All posts by Alberto Giordano

About Alberto Giordano

Alberto Giordano, PhD, teaches History of Public Opinion and History of Political Thought at the University of Genoa. His research fields include the history of liberalism and democracy, modern constitutionalism, populism, theories of public opinion and liberal feminism. He has recently published the book Le regole del buongoverno. Il costituzionalismo liberale nell’Italia repubblicana (Genoa University Press, 2016).

Populism, Prejudice and the Rhetoric of Privilege

In a short statement released late in the evening of April 23, 2017, just after the first run of the French presidential elections, madame Marine Le Pen, the well-known candidate of the far-right party Front National who had won the second position after Emmanuel Macron, addressed her supporters gathered in her headquarters:

 Il est temps désormais de libérer le peuple français, tout le peuple, sans oublier nos compatriotes d’Outre-Mer qui ont exprimé à mon égard une confiance qui m’honore, il est temps de libérer le peuple français d’élites arrogantes qui veulent lui dicter sa conduite. Car oui, je suis la candidate du peuple[1]. (Le Pen 2017a)

 

This passage, quite impressive indeed, seems clear enough to introduce the working hypothesis that I will try to prove throughout this paper, that is to show how much, and how frequently, populists set up their discourse around a relatively small number of patterns, which happen to be often intertwined. All in all, my guess is that we may identify three main narratives:

1) the worship of the people;

2) a hidden appeal to prejudice;

3) the rhetoric of privilege.

 

Why are they so fundamental? In my view, because they serve the creation of the most remarkable character which may be found in most populist galleries, i.e. the ‘enemy of the people’, who apparently enjoys all those benefits and rights that people at large have been stripped of. I will proceed by offering a quick insight into the most interesting studies on populism and its rhetoric, sketching the three main narrative patterns by means of a close look at recent samples of populist political communication and, as a final point, submitting some provisional closing remarks.

 

 

Defining Populism: A Never-Ending Story

The vast and varied literature on populism, its nature and rhetorical legacy is proof of a continuing fascination for scholars, who, nonetheless, fail to agree on a standard definition of the concept itself. Three approaches, at least, contend the market of political science, each stressing a (presumably) unique feature of populism:

1) the ideology approach;

2) the discoursive approach;

3) the attitude approach.

 

According to the first, populism can be understood only in terms of an ideology, however thin it may be (Canovan 1981, Mudde 2004; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017). It is, for sure, an odd ideology, moving beyond class identity and political affiliation (the left/right cleavage so often derided by populists) but holding a strong grab on the sovereignty of the people, the crucial role of leaders (whose words often have a healing effect on social evils, according to Incisa di Camerana 1976) and the anti-establishment perspective, issues which could make of populism an inner alternative to the liberal democratic theory and practice (Mény and Surel 2000).

Still, the ideology approach underestimates the communicative value of populist narratives, which is why a good number of researchers have developed the discoursive approach, focusing on the rhetorical patterns performed by most populist leaders and representatives. Scholars such as Taguieff (2002), Laclau (2005), Reisigl (2007) and Cedroni (2010), however differing in the scope and methodology of their analyses, share a common belief in the fact that populism is «a political style that is used by a wide range of actors across the world today» and consequently highlight its «performative aspects» (Moffitt 2016: 28).

Others, though, – like Betz (1994), Taggart (2000) and De la Torre (2008) – deem both the ideology approach and the discoursive approach equally inadequate to embrace a phenomenon so complex as populism is. In fact, their proposal lies in the depiction of populism as an attitude, a state of mind marked by «a peculiar vision of social order grounded on the faith in the aboriginal virtues of the people, whose primacy as the sole legitimate foundation of political life and governmental policies is openly and proudly called for» (Tarchi 2015: 52).

