Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Friday, October 08, 2004

Towards a Critical Theory of Populism (work in progress; will become a joint paper with Catherine Fiesci)

Andrew Robinson

This paper is work in progress on the subject of theorising populism. As a result, there are still weaknesses in terms of a lack of supporting evidence and analysis/critique of existing literature. This version of the paper is based mainly on my own work and the conclusions it reaches are my own, but it is part of an ongoing collaborative project with Catherine Fiesci and has benefited from our discussions. The theory I aim to develop is based on a variety of critical perspectives including Barthesian semiotics, Reichean psychoanalysis and Gramscian Marxism, also drawing on the work of Marcuse, Bakhtin and others.

For the purposes of this project, I shall assume that the concept of “populism” refers to an identifiable series of movements and phenomena, and refers to something they have in common. I conceive this, not in terms of an essence, but in terms of a number of “family resemblances” which justify using a single word but which do not exhaust the content of each movement. In my view, it is mistaken to view populism, either as an ideology, or as an ideological theme. It is not a theme because populists rarely identify themselves with the label, and it is not an ideology because it lacks a set of identifiable core beliefs which are common to movements to which the label is applied. (One may find, for instance, that race is a central theme for one populist movement such as Nazism, but is entirely absent in another such as Peronism). Since it is not an ideology, populism also lacks a left/right position, although I shall argue that it necessarily incorporates some rightist themes. In particular, populist movements involve demands for submission and conformity, and emphasise a logic of sameness and place.

Rather than an ideology, populism is more like what Bakhtin calls a “speech genre”. It consists of a particular and identifiable set of language-games which are set apart, not by their ideological content, but by the particular form in which they are articulated. Language-games make sense to participants because they refer to particular forms of life, so I would also suggest that populism is rooted in particular forms of life, or more accurately, in particular kinds of libidinal structure. Populist movements are similar in that they involve a particular kind of libidinal or emotional link between leaders and followers. Populism is therefore not an ideology but more of a way of doing politics. Further, the populist speech genre is not necessarily limited to identifiable populist movements. One can therefore speak also of populist journalism, populist discourse in everyday life, and populist discourse in mainstream political movements. One could study, for instance, whether the armed forces or the police force in an otherwise liberal society rely on populist forms of speech, whether populist ideas are widespread among the working class, and so on.

I would differentiate populism, not from other ideologies, but from other political speech genres. The two most obvious genres aside from populism are liberaloid or technocratic speech and the discourse of direct action. Liberaloid speech covers most of the political mainstream, incorporating ideas such as the articulation of political communities through rules and procedures; politics as a system of negotiation or problem-solving between interest-groups and parties; valid argument as preparedness to be rational and reasonable; and disciplinary power as a way of ensuring the preservation of an overall system of beneficial institutions. This speech-genre, which covers most mainstream non-populist political parties as well as Anglo-American political theory and the discourses of caring professions, involves a libidinal structure in which strong emotions are suppressed or contained beneath a harmonising surface. The direct-action speech genre, which covers a variety of opposition movements and has some resonance in subaltern discourse, poses political issues in terms of immediate action by ordinary people in everyday life, and articulates libidinal structures emphasising creativity, hope, immediacy and openness. A discourse which is populist cannot be either a liberaloid or a direct action discourse (and there may also be other types and hybrid forms). One should be able to identify and specify which form is prevalent in a particular movement by examining the modes of speech and the implied relationship between speaker, listener and statement.

Populism involves a particular relation to the discourse of the subaltern strata (such as workers and peasants). Since it usually involves a positive identification with people classified as “ordinary” and “decent”, its use of such discourse is crucial to its political effectiveness. Populism is therefore typically parasitic on other speech genres which arise in everyday life. Everyday subaltern speech usually arises in specific contexts and is connected to personalised relations of domination, submission, manipulation and resistance. Subaltern strata have traditionally developed their own ways of speaking as ways of signifying their distinctness from elites and bosses. These are defined as “other” because of relations of oppression which are, and are perceived as, directly operative in everyday life. Hence, signifiers such as accent, sentence construction, the use of particular idioms and slogans, reference to subaltern life-world as “real”, and/or a heritage of folk culture are used both to signify distinctness and to construct the beginnings of a culture of resistance. One can find frequent reference to such discourse in the work of social historians and ethnographers such as Richard Hoggart and Jim Scott. Arising directly in everyday relations, subaltern discourse is usually constructed at the level of what Scott terms “infrapolitics”, dealing with occasions where elite power intersects with everyday life. It is often oppositional in relation to elite politics as such, and may involve anti-political identities. In liberal democracies, subaltern discourse is often articulated through transformist apparatuses, though it can also express itself in more-or-less direct discourses such as leftist trade unionism. Because they are learnt informally, and because they are defined in opposition to signifiers of the powerful, subaltern speech-genres are traditionally resistant to manipulation and colonisation by elites.

The operation of populist speech-genres often occurs through the politicisation of such everyday subaltern speech-genres. However, this is a politicisation of a particular type. Everyday speech genres are not affirmed in their context, but are transported into the sphere of elite or spectacular politics. Hoggart makes clear that such speech-genres are heavily context-specific: ‘Working-class people can make quick impressionistic judgements of great skill in certain fields; outside them, or if they are deceptively approached under the correct flags, they can be as babies’ (The Uses of Literacy p. 106). Populists use this manipulability by putting up, in Hoggarts’s terms, the “correct flags”. In other words, they connote their belonging to subaltern strata through the adoption of appropriate language and symbolism. In this way, they can claim to be “one of us” with the oppressed masses. This is an effective way for political and media elites to worm their way under otherwise impassable barriers and to blur the boundary between bosses and workers. The elite renders itself discursively mobile, and can enter subaltern strata under their own flags. Once the barrier is down, it is relatively easy to form a relationship of trust.

However, this relationship is not actually one of mutual implication. The relation of equivalence or representation between the populist elite and its supporters is purely connotative, and this is one of the things which separates populists from other political speech-genres. Signs of belonging to proletarian culture are mobilised as “myth”, in the Barthesian sense. In other words, they do not involve an actual engagement with members of subaltern strata. Nor do they involve any kind of direct mobilisation by these strata for themselves, or any stable form of programmatic or formal representation. The populist leader belongs, simply because he (or rarely she) uses symbols which says he belongs. In other words, the leader is one of the “little people”, as opposed to one of the “bosses” or the various out-groups. There need not be either denotation or representation, beyond this connotative relationship. The connotation of belonging is used as a basis for requests for “trust”. In fact, the leader usually acts on personal conviction, and appeals based on the authenticity of her or his claims. In other words, power is concentrated in the hands of the leader, on the basis that the leader is one of the in-group. A populist movement need not have any actual, active, democratic, programmatic or formal link to the “people” it claims to mobilise, at least for so long as the leader remains within the (fairly broad) limits of the subaltern speech-genres which are used. Indeed, there is a fundamental contradiction involved, since the leader, as a particularly powerful type of boss, is structurally almost the polar opposite of the connoted image.

The subaltern beliefs which are articulated through populism may already be authoritarian, but in other cases, populists articulate everyday concerns in authoritarian ways. Usually, however, the discourse in question is what is sometimes called “phatic” or “idle” discourse. Such discourse arises in everyday life, usually as a way of avoiding silence, and lacks a communicative function. ‘That something is said, and how it is said, dominates considerations of what is said’ (Pateman p. 40). Most of us will have come across phatic discourse in contexts such as bus stops, pubs, coffee bars, over fences, at school gates or in taxis. Malinowski suggests that its main function is to create “a tie of some social sentiment or other”, and that it works best when it is not especially meaningful. Unfortunately, political themes such as resentment against out-groups often find their way into phatic discourse. So one might expect to find in Britain, alongside perennial favourites such as football and the weather, the re-assertion of apparently “obvious” views on issues such as crime and immigration. In everyday life, such discussions - however insidious - tend precisely to be “idle”, but they are very dangerous when this “common sense” acquires political expression. Populism involves the political or journalistic articulation of phatic discourse so as to construct a movement which can claim the same status that phatic discourse has in everyday life. In other words, it can cement social bonds without saying anything meaningful, or by saying something which is not perceived as meaningful (in the sense of being contentious and contestable). In this case, however, the articulated idea gains expression as “policy”. The phatic character of the articulated ideas insulates them against criticism and challenge.

For example, Christian Karner’s discussion of Hindu nationalism, drawing on the work of Steven Vertovec, suggests that this movement operates by “ideologization” of everyday phenomena. Cultural practices which were previously taken for granted are brought to the forefront of people’s consciousness through differentiation with others (10).

