Populism: Activism’s Evil Twin

A word has been washing around in the media, spilling from the plump and pouted lips of politicians and journalists everywhere, with a meaning that is surreptitiously adapted at every convenient opportunity. It’s as though they’re all in on the act, utilising the word to make specious claims about things which in reality they have no factually-based ideas. The only certainty about this term is that it serves a receptacle function, enabling any debate within which it plays a significant role to be argued from divergent purposes, ever evading truth and certainty. Is it a Trojan Horse, a decoy, a false premise, or just utterly confused empty talk? What are people really talking about when they speak of ‘populism’? 

One answer is that populism denotes a society with a heightened degree of political engagement. In which case, the term ‘populism’ has recently been used as a veil to mask what is otherwise known as democracy, disguising it as an undesirable, even radical ideology deserving of great criticism. When sold under the guise of an “-ism”, the term becomes categorised alongside real ideologies, truly deserving of our concern (be it socialism, capitalism, fascism – now rebranded, the ‘alt-right’ – etcetera). And when the term is propagated by the media, given precedence in discourse above some truly heinous, yet increasingly popular alternative political and economic systems, more important issues relating to the corruptive intention of this term’s use become buried and forgotten under pages and pages of hypocrisy: Long live democracy, down with populism! This is the layman’s view, and has been interpreted by many as David Cameron’s view also.

Perhaps, however, populism isn’t about the political actions or championing of the common folk and their expressions against whichever branch of the politico-economic elite that they deem either (at best) detached from the needs of society or (at worst) entirely uncivilised. Maybe it has nothing to do with political empowerment or mobilisation whatsoever. Maybe it’s simply a descriptive term, used as shorthand to express a state of democracy, whereby the people take democratic action as a consequence of the system force-feeding them ‘untruths’ within a ‘post-factual’ era – still implying that it is the people and not the system that is untrustworthy, denigrating the value of democracy without appearing to do so. Indeed, a world in which the people’s opinions can do easily be called into question would be utterly enticing, would it not? Opportunities to defend the infallible necessity of radical paternalism would regularly present themselves, clearing the road to a seemingly democratic plutocracy! Bliss. Oh what a beautiful world… I kid, of course, but that’s how Donald Trump’s cabinet seem to be benefiting from populism (12).

But then, maybe it is not the political system that is populistic. Maybe it is the politicians themselves who are the populists – popularising themselves and their prejudices via vicious demagoguery and nationalistic fear mongering. If this is the case, then it appears as though populism isn’t being used as a veil but instead creates the veil through which the electorate are presented a skewed and biased version of democracy. (This leads one to consider whether contemporary populism is a symptom of neoliberalism – read here).

In one sense, these two ideas – that populism describes a state of true democracy and that it is the leaders, the protagonists and not the people who are the populists – both hold true. Just as an activist movement can be described as democratic action, so too can a populist movement. Similarly, activist and populist movements and groups share the characteristic of being led by those who we might also refer to as activists or populists. This might suggest that activism and populism are one and the same; activists are populists and populists are activists.

However, what differentiates these two schools (as far as I see it), if they are truly differentiable at all, is that activism is led by the virtuous and populism is lead by the incongruous. What this means is that, quite unfortunately, well-intentioned, politically-engaged people, who might otherwise be seen as activists, unknowingly become populists when their chieftains decide to take the low road, promoting their positions through deceitful means, justifying them using pseudo-academic literature. (Which is suggested by the rhetoric and subsequent rise of history’s most prominent populist leaders as being so tightly associated with and attributed to post-fact politics. As two examples of this rising trend, Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump come to mind here. Hence, whilst Bernie Sanders may be described, perhaps even criticised as a champion of activism, Trump is populism’s equivalent, as was Hitler during his rise). In short, populism is activism’s evil twin.

