“All forms of the state have democracy for their truth, and for that reason are false to the extent that they are not democracy.”
— Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
“The power of the people is always greater than that of the people in power.”
— Wael Ghonim, a Google executive at the time of Egypt’s popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak
When Hillary Clinton attempted to counter Donald Trump and his supporters’ populist attacks by explicitly branding them a “basket of deplorables, racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it,” she was hoist on her own petard. The chant “Lock Her Up” drew its enormous potency from her alleged corruption and from her being a figurehead of the ruling Washington elites who have leached the American state’s democratic egalitarian idealism. Calling Trump and his followers racist and sexist was waving a red rag to a bull. She played on a negative view of populism, an immanent antidemocratic elitism, which elicited outrage, making a mockery of her own populist appeal. The occasionally rank dominant-class prejudice that accompanies antipopulist sentiments (including those that assume it is a working-class phenomenon, when it is frequently cross-class) was egregiously apparent in a CNN pundit’s observation that Trump “was throwing red meat to the base” in his highly controversial travel bans.
Populism has a bad press. It’s a synonym for extremism, racism, and exclusionary prejudice of all kinds—the very antithesis of democracy and the orientation of state systems to egalitarian social and political ideals. There is no doubt that this is one of the possibilities of populism, as the rise of rightist extremism throughout much of the Western hemisphere demonstrates today. But populism, even of such a negative kind, is born of an orientation to democratic value, even if this is of the Orwellian Animal Farm contradictory kind, where some have more value or rights than others. Populism is not by definition undemocratic, even though it may produce those effects. The current reaction to Trump is no less the force of populism.
The democracy of populism
Populism is a concept deriving from the Latin populus, or people, a collective noun encompassing all those with citizen rights. It is broadly equivalent to the demos of the Greek polis. Populism (and populist) applies to democratic chiefly republican systems from ancient times through to the present. The idea of the People (to which other terms such as mass and mob are cognate) is a blanketing, anonymous, and totalizing category—a singularity in which social complexity and difference is homogenized and erased. The demagogue is inseparable from populism as directed to the totality of the people, especially when this is conceived of as outside or potentially overwhelming of the state and its order, as I develop here. The demagogue is the articulating, coordinating, and constitutive instrument of the People—indeed, can become the Person of the People. The demagogue (as with Trump or his pale shadows in the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage and the Dutch Party for Freedom’s Geert Wilders) offers a face to the otherwise anonymity of the category of the People, giving expression to and collectivizing the diverse issues of the People’s concern. The demagogue could be said to invent the People through distinctive performative, and discursive acts of rhetoric and ritualistic invocation designed to persuade and further the demagogue’s political interests. There are famous examples of the demagogue in the ancient world (for instance, Alcibiades in Athens and the Gracchi of republican Rome). However, and obviously, the force of the demagogue expands and intensifies its potentiality in the particular political economic and industrial/postindustrial circumstances of contemporary realities. The rhetorical possibilities, and the sphere in which the People is constructed, achieve an altogether new quality in the era of social media and cyberspace. In many ways cyberspace has become the open space of populism, perhaps a global populism, in which anyone can become their own demagogue. That Trump should inhabit this space and make regular use of it indicates a new era of populism as a force of more or less constant pressure on political realities and thus an expansion of its significance: populism as a regularity rather than an irregularity—the hyperreal of the political.
Contemporary populism and the democratic systems of its particular apotheoses are born of modernity and postmodernity, their roots in the American and the French Revolutions, and their significant precursors in the Levellers of the English Revolution. Radical egalitarianism was their driving force, born of grassroots discontent across various sections of society and fueled and cogently articulated in the statements and writings of, among others, Enlightenment philosophers. Philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau recognized the paradoxes at the center of democratic systems (the contradictions of society and state intensified in egalitarian value). This was no more evident than in the Jacobin Terror of the French Revolution, where both the orders of the state (freed of the hierarchical shackles of king and religion) and the society of the people in mutual genesis, collapsed against each other. The Terror points up in one extreme way the dangers of populism at the birth of modern democratic systems that, along with more recent events (Nazism, for instance), generate the fear of populism.
This fear can translate into what Jacques Rancière (2005) refers to as “the hatred of democracy,” a feature or implication of some influential commentary and reaction to the populism of the recent past and currently. Occasionally such criticisms of populism smack of elitism, a contradiction of the democratic, that can equal, if unintentionally, the prejudice of those populists who invoke, for example, racist or sexist slogans as aids to their cause. In such instances, populism and antipopulism can both be assaults on the democratic.
