Tag Archives: Politics

The Rhetoric of Identity in Right- and Left-wing Populism: A Brief Survey

Among all the theoretical contributions on the topic, I will rely on the approach which classifies populism as a political style, marked by a set of rhetorical and discoursive practices. In this sense, it seems possible to find some connections even between apparently opposite positions when it comes to the adoption of a common populist strategy and its communicative codes. Within this discursive pattern, shared by a politically heterogeneous group of actors, contemporary politics tends to rely more intensively on the logic of othering, namely a process through which the affirmation of one’s own identity depends on the positioning in an opposite front compared to the one of the different enemy. The us vs them rhetoric showed itself efficient because, by simplifying public space, it allows an immediate identification of the individual with a collective front, in addition to a clear discovery of her/his political rival. But how does populism make the spreading of this discursive divide concretely operational? Benjamin Moffitt has persuasively claimed that the appeal of populist rhetoric results from the adoption of a series of narratives, actions and linguistic choices through which populist parties establish a privileged communicative bond with their public. Under these terms, populism as a political style achieves a performative act, and through its discoursive practices ties in a political relationship which «typically consists of a proclaimed relationship with the ‘public’, an us/them attitude and […] a period of crisis and mobilization» (Moffitt 2016: 31).


Laclau: the Populist Construction of Political Identity

Among the most discussed theorists who adopted and developed this interpretative approach we may find Ernesto Laclau, who based his research precisely on the performative features detectable in populist political discourse. In his well-known On Populist Reason the Argentinian scholar proposes an original reading of the phenomenon as he starts wondering: «why could some political alternatives or aims be expressed only through populist means?» (Laclau 2005: 17). The identity crisis that, on different levels, is affecting the traditional actors of the political arena is self-evident: but what are the trajectories of possible evolution of this crisis? Is there any social rationality behind populism? Would it be possible to take advantage of its impetus?

Setting himself apart from the many scholars and policymakers who deem it a pathological disease of contemporary politics, Laclau considers populism an occurrence to study in the light of social dynamics in the process of community building, as a natural process of articulation of the various issues, inscribed in the grammar of the political itself; that is, a natural expression of the political character organic to each individual. From this point of view, populism refers to «a constant dimension of political action which necessarily arises (in different degrees) in all political discourses, subverting and complicating the operations of the so-called ‘more mature’ ideologies» (Laclau 2005: 18). From this constructive approach, which evaluates the performing acts achieved by populism through its discoursive and rhetorical practices, we could try to draw an analytic framework in order to understand the nature and legitimacy of two political movements featuring a different ideological baggage but linked by a common political style.


The New Heroes: Right-wing and Left-wing populism

In particular, it aims to consider how the current political background tends to shape up in a dichotomic distinction between right-wing populism and left-wing populism, evolving from the traditional right and left positions. Populism is no longer to be understood as a distinctive feature of both extreme right and left: its historical developments, indeed, «followed the inner opportunities offered by the particular dynamics of competition» (Tarchi 2015: 71), so as to generate different outcomes in different backgrounds (that’s the case when we compare European and Latin American populisms). To make my point clearer, I will rely on the contributions by two scholars which are expressly fitting in the explanation of this approach, both based on the interpretative structure of Laclau’s populism: the political theories of Alain De Benoist and Chantal Mouffe. In fact, they have been trying to sketch a populism vision rooted, respectively, on the traditional values of the right and the left through a bunch of very close discoursive practices and namely through the us vs them logic. The first pattern which leaves the mark of populism on the political outline provided by De Benoist and Mouffe is precisely the rhetoric of antagonism, which must be understood as the ground of the associative practice. The expression of the different souls that make up a community must depend, according to this logic, on the grouping of issues and positions along a frontier, which would set up the conditions for a dialogic struggle for hegemony (in Gramscian terms). The need to resort to populist discoursive strategies arises, according to De Benoist and Mouffe, when the demands of the various social groups of a given historical society become aware of their public role and ask for the building of new frontiers in order to articulate themselves and express their own political identity, positioning on one of the two sides of this frontier.


The Populist Democratic Revolution

The institution of a new antagonistic frontier serves as a tool to guide public opinion and comes in response to the tendency to occupy the central stage of the political spectrum that marks, according to both De Benoist and Mouffe, most traditional parties in many European democracies. This process reveals itself through the rise of anti-establishment, grassroots movements who claim their political autonomy and the satisfaction of their demands, while their ideological roots may equally be right-wing or left-wing. The democratic balance is broken, according to the analysis of both theorists, when centre-right and centre-left parties merge into a dominant ideology which «argues that there’s no alternative to the neoliberal order and that the break-up of people in the global market is the only horizon of human history» (De Benoist 2017: 29). They identify this unifying tendency as a direct consequence of an ‘original sin’: the surrender of the traditional left to the laws of globalisation.

Speaking of which I find quite meaningful the analysis of the French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa, who maintains that the convergence of the right and the left towards a undefined program starts right when the left moves away from its ideological origins, joining the cultural values and codes of liberal society such as «cult of modernisation to the bitter end, mandatory and permanent mobility (both geographically and professionally) and moral and cultural transgression» (Michéa 2005: 45). Framing his analysis on a revision of the political history of French socialism, Michéa argues that the left persuaded itself of the impossibility of overcoming capitalism and renounced to the traditional connection with the working-class movements (Michéa 2005: 122). The ‘treason’ of the left converts it into a political entity incapable of grasping and meeting the needs of the various social groups that used to refer to it, through a «progressive dissolution of the socialist ideal of a society without social classes […] in the liberal night when all of the cows are grey» (Michéa 2005: 28). In the meantime, that portion of the right which does not accept any loosening of its positions to converge towards a centrist perspective, finds in populism a perfect discoursive frame in order to broadcast its most relevant purposes, often extreme in their shapes.

As a consequence of the homogenisation of the political offer, the democratic principle of a free and responsible choice between two opposite alternatives fails and citizens get deprived of the concrete chance of expression of their beliefs. This is why Mouffe demands the necessity of a democratic revolution, which would appear on stage with the rise of «new social movements» and from the «questioning of many other forms of inequality» (Mouffe 2018: 51), something that requires a new identity partition in the political scheme. The Belgian scholar takes this binary logic straight out of the definition of the ‘political’ developed by Carl Schmitt, according to whom a political community finds its identity when confronting the otherness of an enemy, whose existence comes into being «when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity» (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 28).

The antagonistic dimension becomes an interpretative key of every aspect of the political life inside a given community, therefore requires the establishment of a series of novel politically opposed borders, which would distinguish a new us from a new them. Namely, the precise discoursive setting populism rests on. Both right and left-wing populisms build their political proposal aiming to respond to the unsatisfied demands of society, re-articulating community along a frontier. As Silvio Waisbord argues, this kind of Manichean storytelling is fostered as well by the evolution of contemporary media, more and more characterized by the communicative modality named post-truth. Denying the information model which refers to the existence of a one and only rational, empirical and demonstrable truth, post-truth assumes that «we cannot overcome subjectivity and that diverse publics lack shared norms and values» (Waisbord 2018: 4). According to the aforementioned perspective, populism looks at this fragmented and multifaceted portrait of reality and therefore chooses to highlight the alternative political choices, insofar as expressions of different souls which don’t deny each other, but clash in an hegemonic war for dominion.


France 2017: A Case Study On Populist Construction of Identity

A very clear, practical example of the meaningfulness of this theoretical approach is supplied by contemporary French politics. Recent Presidential elections held in April 2017 saw the lining up on one side of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing figure, fuelled by a well-prepared populist rhetoric; on the other, Jean-Luc Mélenchon tried to bring back together some pieces of the French left. France Insoumise took advantage, as well as Le Pen’s Front National, of the proclaimed effectiveness of populist rhetoric to present itself to the voters; an ideal case to show how two forces so distant as to their ideological origins can share a discoursive strategy. Both parties defined a collective identity – us – made up of strong symbolical meanings and created an enemy to fight against. The us pictured in  such a storytelling is represented by the people, which should be understood in term of a collective and autonomous political subject, structured around a series of cultural and linguistic features.

The myths of homeland and of the drapeau tricolore bleu, blanc, rouge lies at the heart of the Front National’s (now Rassemblement National) political rhetoric and it’s no surprise that Marine Le Pen labelled herself «the candidate of the people» (Le Pen 2017). Similarly, Jean-Luc Mélenchon fills his storytelling with metaphors taken from the natural world, suggesting the existence of a people anything but artificially built but constructed around innate and emotional boundaries: «take a listen everybody to the whistle coming from our ranks […] like the sound of wind blowing through leaves, like the one of rain on stone. This sound hasn’t a name, but a signal, the one of the strength of the people when it burst into history» (Mélenchon 2017). On the other side of the frontier, the portrait of a them with deliberately liquid boundaries and unidentifiable in a single social group: the enemy is sketched as the symbol of an external domination, applying a strong political and financial pressure over the people. A collective them occasionally embodied by the ruling class of the country, the financial oligarchy, the technocratic bureaucracy of Brussels and many more options.

This binary logic of counterposing the two fronts therefore leads to an identification process based on nationality; namely, a discoursive practice appealing to the attachment to homeland and its values in emotional terms. The political discourse is then framed not only to deliver its storytelling but to push citizens towards its internalization through a shift which involves the emotional level, in order to strengthen the bond with a collective external entity. Chantal Mouffe deems that this ‘sentimental’ blueprint is fundamental for an effective political discourse and finds its justification directly in Freudian psychoanalysis: way before speaking of rational choices, it is fundamental to get in contact with the irrational side of the individual, to the «strong libidinal investment operating in the forms of identification» (Mouffe 2018: 85). Here we may find the reason why of the myths of the France Fière, la République, the flag and the defense of the national idiom, recurring in the discursive practices of both Rassemblement National and France Insoumise, as a plea to the emotional sphere of each individual.


A Common Style with Many Variations: The Value of Ideology in French Populism

While we can assert that a faint line runs between left and right-wing populist discourses, both adopting a language equally aimed at identifying a frontier defined by an emotional connection to the nation, it is not necessarily true that populism flattens the ideological stances cherished by its actors. Mouffe herself remarks that the same discoursive practice of dividing public space in two opponents could be developed in the light of different ideological criteria. When right-wing populism builds its concept of ‘nation’ not merely in patriotic but nationalistic terms, it implies that we should exclude from the collective us immigrants and people belonging to different cultures, none of which would find her/his own space in the national storytelling pattern. According to her, instead, the project for a left populism should extend the democratic horizon towards everyone opposing the hegemonic domination of the oligarchic and financial establishment, including in the project «workers, immigrants and the precarious middle class, as well as other democratic demands such as the LGBT community» (Mouffe 2018: 27).

Drawing on this outline, all through the 2017 presidential campaign the alignment of the two parties along a frontier showed up to be divergent in many topics and mostly when the identity discourse went through the immigration issue. Le Pen’s right-wing populism maintained a coherent approach with the most radical conservative tradition on this matter, putting the safeguard of the French cultural baggage and the highest standards of national solidarity over the opening of society to multiculturalism. Resorting to the motto «rétablir les frontières nationales et sortir de l’espace Schengen», even through the militarisation of borders, Le Pen stands against ius soli as well: «L’acquisition de la nationalité française sera possible uniquement par la filiation ou la naturalisation» (Front National 2017). Instead of seeking for compromises and practical solutions to the integration issues, right-wing populism rather goes for a neat rhetoric according to which every single hole in the wall endangers community as a whole.

On the other side, France Insoumise sets out the limits of its frontier fostering a strong patriotic pride but still tracing its identity border along a more inclusive line, strengthening its own idea of national identity through the need to integrate outer elements in the horizon of the country: «France is a political community, not an ethnic reality. It’s therefore the existence of a common destiny who should ground access to nationality» (Féraud and Senon, 2017: 23). A left-populist social model needs to be based on shared but not exclusive cultural elements, which could be imparted to individuals and social groups who want to join the community. In his fight against political élites and financial oligarchy Mélenchon includes migrants as well, since they become the first victims of the common enemy, instead of being its instrumental allies. The only immigration to fight against is the one which comes through the «free trade routes» and gets abused as regard to the lowering of «wages and putting an additional pressure on social rights» (Mélenchon 2018).

In sum, both Front National and France Insoumise share a common, divisive rhetorical pattern, while pursuing partially different ends and targeting somehow diverse segments of public opinion in terms of ideological belonging.


Speaking of Left-wing Populism: A (Momentary) Conclusion

Laclau argued long ago that «between left-wing and right-wing populism, there is a nebulous no-man’s-land which can be crossed — and has been crossed — in many directions» (Laclau 2005: 87). Until recently, right-wing populism proved to be more efficient in leveraging the emotional sphere of many citizens and drawing an identity narrative which expressed people’s frustration for its exclusion from political life. According to Chantal Mouffe this is the place where the challenge for a left populism lies: the aim should consist in the adoption of an alike rhetorical pattern supporting an identity discourse set to build a collective opposition to the historical hegemonic élite while inclusive of any social force oppressed by the actual dominion, driving this emotional identification towards «better and more egalitarian perspectives inside the national tradition» (Mouffe 2018: 85).


De Benoist, A. (2017), Populismo. La fine della destra e della sinistra, Bologna: Arianna Editrice.

Eatwell, R.; Goodwin, M. (2018), National Populism: The revolt against liberal democracy, London: Pelican.

Féraud, B.; Senon, É. (2017), Livrets de la France Insoumise, Respecter les migrants, régler les causes des migrations: https://avenirencommun.fr/le-livret-migrations/.

Front National (2017), 144 Engagement Présidentiels. Election Présidentielle – 23 avril et 7 mai 2017: http://www.rassemblementnational.fr/pdf/144-engagements.pdf.

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

Le Pen, M (2017), Tweet, April 23, 2017: https://twitter.com/mlp_officiel/status/856223578957766656.

Mélenchon, J-L. (2017), Défilé pour la 6e République – #18mars2017, Youtube video, March 18 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3153&v=b5atq_VZd2M.

Mélenchon, J-L. (2018), Tweet, August 25, 2018. Web. January 1 2019, https://twitter.com/jlmelenchon/status/1033399841752317957?lang=it.

Michéa, J-C. (2015), I misteri della Sinistra. Dall’ideale illuminista al trionfo del capitalismo assoluto, Vicenza: Neri Pozza.

Moffit, B. (2016), The Global Rise of Populism, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mouffe, C. (2018), For a Left Populism, London: Verso.

Schmitt, C. (2007 [1932]), The Concept of the Political, edited by G. Schwab, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Tarchi, M. (2015), Italia populista, Bologna: Il Mulino.

Waisbord, S. (2018), The Elective Affinity Between Post-truth Communication and Populist Politics, Communication Research and Practice. Web. January 19 2018, https://doi.org/10.1080/22041451.2018.1428928

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.



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Social Media – A Vehicle for Personalisation in Politics? Political communication before the 2017 parliamentary elections in Iceland

Politics are becoming increasingly personalized, the focus shifting from party policies to individual candidates. Throughout the world, social media plays a significant role in this transformation (Enjolras & Karlsen,2016; Garzia, 2011; Kruikemeier, et.al., 2016; Larsson, 2014; Small 2010; McAllister,2007; Meeks, 2017). The most common definition of the term personalisation phrases it simply as a dichotomous relationship between the importance placed on the candidate on the one hand and the party on the other (Chan, 2018).   Compared to other countries, Icelanders are very active on social media with 92% of the population owning a Facebook account, while 62% use Snapchat. Other social media are used less, Instagram 44% and Twitter 20% (Gallup, 2017). Electoral volatility has furthermore been on the rise in the last two decades with diminishing party loyalty and partisan dealignment (Harðarson, 2008, 2016).  Dealignment in turn creates a dynamic context for personalization and leadership focus vis-á-vis party attachments (Garzia, 2011; Garzia, et. al. 2018). This rising trend of dealignment, as Lobo (2018) has pointed out, correlates with the phenomenon of personalization (Lobo, 2018).

Precisely this tendency was felt in Iceland before the 2017 parliamentary elections, e.g. in the case of the now prime minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who had become more popular in the polls than her party (Jóhannsson, 2016. Magnússon, 2017).

Traditional media and their news values are partly responsible for keeping up the visibility of political leaders on the news agenda, as normally they are considered more newsworthy than ordinary MPs or candidates.  Thus, personalization is enhanced by the media, not only traditional media but social media as well. There are two cornerstones to all recent research into social media and politics: the Obama campaign of 2008 and the Trump campaign of 2016. These elections were not exclusively held nor won on social media but innovated its use to attract more attention and votes (Chadwick, 2017).

However, Scandinavian research has shown that in the fragmented hybrid media environment in European parliamentary democracies, social media have as well become a vehicle for non- leaders and newcomers who use these platforms proportionally more than their leaders (Blach-Örsten, et.al, 2016; Larson and Moe, 2014).

 The aim of this paper is to find out if politician´s usage of social media, not only of leaders, contributes to the personalization of the Icelandic political system, which has historically been party centred (Harðarson, 2008). This will be done through a content analysis of the posts on social media of top two candidates of every party in every constituency before the 2017 parliamentary elections and with post- election semi-standardized interviews with 5 party officials. We will explore whether social media is more party, or candidate centred, gaining insight into why that is and what we can expect to see in the future through the interviews. As no research exists on the effect of social media on personalization in Iceland, this will be the first attempt at such analysis.


Literature review

It should be noted at the outset that personalization of politics is not a new thing. It has been growing ever since the first televised debates, decades before the first social media emerged. However, electronic media have led to an accelerating pace of personalization (McAllister, 2007).

Social media does not determine who wins or loses an election, as the hybrid media system has led to all media being interconnected (Chadwick, 2013, 2017).  Indeed, people post stories from traditional media on social media and the traditional media covers posts from politicians on social media, the tweets of Donald Trump being an extreme case in point. Social media is, however, a very important tool in a system of hybrid media, where two different types of media logic, traditional media logic (one to many) and network media logic (many to many), interact and coexist in new and dynamic communication fora (Klinger & Svenson, 2014).  This is particularly important with respect to personalization as more votes are potentially available than   before because of the decline in partisan alignment which leads to more undecided voters (Garzia, 2011).

Drawing on the experience from many elections where social media has played a part, party officials and spin doctors have become more confident in the use of social media and less afraid to lose control of the conversation about their candidates on social media (Chadwick, 2017). The influence of individual candidates is based on their competence in social media and how well they can create a synergy between social media and the older, more traditional media. This is mostly up to the candidates themselves because in party centred democracies, professional help is mostly provided for party leaders (Enjolras and Karlsen, 2016).  However, as the Danish example suggests, one can expect politicians that are successful in this sense, “hybrid-media politicians”, to be younger than average, belong to different parities and come from a metropolitan area (Blanch-Östern et. al. 2017)

Research from Scandinavia has shown that use of social media by politicians is not high on a normal day, with spikes in usage mostly being connected to events in mainstream media and big political events. Usage will also pick up in the last few weeks before an election, especially when there is a political event in the mainstream media, reaching its peak on election day (Larsson, 2014). Politicians don’t seem to be using social media to keep in touch with their voters nor to get input. Their aim seems to be to preach to the masses when there is something they feel needs to be told, particularly when it pertains to gaining their vote (Larson, 2014).

When obtaining political information, social media is more important for younger voters whereas older voters use traditional media (Strandberg, 2013). The most influential users of Twitter do not consist of politicians holding top positions in their parties, but rather someone who is trying to make a name for themselves within the party. The average Twitter influential is male, young and rather centrally placed in his party (Enjolras and Karlsen, 2016). Social media has also been shown to be important in reaching citizens that are not exposed to campaign communication through other media as well as encouraging more voter participation in campaigns (Bor, 2014). Candidates do not only use social media to connect to voters but also to communicate to their own party in an attempt to gain more influence within it (Enjolras & Karlsen, 2016). Other research has shown that exposure to a Twitter account of a candidate results in higher political involvement, including greater voter participation, than only being exposed to an account of a party (Kruikemeier, et.al, 2016).

Most studies of the impact of social media on political communication and personalization are case studies and the trends found vary somewhat between countries and political systems.  Research in Germany suggests that social media has had little impact on already low levels of personalization (Schweitzer, 2008). In Canada, high levels of personalization were recorded in the use of Twitter by party leaders, mostly focusing on what they were doing or were going to do (Small, 2010). In Norway, social media was shown to be a mode for personalized political communication (Enjolras and Karlsen, 2016). Another research compared personalization between presidential and parliamentary systems, with personalization being higher in the presidential system but also found it to be increasing in the parliamentary systems (Garzia, 2011). This is because of the growing impact of public perception of party leaders on voting decisions and because the media now focuses more on individual candidates rather than issues, and when they do talk about issues they are normally tied to a candidate and depend on his popularity (Garzia, 2011; McAllister,2007).

It is however important to note that the degree and nature of personalisation does not only vary between countries and political systems but also within countries and between territories and constituencies. As Chan (2018) has convincingly demonstrated, territory matters and e.g. in large constituencies local or regional issues are likely to become prominent and result in personalised politics by candidates, that are not necessarily in line with the more central party line (Chan, 2018).

The social media revolution is not something which only new parties are using to get listened to by voters, old parties have taken in social media as one of their communication tools. Research on the Icelandic hybrid media condition has shown that the emergence of new media has not had a great empowering effect on new or disadvantaged parties in Iceland (Guðmundsson, 2016). This in turn supports the normalization hypothesis, which says that the more established parties will have an advantage on social media due to having more of the resources needed to be successful (Schweitzer, 2008 and 2011; Lilleker et.al., 2011; Larson and Svenson, 2014; Larson, 2014). The new parties also look at the old media as being just as important as new media, although there is a degree of variation between parties (Guðmundsson, 2016). Other research has shown that parties in Iceland mostly think of social media as an advertising medium. A way to tell people what is going on in the cheapest, most efficient way or to tell voters what they can do to help the campaign, not to interact with voters or allow them to influence policy (Bergsson, 2014; Guðmundsson, 2014). Also important is the finding that communication officials in Icelandic parties tended to think that too much politics on Facebook would discourage voters’ attention, the point of Facebook being to post pictures and tell people where meetings would happen (Guðmundsson, 2014).


The Icelandic context

Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic with just under 350.000 inhabitants. Over two thirds of the population lives in the Southwest of the country in the capital Reykjavík and surrounding area. The Icelandic parliament, “Alþingi”, is unicameral and has 63 representatives from 6 multi member constituencies, elected using two tier proportional representation (d’Hondt). Of those members, 54 are elected through proportional results in each constituency while the other nine are divided proportionally to parties, who reach the 5% threshold, to make up the national results (Harðarson, 2008). The party system has been characterized by a four-party domination with no party outside the traditional four ever being elected for more than four terms. The Pirate party, which has served three terms, is the longest serving current party outside of the established four. The established four parties have combined received more than 85% of the votes in most elections since the beginning of the current party system in 1931. That proportion has however been significantly less in the last few elections. The traditional four parties are the conservatives (Independence party), which has been the largest party in every election except in 2009, the agrarian/centre party (Progressive Party), which has historically most often been the second biggest, the social democratic party (currently Social Democratic Alliance) and the socialist party (currently Left Greens). The parties on the left have periodically been restructured but it has always led to the same four types of parties. The norm in Iceland is majority government with no formal blocks, neither on the left nor right and the big four parties have all participated in a majority at some point with each other (Harðarson, 2008). Turnout in Icelandic elections is high compared to other countries, only once going below 80%, and voter volatility has also been relatively high, most often over 10% since 1971. The Icelandic system is a party-oriented system with high party discipline (Harðarson, 2017).

The Icelandic media system did not break party ties until around 1990 with all papers before that time having a direct or indirect link to a specific political party. The current media have all been accused of having some party orientation or working for the interests of their owners. Iceland has, compared to other countries, liberal rules for the ownership of media (Guðmundsson, 2016). This is most likely because of how hard it is to have many media companies in such a small market (Harðarson, 2008). The biggest player in the market is the state run public broadcaster RÚV which operates two TV channels (RÚV, RÚV2), two radio stations (Rás1, Rás2) and a webpage (ruv.is). Other big players are telecommunication- and other private companies and include Vodafone, Síminn and Árvakur. All in all, there are more than 20 TV channels in Iceland, over 30 radio stations and 2 daily national newspaper and several others.


