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).

Post-Truth, Polarization and Other Emotional Threats to Democracy

On a cold pre-winter evening in London, November 23, 2019, the celebrated comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was awarded a prize by the Anti-Diffamation League. During the ceremony, he delivered a passionate speech focused on the threats posed by fake news, new media and their intensive stimulation of the emotive sphere of individual citizens, linking it all to the crisis presently hitting Western democracies:

Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat; and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Today, around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. Hate crimes are surging as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities. All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history (Baron Cohen 2019).

As long as it goes, the speech raises many questions which deserve to be dealt with in academic debates as well. Why do emotions shape the arena of contemporary politics? Are post-truth and polarization the most powerful tools of the populist approach to politics? Do they pose a challenge to liberal democracy? How can we bring back rationality in public deliberation and political discourse?

In this short paper I will try to show how intellectuals are treating these issues, at first sketching briefly the role of emotions both in classical propaganda and contemporary analyses; secondly, I will focus on the dispute regarding post-truth and polarization by connecting these issues to the spread of populism. Additionally I will offer a critical survey of some up-to-date theoretical solutions to those dilemmas and finally try to assess a partial and provisional proposal, hopefully useful to build a working paradigm to take hold of passions and bind politics to a more rational and prospective approach.

 

Propaganda and Emotions

There is nothing new in the attempt to get rid of rationality and strike the emotional side of our perceptions. Walter Lippmann, in his classical study on public opinion, insisted on the gnoseological weakness of mankind and the persistence of stereotypes which, for a great number of individuals, were nothing but «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» (Lippmann 1991 [1922]: 95). This is why war propaganda, in the years of WWI, had revealed so effective, since it was targeted to stimulate an emotional answer through a more or less overt appeal to stereotypes and prejudices.

But it was Edward Bernays to make clear, in some astonishingly explicit statements, that commercial and political communication was increasingly connected and grounded on both individual and collective emotions, shaped by a bunch of professionals:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. […] Trotter and Le Bon concluded that the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits and emotions. […] By playing upon an old cliché, or manipulating a new one, the propagandist can sometimes swing a whole mass of group emotions. […] Men are rarely aware of the main reasons which motivate their actions. A man may believe that he buys a motor car because, after careful study of the technical features of all makes on the market, he has concluded that this is the best. He is almost certainly fooling himself (Bernays 1928: 9, 50, 51).

Bernays had learned much from his participation to the celebrated Committee on Public Information, created by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 to persuade American public opinion of the necessity to enter the war. The head himself of the Committee, the journalist George Creel, described its proceedings in terms of an attempt to convey public emotions in an effort to sell a product: the American commitment in WWI (Creel 1920). In fact it was precisely the industry of advertising, both commercial and political, to benefit more and more from the growing challenge to bypass the threshold of rationality.

It was precisely this phenomenon to be denounced by Vance Packard in his well-known book The Hidden Persuaders, where he spoke with the loudest voice against «the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions and our thought processes» (Packard 1957: 1). The pattern is still valid; something more needs to be added, though.

In the last decades, according to William Davies, the building blocks of modernity have fallen apart. And what we see is a widespread decline of reason in favour of a concrete state of public and private phrenzy:

The modern world was founded upon two fundamental distinctions, both inaugurated in the mid-seventeenth century: between mind and body and between war and peace. These two distinctions appear to have lost credibility altogether, with the result that we now experience conflict intruding into everyday life [] As society has been flooded by digital technology, it has grown harder to specify what belongs to the mind and what to the body, what is peaceful dialogue and what is conflict. In the murky space between body and mind, between war and peace, lie nervous states: individuals and governments living in a state of constant and heightened alertness, relying increasingly on feelings rather than facts (Davies 2019: xi-xii).

But if emotions rule the world, the political impact of this very fact cannot but be huge. Davies explicitly states that «feelings of nostalgia, resentment, anger and fear» were involved in «populist uprisings, as manifest in the victories of Donald Trump, the Brexit campaign and a wave of nationalist surges across Europe» (Davies 2019: xiv). And even though he is prudent and honest in admitting that these are mere symptoms, not the cause of nervous states, he nonetheless depicts a scenario which deserves to be fully appreciated:

Since the late nineteenth century, nationalists have sought to manufacture popular mobilizations by conjuring up memories of past wars and enthusiasm for future ones. But something else has happened more recently, which has quietly fed the spirit of warfare into civilian life, making us increasingly combative. The emphasis on “real time” knowledge that was originally privileged in war has become a feature of the business world, of Silicon Valley in particular. The speed of knowledge and decision making becomes crucial, and consensus is sidelined in the process. Rather than trusting experts, on the basis that they are neutral and outside the fray, we have come to rely on services that are fast, but whose public status is unclear (Davies 2019: xvi).

Therefore, we should address the following question: are post-truth and polarization somehow connected with contemporary populism and fostered by new media?

 

Post-truth, Populism and Polarization  

The phenomenon called ‘post-truth’ has been defined as «relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief» (Oxford Dictionaries 2016). Quite a controversial definition, indeed, since contemporary philosophy has been teaching us that “facts” and “truth” are very contested concepts (Schantz [ed.] 2002). Aside from the epistemological quarrels, however, Lee McIntyre has correctly suggested that «what is striking about the idea of post-truth is not just that truth is been challenged, but that it is being challenged as a mechanism for asserting political dominance». But it’s not just that: «what seems new in the post-truth era is a challenge just not to the idea of knowing reality but to the existence of reality itself» (McIntyre 2018: xiv, 10).

