Populism and the Semantic Creep of the Left.

There has been much talk of populism just recently. The use of this term has gained currency during and after Brexit – and also during the rise and election of Trump. Newspaper correspondents and EU apparatchiks are looking nervously at the resignation of Matteo Renzi, former Prime Minister of Italy, after another one of those horrid referenda. Meanwhile, a so-called ‘populist’ government – Syriza – is in nominal power in Greece (although it is the EU troika that is actually in charge). There is a far right party in Hungary called Jobbik which is gaining ground. Marine Le Pen is looking like a serious contender for the President of France. Austria has narrowly avoided a right wing president and Geert Wilders is gaining ground in the Netherlands. The collection of incredibly polite German professors in the form of AfD is snapping at the heels of Angela Merkel. Whilst much of this movement is is described as ‘right wing’ it is not exclusively so, Syriza being the obvious Far Left exception. Newspaper and television correspondents are beginning to notice a pattern and are looking nervously over their shoulders. The fixed establishments, with whom those correspondents hold a sometimes questioning and sometimes uncomfortably incestuous relationship, are terrified.

The unifying characteristics of this popular movement is a dissatisfaction with the political status quo. That such dissatisfaction is a Bad Thing means there is a growing consensus amongst all those worthy newspaper columnists and other ‘opinion formers’, that populism is akin to a very nasty disease which is becoming increasingly prevalent amongst the lower orders. Furthermore, the leaders of this movement are frequently described as ‘demagogues’.

So what exactly is ‘populism’?

Populism, as spoken by the cognoscenti, is defined rather well in this article by Julian Baggini in this Guardian article. Specifically, he says:

“Populism is not defined by right and left, nor even by the virtue of its goals: think Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Populism is rather a way of doing politics that has three key features. First, it has a disdain for elites and experts of all kinds, especially political ones. Second, it supposes that the purpose of politics is simply to put into action the will of the people, who are seen as homogenous and united in their goals. Third, it proposes straightforward, simple solutions to what are in fact complex problems.”

So that is what populism does, but in this article by Nick Cohen, the dangers of populism are manifested thus:

“If you oppose the new populists you become an enemy of the people
As neo-tribalism replaces neoliberalism, you must forget about the old checks and balances democracies erected to govern complicated societies. You must be sure to respect the “will of the people” in its unmediated rawness. You must be surer still that you are a part of “the people”. For, if you are not, you can find yourself an “enemy of the people” just by carrying on as you did before.

Everywhere, authoritarian nationalists are using populism to batter their enemies. Even before the failed coup gave Recep Erdoğan the opportunity to purge anyone capable of gainsaying him, the Turkish president presented himself as the true of the voice of the Turkish people. His critics were, by definition, potential traitors.”

But is this really what populism means? My favourite dictionary, The New Oxford Dictionary of English says this:

populist n. a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of the ordinary people. ¤A person who holds, or is concerned with, the views of the ordinary people.

That all seems to be very innocuous, so just to check, here is the definition from the Cambridge Dictionary online:

noun [ U ] UK /ˈpɒp.jə.lɪ.zəm/ US /ˈpɑː.pjə.lɪ.zəm/ mainly disapproving

political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want:
Their ideas are simple populism – tax cuts and higher wages.

A little closer perhaps to the Baggini and Cohen definition, but it does not sound very much like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has closed down opposition by imprisoning thousands of people, removing professors from universities and shutting newspapers. When Nick Cohen talks about the dangers of authoritarian nationalists, he probably has Adolf Hitler in mind. But in this concept – that populism leads to authoritarian nationalism and disaster – we have a puzzle which is heightened by the fact that the actual definition is in direct contradiction to authoritarianism; and furthermore seems vaguely familiar. Here then, is the definition for democracy:

democracy n. a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives: a capitalist  system of parliamentary democracy.

It seems these two systems, populism and democracy, are in fact very nearly one and the same thing – provided we use the words correctly. But this phenomenon – where the meaning of populism has crept from a synonym of democracy into one of incipient evil – must have a purpose, especially as it is perpetrated by (principally) newspaper columnists who are all intelligent and are deemed to have access to a dictionary. So three questions arise from this curiosity:

  1. Who is doing this?
  2. Is it deliberate?
  3. What do they hope to gain from it?

The first question is answered by looking at articles, broadcast content and social media. Over the last few months. it has seemed to me that the principle perpetrators of this semantic creep are commentators who are mostly from the Left. Although not exclusively so, as this article by Danny Finkelstein suggests. Nevertheless, all of the offenders have put forward ideas which are in favour of the political status quo of the West i.e. that which is loosely termed “the Establishment”. They have all tended to rail against the physical and electoral manifestation of people expressing their dissatisfaction with the way things are currently being done. The support shown towards Brexit and Trump are all deemed “populist” by these writers.

When used in this way, the term ‘populism’ is used to convey opprobrium from the writer, even though the real meaning has absolutely no such value-judgement attached.  When it is repeated in the media as often as it seems to be, it becomes a term of abuse. And so the use of populism in this way can only be deliberate. Conjoined, as it often is, with the term demagogue (which means a “popular leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than rational argument”) then we begin to see that it is a characterisation of something that is altogether unpleasant. Indeed, Julian Baggini makes it clear:

“Think of populism and you’ll likely think of the nasty rightwing nationalism of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders or Nigel Farage. But if Jeremy Corbyn is re-elected as Labour leader, it will be a mild-mannered socialist who will have led the most successful populist campaign in Britain in decades.”

So that’s it then, in black and white. Populists are nasty (except for Jeremy Corbyn).

But who gains from all this? The answer, as so often when dealing with political discourse and the Left, lies in George Orwell’s 1984. Winston Smith, in serving the Ministry of Truth, has to engage in regular bouts of ‘two minutes of hate’, where everyone has to hate whichever enemy is current. The objective of the Ministry of Truth is to control language (and by extension, thought). Once that is controlled, power is maintained by the government. Meaning and history is deliberately shifted over time in order to suit the status quo.

And so there we have the explanation for the semantic creep which is so typical of Socialist political discourse. It is deliberate, designed to obscure the truth and it maintains power to the establishment by attempting to turn whole groups of people into enemies. In the case of revolutionary Marxism, it is used to usurp an existing establishment and substitute a new (Socialist) one.

But one further question is posed from all this: Is this technique of deliberate shift of meaning effective in helping to maintain power? To the best of my knowledge, the demagogues have not sprung upon their soapboxes to harangue and incite the assembled crowds into acts of violence. Here in Cornwall, the village smithies do not seem to be humming with the sounds of whizzing grindstones and the shriek of swords, pitchforks and scythes being sharpened. Twenty thousand Cornishmen have not crossed the River Tamar and wanted to know the reason why. Instead, what has happened in June of this year is that 72% of the electorate have trooped off to the polls and cast their votes. The majority of them, 17.4 million, have very politely stated that they wish to leave the European Union. In the United States, a majority has done likewise for Donald Trump. And in Italy there has been a 60/40 split in favour of “No” and Mr Renzi has resigned.

So is this really the populism of the fervid imaginations of our columnists? Have there been pogroms and book burnings? Of course not. But the grip of the current establishment has been loosened ever so slightly by the express democratic will of the people. Democracy fails if it does not listen to the people – and fails to evolve with the will of the people.

That is the purpose of populism.

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