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22 October 2017 08:36 (South Africa)
Opinionista Saliem Fakir

Our age of populist politics and its varied meanings

  • Saliem Fakir
    Saliem-Fakir.jpg
    Saliem Fakir

    Saliem Fakir is the Head of the Policy & Futures Unit at the World Wild Fund for Nature South Africa.

Populism has gained ground through the very mechanism that liberal politics has established itself – this very machinery of democracy which we have erected as a totem of progress.

The word populism has gained a pejorative meaning in the political lexicon as we witness the surge of right-wing politics around the world. The victory of Donald Trump, as the vote on Brexit, has made for political spectacle and bewilderment as some are concerned about the unfolding of populist sentiment and their electoral victories.

Yet, they are a result of democrat outcomes. Democratic outcomes are never predictable, they can spring surprises – both progressive populism and chauvinistic forms of populism can be churned from the voters' brew.

Why the bewilderment? Right-wing populism interrupts the dominant vision and discourse for society for a more parochial and less utopian idea of society. It has preference for specific values rather than universal and giving priority to insiders rather than outsiders.

In some respects, just like progressive populism, right-wing populism's main aim is to galvanise its voiceless majority against the self-righteousness of a dominant elite.

Seemingly, it is a reaction to a long-standing form of statecraft where popular voting only leads to the rule of an epistocracy: a cabalistic group of experts, political and economic elite that create for themselves a self-contained insider group with an exclusionary cosmopolitan appeal.

This group of epistocrats, in turn, do not operate only at the level of the state, but in sort of Gramscian irony, builds a sphere of influence and network that is weaved through civil society such as the NGOs, think-tanks, religious bodies, universities, unions and other organised formations, that may not describe themselves as such or choose to exist in some form of conscious denial, as an elite society.

Yet they are in fact a de facto part of elite network even if they also purport or do represent unorganised society. They inadvertently are a product of a patronage system, some of which is created out of government grants, philanthropy and donor aid.

Often, this “rootedness” in grassroots, conveys the illusion that progressive society is tapped into the soul of society when in fact the opposite is often true. It is easy for it to trap itself into a slippage of mind and make-belief where it thinks of its own network of rootedness is a popular movement when it is not. Therefore, populist tendencies that flourish while cosmopolitans are day-dreaming is treated as a shock to the system.

In many respects such a system of elite networks, with their “grassroots” affiliations, is designed to foster reason and rules-based logic to mediate consensus. In effect it serves also to police popular passions.

We should not then be surprised at the turn of politics given the rise of Trump, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Malema in South Africa or the Brexit vote (of course one must be careful in lumping all of these being one and the same).

Populists want to break up the rules, they want to fan the fire of unresolved passions and bring unreason to a reasoning public. It is a clash of two different forms of statecraft and a way to turn the tables on a variety of aspiring humanistic traditions if one considers the antics of the Philippines' President Duterte and the assault on human rights he is pursuing under the cover of the war on drugs.

Populism, then, can also be seen as an attack on cosmopolitanism.

Cosmopolitanism envisages a borderless society in which life is dominated by reason and universal human values (including in later versions the extension of these to all life). Kwame Antony Appiah writes in his Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in the World of Strangers that the ethics of universal humanism is defined by the care for others and an inquisitiveness to understand and appreciate others. He notes: “I am urging that we should learn about people in other places, take an interest in their civilizations, their arguments, their errors, their achievements, not because that will bring us to agreement, but because it will help us get used to one another.”

Issues around race, gay rights, religion, immigration may not have been entirely and fruitfully debated or engaged even in that Habermasian ideal of creating a cosmopolitan safe space so as to engage public debate and achieve consensus. Yet, consensus can be shuttered by polite society as they have their own posh way of shutting debate. Poshness is treated as snobbery by ordinary folks.

In Jurgen Habermas's world the public sphere is where public debates can rage freely without the encroachment of the “system” which in Habermas's world view is represented by money and power.

Habermas seeks a form of democracy in which the public sphere is a means for integration and not alienation. South Africa's own post 1994 cosmopolitanism has given preference to Constitutionalism as the marker of this achievement above the necessary and painful discussions on the economic franchise and the long unresolved relationship of race and the economy.

This is why political parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are seeking to pierce through the hollowed effect of the post-1994 consensus by bringing racial inequality and the economy back into the mainstream. The consensus on the economic question, as we know, is entirely in disrepute and broken down. Constitutionalism cannot survive in the absence of addressing racial inequality and the economic franchise.

Populism under these conditions will thrive and threatens Constitutionalism as it is now doing under Trump.

Increasingly, the debates that were necessary for consensus were debates among liked-minded people. This process of cosmopolitanisation in itself has not quite enabled the reaching of political consensus in a diverse and complex society like ours. In the end it has merely incited fractures through its own exclusionary trigger.

Those who felt they did not belong to this cosmopolitan mainstream felt they were the visible but their voices became invisible. In South Africa this is true for the vast majority of the African populace.

Populism has gained ground through the very mechanism that liberal politics has established itself – this very machinery of democracy which we have erected as a totem of progress. Liberal democracy tends to favour individualism while a form populist republicanism is giving preference for collective or group aspirations. Identity politics is becoming the vehicle for economic emancipation.

Nationalist instinct begins to compete with worldly cosmopolitanism.

Individual freedom is enveloped within group politics and even a chauvinistic form of nationalism as Trump's slogan manifestly calls out: “Make America Great Again.” And, in this country non-racialism is subsidiary today to a rising neo-Africanism. Populism may dismay us but it already points to the failures of liberal democracy. Democracy in the end is only viable if the challenge of economic exclusion is addressed with urgency. Democracy ingratiated with identity politics is back on the scene again. DM

  • Saliem Fakir
    Saliem-Fakir.jpg
    Saliem Fakir

    Saliem Fakir is the Head of the Policy & Futures Unit at the World Wild Fund for Nature South Africa.

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