The 2017 elections

The election on the 28th of October 2017 was an early election that came one day short of a year after the last one. It was the third early election in Iceland since 2008 and the second in a row. The election was caused by the Bright Future Party leaving a government coalition with the Independence Party and centre-right Reform Party. This was due to an alleged breach of confidence that had to do with an application to restore an honour program for ex-convicts wanting to get their criminal records cleaned. Issues relating to the program had been a hot topic on the news in the months leading up to the fall of the government, with a former child-molester getting his “honour” restored and then going on to repeat his offences. The alleged breach came with news that the prime ministers father had in a different case in the past signed a recommendation letter for a convicted child molester, something the prime minister knew about for two months without telling his coalition partners (Harðarson & Önnudóttir, 2017). After the 2016 elections it took more than 2 months to form a government, so instead of trying to form a new majority, Prime Minister Benediktsson dissolved the parliament on the 18th of September and announced new elections in six weeks’ time (Harðarson, 2017). Despite the moral reasons behind the early election, the campaign was conventional, focusing on issues such as health care, economic stability, welfare and taxes (Harðarson & Önnudóttir, 2017). Turnout in the election was 81,2%, just higher than the record low of 79,2% from 2016. Eleven parties ran in the elections, 9 ran in all constituencies, and 8 of them got candidates elected into parliament. The outgoing majority parties all lost seats in the parliament, with the Bright Future dropping out of parliament with only 1,2% (-6% from the last election). This was the fourth consecutive majority to suffer a loss of more than 10%, with only 7 out of 22 coalitions since the 1931 elections gaining votes. The old big four parties only obtained 64,9% of the votes a slight improvement from the 62,1% they obtained in 2016 but still a historic low (Harðarson, 2017). The fact that the elections were held on such short notice may have impacted the focus on social media.


Research questions

The aim of this paper is to see if social media platforms are mainly a vehicle for personalized politics in Iceland, a historically party centred system. While news values of traditional media and their programming and editorial structure tends to put focus on party leaders and party spokesmen, the more fragmented and horizontal structure of network media logics of social media platforms gives space to individual candidates. Thus, the aim is to find out to what extent political communication in social media is party-political and to what extent is focuses on the candidates themselves. Clearly, in a hybrid media system, there is no definite criteria on the proportion of certain type of content to determine whether or not a platform is predominantly a tool for personalization, but it can be suggested that if one half or more of the content is of a personal nature, the platform can be considered a vehicle for personalized politics.  This research subject will be approached through posing four interrelated research questions that deal with the type of content in social media platforms before the 2017 parliamentary elections in Iceland. Also, the difference between candidates and parties as well as individual social media platforms will be explored.

RQ1. Are social media a platform for personalized politics in Iceland? This basic question aims to establish through measurements what kind of content is posted on social media platforms.

RQ2.  Is there a variance in the social media use of candidates?  It is unlikely that all parliamentary candidates use social media in the same way and it is of major importance to draw out the differences with respect to variables such as the party of candidates, geographical area, gender and whether a candidate was elected or not.

RQ3. Is there a difference between the ways in which major social media platforms are used?  This is an important question as while many studies have been done on the role and use of different social media all over the world, e.g. Twitter (Jungherr, 2016), very few if any have sought to establish the difference in use of individual social media platforms.

RQ4. Is social media use mainly orchestrated from central party organizations to boost party centred communication or a united party line?  Through this question an insight should be gained into the role of party organizations in the social media use of candidates.



The four research questions will be dealt with in two ways. Three of the four questions will mainly be answered by way of content analysis of the posts of parties and candidates on social media in the run-up to the elections. One question, the one on the relations between the central party organization and the autonomy of individual candidates will be explored through half – standardized interviews with party officials from five of the nine parties that ran in all six constituencies.


Content analysis

The content analysis was done in the last two weeks before the election on the 28th of October 2017 starting on the 14th and ending on the 27th of October. Only the 9 parties that ran in all 6 constituencies were followed, with 8 of them eventually being elected to parliament. The top two candidates on the party lists for each party in each constituency were followed, as well as the official social media accounts of the parties on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Each post was coded into one of three categories.

Category 1, non-political personal: the posts were non-political and mostly consisted of the candidates telling people where they had been or where they were going, as well as pictures and posts saying how lovely some place or people were.

Category 2, political personal:  consisted of posts where the candidate was defining his own policies, defined by phrases such as “I believe”, “my view is” and “if elected I will” etc.

Category 3, political non-personal: This category consisted of party policies, with statements such as “my party believes”, “our party wants to…”, and so forth.

To answer RQ2 the data was analysed in the light of 8 variables. These were: gender, constituency, leadership position, party, if a candidate was elected or not, if the candidate was from an old or a new party, how active candidates were on social media, and if the posts came from a party account or a candidate account.

Facebook was the dominant medium with 97% of candidates and all 9 parties posting on there at least once during the two weeks analysed. Snapchat was barely used, with only two parties and two candidates using the medium during the campaign. Twitter usage varied greatly between parties, ranging from candidates of the Bright Future Party posting on average 28 times per day to not a single tweet from a candidate from the Peoples- or Centre parties.



The half-standardized interviews focused on party officials mainly responsible for the social media communication strategies of the respective parties. The purpose of the interviews was to deepen information acquired through the content analysis and in particular to establish the role of the central party organizations in the social media use of candidates and in dictating a party line. However, the interviews were only half- standardized and thus not confined to this topic, allowing the interviewees to initiate and offer points that they thought to be important.  The interviews were both conducted face to face and through telephone. They were taped, typed up, coded and analysed into themes.  All in all, there were five interviews with officials from five different parties that stood in all six constituencies.



There now follows a discussion of the results, starting with results of the content analysis in light of the three relevant research questions, on the content and variation in use of different social media platforms. Then the interviews will be analysed to add understanding about the research question on the relations of central party organizations and candidates and the role of social media in the overall communication strategy of the parties.


Content analysis

The results from the content analysis are primarily based on Facebook data because of the lack of posts by politicians on Twitter and Snapchat. It should however be noted that 84,3% of the coded communication on Snapchat falls into the non-political personal category (category 1), but the significance of this is limited because of the lack of posts and posters (only 108 total posts). Twitter is also too small in the research to be convincingly important but a general comparison between Twitter and Facebook will however be introduced below.

Personalized vs. party accounts: Figure 1 provides a positive answer to the first research question, suggesting that social media (Facebook) are dominantly personalized tools in Icelandic political communication.  When the average of all posts posted on Facebook during the campaign is considered, we find that personal posts, both political personal and non-political personal posts constitute some two- thirds of the whole (63%).   The difference between the types of posts from parties on the one hand and candidates on the other is striking. Parties post to a much larger extent political posts (52%) than the candidates do (35%).  While communication by the candidates themselves can be said to be dominantly personalized this is not so for the official party communication although it is only just under the 50% mark.















Figure 1  The average communication on Facebook by parties, candidates and the general average.


Variance in social media use: Next, we turn to an examination of the variance in the use of social media platforms which was the subject of the second research question. Specifically, we shall look at the following variables: party leaders vs. other candidates; differences between parties; differences between constituencies; differences between metropolitan areas and the regions; differences between men and women; and finally difference in the posts of candidates that got elected and those that did not.

 Party leaders:  Figure 2 shows a comparison between the 9 party leaders and the 10 most active candidates on social media.  Personal posts from both groups are above the 50% mark, with both party leaders and the 10 most active candidates at 64%. Despite the amount of personal posts being similar for both these categories there are a lot of internal differences, the 10 most active candidates have similar amounts of communication from all categories, therefore they differ from the average by having more personal political and less personal non-political (category 2 and category 1). Active posters therefore seem to post more of their own political thoughts than the average candidate and less non-political material. Some 46% of the posts made by party leaders fell into category 1 (non-political personal communication) but at the same time they only have 18% from category 2, political personal communication. This can probably be explained by the leader representing the party and therefore the party´s policies are also personal policies. Furthermore, leaders receive more attention in traditional media and do not need to profile themselves politically on social media to the same extent as non-leaders.















Figure 2 The average of the type of posts on Facebook from the party leaders and the most active candidates.


Party differences: The results regarding the difference between parties show quite a clear distinction between the new parties and the old traditional parties. Although the social media communication can be said to be dominantly personal (category 1+2) for all the parties, the established four had by far the highest number of personal posts, or an average of 76%, while the average of personal posts was 59% with new parties. Candidates from three of the four traditional parties, excluding the Social democrats, had more than 50% of their social media communication coded as non-political personal, while that average was only 32% for the new parties (Figures 3 and 4).

It can therefore be suggested that the newer parties look at social media as a platform to introduce their policies to voters and that their candidates look at these media more as a political tool than do the candidates from the big four. Both the parties that were running for the first time (Centre party and People’s party) had a very high proportion of party-political communication on social media. Only one other party, the Bright Future had more than 40% of its communication from the political non-personal category. The big parties use social media more to connect with voters in a personal way and show the human side of their candidates.















Figure 3 The average of the type of posts from candidates by party.















Figure 4 A comparison of the type of posts by candidates of the big four parties and the new parties on Facebook.



Difference between constituencies

There is a big difference between the social media use of candidates from different constituencies. Candidates in all constituencies were found to have personalized posts, although there was some difference, especially between the capital area and the countryside constituencies. Comparing the 3 constituencies that make up the capital area (Reykjavík-North, Reykjavík-South and South-West) against the three that make up the regions (North-West, North-East and South) it can be seen that both are dominantly personalized. However, an interesting difference lies in how much more emphasis candidates from the regions seem to put on non-political personal communication versus their own politics and the politics of the party. The fact that they emphasise category 1 (non- political personal) communication more than candidates in the metropolitan constituencies is potentially due to the sheer size of their constituencies, the three constituencies outside of the metropolitan area cover vast territories. Here Chan´s (2018) point on the importance of territory probably kicks in. Purley practical reasons are also at play, as many posts are informing people where the candidates are or will be. The North-East clearly stands out with the value for category 1 by far the highest and party-political communication the lowest.















Figure 5 A comparison of candidate communication on Facebook depending on which constituency they are from.















Figure 6 The difference in social media communication between the capital area and the countryside constituencies, on Facebook.


Gender differences: Gender does not seem to be a significant variable in determining what candidates post on social media. Both males and females post dominantly personal posts. In all categories the difference seems only marginal. Neither men nor women being more dominant in one category than another.















Figure 7 Differences between the communication of female and male candidates’ communication on Facebook.


Elected candidates vs those who didn’t get elected: Finally, it is hard to draw conclusions from the posts of those who did get elected and the ones that did not. The nature of the Icelandic political system, with party lists and proportional representation as well as the different size and following of the parties call for a careful interpretation. But the results indicate that it is not necessarily good for politicians to be very political – at least not on social media!  Those who got elected are much more personalized and non-political than the candidates who did not get elected. The candidates who failed to get elected also had slightly more communication coded as political non-personal.















Figure 8 The difference between the Facebook communication of those candidates who did get elected and those who did not.


Facebook vs.Twitter: As mentioned above the results are based on the Facebook part of the research project because of the lack of activity on Twitter and Snapchat. RQ3 however asks about the difference between the ways in which the major social media platforms are used.  As pointed out earlier, Snapchat was not much used in the 2017 campaign and to the extent it was used its use fell into the category of non-political personal communication.  Twitter on the other hand, is a more popular platform with politicians and it is interesting to compare the results of Facebook to those of Twitter. Both gateways can be said to be personalized, although Twitter is only just over the one-half line, with 52% of posts on average coded as personal. Twitter is much more political than Facebook, and with 68% of the Twitter posts coded in two political categories, Twitter can be said to be dominantly political. But with only 42% of its posts coded as personal it is much less personalized than Facebook. Candidates use Twitter as a political medium much more so than Facebook, that is to say, those candidates who have a Twitter account in the first place and are actively using it.















Figure 9 There is a clear difference between the two social media platforms as Facebook is more personal than Twitter which has almost one-half of its posts “political non-personal”.




When analysing the interviews, five main themes came up that were considered to have impact on how the parties and candidates acted on social media. The analyses are mostly based on Facebook which all interviewees perceived as the most important social medium for political communication in Iceland, because as one interviewee said, “that’s where the people are”. The themes are the following:

  1. Candidate freedom and external professional help: The extent to which the candidates control what they post on social media and how much help is available to them.
  2. The effects of the short run-up to the elections: How the fact that parties only had 6 weeks to plan for the election changed their focus on social media and the content that they posted there.
  3. Negative ads on YouTube: How did reacting to negative ads change the focus on social media?
  4. Targeting and voter data: The extent to which the parties tried targeting groups on social media and what voter data they used to inform those decisions.
  5. The perceived personalization of social media: What was, according to the party officials, the main theme of the party communication during the election.

Candidate freedom and external professional help: All interviewees said that there had been some professional help for candidates in how to use social media but that it had mostly been in teaching candidates how to use social media and explaining what kind of material worked best, without being directly instructed what to put on social media or how to present it. Although they all added that it was very important that everyone in the party was talking about the same thing, sometimes there was a need to intervene when someone was drifting too far off the party line.

The effects of the short run-up to the elections: The 2017 elections were held with only six weeks’ notice, although normally party officials have years to prepare for an election. The general agreement was that such a short notice made it harder to put out quality material and be ready for the social media conversation and they all would have wanted more time to work on the content. One interviewee said:

It had an impact as we didn’t have any material (to post on social media) and sometimes we didn’t have the time to create it which made things more difficult.”

There was also a general agreement that the role of social media had increased due to the lack of time for making material for other media, or to plan as many meetings as would have been in a normal election year. In the words of one official:

“The difference between the elections of 2016 and 2017 is enormous. All the power went into social media, much more than it would have been if we would have had a longer notice.”

Negative ads on YouTube: The 2017 elections were the first in Icelandic history to have a significant number of negative advertisements. These mainly came from anonymous sources or independent actors not directly or openly connected with a political party. There were ads against every party, but the Left-Greens and Social Democratic Alliance took most of the heat. The officials from both of those parties mentioned this as the biggest challenge they faced in the 2017 elections. They said a lot of work went into trying to answer those on social media, and both thought they had mostly failed in responding.

Targeting and voter data: The focus on how parties use voter data and how much they try to target voters through social media has been very prevalent in all social media research since the Obama election of 2008 (Chadwick, 2017). There was a wide range in how much parties tried to target the audience for their messages ranging from the Left-Greens only targeting by location in preparation for regional meetings to the Social Democrats, Reform party and Centre party saying they tried to target most things that was sent out in the name of the party. They all used some form of voter research in deciding what to put out and who to target, for example targeting labour workers for labour issues and women with equality measures.

The perceived personalization of social media: One theme that came up in the interviews was if the party had focused more on presenting political issues or candidates. The Social Democrats, Reform party and Centre       party all said they focused more on policy issues while the Independence party had focused more on interacting with voters. But the Left-Greens focused more on the candidates or as their official said:  “Our emphasis, although we always had policy in the bits, was on Katrín [Jakobsdóttir]. It (the focus) was on the candidates and mostly on Katrín.”

Themes summary: Viewing these five themes considering RQ4 it becomes evident that the candidates have considerable autonomy in their advocacy and in pursuing personalized political communication.  The interference of the central party in the electioneering of the ordinary candidates is mainly of a technical nature, providing training and skill in the operation of social media platforms and providing some targeting information, to help candidates to be more effective in their posts. Furthermore, the complaints that preparation time was short to produce material for the campaign, points to an important role of the central party organisations in providing stuff for candidates to post and share, with their own personal additions and comments. Other concerns that emerge in the interviews support the view that in European parliamentary systems the ordinary candidates are pretty much on their own while the central party organizations focus more on party leaders (Enjolras & Karlsen,2016; Blach-Örsten, et.al. 2017).



The findings presented in this paper suggest that social media is indeed a vehicle for personalisation in politics in Iceland. This is an addition to other forces that have contributed to an increase in personalisation, such as the decline in partisan attachments and general political dealignment in Iceland in recent decades and the news value focus of traditional media on personalities.   In this sense it can be argued that Iceland is threading the same path as other parliamentary democracies. However, this might be of special consequence in Iceland because dealignment and distrust in the political system escalated after the financial meltdown in 2008 and the massive shock and sense of political corruption that followed and exploded in the “pots and pan” revolution (Bernburg, 2016). At the same time there is considerable distrust in traditional media and its professional integrity (Guðmundsson, 2016). This makes the influence of social media even greater than in neighbouring countries where traditional media is stronger and has a richer professional heritage. As the trustworthiness of institutions, parties and media has declined, the importance of the trustworthiness of personalities increases and these personalities express themselves largely through networked logic of social media platforms.  This expression can e.g. take the form of new parties or candidates offering their services, claiming to be more trustworthy than existing politicians. This expression can also appear within parties as a candidate in quest of more trust seeks to distance himself from a party which has lost trust, or at least to demonstrate some independence from it. This line of reasoning would indeed rhyme with party-splits and the increased number of parties standing in elections in Iceland since 2013.  Individual candidates seem to have considerable autonomy vis-á-vis the central party organisations in the way in which they use social media – with limits though – for their own personalised political campaigns.

 Another important element is highlighted in the findings connected to the relations between the central party structures on the one hand and the candidates on the other. It seems that elements of “presidentialism” which has been highlighted in the literature (e.g. Lobo, 2018) can be seen in the close cooperation between the central party organisations and the party leaders.  The similar nature of the posts by the party organisations and the party leaders suggests that the leaders might be controlling the agenda of the party rather than presenting it, which indeed is a form of personalisation. And the variance in the forms of personalisation and the rather slack central control is still furthered by the territorial difference which can be seen to be in line with findings elsewhere (Chan, 2018).

Earlier research on media use by candidates in Iceland suggested that new and small parties could not claim an advantage over older parties on the grounds of new media gateways such as social media, even though these media were readily available and inexpensive, simply because older and established parties also use these media (Guðmundsson, 2016). This study adds an important point to that discussion, namely that new and small parties seem to use social media in a different manner than the more established parties. While the established four tend to be more personalised on social media the new and small parties seek to use these platforms to spread political messages, possibly because of lack of other means of communication.

Thus, the findings in many ways compliment findings from elsewhere and the general literature, but the Icelandic case study also adds to and sharpens the understanding of personalisation in general. One last point should be mentioned as it is of major importance, not only for further study of social media and politics in Iceland but for such research in general. There is clearly an important difference between the ways in which politicians use social media platforms.  Personalised politics are clearly more practised on Facebook than Twitter. Indeed, Twitter is quite political, which needs not come as a surprise as it is in many ways an elite medium for politicians and journalists and has been widely studied as such (Jungherr, 2016). In light of the finding presented above is becomes precarious to talk of social media as a single entity with the same general characteristics. That would clearly be an oversimplification of the situation in Iceland and the role of Facebook on the one hand and Twitter on the other.



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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.



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Errors in Politics: An analysis of the concept of political error

What is a political error? How can we distinguish a political error from other kinds of error? Is there any specificity of the kind of errors that can be made in politics? More precisely, if emotions and affects play a key role in politics, one shall suspect that they may also play a role in political errors. Is it possible to define more clearly the nature of this role and, hence, the nature of political error? Is it possible to depict phenomenologically the way through which rational arguments interfere with emotional motives and, conversely, the way through which emotions shape rationality in politics? A better knowledge of what is specific in political errors might thus help to understand the relationships between reason and emotions, concepts of rationality and “structures of feelings”.

Although political errors are likely to be as old as politics itself, it is only in modern times – and I will suggest that it is only with Machiavelli – that the notion of political error clearly emerged on the background of other kinds of errors with which it has long been mingled. In an article entitled Morality and the social sciences, Albert Hirschman analysed the connection between morality and politics[1]. He shows that there is a durable tension between the two. He writes: “modern political science owes a great deal to Machiavelli’s shocking claim that ordinary notions of moral behaviour for individual may not be suitable as rules for conduct for states.” Such an analysis invites to go back to the distinction between the different kinds of errors that can be done by humans with the goal of identifying the nature of those that can be specifically called “political errors”.


Outline of the article

I will proceed as follow: I will first make a brief “history of error”, if one can say so. More precisely, I will try to identify a few steps that have been gone through in the thinking about what an error can be in general. I will show that one can distinguish four kinds of error. Namely the perceptual error, the conceptual error, the moral error and, finally, the political error. The distinction is not controversial for the three first groups. The fourth kind of errors, however, is a controversial issue. Indeed, when it comes to political error, some commentators claim that it does not has to be confused with moral errors; others claim right the opposite, thus that political errors are only a certain variety of moral error. This is showing, at least, that the notion of political error is still not well characterized.

In a second moment, and in order to shed some light on the question, I will assume that the distinction between moral and political error is relevant and I will thus try to define more precisely what a political error is as opposed to other varieties of errors and, more specifically, as opposed to moral errors. Thus, I will try to assess the nature of political errors. I will exhibit a few distinctive features of political errors showing that their difference with other kinds of errors is not of a speculative sort but that it actually corresponds to facts.

Finally, I will turn to the question of why assessing the nature of political error can be helpful if one wonder to find ways of modifying affects. Narrating stories is, I will show, a powerful way of intervening into political issues. This is where phenomenology comes about: it will show how narratives matter when it comes to political passions. I will thus try to analyse how narratives and, more generally, history, can change the shape of affects of political significance and, in some cases, avoid political errors.


A history of error

So let me with the history of the notion of error. I speak here of notion of error as it has been conceptualized which I distinguish from the fact of simply making an error, the latter being probably as old as humanity itself. Identifying and expressing what is at stake in the making of an error is something different than making an error. It supposes to conceptualize accurately what an error is.

As far back as the fourth century BC, Heraclitus of Ephesus, the Ionian Greek philosopher, would claim that “those who are awake have a world one and common, but those who are asleep each turn aside into their private world”[2]. He seems to mean that humans can live either in illusion or in truth. Here, thus, error is taken as an equivalent of illusion; an interpretation that is confirmed by other fragments from Heraclitus. Under every error, one should be able to identify a corresponding illusion. Illusion, in turn, is conceived in a way that is very similar to what happens when one perceive something and interpret as something that does not correspond to what is actually perceived. The square tower that is perceived as a round tower from a distance would later become the canonical example that encapsulates this notion of perceptual error. Perceptual errors, however, are not be confused with conceptual errors, as Plato would show, a few decades after Heraclitus.

Indeed, the distinction between perceptual and conceptual errors can be traced back at least to Plato. In the Socratic dialogue entitled Meno, Socrates famously show how a young slave can be led to correct by himself his own errors by being guided only by questions[3]. When the young slave says that a square the side of which has been doubled will also have its surface doubled, he makes an error that is clearly not of a perceptual kind. One can thus distinguish at least two kinds of errors which can be called perceptual errors and conceptual errors. If a distinction has to be made between these two kinds of errors, other kinds of errors might have to be recognized as well.

Aristotle, in Nicomachean ethics and in the Politics would precisely identify a third kind of error which deals specifically, he would explain, with the consequence of having incorrectly anticipated the future. Someone who, by his attitude, provoke consequences that he was not expecting is making an error which cannot be qualified as perceptual. It cannot be qualified as a conceptual error either. Rather, it is again a new sort of error that is to be found both in moral and in politics, Aristotle would claim.

When I do something that I later regret, I make a moral error. When a politician or group of people decide something that would later lead to a catastrophe (a war for instance), one can call it a “political error”. At a first sight, such an error does not have a structure that differ from the moral error since it results from the failure to foresee the consequences of our actions. And that will be what Aristotle would conclude. In moral error, as well as in political error, the failure lie in the fact that the future has been incorrectly foreseen. In other terms, from Aristotle on, moral error and political will be characterised as being of the same sort.

Aristotle would, for instance write, in the Politics, that “governing is being able to see what the future will be”[4]. Therefore, not being able to see correctly what the future will be is making a political error. By the same token, not being able to anticipate the consequence of an act would constitute the basis of the moral error as it is analysed in the Nicomachean ethics. Thus, political and moral errors are here analysed in the same way. In fact, the two categories are considered as only one category.

This link between moral and political errors will have an enduring life. It will be reaffirmed from century to century up to Machiavelli who would disentangle the two notions, probably because he is more concerned with practical thinking (which he famously call verità effettuale de la cosa) than by conceptual analysis. In so doing, he is introducing a distinction into the third category of errors which would thus have, at least for those who accept the notions provided by Machiavelli, to be now split into moral errors and political errors instead of being grouped into a single category.

Although the nature of the difference between the two remains obscure at this stage, it appears clearly that the two notions of moral and political should be distinguished when Machiavelli exhorts, for instance, the Prince to keep giving the impression that he is acting with equanimity while he shall, occasionally, have to act otherwise[5]. Equanimity is thus, for Machiavelli, a moral notion that should not be confused with the political usefulness of having the reputation of being so. Being unjust could be a moral mistake, but it can also, sometimes, help to avoid a political mistake.

