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The Populist Illusion

The Populist Illusion

“The enemy is destroyed,” the voice on the radio shouted. “Our heroes are on their way to Tel Aviv. This was June 1967, and the voice, heard on The Voice of Arabs (Sawt al-Arab), from Cairo was that of Ahmad Saeed, Egyptian President Jamal Abdul-Nasser’s chief propagandist.

Saeed’s narrative, of course, had no basis in fact. At the time he was shouting himself hoarse with cries of victory, the Arab armies had already suffered their worst defeat in centuries with massive losses of territory. And, yet, it would be wrong to describe Saeed’s narrative as a mere lie. The Voice of Arabs audiences loved Saeed’s account and preferred it to any factual reportage. They did not care whether it was true or not.

French scholar Pierre-Andre Taguieff would argue that it was as much of a lie as the plot of a novel. Taguieff should know. He is probably the world’s leading expert on populism, a brand of politics that infected the Arab world from the late 1940s and reached its lowest depths with the Nasserist ideology in Egypt.

In his book on the subject, “The Populist Illusion”, Taguieff hesitates in describing this brand of politics as an ideology. He is right. Populism is more of a style than the substance of a political programme. Its aim is to please the crowds, to make its audiences feel good even if, or especially when, things are going badly.

In a sense, populism is as old as politics itself. It appears in all societies and at all times’ albeit with varying degrees of intensity. Socrates and his disciples Plato and Xenophon disliked democracy precisely because they wrongly believed it was a breeding ground for populism. When democracy

is weakened by war and/or economic crisis, as was the case in the Weimar Republic in Germany, populism could spread like wildfire. But it could also flourish in softening despotic systems, as was the case under the Shah of Iran in the 1970s.

As soon as political analysts assume that populism is gone never to return, it comes back with as much of a splash as Frank Sinatra after his numerous adieu concerts. Today, the world is full of populists such as the Venezuelan Hugo Chavez, the Italian Silvio Berlusconi, the Russian Vladimir Putin, the Iranian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Bolivian Evo Morales, and the Austrian Georg Haider, to name but a few.

Taguieff analyses some of the new forms of populism that have struck roots even in the more mature democracies of Western Europe. These include opposition to globalisation, presented by populists as the root of all evil, and a fear of “the other” illustrated by the popular anti-immigrant discourse.

Recently, the populists succeeded in turning a majority of the French and Dutch voters against a proposed text for a European Union Constitution.

They used a set of fears, including fear of losing national sovereignty and fear of Turkey entering the EU and dominating it with its massive population.

Another favourite theme of present-ay populists is anti-Americanism. It is easy and convenient to blame the United States for whatever the populist happens to dislike. Ahmadinejad, for example, has led the Iranian economy into the rocks, despite massive oil revenues. And, yet, rather than review his own policies he blames “American machination”.

While most populists are also demagogues, it would be wrong to equate populism with demagoguery. The demagogue sets out to deceive others while the populist starts by deceiving himself.

According to Taguieff, populism has a number of basic features.

To start with, populism represents a revolt against the elites. It claims that politics is something simple and accessible to all and that its perceived complexity is the result of a plot by the elites to keep the ordinary citizen out of decision-making process.

Its audience consists mostly of illiterate and poor masses, especially in the urban areas, a stratum that Marx, with his characteristically elitist hauteur, described as “Lumpenproletariat” or the dredge of society.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that populism appeals only to that stratum. A “beautiful lie” could seduce almost anyone, provided the alternative truth is ugly and painful. In the case of Nasserism, for example, many intellectuals and even business people were more affected by it than the poor Arab masses.

Populism works best when it offers a cocktail of truth and lies. For example, it could highlight the true sufferings of a people, something they feel in their bones, and mix it with a promise of healing that is utterly false.

The most disastrous result of populism is its ability to persuade large numbers of people, often even a majority, to accept the unconditional exercise power by an individual or a small group of leaders. Nasser for example never informed the Egyptian people of what was really going on. Nor did he consult his associates when he decided to start a war.

The unconditional exercise of power is always dangerous, especially when it proceeds from the best of intentions.

Populism also thrives on fomenting hatred. It pits the small man against the big one, the poor against the rich, those of “downstairs” against those of “upstairs” and, where there are minorities that could be turned into scapegoats, the majority against minority.

Another negative feature of populism is its determination to substitute rational socio-political goals with irrational ones. For example, Argentina under Peron badly needed agrarian reform and industrialisation geared to meeting the needs of the national market. Instead, Peron, a typical populist, embarked on a ruinous policy aimed at turning Argentina into the world’s second major power after the United States.

Often populists succeed in creating what looks like a powerful state. But such a state always comes at the expense of a weakened society.

Populism could also lead to war both in the form of military conflict with neighbouring countries and as class struggle inside the country.

Populism promotes the cult of the leader’s personality to the point of adulation. And that, in turn, promotes a mixture of cynicism, arrogance, and greed presented as politics.

The good news, as Taguieff shows, is that populism is a passing ailment. It does great harm to societies it afflicts. Eventually, however, it fades away, often leaving no trace.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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