One can expect to find in all populist movements an articulation of a set of themes around which populist speech is structured. These include: the role of the pseudo-concrete; sameness and the logic of place; hostility to a string of others, defined by their exceeding place; and a reliance on charisma.


Populist discourse is far from being concrete, since it is articulated in a mythical and impositional way. However, it relies strongly on a claim to a particular kind of concreteness which I have termed the “pseudo-concrete”. In other words, it constructs a strong binary between claims based on whether they are “authentic” or “inauthentic”. Authentic claims are conceived as immediately “real”. In practice, this means they are taken to be obvious and self-evident. The status such claims are assigned within populist discourse is referential. In other words, they are taken to be factual claims about “the way the world is”. On closer inspection, it emerges that they do not express empirically-based claims at all. Rather, they are supposed to be immediately apparent from experience. Crucially, these claims are conceived as needing no support, and as invulnerable to challenge from thought and argumentation, whether rational or not. (Their truth is also taken to be a sign of trustworthiness: someone who makes these claims is thereby affirmed as a member of the in-group, and as invulnerable to corruption and manipulation). This level of claim is correlative with what is termed the “fantasmatic” in Lacanian theory, but to those who hold such beliefs, they seem to be immediately and unquesionably real. Indeed, it is conceived as a reality so obvious that it can be directly “seen” or “known”, without any need for confirmation of any sort. Barthes says of Poujade that he assumes a ‘simple equation between what is seen and what is’ (ET 53).

It is my view that, in spite of this claim to reality, the claims do not in fact express claims about the world at all. Rather, they express the immediate assertion of emotional states. There is thus a misrepresentation or displacement involved: emotional states are displaced into the world. Of course, since the concept of “reality” in populist discourse is unitary (that is, there is only one reality, not many), a discourse of this kind can only operate among people whose emotional reactions are already almost identical. It is likely to seem incomprehensible and irrational to someone who does not share these emotional reactions, and it can address to them only Kafkaesque imperatives. The way the displacement works is as follows. Firstly, events (or more accurately, images of events) are taken to directly produce an emotional reaction which all decent people share; this reaction is then taken to justify directly a particular course of action. An example is the following excerpt from the introduction to a book of poems by American fighter pilots:
‘These people do not know, nor will they ever know, what it means to be a FIGHTER PILOT… [We have a] tradition that will never die as long as enemy aggression challenges for supremacy of the
skies and free men rise to defeat them. “Anything else is rubbish” ‘ (cited Joan Smith pp. 141-2).

The world can be divided into the “real” (which incites strong emotions in populists) and the unreal (which does not). TIME columnist Lance Morrow says of the term “asymmetrical war”: ‘Asymmetry is a concept. War, as we have seen, is blood and death’. Both words are actually concepts, and “asymmetry” also expresses things which are empirically “real” and which may arouse strong emotions in some people. However, since they do not arouse such emotions in Morrow, this word is given the secondary status of a mere “concept”. On the other hand, “war” is given an extra-conceptual status, as if it can be “seen” without the mediation of language. This is because of the reaction it incites. One finds the same thing going on with, for instance, the distinction between “airy-fairy” civil liberties and the “real” issue of “crime”. The “real” world is taken to be an existential and ontological affair, separate from both the technicalities of evidence and the speculations of theory. It is simply “sensed” to be so, and the only imperative is to “accept” it.

One finds the displacement expressed through the use of a carefully configured set of myths. Signifiers such as “blood”, “soil”, “health”, “nature”, “earth”, “solidity” and so on are used to signify the sphere of immediately “real” concepts, as distinct from the mere “concepts” (sometimes termed “technicalities” or “semantics”). These other concepts are likely to be portrayed as (for instance) airy-fairy, wishy-washy, arty-farty, cloud-cuckooland or somesuch, and as therefore having no relationship to reality. As such, they can be immediately dismissed. “Experience” and “instinct” are to be trusted over ideas and research. Indeed, there is a barely-disguised irrationalism in many populist movements. They portray themselves as decision and action, in response to the empty words of adversaries. For instance, Mussolini professes: ‘Fascism was not the nursling of a doctrine previously drafted at a desk; it was born of the need for action, and was action’ (Griffin 248). Similarly, Ernst Krieck says of the heroic man: ‘He lives not from the mind, but from blood and earth. He lives not from culture, but from action’ (Marcuse 28). The cult of action, especially violent action, is crucial, because for populists the use of violence proves that an agent “means it” and is not being insincere. Several reports, including opposition ones, show that the Night of the Long Knives, far from undermining Hitler, increased his support-base because of his ‘forceful action’ (Kershaw 86-7).

In Peronism, for instance, one finds rhetoric linking a claim to “reality” with images of youth, health and strength. ‘I am, then, much more democratic than my adversaries, because I seek a real democracy whilst they defend an appearance of democracy… In conclusion: Argentina cannot stagnate in the somnolent rhythm of activity to which so many who have come and lived at her expense have condemned her; Argentina must recover the firm pulse of a healthy and clean-living youth’ (Lat. Am. 142-3). Hitler similarly claimed to be expressing the ‘healthy sentiments of the people’. The theme of “health” may well express the special role of disgust or nausea in populism. In other words, something which induces a feeling of disgust, and which in a sense, therefore, makes the populist feel ill, is taken to be a form of sickness, and therefore to be itself degenerate or conducive to decay. X makes populists feel sick, therefore X is inherently sick or sickening. The elimination of such characteristic feelings is taken to be “health”.

Something which falls outside the populist structure of reactions is, by their own definition, “nonsense” and does not need to be replied to. It can be dismissed in a peremptory way. (Enoch Powell was particularly prone to label anything he did not understand as “nonsense”, and one also finds it expressed in the tabloid use of terms such as “loony left”). Worse still, such things are a source of evil which must be wiped out. Such reactions are, as shown earlier, emotional in their basis. The emotional discourse expresses itself, however, as if it were unquestionable reality: as a result, it is used as a basis for exclusion and for silencing or invalidating people who dare to question the beliefs. Critics are met, not with a defence of the populist position, but with sarcasm, bile and aggression. TIME columnist Lance Morrow says that anyone who questions his position on September 11th is ‘too intellectual for decent company’. In other cases, the critic is said to be “not living in the real world”. For instance, the BNP claims that ‘These parents, like everyone else in the real world, know that young black lads… need stricter discipline’, and a Daily Mail columnist says that people who ‘scorn’ the idea that the British are a homogeneous nation ‘do not understand the real world’ (Voice of Freedom 3-4). Although it appears to be empirical and positivistic, this appearance is connotative and misleading: the claims involved are usually unsubstantiated and empirically problematic or just plain false. The main role of such rhetoric is invalidatory: it is used to silence criticism of the populist position by claiming it is nonsensical.

If challenged, this claim is justified by reference to the social position or experience of the individual concerned, rather then the validity of her or his arguments. In this sense, what one sees is a kind of “inverse snobbery”. The populist belongs to an in-group which feels itself, by its status, to be inherently superior to all other groups. It looks down on everyone else as ontologically inferior. Since it is always possible for the populist to establish in her or his own mind that she or he belongs to the appropriate in-group, the appeal to experience is able to silence all criticisms. One aspect of this inverse snobbery is anti-intellectualism. Poujade attacks intellectuals and mainstream politicians in a variety of ways, mostly for weakness and lack of virility - Mendes-France “looks like a bottle of Vichy water”.

One also finds the idea of an immediately experienced reality expressed through imagery and action. Violence has an immediate emotional and communicative function in many populist movements, symbolising worthy decisiveness. In some populist movements, displays of state repression or of street violence become almost a good in themselves - a way of showing the reality and the virility of the movement. Populist campaigning (for instance, in elections and in political meetings, and also in populist journalism) is heavily based on imagery (and sometimes on mass participation in stage-managed events). Many populist movements, such as the Conservative Revolution in Germany, place a heavy emphasis on an “aesthetic” or “heroic” dimension, which emphasises physical display and especially strength. One may find along with this a belief that only participation in a particular lifeworld of experience gives any right to speak or be heard. Such trends are quite comprehensible given the way in which emotions are confused with reality. It is partly because of the theme of “heroism”, and its link to ideals of manliness and sacrifice, that I suspect that political Islam is a form of populism.

Hence, populism has, in Barthes’s terms, ‘laid claim from the start to mythological truth and posited culture as a disease’ (ET 53), assuming that by “culture” Barthes means its creative and/or rationalist versions. ‘[W]hat is inculpated here is any form of explicative, committed culture, and what is saved is an “innocent” culture, the culture whose naïvete leaves the tyrant’s hands free’ (Barthes ET 134). In fact, the appeal to emotions is simply the self-affirmation of a particular type of character-structure which generates the emotions in question. The ideas involved are, as Gramsci puts it, a ‘primitive historical acquisition’, and those who do not agree are often very different to how they are portrayed in populist discourse. Populism is an impositional speech-genre, because it reduces anything it does not understand to its own schemas. It is also highly resistant to criticism. As Barthes puts it regarding Poujade, ‘That no one look at us is the principle of Poujadist anti-intellectualism’ (ET 134).


