lunedì 23 settembre 2013

George Kateb: Against Populism @ - July 7th, 2012

George Kateb: Against Populism 
@ - July 7th, 2012 Read more
Our quarrel with populism is a quarrel with democracy. We often do not seem to know what we are quarrelling with: democracy in general or populism in particular.
In the United States, there were quite a few populist movements even before Populism proper arose in the late 19th century. Populism’s basic urge is always “power to the people” or “more power to the people.” There still exist populist political procedures, originally associated with the Progressive movement, such as the referendum, the initiative, and the recall. In fact, these have spread to more states and even foreign countries. The great abuse of the referendum comes when people think they can, by a vote, confer, abrogate, or deny any fundamental right – when in fact they can only recognize rights. The structure and processes of government are to be determined by the people, but it is best not to speak of popular sovereignty, as if the popular will can do as it pleases and still remain legitimate. The people can legitimately do what no one else can, but they cannot do anything they please.
Populism is not just a political phenomenon; it is also a permanent cultural quality that every democracy engenders. It is therefore not only an episodic movement or the inspiration for changes in political procedures and processes: it shapes the culture as a whole.
Now, we cannot dismiss all aspects of these populist movements and procedures and all populist emanations of the spirit. It is inevitable that populism should exist in a democracy, especially if it is a mass capitalist democracy; it would be odd indeed if, in a non-deferential society like the US, populism were largely absent. It is even desirable that populism exists, provided of course that it remains just one ingredient in the mixture. But when it becomes too influential, we should start to worry.
That’s because populism is a serious aggravation of some of democracy’s worst aspects or tendencies. In truth, I have mixed feelings about the Paris Commune and feel horror at the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Among the dominant emotions in these events, and other events like them, are rage, vengeance, and envy – as theorized memorably in Karl Marx’s great 1844 Manuscript, “Private Property and Communism.” These two events outside of mass democracy are worth mentioning because they haunt the later history of populism, even in mass democracy. They present, in grotesque enlargement and distortion, the dream-life of all populism. The worst feature of populism is that it embodies the demotic element. Populist movements seem to have this much in common: a desire for the unmediated and unqualified will of the people as the supreme efficacious power; or at a further extreme, to have only the demos in the population. On the left, another name for populism is radical democracy. But radical democracy, while demotic, is not really and finally democratic. Radical democracy is not democratic because modern democracy is nothing if not a political system in which the people’s power is mediated and qualified. Morally speaking, democracy is an insufficient foundational value for a political system; democracy is not the sole value in political life. “The more democracy, the better” is not true – whether in political, social, or cultural life.
What follows are six main points that concern populism and its deficiencies. They are concerned for the most part with mass capitalist democracies, though of course populism can be a proto-democratic or a pre-revolutionary movement, where democracy does not exist but is aimed for.

Politically speaking, in a mass capitalist democracy, the few and the many use, exploit, and corrupt each other. By corruption, I mean not only bribery but more importantly the degradation of judgment. This situation is especially true in the field of foreign affairs. In this field, the combination of elite interests, plural social interests, and patriotic zeal in the many is toxic. This combination, in the US case, is the basis of imperialism and global reach; always lurking in US imperialism is adventurism, untiring adventurism. The place of populism in this picture comes of course in the form of patriotic zeal. Without that resource, democratic imperialism wouldn’t have a chance. Democratic imperialism is at least in part a populist phenomenon. Although patriotism can be –  and is – instilled and manipulated by the elite, it is an essential populist phenomenon everywhere. Its hold comes from the almost irresistible power of group identity, and also from machismo, and from the will to have a vicarious life, among other sources. Patriotic zeal is always on hand as the ultimate resource for the elite, whether the resource is measured by taxes, by deaths and wounds, or by forgetfulness and sentimental forgiveness of crimes of state, the worst of which is war. There is no important difference between patriotism and nationalism.

Culturally speaking, in a mass capitalist democracy – perhaps in any kind of democracy – the few and the many corrupt each other. The few know what the many want and provide it. Of course, people often don’t quite know what they want; but they tend to recognize it when they see it. Their passions and desires keep the mass media, the new social media, and the popular arts in business. The few corrupt the many mainly in the sense that they confirm the many in their own inclinations and desires. The many corrupt the few by making it so profitable for the few not to do work that brings out the best potentialities in the few. The reign of popular taste tends to crowd out the best work by making it unprofitable. Just as bad, the long-term movement is to erode the distinction between high culture (on the one hand) and the rest of the culture (on the other hand). I am skeptical about populism because of my strong wish to see the American tie to European high culture maintained; to see that tie as indispensable, irreplaceable. In contrast, American populism in thought and the arts consciously shuns it.

In a democratic society, all kinds of populism are insensitive to the demands of constitutionalism. Populism thus reinforces the popular impatience or outright hostility to some of the most delicate, and therefore some of the most important, features of constitutionalism – like the prohibitions against torture, capital punishment, self-incrimination, double jeopardy, indefinite detention, the selective persecution of religious, social, and sexual minorities, and censorship of the thought we hate. These are counterintuitive restrictions not only on government’s powers but also on popular reflexes and desires. Such popular reinforcement sustains and encourages hostility to constitutionalism among sectors of the elite, eager to remove obstacles to their ruthlessness.

The theoretical aim can be to elaborate these three preceding hypotheses, and by doing that, to develop a perspective that is neither populist nor elitist; that is, anti-populist and anti-elitist. (Perhaps the old Frankfurt school, especially Herbert Marcuse, is a valuable starting point.) Of course, this perspective will not gain traction; it will play no direct role in democratic life. But just maybe it can begin to achieve an outlook that is closer to the truth, when the truth we want deals with the causes of the phenomena that dispirit us. The heart of this anti-demotic perspective is precisely the support of democracy, but support that comes from standing apart from the mutual use, exploitation, and corruption done by the few and the many to each other. To support democracy is to dissent from imperialism and adventurism; it is to side with high culture against the rest of the culture, even though this means to side, when necessary, with the high-cultural few against the many and those who cater to them; and it is to understand and to encourage democratic constitutionalism at its most delicate and demanding.

None of the points above disparage eruptions by aggrieved sectors of the people, whether in democracies or not, even though there is never a unanimous insurrectionary disposition in any complex society. My sentiments tend to favor the people in their morally based grievances, however defined, against the elite, or against elites. I do see the point, however, of preferring secular dictators to majoritarian theocracies.

The one radicalism that gains my commitment is constitutionalism, with the amended US Constitution as the starting point – as more than the starting point. As mentioned before, populism as demotic democracy is either indifferent or hostile to many constitutional details, practices, and values. If you have constitutionalism as modeled by the amended US Constitution, you will have, conceptually speaking, democracy; but if you have unqualified democracy, you will not have, conceptually or necessarily, constitutionalism, except contingently; and populism as radical majoritarianism or radical democracy is anti-constitutional.

George Kateb is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University. His latest book isHuman Dignity.

Nessun commento:

Posta un commento