The Truth in Populism

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-beingThis 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.


4 thoughts on “The Truth in Populism

  1. Dear Les (if I may), Thank you for sharing your piece. I don’t disagree with your analysis, but there is the risk that someone may read it and assume that Cicero was a populist. He wasn’t. In fact, he was almost killed by one populist (Clodius Pulcher), than another (Julius Caesar), but finally succumbed to a third populist (Marc Antony). I’ve analysed populism in Ancient Rome in this short piece, if you are interested: I’m also not convinced that Cicero endorsed Natural Law, notwithstanding some of the things he says, but that’s another story.


    • Absolutely correct on Cicero. (Nick Hytner’s production of Julius Caesar this year is a wonderful exploration of that populism. ) And thanks so much for your link: your point about the anachronistic character of populism *emerging* as a challenge to liberal democracy is right. (Though maybe they only meant that it is *a challenge to* liberal democracy?) My own view, suggested in the post, is that there is already a tension between democracy and populism, in the sense I recover, or rather confect, from Cicerco’s tag. Someone who puts ‘the people’ at the foundation of constitutional legitimacy is going to assign democracy only a derivative role. Very crudely, if the people don’t want democracy, the populist says that democracy is, to that extent, illegitimate. Of course, the ancients had little time for democracy either, but that too is another story. Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Les (if I may), thank you for sharing your piece. I don’t disagree with your analysis, but I’m concerned that someone might read it and assume that Cicero was a populist. He wasn’t. In fact, he was almost killed by one (Clodius Pulcher), than another (Julius Caesar), but finally succumbed to a third populist (Marc Antony). Cicero considered populism to be the biggest threat to the Roman Republic. If you are interested, I wrote a short piece on populism in Ancient Rome here: I’m not even convinced that Cicero endorsed Natural Law, notwithstanding what he says, but that’s another story.


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