“We are populists,” said the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte with pride. Unfortunately for him, populism does not really exist except in journalistic clichés. It means everything and nothing. It is an “empty signifier,” like Laclau’s “the people,” a word that can be given many different meanings—or, if you will, an ideology so weak that it has to borrow pieces of arguments from other theories, without which it cannot put up any kind of a public showing.
In fact, no actual populist theory or theorist of populism exists in the history of political thought, nor can one find even one important book laying out the argument for it, excluding here analytical descriptions and research on the phenomenon. The situation is the opposite for liberalism or socialism, for which there are many such books—and even for fascism, even though it claimed to put action first and theory (i.e. thought) second.
The first populism was agrarian populism. The populists of Tsarist Russia at the end of the 19th century, against which Lenin wrote his pamphlet “What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are” made the poor peasants into revolutionary subjects. Likewise, the People’s Party that was born in the same period in the United States wanted most of all to defend the poorest farmers and crop growers.
In Latin American populism is different. The most famous and important was Peronism, a political movement created by Juan Domingo Peron, a controversial Argentinian politician and dictator, nationalist and admirer of fascism, in the ‘40s and ‘50s. He was a “sovereignist” before his time, seeking a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. All this, moreover, is characteristic of the 20th century right wing, a modern movement that arises in mass society and which knows how to mobilize the masses, even by stealing symbols, slogans and typical political demands from the left. Thus, the Argentine dictator was able to win over the masses by cutting an ambiguous figure as their champion, standing against the rich and against US imperialism, but also with a reasonable program oriented toward the workers and the poor, which got him the support of the unions.
Indeed, populism is almost always characterized by a strong leader, sometimes authoritarian, who knows how to talk to the people directly and win their trust, and therefore likes to make use of plebiscites and referendums, employing simplified, ambiguous, poorly defined, often naïve language. During and after the rule of someone like Peron, there will always be a right-wing Peronism and a left-wing Peronism, constantly at each other’s throats. Thus, in its essence, Peronism is neither right-wing nor left-wing. Populism turns out to be a word that can mean a number of very different things.
The term “populism” has now come back in fashion in recent years after decades of oblivion, just as the left has given up on being itself, seduced by the Blairite “third way,” and at the same time that the effects of neoliberal globalization are making the lives of the masses worse. The “high” versus the “low,” the people against the elite, becomes the new representation of social conflict from those who claim to have overcome the right-left opposition of the old class conflict. It expresses the anger and needs of “regular folks” or “the people.”
In the Italy of the past few decades, populism has arrived together with tank tops and Umberto Bossi-style vulgarity. But populist discourse has also been used by those claiming to govern in the name of the “new,” or in the name of a mythical ”civil society” which first of all must disqualify and despise politics and politicians in order to take their place.
It is no coincidence that populism, as the calling card of the new government in Rome, has become the ostensive adoption of the vocabulary of the man on the street, indeed of those who are called “regular people”—even if this means saying no to rights and solidarity and the selfishness of “us” versus “them.”
Left-wing populism also exists nowadays: for instance, the populism of Podemos in Spain, which, after fighting against the establishment and gathering strength, allied itself with Izquierda Unida and joined the Party of the European Left as a full member. And there is, of course, right-wing populism, of which the populism that prevails today in Italy—populism that has gone into government—seems to be a variety. It will continue to show a not insignificant proportion of intrinsic ambiguity, and to propose, or even put into practice, “progressive” measures as well. But it also looks destined to show its conservative and reactionary face, which is unacceptable to the left.