The Populist Papers: 29 Years of Populism

Thinking about Brexit, the Donald, Austria having a presidential election replay, and other things, it struck me that in a sense I’ve lived through a Populist Era, a parallel history to the official narrative of ever-closer European union and what we might call ever-closer Western union. The starting point is hard to place. Jörg Haider’s party joined the Austrian government at the end of 2000. Silvio Berlusconi was first elected as Italian prime minister in 1994. In the same year, the BNP won and lost its first local council seat. But we’d be fools to ignore what was happening further east – Vladimir Meciar’s third term as Slovak prime minister from 1994-1998 is an example, and some people argue Slobodan Milosevic from 1989 onwards was the very first. Then you have to deal with the FN’s electoral breakthrough, at the French parliamentary election of 1987. Jean-Marie Le Pen achieved a score that time his party wouldn’t equal until 2015.

Since then, they’ve come thick and fast and all over the world, in societies as various as Thailand and Australia, or Bradford and Dresden. They are as diverse as the societies that gave rise to them, and the degree of success they have achieved varies enormously. It is commonly said that the word “populist” just means a political party others don’t want to accept, but I disagree with this. It is true that they differ dramatically in their content. Leaving the European Union is obviously not a priority for the newly elected bishop-mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella. Yet Crivella is recognisably a populist and would fit nicely on a platform with Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Beppe Grillo, or Donald Trump.

Instead, I think, what unites them is a way of doing rather than a way of seeing. You can look at this as an aesthetic style, or as a technology for winning elections. It doesn’t matter; style, after all, is founded on technique. But looking at it as a set of style tropes and technical solutions has the advantage that we can understand it as such. Technology diffuses. Once it is invented, sooner or later, it spreads, and it spreads the faster the more people feel able to try it out and to adapt it to their own aims, aims which are themselves changed by the process of trial. We know quite a lot about the sociology of innovation diffusion.

So I want to pick out the minimal common elements of the technology here. So far I’ve got:

Politics against method

Most types of state have some form of universal ideology, a body of ideas that are meant to guide the citizenry in all they do. Conservatism in Burke’s sense claims this is embodied in old institutions, which must be defended. It therefore aligns the power of the state with the authority of those institutions. Liberalism demands that the institutions get out of the way of the citizenry in the name of liberty, and therefore sets up the power of the state as a sort of depoliticised referee whose mission is to guarantee that liberty. In this sense, socialism or at least social democracy is the sturdy child of liberalism – rather than merely asserting the equality of citizens and sitting back to let them get on with it, the state aims to actively ensure their equality in the name of positive liberty. Even beyond this, most states also believe in some form of technocracy, in economic or administrative principles and techniques that represent the state of the art and can be rolled out around the territory for the greater good.

One of the most interesting features of populism is that it rejects method. This goes well beyond the now quaint idea that what matters is what works. Method is both a source of power, and a constraint on power. If it doesn’t work, you can’t do it. On the other side, it is entirely acceptable to argue that you are pursuing “politics for the little man” and immediately offer a massive tax cut to the richest, justifying this on libertarian grounds, and then demand that the state subsidises petrol prices. I remember Jörg Haider doing all these things in the same speech. Method is a construct of the boring, and a tiresome constraint on rhetorical creativity. Instrumental rationality is subordinated to expressiveness. This is one of the reasons why populism is often described as “post-modern”.

Method is also a force against one of populism’s most important aims, which I am about to discuss.

Repoliticising the state

Liberalism, very broadly defined, likes to see the state as a neutral force, hanging “above the parties” as the Germans say. Conservatism and socialism both see it as a force for universal good, differently defined. They all, however, believe that it is different from partisan politics. This does not mean that it is apolitical, just that it is different. Parties and interest groups come and go, but the state endures, and at least claims to serve the public good. One way to look at this is as a depoliticisation of the state. Rather than being defined by opposition to an enemy, it is defined by the inclusion of its citizens.