Both points are essential in order to understand why the most relevant political events of the last 5 years are somehow connected to the post-truth paradigm. Quoting again from McIntyre’s brilliant research:

With the largely fact-free campaign over Brexit in Great Britain – where hundreds of buses advertised the bogus statistic that the UK was sending 350 millions euros a week to the EU – and the growing use of disinformation campaigns by politicians against their own people in Hungary, Russia, and Turkey, many see post-truth as part of a growing international trend where some feel emboldened to try to bend reality to fit their opinions, rather than the other way around. This is not a campaign to say that facts do not matter, but instead a conviction that facts can always be shaded, selected and presented within a political context that favors one interpretation of truth over another (McIntyre 2018: 5-6).

No surprise that Donald Trump revealed himself a champion of this trend. The day after his inaugural address the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, told journalists that «this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe» (Spicer 2017). What’s the reason behind such a harsh statement? The fact that many international newspapers published a photograph which portrayed the not-so-exciting popular attendance to Trump’s inaugural compared to Obama’s 2009 (the most attended inaugural so far). The press reacted with both irony and dismay, criticizing the White House’s improbable strategy; so that the senior aide to the President, Kellyanne Conway, felt compelled to address the astonished NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd with a sentence that soon became considerably popular: «don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood…Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that» (Conway 2017).

It is common knowledge that populism plays with a wide range of emotions, in order to flatter ‘the people’: anger, pride, loyalty, hate, mistrust, insecurity and so many more. Populists, though, deal especially with fear: Ruth Wodak correctly wrote, in her most relevant book, that «currently we observe a normalization of nationalistic, xenophobic, racist and antisemitic rhetoric, which primarily works with fear» (Wodak 2015: x). And yet something new happened in the last few years: populism dances systematically with the denial of facts and dismiss the search for truth as a shared social goal. Why? The Australian scholar Silvio Waisbord recently offered a persuading response:

Populism rejects the possibility of truth as a common normative horizon and collective endeavour in democratic life. […] The root of populism’s opposition to truth is its binary vision of politics. For populism, ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ hold their own version of truth. All truths are necessarily partial and anchored social interests. Truth does not exist as collective, common goal. A common truth is impossible given the essential nature of agonistic, conflict-centred politics. Instead, truth-seeking politics entails the reaffirmation of ‘popular’ truths against ‘elite’ lies. […] Facts never change the unfalsifiable premise of populism – the eternal division of ‘pure people’ and ‘evil elites’. This conception of politics turns into a political fantasy that cannot ever be proven wrong. Populism dismisses facts that challenge overriding narratives. No matter what happens, populism obstinately clings to the notion that elites are always in power and continue to distort the truth through their institutions. Populism can never be corrected by its critics. […] Preserving a populist, fact-proof narrative is necessary to safeguard the vision that truth is always on one the side and that lies are inevitably on the other side. Facts belong to one or other camp. Facts are not neutral, but they are political owned and produced. Post-truth communication is exactly where populism wants politics to be – the realm of divided truth, binary thinking, and broken-up communication (Waisbord 2018: 25-26, 30).

This being true, we’d find it easier to understand why populists foster polarization, mostly by means of social media. According to Cass Sunstein, polarization occurs «when members of a deliberating group move toward a more extreme point in whatever direction is indicated by the members’ pre-deliberation tendency» (Sunstein 1999: 3-4). Because of polarization a free and fair public debate becomes virtually impossible since citizens are trapped inside the so-called ‘echo-chambers’. This is particularly valid when applied to many political communities online, most notably belonging to the alt-right (Neiwert 2017: 213-261). Polarization, of course, shouldn’t be confused with partisanship, which Jonathan White and Lea Ypi defined as «a practice that involves citizens acting to promote certain shared normative commitments according to a distinctive interpretation of the public good» and whose goal «is to make their concerns heard in the public sphere so that they may be brought to bear on the course of collective decision making» (White and Ypi 2011: 382). What is more, social media play a significant role in a wide series of collateral phenomena connected with polarization and the poisoning of public debate itself:

How might social media, the explosion of communication options, machine learning, and artificial intelligence alter the capacity of citizens to govern themselves? To the extent that social media allow us to create our very own feeds, and essentially live in them, they create serious problems. Self-insulation and personalization are solutions to some genuine problems, but they also spread falsehood, and promote polarization and fragmentation (Sunstein 2017: 5).

A recent report produced by the European Parliament Research Service (EPRS 2019) set forth a distinction between two types of polarization:

1) polarization by design;

2) polarization by manipulation.

The first is focused on the inner structure of social media and suggest that they «could be driving citizens apart by encouraging the dissemination of increasingly partisan and emotionally-charged content». But the second is even worse, since social media not only «have proven susceptible to amplifying the reach of polarising and conspiratorial content and spreading it into the public mainstream» but they host «influence campaigns designed to sow division and manipulate the public thrive» by means of «bots, junk news and propaganda». The result is that «these tactics have become entrenched in political discourse where foreign and domestic actors rely on them to influence political life» (EPRS 2019: 17, 24).

Post-truth and polarization, in sum, threaten democracy in so far as they emphasize disruptive emotions in order to manipulate procedures of collective (as well as individual) opinion and decision-making. The question thus now being: how can we anchor politics to a more rational pattern and minimize both the explosion of manipulated emotiveness and the dangers of authoritarian populism?

