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A Short Introduction to the Proceedings of the Conference “The Reason of Passions: Emotion and Rationality in the Landscape of (Contemporary) Politics”

We are well aware that political life has always dealt with passions. But today it seems, in fact, that the liberal, rationalistic approach to politics has been almost completely replaced by its emotional dimension. Therefore, it seems necessary to explore the changing ways in which thought and feeling, rationality and passion, reason and sentiments, have been understood both in practice and in theoretical discussions, focusing on their public standing.

This issue contains the refined version of the papers presented at the conference on this topic, held in a period of two days at the University of Bergen in November 2019. The conference was organised as a joint effort by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Bergen (UiB), Norway, and the Department of Antiquity, Philosophy and History (DAFIST) of the University of Genoa, Italy.

The purpose of this conference was to approach the topic of the relations between rationality and emotions, wondering which part do they actually play in politics. In many ways, politics is the art of persuasion and often people are indeed persuaded to position  themselves on a given subject by emotional appeals rather than reasonable arguments. Within the political sphere, both past and present, one can actually find a complex mixture of rational arguments and emotional discourses.

In the dominant Western philosophical tradition, the relationship between reason and emotions has been marked by a conflict between various contrasting models of rationality and emotions. The sphere of rationality and that of passions have been often categorized according to a fundamental dichotomy: either the triumph of reason against the weakness of sentiments or, in the popular interpretation of Hume, the triumph of passions over reason. This dichotomy has also served as a starting base for conceptualizing politics, where already early-modern political theorists defined political autonomy as reason dominating the emotions and passions.

In The Passions and the Interests (1977), Albert Hirschman described how, in the process of modernization, the “passions”, motivating social and political behavior were transformed into modern “interests” and they were thereby assigned the role of containing the social and political destructive passions.

Until recent times, theorists have described both political movements and political affiliation as based on beliefs, ethics, and sentiments. In the last years, though, an “Affective Turn” has taken place both in analytic and continental philosophy, and in contemporary political studies. Emotions and affects are now becoming the object of extensive, multidisciplinary studies that challenge political liberalism’s idea that the emotions must be relegated to the private sphere. This “turn” highlights that the political cannot be understood without reference to human feelings.

However, the fundamental dichotomy between emotions and reason has not at all been overcome in the forms of current politics. While it is true that, today, emotions and passions are returning to the centre of the political scene, they often do so in a passive form. Contemporary politics consists more and more in an abuse and manipulation of the passions. Social media, for instance, has redefined the public sphere in ways that allow charismatic, intimidating and even hateful rhetoric to stand unchecked by editorial control. The space of public discussion has also increased to the point where quick “instinctive reactions” replace careful reasoning. One could ask if the “affective” political change consists in an increasingly oppressive use of the passions as forms of domination. The active function of passions and the way they can contribute to the processes of political democratisation and the conscious involvement of citizens need to be duly analysed; albeit always keeping in mind that  passions are ambiguous, for any feeling within a given political context, even the noblest – compassion and love, inter alia –, holds its limits and presupposes dangers.

This motivates the following questions: Do emotions, of any kind, pose a dangerous threat to rationality and political life? What, for instance, becomes of democracy when a rigorous and rational language in political debates is replaced by one that focuses on emotions, like hope or fear? Is it possible to build  up a democratic society with no recourse to passions, mutual trust and a belief in the right of every individual to participate in the social and political debates? If so, what kind of emotions are positive and what kind of emotions do hinder this development?

A key aim of the conference was seeking to define the possible paths of reflection on this topic and study the relationships between reason and emotions, concepts of rationality and “structures of feelings” as a marker of the political arena.

The European research team that has long been engaged in social and ethical reflection about cultural changes in the modern and contemporary epoch chose to address these questions by a variety of approaches.

At the opening of the conference Anat Biletzki questions populism in the light of the relationship between reasons and passions, and wonders if it is an ideology or a tool. Retracing different definitions given by political scholars, Biletzki notes how some such as Kazin and Urbinati define populism as an instrument while others, such as Mudde, Kaltwasser and Pappas, consider it as an ideology. Through an in-depth analysis of the different forms of populism, the article highlights how, understood as a rhetorical tool, it can be used for the most different and contrasting ideologies of the right or left. If populism is an ideology, that is to say, a vision of the world that has people as the highest value, it implies a form of politics that combines reason and passion. And although on the right it can deteriorate into fascism, it can work on the left to extend democracy, as it requires to overcome a purely rationalist idea of ​​politics.

Some of articles have a common starting point in our time politics, that sees the advance of populism even in democratic countries; a populism characterized and also empowered by an emotional rhetoric, focused on what we could call negative passions such as hatred and anger.

Many papers try to understand this phenomenon and propose politically positive emotions, not without critical remarks. As Anne Granberg does: faced with Marta Nussbaum’s proposal to encourage socially positive emotions including compassion, she detects the limits of this suggestion and takes up Hanna Arendt’s observation that compassion is essentially an apolitical emotion.

After recalling several scholars, from Walter Lippmann to Edward Bernays and, closer to us, William Davies, according to whom politics was increasingly connected and based on both individual and collective emotions, Alberto Giordano highlights how post-truth and polarization threaten liberal democracy, since they persuade people to rely more on feelings rather than facts, in such a way as to manipulate collective decision-making. Recent suggestions to limit the influence of political emotions, such as epistocracy and e-democracy, seem not sufficiently sound both theoretically and practically. Giordano thus proposes an intergenerational republican compact as a possible and provisional solution to post-truth dilemmas.

More oriented towards overcoming the rigid dualism of reason and passions, Juliette Grange tries to define the “reasoned feeling”. After highlighting the convergence of the “affective sciences”, and the philosophical attention to emotions delivered by populism, Grange argues that the “reasoned feeling” is embodied by the republican passion for certain political ideals. Enthusiasm for an idea or an ideal, altruism and a culture based on knowledge and science, are basic traits of this feeling. The reasoned feeling is the founder of a civilization and a social morality proper to scientific and technical modernity. In order to be realized, this feeling must be combined with political rationality understood as a form of rationalism that allows “a plurality of axiological and social choices and the public space of their confrontation”.

The solution to the emotional dangers inherent in political options, regimes, opinions given by classical utopias is analysed by Jean Christophe Merle and compared with the imaginary dystopias of the 20th century. The utopias of the early modern times were proposed as a solution to the absolute political evil, namely discord, rivalry, desire to possess, domination and glory; and as an alternative to the classical theories of social contract. Dystopias, in so far as they constitute the opposite of the democratic and liberal rule of law, are based on the eradication of its members’ ability to think and act rationally. The failure of both shows the human inability to live without confronting the evil and the extreme difficulty in which attempts to resist the dystopian order often occur.

