‘This is a true story.’ Every episode of FX’s black comedy and crime drama Fargo begins with this superimposed text. Gradually the word ‘true’ evaporates and we are left with ‘this is a story’. After we are informed of the time and place the alleged true story is set, we are told: ‘at the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred’. Of course, it is all fiction. But the deliberate interplay between ‘true’ and ‘story’ suggests that we often regard the narratives we imagine and create about ourselves, no matter how preposterous, as true. The delectable dubious villain of season three, V A Varga asks the protagonist Emmit Stussy, ‘Do you think that if you believe honestly that a Lie is true, it is true?’ ‘I don’t know,’ replies Stussy. ‘It’s your story.’
Fibs projected as true stories. That is what populism is all about. Like all stories it has elements of truth. And like all stories it is fiction in the true sense of the word, involving falsehood, lies, misrepresentation, untruth. But the stories are enticing and emotionally charged. They are held to be totally true by those entranced by populism.
The word itself can be applied to all variety of political and ideological positions. It has been applied to movements and their leaders, policies and manifestos, on the Right as well as the Left. Always used as a finger of accusation, it implies that the accused is manipulative, corrupt, and high-handed. The emergence of both Trump in the US and Brexit in Britain is seen as populist. But it cuts both ways. Right-leaning media commentators have, in turn, characterised the rise of the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders of the US as alarming examples of populism, albeit of the socialist variety. So, is populism merely in the eye of the beholder? Does the label carry an undertone of political sour grapes or scaremongering? If Trump is a populist, then what about India’s Narendra Modi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, or Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro (and Hugo Chavez before him)?
In everyday usage, ‘populist’ seems to apply to any person, movement, or regime that tries to appeal to ‘ordinary’ or ‘little’ people. In the 1980s, however, scholars became perplexed by a new breed of Latin American politicians who mobilised incredible public support while implementing neoliberal policies that, on paper, should have been anathema to ‘ordinary people’. This is when the term ‘neopopulism’ made its debut in academic debate. And, for a while, Latin America seemed to be the natural focus for commentaries on populism in academia, journalism and popular culture – remember Evita? Now with the rise of the far Right in Europe and America, when it has spread worldwide with the devastating speed of stage 4 cancer, populism has gained much wider currency.
The consensual definition comes from political scientists Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser who present populism as an equation with two sides. Populism, they suggest, is a form of politics that pits ‘a morally virtuous people against a corrupt elite’. Let’s leave morality and virtue aside for a moment and focus on the other side of the equation: corrupt elite. Well, there is no limit to their corruption. The ruling elite almost everywhere are on the whole corrupt. In America, the Congress and Senate do the bidding of corporate lobbies. In Britain, there is a revolving door that takes politicians to well-paid jobs in the city, the media and corporations. Look at the lucrative post-politics careers of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and Conservative Chancellor George Osborne. Russia is ruled by an oligarchy of criminals. India is awash with corrupt political elite at all levels. In Pakistan, a populist movement led by former cricketer turned politician, Imran Khan, has ousted the incumbent Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, on allegations of corruption – to be replaced by someone who is just as corrupt. Indeed, it will be easier to discover the proverbial pin in a haystack than to find a politician in Pakistan who does not face allegations of corruption. In South Korea, two prime ministers have resigned in quick succession due to corruption charges: Lee Wan-koo and Sung Wan-jong. In Indonesia, the popularly elected man of the people, President Joko Widodo, is knee deep in corruption charges. Ditto Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Rodrigo Roa Duterte of the Philippines, and most political leaders in Eastern Europe.