Notwithstanding the differences, the aforementioned approaches converge towards the acknowledgment of ‘the people’ as a key principle in populist thought and storytelling. Yet, they seem to miss – more or less extensively – a crucial point, i.e. that the supremacy of the people (at least, in the brand new fashion sanctioned by populists) is forcefully, and furtively, connected to an ambiguous usage of stereotypes and prejudices in order to stimulate a spontaneous reaction of the people (i.e. the voters) against those targets which are blamed for their privileges (however real or presumed). This is what I will deal with in the next two paragraphs.

 

 

The People

What do populist mean when they invoke ‘the people’? If it is true that «all forms of populism without exception involve some kind of exaltation and appeal to ‘the people’» (Canovan 1981: 294), a remarkable feature of contemporary European and North American populism seems to be located in their embracing losers and victims – of globalization, governments and ruling classes, international organizations, industrial and financial élites, intellectual circles etc. – and turning them into ‘the people’[2]. A pro-common man and anti-elitist stance has always characterized any sort of populism, of course: for instance, the former leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Jörg Haider, repeatedly stated that «very often plain people got a much wider good sense than top-notch politicians, who nonetheless try to teach them what moves their inner desires» (Cedroni 2014: 48). But, while we must surely keep in mind the «difference between populist audiences (those who are spoken to by populists) and populist constituencies (those who are spoken for by populists)» (Moffitt 2016: 96), it is nonetheless amazing to hear of how many odes to the real, and therefore disgraced, men and women are stunningly sung by populists, as in the case of Donald Trump’s inaugural address:

What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. (Trump 2017a)

 

In this portrait of ‘the people’, the moral and political dimensions of public life are strictly tied up, so that Nicholas Bay, the secretary-general of the Front National, could assert, back in 2015, that «the French long for a real, meaningful change, not merely a political but a moral break», since they had looked with disappointment at «the disdain towards democracy and the people displayed in the last few days by the affiliates of the political élite» (Bay 2015). These words let us notice another double-sided feature of populism, that is the contempt for traditional politicians and the consequent acclaim of populist leaders as the sole ‘voices of the people’.

No surprise that both Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, just to mention the most relevant, have largely relied on some slogans of the sort all along their campaigns: Trump’s merchandising managers made stickers and hats available with the motto ‘I am your voice’ and sold them abundantly, while Le Pen’s posters often claimed her being ‘la voix du peuple’. But why are populist leaders deemed as extraordinary by their supporters, at least as far as their proximity with the people is concerned? Because they can handle quite skillfully the rhetoric of difference: ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘pure people’ and ‘the corrupted few’, the ‘honest bulk of the people’ against the ‘wealthy turncoats’. A very good example, once again, is offered by a passage in Trump’s inaugural speech:

 Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People. For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. (Trump 2017a)

 

In sum, populist leaders are perceived as different not merely because they can legitimately speak for the people, but in so far as they belong to the people – which is funny, indeed, when we recall that a lot of populist billionaires like Trump, Berlusconi, Perot, Fujimori and many more have pretended to act as the true representatives of the common people. In so doing, it has been written with more than a reason, they can be successful «by emphasizing action and masculinity, playing into cultural stereotypes of the people and by proposing ‘common sense’ solutions at odds with the opinion of experts» (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017: 68). In the meantime, we should never forget what Jan-Werner Müller has argued so persuasively, that «in addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist. Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people» (Müller 2016: 2). Which is why they need to sketch a detailed catalogue of enemies and their servants, appealing to our inner prejudices to decry their pretended privileges and clearing the way for an illiberal, absolute representative presumption.

 

 

Enemies, Prejudices, and Privileges

Many enemies, much honour: it seems like our populists have learnt the lesson well. Professional politicians, as we have seen, are the first on the list since they belong to the worst class, that of the ‘enemies of the people’. Politicians are not reliable because «they are not willing to do anything for you [common people], since they are submitted to Brussels, Berlin, to corporate interests and financial powers» (Le Pen 2017c); besides, they do not comply with the popular will, a reason to choose the populists who, instead, «offer the electorate a real alternative to the old status quo» and «ensure that the politicians are reminded that real people must not be ignored» (UKIP 2017: 2, 3).

