Until recently, populism hid a double-bind. For it carried with it two perfectly contradictory sets of associations. Both sets had direct connections with the French Revolution, the mother of all revolutions that can still be called the paradigmatic revolution. However hard Karl Marx might have tried to scientise history, by giving it a social-evolutionary thrust and by linking it to a brand-new concept of revolution with a clearer modern connection and a new scientific and moral status, his theory of revolution remains tied in public imagination to the romance and adventure of the revolution of 1789.
Some of the popular sayings and beliefs about the French Revolution – sayings such as ‘a revolution always consumes its own children’ and beliefs such as ‘virtue is helpless without terror’ – were applied to the October Revolution verbatim. Either to condemn or to justify the terror associated with the Russian version of the game. The Soviet regime also sired less colourful but more ambitious versions of Maximilien Robespierre in several parts of the world to ‘normalise’ the large-scale killings in the name of revolution in the Soviet Union. Yet, the slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity survived such instrumental use of ‘surplus violence’ and managed to inspire numerous struggles for freedom and dignity all over the world. Even in far off India, Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), the first social and religious reformer of modern times in South Asia and the representative of the Mughal Emperor in the British court, invoked the values of the French Revolution in some of his correspondence with French authorities.
The French revolution was a spontaneous, popular rebellion that changed our world irrevocably. To millions of its admirers all over the world, for all its excesses, the French Revolution was arguably populism’s grandest, most creative moment. This brings us to the other avatar of populism associated with 1789, which entered the world stage at around the same time. It, too, has shown its resilience by intermittently becoming the dominant presence in many societies, over the last two hundred years – sometimes as a political strategy, sometimes as a major strand in the culture of democratic politics. This populism is associated with the fear of the mob setting the pace of politics and sometimes running amuck in spontaneous, one-sided violence, as in lynch-mobs, witch hunts, kangaroo courts and other similar instances of instant justice. In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens neatly captures this split heritage of the French Revolution in the very first sentence of the novel.
In Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd, a pioneering effort, there is the presumption that the simplified ideology or idea that holds a crowd together comes from its leader. This now needs qualification, to accommodate the growing role that mass media has begun to play in mass violence. The role of state controlled media and mass-based political parties in mobilising ‘de-individuated’ mobs through appeals that enter the homes and the private lives of the citizens with their simplified ideological messages is now a part of normal politics in many countries. A mob now may not need a crafty demagogue of the calibre of Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the role a humble medium – state controlled radio – played in that genocide. It was probably the most momentous use of radio since Orson Welles in 1938 triggered panic in the United States through a documentary-style radio play based on the novel War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. (That unintended ‘experiment’ in mass behaviour is now routinely taught in courses of social psychology and in communications. There is controversy about the seriousness of the impact and the element of premeditation in Wells, but there is little doubt that the event has remained a milestone in the social psychology of mass behaviour and mass psychology. The Rwandan experience, at one level, took the early ‘experiment’ to its logical conclusion.) In Rwanda, a small country of about 7 million, four-fifths of a million were killed in record time, probably most of them within ten days. There were cases of even husbands killing their wives belonging to other ethnic groups.
This darker version of populism, of course, breaks out not only in epidemics of instant violence or mob justice, but also in shrill appeals made to the potential vigilante groups to endorse policy choices that promise to disempower the elite and the ultra-elite, or at least clip their wings. Either in the name of nationalism or as an attack on their moral bankruptcy. Such appeals now ritually invoke not love for the nation or financial probity but hatred for the traitors and the corrupt. 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.
Such freedom to define enemies is now seen as a necessary part of mass mobilisation and, in its humdrum version, as a necessary ingredient of a decentralised electoral campaign. An atmosphere of fear is created and it silences everyone who disagrees with the killers and their patrons within the law-and-order machinery and in the higher rungs of politics. It is psychologically easier to mobilise people on grounds of hatred—fear has a subsidiary role in that hatred—exactly as dystopias in literature touch us more deeply than do utopias.
