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Populism is not another word for democracy. It is, however, a word for a crude kind of majoritarianism which the market-oriented right finds very attractive. Unfortunately those leftists who have abandoned universal aims and class politics feel a similar attraction.

Concern over democracy descending into a crude head count is certainly not new. Since the development of mass democracy there has been a consistent fear of what a majority might do, possibly harming a minority or overriding individual rights which have been progressively established. There are two responses to the fear. One is to limit democracy. The other is to enhance democracy by accentuating its usually ignored feature, deliberation.

And there’s the jump-off point for today’s concerns over populism. The will to democratise has always rested on a belief that citizens will be informed, thoughtful and deliberative, that they will participate in the affairs of their republic not merely as volunteers, community activists and the like or as self-interested members of pressure groups but as people who will talk, argue and participate in public discourse.

Of course no democrat could ever have been confident that all citizens would be participants. There would always be those who would opt out, having no active interest in the direction of the republic, no interest in politics, or who would be excluded, lacking resources of income, leisure, education or ability.

This then gives the most basic division in a republic between, let’s call them, passive citizens and participative citizens. The latter want public discourse, the former want leadership, simplicity and promises. Both can vote.*

It has long been possible – perhaps even necessary – to be elected by offering services, goods, promises or even a focus for anger to citizens who have no participative interest. What has dawned in recent years is a full realization of the size and political potential of passive citizens. These are citizens who don’t want to hear and discuss contending arguments but who want reassurance and deliverance. They want leadership and there are leaders and parties with simplicities who are anxious to compete for their support, populist leaders. Again, it’s not new but it has been growing for two reasons. Firstly, potential leaders have increasingly sought out data about what people want to hear so that they can patronise rather than convince voters. Secondly, passive citizens – previously content – have lost faith in a political system which they thought catered to them at least adequately.

The fear now is that meaningful democracy will be reduced further in the direction of crude majoritarianism. Before looking at how passive citizens lost their faith, it would be sensible to set down the characteristics of populism. Nowadays they are all too familiar.

Populism: its familiar features

There is an essential belief that society is composed of two antagonistic but internally homogeneous sections:

a) The “establishment”, undifferentiated but including the rich, business, banks, media, elected politicians, state officials intellectuals and experts;

and b) The “ordinary people” who are more wise and virtuous than the “corrupt establishment”.

Populists have an uncomplicated approach to democracy. They seek strong and charismatic leaders who will reflect the will of the people. They also like direct and majoritarian democracy, favouring referenda and plebiscites over representative democracy whose checks and balances might give undue attention to minorities and thwart the will of the majority.

They are strongly nostalgic, looking back to what they consider better, simpler times both economically and culturally, when industrial employment gave a basic prosperity and the prospect of inter-generational improvement, and before cosmopolitan values, multiculturalism, “political correctness” and feminism made life less certain. This can lead to expressions of support for isolated nationalism and for crude misogyny to the point of foul-mouthed sexism.

The passive citizen’s loss of faith

There is no point in pretending otherwise, things have changed for very many people who are passive/disengaged but who were formerly more or less content. Their employment is gone, their expectations are undermined, their understanding of family, gender, community and race now seems incongruent. And yet, it is clear to them that others are flourishing in the new circumstances. They feel as though they’ve been left behind and are in need of rescue, restoration, deliverance, a leader, even something familiar in which they can have faith.

When this is theorised there tends to be two approaches. One talks about economic insecurity, emphasising the low pay consequences of declining industrial production and the attendant increase in unskilled and semi-skilled work which rarely leads to promotion. **

The second talks about a cultural backlash, an objection to the progressive value changes and increased migration that were concomitant with the loss of industrial jobs.

Austerity and the decline of the left

The rise of populism is frequently contrasted with the decline of Socialism, social democracy and Labourism. The conventional argument is that people are angry over left involvement in business and especially in the defensive cuts to pay and welfare (austerity) thought necessary to stabilising – even, saving – the capitalist system.

