1. The Early 20th Century
The early 20th century was a time of upheaval between two rival ideological currents, culminating in two World Wars. I am not asserting that World War III is around the corner, or that we're all staring down Armageddon next Tuesday, of course, only noting that upheavals tend to come to a head at some point, whether that takes the form of warfare or something else. From the late 19th century up through the middle of the 20th, we see the great powers at a crossroads. On the one side, we have a definite Marxist current; we are all well aware of the Marxist revolutions in Russia and Asia, but there were Communist parties operating throughout Europe and the Americas. On the other side, we have the fascist movements, which were also common throughout Europe and the Americas. The big one was Nazism, of course, but most of us under-educated Americans are at least dimly aware of Mussolini's Italian fascism and Franco's fascist Spain. Those with a little more education are aware of the Hispanophone Catholic fascism of Augusto Pinochet's Chile, and the presence of other such movements in South America.
The point of the preceding paragraph is to point out something that many in our age miss: the struggle in the early 20th century was not between a monolithic fascist Axis and democratic Allies, but a struggle between two rival ideologies that fought it out in dozens of countries, culminating in a fight between Allied powers and Axis powers. There was a British Union of Fascists. There was a German Communist Party. Two ideologies were struggling for supremacy in many nations, and this struggle was one of many factors that shaped the alliances in World War II.
Democracies were largely in the middle, but ended up allying with the Communists for largely geopolitical not ideological reasons. Any pretension on the part of Americans or Brits to having always been fervent anti-fascists is just a pose. Winston Churchill, to Mussolini: "If I had been an Italian, I am sure I would have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism." (one of many sources for this quote) Churchill, Truman, and Roosevelt were all playing the geopolitical game, and acted as a deciding factor in the struggle between fascism and Communism.
Another way to put it is that we, the public, have an incomplete picture of the early 20th century. The incomplete picture goes like this: fascists take over some countries, Communists take over other countries, and the democracies and Communist states duke it out with the fascists. This is true, so far as it goes, but we have to remain aware of the ideological and cultural struggles that helped to shape that conflict.
The aftermath is well known, of course; the Marxist states either turned into hybrid planned-economy capitalist systems (China) and tin-pot dictatorships (North Korea, etc.), or just went completely off the rails and shriveled (USSR). This left us with a monopolar world, in Europe and the United States at any rate, where a sort of social capitalism leaning either toward capitalism (USA) or socialism (Western Europe) prevailed. Democratic consumer-socialism, or something of that nature, had won.
We can argue, of course, over the purity of the current system, whether it's purely domineering and exploitative for the purposes of capitalism or contains some element of social progressivism. But I think it's safe to characterize it as a kind of hegemonic globalism, where the military primacy of wealthy countries (particularly the United States) allows for a world order that sees the slow spread of a particular way of life. Even in the exploited third-world nations, we still see a rapidly-expanding middle class and increasingly omnipresent technology (India, China). And the stated intention of the United States to bring democracy to countries around the world only reinforces this view. The social-capitalist system, with its bulwark of hegemonic globalism, has won so far.
The family of systems embraced in Western Europe, former European colonies like the United States and Canada, Japan, South Korea, and so on, would probably escape a strict definition, save that they are all relatively democratic with extensive social welfare and a high degree of private enterprise. The countries that use this family of systems are roughly equivalent to what journalists refer to in cloying, lofty terms as "the free world." I will call this family of systems neoliberalism, since that seems to be the term that best fits the phenomena I have described. I willingly admit that this term is vague, and that there are serious and substantial questions as to where and how it applies, but for the purposes of this essay, it will be enough. I can't define every nuance of neoliberalism, but if you think of it as encompassing a number of different mainstream political orthodoxies, you'll be close. It's not a single ideology, but refers more to the present system and its ability to define what is and is not acceptable. It consists of a vague family of ideas that nonetheless defines the political mainstream in much the same way that topography and the presence of trees define a forest biome.
2. The Present Day
Today, we see a definite paradigm shift going on, but this time, the playing field is different. In the first place, there is no "middle ground" with two opposite poles. Rather, what we see is one ideology (the prevailing neoliberalism) that stands in the center, surrounded on all sides by an enormous and highly diverse field of challengers that are typically subsumed under the "populist" label. Right off the bat, the terminology is an issue, because "populism" here is a blanket term that basically means "anything that's not neoliberalism."
(There is, of course, the old revolutionary left, but said revolutionary leftism exists in much the same sense as a species in a zoo "exists" despite being extinct in the wild. A single shop in California run by the IWW does not a worldwide proletarian movement make. And a few aging, senile professors quoting Proudhon does not constitute a new radical front. Pity them; they started a revolution and nobody came.)
