Populism: Mesmerize and Confound the Present and Sully the Past!

Sometime in 1976, Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher, suggested that saturating the media with carefully selected flash news disables the concept of historicity, depth, intelligence and transparency in following daily events, and creates a hyper-reality that challenges or drowns out reality. The “War against Terror” in the aftermath of 9/11 has been a perfect example of turning history on its head. Irreality has become a hallucinatory haze – a Lucy in the Sky with Drones! Totally in the realm of possibilities.

War becomes redefined as “necessary regime change” and an essential “democratization” process. Terror is defined as the act of lonely, insane fundamentalists who live in caves and deserts. These deliberate fantasy stories are soon rebranded as conspiracy theory, and the past is erased or simply drowned out, while the absurdity of the present is dressed up to look like pervasive truth. “Breaking news” is a carefully constructed exhortation to white-out the past and whip up populist discord. Mainstream liberalist/Clintonist obscenities are part and parcel of this demagogic sleight of hand. Remember Hilary’s exhilaration at the killing of Muammar Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, and he died, ha ha!”(with the last part shrieked like a hyena). In essence, the achievements of Libya – the wealthiest country in Africa with the highest standards of living and education, the lowest levels of poverty and inequality, and zero debt – get wiped out in one fell swoop. What happened before is obliterated.

In some countries, fascist attributes are passed off as the “need to preserve continuity.” In others, the idea of discipline and order is upheld as a historical necessity to achieve growth. Chaos is considered devilish. The chaos of economic and political crises is explained away as a collapse of traditional belief systems. An aesthetic is created that impresses the uninformed, and easily creates the basis for populist yay-sayers.

Populism may also be a product of fatigue from imposed values, excessive proselytizing, hypocrisy and extreme coding – formulaic prescriptions on how to live life. But it would be erroneous to confine it to that. This would amount to a denial of why populism erupts differently under different eras and economic circumstances. Some folks react to interference or doctrinaire philosophies, while others may react to transgressions of Biblical, Vedic or Koranic belief systems. There is the factor of economics. There is war. And there is migration. There are phobias about others (and their religions), and then there is the fear of the unknown. The populism that haunts us today is not only about tiresome responses to formalism, but also the stirring-up of those who are reticent or instinctively opposed to equal opportunity, reserving jobs under affirmative action programs, paying the price of colonization. The thought of squaring your ancestors’ unpaid bills causes discernible unease and rancour amongst those whom I would not hesitate to call argumentative imbeciles.

The well-known American rapper, Kanye West, is a recent example of such idiocy when he says slavery was a “choice.” That’s exactly what Jordan Peterson would suggest! In fact, Kanye publicly confesses that he is influenced by Peterson. If you have not heard about Jordan Peterson, you are probably not in the buzzfeed gen, but that’s hardly a bad predicament to be in anyway. (There’s an article worth reading that offers a well-placed takedown of Peterson: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/19/jordan-peterson-and-fascist-mysticism. It actually unnerved and unravelled Peterson to the point where he started to scream every time he heard the name Pankaj Mishra.)  Hunger, starvation, colonization, kidnapping, ransom, lynching, auctioneering are erased from history, and not surprisingly, new research is being initiated by some profs in Oxford on the “good ethical things about the British Empire.”

Populism is a spectre

It has haunted liberal western and developing democracies: whenever grassroots empowerment began to happen, whenever people talked about community, environment, localization; whenever people asserted the rights of minorities or tried to reverse a “plantation” mindset or made feeble attempts at reversing inequality; whenever there were initiatives to liberate food and water chains from the grip of corporations; whenever attempts were made to turn health care and Pharmacare into state-held responsibilities… And on the other side, populist arguments strike a chord when young people are told that they should not be held responsible for the atrocities committed by their ancestors. The thought of that kind of accountability sends shivers down the spines of those who are themselves faced with economic uncertainty, job loss and extinction. Populist theories then concatenate notions of racial preservation and “purity.”

The New Populists in their clean-cut attire

Populists and their white short-sleeved-shirt-wearing, university-educated mentors of both the Breitbart and the Jordan Peterson variety have taken to a new form of subversion. This new generation of suave populists believes in “direct intervention” in the media and in academic forums. Its proponents are divisive and confrontational and hide behind the right to free speech to divide and disable. Division is paramount, because it turns black into white as a starting argument. It makes a splash. They stir up dormant and raw emotions. They come in several varieties, but they all espouse populism.

There are Nazi-emulators who love Zionists but hate Jews (generally keeping their anti-Semitism under wraps). They are tantamount to house slaves wanting to become plantation owners. In developing countries, there are regressive feudals who think it’s ok to commit gang rape on eight-year olds (because the children belong to minority communities), but nevertheless embrace bitcoinery and digitization and love the “free market” despite their pre-industrial culture. They rewrite school and college curricula in the name of “fighting colonialism,” whereas they themselves are prime retrograde ideologues, passing off religious obscurantism as patriotic.