Carl Schmitt argued that the fundamental political act was to define friends and enemies. He is an example of a long-running counter-tradition in Western political thought that fears this depoliticisation and wishes for a partisan state. Populists demand that the government takes sides among its citizens, that it acts in an explicitly partisan manner. They want to feel that the state is on their side, not because it serves the public good, but because they personally get took care of. Following any particular method obstructs the state in doing this, as it requires that the state acts in accordance with rules.

An important concept here is victimhood. I covered this in a previous post on my own blog. In an important way, populism democratises access to the category of people who feel justified in demanding state help. This is a consequence of the rejection of method; if there is no determinate standard of victimhood, then everyone can feel justified in wallowing enjoyably in it.

Many other writers on populism, from Richard Hofstader onwards, have observed that it arrogates to itself the right to define the people. This is primarily important, though, because it permits them to use the state in the manner that great political thinker, the Salford Machiavelli, Dominic Noonan advised: Look after those that look after you, fuck off those that fuck off you. It shouldn’t need saying that the EU is a prize example of an institution built on method that tends to depoliticise the state, as is NATO, NAFTA, and the WTO. Interestingly, the German ultraconservatives of the 1920s thought the same about the League of Nations.

I’ll make you a deal

It follows that the response to a problem or an injustice is not necessarily to solve it, but rather to make an exception. Schmitt, again, held that this was precisely the attribute that defined sovereignty, and perhaps that is why populists are so attached to the idea of sovereignty. Populism is a system of exceptions. If you do not believe it is possible to get anything right systematically, and you do not believe in the institutions, you can still hope you might be able to get special treatment for yourself. As such, it is something of an indicator-species for a low trust society. Soviet citizens were constantly trying to get treated “po chelovek”, on a personal basis.

Donald Trump, of course, tries to cope with literally everything this way. The F-35 project is far too complicated and is costing too much? If you yell at Lockheed-Martin hard enough, they might give you a discount for the sake of quiet, and of course you can also take care of them by ordering more airframes down the line when everyone will have forgotten. You can’t compete with German exporters? Jump the counter and yell until they offer you a deal. But it’s not just him. Haider offered cheap Libyan diesel around come election time; Theresa May has taken to distributing cash whenever a charismatic exporter threatens to leave the UK. This can also be done in a negative sense, by calling someone in and publicly humiliating them.

It is worth noting that a problem, in this view, is an opportunity to make yourself indispensable. There’s a reason why low-trust societies don’t function well.

Bullshit, and the rejection of constraint

If you reject method, and reduce politics to a system of individual customer-retention gimmes and theatrical humiliations, it follows that you don’t have much use for facts. In some sense, a fact arises because of a method. I think this may explain why the rejection of constraint is so important to populists. Nigel Farage affects to believe that cigarettes are good for you. Donald Trump grabs ’em by the pussy. I asked a Brazilian friend of mine who voted for Crivella, and she thought for a moment and said “People with big white trucks who live in Zona Oeste”. This remark needs a bit of unpacking; the socio-cultural references packed in there are meant to evoke a petty bourgeois or nouveau riche aesthetic, but I’d like to focus on the truck.

If there’s a constraint they like to reject above all others it’s anything to do with energy, the climate, and hence transport. In part this is explained by the fact there are major funders available who hand out cash to people who reject this constraint. Beyond cynicism, though, is it too impressionistic to imagine that some people feel experts in general just want to take their trucks and make them listen to the doctor and stop smoking? I think this is interesting, because the populist target market tends to be the same around the world – rather well-off but not particularly educated fifty-somethings, not coincidentally also a demographic that likes to jump the counter and demand a deal, and that consumes a lot of ambient media.