So, whilst activism is the attempt by the people to perpetuate democracy through social empowerment, populism is the attempt to perpetuate politico-economic empowerment through pseudo-democracy. Populism is democracy gone wrong. And whether or not you find this conception compelling, one thing is for sure: ‘populism’ is rarely ever what is seems.


A.C. Stark

The Great Misconception About Consequentialism

Consequentialism it is almost universally misunderstood and so, by extension, is Utilitarianism.

So, to start, let’s clear something up which I believe is at the heart of the matter: Consequentialism is not per se a normative position. Despite what many will have you believe, it is in fact nothing more than a law of ethics – what I would call a meta-ethical truth. In teaching this truth a typical pedagogue tends to explore abstract scenarios, tasking her students to conduct thought-experiments in order to solidify her students understanding, inspire debate and autodidacticism.

Let me attempt to make my point clearer: In the words of Moore, Consequentialism prescribes that “an act is morally right if and only if that act maximises the good, that is, if and only if the total amount of good for all minus the total amount of bad for all is greater than this net amount for any incompatible act available to the agent on that occasion”. The typical pedagogue provides this maxim before then turning to a thought-experiment. For instance, the Trolley Problem:

“Edward is the driver of a trolley, whose brakes have just failed. On the track ahead of him are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. The track has a spur leading off to the right, and Edward can turn the trolley into it. Unfortunately, there is one person the right-had track. Edward can turn the trolley, killing the one; or he can refrain from turning the trolley, killing the five.” – Judith Thompson

Typically, the students then engage in the thought-experiment – they consider the philosophical implications of the scenario, the ethics of responsibility and will, the distinction between action and inaction, the value of life, explore various definitions of ‘good’ (etc. – etc.) and a plethora of other topics which dress the study of Moral Normativity.

All the while the students subconsciously submit to the assumption that Edward’s unfortunate situation and their related evaluations (or at least aspects of them) are practicable in reality, in Consequentialist terms; they believe that what Consequentialism is telling us about what we ought to do, is to do what is ‘right’. But in doing this they assume a normativity that was never prescribed in the first place (and where other writers may describe the principle as possessing this characteristic, I contend that it should not). And this is where the problem lies.

You see, it is in the nature of such thought-experiments that true answers are only ever discoverable once the boundaries of the envisioned scenarios are absolutely defined. Such thought-experiments describe abstract closed systems wherein, by definition, there exist no spatiotemporal extensions beyond their descriptions. Or in other words, they define all the relevant epistemological factors of a given ethical conundrum. From within, and only from within, these closed systems can Consequentialism be appropriately assumed to have normative value (i.e., be appropriately applied). For, it is only from within closed systems that certainty can be made with respects to the consequences of all the potential optionable actions. When you concern yourself with the Trolley Problem, once you are given all the parameters and provided the rules, when asked about what Edward ought to do, there is only one correct answer. (In our case we are yet to define what ‘good’ means but if we were to adopt a Hedonistic sentiments as Utilitarianism does, the answer would be only to turn right). However, rarely in the real world is there such certainty surrounding the parameters of any ethical situations.

Reality is not a closed system. Or rather, if it is a closed system (in which case it must have a definitive spatiotemporal beginning and end, and be strictly determinate), in the real world we never obtain all the relevant epistemological factors for any ethical situations – possibly besides vacuous ones. Hence, we can rarely, if ever, confidently appropriately apply Consequentialism, trusting that we have strictly conformed to its maxim. Hence, whilst navigating ethical conundrums in the real world, one should rarely attempt to apply Consequentialism in an active sense because in doing so one would invariably contravene the maxim (or put another way, if Consequentialism incorporated a normative characteristic within its maxim, it would be as though it were ordering you always to take the right action whilst never really letting you in on which action is right).

Hence, for the most part, it is only really appropriate to consider Consequentialism as descriptive. It is a meta-ethical truth and nothing much more.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, Consequentialism deserves another run in. But this time we need to understand it and teach it correctly. Otherwise, it’s destined to carry an unjust reputation. As to how it’s compatible with other ethical theories, it’s precisely because it is not normative that it is so. But I’ll leave expounding upon that subject for another rainy day.