But it is not just the politicians who are unprincipled. Consider the ability of CEOs to award themselves obscene salaries and vast bonuses regardless of performance and make absurd profits from company liquidations. The gall of pharmaceutical corporations to implement profit margins of thousands of per cent. The transformation of universities into covetous corporations. The insatiable greed of Wall Street and City of London. As Paul Wilmot and David Orrell show in The Money Formula, the financial markets are a big fraud. We have recently learned that the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), the framework for trillions of dollars of daily transactions that has operated for decades, is a fiction! It is not just that banks manipulate LIBOR. No. They make it up – like a story. As a group of bright economics students at Manchester University discovered, much of what they were being taught was made-up stories. No wonder they rebelled. What we are being taught, they declared in their guarded language, is ‘econocracy’: economics that is ‘disproportionate to our state of knowledge’, ‘too narrow in its technical focus and too broad in its social impact’, and places ‘excessive degree of policy power in the hands of technocrats wielding them’. In other words, mostly junk. That science has been steadily corrupted over recent decades is now well established. Way back in 1972, in his seminal work, Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems, my friend and mentor Jerry Ravetz argued that the industrialisation of science was corrupting it from inside. Since then he has been charting the continuous expansion of this corruption. Even mathematics, that symbol of objective purity, has now been corrupted: big data, artificial intelligence, algorithms are all, in the words of Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction. When human behaviour, performance and potential is reduced to mathematical formulae, they tend to reinforce discrimination, reduce the accountability of those in power and create ‘a toxic cocktail for democracy’. Soon racist bots and algorithms will take over the whole world making most human beings surplus to need. And there is no redemption from art, the secular foundation of redemption, which is essentially a highbrow and banal market-driven commodity. Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton finds the 2017 Venice Biennale to be little more than ‘monuments to hubris’. From being the Olympics of the art world it has now become Game of Thrones. The media too is drenched in corruption. The salary controversy at the BBC is just the tip of the iceberg. The so-called public service broadcaster, seen by many as the doyen of impartiality, was revealed to pay vast salaries to its ‘talent’ (and executives) while discriminating against women and ethnic minorities. On the whole, producers and researchers at the BBC are badly paid; and journalists for the World Service, who often risk their lives to do their job, are at the bottom of the pile. As Jon Snow, presenter of Channel 4 News notes, ‘the echelons from which our media are drawn do not, for the most part, fully reflect the population among whom we live and to whom we seek to transmit information and ideas’. The media ‘are comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact or connection with those not of the elite’.
A few years ago, my friend Ashis Nandy, the celebrated Indian public intellectual, got into trouble by merely pointing out that corruption has been democratised in India. It is not just the conventional elite who are corrupt but the emerging elite amongst the dalits, the marginalised and oppressed untouchables, are similarly disreputable. The dalits took great offence and tried to take Nandy to court. But the democratisation of corruption is now a universal phenomenon. However, it is not just that corruption has now reached all levels of society and has become an integral part of the system. The point is that corruption is the system. It manifests itself in the inherent inequities of capitalism, the sleaze of the global financial infrastructures, the bankruptcy of socialism (vide Venezuela), the tyranny of the majority in electoral democracy, the ineptitude of governance, the cynicism and unaccountability of those in power, the increasing irrelevance of some academic disciplines, the wholesale marginalisation of populations including working class communities, and alienation of youth who have no prospects and hence no hope. So the ‘morally virtuous people’ are totally justified in standing up to both: the corrupt elite and the inherent corruption of the system that sustains the world; they are, in fact, the same. The challenge is to change the system without the ‘hatred for the traitors and the corrupt’. As Nandy notes, ‘once you let loose this other form of populism, political institutions have little control over it. For the vigilante groups operating as mobs behave as if they have been left free to define sedition and moral corruption’.
The other side of the equation is all about hope. The ‘morally virtuous’ find themselves in a position where they have nothing – not even hope. Populism, in its different disguise, becomes a source of optimism and a vehicle of expectation. The problem is not so much populism per se but the subject of hope – what exactly the populist movements desire. The populist movements led by Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Saunders in the US place their faith in accountability and democratic reform – the hope is that this would lead to a more just and equitable society. The populist alt-right, white supremacists and Nazi movements in the US place their hope on racial purity – they believe that blacks are inferior and should be, in the words of Ibram X Kendi, the author of a notable history of racist ideas in America, ‘segregated, incarcerated, enslaved and eliminated’. They hold similar views about Muslims, Jews and immigrants. So we cannot equate these two types of Left and Right populism. To treat them under the general rubric of ‘populism’ would be as absurd as denouncing, as Trump did, both the torch-wielding far right marchers shouting ‘blood and soil’, ‘white lives matter’ and ‘Jews will not replace us’ and the counter protesters who gathered to oppose them at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on 11 August 2017. Similarly, the populism that swept Emmanuel Macron into power in France created a new political party in just over a year, marginalised the conventional Conservative and Socialist parties, and brought numerous fresh faces into the Senate and National Assembly cannot be compared to the populism enjoyed over the years by the far right Front National. Neither can the populism of Imran Khan in Pakistan, discussed by Raza Ali, be equated with the populism of Frauke Petry, the smiling face of Germany’s fascism that frightens Leyla Jagiella. To bundle all variety of populisms into one lump, under a single definition, is, in my opinion, a category mistake.
