Final Word

The dangerous and confusing world of populism

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The concepts of ‘populism’ and ‘populist’ leaders have dominated global political/economic news of late with even Human Rights Watch, in its latest world report, identifying it as a major threat to the existing global human rights system.

But what exactly is ‘populism’? How can its practitioners include left-leaning Julius Malema in South Africa and ultra-right-winger Donald Trump in the USA? And where did the concept originate from?

Just about the only things that are sure, are its origin, roots and first use. However, when it comes to defining a ‘populist’, the picture becomes confusing. Just about the only thing that Malema and Trump have in common is that they are both politicians.

The sure things

The term and concept find their origins in the USA in the 1890s. In fact, some sources pin it down to the establishment of the Populist Party (PP) in the US in February 1892, on a platform of radical economic reform for the benefit of farmer or agrarian organisations.

Although unusual for American contributions to the broader English vocabulary, or so-called ‘Americanisms,’ the root is the Latin populus, as in populus Romanus, which means ‘people’ or ‘nation’ as opposed to just a multitude of individuals.

There was some rhetoric from the ‘populists’ of the 1890s that has uncanny echoes in present-day political discourse around the globe. The PP mobilised US Midwestern and Southern farmers and some labour unions by denouncing a system whereby “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few”.

However, although it entered the modern English vocabulary in the context of being aimed at particular, and identifiable, interest group(s), over time its meaning would broaden, and sometimes narrow.

The unsure

A 2013 article on the website Counterpunch, laments the fact that “everyone is talking about populism, but no one can define it”.

The article also quotes author Ernesto Laclau’s statement that “A persistent feature of the literature on populism is its reluctance – or difficulty – in giving the concept any precise meaning”.

The result is that just about anyone, especially in politics, can be described, pose as or be accused of – depending on context – as a populist.

In its, probably noblest, meaning it can be defined as “espousing government by the people as a whole (that is to say, the masses). This is in contrast to aristocracy, synarchy or plutocracy, each of which is a dispensation that espouses government by a small, privileged group above the masses,” according to Counterpunch.

On the other side of the scale one finds the description of ‘populism’ “as promising ordinary people what they want just to mobilise their support”, something that happens particularly at times when the political systems do not function properly or satisfactorily, tensions in society become too acute, when the channels for expressing discontent work badly, or when the political elites are perceived as breaking faith with those they represent.

From there it is a short jump to a situation where a negative label of ‘populism’ can be used for working class or middle class, urban or rural, conservative or radical, militarist or isolationist, pious or secular, left or right, racist or liberal or just about any other context – as is being said about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

Final word

With, globally, the present socio-economic system under pressure since the 2008 financial crisis, resulting in the longest and deepest recession (in terms of unemployment and levels of income inequality) since 1937, expect the latter definition to dominate the political discourse for some time to come.

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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