Populist Democracies and Mass Communication


This text is based on transcipts of a lecture delivered by Prof. Ajay Gudavarthy (Centre for Political Studies/ Jawaharlal Nehru University/ Delhi) on 9th February 2017 as part of CCMG Thursday Lecture Series.


Populism has come back in a sense of understanding some of the contemporary global changes and shifts that is changing the way we understand democratic ethics and democracy itself. I will try to map some of the issues that might be relevant for us to understand  the rise of populist-authoritarian regimes in India and what is the role of communication in this and how do we make sense of what possible turn democracy is to take in the years to come.

First, we have to understand the convergence between three dynamics that seem to be happening simultaneously; there is a neoliberal turn in the economy, a populist turn in democracy and a certain kind of a cultural and mediatization in the social and cultural realm. These are three parallel processes that are happening simultaneously and which seem to be converging and strengthening each other and that convergence is what is creating a new kind of a social will. We need to make sense of what exactly does this sort of a convergence do to democracy and democratic processes.


One big change obviously, is that this entire issue of liberal democracy which stands on individual rationality has come under huge stress. The very idea of rationalism and rationality as a basis for a liberal democratic individual and the choices s/he makes is under stress partly because of the way we understand the idea of ‘truth’. The way we approach truth itself in terms of understanding certain political events or political dynamics no longer depends on empirical accuracy. It depends more on its symbolic power and enactment. This shift has influenced much of what we are witnessing today and media plays a big role in this shift from data, evidence, and empirical accuracy to symbolic power. This is happening because in the kind of democratic spaces that neoliberalism has opened, we are not interested in the questions of ‘what is’, rather we are more interested in the questions of ‘what should have been’ and ‘what should come’. This makes a huge difference as the moment we open up our thinking to ‘what should be’ rather than ‘what is’, we are making a big leap in terms of the way we frame political questions for it is no longer merely about collating data and empirical facts. Hence, the difference between fictional and factual is collapsing to a large extent. Factual is that which we are actually beginning to imagine. Therefore, there is a move from the ‘rational’ to what I would call the ‘intentional’ as what matter more today is in terms of intention rather than rationality. We are thinking more in terms of the intentional part of human actions rather than the evidence or the immediate consequences of human actions.

The other big shift is that the equation between the everyday and the political has changed under populism. The populist regimes are populist for the simple reason that they allow everyday socio-cultural practices, including interpersonal practices to determine the political in a much bigger way. This also has some strange and complex linkages with the changes in neoliberal dynamics. This is so because there are features in neoliberalism which are cutting across and going beyond social constraints of class, caste and religion. Neoliberalism is producing dynamics of its own kind and therefore the microscopic aspects of everyday interpersonal life are beginning to matter much more in the political rather than what they did in the past. In that sense, populism is liberating i.e. one is not under the burden of pre-received frames and ideology, one need not to have a political jargon, and a programmatic idea of what politics should be. In that sense populism is much more inclusive as it allows individual to imagine politics from the location where s/he stands.

Populism in one sense is nothing but the celebration of the irreducibility of multiplicity in politics. There is immense multiplicity, heterogeneity in society and populism is that which gives you a sense of being included in political dynamics from your own social location rather than asking you to change your perspective in terms of a pre-received constitutional vision or a vision of the liberal democracy. Populism gives one the empowering feeling of entering with one’s own location, own identity, social vision, culture and so on.

One important sense we need to make of even the current populist-authoritarian regime is to criticise it. The other, difficult, more complex and significant aspect for us to notice is that there is a populist tinge to this authoritarianism. And that populist tinge comes from the fact that it is inclusive in a very strange sense. It is inclusive of all those groups which perhaps have remained at the margins, those who have been dropped out of the system. Though it creates all kinds of ‘others’, but there is also a sense of inclusiveness in this populism. All those who have had problems with liberal-democratic, institutional, procedural language i.e. you need to be urban, English-speaking and follow certain civil etiquettes of liberal institutions – this new populist regime questions this.  There is a convergence of a certain kind of subalternisation and a certain kind of right wing authoritarianism. So it is not merely fascism, authoritarianism or top-down force as often the Left understands the regime. It is undoubtedly authoritarian, but that is just a part of the story. The big part of it is not merely top-down authoritarianism as there is something more inclusive and populist about the present regime.


One has to get into the social background of those social forces which feel this sense of new inclusivity in this populist regime. That is where one has to understand the convergence of factors which make this kind of inclusion possible. Certainly it is not because of their social demand but because of the symbolic order that is involved, a certain kind of breaking up of liberal-democratic procedures and rules There is a stress of the Right on the liberal-democratic institutions. There is also an exclusion of the subaltern such as migrants, non-English speaking individuals from these institutions for far too long.  Who are the lawyers who resort to assaulting in the court premises? They were social dropouts, in sociological terms, ‘deviants’ – who could not make it well in life, belonging to certain well to do castes and could not do well for themselves under the demands of the liberal democratic institutions.

