The forefathers of our populists

Populist politicians are nothing new. And I am not talking about the 1930s. Populists have existed since the beginning of representative democracy, if not longer. This was brought home to me once more as I was reading a story from the nineteenth century.

The story is from the book Familie en kennissen, ‘family and acquaintances’. It was written by one of the few historical Dutch authors who are still read in schools today: Piet Paaltjens. Piet Paaltjens is famous for his ironic verse. But under a different name, the same author – a vicar in everyday life – also wrote sentimental tales in the accessible style of Hans Christian Andersen. His name: François HaverSchmidt. His stories have long been out of print, so I was happy some years ago to stumble on a second-hand copy.

This story, that shows so presagiously the workings of populism, is about two men who share the same house: a cobbler, who lives in the basement; and the owner, a man of independent means who dabbles in poetry. He lets the basement to the cobbler, and occupies the rest of the house himself. He is known throughout country to be a ‘great man’.

Illustration by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht for the third edition (1893). http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/have010fami01_01/have010fami01_01_0004.php

In 1893, the story was illustrated by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht.

It quickly becomes clear that this man is primarily great for his great inheritance and his great political acumen. After a period of liberal hospitality and generosity towards established leaders of the national Church, he lands in a powerful ecclesiastic position. Next on his list is parliament.

First and foremost, [the great man] was great in his popularity. He was friendliness personified towards all. He not only lifted his hat for every unknown lady with a sweet face, but he even shook hands with all kinds of ordinary folk, stroked the children on the street under the chin – sometimes by accident also their nannies – and greeted the wharf loafers and layabouts by name. ‘They are people too,’ the great man used to say, ‘and we are all children of the same big family.’

On the day he is elected as a member of parliament,

several grocers put out their flags; he had stolen their hearts by making familiar conversation with them on their doorsteps. One of them had even had the text ‘the man of the people’ pasted on his banner in gold paper letters.

Yet men of the people are often better at telling the people what to think, than at listening to the people.

Not long after, one man from the ‘people’, a small cobbler […], was in The Hague, where he had a petition to make […] in the interest of his sister’s children, and on that occasion, [near parliament,] he met the representative of the people, who was in the company of several distinguished gentlemen. At first, he thought that the gentleman looked him sharply in the face, but he must have been mistaken, for one moment later the gentleman passed him at an inch’s distance, engaged in busy conversation and without even the slightest greeting.

It does not become clear in the story what political programme the great man adheres to, but it does not matter much either. His voters do not choose him on the basis of his ideas – they do not choose him on the basis of the way he proposes to solve their problems – but because they believe he embodies ‘the people’. His political programme can be very flexible therefore. And once he is elected, he no longer needs to acknowledge individual members of the people, or attempt to solve their problems.

Cover of the edition digitised by the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren. http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/have010fami01_01/

Quotations are from ‘Een groot man en een goed man’, on p. 14 of the third edition of Familie en kennissen (Schiedam, 1894)

Images are from the edition available in the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren.




Christmas reading: The Bottom Billion

This Christmas, I finally got around to reading a book that shook the world of international development almost ten years ago: The Bottom Billion, based on research by Paul Collier plus a host of collaborators.

Paul Collier argues that instead of seeing poverty as the problem of the 5 billion people who live in developing countries, that is, countries that are substantially poorer than for instance the United Stated, South Korea or Luxembourg, we should focus on the 1 billion people living in the poorest countries in the world.

The book offers a number of strategies that the international community can follow to tighten the growing gap between the 5 billion that will be ok, and the 1 billion than might not be. These strategies are designed to curb the existing problems the bottom-billion countries suffer from: unceasing military conflict; the possession of natural resources, such as oil, which profits are spoiling the reliability of their politicians and the soundness of their economical investments; the absence of infrastructures through which they can reach potential markets for their products; and bad economic policies and bad governance.

Much of the book’s research was convincing to me. An important limitation, however, seems to be its exclusive focus on countries-as-a-whole. Problems are identified as residing in national governments; solutions in the relations between those national governments (‘international relations’), and especially in interventions by the wealthiest states, e.g. the G8 or, nowadays, the G20.

To be fair, this book is aimed at readers living in those wealthy countries (referred to in the book as ‘we’). So the focus on international relations is not altogether surprising. Still, the book makes the assumption that as soon as the economies of the bottom-billion countries will take off, everyone in those countries will sufficiently benefit from this. In other words: as soon as state-level statistics will be all right, everyone in those states will be all right.

Collier leaves you curious about the dynamics within the countries at risk of ‘falling behind’. What happens between their citizens and their national and local governments? Can we feel reassured, once the national government of a bottom-billion country has secured a good tax income? How will the grown wealth of the country as a whole, reach all parts of the population? This bottom billion that we should be concerned about – is that the entire populations of the 58 (mostly small) countries that he mentions? Or is it, rather, large chunks of a far greater number of countries, including huge countries like India and Mexico?

One of the global game-changers over the past years has been the fact that wealth disparities between countries have for the first time since many centuries been falling. At the same time, however, inequality among citizens within countries has in many countries been on the rise since the 1980s, and especially since the crisis of 2008. For this reason, I would have liked to hear more about intra-national politics in Collier’s book.

Another question raised by the book’s emphasis on economic growth is the question whether the economy of a country can ever be big enough, or whether it will always need to grow further. Will the bottom-billion countries have to grow until the people in them will have reached a certain living standard? Or until they have reached a nominal income comparable to the wealthier countries? Will it help if the growth of the wealthy countries slows down (which has happened after 2008)? Or is the global aim everlasting growth? But then again, is this even theoretically possible, considering the limited amount of soil and other natural resources on the planet? Without giving his readers a rough idea about where these issues fit in with his development theory, some important parts of his story remain unconvincing.

Still, I was pleased to see that Collier’s ideas have not been standing still since the publication of The Bottom Billion. Whereas in the book he writes a little derisively about ‘sustainable’ or ‘pro-poor growth’, in his later popular publications he is not afraid to speak of ‘inclusive’ and even ‘sustainable growth’.dsc04609 One cruel irony that I cannot resist sharing: have a look at the banner which the publisher has placed right across the cover image of a child soldier.

Two critiques of Collier’s book that raise similar points as I have tried to do here, and which come from specialists in the field, are by A. Sumner and Michael Lipton.