POPULISM IN THE AGE OF NEOLIBERALISM

POPULISM IN THE AGE OF NEOLIBERALISM

K. Weyland

Chapter 10 of Coniff (ed.) Populism in Latin America

 

In a Nutshell

Weyland wants to show how populism re-emerged in the age of neo-liberalism. I don’t find the argument particularly compelling. Whilst the term neo-populist seems apt for regimes such as Garcia (Peru), Alfonsin (Argentina) and Sarney (Brazil) it does not seem to fir for Menem (Argentina) Collor (Brazil) nor Fujimori (Peru). Whilst all of these leaders came to power using populist rhetoric, personality leadership styles etc. only the former tried to “re-activate” (to use O’Donell’s phrasing) the popular sector using heterodox stabilization plans that essentially attempted to further the policies of the classical populists (domestic expansion via protectionism). These were regimes of inclusion and were initially highly successful, although the heterodox plans eventually aggravated inflation and did little to solve the problems facing the region at that time. The later regimes were not concerned with activation of the popular sector, and although their support was conditional on support from the popular sector, this was not sufficient to support the neo-liberal reforms they eventually implemented. For this a much broader coalition of interests had to be built. Benefits were not available for distribution in the same way as under classical populism, and whereas union building had been an important element of classical populism, under these leaders unions had to be pacified in order to push through the reforms. I would argue that whilst there may have been much similarity in the style of the politics of these regimes with those of the classical populists, the core of the programme was very different. The masses gave support to those leaders not because they were direct beneficiaries of policy, but because the neo-liberal policies were the only means of reorganizing the economy as a whole under which conditions the urban masses would benefit concurrently with many other sectors. This is closer to a general definition of democracy although perhaps the term delegative democracy is more apt.

Populist Revival in the 1980s.

  • Populism is based on a quasi-direct relationship between a personalistic leader and masses of devoted followers. The BA regimes had sought to eradicate it as they identified it with turmoil. In the restored democracies such as Chile and Uruguay where there were historic parties with considerable strength personalistic leaders found it harder to build support.
  • The BA regimes actually inadvertently allowed for a populist revival. The modernization they encouraged disrupted social order and the lives of the poor, thus making them available for political mobilization. The economic growth of the 60s and 70s continued the process of urbanization, a growing informal sector etc. Additionally, as the BA regimes sought to dismantle the process of representation by intermediary organizations, this mass of people was disorganized and thus ripe for mobilization by a personalistic leader.
  • E.g. Garcia (Peru) – appealed to unorganized poor. His policies resembled classical populism (extending ISI). He stimulated growth by expansion and financed this by capping debt repayments and this deviation from IFI proscriptions was very popular. Problems arose as Peru was cut off from loans especially when the banking system was nationalized. Inflation rose dramatically and the crisis resumed.
  • Argentina and Brazil (Cruzado Plan) were similarly heterodox and ended in similar failure.
  • It became obvious that the classical populist policies were no longer viable.

 


 

Neoliberal Neopopulism

  • Menem, Collor, Fujimori used populism to impose liberal economic policies. They won office in typical populist fashion. “Saviours” of the nation”. Upon taking office however, all three went neo-liberal and tried to break inflation by suppressing demand and slashing public spending, and trade opening. They thus reversed the policies of the classical populists.
  • Although they adjusted their policies to the inevitable, Weyland argues that they used their remaining margin of choice to ensure their neoliberal policies did not lose them popular support.

 

  • Mass support – both neopopulists (NP) and neoliberals (NL) agreed the unorganized poor of the informal sectors needed to be won over.
  • Distance from Intermediary Organizations – NP parties tried to subordinate interest groups to their own ambitions, and NL attacked these same groups as trying to undermine competition through rent seeking.
  • Attacks on political class – NP attacked established politicians as corrupt and privileged. NL were similarly suspicious.
  • Strong State – NP centralized power to bolster personal authority. NL wanted a concentration of power to break opposition to the reforms.
  • Targeted benefits programs – this is perhaps the only affinity with which I would say NP resembled classical populism. NP leaders later enacted spending programs to benefit the poor, especially the informal sector. Menem and Fujimori distributed much in a highly visible fashion insisting that control of the funds remain in the office of the president. They used these payments to exact political payoffs from the poor masses. NLs also advocated such spending as the World Bank changed its focus from stabilization to development and poverty eradication, and also as a means of making the reforms politically viable.
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