‘National Populisms’, the Little Man and Big Men


Populismo – ISS Conference poster by Filipino artist Boy Dominguez, image courtesy future-agricultures.org

In an earlier post last month, I had discussed the global rise of the Right as related to the revolt of the ‘little man’ (a term I borrow from Wilhelm Reich) and his search for a ‘father-figure’ of authority. I had also argued in that post that the revolt of the little man in itself could not have led to the rise of the Right, were it not for  the ways in which Capital moved to appropriate and channelize that revolt against the Left and Left-of-Centre politics – and regimes that dominated the scene earlier. It is virtually impossible to understand this huge tectonic shift in the politics of the past few decades without understanding the conjunction of the little man and Capital – the Big Men – as it were. No less important, it is impossible to understand this shift without understanding the revolt of the liittle man in relation to the different structures of privilege that appear before us as culturally encoded power relations – as tradition, as ‘our way of doing things’, so to speak.

I want to underline here that the shift is tectonic – something that plays out over a ‘longue duree’ as it were and it is time we (broadly on the Left of the political spectrum) recognize that this is not really a matter of a short sharp battle that can be won in the next elections, so to speak. This is not to argue that the electoral-political battles are unimportant but it is perhaps important to recognize that what looks almost aporetic and impossible in the short run, will begin to make sense in a different way, in a longer term view. As Wilhelm Reich was at pains to underline, while Marxism and other political ideologies of the early twentieth century arose in conjunction with economic and political conditions of the just the past two hundred years, fascism ‘raised the basic question of man’s character, human mysticism and craving for authority, which covered a period of some four to six thousand years.’ Reich underlines that this is structure is not to be attributed to some innate ‘human nature’, rather, it needs to be seen as a structure that has taken shape over millennia, where ‘the untold masses’, had ‘become totally dependent upon authority, incapable of freedom and extremely  accessible to mysticism.’

‘National’ or Right-Wing Populisms

In a fascinating recent book, National Populism – The Revolt against Liberal Democracy (2018),  Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin examine the rise of what they call ‘national populisms’ (i.e. right wing populisms) in the West, drawing on a large number of empirical studies of shifts in electoral behaviour. Their characterization of these national populisms – which they treat sympathetically, focusing on the voters – as revolts against liberal democracy is set against longer term electoral-political trends. Of course, this long-term of about thirty-forty years is still the short-term from our point of view but their study does underline the deeply conservative nature of the rural and small town, white working class, that feels both  marginalized with globalization in economic terms, as well as threatened by immigration in cultural terms.  Eatwell and Goodwin also underline the fact that over this longish period, a sort of ‘de-alignment’ vis-a-vis traditional parties had set in among these less privileged voters in particular – and for anyone perceptive to the trends, the slow rebellion building up would have been evident.

What however, is the answer to the obvious question: why should the anger against neoliberal globalization manifest in an anger against the Left-of-Centre social democratic parties and Left-wing ideas more generally? Two answers emerge from the book, to my mind. The more important answer from our present point of view is that this is connected to another divide that has emerged across the West more recently – the divide between the college and university degree holders and those without degrees (and the small town white working class constitutes a predominant section of this group). This formal divide is in turn linked to an ‘ideological’ divide where the first group (which also includes the ‘millennials’) is more cosmopolitan in its  outlook, more alert to questions of gender and patriarchal oppression, racism, multiculturalism, climate change and everything else that the little man of the second group sees as threatening ‘our way of being’ – the male-dominated patriarchal family, the suspicion, if not hatred, of the non-white immigrants. Of course, Eatwell and Goodwin do not quite put it in these terms but it is pretty evident that this is why the cosmopolitanism of the relatively well-to-do, university educated degree holders becomes threatening and why it is so easily linked to the Left (actually the New Left, as the authors are at pains to underline).

The second answer to why the anger against neoliberalism might be directed as the Left (including Left-of-Centre) is related to the fact that by the 1990s, it was those parties – like Tony Blair’s Labour or the Jospin and the Plural Left in France, The SPD and Greens in Germany and much later Democrats led by Obama in the USA – that ruled and really there wasn’t much of a difference in their stance on most matters.  However, this is not a matter that concerns us at the moment.

The point however, that is worth thinking about seriously is that while populisms – of whatever shade – represent a revolt against liberal-democracy itself, right-wing populisms rarely attack the entrenched economic and political elites; they find it far easier to make common cause with them and with Capital than they do with the Left that ostensibly aligns itself with the oppressed and the marginalized. This has to do with the ‘overdetermined’ character of the very idea of class – for it never functions as an economic category alone and how people from a particular class respond to situations is mediated by cultural an other factors that, together with the economic, constitute life itself.

Rise of the Hindu Right in India

Much of what Eatwell and Goodwin say with respect to the United States of America and Europe resonates with the Indian context as well. In fact, the divides are much sharper here and if we look at the hatred with which the current regime has gone about destroying and dismantling public universities, it is clear that to it, they represent precisely all that threatens ‘our way of life’ – the male-dominated patriarchal family and the caste divisons that constitute the very essence of the so-called Hindu way of life as understood by mainstream North Indian sanatani Hindus. The threat that the Hindu Right perceives from intellectuals, feminists and advocates of human rights too, is tied to the fact that they all want to ‘reform our way of life’ by bringing in alien, Western ideas into the family and society. How often have we not found the RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat asserting that the true place of the woman is in the home and the kitchen? There is a similar simmering anger among the upper castes against reservations for Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs that had accumulated into a storm over the years.

