Green Agenda editor Clare Ozich participated in a discussion on social justice and populism at a Conversation Salon organised and moderated by Muslim feminist and social justice advocate and entrepreneur Hana Assafiri.

Below is an edited transcript of Clare’s remarks and Hana’s response. The conversation was an excellent example of plurality and building on ideas to establish a contemporary and relevant inclusive discourse.

Participants were asked to address the following: In an increasingly unsettling and hostile world where facts and truth are constantly undermined. Where fake news has become news. Where our very ability to reason is under attack leaving the majority of us disengaged powerless and socially anxious. Where hope and progress have been replaced by fear and the absurd. How do we re-engage with a society which alienates its citizens? How do we reclaim responsibility for ourselves, our communities and our societies, where facts no longer fare. How do we protect the rights of the socially marginalised? Can we simply disengage and rest on the laurels of our human rights values and hope that this absurdity will turn once more?

Clare: I want to touch on three things tonight. Firstly, taking my cue from the title of the event, I want to talk about the relationship between social justice and populism; secondly, the role of facts and truth in political discourse; and finally, concepts of community.

Social justice and populism

I don’t think social justice and populism are necessarily mutually exclusive or contradictory.

I do think authoritarianism and social justice don’t go together.

I think social justice is difficult to achieve in capitalist societies.

I think that the more that power is concentrated – political power and economic power is concentrated – social justice becomes more and more impossible.

But I don’t think those things are necessarily a result of populism.

But that depends on what we mean by populism. I am considering populism as a reaction to the status quo and what is does is that it posits a construction of “the people”, the “common people”, an idea of “us” against an idea of “them”, and often that idea of the them is a construct of the “political elites”, people exercising political power and making our lives worse in some way.

It is quite a powerful story. And it is a powerful story because it is also kind of true. And populism in that sense can and has been used across the political spectrum. Trump and Brexit are examples of right wing populism. Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign in the UK election could be considered a populist campaign from the left. I think one of the most successful populist politicians in Australia is Nick Xenophon, someone considered to be pretty centrist.

With the right wing populism of Trump and Brexit, when they are constructing the “us”, the “people”, they construct a small “us” – mostly white, working class or lower middle class, people who feel they have lost out from certain economic and social forces. And they create quite a big “them”, includes not just political and economic elites but also include a bunch of other people, often marginalised people. In Trump’s case – Mexicans and Muslims, immigrants generally, other people of colour, queers – with Trump’s announcement today of a ban on transgender people serving in military for example. They create a big “them”. They weaponise difference in their populist pursuits. And the use of populism on the right is often in the pursuit of authoritarianism.

The question I ask is whether populism can be used in the pursuit of social justice and what might that look like.

As I said populism has been utilised across the political spectrum. We have also seen Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. His slogan was “for the many, not the few”. He created a division where “the people”, the “us” was quite big and the “them”, the enemy was actually quite small. It was more concentrated on the people who actually deploy political and economic power, the political and economic elites.

Populism does create divisions. Sometimes they exist, the divisions are actually real. There are a bunch of people that are making decisions, who exercise power, in ways that hurt us.

We need to shake up the status quo for social justice.

So I wonder whether we can utilise a concept of populism if we are making that group of the “common people” as big as it can be, and encompassing and embracing of difference.

So that the divisions are not among the people in the way that for example Trump utilises populism, but the division is much more clear in relation to the people who are exercising power in ways that are hurting us. Although not hurting us all in the same way.

In fact the elites – economic and political elites – are not the people who are going to bestow social justice on a society. We need to shake up the status quo for social justice.

Populism can I think go in different ways – one towards authoritarianism, more concentration of power and a politics of division; or towards redistributing power and a politics of inclusion. What it doesn’t do is defend the status quo. And I don’t think we achieve social justice with the status quo

I get wary when we use terms like populism because it hides the key things that are actually happening. The main point though is that instead of using terms like populism we should talk about what is actually happening. So if there is a shift towards a more authoritarian politics – we should talk about that. If race, religion, sexuality, gender is being utilised to divide us, we should talk about that. Not cover it all with the term populism.