Rancière, working within the French revolutionary and Enlightenment tradition, argues that human beings appear, historically, to have invented only three kinds of political order: the first founded in kinship (kingship being an extension of the logic of kinship); the second, oligarchy, based in wealth and power; and the third, organized in accordance with what he calls the anarchic principle of the people in the condition of equality. This last grants the right to rule over others only on the basis of egalitarian reason: there is no necessary moral right for some to exercise authority and rule over others except that which is granted by the majority in egalitarian relation. Democracy is founded in this equalitarian principle and initiated in ancient Greece where election was by lot and open to all citizens regardless of power or social position. In this, democracy was indeed a lottery and a risk, but all the more democratic because of this, making it also extraordinarily fragile. Trump’s bull crashing about in the china shop of democracy at the start of his presidency makes this all too evident.
Extending from Rancière, populism may be understood as the elementary form of the democratic—its base, as it were—both prior to the system of democracy (its institutions, party system, legal and bureaucratic order) and its raison d’être—in which populism is a legitimating and a delegitimating force. Populism may be regarded as simultaneously the greatest force of egalitarian democracy and its greatest risk, the latter where populism becomes the agency for the very defeat of its own egalitarian impetus. This is because the potency of populism is in its antistate discourse, focusing as it does on the antiequalitarian dimensions of state-mediated social processes. Here is populism’s vulnerability as a primarily discursive medium (see Ernesto Laclau 2005) that can be opened to any ideological purpose, particularly to that whose effects are the very obverse of populism’s democratic egalitarian impetus.
Populism, as a discursive practice, is primarily contextual and situational and does not at first fit into a (relatively) closed ideology. The egalitarianism at root is open, capable of targeting virtually anything, and of shaping itself to even the most self-defeating ideological forms (neoliberalism, for instance). Perhaps because it is not an ideology as such, it is par excellence relative to historical context. This is why, although having a family resemblance with other populisms, Trump’s brand of populism is a very American, individualist-exceptionalist one (in the tradition of many US presidents and state leaders, starting with Andrew Jackson). It is to be distinguished from that of Brexit, itself distinct from populisms elsewhere. Populism has an overriding homegrown dimension to it.
Contradiction and inconsistency is integral to populism rather than antithetical to it. Populism engages these discursive practices to totalizing effect, where more ideologically abstract, less grounded politics often fails. Such is populism’s state-overpowering potency. In this last aspect, populism can be considered the excess of the political in democratic systems.
Efforts to temper populism’s (and democracy’s) risk—where it is the agency of its own demise—have their own antidemocratic possibility. Counterweights to the dangers of populism in democracy—for example, its subjection to the rule of abstract reason removed from the hands of the people—as, too, the appeal to a moral order (religious or secular) above the people, defeats the anarchic principle at the heart of democracy and populism. Thus, the case of the Electoral College system introduced by the founding fathers of the US Constitution as a failsafe against the abuse of reason by the popular will.
It is with considerable irony that Donald Trump oriented his presidential campaign to the Electoral College votes, making use of expert statistical information to target those states necessary to gain the Electoral College advantage over Clinton (see Davies 2017). In this, Trump revealed his antidemocratic propensity, engaging the major, in effect, antidemocratic loophole (designed, in the spirit of Plato, to guard the system against the risk of the unreason of the people) to capture the central office of democratic power, and very possibly realize what Rousseau addressed long ago in the contradiction of the society-of-the-people by the state.
For many witnesses of events in the United States recently, the situation appears dangerously in the balance (or out of balance). Both the force of populism in defense of the democratic against the state, and the antidemocratic potential of populism subsumed into the authoritarian person of Trump’s president, are on full display. There is clearly every danger that the current contest will tip the scales farther in the authoritarian direction, overthrowing the vestiges of democracy and very probably exacerbating the abjection and feeling of powerlessness that motivated many, but by no means all, to exercise their democratic will in Trump’s favor.
Populism and political transition
The potency of populism is in its discourse being positioned as external to the state. This is also the main condition for its emergence—as an upsurge of the people—intensively apparent at times of sociopolitical and economic transition or rupture. The most intense periods of populist emergence have been after the destruction of war and at major historical moments of social disjuncture, rupture, and restructuring via, for example, technological shifts (as at the present moment) radically affecting the socioeconomic conditions of existence, or the rise of new and dominating sections of society threatening to the traditional status quo, as with the emergence of the bourgeoisie in England and in prerevolutionary France.
