Protesilaos Stavrou
Philosopher. Polymath.

The shadow play of "populism"

I listened to the Project Syndicate podcast Understanding Economic Populism (published on 2019-08-27). The title is misleading because it does not offer any real insight into the specifics of the topic at hand. The discussion revolves around the tenuous binary of liberalism vs populism, where the former ostensibly represents prudent policy-making with an eye for its longer-term implications, while the latter stands for opportunistic measures that simply feed off of people’s fears.

The impression I got out of listening to this episode is that I have heard these same arguments a hundred times over. As such, the present essay will address the topic without being limited to the specifics of the given podcast. Here are some general remarks before I delve into the specifics:

  • The term “populism” is inherently problematic. It is not properly defined. It does not refer to any one group. For an analysis to have credibility, both clarity of concept and precision of statement are required.
  • Any social-political research programme that examines economics in a vacuum is fundamentally misguided. You need to look past economic indicators: start examining the distribution of power and control within the political whole in order to appreciate the interplay of economic factors beyond their phenomenality.
  • On the economic front, mainstream economists repeat the same-old fallacy that plagues their profession: that of thinking of indicators as mere mechanics that are detached from actual human beings. A closely-related fallacy is the belief that their exhortations and appeals to scientific objectivity are freed from tacit moral assumptions.

There is no populism as such

Whenever someone groups together the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Viktor Orban, Jeremy Corbin, Yanis Varoufakis, other leftists, etc., you know they are making broad generalisations that cannot withstand scrutiny.

The argument is that these politicians belong together because they all allude to “the people” as a means of forwarding their agenda. The populist, the thinking goes, is one who juxtaposes an idealised people with an oppressive elite or some other group that labours against the general good.

But this too is fundamentally flawed. For all the politics of modernity can be characterised, in one way or another, by its commitment to the wellness of the people. The very constitution of the United States of America is formulated by “the people” (“We the people”), implying that power springs from—and is ultimately exercised by—the totality of citizens. The French Revolution gave us Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which is, prima facie, about the citizenry being in charge of their polity (I analyse this in my essay Against the secularised theology of statecraft).

Every politician that runs for office must always demonstrate their commitment to the commons. No one ever got elected by outright claiming to oppose the interests of the many. Even authoritarian leaders claim to exercise their rule with the well-being of their subjects in mind, either explicitly or by alluding to a proxy such as “the homeland”.

Practically every country on the planet is instituted as a nation-state which rests on the idea that the nation—the people in its cultural-historical continuity—is identified with the state apparatus that operates within the confines of the homeland. Again, the tacit claim is that “the people” are in power and that the task of governance is to serve their interest.

International law, the very fabric of modern world affairs, is built on the principles of nation-statism. Practically every aspect of our politics is designed to offer the impression of catering to the masses.

Yet the self-righteous analyst who toils against ‘the populists’ will blithely insist on using the term “populism”, as if they have discovered something new; something that improves the instruments we have for describing phenomena. What happens instead is to create confusion, to counter ambiguity with greater ambiguity, blanket statements with more of the same, and to ultimately provide grist to the mill of those who thrive on misinformation.

Analysts of this sort will argue that populists share the defining feature of seeing the world in binary terms: the people against the elite, us against them, the virtuous majority facing the treacherous minority. The contradiction they fail to recognise is that this line of thinking follows the same pattern of contrasting absolutes: the populists versus the liberals, the cosmopolites versus the nativists, etc.

The truth is that political reality is far more complex. Rather than arguing for either of the extremes, we must appreciate the spectrum of possible combinations and permutations in between the various analytical constructs. And, most importantly, we must understand that there are several factors that need to be accounted for, in order to reach any tenable conclusion.

There is a place for generalisations: to understand broader trends, or the abstract structure of various epiphenomena of political organisation. But the general must not be conflated with the particular. When speaking about specific persons, groups, political parties, governments, etc. we must keep generalisations to a minimum, else make it clear that such claims would require further qualifications in order to properly describe the state of affairs.

The analyst who cavalierly propounds arguments against some fictitious group—against ‘the populists’—is an analyst in name only. But perhaps such a case is not as innocuous as someone being wrong, since those people tend to form part of the intelligentsia. They hold positions of authority. They are in contact with governments or powerful economic interests. They are given a platform to spread their falsehoods (e.g. a podcast on Project Syndicate). And so on.

The gigantist distribution of power

Every introductory course on economics or political science will, at some point, expound on the equality of the agents in the system. It comes down to the following:

  • In a modern democracy all citizens are treated the same way, all have the same opportunities to achieve flourishing.
  • The role of politics is to establish a level-playing field where equality is actualised and the forces of the market can deliver their blessings.
  • Along those lines, capitalism is touted as an inherently fair construct. Since all members are subject to the same rules, every economic outcome, even if undesirable at first, is ultimately contributing to a net positive (it maximises utility) due to how rationality on the macro scale supposedly works out.

