To Do Away with “Populism”
If a crisis represents a moment of bifurcation in which the judgment and decision can push the course of events in more directions than one (as Jan Sowa implies), then statements about the state of aﬀairs may function as self-fulﬁlling or – in the case of catastrophic discourse – self-denying prophecies. Whether the pandemic of Covid-19 has lent a hand to national conservatives or to their liberal or leftist opponents cannot be read oﬀ from the reality we try to describe but will, at least in part, depend on our description and action based on it. While we try to decipher the meaning of current events and their direction we endow them with a meaning and thereby push them in a certain direction.
My hope is that the pandemic will give a boost to the realization that began to dawn on an increasing number of observers already before it: the discourse which has explained the crisis of the post-1989 liberal order in the last decade by the rise of populism - depicted oftentimes as the return of totalitarianism - has concentrated on an epiphenomenon and missed the underlying causes. By pointing to alleged external enemies of that order, it has diverted attention from the endogenous sources of its crisis: increasing socio-economic inequalities which have undermined the proper functioning of democratic institutions, and ecologically unsustainable growth which has put in jeopardy dignified human survival on the planet.
While the former problem was brought into the open by the financial crush of 2008-9, the latter gained prominence with the mainstreaming of the fear of climate change in the late 2010s. The pandemic has made the two problems even more visible. The severe limitations that have been put on the everyday and economic life of a significant number of people living on our planet can be interpreted as a rehearsal or pre-figuration of what will come, sooner or later, as a consequence of the ecological crisis or efforts to curb it. The unequal impact of these measures on different social strata, countries, and continents has underlined the huge asymmetries of wealth, power and life chances produced by globalization. The pandemic has shifted our attention from the misleading images of the rise of populism (and the return of totalitarianism) to two phenomena inextricably connected to the globalization of the last 40 years – socio-economic inequality and the ecological crisis.
The shift in perspective should be good news for the left. As far as populism – identified by the mainstream media with bigotry and authoritarianism – is conceived as the major threat to democracy, the left that wants to fend off the efforts to replace moral universalism and respect for minorities with the cult of homogenized national majorities is pushed into an alliance with globalist liberalism. The ideologically concrete opposition of the latter to national conservatism is superseded by a much vaguer opposition between pluralistic “democracy” and authoritarian “populism”, and no place is left for the left as the third position which would oppose with equal determination both the liberal globalization and a xenophobic kind of re-localization. The pandemic could be an opportunity to get this “excluded middle” out of the obscurity into which it was pushed by the false dichotomy.
This dichotomy has not only naturalized the post-1989 status quo but also lacked any analytic coherence. When the coming to power of Victor Orbán, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Andrej Babiš was described by the mainstream observers as an assault of “populism” on “democracy”, the criteria of inclusion into the former concept were not applied consistently: some leaders who should have passed as populists according to the core meaning of that concept were excluded, and others in whose political profile “populist” features were not essential were included. Thus, for example, almost nobody would characterize the French President Macron as a “populist” although he was elevated to power with the help of a movement which lacked the basic attributes of a political party and on the promise of replacing the leading political class, both the Right and the Left, and reconstituting the French nation. Even if most definitions of populism stress its “ideologically thin” character (which, by definition, should not exclude any political orientation), and its bias against the established political elite, Macron’s liberalism and technocratism apparently excluded him from it.
Although the current Czech prime-minister Andrej Babiš shared these two features with Macron when he entered the Czech government in 2013 (and, accordingly, his European deputies have been sitting in the liberal club with the Macronites), he was labelled “populist” on the basis of his outsider status and antagonistic attitude vis-à-vis the post-communist political class. Since then, he has been regularly referred to, in line with Orbán and Kaczyński, as a protagonist of the Central European populist front, and certain features of the two leaders were attributed to him as well: Euroscepticism, xenophobia and nationalism. Those two leaders themselves have become the very epitome of what the mainstream public understand by the term “populism” even if they and their traditionally organized and “ideologically thick” parties have for a long time been insiders of the post-communist political elite.
