Contemporary populism, according to Enrique Dussel



Commentary on an essay by the Argentine philosopher.

The Italian reader must not make the mistake of considering this small essay by Enrique Dussel a philosophical-political curiosity, that is, dedicated exclusively to the Latin American reality, whose reading can increase his knowledge of that continent, after all distant and exotic. Dussel's analysis of populism can also be extremely useful for the Italian and European reader with regard to the current phenomenon of European populism, or perhaps it is better to say European populisms.

In this introduction, I will try to indicate what, in my opinion, are the points of a possible transfer of Dussel's analysis to our European reality. I would like to indicate a sense, a direction for reading the text. This sense will be, initially, at the top, that is, starting from the particularity we will arrive at the universality of the populist phenomenon in Latin America, to later apprehend the specificities that can also be used in Europe.

To begin with, Dussel starts from the analysis of the populist phenomenon in Latin America, where it assumed a particular connotation, so much so that it was considered an exclusively Latin American phenomenon. As commonly happens, the widespread belief does not fully correspond to the truth, but what I want to point out is that Latin American populism emerged as a phenomenon of emancipation from Anglo-American hegemony; it was therefore originally a phenomenon of emancipation from neocolonial control. Until the eve of World War I, England held control – if not dominance – of the Latin American economy, having replaced Spain during the period of Napoleonic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. The European vicissitudes, linked to the First World War, determined a process of transition in the European control of the Latin American economy, as had occurred in the early XNUMXth century between Spain and England.

This time, it was the United States that took England's place, but the change was not sudden, but slow and steady with moments of acceleration and deceleration. The 1929 crisis caused, for example, a slowdown, because the United States, more than England, felt the effects of the financial and economic crisis and closed down. The Second World War, on the contrary, was the moment of definitive acceleration of the process of change. The United States, in turn, due to the war, was unable, however, to quickly occupy England's place in control of the country. backyard (from the backyard), how Latin Americans define Latin America in relation to the United States.

The moment of the passage of economic control allowed some Latin American nations to flee abroad. However, we can recognize that these populist movements were authentically popular, in other words, they were motivated only by genuine interests of the people, obviously manipulated by certain leaders who largely came from the people and not from outside. Dussel remembers the most important ones and the reader will find them in the text.

What matters is that populism is a peripheral phenomenon in reaction to a weakness in the dominant center. When the dominant country is distracted, then the periphery tries to emancipate itself from its control. Afterwards, it will be seen in which direction this emancipation moves. In Mexico and Brazil there were no real emancipatory movements, if any, the industrial bourgeoisie of both countries became more autonomous from the American bourgeoisie.

In Argentina and Guatemala, emancipation took on a more social aspect. The Guatemalan Arbenz was overthrown in a short time, the Argentine Perón was more resistant, firstly because of the size of his country, secondly also because of the Argentine economic tradition. We must keep in mind that in 1938 Argentina was the fifth largest economy in the world and Perón distributed a small part of that wealth to his shirtless, building a real welfare state.

The war further increased the wealth of Argentina, the world's biggest meat exporter and one of the first wheat exporters. Based on this wealth, Perón flirted with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and, after the war, he did not again faithfully align himself with the policy of domination by the United States. Thus, the northern neighbors, in agreement with the national bourgeoisie that did not support the distribution of services and income to shirtless, imposed, through a coup, the end of Peronist populism. The same end had Brazilian populism with the mysterious suicide of the president of the Brazilian republic, Getúlio Vargas. We can conclude that, once the crisis ended, Latin American populism was immediately eliminated.

The wealth that had been built up, taking advantage of the US economic and war crisis, remained, but which was transferred to the US through the imposition, first, of weak democracies and then, after the Cuban revolution, of military regimes that, with the excuse of the foreign debt contracted by them to finance the modernization of their respective countries, they transferred wealth – surplus value – from the periphery to the center. Even in a reduced way in relation to the United States, Europe also benefited from this transfer of surplus value: let us remember the dozens of companies that transferred production to their branches installed in Latin America, but that later brought it back to the respective homelands the surplus value produced “down there”. A phenomenon that has been repeated over the last twenty years, with regard to Eastern Europe, China and other peripheries of the globalized world.

