Populism Sounds Good, but It Always Ends Badly

02/25/2015 02:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015
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BUENOS AIRES -- "Populism" is one of those ubiquitous words that eludes definition. In contemporary Europe, many are proposing it as the solution to the twin evils of chronic corruption and economic crisis. It is now in power in Greece, looming in Spain and latent in Italy.

Although explicit comparisons are often omitted, populists liken the future of Europe to the present "new left" regimes in Latin America, such as those of the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Behind this idea of "populism as liberation" from the "injustice of castes" (or entrenched elites) more often than not we find the ideas of Ernesto Laclau, an Argentine philosopher who lived most of his life in the United Kingdom, where he taught at the University of Essex, and passed away last year in Seville while delivering lectures about his ideas.

Yet the liberation promised by Laclau is no such thing. For his part, Laclau applauded social polarization that divides society in factions. This neo-Marxist perspective that applauds the division of society actually erodes the possibility of political and economic development because it hides beneath the veneer of localist folklore the belief that certain societies simply cannot achieve workable democracies.

Paradoxically, Laclau -- a tireless defender of the liberation of the oppressed -- usually wrote in a pedantic and inaccessible style: he was an archetype of an ivory tower far removed from the minorities his writing upheld. And yet, his social diagnosis in Hegemonía y estrategia socialista (1985, with Chantal Mouffe) and On Populist Reason (2005) deserves credit: political populism is a natural response to a democracy sick of corruption and an economy that fails to provide equality of opportunity for those of diverse social or ethnic origin. This is especially but not exclusively true in post-war Latin American democracies.

Yet the central mistake of the "new left" is that this populism does not liberate: in practice, in places such as Venezuela, the populist polarization excludes opposition voices from election, and, whenever necessary, resorts to violence to maintain power. In the end it perpetrates old inequalities, hindering the very meritocracy that creates middle classes and institutional checks and balances. In short, the history of populism is that it succumbs to the very vices we should fight.

After all, are the new Chavista elites in Venezuela that traffic gas across the border to Colombia, the dons of public works in Argentina with Swiss bank accounts or the corrupt apparatchiks in Brazilian state-owned enterprises all that different from the oligarchic elites that they ostracized? They represent the very same oppression, only with a different oppressor.

None other than Lampedusa's Gattopardo made that great point that "for everything to remain the same, then everything must change." What truly transforms societies and delivers them from cultural determinism -- of the kind that once said Spain could never be democratic or that Argentina cannot go a decade without a crisis -- is not embracing democratic sins as authoritarian virtues. Rather, it is to provide more freedoms and education, basically the Enlightenment ideals that made liberal democracy possible in Western Europe.

When the edifice of the neo-Marxist economy crumbles it is evident that the victories of the new left are scant at best. Their biggest accomplishment -- the reduction of inequality -- owes as much in Latin America to macroeconomic forces like a decade-long global commodity boom as to political decisions.

Those Europeans tempted by populist politics should see in Latin America an avoidable future: the empty shelves in Venezuela while its government finds funds to support populist party Podemos in Spain or the stagflation in Argentina that hurts the poor while the sitting vice president is twice indicted for embezzlement. These are not accidents; they are the logical consequences of authoritarian regimes that think themselves beyond reproach or term limits.

We should not forget that the populist alternative in the 1920s and 1930s yielded regimes far worse than the admittedly imperfect democracies they overthrew. If our democracies are weak, then let us feed them more democracy, more anti-corruption drives, more education -- and less messiahs. In post-war Europe, we have committed many mistakes; but the achievements of the social market democracy that overcame authoritarianism cannot be denied. Today's Spain is far more plural and successful than the Spain that awoke from a long nightmare of Franco's dictatorship in 1975. We are far from perfection, but the political development of an integrated Europe underscored José Ortega y Gasset's teaching that the Europe of individual freedoms and democracy was the solution.

THE APPEAL OF UTOPIA

From a philosophical perspective, humanist liberalism admittedly has a hard time standing up to populism and its universalist utopias. Humanism knows itself limited, imperfect, in short human. It does not attract saviors, but statesmen: those that can conceive of the day after leaving power. That kind of leader builds institutions rather than personality cults.

Laclau's post-Marxist defense of populism therefore cloaks an old authoritarianism behind the façade of localism and folklore. But that populism reveals itself to be oppressive when it demonizes opposition, when it attacks or restricts the free press, and when it only deepens the corruption that it promised to eradicate. This neo-Marxism is, in the end, a rather aged authoritarianism.

Such is the moment of deep break when the very Mussolini that promised to "hang the last Pope with the guts of the last King" once in power cuts a deal with the former and embraces the latter. Or when Argentine President Kirchner, always eager to highlight in the socially responsible policies of her administration, dresses in Louis Vuitton and the family of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro travels in private planes. The political tale and its underlying philosophy is revealed as vacuous when confronted with reality.

Faced with the challenge of populism, let us then defend the imperfect liberalism that allows for questions, for compromises, one that refuses to demonize the enemy or allow for indefinite re-elections. Faced with the choice, let us choose more humanism and more democracy. Theory aside, in politics messiahs of populism belong in the dustbin of history.