A decade ago or so, a “populist” was someone who appealed to the supposed reactionary underbelly of the common folk to win votes and/or influence. “Populists” were usually found on the right of the political spectrum, often even the extreme right. But things have changed and nowadays so-called “populist” movements and parties are often better described as leftist than as right wing (or as mixtures of left-wing and right-wing views).
“Populism” and “populist” are usually terms of abuse: they express disapproval and disdain. What provokes this disapproval and disdain is that the alleged populist(s) crosses the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. Such populist transgressions are twofold: firstly populism advances solutions that fall outside the range of acceptable or possible solutions; and secondly, the proposed solutions are inarticulate, or are insufficiently elaborated and “scientifically” supported. (And often, the second seems to be considered a more serious transgression than the first.)
While these transgressions may appear to be objective “facts”, it should be clear that they are not. There is nothing objective about the boundaries of acceptable political discourse – rather, those boundaries are set by some loosely defined group composed of much of the political mainstream, the ruling elite, and the press. Similarly, what is articulate or inarticulate, what is sufficiently elaborated and what is not, and what is sufficiently supported (and in the right way) and what is not, is determined by this same loosely defined group. And importantly, the boundaries of acceptable political discourse aren’t fixed – they shift and change under the influence of social and economic processes and powerful actors. Such shifts and changes are what explain the apparent movement of populism from (mostly) right to (often) left.
One shift explaining why right-wing politicians and movements are now less often accused of being populist than they were in the past is that what is politically acceptable has moved far to the right. Anti-immigrant and/or anti-foreigner sentiments and various (other) forms of (often covert) racism have (almost?) become mainstream. Hence, it is now perfectly acceptable to express right-wing opinions that would have made one a “populist demagogue” even a decade ago (and most certainly two or three decades ago).
But this is only part of the story, and the other change may be even more disturbing. When it comes to economic policy, what is acceptable (or even considered possible) hasn’t shifted so much as narrowed. Virtually any policy that deviates from the “Washington Consensus” – that is, the economic program based on economic liberalization, austerity, privatization, and so forth – is now considered unacceptable. Economists have been successful in spreading the belief that any economic policy that conflicts with neoliberal free-market fundamentalism is economically unsound. The majority of people have very different policy preferences, however, resulting in the perfect recipe for populism: what the people want is bad policy according to “scientists” and outside the range of acceptable policies according to the political mainstream.
The people haven’t changed much, however. Whenever and wherever people were or are asked for their economic policy preferences, the results are much the same. Most people prefer a more egalitarian society (i.e. a smaller distance between rich and poor) and a social welfare system, for example. Most people do not believe in “trickle down economics” or that markets are the solution for everything. And when it comes to policies to increase national wealth, most people prefer something similar to mercantilism, or to variants of the national systems approach advocated by List, Hamilton, and others (e.g. Caplan 2006.)
Mainstream, “neoclassical” economists have always been distrustful of the public. As Wolfgang Streeck (2016) points out, “mainstream economics has become obsessed with the ‘irresponsibility’ of opportunistic politicians who cater to an economically uneducated electorate by interfering with otherwise efficient markets” (74). Mainstream economists have been extremely suspicious of democracy for many decades (see also Klein 2007). It is for this reason that economic decision-making had to be “saved” from democracy and brought under the control of “independent” technocrats such as central bankers. And because of this, in most countries democratically elected politicians – and the people who elect them – have almost no influence on economic policy, and no way to change that. Economists have abolished democracy in much of the economic sphere.
For some economists that isn’t enough, however. Jason Brennan (2016), for example, wants to abolish democracy altogether. Much of his argument is based on a separation of the electorate into “Hobbits”, who are completely ignorant, “Hooligans”, whose biased policy preferences are determined by fixed worldviews, and “Vulcans”, who make rational and well-informed decisions. Hobbits and Hooligans make bad decisions, according to Brennan, and thus should be excluded from the political process as much as possible. Vulcans should run the show, and it is obvious that he thinks of himself as a Vulcan (see p. 121 for a particularly striking example), but it is equally obvious that he really is a Hooligan of mainstream economics and its political arm, neoliberal capitalism or some variety of libertarianism (which is also evident from the fact that he wrote a few books defending those).
What Brennan and very many other mainstream economists want is to move all economic policy-making outside democratic control and into the hands of “technocrats” (i.e. themselves). Those technocrats – mainstream economist – are supposed to make objective, science-based policy decisions that are not affected by popular misconceptions or class interests, but rather aim at improving everyone’s lot. They have been able to take control on a number of occasions (a rather large number, actually), but always by or after eliminating democracy, and always at huge costs for most people, while a small minority gets away with the loot. Naomi Klein (2007) appropriately calls this “disaster capitalism”.
