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Political Populism . a (re)view

Nowadays, Political Populism sounds more like an ambivalent concept, due to the great contradictions arisen within the First World’s democracies, where national state politics are unable to rule the neoliberal economic order. In the past, the political class used to control economy with laws that stimulated production, but nowadays a globalized market makes the rules by itself. Those rules are changing every day according to the needs of the trade rather than the demands of the general population. Given this situation, the European traditional parties suffer a lack of legitimacy, unable to play – and manage – the popular democratic demands. They are now considered a selfish and rich caste, traitors to the people, and this is demonstrated by widespread abstention.
However, on the one hand politics look weaker than the economy, but on the other hand, many political subjects have tried to get through those contradictions bringing many popular issues into the public debates. These actors have tried to force the elite’s governments to fall with a new populist propaganda aimed at the “masses”, exploiting a subjective urge that lacks a proper objective analysis that takes into account the complexity of today’s political issues. That’s why, following the fall of the ideologies of the 20th century, many political parties are adopting these simplistic views, creating new and different political populist forms aimed at seizing state power by means of the masses, in a demagogic liberal or even authoritarian way.

Historically populism has been considered a common political phenomenon since the Roman Republic when “The Populares” were an unofficial populist faction in the Roman Senate, that tried to rule by mobilizing the masses – often by calling referenda – under the command of charismatic leaders. The modern political populism though, has its roots in the first half of the 19th century, when the czarist empire faced the emancipatory push of rural masses. The Russian farmers were brought together by a new political movement, the narodničestvo, lead by an intellectual elite, fighting autarchy to set a more equal socialist – and anti-industrialist – system. Previous examples are the French Revolution and the subsequent Bonapartism. Both revolutionary movements based their legitimacy on the will of the masses and were led by wealthy intellectuals exploiting a “populist” sentiment against the excesses and privileges of the elites during the Ancien Régime. Those popular experiences were also portrayed by many contemporary artists, who considered people a vehicle of healthy values, as opposed to the elite’s depravation driven by wealth. Naturalism and Realism show their focus on the “commoners” human society, considered as the true one.

Far away from Europe, the Populist or People’s Party has grown in the United States since the 1890s. This faction was composed by middle – and working – class individuals, fighting the government on taxation and laws, but also aiming at the direct election of the US President. During the last century the whole of Latin America has been haunted by the spectre of populism, because of the United States’ imperialism that caused many populist parties to gain power. These experiments can be seen as a political alliance between an emerging industrial bourgeoisie and a newly organized urban working class –lacking a formerly developed class consciousness – that promote social reforms. Usually anti-ideological, the 20th century Latin-American populist leaders have showed a strong, even if mostly void, socialist rhetoric. Even if they were financially or politically unable to fulfill their promises, they have been very often successful in providing many broad and basic services to the masses. A brilliant example of such a socialist attitude is the Venezuelan Chavismo, but on the other side of the spectrum we can match this to populist dictatorships, such the one established by Getulio Vargas in Brazil.

Looking through history, many political forms have transformed due to changes and evolutions in the capitalistic system, but modern Europe is still increasingly facing the spectre of populism. After the erosion of the welfare stateneoliberalism, freed from the economic boundaries previously imposed by the state, has become unsustainable not only for the poor, but for the European middle class too, now facing unemployment and poverty. Having lost its own economic sovereignty, drowned in the mud of corruption perpetuated by economic oligarchies, the European middle class is facing a widespread proletarianization. As a consequence, it started tilting toward new political subjects and parties that, for their anti-ideological behaviour, are definitely populist. It is easy to analyze the middle-class’ inclination to cling to the existent, fearing much more the fall of the status quo than a new system’s change.

In the European capitalistic stronghold politics lack autonomy, so that the socio-economic contradictions are exploited and driven by new charismatic and populist leaders, some leftist and some right wing. In the new world trade, both factions are far away from the previous ideological party forms. This form of populism is typically marked by non-ideological appeals for “the people” to build a unified coalition against EU’s concentration of power with a new apolitical attitude. Their leaders consider themselves as the only representatives of the real people: not just an anti-elitism attitude, but definitely anti-pluralism. But, as Alexis de Tocqueville reminds us: “The greatest danger to democracy is the tyranny of the majority”, which means that in democracy there is no exclusive representation.