It is true that for the greater part of the 20th century socialists were complicit in a deal with capitalism which saw the system encouraged and promoted in return for relatively good pay, conditions and systems of welfare. It is equally true that right wing as well as left wing elements were deeply unhappy with this arrangement. Right wing dissent took the form of neo-liberalism which wanted a reduced role for the state and an increasing resort to markets, especially labour markets. Left wing dissent saw participation in the management of capitalism as a sell-out. They claimed a monopoly on the term, socialism, while social democracy became a term of abuse applied to socialists who operated within representative democracy.

The early 21st century economic crash was a happy day for both sets of dissenters; clearly the deal they hated could no longer deliver. Worse, the establishment – including socialists – moved to save or stabilise the system by rescuing banks, investors and industry, and cutting wages and welfare provisions.

At this point, according to conventional argument, people were no longer convinced that those who ran the deal and did well out of the deal – the establishment – would protect them, and they turned to alternative leaders who offered deliverance.

The flaw in this conventional argument is located at that word, “convinced”. The thing is that when considering populism it is a mistake to think in terms of a Demos comprised of thinking citizens who no longer hold with the argument behind the 20th century deal, who no longer agree with what has been termed social democracy. Rather, it is more accurate to think in terms of passive people who were never convinced of anything.

The truth is in a range of criticism appearing over the greater part of the 20th century which was concerned with citizen abandonment of appraisal, analysis, discussion and judgement, i.e. participation. That old fear of mass society crackles across the thoughts of democrats from Marxist alienation, through the “descent into a vast triviality” to just at the birth of the web, “The Culture of Contentment”. Then a decade and a half later there’s Barack Obama, “… in politics and in life ignorance is not a virtue”. Now it’s opposition to populism but it’s the same old fear: democracy stripped of citizen deliberation. Democracy reduced to brutal majoritarianism. ***

Leaders of the passive

The right will seek power by trying to manipulate passive citizens. A revolutionary left could try the same. A left which has, however, abandoned revolution but wants to lead the masses faces a dilemma: oppose right wing demands even when expressed by “ordinary workers” and lose their support or agree with them and go over to the other side. ****

What to do?

Democrats – as opposed to majoritarians – know that without deliberation the whole point of the democratic project/tradition is lost. It would be undesirable – as well as unlikely – that liberals, socialists and some conservatives elide their differences and come together but as democrats they must always be aware that populism is a common foe. To be blunt, political controversy whether arguing individual freedom, equality or class conflict is part of the establishment that is now threatened.***** Fortunately, there remain citizens who are amenable to argument. They must be addressed. They must be encouraged to speak up, to participate as they wish. No democrat should ever patronise passive citizens; that’s partly what led to this crisis for democracy.

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On alienation and later:

descent into a vast triviality.” Neil Postman (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death, p.6

Contentment sets aside that which, in the longer view, disturbs contentment; it holds firmly to the thought that the long run may never come.” – J.K. Galbraith (1993) The Culture of Contentment, p.173

John Waters, Amused to Death,

Barack Obama:


***** Anti-establishment is no longer a matter of opposing the entrenched position of the rich or the structure of inequality. It has more or less changed sides. It is now a matter of opposing the established way of doing things, the slow processes built up over many years on which reform and progress, depend. This anti-establishment is no place for a socialist. Indeed, socialists must resist the temptation to strike a faux-revolutionary pose and oppose the thoughtless barbarism of the new anti-establishment.


At the heart of all the fretting over populism there is a dispute about the essential meaning of citizenship. Populism is often defended by reference to its root, populus, and presented as ordinary people taking control. The reality is that the last thing on earth that a supporter of populism wants is control over their own or the affairs of the republic; they are passive citizens. When thinking people complain of the lies and simplicities which fuel populist campaigns, they fail to appreciate that this content is not directed at them. They are irrelevant onlookers to a play for the support of fellow citizens who have a fundamentally different outlook. Crucially it is journalists who ensure that content reaches its intended target.