The potency of populism at moments of transition is explicit in democratic systems where, in effect, it is domesticated to the interest of the legitimacy of the state and its ruling groups. I stress the notion of domestication, for populism is potentially a raw, wild, potency that can not only go off in any direction but also have transformational powers of a highly unpredictable kind. This is especially so, and dangerous, if it becomes internal to the apparatuses of the state in unmodified form, or finds a place at the center of the state as the commanding ideology of the state in its antistate potency. It is even more so when married to a capitalist ethos of the savage amoral kind that Trump proudly parades.
I will elaborate briefly. Democratic systems institutionalize and routinize the potentially wild power of the people into limited moments of time subject to relaxed restrictions. At elections the state moves into the shadows, takes a step back, and more or less enters into temporary suspension of its politics. A license is implicitly extended (by the state) for the performance of excess, perhaps misrule. It is a ritualized time, a moment of release and of limited control, one of liminality marking the uncertainty of transition (see Turner 1969). This is most manifest in US presidential elections (but I think in various ways throughout the Western democratic hemisphere), where the festivity of elections is tantamount to an overcoming of the state by the people, and even an expression of their order-toppling power. Trump’s presidential campaign exploited the license of such moments to the extreme, as did Farage, Johnson, and Gove in the Brexit referendum. They found their métier in “alternative truth,” blatant lying, and unblushing distortions of the facts. Trump, of course, went much further. He used his own Rabelaisian grotesque to advantage as an obscene instrument to reveal and explode his opponent as a figure of the very kind of state that the populism Trump conjured would overthrow. The bounds of permitted license were hard-pressed but not inconsistent with the liminal transitional period. The feature of such periods of license is their leveling (in which subversive humor and obscenity are key instruments) of any hint of social hierarchy. In them any truth can be challenged or any fact disavowed. The Brexiteers and Trump were able to make full use of the available license, turning negative reactions to their performances to positive effect.
With regard to Trump, there is a far more sinister aspect. Not only did he effectively mock the very democratic system that gave him a platform, but, more, he turned the election rites of the democratic state to truly subversive purpose. He took full advantage of what the rites of democracy suppressed. Perhaps he was aiming to take it further, starting a program for the destruction of the democratic state, to be recreated in his own authoritarian image. Current developments—his extraordinary flurry of executive orders and the construction of his own executive establishment—indicate authoritarianism in the making.
It is of significance that in the days of Trump’s preparation for office, and now in place as president, he has maintained his antistate or antiestablishment externality to the state, expressly using his own resources (rather than those of the state), all the while sustaining the behavior of the campaign hustings. He is a president virtually outside the state and in outright resistance to its domesticating controls. He declares that his own properties are more splendid and more appropriate to the royalty of the office he is coming to define in his own terms, and to his political business, than the traditional citadels of US democracy.
Some structural shifts underpinning contemporary populism
Trump’s opportunity (and the ability to maintain his populism) is related to a major moment of political and economic shift in the West, and globally, which finds different expression in various populist movements. I address two structural features of the shift: state transformation and the related crisis of the bourgeoisie in a changing landscape of class relations.
Current democratic states may be described as political systems of bourgeois oligarchic rule, in which the political practice of democracy is the means whereby power is systematically redistributed among the bourgeoisie, as Marx observed. This is achieved through alliance with and support of those who are in relations of class subordination to the bourgeoisie. The relative stability of these alliances has been disrupted by the rise of corporatism (which has introduced new bourgeois elements into the play of democracy) and, especially, the emergence of the corporate state (Kapferer 2016).
This is the corporatization of the nation-state: the influence over, or capture of, its political executive and controlling mechanisms by corporate interests, effecting the subordination of the political (and the social) to corporate power. This defines much of the political crisis in the Western hemisphere today, where the ideal dominance of the political over the economic (the nation-state) is giving way to the domination of the economic over the political (the corporate state). This is reflected to some extent in the pressure to get President Trump to divest his economic interests.
Contemporary globalization is the effect of corporatism and corporate state formation. That is, globalization is the result of the expansion of monopoly capitalism combined, as it were, with the theory of the firm (see, for example, Dimitri Kantarelis 2007), facilitated by technological innovation, particularly the digital revolution. Transnational corporate conglomerates operate as total political and economic orders of their own, rivaling and weakening nation-state orders. They have created both the material and ideological circumstances for populism. The ethos of neoliberalism, involving programs of austerity and privatization, has been a key means by which the corporate world has captured, in the interests of profit, state social and welfare programs.