 

Two Alleged Remedies: A Critical Survey

Aside from ‘technical’ interventions (social media self-regulation, anti-fake news/hate speech laws, digital literacy etc.) we can find on the marketplace of ideas a bunch of normative approaches which aim to bring back rationality by means of two principles: knowledge and participation. In this paragraph I will offer a quick but (hopefully) consistent critical survey of the most relevant two: epistocracy and e-democracy.

In his ground-breaking book Against Democracy, the American philosopher Jason Brennan argues that we should give epistocracy a try given the (low) epistemic skills of the citizenry. In fact, he distinguishes between three categories of citizens, conceived as ideal types in Max Weber’s terms:

1) Hobbits: individuals who do not care about politics nor know anything about it. They may sometimes vote but their behaviour is irrational, and their ignorance certified.

2) Hooligans: deeply polarized and biased voters. They seek information only in so far as it confirms their political beliefs and «tend to despise people who disagree with them, holding that people with alternative worldviews are stupid, evil, selfish, or at best, deeply misguided».

3) Vulcans: a restricted minority of citizens who «think scientifically and rationally about politics. Their opinions are strongly grounded in social science and philosophy. They are interested in politics, but at the same time, dispassionate, in part because they actively try to avoid being biased and irrational» (Brennan 2016a: 4-5).

Though admitting that the majority of democratic citizens belong to the first two groups, Brennan points out that the final destination of a political regime shouldn’t consist in investing Vulcans with power, given the fact that «no one manages to be a true vulcan; everyone is at least a little biased». But he is pretty sure that democratic participation doesn’t make us better: quite the reverse, the «most common forms of political engagements are more likely to corrupt and stultify than to ennoble and educate people» (Brennan 2016a: 6, 55), turning most citizens into hooligans. Therefore, we could and should put a strict limit to the damages caused by polarization, the rule of emotions and incompetence:

Consider an alternative political system called epistocracy. Epistocracies retain the same institutions as representative democracies, including imposing liberal constitutional limits on power, bills of rights, checks and balances, elected representatives and judicial review. But while democracies give every citizen an equal right to vote, epistocracies apportion political power, by law, according to knowledge or competence. The idea here is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions. Political decisions are high stakes, and democracies entrust some of these high-stakes decisions to the ignorant and incompetent (Brennan 2016b).

Epistocracy, then, would put a brake to the disruptiveness of emotions by giving priority, in the participation to decision-making processes, to those individuals deemed rational and competent. Practical solutions may vary – restricted suffrage, plural voting, enfranchisement lottery, epistocratic veto or weighted voting (Brennan 2016a: 15) – but the inner logic is always the same.

On the opposite side of the political and theoretical spectrum, e-democracy theorists clam that digital technologies, and most notably the internet, may help us in re-shaping democracy as a shared practice grounded on the participation of any citizen to debate and decision-making. These beliefs have been cherished since the first days of the digital revolution; so that, for instance, Nicholas Negroponte claimed that «the change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable» and that «computing is not about computers anymore. It is about living» (Negroponte 1995: 4, 6). Besides, being digital would have changed the face of politics like never before:

As we interconnect ourselves, many of the values of a nation-state will give way to those of both larger and smaller electronic communities. We will socialize in digital neighbourhoods in which digital space will be irrelevant and time will play a different role. […] While the politicians struggle with the baggage of history, a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices. These kids are released from the limitation of geographic proximity as the sole basis of friendship, collaboration, play and neighbourhood. Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony (Negroponte 1995: 7, 230).

The last fifteen years have witnessed a strong and unprecedented «deployment of online decision-making platforms» that «has a clear utopian element» since it is «presented as the means of making politics more democratic and direct» (Gerbaudo 2018: 5). Of course we may find more technical and neutral approaches that focus on a new type of citizen, «surrounded by public administration digital services» and «the transition from his traditional role and behaviour to the new ones» (Ronchi 2019: 2). But the most relevant contributions to the e-democracy paradigm come from the recognition of the highly positive role of «the flexible organizational affordances and mass outreach potential of social media» (Gerbaudo 2018: 6) and digital technology in fostering popular participation both at a party level (such is the case of the platforms provided by Podemos, the Five Star Movement or the German Pirates) and, more broadly, in the realm of direct democracy, all over the world and particularly in Europe (Hennen et al. [ed.], 2020). Online participatory procedures, it is thought, not only will reduce the distance between the people and the establishment, but contribute to the attempt of neutering the emotion-led propaganda practices and bring the voice of public opinion inside the most sacred palaces of power – a reason very close to the one shared by those who support sortition as a means of selecting representatives (Van Reybrouck 2016).

Unfortunately enough, both epistocracy and e-democracy seem marked by a number of contradictions which would render them unable to stand as useful solutions to the dilemmas above mentioned. As to epistocracy, there is no serious guarantee – like many critics of Brennan’s account have duly noted (Christiano 2018: 68-72) – that superior knowledge necessarily imply more rational and less biased decisions, particularly if we forget to consider socio-economic cleavages and their effect on public opinion. What is more, granting every citizen equal political rights might help institutions to ‘sterilize’ emotions: that’s why Hans Kelsen classically praised proceduralism and mutual recognition between majority and minorities as the basis for constitutional democracy (Kelsen 2013 [1920]).

When it comes to e-democracy, we cannot but put forward the obvious reflection that, in absence of any instrument to lead individuals avoiding post-truth communication and polarization fuelled by social media, political participation by means of online platforms will not likely reduce personal and collective biases. This is why some authors have warned that «despite the promise to allow for a more bottom-up involvement in the political process, with authentic engagement from the base of participants in important decisions», it is «more top-down forms of democracy of the representative and plebiscitary kind that have ultimately prevailed in terms of the participation they have attracted and of the political impact they have produced» (Gerbaudo 2018: 127).

What do we need, then, to minimize the influence of post-truth, polarization and any other threat posed to liberal democracy by the predominance of unchecked emotions? In my view, we should try to implement a threefold strategy:

  • a long-term perspective embodied in an intergenerational constitutional compact;
  • the spread of informed and reasoned participation to decision-making;
  • the right to rational and discursive dissent within a democratic institutional arrangement.

 

A Modest Proposal: The Road Towards Intergenerational Republican Democracy

It is not my aim, in this brief, final section of the paper, to outline a plan able to translate into a comprehensive normative theory, but also to put into practice, the three aforementioned pillars. Rather, I will try to submit some modest suggestions for future attempts to sketch such a model, that I would provisionally label Intergenerational Republican Democracy.

As to the first point, it seems to me that the first step towards a more rational approach to politics must include the implementation of an intergenerational perspective in any field of the decision-making process. Intergenerational justice, we should recall, has made a significant comeback in the last decade (Gosseries and Meyer [eds.] 2012; Thompson 2013), substantially driven by the urgency to address environmental issues; but its scope goes even beyond this fundamental concern.

Even though we cannot accept the easy justification submitted by James Madison, according to whom «there seems then to be a foundation in the nature of things, in the relation which one generation bears to another, for the descent of obligations from one to another» since «equity requires it» and «mutual good is promoted by it» (Madison 2006 [1790]: 191), it wouldn’t be so hard to agree that an intergenerational, long-term view would suit the scope of rendering collective decisions less subject to manipulation, irrationality and haste. How? For instance, introducing into democratic constitutions the requirement for an intergenerational political compact, granting an equitable share to each generation’s future expectations in drafting the guidelines of public policy and law-making (even at a constitutional level) while binding every actor to the respect of fundamental human rights already enacted.

But how can each generation contribute to this complex procedure? By means, I would suggest, of a mechanism inspired by the so-called ‘deliberative opinion poll’ envisaged by James Fishkin (Fishkin 1991 and 1995), which consists in «exposing random samples to balanced information, encouraging them to weigh opposite arguments in discussions with heterogeneous interlocutors, and then harvesting their more considered opinions» (Fishkin and Luskin 2005: 287). The system would bear the advantages of rational deliberation – that is, being informed, balanced, conscientious, substantive and comprehensive – and political equality, since «every citizen has an equal chance of being chosen to participate» (Fishkin and Luskin 2005: 285, 286). This tool was conceived precisely in order to overcome polarization, misinformation and any other propaganda device, and seems particularly useful to supply policymakers with reasonable (in the Rawlsian sense) contributions, even from an intergenerational standpoint.

This all should be accompanied, in my view, by a series of special provisions which would grant a right to dissent very close to the model of ‘democratic contestability’ sketched by Philip Pettit, who maintained that «if a constitutionalist system of law is necessary for the promotion of freedom, then it should be clear that something else is needed too». This component may be represented by «the ideal of a democracy based, not on the alleged consent of the people, but rather on the contestability by the people of everything that government does», which practically means providing «systematic possibilities for ordinary people to contest the doings of government», in order «to ensure…that governmental doings are fit to survive popular contestation» (Pettit 1997: 183, 277). Institutionalizing dissent could possibly lead to freeze opposition conceived as a spread of polarized and biased hostility and foster constructive criticism within constitutional boundaries.

Are these approaches theoretically compatible? And will they suffice in establishing a working paradigm? I must confess I have no clear answers – not yet, at least. Likewise, it seems rather hard to make any serious forecast on the possible practical outcomes of the project, nor is this my main purpose right now. I just wanted to shed light on some troublesome challenges for each scholar in the realm of political sciences and start to add another little piece to the intricated puzzle of the long-debated connections between constitutional democracy, public opinion, populism and emotions in contemporary politics.

 

References

Baron Cohen, S. (2019), ‘They would have let Hitler buy ads’: Sacha Baron Cohen’s scathing attack on Facebook, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/video/2019/nov/23/they-would-have-let-hitler-buy-ads-sacha-baron-cohens-scathing-attack-on-facebook-video.

Bernays, E. (1928), Propaganda, New York: Horace Liveright.

Brennan, J. (2016a), Against Democracy, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Brennan, J. (2016b), The Right to Vote Should be Restricted to Those with Knowledge, https://aeon.co/ideas/the-right-to-vote-should-be-restricted-to-those-with-knowledge.

Christiano, T. (2018), Democracy Defended and Challenged, in M. Ignatieff and S. Roch (eds.)(2018): 65-78.

Conway, K. (2017), Donald Trump’s presidential counsellor Kellyanne Conway says Sean Spicer gave ‘alternative facts’ at first press briefing, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/kellyanne-conway-sean-spicer-alternative-facts-lies-press-briefing-donald-trump-administration-a7540441.html.

Creel, G. (1920), How We Advertised America: The First Telling of the Amazing Story of the Committee on Public Information That Carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe, New York and London: Harper & Brothers.

Davies, W. (2019), Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

European Parliament Research Service (2019), Polarisation and the Use of Technology in Political Campaigns and Communication, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634414/EPRS_STU(2019)634414_EN.pdf.

Fishkin, J.S. (1991), Democracy and Deliberation: New Directions for Democratic Reform, New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Fishkin, J.S. (1995), The Voice of the People. Public Opinion and Democracy, New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Fishkin, J.S. and Luskin, R.C. (2005), Experimenting with a Democratic ideal: Deliberative Polling and Public Opinion, Acta Politica, 40: 284-298.

Gerbaudo, P. (2018), The Digital Party. Political Organisation and Online Democracy, London: Pluto Press.

Gosseries, A.P. and Meyer, L.H. (eds.)(2012), Intergenerational Justice, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Hennen, L. (et al. eds.)(2020), European E-Democracy in Practice, Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland.

Ignatieff, M. and. Roch, S. (eds.)(2018), Rethinking Open Society: New Adversaries and New Opportunities, Budapest and New York: Central European University Press.

Kelsen, H. (2013 [1920]), The Essence and Value of Democracy, edited by N. Urbinati, New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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

Madison, J. (2006), Selected Writings of James Madison, edited by R. Ketcham, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

McIntyre, L. (2018), Post-Truth, Cambridge MS and London: The MIT Press.

Negroponte, N. (1995), Being digital, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Neiwert, D. (2017), Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, London and New York: Verso Books.

Oxford Dictionaries (2016), Post-Truth, https://www.lexico.com/definition/post-truth.

Packard, V. (1957), The Hidden Persuaders, New York: Random House Inc.

Pettit, P. (1997), Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Ronchi, A.M. (2019), e-Democracy: Toward a New Model of (Inter)active Society, Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland.

Schantz, R. (ed.)(2002), What is Truth?, Berlin-New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Spicer, S. (2017), This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period!’ – White House Press Secretary, https://www.independent.ie/videos/world-news/article35387946.ece.

Sunstein, C. (1999), The Law of Group Polarization, John M. Olin Program in L. & Econ. Working Paper, 91, http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:13030952.

Sunstein, C. (2017), #republic. Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thompson, J. (2013), Intergenerational Justice. Rights and Responsibilities in an Intergenerational Polity, New York and London: Routledge.

Waisbord, S. (2018), The Elective Affinity Between Post-Truth Communication and Populist Politics, Communication Research and Practice, 4 (1): 17-34.

White, J. and Ypi, L. (2011), On Partisan Political Justification, American Political Science Review, 105 (2): 381-396.

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

Us and Them: The Logic of Othering from Pink Floyd to Populists

On the eve of March, 1973, Pink Floyd published their most renowned and exciting album – at least according to many fans: The Dark Side of the Moon. The ninth song on the playlist bore the title Us and Them; the lyrics, written by Roger Waters, endorsed the vision of a class-cleavage embodied in the juxtaposition of ‘us’, poor and labouring people sent to fight a distant war by ‘them’, the ruling élite who cannot but command and exercise its power:

Us and them

and after all we’re only ordinary men

me and you

God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do.

‘Forward’, he cried from the rear

and the front rank died

and the General sat, and the lines on the map

moved from side to side.

Black and blue

and who knows which is which and who is who

up and down

and in the end it’s only round and round and round.

‘Haven’t you heard it’s a battle of words’

the poster bearer cried.

‘Listen, son’, said the man with the gun,

‘there’s room for you inside’.

It might seem odd to open a scientific paper quoting a rock song, but it is not. Us and Them, in fact, vividly portrays one among the traditional patterns of the logic of ‘othering’, anything but a distinctive feature of contemporary political theory and discourse – the belief, included, that populists make an exclusive use of it. The story of polarization, in fact, is much longer and its roots deep and plural; however, in the last 30 years on, the approach has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis. In this short paper I will try, at first, to present a concise sketch of the development of the us/them divide in the realm of political theory since the 18th century; I will subsequently highlight the changes undergone by the same within populist ideology and discourse.

 

Us and Them: to cut a long story short

The us/them divide – that is, the call for identity – Is as old as the world can be, anthropologists have often claimed (Berreby 2006). After all, it was Aristotle to state that barbarians were not entitled to the political privileges of the polis since «non-Greek and slave are in nature the same» (Aristotle 1998: 2 [1252b]). However only the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of the first modern sample of the aforementioned dichotomy.

After the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, Great Britain saw the consolidation of the Whig regime, embodied by the long government of Robert Walpole, who served as prime minister 1721 to 1742 (Langford 1992: 9-57). Walpole’s public policies, and the absorption of power in his hands, caused the rise of a strong opposition movement all across England, led by a group of intellectuals and politicians who labeled themselves and their acolytes ‘country’ in front of the ‘court’ led by Walpole and developed an innovative ideological stance grounded – broadly speaking – on natural rights, rotation of offices, separation of powers and accountability (Dickinson 1979: 90-192).

The opponents were mostly Whig – more precisely, the liberal-republicans who renewed the old, glorious tradition of the Commonwealthmen (Robbins 2004) – but alongside with a bunch of Tories led by the well-known Henry St. John, viscount Bolingbroke (Kramnick 1968). The men who built up the ‘country paradigm’ perceived themselves as ‘other’ from those who embodied real power and corruption, i.e. the government and the politico-economic élites whose closed ties with the Whig establishment they repeatedly denounced.

No surprise, then, that John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon – two renowned Commonwealthmen – maintained in one of their famous Cato’s Letters (no. 62) that «whatever is good for the People, is bad for their Governors; and what is good for the Governors, is pernicious to the People» (Trenchard and Gordon 1995 [1720-23]: 423). The approach marked by the antagonism Country/People vs. Court/Governors rapidly gained popularity and ignited much of the ideological production at the time of the American Revolution (Wood 1998).

Still, so much more was yet to come. The early nineteenth century saw the rise of socialism in England, France and, finally, Germany (Newman 2005: 6-45). It was precisely in 1848 that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Manifesto of the Communist Party, prepared under request of the Communist League, that soon became a powerful tool for socialist intellectual and workers in order to spread their belief. The Manifesto was conceived by Marx – who wrote it almost entirely – as a summary of his and Engels’ «joint efforts up to 1848», focusing on «the development of modern capitalism [and] its ruthless overthrow of older social and economic systems» to deliver his newly-coined doctrine of the class struggle and place «revolution at the centre of Marx’s narrative» (Claeys 2018: 119-120). A revolution which was grounded on the premise of an irresistible antagonism between ‘us’ (the proletariat) and ‘them’ (the bourgeoisie):

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman  and  slave,  patrician  and  plebeian,  lord  and  serf,  guild-master and journeyman,  in  a  word,  oppressor  and  oppressed,  stood  in  constant  opposition  to  one  another,  carried  on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in  the common ruin of the contending classes. The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society  has not done away with class antagonism. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our  epoch,  the  epoch  of  the  bourgeoisie,  possesses,  however,  this  distinct  feature:  it  has  simplified  class  antagonisms.  Society  as  a  whole  is  more  and  more  splitting  up  into  two  great  hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat (Marx and Engels 2016 [1848]: 9).

Near the end of the century, however, something started to change: the past two cleavages seemed to converge towards a new synthesis which appeared at first in the United States. A.D. 1892 saw the official birth of the People’s Party, the first populist party to stand against traditional politics and reproduce the logic of othering following the pattern ‘the people vs. the élite’, where ‘the people’ were «the good rural farmers…who tilted the land and produced all the goods in the society», while ‘the élite’ was formed by «the corrupt, urban bankers and politicians» (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 23). An excerpt taken from the first party’s electoral program, the so-called Omaha Platform, deserves to be quoted at length:

We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform. They have agreed together to ignore, in the coming campaign, every issue but one. They propose to drown the outcries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, watered stock, the demonetization of silver and the oppressions of the usurers may all be lost sight of. They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires (People’s Party 1892).

And yet, while class and political cleavages combined in a patchwork synthesis, we can still trace back its expression to a number of traditional patterns. However, somewhere between the 19th and 20th centuries Europe witnessed the insurgence of a special blend of nationalism, one with a strong ethnic flavor where ‘us’ and ‘them’ responded to an anthropological divide, Drawing on an extensive intellectual framework outlined by many nineteenth century philosophers and political theorists (Todorov 1989: 105-308) and intertwined with coeval reflections on imperialism and racialism (Arendt 1962 [1951]: 3-302), in what has been called ‘the short twentieth century’ (Hobsbawm 1994) «ethno-nationalism draws much of its emotive power from the notion that the members of a nation are part of an extended family, ultimately united by ties of blood. It is the subjective belief in the reality of a common ‘we’ that counts» (Muller 2008: 20).

When the echo of such a dichotomy reached the shores of the institutional realm, it suddenly found a theoretical translation in the juxtaposition of the categories of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ within the political theory of Carl Schmitt. As he himself stated in his short essay The Concept of the Political, the significance of this opposition goes well beyond the traditional conceptual contrasts such as «good and evil in the moral sphere, beautiful and ugly in the aesthetic sphere, and so on»; being confined to the dominion of politics, and defining it as an autonomous dimension, it «can neither be based on anyone antithesis or any combination of other antitheses, nor can it be traced to these» (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 26). More specifically:

The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation. It can exist theoretically and practically, without having simultaneously to draw upon all those moral, aesthetic, economic, or other distinctions. The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. […] The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity. The enemy is solely the public enemy, because everything that has a relationship to such a collectivity of men, particularly to a whole nation, becomes public by virtue of such a relationship. The enemy is hostis, not inimicus in the broader sense (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 26-27, 28).

If it is true that the friend/enemy divide was conceived by Schmitt as a means of overcoming «the concept of a neutral liberal State» (Cassini 2016: 99), he pointed out, nevertheless, that his dichotomy served as well to surmount the «antagonisms among domestic political parties [since they] succeed in weakening the all-embracing political unit, the state» (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 32). And this, in turn, ignited Schmitt’s holistic view of ‘the people’ and his denial of proceduralism and representation in favor of «a plebiscitary form of democracy» (Cassini 2016: 100).

No surprise then, as we shall see in the next paragraph, that populists learnt his lesson well and quickly in the aftermath of WWII. And this is why, according to Jan-Werner Müller, Schmitt has something to teach them yet (Müller 2016: 28, 56-7).

 

Us and Them, Populist Style

Populism is by no means a contemporary phenomenon: its roots trace back at least to the end of the nineteenth century, as we have already noticed, with the birth of the People’s Party in the United States (Kazin 2017: 27-48) and to the first decade of the twentieth with its Latin-American version (Conniff [ed.] 2012). Hints of its past are detectable in Western Europe as well, mostly in the 1940’s and 50’s, when Guglielmo Giannini in Italy and Pierre Poujade in France institutionalized the us/them divide as a pattern of their political discourse.

Giannini, founder and leader of the Everyman’s Front (Fronte dell’Uomo Qualunque; see Setta 2000), which won huge but short-lived consent, was crystal-clear in his depiction of an irreducible contrast between ‘the crowd’ (us) and the «poisonous professional politicians» (them), pleaded guilty of any social evil and asked by the crowd – literally – «to break not our balls anymore» (Giannini 2002 [1945]: 160, 184). Poujade, by his side, was more than ready to address a parallel rhetorical outline which opposed ‘us’ (common people represented by the members of his Union et Fraternité Française) to ‘them’ (corrupt minority of bankers, politicians and polytechniciens): «nous sommes le mouvement de l’honnêteté, de la probité, de la justice face aux vautours, aux politiciens, aux intrigants» (Tarchi 2015: 99). The approach was shared by the first, real founder of contemporary European populism, i.e. the Danish lawyer Mogens Glistrup, who in 1972 gave birth to the Progress Party on a no-tax and anti-immigrants platform which gained him and his party 28 seats in the 1973 general elections.

Broadly speaking, and referring to the populist political discourse that has been constructed in Europe and the United States since the 1980’s, I think we may identify at least three main narratives through which the us/them dichotomy has been developed and implemented:

1) the good and honest people vs. the evil and corrupted élites;

2) the people of our nation vs. the ‘other(s)’;

3) ordinary citizens vs. professional politicians.

Needless to say, these patterns are strictly connected the one with each other since they define a common framework «that simplifies the political space by symbolically dividing society between ‘the people’ (as the ‘underdogs’) and its ‘other’», while it must be noted that «the identity of both ‘the people’ and ‘the other’ are political constructs, symbolically constituted through the relation of antagonism» (Panizza 2005: 3). However, it is also true that each one holds its own peculiar character, which we are going to sketch briefly.

As to the first, it is widely recognized that the fight against ruling minorities marks any type of populist rhetoric, though right and left-wing (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 11-16). In the last years, in fact, we had witnessed a growing accent on this feature, mostly in official/institutional occasions: for instance, Trump’s election was celebrated by Marion Maréchal Le Pen as a «victory of democracy and the people against the élites, Wall Street and politically correct media» (Maréchal Le Pen 2016), while her aunt Marine Le Pen, running for the French presidency, claimed her being «the candidate of the people» set to «free the people of France from the rule of arrogant élites ready to influence its conduct» (Le Pen 2017a).

But it is in Donald Trump’s political discourse that such a design reaches its climax. His inaugural address may be seen as a perfect manifesto of this peculiarly populist attitude:

Today’s ceremony…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 2017).

Trump’s rhetoric is exemplary to understand, as well, the second pillar of the us/them divide. He has never ceased to boost the fear of the stranger, not merely the migrant but the ‘other’ at an almost ontological level: we just need to recall his long-lasting campaign against Mexicans («they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people», Vinattieri 2016: 45) and his promise that «from this moment on, it’s going to be America First» (Trump 2017). But every populist leader relies strategically on the policy of fueling the ethnical separation of the citizenship of a given nation-State and anyone who comes from the outside, fundamentally described as a sort of free-rider.

All along her 2017 presidential campaign, Marine Le Pen repeatedly claimed the need to «re-establish the control of national borders and exit the Schengen agreement» in order to «find our liberty anew and restore the sovereignty of the French people», stop illegal migration and «reduce the number of legal migrants to a quota of 10000 per year» (Le Pen 2017c). The United Kingdom Independence Party, on the other hand, maintained (and still does) that Brexit was the only way of putting an end to uncontrolled immigration, that «has placed huge pressure on public services and housing. It has affected the domestic labour market, where wages for manual and lowpaid jobs have stagnated» and even «community cohesion has been damaged» (UKIP 2017a). The emphasis is placed here on what has been called the ‘welfare chauvinism’, a phenomenon perfectly highlighted by the guidelines on immigration submitted to public opinion by The Finns’ Party in 2015:

The asylum procedure was initiated to help people that were fleeing persecution but it has become the most important modus operandi for the present stream of migrants – many of which have questionable backgrounds as to whether persecution is the real issue. Extremely high unemployment, already existing throughout much of the EU, together with the present public sector austerity programs make the integration and absorption of a huge number of migrants prohibitive. Immigration will change, irreversibly, the host country’s population profile, disrupt social cohesion, overburden public services and economic resources, lead to the formation of ghettoes, promote religious radicalism and its consequences, and foster ethnic conflicts. Actual outcomes of these factors can be seen in the many riots, brutal events, and the formation of violent gangs in a number of large European cities (The Finns’ Party 2015).

The most renowned and popular technique of implementing the us/them dichotomy, however, is seemingly the opposition drawn between common people and professional politicians. The Five Star Movement, once led by the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, has built its own political reputation on a staunch and fervent campaign against ‘la casta’ (the ruling élite), where politicians and technocrats are described as enemies of the people since «they have become our masters, while we play just the role of (more or less) unconscious servants» (Tarchi 2015: 342). To be sure, it is this precise issue that defined, at least until 2018 (see Jacoboni 2019), the identity of the movement, so that at the end of 2013, campaigning for the European elections to be held in May 2014, an article published on Grillo’s blog announced that «the Five Star Movement isn’t right nor left-wing. We stay on plain citizens’ side. Fiercely populists!» (Blog delle Stelle 2013).

But they are not alone in their contempt for la politique politicienne. According to Marine Le Pen, politicians (herself excluded, of course) 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). Quite similarly, the UKIP leaders have always stressed their being close to the people (a collective, powerful ‘us’) and thus structurally different from their opponents whose lack of transparency endangered democracy in Britain:

People see a lack of democracy and connection with the three old parties. UKIP brings a breath of fresh air into politics and offers the electorate a real alternative to the old status quo. We now ask you to continue to vote UKIP in order to ensure that the politicians are reminded that real people must not be ignored (UKIP 2017b).