Politicians, though, are just a small portion of the overwhelming assemblage of the enemies. Matteo Salvini, the young leader of the Northern League, tweeting right after the first run of the French presidential elections, for instance, included in the list «politicians and journalists, philosophers and pseudo-artists» not to mention the «bankers [who] celebrate Macron», while «around 40% of farmers and workers voted for Marine Le Pen» (Salvini 2017). Farmers and workers, the ‘pure people’, who vote for the populists, against the (un)happy few. Who are the latter? The privileged, the rich, the well-educated, the well-born, the ones who live under the State’s patronage and drain resources from the poor while scorning them.

Other targets, yet, are required these days: the EU and eurocrats are among the best for populists, both right-wing and left-wing (let me mention at least the anti-European rhetoric of Podemos and Syriza). European authorities are seen, a priori, as unfriendly rivals and true obstacles on the path of the people: UKIP leaders, for example, have long dreamt, before Brexit, of «a Britain released from the shackles of the interfering EU» since Europe is a «failing super-state that tells us what to do and does not listen to what we want» (UKIP 2015: 5). Of course eurocrats enjoy plenty of privileges, granted by the States’ contribution to the EU budget and sharply criticized by populists who, as in the case of the Finns Party, ask for the «termination of detrimental EU-bureaucracy» (The Finns Party 2015b: 5). Besides, eurocrats’ guilt exceeds by far their existence being, as they are sometimes, «designated by national governments to sit in mysterious committees» (Lega Nord 2014: 3).

The EU, in fact, in most populist narratives is portrayed as the ‘bad guy’ who forces member States to raise taxes and cut the healthcare, social insurance, culture etc., while the same «nation States are less and less democracy-driven», since the EU is an «obscure and distant entity» and does not listen to the people (Lega Nord 2014: 3). But Europe is responsible, as well and most noticeably, of the worst crime of all (in mainstream populist perception): the ‘open-door’ policy when it comes to immigration issues. Right-wing populism has monopolized the topic, since it «endorses a nativist notion of belonging, linked to a chauvinist and racialized concept of ‘the people’ and ‘the nation’» (Wodak 2015: 47); it consequently blames European authorities for «the EU’s founding, unshakable principle of the ‘free movement of people’» (UKIP 2015: 12) and proposes the «demission of the Schengen treaty to take back control of national borders» (Le Pen 2017b).

Still, there is something more subtle and disguising: the frequent appeals to anti-migrants prejudices (mostly anti-Muslim, at present) are often mingled – at least in the last few years – with a novel narrative pattern which emphasizes the alleged privileges of migrants and asylum seekers. After all, few months ago, Donald Trump explicitly told the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, that «immigration is a privilege, not a right, and the safety of our citizens must always come first» (Trump 2017b). But the same applies to what has been called the ‘welfare chauvinism’, a phenomenon that has recently reached its apex when European populist parties such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the Swiss UDC, the Front National and the Finns’ Party (formerly known as the True Finns), have denied any legitimacy to whatever claim over national healthcare and social security programs put forward by «migrants who lack necessary skills for employment as well as for those with religious and cultural reasons that are not willing to accept basic European concepts and principles of equality and freedom of speech» (The Finns Party 2015a: 1). Even more plainly, right-wing populists very often deplore the fact that ‘our people’ is left behind, while the State and communities ‘pay for them’:

The Finns Party does not accept that people can reside in Finland illegally – never mind that these people are getting health and social care as well as extra and wider services. The asylum seekers are also getting support for transport and leisure activities – this situation should be reviewed. The Finnish welfare-state should not be acting as a magnet for immigration – the system should be prioritising Finns for receiving education and medical care and treatment services. The repercussion of the immigration flow on the welfare-system and its effect on the Finnish population must be brought under control. (The Finn’s Party 2017: 11)

 

How? Easy to figure out: as a first step, by the «termination of any public medical aid for illegal migrants» (Le Pen 2017c); then, maybe, introducing «an Australian-style points based system to manage the number and skills of people coming into the country» (UKIP 2015: 11) and so forth. The anti-privileged-migrants narrative deployed by populists is multifaceted as it is effective.

We have come so far to witness a full circle: the worship of ‘the people’ – even better: the belief that populists, and they alone, serve «the interests of a imagined homogeneous people inside a nation State» (Wodak 2015: 47) – has become the basis, and the ideological anchorage, for a series of appeals to intimate, well-rooted stereotypes and prejudices fueled by a discourse centered on a flamboyant condemnation of the privileges that others than ‘the pure people’ (politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, businessmen, intellectuals and, lately, migrants) apparently enjoy against the popular will. And this, in turn, «attracts the attention of the all-important media through which they [populist leaders] broadcast their appeal to ‘the people’» (Moffitt: 68). Voilà.

 

 

Final Remarks

In this paper I have tried to argue, looking at the most recent samples of political discourse in Europe and America, that most messages sent by populist are intended to flatter the people and stimulate prejudice-based reactions by means of the rhetoric of privilege, the strong impact of which on public opinion cannot be underrated. These narrative patterns, in my view, serve the purpose of creating a large gallery of enemies – however implausible they can be – that populists must rely on to develop their anti-establishment arguments.

What does this outcome tell us on populism and its nature? First, it confirms that Ruth Wodak was right when she maintained that populists are used to «instrumentalize some kind of ethnic/religious/linguistic/political minority as a scapegoat for most if not all current woes and subsequently construe the respective group as dangerous and a threat ‘to us’, ‘to the people’» (Wodak 2015: 2), even though we might add that the same applies to any social group that doesn’t fit in their fictional portrait of ‘the people’. Second, it gives us some practical insights into the rhetorical tricks veiled under their advocating a democratic revival, that, when populists «succeed in leading the government of a democratic society» (as in the case of Hungary and Poland), suddenly turns into an authoritarian project including «centralization of power, weakening of checks and balances, strengthening of the executive, disregard of political opposition and transformation of election in a plebiscite of the leader» (Urbinati 2014: 129).

Our analysis seems to teach us something more, yet: populism prospers where public opinion is too fragile and dumb to find out any hidden appeal to prejudice and stand against it. After all, as Walter Lippmann wrote long ago, public opinion relies heavily on stereotypes, since they offer us «an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves» so much that «any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe» (Lippmann 1991 [1922]: 95). Here, precisely, may be found the final reason why populist rhetoric is so attractive: no challenging thoughts, no self-responsibility, no efforts required, just a number of lame excuses and pleasant customary prejudices. But what’s that if not another form of propaganda, a well-designed «effort to alter the picture to which men respond, to substitute one social pattern for another» (Lippmann 1991 [1922]: 26)?

 

 

References

Bay, N. (2015), La voix du peuple!, Décembre, 4, 2015, http://www.frontnational.com/2015/12/la-voix-du-peuple/.

Betz, H.-G. (1994), Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Bobbio, N. and Matteucci, N. (eds.)(1976), Dizionario di politica, Turin: UTET.

Canovan, M. (1981), Populism, London: Junction.

Cedroni, L. (2010), Il linguaggio politico della transizione. Tra populismo e anticultura, Rome: Donzelli.

Cedroni, L. (2014), Politolinguistica. L’analisi del discorso politico, Rome: Carocci.

De la Torre, C. (2008), Populismo, ciudadania y Estado de derecho, in De la Torre, C. and Peruzzotti, E. (eds.)(2008): 23-53.

De la Torre, C. and Peruzzotti, E. (eds.)(2008), El retorno del pueblo. Populismo y nuevas democracias en América Latina, Quito: FLACSO.

Gest, J. (2016), The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Incisa di Camerana, L. (1976), Populismo, in Bobbio, N. and Matteucci, N. (eds.)(1976): 859-864.

Laclau, E. (2005), On Populist Reason, London: Verso.

Lega Nord (2014), Programma elettorale della Lega Nord per le elezioni europee, http://www.leganord.org/phocadownload/elezioni/europee/Programma%20elettorale%20europee%202014.pdf.

Le Pen, M. (2017a), Déclaration de Marine Le Pen au soir du 1er tour, Avril 23, 2017, http://www.leparisien.fr/elections/presidentielle/marine-le-pen-il-est-temps-de-liberer-le-peuple francais-23-04-2017-6877368.php.

Le Pen, M. (2017b), Mes 10 mesures immédiates, https://www.marine2017.fr/2017/04/13/10-mesures-immediates-2/.

Le Pen, M. (2017c), Remettre la France en Ordre, https://www.marine2017.fr/2017/04/17/remettre-france-ordre-profession-de-foi/.

Lippmann, W. (1991 [1922]), Public Opinion, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Mémy, Y. and Surel, Y. (2000), Par le peuple, pour le peuple. Le populisme et les démocraties, Paris: Fayard.

Moffitt, B. (2016), The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mudde, C. (2004), The Populist Zeitgeist, Government and Opposition, 39 (4): 541-563.

Mudde, C. and Rovira Kaltwasser, C.R. (2017), Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Müller, J.-W. (2016), What Is Populism?, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Reisigl, M. (2007), The Dynamics of Right-Wing Populist Argumentation, in Van Eermeren F.H., Blair, J.A., Willard, C.A., Garssen B. (eds.)(2007): 1127-1134.

Salvini, M. (2017), Tweet, April 24, 2017, https://twitter.com/matteosalvinimi?lang=it.

Taggart, P. (2000), Populism, Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Taguieff, P.-A. (2002), L’illusion populiste, Paris: Éditions Berg International.

Tarchi, M. (2015), Italia populista. Dal qualunquismo a Beppe Grillo, Bologne: Il Mulino.

The Finns Party (2015a), The Finns Party’s Immigration Policy, https://www.perussuomalaiset.fi/kielisivu/in-english/.

The Finns Party (2015b), The Main Concerns, https://www.perussuomalaiset.fi/kielisivu/in-english/.

The Finns Party (2017), The Finns Party’s Platform, Municipal Elections,  https://www.perussuomalaiset.fi/kielisivu/in-english/.

Trump, D.J. (2017a), Inaugural Address of President Donald J. Trump, January 20, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural-address.

Trump, D.J. (2017b), News Conference, March 17, 2017, https://www.rt.com/usa/381175-trump-merkel-presser-live/.

United Kingdom Independence Party (2015), Believe in Britain. UKIP Manifesto 2015,  http://www.ukip.org/manifestos.

United Kingdom Independence Party (2017), UKIP Local Manifesto 2017, http://www.ukip.org/manifestos.

Urbinati, N. (2014), Democracy Disfigured. Truth, Opinion, and the People, Cambridge Ma.: Harvard University Press.

Van Eermeren F.H., Blair, J.A., Willard, C.A., Garssen B. (eds.)(2007), Proceedings of the Sixth Conference of  the International Society for the Study of Argumentation, Amsterdam: International Center for the Study of Argumentation.

Wodak, R. (2015), The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, Los Angeles-London: Sage Publications.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] «It is time, at least, to free the French people, the people as a whole, not to forget our fellow citizens of the departments outside France who have pleased and honoured me with their faith and consent, it is time to free the French people from arrogant élites ready to influence its conduct. Because it’s true: me alone, I am the candidate who speaks for the people».

[2] See Gest (2016).

Sustainable Liberalism: A Modest Proposal for Global Recovery

 

Actually the same crisis, apparently caused by a severe drop of investors’ faith, given the huge amount of national public debts, has already devoured the other so-called “Pigs” (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain), and even the iron economy of Germany, as ECB’s Governor Dr. Mario Draghi has recently pointed out, seems to be threatened by this European plague. In turn, global economic growth shows signs of indisputable weakness: along with Europe and the USA, almost all emerging countries – with the notable exception of Brazil, for now – experience a substantial slow-down in their glorious path towards well-being.

 

That’s the story. At least, the story we have been told in the last five years. And it conveys a bunch of sickening, although necessary, consequences: cuts in the public budget, decline of welfare-State policies, shakeups in the labour market, higher taxes etc. Will this strategy carry us out of the crisis, soon or later? Honestly, I’m afraid it won’t. Quite the reverse, we should seize the day and reconsider the most basic patterns of our social and economic model.

 

It is a common belief that market liberalism, whose dictatorship seems to mark the last three decades, led to the complete deregulation of global financial economy, together with a growing emphasis on capital gains as the main source of wealth and the corresponding decrease of labour incomes – not to speak of the continuing depredation of natural resources that caused a long series of catastrophic environmental tragedies. We should question, however, if those achievements be really consistent with core liberal principles.

 

Rather correctly, French economist Valérie Charolles has stated that “we are indeed widely persuaded to live in a liberal world, while the variety of capitalism that governs us has little to do with liberal theory”. In fact, “the liberal model doesn’t serve as the basis of the system. It merely provides a justification for the liberalization of public services, but it is quickly put aside in the face of too rapid a process of concentration undergone by the private sector. These processes blatantly contradict the theoretical corpus of liberalism, which claims competition to act as a tool capable of multiplying the number of actors and limiting any position of power” (Charolles 2006: 13, 52).

 

Furthermore, classical liberals were perfectly aware of the dangers – though social, moral and political – posed by an endless economic growth. And even when they did support development and progress, as in the case of David Hume and Adam Smith, the most negative consequences were never forgotten nor ignored.[1] If Hume strongly encouraged commerce, since “it increases frugality by giving occupation to men, and employing them in the arts of gain, which soon engage their affection, and remove all relish for pleasure and expense”, promoting “the greatness of a state, and the happiness of its subjects”, he soon added that “a too great disproportion among the citizens weakens any state”, so that “every person, if possible, ought to enjoy the fruits of his labour, in a full possession of the necessaries, and many of the conveniencies of life” (Hume 1987: 255, 265, 301). Similarly Benjamin Franklin, trying to preserve Americans from European corruption and depravity, advocated “a general happy mediocrity” by which, obliging people “to follow some business for subsistence, those vices that arise usually from idleness, are in a great measure prevented” (Franklin 1959: 274, 282).

 

Not merely inequalities did Smith fear indeed. True, “no society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable”; but, although “commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them the liberty and security of individuals” (Smith 1981: 96, 412), an extensive division of labour could produce serious moral and psychological consequences on “the great body of the people”, preventing a conscious citizenship and their natural search for “happiness [which] consists in tranquility and enjoyment” (Smith 1982: 149).[2] His friend Henry Home, Lord Kames, was far more categorical: “great opulence opens a wide door to indolence, sensuality, corruption, prostitution, perdition” (Kames 2007: 333).

 

We should, then, try to disclose the hidden roots of the present crisis – and I believe that, in so doing, we’d be forced to go back and back in time. We can find many traces of the path taken by the global economic system in the last 40 years: the end of the new gold standard in 1971, the great oil crisis of 1973-74, the emergence of neo-conservative policies along with the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the deregulation wave of the 1990s (culminated in 1999, when the Glass-Steagall Act was finally repealed by President Bill Clinton), the growth of international investment banks and the naissance of computer-managed financial dealings. 