This impositional logic is crucial to understanding populist conceptions of sameness and otherness. Whichever culture it arises within and regardless of whether it is ostensibly leftist or rightist, populism mobilises around strong divisions between the same and the different. The sphere of “reality”, or the things “everyone knows”, are associated with an irreducible and obvious sameness, the attribute of all authentic members of an in-group conceived in more-or-less organic terms. This reduction to sameness leads to a denial of difference within the in-group. Such differences are conceived as complementary and as arising within a corporate scheme, something akin to Rawls’s “social union of social unions”. Differences between individuals are either covered up or invalidated, and social differences such as differences in class, status and hierarchic position are portrayed as unimportant and purely organisational or natural. Hence, some populists believe in large pay differentials and highly differentiated gender roles, but these express mere functional differences according to the internal logic of populist discourse. The in-group is specifiable as “the people” or some equivalent, such as “the nation”. This group is conceived as a prior organic unity to which differences can be reduced. It is a mythical construct, often operating in myths of the Barthesian type, and all differences within this category are conceived as accidental additions to this core essence. Individuals and groups are expected to subordinate their differences (seen as inauthentic and finite) to the greater good of the essence (seen as real and more-or-less infinite). In Nazi rhetoric, for example, ‘The victory of the national socialist revolution will mean the overcoming of the old class and caste spirit. It will allow a nation once more to rise up out of status mania and class madness’ (Noakes and Pridham 72). ‘We do not recognise classes, but only the German people’ (133). ‘The task before us is the most difficult which has faced German statesmen in living memory. But we all have unbounded confidence, for we believe in our nation and in its eternal values’ (132). Mussolini adds: ‘Political doctrines pass, nations remains’ (Griffin 254). ‘For fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative. Individuals and groups are admissable in so far as they come within the State’ (254). Marcuse gives a number of similar examples from Conservative Revolution writers (20-1), and similar themes arise in Blairism through the idea of “community”. In Hindu nationalism, it takes the form of the idea of “Hindutva” or Hinduness, the essence of Hindus as a civilisation. RSS leader M.S. Golwalkar wants ‘a perfectly organised state of our society wherein each individual has been moulded into a model of ideal Hindu manhood and made into a living limb of the corporate personality of society’ (Karner p. 7). On an organisational level, the assertion of the primacy of the collective occurs through the aggressive corporate overcoding of individuals and groups to ensure that they perform their proper role as part of the “people” or “nation”.

This in-group is, of course, a contingent construct, so maintaining the illusion of its primacy requires a constant struggle against everything which exceeds or undermines it. Many populists have recourse to a conception of the world based on the idea of “balance”. This is the kind of conception Barthes terms “petty-bourgeois”, and is also similar to Foucault’s model of disciplinary power. With radical difference conceived as absent from the “decent” world of the in-group, relations are reduced to relations of equivalence, and therefore, to an implicitly repressive model of an exchange economy. The world is metaphorised as a ledger-book: everything balances with everything else. Moller van den Bruck claims: ‘There is something eternal in our nature that continually reproduces itself and to which every development must return’; ‘Nature is conservative, because it is based on an unshakeable constancy of appearances that always reproduces itself even if it is temporarily disturbed’ (Marcuse 13). The world is conceived in such a way that all is well and good for as long as “balance” is maintained. The social order operating within this balance is an order of stultifying and tautological sameness where everything is conceived as “obvious”. Barthes, in his discussion of Poujade, remarks: “Not only must every offense be averted by a threat, but every action must be forestalled. [This is] a numerative order in which to foil is to annul. Hence the reduction of the world to a pure equality and the observance of quantitative relations between human actions are triumphant states. To pay back, to counter, to generate the event from its reciprocal… all this closes the world upon itself and produces a certain happiness… [so] we pride ourselves on this moral bookkeeping: the petit-bourgeois flourish consists in eluding qualitative values, in opposing processes of transformation by a statics of equilibrium (an eye for an eye, effect vs. cause, merchandise vs. money, penny for penny, etc.)” (ET 51-2). This is ‘the refusal of alterity, the negation of the different, the euphoria of identity, and the exaltation of “kind” ‘ (ET 53). Barthes writes of a ‘mathematics of equation’ in which every action has a reaction and everything is restored to an airtight order, spiriting away the complexity and openness of the world (ET 51). It should be stressed, however, that the basis of populist politics is emotional: there is not in fact any balanced mathematical reasoning going on. The theme of balance is expressed in rhetoric and syntax, but its operation is mainly ideological.

The assertions of “reality” by Lance Morrow and the rest are not simple truth-claims, because populism does not simply assert the existence of the irrational, natural pre-givens on which it is based. It also relies on their having an ethical character. These pre-givens are placed prior to the autonomy both of reason and of desire, and are posited as the limit of both (Marcuse 15). The pre-givens are seen as guaranteeing the natural harmony to which everything will return. In contrast, crisis results from intellectual attempts to violate the laws of nature and to go against what “everyone knows” to be true (see Marcuse 26-7). Poujade, for instance, attacks intellectuals for floating in the air, somewhere away from the earthy reality his own movement expresses. Hence, balance finds its basis in an image of a natural order.

This discourse of balance is a logic of entrapment in the Deleuzian sense: it involves a radical reduction of everything to a place in the social and symbolic order. Everything is to remain in its place, and nothing is to exceed its place. Hence, the struggle to maintain so-called “balance” is a struggle to keep everything in an assigned place, and to avoid lines of flight which disrupt this logic of fixity and equivalence. The logic of place fits nicely with capitalism, and especially with work. Work has a special place in most populist movements, coming close to being defined as the essential role of human beings. Hence, point 10 of the Nazi ten point programme reads: ‘It must be the first duty of every citizen to perform physical or mental work’ (Noakes and Pridham). ‘We will emphasise our national honour and national pride by avoiding all that is foreign… and giving preference to the results of our own hard work’ (p. 72). One could track the same theme through Peronism, Thatcherism, Blairism and so on. The “decent” citizen is also, therefore, necessarily “hard-working”. Work - especially when coordinated, either literally or metaphorically, in a national scheme - is the encoding of the logic of place at the core of productive activity.

The logic of place, balance and sameness leads to a fear of anything which exceeds its assigned place in any way. The tentative equilibrium imagined to be the property of the in-group is always menaced by flows of human meaning across the boundaries of ethics, of people across national borders and of commodities across the limits fixed by exchange and work. Each supporter of populism must identify with the movement and/or its leader, and the symbolic positions of these are constantly threatened by excess. As a result, the reduction of space to place feeds into a de facto agenda of closing space as far as is possible. Discipline, surveillance and regulation of everyday life are part of the ideal and usually the practice of populist movements, whether they happen to be the Taleban with its religious police or Tony Blair with Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. “It’s very difficult to get a conviction in this country for anything”, says Blunkett (failing to explain why, then, the prison population is so large). “My upbringing and my constituency tell me there’s an audience out there that wants the balance restored” (TIME Dec. 2nd 2002 p. 70). Threats to close space are not experienced by populist supporters as threatening, because these supporters have already identified with the movement or the state. Rather, closure is seen as providing “security”, i.e. guaranteeing the continuity of the tautological equilibrium. That which is not computable as sameness is not to be trusted. All values are already contained within the world of the “obvious” (the feelings of the in-group reveal both reality and ethical rightness). As a result, the outside is denied any value whatsoever. Both valueless and threatening, the outside of the populist lifeworld comes to be viewed as ‘unintelligible daemoniac forces’ (Gramsci SCW 115) threatening the health, life and good sense of the inside. Open space is space which can be used by the enemy to disrupt the healthy nation. It is not perceived as a space for creativity or even opportunity, since the in-group is already self-sufficient and so has no need for these. Social openness is therefore seen as a case of being wishy-washy and conceding what for populists is a mere luxury. This introduces something of a contradiction into populism, since the in-group is redefined as something which, far from being healthy and virile, is constantly vulnerable to forces outside it. In populist discourse, a bastard is always a bastard, a criminal is always a criminal and/or a Jew is always a Jew. But the in-group, the innocents, are corruptible and need protection. Hence, populism tends to suppress all spontaneity and autonomy.

