The Guardian is doing terrific work on the spread of far-right, xenophobic, racist, and mercantilist politics in Europe and the US. It is doing it, however, under the misleading label of ‘the new populism’. That is lazy. If we explored the nature and sources of the grotesque inequality and greed in capitalist societies under the heading of a ‘new’ (or even ‘classical’) ‘liberalism’, examining only the ideas and followers of Herbert Spencer, Milton Friedman or (for a laugh) Ayn Rand, we would quickly sense that something had gone awry. Sure, those writers do mention ‘liberty’. But that is no better reason for thinking they are ‘liberals’ than it is to think that, because they mention ‘conservation,’ the Friends of the Earth are conservatives. It is long past time for people who can read and write to ‘use their words’. Let’s call things what they are.
This isn’t just a quibble. ‘Populism’ sanitizes what is, in much of Eastern Europe, neo-fascism, and, in large swathes the the US, anti-black and anti-Latino racism. It homogenizes phenomena that differ, historically and morally. Yet it isn’t hard to find serious paradigms of populist thought and politics: Rousseau, Marx, the Chartists, the People’s Party, and so forth. Admittedly, they expressed other ideologies as well: romanticism, determinism, democracy, agrarianism etc. But if you want to know what populism is, or what its appeal it might be–or for that matter, what its risks are–then this is where you need to look.
Actually, you could start earlier. One reasonable definition of populism is Cicero’s: ‘Salus populi suprema lex esto’: The well-being of the people ought to be the supreme law. Here is how I think we should best understand that:
(1) Populism is a claim about what ought to be supreme law. We can think of ‘supreme law’ as something like the constitution, or –better– the fundamental order underlying the constitution. It is not a claim about tariffs, trade, or immigration except to the extent that these bear on the supreme principle. Populism casts doubt on the idea that our supreme law ought to be the will of our ancestors, or our technocratic rulers, or our TV stars. Populism respects democracy–but only to the extent that democracy is a system that serves the well being of the people. (If everyone votes for a theocracy, the democrat is bound to reject their unanimous view; the populist may try to live with it.)
(2) Populism is a political doctrine that has at its centre well-being. This idea is capacious. It means human welfare, flourishing; perhaps even the perfection of human capacities and capabilities. Maybe that sounds banal. Doesn’t everyone think politics is about human welfare? Readers of contemporary political philosophy know that it is not banal. Some think the leading ideal for law and government shouldn’t be human well being, but something more pure and abstract, something that may or may not make anyone better off, for example: respecting the will of the gods, realizing ‘the right’, embodying ‘legality’ and so on. So many words. Yet they share one destructive idea: the actual well being of actual people is of significance only to the extent that it serves some other ideal. Do people have safe homes? A job? Decent health care? Education? A private place to shit or piss? The anti-populist thinks of such things as of ‘merely contingent’, ‘conditional’, value. What matters to him is something higher–or anyway different—than the plain reality of ordinary people’s lives.
(3) Populism takes as its ‘supreme’ law the well being of the people. It is at this point that the radical edge of populism is often dulled by lazy theorists or motivated ideologues. Here, I can only be dogmatic : (3a) ‘The people’ means all the people in a political jurisdiction, or at any rate all the people who normally make their lives there. It is thus an anti-racist and anti-nationalist doctrine. (3b) ‘The people’ does not itself explain or justify the boundaries of a political jurisdiction. Nor it does not pretend to. (3c) To affirm the supremacy of the well being of the people is not to disallow or negate the idea that the well being of people in other jurisdictions–foreigners–is morally important. Just the contrary: a government should serve the well being of foreigners at least when doing so will (indirectly) serve the interests of its people. In a complex, interconnected world, governments concerned to advance the well being of their (own) people ought to be very anxiously concerned about the well being of other peoples. Moreover, the existence of a supreme principle (eg ‘parents ought to secure the welfare of their own children’) is compatible with, and may require, the existence of other, demanding, subordinate principles (eg ‘when the interests of your own children aren’t at stake, you should work strenuously to secure the interests of other people’s children’).
These remarks are nothing like an adequate defense of populism. They are hardly a beginning (I will offer some more later. ) But, unlike much of the journalistic and academic chatter in which we are drowning, it identifies populism with an intelligible ideal rather than an abusive epithet. Moreover, it is an ideal that has serious antecedents in political philosophy and is not obviously, or absurdly, wrong. In fact, I think that the sort of populism I have in mind here is is not only defensible; I think it is more attractive than many of its competitors, including democracy. But more on that later.