A good example of an all-embracing definition is offered by Gordon Steffey via Ernesto Laclau who argued that ‘populism is defined not by ideological contents but by a “logic of articulation” or formulary for the promulgation of any contents whatsoever. It is a logic with no specific commitments or, if you prefer, is open to any specific commitments, left, right, and centre. This is why it has been possible to describe Le Pen, Thatcher, Chávez, and Perón as populists, and why too our sitting US President now joins this merry band. What defines populist logic is its embrace of diverse ideological demands and its homogenisation of their diversity in a shared antagonism to power’. I am not sure whether such a broad definition is useful as an analytical tool. Thatcher may have been populist but she was not a white supremacist like Le Pen (Père); and the ideals and goals of the followers of the two were/are distinctively different even when some of the rhetoric may appear to be similar. Thatcher was very specific in her ideology, her commitments, and her precise goals. ‘The pestiferous Leaderene’, as Merryl Wyn Davies describes her, ‘laid waste to swathes of Britain and the lives of large numbers of ordinary people’ in her quest for ‘the ideological purity of market forces’. Both Thatcher’s populism and the populism that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power and turned Iran into a theocracy are right wing yet quite distinctively different. Steffey reminds us of Laclau’s observation that ‘there is no populism without discursive construction of an enemy: the Ancien Régime, the oligarchy, the Establishment or whatever’. That’s probably one of the two common elements in all varieties of populism. For Thatcher the enemy was the welfare state; for Le Pen it was anyone who was not French as he defined it; for Khomeini it was excesses of modernity as exemplified by the Shah of Iran. The other common element is the construction of the popular: in Laclau’s words, ‘populist discourse does not simply express some kind of original popular identity; it actually constitutes the latter.’
An alternative approach to populism is to explain it in terms of propositions. This is what Bart Bonikowski, in a much cited paper, tries to do. Populism, he argues, is a discursive frame, not limited to the Right, not new and is (primarily) not an ideology. Certainly, right-wing populism is hardly new in the US: fascism has deep roots in American soil going back to the Silver Shirts movements in the 1930s, when it was comfortably embraced in the shape of eugenics by highly respected academic institutions. In the 1980s, it re-emerged as Friendly Fascism, the title of Bertram Gross’s insightful 1980 book, when Big Business and Republican administrations came together to manage society in the interests of a rich and powerful elite. Trump is a direct beneficiary of that manoeuvre. Europe too is not a stranger to populism. The far right movements in Europe are building on a well-established history. Sindre Bangstad, in his contribution to this issue of Critical Muslim, presents three propositions on right wing populism in Europe: the ‘people’ in populism is neither any people, nor your people; it’s not (only) the economy; and for all their talk of ‘religion’, the faith of populist right-wingers is largely faithless. I would suggest that in certain types of populism, the economy does play an important part. The ‘people’ often become fodder for the factories that sustain neoliberal economies. When the factories move elsewhere in search of cheaper labour, the people are left abandoned. They do not have skills, resources, the ability or motivation to leave their communities and move away in search of employment. Not surprisingly, they turn to those who claim to represent their interests – the tub-thumping, Bible chanting demagogue of the far right, who is, in the words of Barnaby Rogerson, ‘a bewitchingly brilliant speaker-leader, who achieves absolute mastery over his people through his evil genius and then like some mad self-selected Demi-God leads them off towards their ultimate destruction’. But, Rogerson tells us, the demagogue ‘was initially just a leader of the people drawn from the people’.
