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By Bruno Cava
Translated by Devin Beaulieu
The difference between populist discourse and classic liberal discourse is based in that, for the former, the “people” is something that should be constructed, while for liberals the “people” is something already given. In this first case, the construction of the people implies the construction of a new representation. In the second case, the representation is only made to consider a society that precedes it, the pre-existent, is already formed.
In populism, the history of the construction of a people occurs through the division between “us” and “them.”
Populism denounces the false universal of the existing representative order, which does not represent us anymore, in order to directly demand a new universal. During the bourgeois revolutions this was the struggle against theancien regime according to which it was possible to liberate from the parasitic aristocracy in order to form the nation and bourgeois citizen, now considered a universal category. During the anticolonial struggles, this was the struggle against the metropole and imperialism in the name of unity, for national liberation. According to Antonio Gramsci, the construction of the people, the folk, unites intellectuals, workers, and peasants through the national-popular collective consciousness in order to liberate themselves from the bourgeois.
The Construction of the National-Popular
In Brazil, ideas of the national-popular were present in developmentalist versions, where national modernization combined with popular emancipation by means of mobilizing, pedagogical, and organizing actions. The conquest of power would not take place simply as the capture of the State, but would happen through the laborious cultural and ideological dissemination of national formation from the bases. The task of underdeveloped intellectuals in this project consists in leading the process of illumination of the masses, in agreement with an emancipatory program. Thus, whereby, sufficiently industrializing the country to form a conscious proletariat would overt falling into some form of economic determinism. Without the militant work of popular emancipation, modernization, invariably, will produce further class domination.
The political theory closest to this national-popular promise, although elaborated in the context of industrialized societies of the economic center, is Gramscian theory. According to Gramsci, who wrote in the first half of the past century, the exercise of power in capitalism is not sustained only through coercion and fear. It has to produce, above all, a diffuse legitimacy that, through innumerable collective cultural institutions, continually captures the consent of the majority. The representative field in its ensemble, composed of governments, parties, and unions can, in this way, operate as if representing the “general interest,” closing fissures and stopping deviations.
Ideology, then, does not appear as a system of systematic mystification. As if ideology were a veil opposite to reality, a mystical curtain that separates the people from the truth about the real relations of power. Further, ideology has a material character: that determines behavior and penetrates habits. Capitalism, in essence, does not fool anyone. Perspectives that capitalism can lose strength by means of denouncing its mystifications are naïve. Individuals already know that capitalism is a complex of exploitation that generates, at one extreme, luxury and waste and, at the other, misery and violence.
Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony
This is what Gramsci named hegemony: the normal form of politics in developed and complex societies, in which representative democracies prevail. Hegemony is a cultural operation on a large scale, which precedes a unity forced by the state, determining the existence of a hegemonic group that emerges as the bearer of “general interest.” In terms of hegemony, the crux of the question is not to question how capitalism functions, but rather, how we, ourselves, make it function. Capitalism possesses an evidence and emotion, permeated, in which we are involved in elaborating in our daily lives, our plans and ourselves.