New signs of kindness and politeness to follow in social relations can help counteract the increase in passions and violent reaction in our democratic societies: here is Mirella Pasini’s proposal. After going over the old Galateo of Monsignor Della Casa and the new one by Melchiorre Gioia, she wonders if Gioia’s prescriptive goal of spreading civil education as part of the process of training citizens of a democratic nation could be a suggestion for our time. Almost the same proposal is virtually opposed by the agonistic and competitive rhetoric of the Norwegian public intellectual and author Georg Johannesen (1931-2005), illustrated by Hans Marius Hansteen, and proposed as a way to promote peace.

The speeches by Giorgio Baruchello and Pascal Nouvel, respectively, open to the epistemological dimension and the positive and negative role of emotions in the construction of knowledge, with its obvious ethical and political consequences.

Baruchello addresses the prejudice issue, whose area ranges from the cognitive sphere to the social dimension, according to a plurality and multiplicity of meanings that cannot be reduced to a single negative level. Faced with the inevitability of prejudice or the not-so-argued need to overcome it as a “poorly formed opinion, an unreasonable belief, an unjustified false assumption, a negative feeling”, Baruchello affirms the need to investigate its polysemy, also in the history of philosophical thought. By following this path, we could overcome prejudice as a source of error and bad behaviour.

Pascal Nouvel, on his side, questions the nature of political errors; because, if emotions and affects play a key role in politics, they can also play a role in political errors. A better knowledge of what is specific in political errors could therefore help to understand the relationships between reason and emotions, between rationality and “structures of feelings”. His starting point is the modern distinction – laid down by Machiavelli – between political errors and other fashions, with which they have long been mixed. In a brief “history of error”, Nouvel distinguishes four types, that is: perceptual error, conceptual error, moral error and, finally, political error, still not well defined. A key point is the distinction between moral error and political error, which appears to be speculative rather than factual. Understanding the nature of the political error can be useful in order to modify the affects: this is the basic thesis. As for the method, the narrative approach is in Nouvel’s intention a powerful way to manage political issues and, in some cases, avoid political errors.

The importance of political affections in contemporary European society is underlined by Paola de Cuzzani, who remembers at the beginning of her paper the rapid spread of growing xenophobic and racist sentiments, anti-Semitism, discrimination and violence against migrants, blacks and Muslims. For de Cuzzani the implications of these sentiments for the stability of our liberal democratic societies are evident. Spinoza’s theory of imitation of affects can help us in our attempt to understand the ease with which negative feelings come to be diffused even in the most civilized and democratic societies. It also clarifies the dangers that these negative feelings pose for the stability of the body politic.

It remains to be asked whether Spinoza’s lesson can also be useful in a positive way, in order to provide us with tools to fight negative affects, while not running the risk to erase affectivity but rather promoting a positive one.

Such is the legacy that this rich selection of papers offers for future studies and meetings of the research group.

Is Populism an Ideology or a Tool? Of Reason or Passions?

First – a disclaimer. Dealing in political philosophy is, or can be, a theoretical endeavor replete with conceptual analysis and critical moments. When we move to political science (with no undue weight attached to the “science” moniker) the tension between theory and praxis becomes more tenuous, with concrete description moving forward to a more essential position.[1] Description, however, of facts, persons, movements, and phenomena is temporally determined: facts, persons, movements and phenomena change. And the dependence of theory on descriptions, or at least their mutual effect, makes the theoretical aspects of the analysis contingent as well. This is all merely to say that there is no certainty or permanence attendant on the current offering in this article. It was, when first presented in November 2019, an investigation into populism which seemed to be exquisitely pertinent to (then) current events. The research and investigation of populism grew, in the past half-decade immensely; in fact, the Cambridge Dictionary 2017 “word of the year” was populism. But in the intervening months the human, political scene has been so upended that I am now a little less certain as to the meaning and ensuing relevance of populism to (now) current events. That is to say, its future purchase is perceptibly uncertain.

The title above is formulated as a question; I will be here questioning the presuppositions behind that question. In other words, I will be in the gratifying position of questioning my own thoughts – thoughts that are held, I presume, by many others; thoughts that are, and have been for a while now, almost consensual in common political discourse. First, however, let me begin with two short stories to set the stage.

In 1996, in one of a multitude of cafeteria conversations had in a university in Israel – where university cafeterias are, by definition, the setting for political discussion – in an unexceptional meeting with another philosopher, I voiced the so often articulated lament and fear that we in Israel were plunging into “fascism”.[2] My interlocutor, the formidable Marcelo Dascal, a philosopher of modernity (Kant, Leibniz) and of language (dealing mostly in pragmatics and the theory of controversies), was of Brazilian extraction, i.e., from South America with its attendant political sensitivities. His critical comment to me was that fascism was a misnomer for what we were afraid of. What we were facing with great and justified trepidation was, he said, populism!

Many years later, in the American context, after the election of Donald Trump as president and as his presidency was clearly becoming a subject of media consternation, the popular news anchor Rachel Maddow began speaking of populism as well. What was striking about Maddow’s mention of populism was its positive tenor: it seemed that she was attributing populism to a democratic milieu, pinpointing it as one of the helpful modi of democratic action. It was only after several such affirmative allusions to populism that she began – perhaps as a result of collegial correction – to associate populism to President Trump and to accordingly negate it.

Defining Populism

In the descriptive invitation to the conference where I first presented these observations, and in multitudinous other sources, we encounter the statement that “politics is the art of persuasion,” adding that “too often reasonable arguments can only persuade people to a limited extent.” But we must make note here of the difference between persuasion and convincing. The art of persuasion is the oft-quoted definition of rhetoric, while convincing is more robustly due to reason and logic. Of course, these two – rhetoric and logic – are not strictly unrelated when we view them under the spotlights of persuasion and convincing. Some may think that logic and rational argument – i.e., convincing – are the best tools of persuasion. Others hold that rhetoric – i.e., persuasion (perhaps even its turn to emotions) – must be guided by rational, even cynical, calculation. Together they recruit both rationality and passion, and politics is an obvious locus of the two together. Since populism is a political concept it behooves us to ask about its turn to and roots in both rationality and passions.

The analytic exercise to be tried out here asks about populism with a view to reason and passions; it also attempts to decipher whether populism is a tool, is only a tool, or is also a tool. And if a tool at all, then to what purpose? Populism is an “ism,” and isms are viewpoints, worldviews, positions, and doctrines – viz. capitalism, communism, socialism, liberalism, feminism, etc.; or tools and methods – like prohibitionism, criticism, plagiarism, terrorism. Some isms (e.g., colonialism, intellectualism, supernaturalism) are both. The first step of our analysis consists, subsequently, of the question “is populism an ideological goal”, i.e., a worldview that provides one with a goal to be achieved? Or is it a tool with which one works for achieving a goal (and what, then, is the goal)?

Answering this essential question doubtlessly involves defining populism; perusal of handy definitions and characterizations is therefore instructive. Kazin is explicit as a definition-provider turning to rhetorical method: “The most basic and telling definition of populism: a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter” (2017 (1995), 1). Mudde and Kaltwasser provide the category of ideology as the natural home for populism, defining it as “… a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (2017, 6).