It is these kind of new social constituencies whom the symbolic ordering of the populist regime is making feel more inclusive. We are moving from empirical accuracy to normative ordering and we can all do that from our own social experience and therefore there is an explosion of symbolic social space. This populism is somehow in a strange way making that possible. On one end there are these social groups that are making an entry on a symbolic plane and that entry is happening through this symbolic imagination of ‘what should be’ which is not based on truth, facts, evidence and empirical accuracy. Therefore the current populist-authoritarian regime can respond to you by making you inclusive in this symbolic order.  And quite a few new things are happening in this kind of inclusivity, for instance, if you were to ask someone about demonetisation, and all economists would hold the view that it was an ineffective strategy to fight black money but what was it that succeeded?

This symbolic opening up of space is happening partly because of a large growth of insecurity as a pervasive phenomenon. Today insecurity grips all social groups from middle class to the poorest. Contrary to European middle class, Indian middle class in fact grew at the time of neoliberal reforms and therefore the very growth of this class happened through, on one hand, expansion and on the other hand, withdrawal of social security measures for instance golden handshake, VRS, withdrawal of pensions, contractualisation of jobs, massive expansion of informal sector etc among others. In fact Zygmunt Bauman points to it by saying that till 1970s primitive accumulation was slower than expansion of industries. Therefore there was more job creation prior to 1970s than people getting displaced. Post 1970s, globally, the creation of job rate has gone down compared to the people who are entering the market in search of jobs. Therefore insecurity today is a driving force and something which happens across classes, even middle class and the well off.

This insecurity also becomes a part of social relations. To form any kind of social relation, you need the consent of two people but to break it you just need the decision of one. The very idea of contractualisation of social life even when you are in a happy relationship brings insecurity as it just needs a decision of one party to break away. We are witnessing the flipside of these ideas of democratisation of social relations perpetuated by liberal democracy for quite some time. While we began the century by believing that secularisation of social life, that is the growth and expansion of civil society and associational life, secular shifts from ascriptive to prescriptive identities are all about freedom, all social commitments today have become ad-hoc. We are all now part of contingent commitments as there are no full time, absolute commitments that we make to anything. All social bonds today are ad-hoc bonds. We have to understand that expansion and secularisation of civil society makes this a reality of everyday life. That is how we have been secularised to think about our social relations that it has to be through rational, critical, self interrogatory means. The moment this expansion happened on the social plane, the other side of the story is that social relations become ad-hoc, contingent and it adds to the nature of insecurities brought forth by neoliberalism on one hand and the nature of these contingent interpersonal, political and social commitments on the other. Therefore we now need to revisit this liberal idea of expansion of freedom under secularisation. Look at the whole debate around freedom to wear burqa or veil or the debate around sex workers. In the 1960s, the discourse was that sex work was out of exploitation, a residual effect of capitalism and this was the labour which could not be absorbed into the market and comes out of the sexual objectification of women. Today that entire discourse is displaced and we are talking about rights of sex workers and legalisation of sex work. Part of the justification is coming from appeals to not stigmatise sex work and treat it as a kind of alternative profession. These are two examples that should take us to question how the liberal idea of expansion of freedom and choice is coming within certain constraints and in terms of social adhocism.

This is also happening within the limits of neoliberalism. We are taking for granted that neoliberalism is here to stay and it confines and limits our political imagination. The fact that there is no alternative to growth and development is also deciding how we plan our social life. This convergence of certain kind of liberal freedom in social and cultural life, which includes mediatisation, means that on the economic front, it is the neoliberal economy and on the political front, it is the populist democracy. We need to see what possible convergence is happening between these three planes. Therefore if neoliberalism is jobless growth and material insecurity, it is not being automatically questioned because even in our social life, there is a different kind of social insecurity that is being felt. It is happening precisely through the discourse of freedom.

Freedom and insecurity are not in direct conflict today and there is something else which is happening in liberal democracy. Perhaps this is the reason that more than freedom what is being privileged today is security and securitisation. This populist-authoritarian regime is symptomatic of these changes that are coming about. Firstly, we do not have an alternative narrative to neoliberalism and big growth and development. Secondly, we have landed up at contingent, ad-hoc social commitments as a result of the expansion of discourse of freedom in social and cultural life. Thirdly, neoliberal growth itself. I think these three parallel processes are producing a convergence which allows a populist-authoritarian regime to offer itself on the point of that convergence. That is perhaps why we find that movements which were born out of inequalities are electing regimes which are furthering those very inequalities. The anger in United States which comes out of lack of jobs and inequalities end up electing someone like Donald Trump. In India we have growing inequalities but we end up electing a Right wing regime which is more pro-corporate, pro-jobless growth, pro-securitisation rather than a social democratic process. It tells us that there is no linear equation between what we expect and what we are doing. Populism is successful today because it is able to bank on, be inclusive and respond to these basic insecurities in social, cultural and economic life. Populism is providing a symbolic succour, which is in terms of moving away from these massive insecurities that we are stuck in right from most intimate interpersonal social life to collective and political life. Populism is one way of ordering those insecurities by giving us a vague symbolic structure.