Italian populist parties seem like perfect examples: Mr. Berlusconi’s party, the Forza Italia, was at war with state taxes; former independentist party Lega Nord is now carrying on an anti-immigrants crusade; and the 5 Stars Movement, led by comedian Mr. Beppe Grillo, aims at replacing power of government with those of the “common people”. Not by chance, both Lega Nord and 5 Stars Movement are strongly eurosceptic.

This skepticism towards EU is a common feeling among populist movements, but not yet a cohesive topic because of each nation’s own political views. An example: the Italian Grillo, the English Farage, the French Le Pen, populist eurosceptic leaders, have never formed a group.

The decline of the ideological parties has brought many changes into European politics, as we can see in the case of Spanish Podemos, lead by the young university professor Iglesias, a formally leftist who refuses to be called a socialist. He looks like a very modern political leader, able to go through the common political categories and successfully charm the voters thanks to the exploitation of new media forms. The Greek Syriza’s win throws down a challenge to the European Union, but it’s definitely not anti-system. Compared to the common social-democratic parties, that are not able to promote the working-class values, social security and welfare anymore, those two represent a great shift.

Otherwise, the other European social-democratic parties have almost completely lost their Marxist behaviour, becoming the first EU’s defenders and supporting the economic austerity against the masses’ needs.
Actually, right wing populism is also very strong within the EU’s borders. From the ex-socialist east to the capitalistic west, from the welfare states of the north to the backward south, it’s easy to see the rise of new racist and nationalistic parties, usually lead by a charismatic neo-fascist leader who fights immigration and the capitalistic crisis loop. This sounds really reactionary and shows a lack of historical background.
It’s a structural problem, not one that regards thepeople.

In the globalized world the right wing is losing, bit by bit, the most traditional topics: the family, the nation, the economic,and social – individual responsibility. In this state of things, the right wing’s enemies are the capitalistic austerity and the managing class – liberal and cosmopolitan – considered to be the betrayer of traditional values. That’s why these kinds of politics are promoting an anti-EU propaganda, based on the national purity and the economicand politic – nationalization.

Even if facing increasing consensus, those parties do not represent a majority and cannot form a strong single block, because of their nationalistic competition and the subsequent self isolation. Locally, these are German Alternative for Germany (AFD), the Greek Golden Dawn, the Scandinavian Sverigedemokraterna, the Italian Forza Nuova, the English UKIP, the Austrian FPO, the French National Front, the Dutch PVV, the Hungarian Fidesz, the Bulgarian Ataka, the Danish DF, the Finnish PS, the Polish Law and Justice, and other smaller ones.

Nevertheless, Eastern Europe is under a great influence of a new nationalistic wave, mainly for two reasons: the post-soviet nationalism and the rejection of the free market and the capitalistic system.
A brilliant example of such nationalistic trend may be observed in Polish politics: Kukiz’s party, led by a charismatic and strong euroscepticleader. In fact, Kukiz is a young leader who has a casual style and is able to speak to the masses in a proper, easy and direct way.Tough and funny, he tells people what they want to hear about the consequences of the crisis: that is not the people’s fault, but the result of a political conspiracy, hatched by the previous ruling class who betrayed the masses.

However, leftist or right wing, the masses are manipulated by emphasized populist leaders that call for a more popular democracy, including calls for increased political participation through reforms, such as the use of popular referenda. This thirst for a direct democracy is a clear sign of the fallen legitimacy of the representative one. That’s why it’s highly attractive to the masses: dealing with the capitalistic contradictions, political populism may bring to new anti-system experiments, like the refusal of the Euro.
The populist spectre that haunts Europe is so scaring since the cynic Troika’s technocracy, who is more self conscious than the masses about the current crisis of the neoliberal model and the class war that this is destined to bring about. Because of that, in Europe we are passing through a significant moment where just as the oligarchic offensive is on the march, with the impoverishment of the people and elite disdain for it even as an instance of legitimation, so to increase the accusations of “populism” against any display of discontent. So, divide et impera, it’s clear how a war between the poor really helps the maintenance of power.

The EU powers know exactly who their enemies are and how to deal with them. This type of power is one leading to hegemony: the capacity of a group to present its particular agenda as incarnating the general interest. Populist parties, with a simple worldview, don’t seem to be able to do that yet.

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