Towards a State of Security: the Institutionalization of Populism

Nafis Haider

The leaders have all the conditions working in their favor – economics, identity
and culture. The political landscape is bringing us a little more closely
towards an Orwellian world where War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance
is Strength. 

Liberty, Equality and Security are the foundations on which the structure of any nation-state stands. These parameters define the nature of socio-economic role of the citizens, their civilization and most importantly, their politics. Political structures of liberal democracies all across the global have always sought to establish a harmony among the three foundations. But with the arrival of corona virus pandemic, this harmony is likely to be disrupted.


The world has gone topsy-turvy by the corona virus, the invisible enemy. Nations which were regarded as advanced and flourishing have shown utter failure in protecting the lives of their citizenry and defeating this virus. Deaths of individual have become a normalcy, lost its empathetic appeal and become a mere count. The USA has reported 7,00,000 confirmed cases while 37,175 have already succumbed to this virus, in Italy there are 22,745 deaths and 172,434 people suffering. India, due to low rate of testing has reported 14,425 cases of Covid-19 while death tolls at 488.  The virus has brought the globe to a standstill.


History is replete with examples of nations falling prey to populist leaders in times of crisis and how the crisis is used by the leadership to establish their hegemony and power. The rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini are a classic example of this case. Society has an instinctive tendency to protect itself and with the charismatic leadership. Such leadership holds the society hostage through rhetoric and manufacturing of consent, until it becomes the new normal.


As Karl Marx said, history repeats itself first as a tragedy second as a farce. And the sign are clear of this farce. The institutionalization of ritualism in India by Prime Minister Modi in fighting Covid-19 through thali (steel plates) and candles, the rabid Anti-Asian racism of western nations against Chinese and Japanese people, the threat by the USA of retaliation on India’s complete ban on the export of hydroxychloroquine and the complete disregard of Iran in all its struggle against the Corona pandemic, they all share a thick line of affinity, i.e. security of individual nation state.


When the pandemic will fade away, the leaders will have all the authority to claim themselves as the protector of the people and it is most probable that their popularity will increase tremendously. Just in the same way, Tayyip Erdogan did in turkey after the failed coup d’état in 2016, and Putin who hegemonised Post-USSR Russia portraying himself as the protector of Russian soil. History is clear on this. The need of security more than freedom will pressurize the common masses to situate their general will in a Hobbesian Sovereign (leviathan), who is elected by the people but always acts above the people’s collective conscience.


The trade relations are likely to boil down with China and this will affect the economy of the western nations as their major manufacturing units are in China and East which is increasingly been seen as an outcaste nation. The Multi-National Corporations will be forced to retreat back which will give the parent nations more employment opportunities, further strengthening the power base of the popular leaders.


In the terms of surveillance, as Noah Harari argues this corona pandemic has given the government legitimacy to do “under-the-skin surveillance” and know a person better than herself/himself. Many Asian nations have started tracking their citizen’s mobile phones and records without their consent to identify possible corona virus infections, build up a database on their health and develop applications which record and locate them. This, if continued can be used to alter democratic principles drastically. Possibilities are, it will make the world a mechanical place where freedom is traded for security and the power is always under the “Machiavellian Prince”. It may be possible that the façade of democracy is maintained but the structures of democratic nations will be severely damaged.  


Leaders will also seek to highlight their power through the use of identity. As Fukuyama argues, humans to have a “thymos”, the third part of the soul that craves for recognition, internally and externally. When we start to identify ourselves in antagonism with other identity, we go to ultimate extent to protect our identity and in this process undermine the identity of others. This phenomenon is already under play, manifesting itself explicit in India and the West which are targeting Muslims and Orient respectively to establish their identity, one coming out from Islamophobia and the other of deep and latent Racism.


The state will be able to justify everything on the ground of public security, snatch our privacy, limit our choices and educate us in their language. Common populace generally fall prey to this indoctrination as security of life appeals more than the mere living with just negative freedom with nothing to live on with. The leaders have all the conditions working in their favor – economics, identity and culture. The political landscape is bringing us a little more closely towards an Orwellian world where War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.