Lessons in Language – ‘Populism’

April 8, 2015 at 10:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In order to feel our way around within the neo-liberal political world we need to understand its strange language. Take the word ‘populism’. This is now used as a term of criticism. It is ascribed to political parties or commentators who propose an alternative to neo-liberal political policies. Describing a proposal as ‘populist’ is now an act of condemnation.

How? The criticism made is that populism implies telling the people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. In this way suggesting something that improves people’s lived reality or alleviates their suffering is dismissed as ‘populist’. Instead, proposals should only be made within the politico-economic framework of what is possible or ‘realistic’. Anything else is simply ‘populist’.  The opposite of populism within this discourse is therefore framed as honesty, realism, the capacity to make tough decisions, because they are the ‘right’ decisions, the decisions in accord with ‘reality’.

So, let us consider what is being revealed here. This pejorative construction of the word populism betokens an old anxiety of elites everywhere with the notion of democracy itself. The people cannot really be trusted. They are fickle and needy. They always need to be managed and protected from their inherent weaknesses.

So the contrast revealed in the use of this word is between rule of the people (democracy) versus rule of the elites. The elites are those who know the right thing to do. However, their rule does not rest on brutal force but on their technocratic insight into what must be done.

In our times, in order to justify their rule, the elites do not invoke a deity or a metaphysical principle. Today’s source of enlightened wisdom is the market. The contrast today is therefore between rule of the people or rule of the market.

What do the elites today use to ground their claim to superior insight? The answer lies in their capacity and willingness to attend to the demands of the market. Governance lies in therefore doing not what is good for the people but what is good for the market. Policies should be determined only by what is good for the market. We should not do something of which the market disapproves. Before acting we should ask ourselves what will the market say, how will the market respond. Increasingly, all of our social services and infrastructure have value only in terms of their market efficacy.

The claim is made that what is good for the market is really good for the people. It’s just that the people don’t know this and are tempted by their immediate desires. This permits the elites to present themselves not as domineering or oppressive but merely as servants of the market’s requirements. The apparatchiks of the system are not overlords – they are simply implementing the requirements of the market reality. (It should be realised that large numbers of managers, technocrats and apparatchiks genuinely believe this of themselves.)

Thus have we arrived in post-democracy. We live under the rule of the market. This rule is implemented by a variety of technocratic institutions (Central Banks being an exemplary case) and a growing multitude of rules and performance measurables.

But the market is an abstraction. It is a personified big Other. It is simply the ideological justification for the empowerment of a few over the many. It is something constructed by the captured neo-liberal state. Rather than subservience to an idealised unitary ‘market’ when the actual empirical markets fails (as they regularly do) the State will act to save it and keep it in place.

But the ideological efficacy remains. We cannot trust the people – we must trust the market. The market cannot be wrong. Political agency is with the market and not the people. So – don’t blame us – it is not us – it’s the market!. We are merely implementing what the market requires. Though this is a constructed fiction it still works in dictating the realm of the political and economic possible.

Technical management has replaced political choice. There is after all no choice, no alternative. The Fiscal Compact Treaty ensures that mere populism (formerly called Democracy) will not interfere with the smooth functioning of the market.

The first contesting of this in Europe is now being played out with Greece. Who should rule? The Market (with its multitude of constructed rules forcibly implemented by the neo-liberal State) or the people? So far, the ideological deity of the market is winning. Those who dare challenge it are populists out of touch with (neo-liberal) reality. The Greek people have said No to this tyranny. In response they must be defeated and chastened. ‘Austerity’ (the sacrifice due to the market) and ‘reality’ (the imaginary limits of the possible set by the elites) must be asserted.

The first task in resisting is to know exactly what we are facing. The second act is to re-claim our ideals by reclaiming our language.



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