Neoliberalism and the resurgence of populism

Written by Vedi R. Hadiz, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne:

The rise of populism has been witnessed virtually across the globe as a response to new social dislocations associated with the deepening of neoliberal globalisation. This is so even if the expressions of populism will vary enormously. Not surprisingly, populist politics has been drawn into broader debates about political participation, bringing into question the liberal democratic template upon which the most influential understandings of representative politics have been based. Therefore, the lion’s share of attention has been directed lately at the way that populism has impacted on political constellations in established Western democracies. However, the populist upsurge has been witnessed both in the more advanced and the less economically developed parts of the world as prevailing institutions governing the allocation of power and resources are challenged by parties and movements in the name of ‘ordinary people’, including in the Asian region.

At the most basic level, populism involves imaginings of what constitutes the ‘people’, and their foes, the ‘elites’. However, the meanings attached to such labels are, in actuality, never quite fixed but instead are continually being reshaped. Importantly, as new kinds of social marginalisation, precarious existence and expressions of disenchantment with the broken promises of liberal modernity have grown, contests over power and resources have also tended to intensify, thus influencing how such meanings are now being reconstituted.

In spite of its diverse manifestations, the resurgence of populism is typically tied to two common processes in the present juncture. First, it derives from growing distrust of the formal institutions that organise social, economic and political power. Even in the West, traditionally dominant political parties are being confronted by robust populist challenges, whether emerging externally or internally, thereby affecting what sort of ideas and agendas become ‘mainstreamed’ in national political discourses. In the USA, this has been seen most dramatically with the emergence of Donald Trump as a viable Republican Party presidential candidate, apparently against the wishes of its ‘establishment’. The way that such mainstreaming of ideas has taken place is most evident in the heated debates about immigration, and especially about the status of Muslims, whether in Europe or in Australia.

Second, populist resurgence is tied to discontent with systems of power that are seen to preserve and entrench social inequalities and produce increasingly inflexible class structures. Such discontent is rooted, too, in the frustrations of those who had bought into the project of modernisation with their hearts and souls, not least among them the educated middle classes of the developing world. More than any other social group, their self-identities rely on the feasibility of upward social mobility and material advancement. Along with them, however, have come the larger masses of new urban poor who had poured into the cities and towns of much of the developing world for many decades.

These developments have become prominent at the same time that, in the West, the welfare state that used to be linked to modern liberal politics has come under increasing threat. Additionally, the global environment is characterised by the absence of viable Left alternatives, where their associated critiques of social injustice have come to be discredited. It may be said that populism, in its diverse forms, has stepped into the void, often intertwined with kinds of identity politics that can become highly exclusionary insofar as the conception of the ‘people’ depends partly on the construction of its enemies. Significantly, the process of forging the ‘people’ has to make use of a ‘culturally’ specific pool of symbolic resources in order to be politically meaningful and effective.

It is for this reason that populisms in the Muslim world can make use of the terminologies and imageries associated with the Islamic religion. In Turkey, for example, the AKP – nominally a ‘conservative’ party – has managed to marry some of the social justice traditions of Islamic politics with market-oriented reform, ironically showing the possibility of melding populist sentiment with the imperatives of neoliberalism.  But even this is not unprecedented: in Latin America, Fujimori and Menem were known to have pushed through market-oriented economic policies by circumventing existing institutions of political representation.

Closer to home, in the Philippines, variants of populism have been a mainstay of struggles over power associated with both traditional patronage politics and radical social movements.  In Thailand, populist politics is associated with the businessman and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the new social contract he attempted to forge between state, capital and the urban and rural poor. In the Indonesian presidential elections of 2014, both candidates effectively depicted themselves as nationalist populists in spite of major differences between them. The Indonesian case clearly shows that there can be competing forms of populism that seek to gain support from similar social constituencies as representatives of both nationalist and Islamic traditions of populism scramble to speak for the large cross-sections of society disappointed with the corruption endemic to the Indonesian democratic system.

For scholars, however, the challenge is to not always succumb to the instinct to dismiss populism as base expressions of ‘irrationality’ only.  To do so would be (a) to overlook the social and historical circumstances that have given rise to populism, and (b) to dismiss the possibility of more ‘progressive’ populist alliances that may exert pressure for the opening up of political processes as well as channel aspirations for social justice.


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