6 December, 2023


Our Populism, Their Populism

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Ever since Athens and Rome, populists have been trying to win it big. Under them words acquire new meanings. Thus people become “the people”, the addition of an article investing an otherwise hackneyed term with sanctimonious awe. “I am the people,” Jayalal Rohana declares at a crucial moment in Jayantha Chandrasiri’s Hankithi Dahathuna, and indeed for much of its history populism claimed to not just stand for, but be with, the populi. Populists did this by pitting voters against elites and institutions, by convincing them that they were been and are being besieged and enslaved by minoritarian interest groups that work against their interests. If institutions no longer work and reforms also don’t, they must be scrapped, while minorities wielding power over these institutions must be removed. As much there as here, populists thus resort to, and come to power through, the same rhetoric.

This does not mean that the populism we get there is the populism we get here. And yet the liberal critique of populism overlooks the specific conjunctures of social, political, economic, and cultural factors which determine the trajectories of these two varieties. The difference between Narendra Modi and Viktor Orbán is a fine one, but also a profound one. Without making such fine and profound distinctions, it is difficult to construct a critique of populism that accounts for those specific conjunctures. Just as democracy is not the same everywhere though it rests on the fulfilment of certain conditions, populism (as opposed to fascism, with which it is erroneously conflated) differs considerably from Sri Lanka to India to Hungary to half of Latin America. The liberal intelligentsia’s failure to acknowledge that is at the heart of their failure to take root in this part of the world.

Foreign Affairs dedicated an entire issue to the resurgence of populism in November 2016, the month Donald Trump was elected to office in the US. Fareed Zakaria (“Populism on the March: Why the West Is In Trouble”) penned a diagnosis of this upsurge in anti-elitism in the West that, while wide off the mark, still reads better than (most) perfunctory denunciations of anti-elitism by liberal scholars. According to Zakaria, populists were only filling a big gap, a huge void, which mainstream politicians and parties left behind. Insofar as populism’s rise can be explained by this, there is no difference between Narendra Modi and Donald Trump. Indeed, the sight of devotees worshipping effigies of Trump in India and the similarities in speech and sentiment between our populists and their populists bears out the view that it is their disdain for institutions which brings them together.

But Zakaria does not leave it at that. While entailing “hostility towards elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions”, populism’s upsurge in the West can be located in the tendency of mainstream parties to compromise and move towards the centre. This is what opened up that electoral gap, be it with the Democratic Party under Clinton or the Labour Party under Blair. Again, insofar as this explains the return of demagoguery, the situation is no different here or there: the resurgence in populist politics in Sri Lanka can be traced back to the compromises made by the first Chandrika Kumaratunga administration (1994-1999) with the neoliberal Right, which eliminated the Left within the SLFP-led People’s Front and fuelled the rise of popular Sinhala nationalism opposed to both the SLFP and the UNP. I will return to this point later; what is important to note is that the tendency of establishment politicians to compromise with the neoliberal Right partly explains why populist nationalism triumphed on both sides of the planet, at the same time.

Partly – but not totally. This tendency to move towards such compromises, and embrace an amorphous Third Way Centrism, distinguishes Third World populists from their First World counterparts as much as it emphasises their shared disdain for institutions and values. The New Left and the New Right there – both of which oppose neoliberalism and globalisation – are pitted against roughly the same values, but from a completely different standpoint. At the risk of simplifying a complex reality, we can say that populism is less a universal ideology than it is a two-pronged sword that strives to cut down a common enemy – the mainstream policy of “liberalising and globalising”, as one Finance Minister put it in his Budget Speech in Sri Lanka – using the same tactics, but with different strategies.

The key to making this distinction is to identify just how globalisation has worked and how it has not, and who has benefitted and who has lost from it, in the West and the East; that it has been more pronounced across the Atlantic does not mean it has been absent from Asia and Africa. At least since the 1960s, according to Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris (“Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism”, 2016), rightwing populist parties in the West have made substantial gains, doubling their share of the vote in Europe. Leftwing populists have done it even better, quintupling it. The reason is obvious: voting patterns have changed, and the old distinctions between Left and Right no longer make sense. It is no coincidence, after all, that voters said they’d vote for Bernie Sanders if Donald Trump wasn’t made the Republican Party nominee in 2016, and that after Sanders lost his nomination bid a mass exodus of blue collar voters bolstered Trump’s prospects (though this still prevented him from winning the popular vote over Hillary Clinton, just as he failed to do so over Joe Biden).

Inglehart and Norris are right when they identify social issues rather than political-economic issues as a more accurate guide to voting patterns today. Yet they fail to note why the shift from economic to cultural issues transpired in the first place: not just a drop in fertility rates that turned the White majority into an ever diminishing demographic, and not just relaxed immigration quotas that swamped the White Caucasian heartlands of America and Europe, but also policies that paved the way for globalisation and exported if not outsourced jobs from an industrialised West to an agrarian and yet-to-be-industrialised East, specifically the periphery of the East outside South-East Asia. China’s growth has been particularly crucial in fuelling anti-immigration xenophobia. The world may still catch a cold when the US sneezes, but China needs the world to feed its hunger. This is one reason why the American Right is more inclined to see China, rather than India, as an enemy; the shift of jobs to East Asia has been more apparent than the shift of jobs to South Asia.

Globalisation is clearly to blame, but Inglehart and Norris limit their analysis of how and why it is to blame to the West. If liberal internationalism, with its benign view of institutions and world order, has fuelled White racism at home, it has also fuelled anti-Western nationalism overseas. Conventional liberalism and neoliberalism placed too much faith on globalisation driving vast swathes of Third Worlders out of grinding poverty. To do this, policymakers felt it necessary to prioritise formal rights that ensured free markets, fiscal discipline, and trade liberalisation over substantive rights that ensured minimum wages, redistribution of income and wealth, and protection of local industry.

What that strategy achieved was the worst of all possible worlds, driving industry out of the West – a process commenced under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and based on a model put into action earlier by Pinochet of Chile – while entrenching a merchant economy in the periphery of the East. This merchant economy, dependent as it is on trade as opposed to production, has failed to facilitate a crucial transformation: a shift in industry from the US and Western Europe to the underdeveloping Afro-Asian belt.

If industry exists in the global periphery, it does so mainly in the form of garment factories, assembly plants, and multinational fortresses. The reason why the rupee is plummeting so much is not the implementation of populist policies, but rather the fact that we import so much and export so little, and even that by way of extraction – rather than refinement – of primary commodities. “Recently,” W. A. Wijewardena once wrote, “I asked MBA students of a state university what they would do if they are given Rs. 10 million each. The answer was unanimous that they would buy a car or travel abroad.” This is what drives populists here to power, though they don’t explicitly mention it in their manifestos.

Without getting into how and why exactly, then, the failure of globalisation to orientate us towards local industry, first, and to eliminate poverty, second, has emboldened populists. As much as White populism feeds on the fear of Afro-Asian peripheral countries stealing jobs, Afro-Asian populism feeds on the failure to export enough jobs from First World to Third. In other words, populists on both sides contend that neither side has won. The class which has gained – neoliberals in the West, left-liberals in the East – are the winners. They are thus the enemy, and though populists don’t view them in terms of class only, they nevertheless have made the displacement of these elites their overarching goal, here and abroad.

*The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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