Who is “the people”? Is it you, me or the right-winger drinking at the next table in the pub? All of us? Do we even like each other? Is it the taxi driver or the client who is (occasionally) cheated? The nurse? The doctor? The male chauvinist who wants to keep his privileges or the feminist who shows her body to protest against sexism? Will they unite just because a discourse says that they all belong to one people? What do they have in common? How can differences be overcome?
One key problem of left populism is that the historical agent of change it attempts to build is not empirical. To borrow Benedict Anderson’s terminology, “the people” is an imagined community. The people is presented as a monolithic block with virtuous characteristics that is pitted against another monolithic block with negative characteristics (the elite, the oligarchy, the caste, those at the top). But not everybody at the bottom is virtuous and not everybody at the top is corrupt. Actually, social change requires alliances between different social classes.
Populism does not bother with empirical reality; its objective is to mobilise a sufficient part of society to win elections. However, there are too many deep differences within what is called the people to unite them through a mere rhetorical operation based on a synecdoche. As an advert says in Spain, people may respond “I’m no fool”; why should they unite with people with whom they feel they don’t have sufficiently in common? Empty signifiers are not enough because people care for empirical reality. The mobilisation of passions is not enough because people do have reasons and rationality.
For example, Spanish miners were rational when they struggled to keep the mines open because the future of their families was at stake, but environmentalists were also rational when they demanded the closure of mines to combat climate change. There was an empirical, material contradiction of interests, especially between the short and the long-term. In a similar vein, manual labour distrusts the moral superiority and arrogance of intellectual labour, while the later dislikes the manners and identity of the former. Pitting below vs above also omits the role of the middle class that often fears downward social mobility and aspires to upward social mobility. It is unlikely that different social groups and classes in conflict will consider themselves part of the same people only because of a populist political communication.
How can differences be overcome or, at least, set aside? Certainly not by denying the differences and pretending that different classes, groups, strata and sectors of society are equal or share common interests as members of the people. Certainly not through discursivism, i.e., the belief in the almighty power of discourse. This is a form of wishful thinking based on what Freud called the infantile belief in the omnipotence of ideas (and communication).
The populist discourse homogenises what is materially heterogeneous. This means that populism strangles the multiple voices of resistance and change. The populist synecdoche buries the specific demands and interests of social movements through generalisation. For example, both historical populism in the US and Podemos in Spain have not only rejected feminism but have also not reached middle aged women because of the continuous reference to a people that is not mainly feminist and in which sexism is actually dominant. In a sexist society, the language used to reach the people is not the language of feminism or women in general. The populist discourse has not been able to speak to them.
In reality, when populists refer to “the people” they mean only those who support (or will support) them. Those who do not support them are excluded from the people and this easily ignites animosity on the side of the excluded. They are treated as non-people. Thus, populist discourse is based on a fiction that it calls people that can never be realized as there will always be a part of society that is not represented by populists and which will be represented by others.
Nobody can represent the whole, especially after decades of division and polarisation in a long and effective process of inequality that has instituted social differences in terms of interests and identities. Populism asks people to believe in what cannot be observed; to belong to what cannot exist: one people. The validity of populist theory can never be empirically corroborated by observing the union of all social groups in a virtuous people since it can never be fully realized. This does not seem a problem for populist theory because it does not bother with truth, but many people do.
Socio-political change requires addressing the concrete problems and specific interests and identities of the multiple social groups, especially of the most active social movements. In the past, the industrial working class had a sufficient level of homogeneity to act as a historical agent of change, but it has been defeated in the context of post-Fordism and the attacks planned by capital and governments. Today, it is necessary to acknowledge diversity, differences and even conflict to then build unity within diversity by trying to connect the interests of the different actors and, eventually, making visible the possibility of a common good. This is an Herculean task in the aforementioned context of conflicting interests and identities.
There is no formula to assure success, but instead of the vertical, homogenising one-way flow of information propounded by populism, social change demands the expression of the multiple voices of resistance and social change. This is what social movements demand. However, the difficulty lies in the alternative identity of many activists that separates them from mainstream society and often makes them unable to speak clearly to the social majority and keeps them in marginal, self-satisfying political ghettos.
Joan Pedro-Carañana, is in the Communications Department at Saint Louis University-Madrid Campus. His doctoral research was in communication, social change and development (Complutense University of Madrid). Joan has been active in a variety of social movements and is interested in the role of media, education and culture in the transformation of societies.