Home > Uncategorized > Utopia and populism

Utopia and populism

from David Ruccio

Much has been made of the rise of populism in recent years and the threat it poses to liberal democracy.

My view is that liberal critics of populism, standing on their heads, get it wrong. If made to stand on their feet, they’d have to admit that populism actually represents the failure of liberal democracy.

Populism has experienced a resurgence of late—in Hungary, Britain, France, Turkey, the United States, and elsewhere—especially the form of populism variously characterized as right-wing, nationalist, or authoritarian. It has attracted increasing support and achieved notable political victories within the institutions and procedures of liberal democracy.

The problem is that liberal democracy has failed to confront, much less solve, the problems that have led to the rise of populism in the first place.



Consider, for example, the history of populism in the United States. The three notable periods—in the late nineteenth century (with the rise of the People’s Party, which was also known as the Populist Party), the first Great Depression (around such figures as Father Charles Coughlin and Huey P. Long), and then during the second Great Depression (starting with the Tea Party and culminating in the election of Donald Trump)—all coincided with obscene levels of inequality and severe economic crises that decimated American workers and other classes (including farmers and small businesses) across the country.

Populism has been one of the principal responses to the complex and shifting layers of discontent and resentment that the ideas and policies of the leading political parties, economic elites, and mainstream intellectuals within American democracy first created and then failed to respond to. As I explained last November,

The paradox of the 2016 presidential race is that both major party candidates claim (or at least are identified by those in the media with) support of portions of the U.S. working-class and yet neither campaign offers anything in the way of concrete policies or strategies that actually respond to the real issues and problems faced by the members of the working-class. . .

It’s no wonder, then, that over the course of the past year and a half American workers have rejected establishment politics—as offered by both Democrats and Republicans—and voted in large numbers for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. They’re simply fed up with an economic system that has been rigged to benefit only a small group at the top and frustrated by a set of political candidates (not to mention economists and economic pundits) who pronounce fundamental change to be undesirable and unrealistic. Better to stay the course, so the elites preach, and eventually trickledown economics will work.

A different response was, of course, possible in all three circumstances. Instead of populism, marginalized classes in the United States might have been persuaded by and coalesced into a movement with utopian impulses—an association, organization, or political party that combines a critique of the existing order, including the elites that defend it, with an agenda that seeks to radically transform economic and social institutions in a progressive direction.**

As I see it, both right-wing populism and left-wing utopian movements see the existing system as “rigged” against the vast majority of people and level an indictment against “elites” that both benefit from and defend the existing system. Both responses therefore represent a failure of liberal democracy.

But the two reactions are not at all similar, even when both attempt to represent the grievances of workers and other classes that have been left behind.

There are, it seems to me, two key differences between right-wing populist and left-wing utopian movements. First, they approach the matter of alliance and opposition quite differently. Utopian movements identify a basic conflict between the people and an elite or establishment, and then challenge the claims to universality of those on top in order to form a different universality, a set of changes that will create a new humanity and realm of freedom for everyone, including the existing elites. As John Judis explains, right-wing populists exhibit a radically different approach. They

champion the people against an elite that they accuse of favouring a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants. Rightwing populism is triadic: it looks upward, but also down upon an out group.

The second major difference is that right-wing populists look backward, conjuring up and then offering a return to a time that is conceived to be better. For Trump, that time is the 1950s, when a much larger share of workers was employed in manufacturing, American industry successfully competed against businesses in other countries, and Wall Street played a much smaller role in the U.S. economy.***

That time was, of course, exceptional—in terms of both U.S. and world history. And it’s a vision that conveniently forgets about many other aspects of that lost time, such as worker exploitation, Jim Crow racism, and widespread patriarchy inside and outside households.

Instead of looking backward, left-wing utopian movements look forward—criticizing the existing order but also understanding that it creates some of the economic and social conditions for a better, more just society.

Liberal critics of populism understand neither their own role in producing the circumstances within which populism emerged nor the senses of injustice—especially class injustice—that fuel populism’s gathering strength.

The Left should be able to do better, both in analyzing the rise of populism as a failure of liberal democracy and in offering a utopian alternative to the status quo. But for that, it will have to look beyond the idea that populism alone represents a threat to liberal democracy.

If liberal democracy is under threat it is because of its own failures.


*The chart illustrating the wealth shares of the top ten percent and top one percent is from Richard Sutch, “The One Percent across Two Centuries: A Replication of Thomas Piketty’s Data on the Concentration of Wealth in the United States,” Social Science History 41 (Winter 2017): 587-613.

