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.

Send lawyers and money

ReutersGreece admitted on Wednesday it will struggle to make debt repayments to the IMF and the European Central Bank this year as Germany’s finance minister voiced open doubts about Athens’ trustworthiness. A day after euro zone finance ministers agreed to a four-month extension of a financial rescue for the currency bloc’s most heavily indebted member, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis gave a frank assessment of Greece’s financial position.

“We will not have liquidity problems for the public sector. But we will definitely have problems in making debt payments to the IMF now and to the ECB in July,” he told Alpha Radio.

He put no figure on the funding gap. After interest payments this month of about 2 billion euros, Athens must repay an IMF loan of around 1.6 billion that matures in March and about 7.5 billion for maturing bonds held by the ECB in July and August.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, revelling in his role as the euro zone’s grumpy paymaster, said no further aid would be paid out until Greece fulfilled the conditions of its bailout programme.

This situation is bringing a major — and strangely under-remarked upon — issue to the foreground.

Continue reading

Inherently Left of Center?

Romano Prodi, writing in Le Monde, claims that the European Union is inherently a left-of-center project. It’s an interesting claim–certainly one that Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl would probably dispute. But certainly the European institutions have changed since either of those Chancellors’ days, and a contemporary view might lend more strength to Prodi’s views and explain the relative prevalence of anti-EU sentiment on the right side of the political spectrum.

I’m of course relying on the summary from the estimable folks at Eurotopics, but it’s an interesting thought.

Hungary’s Reform Programme

Just a bit of background info to accompany Doug’s post on AFOE:

“Everybody in Hungary knows that real income will decrease in the next two years … and very significant social groups will feel their interests hurt. If this simple rejection is transformed and mixed with national radicalism and social populism, then this is a dangerous thing,” Gyurcsany (Ferenc Gyurcsany, Hungary’s Prime Minister) said.

He has said that Hungary aims to meet eurozone criteria on the public deficit, national debt and inflation by 2009 and adopt the common currency by 2013.Last week, Hungary submitted to the European Commission a revised plan to prepare for adoption of the euro. Under the plan, the public deficit would be slashed from 10.1 percent of gross domestic product GDP) this year, the highest in the EU, to 3.2 percent in 2009. Although it is an ambitious programme, some analysts have called on the government to cut spending further in social areas such as pensions, in order to tidy up the country’s shaky finances, a recipe Gyurcsany has so far rejected.

The so-called euro convergence programme, not deemed aggressive enough for some, has also sparked protests in Hungary and led to a huge drop in the government’s popularity. The reforms include ending free public university education and overhauling the state-run healthcare system that is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, by introducing co-payments for visits to the doctor and to the hospital, among other things. The aim of the plan is to put a greater financial burden on citizens and curtail the welfare state, which is becoming increasingly hard to finance in a society that, like much of Europe, is growing older.

This information also has some relevance to the debate which is raging on this thread about reform.

No Way Forward in France?

An establishment voice casts further doubt on whether French elites see possible progress in the European Union

Jacques Julliard, the weekly’s deputy editor, explains in an interview with François Sionneau that he does not see how the constitution could return to the agenda. “Projecting five to 10 years into the future – the most that is possible – I am frankly not that optimistic about Europe’s political hopes. We have fallen too far behind. We must also remember that an enormous gap exists between the motivations that pushed people to vote ‘no’ – reasons having to do with domestic politics which may be legitimate – and the consequences of this ‘no’, which transcend domestic politics and are not remediable in the short term. The world’s major dates with destiny will proceed without Europe. Large European countries will participate, but not as a Union.”

From Le Nouvel Observateur, via Eurotopics.

The Union’s energy is now mostly coming from the east, but will it be able to overcome blockages from the old members in the west?

After the Revolution

Germany – Süddeutsche Zeitung. On March 15 the Ukrainian author
Yuri Andrukhovych was awarded the prize for European
Understanding at the opening ceremony of the Leipzig Book Fair.
In a sensational speech, he attacked EU Commissioner Günter
Verheugen who opposes Ukraine’s entry into the EU. The
newspaper publishes extracts of the speech: “European dialogue
has not taken place,” Andrukhovych notes bitterly, and makes an
appeal to EU countries: “It is crucially important for me that
you help this cursed country, in whose language I write and
address you in. And it wouldn’t be so terribly difficult for
you to help this country. It would simply be a matter of not
saying anything that will kill our hope.”

