolve by identifying it with political ontology as such? And what are we to do with the fact that references to populism, pro and con, presuppose a range of competing, often incompatible, conceptions of democracy itself? This would seem indispensable before we decide whether or not the concept is useful—and for whom.

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