**Such a movement did in fact gather strength during the first Great Depression, the Thunder from the Left, which is precisely what led to the second New Deal in 1935 (after the 1934 midterm elections and before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection campaign).

***Joshua Zeitz argues that the Populists of the late nineteenth century also looked backward and that the parallels between then and now are striking:

Ordinary citizens chafed at growing economic inequality and identified powerful interests—railroads, banks, financial speculators—that seemed to control the levers of power. Many came to believe that the two major political parties, despite certain differences, were fundamentally in the pockets of the same interests and equally unresponsive to popular concerns.

  1. February 2, 2018 at 2:56 am

    Thanks, David, I like this effort to compare and contrast the right- and left-wing versions of “populism.”

    I would add a layer of analysis on top of your observations which notices that in both of these populisms, the target audience is made up largely of citizens who have insufficient “education” to be able to make any sense of the arguments they hear being made by the more educated proponents of these -isms.

    They’ll hear an educated “Lefty” advance a detailed argument against economic injustice and they find they agree with what they are hearing. Then they’ll turn around and listen to
    the specious criticisms voiced by “educated” right-wing demagogues and find themselves agreeing with them, as well. Then, they’ll hear to the rebuttals of the Lefties and find themselves again agreeing with them.

    Finally, they realize they don’t possess sufficient knowledge of the things they hear being discussed to determine which side is correct in their understanding of the “facts” and so they fall back on their impressions of the character and the authenticity of the politicians they are listening to.

    They ask themselves, “Which of these voices can I trust?”

    What they instinctively trust is displays of emotion. They intuitively trust displays of emotion as an indicator of the speaker’s authenticity. This is why Bernie Sanders was able to arouse and inspire so many enthusiastic supporters.

    This ultimately matters because uneducated voters develop a rather clear concept in their minds of the Typical Politician, who willingly lies to voters in order to get elected.

    I think it is rather clear that Hillary Clinton was able to lose to Donald Trump because her attempts to express emotion and sound authentic were resounding failures. Her husband had an exceptional ability to lie with aplomb (as does Trump) but her “triangulations” were woefully transparent.

    Left-wing populists may eventually “rule the day” in American politics, but they will only be able to do so if they realize—as Bernie Sanders did in 2016—that authenticity and displays of emotion absolutely must be a defining feature of their political message.

  2. Craig
    February 2, 2018 at 4:28 am

    Populism is almost always 3rd rate intellect if not anti-intellectualism itself. Unfortunately, the best of both liberal and conservative orthodoxy can rise to is 2nd rate intellect. The only intellect that is first rate is the one that is able to discern the truths in seeming opposing perspectives and then integrate those truths, and only those truths in a dynamic, unitary, progressive and ethically ascendant way. This is the very ability and process of what is known as Wisdom. Wisdom is two orders of integration above theory and one above philosophy. As Wisdom is also the process of seeing more deeply, more discerningly/distinctively and more broadly it is the process able to discern paradigms because paradigms are single distinctive concepts that define and apply to an entirely new pattern, i.e. deeply and broadly.

    We don’t need any intellect or theory looking for an ideology. What we need is a wisdomics.

    • February 3, 2018 at 2:13 pm

      I can agree with the first two sentences here, for it leaves room for a first rate intellect producing wisdomics: some thing Craig can find in “G K Chesterton: Radical Populist”. This radical “forerunner of the ‘small is beautiful’ movement”, did not use the Left or Right side of his brain (or neither), he used both. Margaret Canovan is excellent on what he says, but not on understanding the reasons for his objections to big government and the welfare state. In “Orthodoxy” (rated without any doubt the greatest work of English literature in the twentieth century), Chesterton explains this lack of understanding by joking about himself:

      “One explanation (as has already been admitted) might be that he was an odd shape. [He was 6 foot 4 inches and over twenty stone] . But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. … Old bucks who were growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out” etc.

      This is particularly relevant to criticism of his [often confused with his brother’s] supposed anti-semitism, which is usually a case of pots calling the kettle black: attack being the best form of self-defence. In any case, Craig, if you haven’t already found Chesterton try:


      • Craig
        February 5, 2018 at 8:27 am

        Dave, Yes Chesterton broke the mold alright. When neither the left or right embrace you….even when you agree with the best of their separate agendas you know you’re on to something.

