Intellectuals and Populists: Exploring a False Dilemma

I understand why the doctrines that explain everything, weaken me at the same time. They free me of the bruden of my own life and yet, it is necessary that I carry it alone. -Albert Camus

By Armando Chaguaceda

HAVANA TIMES – The year has kicked off with authoritarian Latin American governments attacking their civil society, throughout the region. In Cuba, the State’s (media and police) campaign intensified against artists from the San Isidro Movement and 27N. In Nicaragua, measures have been approved to criminalize support for NGOs. In Venezuela, activists are being arrested for distributing food and medicine in poor areas. In all three cases, independent civil initiatives, and solidarity with them has turned into their government’s obsession.

Other governments, to the right of the ideological spectrum, besiege journalists, migrant rights defenders and Human Rights activists. Brazil, Honduras and Colombia are all clear examples of this.

I am reminded of this situation while discussing “Trump’s legacy” with two colleagues, the threat authoritarianism poses to modern-day democracy. One of them insists on coming to terms with right-wing populism and old-style fascism but refuses to apply this same analysis when criticizing Stalinism.

Another professor recognizes the ideological diversity of different totalitarian systems. She insists that just the threat from the radical Right (Nazism, Fascism) is inherently condemnable. In both cases, there is an intellectual and moral exemption, that is ideology-based, when looking at different forms of absolute terror.

Double standards

This is not an insignificant conversation, because of its real repercussions on entire populations. The underlying issue is whether we evaluate every political system (whichever it may be) by its promises, actions, or the connection between the two of these.

In a “pure state”, the former line of thinking leads to an idealistic perspective, fringed with dystopia. The latter leads to a realistic perspective, which is more focused on the act rather than the ideas that drive it. The third, would lead to a simultaneous way of looking at things, which paints a coherent and complex picture of what is done, as well as key players’ responsibility and intentions.

Picking up on this issue, and assuming the third attitude, it’s not hard to spot Enlightenment’s legacy in communism, with its promises for freedom and justice. Fascism lacks this and is precarious in ideological terms and firmly-rooted in tradition.

However, doesn’t this very same intellectual superiority (as supposedly the moral avant-garde) make it harder to criticize the former properly, making its crimes even more “absurd”, compared to an emancipatory promise?

Plus, bearing in mind differences between left-wing and right-wing totalitarian systems in their discourse, isn’t an awful and common legacy evident? Millions of victims of both systems refuse to admit the double standards expressly communicated or dressed up with an “ism”.

Another version of this age-old debate comes to light today, when identifying good and bad “isms”. These are defined by partisan understandings of exclusion and inclusion policies. The first policies that came into effect in this regard, from the Left-wing, would help the poor. However. the second wave of policy-makers, conservatives, would be eternal xenophobes.

Recent research from a political science, historic and theoretical standpoint, refute the binary view. It reminds us that there are many different ways (socio-economic, political and identity-related) to exclude citizens. Both forms of populism practice these. Attacking an inclusion-based democracy understood as citizens exercising their real and plural action.

Populism is a specific way of understanding – via the Leader-Masses relationship and the counter position of the People – Oligarchy – implementing and institutionalizing modern-day politics. As a global phenomenon, every populism has different dimensions or components. They make it half-way between democracy and an autocracy. It includes a leader – who is charismatic -, a social movement – depending on the leader and not well organized. Additionally, those depending on populist political parties or governments, more developed in certain cases.

Coming together, these factors shape populist politics. They can be geared towards democratizing or concentrating power in the political system, where the seed is planted and then sprouts.

As to democratizing, they reveal the shortcomings of liberal democracies – which include the crisis of representation and the oligarchy’s hijacking of institutions. Populism can represent the role of an uncomfortable relative who turns up at a party, revealing hidden conflicts never processed at the heart of the political family. Shining a light on what deserves to be reformed.

A reality as bright as day

However, by replacing (poorly processed) social polarization for a (reinforced) political polarization, by denying the opposition movement legitimacy and the right to participate, as well as suppressing institutions that counterbalance the executive Power, populism opens a path that leads far away from democracy.

Populism’s way of doing politics denies modern-day societies from being plural, encouraging exclusive communitarianism. They develop a pathological cult for their leader and promote a simple mindset, hostile to anything that is different. After a certain time, all of this can lead to blatant tyranny in the political system and society.

Right-wing and Left-wing populisms both share a Caesar-like and organic substratum. Authoritarian moralism (analyzed by writers such as Ugo Pipitone), and a promise that redeems itself of archaic meaning, all exist together.

Vladimir Putin personifies the bridge between populist origins and becoming an autocrat. He is an ally and example today for intellectuals, politicians, and activists from different points on the political spectrum. Right-wing autocrats such as Victor Orban (Hungary) and Left-wing ones, such as “Nicolas Maduro (Venezuela). Parties that range from Podemos (Spain), to the National Front (France), which are united by their phobia of liberal democracy.

Populism is the same to autocracy as liberalism is to democracy.” It’s a basic condition, but it isn’t enough. Its progressive “variant” is pontificated by the Laclau and Mouffee school, carried out in Latin America.

Bolivarian governments were their embodiment, but their impact (and the label itself) has reached the US and Europe. Its umbrella ideology is called 21st century socialism. a combination of communitarianism, nationalism and statism. Policies involve the fight against poverty and pushing for a worker’s democracy. The result has been less bright. We have Venezuela there to remind us.

Benjamin Moffitt is a sophisticated and wise academic within a very polarized field of studies. He said, “in every Latin American case, reality confirmed many of the worst suspicions of critics of populism.” He adds: “far from being the inspiration that might have originally belonged to the international Left.” 

An authoritarian outcome that should incite the same criticism of Trump and Orban, Duarte and Bolsonaro. Without double standards. In politics, whenever real people and their fates are being affected, any “ism” always deserves special attention paid to their promises and actions.

The dilemma of choosing between good and bad populisms, in response to the liberal crisis is wrong and dangerous.

As John Keane points out, democratic politics need to be reinforced, defending it from the virus of populism and the Oligarchy’s impediments, with greater civic engagement in public life and with new forms of social control of power. A multi-faceted sovereignty of a plural people, that makes democracy richer instead of simplifying or polarizing it.

This is the only way to prevent fake promises and intellectual trends. Those that build new temples for tyranny with the bricks of political emancipation and social justice.


Read more by Armando Chaguaceda here on Havana Times.

One thought on “Intellectuals and Populists: Exploring a False Dilemma

  • Trying to compare Venezuela today to Colombia and Brazil are ridiculous.

    The UN regularly condemns extrajudicial killings by the Venezuelan dictatorship.
    The country is a failed state with countless millions fleeing the epic disaster.

    Columbia and Brazil aren’t dictatorships.
    And Cuba has been a dictatorship for so long nobody can even remember the last real election.

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