One finds, therefore, that the in-group is always conceived as under attack, no matter how dominant it becomes. For instance, in November last year David Blunkett made a very strange speech in which he claimed that there is a need for a radical transformation in British culture. We need to learn to put responsibilities alongside rights, to show respect to each other and to refuse to tolerate petty thuggery. This is a strange call, because clearly these are values which are shared by most of the people to whom Blunkett is appealing. Nevertheless, he speaks as if he is proposing a revolutionary transformation. The assumption seems to be that, since cultural degeneracy is the root of all evil, therefore, if evils exist, the cause must be cultural degeneracy. And the way one combats cultural degeneracy is by reasserting the “healthy” values of populism itself. Claud Sutton writes of fascism as ‘a kind of instinctive reaction of European man to the forces of disorder, materialism, plutocracy and cosmopolitanism’ (Griffin 261). There is a similar narrative in Hindu nationalism. This contains a model of history as a golden age, a period of decay and then a restoration. Golwalkar says: ‘We were the good, the enlightened people. We were the people who knew about the laws of nature and the laws of the Spirit. We built a great civilisation, a great culture and an unique social order. We had brought into actual life almost everything that was beneficial to mankind’. This was destroyed by a combination of decadence and foreign invasion, but now there is an age of national revival and reawakening. This reawakening is needed to ‘check the present rot of selfishness, dissentions, and vulgar imitations’ (Karner pp. 6-7). The healthy reasserts itself by suppressing, expelling or destroying the forces of decay.

The definition of enemies and bogeymen in populism varies greatly between movements, both in terms of the specificity of definitions and in terms of the extent to which it is a group which actually causes harm. Hence, one may find populist articulations of resentment with a basis in everyday life, such as the hostility of a colonised population to a colonial settler group. One may also find entirely imagined enemies such as the “Zionist Occupation Government” which American neo-Nazis claim controls their country. One finds movements, such as the Nazis, who have a very specific conception of which group is the main enemy, and others, such as the Blairites, whose enemies span a range of vaguely-defined categories. There seems to be some relationship between the number and clarity of definition of bogeymen and the viciousness of the populist group. While all populist groups are authoritarian and repressive, the overtly genocidal ones tend to have a precisely-defined main enemy, whereas the more generically authoritarian ones have a more loosely-defined set of enemies. Peronism, for instance, had a very loosely defined conception of who exactly is to blame for Argentina’s problems, and this correlates with a loosely structured national movement. In contrast, movements such as Nazism and the Khmer Rouge have a very specific enemy in mind.

The populist logic of sameness displaces political issues into culture, and via culture, into administration. “Culture” is used as a generic explanation for problems with a variety of causes, and in particular is used as a substitute for historical, discursive and class analyses. Hitler, for instance, stated that everything good resulted from what he termed “personality”, which means ‘to find ideals… stronger than the factors which pull people apart’ (N&P 135). Mussolini similarly stressed that his doctrine is ‘not merely political: it is evidence of a fighting spirit’, and he defines what he wants in terms of personal character-traits rather than social structures (Griffin 250). Claud Sutton of BUF says: ‘Men differ markedly in respect of their courage, fairness, loyalty, veracity and other qualities of character’ (Griffin 259). Bernhard Kohler, a German populist, adds: ‘It is not economic conditions that determine social relations but, on the contrary, it is moral views that determine economic relations’ (Marcuse 22). One could also note here the importance of “culture” in the Blairite and Thatcherite vocabularies, especially as a way of discussing poverty without raising economic questions. Through such devices, political questions are transmuted into existential ones. Of course, this existential sphere is the same one discussed earlier: it is conceived as above and beyond rationality and criticism. Populist parties and leaders tend to render themselves the sole expression of the nation, above and beyond politics (especially but not exclusively in one-party systems). As a result, there are no political questions as such, but only technical ones. So, as Gramsci puts it, ‘The political function is indirect. For, even if no other legal parties exist, other parties in fact always do exist and other tendencies which cannot be legally coerced; and, against these, polemics are unleashed and struggles fought as in a game of blind man’s buff. In any case it is certain that in such parties cultural functions predominate, which means that political language becomes jargon. In other words, political questions are disguised as cultural ones, and as such become insoluble’ (SPN 149). Because all that is of value arises tautologically within the populist in-group, all evil (and setbacks) must therefore arise from radically external forces, and these forces must be constitutionally flawed in such a way that they cannot see what is obvious or do not accept what “everyone accepts”. As a result, they take on an almost demonic role.

Populism usually expresses itself in palingenetic terms. There is to be a national renewal or even a revolution. For instance, the Nazis insist: ‘We want to ensure that in future the importance of our nation once again corresponds to its natural worth rather than to the pathetic representation of the past fifteen years’ (Noakes and Pridham 72). However, since this renewal is to be “cultural” or “spiritual”, its precise content is unclear. This is in fact a false revolution, a revolution which changes who is in power while keeping the power-system itself intact.

The bogeymen of populism are very diverse, but the role they play in populist discourse is fairly standardised across different movements. There are in my view five or six main groups of bogeymen or “folk devils” in populism, each of which is feared because it exceeds the logic of place, but each in a slightly different way. All of the groups are conceived as radically external. Populists vehemently deny that they themselves are anything like “these people”, and that they could possibly have any role in having caused their existence or actions. (For instance, they deny any possibility of social causality of crime, preferring a tautological explanation that crime occurs because criminals decide to commit it). The groups are self-causing and also fixed. All bogeymen are defined characterologically. In other words, they are assumed to be bad or evil or alien in their character, which is seen as an unchanging personal attribute and as something for which the individual is responsible. Since what is “obvious” cannot be argued, the evil of those who do not accept it cannot be seen as a failure to persuade, nor as comprehensible difference. It must, therefore, involve a flaw of a kind which is beyond redemption and unchangeable (for instance, an innate characteristic). Each group has a fixed and unchanging character, and the use of the group-label operates as an anathema. Populist grammar operates so as to render each term in such a way that it appears to refer back to a meaning specified elsewhere in the text, but which does not. For instance, a group might be introduced as “the criminals” or “these asylum seekers”. The referent and its structural role is therefore usually connoted. If challenged on this, as on so many matters, the populist is likely to fall back on the “obviousness” of the category and imply that the very act of questioning the category is either sophism or idiocy on the part of the questioner (“we all know who the criminals are”, or “what a scrounger is”). In “Listen, Little Man”, Reich sets up an excellent demonstration of this kind of argument, and suggests that it is a way of escaping from one’s own sense of inferiority by pointing at others: “you yourself are exactly what you want to kill off in the people you call Jews” (31). To the extent that populists try to define the categories, they do so by instantiation. (An example might be that a single case would be taken to “prove” that there are too many bogus asylum seekers, rather than the label “bogus” being specified). In some cases, the groups are assumed to have homogeneity within themselves and with each other - for instance, “criminals” are not isolated people but are an organised group - and in the strongest cases, this is sustained by conspiracy theory. This seems to be because similarity of others from the stand-point of the in-group (for instance, similar effects) are taken to imply similarity of causes also.

In what passes for theoretical discussion in populism - for instance, when issues of state policy or “what’s wrong with society” are discussed - the various group-labels appear as clear-cut categories in “obvious” relations with each other. For instance, “the criminals” harm “the decent people” and so should be “dealt with” to “protect” the latter. In discussions of this kind, the “obviousness” is largely a result of the mythical operation of the category. In other words, the questions of who falls into the category are left vague (except for the fact that the speaker always assumes her or himself to fall outside the anathematised groups; for instance, if the speaker sometimes breaks the law, she or he is not thereby rendered a “criminal”). When it comes to concrete issues - in other words, when populist beliefs are applied or decontested in specific cases - this general theory is immunised from counter-evidence. Rather, the application takes the form of specifying whether particular people do or do not fall under the various anathemas. This is one of the main ways whereby political issues are displaced into administration. The “left” or “right” leaning of a particular populist movement is largely a result of which people are identified with the categories (which do not vary between left and right versions).

Populism is, therefore, fundamentally irrationalist and anti-dialogical. Discursive asymmetry is built into the populist model, because, whereas the out-group is given an almost object-like status as “threat”, the in-group is ontologically privileged as having knowledge of “reality”. Two similar demands cannot, therefore, have a symmetrical or equivalent status. Populists are opponents of the idea of “rights” because this undermines the emphasis on equivalence and also the privilege of the in-group. “Rights” are admitted only conditional on conformity to the populist agenda.

