Friday, November 22, 2019

People Against Populism

The "populist" Maximilien Robespierre, in a contemporary cartoon, via The New Statesman, July 2017.

What accounts for the following"?
Crowds are chanting “Death to Khamenei” in Iran while the regime kills them en masse and shuts down the internet. Throngs are marching to preserve democratic rights in Hong Kong, Warsaw, Budapest, Istanbul and Moscow. The masses are angry in Pakistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia and toppling leaders in Lebanon and Bolivia.
David Brooks has an important idea, naturally ("The Revolt Against Populism"):

The seeds of today’s unrest were planted in those events of 30 years ago — the fall of the Soviet Union, the spread of globalization and all the rest. That was the heyday of liberal democratic capitalism, free market fundamentalism, the end of history.
We all know now what many of us didn’t appreciate then: Globalized democratic capitalism was going to spark a backlash. It led to growing economic and cultural clashes between the educated urbanites, who thrived, and the rural masses, who were left behind. It was too spiritually thin, too cosmopolitan and deracinated. People felt that their national cultures were being ripped away from them.
In Iran, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and Bolivia, people are all just fed up with all that liberal democratic capitalism that's been foisted on them by *checks notes* the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, the Socialism With Chinese Characteristics of the Chinese Communist Party under the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought and the 19th National Party Congress in 2017, the absolute monarchy of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and cocalero socialism, because of its spiritual thinness and people's national cultures being ripped away from them.

Or, au contraire, it's a reaction against the reaction against democratic capitalism when the educated urbanites were put down by the rural masses, that backlash against the "populism" of *checks notes* Moscow mafiya rule, the Lebanese government taxing your WhatsApp messages, the Iranian government taxing your gas, and Imran Khan's administration in Pakistan,
which came to power last year promising 10 million new jobs for the youth, 5 million low-cost houses, and economic reforms to benefit the middle class.

Since then, Pakistan’s economy has nosedived, witnessing double-digit inflation and rampant unemployment. The government signed a $6-billion bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund to stave off a balance-of-payments crisis.
and the Socialism With Chinese Characteristics of the Chinese Communist Party under the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought and the 19th National Party Congress in 2017, because
when in power the populists can’t deliver goods. So now in many places we’re seeing a revolt against the revolt, urban middle-class uprisings against the populists themselves.
Members of the urban middle class such as *checks notes* in eastern Saudi Arabia the Shi'ite militants of Qatif that began in 2017 with the police killing of a child and a young Pakistani man, or in Poland when the rightwing regime decided to force judges into early retirement, or in Pakistan the
opposition party Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) [under] the firebrand cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman — 
and victims of the army's 2014 attacks against the Taliban supporters of Swat, which has brought
distraught Pashtuns ... out in the streets, with demonstrations in Islamabad, Peshawar and Lahore, and another scheduled in Karachi, under the banner of an organisation called the Pashtun Tahaffuz (Protection) Movement. The movement is entirely peaceful, but has scared the army ...
Or maybe, you know, it might be a little more complicated. Just saying.

Meanwhile, back in the US of A, which is what Brooks means for us to be thinking about, Rectification Central is calling for a moratorium on the word "populism", which is collapsing from the weight of its internal contradictions, having arisen as two more or less simultaneous and opposed concepts, in Europe (mostly France) to describe the ignorant masses falling prey to the blandishments of demagogues and in North America to describe the awakened masses demanding a share in the policy-making.

The European kind is generally part of a rightwing dispute between those of the elite who believe they should angle for the votes of the proles through fiery rhetoric and those who recoil from such a distasteful prospect even if it means losing elections forever. This kind of populism has come to dominate the Republican party as an idea since William Safire was Spiro Agnew's speechwriter, but it's now come to dominate them in reality, as new money crowds out old money, and Brooks Brothers rioters start thinking of themselves as working-class toughs. And fearful aristocrats and their writer fans like Brooks, worried that their control has slipped, have begun deploying the word the way French aristocrats once complained about Poujadisme.

The American kind is generally part of a leftwing dispute that can also be seen as an issue of electoral politics but is better seen in a bigger philosophical background: agreeing that government should reduce inequality and share the benefits fairly among the whole population, the question is whether the work is best managed by the mandarinate of those who putatively know best or whether those who don't have the status belong in the decision-making councils. Not do they vote for us but are they us and we them? Can there be a genuinely democratic movement? Is it a scary risk? Will "the people" in power demand bellicosity and xenophobia,  or reject free college because they're envious of people who went to college? Or is that just a myth we're picking up from the European aristocrats? Who are "the people", anyway?

The rightwingers don't ask, because they're against democracy, in what passes for principle. They've been fighting a rear-guard action against democracy the whole time. Poujadistes and Trumpers trawl for a particular group of the disadvantaged, to the despair of their high-class colleagues, but not in the intention of giving them any power.

We, on the other hand, ultimately have to figure out a way of getting our mandarinate to surrender the monopoly on power, if we're to make democracy real. Brooks says, predictably, it's all up to "leaders" making "the people" feel as if they have a role and "the educated elites" feeling as if they live in a democracy where all sorts of people are welcome to contribute
The big job ahead for leaders in almost all these nations is this: Write a new social contract that gives both the educated urban elites and the heartland working classes a piece of what they want most.
The working classes who have been supporting populists need a way to thrive in the modern economy and a sense they are respected contributors to their national project. The educated elites want their democratic freedoms protected and to live in ethnically diverse pluralistic societies.
Whoever can write that social bargain wins the future.
Really, you don't write a social contract and send it down from on high: it evolves.

Also, you can't do it under the characteristic Brooksian misapprehension that "the people" means white voters without college degrees, and not the much larger and more complex (and generally more radical) population that actually exists, including all those nonvoters I keep telling you about, who constitute an ethnically diverse society that already exists, even in the "heartland", and either is or isn't ready for democracy. Let's say maybe it always was!

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