 

Therefore, the greatest crisis since 1929 has been prepared by a long series of economic mistakes, as well as by an intentional implementation of misleading public (and private) policies. While most scholars and policymakers silently accepted such a new paradigm, few voices were raised to warn against the likely dangers. Among these, the case of Michel Albert still deserves some consideration: a social economist and former CEO of Assurances Générales de France, in his brilliant book Capitalisme contre capitalisme (1991) he foresaw the aftermaths of an economic regime – notably dubbed “the Anglo-Saxon model” – relying more on financial means and less on production and trade of goods and services, with growing inequalities and a troublesome lessening of social security (Albert 1991: chap. viii, ix).

 

But there is something more – so much more, indeed – he did not foresee: that such a model has reached quite soon the point of no return, becoming no longer sustainable upon a strictly financial, as well as social and ecological, view. How to reconcile economic development, human flourishing and the preservation of natural capital? How to settle a dynamic and free economy with the promotion of labour and a structural safeguard of biodiversity? A contribution to unravel this intricate puzzle might come from an approach that I will call sustainable liberalism: an attempt to revive the ethical, political and economic discourse of classical liberalism in strict dialogue with contemporary sustainable-development theories.

 

It must surely sound quite bizarre, since liberal economists and philosophers mostly look with a skeptical eye at any effort to sketch a theoretical framework capable of merging individual liberty with social equality and a systematic protection of the environment. However a number of scholars, by the middle of the 20th century, had tried to reconsider the feedback of economic growth on social and natural organisms within the wider context of a novel humanistic philosophy, claiming that every measure was to be implemented à la taille de l’homme. Among these ‘neo-liberals’ – as they labeled themselves to avoid any association with Hobhouse, Keynes and Beveridge’s new liberalism – were Walter Lippmann, Wilhelm Röpke, Luigi Einaudi and many more, who had tied up ethics, politics and economics in a comprehensive design of the ‘good society’.[3]

 

Their most cherished aim was, for sure, the reestablishment of political and economic freedom after the tragedy of totalitarianism; even so, they did assume that “we [humankind] represent by no means the dizzy summit of a steady development; that the unique mechanical and quantitative achievements of a technical civilization do not disembarrass us of the eternal problems of an ordered society and an existence compatible with human dignity” (Röpke 1950: 2). In their view, “economic liberalism, true to its rationalist origin, exhibited a supreme disregard for the organic and anthropological conditions which must limit the development of capitalist industrialism unless a wholly unnatural form of existence is to be forced upon men” (Röpke 1950: 52).

 

Hence they advocated an extensive program of social, political and economic reforms aimed at restoring justice, equality of opportunities and social market economy, given that “progress and economic development rely much more on moral values than on mere efficiency” (Einaudi 1987: 48). Such a development, however, should absolutely avoid “the rape of irreplaceable natural reserves [whose] consequences are already making themselves felt in many instances and in an alarming manner», among which they pointed at «the annihilation campaigns against the forests on all continents and against the whales of the oceans”, not to speak of “the inevitable consequences of the excessive use of artificial manure and the progressively more serious problems of every country’s water supplies” (Röpke 1950: 144).

 

 Curiously enough, their intellectual heirs weren’t (and still aren’t) ready to capture the spirit of such an innovative attitude. Quite the reverse, after the pioneering warning launched by the Club of Rome in 1972, sustainable-development theorists (almost) alone have tried to handle – at both levels, normative and practical – the overwhelming burden of forecasting a transition towards a ‘humane economy’, as Röpke called it once. The truth being that “we have, today, reached the end of a template for life and business that, for 200 years, has been extremely successful – one that worked quite magnificently under the old conditions. Those conditions – namely the availability of an entire planet for a small part of humanity and its economic model – however, no longer exist” (Welzer 2011: 33).