Laclau is profound, yet perhaps less overt, telling us that “[b]y ‘populism’ we do not understand a type of movement — identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation — but a political logic…. The language of a populist discourse — whether left or right — is always going to be imprecise and fluctuating” (2018 (2005)). Urbinati seems to be putting the vagueness of the term along with its uncertain categorization, gestured at by Laclau, up front: “The term ‘populism’ itself is ambiguous and is difficult to define in a sharp and uncontested way. This is because it is not an ideology or a specific political regime but rather a representative process, through which a collective subject is constructed so that it can achieve power” (2019). Norris and Inglehart take the double path, of rhetoric and ideology, in saying that “[p]opulism is understood… minimally as a style of rhetoric reflecting first-order principles about who should rule, claiming that legitimate power rests with “the people” not the elites” (2019, 4). And Pappas seems to unequivocally adopt the ideological path by identifying populism as a political stance of modernity: “Populism as a modern historical phenomenon pertains to a type of democracy that stands midway between liberalism and autocracy” (2019).

These absorbing “definitions” may sometimes propel us automatically to an answer regarding the ideology vs. tool question.  Kazin and Urbinati gesture at a tool while Mudde and Kaltwasser, along with Papps, pinpoint an ideology. Some – like Norris and Inglehart – overrun the two; others, like Laclau, seem to evade the issue (perhaps deliberately). These latter provide, finally, outstanding portrayals of populism that leave the question open, providing challenging insights that, indeed, continue harping upon it. Such is Chantal Mouffe’s suggestion (which is, of course, attributed to Laclau). In her shared depiction (2016, 3-4), populism is the creation of a people; the creation of a people has to do with the establishment of a boundary between an “us” and a “them”; and that boundary is (perhaps usually, perhaps always) between the people and the establishment! Noticeably, these features may manifest, alternatively or in chorus, both the essence of a worldview (about a people, an “us”, a distinction, and an identity) and the efficacy of a tool (as the crux of creation).


Short Detour: Populism and Fascism

The first story above addressed the distinction, yet also similarity, between populism and fascism and noted the perceived affinity between them. Initially attributed to Mussolini and semantically carrying the emblem of fasces – a bundle of elm or birch rods with an ax as the symbol of penal authority – fascism is clearly a political ideology. It is often associated with centralized dictatorship, with social and economic regulation, and with violent suppression of any opposition, all of which are, in actuality, tools in the service of an ideology, a worldview. And the essential, important part of the worldview, a veritable Weltanschauung, is its highest value: the nation (or sometimes the state or even the race), clearly posited over the individual. Importantly, it is fascism, while usually adopting extreme militaristic ultra-nationalism, that holds a contempt for democracy and liberalism and elevates social hierarchies that are “natural” (i.e., the rule of elites). German fascism, for example, was dedicated to creating a Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community), where individual interests significantly made way for national ones. The nation was the people. And therein lies the connection between populism and fascism!

Seeing populism and fascism as two foundational ideologies,[3] we may differentiate between them by identifying the core matrices of the former as the “plain” people, the self-serving elites, and rule by popular will, and those of the latter as the holistic “nation,” the “new man,” and an authoritarian state. These are then used to assess political manifestations as one or the other. But this recognition of the ideological difference between populism and fascism cannot ignore their inter-merging: in practice, fascism has borrowed aspects of populist discourse and style, and populism can degenerate into leader-oriented authoritarian and exclusionary politics. In other words, these two ideologies make use of the same tools in the praxis which is a quest for conceptually distinct goals. Indeed, tracing the historical routes fascism and populism have followed, Finchelstein notes that “… fascism morphed into populism in history”! He sees the “dictatorial genealogies of modern populism” in fascism: “… populism is an authoritarian form of democracy that emerged originally as a postwar reformulation of fascism.” Locating both ideologies on general spectra, populism is placed between democracy and dictatorship and, more explicitly, between liberalism and fascism. “After 1945, especially in Latin America, and later in the rest of the world, fascism often became populism – not the other way around.” The circumstantial and universal post-war repudiation of fascism led to a “democratic reformulation” of regimes that “drew on residues of fascism to challenge liberalism… but still engaged in democratic electoral processes” (2017).[4]

Populism as a Tool – and More

Assuming we continue positing a working hypothesis of the possibility of viewing populism as a tool, the second step of our exercise consists of a conditional question: If a tool, then for what?  The practical, obvious goal is – in politics – to achieve power. The more significant goal is – in politics – to further an ideology. And that is what invariably leads, immediately, to the most tasking aspect of our questioning – an awareness of different goals being pursued by populism and, very explicitly, the possibility of “right populism” and “left populism.” Recall our second opening vignette – about the television anchor, Rachel Maddow, on the American TV channel MSNBC, consensually accepted as a “left” media venue. Her transformative move from viewing populism positively (or, at the very least, neutrally) to attaching it to negative aspirations (mostly Trump’s) reflected the common wisdom which associates populism with the right. (This also coheres with the conflation between populism and fascism above.)  It befits us to ask, however, how or why that move was made; in other words, how and why have we arrived at an almost consensually negative reference to (rightist) populism? Is this a general characterization of populism adopted by the liberal persuasion, that is to say, the more easily articulated liberal characterization of populism? (And what is to be the (crude) place of an economically rightist while culturally leftist liberal persuasion vis à vis populism?)

A simple yet admittedly also simplistic suggestion holds that right populism – as a political tool, and very explicitly a rhetorical tool – appeals to emotions. Correspondingly, left populism is taken as appealing to reason. (There it is again – the difference, in rhetorical terms, between persuasion and convincing.) This basic bifurcation provides a tempting answer to questions concerning the (usual) success of rightist populism: it is more rhetorically proficient, a better tool. This is, however, overly facile. We move forward, therefore, to considering populism not as a means to an end; or as not only a means (to some complexly related end).

This third step of the exercise, speculating upon populism in a more intricate fashion than as simply a tool for political ends, enjoins us to ask yet again what we mean by populism. The work of three philosophers – Simon Critchley, Nancy Fraser, and Chantal Mouffe – will serve admirably in pointing to different conceptualizations of populism, more complex and therefore perhaps more difficult to grasp or even achieve. The fascination in their work inheres it its ability to guide us through a differentiation between leftist populism and rightist populism, producing, consequently, a composite blend between reason and passion.

Different Options of Populism

In an interview conducted in 2015 Simon Critchley expounded on his (then) current view of politics in Europe and in the U.S.A. Two outstanding perceptions arise from the context of that interview. First, 2015 – pre-Brexit and pre-Trump – is certainly at risk of being anachronistic in principle, not just circumstantially. Secondly, as insinuated in my opening paragraph, given the current global crises (COVID-19 and BLM, just for starters), the fluency of Critchley’s world-view stands in stark contrast to many present equivocations. But even given the times of the interview and the then general exclamation of the threat of populism, it is striking that he is not averse to saying “the European Union has a deficit of populism” (Critchley 2015)!

