You may not have any interest in politics, but politics is interested in you, and as such, it is only polite to reciprocate the attention.
Turn on any mainstream media, and a news anchor with a concert of instructed talking heads tells you in a friendly tone with microwaveable, delicious, bite-sized talking points about the unimaginable evil that is populism, in between how Russia hacked the election, how Donald Trump is a KGB agent, and how Russia hacked the election. You nod in agreement that, yes, populism is a bad thing, Russia, and especially Vladimir Putin, is also very, very bad, and the world is facing a dark tide with the likes of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and similar unsavory company east of the Rhine. You then sip on your $13 venti macchiato latte, shiver, and sink in triggered concern for the next six hours, because the pile of orange peels on the next table reminds you of Donald Trump’s peculiar tan.
Populism, today, is akin to a gin from Arab mythology. It is whatever the wisher wants it to be: left, right, fringe, radical, popular, a mental illness, an election device, correct, incorrect, right, wrong and so forth. Political party engineers have no shortage of imagination and the attendant media has no problem informing you that the definition of populism today depends on the weather forecast. In our reality, saturated with propaganda, half-truths, cherry-picked facts, and so forth, populism is a convenient chewing gum, but understanding its nature is important for being able to think critically about what we see in the world and the witch’s brew we’re presented about it.
A few examples help illustrate the point. In a piece by CNN, in an opinion column by David Andelman, which does an eagle’s eye review of Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party in France, AfD in Germany and Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the author tends to downplay their influence as fringe movements that threaten the blessed goodness of the liberal status quo and, in general terms, characterizes populism as a bad, fringe influence, anti-Islamic and a symptom of mental illness. Continuing with an article from Politico, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte characterized Geert Wilders’ party as right-wing populists and called to prevent a perceived “domino effect” of populism, amid the recent public row with Turkey, where President Reccep Erdogan in turn labeled the Dutch as “fascist”. We are left in a confusing situation, where we could easily say Rutte is appealing for a case of liberal populism, and if you were to ask Erdogan, fascism is seemingly at the core of liberal populism.
Turning to young people in a piece for Axios.com, Shane Savitsky points the floodlights on millennials who support “Europe’s right-wing populism” and the wide youth support for the perceived fringe movements in Holland, Germany and France, highlighting that from marginal movements, the politicians representing them connect with large swathes of the disenfranchised young. Overall, we see that the media gives us a schizophrenic idea of populism that is manipulative, not informative, with the intent of demonizing populism rather than understanding it.
The decline and failure of democracy in neoliberalism
Populism comes from the Latin word populus, which simply translates as people. The word populist originated in America and “first appeared in 1892 with the founding of the Populist Party, which stood for the interests of the farmers against the big-money interests”. Populism, then, is a vehicle for the political mobilization of popular issues, but with the explicit condition that the agenda of the political engineers will not necessarily be that of the popular interest, and any political actor can employ it for political mobilization.
In the neoliberal paradigm, democracy tends to decline in several ways. Politically, state capture creates a situation, in which elected officials and the public administration work for private interests under one of the main principles of neoliberalism that the promotion of private interests is one and the same as the public interest. This arrangement leads to the main economic outcome of neoliberalism, in that it creates vast concentration of wealth and power in a small elite, with the consequence of great socio-economic inequality and the economic marginalization of much of the active population through lower-paid work or no work at all.
The socio-political consequences come in two ways: one is that the price of participating in politics becomes very high, with those wishing to do so depending on the the pockets of fewer, but more powerful donors, whose interests need tending after election, leading back to the political problems of state capture. The other socio-political consequence is that the growing strain on the social contract reflects in distrust of public institutions, the hyper-politicization of identity and the disonance between reality and narratives in the public sphere. In perspective, neoliberal policies eliminate the substance of democracy, because neoliberal globalization is mutually exclusive with a Westphalian state system. In turn, the main enabling factor that makes democracy meaningless today in both the West and recently democratized states, is the rule of law.
In practice, rule of law is a technical term for the governance of any regime within the framework and conditions of a legal system, and democracy is among the unexceptional political systems in this respect. However, the application of the rule of law is the related concept determining how equally a law is applied across cases in a context. In the context of our analysis of democracy in neoliberalism, the rule of law has become a euphemism for a captured state, in which the sale and purchase of laws and regulations, with the attendant service staff, protects the positions of the monopolies and oligopolies that in reality inevitably form in the aftermath of market liberalization, such as “too big to fail” banks, among others; ironically, neoliberalism eventually devolves into a corporate welfare system that closely mirrors the inadequacies of late-Soviet socialism., The sale and purchase of laws and regulations finds reflection in the influence of lobbying on the political process, the exchange of people between private and public sectors (e.g. Wall St-Treasury Complex, former Exxon head Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State), or the creation of legal environments that allow the undue concentration of power into one set of entities., Effectively, in the neoliberal paradigm, the rule of law is about legalization that allows the privatization and concentration of profits under the morals of free market fiction and the socialization of losses, with the general point of neoliberalism being to concentrate wealth upward.
