Left Populism: An Alternative to Neoliberalism?

Left populism has recently emerged as a political response to growing inequality, persistent poverty and the dominance of neoliberal doctrine. It dates from the early 2000s, with varying strains in Eastern and Central Europe, the “Bolivarian Revolution” of Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Madura in Venezuela since 1999 and somewhat similar regimes in contemporary Ecuador and Bolivia. In Reinventing the Left in the Global South, I deal with the last three cases in detail.

is left populism just old-style populism in new clothes, or is it a new and genuine alternative to neoliberalism?

Old-style populism, a common political model in Latin America and elsewhere, has four features. The first is a political rhetoric that divides society into two antagonistic groups: the “people” and a supercilious/rapacious/venal “elite or “oligarchy.” Secondly, populism is characterized by a personalistic, charismatic leader, or a concerted attempt to portray a leader as charismatic; this leader cultivates a strong, emotional bond with his followers. Populist leaders are personalistic in the sense that loyalty to the leader remains key. The leader manifests a distinct political style, involving, in addition to highly emotional rhetoric, a folksy manner and an accusatory moral tone in reference to enemies at home and abroad. Thirdly, and following from the previous point, a populist party is loosely organized. The role of the party is to mobilize the people to carry out the leader’s mission, to demonstrate through rallies the strength of the party and to reward followers through the distribution of patronage. The personalistic and clientelistic basis of populism means that the departure of the leader throws such movements into crisis. Finally, old-style populism manifests a limited commitment to democratic checks and balances. The archetypal populists– President Juan Perón of Argentina (1946-55, 1973-4) and President Getúlio Vargas of Brazil (1930-45 and 1951-4) – only intermittently officiated in (semi)democratic electoral systems.  Democracy if necessary, but not necessarily democracy, aptly captures populist ambivalence.

In sum, this sort of populist party is personalistic and, as Ernesto Laclau has contended in several works, ideologically opague. Not surprisingly, therefore, analysts have interpreted old-style populism in contrasting ways. Social scientists studying Latin America have offered two evaluations. One interpretation understands populism as the inclusion of the popular classes, especially urban workers, in political life and in sharing the fruits of economic growth. In return for acquiescing to a class compromise engineered from above, urban workers in particular receive economic and social benefits. Thus, the focus is on #redistribution, albeit to a limited group; we might therefore conclude that populism has been, or is often, part of the left. But a contrary viewpoint is that populist governments construct a class coalition – involving principally the organized workers and the industrial bourgeoisie – in order to carry through a program of (import-substitution) industrialization. The regime ensures compliance with this project on the part of trade unions through a combination of co-optation of leaders, patronage and penalties. Here the focus is on industrial development. But such development may well reflect nationalist or right-wing agendas. Consistent with this latter viewpoint is the interpretation that populist parties co-opt leftist slogans and organized labour to hasten industrialization. Hence, a welfare orientation vis-à-vis workers, in combination with a discourse of antagonism toward the oligarchy and popular empowerment, do not necessarily indicate a progressive orientation.

But left populism, in contrast, unambiguously aligns with the radical left and opposes, not democracy as such, but liberal democracy. To this extent, it is innovative.

The historical context is important to understanding this phenomenon. Left populism emerged in countries with a history of populist or personalistic politics, a style of political life that is unlikely to disappear soon. Yet the collapse of Communism, coupled with public dissatisfaction with the volatility and inequality associated with the Washington Consensus in the 1990s, opened a search for new egalitarian and anti-capitalist formulas. Subsequently, “21st century socialism” (first declared by Hugo Chavez in 2005) abandoned the populist notion of a class pact in favour of a politics of confrontation. It also dropped the Marxist focus on the proletariat in order to position itself as the voice of the “people” vis-à-vis the oligarchy. And it avoided centralized planning in favor of a “socially oriented” (highly regulated) economy. Finally, in countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia with extensive hydrocarbon reserves, their enhanced leverage within the global economy provided them with a degree of freedom in articulating a counter-hegemonic position. The result has been a personalistic but consistently Leftist populism.

I’ve suggested that left populism represents a less equivocal position on democracy than old-style populism. This statement will appear patently false to those who, explicitly or implicitly, identify democracy in general with liberal democracy. Left populists are certainly unsympathetic to the latter, on the grounds that it has perpetuated  vast inequalities of wealth, income and political power. They are also critical of liberal-democratic constitutions for providing limited opportunities for the expression of the popular will.

Left populists thus advocate an alternative form of democracy sometimes referred to as “popular” democracy. Rather than a set of procedural rules for choosing leaders, this alternative understands democracy as a type of society – one that is inclusive, egalitarian and permits forms of direct democracy. Left populists have experimented with different constitutional arrangements, purportedly to arrive at workable models. Whether we should take these experiments seriously, or judge them as mere camouflage for a new authoritarianism, is an issue on which qualified observers disagree. It would be mistaken, however, to assume that Chávez, for one, was nothing but an old-style, authoritarian populist.

The major problem with left populism is its instability. The death or removal of the paramount ruler in this personalistic regime introduces disorder as new leaders struggle to establish themselves. The conflicts and discord in Venezuela following the death of Chavez in early 2013 is a sad case in point. Yet the more highly institutionalized regimes of moderate or radical social democracy are unlikely to appear soon in countries with long histories of populism. Left populism is unlikely to be a short-lived phenomenon in a Global South increasingly dissatisfied with neoliberalism.

Facebooktwitterlinkedinby feather

6 thoughts on “Left Populism: An Alternative to Neoliberalism?

  1. Alex Ber

    Somebody essentially help to make seriously posts I would state. This is the very first time I frequented your website page and thus far? I amazed with the research you made to make this particular publish extraordinary. Fantastic job!

  2. check out the post right here

    I just want to tell you that I am new to blogging and site-building and actually enjoyed this web-site. Almost certainly I’m planning to bookmark your site . You actually have incredible posts. Thanks a lot for sharing with us your web page.

  3. good page

    I just want to mention I am just newbie to weblog and honestly savored you’re web-site. Probably I’m planning to bookmark your blog post . You surely have tremendous posts. Thanks for revealing your blog site.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.