The 20th century witnessed the rise of working class and radical Left movements, revolutions and counter-revolutions, the emergence of gigantic Communist and social democratic parties, the rise of fascism in some countries, world wars and immense loss of human lives, the emergence of the welfare state, military quos and pro-democracy mass movements and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.
The first two decades of the 21st century witnessed the emergence of populist leaders and movements in different countries. It began with the rise of radical and populist leftwing leaders in Latin America – Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia and Lula De Silva in Brazil. Left populism was the dominant political trend in the first decade of the 21st century. But since the great recession of 2008, rightwing populism has become the dominant political trend.
From Trump to Macron and Modi to Bolsonaro, many populist parties and leaders have emerged in many countries around the world. Some populist leaders used already existing rightwing political parties to garner support for their rightwing populist slogans and rhetoric. But in some countries, populist leaders formed new parties. In some countries, these forces and parties started to make gains after the economic crisis of 2008.
The rise of populism is the most important political development of the 21st century so far. In the US, Italy, France, Germany, Sweden, Hungry, Austria, Poland, Turkey, Philippine and Brazil, radical rightwing populist leaders and parties have made big gains in electoral politics. While the rightwing populist wave has not receded as many thought it would, in Greece, Spain, the UK and Portugal, leftwing populist forces have also emerged.
The rise of both kinds of populism is the result of the failure of neo-liberal policies, the inability of the capitalist leadership to completely solve the economic crisis and to address the problems and concerns of the working class and the lower middle class. The economic and social conditions created by the great recession of 2008 helped populist leaders fully exploit the situation.
There are certain factors that help populist leaders make big gains in the electoral field. They mainly use corruption, immigration, law and order, anti-elite rhetoric, economic regeneration, past glory and nationalism to exploit the popular sentiments of the masses. Despite the many flaws in their narratives, they put forward simple solutions to complex economic and social problems. Populist leaders clearly lack intellectual charisma and charm and are mostly ideologically confused.
But they are charismatic and have the ability to deliver their message clearly and directly to their audience. They end up successfully mobilising one certain section of society against the others on the basis of religion, culture, nationalism and race. In doing so, they rally the majority against the minorities. So to achieve their target, they oversimplify problems and demonise opponents.
For instance, they simply blame corruption and immigration for economic and social inequality, poverty, exploitation, class repression; ethnic, gender and religious discrimination and religious extremism and violence, among others.
When one blames corruption and immigration for poverty, hunger, exploitation, unemployment, lower wages and inequality, then one ignores the basic fact that these problems and issues are the result of the super-exploitation of the working class and unfair distribution of wealth. All of these are the result of the concentration of wealth into fewer hands. Rampant corruption just adds insult to injury.
Populist leaders also blame corrupt individuals or sections of the ruling class for all the ills that the capitalist system and the people are facing. They shift the burden of blame from the neo-liberal economic policies of the ruling class to a handful of corrupt individuals and leaders.
This narrative clearly undermines the role of the ruling class as the social class that exploits and represses the working class. This discourse is very convenient because it allows them to reduce complex socio-economic problems to the notion of flawed individuals and corrupt leaders. Therefore, they don’t have to link contemporary socio-economic problems with the prevailing structures of neoliberal capitalism, particularly because that would imply taking on powerful economic interest groups. In a nutshell, actual corruption is the legal or illegal accumulation of resources and social surplus in a few hands with or without the involvement of the government.
The other factor is the increased anger against the political establishment in many countries. The ordinary working class is angry that the political elite and ruling classes have failed to address their economic problems and improve their lives. Right-wing populist leaders project themselves as political outsiders and as anti-establishment figures. They also use the anger against the elite and pose themselves as anti-elite. Another factor is the failure of the traditional right-wing parties of the ruling classes and the traditional left-wing social democratic parties to overcome the economic crisis and to solve the basic problems of the working masses and the middle class. This is why many voters rejected the traditional right-wing and social democratic parties and chose new populist forces instead.
On the one hand, populism is a backlash against the neoliberal economic order and continued austerity and attacks on the living standards of the working and the middle classes. But on the other hand, it is a symptom of an ailing system.