Populism and Liberalism: a psychodynamic perspective

by George Hatjoullis

In recent months I have regularly seen journalists and academics conflate populism with agenda. Populism is a method or process of achieving power. It has no specific agenda. You will find populists across the whole political spectrum. It is the method of appealing to the lowest common denominator in society that has a say in who rules. In its most crude form, the power-seeker echoes the voice of this LCD with all the immorality and inconsistency contained in the voice. The LCD thus sees itself reflected in the power-seeker and concedes power to this entity. Once in power the power-seeker does whatever is necessary to retain power and pursues whatever agenda serves retaining power. Populist politicians rarely have a specific or coherent agenda over and above the desire for power.

In contrast, liberalism, with which populism has been regularly contrasted in recent months, is a philosophy founded on principles of liberty and equality. It is an agenda and one that addresses the whole society. Liberal politicians seek power, in principle, in order to promote this agenda. Power is not an end in itself. Liberal politicians do not echo the dark thoughts of the LCD but aim to promote the liberating ideas contained in this agenda. Liberalism is intrinsically pluralist. Populism is intrinsically tyrannical. In this respect perhaps they do lend themselves to some binary comparisons but they are not simple opposites and conceptually they are not directly comparable.

The emergent populist agenda tends to have the character and consistency of the collective consciousness of the LCD. The latter is typically the most populous, least educated, and least thoughtful segment of society. It is the most primitive. The collective LCD mind tends to display the unconscious characteristics reminiscent of Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position, notably the splitting of the self and object into good and bad with no integration between the two.Everything is simply good or bad and that associated with self is good and anything bad projected onto others. Klein sees this as an important stage in child development towards the mature depressive position. In this latter position self and object are integrated and good and bad are seen to be part of the whole, and part of us all. Poor mental health is associated with regression into the paranoid-schizoid position.

No doubt I have not done justice to Klein’s psychodynamic insights. Nor indeed is this the only way of characterising the collective unconscious. It does however capture the way of thinking of the LCD. I find it interesting because Klein uses the P-S position to describe a stage in child development towards maturity and classifies problems of adult mental health as a regression to this position. Enough said!