The groups (described by their typical label in English-language populisms) are as follows:

Firstly, the “foreigners” (usually typified by specific group labels or derogatory terms). Some populists hate all foreigners, whereas others reserve their distaste for those who are “here” and who therefore exceed the logic of place. Populists tend to assume that “here” belongs to “us”, that “we” can be identified with the in-group constructed by populist discourse, and that “they”, since they are different, belong elsewhere (or nowhere). Therefore, immigrants, refugees and ethnic minorities are frequent targets. Erroll Lawrence’s study of “common sense” racism in Britain suggests that immigrants are seen as bringing problems with them from abroad, so that social problems linked to poverty and deprivation are blamed instead on immigrants. In Enoch Powell’s rhetoric, rivers of blood will flow, not because some white people are intolerant or even because of cultural conflict, but because tolerant Britain can only “digest” so much otherness. He saw blacks and Asians in Britain as alien communities with alien cultures. They are seen as an alien wedge thrust into an otherwise homogeneous culture. This requires that the entire history of British colonialism be ignored. Beneath this discourse is the assumption that a particular piece of land is not just contingently linked to white people but is a “national home and birthright”. Powell describes black people in Britain as “detachments of communities in the West Indies, or India and Pakistan encamped in certain areas of England”. Such an image of a culture under siege leads to metaphors about swamping and flooding, and to a drive to expel or at least restrict the entry of such alien people (Lawrence 81-5).

One also finds a similar terminology used regarding foreigners who are not “here” but whose actions affect the in-group, for instance via international relations. This means that populism usually allies itself with militarism. I suspect that discourse attacking some other groups are basically extensions of the “foreigner” idea. For instance, gay men might be seen as a foreign group because they fall outside the in-group’s cultural norms.

Secondly, the “yobs” (or in calmer discussions, the “anti-social” or “criminals”), also “thugs”, “hooligans”, “the few who spoil it for the rest of us”, and so on. The role of the “criminal” in populist discourse should not be confused with legal conceptions of “crime”. Criminals are not simply ordinary people who have broken the law. They are defined in effect as a race apart. Furthermore, it is not their breaking of specific laws which is the main issue. Although the use of emotive rhetoric and images using “victims of crime” is frequent in populist discourse, I suspect that this use is not a form of humanism and does not focus on the human dimension of the suffering of the victim. (Populism is after all cruel and violent to its bogeymen). Rather, it is very much significant that the victim is a “decent” person whereas the criminal is not. The term “anti-social” is significant, because this category is feared as much for its supposed corrosion of the imagined homogeneous society as for the suffering caused by particular acts. The corrosion of the logic of sameness leads to mutual incomprehension, and it is this as much as the fear of violence which makes populists fear “criminals”. The suffering of individual victims (usually symbolised as “fear”, “terror” and “ordeals”) is significant mainly because it stands metaphorically for a broader threat. Roughly, “I” the populist supporter am afraid because “decent society” is under attack, and “I” and it are the same. So “we are afraid to walk the streets” because “the thugs do what they like and thumb their noses at decent society”. Because of this metaphorical equivalence between self, victim and state, the suffering of the victim is decontextualised and generalised, and turned into a general anger against space sufficiently open that “crime” can happen.

An article in the Mail on Sunday, about the temporary and supervised release of someone convicted of randomly assaulting people with a knife, reveals how populist discourse mobilises the discourse of the victim as a way of closing discursive space around the supposed obviousness of the populist agenda itself. The quote reads: “I can’t see how someone capable of doing what he did can ever be deemed safe again. I don’t care how many doctors and psychiatrists say so, they weren’t there that day and they weren’t on the receiving end of what he did” (Dec. 15 2002 p. 15). The significant point is that the immediate experience of the victim is conceived as allowing complete knowledge of reality, enough to make factual claims about the subjectivity of the attacker. “Being on the receiving end” is irrationally assumed to give insights into the causes of the attack. This shows the way in which “criminals” are mistakenly perceived as a unitary and definable group in populist discourse. An even clearer example is in the Nazi ten-point programme, where the ‘ruthless prosecution’ and execution of criminals is the result, not of harm to specific people, but of ‘activities… injurious to the common interest’. One also finds bin Laden, in interviews with CNN, mainly indicting America for its ‘hideous crimes’ and for having ‘transgressed all bounds’ (9), suggesting that he articulates hostility to America mainly through a discourse on criminality. America is not an economic imperialist, but a criminal transgressing basic decent values. By the logic of balance, this is taken to mean that any reaction against America is its own fault. ‘With this kind of behaviour, the US government is hurting itself, hurting Muslims and hurting the American people’ (10).

The third, fourth, and possibly fifth groups are linked in exceeding the logic of work and exchange. Firstly, there are the “fat cats” or undeserving rich. Contrary to superficial similarities, this is not a class category, but rather, a characterological one. The undeserving rich are hated, not because they are rich, but because they are conceived as having particular flaws in their character. They are seen as individually greedy, benefiting from the corruption of society and creaming off the profits from decent hard-working people. The Nazi image of the war profiteer is a good example of this kind of figure. The undeserving rich are contrasted with those who are rich and also decent, which means that they clearly belong to the in-group. In contrast, the fat cats suck resources from the in-group into their own pockets.

Discussing mostly Conservative Revolution writers, Marcuse emphasises the distinction between the “fat cat” figure and a Marxist analysis of class. ‘To be sure, we often encounter in heroic-folkish realism vehement invective against the monstrosity of capitalism, against its bourgeois (Burger) and his “greed for profit” and so on. But since the foundations of the economic order… remain intact, such invectives are always directed against only a specific type of bourgeois… They never attack the economic functions of the bourgeoisie in the production process… The new weltanschauung reviles the “merchant” and celebrates the “gifted economic leader”, thereby only hiding that it leaves the economic functions of the bourgeois untouched. The antibourgeois sentiment is merely a variation of [the] “heroizing” of man’ (pp. 11-12). One finds the same in Peronist discourse: the attacks on capitalists for exploiting the working class are attacks on their ‘fraud and corruption’, which is ‘repugnant’; it is an attack on their corruption and on their living at the expense of hard-working people, and is articulated through an emotion felt to express a reality (Lat. Am. 142-3). It is not articulated in terms of their economic function.

Then there are the “scroungers” or “wasters”, the undeserving poor. Again, being a “scrounger” is taken to be a character-flaw. “Scroungers” can be blamed for a whole string of social problems, such as unemployment, poverty and homelessness. Deviant groups such as beggars and travellers may fall in the category, as may people who have problems due to stress. Populists vary as to whether problems such as poverty are mainly the result of “scroungers” or of the oppressive actions of the “fat cats”. In some movements such as Thatcherism, it is customary to blame the poor for all poverty. Poverty is seen as the result of character flaws rather than social conditions. In Nazism, there is a dual discourse: on the one hand, hard-working decent folk are left impoverished and unemployed by the activities of the fat cats and racial out-groups; on the other, the “work-shy” formed a special category which was a target of persecution. Again, the decent folk are perceived as paying for this group.

Claud Sutton of the BUF says: ‘Fascism evidently must, and does, devote its chief efforts to strengthening the weakest links in the national chain… It cannot, however, admit equality between the lazy and the active’ (Griffin 262).

There may be another variant on the same theme, involving groups who are neither especially rich nor especially poor, but who are seen as getting more than their fair share. Basically, to the extent that a fair share results from work, someone who gets a decent income while working only lightly, or who artificially increases income by means such as strike action, is getting more than a fair share according to most populists. Well-paid workers and groups such as students may be targets of this kind of discourse.

The final bogeyman type is the “do-gooder”. In fact, there might be two different kinds of do-gooder: those blamed for interfering with the restoration of equilibrium, and those blamed for belonging to a desexualised and bloodless bureaucracy. A point should be added about the term “do-gooder”, which indicates a populist assumption extending beyond the term’s remit. To do “good” is almost a form of evil in populist discourse, because the ethics of populism is minimal. Since excess is threatening, and since excess is defined relative to the sameness of the in-group, any unusual display of “good” is itself in effect “evil”. Populism tends to be an anti-perfectionist or damping-down conception, in that it tends to reduce the evils of the world to “the human condition”, trying to ensure only that a particular narrow group is insulated from them.

