— Beyond Populism. Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism, edited by Jeff Maskovsky and Sophie Bjork-James (West Virginia University Press, 2020)
In spite of America’s inescapable presence in the world stage, our domestic political debates can often be insular and oblivious to international developments that nevertheless have an undoubted impact on our society. When Donald Trump won the presidency of the United States in 2016, the term populism became common currency among perplexed pundits as a way to describe his brand of politics.
Populism is typically analyzed by political scientists, who look at the ideological frameworks and political dynamics at play; historians, who delve into the roots of the different movements; and journalists, who take a more contingent approach to the parties and personalities. Beyond Populism enriches these perspectives with a primarily anthropological view of the political projects typically labeled as populist.
For editors Maskovsky and Bjork-James, the worldwide populist surge is a response to the failure of the dominant political system to make good on “its promises of wealth, security, and prosperity.” This system is identified as “neoliberalism.” Even though the book does not define neoliberalism at length, a pertinent definition is the one coined by political theorist David Harvey, who describes it as a theory “that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills” in a context of “strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” It is a confirmation of the insularism alluded to above, that neoliberalism, a term that is used all over the world, is rarely heard in America outside of academic debates.
POPULISM AROUND THE WORLD
Paradoxically enough, the editors also posit that the blanket term populism is of “limited use” in characterizing many of these current political movements because they are often an expression of specific local contexts. Their approach is nevertheless fruitful in that their book offers multiple examples of so-called populist movements across the globe and the broad differences among them. A chapter on Colombia looks at how the country’s elites capitalized on public frustration with guerrilla insurgency in order to gain political control, while the chapter on Brexit delves into how disappointment over politics as usual, anti-immigration and anti-European sentiments, and the rejection of globalization led to a historic vote in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Maskovsky’s own contribution looks at how Trump seized on frustrations with multiculturalism to undermine the racial consensus that had slowly gained ground during the post-civil rights era.
Throughout the book, we see examples of what the editors define as the three types of anger that fuel these movements: disenchantment with neoliberalism, racial grievances, and “the rage of the downtrodden and repressed.” As compelling as this approach seems, labelling populism as primarily the manifestation of angry politics could be construed as a dismissal of the legitimate grievances populism can — and does — represent. Likewise, anger does not begin to define movements that have emerged from national populist traditions such as Marine Le Pen’s National Assembly, a party that certainly traffics in anger but is also the product of the French political culture, which, as preeminent historians of fascism such as Zeev Sternhell have shown, dates back to the first contrarian responses to the Enlightenment. Likewise, there are populist movements such as Argentina’s Peronism whose historic anti-elitism and redistributionist program cannot be simply described as anger and which, far from having burst into the political mainstream, are an intrinsic part of that very mainstream.
These observations aside, Beyond Populism is an informative and insightful addition to the growing literature on a phenomenon that, while difficult to define, continues to shape modern politics.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review, among others.Review by Gonzalo Baeza