Yes, there is a very significant current of populist nationalism (or nationalist populism—your choice) in the world, not only in the “East” where the despotic state has historic roots (see Modi, Putin, Erdoğan, not to mention Kim Jong-Un), but also in the “West”, which is (supposedly) relatively grown free of these roots (see Trump, Johnson/Farage, Wilders, Le Pen). Yes, those so-called “leaders” think, act, and sometimes look alike. It is, however, too easy (and often misleading) to think of them as “racist guys with weird hair”:
This approach, of course, tends to forget Marine Le Pen who is not a “guy” and has her hair usually under control, and also neglects to mention that for these new-fangled petty would-be dictators, the hair is the easiest aspect to get under control. As a matter of fact, Putin and Erdoğan have no “hair trouble” to speak of, although they are no better in the racism and authoritarianism departments.
The real (and serious) question is, whether there is any lingering, profound truth behind these much talked-about and advertised similarities. That all these leaders are nationalists, populists, and most of the time racists, goes without saying. But what of it? There always have been, and probably will be in the foreseeable future, many of these so-called “politicians”. In what way are they significant at this precise juncture in history?
To start with, it is our reaction to them that is significantly different. And, unfortunately, this reaction is a carefully manipulated and tailored one: we are asked (even goaded) to believe that this new generation of “politicians” are replacing neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, which is supposed to be no different from liberalism, but only newer and shinier; a regime that guarantees our liberties (as long as such liberties do not threaten the perpetual survival of capitalism); a regime that guarantees our happiness (as long as such happiness is found in the unconditional submission to the free market). So, we are supposed to be threatened, because the system that guarantees our liberties and happiness is going to be replaced with something much nastier, isn’t it?
This is the kind of manipulation we are dealing with. So, we are expected to support neoliberals against the “populists”; Hillary Clinton against Trump, Macron against Le Pen, Rutte against Wilders. Nobody asks whether we like Hillary, Macron or Rutte—we are asked to decide not by what we prefer, but by what we want to avoid. Even the phrase “lesser of two evils” is not pronounced much—we are not supposed to think of these choices as “evil” at all, lesser or greater.
These people are called “populists”—and what is so wrong with populism, anyway? Isn’t it standing for and defending the “will” of the people? Well, not exactly. Populism, under the circumstances of our day, is to manipulate the discontent and distress of the people about “Globalisation”, that is, the trickling (even gushing) away of capital and the accompanying employment opportunities to where labour-power is cheapest, into a nationalist, xenophobic and racist agenda. It may seem to go along with the people’s will, but first it creates that so-called “people’s will”. It makes the people believe that it is the others (other races, other countries, other religions) that is responsible for the discomfort they are facing, and not (Heaven forbid!) capitalism. They try to make the people to neglect the fact that capitalism is not inherent to one region, one nation or one religion, but it is endemic: it is global already—not only as a result of the current “Globalisation” drive, but also from the moment of its inception, even if only as a potential.
The so-called populists, however, want us to believe that the neoliberals invented Globalisation, which is by no means intrinsic to capitalism (Heaven forbid!). Capitalism is all about the nation, the faith, and what is authentic; it is about us and mom’s apple pie. The only problem with this approach is that there are a lot of “us”es, and mom’s apple pie is not a universal. So, Turkey’s Erdoğan, for instance, will do his damnedest to prove that capitalism and Islam go together like hand in glove, while Le Pen will claim it is an authentic French invention (like everything else in the world), and Putin will try his best to make it sound Slavic. For Trump, capitalism is what had made “America great!” and for Modi capitalism hates Muslims. The odd thing is, when Erdoğan and Modi come together they seem to be getting along pretty well, and although Verhofstadt does not hesitate to give Orban a good tongue-lashing when he challenges the EU, they may happily join together in damning Tsipras, if he ever again gets out of line and refuses to take the medicine Dr. Capital has prescribed.
Modi, Putin, Erdoğan, Trump, Johnson, Farage, Wilders and Le Pen are “populists”. And their alternatives are not? Is Hillary less of a populist than Trump? Is Macron? What was the significant difference between the election promises of Rutte and Wilders (leaving aside the hair)? Maybe it is time for us to face the fact that “neoliberalism” was never “liberal” (in the etymological sense of the word) anyway. Neoliberalism was already an outcome of the failure of capitalism to deliver on the unfounded promise that a free market can only exist along with free individuals and a free society. It was never a purely economic doctrine but an imagined edifice of governing to hold the perpetually and hopelessly self-conflicting structure of capitalism together. Not surprisingly, it failed. Now global capitalism has been searching for ways to sell the idea that a free market can (and under the existing circumstances has no option but) exist as a corollary of the good old despotic state, and neoliberalism can no longer be its commercial slogan (even if it should be retained for later use). Now that a crisis is at hand, and neoliberalism has failed to deliver; new and seemingly “unreasonable” and less palatable options appear. The recent meteoric rise of populism is the most prominent of these.
