Pop Populism

Salman Tarik Kureshi explores the concept of populism as a political method which can be used by both Right and Left

Pop Populism
No-one understood the concept of power better than that greatest of playwrights William Shakespeare. Back in the 16th century, the idea of power or the loss of it was at the centre of many of his plays. The Bard of Avon perceived that power is everywhere, and that it has many forms – with almost a postmodern Foucauldian insight.

Take the well-known play Julius Caesar. If I may be permitted a few over-simplifications, we see several different kinds of power at play in this work. There are the Senators – Casca, Metallus Cimber, Ligarius and the others – who are the wielders of customary, constitutional power. This power is channelized and driven to murderous purpose by the burning ambition of the “lean and hungry” Cassius - but it is felt to be inadequate against the power of Julius Caesar, which comprises equal parts of military power, power of personality and character, and also the power derived from the public’s adulation. It is this last that will tip the balance. The conspiring Senators are joined by the high-minded Marcus Brutus, who brings to the project of eliminating a potential tyrant the cold, relentless power of his patrician idealism.

The tables are turned on the assassins by the erstwhile namby-pamby playboy Marc Antony who, in his grieving rage over Julius Caesar’s slaying, proclaims to himself: “A curse shall light upon the limbs of men; domestic fury and fierce civil strife shall cumber all the parts of Italy”. He becomes determined to “cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war”. With deceitful demagoguery, he arouses the crowd’s emotions and unleashes the full, anarchic fury of the mob, whose destructive violence thereafter rages through all the streets of Rome, even attacking the poet Cinna. Eventually, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavius restores order and becomes the first Roman Emperor.

Scene from a performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

It is populism that Antony embodies – Populism at its worst. As Shakespeare (and, before him, Plato) foresaw, populism eventually leads the way, either directly or via spasms of violence and anarchy, to tyranny.

This is where, I feel, Nirvaan Nadeem has it all wrong in his piece The March of the Populists (TFT, August 09-15), where he depicts populism as merely a product of uncouth, declining behavioural and cultural standards. There was nothing uncultured or “lowbrow” about the Nazi and other Fascist leaderships in Europe of the 1930s, who derived their appalling doctrines from linguistic scientists like Jakob Grimm, anthropologists like Arthur de Gobineau, and philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche. They used the music of composers like Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss to arouse their followers at their rallies.

Nor is populism an exclusive preserve of the political right-wing. The successors of the Russian Narodnya Volnya (“Narodnik”) Populists collaborated with Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917. The 1960s and 1970s were full of left-wing populists, many of whom led national or anti-colonial movements in their countries: Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria, Ahmed Sukarno of Indonesia, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Yasser Arafat of Palestine, to mention a few. Many of these set up and ran single-Party dictatorships. On another plane, there were also India’s Indira Gandhi, Bangladesh’s Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Pakistan’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who were accomplished exponents of populist methods linked to progressive causes. Even in this last decade, there have been left-wing populists like Brazil’s Ignacio Lula da Silva and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Adolf Hitler at the
Vienna State Opera, 1938

The likes of Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi, Khan, etc. are not, even today, the only ones to hoist the populist flag.

Populism, then, is not a political platform or tendency; it is a methodology, a tool for achieving specific objectives, of the left or of the right, enlightened or otherwise. By most ethical standards, it is cynical tool that uses demagoguery and stereotyping to isolate specific societal groups and generate hatred against them.

A number of populist leaders have exhibited signs of narcissism, paranoia, sociopathy, or other forms of borderline psychotic behaviour. But, if so, this is like being, to use the American term, “crazy like a fox”. Take US President Trump, whose absurdly limited vocabulary of under a thousand words would certainly not have allowed him admission to or graduation from the world-famous Ivy League institution of which he is in fact an alumnus. No, his childish vocabulary is entirely phony, a pose, a repulsively patronizing talking-down to his so-called base. He is in a way being the “anti-Obama”, distancing himself from the outstanding eloquence and nuanced oratorical sophistication of his predecessor, Barrack Hussein Obama – Afro-American son of a Muslim father, both the minorities that Trump excoriates.
Laclau also suggests that when a populist group comes to power and rules for some time, it becomes institutionalized and the logic of difference tends to prevail over that of equivalence

Contemporary Italian social scientist Ernesto Laclau sees populism not as a distortion or pathology, nor as defined by any particular political or ideological content. Populism structures in particular ways the representation of whatever political content it articulates. In a time when societies are characterized by the expression of numerous demands by various groups, most of which cannot be satisfied, a kind of internal frontier is created by populist politicians. They separate an abstraction called “the people” from those who allegedly deny them their demands. This empty signifier of “the people” is filled by a wide array of grievances, all signifying equivalent, unfulfilled, popular demands claimed to be denied by the allegedly powerful elite or minority who constitute the Enemy of “the People”. Because the demands are so varied, the signifier tends to be vague, lacking in specific policy content. Laclau argues that this is not necessarily a weakness of populist politics but rather a condition of its political efficacy.

Laclau also suggests that when a populist group comes to power and rules for some time, such as the Peronists in Argentina or several liberation movements in Africa, it becomes institutionalized and the logic of difference tends to prevail over that of equivalence. This produces a sort of State Populism in which the populist content becomes diluted and loses appeal.

Z. A. Bhutto as left-wing populist

Moreover, almost as an axiom, Populism sooner or later leads to a new Tyranny.

It also makes enemies. These are enemies who will be implacable and unforgiving when their time comes. Consider the fate of Mussolini, hung upside down like a carcass in a butcher shop; or of Hitler in his suicide bunker; or of Sadam Hussein in his rat-infested, spider-ridden hiding-hole; or Bhutto on the gallows; or Indira Gandhi, riddled by the bullets of her own bodyguards. Consider Shakespeare’s Marc Antony, beleaguered by the army of Octavius, writhing as he dies from the bite of the asp in his suicide pact with his Egyptian lover Cleopatra.