You see, one view of citizenship pays little or no heed to meaningful participation – to deliberation – and cedes thinking to an elite. Because adherents complain about elites (variously labelled the establishment, the government or the political class) a fake anti-authoritarian image can appear; in truth it is more like petulant but dependent children complaining about their parents. It is a view that reduces citizenship to a desire to be well managed or led by a patriarchy which the dependent, passive citizen hopes will be benign.* There is competition then for the support of these citizens.

Competition for the votes of such citizens is characterised by political communication which plays down, ignores or lies about risk. The most recent example is Brexit. Passive citizens were told that they could leave the EU without fear of adverse consequences. They could have been asked to assess the risks and decide on balance what would be best but that would not have served them. It would have made them unhappy and prompted cries for “leadership”.

The first Syriza election win in Greece was another example. Frightened citizens were told that everything would be fine, that they could be delivered unproblematically from austerity. It turns out that a whole swathe of the coalition that was Syriza was fully aware of the risks, were talking among themselves about the Drachma and an isolated fresh start but they stayed quiet rather than perturb the simplicity.

In Ireland we are burdened with the same authoritarian nonsense. When our entirely predictable property crash finally arrived, citizens who would prefer to be untroubled by risk assessment were offered a wide choice of potential parents. All said that there was an easy way out of austerity, that a country in desperate need of loans to pay welfare and state salaries could refuse to accept the conditions imposed by its one remaining lender and that there would be no adverse consequence.

It is difficult to imagine a political controversy which does not involve the consideration of consequences, of advantages for some and disadvantages for others. However, the idea that a controversy over matters as large as the above could be presented by anyone as having small or few consequences is not merely absurd. It is an authoritarian gambit.

The citizen who doesn’t want to be troubled with participation, argument, evaluation, judgement is a willing target for the authoritarian who will reassure, will relieve them of meaningful citizenship by offering leadership. This is the authoritarian who tells them not to worry, that nothing bad will happen, who talks in terms of being in touch with the people, who will likely even try to identify as anti-establishment. Crucially, complex argument and possible consequences will be dismissed as “scaremongering”, while expertise will be spurned as “establishment”.

Familiar? Of course it’s familiar; it’s the parody of political discourse that has become not merely acceptable but normal. If you are not a citizen in need of a leader but one who wants to participate in the affairs of the republic, wants to have all the information and arguments in order to discuss what matters before coming to your decision, you may wonder how the repeated lies and simplicities could gather supporters. You may even have a haughty disdain for your fellow citizens, questioning their intelligence. The reality is that many citizens seek soothing codology because they prefer a quiet life. Moreover, the populist leader knows this and has no intention of wasting time in addressing the republican citizen. Indeed, there is no need to do so because the number of passive citizens is sufficient for success at the polls and may constitute a majority, even a large majority

There’s nothing new about concern over citizen passivity. It has a track record from before J.S. Mill’s fear of the herd, through the Frankfurt Marxists, on even into music with Roger Waters *, inspired by Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and on it goes. In short, it’s a staple in theorising about democracy and the nature of citizenship. **

Finally, where do journalists come into this? Well, they have a problem and a decision to make: they cannot at the same time serve the republican citizen while holding the passive citizen’s attention or serve the passive citizen without dismissing the needs of the republican citizen. Generally they stay out of trouble by covering everything in a fair, objective, impartial way and that’s one reason why public discourse and republican participation are threatened.


* A note to leftists who might be tempted to lead populism: The citizen who wants to be patronised is working class only in the way that the term is used by pollsters.



An aspect of the rise and break-up of the Syriza administration remains largely unexamined: Syriza was an experiment in left unity. The proposition was that if all leftists united behind an agreed programme, a left government could be elected. Leaving aside the need to enter into coalition with a right wing, anti-austerity party, the unity approach seemed to deliver. However, Greece is now in worse shape than when Syriza and its right wing partners came to power and Syriza has split. This outcome was predictable, if not downright inevitable. There were two related flaws from the outset. Firstly, there was the untruth (a clumsy term but it covers belief, lie and fantasy) that a government could end austerity without negative consequences and secondly, there was the belief among leftists that unity could encompass those who were essentially uncompromising. It was clear from the outset that an end to “austerity” could not be achieved and because compromise would be out of the question for components of the alliance, it was to be expected that Syriza would split.