Indeed, it might be wrong to call the populist ethical conceptions “good” at all, since in a sense they express something far more minimal, the “decent” or “realistic”. For instance, the BNP refers to ‘the ordinary, decent men and women who are its members and supporters’ (12). This suggests that populism is a minimal ethics, giving up on good in favour of a more limited goal of security (or euphoria in Barthes’s terms). Trevor Pateman argues: ‘To the degree that the pursuit of security dominates everyday thought and language use, I think this is because people have decided that other satisfactions are not obtainable. Idle Discourse is the language of the powerless who accept their position’ (47). Populism certainly seems to operate in this way. Decency is not only minimal but also reactive, describing a certain kind of character-structure. Further, while one can be converted to a particular vision of “good”, the “decent” is something one is supposed to know as obvious, prior to any possible discussion. It therefore tends to be naturalised, connoted and largely unconscious, and it may express an inconsistent ethical position. To be “decent” means to remain within one’s place and to avoid being a bogeyman of whatever kind. One important component is that one “does one’s job”. Further, “decency” operates as a self-excusing from ethics and thought. Those who are “decent” are above criticism, and any affront to them is automatically a wrong. “Decency” guarantees a right to be left alone - for instance, a right to repressive tolerance - and every indignation felt by the “decent” is therefore righteous. Since a “decent” person cannot possibly be complicit in evil, any need to question one’s ethics or to be reflexive is negated. A person who identifies in this way feels no guilt about the state of the world - which cannot be her or his fault - and feels no need for political activism or a positive conception of the good. A “decent” person is already innocent, whatever happens. If one keeps in mind how little one has to do to quality as “decent”, one sees how insidious it is: merely by having a slave morality and a particular set of deeply-ingrained reactions, one cuts oneself off from the entire possibility of criticism.

“Do-gooders” are typically blamed for giving ground to the various other bogeymen (the foreigners, scroungers or criminals). They may do this by imposing ethical restrictions on the actions of state agents (“tying their hands”) and by preventing certain kinds of crackdowns and violence, actions which in the populist world-view gives an advantage to the enemy. This is the implication when the BNP write of ‘Silly rules’ preventing a judge from deporting an asylum seeker for ‘uncivilised behaviour’ (p. 4). They may do it by facilitating the redistribution of resources to these groups. They may promote ideologies and beliefs which contradict the “obvious” and which resultantly alter the boundaries of inclusion (as is the case with the “loony left” and “pinkoes”). Or they may simply be too un-manly, weak and cowardly to take the necessary measures. Basically, anyone who impedes the populist political agenda is a “do-gooder”. The liberal elite, who are “like a bottle of vichy water”, are usually a special target wherever they exist, and are portrayed as bloodless, asexual and wimpy. In populist movements with a religious focus, religious moderates are cast in a similar light. Any group which disrupts the capacity of the imagined in-group to reassert itself in the form posited by populists falls under the “do-gooder” label.

One can find an example of a do-gooder figure in the rhetoric of Enoch Powell and Adam Sherman. Powell speaks of ‘a tiny minority, with almost a monopoly hold upon the channels of communication, who seem determined not to know the facts and not to face the realities and who will resort to any device or extremity to blind both themselves and others’. This is due, he claims, to a ‘self-destructive urge’, to ‘self-hate’. Sherman refers even more drastically to ‘the conflict between the interests of the people and the intellectual fashions of the establishment where British Nationhood is concerned’, and a ‘tiny minority’ of pseudoscientists who ignore the ‘genuine fears’ of the majority (Lawrence 86-7). One similarly finds the BNP writing of ‘the hundreds of solicitors - often non-British themselves, who are running the legal challenges to deportation orders’ as well as ‘the anti-British bullies of the Commission for Racial Equality’ and councillors benefitting from the asylum “racket” (p. 2). It is important to note that this group is again defined, not as political opponents, but as character-flawed, in Powell’s case as self-hating, in the BNP’s case as “anti-British” and as “bullies”. The correctness of the in-group’s views is not shaken in the slightest by criticism, according to populists. Rather, the fact that a fear is genuinely felt proves it to be well-founded, provided that those who feel it are part of the in-group.

The various categories are cumulative, and cases where the groups overlap are taken as especially firm evidence by populists that their general outlook is correct. Major populist bogeymen often combine two or more of the categories outlined above. For instance, the McCarthyite image of the “red” is simultaneously a criminal (for instance, a rabble-rouser), a foreign agent and a do-gooder. Asylum seekers, initially feared because foreign, are also attacked for alleged scrounging and criminality. The Nazi image of “the Jew” is not merely a national outsider, but is also associated in propaganda with crimes such as fraud rackets, fat cat wealth, ragged hordes scrounging scarce resources, and the politics of the liberal elite.

The various bogeymen arise because they are all perceived as undermining the logic of place. If everything ought to be reducible to sameness, exchange and a numerative order of quantitative relations, anything which exceeds or escapes from this order is a threat or an evil. Foreigners are a threat because they have a different culture, and therefore, they might not see what is obvious. Rabinow’s discussion of anthropology reveals how cultural difference can produce situations where an apparently shared lifeworld is suddenly disrupted by an unpredictable incomprehension. Tolerant people can work through such experiences, but the risk of such a rupture in the “obvious” is intolerable to populists. Foreigners are tolerable as long as they stay, so to speak, “over there”, so that their difference from “us” can be contained. But foreigners “here” are additionally a threat because their lines of flight exceed the logic of physical and cultural space. In other words, their nomadism breaks down the division between “here” and “there”. “Criminals” are not only guilty of transgressing rules, but more fundamentally, of exceeding the vulnerability system. In other words, they are insufficiently afraid, so they will “take the mickey” and “thumb their noses”. By exceeding the vulnerability system, they also exceed the logic of place, removing (negative) reciprocity from social relations. The way in which populists speak of “dealing with” such people is indicative: the logic of equivalence, of the “deal”, is threatened by their transgression and is re-imposed through punishment as an imaginary restoration of balance.

The undeserving rich and the undeserving poor exceed the logic of exchange relations and work. The problem is not simply that what they receive is “at the expense of” the people who work (often a tenuous claim), it is that they do not have a place in the economic system, conceived as a coordinated system assigning each individual a useful place. The idea of “something for nothing” is offensive to those whose first ethical attachment is to reductive sameness. So, “nobody is owed a living” and “everyone must earn their keep”. Anything which falls outside this logic of place has no right to exist according to the populist schema. It also necessarily becomes threat - for instance, via the idea of “dependency culture”. It is not only the “something for nothing” of recipients which populists resent, but also the “something for nothing” of giving an unearned gift. It is for such an act of giving that the “do-gooder” is anathematised. Further, any right above and beyond the logic of sameness is seen as a threat to the system of place in general. For instance, children’s rights “threaten discipline” and racial equality “stops the police doing their job”. Populists try to restore the logic of place - often described as “restoring the balance” - by forcing everyone into their assigned place, usually by closing social spaces and by using violence. Foreigners are to be assimilated or expelled, “criminals” destroyed through violence, the undeserving rich and poor forced into work either through violence or starvation, and the do-gooders silenced and driven out of politics.

While it is easiest to articulate populist themes to right-wing politics, it is also possible that certain progressive and emancipatory struggles can be articulated into populist agendas. In particular, objections to “fat cats” and the liberal elite can be very threatening to liberal capitalism. In post-colonial contexts, one may find hostility to foreigners, racketeers and interfering do-gooders mobilised against the colonial power through a populist discourse. However, a populist politics cannot deliver emancipation, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, populists lack the conceptual tools to handle pervasive structural inequalities and structural causes of social problems. The resort to “cultural” and administrative alternatives leads to pressures for authoritarian measures. Secondly, populism is necessarily asymmetrical. For as long as there are social problems, there must be an out-group to blame. Robert Mugabe’s initial appeal was based on struggles against white domination and colonialism, but when this enemy receded he also targeted ethnic groups such as the Ndebele and other minorities such as gay men. Thirdly, there are certain “blind spots” in populist theory which leave some agents of oppression above criticism. A leader who is “one of us” is allowed to do almost anything. Also, groups such as police and armies are only vulnerable to minor criticisms for alleged corruption and racketeering. They cannot be seriously criticised for menacing freedom or for violence and brutality, because such concerns could not be articulated so as to fit them into any of the main groups of bogeymen. Populism therefore preaches extensive tolerance for certain kinds of oppressive practice. Thus, while populism can be either “left”, “right” or “centre”, it never has a serious potential for lasting emancipation. (At best it can contribute to removing a particular oppressive regime so as to install another).


The role of the logic of place is central to populist discourse, and is necessary to understand the structure of its bogeymen. For it to have this effect, it must be given a strong and unconditional positive valuation. It is not merely tolerated or accepted because of some other beneficial effect. Barthes sees this as providing pleasures in its own right, those of what he terms “euphoria”. This concept is a little vague in Barthes’s work, and I’m inclined to think that Pateman’s observations on “security” are more to the point. The kind of person who supports populism, for whom its assumptions are “obvious”, is someone with reactive character-armouring and a strong fear of freedom. Such a person has typically given up on the possibility of happiness, instead seeking security through identification with a strong leader or movement. This involves the operation of some kind of identification with the oppressor, linked also to a slave or herd morality. Basically, the assumption that the self is not threatened by populist crackdowns is only comprehensible on the assumption that such a person feels a strong enough identification with the agent who carries out the crackdown to be immune from fear of this agent. Reich suggests such a reaction may arise in early childhood and later be transferred onto political leaders. It is used as a way to minimise experiences of fear by negating the fear related to the threat posed by powerful others. However, it appears that the fear is not in fact eliminated but is displaced. This may be because the repressed desires, which trigger the fear of the powerful other, are not successfully eliminated through the process of identification. Therefore, they are instead projected onto others, and return “neurotically” in the form of fear of the various bogeymen. The desire which escapes the law of the father is fended off by being projected onto others who escape the law of the father-substitute.

