Rethinking Populism: An Interview with Robert Samet

Photo by Robert Samet.

This post builds on the research article “The Subject of Wrongs: Crime, Populism, and Venezuela’s Punitive Turn,” which was published in the May 2019 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

The anti-censorship campaign in Venezuela.

Ola Galal: You argue that the mistake of scholars and activists who oppose right-wing populism around the world is that they have failed to take seriously the rising fear of crime and violence, dismissing it as a justification and a catalyst for racial and class domination. Drawing on your fieldwork in Venezuela, perhaps the part where you talk with relatives of homicide victims or crime survivors, what does taking seriously the “lived experience of injury” (p. 289) under the punitive turn look like ethnographically and what is the political urgency of doing so?

Robert Samet: You’ve cut to the heart of the matter and also the point on which I’m most likely to be misunderstood. Punitive populism—by which I’m talking about tough-on-crime policies that disproportionately target minorities and the poor—is discrimination in its rawest form. By now there is overwhelming evidence that phenomena like mass incarceration in the United States or parapolice death squads in Brazil are tied to political projects that criminalize poor people of color. Tough-on-crime policies may be the most direct mechanism through which ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic oppression has operated in the Americas and Europe for the past half century. We know what we’re up against, but that’s where the conversation stalls.

If you want to defuse punitive populism then you have to recognize the cocktail of injuries, grievances, and resentments that propels it forward. When I write about the “lived experience of injury,” I’m suggesting, in the spirit of Marx, that these wrongs have a material force. This is a humanist reading of historical materialism, one that is indebted to the likes of Stuart Hall, E. P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams, for whom embodied experience was the engine of human history. And what is more bodily than suffering?

In a city like Caracas the punitive turn is tied to outrage over crime. Since the 1990s, the official homicide rate of Venezuela’s capital city has hovered around 100 per 100,000 per year. That means roughly 1 out of every 100 people is murdered over the course of a decade. Everyone in Caracas knows someone who has been murdered or kidnapped. Under these circumstances, it is easy to understand how the shock of suffering can mobilize wide swaths of people who otherwise have nothing in common. And yet the Chávez government was slow to take up the problem. Instead, it characterized crime as a partisan political issue and framed it as part of a media conspiracy. That story proved difficult to sell. The government of President Maduro eventually turned to tough-on-crime policies because substantive reforms—to the police, the prisons, and the judicial system—were too costly and too difficult to carry out. I think that’s been the pattern throughout much of Latin America, where the return of tough-on-crime measures is linked to policy failures of the “Pink Tide.” That’s not a critique of these pink tide movements. It’s more an observation, albeit one that has implications going forward.

None of this explains the return of punitive populism in the United State or Europe. In the United States crime rates have reached historic lows and it looked like there was an emerging consensus on police reform. Unlike Venezuela, the injuries of crime alone don’t explain why large swaths of voters support draconian measures that criminalize immigrants, further expand police powers, and refuse to acknowledge historic injustices against communities of color. It’s at this point that it becomes tempting to make sweeping assertions about the return of something more insidious than populism. Instead, I think it’s important to slow down. Populism is fueled by grievances. One doesn’t have to dig too deep to encounter the wounded subjectivities behind right wing populism in North America or Europe. Many of the injuries animating these movements are material in the traditional sense of the word—they’re socioeconomic and tied to the inequalities of neoliberal capitalism. A number of ethnographers have made this point. Arlie Russell Hochschild, Don Kalb, and Douglas Holmes all come to mind. If in Latin America we need to take the injuries of crime more seriously, then I’d say that in the United States and Europe we need to look more closely at how the return of punitive populism builds on economic anxieties.

OG: The relationship between injury and democratic citizenship, as you have argued in your article, cuts across the political spectrum from the Left to the Right. Would you say that this relationship is inherent to democracy (yet overlooked by liberal thinking), or is it a feature of a particular iteration of democracy, one that articulates with neoliberalism?

RS: I’d argue that it’s inherent to democracy albeit not all forms of democracy. To be more specific, it’s tied to a pattern of subject formation that has its roots in popular sovereignty. I’ll further clarify this point in a moment, but let me back up.

