In the latest instalment of his bi-weekly column for Pi Comment, Billy Allen examines the intractable roots of populism in our collective psychology
Perhaps it is my own ignorance, but I am frequently surprised by the extent to which the ‘populist’ ideal has swept through Britain – indeed, the entire western World – in the last thirty-six months. Indeed, the wave of populism has fairly swept through the political, literary and cultural scene; it almost seems revolutionary. It has the bizarre character of a sort of obfuscating mist, because it has penetrated so far into affairs that is very hard to see through it, or avoid it. You have to just recognise populism and immerse yourself in it, like going out in bad weather without an umbrella.
This somewhat poetic portrait of an unpoetic thing came into my mind recently when I was in the London Review Bookshop, off of Great Russell St., this last weekend. The striking thing is that recent, well-regarded political journalism is chock-a-block with populist thought. No longer are we presented with economists’ theories, but “The End of Theory”. No longer do we discuss how to improve, but rather how to remove, and to replace and destroy. Particularly noteworthy is the inevitable string of ‘inequalities’ – “The Inequality Crisis”, “Inequality and the 1%” and many others. Well written, intriguing stuff, falling nonetheless within the bulging ‘populist bracket’ of literature.
Why? Well, one rather simple answer is that populism is popular. It’s writ large in the definition of the term. But this is rather unhelpful. What, specifically, is being popularised? The answer to such a question is difficult, because populism isn’t really an ideology. It’s quite different from what people have come to understand by terms such as ‘liberalism’ or ‘socialism’. These have fixed goals, ends, theories. Rather, populism is more akin to a trend, in groups of people, which is ultimately a defence of what one might call ‘ordinary’. Ordinary things, ordinary beliefs, ordinary everything. It is consequently a resentment against anything out of the ordinary, like privilege, academia, cultural diversity and so on.
All of this gives the strong impression that populism is really about identity. Of course, the absence of the ideologically tell-tale “-ism” in ‘identity’ is conspicuous. Identity isn’t a theory, or a proposed plan of economics, like liberalism or capitalism are. It is an observation, and an aspect of humanity. Therefore, no wonder populism should be so ‘popular’, since it hinges on an aspect of ourselves, our personal and social identities, which we cannot do without.
So, populism stands up for the ordinary. Or put more particularly, it stands up for what it might think of as the encroachment on the identity of what is ordinary. Modern studies on inequality, anti-establishment texts, all of these – they are all negatively depict the promotion of non-ordinaries at the expense of normal people. Yet it is by no means a phenomenon closed within the literary circle; that of course would be quite un-ordinary! Indeed, populism, too, is seen streetwise in the way people talk and act, it is seen on the TV, and is can ultimately be figured violently with a dangerous spirit. A pointed case of Anti-Israel protestors, rioting at UCL in October 2016, were operating on the grounds of populism. They saw a threat from a minority that threatened their ordinary social identity. And yet, too, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘accidental hero’ of W. Gilbert’s recent bibliographical account, is tinged not a little with the populist way of thought. A rise against the poor-sighted establishment from the backbenches of parliamentary insignificance. Populism crosses political boundaries. It does not care for Left or the Right. It is interested only in the preservation of the identity of ordinary people. It is the Front National spearheaded by Marine Le Pen. It is the frequent buffoonery of President Trump. It is in the socialist parties of Mediterranean Europe. It started communism. It ended communism. It has brought about revolution. It has stood in the way of reason, patience and rationalism.
This is all, I suppose, quite perplexing. It seems, after all, populism is a very capricious thing. Notions of identity waver. They ebb and flow, and conjure up new definitions with remarkable quickness. On the one hand we cannot deny that populism is some product of an essential fabric of our society. Yet on the other, we cannot condone the twisted morality of anti-Semitism, or the state of ignorance in which populists so often and tragically wallow. Can anything be done? Should anything be done?
Yes, and no.
A populist would be appalled by the answer – the words of a hypothetical politician who evades and dodges an important question. But the question, of course, is not a wholly fair one. How, after all, can we possibly hope to eliminate our concern for our identity? We do ourselves a disservice to ignore the very real and tangible problem faced by communities worldwide whose very identities are quietly extinguished by covert means, or violently stamped out by corrupt regimes. No, the answer does not lie in trying to eliminate populism itself – the thread of identity runs much too deep in us for that. What, perhaps, we are after in this climate of oppression against knowledge and measured thought, is a revision to populism’s character. By some means or another, we need all to redeem populism from its ‘dark side’, one of ignorance and narrow-vision. To do that will no doubt rely on education. The task of teaching will need to bear down ever more on the conceptions of identity, ensuring people both young and old recognise the difference between genuine and superficial threats to their way of society.
By some means or another, we need all to redeem populism from its ‘dark side’, one of ignorance and narrow-vision
Change is hard – and populism, paradoxically, has the simultaneous ambitions to both inhibit and promote new ideas and new orders. I cannot help but find it more of an amusing irony than an ever-looming threat against society. We happen to live in a culture of etiquette, or rules and regulations of our being. It is something of a comedy of manners, played out at the very high-level. The populist is your rude companion who reaches over your plate at the table – either to prevent imminent dining disaster, or to reach misguidedly for pudding lest it all disappear in not too long.