In recent years, the populist phenomenon has erupted into the political reality of the contemporary world. Dussel's analysis of the populist phenomenon begins, as his essays usually do, with a question: what is populism? And from here we move on to the subsequent questions: What is a people? What's popular?

Of course, modern populism is very different from historical populism, just as current Latin American populism is different from its historical ancestor. This transformation is due to the fact that the people changed, which, in turn, changed because the world also changed. Now, globalization prevails, the process of integration of the various parts of the world into a more or less uniform and homogeneous totality. In Latin America, at the beginning of the second millennium, the people expressed a clear desire to become protagonists of the choices made by them and for them, electing presidents and rulers who proposed to represent their demands for emancipation. In practice, the people want to be protagonists of their own history. Dussel takes up Laclau's term “plebs” and transforms it into people.

The people, says Dussel, become a collective actor, they become the people, the people in themselves. Nationalism treats the people only in terms of their being in themselves, it does not ask them to grow, but, at most, to enjoy a supposed superiority over other peoples. The people who become the collective actor of their own choices show political and social growth, claim their unmet needs, ask for life. His dissidence is an awareness, a self-awareness of his own existence as a collective actor. The people perform an act of interpellation.

As a consequence of this new meaning of “people”, even “populism” changed its meaning, it became a phenomenon of criticism of globalization. And this new posture provoked the reaction of the media that use the term populism in a derogatory way, without any distinction within the phenomenon. Thus, “populist” phenomena are defined that are very different from each other, such as Lulismo in Brazil, Chavismo in Venezuela, Leghismo and Grillismo in Italy, Lepenismo or Yellow Vests in France, Trumpism in the United States and so on. The only common feature between these phenomena is the anti-globalization protest.

But what do these phenomena have in common in their essence? Practically nothing or very little. We must bear in mind that in Latin America the people struggle united and compact for their own emancipation, while in Europe or the United States the people struggle not to share their advantages with the peoples of the periphery; advantages that, in large part, are the result of the transfer of surplus value from the periphery to the center. In practice, they do not want to return the fruit of the theft perpetrated throughout the history of Center-Periphery relations, it is a way of getting rid of one's own historical responsibilities.

Effectively, the populism of the Center is a defense, a declared weakness, a closing within the borders of the nation itself, it is a phenomenon of conservative anti-globalization in the best cases, of reaction to the struggle for the emancipation of the peoples of the Periphery. It is not by chance that European populisms declare themselves, in many cases, supporters of Trumpist American populism. It is not, therefore, about emancipation phenomena, as was the original Latin American populism, on the contrary, they are almost the symmetrical opposite. And besides, are we sure that European populisms are genuinely popular? There are certainly leaders who monopolize these movements, but in the case of any European populist phenomenon there are suspicions of external manipulation, which did not exist in the original Latin American populism.

Dussel indicates the difference between “popular”, which would be what belongs to the people, and “populist”, which is a confusing term, since it indicates something that belongs to the people and the political community to which it belongs, that is, to the nation. The political community, as a nation, is a meaning that reduces, minimizes the people, in fact the people, as a collective actor, is a social movement, while the nation is an ontological fact, by birth, that is, it is born Italian, French, British, Argentinian, Mexican and so on. The nation is a superimposed fact: you can be born Catalan and Spanish at the same time, even if some Catalans don't feel like Spaniards, distinguishing between nation and citizenship.

Here we understand the confounding factor of European “populism”: if “populist” is something that comes from the national political community, then what is a nation? In Europe, one can belong to a political community and not to a nation or vice versa. I cite the case of Catalonia, which is the most famous in Europe, but I could add the Basque Provinces, Scotland, Corsica, Hungarian Transylvania and other even smaller cases. Are the Catalans a people? As we know, about half of Catalan civil society is in favor of the birth of an independent Catalonia, so are we facing the case of a people in half? Or a “populist” phenomenon? Or rather: when is a people, as a social movement, really a people?

Dussel answers that the people is a part that represents the whole, that is, when a minority initiates a process of non-violent struggle to emancipate the totality of the political community. In Catalonia, about half of the local population wants to emancipate all Catalans from a political community, Spain, which guarantees broad rights to the Catalan population, including the right to use their own language, while Catalan separatists have tried to impose the duty to use Catalan – failed attempt in 2010 due to the intervention of the Spanish Constitutional Court that guarantees the rights of Spanish citizens. In Europe, you have the right to speak your own language, even if you belong to a linguistic minority, there is no duty to do so.