2.1 The Political-Intellectual Complex
One need only look at the number of Supreme Court justices whose law degrees came from Ivy League schools, for instance, to see this in action. Another example is the media. The Guardian, the BBC, MSNBC, and CNN all seem very different from one another - different, that is, until you read Russia Today or al-Jazeera. Upon reading those sources, we are immediately struck by the homogeneity of the media in the free world. There seems to be a diversity of opinions in our media, until we are exposed to sources outside of our geopolitical sphere. All of the sudden, our free media seems to be marching in lockstep, albeit a non-centrally-coordinated lockstep. To quote one of those aging leftist professors,
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.Enter "populism." With the advent of the internet age, and the slow buildup of dissatisfaction with the current system, we begin to see sudden eruptions of political unrest from outside of the neoliberal system. To put it simply, between the indifferent machinations of global market force and the broad availability of information (I would not have had access to Russia Today before the internet came about), the smallfolk sniffed the air and concluded that there was "something rotten in the state of Denmark."
- Noam Chomsky
The "populist" label bears further discussion. The use of the term by media outlets and academic writers is both instructive and highly amusing. In the first place, the term "populist" is completely inaccurate. Time magazine alleges that the right-wing populist Tea Party was a creation of the Koch brothers, which leads one to wonder what is so populist about a Tea Party created at the behest of the ruling class. On the other hand, the Trump phenomenon was emphatically not a creation of the Kochs, given the frequency with which Trump and the Kochs are at loggerheads with one another. What we have here, it seems to me, is an entrenched political-intellectual complex, or a broad (informal, incidental, cultural) cooperation between government, academia, journalism, and media. This is not to be taken in a conspiratorial sense. There is no conspiracy. There is only an interplay of institutions that regresses to a status quo.
(If this is hard to understand for my readers, think of the feminist conception of "The Patriarchy" with which my readers will no doubt be familiar. There's no single group controlling things, only a broad group of people with a set of tendencies that drive them in a more-or-less similar general direction..)
As stated before, the so-called "populist wave" is really an umbrella term for anything lying outside of neoliberal orthodoxy - an orthodoxy that is, counterintuitively enough, quite loosely-defined. The main components of this populist wave are discontent with the present system, and distrust of formerly authoritative institutions owing to the recent explosion of available information via the internet. One sees the label, "fake news," as an attempt to patch the leaking Titanic with a band-aid.
The neoliberal orthodoxy is, as stated before, loosely-defined and kept in place through the technique mentioned by Chomsky. As a result, one occasionally finds outliers, even among the established media outlets. There are plenty of hoaxes on the internet, but the term "fake news" bespeaks an increasing anxiety among established institutions. Regardless of whether or not the term is malicious or deceptive, it is still an attempt to maintain credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of an increasingly disenchanted public.
Now that I've criticized some of the rhetorical (perhaps propagandist) baggage surrounding the term "populist," I would like to examine the nature of the "populist wave" itself.
2.2 The "Populist Wave"
The populist wave is more like a populist sea, in the center of which floats the leaky hulk of neoliberalism. The surf is becoming rougher by the day.
The most striking feature of the present populist wave is that it is largely a conservative counter-culture. I use the word "largely" because there are notable exceptions, such as the left-populists who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 American Presidential Election. But even these left-populists find themselves more comfortable with right-populists than with the neoliberal establishment; one need only look at the number of disaffected Bernie Sanders voters defecting to Trump to understand this.
However, this conservative counter-culture is not like the fascist movements of the 1930s, or even a conservative bizarro-reflection of the revolutionary Left at the same time. If anything, it resembles the beat and hippie movements. The conservative counter-culture consists largely of disaffected middle-class youth. Millennials are overwhelmingly left-leaning, but the generation following them is actually more conservative than the older generations. More importantly, however, is this: the right-wing component of the "populist wave" appears to be far more active than its left counterpart. A cursory listen to the editorializing of large newspapers treats us to an unholy bloodcurdling scream of horror at the right-wing populist wave threatening to engulf us all. Trump's election, and the Democratic party's black-balling of Sanders, serves as a sign that this populist wave (really non-establishment wave) has teeth, and that it leans decidedly to the right.
Much like the beatniks and hippies, this is a primarily cultural movement, which is a fact that seems to avoid most pundits. The political consequences, such as Trump's election, Brexit, and so on, are just institutional wave-crests of a deeper cultural current. This explains the confusion of many people in grasping exactly how the populist wave works; one looks only at the ripples on the surface, and does not take into account what's going on underneath.
3. What's next?
How this all will pan out is anyone's guess. The swarm of anti-establishment ideologies currently competing for dominance, with the establishment and one another, is difficult to predict. The one factor that I can predict with any degree of confidence is that the present paradigm will have vanished when the feeding-frenzy stops.
However, I have an inkling, a suspicion, a hunch about what will cause one of those movements to succeed. The problem with all of them is fundamental; they know what they dislike, but they don't know what they do like. They all know what they don't want, but not what they want. The political-intellectual complex cannot survive, and many of its competitors are not fully compatible with one another. So, what determines which competitor wins?
Simple: the ideology that offers a coherent, pragmatic, workable alternative to the present paradigm will carry the day. It's that simple. Right now, everybody is dissatisfied, and wants something different. The writings on this very blog are laced with said dissatisfaction. We all hate the way things are, except those few people who get rich off of the present situation (there are very few such people). The ideology that wins will be the one that can offer a constructive alternative vision. That's the key.