In its fundamental form populism is the ideology which believes society is made up of two distinct groups, namely the disgruntled-yet-untainted people, and the corrupted elite. These groups are said to be in a perpetual conflict for power. Populists create the imaginary battle between an “us” and a “them” to leverage support. In Africa, particularly, populism which swept many leaders into power following independence from colonial rule has led to very limited economic prosperity and low-quality democracies.
Populists love to argue that politics should express the volonté générale of the people. Yet, when populists gain the power of office they suddenly become the elite against which they have fought. This often leads to populist movements trying to maintain the rhetoric of fighting an imaginary elite. In recent years, this imaginary elite in South Africa has been known as various things and most recently as so-called ‘white monopoly capital.’
See also: Reject The Preachers Of Economic Ignorance by Martin van Staden
South Africa has an interesting history of populist movements.
In modern times we see the Economic Freedom Fighters as a clear example of a populist movement. Our history is filled with similar movements. In many respects, the National Party swept to power on the wave of Afrikaner nationalism and populism, fighting against the colonial British power at the time. The United Democratic Front used a similar populist movement in the 1980s in the fight against Apartheid. These movements did, however, teach us one thing: that populist movements always end up on the wrong side of their own argument.
Many would like you to believe that populists are the voice of the people. The trouble with populism is that its movements are at their core, divisive. Populism relies on the “us” and “them” rhetoric and will by definition always be constrained to only representing a certain section of the population. Populism rejects all divisions and dissenting opinions from within the “people”, and labels them as morally deprived, to use a term of their own. Populists silence dissimilar opinions and create the fictitious idea that there is only one true voice. This is why populism often threatens freedom of expression and why it is misleading to suggest that populism is the voice of the people.
One of the few systems in the world that truly does capture the voice of the people, is that of a free market where people are free to interact and communicate with each other. As F.A. Hayek put it, markets are communication processes. People buy and sell from each other, indicating what they are willing and unwilling to do with other players in the market. It is constant communication between each player.
Yet, many feel that trade and the market lead to some having a more powerful voice than others. The classic cliché argument against a free market confuses a free market with a system of crony capitalism. In a system where each individual is completely free to act as they wish, the economy not only serves as a medium of exchange for goods and services, but as a medium of consent between parties.
See also: What is meant by ‘Crony Capitalism’? by Dani l Eloff
Mechanisms such as supply and demand, customer polling and focus groups, franchise stores and the rapid growth of the Internet’s involvement in the free market, make the market the main voice to express the popular will of the people more articulately and impactfully.
Whilst populism will, at best, represent only a section of society, the free market will, at worst, be the voice of the broader public.