Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry „I don’t know what is going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!“
Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess – which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required.
Therein, in this refusal-to-know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism.
That is to say, although at a purely formal level fetishism involves a gesture of transference (onto the object-fetish), it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference (with the „subject supposed to know“): what fetishism gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know.
That is why, to put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder.
In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent.
First as Tragedy, Then as Farce
Slavoj Žižek (born 21 March 1949) is a Slovenian philosopher, currently a researcher at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Ljubljana Faculty of Arts, and International director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.
He is also Global Eminent Scholar at Kyung Hee University in Seoul and Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University.
He works in subjects including continental philosophy, political theory, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, film criticism, Marxism, Hegelianism and theology.
Žižek‘s idiosyncratic style, popular academic works, frequent magazine op-eds, and critical assimilation of high and low culture have gained him international influence, controversy, criticism and a substantial audience outside academia.
In 2012, Foreign Policy listed Žižek on its list of Top 100 Global Thinkers, calling him „a celebrity philosopher“ while elsewhere he has been dubbed the „Elvis of cultural theory“ and „the most dangerous philosopher in the West“.