Any outright undesired effects of economic activity are described as a “market failure”, while any shortcomings in the political process are attributed to a number of factors with ‘the populists’ being the new bugaboo. At any rate, the fundamental assumption of fairness and equality as the core attributes of the legal-institutional architecture are never put into question.

The real world, however, does not conform with these idealised notions because it has a feature that is omitted from textbooks: the distribution of power and control.

Take, for example, the freedom of speech. You will notice how the platforms where someone can voice their opinion are controlled by a handful of people or corporations, such social media silos like Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin (Microsoft), or by media proprietors like Rupert Murdoch and Axel Springer SE. Yet the naive politician will keep on touting “media pluralism”…

The same sort of concentration can be found in every sector of economic activity. A small group of software giants dominates the tech industry. The banking industry is an oligopoly with strong symbiotic ties with public institutions, by means of central banking, fractional reserves, implicit state guarantees, outright bail-outs, etc.

Capitalism is the ideology by which state intervention must be made in the interest of the capital-owners. In practice though, capitalism creates two types of capital owner: the platformarchs and the platformzens. The former are those who own critical infrastructure, essential intellectual property, the very access to the industry (the concentration mentioned above). The latter are the ones who can only operate on top of what the platformarchs render possible.

This binary, when combined with political reality, can be reduced to a distinction between security and precarity. The government will never allow a platformarch to go out of business because they are “too big to fail”. In a similar fashion, political elites find it expedient to favour the expansion of platformarch control, because it makes it easier to perform various tasks of governance. It is easier, for example, for police authorities to have a detailed profile of someone who was active on social media, since all data is already collected, collated, synthesised. Taxation becomes more straightforward when every transaction goes through the banking system. And so on.

In turn, platformarchs use their resources to promote politicians who will do their bidding. You think you have a right to run for office: modern democracy is all about equality and such. Well, good luck finding funds, getting media exposure, and so on, while still retaining an independent voice…

As such, political and economic elites feed off of each other. The state apparatus and the platformarchs have a symbiotic relationship that extends to every aspect of public life. This is the oligarchy of our times which, in truth, differs only in its surface aspects from the feudal order of yesteryear.

I term this phenomenon gigantism. A self-conscious hierarchy with the tendency to concentrate more authority at the top; a hierarchy whose purpose and destiny is to expand its reach and proliferate.

The cornerstone of this order is the sanctification of property and the treatment of intellectual property as of equal or superior status to its physical counterpart. The platformarchs hold the legal titles that allow them to extract rent, but also to assiduously and unscrupulously combat any form of competition. When that is not enough to secure their position they will simply buy out any rising challenger, such as how Facebook has acquired Instagram and WhatsApp, further consolidating its status as the de facto portal to the social web.

What the mainstream economist will consider as the ordinary operation of the free market is, in fact, the reinforcement of the two-tier economic order of capitalism (platformarchs and platformzens). The so-called “free market” is but a stratified one. Politics is no different, given how individuals of a certain background or with the right connections gain access to power.

Against this backdrop, it is pointless to talk about modern democracy and capitalism as essentially just and egalitarian. To do so would be to substitute reality with ideology. Our very experience tells us that not all of us are treated equally, not all businesses enjoy the same level of protection, not all voices are granted a megaphone with direct access to the wider public… Yet we are indoctrinated in lauding the establishment for its fairness and we are constantly bombarded with disinformation about how good things are and how any faults are primarily of our own doing.

It also is quite telling how the intelligentsia has found an expedient answer to any potential problem: ‘the populists’ are to be blamed. As such, the talk about populism functions as a meta-narrative: an ex ante rationalisation of theories about the underlying soundness of the present order, as well as a prior legitimation for any labelling technique against those who may question the status quo. Now every argument against the establishment is stigmatised as populist, therefore, as essentially equivalent to the governance of Putin, Erdogan, and co.

An example of this cheap trickery is the very excerpt of the aforementioned Project Syndicate podcast:

For the last several years, populist leaders have wreaked havoc on the institutions and norms that have underpinned the liberal world order. And their policies are increasingly placing the global economy at risk.

It conveniently ignores the fact that said liberal world order produced the economic crisis in the first place and did everything within its power to ensure that the losses where distributed to the many, while the profits stayed with the few. Unless, of course, the likes of Alan Greenspan and the chorus of economists/apologists who touted “efficient markets”, as well as the policy-makers that were in charge during the crisis, are all part of this illustrious group of populist leaders…

Enough with this nonsense!

Economistic ideology and moralism

It is common for economists to speak of economic indicators without recognising the underlying human aspects of them. Part of that is legitimate when doing specialised research. But it turns out to be highly problematic when directly converted into guidelines for policy initiatives without further interdisciplinary feedback.