  3. dmf
  4. Edward Ross
    February 3, 2018 at 12:36 am

    I find all of the above very interesting because they relate to how real people think and function in the real world and I think without this understanding dare I say it no amount of theorising will change economic thinking

    • Craig
      February 3, 2018 at 7:37 pm

      Correct Edward. Because theorizing is reform not paradigm perception which is mind clearing progress. There are a thousand nudges forward (or backward) from one “advance” to another with reforms. It takes paradigm perception to truly move forward. Sadly, even genuine scientific discoveries are mere “epicycles” compared to the insights and leaps forward of paradigm changes.

  5. February 3, 2018 at 9:33 am

    Some say the poor will always be with us. A corollary of this is that the “outs” in the political and economic arrangement (of whatever era) will from time to time attempt to displace and kill the “ins.” The result of the periodic fits of anger and revenge is always the same – the outs are defeated and while sometimes gaining minor relief from poverty, want, and oppression return basically to the relations that existed before the fit. The founders of the US intended their republic to counter and eventually defeat this cycle. As did the founders of the French Republic, the USSR, etc. All failed. Capitalism is the enemy of these republics, of all republics. It tells capitalists to always press their advantages, keep workers under control and “in their place,” force governments to be their servants rather than the servant of all those “outs.” Populism is just the name given to some of these emotional convulsions of hatred and spite. Mostly by historians. Populism’s history in the US is long and blood-stained. Excepting the France of Louis XVI, the US has been the most oppressive, racist, unequal, and uncaring nation in modern human history. All in the name of “liberty” and “freedom.” And lest you believe elsewise, or are part of the rich and powerful, you and I are among the “outs” who periodically become obsessed with fairness and revenge, with throwing off the yoke of second class citizenship, with killing our tormentors. With little though about hatreds of “outs” by “outs,” which the “ins” use as another lever to suppress all the “outs.” The only known effective remedy for this 12,000-year-old situation is republican government fully lived and enforced. So far that goal remains beyond Sapiens grasp. Whether the “outs” seek recompense from a utopian future or a golden past is of little import compared to the damage done to Sapiens and the planet from this multi-millennium war. Sapiens has had 12,000 years to end the war. Yet it continues and only grows more intense and more destructive. Our tribalism, once our salvation is now about to kill all of us. Maybe the next species to top evolution on earth will do better.

  6. February 3, 2018 at 3:19 pm

    Another aspect of this is important, I think.

    In order for left-wing ‘utopian’ ideals to carry the day politically, the ‘uneducated masses’ need to hear from a network of ‘utopian’ idealists who are rather well informed re: the details of the vision and the “superior logic” upon which it is based, in contrast to the “defeat-the-Other” solution promoted by right-wing populists.

    This network of informed advocates must be expanded through educational efforts to such a extent that their influence on the perceptions of ‘average workers’ who vote becomes dominant. With the arrival of the Internet and social media, this now seems within the realm of possibility.

    The growth of this network is quite necessary because it is the only mechanism available which could potentially provide “the whole story” to underclass voters which they are not going to hear via corporate-owned mainstream media outlets.

    We can expect that this network would be comprised of individuals who are typically much better informed than others regarding political topics. Most of them college educated, or at least having experienced “some college”, but many others as well.

    In order for a left-wing ‘utopian’ government to actually get elected given the current political landscape, this group of political advocates must be fully armed with intellectual ammunition of the sort which defends and justifies the ‘utopian’ agenda they want to see legislated into a new social reality vs. the misrepresentations of the Oligarchy’s well-compensated minions.

    It was precisely this group of ‘politically sensitive’ individuals who invested themselves in Bernie Sanders’ 2015-1016 campaign. We’ll never know if it’s size and influence would have expanded sufficiently to defeat Donald Trump IF Bernie had been able to win the Dem Party nomination.

    Of course, Bernie Sanders’ vision was in no sense utopian, but his overall agenda was sufficiently ‘idealistic’ in America’s current political universe that his knowledgeable supporters were able to see it as at least quasi-utopian.

    This much of the path forward seems to be clear.

    What would be really helpful beyond this is if left-wing intellectuals could rally around a somewhat fully ‘fleshed out’ Vision Thing, since that would make it a lot easier for the network-of-advocates to communicate their enthusiasm for the ‘utopian’ vision, generating a perception that their less-well-informed audience will find compelling.