Both President Trump of the United States and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India came to power riding the crest of this version of populism. Both hate the sharper edges of their own campaigning style when that style is deployed against them, to discredit their regimes or to bring them ‘undeserved’ infamy. Both subtly communicate to their minions and constituencies that excesses may not be tolerated but their right to ‘legitimate hatred’ will be fully protected. This bifocal communication is handled so deftly that it seems to be a major strength of this strand of populism.
Unknown to its practitioners and protagonists, this double-think has a systemic impact. On the one hand, it works as an angry populism that addresses the frustrations, rage and sense of betrayal of the dispossessed and the displaced, seeking to assign responsibility and identify targets. During the French Revolution, the rebellious mobs found clear targets in the aristocracy and the clergy to give their uprising its distinctive character and its paradigmatic status. Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger is an excellent comprehensive account of this part of the story.
Today, despite such attempts to assign responsibility and locate targets, a part of the task remains incomplete. For, often, the other side of the anger is the confused, uncomfortable feeling that its targets are invisible because they are impersonal, vaguely defined and can only be glimpsed through a complex maze of institutions. When Donald Trump speaks about Washington politicians or vendors of fake news, it is a generic condemnation, not a specific accusation. No genuine debate can take place on the subject, for the only thing real is Trump’s contempt for his enemies and his free-floating anger. It is that anger that seals the bond between the mob and a much larger political constituency in the form of a transient ‘pseudo-community’ of the lost, the marginalised and the excluded.
Such generic anger gives its sponsors distinct political advantages. It allows local leadership to instigate or organise local vigilantes to find local targets based on local grievances. You bypass the problem of educating the vigilantes in complex ideological issues and, yet, give them the feeling that they are participating not in a local feud but in a much larger national or global mission. Let me give an example.
The last time lynching broke out in the United States was in the 1950s in the wake of the civil rights movement. It made global news. Now, after nearly seventy years, it has broken out in India on a larger scale. And, unlike in the United States in the 1950s, the Indian state does not give the impression of being an impartial ruler; the ruling regime is ambivalent towards the lynch mobs. If anything, the regime would like to dismiss the instances of lynching as stray criminal acts that the police can handle, but it also knows that the perpetrators are supporters of the regime and expect some degree of impunity, despite what the Prime Minister might publicly say.
Two other forces underwrite the long life of the lynching epidemic in India. First, there is the attempt, deliberate or incidental, to reduce the citizenry to a mass of passive receivers of messages from the mass media and consumers of centralised propaganda. Mass communications through television and social media have come to India relatively late and those exposed to them are yet to develop a healthy scepticism towards the fare dished out for their consumption. Like Trump’s constituency, Modi’s too is willing to trust only its leader; the rest of the world, it believes, has ganged up against him.
Second, in Western Europe and North America, at the beginning of the twentieth century, one-way communications – books, newspapers, radio, public lectures, sermons, TV, cinema, etc. – were only a small part of all communications. The rest were bilateral or multilateral. By the end of the century, one-way communication had grown enormously and in many sectors occupy more than 90 per cent of an individual’s available time. This growth is accompanied by the spread, popularity and reach of what could be called ‘total media’, the forms of media where, little or no scope is left for the imagination of the audience to work on; the audience is reduced to being passive consumers of messages. Almost all its sense organs are engaged in ensuring total immersion in someone else’s imagination. A novel or a short story allows you to imagine on your own the looks and voices of its various characters, the landscape and homes where the events take place. Depending on the way the novelist has entered your mind, you can enter the story in different ways – as a passive observer or as a direct, active, participant observer. Even a staged play, though it may sometimes come close to being total media, forces you to re-imagine the context and the location, by not allowing you to be fully immersed in the experience of seeing and hearing. When the surgeon general of the United States advises you to restrict television viewing to 45 minutes a day, he or she probably has in mind the run-of-the-mill movies and shows.