We can in fact, date the conjunction of the two (patriarchy and caste) in the massive upper caste opposition to the Hindu Code Bill piloted by Ambedkar and Nehru in the early years of the Indian republic, where again the outcry was that the Bill sought to attack the Hindu way of life. The aggression of the upper castes in the villages has of course periodically raised its head, especially whenever the Dalits have sought to resist the everyday humiliation that is heaped on them but there is a visible increase in the sheer intensity and scale of that aggression ever since the present regime has come to power.

In that sense, the actual story and the context of the rise of the Hindu Right is quite different from the general story of the rise of the Right in the West. In a sense, despite what is generally known as the ‘Nehruvian consensus’, forged in the aftermath of Independence and after a few initial setbacks like those on the Hindu Code Bill, Hindu nationalism continued to live a sub-terranean existence throughout the postcolonial period. Arguably, it was the continuation of an even longer story that ran alongside the anticolonial struggle, and the prominent presence of leaders associated with the Hindu Mahasabha within the Indian National Congress ensured that even the Congress was not entirely ever immune from its logic. But much more than the Hindu Mahasabha, it was the far more virulent and paramilitary RSS (and its subsidiary organizations including the Bharatiya Jana Sangh {BJS} that later morphed into the present BJP), that became the vehicle of Hindu nationalism.

In a sense, the actual story of the political growth of the Hindu Right, now mapped in detail in a large number of very sophisticated studies, seems to have started in the 1960s itself. Because of the image of the ‘radical 1960s’, we tend not to pay much attention to the massive Cow Protection Movement that started in 1966 and carried on for months after that. (see, for instance, Ian Copland’s meticulously researched  account, ‘History in a Flux: Indira Gandhi and the “Great All-Party Campaign” for the Protection of the Cow’ 1966-68′, Journal of Contemporary History, 49(2), 2014).

In the same period, in fact, lies the phase of the first major electoral defeat of the Congress in nine states in 1967, the formation of two Left-led governments in West Bengal and Kerala, the Naxalite revolt in Bengal that soon spread through different rural areas of the country. The BJS also became participant of two Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) mnistries following the same elections – along with the Socialists and the CPI.  In retrospect, it seems, one must see all phases of mass movement and struggles as radically open, as carrying all kinds of political possibilities – and in this case, we can see that the emergence of Left radicalism made invisible the political appearance that Hindutva had already made, but which basically waited till the 1974 ‘JP Movement’ to make its presence felt.  Indira Gandhi’s high pitched rhetoric against the entire JP movement as ‘fascist’ (largely because of RSS presence) and JP’s indefensible defense of the RSS (‘if RSS is fascist, I am fascist too’!) actually did the RSS a major service and the Emergency made sure that the BJS became a part of the new formation, the Janata Party, that replaced the Congress.

The Discursive Break

Even though the BJS and later BJP came centre-stage during the JP Movement and after the Emergency, the actual break, in discursive terms, came in the conjuncture of 1990-1992. Three events mark this conjuncture: (1) In 1990, the decision to implement the Mandal Commission and the massive anti-Mandal agitation. (2)In  1991, the initiation of the Structural Adjustment Programme and the begining of neoliberalism. (3) In 1992, the the demolition of the Babri Masjid. These three separate events had their own discrete and independent histories and each history has been separately traced back by scholars. But in that conjuncture, they came together and constituted a new common sense, overturning the ruling common sense of the times, by symbolically inverting the entire discourse of power and privilege. If the anti-Mandal discourse produced the Dalit and the ‘reservation elite’ as the villains of the pieces who were depriving ‘deserving’ and ‘meritorious’  candidates of their chances, the neoliberal discourse now produced the organized working class and workers’ unions as the new oppressors, who like the reservation elite were cornering all the benefits of the public sector and therefore had vested interests in them. In so doing, the organized working class distorted the labour market and did not allow the benefits of expansion to flow to the unorganized. Unorganized workers were actually a facade behind which stood the naked interest of capital. The third, Hindutva discourse, now produced the ‘pampered Muslim minority’ as the new privileged entity that ‘pseudo-secularism’ had encouraged to the detriment of the poor, discriminated Hindu.

Notice that there is/was no necessary connection or common history to these three currents but their coming together in that conjuncture was what produced the ‘explosive unity’   of a new discursive common sense, so to speak. The relatively powerful and the more privileged were able to produce themselves as victims, by pointing to the functioning of the modern state and its ‘Left’ Nehruvian incarnation for having introduced ‘protectionism’ in different garbs, which had led to their marginalization.

It is interesting to see how in this proces an ‘alliance’ between the little man and the Big Men of neoliberal capital emerges. The little man, upper caste and Hindu, distrustful of the Nehruvian state ever since the days of the Hindu Code Bill, finds a certain resonance within the emergent discourse of neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberal capitalism too is actually up in arms against another kind of ‘reservation’/ ‘protectionism’, namely the ‘license-permit raj’. Additionally, perhaps, the bourgeoisie that is in revolt against the Nehruvian state is also Hindu’ (or sympathetic to the Hindu cause) but that is not necessarily relevant here.

The point of recalling this history is to underline that none of this was inevitable even though larger tectonic shifts were underway. Though longer term elements of the marginalization of a privileged caste-community were there, thanks to the workings of the modern state, it is perhaps the overconfidence that ‘history is on our side’ that led to a continuous underestimation of what was coming. It needs to be recognized today that the question is more about realizing an open ended struggle against the old order rather than a facile faith that ‘they’ are historically obsolete, while ‘we’ are History’s agents.

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