Syriza sought election by offering to confront Greece’s lenders and secure deliverance from onerous bail-out conditions. So far, so populist and citizens voted for it in numbers sufficient to make Syriza the largest party in parliament. The rest of the Syriza election programme seems to have been virtually ignored.

Shortly after the government was formed a different tune was heard and there were reasons to be optimistic. Confrontation was out; deals and compromise were in. The time seemed to be right for Greece to assume leadership of the growing support for a more Keynesian Europe.

It has never been fully explained how the optimism too quickly drained away in acrimony. Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was insistent that Greece wanted to pay her debts and yet the descent into nationalism and simple anti-austerity “principle” happened.* These months reversed a modest economic recovery and pushed reform of European fiscal policy off the agenda. Then after the farcical referendum and the subsequent bailout deal the chasm between left reform and left revolt became impossible to ignore.

That chasm is a problem on the left and it cannot be papered over; it makes left unity impossible. In recent decades most leftists have abandoned revolution in any meaningful sense of the word but they’ve also worked to keep their distance from what they deride as mere social democracy. In refusing to join with the century-old tradition of those socialists who work on reforms through the parliamentary structures of the liberal state, they create the paradox of wanting revolutionary change without a revolution.

The tendency to underestimate that refusal to cross to the other side of the Marxist tradition is at the root of left unity wishful thinking.

In Greece the ironically named Popular Unity has walked off to oppose Syriza. Their aim remains to end austerity by taking Greece out of the deal with creditors. They exhibit, however, what might be termed revolutionary honesty because they now talk of leaving the Euro if necessary and of rebuilding the country.

The Greek experiment with Left Unity may have done lasting damage to the very idea of Left government in that the economy was damaged without producing any real change and without pushing through left reforms.



Have a look at this article by Gene Kerrigan: Comments on it are now closed. However, while comments were invited I attempted three times to post a comment. Each time a system message appeared to say that the comment had been received but it was never cleared for publication. There’s a small part of my character that is flattered by being censored. Here’s the comment that the Indo wouldn’t permit under the Gene Kerrigan article.

This article is of a type. It is conservative behind a veneer of leftism. It attempts to limit “rich” to the top 1% and this allows the majority of the rich, say, the top 10% or perhaps the top 20% to hide. They can even pose alongside the poor as fellow victims of austerity and claim to be paying more than their “fair” share.

The article manages to ignore its own data. Have a look at this:
“In the period 2002-2009, the top 10 per cent of earners took 35 per cent of the income.

In 2010, according to the Central Statistics Office, the lowest-earning 10 per cent took a 26 per cent cut in disposable income. Middle earners were cut by 12 per cent. The top earners got an 8 per cent increase. This isn’t because they work harder.

Among the top 1 per cent, just over a quarter of their income comes from work, the rest comes from capital. Over the past 30 years there’s been a shift, with a higher and higher income share going to capital – rents, shares and bonds – and an ever-decreasing amount going to labour.”

Notice some features here which are typical of this type of writing: i) The top 10% with 35% of the income who are mentioned first, suddenly disappear. ii) “Middle earners” appear and they are presented as hard done by. (“Middle” is the hidey hole of the majority of rich people: ) iii) The trick is completed not simply by reducing “rich” to the top 1% but by saying that their income is suspect in contrast to hard-working rich people who choose to label themselves “middle”.

