Populism is there and it is a problem. But, contrary to what one might believe, it is not an isolated problem. Many will say it is a threat to democracy, but there are also reasons to think of populism as a reaction to a losing democracy. Perhaps we are talking about different realities: between a populism that despises democracy and a populism that disruptively expresses the pain of democracy is a huge difference. And yet, we all call populism as if they were the same reality. Based on what? Based on the perception of a problem, but what kind of problem and with what scale are you sure?
Populism is usually presented in the public sphere, in the most institutional mass media, even at the center of gravity of liberal and representative political institutions, as a pathology of democracy. Leveraged by disinhibitors such as the growing influence of social media without a clear organizing center for the transmission of content, with evident benefit for the spread of fake news, “populism” names and circumscribes the essential of what is the crisis of representative democracy, submitted to a incessant sprinkling of polarizations without possible mediation.
Well, in this text another perspective is experienced: populism as a political aspect of the problem of the social world in the era of globalization and acceleration. In other words, the problem is much wider and, most likely, populism is just the tip of an iceberg.
Populisms that hurt and populisms that despise
Populism can be viewed from several perspectives. Firstly, as an overheated, struggling response to a pathology that is the deficit of democracy. A democracy in which the society that is the subject of political decision participates less and less in the subject that decides. A democracy without a people constituted as a political subject, or without political expression of the popular will, or without the effectiveness of its will in action and transformation, arouses feelings that more people are needed, more formed will and more effective will of the people.
Whoever fights for these demands against a post-democratic condition, as Colin Crouch called him at the turn of the century, can thus constitute an answer that seeks to restore a better life for democracy. And when other responses do not emerge, which articulate strong mediations between society and power, populist responses to losing democracy will tend to emerge, responses that dispense with mediation and the time it takes.
A second perspective sees populism not as an answer, but as a manifestation that, on the contrary, highlights the problem of democracy today. Using clinical language, if the first perspective presents populism as aggressive therapy, of high risk, to face a pathology of democracy that is considered serious or even very serious, the second presents populism mainly as a symptom of that same pathology.
Now, from this second perspective, a therapeutic element is not expected, but neither is it the case that, based on it, we can rightly say that populism is the problem in democracy today. Symptoms in themselves can be a problem, you can even die from an untreated symptom. But, as symptoms, they are not to be confused with the pathology of which they are symptoms.
In fact, threats to democratic powers they don't even necessarily follow from a populist will. These threats arrive, surprisingly, on the opposite side from that of populism, the one where democratic deficits are understood, allegedly in aggravation, not as a problem, but as the adequate limitation of the reach of democratic powers, the more necessary the more complex the governance is. ; or else, to avoid this limitation, democracy must gradually accept its transformation into an epistocracy (government of the wise).
In one way or another, limiting it or replacing it, or both, in a hybrid concert, democracy is diminished, led to an increasingly protocolary place, or of inconsequential entertainment that mediacracy ensures.
A third perspective of populism, unlike the others, challenges and calls into question democracy as a regime, in an attitude of contempt to a varying degree for democratic institutions and their type of mediation. It is more confrontational and, therefore, more notorious. In it we easily recognize Bolsonaro or Trump. They project an enemy that would be responsible for social unrest in the revanchist amalgam that they do with what they call gender ideology, cultural Marxism, politically correct, etc.
But as they gain acceptance in the public sphere, they go deeper and target all the egalitarian and emancipatory policies that are part of the heritage of social democracy and democratic socialism, the field of freedom that, in the past, succeeded the defeat of historical fascism . For this very reason, this revanchism is reviving fascist greetings, which find populism a new legitimacy for mobilization and exclusion.
In Portugal, unfortunately, the fastest growing populism in the form of a political party is precisely of this nature, not simply an anti-system, not simply a radical right, but the vehicle of a political program that is not only undeniably unconstitutional to have to be tolerated in the country law framework. Calling it populism is true, but by far, that is the least of its dangers. Populism, being reactive, takes advantage of all discontent. But populism is also easily exploited.
