Paraphrasing Marx and Engels, a specter haunts the world, the specter of populism. This is a struggle among different models of development and ways of conducting politics. Today two models that embrace economic orthodoxy are head-to-head: the democratic-market model that characterizes most rich nations around the world, with the model of Chinese authoritarian capitalism. But there is another dispute, that of the political leaders: there are heads of state who follow institutional rules (those which Weber denominated “legal domination”), while others have instituted charismatic profiles, whether of the Left or the Right (Trump, Bolsonaro, Chávez, Erdogan), all of which fall under the rubric of populism. Behind all this is a battle between two radically distinct modes of conceiving of the world and of adapting (or not) to the prevailing international and technological milieu.
The conflict presents itself at two levels: on the one hand, the yearning of innumerable politicians to break with the impediments imposed by the globalized economy and the constriction of the world due to the technological advance. On the other hand, the irrepressible logic of the decentralized production both far and wide, the pervasiveness of information and, especially, the revolution of the expectations deriving from the latter two factors. The key question that every political leader comes up against is whether there is really an option. Margaret Thatcher inaugurated the phase “There is No Alternative” (TINA) to explain the imperative need to reform the British economy. Whether or not one agrees with the philosophy of the so-called “Iron Lady,” the phrase that she employed sums up the nature of the dispute that still depicts today’s world
Ernesto Laclau* wrote that “normally it tends to be left to globalization to justify the TINA dogma and the most common assertation is that the fiscal constrictions that governments confront comprise the sole realistic possibility of a world in which the markets do not permit even the most minimal deviation from the neoliberal orthodoxy.” From this approach, Laclau proposes passing over the republican institutions to transform the reality.
So attractive is this overture that countless political leaders worldwide and of ideologies as diverse as those mentioned previously have attempted to pursue the route of breaking with the institutional framework as proposed by Laclau. Trump’s war cry was “drain the swamp,” a notion not distinct, in a conceptual sense, from what Podemos advocates in Spain or the Kirchners in Argentina, Correa in Ecuador or López Obrador in Mexico have procured.
The problem with voluntarist projects, those in which the ruler defies the orthodoxy and tries to ordain his own preferences and rules, is that these hit a wall, also known as reality. Mexico underwent severe crises in the past century precisely because diverse presidents felt free to do as they pleased. The same would happen were the government to adopt a collision course in the matter of the consultation on electricity that the American government has launched.
The phenomenon has worsened in the knowledge era for two reasons: first, with a couple of exceptions (such as Cuba and North Korea), the world has become integrated due to communications, which has rendered it supremely difficult for a country to abstract itself from the rest of the world. Formerly, when those circumstances did not prevail, presidents celebrated the entire production of automobiles or refined oil products in their nation, without any need to mention the global context. That is impossible today because there no longer are plants that manufacture the totality of a product and, more importantly, the population demands high-quality and immediate satisfiers. The idea that it is possible to ignore what is happening in the rest of the world is unthinkable not because of the pejoratively mentioned neoliberalism, but instead because the electorate no longer tolerates it; contrariwise, it expects answers here and now.
Laclau’s approach and that of his followers is very appealing in political and emotional terms, but all the same it is dysfunctional in the real world. The only certainty that can be stated of the voluntarist projects (those not constrained by the institutions’ strength, as in the case of Trump) is that these have been a disaster regarding economic growth and poverty reduction. Although many of the governing group consider the Venezuelan regimen a success, evidence of the disaster that is that country is overpowering. The rhetoric can be generous, but the reality is absolute.
As Jan-Werner Mueller has argued,** the evidence shows that citizens who sustain voluntarist-populist governments are not a Silent Majority, but rather a Vociferous Minority. Therefore, practically all intents at defying reality in the knowledge era end up badly. Bill Hicks, the late comic and grouch, dreamt of a political party for “people who hate people.” He just couldn’t get them to come together in the same room. The great egoist movement was undone by its central principle. Reality cannot be defied and that is what ends up terminating these unsustainable voluntarisms.
*Hegemonía y estrategia socialista; **The Myth of the Nationalist Resurgence