The Rise of Populism: The Return of the People’s Voice

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February 7, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

Daria Platonova, Vzglyad – translated by J. Arnoldski – 

Daria Platonova is a newscaster and host of the program “Our Point of View” for Russia’s Tsargrad TV channel. 

Return the voice to the people

With Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections, the world order has irreversibly changed. This can be accepted or resisted. But it has happened. However, the process of the world’s retreat from neoliberal hegemony did not start today. 

For the past several years in Europe, parties of a new type (such as the National Front in France, the Northern League in Italy, Alternative for Germany, and the Freedom Party in Austria) have emerged in the foreground of the political scene and defended right-wing political values (conservatism, traditionalism) in combination with left-wing economic positions (centered around the idea of social justice). 

The liberal system has hung the label of “populist parties” on them, but the definition of “populist” is in need of deconstruction. What is populism? What is its essence and what does it oppose?

First and foremost, in order to gain an accurate understanding of this phenomenon, it is necessary to take a step back from the Western media’s negative interpretative scheme that has been imposed upon us. 

The Argentine political scientist Ernesto Laclau defined populism as a form of political construction resting on the establishment of a boundary between those who are in the state “from below” (the people, the masses) and those who are in power “at the top,” and the rebellion of the lower element against the higher one (the “elites”).

Populism is not a political ideology. It does not have any specified programmatic content, and it is not a political system. Rather, it is an approach to politics. It appears when a new subject or actor, the people (Latin: populus), arises and regards the existing social order as unjust. 

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In recent years, the rise of populist parties has been a reaction to the crisis of liberal-democratic, globalist politics. Its peculiarity is that it operates in the space of “post-politics,” i.e., the space where the division into “right” and “left” has been extinguished.

The reason for the disappearance of the classical partisan division is tied to the consensus worked out by the liberal parties of the center (and right-wing and left) themselves, who asserted that there can be no alternative to neoliberal globalization in the world. The political philosopher Chantal Mouffe calls this state of politics “consensus in the center.” Under the pretext of “modernization,” the liberal center becomes the conduit for the dictates of global financial capitalism. 

In this picture of the world, parliaments and democratic institutions which allowed citizens to influence policies become superfluous. Thus, democracy, which proclaims the power of the people, is transformed into liberal totalitarianism. Modern Western democracy is itself a model of neoliberal hegemony. All that is left of democracy is the vague concept of “human rights” by which is understood, as a rule, the rights of only a particular type of person, such as a transgender or a migrant. 

The space of the Agora and the discussion of political projects which people want to see is dismantled and in its place is built the skyscraper of the new, liberal totalitarianism. The people is expelled from the Agora.

Populism rises up against such an expulsion of the people from decision-making. It rejects post-politics and post-democracy. The aim of populist parties is giving the people back their voice, recreating the Agora and the space of the political. Populist movements are based on the desire to recreate democracy (in the genuine sense of the word) and return power to the people.

Due to the fact that left ideology does not accept “the people” as a political category, today democratic discourse is being led by parties which in the pervious era were called right-wing (in the original sense of the word, whereas the liberal media erroneously puts them in the category of “far-right”). However, an extremely interesting feature has emerged: their programs feature elements of socialism. This forms a special bloc which might even be called the party of “consensus with the people.”

In these cases, right-wing political values are closely intertwined with left-wing economic points. This bloc of “populist” parties today poses a serious challenge to neoliberal forces. Under the circumstances of Trump’s victory in the US elections, the invisible hand of the global financial elites over the EU is weakened, and this makes a populist victory realistic.

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We are now left with carefully monitoring elections and referenda in EU countries (the presidential elections in France, parliamentary elections in Germany, and possibly early parliamentary elections in Italy, etc.). The results, I am sure, will delight us. After all, the world order has been irreversibly changed! 

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