Critical theory and demagogic populism provides a detailed analysis of the relevance of the Frankfurt School’s work to understanding contemporary populism. It draws on the research that the Institute for Social Research conducted concerning domestic demagogues during its period of ‘exile’ in the USA. The book argues that the figure of the demagogue has been neglected in both orthodox ‘populism studies’ and in existing critical approaches to populism such as that of Ernesto Laclau. Demagogic ‘capture’ of populist movements and their legacies is thus a contingent prospect for ‘left’ and ‘right’ populist movements. An account of ‘modern demagogy’ is thus detailed, from the Institute’s own dedicated demagogy studies through to their dialogue with Weber’s work on charismatic leadership, the US liberal critique of demagogy and Freud’s group psychology. The Institute’s linkage of ‘modern demagogy’ to the culture industry speaks to the underestimation in ‘populism studies’ of the significance of two other ‘modern phenomena. The first is ‘cultural populism’ – the appeal to a folkloric understanding of ‘the people’ and/or ‘their culture’. The second is the pivotal role of modern means of communication, not only in the recent prominence of social media but demagogic exploitation of all media since the rise of literacy and the widening of the suffrage in the nineteenth century. The dialectical dimensions of these processes are also highlighted in reconstructing the Institute’s work and in extending these analyses through to the present. The book so concludes by weighing up potential counter-demagogic forces within and beyond the culture industry.
How are we to understand the recent rise of populism in Britain and beyond? In this book, philosopher Brian Elliott traces the roots of contemporary populism back to the waves of intensified globalization and deindustrialization that began in the 1970s and early 1980s. This period of our political history witnessed a radical transformation of democratic party politics, where the potential for organized labour to influence high-level politics was diminished. The Reagan–Thatcher era brought about a neoliberal reconfiguration of the democratic state that weakened or destroyed traditional sources of working-class social and cultural capital. In the UK, the Labour Party was transformed through a ‘Third Way’ agenda under the leadership of Tony Blair. The long-term consequence of this has been an inexorable undermining of working-class support for the party and a notable drift towards Conservative-led anti-European Union sentiment. Populism, in the UK and elsewhere, should not simply be attributed to increasing nationalism, nativism and xenophobia among the working-class electorate. It also gives voice to a desire to make the political class more directly accountable to the people it is meant to serve. At the same time, the populist wave is a reaction to a decades-long denigration of working-class lives and culture. Charting seminal episodes in the rise of the British working class in light of recent sociological and political analyses of the nature of work, the analysis offered in this book grants to contemporary populism a deeper and more coherent meaning.
Populism is viewed by many as a negative concept. Donald Rumsfeld, one time United States Secretary for Defence under President George W. Bush, in a speech given in March 2006, expressed his concern about Latin Americans turning to ‘populist leadership … that clearly are worrisome’. Alejandro Toledo ex-president of Peru (2001–06) believes that ‘cheap empty populism is the danger to democracy’. 1 The Economist warns that ‘populists are leading Latin America down a blind alley’ 2 while British
The populist wave which has submerged Europe and the United States in recent years seems unstoppable. But is it? The End of Populism offers answers and proposes concrete solutions to confront the rise of “illiberal democracy.” Drawing on years of research, the author develops a complete new ideal type of populism, which enables him to identify the basic problems. Deploying a wealth of social science evidence, he refutes the populist claim that democracy is a “demand side” phenomenon, and demonstrates that it is rather a “supply side” phenomenon. He argues that one can have "too much democracy” and shows how methods of direct democracy, such as popular initiatives, referendums, and open primaries, which pretend “to give the power back to the people,” have led to manipulation by populists and moneyed interests. Populist attacks on the judiciary, central banks, the media, and other independent agencies, instead of strengthening democracy, have rather undermined liberal democracy. The author formulates twenty original and bold proposals to fight populism and defend liberal democracy. These proposals include ways to bridge the gap between the people and the elites, fight corruption, improve political party funding, and initiate societal, educational, and macro-economic reforms to increase economic equality and alleviate the insecurity of the citizens.
The rise of populism
In 2016, with the UK’s Brexit referendum result and the election of Donald Trump as US president, media and academic attention was turned towards the phenomenon of populism with a hitherto unprecedented sense of urgency. One of the key questions that emerged was whether the tectonics of liberal democracy were shifting in some fundamental, historic way. In order to respond to this question, a necessary preliminary step is to provide a sufficiently nuanced account of what is being captured by the term ‘populism’. While recent assessments of
Inflation, democracy, and populism139
Inflation, democracy, and populism
I have suggested in earlier chapters that we are currently seeing a series
of Newspeak manoeuvres in which some bizarre semantic reversals
are taking place. In this present chapter, I want to examine one very
fundamental shift, in which the University has played a decisive role.
This is the shift from an alleged subscription to democracy into a
mode of populism that is virtually the opposite of democracy. The
shift in question manipulates the usual vocabulary and instruments of
There are many ways to define populism. We saw in the introduction that a fundamental characteristic of populist movements is an anti-elite attitude and a pretension to represent and defend the “real people” against the allegedly corrupt and incompetent elites. This characteristic is shared by all populist movements, whatever their ideological content and eventual differences. I would like to call this a “thin” definition. It is the method of a physician who takes X-ray pictures of his or her patients. Ignoring their outward appearances he or she looks straight
(a) From Volk to culture industry
Previous chapters have emphasized the utility of approaching critical theorizations of populism via their assessment of fascism. As we saw in Chapter 5 , both Gramsci and the Institute linked these assessments with the domain of aesthetic culture. In both cases the relevant realm of the aesthetic was socially broadened beyond compositions identified within philosophical aesthetics: for Gramsci, the national-popular; for the Institute, the culture industry.
(a) Towards a conclusion: mediated physiognomics and demagogic populism
The introductory sections of this book stated that its remit was delimited to ‘demagogic populism’ rather than populism in its broader usage. Nonetheless, the identification of demagogic populism can certainly inform that wider conception by specifying the role of the demagogic within populist practice. As argued throughout, it is the Institute's work within the Studies in Prejudice project that provides us with a core understanding of ‘modern demagogy
The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding.
Albert Camus, The Plague .
Before we had COVID-19 we had populism. Until recently the popularity of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in the UK, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Marine Le Pen in France was unequivocal, but almost insignificant compared to that of Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. And that’s only in Europe. Modern-day populism is founded on a specific but crude and somewhat