Because it expresses deeply-felt desires, populism is able to use its discourse of the pseudo-concrete, pretending that something which is felt is immediately true. This is not to say that populism draws on only imaginary constructs. The point is precisely that everyday life is itself experienced through the stained-glass window of one’s psychological structure. In some cases, this experience involves imagined phenomena, or phenomena constructed through the populist discourse itself. For instance, there need not be a “Jewish conspiracy” for some fascists to believe in one. On the other hand, populism may also articulate emotions which have a very immediate basis. Examples include not only the paradigmatic ones, such as the experience of victims of “crime”, but others, such as the results of economic crisis, which would seem on the surface to be not especially conducive to populism. Particular crises, real or imagined, may be necessary in some cases in order for strong reactive emotions to break through the further psychological layers which are built on top of them. Reactive emotions may have arisen in response to early traumatic experiences in childhood, as Reich suggests. But it is also possible that they have emerged in other ways, later in life. Albert and Hahnel suggest that many workers develop rationalisations and coping strategies in order to make work bearable (p. 198). These strategies constitute barriers to the emergence of revolutionary ideas, and may make workers defensive about the existence of the work system in general. Also, sections of the mass media and some powerful groups tend constantly to express populist themes. As a result, experiences are conceptualised in particular ways. People allow themselves to be interpellated as “victims of crime” as constructed in populist discourse, and imagine it to be an outgrowth of the experience of (say) being attacked or robbed. In fact, the relationship between the subject-position and the empirical act is not immediate, but is more akin to a case of someone who conceives an earthquake as the wrath of God. In any case, however it arises, a particular authoritarian character-structure is necessary for populist ideology to operate. It can only affect people who have such a structure, and it will mobilise precisely by plugging into this structure.

This is clear in the case of the discourse of the pseudo-concrete. Since emotions are misrecognised as real in this discourse, it is important that the discourse plug into a set of emotions which are already highly standardised. Furthermore, it is not just any old emotion which can fuel a populist project. It must be a particular kind of emotion, and it must be directed at a particular target. Furthermore, it must occur across a large enough number of people to construct a movement, and these people must be pulled together by the figure of a leader.

Particular emotions must not only arise but be already articulated in particular quasi-political ways, for populism to appeal. The particular articulations which are important include:
* A central emphasis on trust. Trust should be articulated to the theme of sameness.
* A tendency to affect-block, i.e. not to feel or to repress, positive emotions. Love has no independent role in populism. Nor does hope. Most populist movements are anti-sexual to one extent or another. Enjoyment is also either denied or devalued. In fact, populists may gain some kind of displaced enjoyment from their participation in the movement. What is crucial is that active emotions not arise autonomously.
* Fear is a crucial emotion, and it is only of use to populists if it is articulated to the threat posed by difference. Fear is only useful if the movement itself is not feared. The fear in question must be fear of otherness as threat, and be articulated to a desire to negate this fear through “security” and the logic of place.
* In fact, the main emotions provided by populism are precisely not “natural” ones, but are displaced ones, connected to reactions to social phenomena. Emotions are “moralised” in such a way that the populist supporter feels a need for “permission” to feel them. The charismatic role of populist leaders may give a sense of release, but the main positive investment seems to be in the relief from or appeasement of fear. Many of the emotions involved are damped-down versions of active equivalents. For instance, anger occurs in the weakened form of outrage, nausea in the form of disgust, and so on.

Emotions never occur in populist movements simply as individual reactions, since this would preclude their being used to construct an image of “reality”. Hence, it is necessary that the emotions be already heavily overcoded and socialised, and this means the emotions used in populism are usually damped-down. They are also not capable of satisfaction. (Even if they are, it is in the interests of populists to prevent their satisfaction, since to do so would be to destroy the raison d’etre of the movement). The partial satisfaction of the emotions mostly occurs through vicarious violence which temporarily satisfies them but which tends over time to recur or to escalate.

Populist libidinal investments are necessarily reactive or in Guattari’s term “microfascist”. They involve pleasure in the suffering of others, used to conceal the impotence of the self. This includes resentment in the Nietzschean sense, and emotions such as guilt and shame. Nietzsche’s discussion of the accounting of grudges and vendettas in resentment fits closely with the populist reliance on “moral accountancy”. The insistence on “guarantees” and on pulling others down to one’s own level is a way of rendering one’s own demeaned status tolerable. Populist supporters can be expected to have a heavily armoured character-structure, where the formation of characteristic blockages and forms of physical and psychological rigidity are used to block the return of repressed desires, simultaneously damping down relations with the world. As Reich puts it, ‘Sexual repression aids political reaction, not only through [the] process which makes the individual passive and unpolitical, but also by creating in his structure an interest in actively supporting the authoritarian order’ (cited Brinton p. 29). This is an ethics of sacrifice and self-denial. It is put at its bluntest by Mussolini when he says: ‘Fascism denies the equation: well-being = happiness’ (Griffin 251) Instead, it ‘implies discipline, the coordination of efforts, a deep sense of duty and a spirit of self-sacrifice’ (257). H. Kutzleb adds that poverty must regain the status of an ethical virtue. ‘What is first necessary is that everyone realize that poverty, restriction, and especially the renunciation of “cultural goods” are required by all’. The main role of theory is to bring to heel the ‘biological individual instincts’ which impede realisation of this necessity (Marcuse 29). Self-denial and self-abasement become goods in themselves

The false obviousness of moral accounting operates as a block on the various active and creative emotions such as hope. It also acts as a block on evidence which does not fit into the populist worldview. The tendency towards book-burning is implicit in the attempt to avoid stimuli which disrupt the tenuous psychological equilibrium which alone protects against the repressed desires. One may in a sense portray populism as a militant reassertion of the master-signifier in neurotic character-structures which are threatened with breakdown by the return of the Real. Because this signifier is seen as pinning and giving meaning to the rest of the social and symbolic field, it is invulnerable to rational arguments. One should avoid, however, a Lacanian reading which would render the operation of such structures an ahistorical necessity. Neurotic (as opposed to psychotic) structures are in fact a psychological disaster, providing fuel for populist movements including fascism. The “repressed Real” is in fact the creative force of active desire, not a form of daemoniac evil. The construction of authoritarian character-structures, and therefore of populism, is itself a result of the misperception of the Real as daemoniac evil, an effect which results from psychological repression. This repression is in turn a way of coping with external, material threats. A progressive politics should combat populism by orienting to positive emotions such as love and hope, and by turning the desublimated versions of negative emotions such as rage and fear against their legitimate target, the social system which initially causes them.


Populism relies for its support on people with slave moralities and reactive character-structures. However, such people cannot provide an active political movement. On the whole, they remain passive, or at the very least, their activity arises only when orchestrated from above by the populist elite itself. (Indeed, because of the very neophobia of their support-base, populist movements, especially rightist ones, tend to be ineffective at mobilising supporters to achieve desired social changes. Most of the supporters simply wish to be left alone. A populist movement cannot usually be hegemonic in the Gramscian sense, although some leftist populists such as Chavez may be an exception). This is not a problem when populism operates mainly to sell more papers, or when it is tagged onto liberaloid formulations as a demagogic supplement. It is, however, a difficulty when populists attempt to form mass political movements and to take power.