The physics and politics of liberalization
Liberalization is a function of any regime’s political maturation and life, but it is constrained through the mechanisms of an existing political order, and is a reflection of the constant dynamism at the foundation of our world.
Liberalization can have a number of purposes as a regime evolves: for example, gaining legitimacy via support from a certain group(s), effective international relations, or facilitating necessary political and economic change, insisted from internal or external factors. Liberalization is an accompanying feature in the reality of every political regime, regardless of its type and pretensions for exceptionalism, and it is one of the factors, which work towards the elimination of a political order or its transformation into something else; by extension, liberalization gives definition to that transformation.
On the theoretical level, the ancient Greeks’ idea of the endless transformation of regimes from the rule of one to the rule of many, in its good or bad forms, is more applicable to describing the evolution of one political regime in history. Liberalization, as a conceptual category of its own, presents an analytical bridge between the observable dynamism of human societies and the changes that allow a regime to adapt or collapse against changing realities.
The proposed political limit of liberalization is the threshold for state capture to begin by the agents in whose interest the political order is liberalized. In a narrow sense, state capture implies the infiltration of various parts of the state apparatus by people and ideas that prioritize in their efforts certain special interests over those of the public that they should represent. Below that threshold, liberalization increases the ability of a political order to adjust to public pressures and reflect the reality around it better, such as extending voting rights to everyone above the age of suffrage, but beyond it, state capture assumes its narrow meaning. For instance, the securitization of democracy in this respect means that state of emergency in France is liable to last as long as Hosni Mubarak’s rule of Egypt.
The second category is the social limit of liberalization. In a democratic context, liberalization underscores the elimination of privilege of one group over one or more groups in the effort to create egalitarianism and equal opportunity of action, while permitting the inherent inequality between different people in their abilities and interests within some tolerable boundaries. Universal rights, for instance, are a fine example of social liberalization, where in their ideal they protect individual dignity from oppression on the grounds of their personal characteristics. The threshold of social liberalization is the point where the politicization of identity leads to special protection or privileges through binding legal means, in a universal + special rights model that oppresses the relative freedom of members of other groups who are not a part of the protected minority. It leads to the feudalization of society, segregation, the normalization of totalitarian-esque censorship via emotive subjectivism and the defensive characterization of any incorrect opinions as conveniently populist or correspondingly anti-thematic to the only allowable, correct point of view on the particular issue.
Populism as the antipode to extreme liberalization
Seeing how democracy fails in a neoliberal context allows us to arrive at liberalization as its own conceptual category that then makes it possible to understand how political orders successfully evolve or collapse against various pressures from within and around their political reality. Populism, it is suggested here, is among the tools available to a political order to facilitate its policies and adapt to change, but in the context of the ideas presented throughout, it can also assume a life of its own as an antipode to extreme liberalization. Populism remains only a tool while liberalization is below its thresholds; as liberalization moves past its boundaries and transforms itself into a force that concentrates power and wealth into the hands of a small minority, populism grows from a tool of marginal and mainstream politicians, alike, to the raw material for replacing dying political orders through shaping new balances of social relations and their representatives.
We’ve reached a point, where it has become necessary to rethink the entire idea of democracy, as related to our reality. The privatization of democratic political systems empties democracy of substance through the marginalization and exclusion of the everyday person in the interests of the .01% and increases the fragmentation of society into silos of special interests. Straining the social contract makes propaganda transparent and the existing political orders progressively inadequate to the wider reality. As we look onto the coming historical end of the “end-of-history” era, understanding populism as the raw material of political orders rather than a convenient scarecrow is important, because reality and the world will not wait for us to catch up, when the time for it comes.
Author’s note: This article is an abridged version of a full-length piece that is intended to appear as a journal publication.
Georgi Ivanov holds a Master’s degree from Carleton University with a specialization in Arctic governance. He has previously written for Freedom Observatory and the Atlantic Council of Canada and does occasional geopolitical consulting work with Wikistrat.
Image Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons
 Francis Fukuyama exalted the ad-infinitum victory of liberal democracy in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, in his book, “The End of History and the Last Man”, published in 1992. As it stands, Fukuyama’s work suffers from the same myopia as end-of-history utopians before and after; history does not stop, the world is a dynamic system and as the ancients said, everything flows and everything changes, constantly, in a transient existence, of which principle there are no exceptions in the reality we know.
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