What I’m attempting to do in this article is to make a case for the materiality of wrongs. Conceptually, the argument uses anthropological theory to bring studies of democracy into conversation with historical materialism. In this sense, it’s drawing on a number of important precursors including Georges Bataille, Elias Canetti, Ernesto Laclau, Stuart Hall, and Wendy Brown. That being said, I’m also making a claim about how to study populism that should resonate at a common-sense level. I’m continually dismayed to see the grievances articulated by any populist movement summarily dismissed by their opponents. Such dismissals are deeply problematic. Not only do they refuse to recognize the lived conditions out of which populism emerges, they’re tactically deaf.

Anyone who wants a visual depiction of the relationship between populism and injury should look at “The Declaration of the Occupation of NYC” (All our Grievances are Connected). Over and over, the movement was criticized for being “incoherent”: there were too many demands; no central leader; no apparent purpose. This refusal to recognize the unity of the grievances that animated Occupy Wall Street wasn’t actually a critique; it was simply an affirmation of the status quo. Mainstream scholarship on populism does the same thing when it focuses attention on the discourse of charismatic leaders as opposed to the grievances of ordinary people. The underlying assumption is that populism is an aberration against which democracy must be defended. I’d counter that we’re not going to save democracy by focusing on demagogues or vilifying populist movements. Instead, we need to address the unfulfilled demands that make them attractive in the first place.

Which brings me back to your question about 1) injury and populist subjectivity, and 2) populism and democracy. Let me start by referring to endnote 3 (p. 291), where I define populism as “the Jacobin logic of popular sovereignty.” Popular sovereignty—i.e., government of the people, by the people, for the people—is the ideology on which contemporary democratic polities have been constructed dating back to the eighteenth century. As I explain elsewhere, “the people” is a particular kind of imagined community. One way that this collective entity is made flesh is by appealing to wrongs that emanate from a common adversary. That common adversary can take any number of forms, for example a military dictatorship, a corporate kleptocracy, or liberal elites. What’s important is that this is the object onto which a multitude of wrongs are cathected. This is one way in which democracy’s constituent fiction, “the people,” is made flesh. To be clear: this is not the only way that popular sovereignty can be mobilized, but it is a pattern that all populist movements have in common. In sum, I’m arguing that wounded subjectivity is the common denominator of all populist movements and that populism (as an outgrowth of popular sovereignty) is a political expression that is internal to but not synonymous with democracy.

As for neoliberalism, my sense is that almost every populist project that has emerged over the past two decades has emerged in part as a reaction to the injuries of neoliberalism. That being said, neoliberalism is a recent historical phenomenon, whereas populist movements date back much further. I believe that it was Stuart Hall who first explored the populist origins of neoliberalism as mobilized by Thatcher and Reagan, a point on which Michael Kazin would later agree.

The anthropological literature on victimhood shows how certain types of victims and of violence are rendered more legible than others and that there are, under different conditions, different hierarchies of victims. I am thinking in particular of the work of Miriam Ticktin and Daniel Goldstein. Would you say that we are starting to see novel articulations of victimhood that are emerging against the backdrop of the current political and economic “crisis” in Venezuela, particularly hyperinflation?

RS: Yes. I should note at the outset that Venezuelan politics are contentious, and that I always find myself walking a tightrope when answering these sorts of questions. Broadly speaking, I think it’s fair to say that the locus of victimhood has shifted. From 2006 to 2012 crime was the number one voter concern in Venezuela, whereas today the grievances are primarily socioeconomic in nature. With the crisis there has been a reinvigoration of corruption talk, which is reminiscent of the 1980s and 1990s and the conditions that brought the Bolivarian Revolution to power in the first place. During this period, Venezuela’s economic crisis was characterized in terms of scarcity, rising poverty rates, and the decline of the professional classes. That’s not so say that talk of corruption wasn’t prominent during the Chávez era, but that it had less political purchase than it does currently.

