Whose people? Some notes on the ‘people’ of populism

Birth of ‘the people’:

The human being is a social animal, and since the origins of the homo sapiens, it has always lived within the horizon of dependent affiliation to a group — be it the family circle, a tribe, or some other sort of social organization. The concept of “people”, though, can be traced back to the defining formula of the Roman State, which in the form of the Senatus Populusque Romanus expressed the two fundamental and permanent components of the Roman civitas: the Senate, constituted of the noble families; and the people, meaning the civil population which through progressive integration and urbanization entered the State with the fall of the European monarchies  . With the Renaissance, the individual stepped on the scene, preparing the ideological terrain for the French Revolution of 1789, and for the Industrial Revolution which brought about the organization of the working masses vis-á-vis the bourgeoisie. According to Incisa di Camerana & Grassi (2012), what is generally evoked as the essence of the people is the social element which appears to be less contaminated by outside interference and is identifiable, in predominantly agricultural countries, with the rural population. In countries with a strong urbanization, on the other hand, it may be the mass of labourers which is seen as the prototypical synthetic representation of popular virtue.

During the 18th century, the philosophical postures of the Enlightenment converged in the French Revolution and precipitated into the constitution of a society of new and unprecedented characteristics. The shift from absolutism to republicanism brought with it the inversion of the previous relationship of authority between leader and led, relocating the supposed locus of power, wisdom, and virtue, from the political and religious elites to the common folk. The Rousseauian idealization of the “general will” behind the movement which elevated the masses from being led to leading themselves had as a consequence that

[t]he general will [assumed] the character of a purpose and as such len[t] itself to definition in terms of social-political ideology, a pre-ordained goal, towards which we are irresistibly driven; a solely true aim, which we will, or are bound to will, although we may not will it yet, because of our backwardness, prejudices, selfishness or ignorance. (Talmon, 1952/1955, p. 48)

“The Revolution”, Robespierre declared in one of his last speeches, “was the achievement of the simple people carried by their instinct and unsophisticated natural wisdom”  (ibid., p. 147). Consequently, Talmon explains, the idea of a people could become synonymous with “those who identify themselves with the general will and the general interest. Those outside are not really of the nation. They are aliens. This conception of the nation (or people) was soon to become a powerful political argument” (p. 48). The religious sentiment which had been split-off from the political sphere by Republicanism was replaced by an autopoietic faith in the people itself, and in the intrinsic, even mystical virtue it was believed to be naturally holding.

During the Revolution and in the first years following it, its frontrunners had to struggle with the transposition of an ideal into reality: how was this new powerful political entity to function once the heads of the aristocracy had rolled into the baskets? According to Talmon, two main lines of thought regarding the issue can be made out within the French Revolution: on the one hand, there was the notion put forward by Jacobinism, which supported the “vision of a society of equal men re-educated by the State in accordance with an exclusive and universal pattern”, in which “the individual man stands on his own economically” (p. 250). On the other hand, François-Noël Babeuf upheld the implementation of an egalitarian communist society: “Communist Babouvism already saw the essence of freedom in ownership of everything by the State and the use of public force to ensure a rigidly equal distribution of the national income, and spiritual conformity” (ibid.).  Both the reign of virtue proposed by the Jacobin dictatorship, and the scheme of an egalitarian communist society as proposed by Babeuf, represent, according to Talmon, “the two earliest versions of modern political Messianism”; and the state of mind rooted in “the eighteenth-century idea of the natural order (or general will) as an attainable, indeed inevitable and all-solving, end” (p. 249) had given birth to the seed of what Talmon baptized “totalitarian democracy”.  The driving idea of unlimited popular sovereignty was inspired “not so much by the desire to give all men a voice and a share in government as by the belief that popular sovereignty would lead to complete social, political and economic equality. It regarded, in the last analysis, the popular vote as an act of self-identification with the general will” (pp. 250-251). Yet, when it became obvious that general will and the will of the majority wouldn’t necessarily coincide, the conditions for the expression of the general will had to be created by eliminating or denying effective influence to the elements distorting this expression.  The people had to be purified of the soiling influence of impure factors; it had to be

freed from the pernicious influence of the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, all vested interests, and even political parties so that they could will what they were destined to will. This task thus took precedence over the formal act of the people’s willing. It implied two things: the sense of a provisional state of war against the anti-popular elements, and an effort at re-educating the masses till men were able to will freely and willingly their true will. (Talmon, 1952/1955, p. 251)