The mainstream approach to the Slovak president Zuzana Čaputová provides another example of a similar incoherence. Despite the fact that she was carried to her post in 2019 as an incarnation of the “people” that wanted to get rid of her country’s corrupt and parasitic political “elite” I have never heard anybody call her “populist”, which would obviously put her into the same category as Kaczyński or Orbán. If the reason was that unlike them, she was unconditionally pro-European and liberal-minded, why, then, not call them “national conservatives” and reserve the term “populist” for her? The last example – similar to that of the Czech Pirates who came to the parliament in 2017 on the wave of liberal and pro-European populism - confirms the thesis of Chantal Mouffe that populism is not a fully-fledged political alternative but a rhetorical strategy which can have both pro- and anti-democratic purposes and be used by any political camp – conservative, liberal or radical.
To fight “populism” as the enemy of “democracy” amounts to the same error as to wage the “war against terror”: it is to mistake a strategy (or tactics) for a political program, a form for content. This category error is politically useful for the status quo actors since it allows them to divert the attention from deeper sources of the crisis which they do not want to address lest they undermine their hegemonic position. In other words, similarly to the discourse on “terrorism”, the discourse on “populism” serves as a strategy of de-politicization. It makes it impossible not only to differentiate political enemies from friends but also to recognize that there might be more enemies than one.
The foreign observers who have been coming to my country in the last years with the idea that all democrats must try to get Babiš out of power since he represents a grave danger to the Czech democracy, have been surprised when I was telling them that in his first stint in the Czech government (2013 – 2017), he was the lesser evil compared to the combatively “anti-populist” Civic Democratic Party that supervised the transformation of this country in the 1990s and tried to put through radical neo-liberal reforms between 2006 and 2013. Today, the party sits with the Polish Law and Justice party in one club of the European Parliament, and its right-wing shares Law and Justice’s national-conservative ideology (including the idea that Western liberalism and its “gender ideology” amounts to yet another totalitarian challenger of European civilization). This difference has been fading to the extent that Babiš has been moving towards more Eurosceptic and xenophobic positions since the campaign for the parliamentary elections of 2017. But this does not invalidate my conceptual point: the category of “national conservatism” is much more specific and, therefore, more useful and relevant than that of “populism”. The latter can be useful too, but only if we narrow it to its core meaning of an ideologically open-ended rhetorical strategy pitting “people” against an “elite”. According to different specifications of the terms “people” and “elite”, we, then, have to differentiate between various kinds of populism.
Unlike the populism Jan-Werner Müller has in mind, Babiš’s kind is not based on the primacy of politics but on the primacy of technocracy. Rather than the mystique of the leader who incarnates the will of the people it offers the promise of competence and efficiency. If Babiš stresses the importance of the executive power it is not because of Schmitttian “decisionism” but rather because of the Macronian “solutionism” Mouffe refers to. Accordingly, the pandemic has offered him an opportunity to show off his readiness to listen to and co-operate with the experts. Since his kind of anti-elitism has focused on the incompetence and corruption of the political elite, rather than elites or global elites in general, the pandemic has rather strengthened his position.
National conservative populists, such as Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, who have attacked elites in a broader sense and even included accredited experts among the elites they attacked, fared much less well since the fear of Covid-19 pushed the mainstream public to a positive re-evaluation of expertise. Finally, the national conservatives proper, such as Kaczyński and Orbán, could use or misuse the crisis according to their skills and circumstances as any other challenge they deal with. This is because their anti-elitism, i.e., “populism”, is not an unconditional core of their strategy: they attack liberal and global elites primarily because they are liberal and global, and not because they are elites. Political elites or experts can become their heroes if they serve the national cause. Putin’s attempt to make a PR hit with the vaccine Sputnik 5 was a case in point.