There are also the poor who feel that progressive ideas have led to poverty instead of richesse. There are the de-skilled who hate the “intelligent” hiring of newcomers. In the developed world, there are those who think people of colour are either criminal or crazily entrepreneurial: blacks are lazy and Natives waste taxpayers’ money. The populists of today see themselves as once-protagonists who have lost out and now feel under attack. They feel disinherited!

De-regulation and whipping up repressed neurosis

Since the advent of the Reagan-Thatcher deregulatory era and the subsequent triumphalism over the collapse of “Berlin Wall socialism,” there has been a back-to-the-basics brand of populism from the counter-subversive right. Adamant claims abound: “abortion is clearly wrong,” “intact heterosexual two-parent families” are the necessary bedrock of a “stable polity,” transgender ideology is “completely insane.” Encouraging parents to oppose the “indoctrination” of so-called comprehensive sex-education and advising college students not to appease left-wing professors or submit to political correctness is the populism of the day. The words in quotes are from Jordan Peterson, that outspoken, articulate and sometimes out-of-control Canadian guru of Ayn Rand-style revivalism. How did this all come about? Especially after the extraordinary gains made worldwide, from the era of Our Bodies, Ourselves (Boston Women’s Health Book Collective) right up to the time of exemplary progressive stands by Dr. Henry Morgentaler on behalf of women’s rights over their bodies in our own city of Montréal?

Well! The other spectre that has been haunting us is that period at the end of the Vietnam War, when academics settled into their tenured swivel chairs and experimented endlessly with the politics of culture, sub-culture, affiliations and identity… and essentially channelled the politics of economic clashes between the haves and the have-nots into the politics of tent societies that camped out on different issues rather than gathering under the same tent to deal with systemic inequality.

Populism became the neurosis of the repressed. In terms of behaviourism, populists indulge in being deprived. Old conflicts are regenerated in new packaging, and established cultural détente is unravelled by fixations on deprivation, which revive hate-filled memories of the past. Ezra Levant’s rag, Rebel Media, horribly entrenched in rightwing hate-mongering, laces his neurosis-bound trash with activist language. There is rhetoric of “activism and engagement,” in their “About Us” tab. Populism is thus carefully constructed as a “re-examining of history.” Or deletion, if you will.

Fountain, ready-made by Marcel Duchamp, replica of the 1917 original (now lost).
art@aditi Creative Commons Legal Code (found at www.britannica.com/Art/Dada)

Cultural freedom, artistic expression in a time of discord

“In the early days, I didn’t even know what to call the stuff my life was made of. You can imagine my delight when I discovered that someone in a distant land had the same idea—AND a nice, short name for it.” Frank Zappa, on learning about Dadaism.

Right after the end of the First World War, groups of cool artists laid siege to the horrors of promoting war and the distraction and utter chaos it caused, and attacked everything else that formalized social consent for preserving the machinery of the State. Diverse artists leapt into the fray and demolished “high” and elite art through their writings, poetry, songs, sculpture and installations, and established their anti-bourgeois bearings. They challenged the shallowness of blind faith and set out to dismantle the formalism of art and poetry.

Sound poetry, nonsense poetry emerged as a rebuttal to the stultifying formalism of art and art appreciation. An upside-down toilet bowl and a moustache on Mona Lisa were hallmarks. This was a “left” revolt of some sort against war and the rigidification of values.  A welcome subversive populism in the wake of inter-imperial war. It came to be referred to as the Dadaist movement. The origins of the word are still not very clear to me, but are most probably a mocking of the Romanic “yes, yes” mindset. Da, Da is Yes, yes.  Some say that a German artist randomly stabbed a dictionary and the knifepoint landed on the word dada, which in French means “hobby horse.” A rocking horse. Perhaps held as a symbol of boring, predictable and yet diminishing momentum. This movement took an axe to formalism.

Populism and disaster economics

When poverty festers amongst communities of colour, predatory “developers” capitalize on ways to obliterate the “ghetto” or the projects and look for a silver lining… for their wallets. They pray for (and prey on) environmental trauma, and push contrived urban plans that displace the poor. Once that happens, they seize the tremendous opportunities to flatten the “ugly” and displace the folks of colour.

Canadian writer and social activist Naomi Klein has extensively covered the disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina. Predictably, entire blocks of African-American livelihoods were never rebuilt. Displacement was transmuted into a real-estate campaign and a gentrification objective. The populist hankering for “clean-up” resulted in entire communities and their histories being wiped “clean.” Close to a year after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, nearly 50% of the population still does not have electricity. There is a quiet populist sentiment that God paid a timely visit to these people. Here is a link to Klein’s well-made video (including Puerto Rican community initiatives) in The Intercept.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTiZtYaB3Zo

So, this is where we’re at. Populism is too often an “attractive” way to wipe the slate clean, expunge feelings of guilt, forget the past, and let repressed psychoses play out in the public arena.

Rana Bose is a member of our editorial team.