Already at its birth, therefore, the modern notion of “people” was faced with the irreconcilable tension between its heterogenous and complex concrete manifestation, and the abstract concept of purified homogeneity it originated from and which it braced as its own ideal. The irrefutable nature of the former, coupled with the necessity of upholding the latter, made the pinpointing of disruptive forces a logical consequence to bestride the gap existing between both, solving the tension by means of a compromise solution that wouldn’t fully deny either of them.

The “people” of populism:

Regardless of its ideological inclination, populism rests on the idealized notion of “the people” as the holder of the general will originated around the French Revolution: the people is “assumed as a myth, beyond an exact terminological definition, at a lyrical and emotional level” (Incisa di Camerana & Grassi, 2012, p. 735, my translation). In the 30th chapter of La Razón de mi Vida, Eva Perón expresses this idealized myth when she addresses the constant flow of letters she received from her supporters and admirers. She writes: “What is important to me is that those letters have the smell of the people, because in smelling of the people, they smell of truth! One day, Perón wisely said that he had traveled the country from one end to the other, and that having gotten to know all of its beauties and wonders, he finally encountered its greatest and most magnificent beauty: the people”  (Perón E., 1951/1982, p. 126, my translation).

Laclau (2005/2013) affirms that ‘the people’ acquires political agency and comes about as a consequence of the “differential demands” articulated by disenfranchised sectors of the general population. Therefore, according to the Argentinian political theorist, the populist identity radically differs from that of the mass in that it is not held together by the libidinal tie to the leader, but by the converging social demands. Following the same line, Merlin (2015) goes to great lengths to try and dissociate the regressive aspect from the group dynamics of populism by appealing to an eminently symbolic nature of the populist group’s structure and demands. Both authors rely however strongly on Lacanian psychoanalytical theory and share a political stance very much in favor of populist movements whenever they characterize themselves as politically on the ‘left’. As a consequence, their ideological bias is quite relevant, and the theoretical tools they rely on to tackle populist phenomena from a psychoanalytical perspective is conceptually rather limited. The view held by the likes of Laclau and Merlin seems to consider the populist group -its ‘people’- as what Bion (1961/1989) refers to as a “work group”, meaning a group that rationally pursues the goal of attaining a common task. The regressive aspect of the populist group could however well be explained by recurring to his “basic assumption group”, as being predominantly dominated by the basic assumption of dependency, which describes a state in which the distressed group seeks a leader to relieve them from anxiety. The leader is heavily idealized and invested with almost magical expectation, in a way reminiscent of the idealized perception that the infant has of his mother. Observing any of the populist phenomena across the world, and especially in Latin America, it is hard to overlook the almost religious idealization and infantile dependency and hopeful expectation which the populist followers develop towards the movement’s leader, whom is invariably chosen in times of anxiety-arousing social and institutional distress. This of course does not mean that the observations of Laclau are wrong, since it is true that populist movements arise when large sectors of the population perceive that they are not being listened to and seek representation via an “empty signifier” around which they may articulate their demands. But this view is very much a partial one, and I believe it to be largely due to Laclau’s own partaking in the very self-idealization of ‘the people’ whose roots I’m attempting to trace. The logocentric approach of Lacan to the unconscious, and the equally logocentric nature of Laclau’s discourse analysis in his approach to the phenomenon of populism, does not allow for an accurate appreciation of populism’s regressive, pre-symbolic aspects.