Another situation in Latin America, where there are peoples/nations that historically have been denied the right to exist and only in recent years have their right to exist recognized. I am referring to the indigenous nations of Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil. In the latter case, the president of the republic, Bolsonaro, is campaigning for the physical elimination of Amazonian indigenous peoples thanks to the pandemic, not bothering to provide care and assistance to indigenous people who, in any case, are Brazilians. In other Latin American countries, the right to existence as an ethnic particularity is gradually being recognized, but the example of popular mobilization that sustains this claim/interpellation remains.

One of the typical problems of populism is leadership. The Latin American cases are emblematic, and are, roughly speaking, also copied in Europe, to the point that we can say that there is no populism without strong personal leadership. In France, lepenism is a known fact, by the way, old Le Pen tried to prevent his daughter from inheriting the leadership of lepenism. In Italy, grillismo would not have emerged without Grillo, who precisely gives his populism its name. The same goes for Trumpism. Only in Germany does the populism of the “Alliance for Germany” not have a marked personal leadership. But, as Dussel argues, the representative of the people, like the populist leader, when he comes to power, fetishizes his political representation and distances himself from the representatives, from the people. He no longer listens to the questioning of the people.

Dussel concludes his analysis with a political proposal, that is, he explains how a people in motion should organize their emancipatory political action. Above all, Dussel indicates what is the field of action of true politics, that is, everyday life. It is a discourse already used by the old Lukács, who defended the need for a democratization of everyday life. Dussel, independently of Lukács, develops his project, arguing that only small institutions, which are at the bottom of the political and social scale, can manage the issues of citizens' daily lives. Decisions taken from below should be taken up by representatives who have limited representation, that is, they should be mere spokespersons for the popular will. It is, therefore, a model of participatory democracy.

This model is a resumption of the original project of Soviet democracy which, in turn, is a resumption of the original democracy of the United States at its birth. It was, then, the representatives of power in the United States who fetishized their own representation and limited the expression of the popular will to two or four years, transforming themselves into spokesmen of the political will. The model of the United States was then adopted by other countries with representative democracy, because it is not the best political system, but the least bad, according to Winston Churchill. In reality, it was a selective adoption, because the original democracy from below was eliminated.

In order to avoid the fetishization of representation, that is, the distancing between political society and civil society to use the Gramscian lexicon that Dussel uses in his analysis, it is therefore necessary to find a balance between power management and governability. According to Dussel, the power conferred on political society is “obedient power”, that is, the power that the leader obtains from obedience to the popular will. The leader must not be the interpreter of the will, much less its incarnation, he must, rather, obey the decisions made by the people, which from below reach the highest instances of political, social and economic power. Only by obeying, the leader has the power to impose decisions, which are not his, but the people or their majority.

This is a very old tradition, going back to the village communities that existed in Latin America before the Conquest of the continent; it is a tradition that survived, because it was relegated to small base communities, far removed from the imagination of the central power, which cared little for the political organization of the dominated indigenous peoples, insofar as they obeyed the impositions of the central colonial or neocolonial power. It is an organization that is being rescued today by the Movimento dos Sem Terra in Brazil. So Dussel's conclusion is that a people fully exercising participatory democracy needs weak leadership, not strong leadership, as is rather the tradition of populism.

There are, therefore, great differences between European and Latin American populism. These differences can be deduced from Dussel's analysis, despite the fact that he very correctly devoted himself to the analysis of the new Latin American populism. In fact, it is not in his interest to dictate political lines to social and economic realities, to which he himself does not belong. In short, he does not behave like the intellectuals from the Center who explain to political actors from the Periphery how they should behave in their own political space. We must know how to translate his analyzes into our social reality, selecting similarities to be maintained and differences to be left out.

*Antonino Infranca He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Author, among other books, of Work, individual, history – the concept of work in Lukács (Boitempo).

Translation: Juliana Hass.


Enrique Dussel. “Five theses on populism”. In: Philosophies of the South. Decolonization and transmodernity. Mexico, Akal, 2015, pp. 219-248


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