As a political ideology, populism can be divided into an array of currents, beyond the obvious distinction between right- and left-wing. It can have negative connotations and be written off as demagogy by some individuals of the fortunate classes who object to allowing those from the lower classes to lead the country, judging them “unfit” for the job. It mirrors and crystallizes the perennial fight for power between the small group of affluent people in many societies and the struggling masses representing the majority.
Populism is a term applied to a political doctrine aimed, in theory, at serving the views and interests of the popular classes.* It is critical of the system run by the elites in power. It also applies to a literary genre that depicts the life of the masses in a realistic way. Some of its counterparts in painting include the indigenismo movement in Latin America and “naive” art.**
In the course of time, the meaning of the term populism has taken on many facets. The elites decry some of these facets and co-opt others, claiming to be advocates of the cause of the people. The definition of populism has varied in history, but generally depends on the personal or political goals of the interested parties. As we see today, populist promises are sometimes used by political elites as an instrument of ideological manipulation to mask serious political problems or to avoid applying real solutions that run counter to their interests.
Populism can also refer to a tactic used by humbler segments of society to defend themselves against the abuses of the corporate and political elite. Some depict this ideology as a doctrine that represents the best form of democracy. Others object, particularly some capitalists who view populism as merely another guise for communism. Such people have honed the skill of sheltering their wealth from the national coffers. The ruling class and their rich and corporate sponsors resist losing any of their privileges, and demonize those populists in an attempt to shield themselves from attack or changes in a system built by and for them.
We must realize that today’s populism has entered the arena of political struggle where money, propaganda, treachery, lies and even killings are the basic rules of the game. Morality is merely a tool that is sharpened to defend financial interests over human ethics. Contradictions can be noted everywhere. Few abide by their own rhetoric. Tax evasion, money laundering and secret bank accounts are the usual games of the ruling corporate and political elites of the anti-populist capitalists. They are among the main users of the off-shore banks created by them. And despite fierce rhetoric about claiming to destroy them, off-shore banks keep increasing every year.
As capitalist elites keep selling to the world the idea of the supremacy of democracy based on the capitalist system, they continue to offer tax evasion services to the very rich, through their banks. These banks continue receiving sometimes millions in cash over the counter, while omitting to respect disclosure regulations. And our politicians from time to time make a timid move to collect hidden tax evasion money to try to fill the coffers.
These tax dodges create deficits that are compensated by the State, which borrows from those same banks harbouring dirty money. Government officials do not want to annoy the corporate entities that sponsor them, or investigate a bank where they have hidden their own under-the-table bribes set aside for their election. Their rhetoric about curbing them is a hypocritical lie. The founder of the Luxembourg bank paradise complex is now a bigshot in the European Union! Some claim that the banks are warned in advance of any “surprise” searches so that they can hide compromising documents. France loses 80 billion euros in tax revenues every year in this manner. Clearstream (a post-trade service provider) that harbours part of the money, serves also to store political bribes from the sale of State weapons. This leads to decreased social services, as the debt has to be served. Capitalist fat cats get fatter while the poor grapple with the ever-shifting challenges of austerity and precarity.
Was it better in the proletarian kingdoms? Not really. The former Soviet Union is a good case in point. It might have had proletarianism, but not populism. The State owned all, but the oligarchs and some party members owned the State! The masses of people were put on leashes, could not travel abroad or speak to foreigners. There were no private liberties, but there was a decent education system for most, which was a poor but important consolation. The “proletarian” upper class could travel, buy all the corrupt capitalists’ goodies abroad: whiskies, coffee, chocolate, nylon or silk stockings, cigarettes, etc.
Now that the system has changed, Russia is sprouting billionaires. The former apparatchiks are now the owners of all the State riches, mines, oil and industries, sold at a price that only they could afford. Have things improved from communism to elitism? They have even developed an aristocratic mafia like the ones we know in major capitalist countries!
If we take a careful look at capitalism, communism, populism and most other “isms,” we see that they tend to be different expressions of the same disease – human greed and a perverted form of narcissism!
My conviction is that the advocates of populism in its ideal form have little chance of attaining power, much less holding on to it, for strong disruptive forces will quickly unravel all that. There is no shortage of examples illustrating this point: Juan Peron in Argentina, Salvador Allende in Chile, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and Mahatma Gandhi in India were all ultimately ousted or annihilated by the forces of the financial, corporate or religious elites who opposed them.
Populism is, in fact, either propaganda or pipe dreams, propagated by astute and cynical rulers or by sincere believers who can hardly be allowed to realize their populist vision!
* Populus is a Latin word which means “the people.” The popular classes are the ordinary citizens in opposition to the elite, the aristocracy, and those belonging to the privileged and affluent upper classes. In many countries, the popular classes represent 50% to 90% of the population. We all know that the upper classes of many countries form a tiny fraction of the citizenry. In the USA, this group consists of the “middle” middle class, the lower middle class and the lower class!
**Indigenism refers to a movement and a school of art. It is often used to depict indigenous paintings and other visual arts in Latin American, African and Asian countries, which differ from the classical European forms of expression and challenge colonial paradigms. It is also sometimes called primitive or naive art.