It is not before the twentieth century that what is at stake under the distinction between moral and political error will begin to be clarified. Hence the fact that from its first publication in 1532, The Prince has been considered as a sulphurous reading. Even Leo Strauss, in its Thoughts on Machiavelli, first published in 1958, considers that reading Machiavelli exposes to dangerous drawbacks. He would write, for instance: “We do not hesitate to assert, as very many have asserted before us, and we shall later on try to prove, that Machiavelli’s teaching is immoral and irreligious”[6]. By this he means that, at the end of the Middle Ages, claiming that moral and politics can be disentangled is, in itself, a moral error. This might be the reason that make the issue so controversial. Let’s turn back, for a minute, to the arguments that lead Machiavelli to separate the two notions.

The Prince is composed as advices to Lorenzo de Medici the second and is supposed to help him stay in power. The advises provided by Machiavelli are mainly, if not exclusively, oriented through one goal which is to answer a question that could be summed up as follow: “how should the Prince, the sovereign, act in order to avoid that his former friends turn into enemies?” Therefore, turning friend into enemies is also what would characterize a political error according to Machiavelli. One discovers that one has made a political mistake when someone who used to be a friend turn to be an enemy. Let us take this as a first definition of the political error.

Such a definition does not apply to moral error since in moral error, one possibly become the enemy of oneself, but one does not necessarily turn someone against oneself. Thus, although, as Aristotle already noticed, both moral and political errors share the failure to foresee the future, they do it in quiet different ways. In political errors, what is at stake is the risk, for any action, to make friends become enemies while in moral error, what is at stake is, so to say, the risk to become its own enemy by having to judge oneself with poor favour. A political error has to deal with the anticipation of how others would react to our initiatives.

From there on, two schools of thought would appear. One of them will stick to the Aristotelian idea that a political error is a kind of moral error. The other one, following Machiavelli, will try to identify more clearly what is specific in a political error.


Assessing political errors

By turning to two examples, I will try to define the specificity of political error more clearly, thus assuming that this last opinion makes sense.

The first example will deal with a stunning episode of the recent French political live. The former French president François Hollande, who was then finishing what would turn to be his unique mandate, published a book, that in fact had been written by two journalists, which title was: A president shouldn’t say this[7]. Indeed, the book could not have a better title since it was, as it would be mentioned by many observers as well as by policy makers including a large number of members of its own party, a great political mistake. In this book, he was, quite honestly, explaining what he did all along its mandate. Honesty could hardly be depicted as a moral mistake. But it could easily generate political mistakes. That was what happened in this occasion. The mistake was so great that his own first minister decided to run for presidency and that, finally, he himself, although President, would decide even not to try to run for presidency because, he declared “XXX”. That will open an avenue for his former minister of economy, a person whose name was Emmanuel Macron (who, by the way, did validate, a few years earlier, a degree on political sciences with a memoir on Machiavelli).

So what was the political mistake that François Hollande did with this book? The answer has been anticipated by Machiavelli: he turned many of his former friends into enemies. One should note that the nature of politics entailed by this notion of error is not the same as the one proposed by Carl Schmitt who, as it is well known, focuses on the distinction between friends and enemies[8]. Here, what is at stake is not to distinguish friends from enemies but rather to anticipate what would make the former turn into the latter. It is a different sort of distinction that also opens different perspectives.

Since affects circulate in friends in a way different than they circulate in enemies, turning friends into enemies is the equivalent of turning supporting feelings into destroying feelings. As one can see on the example of François Hollande, the effect that he obtained with his book turned to be right the opposite to what he was looking for. It was supposed to enhance the number of its supporters; it turned out that it decreased this number.

Similar mechanisms operate, although at a much higher rate, in the burst of a revolution. This is what happened, and this is the second example, in Iran a few decades ago leading to the resignation, in 1979, of the King of Iran, the so-called Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Palavhi[9].

A few years before the revolution, the Shah of Iran decided to organize a sumptuous celebration of its regime. The goal was to deepens its power by appearing at the top of an unchallenged legitimacy. He obtained, however, the directly opposite effect: his opponents infuriate while his proponents did not agree with such magnificent and expensive celebrations. The result was that the Islamic revolution, that arose a few years later, would push him away with the help of the citizen of Iran. He had accumulated a vast number of haters by the ways that, he thought, would be appropriate to consolidate his power.

Thus, we can now define more clearly what a political error is: it is an error made on evaluating the consequences of what others think about what one do or say. If I do or say something, I have also to deal with what people think about it. A political error will arise if I fail to anticipate correctly that reaction. Although it can be helpful to provide criteria to distinguish what a political error can be, it is again more helpful to provide some clue that could help to prevent political mistakes.


Correcting political error

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his Note on Machiavelli, published in Signes in 1960, did notice rightly that what exposes The Prince to error is that what he does or say is always seen in a plurality of ways[10]. Since the Prince is exposed to the judgment of a variety of persons, his action will also be judged in a variety of ways. Anticipating the reaction of a crowd must thus depend on a specific sense of evaluation which is not the same as the one that one can have in front of a single or of a few well identified persons. The politician is judged by a crowd of ways of seeing instead of by only a few. And each of them is affected differently by what he is doing. How to anticipate the variations that could arise in such a crowd?

To answer this question, Machiavelli uses essentially one a tool. This tool is history. He would provide advises to the Prince by looking back to what happened to others in various situation, as I just did with the example of François Hollande and of the Shah of Iran. This manner of reasoning is pointing to the nature not so much of history than of politics. Machiavelli was not an historian and did not pretend to be one. What he was doing with history is of a different kind.

Indeed, he is attempting to shape the affects of Lorenzo de Medici the second to help him avoiding some mistakes that would lead his reign to a catastrophe. That is the way through which, pragmatically, Machiavelli is seeing history. History, in other word, is, for him, a tool that is efficient to shape politically meaningful affects. And, as such, history can be useful to prevent political errors.

This is suggesting ways of using history to reshape the affects that are significant for politics which are love or, at least, respect and hate or, at least, disrespect. As I tried to show, there are ways to turn someone from respect to disrespect as with the case of Hollande) or, in the opposite way, from disrespect to respect. A political error can thus be analysed in terms of lack of historical culture. The historical culture, as Machiavelli means it, is a tool suitable to avoid political errors.

But is it possible to correct a political mistake with history and how does such a correction work? Most of the time, when one speaks about the use of history for political purposes, one has in mind the way through which one can learn things from the past by avoiding errors that were previously done.

For instance, in the financial crisis, in 2008, many commentators did suggest looking back at the Great Depression crisis of 1929 to avoid the mistakes that were then made. Policy makers claimed that they have “learned the lessons from the past”. Such examples can explain why people would act differently when similar circumstances arise. Of course, the circumstances are never exactly the same. Therefore, the historical relevance of a given reference will generally be subject to a critical evaluation. The American historian of economy Barry Eichengreen has shown convincingly, in a book on use and misuse of history, that although the lessons of 1929 have been taken into account, new errors were also made, presumably because the model of the 1929 crisis served too much as a basis for thinking about what should be decided[11]. This represent a conventional use of history in politics. It represents a part of what Machiavelli suggests when he turns to history. But only a part of it.

Machiavelli would indeed go one step farther in its investigation of the power of history and narration because he is not only concerned by right actions but also by affects. Could turning hatred into more pacific affects be achieved by history and by narration, as it should be expected if the analysis of Machiavelli turned out to be correct? I will give a single example showing how political affects, i.e. mainly hate and disrespect, can be modified through narration. A narration can therefore reshape affects and turn disrespect into respect.

To show this, I would like to narrate a story that took place in the XIXth century in the city of La Rochelle, on the Atlantic seaside in France. It shows the connections between narrating a story and triggering a change in the way affects are circulating. La Rochelle then harboured an important military place which was located right in the middle of the city. As it is usually the case for official buildings, one could find a national flag, thus a blue white and red flag, floating on the roof. A friend of the French historian Edgar Quinet who was living in the neighbourhood had an apartment the windows of which opened right in front of the flag in such a way that he was seeing the flag every time he was looking through its windows. He did not like this view because, he said, the flag has a military flavour he was disliking. Edgar Quinet told him the meaning of the flag, explaining that the French flag has its own history and meaning: his three colours, blue, white and red, were chosen to symbolized the people from Paris surrounding the king. Indeed, the colour of the king’s flag was the white, while the colour of the city of Paris is the blue and the red.

Once Edgar Quinet told the story to his friend, who was of Parisian origins, the feelings of the latter changed dramatically: “how nice, he said, I will love this flag now!” This is showing what narrating a story could do in political affects. Narrating a story is not something neutral which would only give information from the past. It is something that act in a much deeper fashion. It affects the way we are related to things. It should be noticed that it is not achieving this goal by preaching the goal it intends to reach but rather by exposing facts that are, in a sense, much more than simple facts. A story is made by the narration of facts, but it conveys affects (and effects) of political significance since it can turn hate into love.

This phenomenological analysis, provided by an historian, shows what can be achieved with the simple narration of an history. Narrating an history could, at a first sight, seem to be a very neutral process which deals with transmitting facts. But when one looks more phenomenologically at what is it at stake in narration and in the process of hearing a narration, one discovers that the it conveys the power to trigger new regimen of affects that can, in certain cases, make them useful to avoid political errors. Here, arguments and affects interact in such a way that they are tightly intertwined.



Since there are ways to shape political affects, it is still more important to distinguish political error from other kind of errors. Political affects can be efficiently changed by the narration of history, as I have tried to show. It means that beside history, there is another topic that deserve a close attention which the usage of history in politics. This should constitute a sub-discipline as such since it is an essential topic when it comes to political errors. In other terms, to investigate more thoroughly what a political error is, one should look carefully at how history is working when one listen to it.



Aristotle, The Politics, tr. en. T. Sinclair, Penguin classics, London, 1981.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, Fragments, Penguin classics, London, 2003.

Hirschman, Albert, Morality and the social sciences : a durable tension, in The essential Hirschman, ed. J. Adelman, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2013.

Hollande, François, Un président ne devrait pas dire ça…, avec G. Davet and F. Lhomme, Stock, Paris, 2016.

Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince, tr. en. T. Parks, Penguin classics, London, 2014.

Milani, Mohsen, The Making Of Iran’s Islamic Revolution: From Monarchy To Islamic Republic, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 2018.

Plato, The collected dialogues of Plato including letters, ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1982.

Schmitt, Carl, The concept of the political, tr. en. by G. Schwab, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007.

Strauss, Leo, Thoughts on Machiavelli, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014.



[1] Albert Hirschman, Morality and the social sciences: a durable tension in The essential Hirschman, ed. J. Adelman, Princeton University Press, 2013.

[2] Heraclitus of Ephesus, Fragments, fragment B89, Penguin classics, London, 2003.

[3] Plato, Meno, in The collected dialogues of Plato including letters, ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1982.

[4] Aristotle, The Politics, tr. en. T. Sinclair, Penguin classics, London, 1981.

[5] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, tr. en. T. Parks, Penguin classics, London, 2014.

[6] Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014.

[7] François Hollande, Un président ne devrait pas dire ça…, avec G. Davet and F. Lhomme, Stock, Paris, 2016.

[8] Carl Schmitt, The concept of the political, tr. en. by G. Schwab, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007.

[9] Mohsen Milani, The Making Of Iran’s Islamic Revolution: From Monarchy To Islamic Republic, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 2018.

[10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signes, Gallimard, Paris, 1960.

[11] Barry Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses-and Misuses-of History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014.

An introduction to the proceedings of the conference “‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’: The rhetoric of ‘othering’ from Aristotle to Frank Westerman”

Everyone who deals with the issue of polarization cannot but study the rhetorical tools available to politicians, theorists, political philosophers, journalists and media experts to construct the “Us vs. Them” dichotomy and apply it to public and everyday discourse.

The present issue hosts a number of papers on this topic that scholars from different countries   discussed in a research meeting at the University of Genova – Italy last November. The field of polarization, political rhetoric and discourse analysis had a long tradition of studies, from the classical Aristotelian Rhetoric to the rise of the New Rhetoric approach developed by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca in the late ‘50s, until the significant recent multidisciplinary researches.

In fact, a great number of works have been published in order to enlighten the evolution of democratic societies and the recent escalation of violence, focusing on the rhetoric as the art of influencing the thought and conduct of an audience and the ability to use language effectively.

Furthermore, in the last years, we have witnessed the rise of xenophobic political discourses, populist rhetoric and hate speech in European public space, and some scholars have lately focused their research on these themes. Ruth Wodak in The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean has paved the way for other studies that emphasize the degeneration of language and its socio-political impact, such as Mark Thompson’s Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics? and Benjamin Moffitt’s The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. However, it should be mentioned that social media offer to haters an invaluable tool, the consequences of which for democratic discourse have been highlighted in Cass Sunstein’s #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.

The European research team that has long devoted itself to the study of political feelings, as well as ideas, and of social cohesion in democratic societies has chosen to start discussing works and ideas of the Italian moral and political philosopher Flavio Baroncelli (1944-2007). Michael Karlsson gives an affectionate philosophical and personal portrait of him, deep and passionate. The portrait is completed by the witty philosophical dictionary à la Baroncelli reconstructed by Giorgio Baruchello.

Baroncelli in his most relevant book, Il razzismo è una gaffe (Racism is a blunder, 1996), analysed the possible social effects of the use and the misuse of political correctness, focusing on its performative efficiency. Today, after more than 20 years,  a lot of individuals, though scholars or not, believe that p.c. is a falsification of reality; that is necessary to use a simple, truthful and raw language since each correctness would be a limitation of free speech.

Moreover, in a global, hyper-connected society, everybody can insult and offend her/his political adversary or simple neighbours, more than ever when relying on social networks, without any visible responsibility.

Hate speech, divisive rhetoric, damnation of the Other, populism, friend-enemy distinction:  those patterns, and many more, are the issues discussed in these papers according to different points of view: philosophical, political, sociological and anthropological dealing and, what is more, with both synchronic and diachronic perspectives.

The starting point is the process of the construction of the Othering, a typical issue of Anthropology. Marco Aime (The Other) tells us that producing the other, the stranger, is an essential step in the definition of ourselves, at least in the definition of what we would like to be or to look like. Having an enemy is important for defining our identity. Besides, discrimination cannot be disabled if we replace racial differences with a sort of “naturalized” cultural difference and we consider culture as an essential entity. In order to overcome discrimination we have to accept that cultures and identities are mobile and changeable.

Changing and the psychological reactions to metamorphoses are the issues of Pascal Nouvel (The changing feeling of Otherness). In his paper, he choose to express the nature and challenge of the change examining the feelings we prove during the process we are involved into.

The question is particularly significant if the changes are involving our identities. Indeed, the plasticity of identities is at the core of any change and especially of those which involve mixing people of various origins.  Nouvel face this task by   examining Frank Westerman’s book El negro and me, “because it describes very vividly a large array of feelings that persons can experience from each other when a change in their vicinity occurs”.

A particular divisive polarization concerns the theme of religious faith, of churches and their believers. Philosophers and theologians has often found the theoretical solution to conflicts in the concept and practice of tolerance. Daniele Rolando (Conversion and Inclusiveness) compares the current notion of religious freedom or freedom of conscience with the current notion of tolerance. His aim is to prove that this connection is far from being plain and easy-to-use. By an accurate analysis of the different answers offered in contemporary moral and political philosophy to the tolerance question, Rolando concludes that the setting given by F. Baroncelli, and namely his idea of an “indifferent” tolerance, is the best way to set it correctly.

In counterpoint, Paola de Cuzzani (Political cohesion, Friendship and Hostility) discusses the return to friendship in current political thinking, communitarian as well as liberal: can friendship be the emotional foundation of social-political cohesion in a modern state? From the radical normative approach to civil friendship proposed by Saint Just to the Carl Schmitt’s emphasis on the friend/enemy divide, rather than proposing other emotional relationships for uniting and directing a political community, de Cuzzani proposes a “Spinozian turn” to fight back the “sad political passions”.

Certainly opposed to the dichotomous vision friend-enemy is the perspective taken into account by Franco Manti (Diversity, Otherness and the Politics of Recognition) from F. Baroncelli’s essay on “Recognition and its sophistry”: the focus is the reflection about otherness, the incommensurability of cultures, their translatability and their being open systems. In fact, we read a critique of communitarian positions based on the idea of plural and mobile individual and cultural identities. The recognition should primarily concern what unites us, just like our belonging to the same species and being inhabitants of the Planet, and, at the same time, in taking on the challenge of cultural otherness. Manti deduces the need for a planetary ethics, founded the non-reducibility of the part to the whole and of the individual to the community.

Polarization in political thinking and attitudes is discussed by Alberto Giordano in Us and Them the Logic of Othering from Pink Floyd to Populist. Giordano offers, at first, a concise sketch of the development of the us/them divide in the realm of political theory since the 18th century to the first half of the 20th.  He goes on, then, in highlighting the changes undergone by the same dichotomy within populist ideology and discourse, focusing on three discursive patterns which marks contemporary political communication.

In turn, a brief speech by Marianna Mancini compares the intellectual and communicative tools shared by different blends of populism in the cultural and political area of ​​the French-speaking world. In particular, the comparison between La France Insoumise and the Front National helps us in the understanding the plural nature of polarization and its likely fashions.

Throughout the debate, the important role of the media and in particular of social media in the construction of the us / them divide was not neglected. Micol Burighel tries to discuss the idea that group polarization is a dangerous phenomenon developing in democratic societies. This mechanism leads to strong fragmentation on political and social issues and, in certain cases, to extremism and fanaticism. Nevertheless, how much did Internet and social media shape group polarization? The answer is based on a review of the current state of the art, referring particularly to Cass Sunstein’s works.

At last, Mirella Pasini questions the possibility of a non-exclusive us / them divide, discussing the Reports of the American Immigration Commission (Washington 1911).

The us/them polarization in public discourse is not really a contemporary phenomenon: just think of Aristotle and oi barbaroi (the barbarians). Today, however, it is close to  racist approach, as van Dijk says, like never before. His ideological discourse analysis is useful to clarify the connection between polarization and racism, through the analysis of a particular case-study, i.e. the construction of prejudice and stereotype about the Southern Italian “race” at the beginning of the 20th century in the USA. This past case is set by Pasini as a model to analyse the political and ordinary language of our time, in order to define a non-discriminatory approach to differences.

The Fourth Age of Political Communication: Democratic decay or the rise of phronetic political communication?


In the fourth season of the television-drama “House of Cards” digitization plays a vital role for the political communication with the public as well as the struggle between the political opponents involved in the presidential election campaign. “House of Cards” presents a rather dystopic scenario, where policy professionals help resourceful political actors to hijack and manipulate the public debate.

The role of policy professionals (lobbyist, public affairs consultants, communication and media advisers etc.) has become vital, in what have been called the fourth age of political communications (Blumer, 2013) (See table 2). An explosion of different digital media platforms, an overload of information, and communication in networks as a supplement to hierarchies characterize the fourth age. Both traditional mass media and social media are subjected to mediatization, and thereby become dominated by the logic of news media (Blach-Ørsten, 2016).

In the public sphere medialized political communication has become vital to the power play among different actors, and the agenda setting of policy professionals have transformed the public sphere into an arena for influence in itself. The result has been the emergence of a system of privileged pluralism among organized interests (Binderkrantz, Christiansen, & Pedersen, 2015). Today we have a mediatized form of democracy, where the state, organized interests and the fragmented public sphere interact and create channels of influence that mainly the privileged few among political actors benefits from.

Today the public sphere is highly fragmented in different, interconnected spheres of public awareness, media platforms, audiences, and agendas. It is an ecosystem, with niches inhabited by a broad range of more or less professionalized political organizations (Mazzoleni & Schulz, 1999). The ability to nurse your niche – or to create niche legitimacy, through social and mass media – is increasingly a challenge for political organization. Only the elite among political actors can be expected to have the resources to participate in the emerging data-driven form of political communication we see today. That may very well limit the amount of voices and views in the public debate to the professionalized and well-organized.

In general we know very little about the effects of the newest media development (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008: 716). There is a huge need to study how the mix of mediatization and digitization affect public debate and democracy. The purpose of the paper is partly to explore and discuss how mediatization and digitization becomes vital to and transforms the praxis of political communication – and partly to discuss how the stance of policy professionals is vital for creating an informed and democratic public debate. So the paper asks the following research question: How does the role of policy professionals become essential in the fourth age of political communication? And how can policy professionals play a constructive role in the creation of an informed public debate?

In the next section I will frame digitization, (policy) profession and mediatization as institutional logics (Friedland & Alford R., 1991; Thornton, Ocasio, & Lounsbury, 2012). Institutional logics is defined as “the socially constructed, historical patterns of cultural symbols and material practices, including assumptions, values, and beliefs” (See also Meyer & Hammerschmid, 2006; Reay & Hinings, 2009; Thornton et al., 2012: 2). Logics have a symbolic or ideational side as well as a material side, concerning praxis (Thornton et al., 2012). After the theory section I will present and critically discuss the characteristics of mediatization and digitization. Then I will discuss the role of policy professionals in the creation of a new form of political communication, which is shaped by practical wisdom and ethical orientation. A final section concludes.

Theory: Institutional logics

Contemporary, pluralistic societies can be described as consisting of “dependent but partly autonomous institutional spheres of thought and action” (Olsen, 2006: 16). These spheres are “partly supplementing and partly competing” (ibid: 17). These institutional spheres can also be described as different institutional logics operating at the macro level of society (Friedland & Alford R., 1991). But the logics can also be found at the meso and micro level of society. Here institutional logics focus the attention of actors “on particular features of the organizations” as well as the environment (Thornton et al., 2012: 18). In this way, institutional logics constitute the social identities and behavior of actors.

When macro-institutional settings transform due to the supplementation or competition between institutional logics, the change directly affects the performance of the actors inside organizations. Macro-logics are transformed to the meso- and micro-levels of organizations through new requests for accountability, shifts in market conditions, increased innovation pressure, or new demands for political control, new legislation, or new normative environments.

Institutional logics contain enough contradictions to conflict. In the field of political communication policy professional may oppose data driven campaigns to the extent data specialist would recommend. Especially praxis-oriented policy professionals would usually distrust algorithms and be skeptical towards formal method (Kahneman & Klein, 2009: 523). Data specialist may oppose mediatization, because more significant features like long time economic development much better predict voter behavior than the media hype created around current events and scandals.

These contradictions exist, but according to the institutional logics perspective contradictions is not the same as insuperable dichotomies. This means that the contradicting logics can also be combined or mixed in praxis (Pache & Santos, 2010). They can supplement each other.

Three different institutional logics are relevant in this paper (See table 1): The logic of mediatization, the logic of digitization and the logic of profession.

Table 1: Three institutional logics that shapes political communication

  Logic of mediatization Logic of digitization Logic of profession
Material praxis Communication – mass, network, mobile, online/offline Collecting data, surveillance, auditing, processing data through digital technology Interaction with leaders, citizens, peers, stakeholders
Symbolic praxis Aesthetics in drama, performance, framing. Futuristic, progress, upscaling Expertise, qualifications
Actor identities Journalists, editors, media advisors Data specialist, engineers, statistic specialist Professionals of praxis, experts, advisers, consultants
Source of identity Publish or perish, communication skills Natural science Association with quality of craft. Personal reputation
Type of system Communication system Digital, sensoric system Professional association, guild

While profession has a long history in Western countries (Friedland and Alford 1991), digitization and mediatization can be seen as rather new macro-institutional logics that constitutes the public sphere in modern society, due to historical and technological development.

Previously, in the premodern phase (1900-1960), the public sphere was dominated by a centralized party press (See table 2). Political elites communicated directly to a class-divided audience, who were seen as passive participants in the debate of the elites. Later on, in the modern phase (1960-1990) electronical mass media had their breakthrough to the broad national, but still passive audience. Organized interest groups gained more influence by direct participation in governmental decision making. In the post-modern phase (1990- ) party press has declined and increased competition among self-owned media enterprises and media organizations has emerged. A broad range of different political organizations participate in mediated communication: Private enterprises, local based interest groups, public organizations, unions, new political parties, think tanks etc. They are all inclined to engage in a mediatized form of political communication.

As an institutional logic mediatization evolves around personified politics, scandals, conflicts, dramatic events and infotainment (Strömbäck, 2008: 18). Mediatization not only influence politics, but also other forms of institutional macro-logics of modern society, like family, education, religion, etc. (Hjarvad 2016: 18). Mediatization can be viewed as as a partly independent institution of modern society, but also a distinct way of relating and communicating in highly modern societies (Hjarvad, 2016: 45). As such mediatization constitutes the public arena of interaction among different societal domains.

