Friday, 16 September 2016

On Populism: What do we do? vs Who do we blame?

If you ask the wrong question, the answers will not work.

"Populism" is, like pornography, hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Wikipedia defines it thus

"a political ideology that holds that virtuous citizens are mistreated by a small circle of elites, who can be overthrown if the people recognize the danger and work together. Populism depicts elites as trampling on the rights, values, and voice of the legitimate people"
It's clear Farage's lauding of a victory for "mediocre ordinary, decent scum people" he was speaking in this vein. But I don't think this captures the essence of populism. Mainstream politicians "Managerialists" in the Populists' vernacular ask "how do we solve this problem". You can be a capitalist, or a socialist, believing in different answers, but at least you agree on the question. Populists aren't asking this question, but instead "who do we blame?". The answer given by Momentum and UKIP may differ: Bosses vs Immigrants, Capitalists vs the EU but the question is the same.

There's also the populists view that MPs rather than being representatives paid to exercise judgement, are delegates paid to vote on someone else's behalf. In this, Paul Mason and Douglas Carswell are in agreement. But this is simply mob rule and behind it is a fear that legislators may Go Native, if they're allowed thanks to the corrosive influence of "[insert boogeyman]" in their long-running campaign to keep the "real" people down. But perhaps legislators know best; they have exposure and access to what passes for facts in this field, and are paid to study it, maybe there's something in the idea of representative democracy after all.

It's always easier to imagine you're the victim of an elite conspiracy, subject to "discrimination" on the grounds of class or race, or at risk from being "flooded" by immigrants, than it is to answer the question "what to I do?". Whether you're running your own life, or that of a nation, what to do is hard, and one of the stresses of modern life is the extent to which people are free, which means they have to make choices. No longer can you just follow dad into the Factory. Because many suffer from crippling loss aversion, these choices are scary, which is why stupid people yearn to be led. They look for leaders who offer answers which fit their prior prejudices and make sense of a complicated world. Corbyn and Farage have made careers finding and stroking a tribe's prejudices, soothing their people's indignation against a world they feel is against them.

The reason populism is so toxic to political discourse is that in apportioning blame, they create a slipway for the launching of vastly damaging ideas. "It's all the EU's fault" leads to Brexit*. "It's all the Fat Cats' fault" and you have a country that looks like Venezuela. If you start blaming immigrants or minorities, well we saw where that went in the last century. It's also why the Brexiteers ran from office at the moment of victory. Delivery isn't in the populists' skillset. The permanent masturbatory pleasures of opposition are what they crave, always losing so they can keep telling their people the game's rigged against them. If they win, then all those inadequate people will have to start making choices and they feel completely lost again. Much easier to simmer in resentment against an immovable object which allows you to blame it, rather than yourself for your failings.

*This isn't a place for a debate on the merits or otherwise of Brexit. Any comments on that subject will be deleted.

One of the reasons for the Populist's success (please note the "one of" at the start of this sentence) is Russia on the internet. The internet allows people to form much denser ideological defences against reality. And into the internet, there is a wounded superpower, pouring poison, poison which people use as ammunition in the defence of their ideological redoubt. Putin's toxic little propaganda swamps like RT and Sputnik are manufacturing and promoting stories which appeal to the populist mindset. Notice how Racists will share RT stories about Immigrants raping white women while members of the Green party will share horror stories about fracking from the same source. Some of these stories will be true. But many are manufactured, exaggerated and twisted specifically to support any party or idea that causes problems to the democratic governments of the west. This is not a random process. It is directed and controlled by the intelligence agency which has captured Russia. Maskirovka raised to a governing principle.

One of the reasons for the UK's relative success as a nation is that up until now, we have been mostly immune from the allure of the populist demagogue. We simply don't have it in us to put too much belief in one man, whether as protagonist or antagonist. Let's hope Brexit is a flash in the pan, and not part of a widespread descent of mature democracies into populist demagoguery. We'll know in 12 months whether democracy can survive or whether, thanks to Trump, Farage and Le Pen, we're going back to pogroms and a summer "campaigning season".

Please let's stop listening to Putin' useful idiots pedalling fallacious simplicity, and start listening to fallible and all-too-human experts again. At least the experts are asking the right question.



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