Hat tip: Eurotopics. Original article unfortunately in pay-per-view. Annoying and expensive pay-per-view at that.

Picking Cherries or Dead As A Duck?

There are opinions to suit all taste this week. According to EurActiv:

EU leaders have almost all declined a proposal by French President Jacques Chirac to save the EU Constitution by splitting it up into single chapters and integrating those into the existing EU framework.

The EU observer puts it more bluntly – The Hague says constitution is ‘dead’:

The Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot has said the EU constitution is “dead” for the Netherlands, rejecting EU leaders’ recent pleas for a resuscitation of the charter.

So it seems, at the end of the day, there will be no low-lying fruit, like cherries, just there for the pickin. Time to start building some ladders I think.

Austria Presses On

Not content with simply being the ‘Energy Presidency’, Austria it seems is hell bent on also moving forward the Consitution issue, even if this is only in the rather tame form of a Brussels debate among Europe’s leaders on the way forward for the new treaty. Actually rather than a constitution per-se, what we may see is the consolidation of the “Cherry Picking” model:

One option is to “cherry pick” key institutional aspects of the text such as the creation of an EU foreign minister or greater openness at councils of ministers.

Human Victim Of Bird Flu In Turkey?

Well, as we say in Spain: one hot one and one cold one. Last Friday I posted about how Turkey may well be making progress in modernising its legal system thanks to EU pressure. Today the worry is that the information system in Turkey may well still be extremely deficient. This is highlighted by the death of Muhammet Ali Kocyigit and the fact that three more of his siblings were admitted to hospital with symptoms which sound suspiciously similar to flu.

News.com.au suggests that Muhammet died of flu, but the Turkish Health Ministry is at pains to assert that even if the cause of death is to date unknown, it wasn’t avian flu. Let’s just hope they’re levelling with us!

Something Seems To Be Working

According to the Turkish news agency Hürriet Turkish Deputy prime Minister and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul spoke last night to the NTV news channel regarding:

“the recent wave of legal battles being held against Turkish intellectuals and a senior member of the European Parliament. Gul criticized the actions that were being taken under the controversial article of the country’s new penal code and said, “There seems to be a chain of systematic complaints. There appears to be a mentality deliberately aiming to create chaos.”

The FT quotes Mr Gul as saying:

“There may need to be a new law. As a government we’re watching closely how the existing laws are being implemented.”

The law in question is the one which makes it an offence to insult “Turkishness”. This law has been highlighted recently by the Orhan Pamuk case and now by the strange threat to prosecute Joost Lagendijk, a Dutch member of the European parliament, for suggesting the Turkish army provoked Kurdish rebels in the hope of extending its influence. Interestingly enough Joost Lagendijk supports Turkish membership of the EU. State prosecutors are reportedly studying the complaint against Lagendjik.

Now I have to say that not of this surprises me. Turkey is a society in transition. Fortunately the transition is from a bad equilibrium to a batter one, and we in the EU are doing our bit. I feel that Gul’s statement confounds the fears of the sceptics. In this case EU pressure will be rigourous, and change will be far reaching, but the process will, obviously, have its ups and downs.

So I was really surprised to read in the FT:

“Turkey knows that gaining entry to the EU will become an increasingly arduous task in the coming years, because of widespread antipathy inside the 25-member club towards future enlargement. “

No! Turkey gaining entry to the EU will be an arduous task because it is good for Turkey and good for the EU that it be so. If some people are using their ‘enlargement fatigue’ as an excuse for trying to make things more difficult, then they are the ones who will end up even more fatigued (and frustrated) as time after time Turkey complies with their demands.

This could be another example of shooting-yourself-in the-footism as in complying with the demands Turkey will become an increasingly modern and economically competitive society, which means, of course, that when it does join in 2014 it will, as the largest member state, have even more influence :).