Moses, the Übermensch, and Populist Leaders, By Uddin Ifeanyi
In truth, there’s more to the concept of leadership than the populist narrative lets on. Especially in conditions as straitened as ours, the challenge before the “leader” is much more burdensome. True, there is a Mosaic quality to the kind of leadership that our economy needs at this time. But Mosaic isn’t the same as Nietzsche’s “Übermensch”.
When President Muhammadu Buhari was recently quoted in the press as describing himself and the “Nigerian elite” as having been in a long-running battle, he simply swapped a fable (explaining his approach to governance) for the more important task of explaining his understanding of the onerous demands of governance in today’s Nigeria. Invited to parse the president’s response to the TV interview, the philosophically-minded would describe his verbal conjuration as involving the subsuming of what needed to be proved — the president’s undying love for the poor — in the proof: Why else would the Nigerian elite loathe Mr. Buhari so much were it not for his love of the poor?
And yet, the difference matters any which way you describe the president’s phrasing of the problem. For, on one hand, there is the challenge of finding work for the large army of Nigeria’s unemployed (and presumably poor) youth. Fortunately, a large part of this challenge is readily met by improving the conditions for doing business in the economy in order that business investments might pick up. A further part of the problem involves preparing the unemployed, through both education and training, for the jobs that the private sector will create. Against these challenges, though, there is the raising, by the president, of a straw-man, on whose neck the albatross of being responsible for the adverse circumstance of the poor in the country may be conveniently hanged, and resistance to whom is the primary task of a popular government — such as his.
Today, in the United States, this straw man is any country (China currently looms large) that runs a large trade surplus with the economy. Along with the pro-trade elite, these economies running surpluses in their trading with the U.S. are supposedly responsible for leaving large swathes of the economy behind. To drain the swamp that feeds these swamp-things is a task that a patriotic president must carry out. And one to which President Donald Trump’s Twitter handle is religiously pledged to. As in Britain, where Brexiteers describe the challenge confronting their country as wresting it back from the encroachment of a different kind of straw-man: an anti-national European establishment. In Hungary, the machinations of this straw-man show up in an international Jewish conspiracy at the head of which seats a larger-than-life scare-crow: George Soros. In India, the minority Muslim population (and its corporeal manifestation: Pakistan) remains the biggest challenge to Hindutva.
A “Moses” is permitted a vision of the “promised land”, and his leadership is all about harnessing popular energies towards getting the economy there. Like the Übermensch, our preferred leader helps shape the moral space within which the journey to “Canaan” will not be completed on time and will be over-budget.
Described this way, President Buhari is not just in good company amongst global leaders. He gives vent to a new populism whose disdain for the “laws of economics” is epitomised in the prescriptions of Matteo Salvini’s Northern League for dealing with Italy’s problematic economy. Resonances of Donald Trump’s America all over again? Yes. But, this time around, in place of the “art of the deal”, substitute the “body language”. And with that act of verbal prestidigitation, gone is the requirement for public policy to take cognisance of demand and supply, scarcity and choice, and the incentives arising on the back of these. Nor is there any longer a need for policy coherence, nor for bothering with the proper sequence of policy implementation. In place of all this bother, the divinely ordained saviour of the people is permitted to make policy up as he traipses along.
In truth, there’s more to the concept of leadership than the populist narrative lets on. Especially in conditions as straitened as ours, the challenge before the “leader” is much more burdensome. True, there is a Mosaic quality to the kind of leadership that our economy needs at this time. But Mosaic isn’t the same as Nietzsche’s “Übermensch”. A “Moses” is permitted a vision of the “promised land”, and his leadership is all about harnessing popular energies towards getting the economy there. Like the Übermensch, our preferred leader helps shape the moral space within which the journey to “Canaan” will not be completed on time and will be over-budget. Unlike, the populist, on the other hand, while understanding the people’s fears and vulnerabilities, the Mosaic leader refrains from playing these to the hilt. For the religiously minded, it was at such instances (when he pandered to the least common factor) that Abraham’s God fell out with Moses.
President Buhari may find it easy to keep his constituents on side, by tooting on the dog-whistle for “us” (poor impoverished Nigerians) versus “them” (the pizza – from the UK – ordering fat cats). But, thus far, this approach hasn’t helped fix the major problems with the economy. Over the next four years, he’s got to deal with how to improve productivity in an open, fast-growing economy. So far, he has only introduced new fault-lines, which may make the design and eventual implementation of solutions to the problem that much more difficult.