Looking to both Gramsci and Laclau, Critchley locates a clearly formulated leftist populism, straightforwardly distinguished from rightist populism. Gramsci’s intuition that in politics we must deal with the formation of a group and, more so, the establishment of “common sense” among groups that have different, diverging beliefs, commitments and commitments is well-known, of course. Laclau’s additional posit that “all political discourse is populist” gives one pause, but is made clear when we realize that politics is the business of formation of a group which we recognize as “the people” – putting together individuals and groups having particular interests and becoming a “commonality.” Attending to this group – the people, the commonality – is precisely populism and clearly left-wing politics would be much the poorer for ignoring it. Politics is not merely governance; it is, or should be, “good” populism. One does not want left-wing politics to give that up and engage only in value-less governance; one needs “good” populisms, run by “genius” politicians who can create a “genius” politics bringing that very “people” together.

How do we differentiate, however, between left populism and right populism, that is to say, between good and bad populism? Here Critchley provides us with robust philosophical criteria. Turning to Rousseau and the idea of universality, he distinguishes between “local populism” (which emphasizes a particular nation or race) and “universal populism” (which insists on equality or equal participation). The essential, practical point of cleavage is that the first is exclusivist, the second inclusivist. The former is rightist populism, the latter leftist populism. This has interesting consequential points of note. Languages, for instance, may be exploited to emphasize exclusivity; just as fruitfully – perhaps more so – they function to connect and unify differences. They are, simultaneously, tools of local and universal populism. Critchley’s attitude to nations and nation-states is a similar attempt to contain a uniqueness of a people in the political structure of an inclusive universalism. Thus, the nation-state may be done away with (in favor of greater and more tolerant governance-structures), but the nation and one’s identification with it is not easily denied. The European Union’s formal desertion of the nation-state was laudable, but its attempt to kill the nation itself, and all it entailed in human intercourse, failed, because persons must identify with something (a party, a people, a nation). Thus is explained the “backward” move to local, exclusivist populism seen today – or in 2015 – in Europe.

Thus far Critchley has hailed the ideological goal of populism. Yet importantly, he brings in the importance of our way of doing politics, i.e., our means to the end of universal populism. “There can be no politics without passions,” he says, “… and it then becomes a question of how these morals [in the sense of the ways of life, the practices and ways of life that the people take part in], which are passionate, can be mobilized and transformed… the task of politics is the linking of politics to morals and morals to passions and then having the political skill to re-describe those morals and these passions for different purposes.” So using and turning to passions is a tool for “different purposes” – and these can be leftist or rightist. Does that mean we address different emotions, different passions, for left and for right, in leftist and rightist populism?

Critchley says yes and no. For him “anger is the first political emotion,” but the right uses it much more efficiently while the left and liberal-left want to defuse the anger and make politics dispassionate. The left should use anger, but use it differently and more intricately. In great ­­­detail Critchley has set out the analysis of how important legitimate politics is (winking again at Rousseau) and how populist movements can make peace with “regular” institutional politics. That is to say, the art of politics “consists in taking the passion… and linking that to the formation of a set of political institutions.” Clearly then, Critchley is offering us a meld between passion and reason – a combined left populism.

Two years after Critchley’s interview – that is, after Brexit and after Trump – Nancy Fraser engages generally with similar issues, addresses the relevant political context, and offers, in particular, an additional vocabulary that contributes to our thoughts on differing populisms (Fraser 2017). Her impetus is the current (in 2017) global political crisis, which is importantly part of a general (political, financial, cultural, social) crisis. Its political strand is, in Gramscian terms again, a crisis of hegemony.[5]

A stimulating aspect of Fraser’s analysis is her history of how the current, populist moment in the U.S. – Trump and Sanders (in 2016) – came to be. Note that Fraser charges both protagonists with populism, but these are diametrically different versions of populism. Sanders’ is termed a “politics of recognition,” voiced in universalist and egalitarian language (against the rigged economy), talking to a broad working class “us” – factory workers, public-sector employees, service workers, with active recognition of women, immigrants, and minorities. Contrastingly, Trump emphasizes nationalist and protectionist tropes, heavily tinged with the usual hate-foci of misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and anti-immigrant bias. The “us” in his rhetoric is to be expected: male, white, straight, and Christian. Importantly, however, in both cases the populist practice is rhetorical. Rhetorically, Sanders’ “expansive view of the U.S. working class” distinguishes his populism from Trump’s narrow, exclusionary one.

As in Critchley’s nomenclature, this is a turn to inclusivity as opposed to exclusivity, yet with both under the populist umbrella. Fraser calls them reactionary vs. progressive populism. Trump’s rhetoric (during the presidential campaign) turned to a “hyper-reactionary politics of recognition with populist politics of distribution”; Sanders’ rhetoric – imbedded in an ideology – used an “inclusive politics of recognition with pro-working family politics of distribution.” But, in fact, Sanders lost, and Trump has reneged on the fabricated populist politics of distribution, adopting, instead, a hyper-reactionary politics of recognition. According to Fraser this is not even reactionary populism but rather hyper-reactionary neoliberalism.

Fraser’s thoughts are of the concrete political American situation and its devastating developments. Since the shape of things to come, as it seemed in 2017, is shady at best, it is legitimate for her to ask “Could populism still be a possible option… in the longer term?” That populism is, for her, an ideology to be treasured in its progressive form; its success using the strategic tool of “us” is not, however, assured or even promising.

Profound Populism

Moving on to Chantal Mouffe (2016) we encounter a philosopher in whose writings on politics the theoretical and practical cannot be detached. Committed to “doing” politics as much as to investigating its thought, Mouffe in earlier times was devoted to bringing back the old lines between Left and Right. She viewed European social-democracy as having failed to fight against the center-right (which was “captured” by neo-liberalism, inadequately challenging it, saving the banks, insisting on austerity, etc.). Her more recent work has, however, moved onwards, admitting that there is a need to go beyond that traditional social-democratic Left and reach out to more of the “people,” including the poor and the middle class. In this sense, there is the necessity to “build a new political identity,” in Gramsci’s words, a “collective will,” a people. “Our lives and our bodies are all today affected by the consequences of financialized capitalism. It is on this terrain that we can hope to build a transversal project. This construction of a transversal political identity articulated in an emancipatory project is what I call a people” (2016, 3).

For Mouffe, just as for Critchley and Fraser, there is a right and a left populism. Right populism is the result of a “cross-sectional vote” voicing values – i.e., moral, national, and religious norms – that are right wing. So left populism must do the same with left-wing values; condemning xenophobia or authoritarianism is an explicitly mandated left-populist maneuver. This is a substantial move since, she says, “the difference between a right-wing populism and a left-wing one owes to the fact that the former tends to restrict democracy while the latter works to extend and radicalize democracy” (ibid.).