To be sure, populism is not a newcomer to capitalism: whenever capitalism needed a “revolution” to rise to power (unlike in Britain where it could adapt a softer, more gradual route), it had to tame this revolution (which is always uncontrollable and unpredictable) immediately afterwards. This is what the Bonaparte family (uncle and nephew) was for: in both their ascendancies to Emperorhood, the Bonapartes used (once after the French Revolution of 1789, the second time after the 1848 Revolution) many of the populist strategies we are observing even today. Having learned from them, Stalin utilised these strategies to convert a totally different kind of revolution into a sort of despotic capitalism. Mussolini and Hitler were not very far behind. Although all these five are very much different in a lot of ways, they have one thing in common: a profound populism (manipulating the so-called “people’s will) that may severally end up in Bonapartism, totalitarianism, fascism or Nazism.
Once the “revolution” is tamed, however, the capitalists may now have the option to rule without open coercion, devise ways to secure popular consent, and, in extreme cases, dispense government to the (relatively) free interplay of ideas, ideologies and political organisations. We should add that this is only for limited periods of time: free politics and free market are similar only in name: freedom for the working classes is only freedom from the means of production and freedom to choose how and how much their labour-power will be exploited. Whenever capitalism devolves into a crisis, therefore, they rapidly become ungovernable. The rebellious energy that arises from the dis-concurrence thereof may either be the fuel for a new and completely unpredictable revolution, or it may be manipulated into a new form of populist rule which, willy-nilly, dismantles the fragile politico-cultural structure liberalism (and for the last half century, neoliberalism) has meticulously constructed.
We seem to be at such a point in history. All the “populist” politicians and the “elitist” neoliberals they claim to be replacing, are after the same thing: to save and protect capitalism from itself. The populists are reverting to the “old ways” and trying to disrupt the meticulous governmental and cultural structure the liberals (and, in their wake, the neoliberals) have built, while keeping the economic structure intact. The neoliberals are desperately seeking out ways to keep both intact. Both endeavours, though, are in vain. The populists are like children, picking at their meal, eating some and trying to discard the rest (this is why they usually look like pissed-off and pouting teenagers). The neoliberals are like their parents, telling them to clear their plates, broccoli and all, obediently (this is why they usually look condescending and unbearable). But let us make one thing clear: neither of them is for “change”, and neither of them is truly conservative. Revolution, however disruptive and violent at times, is at given junctures in history, unavoidable and to be embraced. Conservatism, in the sense of preserving the historical legacy of humanity (not only of capitalism or the Western Civilisation, but of human civilisations, plural), is also indispensable. The competing ideologies of our day are neither, or at most pale caricatures of both.
Therefore, as I write this hours before the second round of French Presidential elections, the French people are facing an impossible choice: a populist who has nothing to do with “people” against a conservative-liberal who has nothing to do with liberty or the historical legacy of either humanity or even Europe. If we put them together, the equation will give us only Donald Trump who is both a narcissistic populist but at the same time profoundly neoliberal in the economic sense. The only difference between France and the US in this instance is the number of rounds in the election: if the US had given up the hopelessly archaic and unfair collegiate system and adopted a two-round system instead, we would have observed a similar outcome: Hillary and Trump would still have competed in the final round (with Bernie Sanders a proud and close third and an obscure Republican fourth), but this time Hillary would have won (just like Macron will in the French case). I suggested the equation “Macron + Le Pen = Trump”. In the US case it would be even weirder, because it would add up to “Hillary + Trump = Trump”, which would make Hillary a big and insignificant zero.
I predict a Macron win, which is very easy and extremely safe, because if I am wrong, I can always blame it on the “failing media and polls”. Mélanchon (the French equivalent of Sanders—or vice versa), asked his supporters not to vote Le Pen, lest some of them may fall prey to her anti-elitist, pro-change rants. He has not, however, asked them to support Macron. We may (hopefully) take this as a hint to boycott the second round, because this is all we can do at this point: not to play this ages old and abysmally tasteless game of “choice” between capitalism and capitalism.