Populism as a political strategy often involves the promise of delivering “justice” for the people • a promise that involves cutting through bureaucratic procedures and institutional barriers to give the people what they want. However, who are “the people,” and by what means do populists know what they want? Partha Chatterjee has recently argued that the current proliferation of populism across the globe is the result of a core paradox of democracy: the tension that exists between the promises of popular sovereignty and the problematics of governing that ensue from the nation-state and liberalism’s mandate to care for the populations under its domain (Chatterjee 2019). For Chatterjee, modern liberal democracies produce split subjects; citizen-subjects of rights that are aggregated into the abstract form of “the people” (the sovereign foundation of the state), and subjects of interest aggregated into population groups in the name of both security and welfare. Governmentality, as Foucault famously formulated it, is exercised at the level of the population (Foucault 2007). While liberal democratic theory presumes the citizen-subject’s will is unique to them and can only be expressed directly through the tools of representative or direct democracy, authoritarian populist leaders often claim to know the will of the people, because, to put it simply, they are the people (Sanchez 2020). On the other hand, the premise of governmentality is that populations and their interests can be known by governments through observation, surveying, and other surveillance and algorithmic techniques that deploy statistics to make calculations of probability and risk (Asad 2018). In a time when politics appears reduced to administration through the neoliberal consensus, Chatterjee asks: “Are we now seeing a revolt of the people against being turned into populations as things?” (2019: 68). Drawing on case studies from Indonesia, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Turkey, this panel examines the relationship between the people and the population in authoritarian populist contexts from an ethnographic perspective. From the voices with which politicians address crowds in Indonesia or the technologies by which population groups are mobilized to produce iconic representations of “the people” in Nicaragua, to the ways that opposition journalists become inadvertently involved in policing the boundaries of “the people” and its enemies in Turkey, we examine the relationship between populist claims of embodying the sovereign will of the people, and the techniques and technologies of “knowing” the population deployed by governments. Moreover, we consider the role that liberal and neoliberal regimes of knowledge and power play in populist authoritarian governance, including the role of statistical thinking in Erdogan’s Turkey, and the reduction of representative politics to the administration of interests during martial rule in Pakistan. Collectively, we argue for a more nuanced ethnographic examination of the ways authoritarian populist projects address the gap that exists between the promises of popular sovereignty and the reduction of politics to the administration of populations as things.
Next from AAA Annual Meeting 2021
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AAA Annual Meeting 2021
18 November 2021