For Mouffe, following Laclau’s definition of populism (as creation of a people, enacting a boundary between “us” and “them”), the question hinges on who is “us” and who is “them.” Significantly, there is no denial on her part of the otherness of “them,” but rather a nuanced understanding of that other. The “them” can be either an enemy or an adversary. An enemy must be killed; with an adversary the antagonism “is negotiated within the framework of democratic institutions.” The result is more, not less democracy – a democracy which is radically reformed and pluralized. The inclusivity here is impressive, with an emphasis on pluralism – a recognition of the heterogeneous and divergent demands of groups. So, the demands are not those of “a people” as against a super-rich minority (see Occupy Wall Street), but a pluralist framework for negotiating conflicts. This is actually a move from liberalism to democracy: the rule of the majority with essential respect for minorities.

Is this populism a tool or an ideology? And does it turn to passion or reason? “What defines politics is an irreducible dimension of conflictuality…” Mouffe says (2016, 5). But there is no way to simply work through conflicts rationally, since that would just be “governance” rather than real politics. Antagonism is present in a conflict with no rational solution; instead, there is a demand that one take sides. “Taking sides – and for me, that is what politics is – thus introduces another fundamental element, which is the role of passions and emotions” (ibid.). “Us” is emotional! So, we must recognize the antagonism, between adversaries, not enemies, in a conflict that cannot be rationally decided. And we must establish democratic institutions which envelope and domesticate the antagonism, even while it still exists, and let emotions thrive in the places of culture.  “The place for emotions and emotional identifications is essential” (2016, 6).

The implications here for the left are immense: it cannot and should not remain devoted to rationality alone and thereby evade populism (and fascism). “You do not fight emotions with ideas, but with emotions stronger than those you want to displace. And for ideas to have some force, they have to translate into emotions”[6] (2016, 7). This does not mean leaving rationality behind; but it does mean that the Left must not think that it can limit itself to a rationalist idea of politics. It is mandated to turn to populism as a politics melding reason and passion.


If populism is merely a rhetorical tool, it can be used for right or left ideologies with a turn to passion or reason respectively; thus imagined it is, ultimately, uninteresting (except for students of rhetoric). If populism is an ideology, placing the people in the place of its highest value, it can be pulled to the right deteriorating into fascism, or to the left aspiring to (a greater and better) democracy. Reason and passion then play a more delicately tinged role, and the recognition of both as essential to praxis – without nevertheless denying the theory – permits us to enquire about and critique populism as an authentic doing of politics.



Cas Mudde, Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser. 2017. Populism: A Very Short Introduction. New York NY: Oxford University Press.

Critchley, Simon, interview by Giorgos Katsambekis. 2015. The European Union has a deficit of populism Thessaloniki: POPULISMUS Interventions No. I, (April).

Eatwell, Robert. 2017. “Populism and Fascism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Populism, edited by Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198803560.013.14.

Finchelstein, Federico. 2019. From Fascism to Populism in History. Oakland CA: University of California Press.

Fraser, Nancy. 2017. “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump – and Beyond.” American Affairs, November 20: 1-30.

Kazin, Michael. 2017. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Laclau, Ernesto. 2018 (2005). On Populist Reason. London and Brooklyn: Verso.

Mouffe, Chantal. 2016. We urgently need to promote a left-populism. Translated by David Broder. Interview in Regards (Summer).

Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Pappas, Takis S. 2019. Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pippa Norris, Ronald Inglehart. 2019. Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism. Cambridge University Press.

Urbinati, Nadia. 2019. Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy. Harvard University Press.


[1] This is reminiscent of the Wittgensteinian edict of description in philosophy: “We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.” (Philosophical Investigations 109).

[2] The scare-quotes around “fascism” are intentional, of course. I will return to the populism-fascism duo shortly.

[3] See Eatwell, 2017.

[4] For an instructive analysis of the populism/fascism relation, see especially Urbinati 2019 (Introduction).

[5] For Gramsci, “hegemony” is the ruling class’s creation of a natural status for its rule through the adoption of its world view by the whole society as common sensical. This become institutional and organizational by the coalition of social forces which produce a “hegemonic bloc”. Other, “lower” classes can challenge the ruling hegemony by creating a “counter-hegemony” and a “counterhegemonic bloc”.

[6] Mouffe adds a personal note: “That is why I find Carl Schmitt interesting when he remarks that liberals claim to be able to talk about politics using a vocabulary borrowed from economics or morality. Fundamentally, liberals are trying to build a political philosophy without politics”.

Alain Badiou and Marcel Gauchet, What Is To Be Done? A Dialogue on Communism, Capitalism, and the Future of Democracy (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016)

Translated from the French by Susan Spitzer, this book reports three sessions held in 2014 and moderated by Martin Duru and Martin Legros, during which two of the most celebrated French philosophers of our time discuss the future of democratic institutions. Alain Badiou, perhaps the more famous of the two, offers a defence and reinterpretation of communism. Marcel Gauchet, instead, outlines a social-democratic approach. Their differences and disagreements are palpable and vocal; they are nothing short of “battle lines” (66). Both, however, agree on the utter and cruel untenability of capitalism, especially after the collapse of international finance in 2008 and the many years of austerity imposed upon the innocent for the sake of keeping a broken system afloat at any cost.

While Badiou became a communist after being raised and being active in a social-democratic milieu, Gauchet followed exactly the “opposite” itinerary (3): he began his life as a political activist and a scholar in the communist camp, but later moved to the social-democratic one. Philosophy was always a central concern for them both. Rousseau, Marx, Sartre and structuralism are the shared influences of Badiou and Gauchet, who do not seem to fully realise in their exchanges how much they both have been trying to recover the notion of a meaningful human subjectivity vis-à-vis the seemingly objective “linguistic, economic, and psychic structures” into which the successful structuralist schools of thought of their youth had dissolved it (12).

As concerns the idea or hypothesis of communism, which both thinkers distinguish from its historical manifestations, Marx and Lenin are regarded as the key-references on the subject. Their reciprocal continuity in thought is, grosso modo, agreed upon, while disagreement starts unfolding more clearly between Badiou and Gauchet with regard to the particular historical consequences that the successful 1917 Bolshevik revolution had for Russia and the world at large. Gauchet stresses the “totalitarian” character of the Soviet experience that emerged thereof, very similar in this to the fascist experiences of the 20thcentury, all of which reveal how the great hopes of 18th– and 19th-century modernity in popular self-rule—the “autonomous mode of structuration”—produced so many novel conflicts in practice and engendered such a dismay in theory that a return to the “heteronomous mode of structuration” characterising pre-modern religious societies was sought once again, though by novel and terrifying political means (16-17).

Badiou, on his part, stresses the profound differences between Russian communism and the fascist experiences and fascist experiments, which both thinkers believe will never “happen again” (66), as well as those inherent to the communist camp (Soviet Russia and “the People’s Republic of China” in particular; 35). Unlike the fascist countries, these communist nations were far less unified internally, and whatever despotic, tyrannical or totalitarian character may be attributed to them has more to do with the traditional “criminal dimension” of State power than with communism as such (39). It may be rhetorically commonplace to list “the number of victims” of communist revolutions and regimes, as Gauchet eventually does, but Badiou believes it to be a cheap trick, given the far worse human losses caused by liberal revolutions and capitalist horrors, such as “colonial wars and global conflicts” such as the so-called Great War (44). It is curious, as Badiou notes, that such horrors are never used to disqualify liberal, republican and parliamentary principles; only communist death tolls are, to disqualify the communist hypothesis.