That said, I also don’t believe Farage really thinks Craven “A” don’t affect your throat. Instead I think this is a performative statement. Harry Frankfurt famously defined bullshit as speech that doesn’t bear any relationship with truth, not even the negative one lies do. The great thing about bullshit, in Frankfurt’s telling, is that it offers so much creative freedom to the bullshitter to come up with what his audience would enjoy hearing. Populist bullshit arises because it’s fun and it gets the desired audience on your side. Farage’s audience would like to feel, for a while, that cigarettes are good for you and that they might get a special offer.

Bunkers of the DDR

British urban-exploration geeks report on their tour of a wealth of cold-war and Nazi bunkers in the former East Germany back in 2003. Thrilling and uncomfortable stuff—they were the first to revisit the ultimate DDR fortress, the bunker that was built as an alternate seat of government for Erich Honecker and the rest of the Zentralkomitee. That is merely tankerpunk, of course, but I thought this was very cool indeed..

After many hours beneath the surface, we emerged from the gloom and after thanking our guide, headed off to the next site, nearly 150 miles away, the former East German PTT (Post Office Telecom, basically) satellite uplink station ‘Intersputnik’ at Neu Golm to the south east of Berlin.

The site came into service 1976 as the first (and only) ground satellite station in the GDR. Then part of the integrated international telecommunications network, ‘Intersputnik’, (which has nothing to do with the Sputnik remote transmitter sites mentioned elsewhere in this report) was one of 15 INTERSPUTNIK sites which were in service in 13 countries. These sites used to transmit telephone, fax, TV and data signals. In the Former Times, this site‘s services were also used by the then West German PTT services for satellite links to the Soviet Union, i.e. it was a non-military complex. Later, it used the Soviet satellites Stationar 4 and 5 in geostationary orbit 36,000 km over the equator, but initially used the four Soviet Molniya satellites, which were in a non-stationary orbit, i.e. the dish had to be oriented towards each of the four in turn as they came into view for a 6-hour “period of duty”. The dish could rotate through 360° and was so finely balanced that a 250 W drive is sufficient to rotate it. However, the entire site is now a conference centre, even if the redundant original dish (12 m in diameter and weighing, with its base, 60 tonnes) is still on the roof.

Note especially that Deutsche Telekom shared the installation with the East Germans and the Russians, a fine example of what used to be called the DDR’s secret membership in the EEC, and the difficult moral position the West Germans were regularly pressed into – between doing things that would improve life in the East (but perhaps reinforce the regime) and the desire to put pressure on the DDR leadership.

Hirsi Ali’s shadow brings down Dutch cabinet

The Dutch government has handed in its resignation after coalition partner D66 withdrew its support. Lousewies van der Laan, chairwoman of D66, had asked for the resignation of VVD minister Rita Verdonk because of her handling of the Hirsi Ali naturalisation case. The initial vote of censure* by Femke Halsema (GroenLinks-GreenLeft) that inspired Van der Laan’s resignation plea received no majority in the Dutch Lower Chamber and Rita Verdonk refused to quit on her own. D66 cabinet members Laurens Jan Brinkhorst, Alexander Pechtold and Medy van der Laan consequently resigned and, by doing so, pulled the plug on the whole cabinet.
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Political Tide Still Flowing Leftward in Italy

Prodi’s majorities in Parliament are still slim, and factional infighting is likely to remain Florentine, but Berlusconi’s political fortunes continued to float away in municipal elections just passed.

The municipal elections held in Italy from May 28 to 29 did not offer Berlusconi the revenge he was seeking. Massimo Giannini, the daily’s deputy editor, looks at the results and at a missed opportunity for the former prime minister. “The revenge, the dirty trick, the stiff uppercut, whatever the precise lexical nuance, Berlusconi’s political sally has failed. The municipal elections as an instrument of grass-roots ‘Jacquerie’ that was supposed to definitively deprive the centre-left government of its legitimacy – this strategy did not work. … And the 15 million Italians who went to the polls did not change the result of April 9 to 10 [legislative elections]. Much to the contrary. … The centre-left no longer has an alibi; it now has no choice but to govern. It can count on a new base: the roughly three million young people who massively voted for it.”

