Human Rights and Radical Social Change: Liberalism, Marxism and Progressive Populism in Venezuela

By Tillman Clark
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 6/13 |

Populism is ultimately always sustained by ordinary people’s frustrated exasperation, by a cry of “I don’t know what’s going on, I just know I’ve had enough of it! It can’t go on! It must stop!” -- an impatient outburst, a refusal to understand, exasperation at complexity, and the ensuing conviction that there must be somebody responsible for all the mess, which is why an agent who is behind the scenes and explains it all is required.31

Zizek goes further, contrasting the populist discourse to the Marxist one:

[F]or a populist, the cause of the troubles is ultimately never the system as such but the intruder who corrupted it (financial manipulators, not necessarily capitalists, and so on); not a fatal flaw inscribed into the structure as such but an element that doesn’t play its role within the structure properly. For a Marxist, on the contrary [...] the pathological (deviating misbehavior of some elements) is the symptom of the normal, an indicator of what is wrong in the very structure that is threatened with “pathological” outbursts. For Marx, economic crises are the key to understanding the “normal” functioning of [...]32

It follows that a theory of populism is not as so much an idealistic economic/political enacting of policies, an unrealistic relationship between demands and conditions, ideological “interpellation” or solely marked by the will of political charisma. Instead, these characteristics arise from the original lack of systemic analysis that utilizes a logic and of "alien" elements infecting the unified and potentially balanced social whole. The solution is thus to find and destroy the problem-causing invaders, rather than seeing society as a society always-already divided by antagonisms with there being no "natural" or "harmonized" state to return to or advocate for. Thus, inconsistent references to the “financial manipulator,” “international capitalists,” “oligarchy,” or the effects of imperialism are used in an effort to externalize the congenial contradictions of the nation. The main issue with this approach is that its ambiguity is the starting point for undemocratic and authoritarian , which is arguably worse than if a rigid, well defined Marxist position on a certain necessary, temporary authoritarianism is taken.

It may be simply that populism is best embodied by Zizek’s point about the “agent behind the scenes”; populism in this sense is nothing more than a refusal to confront the complexity of the situation with a systemic analysis and thus is the underlying flaw of populism and is the catalyst for its further limitations and shortcomings. This is the true point of departure for which some regimes are characterized populist and others are not. As pointed out above, the liberal position plays the game within the parameters of capitalism and there is no radical change necessary. Obversely, as opposed to the progressive populism we are addressing here, the radical emancipatory project such as Marxism also differs. Zizek again elaborates upon this point:

[T]he ultimate difference between true radical-emancipatory politics and populist politics is that authentic radical politics is active, imposing, enforcing its vision, while populism is fundamentally reactive, a reaction to a disturbing intruder.33

It is with this understanding--that populism is a refusal of systemic analysis and its subsequent political and economic prescriptions and instead an almost ‘shoot-from-the-hip” social and ideological movement--that we can proceed to looking at its limitations.

Limitations of Populism

Progressive populism’s strength lies in how it often ushers in a new mass that transcends the old, traditional, and oligarchical politics, providing a new sense of dignity and self-respect for lower class sectors of society, who are encouraged to recognize that they possess both social and political rights. Populist leaders are often wildly popular and capable of winning any free and open democratic contest. Because populists have no single doctrine (drawing from existing sociopolitical models such as socialism, corporatism or democratic capitalism) their ideas remain inconsistent and their ideas change frequently over time. The flexibility of these ideas allows them to appeal to the largest amount of voters at any given time.34 The electoral victories of populist leaders show a clearly expressed public discontent with the way things were and a desire for major political change. They give hope to the democratic principle that an alternation in power could bring about a change in policies and government and that had failed to articulate popular demands in the past and were viewed largely as corrupt. But once in office they unfortunately tend to exhibit tendencies that show little respect for the rule of law, political pluralism, and democratic checks and balances. In this sense, they follow the ideology of Marxism in so far as the traditional system no longer holds legitimacy because it is being replaced with a new socio-economic model thus making it no longer necessary to follow its rules.

By definition, populist leaders are elected with large electoral majorities from unorganized masses and thus tend to view themselves, and are often viewed, as the embodiment of “the people” and the manifestation of the popular will. The image of the leader who had emerged from “the people” and would return power to them, displacing corrupt and elitist incumbents who had hijacked democracy for self-serving interests (alien elements) is reinforced through this process. As “anti-establishment” or “revolutionary” political outsiders, they characterize the restrictions posed by existing institutions--such as an independent judiciary and congressional opposition--that limit their political autonomy, force them to make concessions with opponents, or constrict their efforts to implement the popular will, as unnecessary and in need of replacement or transcendence in the name of political change and/or a new socio-economic model. Populist leaders often view institutionalized structures as constraints on their political autonomy and vestiges of the traditional past, and see little need for such structures when they can communicate with the public and mobilize electoral support through the media.

Popular referendums are often used to justify institutional changes, allowing populist leaders to claim a democratic mandate. But when the underlying rules-of-the-game are so fluid that they can be rewritten at the whim of temporary and contingent electoral majorities, then there emerges a certain threatening pressure:

[T]here is in populism always something violent, threatening, for the liberal view: an open of latent pressure, a warning that, if are manipulated, the “will of the people” will have to find another way to impose itself; even if electoral legitimization of power is respected, it i made clear that elections play a secondary role, that they serve only to confirm a political process whose substantial weight lies elsewhere [...] This is what gives the thrill to populist regimes: the democratic rules are never fully endorsed, there is always an uncertainty that pertains to them, a possibility always looms that they will be redefined, “unfairly” changed in the middle of the game.35

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