The other part of the success of this new populist regime is its ability to include subjective emotions more upfront than liberal democracies, moving away from liberal democratic conception of a rational self based on separation of the private and public individual. The liberal individual was a public individual. It was fine to hold discriminatory opinions in the private realm as long as you don’t express in the public and professional life. This schizophrenic individual that liberalism expected all of us to be, civil, politically correct in the public and the opposite at home, populism is making and allowing the passage of this private individual in public without a sense of guilt. One way to understand the spread of these populist regimes is that they are allowing the private individual some social space for private emotions and beliefs. All private emotions of our leaders today are in the public domain. Populism is allowing subjective emotions to play out in public. It is no longer the imagination of a rational individual working on the basis of self interest, according to the Benthamite formulation of pleasure and pain, maximising the pleasure and minimising the pain, but a whole range of emotions, that of fear, anger, sense of vulnerability, resentment, are allowed in the populist regime, emotions which are real. This recognition of the fact that human beings are agents with self-contradictory emotions and our political decisions are going to be self contradictory is what the populist regimes are putting at the table in front of us. Leaders can very conveniently pass off self contradictory emotions today as it no longer looks dishonest, rather more real. This self contradictory posturing is no longer understood as opportunism, rather it looks more real. This new kind of articulation is considered popular instead of false, breaking of private and bringing it into public. Populism allows huge spread of inclusion of subjective emotions in the public domain. Functioning of a liberal democracy is based on a rational, rounded individual but today symbolic imaginations provided by populism are making what may seem uncivil as real. Today State is willing to speak in the language which was reserved for the private realm. Centrist social democratic systems hinged their politics on the bifurcation of civil and uncivil but today’s regimes are willing to speak erstwhile uncivil things openly. In that sense populist regimes are strangely more honest. Today’s regimes are putting subjective emotions into a policy frame. State is becoming an emotional being.


The divide between the public and the private that liberal democracy stood on is witnessing a huge shift as the private is becoming the public and vice versa. State has absorbed the role of a patriarch, what a father stands for in the private realm. We must not reject these regimes as merely populist or fascist as there is something inclusionary not in line with the old discourse of equality but along the discourse of relative mobility. Equality has become a kind of non issue, in light of failure of poverty alleviation programmes in Russia, China, India and even globally. And what has replaced equality is the idea of relative mobility, that is, we are better off than the position in which we were previously. This very idea of relative mobility itself opens up the space for the triangular convergence that is happening and the playing out of a lot of subjective emotions.

This, to a large extent, is a kind of relief from the secularised, rational individuals that liberal institutions expected us to be. In that sense, the populist-authoritarian regimes have succeeded in terms of allowing the play of these private emotions. What marks our everyday idea of social life today is the idea of ‘re-sentiment’, a combination of resent and sentiment, which, in a sense, is a mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness. These factors lead to a deep sense of pragmatism.

Another shift is from idealism to pragmatism. No longer is the programmatic, normative kind of politics, like that of the Left is going to work. Politics to a large extent has become very pragmatic. We understand that there are limits to social achievement and social conflicts have no solutions. From an imagination of overcoming conflict, we are reconciled to the fact that conflict is an everyday reality and we will live with these conflicts for a long time to come. The social utopia that Left and other progressive politics created across the globe looks unreal and imaginary now. The other reason why populism is succeeding is precisely because it is more pragmatic and more real. As long as the idea of irreducible social contract, undeniable heterogeneity in terms of caste, gender, ethnicity and so on is true, there are going to be conflicts. There is historical evidence that societies have never and will never exist without social conflicts, bereft of differences and inequalities. If we begin to undertake such a conceptual shift, that conflicts can only be managed and moderated, we would begin to understand politics differently. State which was forced to speak a social democratic language, under populism has given voice to the views that we did hold all through in the private realm, the reconcilement that conflicts are going to stay unsolved and become lived reality. Populist state has allowed the space for articulation of the realities that we acknowledged in our private life but did not admit in public.

Therefore being consistent, idealistic, committed is no longer a virtue, not merely because it is opportunism but a given reality, a compulsion. One takes contradictory positions in accordance with the reality of a place. And why should that necessarily be considered dishonest. There is a complete demystification of State. State has come home and is longer speaking the citizenship language. Populism is allowing you to be your inconsistent self in the public domain. Liberalism has taught us to not express our private feelings in public. Populism has allowed free floating emotions in public. All kinds of political articulations can capture them.

What mass communication has done in the age of populism is that these passions are right in our public life. Therefore we have a nice continuity between the public and the private. All dominant social groups stand to gain in the age populist-authoritarian regime. Once you begin to understand the range of these emotions, you have to understand how to channelise them for progressive means and give them a new direction. We have to understand this new language which is not just fascistic, authoritarian doublespeak. We would have to rethink our politics in terms of Left populism.

Transcribed by Prabhat Mishra (M.A., 2nd Year), Member, Seminar Committee, CCMG  

This entry was published on February 20, 2017 at 6:09 pm. It’s filed under Communication Studies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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