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Can memes address populism?

  • Published at 10:22 pm September 15th, 2019
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Syed Mansoob Murshed, professor of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) at Erasmus University of Rotterdam Speaks at a public lecture on 'Populism, identity and illiberal behaviour' at Brac University on Sunday, September 15, 2019 Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

'A purely electoral process may elect populist dictators or parties with scant respect for liberalism'

The West is the midst of rising populism, giving away liberal democratic values that have shaped the global order for decades. The dangers of inward looking nationalism  is becoming all too apparent. 

“A purely electoral process may elect populist dictators or parties with scant respect for liberalism,” said Syed Mansoob Murshed, professor of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) at Erasmus University of Rotterdam, on Sunday when discussing the vulnerabilities of democracies.

Speaking at a public lecture on  “Populism, identity and illiberal behaviour” at Brac University, he said : “The trend towards mainly right-wing populism is a common characteristic of developed countries that are already established democracies. The authoritarian feature is mainly ascribable to developing countries. 

“A liberal society is one where there is respect for minority rights, constraints on the executive and legislature, with an independent judiciary, and there is respect for the rule of law. In a democracy, there is an electoral process in place. A purely electoral process may elect populist dictators or parties with scant respect for liberalism. The tyranny of the majority may engender illiberal actions, as described by classical liberals, John Stuart Mill; Alexis de Tocqueville.  Additionally, populist leaders referred to as demagogues in Aristotle’s Politics can cause the degeneration of the polity,” he added.

Brac University Pro-Vice Chancellor Mohammad Tamim introduced the public lecture, and Mohammad Badiuzzaman, research coordinator of  event organizer Centre for Peace, thanked everyone in attendance.

“The two phenomena that promote populism are hyper-globalization and the consequent rise in inequality. I outline a theoretical model on how identity based behaviour can be manipulated via the actions of political entrepreneurs. The model is applicable to a stylized developing country’s society that is beset with ethnic cleavages. These cleavages can be worsened or improved by the actions of political entrepreneurs who can influence individual behaviour via the mechanism of meme messages. Under certain circumstances, meme messages are more effective and can even become viral. 

“In the model, the median individual who is decisive in an electoral process belongs to the majority group but has below mean income. This individual is poor; his utility is derived both from identity based behaviour, his group’s relative income or place within society, and his own income. 

“Standard neoclassical economics traditionally ignores the first two aforementioned aspects of an individual’s utility. In some circumstances, this individual can be convinced by meme messaging to act against his pecuniary interests, hence violating the neoclassical tenet of homo economicus to engage in identity based behaviour. Growing inequality, political developments and a mismanaged society can drive this type of individual to place identity over interests. In other environments, the messaging and activities of the political elite can heal ethnic cleavages. Aid can play a role in this by easing the budget constraints of the political entrepreneurs,” he went on to say. 

Syed Mansoob Murshed is professor of the Economics of Conflict and Peace at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands, and is also Professor of Economics at Coventry University in the UK. He is regarded to have a truly international academic reputation for his research on the economics of conflict (especially the role of horizontal inequality), the resource curse (how natural resource dependence impacts on institutional quality) and aid conditionality (adverse selection, moral hazard and signaling games). 

He is the author of eight books including Explaining Civil War, 2010 and The Resource Curse, 2018 and over 150 book chapters and journal articles.

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