“The question as to who ‘the people’ are, where they/we will be made to stand, line up and be counted, the political direction in which they/we will be made to point: these are questions which cannot be resolved abstractly; they can only be answered politically.” – Tony Bennett, 2005.
In today’s article, focus is on several intricacies and fallacies surrounding the term ‘populism’ that deserve the nation’s critical attention. Populism is widely used but it is contested; it is one of ‘the most controversial’ and unclear terms used in the social sciences. One writer suggests that populism is ‘most slippery’ and “yet – if not for the very same reason – it remains appealing both as a term of confession and as a term of abuse.”
Populism generally embraces two connotations: (1) to describe political movements and, (2) to characterise a type of politician. The term, grew out of late 19th century American politics, and was used to describe a form of political language and political participation giving popular response to the severe social and economic problems that many farmers faced at that time. The outpouring and outgrowth of popular discontent against an incumbent government gives rise to this friend or beast we call populism.
Ernesto Laclau identified the “dichotomy of the social field between privileged and underprivileged as a key feature of populism.” Laclau indicated that populism historically tends to prevail “when a large number of social and economic demands accumulates, which cannot be satisfied within the existing institutional system.” It is not surprising, therefore, that populism thrives on the growing anxieties of the people. Rising displeasure gives impetus to a competing movement committed to the people and their struggles.
For us in Barbados, populism draws on democratic traditions, and promises open means for conducting political action via the regular holding of general elections. Our political culture accepts popularity and not money (vote buying) as the main determinant in a system of parliamentary democracy (first past the post). Inherently, populism is the defining characteristic in our Westminster-styled tradition of institutionalised party politics. The Barbados Labour Party (BLP) and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) are the two main political vehicles within this institutional architecture promoting civic restraint, mutual accommodation, and ultimately the democratic stability that Barbados enjoys.
By extension, the crucible of populist politics further encourages formal political participation, invites increasing voter turnout, and generally, courts boosting the numbers of party membership. Have we not been hearing about voter apathy and derision of the political class? The pliant political party wanting to galvanise new forms of national engagement should appreciate populism. The electorate is calling for more rather than less forms of participatory democracy.
Both the BLP and DLP have been promising deliberative inroads and decentralised routes towards nation-building. More or less, the two major parties and their leaderships have mounted platforms giving opportunity for voices to be heard. On the one hand, Freundel Stuart may still be relentless in his procrastination, while the DLP tries to douse water on the wails of criticism regularly heard across Barbados regarding its failed and austere measures. The socioeconomic decline in Barbados has become burdensome and intolerable. This discontent gives fuel to populist politics.
Contrarily, Mia Mottley has soaked up loud outbursts from conservative elements in Barbadian society, while liberally rubbing shoulders with ordinary workers and the affected masses. As part of the popular pull, the BLP has repeatedly expressed lack of confidence in the government without demanding any quiet apologies from the political elites paying lip service to the palpable needs of the population. One way or another, populism continues to drive the daily practices of politics in Barbados.
One well remembers that during the 2007 – 2008 period, the DLP led by David Thompson, exploited uncertainties that crept into governance in Barbados. A main ploy by Thompson was the use of a corruption discourse against the Arthur-led regime. The ruse saw a theatrical Thompson cashing in on the visual dramatisation of a donated cheque. The DLP also reverted to a nationalist populism in relation to anti-Guyanese and other anti-immigrant sentiments. The results were that the DLP opportunistically snatched an overwhelming victory from a reasonably performing BLP administration. The DLP’s prize became the majority presence in Parliament for the first time after constant scuffling for three terms and almost 14 years in opposition.
Last week, Glyne Murray glibly ascribed the populist label to the BLP while moderating the popular call-in programme – Brass Tacks. Against a background of past discord, and tactical yet sometimes contentious decisions taken by past and present BLP leaders, Murray’s tone became waxed with challenge. His opening salvo was enough to invite a host of BLP defenders including the MP for St. James Central to get down on Brass Tacks.
Normally an agreeable fellow, Murray’s mythical candidness apparently spilled from his diplomatic pouch. His claims against the BLP sounded shallow; his hardened stance reflected an antithetical critique of his social democratic socialisation within the BLP. Quite frankly, Murray ventured into the darkness of negative scapegoating when he enunciated the term ‘populism’ as if it was a danger to be abhorred. Murray’s follow-up explanation revealed a hostile and injurious shot, especially when he tried to Trumpetise the discursive practices of the BLP.
Merit can be found in Murray’s argument that the BLP had a decade ago made constitutional changes to extend the age of retirement for public servants, and that it was reasonable to facilitate correcting an existing anomaly. However, it became regrettable that Murray would prefer putting party protection above protecting the people. Murray remained dismissive of any position running counter to his subjective argument; he called it lucid logic, others saw it as tragic. Ironically, Murray lapsed in his understanding on the philosophical moorings directing the BLP.
Murray’s selective referencing of Our Covenant of Hope failed to nail the hard principle appreciating that Government of the people, by the people and for the people does not mean going into Parliament and “dealing with the posts of two people.” Dale Marshall hit the nail on the head when he asserted that there are “more than two people in St. Joseph starving, more than two people in St. Joseph homeless, more than two people in St. Joseph that cannot go to university.” Of course, this is a recognisable populist discourse that is increasingly being heard across Barbados by the severely wounded thousands of workers.
Perhaps, this very populism that Murray dislikes, ushered in a national conscience on representativeness. It was sufficient to inspire Marshall to dare the haughty DLP administration “to use valuable parliamentary time to deal with those issues,” happening against his constituents and being replicated across the wider national polity. Large majorities in the population have had enough of a government stumbling from crisis to crisis. The DLP could not have done itself any favours by trying to better the benefits of two individuals, over and above dealing with the damage done to thousands of sacrificed lambs that worked in statutory entities.
Many statutory workers had to painfully stomach the devastating destruction of their jobs and pension security. The BIDC and the NCC immediately come to mind. The DLP’s priority to fix an anomaly that affects two persons before rehiring or positively reengaging the many that were plunged into despair after 2013 by the Minister of Finance’s sleight of hand, is to overlook the people’s plight. Clearly, there is a price to be paid for the political party, and the political leaders blindly upheld by their proxies and preferring to ignore the masses and their passionate pleas.
The fact is, political populism has evolved into a competitive and mobilising strategy that both the BLP and DLP are acutely aware of the benefits and the pitfalls. If it is that there are numerous Barbadians joining ranks with the BLP, they do so now because the DLP’s political elites have betrayed the trust of the people. The essence of populist politics emerges when there are plenty feelings of alienation and disaffection between the elite and the masses – between the governing and the governed. Today, Barbadians are speaking and want to be heard. If the DLP government fails to listen, it will pay the ultimate political price at the polls.
(Dr. George C. Brathwaite is a researcher and political consultant, and he is an academic consultant for an international firm. Up until recently, he was editor of Caribbean Times (Antigua). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )