‘The People do not exist’: Populism after Coronavirus

Clare Woodford is Principal Lecturer in Political Philosophy in the Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics (CAPPE), School of Humanities, University of Brighton; director of the CAPPE Critical Theory research group, and co-editor of Rowman and Littlefield’s Polemics series. She has authored multiple works on democracy, critical theory and French and Italian philosophy with a particular focus on performance, extremism, populism and polarization. Her current project explores the relationship between ethics, economics and desire in contemporary democratic theory.

You call them populists, I call them fascists
because I’m a bit old and I can’t be bothered with euphemisms.
Yanis Varoufakis

During the coronavirus lockdown, online discussion of populism has intensified. Will populism be helped or hindered by the pandemic? Whilst some herald its demise, noting the floundering of ‘populist leaders’ such as Trump and Bolsonaro; others take a pessimistic tone, observing that the ensuing social and economic crisis could boost populism’s appeal. 

It’s of course too early to predict the effect of a pandemic that is still unfolding. Yet when this current debate is placed alongside the reams of pre-coronavirus populism scholarship, I can’t help wondering if the disagreement is caused less by the unprecedented nature of current events, and more by the elusiveness of populism itself – the existence of which seems for most to be an article of faith. The task is not to prove it exists. That much is obvious. All we need to do is identify its key features. But this is easier said than done, with little agreement over what populism actually is. Rather than this ringing alarm bells, scholars valiantly persevere. 

Am I the only one who has an uncomfortable feeling that this category is more often used to refer to politics that we just don’t like, rather than a salient category of political analysis?  And if so, is it not the case that populism scholarship might tell us more about the contours of political thought today, than anything significant about the dangerous excesses of democratic politics?

Populism of course cannot be an aberration of democracy. Populism is the politics of the people, and if democracy is not the politics of the people, then what is it? As soon as democrats begin denouncing populism they are on thin ice. Many like to suggest that our representative democratic regimes today are a finely-tuned balancing act between democracy and liberal values. Populism occurs when the two get out of balance: too much democracy, not enough liberal rights and freedoms. This apparently leads to mob rule, reign of the hoi polloi, the tyranny of the majority. This argument simplifies too much. The relationship between liberalism and democracy has always been contested. There has never been consensus on what is meant by liberal values or whether this is positive or negative liberty; economic or social? Even more curious, the theorists of balance often actually end up criticising populism for limiting liberal values in any way whatsoever – thereby prioritising liberalism over democracy. Rather than jump on this bandwagon should we not pause to acknowledge the role that populism plays in political commentary today? We bemoan the boring politics of the last 45 years, circling the centre, with no debate on the dominance of the economy. But the only ripples that break through this are quickly denounced as populist. All that leaves us with is the status quo. There Is No Alternative. 

Yannis Stavrakakis has recently suggested that populism/anti-populism is the new political cleavage. The characteristics identified with each side are telling. Anti-populism is sensible, liberal, rational, honest, educated, measured, whilst populism is illiberal, irrational and passionate, dishonest, uneducated, impulsive. Does this not indicate that the critique of populism is just another iteration of the same old elitism that has always accompanied democracy? This is not to deny the growing sexist, xenophobic, and dominatory politics associated with many popular right-wing movements today – movements that are denounced as populist. But these forms of politics are not abhorrent because they are populist. In fact, to denigrate them as populist rather than sexist, xenophobic, or even fascist, is a strangely muted response. 

The issue of racism is particularly important in the contemporary discussions of populism. Racist politics is on the rise. Theorists argue that populism always has to define who the people are – and to define ‘the people’ is to simultaneously exclude those who are not part of the people. Populism, we are told, is de facto racist. But to condemn populism as racist rather than condemn racism for being fascist, exclusionary, discriminatory, violent, oppressive etc. is to discredit ‘the people’ once and for all, whilst leaving racism unchallenged. It supports a narrative in which the ‘uneducated masses’ cannot be trusted with the tools of power. They will only end up being racist – as if they can’t help it. 

‘The people’ do not exist in advance. ‘The people’ is a construct and it can be constructed any way we wish. It can be exclusionary, but it need not be – and the task for democrats is to always work to oppose exclusion. This is not achieved by opposing populism. To oppose populism is to shut down debate over who the people are, which is to shut down democratic politics. The task of democratic politics is to keep open contestation of who comprises ‘the people’. Every purported criticism of populism qua populism can only contribute in today’s dominant discourse to a particular mapping of the political landscape, a false dichotomy: exclusion or free market liberalism; populism or anti-populism. Left or right is of little consequence.

In recent months we have seen governments do the ‘unthinkable’. In the UK, money has been borrowed at record levels, train franchises re-nationalised, funding found for the NHS that was ‘not available’ a few months before. In this time of making possible the impossible, could we not construct a people, a collective grouping, that is better for everybody? A people that could build collective infrastructures, whilst at the very least, persistently seeking to limit their own exclusions? Or is every attempt at collectivity a lost cause? Must liberal individualism remain our default position? As the lockdowns ease and the debts begin to be called in, is our only choice still going to be between the demon of populism on one side and our saviour, free market liberalism, on the other? 

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