Academic Prasanta Chakravarty is the editor of the recently published Populism and Its Limits: After Articulation. He spoke to Scroll.in about the ideas of populism – and ways of responding to it in a political and social context – explored in the book he has edited. Excerpts from the interview:
In what ways does the book deal with the subject of populism?
The book is divided into four sections. Although populism or people-ism is often imagined in ongoing terms, its intellectual and historical roots go back to antiquity – both in the East and in the rest of the world. The first part, therefore, studies how and why dialogue and recognition of cultures and constituencies come to ruins.
What are the origins of rifts and breakdowns and what does it mean to take mass cultural leaps at certain junctures of history? Is there a primordial severance between god and the good that returns to haunt human societies from time to time? Can trial by retribution or vipaka be a kind of creative deliverance? What might be the nature and form of a miraculous violence that cannot be comprehended by law?
The crucial middle section offers certain political-philosophical readings of the populist phenomenon and considers its limits. A third set of essays looks at the actual practice of populism as it takes place – socially and culturally. The final part of the anthology investigates the mutated and evolving projections of populism and proposes some robust alternatives to the malaise.
In many ways, the anthology asks whether the articulation of certain demands set off by grievance, vulnerability, indulgence and appeasement are in themselves able to give us any effective or lasting politics or way of living. Hence, the subtitle: after articulation.
Are there other ways and dimensions of populism that the book looks into, apart from the overtly political aspects?
Any critique of populism must also invest in patiently grasping the incentives and workings of such a recognisable form of mass phenomenon. To be able to feel a world-historical shift in the way communities and whole people begin to rumble with wrath or are moved by inducements of gratification is a fascinating subject. But the underside of history is always saturated with personal motivations and kinship patterns that run interpersonal human behavior. Though important in themselves, economic precarity or greed cannot always explain away the situation.
The crooked timbre of humanity must be addressed directly. Some of the contributors in the book delve into the questions of the psyche and its behavioural manifestations. Others look at the aesthetics of rage and mass amusement. The effects are of course public political. For instance, the margin/elite dyad keeps shuffling all the time in popular imagination which may not always have material justification.
How and why do such alterations happen? An attentive analyst must enter the inner domains of the human soul and rummage through the precipitates of the unconscious in order to have a fuller sense behind populist decisions and overtures.
So, you suggest that there are certain deeper and long-term casualties that might beset us?
Most contributors in the volume try to address the long term effects if we give in to such a self-consuming culture, without being patronising or supercilious about the common grievances. Actually, a combination of lightness and solemnity is the usual way of life, until it becomes malformed and so ambiguous that people can only see a smokescreen in those who live and nurture such a way of life.
This obscuring of clarity is what common people find revolting. A trust deficit begins to take root. People begin to invoke ethics and demand the unearthing of truth – which must be simple and unadorned. Hence, the most abhorred word during polarised times is nuance.
Gradation/modulation of thought and emotion is the first casualty when populism strikes. That is the reason elitism is often seen in terms of corruption of intellect and lack of moral values. Substantive lacunae in the polity are side-stepped. Instead, a clamour for immediate redress takes over in public discourse. And such clamour turns self-justifying.
It does not matter whether anything comes out of such demands. We see pure force operating all around – which is at once exhilarating and fearsome to the ones whose lives are touched by it. It is like a potent drug. As nuances are jettisoned, a combination of sneering jest and earnestness begins to dominate human interaction.
In such a situation, communication becomes direct and naked, which inevitably fails to address the many layers of our subjective side. The demand for clarity turns unrelenting and demonic. Many sectarian prophets, who now appear as social media influencers, draw their influence through a single-minded, earnest tone. They live from issue to issue, but one concern in constant: signalling horror at social disorder and at intemperate practices and desires.
To assert sovereignty becomes synonymous with moral meddlesomeness. And amusement becomes the name of a certain economy of exchange: circulation of acerbic, slapstick quanta of jest mediated through a bombardment of facetious messages and memes. The second casualty of populism is therefore candour and humour.
Naked righteousness must foster a kind of “purity spiral” in the community, a condition that snatches away from us what my colleague Rimli Bhattacharya calls the erotics of life, and fills that space with a certain enervation and laboured infantilisation of human relationships. Populism shows that given a chance, the coddling pleasures of dependence on some quack or influencer can easily take the place of the challenges and thrills of being a free adult.
Are we doomed to an embalmed existence of some perennial proxy warfare for power lest the security cover of dignity is blown off? To delve into the inner mechanisms of populism is therefore to be attentive to the elementary and elemental changes that take place in human interaction as the hubris of the civilising mission is brushed aside with contempt by a vicious and petulant ideological pandemic raged by ordinariness.