Such a “vaccine nationalism” and similar phenomena have not been the only way in which national conservative politicians could use the coronavirus crisis as a boost in their revolt against liberal globalism. As many observers have concurred, the crisis has led to the rediscovery of the capacity of the state to protect its citizens, which Kaczyński and Orbán put on their banners in the last decade. They were the first to attack the anti-statist bias which had predominated since the 1980s and gained a “common sense” status in the wake of the 1989 East European revolutions (in which, by the way, both of them proudly participated). Due to the pandemic, they have lost the status of an avant-garde: the mainstream publics in the West are now ready to embrace a much more interventionist and redistributive state than before. The other side of this new statism has been the sharp rise of misgivings about globalization.
If we get rid of the misleading image of the united democratic front fighting populism we can see that the rise of anti-globalist statism can be good news not only for the national conservative right but also for the ecologically minded left: without a strong state and some sort of re-localization neither the challenge of socio-economic inequality nor that of climate change can be met. Although I share both Petr Drulák’s dismissal of an exclusive focus on and stigmatization of “populism” and his endorsement of the new statism, I take issue with him on two important aspects. First, I disagree with his suggestion that the left should prioritize the issue of inequality over that of climate change. Precisely the left - as an inheritor of the rich tradition of materialist political analysis - should be able to tackle both issues as the two sides of one coin: the exploitation of nature (reduced to a “resource”) by man being merely the other side of the exploitation of man (and woman) by man.
Second, Drulák throws the baby out with the bathwater when he rejects moral universalism and respect for cultural diversity. He thus not only breaks with globalist liberalism but joins national conservatism in its dismissal of (any search for) universal norms which guarantee respect for minorities in the name of the particular will of the national majority as it is expressed in the sovereign decisions of the state. Although he presents his position as that of the “popular left”, nothing can distinguish it from that of the nationalist right. Instead of relativizing the opposition between globalist liberalism and national conservatism by looking at them from a third standpoint he simply switches sides in their struggle – he rejects one and embraces the other.
Drulák does appropriates not only statism but also its particularistic interpretation by the right. I want to rather follow Mouffe’s suggestion that the appropriation of statism has to go hand in hand with its re-interpretation: instead of connecting it with ethno-nationalism and xenophobia the left has to connect it with social justice and human solidarity. The European context offers an opportunity to make of a green welfare state the first circle of solidarity, which would extend to other European nations and – via universal multilateral institutions – to the non-Europeans as well. Besides nationalism, the new statism has to also avoid authoritarianism. That is why the renewal of the regulating capacities of the state has to be balanced by the renewal of the associative and self-governing capacities of individuals and their communities. Human rights and other constitutional guarantees should be combined with the legacy of anti-authoritarian socialism whose core consists in the ideal of self-organization from below.
The limitation of global exchanges in the economic sphere has to be complemented by their intensification in the intellectual and cultural sphere. Physical re-localization, that is, ought to entail spiritual globalization. A renewed and deepened relationship to one’s “dwelling place” (B. Latour) should not cancel but rather strengthen the awareness of global interdependence which makes every local actor co-responsible for the dignified survival of all on the planet. The left should launch a movement of alter-localization that would not only update and re-formulate some themes of the movement of alter-globalization of the 1990s and 2000s but also draw lessons from its errors – first of all, anti-statism and anti-institutionalism which it shared with its liberal enemy.
The left will be able to set out on this journey only if it gets beyond the false opposition between democracy and populism which had prevailed in the mainstream media and, to some extent, even in academic discourse before the pandemic. Within this dichotomous framework, the unconditional endorsement of democracy pushed the left into the camp of those who defended the liberal globalist order that was established in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The idea that democracy was put in jeopardy by the populists - depicted as resurrected totalitarians - made of democratic leftists, who cared for the rights of minorities, useful idiots of the guardians of the post-communist order since it superseded the true roots of its crisis: huge socio-economic inequalities and ecological disasters caused by the unbridled capitalist globalization. Let us hope that the pandemic gives the left an opportunity to speak as loudly against globalist liberalism as it has already spoken - and will continue to speak - against national conservatism and, thus, allow it to finally find its own voice.