Issue 164, June 2021: Populism(s) II

Umberto Boccioni (1912) La Strada Entra Nella Casa, Wikimedia Commons

Editors: Alonso Casanueva Baptista and Raul A. Sanchez-Urribarri


Beyond populism(s)

Alonso Casanueva Baptista, Raul A. Sanchez-Urribarri

This article offers a brief critical summary of our Populism(s) project to date, and introduces Thesis Eleven readers to the articles edited in this Special Issue. We comment on significant recent developments on populism scholarship, and reflect about the most recent developments currently taking place and their (potential) impact on current populism research.


Ecuador’s dual populisms: Neocolonial extractivism, violence and indigenous resistance

Angélica María Bernal

This article examines the confluence of extractivism, violence, and their resistance in the context of left governance – specifically the case of Ecuador – through an engagement with the concept of populism. Alongside Bolivia and Venezuela, Ecuador has long been associated with the rise of radical populism and with it an ‘autocratic turn’ in Latin America. Dispensing with overdetermined accounts of populism as either the anti-thesis or essence of democracy, this article proposes a third lens – dual populisms – to better grapple with the neocolonial turn toward intensified natural resource extraction and violence. That this intensification took place in the context of a left-in-power in Ecuador was initially surprising given previous alliances between President Correa’s party and Indigenous and environmental movements, and its rejection of capitalist and neoliberal developmentalism. With the expansion of extractive industries, and its accompanying violence increasingly becoming a global phenomenon, dual populism posits a third position – one that is at once top-down, state centered, and also bottom-up and social movement focused – to better account for the complex dynamics at work within this turn.

Occupying Paulista: Housing activism, the new right and the politics of public space during the Brazilian crisis

Victor Albert

Brazilian society has frequently been described as polarized during the country’s recent political and economic crisis. In 2018, a wave of opposition to the centre-left Workers’ Party culminated in the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who portrays the political left as a malevolent force in Brazilian society. In this paper I explore this polarization through drawing on ethnographic research with the Homeless Workers’ Movement (Movimento de Trablhadores Sem-Teto, MTST), a large urban social movement that develops settlements on underutilized land in the city, and a prominent civil society opponent of Bolsonaro. More specifically, I examine a key site of socio-spatial tension in São Paulo, Paulista Avenue, as a new political right came to predominate on the city’s main thoroughfare during the campaign to impeach the Workers’ Party President, Dilma Rousseff. I show how the perceived intolerance of the mobilized right helped to establish new normative codes that regulated the political symbolism which could be displayed in public spaces. Lastly, I consider how the vilification of the MTST in particular and the political left in general by the new right is embedded in broader structures of stigmatization.

Republicanism and populism: Articulation of plurality or plebeian democratism?

Armando Chaguaceda, Ysrrael Camero

This article addresses – from a theoretical and historical perspective – the discussion on republicanism and populism, in connection to different ways of conceiving political modernity. It places republicanism and populism within the framework of contemporary democracies in the Latin American context, looking at the reciprocal interaction between these political traditions, and their relevance for understanding the current challenges of the liberal model in the region.

Paradoxes of populism during the pandemic

Rogers Brubaker

Populist protests against Coronavirus-related restrictions in the US appear paradoxical in three respects. Populism is generally hostile to expertise, yet it has flourished at a moment when expertise has seemed more indispensable than ever. Populism thrives on crisis and indeed often depends on fabricating a sense of crisis, yet it has accused mainstream politicians and media of overblowing and even inventing the Corona crisis. Populism, finally, is ordinarily protectionist, yet it has turned anti-protectionist during the pandemic and challenged the allegedly overprotective restrictions of the nanny-state. I address each apparent paradox in turn before speculating in conclusion about how populist distrust of expertise, antipathy to government regulation, and skepticism toward elite overprotectiveness may come together – in the context of intersecting medical, economic, political, and epistemic crises – in a potent and potentially dangerous mix.

Democracy vs. demography: Rethinking politics and the people as debate

Emilia Palonen

Rise of populist politics in the 21s century calls scholars and politicians alike to reflect upon the question of how politics and democracy have been understood. Drawing on the theory of hegemony, this article establishes a distinction between democracy and ‘demography’ as a key line of conceptualization in politics. It highlights a central misunderstanding at the core of the demonization of populism: For radical democratic theory, ‘the people’ is not a demographic, socio-economic, or historically sedimented category tied to some characteristics, but a performative process of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ ‘the people’ as a self-consciously enacted polity. This statement challenges the taken-for-granted status of subjectivities of political struggle and links this approach to other contemporary discussions of politics, democracy, and populism. After discussing how anti, neo and post-foundational theoretical accounts on populism reveal a dimension of politics and representation, this article emphasizes action and performativity over static categories and models characteristic of political realism and political system approaches.

De-staging the people: On the role of the social and populism beyond politics

Joseph Grim Feinberg

This paper engages with radical democratic theory in light of the so-called ‘return of the people’ taking place in contemporary political discourse. I argue that the return of the people should not be seen only as a return of politics strictly speaking, but also as a process by which elements of the social that had previously been excluded from politics enter the political sphere. Framing the problem in this way calls for a view to how politics is circumscribed, distinguished from the social but also, at various moments, broken open. At the same time, I call for paying increased attention to how the notion of the people takes shape beyond the political sphere, off the metaphorical political stage. By examining how the people is constructed in cultural and social movements, off the political stage, we can better understand the form taken by the people when it appears in politics.

Populism and the separation of power and knowledge

Brian C. J. Singer

Not long ago, under the influence of Michel Foucault, one spoke of the conjunction of knowledge and power, but in this post-truth era power appears singularly uninterested in knowledge, even as the supporters of Donald Trump claim that he alone of all politicians speaks the truth. This essay proposes to examine the relations of power and knowledge under the present populist assault. This analysis begins in the work of Claude Lefort, who spoke of the separation of knowledge and power in democracy’s symbolic regime, and is then counterposed to Ernesto Laclau’s understanding of ‘populist reason’ in order to explore the present torsion of this relation to the point where power can appear not just separated from, but opposed to knowledge. It will be argued that it is less a question of post-truth than of different forms of truth with different truth claims, borne by different imperatives, and tied to different forms of representation – truth claims that can, in relation to each other, be indifferent, complementary, or conflictual. With this in mind, the essay asks: what is the relation of the people to truth? Do those who claim to represent the people seek possession of a different kind of truth? What is the relation of populism to ideology? And what is populism’s relation to ‘post-modernism’?

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