Monday, 9 May 2011


Originally posted on WAIS - February 2008

Whether in politics, news media, entertainment, advertising, even in education and religion, populism is the way to connect with the masses. Sophistry of populism works because it anesthetizes the veins of the heart and befuddles the mind. A narrow definition of populism dates back to the early 20th century, when Antonio Gramsci and other intellectuals equated populism with ‘Bonapartism’ in reference to Napoleon III. To a certain degree populism has always been present in politics and in fields where communication is essential to sell products, services, ideas.

Today populism is a science taught in schools in marketing and communications courses, it is the key to think tanks, newsrooms and corporate boardrooms. It is manifested in marketing and selling of everything from soap to soap operas, from electing congressmen to choosing university presidents. Populism allows people to feel good for accepting products, services, or ideas that come attached to leaders as the panacea to all that ails humanity.

Covered by layers of labels that businesses, media, politics and religions have slapped on people, human beings are in danger of becoming extinct as individuals with a distinct identity and creative potential. So overwhelming is the triumph of populism that self-discovery is on hold and people wait for external entities to define them and guide them how to live. The human propensity to be liked and be popular constitutes a threat to civilization. Talk shows whether it is the queen of them all globally like Oprah, or the gossip type that are
prevalent in many western countries, appeal to the passive-irrational in people that makes them feel good, rather than the active-creative.

Similarly, politicians and news organizations try to hit an emotional note with the mass audience, endeavoring to leave them outraged, strongly sympathetic, or crying despondently about an issue instead of thinking about it rationally. In short, the ‘Oprah-ization’ of the masses in many of the advanced and semi-advanced countries in last two decades accounts, to a certain degree in so far as it serves to distract and internalize external institutional problems, for the continued triumph of capitalism in its globalization phase.

Insurgent groups, whose dogma is rooted in religion and nationalism (a secular religion of European origin) rather than a secular ideology like liberalism, social-democracy, socialism, etc., advocate violence as a response to populism from their leaders, for this is a means of combating populism from a status quo power or rival insurgent group. This is the case in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Israel, Afghanistan, Sudan, etc. This is not to say that populism is limited to varieties of right-wing groups and that we must accept the narrow definition of ‘Bonapartism,’ or that populism has become popular with the corporate world and media who are out to sell something.

Left and liberal politicians, media, NGOs, and other groups have also found it very difficult to resist the global trend of populism and use it to win popularity. Borrowing from TV talk shows confessional sessions about tragedy, remorse and catharsis, of course Bill Clinton 'felt your pain', because he felt your vote! If you can just appeal to peoples' emotions when you are trying to convince them to buy your product or service or to vote for you, then you have won them over with superficial pop psychology.

Ironically, centrist and leftist populism serves the agenda of the right, as we can clearly see by the Oprah-ization of popular culture which is liberal marketing serving a billionaire businesswoman. In a world where liberal and left populism invariably become co-opted by the larger marketplace in which they operate, what can progressives do to advance an agenda in each neighborhood of each city and village of each country to best serve humanity and not run the danger of serving a handful of genuine local, national and international Bonapartists, or even worse, the camouflaged type caught up in the illusory Oprah-ization trend?  Can the environmental movement riding inside the corporate Trojan Horse be far behind co-optation, or is it already there wearing a green mask signifying money more than nature?

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