Zanatta (2014) identifies populism’s essence, its lowest common denominator, in a nucleus of ideology which reflects a mystical idea rooted in an ancient myth of lost purity and homogenous unity, upheld by the leader and contained by the group that shares it. The mythical point of origin, the lost state of bliss as contained in the ideological matrix, is voiced by the leader and projected forward, as a manifest destiny that is to be rightfully owned , to which those who identify as the people are naturally entitled.   Perhaps without being aware of it, Zanatta with his emphasis on the mythical aspect of the populist dynamic provides insights which are much in line with a psychoanalytical understanding of populism, based in the leader-follower relationship explained by Freud in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), whereby the group is held together by a commonly shared ideal incarnated in the leader, which leads to the members of the group to identify with each other in their ego ideal . The importance of illusion for group formation has also been pointed out by Freud in The Future of an Illusion (1927/2000) and further developed  by other prominent psychoanalysts such as Donald W. Winnicott (1971/1980b) whom developed the idea of a developmentally necessary “space of illusion” between mother and infant, and Didier Anzieu (1971), whom defined the “group illusion” as “a particular mental state that is seen in natural groups as well as in therapeutic or formative groups, and that is spontaneously verbalized by group members in the following form: ‘We are doing well together; we’re a good group; our leader or our supervisor is a good leader, a good supervisor” (1971).

With the migratory stream of the late 19th and early 20th centuries came a pressing demand for identity, for the homogenization of a national spirit. In the case of Latin America in general, and of Argentina in particular, the glue that held together the  wave of immigrants from Spain, Portugal, and Italy, was to a considerable degree their common Catholic heritage, which up until the Protestant reform and the French Revolution had condensed the authority of the spiritual and the political realms. The push towards individualism put forward by the Reformation, and later by liberalism, was a fragmenting influence on the homogenous Christian community. Since 1492, Latin America always received the influences of European shifts in philosophical and intellectual worldviews as a passive recipient, thus perceiving the influence of new trends mostly as an aggressive intrusion from the outside, aiming at the disruption of the presumed cohesion of the organic and spiritual social community of the people which was footed on the shaky ground of a national identity built by, and constituted almost exclusively of, immigrants.

What populisms always saw signs of in the digression between imaginary unity and a reality more and more scored by modern social conflicts was the manifestation of obscure forces, of enemies that infiltrated the local societies, as if conflict and disorder had been transplanted by foreign agents, or as a consequence of the imitation of exogenous models. It is not by chance that populisms invoked obscure and omnipresent conspiracies of Freemasonry or Judaism, or of worldwide communism or imperialism, all aimed at undermining the community of ‘the people’ in order to better dominate, and ultimately destroy it.   (Zanatta, 2014, pp. 132-133)

The response to the appearance of these perceived enemies often consisted in the pursuit of relief as provided by the retraction into the original ideal of the organic social order; a regression  in direction of the foundational myth of origin — one of homogeneity, lack of tension, and lack of conflict, akin to Freud’s notion of primary narcissism and purified pleasure-ego.

Pertaining to the populist version of ‘people’ depends on the adherence to the reigning populist regime’s ideology and identificatory network, rather than on class or status. Whatever element is seen as compromising the people’s inherent purity is perceived as a menace to the fulfillment of its historical destiny, whose reassurance is then sought in charismatic forms of messianic leadership. Discording elements are expelled from the social and political system. Manichean thinking takes over, differentiating between people and non-people: “The non-people is seen under a demonic light as a conspirative nucleus, like a sort of permanent conspiracy of universal proportions”  (Incisa di Camerana & Grassi, 2012, p. 736, my translation).