All in all, each one of the narratives which we have rapidly outlined may be understood if, and only if, a further question is answered: who are ‘the people’? If it is true that «’the people’ is a construction which allows for much flexibility» and for that reason «it is most often used in a combination…of three meanings: the people as sovereign, as the common people and as the nation» (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 9), populists often go far beyond any flexibility.

Delivering a speech in the middle of his party’s (Akp) electoral convention, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan derided his opponents addressing them a provocative (and staggering) question: «we are the people, who are you?» (Müller 2016: 5). Additionally, the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, interviewed by the journalist and anchorman Giovanni Floris, some months ago innocently stated that «’the people’ is, first and foremost, the aggregate of the shareholders who support our government» (Conte 2018), i.e. the electors who voted for the Five Star Movement and the League, being these parties involved in the coalition which backs the so-called ‘yellow-and-green government’.

And even though it was Ernesto Laclau who notably highlighted the fact that «populism requires the dichotomic division of society into two camps — one presenting itself as a part which claims to be the whole» (Laclau 2005: 83), it seems quite hard to view such a phenomenon, even in the light of a so-called «’return of the political’ after year of post-politics», merely as «a discursive strategy of construction of the political frontier between ‘the people’ and ‘the oligarchy’» – which should define, more than ever, left-populism (Mouffe 2018: 6). It rather feels like a rhetorical plan aimed to weaken the substantive features of liberal democracy, to begin with the same existence of a majority and a minority: both, in fact, must acknowledge the legitimacy of each other while the us/them divide, where ‘the people’ is confronted with its enemies, hinders any room for dispute, bargaining and compromise.

As things stand, if populism may be correctly viewed as «a growing revolt against politics and liberal values», it is highly questionable to consider «this challenge to the liberal mainstream…in general, not anti-democratic» (Eatwell and Goodwin 2018: xi). In fact, as Jan-Werner Müller has correctly pointed out, «in addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist. Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people» (Müller 2016: 2). That’s why almost any populist leader or movement shows a deep despise for constitutionalism and its tools, imperfect as they are, designed to enable but check popular sovereignty, grant individual rights and guarantee socio-political pluralism. And here, in the end, we are confronted with the biggest shift which the us/them paradigm has experienced so far.

 

Concluding Remarks

In this paper I have tried to draw attention to the metamorphoses undergone by a peculiar pattern which has embodied – in the public realm – the logic of othering, i.e. the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’ as a means of framing the political arena, that has recently regained a certain popularity because of its massive use in contemporary populist rhetoric and ideology.

Along with posing a threat to liberal democracy, some scholars are beginning to notice its impact on fundamental constituents of public life and culture, for ex. the pursuit of truth as a shared social goal. Analyzing the connections between populism and ‘post-truth’, i.e. the «circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief» (Oxford Dictionaries 2016), Silvio Waisbord wrote:

The root of populism’s opposition to truth is its binary vision of politics. For populism, ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ hold their own version of truth. Preserving a populist, fact-proof narrative is necessary to safeguard the vision that truth is always on one the side and that lies are inevitably on the other side. Facts belong to one or other camp. Facts are not neutral, but they are politically owned and produced. They only make sense within certain tropes and political visions. Facts that contradict an epic, simplistic notion of politics by introducing nuance and complexity or falsifying conviction are suspicious, if not completely rejected as elitist manoeuvers […] Post-truth communication is exactly where populism wants politics to be – the realm of divided truth, binary thinking, and broken-up communication. Populism rejects the politics of deliberation and truth-telling; it thrives amid the deepening of rifts in public communication and society. It appeals to identity politics that anchor convictions unconcerned with truth as a common good. Populism’s glib assertion ‘you got your truth, I got mine’ contributes to fragmentation and polarisation. Public life becomes a contest between competing versions of reality rather than a common effort to wrestle with knotty, messy questions about truth (Waisbord 2018: 26, 30).

Whatever accurate and appropriate this description may be, it shows quite evidently how much the logic of othering and the us/them divide are shaping our public sphere almost anew. In the era of social media, after all, like never before «the medium is the message» (McLuhan 2003 [1964]: 7). Something we should definitely be aware of.

 

References

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Aristotle (1998), Politics, edited by C.D.C. Reeve, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett  Publishing  Company.

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Claeys, G. (2018), Marx and Marxism, London: Pelican Books.

Conniff, M. L. (ed.)(2012), Populism in Latin America, 2nd ed., Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.

Conte, G. (2018), Interview with Giovanni Floris, November 8, http://www.la7.it/dimartedi/video/lintervista-al-premier-giuseppe-conte-06-11-2018-254958

Dickinson, H. T. (1979), Liberty and Property. Political Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Britain, London: Methuen.

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Kazin, M. (2017), The Populist Persuasion: An American History, Rev. Ed., Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Kramnick, I. (1968), Bolingbroke and His Circle: The Politics of Nostalgia in the Age of Walpole, Cambridge Ma.: Harvard University Press.

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

Langford, P. (1992), A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.

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Jacoboni, J. (2019), L’esecuzione. 5 Stelle da Movimento a governo, Rome-Bari: Laterza.

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Muller, J. Z. (2008), Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism, Foreign Affairs, 87 (2): 18-35.

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Panizza, F. (ed.)(2005), Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, London: Verso.

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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).