Today we may be standing on the brink of a new fourth age of political communication (Blumler 2013). An age still characterized by increased mediatization and professionalization, increased competition for attention and fragmentation of the public sphere (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008: 707). Furthermore, the fourth age is characterized by an explosion of different digital media platforms, an overload of information, and communication in networks as a supplement to hierarchies. Media platforms converge and become interconnected. Traditional mass media and social media are both expected to be subjected to mediatization (Ørsten 2016). But digitization also unfolds its own specific symbolic and materials forms of praxis. Symbolic praxis involves a rhetoric framing of digitization as progressive and as the road into a prosperous and upscaled future. Material praxis involved task like collecting data, surveillance and auditing.

In the next two sections the logics of mediatization and digitization will be outlined more thoroughly.

Table 2: Overview of the different phases of political communication development

Phase The public sphere Recipients Media Political actors State form
The premodern phase Centralized, party press Passive Newspapers, party press The elite, old political parties The nation state
The modern Phase two-step models emerge Passive Breakthrough of mass media, Still party press, state monopoly on electronic media Political parties, organized interests  groups The welfare state
The late modern phase Increased fragmentation, mediatization Passive, seen as an individualized citizen. Privatization of media, dying party press, increased professionalization Elites isolated in ‘Bermuda triangles’ increased professionalization The competition state
A fourth phase? Interactivity, continued fragmentation, mediatization, algorithms shape public awareness Increasingly active, but still individualized Stagnation of mass media, emergence of digital media. Everyone collects data The digital state

Mediatization and the distorted public debate

We live in a mediatized world. No part of society escape mediatization: politics, religion, private business, art, family life etc. When it comes to politics mediatization means that media and political actors have a tendency to favor huge events, polarized drama and personal conflicts. Events like political or administrative scandals would have a tendency to dominate political communication. Complicated stories are neglected, and in general attempts to create rational-critical debate suffer (Strömbäck 2008).

Mediatization means that media has become present everywhere in the administrative and political awareness of the modern state. Some bureaucrats see themselves as chased by the media from case to case or scandal to scandal. Civil servants are pressed to become whistleblowers and unwillingly sources for media stories (Smith, 2015: 71-72).

A range of scholars share this belief and argues that mediatization leads to less autonomy of political actors. Mediatization simply crowd out the logics of political debate and decision making. Strömback (2008) see mediatization as a logic that shapes politics on behalf of the power of politicians and the institutional logic of the state. According to Mazzoleni and Schulz (1999) mediatized politics is politics that has lost its autonomy and has become dependent on the mass media and are shaped by the mass media.

Seen from an institutional logics perspective, the outcome is somewhat different: Instead of crowding out state logic and political decision making, media logic and the political logic integrates – or become mixed. Different logics can very well conflict and crowd out each other, but they can also be combined and mixed. Hjarvad (2016:33) argues that mediatization contains two tendencies: First the independence of the media and creation of media as an institution – and secondly, the integration of the media in other spheres of society. Mediatization is both a macro- structure in the larger society, but also part of the internal structures of organizations. That means that the relations between media and other societal spheres are altered, while the conditions for communication and interaction in late modern societies are changed (ibid: 39). On the other hand mediatization not just changes other societal spheres. Media also adapts to the surrounding world, and other spheres become integrated in the media organizations (ibid: 49).

Actually, politicians can gain influence, if they adopt mediatization. Scandals are reported to be a driving force in the increased bureaucratization and centralization of the state. Scandals are used as a kind of change event, where politicians can decide and implement new bureaucratic standards and rules to prevent new scandals (J. S. Pedersen & Aagaard, 2015). Likewise, a limited amount of resourceful politicians are reported to be able to influence the public agenda with a limited set of subjects (Ørsten 2016: 211). The result is a centralized or rather elite form of public debate.

Not only bureaucrats and politicians use mediatization.  A range of huge, resourceful interest organizations does the same. Resourceful interest organizations are able to trade bits of news-worthy information with attention from the media. This means that the public sphere has become a distinct arena for caretaking of interest, side by side with the neo-cooperative decision making systems in modern governance, where interest organization participate in formal commissions and councils (Nielsen & Pedersen, 1989; O. K. Pedersen, 2006). In other words, mediatization has led to a state of privileged pluralism (Binderkrantz et al 2015).

Mediatization may not crowd-out political decision-making, but it may distort what we believe to be a democratic and informed public debate. Mediatization is often criticized for bringing along a trivialized form of public debate. Professionalized political communication can very well be approached as political marketing or branding (Marsh & Fawcett, 2011), where political actors engage in “permanent campaigns” in their attempt to conquer the public agenda (Bennett & Manheim, 2006: 228). But if political communication is just like selling soap powder, a mediatized form of public debate are deprived important value-orientation and information.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, mediatization tends to centralize the public debate on a smaller set of subjects, suppressing a broader and perhaps more vital public debate in the mass media as well as the social media. Getting attention becomes the hard currency among political actors. This means that mediatization changes the rules of the game, so to speak. Consequently, politicians and political actors must learn these new rules, it they want to obtain and maintain political influence. Those who do not have the resources to learn the rules – or even play the new game, can be expected to lose influence. So, political actors must at least be able to professionalize their political communication, if they what to be taken serious as players of the power game.

Also, as mentioned above, mediatization of social media seems to constitute the general belief that online political communication need to be structured along the lines of network. The networked form of mediatization is interactive. If you are online you are (in theory) able to communicate directly with even central decision makers. That means that political communication relations no longer consist of active communicators on the one side and passive audiences on the other side. The belief is that the audience becomes active communicators as well. That conceptualization may give us the impression that political communication also follows other structural features of network, like horizontal relations and power symmetry. Public affairs people often preach a similar kind of dialogue based relation to the broader society. They often do so to nurse a societal legitimacy of their organization (Merkelsen, 2007: 271). Public affairs consultants – and political actors in general – may preach interconnectedness, dialogue and interdependency with their constituencies through social media, but highly asymmetrical communication and power play will continuously be the correct characteristic of the political communication we see emerging. Power has always been and can still expect to be present everywhere in political communication. So, though the symbolic praxis of online mediatization draws on metaphors that may rime on increased democratization, the material praxis maintain asymmetrical power relations.

Digitization and the blindness to politics

Data specialist and statistic specialist constitute and are constituted by digitization as an institutional logic. Datasets, performance scoring, algorithms, evidence based analysis, and intelligent feedback systems materialize the logic in the field of political communication.

Digitization impact political communication in two ways: 1) In the growing use of data-mining the strategic planning of political communication – and 2) in the growing use of digital media in political communication.

Digitization provides ranking systems, based on score systems and self-reported data, data on quality, costs, effects, and user-satisfaction.  Digital media makes it possible to generate huge sets of data, especially when it comes to the habits and routines, likes and dislikes of the users of digital media. ‘Big data’ sets gathered through digital media can create almost online data on every part of the media production, on the quality of media content as well as the apparent efficiency of the communication. Digitization has made it possible to gather data on how political actors, like voters correlate with reactions to events like political statements, new laws etc.

This development opens up a whole range of opportunities for the strategic planning of political communication. Not only does the ‘permanent campaigns’ (Bennett & Manheim, 2006. 228) of political organizations increasingly become data-driven (Nickerson & Rogers, 2014). Since data makes it possible to compare the detailed preferences of very narrow targeted groups, or even individuals directly, digitization proponents believes that political communication can also become a lot more accountable and efficient. In other words, the big-data hype brings a promise of improved predictability. For example, the huge political parties in the United States bring in skillful analytics to predict voters behavior based on huge data sets (ibid). If political organization in general becomes able to store and data mine huge sets of data on habits, likes and dislikes, policy professionals may also be able to make trustworthy forecast on citizen’s attitudes towards policy ideas and future legislation. This improved predictability has the potential to restore the belief in linear effects in political communications.

But the gains cannot just be harvested by political organizations. Digitization creates a need for new capabilities. According to digitization proponent the technology is changing the framework conditions for policy professionals significantly. Policy professionals must now also be good at gathering data on media effects among target groups or purchase specified sets of data from media agencies. Policy professionals must also be good at using digitization strategically. The overall purpose is to improve media management and niche nursing.

Not only can the resourceful political organizations benefit. According to the digitization opponents the prize on algorithm-tools and dataset are expected to drop. So, if citizens embrace digitization, it can significantly subvert societal hierarchies; empower local based interests or even the single citizen. Every skilled and creative citizen can tap data, gain new insight and influence political communication (Whelan, 2012), through the interactivity of social media. Social media has significantly created new ways to communicate. The individual citizen is no longer dependent on strong ties to groups or collectives, like family or corporation, but is able to communicate more flexible and to exploit the weak ties that digital media gives access to (Hjarvad 2016: 53).


The benefits and promises of digitization are probably over-hyped. Though the prize on hardware, software and data-sets can be expected to drop over time, it may still be a very costly affair to actively pursue a digitization strategy in political communication. Adding to this, data-sets not always come in a neat and appropriate form, but are often messy. But the challenges and limits of digitization are even more profound.

Digitization makes it possible for political organizations to put numbers on their own activities. Those numbers can also be communicated externally to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public. In the public sector this mean that digitization becomes part of a mediatized game of distribution of resources. We already see this as a consequence of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) among public schools. The PISA test-results can be read as a ranking system among public schools based on the pupils performance. In a mediatized world organizations in extreme statistical position are always good news, though a complicated and not very news-worthy social situation may lie behind the numbers.

When it comes to digital media, digitization not only enables but also disables individuals in their communication. Digital media is built on and structured by pre-programmed algorithms that sets specific preferences and sustain digital interaction. Algorithms – rather than social awareness guide our choices, likes and dislikes on social media. Algorithms increasingly determine what we become aware of on the Internet. Algorithms sustain a networked type of mediatization, based on popularity, ranking, personal recommendations etc. (Hjarvad 2016: 53).

The limitation of numbers and algorithms can also be found in data-driven political campaigns. Though there may be clear advantages of using data in campaigns, data is also clearly limited: “Big data analytics may receive media attention, but its effectiveness is entirely reliant on the strength of more traditional aspect of the campaign. If a campaign does not have effective outreach to voters, then predictive analytics cannot solve that problem” (Nickerson & Rogers 2014:67).

There is a path dependency attached to digitization, based on the quest for an ideal world through quantifiable measures, formal methods and tangible elements. In consequence knowledge is seen as something that can be collected, stored and moved around in a database. This concept of knowledge bring along a belief and quest for causal predictability. It is a concept that thrives in the natural sciences, and it is familiar to the Aristotelian idea of episteme, where knowledge is seen as universal and generalized instead of context-bound and specific.

Because of these features there is a form of scientification attached to digitization, where the outcome of digitized organizations and societies is seen as hard based facts and evidence, which can hardly be debated in political terms. Similar, interpretations of big data correlations are often presented as scientific evidence for strong causality, though correlations aren’t the same as causality (Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2013). This scientification tends to eradicate political and ethical questions from public debate. Digitization may create consistency in counting, in surveillance, in auditing, in categorizing, but it is blind to simple, obvious questions like: Why count? Why surveil? Why popularize? Why categorize?

Discussion: Can policy professionals be the drivers of phronetic political communication?

Today, it is difficult to comprehend the public sphere as an integrated distinct societal sphere. The public sphere in the age of late modernity is highly fragmented in different, interconnected spheres of public awareness, media platforms, audiences, and agendas. As mentioned in the introduction, the public sphere is best described as an ecosystem, with niches inhabited by a broad range of more or less professionalized political organizations (Mazzoleni and Schulz 1999). The ability to nurse your niche – or to create niche legitimacy, through social and mass media – is increasingly a challenge for political organizations.

Political organizations become populated by policy professionals (Esmark, 2012: 162) in the attempt to handle niche nursing. Policy professionals are often highly educated persons with university degrees and/or yearlong expertise from national government administration or media organization. They are typically employed as communication or media advisors, ‘spin doctors’, editors, public relations or public affairs consultants, lobbyists, etc. – all recognized for their expertise in agenda setting and ‘niche nursing’. They know how to influence policy and decision makers and how to ‘sell’ policy solutions at the right time and place. They are expected to be able to deliver trustworthy facts to decision makers, and to create and nurse networks (Hegelund & Mose, 2014).

They may still not be recognized at the top level of their political organizations as a profession on their own terms, but mediatization clearly elevates awareness of policy professionals in the eyes of the top management of political organizations (Moss, McGrath, Tonge, & Harris, 2012: 58). In general, a profession is characterized by trust in expertise and the quality of crafts in skilled persons (See table 1). Trust is based on reputation maintained in a relational network of peers, associations, guilds or likewise (Thornton et al 2012). So, the judging of true skilled expertise is based on the history of successful outcomes as well as peer judgment. Experts are the ones that are recognized as experts in their profession as skilled at the highest level (Kahneman & Klein 2009: 519). That is also the case, when it comes to policy professionals in political communication.

Often we connect the work of policy professionals with the caretaking of the power interest of elites. Policy professionalism tends to be excluding and preserve political communication for the elite and detach it from the broader public. Likewise professionalized ‘niche nursing’ may have a tendency to fragment the public sphere. Policy professionals do not nurse the interest of the public, but of political organizations. As the ‘hired guns’ of elites policy professional may very well make compromises on behalf of a higher ethics that in the long run may undermine an informed and democratic public debate (See for example Tynell, 2014: 321).

Power will always be part of political communication, and policy professionals will always serve the interests of political organizations. But this is not necessarily bad for an informed, democratic public debate. Different political organizations have different – and in general legitimate interest in influencing the public agenda. To put it short: morally speaking – policy professionals can make news, but they cannot fake news.

But policy professionals can play a much more profound and important role. Inherent with the position of a genuine profession also come a more ethical orientation as well as a quest for value based wisdom. To take care of their role in legitimate ways policy professionals must obtain and display practical wisdom (phronesis). Practical wisdom takes account of the contextual circumstances, hereunder the distribution of power. As such it is not objective, but rather a value based form of knowledge, which comes to life as ad a habitual disposition, when actor tries “to do the right thing, at the right time and for the right reason” (Küpers & Pauleen, 2015 (online version): 494). Practical wisdom thus places the experiences of professionals at the centre of attention, and puts practical knowledge and practical ethics into focus (Flyvbjerg, 2006: 371; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 2011: 59). This is clearly an ideal. Professionals may have a tendency to put practical knowledge and ethics into focus. But there is of course no guarantee that such a tendency qualifies to be wisdom.

But the need for professional judgment based on practical wisdom may be rising. When the technological possibilities for data-driven communication are growing, data is no longer what is missing. Numbers and categories do not make much sense in themselves. What instead becomes a challenge is the ability to ask clever questions of how to create public and political value. Only human narratives can make data meaningful and are able to expose the data to human justification. In other words: political, governmental and professional mindsets and values become a challenge and a key-asset. So, professional judgment may be even more important than before, and here policy professionals have a key-role to play.

Of course this is easier said than done. McGrath et al (2010: 338) argue that policy professionals are subjected to a double legitimacy-relationship, called window-in/window out. This means that policy professionals must both obtain legitimacy in the eyes of their organizational leadership. On the other hand they must also gain legitimacy in the eyes of external stakeholders. Such legitimacy may not be public or address the common good, but it can very well be so, if citizens, clients or media organizations are among the stakeholders.

There may not always be a conflict between window in and window out legitimacy, but often there is, and it is the task of policy professionals to navigate and handle this. Ideally, their navigation will be based on a phronetic form of political communication. Phronetic political communication should be based on simple questions, such us: Who benefits from your actions? And who loses? How do your actions affect the common good? What are the democratic consequences of your actions?

Though policy professionals should take the driver seat to impose a more ethical form of political communication, they may still benefit a lot from digitization. Proponents of professionalism often argue that professionals can make intuitive judgments during uncertain conditions and time-pressure. Based on their training, often yearlong experience and an increase of tacit knowledge many policy professionals believe that they are able to extract cues from the political environment and make skilled, intuitive judgments.

Sometimes professionals may be right, and in complex situation predictions made by experienced professionals can clearly be better than predictions made by inexperienced professionals. But most often professional judgement is flawed and based on simple heuristics. Also policy professional’s assessments, prognoses, feedback mechanisms and learning abilities are often weak and based on heuristics. Lack of systematic approach and consistency are the spoilers of their ability to make intuitive expert judgment.  History and politics is simply too complex to predict (Kahnemann & Klein 2009: 520). So the problem for policy professionals is that high-validity environments – and consequently opportunities to learn – almost never exists in politics.

Furthermore, professionals, even skilled ones, have a tendency to stick to what they already know. In other words:  professionals are often path-dependent.  Actors tend to stick what they already know would work in one context, until they are no longer successful (Thornton et al 2012). Any form of intuitive judgment will likewise tend to be biased, since professionals will be guided by logic of appropriateness (March, 1991).  In environments loaded with low validity, algorithms will perform better than humans. In such situations algorithms are more likely to find the weakly valid cues that judgment can be made upon. Furthermore, algorithms will be more consistent that humans. Humans get distracted; algorithms don’t (Kahneman and Klein 2009: 523). The point made here is that digitization cannot replace humans in political communication, but it can very well help policy professionals to become wiser.


How does the role of policy professionals become essential in the fourth age of political communication? And how can policy professionals play a constructive role in the creation of an informed public debate?

Political communication is not just a front stage exercise in the form of marketing, framing and branding.  Politics has not disappeared from the public arenas or have been crowded out by mediatization and digitization. Instead, as institutional logics digitization and mediatization are mixed and combined with other and more mature institutional logics – such as the market, the state and the profession. Policy professionals are the key actors in this development. Policy professionals have the potential to enact the role of institutional entrepreneurs and mix the different logics. While such a mix may very well lead us into democratic decay, based on elitism and a more centralized public debate, it may also hold fruitful potentials for a more democratic and ethical type of political communication.

Digitization may very likely alter the role of policy professionals, from hallway lobbyist, spin doctor or communication adviser towards a form of screen professional that uses sophisticated data systems in their intuitive judgment.  Digitization can surely improve professional political communication, when it comes to a long range of standard procedures, such as oversight, surveillance and data collection. Policy professionals broadly recognize this. On the other hand digitization systems cannot be compassionate, dream or understand common sense. They cannot exercise practical wisdom or create political outreach in campaigns. That is why digitization can make mindsets and the awareness of human and cultural values a key-asset, and that is why policy professionals cannot replace direct dialogue with citizens, media and stakeholders with data-driven campaigning. The belief in data-driven political communication, where algorithms substitute humans runs the risk of “automation bias”. People tend to be passive and less vigilant when algorithms are in charge (Klein and Kahnemann 2009:524).


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Classical Political Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity – An alternative to the competition State

Our times have be characterized as a post-political age at the end of history[1], where all political ideologies are dead and economic prioritization according to utility-maximization in the neoliberal competition state has become the only purpose of political decisions. The citizen of modern welfare society has become a work and consumption man that is not interested in the common good of community, but only wants to satisfy individual and often opportunistic preferences. At the same time modernity is characterized by wars and catastrophes (Holocaust, Yugoslavia and more recently Iraq and Syria) where the desire of power by tyrants lead to great suffering and unhappiness. On this basis of this perplexity of politics, the conservative Jewish, German and American philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) proposes an interpretation of the causes of the crisis of modernity and argues that the only way in which we can reestablish social stability is to go back to classical political philosophy by Plato and Aristotle. In the following, I will introduce thought of Leo Strauss in order to show how we here can find a well-qualified concept of political conservativism. It is however clear, that this intellectual aristocratism is different from dominant conservative at the political right that also can be accused of having reduced politics to economics and utility maximization where focus is on promotion of personal privileges and interests rather than a concern for the common good in a strong political community.

A critique of radical conservatism

At the same time as he wants to distance himself from the contemporary conservative ideology, we can consider Strauss’ philosophy as a criticism of radical conservatism that in our time has resulted in Nazism and fascism. According to Strauss tyranny and totalitarianism, represent a disturbing consequence of the modern break-through of political thought by Machiavelli and Hobbes where politics is no longer concerned with the common good, but has become power politics in order to secure the privileges of the ruling tyrants and supporting classes.

This criticism of the radical conservatism is closely related to Strauss’ own lives. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish home in Hamburg and completed in 1922 his doctorate in a Neo-Kantian university environment. In the late 1920s, he was in Berlin and worked on a book about the Jewish philosopher Spinoza’s critique of religion. In this regard, began his political philosophy to take shape in a showdown with the famous Catholic-conservative constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt who, later for a short period (1934-35) was to become Hitler’s crown jurist and main ideologist. Schmitt had several times after Strauss-depth comments revised his work On the concept of the political.[2] At the same time, Schmitt helped paradoxically Strauss to escape from Nazism by making sure that he in 1932 was awarded a scholarship to first study in Paris and later in Cambridge. It was later the start of Strauss’ career in Anglo-Saxon political science where he after immigration to the United States, as a professor at the University of Chicago came to found a school of political philosophy. Moreover, he influenced several generations of American political scientists to be interested in the political philosophy classics instead of election research, “rational choice” theory and utilitarianism, disciplines that were on the top of the American political science. That Strauss’ influence is enormous proves an opinion of the philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who complained that the US Government had several employees who knew more about Plato and Aristotle, than they knew about empirical political science.

The dialogue between Strauss and Schmitt continued for some years after that Strauss had moved abroad. We can say that this discussion between the young unknown Jew and the famous Nazi law professor, who even stated that Strauss was the only one who really understood his philosophy,  shows how Strauss on the one hand shares Schmitt’s diagnosis of liberalism crisis, but at the same time will find another way out of this than Schmitt’s power politics. Schmitt defines the political as the choice of the enemy and, which accordingly, is the choice of the aim of one’s own life, because we have something to believe in. The political involves the permanent possibility of war. Schmitt sees liberalism in a Nietzschean perspective as a concept of the political which is doomed in a world where slaves have triumphed where people no longer have obligations and do not fight for their ideals and recognition, but simply are pursuing their own goals in a general nihilistic atmosphere. Schmitt was extremely concerned about the increasing fragmentation of the Weimar Republic’s social order as a threat to the state, because there was no empowered central body to ensure the political sovereignty of the state.

In fact, Thomas Hobbes’ notion that people let themselves subordinate the sovereign’s power to prevent the condition of unlimited war in the natural condition reflects a theoretical anti politics because he wants to avoid hostility by replacing the natural condition by a universal and homogenous state. Schmitt maintains instead that politics is defined by having enemies and he has no alternative to the liberal protection thinking other than power politics. He puts the permanent battle mode against Hobbes’ attempt to civilize the state of nature. This means, according to Strauss that Schmitt cannot avoid being a Nazi. For Carl Schmitt, the political legitimate sovereign is the one who has the strongest will and can seize the leadership position in society and thereby realize its set of core values based on the will and decision. For such a decisionistic political theology liberalism is the real enemy, because it dissolves religion and ideals of value pluralism and will not recognize politics as a struggle for absolute beliefs.[3]

Strauss puts his political philosophy up against Schmitt’s political theology. Unlike value-nihilism and power politics, he wants to go back to the perception of the political in the classic tradition of Plato and Aristotle as an alternative to liberalism’s dissolution of the concept of politics.

A Socratic quest for the best political regime

Strauss’ systematic position is hidden in a jumble of interpretations and comments to the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions in political philosophy. According to Strauss is a hermeneutics that aims to reconstruct the historical conditions of work a type of text explanation that is not true to the author’s message.[4] The consequence is that you do not get hold of the work’s real meaning, the esoteric saved opinion. There is always a political-philosophical text because the author has often been politically persecuted and therefore have not been able to present his or her opinion directly, but could only write for a select elite of smart aristocrats who in contrast to the vulgar mob could break through text’s surface and decipher its esoteric meaning.[5]

When Strauss defines interpretation doctrine as a reconstruction of the author’s original intention it is a problem, how he can avoid falling back into a subjectivist hermeneutics, where you will do the impossible by looking for the author’s psychology behind the work. This problem is solved by defining the author-intent as a meaningful whole in the work that can be deduced taking into account the esoteric terms of the production of the work. Meanwhile, Strauss’ position becomes an archeology in the sense that it comes to reconstruct the true message that has been forgotten by previous interpreters. The text of the past is a true mystery for the reader. The starting point of hermeneutics is ignorance, finality and interpret the certainty of their own prejudices, and thinking about past non-historicity must be understood on its own terms within the historical understanding of the text.[6]

Against this background Strauss defines the goal of political philosophy as to arrive at the proper nature of the case in relation to the whole. The starting point for reflection may be man’s participation and allegiance to the state. The understanding of man as a political animal comprehends the (city) state as a whole. To think politically is to think the “Politeia”, the “best regime” by fitting the nature of man in relation to the whole (The Whole). This concept of wholeness is not determined as a totality in the Hegelian sense and not as a definition of man as a part of the cosmos.[7] Strauss believes that it is wrong to understand the classic natural law and the Greek political thinking as based on the participation of man in a cosmic whole. Therefore, classical political philosophy cannot be accused of running an outdated cosmology. The whole does not imply a particular cosmological reference. Rather it should be interpreted as the logos that connects man and the state. But at the same time, to think the concept of a whole in Strauss’ political thinking seems to go beyond the concept of logos, because logos is often defined in the cosmology that political thinking rejects. Strauss emphasizes the phenomenological and pre-philosophical base that characterizes the classical political philosophy when it comes to describing the political phenomena as they appear in man’s everyday political reality.[8]

In this way, the concept of  the whole receives nature a basal function in Strauss’ view of politics. The concept of nature refers to the expression of the human soul and its relationship to the whole. The aim is to understand the policy limits and the difference between the best political regime and the here and now real possible state. The practical State of factual politics varies according to time and place. The form of the state depends on the particular circumstances and problematize whether there really is an Eidos for all states. The political reality of the state in practical political life means that the state’s idea is used differently in different states, so the notion of the best regime must be seen in relation to the particular circumstances of a specific political reality.