The people? There is a strange category for you. For one thing, people get blamed for everything. Both Brexit and Trump have been blamed on white working class people. Even the fact that they suffer from unemployment and poverty is their fault. But while constantly decried and neglected, they are invoked whenever it is politically expedient. As Bangstad notes, ‘much scholarly ink has in recent years been spilt on figuring out exactly who “the people” to which right-wing populists every so often refer actually are’. And the populists, both of left and right, claim that they and only they exclusively represent the people. The Urdu word for the people is awaam. In Pakistan, writes Raza Ali, ‘politicians, political commentators and religious leaders all routinely use the term Awaam to refer to an entity which harbours the same emotions, hopes and opinions as themselves’. But, Ali says, he has never met this ‘mythical group’.
What would ‘the people’ look like when you actually come face to face with one of their members? The answer is provided by the French intellectual Didier Eribon in Returning to Reims. Eribon is a historian and social critic who happens to be gay. He left his working class home in Reims, largely because of his father’s homophobic views, to pursue an academic career in Paris. And he never looked back: he hated his father who becomes a symbol of loathing for his working class background, which he worked hard to hide, a price of admission to the elite intellectual circles of Paris. Decades later, he is forced to return home to the ‘garden city’, which was basically ‘a reservation for the poor’, at the pleading of his mother, who drives daily twenty kilometres to the nursing home where his father is dying. He never had a conversation with his father: ‘he was not capable of it’. His mother, ‘slave to motherhood’, was violent; and spent most of her life cleaning houses. Eribon is shocked by the fact that both his father and mother, who were staunch communists, now support the Front National. Eribon traces the history of his parents and grandparents and is astonished at the grinding poverty of their lives, the education system that is designed to dump them on the scrap heap, their isolation and loneliness, and the abandonment of the entire working class by the European left in its embrace of neoliberal rhetoric and policies – ‘the naked violence of exploitation’. ‘When people write about the working class world’, Eribon says, ‘which they rarely do, it is most often because they have left it behind. They therefore contribute to the social illegitimacy of the people they are speaking of in the very moment of speaking about them’. Why would these ‘working class people’ abandon their left leaning politics to embrace an extreme right-wing party?
There comes a moment when, being spat upon, you turn the spit into roses; you turn the verbal attacks into garlands of flowers, into rays of light. There is, in short, a moment when shame turns into pride. This pride is political through and through because it defines the deepest workings of normality and of normativity.
Much the same can be said about those living impoverished and isolated lives in the banlieues, the ghettoes outside Paris.
So populism is based on a string of long and deeply established trends. Ashis Nandy traces it back to the French Revolution. Now, it has brought us to a moment when, to use the word of James Ball, the former specialist project editor of the Guardian, ‘bullshit’ has become ubiquitous. Evan Davis, presenter of BBC’s Newsnight, suggests the bullshit is wrapped in a dual mystery: ‘why would anyone be taken in by the stuff if it is blatant nonsense’ and ‘why on earth is so much breath wasted on producing it’. What all this bullshit means is that we are entering the era of ‘declining value of truth as society’s reserve currency’ with the simultaneous and infectious spread of ‘pernicious relativism as legitimate scepticism’, says Matthew d’Ancona, columnist and former editor of conservative weekly Spectator. A ‘post-truth’ panic amongst journalists has led some to produce instant tomes to defend their corner. (One ought to point out that these are the very chaps who, according to Jon Snow, got almost everything wrong in the past year: ‘The Brexit referendum: we got it wrong. Trump defied so-called experts, pundits and journalists alike. Theresa May’s general election: we got it wrong’. Even the June 2017 Grenfell Tower inferno, which killed at least 80 people, could not be reported with due consideration for the victims, Snow anguishes). Indeed, books on post-truth have become a small cottage industry.
