The rule of the people and (non-)democracy in populist discourse

Part of the virtual assembly “Symbolic elements of the Macedonian authoritarian populism”. Author: Ljupcho Petkovski

Macedonian Prime Minister Gruevski and his policies intended to please the voters by buying their support are usually labelled as populist by his political opponents and the media. This kind of actions can be, however, better described as clientelism, demagogy or opportunism. Needless to say, Gruevski is a populist, yet for reasons different than the arguments usually put in place. Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE are populist because they portray and construct Macedonian social and political reality as if the society was composed of two irreconcilable camps – the People (narodot) versus the alienated political, intellectual and economic elites of the past. The sole representative of the people, of course, is Gruevski himself. Both the people and the enemy are slippery categories rather than fixed terms which makes them performative rather than descriptive concepts.

Populist discourses have a lot to do with redefining empty signifiers – the key symbols that serve as signifiers of the cleavages that exist in societies. They can articulate any ideology, both progressive left-wing and conservative far-right. The function of populist discourses is to express revolt, passion and some fundamentally irrepresentable, but necessary symbols that keep societies together, such as justice, democracy, freedom, etc.

Populist discourses are opposed to more administrative, inclusive and syntagmatic discourses, which Ernesto Laclau calls logic of difference. The logic of difference is the dominant and only legitimate way of representing society in the current post-democratic and post-political zeitgeist of late liberalism, and it is based on the assumption that no social cleavages exist in modern societies, or in other words, that we live in reconciled societies, in which antagonisms from the past are obsolete. Populism is a kind of a reminder that history has not (yet) ended.

What is the problem with this kind of representation from the point of view of an individual whose understanding of democracy is influenced by liberal symbolic framework? If democracy is about the rule of the people – as the very etymology of the term suggests – why are we afraid of populism? Democracy as we know it and against which we judge whether a certain political system or society is democratic is actually a liberal democracy. In liberal democracies, the will of the majority (the people) is limited in a number of important ways through institutions, such as constitutional courts and judiciary, which are responsible for maintaining the system of checks and balances guaranteeing the protection of individual rights and liberties. In the past several decades, the liberal, or the administrative component of democracy was additionally boosted by the rise of technocratic decision-making bodies.

Populists are by rule hostile to the limitations posed by liberal principles, and very often their politics is expressed as a democratic iliberalism. This is the case with Gruevski– his people are portrayed as the final arbiter in any societal dispute, even the legal ones. In other words, as long as the people support a certain policy or political action of his, it is of secondary consideration whether these deeds are illegal and immoral. Furthermore, in populist discourses only two, mutually exclusive, subject positions are portrayed as being legitimate – one is being part of the people, which is depicted as having a personality with characteristics that is aligned with the allegedly dominant culture of society, and the other one is being part of the hostile Other, which is described as something that cannot be a legitimate part of the society (traitors, enemies of the state, sorosoids – conspiracy theorising is very much present in populist discourses ). This is why in the symbolic framework of Macedonian populism there is no place for autonomy of political demands –dissenting voices coming from rather heterogeneous civil society groups are automatically described as being instigated by some alleged centers of power and discredited as being unauthentic.

Finally, populism emancipates (fervent opponents of populism would say distorts) the meanings of empty signifiers that express the (impossible) unity of society. Democracy in populist discourses is reinterpreted and has a different meaning than its “normal”, liberal democratic meaning.

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