History, however, cannot have the last word about communism. Both authors agree on this point. Seventy years of Soviet history cannot be in any logical sense the means for the decisive refutation of a much older and far more general hypothesis. Nobody would use the much-longer terrors of “the Spanish Inquisition” in order to reject the Christian religion or religion per se (48). “Moving monolithically and violently from private property to state ownership”, as it was done in Soviet Russia, may have been a major mistake, but “local, progressive, multi-layered experiments” can, have been and are being tried all over the world (e.g. workers’ “self-management”, 119-120). Badiou and Gauchet agree also on the chief characteristics of communism that they derive from Marx, i.e.: “the conviction that it is possible to extricate the becoming of all humanity from the evil grip of capitalism” (50); “the hypothesis that the state… is not a natural, inevitable form of the structuration of human society” (51); and the claim “that the division of labor… is in no way absolute necessity for organizing economic production.” (51) Additionally, Badiou emphasises “four teachings” of Marx that he regards as crucial to comprehend the communist hypothesis and the possibility of its success: “communists are… directly involved in a pre-existing general movement that they’ll later be responsible for directing” (52); “the bearers of the communist Idea are characterized by an ability to communicate what the next step is” (53); which “must follow an internationalist logic” (54); and “a global strategic vision… whose matrix is anti-capitalism.” (54)

If the communist Idea or hypothesis–both expressions appear frequently in the book–can be separated from historical events and circumstances, so does Gauchet believe that “democracy” can be distinguished from “capital’s control over it”, which is certainly the  sad norm in today’s societies (69). According to him, “democratic pluralism” can be a fruitful means of progress and “moderation”, especially when it comes to smoothing strong differences of interests and opinions by including “opposition” rather than fighting it violently (72). This time, history can teach useful lessons, according to him. “[T]he Thirty Glorious Years” following World War II and displaying strong unions, political participation, redistributive progressive taxation and financial regulation are still a case worth studying, though it should never turn into a “blind faith in the progress of capitalism” which, rather, can be modified and civilised (78). The post-1970s culture of individualism, on the one hand, and global “financial liberalization”, on the other hand, show also that modifications can occur which make capitalism more barbaric (82).

Badiou is, under this respect, most sceptical. Individualism and globalisation are, in his view, of the essence; without them, capitalism would cease to exist. Today’s world, marked by astounding inequalities and planet-wide eco-destruction, is nothing new under the sun. It is “the normal, that is, imperial, state of capitalism” (89), in which big powers compete for resources and opportunities at the service of “the financial oligarchy” benefitting from it (101). Even major financial crashes are part of it, whether we look at the 1920s or the 2000s. Badiou finds simply absurd Gauchet’s notions that today’s polycentric capitalism is somehow essentially different, that parliamentary institutions and liberal conceptions have changed substantially, and that piecemeal reformist alternatives may be open within the current global order (e.g. business accounting standards, 114). Gauchet’s “de-imperialization” and “veritable neoliberalism” sound catchy; but they are, according to Badiou, mere slogans (109-110). Party politics, parliaments and liberal institutions in general do not grant genuine chances for “the individual to become a subject”, namely an authentically autonomous person, and even less so do capitalist economies based upon individuals’ manufactured “personal appetites” and superficial “petty freedoms” that do not challenge the status quo (136-137).

In the end, Badiou and Gauchet find an uneasy terrain for agreement: political tactics aimed at defying and defeating “the financial oligarchy’s overwhelming power” (140). On the one hand, communists like Badiou can be active and can be heard in their polity thanks to the democratic institutions that Gauchet defends. On the other hand, a strong and vocal movement promoting communism can “scare the hell out of” the financial oligarchs and lead them to accept compromises that could make societies more democratic, more prosperous, more egalitarian and less oppressive (148).

The debates reported in this book are lively and interesting. The readership familiar with Badiou’s and/or Gauchet’s writings will find some of their better-known theses formulated or exemplified in mundane terms and charged with a lively tone that is not typical of their usual, stately academic prose. The readership unfamiliar with the two French thinkers, instead, will find a wealth of clever considerations, insights and informed short arguments. As to the future of democracy, or of the communist Idea, history alone can and shall tell.

R. Bohlin, De Osynliga. Det Europas fattiga arbetarklass; M. Linton, De hatade. Om radikalhögerns måltavlor; B. Elmbrant, Europas stålbad. Krisen som slukar välfärden och skakar euron (All titles by Atlas, Stockholm, 2012)


The feminist journalist Rebecca Bohlin has looked into the working and living conditions of the least paid workers within the service sector, although reminding to us that many other jobs in different sectors meet similar problems. She has met cleaners, kitchen attendants and cashiers in Stockholm, London, Hamburg and at the same time has interviewed scholars and as well politicians and union representatives about the rise in income inequality and the worsening of working conditions, across Europe and in Sweden.

And to Sweden indeed is devoted the first chapter (Hur mår RUT?). The question of rising inequalities has become hot after 2007, when tax deductions for domestic service (RUT) were introduced, with the argument that the black market was to be stopped. In fact, however, according to the unions and to some research, the outcome has been an increasing in the number of workers (often asylum seekers or anyway migrants, very often women) exploited and with no safeguard: their formal job contract is legal, but their actual working conditions are definitely different, and for the worse. Yet in Sweden, as Bohlin acknowledges, living conditions of the low-paid workers are better that in most other countries.

In the second chapter (Så pressas lönerna neråt) Bohlin analyzes, again through witnesses and interviews, migration policy at the EU level and in some of its member States. She insists on the paradox of a rhetoric stressing the need of labour force from outside Europe, in order to face demographic challenges and to make companies more “globalized”, while at the same time the actual policy is based on a military defence of the “fortress Europe”, at the cost of thousands of human lives every year. And those who succeed in reaching Europe are often exploited both economically and, when women, sexually. And that even in a country that is a world master in workers’ rights and gender equality such as Sweden.

How are trade unions tackling this backward trend to a degree of workers’ exploitation similar to that in the 19th century? Around this unavoidable question the third chapter (Facket famlar efter en ny solidaritet) is built. The answer is not at all self-evident; on the contrary, here one goes on attempt by attempt. However, what comes out from the talks that the author has had with union leaders and members, in Sweden and in the UK, as well as with scholars, is that a trade union like the Swedish one, service-oriented, is not well-equipped to face the challenges that labour movements all over the world have to meet. More interesting it seems the experience of the “Social Movement Unionism”, a strategy that has been tested in South America and is made up of a mix of mobilization, learning, dialogue with local society, negotiations – and protest actions. Exactly what many all over Europe – either workers or unemployed, migrant or local – call for.