Thus, the philosophy of the best regime represents an alternative to historicism and power politics. The modern historicism argues that political regimes are nothing, but functions of ideological power relations and that there cannot exist an idea of the best state. Strauss believes that historicism is an expression of modernity’s oblivion of absolute values and that it nullifies itself because to assert that everything is historic in itself is a universal statement that require a trans-historical truth. Historicism contains an internal contradiction and therefore cannot counter Strauss’ project to find the good as the natural order of the best regime.[9]

To describe the political Eidos as the best regime also implies the abolition of the distinction between “facts” and “value”. The point is to show how political thought cannot work with this distinction and how the normative and descriptive are mixed in any theory of politics. Although Weber’s sociology, for example, can be value free, it is in itself a normative position to say that sociology should not have normative assumptions.[10] It is in itself a normative position to claim that sociology is value-free. Even science without values is based on values. Therefore, all political thought is normative science.[11]

Strauss illustrates the task of philosophy with reference to Plato’s cave image: philosophizing, it is to get from the darkness of the cave into the light of day, ie  the world of truth and cognition as opposed to the confused sense world in the cave.[12] In this way, Strauss’ philosophy is essentially a Platonic and Socratic mode of thinking. The separation between the state’s idea and the actual political reality remains a real possibility because the philosopher tend to seek world of ideas outside the cave, while the general state policy decisions are determined by rhetoric, power and subjective opinions. The truth about the political is obtained through the Socratic communication, a maieutic dialogue that modestly will rediscover the eternal ideas and philosophical realization of the political. Nevertheless, it is also facing the difficulty of realizing the political truth confronted with the variety of opinions in the actual political life.

The tension between City and Man

The basis of classical political thought is, according to Strauss the bond between man and the state and the notion that the state should be a good for man. It is also important to be aware of the limits in the relationship between man and state. In reality, the classical political philosophy shows that the ideal of the state’s perfect utopia can hardly be reconciled with human nature.

In his reading of Plato’s Republic Strauss shows how the philosophical man, despite the fact that he must be a philosopher-ruler in fact come into conflict with the state.[13] He would not be king, but would rather withdraw from the government to sacrifice himself for the wisdom and contemplation of the eternal ideas.[14] There is also no room for eroticism and poets in the ideal state and so the paradox is that the ideal state excludes what is very human and the humanness of humanity. Plato’s dialogue universe must be seen as an ironic and dialectical universe that juxtaposes different positions to emphasize the complexity of being.[15]

The ironic elements of the State in the Republic proves that the attempt to think the completely just, fair, ideal regime is contrary to human nature. This is because a state that is only conceivable after the idea of justice must isolate everything that is specifically human; Eros and poetry and also in the fact that the philosophers who are not interested in politics, but live for philosophical wisdom, suddenly have to rule in the ideal state. This original interpretation is in contrast to many modern interpretations of Plato’s philosophy.[16]

Plato is in many interpretations considered an authoritarian thinker that will make the philosophers to dictators and destroy the possibility of public opinion and democratic dialogue about the state’s future because philosophers are the only ones making the decisions. Therefore, the ideal state is changed into tyrannical totalitarianism. In addition, Plato was described by many interpretors as initiator of political idealism that had fatal and terrorist implications in modern society, for example in the form of Nazism, communism and fascism. Literally, the ideal state is also a representation of all the horrifying elements of utopia where citizens are sacrificed to state rationality and utility interests. The social classes are divided according to labor and natural capacity. Warriors, workers and merchants have each their function and philosophers then determines sovereignly, what is the best and most practical thing to do according to the idea of justice.

The irony of the fact that the regime envisaged by the idea of justice becomes an inhuman dictatorship shows that political philosophy cannot ignore human nature’s lack of perfection and arbitrariness by the historical situation. Strauss says that the Republic is the most profound analysis ever of the impossibility of political idealism and that the ideal state is impossible because it is contrary to the nature of the case and the whole.[17] The esoteric and ironic truth that lies behind the rhetorical game in Plato’s Republic is that a regime that is thought abstractly according to the idea of justice cannot overcome the fundamental tension between man and city. This tension between humans and the state, Eros and justice, philosophy and the real case of the political facticity continue to persist because the nature of facticity is not the same as the ideality of the world of ideas. Thinking about the best regime must not follow the idea of justice, but be balanced against the actual life of the state.

The ironic elements in Plato’s Republic are also illustrated in the course of development of the dialogue. The discussion about ideal justice begins with a critique of legal positivism, which claims that the righteous and just should be defined in terms of power, i.e., that the one who has the power decides what is fair. Socrates does not want to be involved in the dialogue, but is provoked to criticize this view, and he wants to show that justice as such is good, even though he does not yet know the content of the concept of justice. He then decides to drive the defense of the concept of justice ad absurdum in order to show the characteristics of the political. Later in the discussion of the guardians of the state, he points out the difference between the Eros and the idea of justice. In the ideal state, there is no room for eroticism and love, because sexuality is determined to serve the common good. The paradoxes of the State appear as follows: it should be the good and righteous state, it must be based on the absolute communism, but at the same time, the contingency and bodily existence is eliminated from the state, everything that characterizes the finite human nature.[18] Man in mainstream political life would by his very nature never be able to feel at home in the ideal state.

In this way, one should not interpret Plato’s Republic as a criticism of any political philosophy or as a defense of a political utopia. Instead, the book presents a description of the difficulties of thinking the best political regime, about the tension between the idea of justice and the concrete justice in relation to the whole, human nature and the state. The Socratic reflection can be considered as a reflection on the limits of the just state and the need to consider the justice in a realistic relation to human nature. However, according to Strauss there is implicitly in the Republic implied a different view of justice as the art that on the one hand, gives every citizen, what is good for him, and on the other hand, determines the common good of the state. The purpose of the good political regime is to shape a state that follows human needs and thus becomes a healthy and happy state. In this perspective, Eros, poetry and wisdom could also be present in the good political regime as the realization of justice in the relationship between historical facticity, human nature and the order of the whole.

The best regime and the political reality

A provision of the best political regime that realize the impossibility of utopia, is according to Strauss found in Plato’s Laws and Aristotle’s Politics. Here you will find the essence of the classical political thinking that is far removed from modern power politics and ideology. Plato’s  late dialogue Laws, where Socrates quite interestingly is not present, contains a vision of the best regime that is not based on abstract idealism, but is about how to solve specific practical problems in a state. In the dialogue a number of experienced state men are involved who must reach a common understanding about which laws the state should have. They do not justify the good state by virtue of a social contract as in the modern philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, but from the consideration of the best state in a natural law perspective. Practical sense and understanding of the good order, not inter-subjectivity, rights, equality or discursive rationality is the key element for ensuring the good laws.

The premise is that man only can be happy in the state, if he lives by what is natural and good for him, i.e. by the telos of virtues. Where the wise philosopher is placed as ruler of the utopian state, it is according to the classical natural law the most experienced, virtuous and best citizens who for the common good, and by force of law should govern in the actual state. The virtuous and good citizen appears as the one who cares for the state’s future. The good man is not just the good citizen, but the good citizen who govern in a good society.[19] To become a good and virtuous man, one must live in a good and orderly society.

The main characters of the Laws are the Athenian, Cleinias and McGillis, who in Crete  are discussing what would be the best and most virtuous laws at the same time as they try to understand the laws originating in human nature. The theme is not the tension between man and state, but the practical matter of a formulation of state laws here and now.[20] It is the stranger from Athens, who begins the discussion. He argues that experienced states men at a long day may well find the best laws for the state, and so they begin to ponder about the basis of the laws.

Because laws have divine origin, you might think that they have been justified by a cosmology, but the point is precisely that the Gods perfection is not human, and that laws should apply to the earthly life. Another interpretation is that the laws have their origin in logos. Yet another possibility would be that the laws are derived from the divine and ideal perfection, but at the same time humans are using the ideas in relation to the human reality. One must admit that the divine quest is part of the Platonic political thought and that Plato did not completely detach natural law from the divine reality, and that politics has a divine inspiration because it is important to realize virtue in society. Therefore, there is no conflict between the law and logos, reason and its dissemination in the actual state, even if the law on certain points depending on the situation goes beyond logos.

This view of natural law can be compared to Strauss’ analysis of the Jewish and Islamic philosophy by Farabi and Maimonides.[21] Here it is explicitly about a divine foundation of the law of human society, in which the philosopher has an important role to ensure the correct interpretation of the divine law. Although he takes the side of the Greek philosophy, for example, in his criticism of Carl Schmitt, Strauss believes that the theological-political problem about the law’s origin is extremely important. This is not to ignore the fact that religion is needed to hold together the state, and the state will collapse without a set of values as the foundation for social integration. Perhaps the philosophical prophet who interprets the divine law can function as an alternative to the tyrannical clergyman and thereby mediate between religion and philosophy to ensure that there will not be a complete questioning of the state’s Gods with potential disintegration as a result.[22]

After this discussion of the origin of the law, the question is who will govern in the actual state. Democracy is rejected because the mob does not have the experience and ability to take virtuous and right decisions. It is recommended that the city-state is ruled by a council of experienced wise men who take decisions based on the law, judgment and practical sense. Then is given an estimate of the city-state’s actual organization in the classic areas: Education, production, administration, sports, judiciary and election of judges. The rest of the Laws are about how to regulate these things and not on abstract political theory.[23]

Aristotle’s political philosophy in his Politics continues according to Strauss this project on the best political regime. Aristotle continues Plato’s analyzes by systematically comparing the constitutions of the various regimes in order to identify their advantages and disadvantages. Aristotle’s social science is at once ideal, hermeneutic and empirical.[24] Strauss says that for Aristotle, political philosophy is from the beginning the quest to find the best natural political order in any place and at any time.[25]

It is in a more modern perspective a question of finding the good life at the community level, to define what is good for a given factual political community. In this way, we must identify the community that is the best for the state’s population. Aristotle criticizes more explicitly the notion of an association of citizens in the ideal state. The State unity must not be absolute, and the policy should not include all areas of life. A state is defined in the Politics as a collection of citizens with a certain kind of constitution for a certain time at a certain place, and this means that citizens’ duties will change from state to state, from time to place. The ideal of the best regime is a series of links of friendship according to virtue, judgment and common sense to ensure the good life.

Aristotle also believes that the aristocracy, where it is the best, the most experienced and the wisest who rules, as opposed to democracy, oligarchy and tyranny is the best form of government. It is not whether you are a Democrat or non-Democrat that is the focus of Plato’s, Aristotle’s (and Strauss’) concepts of the best political regime. It is rather about safeguarding the best decisions in a given political order, and here one cannot escape the fact that a democratic majority rule tends to result in loss of practical reason, because it no longer is the best that rules for experience and wisdom, but instead the mediocre. Aristotle criticizes democracy as a state where everyone is made equal, although they are very different in virtue and character. On the other hand, there can be traced an egalitarian aspect of Aristotle’s thinking in the sense that the people who govern in the aristocratic state are equal and free. The government of the wise and experienced politicians can be seen as a limited democracy that can be translated into oligarchy or representative democracy, where the best people in society with practical wisdom discusses the state’s goals and future. This virtuous aristocratic equality is not the same as exists in democratic demagoguery, diversity and mediocrity, because we are talking about the best citizens who are above average in experience, virtue and judgment abilities.

Practical wisdom and political judgment

The question of virtue and justice is developed especially in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle describes judgment and practical wisdom, which are the core concepts of classical political philosophy.[26] The purpose of the Aristotelian ethics is to think about the practical wisdom to form the elites who must be able to reign in the Greek city-state. For Aristotle, man is essentially a political animal, and he gives the practical wisdom great importance to the training of the aristocratic citizen. The aristocrat replaces philosopher-king of Plato, who in reality stands on the border of the state, because he would rather search the philosophical wisdom. And here the philosophical wisdom is on the contrary integrated in the good regents practical sense.

Aristotle discusses the Nicomachean Ethics the way to the good life, both individually and in society: justice, virtues and love of wisdom are pillars of happiness and the objective of the ethics and politics. Happiness is to live with each other in friendship in the just and the good state by the virtues throughout life. A distinction is made between the intellectual and practical virtues; wisdom, intelligence and practical sense towards moderation, temperance, courage and justice, virtue, practiced through the good and righteous deeds. Virtues as “Standards of Excellence” are realized through the experienced dispositions to act in a certain way. As virtue of deliberation, the practical wisdom is at once theoretical and practical. It must ensure the right action in the center between the city-state custom and culture, ideal justice principles and happiness.

The practical wisdom is about how to use a general principle in relation to the particular situation. Therefore, the practical wisdom must be thought of as an art because it deals with the arbitrary and contingent and not in relation to what is necessary as wisdom, science and intelligence. The good construction and the common sense of the good man is the political action art because it comes to applying the general principles of happiness in relation to the particular conditions. The Good Man follows the golden middle way virtue that implies always to find the right center relative to the extremes in a situation. In every situation the middle is different and virtue is reflected in the way the common sense is choosing the right center. In the practical reflection, the subject submits the will of reason to the detection of the right middle of the action, and the good man chooses from this experience center, the middle, and the virtue of moderation.[27]

Justice is understood not only as an idea of man, but as a virtue of action. It is applied directly in relation to the situation of action. As virtue justice is both proportional and egalitarian. You cannot treat unequal people and situations in an equal way. One should, for example, find the proper relationship between children and adults in order to understand justice. This fairness opinion of justice is based, as in Plato, on the fact that there are different justice spheres of society in law, economics, medicine, etc. Here, justice and equality are defined in relation to the natural order of things in that particular sphere, for example, the definition of the distribution of goods is not the same on the hospital as on the free market, and it is not the same goods to be distributed. It is the judge’s job with judgment to find the right middle between the parties involved, and he practices the practical reason and virtue as part of justice. He seeks the proper distribution of wealth from the right proportion and balance conditions to avoid too much and too little. This ensures the good laws of the State, based on the friendship between the virtuous people, a friendship that also applies to the political life and goes beyond the life as a citizen.

Also by Aristotle, one can detect the tension between man and state. Man transcends the state and seeks true happiness in the contemplation of the world of ideas and the intellectual virtues are more important than the practical life of politics.[28] Strauss emphasizes the contradiction between theory and practice in the state as an expression of man’s dual nature. The ethical and political life is pointing beyond itself to the intellectual wisdom. Strauss says that political life is a life in the cave, separated from the life of light of cognition where you know the world of ideas.[29]

The crisis of modernity and classical political philosophy

Based on this analysis of classical political philosophy, the question is how Strauss can make an offer for the solution of the crisis of modernity without falling into flat liberalism or radical conservatism. As I said, modernity crisis is primarily a loss of practical reason because the thinkers of modernity in different waves have more and more rejected the practical wisdom as the basis of political thinking.[30] This crisis of knowledge has led to historicism and positivism in the sciences, which appears as modernity’s two main philosophies. Martin Heidegger’s adherence to Nazism, but also as already demonstrated Carl Schmitt’s political philosophy illustrates this loss of reason in modern political philosophy.

The crisis of modernity is also a cultural and educational crisis.[31] The modern society has forgotten the virtues and classical culture as the real basis for training and shaping of the citizen to the state. The secularized modernity, described by Max Weber, with different value perceptions and different subjectivist conceptions of the good life has made it difficult to talk about a common good life as a guideline for state policy. The individual freedom is in contrast to the common good, and people do no longer respect the virtues of the classical political philosophy and natural law, but put an equality and rights philosophy against the notion of the common good.

It is against this background the big problem, how to avoid tyranny and the totalitarian regime and at the same time how to find the good regime of today’s society. By going back to the classical political philosophy Strauss finds an argument against tyranny. He analyzes Xenophanes’ dialogue Heiron as an attempt to show how tyranny is not an appropriate regime, because it is not a regime that can make people happy.[32] This dialogue between a tyrant and a poet shows that every tyrant will be appreciated by the people, but cannot be the because of his status as a tyrant. Even the tyrant is therefore happy in tyranny. The analysis is based on the question of happiness and the good life and on this basis it shows, that tyranny is a bad regime.

Should we thus draw some implications of Strauss’s political philosophy for today’s practical politics and political practices, it must primarily be made up with the widespread notion of politics as a power struggle and a party political dogfight. Also in today’s political life, we must let our actions and opinions be guided by concern for the common good (Res Publica) and the formation of the best state (Politeia) instead of just wanting to secure its own short-sighted personal or partisan interests. Politics should not be seen as a confrontation of subjective positions where everything can be a basis for negotiation and it should be maintained there could always be a rational and virtuous decision in the political process. It is important to see reason and philosophical reflection as a basis for political decisions, as the best way to ensure the common good.

The reason for the crisis of the modern liberal democracy is also linked to the ideology of equality, where the political culture forgets the difference between the wise, virtuous and the vulgar. In many cases, it is the vulgar and tyrannical, who follow their own interests, rather than the wise, who are in power. To avoid this we need recognition of the virtuous elites as the best rulers. The importance of the liberal constitutional democracy is not the democratic process as such, but that those who govern take the best decisions. The elite is the experienced, sensible politician that stands in contrast to the impulsive, charismatic tyrant.[33]

A minister and a governor should be a person who you can trust and admire for his practical sense. One must be able to trust the minister’s judgment and experience as decision-maker. This ruler type stands in contrast to the vulgar fool who has bartered his post to promote its own interests.

It is also about rediscovering and recognizing citizen virtue as an essential feature of a functioning democracy. Here the individual citizen not just follow their own interests but takes his responsibilities and his obligations to the community very seriously in a commitment for the common good.

Unlike many modern political ideologies that considers everything to be politics – included Carl Schmitt’s radical conservatism that tend to assert that man lives only authentic in the political state of emergency – Strauss’ philosophy includes an important definition of the limits of politics, which also can be applied to modern society. One never becomes a whole person if they do not live outside of public life with his friends in the erotic relationship, in the joy of the theoretical virtues, philosophy and literature. And this private life is also not possible without the good state and this is why the responsible and committed participation in public life must never be forgotten.

To reintroduce the notion of the best regime is a reaction against the reduction of politics to the economy and to the struggle to get the biggest slice of the pie. Instead, the political consideration, deliberation and action must be guided by a philosophical reason and conviction, based on an understanding of society and the whole of humanity. For example, social welfare, education and health cannot just build the economy, but implies a view of humanity and a vision of the citizen’s role in the good political regime.

At the same time, politics must fundamentally have a communitarian starting point where one requires cohesion between citizens and the state and consider the willingness to ensure that cohesion as policy basis. In contrast to other communitarians, emphasizing tradition and the importance of culture in the community,[34] Strauss highlights as shown philosophical reflection on the good life and trans-historical truth in relation to the political life of the state as it characterizes a communitarian view of political philosophy. Therefore, every culture and tradition could include meeting with philosophy’s critical distinction between quality and non-quality.

The political conservatism must however emphasize religion and values as an important communitarian foundation of modern society that can prevent social disintegration. Although “the wise” have understood that certain values cannot be justified philosophically, and are afraid of Nietzsche’s nihilism that may in reality be the truth, they may not say it to the people, the ignorant and vulgar, who should preferably stay in their childhood belief in order to avoid disintegration of society. From the point of view of social utility religion, tradition and values are great importance to social integration – even if they cannot be justified philosophically.

Strauss’ philosophy implies that the modern state must not understand justice as abstract equality, but always in relation to a situation. The concept of spheres of justice is important to include in the understanding of the welfare state, where increased differentiation makes it difficult to apply the same measure of justice in different sectors of society. Justice must be measured in the right proportions according to the context.[35]

Distribution of goods happens in relation to the various concepts of equity in the different spheres of justice. And there is the possibility to develop a complex equality, in which each person is assigned goods with respect to his nature and needs. For example, we can mention special education, health care and honors or services for the virtuous and talented in society.

This is also a criticism of a realistic and positivistic legal understanding that considers law as a function of power and perceive any argument for a particular law as subjective and ideological. Instead, we must restore political judgment as central in the judicial and political decision-making. Judgement was expelled as unscientific by legal realism that wanted to ensure the scientific objectivity and application of rules. Instead, following Strauss we should make the decision guided by an understanding of the nature and wholeness. At the same time, there is need for expansion of the sources of law to better include philosophical beliefs, culture, custom and tradition. Judgement presupposes a truth about the individual case, its nature as it is the good politician’s and lawmaker’s task to bring this to light.

One way to retrain today’s citizen to have and exercise judgment, is the concept of “Liberal Education”,[36] which could address training in classical formation and introduction to the European cultural heritage as an integral part of the education system. At the university, this could for example mean that not only students at the faculty of humanities, but also lawyers, economists, doctors, scientists and future decision-makers got a broader cultural and educational formation. Such a “Bildung” would put them in a position to take more informed decisions, which would be rooted in a view of humanity and imply a conception of the common good. With this we could achieve a higher standard of virtue as the basis for a better society that might help to realize Strauss’ aristocratic ideals as an alternative to the contemporary competition state.




[1] Francis Fukuyama: The End of History and the Last Man, New York (1989).This is the book where Fukuyama argues that economic liberalism with the end of the cold war has led to the end of history has replaced the political war of ideologies in the struggle of universal history. Instead, liberal democracy has been the dominant ideology with no real alternative.

[3] Heinrich Meier: Die Lehre Carl Schmitts: Vier Kapitel zur Unterscheidung Politischer Theologie und Politischer Philosophie, Stuttgart, (1994): Verlag J.B.Metzler.

[4] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (1959), Chicago: Glencoe Press p. 143

[5] Ibid p. 25

[6] Leo Strauss: De la Tyrannie, (1954), Paris: Gallimard p. 46

[7] Ibid p. 4

[8] Ibid p. 24

[9] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 34.

[10] Ibid p. 50

[11] Ibid p. 23

[12] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. pp. 145-46.

[13] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 137

[14] Drew A. Hyland: “The Irony of Plato’s Republic”, Révue de Métaphysique et morale, Paris (1991): PUF. According to Hyland it is human nature that is the source of irony because the erotic in human nature is in tension with the world of ideas.

[15] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French Translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 161.

[16] A good example is Sir Karl Poppers critical Plato-interpretation in The Open Society and its enemies, London (1946): Routledge. Here Plato is characterized as the father of all totalitarianism.

[17] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French Translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 163.

[18] Ibid. p. 163

[19] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 126-139.

[20] Leo Strass: The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), Chicago: University of Chicago Press p. 42.

[21] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, Chicago (1959): Glencoe Press.

[22] In Socrates’ Apology this issue is discussed. The philosopher is persecuted by the state, because he will not accept its gods. According to Strauss, this is a modern problem. Nietzsche was persecuted because he pointed out that the gods do not exist. The lack of faith in the state’s values is serious because it ultimately leads to the dissolution of the state. Drury argues in this context that Strauss should be construed as a conservative who has discovered Nietzsche’s truth about the absence of God and morality in the state. The philosopher does not care. He does not see this as a political problem, but for the wise and experienced politician and a good man to govern the state this becomes a problem. He cannot tell the truth to the people, for it would lead to the dissolution of the state. It is therefore the hallmark of the conservative position that it from the point of view of social utilitarianism is very keen to keep religion as a basis for the state. Shada B. Drury: The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988), London: Macmillan.

[23] Leo Strass, The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), Chicago: University of Chicago Press p. 38.

[24] S. Salkever: “Aristotle’s Social Science” , Political Theory,  Vol 9, no. 4, (1987), New York: Sage Publications.

[25] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 28.

[26] Aristoteles, Den nikomakiske Etik, French translation, Tricot: Ethique à  Nicomaque, (1987), Paris: Vrin, p. 75.

[27] ibid s. 220.

[28] Malgan: “Aristotle and the Value of Political Participation”, Political Theory, Vol 18, no. 2.

[29] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 43.

[30] Leo Strauss: “ Three Waves of Modernity” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Ten Essays by Leo Strauss (1989): Detroit: Wayne State University Press p. 82.