This also issues in the sense of a loss of political sovereignty (often expressed as a reduction of personal autonomy) among national populations; impoverishment, unemployment, and community destruction, as in the rust belt of the Midwestern United States and of northern England; and the decline of living standards (highlighted by a culture of conspicuous consumption) across class strata, including those who define themselves as middle class or have such aspiration. All this is exacerbated in the massive demographic global displacements (not seen since the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries): the spread and intensification of what Alain Joxe (2002) calls “cruel little wars,” and the refugee situation.
These various developments prepared the terrain for populism and for its exploitation by interests oriented to the control of the state and its apparatuses, although they were restrained till this point by ruling oligarchic alliances and allegiances within the existing democratic order. Of course, there has been a longer process of radically weakening this historical compact by political disaffection, not to say hostility, to the state and its establishment across the class spectrum, as well as by political indifference and cynicism exacerbated by corruption scandals involving politicians and corporate figures.
In the United Kingdom the Labour Party is paralyzed by an intractable split between two major bourgeois factions. Both are relatively alienated from traditional working-class supporters (who are suffering only increasing unemployment, becoming an excluded class rather than working class), while their once middle-class supporters and ethnic and other minorities and marginalized groups have drifted toward the Tories. The political situation in Britain is virtually that of one-party rule. What opposition there is, is largely provided by the Tory Party itself as a result of the factional struggle that inspired the idea of the Brexit referendum.
A similar situation in United States is reflected in the political turmoil in the Democratic and Republican parties. Apart from the indifference (voter turnout for presidential elections in recent decades has been in decline, the lowest turnout being the most recent), people traditionally loyal to one or other of the parties (especially Democrats) have been changing their affiliations. The way was opened for the likes of Trump, but with a particular paradoxical twist. He threatens, by his engaging populism to capture state power, to give more potent force to the very corporate interests and to corporate state formation that are so much at the root of political and social anguish.
Although Trump appears to be reinstituting the sovereignty of the nation-state, he is actually effecting a further transition to the corporate state, beefing up its political and military apparatus accordingly. He is stripping away that liberal economic regulative veneer of the state superficially restrictive of corporate enterprise. Currently he is planning to roll back the financial regulations imposed under the Obama administration in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. This is not merely a reassertion of the imperialism that was barely suppressed in the Obama years or hidden beneath liberal progressivist rhetoric (the past with the gloves off), but an unapologetic apotheosis of the corporate state, as Trump’s appointments to his executive more than demonstrate: Trump’s New Deal for business.
While the socioeconomic and political ravages of corporatism underpin contemporary populism, it is not simply a natural knee-jerk reaction to despair. Socioeconomic distress, feelings of lost identity, community destruction, a sense of relative deprivation, a mood of Nietzschean ressentiment—all are undoubtedly involved. But what I stress is populism as a mode of performative discourse that activates, creates, and invents the People of which it speaks as well as the terms of its orientation. Populism is a forming of the political, a realization of potentials, rather than an expression of what already is. Further, it is most intense at the margins of political systems or outside its structures whereby what I have referred to as populism’s raw, wild, potency is contained or domesticated. Trump has located himself in this space of a populism he has created, a “Party Trump,” which maintains its uncertain potency, resisting its domestication into the political system, and dangerous because of this, perhaps becoming a tool for authoritarian rule or in the madness of possibility, an instrument of global destruction.
This article originally appeared in Arena Magazine, no. 146. Punctuation, spelling, and citations were changed to conform to the FocaalBlog style guide.
Bruce Kapferer is Director of the EU-supported Egalitarianism Project and Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Bergen. He has published widely on Africa, Sri Lanka, India and Australia.
Davis, William. 2017. The end of statistics? Guardian, 19 January, 27–29.
Joxe, Alain. 2002. The empire of disorder. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kantarelis, Dimitri. 2007. Theories of the firm. New York: Interscience.
Kapferer, Bruce. 2016. Brexit and Remain: A pox on all their houses. FocaalBlog, 18 August. http://www.focaalblog.com/2016/08/18/bruce-kapferer-brexit-and-remain-a-pox-on-all-their-houses.
Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. On populism. London: Verso.
Rancière, Jacques. 2005. The hatred of democracy. London: Verso.
Turner, Victor. 1969. The ritual process. London: Routledge.