A piece written by Mario Tronti for a recent issue of Democrazia e Diritto (2010, 3–4), dedicated to the question of populism
'Quite a number of the terms that we use all the time, and which we thus believe that we understand in all their significance, are, in reality, only fully clear to a privileged few. As in the case of the terms "circle" or "square", which everyone uses, though only mathematicians have a clear and precise idea of what they really mean; so, too, the word "people" is on everyone's lips, without them ever getting a clear idea in mind of its real meaning'. So said the mathematician and philosopher Frédéric de Castillon, victorious participant in the 1778 contest held by the Royal Prussian Academy on the question, close to the heart of Frederick the Great, 'is it useful for the people to be tricked?' 'Normally, by "the people" we mean' – Castillon continued – 'the majority of the population, almost constantly occupied by mechanical, rough and wearisome tasks, and excluded from government and roles in public life'. Here, we are dealing with the eve of the French Revolution – but in Germany, where nation and people had not yet met, as they already had some time before in England, France and Spain, by way of their absolute monarchies. Thus we are also talking about here, in Italy. Frédéric de Castillon arrived in Berlin having come from Tuscany. Nation and people grew together in the modern age. And what brings them together is the modern state. There is no nation, without the state. But there is no people, without the state. This is important, first in order to understand the question, and moreover in order to grasp it within the time that concerns us, and in which we are engaged. Because the theme is an eternal one, Biblical more than it is historical.
The ancient/Old Testament concept of the people – the people founded by Moses – seems to me to be closer to the modern concept of the people than are the Greeks' demos or the Romans' populus. Neither the city-state nor the Empire founded a people. No promised land, no exile, no exodus, no God of the armies. The free citizens in the agora or the plebs on the terraces of the Colosseum did not make up a people. These images and metaphors are current/not-current for our own time. The people is a secularised theological concept. It has nothing to do with the assembly of sovereign electors or the many headed beast. Esposito and Galli, in the Enciclopedia del pensiero politico ['Encyclopedia of Political Thought'] say that the process of secularisation began with Marsilius (universitas civium seu populus) and with Bartolo (populus unius civitatis). But it was Machiavelli who later spoke of a popular government distinct from, and counterposed to, the principality and the aristocratic republic. And for Hobbes, in the state of the Leviathan, 'the subjects are the multitude and the King is the people'.
Just under a million Venezuelan children from the shanty towns and the poorest villages now obtain a free education; 1.2 million illiterate adults have been taught to read and write; secondary education has been made available to 250,000 children whose social status excluded them from this privilege during the ancien régime; three new university campuses were functioning by 2003 and six more are due to be completed by 2006.
As far as healthcare is concerned, the 14,000 Cuban doctors sent to help the country have transformed the situation in the poor districts, where 11,000 neighbourhood clinics have been estab- lished and the health budget has tripled. Add to this the financial support provided to small businesses, the new homes being built for the poor, an Agrarian Reform Law that was enacted and pushed through despite resistance, legal and violent, by the landlords. By the end of 2003, just over 2,262,467 hectares had been redistributed to 116,899 families.
The bizarre argument advanced in a hostile editorial in The Economist (as in Gunson's article in Vertigo) during the week of the referendum, namely, that all this was done to win votes, is extraordinarily obtuse. Here the defenders of the global elite confuse their own machinations with reality. In the globalised world, where there are no basic differences between competing political factions of the elite, politics is exclusively about power; a world in which Clinton and Bush's billionaire backers, or the financiers who supported first Thatcher, then Blair, can cross sides with ease.
The Bolivarian currents in Latin America are important precisely because they pose a challenge to traditional cacique politics. That is why they are loathed by the elites and their media propagandists. If Chávez had simply been interested in power he could have easily done a deal with the local oligarchy and won the support of the global financial press. The Bolivarians wanted power precisely so that real reforms could be implemented.