An even darker side of Europe is the subject of Magnus Linton’s work, that he describes in his Introduction as a book on “majorities and minorities, absolutism and relativism, boarders and lack of them, fantasy and reality”. The author, well-known in Sweden for his reports after the carnage in Utøya, has carried out an inquiry about right-wing radicalism in three European countries: Hungary, the Netherlands and Norway, moving from the awareness that the current economic crisis increases its appeal. Linton has met the main targets of xenophobic and neo-nazi groups, respectively Roma people in Hungary, muslims in the Netherlands and left-wing intellectuals in Norway. The first section (Parasiterna), after reminding shortly the persecution of Roma in history (culminating with their, neglected, massacre during World War II) and the recent deportation of Roma in countries such as France, Italy and Sweden, introduces the reader to the disturbing world of the Hungarian neo-fascist party Jobbik (Movement for a better Hungary), whose programme is openly “roma-centered”, so to say, and that in 2010 established itself as one of the main political forces in the country with 17% of votes. Jobbik’s growing influence resulted in a situation that Linton, with reference to what happened in the municipality of Gyöngyöspata, tells in the following way: “in 2011 in the middle of Europe fascists in uniform marched and families belonging to one of the poorest and most persecuted minorities in the continent were forced to escape what otherwise would have turned into a pogrom”. And Gyöngyöspata was only the beginning. However, the political scientist Zsolt Enyedi, interviewed by Linton, points out that these developments in Hungary were at the same time astonishing and predictable. Their roots can be found in a historical process starting from the fall of the Berlin wall; since then, populism has been a constant presence in Hungarian life and in the end has exploded due to the economic crisis. The fact that in 2010 the nationalist and authoritarian party Fidesz won 2/3 of the votes has made the situation even worse and transformed Hungary into a stronghold of radical Right in Europe.

Another country, another scapegoat: in the Netherlands, as it is well-known, the thesis that “our” problems could be solved if only “we” got rid of Muslims has found one of its most prominent champions, i.e. Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party and major pointer for Dutch politics for years (see the section: Ockupanterna). Though making sure to distinguish himself from people like Anders Berg Breivik (who pointed at Wilders as his ideological source of inspiration) by stressing his own democratic attitude, Wilders has steadily run down Islam, equating it with Fascism. Together with Pim Fortuyn (murdered in 2002 by a left-wing extremist), he has personified the idea that multiculturalism is a luxury only the privileged few can afford and has transformed the Netherlands into the headquarters of islamophobia in Europe.

The Dutch historian Thomas von der Dunk, here quoted, urges to take into account that politics’ highest aim is economic security, as well as the capability for society to accept cultural uncertainty; but when the former decreases, then the need for a strong cultural identity rises.

Roma people and Muslims are easy scapegoats in a continent affected by geopolitical and economic turbulences; but how came that in the rich and enlightened Norway a right-wing extremist killed more than 70 young left-wing activists? What Berg Breivik aims at with his double attack (a bomb in Oslo and the carnage on the Utøya island) was, as Linton explains, to murder at the same time three generations of “betrayers” (hence the title of the section, Förrädarna), i.e. three generations of Social Democrats: the forthcoming (the young activists who met in Utøya), the present (the governmental headquarter in the capital), and the former (Gro Harlem Brudtland, former prime minister, who escaped assassination in the island due to a delay in Breivik Berg’s plan).

What has been betrayed are Norwegian culture and identity, quite obviously. Breivik Berg defines “cultural Marxism” what could otherwise be summarized as “politically correct”, in other words the idea that there are some topics that cannot be questioned, above all feminism and multiculturalism. Linton points out that coinciding with the perhaps unstoppable march of right-wing extremism in Europe is the discontent caused by what has been perceived as the hegemony of political correctedness, which has become more and more centered upon universities. After all, right-wing radicalism is not interested in discussing rationally a question (which is supposed to be the academic approach) but, on the contrary, in imposing its own understanding of reality. And it is succeeding in doing this. Linton recalls our attention to the fact that what is striking in Breivik Berg is not his insanity, but how much he reflects stereotypes and plot-syndromes related to Islam that unfortunately are represented in more or less all the European parliaments (as well as in the EU one).     


Not even the book by Elmbrant, one of the most prominent Swedish journalists, is intended to bring comfort to the reader. Here as well the impact of the economic downturn is looked into in a European perspective, yet with a particular attention to countries such as Greece (see chapter 1, Ett land faller sönder) and Ireland (chapter 3, Irland på liv och död). In chapter 2 (Hur hamnade vi här?) the author follows the making of the Euro and then compares the faith of two countries, Ireland and Iceland; both hit by the crisis, but the latter (outside the common currency) recovering better. Italy is not at all forgotten in this account: the doubts about its financial soundness have been recurrent amongst EU – and German in particular – leaders, for many years. However, Elmbrant warns (chapter 4, Skenbilden av krisen) against those, in Brussels as well as Berlin and Paris, who blame upon some countries ? the Southern European ones primarily ? the European financial difficulties, as the problem were simply that if one spends too much, then one has to pay back sooner or later. Elmbrant is well aware that Greece, with all the stereotypes surrounding it, has worked as a perfect scapegoat, but insists on the European dimension of the economic crisis. The trouble indeed is not the Greeks’ unreliability, but the EU powerlessness in the face of much bigger transnational financial powers. In this connection, it needs to be said that left-wing parties have definitely not been united and consistent in their (often late) condemnation of the abuse of power from private banks and finance at large.

It cannot miss, in this critical report about the EU state of health, a chapter on Angela Merkel, significantly entitled She who decides (5, Hon som bestämmer) and on Germany’s hegemonic role. The outcome of financial powers’ and Germany’s supremacy are described in chapter 6 (Europas stålbad), again focusing mostly on Southern Europe, but raising a more general question: the changing role of the Nation-State. Here Elmbrant mentions an article on The New Left Review by the German social scientist Wolfgang Streeck as crucial: the dismantlement of Europe’s social policies has restricted the ability of the State as far as mediating between citizens’ rights and Capital’s diktats is concerned, and by this move increased further the latter’s authoritativeness as well. There have been massive demonstrations against budget-restriction policies, at least in Greece, Spain and Portugal (chapter 7, De unga på marsch), but Elmbrant does not forget that up to now it is the Radical Right the political actor who seems to have taken more advantage from the crisis, and not the Left. Are the European Central Bank and Merkel right when presenting austerity as the only way out of the crisis or can young people protesting in Athens, Madrid and Lisbon point out to an alternative? The last two chapters are built around this question. 

After summarizing the different proposals currently discussed in the EU (in the end all related to the dilemma: more or less unity among member States? See chapter 8, Stopp i Brysseltrafiken), Elmbrant closes his report by handling the question of the future of the common currency (chapter 9, Har euron en framtid?). After looking at expert analysis and people’s mood his answer (well reflecting Swedish attitude to the EU) is: the Euro is doomed to collapse ? after all it has been a mistake from the beginning ? with consequences that in some cases will prove to be devastating.  And thinking at what is going on in many European countries we can easily believe that this apocalyptic scenario is not simply a kind of snobbery from the rich Nordic countries.   