Taguieff  (2007) seems to recognize the regressive dimension of populism differentiating between one of two types of political leadership, the first “exploiting popular imagery nourished by democratic ideals, where dominates the desire of abolishing the barrier or the distance, indeed all difference, between the governed and the governing, between those on top and those at the bottom ”[3]; and the second one, which closely describes the understanding put forward by Zanatta, characterized by

those [populist leaders] who know or pretend to respond to the infracivic dream of seeing erased all distance between the desires and their realization, or satisfying the aspiration (surely ‘irrational’) of abolishing all temporization, all delay, all inscription of duration, in sum, of all which we understand as reality principle. The untenable promises pour abundantly, flatteries are generously dispensed, because it is all about alimenting confidence and hope, in order to reinforce the fusional adhesion. (Taguieff, 2007, p. 285).[4]

The ‘people’ of populism would seem to pursue an ideal of purity, homogeneity and adhesion, which it seeks to attain by ridding itself of any ideologically soiling elements. The Ideal shared by the group and incarnated in the leader is shielded from any kind of blemish, the functions of reality testing are delegated to the idealized leader whom is entrusted by the group with the task of reinstating its mythological harmonious state. The dissonance between the group’s promised state and the unforgiving shortcomings of the outer world are systematically attributed to the hostile elements that are perceived as purposefully infringing on the people’s otherwise pure essence. How strenuous the effort to keep the Ideal untouched in the face of , and  how paranoid its result, is sadly apparent in the relentless spiral of misery, authoritarian tendencies, militarization, and conspiracy thinking of Venezuela’s Chavismo – already under Hugo Chávez, but in an even more extreme fashion under his follower Nicolás Maduro:

You know that from Madrid, the right; from Bogotá, the far-right, and from Miami, the far-right—built an axis Madrid-Bogotá-Miami to conspire against our homeland. […] It is a campaign against Venezuela, against the revolution, like the one they did against [late president Hugo] Chávez, and now they are doing it against me.[5]

The targets for the populist group’s projection of its unwanted aspects varies according to its ideological orientation. In its “reactionary” manifestations, the populist movement could pursue the purification of its social organism by targeting students, expelling immigrants, executing labourers and farmers, and imposing martial law to restore and protect the “old order”—such is the case of Franquism, Salazarism, or the nationalist current which came about in Latin America near the middle of the 20th century. In its “progressive” form, populist regimes such as Castrism, Varguism and the historically more evolved forms of Peronism, would aim towards the inclusion of their category of “the people” which had been up to that point excluded from partaking in their political destiny and subjected to social injustice at the hands of the liberal “oligarchy” and “plutocracy”. Imbued everywhere with its common Catholic mythological cosmology, the populist discourse came paired with a redemptive call to revolution: a modern and secular semantic expression of the Christian myth of resurrection (Pipitone, 2015).

In his book Los deseos imaginarios del peronismo [The imaginary desires of Peronism]  the Argentinian sociologist, essayist and philosopher Juan José Sebreli describes what he calls the “delusion of unanimity ” of populism, rooted in a metaphysical, romanticized notion of “national being” [ser nacional] made to coincide by Perón with his political doctrine, Justicialismo. Since in 1952 a law was passed which designated Justicialismo as Argentina’s “national doctrine”, any opposition to it was to be  qualified as treason of the fatherland, in an attempt to homogenize the whole of Argentinian society under a common ideological umbrella, derived from the charismatic leadership couple of Juan-Domingo and Eva Perón. Being opposed to Justicialismo equated to being antiargentinian, regardless of one’s political or economical preference. “Anything that doesn’t integrate the national movement and opposes the national doctrine”, Sebreli writes, “is threatening the ‘national being’, by which it turns into a social outcast, a stateless antiargentinian selling out his homeland” (1983, p. 191, my translation).


As with any group formation, the group’s self-idealization is a necessary component for the construction of a sense of “togetherness”. For any political force that pursues the aim to channel the frustrated discontent of wide sectors of the general population that perceive the ruling élites to be out of touch with their grievances, self-idealization is also a necessary precondition. Idealization, however, is a delicate mechanism that may easily tip over into a narcissistic sense of grandiosity that takes over the superegoical functions of moral judgement and reality testing. Especially under the negative influence of a leader with a malignant narcissist personality structure, the attachment to the shared ideal and the dependence on the group that agglutinates around it, may radicalize the ideological makeup of the group and make a virtue out of creating and destroying outer enemies in order to preserve the group’s goodness. Thus, originally noble ideas like that of a ‘people’ independent from autocratic and religious rule may acquire an independent inertia that asymptotically strives to materialize an ideal of perfectly good and homogenous group-unity which has no actual chance of becoming a reality. The ability by the group, its members, and its leadership to recognize, tolerate, and ultimately come to terms with the elusiveness of their own ideal is what determines whether the populist ‘people’ bring about realistic and positive social change within the bounds of liberal democracy and an open society, or whether the driving power of the idealized ‘people’ is so great that the lack of coincidence between ideal and reality gives way to the spread of paranoid thinking which might ultimately lead to a closed society – the product of an ideological regression and the closing of the individual mind for the sake of preserving the narcissistic Ideal.