There is a basic contradiction within populism, for, while the overall “we” of the people or nation is defined very vaguely and in mythical terms, there is also a substitutionist “we”, referring to the organisation itself, which is usually defined in quite specific ways. This “we” is able to take decisive actions and formulate concrete policies and strategies. Obviously the articulation between the two is quite tense, because the former “we” is very vague and may not easily translate into a precise political agenda. (It is far easier to get agreement on the need to “punish the criminals”, when “we all know who the criminals are”, than it is to get agreement on who exactly falls into this category. The same people who want all murderers hanged would demand the release of a “decent person” like Tony Martin). Further, action against bogeymen is often ineffective at papering over the cracks in the populist agenda, as becomes clear from cases where parties like the OFP and the Fortuyn List have entered government. These parties articulated anti-neo-liberal sentiments, but did not actually reject neo-liberal economics, pretending that neo-liberalism was compatible with the wellbeing of ordinary people by promising cure-alls in the form of attacks on immigrants, criminals and other bogeymen. In power, however, the cure-alls did not work. Populist movements must therefore rely on some combination of opinion manipulation and force to remain in power. In practice, the populist movement does not express the organic community it espouses. It comes to express an agenda of minute regulation of everyday life, gleichschaltung and intensive territorialisation. When it emerges that the essence of the “whole” does not in fact exist, populists resort to attempting to violently reduce the “parts” to the “whole”. The bureaucratic regulation and state repression through which the primacy of the “whole” is enforced is in stark contrast with the fantasmatic presentation populism gives of itself. This is a circle that cannot be squared, though it can often be papered over. For instance, in Nazi Germany, Hitler retained the fantasmatic role, but people resented the Nazi Party apparatus as an intrusion into everyday life (Kershaw, The Hitler Myth).

Another problem is that populist supporters are people with a slave morality: they are not people who aspire to rule their own lives, let alone the world. Although populism is the articulation of a slave morality, it must, therefore, rely on the figure of a master. Despite its repeated claims to immediacy and its experienced psychological immediacy for its supporters, populism actually operates at the level of the spectacle. Populism does not empower the people. It empowers the leader who can claim to speak on behalf of the people. Populism affirms the “littleness” of the “little man” even while glorifying him. The substitutionism involved is psychological as well as organisational, because the leader achieves support through vicarious identification. He (or rarely, she) takes on the role of the master-signifier and guarantor of order.

The leader must have a variety of attributes and/or perform a variety of roles. Charisma is not in fact an attribute; it is relative to social situations. It involves the appearance of part of the hidden transcript - the repressed or concealed discourse of subaltern groups - in the public space from which it is forbidden. Jim Scott analyses a number of instances of populism in these terms. Anyone who breaks a real or apparent stranglehold of a public transcript with a meaningful gesture will have a charismatic effect on any audience which shares the expressed views. Usually, in Scott’s cases, the transgression is actual and serious: for instance, a slave who refuses to obey an order would generate a charismatic effect. In populism, the transgression is more carefully staged. Nevertheless, it is crucial that populism at least claim to be transgressing established truths, in order for the charisma phenomenon to occur. It is through charisma - i.e., through being the member of the in-group who takes the risk of revealing the dangerous truth of this group’s discourse - that the populist leader establishes pre-eminence. The leader thereby shows himself to be not only authentic - knowing the repressed view well enough to give voice to it - but also courageous. This courage qualifies the individual for a position of leadership. In populism, the fact that a leader emerges to fill this important role is itself proof of the leader’s validity (Marcuse p. 4).

Populists achieve a charisma effect in a variety of ways. These may include adopting positions seen by others as “extreme” (for instance, the Liga Nord leader advocating that boats of immigrants should be shot down by the Navy), and showing disrespect for norms of public debate (for instance, when Zhirinovsky threw a glass of water over a TV presenter). They may also include attempts to connote such significance by insisting on the courage and danger involved in their positions. In fact, populists usually only hint at their attachment to the hidden transcript, and share only parts of it. This is clear as regards the articulation of anti-neo-liberal sentiments by groups such as OFP. Often, furthermore, the “extreme” position is not really a substantive breach of the dominant social system and its discourse. The BNP constantly claims to be telling truths about asylum seekers which are repressed and covered up by a massive conspiracy. However, on closer inspection, its discourse turns out to be very similar to that used by mainstream politicians and the tabloid press. In populism, the ostensibly dangerous view is also usually seen as a repressed “truth”, something which “everyone who lives in the real world knows”, but which is kept concealed by the do-gooders and racketeers. ‘You should know that our party isn’t like all the others’, says the BNP. ‘We are not here to flatter and deceive, to lie and promise everything to everyone’. It is this kind of change which can pull into populism the relatively passive voters and supporters who reject the traditional parties. It does not seem, however, to require that the party say anything substantively new. The reaffirmation of sameness is enough.

A leader must, however, also be a certain kind of person to achieve the role. Since most of the supporters of populist movements are submissive and fearful, they would be unable to adopt the role themselves, unless perhaps they were thrust into it from outside. As well as being able to achieve charismatic status and being able to use subaltern speech genres convincingly, the leader must embody the kind of “heroic” figure the movement is promoting as its model of the “new man” or equivalent, a man of deeds not words. A certain bodily rigidity, sometimes combined with physical strength, conveys the image of moral staunchness and conviction. Perhaps most important, however, in establishing the virility of the leader is what Barthes termed roublardise in his discussions of Poujade. In other words, the leader must be cocky, confident and ‘endowed with both aggressiveness and cunning’ (ET 131). There is also an element of sexual imagery here: the leader has “balls”, contrasting himself both with the asexual bureaucrats and with perverse opponents. (Accusations of sexual inadequacy and perversion are widespread when populists feud). The leader either has what Reich terms a “phallic-narcissist” character-structure, or is able to pose in public as having such a structure. Basically, Reich sees phallic-narcissism as operating by using aggression as a form of armouring. Aggression is used to ward off threats and to avoid unearthing deeper psychological traumas or conflicts. Since it is actually used to ward off rather than to confront the major threat, phallic narcissism is suited to populism as a type of politics which similarly evades engagement with underlying issues. Since it cannot penetrate beneath the surface of mass conceptions, and since it also usually does not challenge the social system to any substantial degree, populism is not really as revolutionary as it likes to appear. The “national renewal” is something which occurs at a “cultural” level, and most populists are careful not to actually invoke the wrath of the status quo or to disrupt its functioning too drastically. Precisely because of this superficiality, the connotation of the correct image of charisma and cockiness is crucial. I also suspect that isolated organisations which use populist forms of speech will also tend to be phallic-narcissist - for example, small fascist sects with no mass basis, and organisations such as the armed forces (or at least the more aggressive components of these).


Thus, populist movements are not necessarily fascist in their outer form, but they all involve what Guattari terms “microfascism”. They involve a particular libidinal structure which is reactive in structure and reactionary in significance. Populist movements are not, therefore, formed primarily through their own ideological articulations. The political groups and journalistic tendencies which rely on populist discourse are dependent on the pre-existence of receptive psychological structures among their intended audience. It follows, therefore, that the most effective way to reduce the impact of populism is to undermine this psychological structure. This is not an issue for this paper, but I would refer my audience to Foucault’s remarks in his preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s “Anti-Oedipus”. He describes the book as a guide to non-fascist living. This claim is apt, because the kind of politics advocated by Deleuze and Guattari is aimed directly at weakening the kinds of armouring which make populist discourse effective. Since populism relies on a prior psychological structure, its greatest asset can be turned into its weakest link.


Albert, Michael, and Robin Hahnel (1978), Unorthodox Marxism, Boston, Ma.: South End Press
Archetti, Eduardo P., Paul Cammack and Bryan Roberts (1987) Sociology of Developing Societies:
Latin America, [Lat. Am.], Basingstoke: MacMillan
Arnett, Peter (1997) “Jihad: An Interview with Osama bin Laden”, reproduced in What Next? 21
Barthes, Roland (1997) The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies [ET] Berkeley: University of California
Brinton, Maurice (1975) The Irrational in Politics, London: Solidarity
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari (1983) Anti-Oedipus, London: Athlone Press
Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks [SPN], London: Lawrence and Wishart
______________ (1985) Selections from Cultural Writings [SCW], London: Lawrence and Wishart
Griffin, Roger (ed.) (1998) International Fascism. London:Arnold
Hoggart, Richard (1954) The Uses of Literacy, Harmondsworth: Penguin
Karner, Christian (2002) “Investigating Hindu Nationalism: Emic Primordialism, Modernity,
Organisational Ethno-Symbolism”, IAPS research paper
Kershaw, Ian (1987) The Hitler Myth, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Marcuse, Herbert (1968) Negations. London: Free Association Press
Erroll Lawrence (1982) “Just plain common sense: the ‘roots’ of racism” in Centre for Contemporary
Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back, London: Routledge
Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham (1983), Nazism 1919-1945: A Documentary Reader, Volume 1,
“The Rise to Power 1919-1934”, Exeter: University of Exeter Press
Pateman, Trevor (1975) Language, Truth and Politics, Newton Popplewell: Trevor Pateman and Jean
Reich, Wilhelm (1974) Listen, Little Man, New York: Farrah, Straus and Giroux
Smith, Joan (1989) Misogynies, London: Vintage

BNP citations are from: The Voice of Freedom, June 2001 (BNP newspaper)
Lance Morrow citations are from: “The Case for Rage and Retribution”, Time September 11th
supplement, 11-09-01


Post a Comment

<< Home