By Siri Gamage –
Last week I attended a seminar on this topic presented by Professor Manfred Steger from the department of sociology, University of Hawaii where I studied for my Master’s degree in the late 70s. It was presented at the Institute of Culture and Society, Western Sydney university. He has analysed campaign speeches by President Donald Trump by using discourse analysis. Several key points from his seminar are worth mentioning.
According to Professor Steger, Globalisation has an objective and subjective element. Populism need to be studied as an ideational system. Social meanings -part of ideologies- have three parts: 1) political ideologies, 2) social imagination, 3) Ontologies (patterned ways of being in the world). In the ideological landscape in the 21st century, there are global imaginings and national imaginings. Under the former there are competing ideologies such as market globalism, global justice system, and religious globalism (left and right). Under the latter, there are national populisms as a reaction to globalisation (left and right).
National populism is sustained by mythical national unity, direct relationship between the leader and people, and pure common people vs. corrupt national elites (citing Taguieff, 1984).
There are two approaches to populism: 1) content centred (as ideology), 2) form centred as style). It is important to resurrect content centred analysis today. Every ideology wants to own some concepts and take them out of context, e.g. freedom. Populism borrows from other ideologies. It is flexible and opportunistic. Three key concepts in it are elites, people, and general will. One cannot essentialise populism by saying it is thin.
Professor’s analysis of Trump speeches, 17 in number, covered Core, adjacent and peripheral concepts contained in them. He asked whether Trump’s ideology become thicker –not just style? He used three criteria in his analysis (borrowed from Freedman, 1996). 1) distinctiveness, 2) context based responsiveness, 3) ability to produce ideological decontestations.
Findings (key ideas in Trump speeches)
The claim by Trump populists that they are the holders of General will; they represent working class interests; they are the nation builders, e.g. Dams. Depiction of corrupt elites as globalist enemies and unpatriotic – who support open borders, destroy American identity while glorifying free trade and wiping out American jobs, shoring up global structure. Adjacent concepts such as climate change, fake news, immigration also exist. Central claims in the speeches are that elites betray the people, Americanism as our credo, defeat globalisation, and cancel contributions to the UN.
In conclusion, the Professor said Trumpism meets the three criteria that he laid out for analysis. Trump is oriented to policy such as immigration, trade, environment, guns, Obamacare, taxes. He advances anti-globalist populism. Significance of all this to populism/global studies is that ideologies need to be understood as dynamic: thin to thick. We also need to bring back content-approaches. Analytical take away is that Trumpism is a mature ideology.
Political take away is that there is a struggle between anti globalist populism and market globalism (national vs global imaginary), and there is production of meanings of anti-globalism that translates into policies e.g. emissions, trade regulations, immigration, wealth re-distribution
These points about market globalism and anti-globalism by right wing populists in the US and the analysis by Professor Steger are useful in comprehending what is taking place in South Asia and Sri Lanka in terms of ideologies. We can investigate and analyse whether there is right wing or left-wing threads of nationalism and anti-globalism in Sri Lanka? One may argue the ideology advanced by the JVP contains elements of left wing nationalism. The ideology promoted by the government has elements of market globalism (though neoliberalism is perceived to be a failed ideology) rather than anti globalism. Rhetoric promoted by environmentalists, anti-fertiliser import campaigners and anti-development groups can be classified as anti -globalist. The ideology, if any, advanced by the Joint Opposition is neither here nor there in terms of anti-globalism (though at times they cite alienation of national assets) or neoliberal market globalism. It is rather oriented towards anti-Tamil rhetoric and safeguarding national sovereignty against undefined globalist forces except the Tamil diaspora.
Where does the right wing anti globalism rhetoric come from is another question to ponder. The effects of market globalism policies and programs since 1978 have produced many casualties and oppressive conditions other than for privileged segments of the population who have had easy access to market globalism. Fears expressed by professional organisations about the negative effects of free trade agreements have to be viewed in terms of anti-globalist ideology but they seem to be in its campaign for their own benefits rather than the under privileged segments of the population. Ethnic discourse seems to have taken a right-wing slant after the war as much as it did during the war.
In the case of US, Australia and even Europe, the key question is why the left has failed to make inroads in ideological terms to take charge of anti-globalism ideology? Why the right-wing groups have been able to appropriate such ideology for their political ends?