A.C. Stark

You’re an Activist, Big Wow

At the dawn of the new year the British media decided that the SoCalGas leak in Aliso Canyon LA qualified as big enough news to permit a moderate level of broadcasting. The stories that followed focused almost solely on the evacuation of thousands of local residents who suffered from nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds and various other ailments, due to high levels of air-bound pollutants. Unquestionably, this widespread degradation of well-being was alone worthy of headline news. Yet, nearly all of the reports were overly anthropocentric and failed to paint a full picture of the disaster.

In response, alongside a multitude of others fully aware of the media’s inability (or sheer reluctance) to properly inform, I wrote to the BBC and engaged with social media to educate people on the wider scope of problems related to the leak, concerning global warming.

(To note some key points, the leak officially lasted 110 days – though probably began well before it was reported  spewing up to 1,300 metric tonnes of methane into the atmosphere per day. In total, upwards of 96,000 metric tonnes are predicted to have been emitted between October 23rd and February 11th. Is that a lot? Most definitely. Whilst methane escapes the atmosphere faster than CO2, the damage it causes to the climate in the meantime is, for it’s first two decades at least, 84 times more calamitous. Comparatively speaking, the amount of methane released equates to roughly 8,000,000 metric tonnes of CO2, or the burning of 900,000,000 gallons of gasoline).

Subsequently the BBC expanded their story, stating that activists held the leak to be comparable, in terms of environmental damage, to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.  

At the time I took this rather personally. I felt slightly disenchanted. It wasn’t the lack of calculated journalism that peeved me the most. Instead, I found myself somewhat insulted by this notion of activism, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. Was I an activist?

Having mulled over it for some considerable time here’s what I have come to believe: Activism is heavily weighted down with negative connotations. It has an image problem. When imagining the stereotypical activist one pictures an eccentric, badly-dressed hippy-like character with contentious and overbearing social qualities. A vegan, clad in hand-me-downs. A militant idealist. An inconvenience on daily living. Big wow. Tell me something I don’t know.

But, and maybe only subconsciously, most people don’t want to be affiliated with that image. Affiliations with activists or persons with alternative ideals tend to impede upon our aspirations. That’s because the truths that they reveal can be extremely threatening and touch the core of how we understand and navigate the world. Moreover, affiliations can mould the way in which the world understands us. You see, opportunities are gained as a consequence of the impressions we inspire. Creating good impressions generates opportunities. The converse diminishes them. 

So, ultimately, I was insulted because of an unnecessary fear. I was subconsciously afraid of affiliation. That fear caused me to hold an unconscious bias. A prejudice, I believe, no sufficiently moral person ought to have.

There may appear to be a simple cure for this unwanted affiliation: Stop campaigning. Stop promoting ideals. Or, in my case, stop attempting to inform people on the full extent of damages caused by the SoCalGas leak and other such issues. Ultimately, stop being an activist. But no one should ever let their fear of unwanted affiliation negate their moral beliefs. For that’s all activism is. In its purest form, activism just is acting to promote a world consistent with ones moral beliefs. So if you fail to champion your morals through fear of being affiliated with those associated with a stereotype which conflicts with your ulterior desires, whom at the same time share your moral beliefs, you are a hypocrite unto yourself. You favour your ulterior desires over your morals. Your life is, by your own account of right and wrong, immoral.

Hence, we ought not to avoid activism simply because of the stereotypes it carries. Activism comes in many forms. It’s performed by all types of people. The stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. We ought to make activism what we want it to be. Give it the image we want it to have. Dare to challenge the stereotype. And don’t let unwanted affiliations deter us from promoting what’s right.

Am I an activist? I suppose I am. But shame on those who aren’t.

A.C. Stark