  7. February 4, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    HUD suffered a $6 billion cut and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program was also slashed. Public housing should be a priority and not a frivolity or an excess. Public policy is different than a sledgehammer and a wrecking ball!$5 trillion was given to households earning over $1 million. The 1% receive a gift of $207K per household up to 2027. Hypocrites do not tell the truth but lie and deceive and decry truth-tellers as losers and haters! Paul Ryan in the tradition of normalized conflict of interest received millions from the Koch brothers! Don’t let the GOP hucksters steal everything before the next election! According to a German article by economist Rudolf Walther, Adam Smith is distorted to justify the excesses of market radicalism. Dismantling the public sector and transfiguring privatization and greed were not defended in any passage of his 1000-page Wealth of Nations! 

    • February 5, 2018 at 7:35 am

      We are living in what I call the “post-apocalyptic time.” While many of us were growing up quietly and peacefully in the comfortable America of the 1950’s, others were laying the foundations for the destruction of democracy in the US. One of these others was James M. Buchanan’s libertarian economics. Usually referred to as the Virginia School of political economy. The Virginia School’s signature theories: public choice, which uses economic tools to address political decision-making; and constitutional economics, which applies economic tools to constitutional matters. The Virginia School’s goal was to change the basic assumptions and values of the US and western society generally. The market is moved to the center of human experience. Leading to such policy proposals as deregulation, privatization of public services, and tight control of the money supply. Buchanan’s “The Samaritan’s Dilemma” is a stark presentation of Buchanan’s plan for America. It implies that Jesus misses the real lesson of his own parable. Buchanan used the mathematical language of game theory and cold war frames of the RAND Corporation to reevaluate impulses of generosity and mercy. Per Buchanan, these allowed him to avoid the instant emotional reactions of Jesus’ version of the parable. Instead, to see what is truly at stake under the smoke-and-mirrors of ALLEGED principles, he proposes a two-player game in which a “Samaritan” is pitted against a “potential parasite.” The Samaritan’s choices in this game are to help or not help; the parasite’s options are to work or not work, which gets us straight to the ideological heart of the matter (and far from the empirical make-up of the actors in the parable). Buchanan’s battered man by the side of the road in his game is not the victim of malicious forces beyond his control, but rather a predator, out to exploit the gullible Samaritan’s weakness for assuaging the pain of others. So long as the parasite—the predator—can count on that weakness in his prey, he can “win” the game; that is, he can shirk work and yet strategically manipulate his victim into repeatedly extending aid. The hypothesis Buchanan draws from this parable is that “modern man has become incapable of making the choices that are required to prevent his exploitation by predators of his own species.” “Dangerous unselfishness” is not just wrong; it’s perversely wrong. From the economist’s perspective, says Buchanan unselfishness is so dangerous that the only solution is to remove the Samaritan’s temptation to irrational charity by imposing inflexible rules that, by law, foreclose public compassion. Buchanan spent his career creating and testing those rules. Many times, in field experiments such as Pinochet’s Chile.

      But Buchanan did more. He integrated into pubic choice and constitutional economics into the racist history of the south including its decades long opposition to the civil rights and voting rights laws and all forms of school desegregation. And the roots of these is in the constitutional mechanisms created by slave holders to place property (which slaves were) beyond majority rule, following the loss in the American Civil War. Beyond democracy forever. This allowed slavery (in the form of Jim Crow laws) to continue. Buchanan expanded the focus to include all problems created for any kind of private property by “equalitarianism.” Which included Social Security, Medicare, collective bargaining of any form, income taxation, and the relationship of the states to the federal government. Buchanan’s definition of the society of individual liberty, which his center sought to protect, was fully compatible with Jim Crow governance by a tiny voting minority under control of a notorious political machine, in defiance of federal constitutional and legal norms. Clearly demonstrating the social priorities hardwired into Buchanan’s public choice theory, and the political purposes it chose to serve. Those who interpreted a citizens’ revolt against de jure white supremacy as a cynical cover for theft by taxation; those who insisted that generations of enslaved and free workers behind Virginian wealth were the takers, not the makers immediately embraced public choice as the theory to their practice. Public choice spoke in game theory and proved itself an effective way to throttle the majority to protect the property (including wealth) of the minority. Reviewers of the theory pointed out it existed outside any historical or current events context. This didn’t bother Buchanan. He simply noted that so long as it was not required to account for factual phenomena, its “ingenious logic” produced a plethora of useful insights.

      The success of public choice began to improve with the “merger of Koch’s money and managerial talent and the Buchanan team’s decades of work obsessively identifying how the populace became more powerful than the propertied.” And how it might be possible to reverse this trend. That’s the fight we’re in now.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.