Tendai Biti et al. In the Name of the People: How Populism is Rewiring the World (Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2022)

POLITICAL populism, as a contributor to this book suggests, is easy to spot; but hard to define precisely. It often ends in tyranny; but not all tyrannies, although they may share common and typical characteristics such as xenophobia, are populist. Populism varies from place to place depending on geography and historical circumstance. Nor is it necessarily synonymous with popular policy, but has wider dimensions; although the Hungarian government uses this argument to camouflage its populist inclinations.

In his introduction, Lech Wałęsa suggests that populism is taking on new forms and becoming more sophisticated. This may be true up to a point, particularly with regard to messaging in an age of social media. But essentially it retains basic characteristics: simple short-term solutions to complex problems, which require effective policy, reduced to slogans; the mocking of rationality and expertise; diminishing of state and civic institutions that provide democracy’s checks and balances; and always the self-righteous demagogue promising strong government and decisive action. Often a contrast is made between tired methods and institutions, and a new order.

A classic populist tactic is to feed on narratives of victims and perceived enemies, often ethnic, and the supposed traitors who subvert the populist line: in other words, us versus them. Nationalism and xenophobia play important parts here in fulfilling the ‘will of the people’. As this is the supreme authority, institutions that allegedly threaten it are hollowed out, in particular to allow the people’s messiahs free rein and to stay in power. Corruption becomes rife, competent people leave, and a failed state, a degenerate regime, is a likely outcome. As protectionism, redistribution of wealth rather than growth, consumption rather than production and various brands of voodoo economics are intrinsic to populism, economic collapse is often part of this failure.

Old-fashioned ideologies of left and right are immaterial and populist regimes can emerge from either end of the political spectrum. Populism has no ideological home and has more in common with salesmanship and public relations than it does with traditional politics. Thus, the appeal of orators peddling ideas about punishment and salvation. The strength and virtue of liberal democracy lie in its embrace of a wide range of opinion and the freedoms it bestows; including to those who despise it and actively seek its destruction. Its strength is ironically its weakness as even well-developed democracies have come to realise.

Argentina’s Juan Perón is regarded as the first populist leader as opposed to tyrants who may, or may not, have assumed power through the ballot box. Populism, originally regarded as a Latin American phenomenon, has spread worldwide. New triggers are globalisation, the pluralisation of societies caused by migration, and rapid technological change. In other words, populist approaches have special appeal to older people who no longer recognise their world and in particular to men of all ages who are no longer solely in charge of it. Generational and gender resentment was a major factor in the Brexit vote.

The old political pendulum swinging from right to left, then back again, is no longer universally valid. The division is now between politics that values liberal democracy’s institutions; and the illiberal. Opportunities for the latter emerge in societies with already fragile institutions suffering from socio-economic inequality or ethnic tension; but also, in those in which pessimistic nostalgia is rife: a sense of loss that cannot be defined. In such circumstances populism builds walls not the bridges needed by humankind in an unstable world.

Having described some of the basic characteristics of populism, this book then presents a range of case studies, starting appropriately enough with Argentina, which bar a few interludes has been in the grip of Peronism since the late 1940s. This has produced cyclical crises including a massive sovereign debt default that indicate a national dependency on populism. A number of these case studies suggest that it is indeed addictive. However, Chile experienced left-wing populism under Salvador Allende, then military rule; but has since recovered stability through years of pragmatic social democracy and an understanding that growth with equity is the pathway to a more prosperous and just society. In the Philippines, political dynasties have traded power and patronage and even sanctioned extra-judicial killing in the supposed fight against crime.

Africa seems to have produced little by way of true populism, but liberation movements consistently served up the belief that they were sole legitimate representatives of the people. Zimbabwe provides an egregious example of how this can lead to tyranny. First there were the Matabeleland massacres (Gukurahundi) but then Robert Mugabe resorted to a populist tactic, land grabbing, in which a judicial competency became one of political fiat, trashing the rule of law.

South Africa benefited from a negotiated settlement. Nevertheless, constitutionalism is now confronted by liberation movement populism, much of it based on historical myth. Under Jacob Zuma’s administration key institutions were hollowed out, a shadow security system was created, media and judges came under intense pressure, and an attempt was made to capture the national treasury. A combination of public protector, constitutional court, civil society, the press and the treasury itself saved the day. This book contains a stirring (and perhaps surprising) judgment from Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng that sums up institutional strength. But those responsible have largely evaded justice and a further descent into populist meltdown ‘in the name of the people’ must not be discounted.

Two of the world’s oldest democracies have experienced the shadow of populism. Sensationalism, trivialisation and fake news are the lubricants of pervasive social media. They played a major part in Britain’s Brexit vote whose inevitable disastrous consequences are only now becoming clear just as its most notorious exponent, Boris Johnson, has been ejected from parliamentary politics. The rise of the extreme right, denial of reality and truth, and a culture of fantasy and lies are all ingredients of American populism personified by Donald Trump, whose demise is yet to be announced.

Whatever its dimensions and detail, populism, this book concludes, is a good deal more difficult to sustain in the long-term than incite. However, there are transnational populist networks that sustain grievance and its simplistic nostrums even after regimes are replaced: Steve Bannon is the face of one. The European Union has put the brakes on the Hungarian and Polish governments, but ultimately it will be up to the strength of civil society and institutions in individual nations to ensure that freedoms survive populist encroachment. That will be no simple task.