what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, February 17, 2014

What is Populism?

The obvious question after yesterday’s post is - What is “populism”?
One academic, in a useful overview is quoted as claiming there were essential aspects.
  • First, the ‘people’ is of paramount importance. Here, a feeling of community is stressed, and horizontal cleavages (such as left-right) are played down while vertical ones are played up for the purpose of excluding particular groups, e.g. elites and immigrants.
  • Second, populists claim that the ‘people’ has been betrayed by the elites through their abuse of power, corruption etc.
  • Third, populists demand that the “primacy of the people” (p. 13) has to be restored. In short: the current elites would have to be replaced and in their place the new leaders (the populists) would act for the good of the ‘people’.
 This, for me is where things get interesting. My blog has referred several time to Robert Michels whose Political Parties – a sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracy reminded us 100 years ago of the verity of Lord Acton’s words – “power corrupts – but absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The power of Michels’s words still comes back to me from my first reading of him as part of my University degree all of 50 years ago! (The entire book can be downloaded here - and a useful assessment is available here

Later in my course, however, I came across Schumpeter whose Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy persuaded me that democracy was actually - and not unreasonably - “a competitive circulation of the elites”. A few years later the global mood in 1968 took a more critical turn and encouraged a more active and participative role for citizens. Coincidentally that was the year I was first elected – hardly surprisingly I encouraged what was called “neighbourhood mobilisation” which was indeed institutionalised in a strategy which owed a lot to the American War on Poverty (and its milder UK equivalent).
Of course active citizens are no more representative than politicians – but they should, we innocently thought, at least keep politicians on their toes. That may have been true at a local level (although in too many countries, municipal systems have been denuded of power) – nationally the media were supposed to keep a bright torch shining on the misdeeds of those in authority – but, in the past couple of decades, have been almost totally bought out.

So where does that leave us? Disillusioned – and powerless? 
Not quite – rather talking of replacing the political elites – and random selection of citizens for limited terms in office.

But two questions -

  • why should those in power be willing to surrender that power by, for example, amending the electoral laws to allow that to happen – let alone to cut off their political funding?
  • And what have we learned from other efforts (eg the German Greens) to ensure that leaders (and other strange animals) do not emerge and corrupt the “general will”?

Future posts will try to explore some of the more anarchistic (perhaps better "fatalistic") ideas which have surfaced since the “Occupy” movement first started

In the meantime I couldn’t resist inserting this flier for an academic association specialising in ./…the study of elites

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