Chatterjee characterizes populism as a distinct political reason operating in a democracy, a modality and not any particular ideology

By Zaad Mahmood – May 1, 2020

What explains the rise of nationalism spearheaded by authoritarian leaders across the world? What justifies the upsurge in anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiments? How can we rationalize democracy when its institutions and values are subverted by mobilized populist groups? Partha Chatterjee takes these question head-on in his theoretically rich and intricate book. He links these developments transpiring across the world through the framework of populism.

Differing from both the ideational interpretations of populism as a thin-centred ideology that separates two homogeneous antagonistic groups in society (people versus elite) and its mainstream conception as a distortion of democracy, Chatterjee presents populism as a form of passive revolution undertaken by owners of capital to manage bourgeoisie hegemony in crisis. This is an original genealogy of populism demonstrated through an analysis of democracy in the global north and the global south. The move problematizes the Eurocentrism of the idea of liberal democracy and allows Chatterjee to theorize populism from an expansive viewpoint using the concepts of nation, people, sovereignty, governmentality and hegemony drawing on the works of Gramsci, Foucault and Laclau.

To Chatterjee, the genesis of populism can be traced to the idea of popular sovereignty that evolved with the modern nation state concomitant with the ‘bourgeois-democratic revolution’. He reasons that the nation, while based on an emotional appeal of authentic resemblance and equality of the people, is also characterized by domination and unequal distribution of power. Here, passive revolution acts as a link uniting civil society and State, establishing a moral claim of the nation that is necessary for the consolidation of popular consciousness as well as to mask the struggle for power in society. It is intrinsic to the hegemony of the bourgeoisie and takes different forms according to the contingencies of the social situation.

Originally Published in The Telegraph. Read the entire story here.