Whose Populism? Which Democracy?

“Populism” conflates widely disparate political projects under one conceptual category. The term demands closer anthropological analysis.

The assumption that the popular classes are an ignorant, easily manipulated mass is not confined to the political establishment or the liberal corporate media. It is an assumption that many (otherwise) neutral academics may make as well.
“The new enemy.” In a recent column in El País, the Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa writes, “Communism is no longer the principal enemy of liberal democracy—of freedom—populism is.” In Spain and elsewhere, there seems to be widespread mainstream political and media accord that populism represents the most pressing danger to democracy as we know it. Yet, do we know exactly what we mean by“populism” when the term is deployed in this sense? Can this category be translated smoothly across national borders and political contexts? Most importantly, have anthropologists thought sufficiently about what this term does in the current political landscape before adopting populism as an analytical category? “Populism” is used to describe Trumpism in the United States, the Front National in France, Putin in Russia, or Brexit in the UK. But the adjective “populist” is also applied to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, Bernie Sanders in the US, or Podemos in Spain. We should be wary of a term that lumps together such antagonistic political projects. I would like to call for a more thorough reflection on the ideological load of the term populism, its relationship with conflicting understandings of democracy, and its adequacy for anthropological analysis.

Podemos and the rise of populism as political stigma

In Spain, the anti-austerity party Podemos has been challenging the electoral hegemony of the country’s two dominant parties: the governing People’s Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) since 2014. After almost a decade of economic crisis, years of corruption scandals, and the subsequent discrediting of the political establishment, Podemos rallied political discontent around a project that has nothing to do with the xenophobia or retrenched nationalism often associated with populist movements. And in this process the polysemy and contradictory uses of the term populism have become especially visible.

Following Laclau (2005), Podemos’ leaders—most of them political science scholars—defend populism as a positive democratizing strategy and movement. For Laclau, any progressive political change requires constituting the people as a collective political actor. Populism would in this sense consist of a process of incorporating the popular classes into the political arena. The leaders of Podemos have strategically tried to construct such a political actor (while remarking that any such thing as “a people” is always a construction) on the dichotomy el pueblo contra la casta (the people vs. the caste, or the political establishment). Above all, their idea of populism is based on an understanding of the political as inherently conflict-ridden and antagonistic, and it opposes a conception of the political as mere administration or technical management (that is, a technocratic conception). The party’s founders—Pablo Iglesias, Íñigo Errejón, and Juan Carlos Monedero among others—have defended these ideas as politicians and scholars in articles, interviews, and TV debates of considerable theoretical sophistication.

Podemos’ members Carolina Bescansa, Pablo Iglesias, and Íñigo Errejón during the foundational Asamblea Ciudadana “Sí se puede” (Citizens’ Assembly “Yes, it can be done”). October 18, 2014. CreativeCommons BY/NC/SA www.salvadorfornell.com

Yet, at the same time, these figures have found themselves accused by the political establishment and the media of championing a politically invidious and corrosive doctrine known as no less than populism. Laclau’s definition of the term is not at issue here. Nor any other definition, for that matter: the adjective populist is wielded as if it required no further explanation—it is just something politically unacceptable. Vaguely and polemically deployed, the term thus functions as a branding iron, a device of stigmatization. Conservative and socialist politicians have adopted a common mantra, echoed by the corporate media: “Podemos represents the populist danger in our country.” The wide-ranging and confusing use of populism in the media is exemplified by the headline “El populismo se vuelve contra Trump” (“Populism turns against Trump”) to describe the Women’s March on Washington on the front page of the conservative Spanish newspaper ABC, on January 22, 2017. The term has proliferated so much, both in frequency and meanings, that “populism” was selected as the Spanish word of the year 2016 by the Foundation of Emerging Spanish (Fundéu BBVA).

The ideological functions of “populism”

It is precisely this lack of definition of the term that makes “populism” so productive (not just in Spain, of course), and also points to urgent conceptual work yet to be done. In 2011 Jacques Rancière (2011, available in Spanish here) warned about the dangers of the indiscrete use of “populism” to characterize the rise of the Front National in France: this use insinuates that “the people” are agents of totalitarianism and racism and ultimately sends the message that there is no alternative to the current political status quo. Rancière calls populism an “amalgam-word” that conflates a democratic people with a dangerous mass. It fosters an image of “the people” as brute, desperate, ignorant, and bigoted—a human pack characterized by its irrational repudiation of both its ruling elites and those deemed Other. This media-strategic use of the term reduces all the discordant voices of political dissent—Trump’s, Grillo’s, Le Pen’s, Pablo Iglesias’—into one, equating them all with an open door to authoritarianism or even totalitarianism. This ultimately sends, according to Rancière, a clear ideological and delegitimizing message: there is no political alternative to those who rule us now. This use also conceals, I would add, a great deal of elitism and possibly an antidemocratic ethos masked as the authority of expertise.

