The centre cannot hold

Venky Vembu | Updated on December 24, 2018 Published on August 05, 2018

Title History Repeating: Why Populists Rise and Governments Fall Author Sam Wilkin Publisher Profile Books Price ₹599

History lessons on the rise of populism and the perils for ‘unequal’ democracies

Che Guevara famously said that a revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. “You have to make it fall.” At least two revolutionary ‘apples’ fell in 2016 — whether of their own accord or not is still unclear — but the wider world is yet to come to terms with the Newtonian experiences or their consequences. The two momentous events of that year — the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as US President — have the potential to cause the tectonic plates of geopolitics and geoeconomics to shift in profound, history-shaping ways.

Political pundits, many of whom were blindsided by the developments, and progressive commentators, had a somewhat simplistic explanation for them: that Trump voters were “deplorables” and Brexiteers were “racists”. Or at the very least that they were naive fools who fell prey for unscrupulous populists. Nearer home, secular-liberal democrats tend to be overly dismissive of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supporters as unthinking “bhakts” or “toadies”.

Unhelpful and ahistorical

But as political risk consultant Sam Wilkin notes in this magesterial account that takes in mass movements and uprisings down the ages, such categorisations, in addition to being unhelpful, ignore most of the research on the causes of instability that give rise to upheavals.

He writes: “Mobilised groups of the politically disaffected are not sheep waiting to be led; they are active participants in shaping the ‘struggle stories’ and group identities that enable them to mobilise. They take action because they believe they can make a difference.” And 2016 showed that they were right.

Wilkin dissects history-shaping “people power” uprisings — from the erstwhile Soviet Union to Iran to Argentina to Thailand to the US — to glean some sociological clues to account for why populists rise and why regimes and governments fall.

By definition, populists claim to represent the people against a “corrupt elite”. But populism is a ‘thin-centred ideology’ because it is not essentially about policy: it is about “fixing” a “broken system”. And since both the far left and the far right, for all their vehement disagreements on policy, will very likely agree that the system is broken, populist leaders can, quite remarkably, draw on support from both the extreme ends of the political spectrum.

Indicatively, the Brexit campaign was led in part by Conservative leaders, yet it collected crucial votes from traditional Labour voters. Likewise, Donald Trump campaigned as a Republican, but picked up swing-State support from disgruntled Democrats.

Even the theory that it is “crazy, suffering people” who join rebellions has it backwards. In fact, it is competent, effective people who tend to be politically dangerous. For instance, the Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia was often attributed to rampant poverty, but in fact, somewhat exceptionally, Tunisians had enjoyed a near-doubling of average income in the 15 years prior to the uprising. “That success is a large part of what made them able to topple the government.”

Lessons for India

These narratives from all around the world hold lessons for India, even though it finds only passing mention in the book. For one thing, the correlation that Wilkin establishes between extreme inequality and populism bodes ill for many State governments in India; and the author’s recollection of the populist outreach of Eva Peron in Argentina in the 1950s resembles nothing so much as former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s cradle-to-grave welfarism. “The relationship between inequality and distributive politics, including both outright vote-buying and more subtle patronage politics, has been shown to hold true in… the States of southern India,” he writes.

Typically, the politics of the Left is focussed on supporting change and wider distribution of power and wealth, whereas political movements on the Right support tradition and the preservation of the current distribution of power and wealth.

Wilkin observes that successful mass uprisings on the Left, which topple regimes, tend to require the support of a rising social group (as in Russia), whereas those on the Right require the support of traditional, establishment conservatives.

The future of democracy

But the more chilling takeaways relate to the future of democracy in societies that see high levels of income inequality, as India does. Aristotle of course contended that democracy could not survive in societies that were highly unequal. Wilkin’s conjecture is no less comforting.

“Consider what happens if a highly unequal country does somehow become a full-fledged democracy, where the poor can vote, or if a democratic country somehow becomes highly unequal. There is a theoretical possibility that the rich will turn against democracy,” he writes.

In fact, the most comprehensive study of failures of democracy since 1980 have found that interventions of the rich were more ruinous than uprisings of the poor.

Wilkin visualises the power tussle in the imagery of a high-noon shootout in the public square. “In highly unequal democracies, a standoff can ensue. The rich and their money and the average Joe with his vote are stuck in the same country together. Ultimately, the rich know that some leader is likely to come along and pander to Joe’s redistributionist interests, and Joe knows that eventually at least some rich people may well throw their considerable influence behind an effort to roll back democracy.”

The only question, he believes, is who shoots first. It’s a question that will keep you up at nights.

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Published on August 05, 2018
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