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The Greek demagogue, and how the modern Right could be the New Left

There is a 1995 edition Oxford Concise English Dictionary lying upon my bookshelf. I rarely refer to it these days. It is handier to seek the help of the internet to learn the meaning of an unfamiliar word than pick up a sixteen hundred page tome. Nevertheless, yesterday I felt like finding out how the Oxford Concise explains the word ‘demagogue’. This was chiefly to be able to be politically and historically contextualize the demagogue with acuity.

I wanted to be cognizant of the meaning(s) of the word with as much precision as possible. I was keen on this exercise because I find demagogues an interesting phenomenon – their verbosity and flamboyance makes them so. Only a few days ago the most powerful country in the world has made known its preference, to the consternation of a lot of sophisticated folks, for the rough-hewn manners of an alleged demagogue.

I discovered that the Oxford Concise ascribes two meanings to ‘demagogue’:

  1. a political agitator appealing to the basest instincts of a mob
  2. a leader of the people, esp. in ancient times.

Both the meanings have their own distinct significance as they are repositories of specific historical experiences. The first meaning represents the political experience of the modern world, especially of the first half of the twentieth century. The “basest instincts of a mob” do seem to be the context and validation of a demagogue when we hark our minds back to the developments in Germany and Italy between the two World Wars.

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However, the second of the two meanings is the historically original one. It is also more sensible from a purely etymological (science of the origin of words) point of view. The word demagogue is derived from Greek ‘demagogos.’ It is a compound of two words – demos, meaning the people, and agogos, meaning to lead. To the ancient Greeks demagogues were simply popular leaders, they were individuals who lent voice to the aspirations of the people and fought political battles on their behalf. In other words, in ancient Greece, particularly Athens, the city-state where democracy originated, the word demagogue carried absolutely no negative charge. It was not a pejorative.

Might I say, on my part, that the Greek demagogues were the ancient equivalents of the modern day ‘leftists’? After all, to be on the ‘left’ means, in modern political language, to be in some way on the side of the ‘people.’

A curious phenomenon is afoot in the major democracies of the world. They are witnessing political assertion by the hoi polloi – the great mass of commoners – on a massive scale. Most of Mr. Trump’s votes, for example, came from the white working class of interior America. The blue-collar white Anglo-Saxon voters of the American hinterland have made their disapproval of the genteel ‘liberal’ upper class of the two coasts. They have done this by electing someone who was being dismissed as a crude rabble-rouser only a few days ago. Taking into account the demographic that chose Mr. Trump, I am tempted to term him a ‘demagogue’ in the classical Greek sense and the not the condemnatory twentieth century one. Yes, for me Mr. Trump is a ‘demagogue’ because the broad American masses, especially the blue-collar working class, voted for him and saw in him probably a leader who spoke for them.

It is also a very leftist thing, mind you, to be endorsed by the working class. True, Mr. Trump has resorted to a kind of language at times which was better avoided, but I won’t identify that as the reason why the blue-collar small town American voter chose him. That will be an extremely patronizing reading of the motivations of this voter demographic.

Turning to Britain, I will identify the Brexit campaigners as ‘demagogues’ too in the historically original sense. To my eyes, they seem to resemble the demagogues of classical Greece. This is because they ran a successful campaign and their program was endorsed largely by the British working class who, probably, saw these campaigners as folks who were speaking on their behalf. Nigel Farage might be the typical left-liberal nightmare, but can one deny that his autarchic economic ideas have resonated with the majority of the British voters? Had they not, we would not have a Britain today that wants to break away from the European Union.

Also, economic autarchism is a leftist thing isn’t it? The Indian left, after all, is against globalization and its ‘detrimental’ impact on the poor and the working class. The Indian left also sighs for the closed economy days of Nehruvian socialism. The closed, autarchic Britain that Farage and company are seeking curiously looks like an Indian leftist utopia.

Returning home, the Indian voters too chose someone in 2014 who had been derided as a demagogue (in the negative sense) by the left-liberal media and political commentators. But I would call Mr. Modi a classical Greek demagogue – a leader trusted (and, it seems to me, even loved to an extent) by the common Indian masses. They identified with him because, perhaps, they saw in him someone who would help them realize their economic and social aspirations – of earning and living better and of making it in life without the advantage of inherited privilege.

In other words, they look to Mr. Modi to help them realize their aspirations to social and economic mobility. After all, Mr. Modi too did not have the advantage of inherited privilege. It is difficult to be more self-made than the current Indian Prime Minister. As a result, I would suggest, Mr. Modi appealed to a large section of Indian voters as a ‘sociological type.’ Post 1991, the economy has thrown up a large number of self-made, successful Indians. Alongside, there is an immense number seeking to emulate this success. They do not want a paternalistic ‘socialism’ that fetters and stymies enterprise. They only want someone who can create for them the right conditions wherein they can realize their aspirations. Perhaps, they think that a self-made man who has emerged from modest circumstances is most likely to do that.

By the way, the people aspiring to social and economic mobility and dismantle structures (social and economic) that favor inherited privilege – is not this a very leftist script? Nevertheless, it is a script that the Indian left has failed to endorse. So, the Indian people gave their mandate to someone who they thought will endorse it.

It appears as though the word ‘demagogue’ has retrieved its original meaning, it has once again come to mean a popular leader who stands for the people. And no, he does not necessarily do this by appealing to their ‘baser instincts.’ This retrieval has, however, happened on the right side of the political spectrum. It has been done by what one might identify as the political right, not the left – the Republicans, the BJP, the Brexit advocates.

There was a time, in the 1960s and 70s, when gender rights activists, critiques of consumerism, votaries of alternative cultures and peaceniks in the west used to be identified as the ‘new left.’ This was to distinguish them from the ‘textual’ left – the Communists who derived their faith from the world view of Karl Marx presented in the Das Capital.

However, I think that there is a fresher, ‘newer’ left now emergent and that is the ‘right’. The right is the ‘new left’ for the people identify with its political language and it resonates with their hopes and aspirations. Sorry, left-liberals!

(Saumya Dey is an Assistant Professor of History at O.P. Jindal Global University.)

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Saumya Dey
Saumya Dey is an Assistant Professor of History at O.P. Jindal Global University.

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