Populism and social acceleration
Therefore, the approximations that can be made to populism are very different, if not contradictory. But what brings them together, allowing them to be identified as populism? Especially traces of facial kinship, as if it were a large family, although with very different natures, even diametrically opposed. None of these traits is essential, as the philosopher Wittgenstein noted, but somehow, at different levels, they are present. And if they are so present in contemporary society, then the possibility of overcoming populism is unrealistic without delving into the socio-economic roots of our time.
If populism cannot be confined to a pain of democracy in the face of its deficits, or to contempt for democracy and its mediations, it is because it is a matter of recognizing that, more than a new political phenomenon, populism is the political expression of a social phenomenon that is spreading globally - the acceleration of social time in late modernity, in the context of globalization, hyper-media society and social and economic life fundamentally driven by the logic of consumption.
This acceleration, from the outset of consumption, translates into a relationship with the social reality that is more and more reactive, just reactive, less tolerant to deferral, unable to withstand the wait for the satisfaction of the needs defined by desire. The name "Chega" given to the Portuguese populist party was, in this respect, quite the point.
In psychoanalytic terms, a child's psychological maturation is expected to succeed through a balance between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. Acceleration simply makes this balance more difficult, with the sacrifice of the reality principle. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is an impatient infantilization, intolerant of deferral, concomitant to acceleration, and that all of this is happening pre-politically, not as a collective choice, but as a social need.
Simon Gottschalk, American sociologist has spoken of a infantilization of Western culture and it points out the following vulnerabilities to democracy very well: “The development of democratic policies requires debate, requires commitment and involves critical thinking. It implies considering different points of view, anticipating the future, and composing weighted legislation. What is a quick, easy and simple alternative to this political process? It is not difficult to imagine a children's society to be attracted by an authoritarian regime. Unfortunately, our social institutions and technological devices seem to corrode marks of maturity: patience, empathy, solidarity, humility and commitment to a project greater than your own. They are all qualities that have traditionally been considered essential both for a healthy adult life and for the proper functioning of democracy. ”
A just reactive, hyper-reactive society is therefore much less the consequence of what causes populism and, in turn, this is no more the cause of the crisis of democracy than the crisis of democracy is the cause of populism. The problem is upstream, even from politics: an accelerated temporal regime imposed on societies mainly due to economic pressure on hyper-consumption and which drags them towards a progressive loss of autonomy. Without autonomy, it remains to obey, no matter if a tyrant or the last moralism of fast consumption that appeared on the market. The capacity, whether ethical or political, is lost to incorporate motives, repelling reasons for blame, electing scapegoats, reacting on whatever is appropriate to keep social anger at the highest level of excitement.
It is not expected or desired to return to an era without social networks immediately and permanently accessible by smartphones, that is not even the underlying problem. To say that populism is the result of the new technological conditions in which media existence in contemporary societies is established is a mistake. This would be to subscribe to blind determinism, which would explain but would not understand the reasons for populism, preventing a critical discussion of them. Obviously, much of the technology we have in the digital age is the daughter of acceleration. For example, it is hard to believe but it is true: the first of eleven generations of iPhone appeared only in 2007. But 11 “generations” passed by (plus a few models). Even language is devoured by haste. The first iPhone is almost from yesterday, but who would want that dinosaur.
As long as we are still allowed time to think and not just react and consume, in that order or the other way around, it will not be abusive to conclude that everything is connected: first, that this maelstrom that is expressed in technological consumption and environmental catastrophe is also the main one social cause of populism, losing democracy and human malaise in our age; second, that the uses of technology and the digital design of our increasingly dematerialized existences are no less a consequence of this state of affairs than populism and the crisis of democracy with which we are struggling. And that is why they can and should be discussed, asking how to recover a milder temporal regime in them, capable of not only reacting, but of incorporating reasons for a genuine human action, which always brings with it a movement of transformation, instead of anxious and uncompromising intransigence. repulsive intolerance.
The way of life in effort that imposed itself in our era is fundamentally wrong and if it is not changed, and we conform to the resentment of enduring it, it is good that we prepare ourselves for the corrosion of the values of democracy, autonomy and emancipation.
The author writes according to the old spelling.