Like populism, bullshit – half-truths, lies, damn lies and manipulation by statistics – is also not new. The West has been selling bullshit as History to the rest of the world for at least two centuries. Orientalism, as constructed lies, has an even longer history. We live in a culture saturated with advertisements, which are basically lies, often blatant lies. Popular press and certain television channels constantly publish lies with impunity. As Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters for America show in Lies, Incorporated, mega corporations sell lies on a mega scale and fight and suppress anyone who stands against them: tobacco companies, oil giants, health insurers, arms manufacturers – it is quite a list. And there is an industry that is dedicated to the promotion and dissemination of these lies: the lobbyists and the PR goliaths. The case of Bell Pottinger who are accused of inflaming racial tensions in South Africa is the most recent example. The PR firm promoted its pernicious narrative by incorporating it into speeches of politicians, press releases, broadcasts, websites as well as slogans. Given the extent of such activities, it is not surprising that we have reached a ‘double-bind’ that Ashis Nandy analyses with evident skill. One segment of ‘the people’ fully believes these lies to be true. Climate change deniers did not emerge overnight; they were produced, curated and nourished for decades. The other segments had had enough of such lies and have lost all trust in politicians as well as public institutions, including the media.
D’Ancona’s ‘pernicious relativism’ also has history that goes back several decades: it is called postmodernism. In fact, we can pinpoint the date when postmodernism emerged as an all-encompassing trend: the publication of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge in 1979. Postmodernism triumphantly declared that ‘grand narratives’ are meaningless, that all truths, whether based on science, religion, history, tradition, or ideology, whatever their source, are totally relative and, as such, as bad as each other. This philosophy, which became an arch ideology, fuelled academia, architecture, philosophy, fiction, cinema, television, fashion and even shopping malls. The arrival of Trump, the iconic face of Post-Truth, is hardly surprising given that we have been systematically, and quite comprehensively, nudged towards accepting the fallacy that all truths are relative.
What is really new is that a number of deeply embedded trends – from postmodern relativism to the isolation and marginalisation of whole swathes of society, from cavernous inequities of capitalism to the eager embrace of neoliberalism by the Left, from globalisation to the rapid growth of technology – have crashed together. The end-product is a globalised, networked society where things happen rapidly, often simultaneously and globally. Complex networks have a tendency towards chaotic behaviour. Accelerating change and contradictions enhance complexity, generate positive feedback, and regularly take us to the edge of chaos. We call it postnormal times, where social media makes it possible for insignificant groups who operated on the margins to connect with fellow travellers instantly, to transform themselves into complex, ever changing networks, and create chaos. Such groups can not only shape the centre from the periphery but actually occupy the centre. Paranoia, to use the words of d’Ancona, takes centre stage.
Under such circumstances, it is easy to be overwhelmed. Abdelwahab El-Affendi sees the Muslim world in the grip of a triple plague: populism, corrupt despotism and terrorism, ‘each is its own worst enemy’. ‘Populism’, El-Affendi writes, ‘is an attack on Western societies and values, before being an attack on minorities and foreigners. Despotism is a war on the people, just like terrorism. Groups like ISIS come with a self-destruct mechanism, but not before devastating the communities they infect. The evil alliance between terrorists, Islamophobic populism and despotism will usher in a dark age of experimentation with old-style colonialism, as Europe goes back home to its Islamophobic dark ages’. Richard Appignanesi sees populism as an ‘existential condition’ without a cure, leading us toward ‘an immense, tragic and ineluctable loss of world’.
While there are reasons to be pessimistic, it is perhaps not the best prescription. Postnormal times are a call to arms: an invitation to challenge our assumptions and biases about the contemporary world and possibilities for the future. It demands that we interrogate our sense of what we have accepted, and continue to accept, as ‘normal’ and ‘conventional’. The important point to note about all varieties of populism is that each tells lies about the other and believes its own lies, particularly about itself. But it is not just the populist we need to stand up to. We also need to interrogate the lies we tell about ourselves.
In the third season of Fargo, the villainous V A Varga makes a key observation: ‘the problem is not that there is evil. The problem is that there is good. Someone who cares’. We don’t need heroes. Just good people. There is hope as long as there are ‘morally virtuous people’ who care; and embody the old-fashioned virtues of human dignity and worth, equality and social justice, compassion and forgiveness, humility and patience, sincerity and thankfulness, courage and self-control. This is the moral compass we need to navigate a system that is at the edge of chaos, when a hasty move can have serious, unintended consequences which can tip the system into collapse. A modicum of imagination and creativity would not go amiss either.