Anzieu, D. (1971). L’illusion groupale. Nouv. Rev. Psychanal.(4), 73-93.

Bion, W. R. (1961/1989). Experiences in Groups. New York: Routledge.

Colliva, P. (2012). Popolo. In N. Bobbio, N. Matteucci, & G. Pasquino, Il Dizionario di Politica (pp. 734-735). Druento, To: UTET.

Freud, S. (1921). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. In Standard Edition (Vol. 18, pp. 65-143).

Freud, S. (1927/2000). Die Zukunft einer Illusion. In Sigmund Freud Studienausgabe (pp. 135-190). Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag.

Incisa di Camerana, L., & Grassi, D. (2012). Populismo. In N. Bobbio, N. Matteucci, & G. Pasquino, Il Dizionario di Politica (pp. 735-740). Druento, TO: UTET.

Laclau, E. (2005/2013). La Razón Populista. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Merlin, N. (2015). Populismo y Psicoanálisis. Buenos Aires: Letra Viva.

Perón, E. (1951/1982). La Razón de mi Vida. Buenos Aires: El Cid.

Pipitone, U. (2015). La Esperanza y el Delirio: Una Historia de la Izquierda Latinoamericana. Buenos Aires: Taurus.

Sebreli, J. J. (1983). Los deseos imaginarios del peronismo. Buenos Aires: Legasa.

Taguieff, P.-A. (2007). L’Illusion Populiste: Essai sur les Démagogies de l’Âge Démocratique. Paris: Flammarion.

Talmon, J. L. (1952/1955). The origins of totalitarian democracy. London: Secker & Warburg.

Winnicott, D. W. (1971/1980b). Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena. In Playing and Reality (pp. 1-30). Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Zanatta, L. (2014). El Populismo. Buenos Aires: Katz.

[1] “Il popolo é assunto come mito, al di lá di una esatta definizione terminologica, a livello lirico ed emotivo” (Incisa di Camerana & Grassi, 2012, p. 735).

[2] “¡Para mí lo importante es que esas cartas huelen a pueblo poque oliendo a pueblo huelen a verdad! Un día dijo sabiamente Perón que él había recorrido todo el país de extremo a extremo, y que habiendo conocido todas sus bellezas y maravillas al fin vino a dar con su mayor y más alta belleza: el pueblo” (Perón E. , 1951/1982, p. 126).

[3] “…l’imaginaire populaire nourri par les idéaux démocratiques, oú domine le désir d’abolir la barriére ou la distance, voire toute différrence, entre les gouvernés et les gouvernants, entre ceux d’en bas et ceux d’en haut” (Taguieff, 2007, pág. 285).

[4] “Il faut identifier un second type de leaders populistes, ceux qui savent ou prétendent répondre au rêve infracivique de voir s’effacer toute distance entre les désirs et leurs réalisations, ou satisfaire l’aspiration (bien sûr «irrationelle») á l’abolition de toute temporisation, de tout délai, de toute inscription dans la durée, bref, de tout ce é travers quoi se rapelle á nous le principe de réalité. Les promesses intenables fusent, des flatteries sont généreusement dispensées, car il s’agit d’alimenter la confiance et l’espérance, pour fortifier l’adhésion fusionelle” (Taguieff, 2007, pág. 285).

[5] http://www.elperiodico.com/es/noticias/internacional/nicolas-maduro-eje-madrid-botoga-miami-conspiracion-venezuela-3953658


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