The assumption that the popular classes are an ignorant, easily manipulated mass is not confined to the political establishment or the liberal corporate media. It is an assumption that many (otherwise) neutral academics may make as well. At the very least, the assumption is difficult to sustain empirically. In my experience, whether in my rural Mediterranean hometown, in Barcelona, or in the suburbs of Quito, xenophobia, dogmatic nationalism, and political irresponsibility cannot be attributed exclusively to non-college-educated, working-class actors. John Hartigan Jr.’s PoLAR piece on the 2016 US Election illuminates how these assumptions can mislead our analyses. Hartigan points out that, although a larger percentage of college-educated whites supported Trump over Clinton, assessments of the election have too often reproduced long-standing tendencies to locate the problem of racism entirely in the ranks of lower class populations.

Sign at the Indignados or 15M encampment in Plaça Catalunya, Barcelona. May 20, 2011. Josep Tomàs/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Which democracy?

In fact, the proliferation of talk about populism points toward a key issue in the current global political and economic context: the relation between democracy and expertise. The elitist assumptions and prejudices about the “common people” that underlie accusations of populism may very well be considered antidemocratic. In other words, these accusations open the question of what we understand by democracy—a political question that has become central in Spain since 2011. Should the popular classes participate in the collective decisions about social organization? Or should those decisions be left in the hands of a certain type of experts? Are technocratic modes of governance really democratic? In the US, after the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, these questions came to be framed and continue to be framed as a dichotomy between the rule of experts vs. post-truth chaos and Orwellian authoritarianism. Yet the question in democratic terms is not about rejecting expertise per se—it is about bringing to light the hierarchies and authorities that legitimate certain types of expertise, and subjecting them to mechanisms of democratic control and popular participation. In other words, expertise is political and thus should be reintegrated into the realm of collective decision-making.

As Laclau has pointed out, the pejorative use of populism is bound to a technocratic conception of power according to which only the experts should design, and decide about, social organization. Indeed, one of the tenets of neoliberalism has been extracting the economy from the realm of the political and handing it to a certain type of experts: economists of a Hayekean stripe. The results, as we all know, have been catastrophic for many in Spain, Southern Europe, and elsewhere. The Indignados’ demands for “real democracy” in the Spanish plazas in 2011, distilled into the motto that “we are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers,” the thematic of the 99 percent at the center of the Occupy movements—these are among the many contemporary banners that question the democratic quality of our so-called liberal democracies (which, as Lilith Mahmud has suggested, are not that liberal).

“Real Democracy Now! We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers.” Madrid, May 15, 2011. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 ES)

Anthropologists have much to contribute to these conversations, but we need to question the operability of a category that lumps together any alternative to neoliberal democracies and that associates racism, xenophobia, and political irresponsibility with the popular classes. The assumptions underlying accusations of populism must be examined carefully, and more conceptual work is needed to understand the use and performativity of the term in each context, and to determine whether and how we can use “populism” for anthropological work. Following Marilyn Strathern and Donna Haraway (2004), “It matters which categories we use to think other categories with”—and “populism,” as a thinking technology in this sense, is of crucial importance at this political juncture. It is being used to frame and think through fundamental issues for our political present as well as the prospects of global democracy, and an anthropological sensibility can, and should, bring light to just what is at stake when we use this conceptual category.

Víctor Giménez Aliaga is an anthropology PhD student and Fulbright scholar at Rice University. His research focuses on the ongoing transformations of contemporary political cultures in Spain and, specifically, on the practices of knowledge-making and modes of expertise that are shaping new democratic imaginaries around the idea of the commons in Barcelona.

Further reading:
Haraway, Donna. 2004. The Haraway Reader. New York: Routledge.

Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Rancière, Jacques. 2011. “Non, le peuple n’est pas une masse brutale et ignorante.” Libération. January 3, 2011. http://www.liberation.fr/france/2011/01/03/non-le-peuple-n-est-pas-une-masse-brutale-et-ignorante_704326.

Cite as:  Giménez Aliaga, Víctor. 2017. “Whose Populism? Which Democracy?” Anthropology News website, May 18, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.454

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