For much of the Chávez era (1999–2013), the opposition was a movement in search of a unifying grievance. In the Maduro era (2013–2019) it may have found two of them. In addition to corruption, their claims of electoral fraud and political persecution have gained legitimacy. During my initial fieldwork, the opposition cast itself in the role of political victim, but these claims were easily countered. First, the opposition’s attempts to violently overthrow a democratically elected government made it hard to see them as the victims and not the aggressors. Second, their refusal to participate in the 2005 congressional elections meant that they ceded absolute lawmaking power to the Chávez administration. Third, the government usually conformed to the letter if not always the spirit of the law in its treatment of the opposition. Finally, many chavistas feared that any injustices directed against the opposition would pale in comparison to the revenge the opposition would exact when it came to power.

For that reason, the victimhood of political figures like Leopoldo López was less than convincing. I believe this has changed. Not only is Venezuela facing the most severe economic crises in living memory, many of the grassroots activists and organizers who were responsible for the rise of the Bolivarian Revolution have grown frustrated with the failures of the project and the lack of internal accountability. More importantly, the levels of political repression have escalated in recent years. For a brief moment, it appeared as though the demands for change were going to coalesce around the person of Juan Guaido in much the way they had coalesced around Hugo Chávez decades earlier. It’s also one reason why the Venezuelan government has handled him so delicately. Putting Guaido behind bars would likely add to his appeal by making him a martyr.

OG: You chose to conduct your fieldwork among journalists in Caracas on the crime beat since, as you stated, the media has become the locus of opposition to the Chavez government. How do journalists, as mediators and shapers of public discourse, feature in your overall project? What parallels, if any, exist between the way they represent social life and the way anthropologists conduct ethnography? How reflective were they, if at all, about the politics of representation of crime and violence in such a polarized political landscape?

RS: Thank you for that question! My fieldwork with journalists on the Caracas crime beat is the subject of my first book—Deadline: Populism and the Press in Venezuela (University of Chicago Press, 2019). I became interested in populism because I was trying to explain the practices of these journalists. In particular, I was trying to explain why denuncias (“denunciations,” “grievances,” or “complaints”) like the one I describe in this article, were so fundamental to their style of reporting. In the book, I show how the practice of denunciation provides deep insights into the role that media plays in the formation of populist movements.

As for the parallels between journalists and anthropologists, I’m glad you asked. Many of the journalists that I knew were excellent ethnographers. Not all of them, mind you, but more than a few. The main difference between my work and theirs was the pace of production and the resources at our disposal. In terms of our day-to-day reporting practices, however, our fieldwork was much the same. I spent the first four to six hours of every day traveling with them to crime scenes, protests, press conferences, and the city morgue. People often mistook me for a reporter because, like them, I was busy taking notes and recording victim testimonies. The difference between my work and theirs was the time for reflection and writing. Journalists on the Caracas crime beat had to produce two to five stories per day, which means most of their reporting was rushed and depended on preexisting stereotypes about criminals and victims, guilt and innocence.

Despite these tropes, most of the reporters were incredibly reflexive about representations of crime/victimhood and more than a few were self-critical of the racial, ethnic, and economic assumptions built into their writing. As for how this played out in a polarized political context, that was trickier. Crime journalists were associated with the opposition because of the stance adopted by their employers. There were a handful of crime reporters who were actively engaged in opposition politics. Others aligned with the government, however most of them adopted a position somewhere in between the two. This dynamic of political polarization meant that regardless of the position any individual crime reporter adopted, all of them were targets of intense political pressure. One of the most emblematic examples of this is the case of Jorge Tortoza, a crime photographer who was murdered during the failed 2002 coup against President Chávez. After his death, Tortoza was claimed as martyr by both the opposition and Chavismo. His work meant that he was associated with the former, but many of his friends and colleagues claimed that his political allegiances were with the government.

There’s much more to say about the way in which crime journalists are imagined and the ways in which the work of crime reporting deeply affected the reporters. They were incredibly self-conscious about how the general public viewed them. They were also deeply impacted by the horror stories to which they bore witness on a daily basis. In many ways the practice of denunciation was what redeemed their work. Channeling the denuncias of crime victims provided crime journalists with a sense of purpose beyond the salacious details of death and suffering.