Joseph Femia (ed.), Vilfredo Pareto (London: Ashgate, 2009)

However, apart from Pareto’s posthumous peak of fame in the 1930s and 1940s, when his work inspired a generation of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, genuine engagement with his studies has been actually quite rare over recent decades. To most contemporary researchers, Pareto is primarily little else but a name in the “rosary” of great dead white men encountered during one’s undergraduate studies, and then a label for two mathematical notions that young academics must familiarise themselves with. Even Pareto’s crucial contribution to political science, namely his theory about the circulation of the elites, seems to be poorly known these days.

Perhaps, as Joseph Femia—editor of the volume hereby reviewed—suggests in his concise yet comprehensive introduction to the life and work of “the hermit of Céligny”, it is true that Pareto’s cynical notion of social equilibrium, his lack of faith in human progress and collective enlightenment, his elusion of the comfortable categories of normal science, and the overwhelming theoretical as well as historical analyses in which he indulged for the sake of scientific completeness, scholarly precision, intellectual integrity, and academic pedantry make of Pareto one of the least inspiring authors that ever reached the status of “classic” in any discipline.

Yet, several scholars of the 20th century did read his work, no matter how uninspiring, depressing, tedious and taxing it could be. And they did not only read it, but also recognised its remarkable character and its profound insightfulness. In particular, many seemed to find Pareto’s work extremely appealing in connection with the general decline in individual liberty, social wellbeing and collective hope informing the aftermath of the First World War and of the ensuing boom-bust financial cycle of the 1920s, which unleashed the Great Depression and the affirmation of fascist regimes all over Continental Europe.

Some scholars, albeit fewer than in the inter-war grim interlude, have kept finding Pareto congenial after that time. Amongst them, Femia has proved himself to be one of today’s main experts on Pareto within Anglophone academia. In addition to the volume reviewed hereby, to him we owe two further recent books on Pareto: Pareto and Political Theory (New York: Routledge, 2006) and Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries (London: Ashgate, 2012). Whereas the former, as the title indicates, focuses upon the work of Pareto as a political thinker, the latter, co-edited with Alasdair Marshall, explores the ramifications of Pareto’s contribution for contemporary areas of inquiry, whether sociological (e.g. stratification research), economic (e.g. monetary issues) or humanistic (e.g. rhetorical reasoning).

The 2009 volume that Femia edits comprises three parts, each containing essays on Pareto by variously influential scholars of the 20th century. Specifically, Part I focuses upon methodological aspects of Pareto’s contribution to the social sciences, most notably sociology rather than economics, written in the 1930s and 1960s. Part II explores broader aspects of his social theory and includes studies written between the 1960s and 1990s. Two of them deserve a special mention, i.e. “Vilfredo Pareto’s Sociology in his Letters to Maffeo Pantaleoni” and “Introduction to Pareto’s Sociology” (pp. 67—87 and 89—112), for they were authored by Italy’s leading liberal thinker Norberto Bobbio and constitute a sort of “classics” in Italian Pareto studies. Noteworthy is also “Pareto, Vilfredo: Contributions to Sociology” (pp. 171—80), written by US action theorist Talcott Parsons, who is probably the most famous heir of Pareto’s in the Anglophone world. Part III discusses Pareto’s politics, especially with regard to English-speaking countries, and offers reflections over the last three decades of the 20th century by, inter alia, Nobel-prize economist Amartya Sen (“The Impossibility of a Paretan Liberal”, pp. 267—72) as well as Joseph Femia himself (“Pareto and the Critique of Justice”, pp. 317—29). All together, these essays represent the most articulate introduction to Pareto’s social and political thought, as well as its reception over the past 70 years, currently available in the English language.

What is more, given the high quality of the scholarly work selected by the editor, such an introduction avoids the unfortunate yet widespread oversimplifications and blatantly erroneous depictions of Pareto’s thought, which is often “pigeon-holed” into science-worshipping positivism, psychological reductionism and proto-fascist authoritarianism.

Certainly, Pareto did attempt to apply the induction- and experiment-based scientific methods of physics and chemistry to the study of social phenomena. He did so in order to stress and charter the uniformities of human behaviour due to fundamental instincts and mental dispositions characteristic of our species, as well as to criticise much-venerated democratic regimes qua demagogic plutocracies. Nevertheless, he never denied the limitations intrinsic to the observation-constrained, abstraction-prone, descriptive, probabilistic hypotheses of the natural sciences. Indeed, even the field of economics, which he himself had contributed to formalise by adopting elements of the mathematics used in physics, had been abandoned by Pareto because of its inability to grasp the non-rational elements of the human psyche, which caused rationality-based economic models to fail regularly and inevitably in their predictions about the future. As Pareto had come to realise, the actual social man was not much of an homo economicus. C.B. Macpherson’s 1937 essay “Pareto’s ‘General Sociology'” (pp. 3—16) in Part I of Femia’s book is most relevant in this respect, as it accuses Pareto of adhering too much to the allegedly value-free methods of empirical science, yet revealing as well Pareto’s awaraness of the profound differences existing between the study of inanimate or animal phenomena and the study of value-driven human beings.

Analogously, Pareto researched and categorised the fundamental instincts or sentiments (“residues”) determining human action within societies and commonly rationalised post-factum into fallacious arguments (“derivations”) and doctrines (“derivatives”) in order to please yet another sentiment of ours, that is, our desire for explanations that sound logical to us. However, he never denied the ever-changing creative power of the human being as a semiotic animal, who is capable of activating and intensifying certain instincts and dispositions by engaging in symbolic activities. The tension between the fundamentally non-rational universal constant of “residues” and the possibility for self-reflective, cunning minds to manipulate them intelligently is discussed in Bobbio’s work as well as in the 1972 essay by Vincent Tarascio chosen for this collection (“Marx and Pareto on Science and History: A Comparative Analysis”, pp. 145—58), which also belongs to Part II.

Even less did Pareto deny the dangers to social order and public wellbeing stemming from political doctrines fostering despotism, censorship, nationalism and racism. Indeed, Pareto was very much an old-fashioned 19th-century liberal, who certainly disapproved of universal suffrage and other socially “dangerous” socialist aims, but commended the peaceful, direct male democracy of small Swiss cantons as the best example of political life in his age and regarded the liberty of the individual as paramount. In nuce, Mussolini’s deification of the State and his charismatic leadership of the masses did not belong to Pareto and their common association is, as S.E. Finer called it, “a misfortune” (“Pareto and Pluto-Democracy: The Retreat to Galapagos”, pp. 305—15; 305).

A scientist but not a devotee of scientism, a pessimist about human reason but not an irrationalist, and a conservative liberal but not a fascist: Pareto was a complex man and a complex thinker. He tried to mirror in his work the complexities of human phenomena themselves, thus avoiding explanatory shortcuts and ideological simplifications that would have probably granted him a much wider audience and a much broader appreciation. Femia’s book, which contains selected essays by some of the most eminent intellectuals who have written about Pareto over the last seven decades, bears witness to such complexities. It is therefore no easy book to read; yet no more candid depiction of Pareto’s approach and investigations would be possible.