Neoliberalism and Populism: A Short Survey by Mahmut Mutman

There are two ways in which we can talk about the relationship between neoliberalism and populism. Populism often emerges as a response to the crisis produced by neoliberalism, or alternatively (and paradoxically) they work in combination, i.e. neoliberal policies are implemented by populist governments. This initial categorization is only helpful to a certain extent and should not be taken at face value, as these phenomena are more dynamic than they appear when viewed from within a standard approach.

As the economic and social costs of the implementation of neoliberal program are borne by the working classes and poorest groups everywhere, neoliberal governments are often overthrown or replaced by populist movements—various Latin American and Asian populisms as well as Trump’s recent victory are the main examples. Populism has two major characteristics: (i) it divides the political and social space into two antagonistic camps; (ii) it constructs a “true” and “authentic” people as one of the camps, while the other, enemy camp is constructed as having an elitist, parasitical nature and being foreign to the interests or life style of the majority. The construction of the enemy, and accordingly the appellation of “true” people, shows a significant variation between right and left populisms. For instance, in the USA, Donald Trump’s right wing populism constructs the enemy as “the immigrants protected by the liberal establishment who is alienated from the interests of real American people” (and the same can be said for various European right wing populisms, though the presence of “EU” instead of “liberal establishment” gives these populisms a different tone of nationalism), whereas the Latin American left wing populism constructs the enemy as “the neoliberal, IMF-supported elite who is against the interests of poor working class people.” National identity (often with a strong racial implication or even plain racism) is essential for right wing populism, even though one always hears references to the “hard working people, simple American” etc. In Latin American left wing populism however, both the enemy and the victim are defined in class terms. It is not that left populism has no national address, but it is never racist (often quite the contrary as in Bolivia or Venezuela). Last but not least, the fact that these populisms, which are almost opposite each other, share some similar characteristics makes us wonder if populism is a generic ideology on its own or the form politics takes under conditions of crisis and antagonism.

The ideology of neoliberalism is distinguished by a set of politico-economic axioms that lies at its core: free market, enterprise, privatization, deregulation, financialisation, etc. But it also seems to have a salient capacity to adapt to different circumstances, from Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile to the rule of law in USA or UK. It would be wrong, for instance, to think that neoliberalism is racist by definition because it is hegemonic. It is compatible with the neoliberal axioms to bring unskilled labor force from peripheral regions insofar as it helps to reduce the cost of reproduction. Neoliberalism is not necessarily against multiculturalism or immigrants (even though there is a difference between B. Clinton’s and G. W. Bush’s versions). And yet, we know historically that in many peripheral countries, it was impossible to put the neoliberal program into implementation without a military regime in power (1973 in Chile, 1980 in Turkey). Neoliberalism seems to be capable of maintaining its “economic nucleus” across varying contexts and allies.

This brings us to the second category: neoliberalism implemented by populism. This is widely observed in peripheral societies: Menem in Argentine (1989-1999), Fujimori in Peru (1990-2000) and Erdogan (2003-) in Turkey are major examples. While populism is associated with charismatic leaders and plebiscitary tendencies, neoliberalism operates by elite, technocratic decision-making mechanisms. Although this is true to a great extent especially in “the neoliberal crisis-populist response” model, it cannot be considered as exhaustive of the possible range of relations between these two political formations. The neoliberal axiom of creating new markets by privatization and deregulation gives it a strong anti-elite thrust fighting “state bureaucracy”. Hence it shares an anti-status quo position with populism. Once in power, populists are in need of stability and development that may be provided by neoliberal programs. In this respect, all three examples above share quite similar patterns: the project of creating successful entrepreneurs from the small and medium sized companies and the informal sector; replacing white elite bureaucracy with new cadres of well-trained experts from lower middle class and provincial areas; World Bank and IMF-supported emergency programs giving the urban and rural poor some access to government benefits (schools, health, etc. for the excluded groups); cultural nationalism and a sense of participation and voice, even though restricted. This combination is no magical formulation for success, as it ends up in severe economic and political crisis, usually finding itself in an authoritarian chaos.

It is difficult to forecast whether there is another possibility of a neoliberal populism or a populist neoliberalism in the Western metropolitan centers, following the victory of Trump in the USA and in the eve of coming French and Dutch elections in Europe. One should also not forget the considerable force of left wing populism in Europe (Spain, Greece).

Mahmut Mutman teaches critical theory, media and cultural studies in the Department of Cinema and Television and is the coordinator of the M.A. Program in Cultural Studies at Istanbul Sehir University. He is the author of The Politics of Writing Islam: Voicing Difference; he has co-edited a special issue of Inscriptions titled “Orientalism and Cultural Differences” and a collection on Orientalism, Hegemony and Cultural Difference (in Turkish) as well as several articles on orientalism, nationalism, postmodernism, and film and media in Cultural Critique, Postmodern Culture, New Formations, Rethinking Marxism, Anthropological Theory, Radical Philosophy, Third Text and Toplum ve Bilim.

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