What’s going on here is that a conservative argument is masquerading as progressive. Essentially what it is saying is that if we could just soak the elusive 1%, the rest of our structure of inequality could be adequately financed in a “fair” way ( ) and the vast majority of rich people on multiples of the minimum wage or indeed multiples of the average wage could continue to enjoy their relative advantage. Indeed, if the top 1% manage to evade controls, nothing at all should be done about income inequality because it wouldn’t be “fair” to take from some rich people unless all similarly rich or richer people were tackled at the same time! ( )

“The Frontline’s speakers often had knowledge of specific cutbacks that prompted blank expressions, never mind any justification, from ministerial faces. The audience, regularly comprising the many victims of austerity, would be hard-pressed to come away from the RTÉ studio feeling in any way satisfied with the empty promises and emergency damage-limitation words they heard back from officialdom.” – Laura Slattery ‘The Frontline’ is dead, long live a revamped ‘Prime Time’, Irish Times Thursday, January 31, 2013 (

Laura is getting close to the problem with the mass communication of political debate but she remains within the tent that is journalism.

Journalism has a political perspective. It is conservative, it poses no challenge but it manages to appear anti-establishment, pro-“people” and remain within the strictures of balance and fairness.

What it amounts to is this. There is, it is said, a “political class”. From this point on journalists are on safe ground. There’s now not the slightest chance of an accusation of bias or lack of balance because politics as a clash of parties, ideologies or major political perspectives – like liberalism or socialism – has been excluded.

There is of course a range of views which sees this as a managerial or a technocratic or a post-political approach. There’s quite a lot of sense here but it’s a whole lot worse because the participative citizen developed over centuries is about to be demoted to peasant!

Back to journalists. The “political class” controls the state, taxes and spending. People participate by putting pressure on the “political class” (Sometimes referred to as the “establishment” so as to secure an anti-establishment image for the commentator.) through pressure groups led by “activists” who share the journalists’ disdain for politics. An effective group wins a concession from the “political class” usually at the expense of a poorer and/or less well organised pressure group. Journalists function by siding with, reporting on and sorting out which pressure groups are most powerful, and then helping the “political class” decide which concessions must be made so as to maintain the system.

Yep, it’s really a great distance from citizens talking about great public controversies. It’s more like supplicants or peasants appealing to the ruler for preferential treatment and threatening unrest if that doesn’t work.
Laura Slattery came close when she observed the conservative futility of having “victims of austerity” state their cases for preferment. She then opted for the attractive diversion that is talk about broadcast programme formats. The problem is the abandonment of politics. The citizens need to talk about public priorities – setting a hierarchy of public spending – for in here lie real political differences over freedom and economic inequality.

The essential thing that is particularly annoying citizens right now as “austerity” bites is inequality of income or, rather, hideous levels of income inequality, the very structure of inequality. Now one way that the political right seeks to maintain the structure – with all its relativities – is to talk about inequality between groups. They’ll have a go with age vs. youth, public sector worker vs. private sector worker, rural vs. urban etc. It is a conservative position; the idea is to have no change or very little change in relativities while reducing wages and welfare payments to the poor. Against that, far too many on the left advance an argument whose effect is also conservative. They identify the very rich (the 1%) as opposed to the merely rich (let’s say, the 10%) and argue that if the 1% could be soaked, then all else could remain the same. This is a conservative stance.

Minister of State, Brian Hayes has been targeting pensioners for cuts by pointing out that some pensioners are well-off. [i]  Michael Taft is a socialist economist but in responding to Brian Hayes, even he argues that rather than pursuing pensioners, a “better” target would be the management-and-professional category/interest group. [ii]  Now this comes close to demanding change but the conservative flaw remains. Most of those in this category are rich but not very (1%) rich. However, as Michael concedes, not all are rich. That’s too much like the argument that Brian Hayes makes in relation to pensioners. It diverts attention away from “rich” and towards an interest group and so implicitly supports a view of society made up of competing interest groups, a view which papers over the inequalities of income within many of these groups.

For as long as the democratic left defends or attacks the economic positions of pluralist groups, the structure remains unchallenged and the right wins. Let’s face it there are rich managers, there are rich pensioners, there are rich public sector workers, there are rich farmers etc. All that separates these groups is the proportions of rich within them.

It would be far better to call the right’s bluff on each and every sectoral target. Let’s define rich in income terms (Yes, of course I realise that income is not the only measure!) and say that below that point income will not be touched but above that point, “Go ahead, cut!”[iii]