An anomaly that goes by the name populism

‘It has transformed the character of governance too’

‘It has transformed the character of governance too’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

While economic inequalities have grown exponentially over the last few decades, we have also witnessed social democratisation that has been silent and uneventful. Democratisation has happened due to the spread of education, the growing reach of the market and a ‘communication revolution’ that includes social media, and renewed legitimisation of democracy through the principle of ‘one vote, one value’. Such social equalisation has not, however, contributed in any substantial sense to distributive justice, much against the assumption that the shift from ‘equality to difference’ will also account for economic equality. Populism is an expression of this anomaly of growing social mobility sans economic equality.

Change on many fronts

Democratisation can be seen on many fronts. New technology has replaced old social divides. Today, for instance, photography is not about ‘capturing’ a moment; it is about ‘creating’ one using filters and also the instant mobile phone cameras. It is not about who can be a great photographer, but who chooses to be one. Nothing is rare, everything is common. How do we celebrate the common? Populism has shown us a way — narrativising the common and creating a spectacle of the every day.

Markets have created new modes of consumption. David Harvey refers to Netflix as a non-exclusive consumption that can be consumed simultaneously. It breaks the gap between high and low cultures. The poor can make do with look-alike fashion (consider markets being flushed with Gucci bags on the streets), as long as they follow and understand fashion trends. Relative educational opportunities have spread through the private sector and English education now looks within reach. For instance, the Government of Andhra Pradesh has made the English medium mandatory in government schools. Education in English for the next generation is now a universal aspiration, but without good public education, affordability and quality. Democracy has renewed the legitimacy of bringing about effective changes and voter turnout has been increasing, even as policy consensus around neoliberalism has been near complete. On the day of voting, the rich and the poor carry the same value to their power to decide.

Janus-faced process

Populists are mobilising the aspirations born out of social mobility but are also containing it from spilling over into demands for economic equality. Populists encourage assertions around demands for dignity, sentiments and recognition within the cultural realm but disallow them from being connected to economic equality. It in fact, conjoins social equality with justifying economic inequalities as being either random or as individual failures. It links demands for social equality with voluntarism and individual effort. The social confidence gained through the processes of democratisation is being challenged and made to look shaky in the light of growing economic and material inequalities.

Populists are gloating over the confidence gained and basking in pointing to new possibilities of being a precariat and creating insecurities (the entire discourse on illegal immigrants/refugees points to this). It is using past social confidence against future insecurities. The shaky feel of social mobility without durable economic equality (of opportunities) is creating resentment against the present.

The Janus-faced process allows for aggressive mobilisation for the market and predatory subjectivity against other social identities, especially those who are weaker (such as Dalits) or those who are considered to be stronger in a way (such as Muslims). It works against both the weak and the strong. It assumes regressive proportions in stamping out the weak and ‘progressive’ imageries in standing against the perceived superiority of the ‘other’. It conflates and disturbs the binary of domination and emancipation, superior and inferior, and regressive and progressive.

Using pretence

The sense of reality has slipped into the in-between, also the reason why ‘perceptions’ (or what we call now in popular parlance as post-truth) have taken credence over certainty of evidence. No amount of evidence can off-set perceptions (such as the birth rate/fertility of some of the minorities) because perceptions are a way of relating and also coping with the in-between. It cannot be captured within a set moral compass when past social mobility is played against demands for economic justice. Demanding more can lead to the loss of past gains more than future benefits. One has to either come to terms with shaky social mobility or pretend to be confident even while slipping on the economic front.

Pretence has become a way of feeling safe and secure. Majorities today ‘fear’ the disempowered minorities. Pretence legitimises what could be considered unethical otherwise. After the ‘Me Too’ movement, it is men who ‘fear’ being abused and who ‘struggle’ to find the right kind of language to articulate it (for example, the Johnny Depp case and the way it was televised is a clear pointer to this). Some of the upper castes are feeling persecuted (recall the tweet by the Congress’s Manish Tewari). Pretence, however, has become a generic ‘way of life’ for all social groups.

Manufacturing, controlling and regulating ‘truth regimes’ are no longer the techniques of the ruling regimes but it is about appropriating, signifying and occupying perceptions and playing the aspirations born out of social mobility against the perceptible economic and material inequalities. It is about weaponising the ‘hurt pride’ born out of economic disempowerment downgrading social mobility of the past. The dissonance between the two can only be made good out of creating a hyper-reality, finding satiation in a strongman, narrativising perceptions and gut-feelings, pretension and spectacles, and where performance becomes a plausible means of generating and attributing meaning.

The strongman

The regime creates newer avenues to live pretence and perceptions. The ‘strongman’ becomes the concrete embodiment of both and the one to legitimise and give credibility to pretence and hyper-reality. The strongman does this by taking perceptions into policy making and converting pretence into a ‘way of life’. Pretence allows bringing semblance between aspirational social mobility and declining economic opportunities. The ‘success’ story of the strongman (from rags to riches; chaiwala to Hindu Hriday Samrat), and being a rank outsider to political pedigree, becomes a demonstration of what the semblance looks like and why it can be achieved or replicated by everyone (it is not a happenstance that India’s top leader, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and America’s Donald Trump were all considered ‘outsiders’ to power dynamics).

The strongman becomes a means of living the hyper-reality and in fact a means of reaching out to the reality, and, therefore, cannot be easily discredited. People have deep emotional investment because it is about them. The strongman represents who they are or want to be; therefore, criticism against the strongman discredits what people want to be. It interrupts and disturbs their sense of reality. It feels like being rudely awakened from a dream-like gratification. Hatred, abuse and incivility become a way of protecting social mobility against the hard realities of economic hardships. These are actively encouraged as a part of political mobilisation; withdrawing from them is to sink into the reality that dissonance presents. Fantasy is a necessary way of living.

The said dissonance between the social mobility of the past and economic inequalities of the present has transformed the character of governance too. Digital media and soap opera-kind of governance make the perceived reality more lived and the every day as against the bland posturing of statesman-like policy making and the niceties of procedural neutrality. Neutrality is replaced by demands for more direct interventions. The rhetoric of outcomes and finality have replaced ideals of the rule of law and the separation of powers. Populists are surviving by plugging into and indulging in a hyper-exaggeration of the reality as it exists; they are not here to change it for the better.

Ajay Gudavarthy is with the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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Printable version | Jun 7, 2022 1:10:25 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/an-anomaly-that-goes-by-the-name-populism/article65501260.ece