From Venezuela to Libya charismatic leaders have led their people down a blind alley

Latin America is not quite like other continents, politically speaking. Currently both Venezuela and Brazil are in the news, the first convulsed by economic meltdown, the second by political crisis. They breed a special type of political leader there, as a quick look at Bolivia and Argentina also show. The usual word used to evoke the political landscape is “populism”, a term that is also being used in Europe of the policies of people like Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, and in America as well of Donald Trump, and could equally apply to several situations in Africa in the not too recent past.

But just what is populism? This article in the Economist is 10 years old, but provides a good answer, as well as showing that little has changed in Latin America over the last decade.

There are certain common threads to populism.

The first is the presence of a charismatic leader, who has mass appeal, who is much loved of the distracted multitude, and who relies greatly on rhetorical flourishes rather than dry as dust policy exposition. The second is the forging of a movement that is supposed to leap over class divides: this means that populists somehow combine a belief in anti-capitalism without embracing classical socialism, but rather split the difference between the two, or somehow combine them, generally using the glue of nationalism. Populism tends to pose as the movement of the masses against the tyranny of elites, though it soon creates elites of its own, as the Economist wisely points out. Finally, populism makes promises that cannot be delivered, and in the end leads to a worse situation than the one it set out to solve, as has clearly been the case in Venezuela.

As far as I can see there has never been a populist movement that didn’t end in disaster. As the Economist observes of the Latin American variety:

One big reason for populism’s persistence is the extreme inequality in the region. That reduces the appeal of incremental reform and increases that of messianic leaders who promise a new world. Yet populism has done little to reduce income inequality.

A second driver of populism has been Latin America’s wealth of natural resources. Many Latin Americans believe that their countries are rich, whereas in truth they are not. Populists blame poverty on corruption, on a grasping oligarchy or, nowadays, on multinational oil or mining companies. That often plays well at the ballot box. But it is a misdiagnosis. Countries develop through a mixture of the right policies and the right institutions. Whatever their past achievements, the populists are leading Latin America down a blind alley.

This sort of populism, of course, is quite common too in Africa. Idi Amin was an exponent, as was Colonel Gaddafi; both were seemingly loved in their heyday, perhaps because wodges of cash would be distributed to whoever turned up at their rallies. That strikes me as a hallmark of populism: the idea of getting something for nothing, of extravagant promises, of redistributing the shares of the cake, with no losers in the redistribution.

But populism is not really bothered with economic theory, it is more an anti-economic theory, even an anti-political theory. Moreover, populism, or something very like it, also exists in the religious sphere.

It is possible to pose as a charismatic religious leader who is against the elites that have dominated the Church; who rails against the perceived corruption of the Church’s administrators, and who promises a bright new dawn of Church life after the Church has been purified and the Temple cleansed. Several religious leaders who have done this come to mind: one was Fra Dolcino, whose movement was immortalised in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Another populist movement was that of the Cathars; but perhaps the most singular religious populist of all time was the Dominican friar Savonarola.

Both Church and state were swift to crush these populist religious movements, recognising them as a threat to public order, as well as a threat to the integrity of the Church. Savonarola, and people like him, did not want to reform the Church, they wanted to destroy it. But it is part of the genius of Catholicism that it also produces popular movements that inspire the masses and which reinforce the structures of the Church and enrich its life. The initiators of these movements are the saints, people like Bernadette of Lourdes, Thérèse of Lisieux, Teresa of Calcutta and Pius of Pietrelcina. Contrary to populists, who are marked out by egotism and personality disorder, the saints are marked out by their humility, and the realisation that it is not all about them. When the populist leader vanishes, so generally does his movement; the work of the saint endures.