Populism – a threat or a symptom of democracy?

Lecture by Jan Sowa

The increasing popularity of conservative populism forces us to rethink this phenomenon on a systematic basis. Contrary to popular opinion, populism is not the ultimate and the greatest threat to the democratic order, nor per se it is an independent formation. Populism is first and foremost a derivative of the particular configuration of the political and media field, characteristic for capitalism in its mature, developed form: it is nothing more than dressing the social wound caused by the capital accumulation processes. It formed as a form of politics cultivated on the periphery of the capitalist system of the world (first in the United States of the nineteenth century, later in Latin America), however, alongside with the destruction of the facilities of the state of welfare at the end of the twentieth century, it began to spread in the central areas. Its success results from a specific combination of three factors: dissatisfaction caused by class divisions in capitalist societies, parliamentary policy mechanisms and new forms of commodified social communication (i.e. social media). The driving force of populism is fear and a sense of lack of dignity affecting primarily poor people and the lower middle class. However, it is not just a reactionary and negative formation. Also, it can be seen as the striving to strengthen the widespread sovereignty and articulation of interests ignored so far by the ruling classes.