 

We need, then, an integrate approach to economics, since “the conventional wisdom is mistaken in seeing priorities in economic, environmental, and social policy as competing. The best solutions are based not on tradeoffs or ‘balance’ between these objectives but on design integration achieving all of them together – at every level, from technical devices to production systems to companies to economic sectors to entire cities and societies” (Hawken – Lovins – Hunter Lovins 1999: xi). Whatever opponents may think of it, there would still be room for economic liberty. Bill McKibben has recently reminded us in his remarkable book Deep Economy, devoted to advocate a large-scale reform centred on a huge process of downsizing, that “shifting our focus to local economies will not mean abandoning Adam Smith or doing away with markets. Markets, obviously, work. Building a local economy will mean, however, ceasing to worship markets as infallible and consciously setting limits on their scope. We will need to downplay efficiency and pay attention to other goals” (McKibben 2008: 2).  

 

Other goals, by the way, require new tools for their own analysis, study and measurement. That’s why, in recent times, the former President of the French Republic, Nicholas Sarkozy, appointed a Commission led by Professors Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi in order “to identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress [and] to consider what additional information might be required for the production of more relevant indicators of social progress”.[4] The Commission’s report, lengthy and well-reasoned, is nonetheless crystal clear on the absolute inadequacy of the conceptual background underneath contemporary economics; so that, for instance, “choices between promoting GDP and protecting the environment may be false choices, once environmental degradation is appropriately included in our measurement of economic performance” (Stiglitz – Sen – Fitoussi 2009: 7).  

 

Sustainable liberalism should not pretend to stand as the sole theoretical framework, nor to provide the most useful solutions. It is, rather, an intellectual approach that might help social scientists and policymakers, as well as every citizen on Earth, to imagine new life-styles and eventually put up an alternative scenario, in which individual liberty, equality and preservation of the biosphere could really walk side by side towards the only, valuable end of social and economic life: the well-being of every sentient organism on our planet.

 

References

 

– Albert, M. (1991), Capitalisme contre capitalisme, Paris: Editions du Seuil.

– Audier, S. (2012), Néo-libéralisme(s). Une archéologie intellectuelle, Paris: Bernard Grasset.

– Bruni, L. and Porta, P. L. (eds., 2005),  Economics and Happiness, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

– Charolles, V. (2006), Le libéralisme contre le capitalisme, Paris: Arthème Fayard.

– Einaudi, L. (1987), Le prediche della domenica, with an introduction by G. Carli, Turin: Einaudi.

– Franklin, B. (1959), Autobiography and Selected Writings, edited by D. Wecter and L. Ziff, Toronto: Rinehart and Co.

– Hawken, P., Lovins, A. and Hunter Lovins, L., (1999), Natural Capitalism. Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Boston: Little Brown and Co.

– Hume, D. (1987), Essays. Moral, Political and Literary, edited by E. F. Miller, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

– Kames, H. Home Lord (2007), Sketches of the History of Men, vol. I, edited with an introduction by James A. Harris, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.   

– McCoy, D. R. (1982), The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co.

– McKibben, B. (2008), Deep Economy. The Wealth of the Communities and the Durable Future, New York: Times Books/Henry Holt & Co.

– Rasmussen, D. C. (2006), “Does ‘Bettering Our Condition’ Really Makes Us Better Off? Adam Smith on Progress and Happiness”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 100, No. 3.

– Röpke W. (1950), The Social Crisis of Our Time, translated by A. and P. Schiffer Jacobsohn, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

– Smith A. (1981), An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

– Smith A. (1982), The Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by A. L. Macfie and D. D. Raphael, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

– Stiglitz, J., Sen, A. and Fitoussi, J.P. (eds., 2009), Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr/documents/rapport_anglais

– Welzer H. (2011), Mental Infrastructures. How Growth Entered the World and Our Souls, Berlin: Heinrich Böll Foundation.

 


[1] For a concise yet complete overview of this approach, see especially McCoy 1982, 13-47.

[2] Here I follow the sketch drawn by Rasmussen 2006.

[3] On neo-liberals, their saga and place in American and European culture see Audier 2012.

[4] Individual and common happiness could fit perfectly into the agenda. The theoretical connections between economics and happiness have been largely investigated by economists, psychologists and philosophers alike; a rich collection of essays on these topics may be found in Bruni – Porta (2005).