Francis Fukuyama recently, in his speech on “Identity Politics – The Demand for Dignity and the Nation State’s Future”, explained the various types and sources of populism. There’s so much talk on populism these days, rivaling terrorism and before that communism, that, observing situations such as a famous political scientist commenting upon it, or extreme attention paid to the likes of the U.S. president Donald Trump or France’s Marine Le Pen whom the media has dubbed ‘populists’, one comes to the conclusion this is going to be the next main narrative globally, now that with defeat of ISIS, terrorism seems to be taking a backseat.
As often happens with narratives under the glare of mainstream media, there’s so much confusion regarding what exactly is populism, with even the likes of UK’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused of being a populist. Even in Fukuyama’s speech, he jumps in right off the bat, apparently confident everyone has a solid grasp of what this ideology is.
In a nutshell, populism at its most basic is simply a view that the society is divided into two clashing groups, a corrupt elite in control and the deprived ones. This ideology can swing on either side of political spectrum, right or left.
The most popular version in spotlight currently is – not surprisingly – the Western one, dominated by right-wing groups against immigration, mostly caused by multiculturalism, globalism and economic deprivation (think 2007-08 Financial Crisis and 2011 Black Monday). Till here, Fukuyama is pretty consistent, he classified the three main causation into three types as described in his speech.
His analysis till then goes well with most leading experts’ opinions and themes on populism, that mostly it’s a ‘one-man’ show, the leaders are mostly rude (Duterte of Philippines), claim to be against the establishment, want to help tilt the situation in the masses’ favour, and how most populists are loath to democratic processes, instead preferring ‘direct’ systems – e.g. referendums.
My biggest issue with Fukuyama and in turn, the current dominant narrative is how the liberal-democratic model is held on such a Biblical, godly pedestal, from his recognised ‘End of History’ to many other works, leaving little room for other theories or schools of thought to find space and discussion. Democracy is considered such an idealistic, ‘ultimate end’-like system, most criticism against it is simply brushed off as due to x, y, z reasons – in short, democracy itself is not bad, rather the state with other influences, such as a powerful military.
In trying to portray how populism is a ‘threat’ to liberal-democratic order, he remarked how the second kind, ‘political populism’ endangers ”liberal democracy since all democratic institutions are under control and in conditions of limited power.” And yet, in a liberal democracy, there is no control or regulation, especially in/of the markets. He also famously remarked in New Statesmen article back in October 2018 how ‘socialism ought to come back’. In an excerpt directly taken from the article, Fukuyama asserts, ‘…it’s led to a weakening of labour unions, of the bargaining power of ordinary workers, the rise of an oligarchic class almost everywhere that then exerts undue political power…” Democracy is supposed to give voice to the commoners, who get to decide and form policies favouring them by electing certain people. And yet, as Fukuyama himself admitted, it’s doing the opposite in a liberal-democratic system. A group of influential people form, mainly businesses that then influence and pull the strings of everyone from politicians to bureaucracy to even police force.
He went so far as to criticise liberal-democracy openly, admitting how, ”…liberal democracies don’t even try to define what a good life is, it’s left up to individuals, who feel alienated, without purpose, and that’s why joining these identity groups gives them some sense of community.” Ironically, this here statement – apart from being a complete 180 degree tilt from his previous views – clearly indicates how liberal-democracy is the reason populism takes root in a society!
In just 26 years, from championing liberal-democratic order, Fukuyama seems to have come full circle, and now admitting to glaring flaws in the very system he supported.
Fukuyama claims how Britain leaving the EU and election of Donald Trump as the U.S. president is harmful. Yet, he has become a vocal critic of euro, calling it (in his own words), ‘[an] elite-driven polic[y] that turned out to be pretty disastrous…’ And how it ‘…became very deeply embedded within the Eurozone, the austerity that Germany imposed on southern Europe has been disastrous.’
Whether he comes almost short of admitting it or not, he indirectly (or unconsciously) admits that the interrelation of liberal democracy with each other causes a huge disparity due to the influential oligarchy that forms as a result of extreme deregulation in a liberal economic model, which eats away all competition by buying entire sectors overtime, (‘In terms of the role of finance, if there’s anything we learned from the financial crisis  it’s that you’ve got to regulate the sector like hell because they’ll [bankers] make everyone else pay.’), and which, coupled with loss of identity (e.g. due to immigration encouraged for cheaper labour) and/or economic deprivation that follows, leads to resentment especially in the native populace that gives rise to populism eventually.
In short, it seems populism isn’t a threat to liberal democracy, rather a result of it.
(Photo courtesy: Stanford University)