The technocrats are not the neutral, objective scientist they claim to be. Mainstream, “neoclassical” economics is a religion or an ideology rather than a science (Nelson 2001; Klein 2007; Häring & Douglass 2012; Varoufakis 2014; Weeks 2017; Rapley 2017; Hudson 2017). It is a closed system that is almost completely detached from empirical reality, and that is, moreover, littered with mathematical and conceptual errors and contradictions (Keen 2011). Its predictions consistently fail. Mainstream economists predicted that there would be no more economic crises because we had entered “the great moderation”, for example. Only a handful of economists predicted the 2008 financial meltdown and resulting economic crisis, and none of those belonged to the neoclassical mainstream. (On the strange fate of the idea of “the great moderation” as well as several other ideologically motivated “zombie ideas” in economics that keep being revived after being proven wrong, see Quiggin 2010.)
Where mainstream economics predicted economic growth it brought economic destruction (Chang 2002; 2007; Reinert 2007; Klein 2007), and even suffering, death, poverty, and starvation (Davis 2002; Klein 2007; Brons 2017). Austerity doesn’t work, trickle down economics is a myth, privatization only enriches the rich, free-market fundamentalism only further impoverishes the poor, and nowhere have neoliberal reforms brought sustained economic growth (Klein 2007; Chang 2010; Quiggin 2010). The policies proposed by mainstream economists never do what they promise, except for the financial industry and the rich: those profit, while the rest of us suffers.
In reality, none of the developed countries got rich by following mainstream economic recipes. In the contrary, the UK, the US, Germany, Japan, and so forth all developed their economies by depending on government interference in markets, protectionism, subsidies, price controls, and so forth. That is, they all depended on varieties of national systems economics advocated by List, Hamilton, and others (Chang 2002; Reinert 2007; note that I’m somewhat stretching the term “national systems” here to cover closely related theories and approaches). Remember that I wrote several paragraphs back that Bryan Caplan (2006) found that those are the kinds of policies that most people prefer. For him, that is reason to denounce the public as economically ignorant, and for Jason Brennan that is reason to advocate abolishing democracy, but if we shed the ideological obfuscations of mainstream economics, then it turns out that “ordinary people” may have more sensible economic policy preferences than the supposed experts (see also Chang 2010, chapter 23).
What most people do not want is the free-market fundamentalism and “shock therapy” that mainstream economists promote (Klein 2007), but neoliberal free-market fundamentalism has become the accepted wisdom. That is the main achievement of mainstream economics: it has managed to get an ideology that only enriches the rich while it impoverishes the many accepted as “scientific fact”. When it comes to economic policy, the boundaries of acceptable discourse have narrowed until only minor variants of neoliberalism were left. But most people don’t want that, and thus what most people want is no longer acceptable. That’s why it has become populist to reject privatization and market-fundamentalism, or to expressing a preference for a fairer, more decent society. Most people don’t want shock therapy; they want a kinder, more decent society, but kindness and decency are now outside economically acceptable discourse. (The other major change in the political mainstream – the aforementioned normalization of racist, nationalist, and similar sentiments – is merely a distraction, and a very useful distraction from the perspective of our economic overlords, moreover. They exploit and encourage crypto-fascist sentiments to undermine democracy and to deflect any criticism of the economic order towards its weakest victims.)
So it’s not populism that has changed; it’s the world – but it hasn’t been for the better. And if it is “populist” now to want a different kind of world, then I’ll gladly wear that label. If it is populist to prefer economic policies that have proven to work over and over again, and to reject policies that enrich the few and impoverish the many (while simultaneously destroying the planet), then I’ll gladly wear that label. If it is populist to want to stop the neoliberal destruction of everything that matters (and if it is “populist demagogy” to say that), then I’ll gladly wear that label.
- Brennan, Jason. 2016. Against Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
- Brons, Lajos. 2017. The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm).
- Caplan, Bryan. 2006. The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
- Chang, Ha-Joon. 2002. Kicking away the Ladder (London: Anthem).
- Chang, Ha-Joon. 2007. Bad Samaritans (London: Random House).
- Chang, Ha-Joon. 2010. 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (London: Penguin).
- Davis, Mike. 2002. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso).
- Häring, Norbert, and Niall Douglas. 2012. Economists and the Powerful: Convenient Theories, Distorted Facts, Ample Rewards (London: Anthem).
- Hudson, Michael. 2017. “Economic Methodology is Ideology, and Implies Policy”. In: J is for Junk Economics: A Guide to Reality in an Age of Deception (Dresden: Islet), 291-304.
- Keen, Steve. 2011. Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor Dethroned?, Revised and Expanded Edition (London: Zed).
- Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Holt).
- Quiggin, John. 2010. Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
- Rapley, John, 2017, Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as Religion and How it All Went Wrong (London: Simon & Schuster).
- Reinert, Erik S. 2007. How Rich Countries Got Rich… and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor (London: Constable).
- Streeck, Wolfgang. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System (London: Verso).
- Varoufakis, Yanis. 2014. Economic Indeterminacy: a Personal Encounter with the Economists’ Peculiar Nemesis (Oxon: Routledge).
- Weeks, John F. (2014), Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscures Reality and Distorts Policy (London: Anthem).