[31] Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind (1987), New York: Touchstone. In this book continues Bloom Strauss’ project by making a cultural, critical, intellectual aristocracy analysis of American society, and Bloom considers how consumption-ideology, value nihilism and relativism has destroyed American intellectual life and university system.

[32] Leo Strauss, De la Tyrannie, Paris 1954: Gallimard.

[33] Here it seems that Strauss is inspired by Max Weber’s discussion of charismatic identity and the possibility of a plebiszitär-charismatic domination, where the good manager is opposed to the colorless bureaucrat who heads the government. Weber was worried about that the Weimar Republic because of its constitution could get such a leader. An example of where time is de Gaulle’s status as France’s president. See also Max Weber: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, Tubingen (1972): J.B.C Mohr., p. 141.

[34] Alistair MacIntyre: After Virtue, London (1981): Duckwood.

[35] Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice, New York 1983: Blackwell

[36] Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind (1987), New York: Touchstone.

Brendan Myers, Reclaiming Civilization: A case for optimism for the future of humanity. A Study of the Sacred, Part Three (Gatineau: Northwest Passage Books, 2016)

After addressing the phenomenon of the sacred from an individual (Loneliness and Revelation, 2010) and interpersonal perspective (Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear, 2012), Canadian philosopher, novelist, poet, gamer, trade unionist and neo-pagan acolyte Brendan Myers tackles it now from a socio-political perspective.

Continue reading Brendan Myers, Reclaiming Civilization: A case for optimism for the future of humanity. A Study of the Sacred, Part Three (Gatineau: Northwest Passage Books, 2016)

Politics as Soul Therapy

Daily, social-security-releated problems such as robberies, thefts, legitimate defenses or not, terrorist attacks, collapsing viaducts, etc. are said to have to be dealt with. We also  hear regular discussions about disorganization in hospitals (with episodes of malpractice) or in schools, immigration or the perception of “the other”, the one different from us, inconvenience in commuting and so on. Now, as any ordinary newscast is used to do, we introduce the political side by saying: “and now let’s move to politics”, as if politics was something completely different from what was said before. Different from environmental pollution, unemployment, lack of work or problems at work: different from the most delicate existential and ethical issues on the meaning of life and its end.

Nevertheless, as it often happens, it is precisely in the meaning of the term that the original and most authentically positive dimension is found: the term “Politics” comes from the Greek “Pólis”, “city”. Therefore, it implicitly alludes to “the government, the care, the caring and the preoccupation with the issues of the city” and by extension, to “the care, organization, and government of all areas and territorial bodies of coexistence (that includes localities, urban areas, cities, provinces, regions, nations, supranational realities)”.

For this reason, politics must be re-discovered in its original light, as a cure, here on earth, capable of restoring dignity, brightness and positivity to a dimension that too often is confused with its shadow: corruption, occult embezzlement, intrigue, profiteering and, or, with the support of political power: strategies – more or less legitimate – for the employment of top government bodies positions and public administration, exclusively motivated by party affiliation or with the party to which they belong as the sole reference factor, sometimes disregarding completely any meritocratic, competitive or individual ethical criterion; alliances between parties for the constitution of a parliament majority, the birth and disintegration of coalitions, the adoption or the derailing of legislative measures: the so-called ‘partitocracy’ (or party politics) and the connected phenomenon of partitocratic subdivision.

But politics isn’t necessarily power for power’s sake; not only this, indeed.

Politics is feminine, it is Soul, care, sensitivity, respect for plurality – of the different traditions, the different belonging, the individual stories – the plurality that the word “Politics” has in its root Poly (from the Greek Polius, “many”); it is rooted in many words, such as “polyfunctional”, “polycentric”, “polycultural”, always as an indication of plurality, diversity (of quality, not quantity) of what follows.

Politics as a cure for Anima Mundi, caring and concerning for the world in which we live, the local events as well as the national and international, inspired by the ancient idea of “Soul of the world” that connects everything.

In order to understand politics as the caring of the Anima Mundi[1] we are also solicited by the work of James Hillman, who in his “Politics of Beauty”[2] expresses himself as follows:


Where we are less able, what make us suffer more and in which we anesthetize ourselves, what we remove most – with earplugs, bolts, alcohol, electronics, hi-fi, coffee and shopping – is the world out there: Polis. We remove the psyche from the polis and we are unconscious to it: it’s the polis of the unconscious.

We have become hyper-conscious patients and analysts, very aware individuals, very subtly interiorized and very unconscious citizens… The world does not ask us to be believed in itself; the world just asks that we become aware of it, that we appreciate it and that we have attention and care for it.


Hillman emphasizes the importance of dealing with things concerning the external world with a psychological perspective, attention to detail and individuality; but not only  must we address to the so-called “inner world”, with its symbolic, semiotic and metaphorical language, as psychoanalysis has done too often in its history, a little bit guiltily since its birth[3], but rather turning with the prerogatives of this perspective to the exterior world, “real”, out there, the polis, the environment and the problems of coexistence.

And since this is the real field of politics, only by dealing with this can the citizens become more conscious; through it, the individual expresses himself and becomes a total being and the world becomes better.

A “psychoanalysis of the polis” seems to suggest Hillman (from these considerations came the idea and foundation of our Institute of Psychoanalysis of Politics, the first of its kind), where it is no longer just the individual and his inner world to be protagonists of the setting, but where “the world out there”, with its frantic and stressful rhythms, its ecological disasters (e.g. the invasion of microplastics in the seas and oceans, the persistence of an energy supply of activities still too much based on highly polluting fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, the main causes of global warming) and an urban environment made of artificial and polluting materials (concrete, asphalt, plastics, aluminum, efficient, functional and economical[4] as much as you want, but also very harmful for our physical and psychological health; materials that have deeply cut the healthy and vital relationship with the natural world made of wood, grass, green, trees, which in addition to casting us shadows, remove carbon dioxide to give us oxygen) becomes the protagonist of our experience.

The cornerstone of a pre-Socratic “Anima Mundi” idea returns.


The most important thing is that depression is a collective endemic disease and we feel it and think it’s just inside our brain. “In… my family, in my marriage, in my work, in my economy”… We have brought all this into a “me”. Instead, if there is an Anima Mundi, if there is a Soul of the World – and we are part of the Soul of the World – then what happens in the external Soul also happens to me and so I feel the extinction of the plants, animals, cultures, languages, customs, crafts, stories… They’re all disappearing. Of course, my soul necessarily feels a sensation of loss, of loneliness, of isolation, of mourning and nostalgia, and sadness too: it is the reflection in me of a matter of fact. And if I do not feel depressed, then I’m crazy! This is the real disease! I would be completely excluded from the reality of what is happening in the world, the ecological destruction.[5]


This is the reason why politics, also inspired by the fundamental Jungian conception of “collective unconscious” – the interview in which Jung himself declares that the “collective unconscious” is the idea that he considers perhaps most fruitful and that he feels most fond of -, can be seen as the alchemical art of healing, mixing, synthesizing the different principles (“Principia” as Paracelsus would say), Various ἀρχή, who find themselves acting, not infrequently in conflict and in reciprocal countertendency, in interior and individual life as well as in the events and situations of collective life. The motions, the mechanisms and the motives of the Soul and of physics are one, to know them as phenomena or noumena, interior or exterior, comes instead from different disciplinary perspectives, but they remain one thing only: knowledge of the Soul, Aletheia, Epistrophé.

Precisely for this reason and to realize this curative dimension of politics it becomes necessary also to know the mechanisms (and related failures) that regulate their life, to get an idea of what are the main “political psychopathologies” and possibly be able to identify some solution to answer therapeutically.

The first pathology probably resides in the disaffection with politics, in the emotional distance that is perceived with increasing evidence with respect to this dimension, seen more and more as “dirty”, the “psychic shadow” place of systematic deception and lying, where to become cleverer, even in defiance of every more ethically respectable rule of cohabitation, has become positive – to such perverse consequences led the “bad politics”! After all, the “good politics” was and still is paid at a high price, even with life itself, by those who become its interpreters.

This purulent rupture between subjectivity and politics, the art of dealing with the polis and the world, has produced the symptoms of electoral abstention – the percentage of citizens who vote and / or who trust in a party (emblematic, among many others, was the case of the latest regional elections in Emilia Romagna, where the percentage of voters was only 37.5% against the previous rounds that had seen a percentage of 70% and above; practically the last time voted half of those who usually went to the polls!).

This decline is not an isolated and occasional fruit, but has been repeated at all local and national administrative consultations in recent years; there is a progressive mistrust associated and coming from politics, a dimension of speaking without maintaining, of unreliability, irresponsibility, disloyalty – a progressive and very marked distancing of citizens from participatory processes, which is by no means casual; but strongly desired by the political class (leaders of parties, parliamentarians, regional and municipal councilors) who certainly do not want to question themselves in their role of representation and therefore do not intend to hazard a consultation of direct democracy (i.e. Referendum and Deliberative Assemblies, municipal or local, open to resident citizens and therefore not only consultative as the institute of the “debàt publique”), even with respect to the problems that affect citizens more directly and sentimentally, and that could be denied here, as well as in the positions taken, even in their role as protagonists in the press and mass media.

He who works in professional politics (in which, with the connected limit of two mandates, we would have nothing to object) does not want to lose the role and sinecures connected, it is understandable, but in doing so produces the negative, perverse, highly harmful symptoms mentioned above: the disaffection, the electoral absenteeism, the drastic decline in participation not only in decision-making processes, but also in active political life (in parties, movements, associations)… it is now understood that in these contexts those who make the voice bigger and bigger, he who has more ability to resist and be arrogant, aggressive and generally get also away with it… politics now is no longer, assuming it has ever been, a dimension for kind and sensitive souls.

The political framework, practically everywhere (even if in Italy we seem more apparent, but perhaps it is only because we live here), is based on a permanent conflict, “us or them”, where we are the citizens, spotless workers, honest and strenuous, but defeated (even to survive or live in dignity and they, “politicians or public administrators”, dishonest, shady, climbed to the bench with methods at least impervious, corrupt, “shadow incarnate”, object of every abject consideration already firstly, condemned even before any investigation as enriched unworthily and unfairly, economically as well as in the position and in social facilities, precisely by virtue of their status as politicians, elected to institutional positions).

This extremely purulent skirmish between “us and them”, between “beautiful and kind souls”, but impotent and “dirty souls, dirty, dishonest, liar and corrupt, hellish”, but powerful, is the cause of the most serious damage and poison in the social fabric, in the social cohesion and social coexistence: what is the polis if not a special and larger condominium?

The same duel, the harsh dyad, which is found in the permanent and vivid opposition between “Left” and “Right”, the two parts of the whole (psychologically the self = single part, party, against the Self = All, Self = State) that are in permanent conflict and skirmish, but that feed upon, or are the fruits of, a vision of politics as war, Polemos; actually, while psychiatry speaks of “bipolar disorder” as a disease to be treated, the politics of the second republic (second, not by chance, remember that the words “duality” and “duel” concearn and are directly derived from “Two”, the number of the conflict – in its positive meaning the Two translates into comparison, dialectics, ambivalence)  had even found in the so-called “bipolarism” or “bipolar system” (in the permanent and ideological opposition “right-of-cetre against center”, ample coalitions, containing anything and everything, and for this reason also a low coefficient of governability) the balm of good politics, that politics antithetical to consociationalism, to which in fact the first decades of republican life, especially since the eighties,  got us used to.

This permanent opposition becomes in political jargon that “crystallized opposition” to which we are now perniciously accustomed and that we mean, mistakenly, as a natural game, according to which, even if today we all see the sky clear, there will always be the part that plays the role of opposition that wants to differentiate forcefully – with a press note, through the spokesman on duty -, perhaps to say “if it’s clear, in two hours it will rain and it is the fault of the government”, or and even more, up to avoiding the obvious: “the sky is not clear”… so far we as know, the perceptual alteration capacity of a conflicting psyche arrives.

If a “situational opposition” is a right, prerogative and guarantee of democratic freedom and expression, the “permanent or crystallized opposition” is a pathology, the pathology of a war policy, inspired by the conflict, the sentence of the general and Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausevitz, according to whom war is nothing more than the continuation of political work by other means – and also vice versa, we are saying here – the symptom and product of the manichaean conflict between Good and Evil: perhaps an inevitable conflict in certain moments of life, but still a primordial conflict between the opposites.

The political vision as alchemy referred to above, aims to reconcile opposites in a framework that is not harmonic, certainly less based on the only taste of war and the acrimonious and permanent confrontation, dual, whose mechanism of “pendulum functionality”, years of center-left government, which are followed literally by years of center-right government, is sincerely banal and decidedly strenuous.

As a therapy to all this we propose to look at the Swiss political system, where the harmful mechanism of “crystallized opposition” does not exist, and it’s replaced by a special and higher level of political awareness, the result of centuries of direct democracy (i.e. Landsgemeinden, Referendum and popular petitions, all institutes that in Switzerland were born many centuries ago) that among other things has been able to produce the so-called “magic formula”, thanks to which for decades Switzerland has made the stability of government a characterizing element like in no other country (the Helvetic Confederation was also left unscathed by the two war conflicts world), where the parties of at least  a minimal representative parliamentary force, right and left, sit together around the same table of government, are in the same executive (not only together in parliament, that is, as it is conceived here by us) and where they dispute on individuals measures to be taken, but, precisely because of greater psychophysical proximity, standing next to the seats of government, much less harsh than commonplace among us.

The proximity in this sense is certainly a factor that reduces political tension; here instead it is often shaken by malevolent factors of personal confrontation between the leaders of the various political forces.

Also for this reason we propose to establish the new figure of the “Street Mayor”, equally as the first political-administrative reference for citizens – it would be up to that Mayor, with his/her office of collaborators, to interface with the departments and departments of the municipal administration, regional, national or otherwise, through its help and support; it is the office of the “mayor of the street” that then gives welcome and receives the new residents, who communicates the works needed to keep the road surfaces, sidewalks, the activation and maintenance of the underground services, the periodic cleaning of the roads (and any other communication necessary to the good management of street cohabitation); it is always this office that helps foreign citizens and the elderly in all the bureaucratic practices (definitively replacing the “Public Relations Offices”) and it would always be this office that becomes an essential point of reference for safety by setting up a voluntary service permanent, 24 hours a day (such as the voluntary service of public assistance, for example) of surveillance and vigilance of one’s own road that supports in a capillary, concrete and widespread way the task entrusted to the police.

Street therefore, the first reality just above the condominium and before the district and the district; these last realities perceptively already less identifiable by the citizens (perhaps Siena apart and as an exception, with its historical and always active “districts”); the street-path, as a basic administrative unit, much less large than the city, the provinces, the regions, the nations and the supranational realities like the European Union, which due to their large size are a sure factor of disaffection and detachment from politics.

The individual in these gigantic dimensions gets lost, becomes debased, is frustrated by the sense of loss of all decision-making power; he/she feels like a grain of sand on a beach, he/she feels he/she does not count for anything. Which, added to the feeling of the postal package serving the needs of the bureaucracy – and not vice versa, as it should be -, makes an explosive mixture of frustration, detachment, resentment, disaffection towards all political actors and towards politics itself, with consequent, very dangerous symptoms of non-participation, electoral abstention and populist indifference.

The psychopathologies of a harbinger  of “Gigantism” and “Titanism”, and not just the result of modern living stressed (stress has to do with the same etymology of the words  “stretch”, “fatigue”) and with anxiety, are curable, find therapies and remedy in the “small is beautiful”: the small size returns the politics to the beauty of attention to details, that Soul which being in the details makes beautiful, hospitable, functional and well-livable a place, a town, a city.

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, was literally in love with the stones of the streets of central Florence, as many are the sanpietrini of Rome and many others of the labyrinthine alleys of our small villages, of that architecture inspired by the beauty and the sacred of the our villages, the beautiful little villages of central Italy, with their intimate rhythms, the true soul of my country and the authentic cornestone of Italy.

These elements make the “Soul of Places”[6], a harmonious union with the Genius Loci and able, in a well-administered locality, to give us Salus.

Huge realities such as hypermarkets, the United States of America, China, Russia, the European Union that in a period of evident gigantism did not want to lag behind – we prefer, as we have said and written elsewhere, the structure of “European Confederation”[7], certainly more responsive to combining the autonomy and the sovereignty of the single European nations, each with a history often stretching back centuries, with the strength of a center of supranational coordination (perhaps on precise and circumscribed areas and subjects and for example not on the quotas imposed to each State in the production in agriculture and in the agri-food sector, and only for the fact that what we eat and drink more tends to rely on a zero km supply chain, the better it is for health, otherwise for goods and services not perishable and in virtue of their exclusive quality, even if they are free, reciprocal, even if regulated, their exchange and their production) – are the fruits and symptoms of this historical period of gigantism.

But in the eschatology of the Greek myth of which Hesiod speaks, the giants and titans in the end are defeated, defeated by the anthromorphous Deities led by Zeus.

The small and medium wins and will win; there are also famous episodes of sinking of giants’ gigantic ships – the most recent, the Concordia, on the Island of Giglio -: among all those of the two ships called “Titanic” (usually we remember only one, but two ships with this name were touched by the same fate). The arrogance of the titanic, after the initial boldness, or precisely for this, sooner or later sinks and finds its Nemesis.

To replace the gigantic of the politics of big numbers (Macro): impersonal, collective, herd instinct, distant, frustrating, irritating, harbinger of depression and a sense of impotence, a policy that is administered by many finally trained (id est politically educated), periodically renewed in their offices, street by street, always in contact and communicative and operative exchange: this is the commitment that awaits us.

Naturally without renouncing that globality of the movements, of the business, of the world as we know it and perceive it, but positively compensating this perception of globality (gigantic) with an administration of small realities, attentive to small things.

These things, these remedies, these therapies and even before this attitude of taking care the world, with its wonders and its resources, are doing politics in the noblest and most elevated sense, which is an improvement, a response akin to the “soul making” that Hillman told us about.

Here, together with the first and most important solution, that of a “guaranteed work” by law (such as that of free health care and accessible in emergency for all, as also provided by our constitution and now acquired in our culture; “guaranteed work” must become too a universal, acquired right which, among other things, would fully and finally achieve Article 1 of the Italian Constitution), reside fundamental ingredients of involvement and participation capable of effectively counteracting those symptoms of “depersonalization”, “anesthetization”, “annihilation” caused by the nefarious politics, all inspired and aimed at Gigantism, the gigantic, the macro. We said of a “guaranteed job”, offered as a social deal (if you did not find a job, the State will provide one to you among the services that the administration needs) and paid naturally only in a basic (eg. € 500 for ten, twelve, hours of weekly work, a sort of universal civil service that for young people, among other things, should be mandatory). Having more will always be possible, in a direct and proportional relationship to one’s “professional individuation” and work and social skills.

This fact, together with the gradual disappearance of cash, to the creation of the figure of the “financial tutor” (among the Municipalities or Banks, quite another thing, much more meritorious, noble and more difficult than the operation of “private bankers” who manage the assets already in place) that helps entrepreneurs, professionals and individuals to recover, in a guaranteed way, from situations of financial difficulty, together with the abolition of rejection in the various grades of school in the age of obligation (replaced by the stay at school in the months of June and July for the recovery in the subjects in which the preparation is considered insufficient by the teachers) – the fundamental and irreplaceable psychological point remains that one of the 1970s must always go to class (except in exceptional cases, such as, for example, anticipating by a year the beginning of the elementary school cycle) with those of the ‘70s, with his peers, without suffering in childhood or adolescence the trauma of rejection!

The rejection trauma should be reserved for the higher grades of the training path, such as the University.

These concrete solutions, based on the analysis of the political pathologies that we have reported above, return to the Politics the capital “P”, the nobility of the healing dimension for the Soul and for the bodies, the Lucidity and Luminosity of the Divine which is realized here in this precious and sacred scenario that is our Earth.



[1] Institute for Psychoanalysis of Politics [it] www.confederati.org

[2] James Hillman, “Politica della bellezza”, ed. Moretti e Vitali, Bergamo.

[3] James Hillman, Michael Ventura, “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – And the World’s Getting Worse”, 1992.

[4] It is now widely demonstrated and not only in that ecopsychological key to which we refer in the text, that an economy dissociated from ecological knowledge – and after all the two words “eco-nomy” and “eco-logy”, lett. “The administration (nomìa, from the Greek Nomos = Administer) of the environment (eco)” and “eco-logy, “the study (logìa) of the environment (eco)”, do not coincidentally have the same root – is harmful and in the devastating medium and long term. Here we see as the highest Politics, far-sighted, not short-sighted or idiotic (the Greeks identified with a word that translated brings the English “idiot” precisely those who cannot see beyond the immediate), makes a positive difference in the care health and well-being (even economic in the long run) of populations, places, cities

[5] James Hillman, interview with Silvia Ronchey.

[6] James Hillman, Carlo Truppi, “L’anima dei luoghi”, ed. Rizzoli.

[7] On the idea of “European Confederation” instead of “European Union” cfr. Daniele Cardelli www.confederati.org

The making and unmaking of political emotions with narratives


I will begin by formulating a series of questions that defines the problem of the nature of political emotions. I will then analyse the common point of all these questions. And this will lead me to a succinct historical review that goes back to the first identifiable thinkers who have elaborated useful distinctions and concepts and who, doing so, began to highlight what is at stake in the question of the making of political emotions. I will finally suggest that these moments could be synthetically encapsulated in the notion of political unconscious.

So, first, let me mention some strategic questions.

Some questions about the relationship between political emotions and narratives

Is there anything that links politics with emotions? This ontological question can then be continued by more pragmatical questions, such as: How can one compose, constitute, or shape a political emotion? And — this is where narratives come into play —: does narratives assume a role in such a shaping? If yes, what kind of role is it? Does the fact that we can be moved by stories, whatever they are, true or fictional, has anything to see with the shaping of emotions in politics? For instance, and more precisely, what is the role of narratives in the emotions that build up nations?

As one can easily see, there are some recurrent concepts in these various questions. Indeed, they are chiefly interrogating the relationship between three main concepts: affect (or emotion, or even possibly passion), narrative (or story, or even possibly discourse), and politics (including the political institutions that derives from it, including nations).

Discourses in democratic regimes

At least in democratic regimes, elections constitute a moment at which many discourses are pronounced by the candidates who incarnate the various political tendencies that would express themselves at this occasion. These discourses generally tend to trigger emotions in those who listen to them – positive and adherent emotions, the candidates generally wish –, sometimes with success, sometimes with only limited success, and sometimes, also, they end up triggering repulsive emotions instead.

These discourses are not dealing with politics in an academic sense. Rather, they are dealing with employment, with salaries, with insecurity, with taxes, with public services, and so on. More often than not, they also allude to the history of the nation (the main political institution that renders the confrontation of various discourses possible).

In 2022, a presidential election took place in France. During the campaign, some candidates were invoking the good old times in France, the « douce France de mon enfance », as a well known singer did put it, and they would then speak about the danger of Europe who tend to dislocate that good old France; others were also evoking Europe, but this time it was to underline the stability and security that it can offer. Some were worrying, others were wishing; some were afraid, others were confident; some were expecting better times with economy, others were announcing hard (and hot) times with climate, and so on. And all these feelings were expressed in their discourses, wrapped in narratives.

They were all pronouncing discourses in which narratives were supposed to explain the reasons of the choices they were trying to convince people to embrace. What is then so powerful in these narratives that makes candidates use them, whatever the opinion they are defending can be?

Let me begin to investigate this question by some brief historical return to those who first tried to elaborate a conceptual framework to investigate what is at stake there. These questions have been first discussed in historical contexts in which a national community was at risk to get desegregated, often as a consequence of the aggregation of another national community.

What is a nation? by Ernest Renan, 1882

It is in that sort of context that the french philosopher and historian Ernest Renan has written a text that he entitled What is a nation? The text is the published version of a conference that has been given by Renan in 1882, in La Sorbonne, in Paris[1]. It presents itself as a conceptual reflexion on the notion of nation. Renan examines a few possible answers to the question, as we will see.

We are eleven years after the victory of the Prussian army over the French troops of the Second Empire. Germany has reinforced its state’s fondations during that war against France and, as the winner, has annexed two french departments: Alsace and Lorraine. So, the question that lies behind Renan’s reflexion is: what is it that makes these territories french or german? More generally: what is the criterium that makes a part of a nation sticks to the other parts of the same nation? Renan does not mention explicitly this historical context. But it is, nevertheless, all too present in the background of its discourse and it is immediately understandable for its audience.