The book, therefore, invests a lot in trying to understand the psychological vectors and alterations of the character of people during highly partisan times. The alterations cannot be written off as manifestations of adolescent insouciance, for adulthood is never a free pass to a state of surpassing wisdom. Instead, it is essential to appreciate the condition of simultaneous rage and frustration – and their performative coordinates – which is the bedrock over which an inner populism plays within us.
In other words: tracing primal moments of anger that sets off arche forms of rifts, the insatiable penchant for gratification and accessible pleasure, certain sub-lunar reciprocity between love and hatred, hypertrophic pride, morbid anxiety, stupefying panic and deep reveling in scapegoating fellow beings, perennial hopes to morally cleanse the society of every evil, craving for quick remedy and mitigation from social and personal animosities and, at the same time, turning collectively and gleefully violent in achieving our desired goals.
In short: the explosive coming together of certain extinct and embodied sensibilities, expressed through some Neanderthal poetics. This is the zone of incongruous and frenzied ecstasy where time gets caught up.
How can we actually map the functioning of populism in real terms?
Populism indeed is a mode of political practice. One way to fathom and read populist mobilisations is to understand the workings of a certain discursive and communicative style. To realise the form and rhetoric as the key components in all populist mobilisations or to assess the nature of the political and discursive idiom within the more substantive aspects of the populist demands, culture and governance mean we are attentive to actual practice.
Mediatisation of populism often happens through styling, that is to say, eliciting of affective response through careful and tactical playing with behavioural and rhetorical vulnerability in and through public manipulation of immediate issues and grievances. The term manipulation is a descriptive category in practice. One can begin by studying the difference of gradient between tactics and such rhetorical manipulation.
In this context, it is important to recognise the process of framing “whereby communicators, consciously or unconsciously, act to construct a point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be interpreted by others in a particular manner.” The more a given populist frame is connected with a deeper belief system/ideology (nationalism, religion, revolutionary socialism, ossified identities), the greater is its chances of staying relevant.
The other pole through which one can calibrate and understand political styling and discourse is of course to read the populist leader: their body language, dressing, modes of speech-act, styles and genres of writing, interaction with media and the people. The study of the actual process of populist mobilisation in the real and the virtual world is a fascinating and developing project for a host of social scientists.
To highlight populist style, idioms and strategy as parts of a process of political practice is to look at resources, opportunity, organisational capacity and strength of affective rhetoric in order to mobilise/foment a populist wave. The actual functioning of populism is of course the public political. It is far more difficult to map the insidious origins of inner populism that lies dormant beneath our clinical-rational selves.
So, what next?
It is germane to seek a modicum of the horizon for future work. What are the consequences of a politics of pure style and moral signalling? How can one get back to sustained, differentiated and constructive teamwork that relies on a common political language instead of extending raging fervour into stalemate?
But to think beyond populism does not mean championing any comfortable bourgeois liberal social set up. In fact, liberals often go in and out of populism which they find conducive to sell as radical politics. In the subcontinental parlance, the oxymoronic formulation of the liberal-left brings this opportunism sharply into focus.
Looking beyond populism actually means unlearning and recasting our whole relational and political framework. For example, the standard picture of the political spectrum, which constitutes the left-right-centre arc, may be inadequate in mapping acts of social conflict and negotiations during partisan times. It is also strange that populism fosters, as Nadia Urbinati has observed, a certain disfigurement of democracy by creating new possibilities for representative democracy. This is a conundrum that the classical democrats have not been able to address adequately. This is one more reason we ought to take populism seriously.
Can we think beyond populism?
Moments of populist frenzy in fact give us a great opportunity to encounter politics in its full glare and nakedness. Perhaps it is best to remain well-grounded? Ideals have to be re-imagined but we cannot bypass or seek easy exits any more. Placating or patronising populist rage would merely stoke its power. Such patchwork must backfire.
On the other hand, free flow of rage would finally prove to be auto-cannibalistic. That is the lesson of our times. In fact, vigilante lynchers and trolls remind us that beneath the epidermis, justice is inhuman. At the slightest opportunity law turns into sanction. Relations become bare. It is only that populist lynchers and cancellers sometimes do not know the way to traverse beyond dramatic articulation.
Could it be that instead of being satisfied with articulation we conceive political processes and relations in terms of contingency and take initiatives to confront its devouring force? Or conversely, can we consider a world-order of grace that actively practices non-cruelty/anrshamsyata or functions on mutual reciprocity?
Is it possible to imagine a future that is radically open so that we begin to act today for its eventual arrival? Can articulations turn themselves into creative acts through which rage is productively channeled in cultivating a truly uplifting order? Is it possible to simply rediscover humour and banter in everyday exchange without being supercilious? These are all possibilities of the deep relational, not just among human beings but between humans and the rest of the creation.