A few weeks ago, The Economist reported on an academic study in America that uncovers what would seem to be blindingly obvious to everyone with even a passive interest in politics – that corporates and the rich get their desired policies implemented much more than the average person on the street.
What really piqued my attention however was not the ‘no shit Sherlock’ nature of the study, but the chiding comment at the end of the article about ‘populism’.
Apparently populism is a threat, and specifically The Economist notes, a threat to the financial sector and the economy. Long-time readers of the Economist such as myself must note this frequent assertion in much of its coverage.
‘Pop-ulism’: Implementing the policies that the average person on the street would like.
One can only surmise that the Economist thinks populism is negative, as opposed to say the current situation where presidential candidates must parade before lunatic billionaires in Las Vegas for money as if they were part of some kind of Lovely Girls competition. The stance is darkly amusing I must say – Yes, the real problem with our democracies has been that our politicians have actually been listening too much to the people!
Fundamentally the discussion about the merits of populism goes to something so much deeper about history and politics than what the Economist ever ventures.
There are those that see populism and implementing the will of the people as the defining characteristic of human progress over the past 300 years.
And then there are those that make arguments for why populism is a ‘bad’ thing.
Basically they boil down to:
- “Mob rule” and in particular to imposition of the majority’s will on the minority.
- The ignorance/stupidity of the average man on the street: If the polling in one of the world’s leading democracies is anything to go by, are citizens capable of being entrusted with serious policy questions?
- That the people cannot be trusted to make clear headed long term decisions which may involve some deal of short term pain.
Do these arguments stack up? The second argument about ignorance makes the assumption that there is someone out there who ‘knows better’ and deserves to be in charge. While the third argument is nowadays usually used by some people in the context of proposing to make massive cuts in pensions/healthcare/education, whilst usually these same people also asking for quid pro quo tax cuts.
The first argument is the one we should all really be paying attention to though. Its the most direct argument based on class interest you will ever hear from a conservative in a public setting: What’s good for everyone isn’t necessarily what’s good for me.
So you can see why these are the main justifications elites use to take power from the people and hand it to ‘technocratic’ bodies like central banks, supranational bodies like the EU Commission or judicial/arbitration bodies like the courts. The slow transfer of power from institutions capable of implementing populism like democratically elected government to these outfits has been a hallmark of the later 20th century.
The most ostentatious act in this tale is modern day Thailand where anti-democratic forces have such constituency among the establishment that their supporters openly call for rule by arbitration and want to banish democracy altogether. Thailand may not exactly strike most readers as a particularly liberal place but at least commentators don’t fall back on the lazy neo-colonial canard that it just simply “isn’t ready for democracy”.
Thailand is basically an acid test – where a commentator or media outlet stands on this issue tells you all you need to know about their politics as I’m about to explain.
Without being too churlish, Thailand is the natural end game to those that hate populism.
What I’m going to propose here is something that goes to the bottom of my political philosophy…democracy is an inherently left wing political system of organisation.
Its literally giving power to the people. To the average man on the street.
And that’s why conservative elites that sit on the American supreme court, or in the European Commission’s chambers or on the streets of Bangkok hate it. They can’t stand giving power to the people directly because it would leave open the possibility that the people would one day wake up from their brainwashing and exploitation and vote for something in their interest.
Why do you think the Supreme Court in America would like to equate money with speech?
Answer: To amplify the economic power of conservative elites to influence the outcomes of elections.
Why does the EU centralise most of it actual power in the most undemocratic body of its structure – the EU Commission?
Answer: Because the European elites that set it up and perpetuate it know that ramming down a neo-liberal agenda through democratically elected institutions like the Council and Parliament would go nowhere due to popular resistance.
Why do Yellow Shirt Protesters want to hand power to an unelected People’s Council?
I think you get the idea.
Since the French Revolution, the advent of a historical movement to hand more power to the people that we now recognise as ‘democracy’ has coincided with a direct decline of influence of conservative elites (in those days the monarchs, aristocrats, and the church etc.). Therefore there has always been a fundamental antagonism between democracy as a concept and conservatism. People forget where we get the terms ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ is not from political talk-shows but the physical position of those that sat in the Estates General supporting or opposing democracy following the revolution.
As the Enlightenment wore on of course, and as further time went by conservatives developed novel strategies for managing this fundamental antagonism between their class interest and those of the average man on the street.
The first was simply to crush populism with brute force. But this failed because this divided the classes into clear battle lines and merely hastened class conciousness in the ‘average man’.
Conservatives then turned to stoking the fires of nationalism and distracting the ‘average man’ from demanding political change at home and focusing on an ‘enemy’ abroad. Unfortunately for them wars couldn’t possibly go on long enough to distract people. Even the unique Orwellian solution by American conservative elites to promote a ‘Cold War’ that could put the country in a constant state of nationalistic right wing fever faced an ignominious end with the Vietnam War as the American public lost faith in the enterprise.
Which brings us back to the solution that we see from conservatives today – to stealthily transfer power to unelected bodies and institutions whilst maintaining control of such things in the shadows.
Eventually this strategy too will fail.
You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
So don’t be fooled – conservatives would rather not act in the shadows. In fact its a symptom of their diminution that they must do so in the Western world. If our beloved conservative elites thought they could get away with imposing their will by brute force and eliminating democracy like they do in Latin America, the Middle East or Asia, they would not hesitate.
Let us therefore treasure our democracies fellow populists. Wherever you may be. As long as conservatives even have to pay lip service to them, we have some power. But someday the conservatives will run out of ideas and again resort to brute force as in Thailand, and when they do I hope you dear reader will be on the right side of history.