A case in point, though far from the only one, is the concept of “human capital”. On the face of it, this is a technical term for describing a factor of production. Nothing untoward about it. However, the dehumanisation of individuals and their subsequent treatment as raw input has the following side-effects:

  • Humans are treated as interchangeable, without any real downsides. Like cogs in a machine.
  • Humans are extracted from their cultural-social background. They are decontextualised.

From these follows a core of tacit moral claims that disguise as scientific insight:

  • A pro-migration stance that only sees individuals as easily relocatable resources. This encourages mass migration which, in turn, increases the competition for domestic jobs and, thus, the precarity of those with an occupation. The economist’s pro-migration stance is an implicit affirmation of the positives of precarity for the maximisation of business gains.
  • The perpetuation of the myth of the “rugged individual”, the homo economicus who moulds its destiny by sheer force of will. This mythical being optimises its behaviour by thinking on the margin (in economic parlance) and by being prepared to migrate once the conditions demand as much. This means that the person is no longer attached to their locality, their community and, more importantly, their land.

The combined effect of the above is summarised thus:

  1. A vicious cycle of uncertainty for the majority of people. It is why people are willing to tolerate such egregious conditions as unpaid internships, work without extra benefits during Sundays or holidays, long hours well beyond the purported 8-hour shift, etc. Reported unemployment indicators can be used to deceive the public, as they typically disregard such qualitative aspects of reality.
  2. Precarity pushes wages downward, while capital gains continue to increase. This effectively translates into an irresistible drive for a more uneven distribution of resources and control. Combined with the expansion of platformarch power, this results in the further entrenchment of oligopolies in every sector of the economy. As such “capital gains”, typically refers to more benefits for the economic elite.
  3. People are encouraged to become even more individualistic and to stop thinking about camaraderie. Emphasis is placed on their mobility and flexibility. They must remain detached from other people in their proximity, since they are all replaceable with relative ease. Meanwhile, platformarchs know all too well how to join forces when pushing for government reforms that suit their interests.
  4. There is an ever-greater concentration of arable land—land in general—in the hands of new aspiring feudal lords (platformarchs getting into agriculture). This contributes to the erosion of local communities and thus to the collective disempowerment of the people involved. In turn, this sets the stage for a fully-fledged recrudescence of manorialism and feudalism. Whenever people realise that life in the city is unsustainable due to exorbitant living costs and return back to their village they will find out that their commune has become nothing but a large consolidated title held by the new local baron who serves yet greater interests.
  5. Brain drain is never recognised for what it actually is: a form of colonialism. Instead “human capital” from underdeveloped countries is encouraged to move into developed countries in droves where their skills can add greater value to the economy. The pernicious effect of brain drain is a structural degradation of life in the country of origin, a form of impoverishment and critical resource depletion, that decisively diminishes its capacity for innovation and cultural fulfilment. Brain drain also lowers the defences of a country to the speculative attacks of vested economic interests from developed countries.

The notion that representative democracy has made us all equal is ludicrous. Just as there is no genuinely free market in a capitalist order that produces and favours platformarchs.

In short, the mainstream economist’s exhortations have ideological underpinnings and moral assumptions that favour a specific state of affairs. They are not objective, at least not to the degree proper science would demand. It is why they should be considered economistic rather than outright economic observations.

Still, the economist qua apologist of the status quo will pretend to be free of bias and will insist on us “listening to what economists have to say”; to listen to the economists that are promoted on the establishment’s media platforms to remind us how great things are…

The focus on populism is a distraction

The overarching theme here is that we should not get dragged into the fake dilemmas that the intelligentsia wants to impose on us. Just as we should not take their every word at face value. Furthermore, we must not entertain the beguiling fallacies and selective reasoning of economists who imply that because we do not live in absolutely brutish conditions, we should be eternally grateful to capitalism.

On the topic of populism, politicians such as Trump, Salvini, Orban, conform with my analysis that the extreme right is the new right. There is nothing new about them. Just a recurring theme among conservatives. While the likes of Putin and Erdogan need to be examined in the wider context of their respective country’s cultural-historical path dependencies, where it will be made clear that, yet again, the talk about “populism” is misplaced. A similarly inquisitive approach must apply to the various left-wing politicians that are described as populists.

Much of the public dialogue—which is not public given the centralised control of the media—focuses on the vaunted threat posed by populists. We are conditioned to worry about problems that do not really exist and to place disproportionate emphasis on minor details. All while the greater issues that define our times are altogether ignored or talked about as natural constants or benign by-products of an inherently virtuous political order.

This is the challenge we are facing: to cut through the misinformation and to recognise pseudo-science on the spot. In parallel, we must be prepared to mount an offensive against the forces that seek to control every aspect of our life. For that we need to cultivate the values of communitarianism and localism; to understand that the true answer to gigantism is the replacement of the status quo with a distributed system of largely autarkic and autonomous collectives.