Renan is a very systematic scholar. He would examine all the possible answers he had in mind. Is it the race of the inhabitants, that builds the nation, he’ll asks. And he would answer no, giving examples showing that a nation is not defined by a race. Is it, then, the language spoken by the inhabitants? And its analysis leads again to a no (some countries, Switzerland for instance, constitute nations in the modern sense, even though one can find a plurality of languages spoken in the community that they constitute). Would it be the religion, then? Again, his response is: no (many countries hosts inhabitants of various religions). Finally, would it be geography (mountains, rivers and see borders)? And once again Renan’s response is no (the roman empire extended over many geographic barriers, for instance). He would conclude as follow:

I shall sum up all I’ve just said. Man is a slave neither of his race nor of his language, nor of his religion, nor of the course of rivers, nor of the shape of mountains.

So, what is it that makes the unity of a nation? What is the ingredient that builds the nation? Eliminating item after item all the possibilities, Renan would finally conclude that a nation is made of two things:

One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is the current consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to assert the heritage that we have received undivided. […] A nation is therefore a great solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that we have made and those that we are still ready to make. […] A great aggregation of men, sane in mind and warm in heart, creates a moral conscience which is called a nation.

What is striking in this determination of the nature of nation is that the answer encompasses all the dimensions of time: future, past, and present. Moreover, it puts the notion of « affect » at its very core: memories, feelings and desires which culminates in « heart and mind » that creates a moral conscience: this is what makes the nation.

The notion of narrative

The notions that were identified by Renan — memories looking to the past, feelings reacting to the present, and desires looking to the future — would be later discussed by scholars who would try to think them together with the help of the notion of « narrative ». Indeed, one of the striking properties of a narrative is its flexibility toward future, past and present. Narratives can turn to any of this dimension of time without stoping being a narrative.

The narratives on which a nation is based, i.e., the stories that explains where the nation comes from, the perils that it has faced in the past, the success it has finally encountered, the mistakes it has made, why it is in the state that can be presently observed and what it can become, constitute arguably the basic element of any nation. In fact, any group which can claim to have an existence, whether it is a nation, or a smaller group included in the nation, have a story of this kind that can be narrated. A story which defines the shape of its way of being and which is often call its identity, Renan would argue.

Thus, a careful reading of Renan already identified the central connection of affects, narratives, and politics. The ontology of a nation is the ontology of these political emotions sustained by narratives.

Relevance of the notion today

This link between the identity of a nation and the narratives that express it has turned to be a very important issue today, at a time at which we can see nationalism coming back as a backlash of the dissolution of the nationalities that has begun to be induced by globalization.

In such a context, the following question arises: does the concept of nation still have a future or is it a notion that is doomed to become obsolete, sooner or later? Thus, trying to conceptualize the notion of nation and to remind the steps through which it has been approached in the past is also a way to address this question.

Renan, a kind of star in the « fin de siècle » french academic system, however, was not proposing a neutral analysis. Quite the contrary: he stressed the importance of historical narratives among the members of a nation through an apparently conceptual analysis. But it is in order to better legitimate a form of nationalism that was widely shared by its audience.

For the American scholar Jill Lepore, Professor of history at Harvard University, a certain kind of national history, which can hardly be distinguished from myth, should be considered as what she calls « a symptom » of nationalism[2]. The simple fact of calling it a « symptom » indicates that the view on nationalism has turned to be critical.

According to Lepore, history has a « pharmakon » structure: it is necessary to build a nation (on that point she agrees with Renan), but it can also be dangerous because it can easily turn to be mythical. Narratives is what can trigger the affects that make a nation, but they can be also a poison if one do not distinguish myth and history, as nationalists are usually doing.

The power of narratives is of such a kind that when social media appeared, that makes narratives easier to circulate, a phenomenon did grow up coincidentally: the phenomenon of fake news. The fact that fake news does exists is a kind of proof of the power of narratives. It shows that, whether they are true or false, narratives can shape affects. In other terms, narratives are emotion building tools, and emotions, in turn, are political actions building tools. This is the reason why a narrative is a tool for manipulation and indoctrination as well as a tool to get in touch with the reality of a nation.

Thus, what is characteristic in the analysis proposed by Renan is that he is mixing what could be called a « national sentiment » and « historical facts ». He would write, for instance: « oblivion, and even historical error, are an essential factor in the creation of a nation ».

In other terms, the history he is speaking about is more a « roman national », a mixed structure which is intermediate between facts and fables, than the history in the sense of historians. It is constituted by a series of historically attested facts, but these facts have been ingeniously organized in such a way that they form a narrative that has a mythical structure in the sense that they can trigger political emotions. Thus, it seems that Renan has missed an important distinction, a distinction that, in fact, goes beyond the scope of his analysis.

Maurice Halbwachs and the collective memory

To make this distinction, Renan would have need to address the question directly through the entry of the notion of memory, not through the entry of the notion of nation.

That is exactly what Maurice Halbwachs would do, forty-three years later, in 1925, in the first book which poses the question of the nature of collective memory: Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire — the social frameworks of memory – and again, twenty five years later, in 1950, in his last book, published five years after its death: La mémoire collective[3]. There, he would propose a crucial distinction between memory and history which goes deeper through the problem than the distinction between myths and history. The distinction between memory and history is generally presented as seminal for the research field that appeared about two decades ago under the name « memory studies ».

Halbwachs belongs to the Durkheim’s school, but he also used to be a student of Bergson. This means that he has been influenced by the two radically opposed schools of philosophy of the time. Halbwachs made a fascinating mix of the subjectivism of Bergson and of the objectivism of Durkheim that culminates in its thesis on collective memory. As Ricœur would later put it:

The chapter 2 [of Collective memory], entitled « Individual memory and collective memory », is written from the beginning to the end at the first person and in an almost autobiographical style. The text basically says this: to remember, we need others.

Halbwachs was named professor of sociology in Strasbourg in 1919, then in La Sorbonne in 1937 and he was ultimately elected in the Collège de France in 1944, on a chair of « Collective Psychology » where he did not had time to make even its inaugural lecture since he was deported as the father of a resistant to Buchenwald where he died in 1945.

Memory and history

As soon as one turns attention to historical facts, the memory of a group can be different from what historians could tell about the sequence of events to which this memory refers, Halbwachs would notice. Accordingly, memory is a social fact which makes sense only in a given social group, while history is a sequence of events that have actually happened. Meditating on this difference, Halbwachs would elaborate a distinction between history and memory.

Both are referring to the past. But they are not functioning the same way. The past, as it is present in memory, is full of interests. It is mixed with passions and emotions in such a way that one cannot distinguish what comes from the events from what comes from the emotions that illuminate the reminiscences of it. The « lived » memory is thus opposed to the « objective » history.

One of the functions of memory is to participate to identity formation, a fonction which used to be attributed to the partly mythical aspect of the history, according to Renan, as we have seen. For Halbwachs, history deals strictly with the past while memory deals also with the needs and interests of the group and thus proceeds in a selective and reconstructive manner. The events that are remembered are those that correspond to the interests of the group.

Memory thus provides an accentuated version of the past, a version in which some events have been highlighted while others have been kept in shadows. This is what leads Halbwachs to write:

A remembrance is in very large measure a reconstruction of the past achieved with data borrowed from the present, a reconstruction prepared, furthermore, by reconstructions of earlier periods in which past images had already been altered.

In other terms, memory is a given point of view on history. Astrid Errl did notice that this constitute a kind of anticipation of what will be later called « the social construction of reality » by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in a famous book published in 1966[4].

The relevance of the distinction between memory and history

Before Halbwachs and his analysis (and even after, in fact), it was all too common to treat memory as if it was history or myth or a mixture of both. In public debates, in all these exchanges that make the concrete of politics, both are generally not distinguished. And it is even a hallmark of the memory that it does not feel any reason to maintain such a distinction. Memory does not consider itself as a point of view on history, but rather it does consider itself as truth.

Thus, the distinction between history and memory helps shedding light on what is at stake in what has been called « memory activism » by Carol Gluck[5]. A memory activist is someone who claims that there is a necessity to reshape memory by enlightening some events that has been too much forgotten, in its view. History is then considered as a field of events in which some are unfairly obscured while others are, not less unfairly, enlightened. The distinction between memory and history is thus implicitly present in memory activism, although it is not always conceptualized as such.

Halbwachs, with this distinction, points to the existence of interests that induces differences in the way various persons remember what has happened in the past. Proust, in Le temps retrouvé[6], already noticed this feature of memory at an individual level:

Even with equal memory, two people would not remember the same things from the same events. One will have paid little attention to a fact for which the other will remain deeply remorseful, and, on the other hand, he will have remembered as sympathetic a sign or a word that the other will have done without almost thinking about it.

This difference is true also for communities, Halbwachs would claim:

It is always individuals who remember, but each time as members of a group. Of this mass of common memories, which are connected to each other, the same events will not appear with the same intensity to each group.

The same things are not remembered by all communities, although it refers to the same piece of the past. Halbwachs went on so far as to speak about « the original society that each individual somehow forms with himself »[7] (in Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire).

Paul Ricœur and the rethinking of the difference between history and memory

Paul Ricoeur, in its last real book (he will then publish collections of lectures he gave here and there), published in 2000, L’histoire, la mémoire, l’oubli[8], went back to the distinction proposed by Halbwachs in the context of its analysis of collective memory.

By the way, the book Memory, history, forgetting is the point at which a connection can be made with the presidential elections in France since it has been won by someone who used to be, for a while, the assistant of Paul Ricœur and who is acknowledged for that at the very beginning of the book.

In this book, Ricœur would reformulate and rethink the opposition between history and memory. As a phenomenologist, he would propose to see this distinction as an example of the opposition between a positivist notion of history based on objective facts, on the one hand, and lived experience, that can be phenomenologically described, based on subjectivity of affects, on the other hand.

Accordingly, Ricœur would explain, one of the central problems of political philosophy is to understand how discourses become emotions and how they originate in emotions. In other terms, how they come from emotion and how they return to emotion. Ricoeur underlines what Husserl and Heidegger introduced in the debate by their radically new approach of time which is not without consequences on the way one can conceive history and memory.

And he would finally explain that opposing memory to history is certainly a precious beginning, but that it is, nevertheless, not intellectually satisfying. He would write:

The two preceding series of discussions suggest the same negative conclusion: Neither the sociology of collective memory nor the phenomenology of individual memory are successful in deriving from the position that they respectively hold the apparent equal legitimacy of two opposing thesis: the cohesion of consciousness of the ego, on the one hand, and the capacity, of collective entities to preserve and recall the common memories, on the other hand.

Thus, he would conclude, in a very ricœurian way (but when you are Ricœur, can you escape to be ricœurian?), with a proposition that intends to conciliate the two notions of history and memory. Such a move is now quite well known in french politics, possibly as a consequence of having as president someone who used to be an assisatnt of Ricœur, and it is sometimes even mocked as « la politique du en même temps », the politics of the « at the same time ». So here, Ricœur would have asked: what kind of concept could one propose that would account, at the same time, for memory and for history?

At this point, Ricœur would turn to the phenomenologist Alfred Schütz, a former student of Husserl, who developed a phenomenological sociology[9]. He would claim that this phenomenology does not separate individual and collective memory anymore, but rather it proposes to see a continuous range of attribution with a proximal pole (the personal pole) and a distant pole (the others or anonymous pole), and with, in the middle of the two, the relatives. Ricœur writes:

The originality of this phenomenology of shared memory [the one Schütz] lies mainly in the degrees of personalization and of anonymity between the poles of an authentic « I » and that of the « we », up to the « them others ».

Ricœur’s did thus substitute the opposition between memory and history, which organizes Halbwachs’ thought, with a different one, namely the opposition of personalized and anonymous memory. The move from one to the next is claimed to overcome the opposition that has been proposed by Halbwachs.

I’m not completely convinced that we obtain more intelligibility on the nature of the link between narratives, affects and politics when, instead of opposing memory to history, one prefers to oppose personalized to anonymous memory.

But Ricœur’s analysis, nevertheless, has the merit of identifying clearly the most conceptually important section of Halbwachs’ work: the chapter two of Collective memory is indeed an essential moment in its reasoning. As Ricœur mentioned, it is largely written in the first person. It is also largely based on a commentary on Stendhal’s autobiographical writings with which Halbwachs shows that memory begins to acquire a sense only when it comes to be intertwined with contents that is shared by others[10].

The most relevant point in the analysis of Ricœur, however, is that it shows that the concept of narrative has the particularity of being adaptable to both history and memory now redefined as personalized and anonymous memory, according to the analysis I just summed up. Narratives give access to both of them with no apparent difference in the form it takes, even though in so doing it gives access to the two different poles that organize history.


So if we look at the way through which the conception of the relationship between the three notions of affects, narratives an politics has been conceptualized all along the history of idea I just have recapitulated, we can identify three moments that one could call (1) the Renan’s moment, in which narratives are identified as being a part of the core notion of what makes a nation through the affects of belongings that they are prone to generate. Then, we can identify (2) the Halbwachs’ moment at which a distinction was made between history and memory. And finally (3) the Ricœur’s moment, which tries to define a position that would respect but also pretend to go beyond the distinction previously made by Halbwachs.

But what is common for these three thinkers is that what they have identified – whether they call it national affects, memory distinguished from history, or the en même temps analysis that is supposed to overcome the limits inherent to each of these concepts – always escapes the conscious vigilance of the actors. In other terms, whatever the process can be, it is, at least partly, unconscious.

Looking back at that piece of history of ideas, it can thus be useful to recall the notion of political unconscious that has been proposed by Frederic Jameson in a book published in 1981 which complete title is The political unconscious, narrative as a socially symbolic act[11]. The political unconscious, which, as any unconscious, is not directly accessible (hence the various theories it arouses), can harbor any of the conceptualization that has been proposed by the three authors I briefly reviewed.

Whatever version we retain, there is a common point that unite them: they are all assuming that a reminiscence of facts intertwined with affects, the structure of which is shaped by narratives, plays an essential role in politics. In other terms, the political unconscious, by contrast to the lacanian unconscious, is not structured like a language, but rather it is structured like a narrative.


Erll, Astrid, Memory in culture, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Gluck, Carol and Lowenhaupt-Tsing, Anna, Words in Motion : toward a global lexicon, Durham, Duke University Press, 2009.

Halwbachs, Maurice, Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire [1925].

Halwbachs, Maurice, La mémoire collective [1950], tr. en. L. A. Coser, On Collective Memory, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Jameson, F., The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2014.

Lepore, Jill, This america: the case for the nation, London, John Murray, 2019.

Proust, Marcel, À la recherche du temps perdu [1913-1927], tr. en. Scott-Moncrieff, C. K., Remembrance of things past, London, Penguin Books, 1983.

Renan, Ernest, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? [1882], tr. en. M. F. N. Giglioli, What is a nation?, New York, Columbia University Press, 2018.

Ricœur, Paul, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli [2000], tr. en. Blamey, K., Memory, history, forgetting, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Schutz, Alfred, Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt [1932], tr. en. Walsh, G., The Phemenology of the Social World, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1967.

Stendhal, La vie d’henry Brulard [199Ø], tr. en. Stewart, J., and Knight, B. C. J. G., The Life of Henry Brulard/the Autobiography of Stendhal, Chicago, University of Chicago, 1986.



[1] Renan, E., Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? [1882], tr. en. M. F. N. Giglioli, What is a nation?, New York, Columbia University Press, 2018.

[2] Lepore, J., This america: the case for the nation, London, John Murray, 2019.

[3] Halwbachs, M., Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire [1925], La mémoire collective [1950], tr. en. L. A. Coser, On Collective Memory, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

[4] Erll, A., Memory in culture, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

[5] Gluck, C. and Lowenhaupt-Tsing, A., Words in Motion : toward a global lexicon, Durham, Duke University Press, 2009.

[6] Proust, M., À la recherche du temps perdu [1913-1927], tr. en. Scott-Moncrieff, C. K., Remembrance of things past, London, Penguin Books, 1983)

[7] Halwbachs, M., Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire, op. cit.

[8] Ricœur, P., La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli [2000], tr. en. Blamey, K., Memory, history, forgetting, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009.

[9] Schutz, A., Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt [1932], tr. en. Walsh, G., The Phemenology of the Social World, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1967.

[10] Halwbachs specially relies on Stendhal, La vie d’henry Brulard [199Ø], tr. en. Stewart, J., and Knight, B. C. J. G., The Life of Henry Brulard/the Autobiography of Stendhal, Chicago, University of Chicago, 1986.

[11] Jameson, F., The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2014.

July 2020 – Issue 15(2)

This special issue of Nordicum-Mediterraneum contains the refined version of the papers presented at the conference on  reason and passion in politics, 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.

(Paola De Cuzzani & Mirella Pasini)

Emma Carmel, Katharina Lenner, Regine Paul (eds.), Handbook on the Governance and Politics of Migration (Cheltenham: E. Elgar, 2021)

The study of migration governance requires a global and interdisciplinary framework of analysis. The editors of the “Handbook of the Governance and Politics of Migration” bring together multifaceted perspectives to further understanding on how migration is governed and politicized today. This anthology is edited by Emma Carmel, an Associate Professors in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath, UK, Katharina Lenner, Assistant Professor at the same department, and Regine Paul who is an Associate Professor of Comparative Policy Studies at the University of Bergen, Norway. The book is divided into six sections comprising “Conceptualising the Politics and Governance of Migration”, “The Politics of Categorising Migration”, “Institutions and Regimes of Migration Governance”, “Spaces of Migration Governance”, “Processes and Practices of Migration Governance”, and “Contesting Migration Governance”.

The handbook situates migration governance within three dualisms: “conceptual framing and material expression”, “global scope and relational practice”, and “structured form and dynamic changeability” (Carmel et al. 2021: 3). With migration and mobility becoming increasingly complex phenomena, the handbook provides readers with a rich perspective on migration governance on a global scale. Migration movements today become increasingly screwed and the number of sending countries increasing and the number of receiving countries decreasing, which can, if looked at through the lens of the receiving country, can lead to the impression that there is a significant increase in migrants (Czaika & de Haas, 2022). By bringing in different perspectives and local contexts, the editors accomplish to provide a more nuances perspective on migration governance.

One of the key contributions of this handbook is a critical reflection on how terms used to describe migrants are conceptualized and by whom. Boas and Wiegel criticise the use of the term “climate refugees” in migration research, arguing that this term reinforces fearsome ideas of an incoming flood of refugees (Boas and Wiegel, 2021). Similarly, Blakewell argues for a reconceptualization of the boundaries between forced and voluntary migration (Blakewell, 2021), emphasizing that those categories are not clear cut and Vicky Squire discusses how ‘illegality’ is a produced condition “which emerges in contextually specific ways across various regions and states” (Squire, 2021: 144).

The self-reflexivity of the researchers must be positively emphasized. This is especially of a field such migration studies where the area of research is in constant flux. For example, in their chapters, Boas and Wiegel reflect on their own use of the term ‘climate migrant’ in previous work (Boas and Wiegel, 2021). This can pose an encouraging example for early career researchers, who are likely to read handbooks to familiarize themselves with the terminology. Incorporating such self-critical reflections thorough the handbook can encourage self-reflection and openness to changing terms and methodologies.

A limitation of this publication is that the editors claim repeatedly that they aim to “diversify research perspectives and empirical applications beyond ‘Northern’ academia, as well as research settings” (Carmel et al, 2021: 9). However, the editors and most authors are based at Western institutions. This is acknowledged in the introduction where the editors state “all our contributors take this as a central task, acknowledging the situatedness of their critique, in, mostly, the ‘global North’, and in particular social science disciplines” (Carmel et al, 2021: 9). This handbook, which aims to provide a global scope on migration governance, would be strengthened by actively including more voices from institutions outside of ‘Northern’ academia instead of merely acknowledging that this is important, but most contributors are situated in the ‘global North’. Perspectives from other institutions are not addressed in sufficient detail in this publication which could be a potential avenue for future publications to explore for the contributors.

Overall, this handbook is an interesting and well-structured read for those wanting to become acquainted with the field of migration theory. Both experienced researchers and students at the beginning of their journey in the field of migration studies and adjacent disciplines can benefit from this publication. The chapters of this book provide insightful reading material for introduction courses about migration governance or migration more general.

Francesco Giacomantonio, Sociologia dell’agire politico (Rome: Studium, 2014)


In his recently published Sociologia dell’agire politico (Sociology of Political Action) Francesco Giacomantonio focuses on the material and cultural conditions that are adversely affecting the possibility for effective political action, where the latter is broadly understood as “the set of all the activities that influence politics or have political repercussions” (16). Notwithstanding the book’s title, in fact, its main concern does not appear to be the study of political action itself, but rather a reflection on the nature and causes of its current crisis.

Giacomantonio understands the analysis undertaken in the book as an exercise in “theoretical sociology”, meaning by this that he does not engage directly with the sociological facts at stake, but tries instead to reconstruct the conceptual coordinates through which such phenomena can be understood and analysed. The central part of the book is devoted to the reconstruction of three leading paradigms that have had an enormous influence on the debate about the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies, as they are expounded in the works of Zygmunt Bauman, Jürgen Habermas and Slavoj Žižek.


Bauman’s account is presented by Giacomantonio as the most “apocalyptic” of the three; its dismal description of the “liquid society” cannot be redeemed by the counter-measures Bauman advocates, such as the appeal to personal responsibility and the re-establishment of a public agora, which appear to be vacuous and unfeasible. A more optimistic outlook, Giacomantonio points out, is the one proposed by Habermas. Even if Habermas insists on the depoliticization of the public sphere brought about by late capitalism and on the technocratic turn of the liberal state, his theory of democracy also points to the communicative resources that can still be mobilized in our societies. Giacomantonio also pauses to consider how Habermas tackles the challenge of multiculturalism and the role of religion in the public sphere. Žižek’s position, finally, is presented as a bold call for radical social change and the re-thinking of the very conceptual landscape on which our politics is taking place. Giacomantonio stresses the importance of Zizek’s reflection on the subject, his appeal to the re-politicization of the economic sphere, and his critique of the neo-liberal order.


In the final part of the book the author draws from the works of the authors discussed in the previous chapters in order to summarize the major sources of the crisis of political action in our societies. The main focus, here, is on the erosion of a shared social space, and of the common meanings and practices that are needed for individual action to have content and purpose, thus creating a world of “freedom without autonomy” (89). The erosion of a shared social space is connected to the privatization of the public sphere, which leaves individuals isolated, vulnerable, and voiceless, as public intellectuals are relinquishing their role and the leading cultural trends promote what Marcuse would have called a “closing of the universe of discourse” (94). Giacomantonio does not seem to have any ready solutions to this predicament; however, he suggests that a good starting point might consist in the rejection of radical individualism, by “freeing ourselves from egocentrism and utilitarianism” and learning “to be better rather than to have the best” (102). The closing pages of the book also remind us of the importance of imagination in politics, because only through imagination we can open the door to moral, cultural and social progress.


Giacomantonio’s reconstruction of the thought of Bauman’s, Hayek’s and Žižek is clear and accurate (only a couple of reservations might be raised, about the idea that Žižek can be taken as “last true heir” of the tradition of the Frankfurt School (84), and what I believe to be an overstatement of the role of religion in Habermas’s account of cohesion in contemporary societies (61-2)). Moreover, Giacomantonio’s choice of Habermas, Žižek and Bauman as guiding references for the critical analysis developed in the book is considered and fruitful; there is no doubt that these three authors deserve attention by whoever wants to reflect on the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies.


Still, Giacomantonio’s way of tackling the issue of political agency seems to be somehow off-target. His analysis throughout the book focuses on the social processes that are depriving members of contemporary societies of the psychological and social resources that are needed for individual action to be meaningful, effective and genuinely free. There is no doubt that the erosion of these preconditions for successful individual action is also affecting the chances for constructive political engagement. However, in democratic politics – and indeed, we might argue with Arendt and other eminent thinkers of our tradition, in any kind of politics – political action is always and essentially the product of joint or collective action, rather than individual action. The crisis of politics in our time concerns above all the constitution and the operation of collective political subjects, and focusing on the sociology of individual action, like Giacomantonio does, tends to obscure this important fact about the ontology and the sociology of politics.


Giacomantonio’s discussion, then, should be taken as a useful – indeed, necessary – preliminary analysis of the sociological conditions that we need to consider when thinking on the possibility of political action. The study of the modes and sources of present and future political action needs to come next, and should have in view collective action as an essential element of politics.

A note on the papers from the winter symposium of the Nordic Summer University held in Akureyri, Iceland, March, 1st-3rd 2013



Among the themes tackled at the symposium there was one that gained special prominence, namely the sociological study of contemporary ethics, given that different papers presented and discussed current sociological theories and empirical sociological work about practical ethical issues. This theme revolved in particular around the foundations of ethical values in today’s societies and focused upon some developments in Scandinavia, such as the Protestant ethics of the environment and the ethical challenges arising from ongoing scientific research.