And equally, if we are talking about people losing out and feeling resentment from economic policies and decisions, we should talk about that.

Because don’t we also we want concepts like social justice to be shared widely? Our society is going to be fair and just when we have gathered together the most people that we can into accepting and believing and wanting to advocate for and be a part of a socially just society.

Facts and truth

Facts and important, truths are important, and they are necessary but they are by no means sufficient. Concepts of social justice, concepts of human rights are ideas. We are actually in a battle of ideas not just a battle of facts.

Human rights and social justice are not self-evident truths. They are ideas, a way of seeing the world that needs to be argued and fought for.

Gillian Triggs had her final day as Human Rights Commission yesterday and in an interview she put forward the view that the government is ideologically opposed to human rights. There are a lot of interesting things we could say about that, but one of the important things is that it highlights the fact that there is actually a battle around whether or not human rights are a good thing, a valuable thing, something we want to found our society in.

Human rights and social justice are not self-evident truths. They are ideas, a way of seeing the world that needs to be argued and fought for. And that battle is not going to won just on the basis of facts.

Meaning is always contested. Powerful interests will also contest facts and truths. And we have to be in the battle of meaning and not just rely on facts or what we see as the truth.

And that can get hard. We talked before about the role of social media and the difficulties it presents. The way information is being consumed and created, the way we are engaging with information, is changing. But it is also not a new thing to have battles around truths and facts and meaning. Powerful interests have always muddied the waters to protect and enhance their interests.

Our challenge is to be there with our meanings and our ideas of a better socially just world.

Community as the antidote

The final thing I wanted to talk about was the notion of community as the antidote to what we have been talking about.

In the blurb Hana put out about tonight’s event, she referenced the fear and anxiety of today’s society. I think that is true, there is lot of fear and anxiety about. But I don’t think it is created by populism or “fake news”.

I think it is being generated by the crisis of late stage capitalism and the impending climate crisis. And that the next generation of people will lead lives that are likely to be worse than their parents. That the story of progress that is so ingrained in our culture and society is coming to an end, that the rationality of progress is no longer real. We can’t rely on the belief that our lives and our societies will just keep getting better. That the twin crisis of capitalism and the climate mean that the next generation will lead different lives and that is anxiety inducing and fearful and scary, and it should be.

Photo: James Cridland Flickr CC BY 2.0

I think one of the ways to deal with that is through community and connection. Let us look at where connections do exist and community is alive. We are all here now experiencing it, talking across difference, talking through ideas. I find my community in politics, in my political party and other political engagements. I was in the city on Monday and saw a thousand young people stream out of the Town Hall into the street for a rally for climate justice after having spent the weekend together. A diverse group of young people – First Nations people, people of colour, queers – grappling with the issues, with their differences, talking with each other, finding meaning in the community they have created – that gives me hope. I was talking to Kimberley here just before who was telling me about when she was a student at RMIT creating opportunities and structures for ATSI students to connect with each other and create community. So there is a lot of community out there and I think it is a key part of the answer.

Hana in response:

The danger of populist discourse, even when we agree with it, is that it doesn’t have to be founded on facts or truth. It just has to be popular. It is an assault on the very thing that makes us human – our capacity to reason is what is under threat in a populist conversation.

The other problematic component of populism is that it is not ideologically driven. It is a mishmash of weird ideas that at times become popular.

It is an assault on the very thing that makes us human – our capacity to reason is what is under threat in a populist conversation.

And the last thing I want to add is that this government is not driven by any ideology whatsoever. It is all over the place and it is populist in a way that its discourse impacts those most marginalised, eg Indigenous people. There are similar features at the moment with the Muslim community and that whole conversation that is not based on any facts.

So I guess in a sense when you are speaking subjectively as someone like me who is in touch with a community sentiment where people have been othered, where the conversation is not founded on any facts, is completely baseless, yet it resonates and it resonate to such an extent that people are happy to give up some of their civil liberties in order to protect themselves from this thing called Islam or Muslim, then populism needs to be scrutinised in a relevant practical way in how it impacts people.