Total media is habit-forming. Once you allow it to seduce you into a virtual world that gives you the feeling of belonging, there is much less space for the world in which you otherwise live. It has been estimated that an hour’s television news covers roughly only the news on one page of a newspaper. Yet, it gives you the feeling that the hour you have spent in front of the TV has equipped you to understand, comment upon, and judge the flow of global events of the day. That you are ready to vote, be politically active, and decide the future of your country on the basis of that exposure. The narrowness and superficiality of such media exposure is lost on you because you are not alert to the political design behind the message.
The dominance of one-way communication in our interpersonal world is also facilitating the emergence of a new kind of citizen. David Riesman in his book The Lonely Crowd called them the other-directed ones, products of a mass society where many forms of sociality, family and community ties have weakened. He had in mind a society that had shed many of its primary ties and is increasingly peopled not by inner-directed persons guided by personal values and choices but by mass media, advertisement and peer-driven choices.
Today, in some societies, this other-directedness may have acquired a more sinister dimension. Authoritarianism is not only imposed from above. There is also demand from below for a more controlled, militarised democracy, some form of ‘developmental authoritarianism’, theocracy or, for that matter, an ideological state fulfilling its promise outside its democratic mandate. This is a theme that has been explored at different times by Wilhelm Reich in The Mass Psychology of Fascism and in Woody Allen in his movie Zelig.
The archetypal presence of the French Revolution would not have been possible without the spread and the reach of mass media in our public life. Elections in major democracies are becoming like advertisement wars and election campaigns have increasingly come under the control of media experts and media tycoons who determine the tone and the postures of candidates according to the preferences of the electorates culled from opinion polls. Ideological differences and visions of a desirable society no longer have any role in an election. Nor have ethical concerns and critical awareness of the way voters are controlled and manipulated.
Thus, democracy in plural, mass societies is facing dangers it has never previously faced. Because democratic choices have themselves begun to throw up leaders who would have been considered morally unworthy in earlier times. Many political parties now have ‘fixers’ who can give you designer riots and customised demonstrations to ensure your electoral success or the defeat of your rivals. Such interventions are no longer considered aberrations, but normal ploys of politics. But there are other less ominous implications of the return of populism in the electoral arena.
First, given the expanding capability of media technology and the spectacular growth in the destructive power of modern wars, populism may not perhaps remain a sustainable political strategy. Populism’s shrill, chest-thumping foot soldiers have always wanted to live with the risk of war, but now that walk on the margins has become more perilous. And even the most inept populist leaders can quickly figure out that surviving in a partially open politics requires something more than tall promises, gifted media consultants, and a docile press.
Second, populism presumes a certain innocence in the consumers of populism to be truly effective. If you are vending stereotypes about an ethnic community, floating rumours about a conspiracy being hatched by an enemy country or promising prosperity to everyone within five years flat, there has to be a gullible public not eager to be sceptical towards its chosen leaders. I have already mentioned that complicity between the rulers and the ruled.
A functioning, open, democratic order is an unheroic affair. Populism, in whatever form, distorts or negates that basic premise and advances a heroic, dramatic solution to a country’s problems. It does so by ‘temporarily’ abridging civil rights, introducing a militarised version of nationalism and a garrison-state mentality, and by altering the political culture of a country to host some form of ‘developmental authoritarianism’.
Fortunately, most populist leaders, once they come to power, soon reveal their iron fists and rule not by the spirit of the Constitution but through various desperate measures that would sustain their regimes. These measures further expose the weak, insecure persons behind the mask of hyper-masculine, theatrical heroes fighting the enemies of the country outside and within its borders. When their regimes finally collapse – yes, they do finally collapse without exception – their supporters are crest-fallen to discover that the number of the country’s enemies has suddenly shrunk dramatically, but not the number of the country’s problems.