From La Repubblica via Eurotopics

The Roma goes to court

Gypsies Gain a Legal Tool in Rights Fight

But now, some leaders of the Gypsies, or Roma, are looking to a new model to try to achieve equality: the civil rights struggle of black Americans. More and more, the Roma are going to court to secure their rights, and doing so where they think it will have the best chance for success — among the new East European members of the European Union and those trying to join, which are seeking to impress Western Europe with strict interpretations of their new antidiscrimination laws.

Germany and the Herero

Germany and the Herero: What now? asks Ranry McDonald, guest posting on the Head Heeb.

Back on the 29th of August, The Globe of Mail of Toronto featured an article by Stephanie Nolen (“‘Forgive us our trespasses'”) that examined the contentious question of how–or even if–the Herero of Namibia should be compensated for their sufferings in the Herero Genocide of 1904-1907.

Sego On The Up And UP?

Ségolène Royal’s ratings in the opinion polls are certainly on the up-and-up. According to a poll, published in Le Figaro yesterday she won the backing of 34 per cent of respondents (against 30% for Sarkozy). It seems like there will be a battle for the Presidency in 2007 after all, and that Emmanuel may have been unduly pessimistic about her chances. The FT has the story here. However:

In spite of her popularity, Ms Royal faces ferocious opposition from rival Socialist candidates – possibly including her partner, François Hollande, the party secretary – to clinch her party’s nomination.

Ms Royal’s popularity appears partly due to her novelty as a serious female candidate – the former environment minister appeared on the cover of five magazines last week – as well as her maverick campaigning style. Ms Royal has launched a website called desirsdavenir.org (desires for the future), encouraging the public to contribute to a “participative forum” and promising to adopt the best ideas.

Her critics have argued that her “wiki-programme” has only exposed the hollowness of her ideology but it has certainly aroused the interest of France’s internet users.

One-liner of the week

The Mirror, on the latest bizarre twist of the Italian election campaign :

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi yesterday confessed to calling sex chat lines – to ask women what they thought of his policies. (…)

He called the girls to ask what they thought of him and Mr Prodi.

He told party workers at a briefing: “Seven out of the nine young ladies I called said they preferred me, which is very good news indeed.”

One aide said: “He was delighted that the women were in favour of him. It certainly perked him up.”

But a member of Mr Prodi’s camp said: “These women say anything to please the desperate men who call them.”

(via Yglesias)

Defining protectionism down

Something worthwhile on the new Guardian blog: A post by Daniel Davies.

Economic “protectionism” is back in the news with a vengeance, with France objecting to takeovers in the steel sector, Spain putting together national champion utilities and the USA crying blue murder over Dubai Ports World’s proposed acquisition of P&O. James Surowiecki had an article in the Saturday Guardian painstakingly setting out the conventional wisdom on this subject (ie that it’s very bad). Trouble is, this isn’t really what “protectionism” means.

Via Atrios.

Islam; internal discussion, pt 5

Alex, I agree. But to know what happened to the ideals when they became their respective opium can only serve as a reminder to be careful, and, that politics matters. In fact, my idea of “dealing with Islam” doesn’t necessarily include the CRS, but compulsory Europe-wide reading of the relevant articles on Wikipedia, for example. I mean, look at what’s going on, this is not about state-prescribed belief, or even opposition to it, it’s about campaign management.

I think on of the fundamental problems with today’s version of enlightenment is that it is actually quite unenlightened. It’s no longer a conclusion but just another start of a thought process. Today, I’d say that most Europeans are orthopraxically not-religious as many Muslims are, and many people in Alabama probably are (again).

We will need to socially reconnect with our own enlightenment roots if we are to convince anyone of their value. We probably need to focus on the 16th – 18th century ourselves for a bit.