Another important issue debated at the symposium was the foundation of the ethics of capitalism, in particular in relation to the current crisis of the global capitalist system. In this context we discussed the relation between ethics and economics and the possibility of developing an ethics of the common good in the capitalist system.


Further, the symposium included different papers on democracy and ethics within the context of critical political philosophy. This also extended to the debate about the relation between ethics, law and democracy, conceived from the perspective of different influential social and political philosophers.


Concerning the Arctic theme, the discussion focussed upon select aspects of the many environmental, ethical, political and legal issues facing the Arctic region today. We had in particular a discussion of the new Icelandic constitution and the challenges that Iceland faces as a member of the Arctic community.


In this special issue we have collected some of the papers from this wonderful meeting, which benefitted from intense and thought-provoking discussions. We hope that the reader will be able to feel the same enthusiasm as the participants did during the two days of presentations and discussions.

Joseph V. Femia and Alasdair J. Marshall (eds.), Vilfredo Pareto: Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries (Surrey, England and Burligton, USA: Ashgate, 2012)

The volume opens with a jewel introduction. It contextualizes Pareto historically and it offers the big pictures in which to fit all the pieces of Pareto’s intellectual production. Pareto was an engineer involved with the running the newly nationalized Italian railroad system, but his claim to fame is for his sociological work. He wrote hundreds of pamphlets calling for change, free trade, small government, and pacifism, all of which fell flat. And “his youthful idealism soon gave way to skepticism, even cynicism, about human potential” (p. 2) so that today he is best known for his theory of human rigidity and inflexibility which make the world fundamentally unchangeable. His mathematical training and skills made him a professor of economics at Lausanne University (1893-1900), but his discontent with the model of a rational homo economicus led to his interest in and research on human irrationalities. During a time in which disciplines fought to establish their boundaries, Pareto broke them and refused to be confined in any one. For him comprehension of the complexity of human behavior came from the complexity of a boundless knowledge.


The rest of the book reflects the introductory claims. The first chapter, “Pareto and the Elite”, by John Scott, describes the not always successful balance of an open definition of elite that Pareto offers us. This analysis smoothly continues in Chapter 2, “Talents and Obstacles: Pareto’s Morphological Schema and Contemporary Social Stratification” (Francois Nielsen). Pareto’s empiricism allows him to analyze data from across the world and across time and see patterns in the wealth elites. Wealth is not distributed normally, but more “like an arrow”. Regardless of time and place, income inequality seems to be a natural and inevitable pattern: 80 percent of income is distributed among 20 percent of the population. This 80-20 distribution seems to be a constant pattern in many natural phenomena, from elites to genes, not just income distribution. This raises a question, not raised by the author, but that any post-2011 reader may ask: does ‘Occupy Wall Street” know about Pareto? And assuming that by some miracle, Occupy Wall Street is successful in changing the distribution of wealth in rich societies, will it be a sustainable change? Or will we move back, inevitably, to the arrow-shaped income distribution that Pareto kept finding in his data? The inability of society to change, to be stuck with certain patterns or with certain equilibria becomes a major theme in Pareto’s thought. While some of his contemporary sociologists and political scientists would theorize beneficial changes in society, Pareto focuses on dysfunctional evolutions and sticky points where societies may be unable to get out of detrimental conditions. So Chapter 3 is the chapter where Charles Powers describes “The Role of Sticky Points in Pareto’s Theory of Social Systems”.


The empirical and pessimistic eye of Pareto is also present in his visions of political theory, as Joseph V. Femia describes in Chapter 4—“Pareto, Machiavelli, and the Critique of Ideal Political Theory”. A scientific understanding of human behavior requires that we look at human beings as real and not ideal creatures. This is why Pareto leans on the realism of Machiavelli, rather than the idealism of Kant, in his theories. And this realism, when combined with modern risk analysis, allows us to link Pareto to a variety of cultural and psychological patterns widely recognized and accepted today, as Alasdair Marshall and Marco Guidi demonstrate in Chapter 5—“The Idea of a Sociology of Risk and Uncertainty: Insight from Pareto”.


The relevance of Pareto in today’s debates and research agenda is pushed further by John Higley and Jan Pakulski in their chapter on “Pareto’s Theory of Elite Cycles: A Reconsideration and Application” (Chap. 6). They apply what may seem a vague theory of elite to the UK and the US governing elites of the twentieth century. It is unclear whether Pareto works or not when applied today. This question mark comes at a perfect time in the volume. So far one is exposed to the marvel of Pareto’s thinking, its correctness and applicability. One may be starting to question whether Pareto was this infallible intellect, underappreciated in his time and also in ours, who deserved a much larger role because of his continuous correctness. Higley and Pakulski remedy that sensation and bring back the fallibility, or at least imperfections, in a genius’ work. I see their chapter as sort of refreshing watershed, as it is followed by two other chapters more prone to see some of the deficiencies of Pareto. Alban Bouvier shows how Pareto may be more indebted to J.S. Mill than he is willing to admit—or than his readers are willing to admit (Chap. 7: “Pareto, Mill and the Cognitive Explanation of Collective Beliefs: Unnoticed ‘Middle-range Theories’ in the Trattato”). Similarly, Giorgio Baruchello shows how Pareto may be more indebted to Aristotle than to Plato in his understanding of the role of rhetoric.  Interestingly enough, in these two chapters, as well as in some preceding ones, there is subtle emphasis on the importance of language in communicating effectively and how Pareto may not have been gifted with it: a possible reason for the fact that his popularity does not necessarily reflects his contributions.


The breadth of Pareto’s understanding, or his willingness to accept the complexity of human behavior, is returned to in the last chapter of the volume (“Pareto’s manuscript on Money and the real Economy”) where Micheal McLure describes how Pareto rejects the quantity theory of money and is willing to integrate money in the general equilibrium model of Leon Walras, despite the unwillingness of the discipline to bridge the monetary and the real analysis.


The volume is an impressive and yet balanced testament of the breadth and stature of Pareto. Pareto does come out as a rounded Renaissance man, who for all that is pessimistic about the possibility of human improvement. He does come out as a scholar willing to break all disciplinary barriers and one who, as a consequence, stands alone. And probably today and more so in the future, when we also realize that many of the existing disciplinary boundaries are artificial constraints that limit our creativity and intellectual development, we will come to appreciate Pareto more. This volume is a step in that direction. 


A reply to the reviewer of “Totalitarismo, democrazia, etica pubblica. Scritti di filosofia morale, filosofia politica, etica”

As it is written in the foreword, what the book offers is, immediately, an overview on the current status of the moral and political philosophical debate (each chapter is a sort of piece of this mosaic). But reading deeply the book is possible to find, as is normal, a fil rouge, a background thesis, that runs through all the chapters: an attempt to define in a critical way the moral and political framework of the current society, trying to delineate alternatives in the way in which we intend our aggregative forms – especially starting from the idea and the practice of democracy, nowadays reduced into formal mechanisms –, and possible escape lines.


As for the quoted authors, as ever happens in the essays, I made a selection – it’s strange having to specifying this. And so, I chose the authors that, for me, are fundamentals and those that are secondary, in the economy of my speech, deepening the first – and the same with the arguments, some are main themes same are collateral analyses for me. And so, I criticized the authors with which I disagree, specifying why – without obscure them from the philosophical scene, for their impact on that –, and I used quotations with which agree, specifying the source – for not assign to me those ideas – but declining them in the economy of my personal speech. And about some mentioned contents of my discourse, I would like to clarify in short at least two important issues. First, Arendt and Jonas sit well together for me because in Arendt is possible to find an indirect but very cogent critique to the naive and dangerous stances of Jonas: the sacralization of biological life, the mythologizing and the normative use of the nature, is at the ground of the Nazi ideology, as Arendt shows speaking about the modern triumph of the anthropological figure of the animal laborans, emblematically represented by Eichmann. Second, to affirm that the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is universal, modern and Western, is not a disclaimer of its advancements – why should it be so is not clear for me – but is a reasoning on another level than that of the socio-political decisions: that of the conceptual background of our society – that contains also its advancements. This critical view is extremely important because permit us to intend our society – and its advancements – not as the only one possible society – like for example in the Eurocentrism or now, we can say, in the “Westerncentrism” – but as a possible society; avoiding so also the theoretical “Westerncentrism” that is given in the reading of authors that are not modern and/or Western with the eyes of a modern and Western person – e.g. the sui generis Popperian reading of Plato, Hegel and Marx.


For me too the book would have benefitted from an analytical index and a bibliography, it is a pity that the publisher has not made, however, as is written in the premise, the footnotes are enriched with the necessary bibliographic details.

Federico Sollazzo, Totalitarismo, democrazia, etica pubblica. Scritti di filosofia morale, filosofia politica, etica (Rome: Aracne, 2011)

In the first part, Sollazzo tracks recent evolutions in the theoretical and historical understanding of social and political control of human collectivities, such as: (1) “totalitarianism” (17) in the work of Vaclav Havel and his mentor Jan Patocka; (2) “system” (20) in that by Herbert Marcuse; (3) “terror” (25) in Max Horkheimer’s; (4) “stereotyped reasoning” (28) in Theodor Adorno’s; (5) “rationality deficit” (28) in Juergen Habermas’; (6) “empire” (30) in Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s (30); (7) and “culture” according to Pier Paolo Pasolini (34). This initial section is followed by an exposition of the philosophical anthropology of three great minds of the 20th century, namely Arnold Gehlen, Helmuth Plessner and Max Scheler. A common theme is retrieved in their thought about human nature and the human condition, that is, the uniqueness of humankind’s inextricable admixture of biological and psychical elements, which allow the human being to be part of nature as well as to transcend it through its “peculiar” (43) intellectual—for the first two authors—and spiritual—for the third—abilities. The ensuing chapter stresses the crucial role played by the species-wide biological and emotional make-up in providing a valid ground for the establishment of credibly universal philosophical anthropology and ethics. Remarkable is the attention paid to the notion of vital “needs” (47) as a stark and straightforward reminder of our common humanity. The field of ethics is further explored in a chapter devoted to communitarianism as a representative reaction to utilitarian individualism, which fails to acknowledge the deeply interpersonal preconditions for any meaningful human existence.


In the second part, Sollazzo explores the issue of totalitarianism with special reference to the seminal work of Hannah Arendt and her ability to perceive the totalitarian threat of numb conformism in modern mass cultures, and not just in the key examples of totalitarian regimes, namely Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. This line of analysis is deepened by means of a discussion of the notion of “bio-power” (84) and of different conceptions of totalitarianism beyond Arendt’s one, such as Marcuse’s, Horkeimer’s and Neumann’s. Sollazzo then returns to Arendt’s work and her study of the anonymous, grey “model citizen” (108) of modern societies, who is incapable of challenging the received views of her socio-political community and participates dutifully in whatever life-destructive systemic horror such received views may entail. This study is followed by a reflection on genuine democracy as Alexis de Tocqueville and Arendt would have it, so that model citizens be not as incapable of Socratic critical reflection as previously discussed. Considerations on democracy are furthered by a presentation of Karl Popper’s ideal of democracy as open society and his profound distrust for any “utopian engineering” (135) that may prevent tolerant coexistence of different worldviews in peaceful conversation with one another. Adorno, Norberto Bobbio and Zagrebelsky are then utiklised to criticise Popper’s seemingly wilful blindness to the darker areas of actual democratic communities, such as techno-scientific “chains” (150) to free human agency, dehumanising “mass conformism” (150), economic “commodification” (150) of human relations—including political ones—and “political apathy” (153). Zagrebelsky’s work is also utilised to assess the issues of social justice and human rights in allegedly democratic societies, whose enduring and entrenched inequalities fail regularly large sectors of the population.


The third part of the book opens with a survey of the so-called “rehabilitation of practical reason” in the German-speaking philosophical world of the 1960s and 1970s, especially with reference to Hans-Georg Gadamer and Habermas. The threat to social cohesion and human well-being emerging from pseudo-rational individualism is presented and then addressed in a chapter on leading libertarian thinkers, such as Robert Nozick and Friedrich Hayek. Bobbio and John Rawls are introduced and presented as attempts to rectify from within the liberal tradition the many weaknesses and blind spots of several libertarian stances. Communitarianism is addressed subsequently as an attempt to rectify them too, though this time from without the liberal tradition. Ferdinand Toennies, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre are the pivotal references in this context. Amartya Sen is used eventually to propose a tolerant, pluralist form of communitarianism that describes cultural identities as inherently diverse, “always in fieri” (212) and analogous to an ever-shifting mosaic requiring the person’s free consent and critical self-reflection. The theme of a species-wide ground for life-enhancing social and political self-organisation is brought back in a chapter devoted to Hans Jonas and his call for human ethical responsibility vis-à-vis the planetary environment, which human ingenuity and techno-scientific advances are threatening as never before in human history. The final chapter outlines the understanding of human alterity in the works by Emmanuel Lévinas, Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida.


The book is most erudite and shows how well-versed the author is in the works and terminology of the many thinkers that he cites and presents to the reader. Still, after reading the book, it is not clear what the author wished to accomplish with it, apart from charting a number of interesting issues and related reflections by famous thinkers. In short, the book has no clear thesis to offer. Also, the critical assessment of the thinkers tackled in the book varies considerably, thus a few thinkers are duly presented and equally criticised for what Sollazzo argues to be their theoretical weaknesses (e.g. Jonas), whilst others are just outlined and never criticised (e.g. Havel) or timidly rebuked in a few footnotes (e.g. Arendt). By this lack of critical evenness and courage, Sollazzo comes across as sharing claims by some of the thinkers that he refers to (e.g. Arendt’s negative assessment of the modern political emphasis upon human biological necessity) that do not sit well with those of other thinkers that he includes in his book (e.g. Jonas’ call for immediate global ethical responsibility in the face of the modern techno-scientific threat to the continuation of biological life on Earth). Analogously, it is not clear whether some rare yet conspicuously superficial analyses, such as the one that he provides about human rights (159-65), should be ascribed to him or to the thinkers that he makes use of therein. Specifically, as human rights are concerned, they are reduced to the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, which is claimed to be “universal, modern and Western” (163), as though there had never been thereafter any advancement, such as the actually binding sister covenants on civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic social and cultural rights on the other; or the pronunciations of the related United Nations’ human rights committes. Finally, the book would have benefitted from an analytical index and a bibliography.


Viorella Manolache (ed.), Centru si margine la Marea Mediterana. Filosofie politica si realitate internationala (Bucharest: Editura ISPRI, 2009)

This journal has proven a wide opening to a great diversity of recurrent themes present now within political sciences. Certain “marginal” areas of interdisciplinary investigation are also present, included in this same broad philosophical view. The volume maintains precisely this type of innovative ambitions and the manner of relating to contemporary tendencies as the journal, hence approaching through its several original studies select newer theoretical concepts adequate to the complexities associated with the research of the chosen theme. These studies are coming from different scientific areas. Estimating the present geo-political research of the Mediterranean community, it endeavours to enter into a dialogue within the Mediterranean scientific community. Center-Margin at the Mediterranean Sea (Political Philosophy and International Reality) accesses scientific contributions from seven countries (Romania, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Brazil, USA, Italy) providing a rich mix of theoretical and philosophical comparative, international and transnational issues, addressed to all who are interested in the contemporary political Mediterranean phenomena. The three constant investigated dimensions are placed into a dynamic formula described by the three parts of the volume: Political philosophy of Mediterranean Centre and Margin; Cultural approaches on the Mediterranean Margin and International Reality at the Mediterranean Sea.


The volume is integrated within a theoretical landscape and is justified by the anticipative answer offered by the authors to a series of variables with which the imperative of the current European politics operates, of the “maps projecting the macro regions” – a decentralized space of cooperation. The volume anticipates the conclusions of the European Council (June 24, 2011) which counts especially on the coincidence of culture and creative industries, on the capitalization of historical, linguistic and, in general, cultural diversity, and also on the application of a macro-regional strategy. All these dimensions illustrate the potential of catalyst of the “Union for the Mediterranean area”.


The volume’s approach indicates significant insights, pre-figurations of the European imperatives correlated with the analysed theme, with a double effect: the analysis of the international implications of the Mediterranean space and of the considerations concerning soft power; and a withdrawal within the philosophical, theoretical and political framework that configure the dimensions of this profile. The approach is explained in the introductory chapter – Political Philosophy of Mediterranean Centre and Margin.


According to Abderrazzak Essrhir, the idea of the centre is the indicative of the systematic invention of a peripheral space – racial, geographical, religious, cultural – resulting in a binary opposition that is the outcome of reciprocal experiences between the centre and its assumed periphery. It is in this very context that the relations between the East and the West can rightly be appreciated to have always been conducted, marked by conquest, demystification, subjection, or colonial confinement. The centre assumes in this perspective a position wherein it perceives itself as the nucleus of authority and power, the source of emanation of knowledge, the cradle of high culture and civilisation. The margin, as a consequence, turns out to be a mere indication of that “positioning is best defined in terms of the limitations of a subject’s access to power.” It is, in this respect, perceived, and indeed made to be, as the consumer, the dependent, the subaltern, or the anarchic space. This type of centre-margin binary opposition is multi-dimensional in the sense that the centre, conscious of its identity, systematically locates and confines its margin by devising a set of strategic practices such as othering, ethnic categorisation, subjugation, and discrimination (Abderrazzak Essrhir).


For Abdenbi Sarroukh, the question that arises is whether the new U.N partnership will contribute to the blossoming of at least a positive Mediterranean pluralism that goes beyond the borders of the nationalism that is still recast in ethnic identities, so as to reshape them to conform to the new cultural exigencies. The author refers to the universal values that tend to homogenise specificities and the spirit of communities that are irreducible and resist being explained away by the power of discourse from the point of view of the dominating centre.


The historical registration appears as architecture and even as a film of the Mediterranean space diving into the discourse of postmodernity as post-tradition, either rebuilding the cultural referential of the marginal discourse of the Mediterranean space – a system of indexes, emblems, constituents of a typical language that asks for deciphering, first and foremost politically speaking, in order to deserve to be termed of a Mediterranean polis  (Viorella Manolache), or the investigation of the communicational ethical and political implications of this fascination of the interlocutor via Richard Rorty, Jean Baudrillard or Simon Critchley (Henrieta ?erban).


The chapter Cultural Approaches on the Mediterranean Margin reaffirms the dependence of the imaginary on the mise-en-place of a very special Mediterranean syntax. The relationships between the “full and signifying forms” and the “determinations” of symbolical images, conferring them a “particularizing function” are emphasized (Gheorghe Manolache), within an analysis that employs essential (proto)types (present in the works of Eugen Lovinescu, Anton Naum – e.g. the Don Juanic character, Ulysses –, or Vasco da Gama). These profiles express the metaphoric idea that the waters of the Mediterranean space have a vocation of refrain: they are always the ones which bring boats, and invite the analyst to imagine Ulysses abandoned on the rocky shores of Portugal in distress; one sees Vasco da Gama directing his ships and people on the warm and quiet waters of the Mediterranean Sea, with an impact on the symbolic-cultural map of the countries washed by the Mediterranean waters. What remains behind is precisely what should happen: a silent revolt of the water and then, the numerous endless tides, the tides which charmed the sovereigns and awarded gold and glory, the waters of the bereaved bride named melancholy (Diana Adamek).


The philosophical and metaphorical level is completed by a more investigative and practical level in International Reality at the Mediterranean Sea that assesses the Mediterranean space as one of the important geopolitical and geostrategic pivots in world history. The geopolitical and geostrategic significance of the Mediterranean realm is not quite constant along the entire history of the region. For a while, the geopolitical and geostrategic significance of the Mediterranean decreased, because the “center” of the world gradually glided to the Atlantic. But, starting with the opening stages of the Cold War, the geostrategic importance of the Mediterranean realm grew again, a trend which is still maintained to a certain extent nowadays as well, in the context of the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ and of the global war against terror. Other important events, connected with the war in the Caucasus region, prove again – similarly to the era of the Cold War – how important is for the West to control the Mediterranean Sea, and how ambitious post-communist Russia already is on the international arena (Florin Diaconu).


In this analytical key, the international realities operating in the Mediterranean space raise the question of how culture and identity contribute to the lasting peace, facing the geopolitical context and the efforts of a generation of intellectuals who have implemented this idea by building a unique and successful structure such as the European Union. It is thus important to examine the possibility of designing a community of security in the Mediterranean region through economic growth, with the contribution of this regional culture, without which any construction will be only short-lived and deprived of depth (Lucian Jora).


Beyond this snapshot of the main dimensions of the volume Center-Margin at the Mediterranean Sea (Political Philosophy and International Reality), one can easily identify the need to re-evaluate in a more complex light the Mediterranean space, accepting a cultural and reconciliatory mental map – a matrix where the Mediterranean space does not cease to provide to an equal extent, both philosophies and realities.


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.

Kristina Kappelin, Berlusconi – Italienaren (Stockholm: Brombergs, 2010)

Kappelin knows, and loves, Italy: there is no trace, in her work, of a superiority complex towards Italians – such folkloristic people! ? which is on the contrary a common feature of some foreign media when dealing with Italy. Rather, Kappelin tries to understand how came that a country with a unique cultural and historical heritage has let itself be bluffed by a man who has – perhaps irreparably – compromised Italy’s reputation in the world.

And the book is indeed not only about the founder of “Forza Italia”, but instead, as it is made clear by the meaningful title (Berlusconi. The Italian), about Berlusconi as embodiment of some national peculiarities, so to say.

Italy in the whole have not yet been able to reflect about Berlusconi’s almost twenty-year dominance over the country’s political and economic life, pressed as it is just now (February 2012) by a never-ending emergency – the risk of a financial collapse – which caused, in November 2011, the appointment of a “technical government” (i.e. voted by the Parliament but not resulting from the last general election) being charged with the task of crisis management. Furthermore, although “style” is significant – professor Mario Monti does not “peekaboo” the German chancellor (Kappelin reminds Berlusconi’s blunders in chapter seven, Tittut i världen) and seems not to be used to spend his nights with twenty- to thirty young girls at the same time – the common feeling is that there has not occurred any shift in economic and social policies, which remain unfair and not effective (at least in the view of re-launching the economy and not only balancing public finances). This sense of continuity prevents to look at “Berlusconism” as a close (?) period in Italian history.

What does Berlusconi’s success reveal of Italy, according to Kappelin’s book? Basically, three aspects: the power of organised crime; the Catholic Church’s influence upon domestic politics and culture; the well-grounded male chauvinism.

The first two points (which particularly chapter sex, Maffian, and eight, Klockorna i Peterskyrkan, focuse on, although they are recurring issues all over the book) are frequently cause of embarrassments to Italians when talking with foreigners.

And indeed it would be unthinkable in Sweden – Kappelin is not so explicit, but the starting sentence of her book is: how come that Italians vote for Berlusconi? ? to pervert justice in the way Berlusconi did in Italy (by the notorious ad hoc laws, described in their origin and content in the chapter five, Konflikten med rättväsandet), and to witness powerless to the connivance between politics and criminality. This is due probably to a political tradition in Nordic countries which Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh have described as a high degree of social trust, meant both as trust in other people, including strangers, and confidence in common institutions due to their transparency[1].

However, Kappelin’s thesis is that what explains why  a politician, who from a Swedish point of view is completely incomprehensible, has been so successful is, besides his relationship with organised crime on one hand and with the Catholic Church on the other hand (at least until the last sex affaires), male chauvinism: a key factor, the Swedish journalist stresses already in the Introduction, in understanding Italy’s decline, from the economic stagnation (now recession) to the lack of trust in the future. And in chapter one (Italien och Italienarna. En introduktion) Kappelin points out indeed that the country is like a journey back in time, in a masculine and sensual world, where “l’apparenza” (look)[2] means all and where a downward compromise has been achieved between the individual and the State: as you (State) do not accomplish your duties towards me (citizen), I am not bound to accomplish mine towards you. It is the triumph of the “furbo” (cunning fellow)[3].

With such a background, it is quite obvious that women have no chance, with few exceptions, to establish themselves as political and economic independent actors. Their unhappy fortune in Berlusconi’s Italy is the subject of chapter three (Madonnan, horan och Silvio Berlusconi): those that are good looking are reduced to nothing more than ornamental elements in a society ruled by old and unappeasable men and therefore appointed as parliamentary members and even ministers exactly because of their “apparenza”; the others, the common women, who are not mistresses of some sultan, are mostly doomed to insignificance in the economy and in politics.

Berlusconi, Kappelin insists on this point, has not invented male chauvinism, which on the contrary is well-grounded in the country’s culture; his sin with no redemption is to have turned this national inclination into a rule and the “velina”[4] (young girls almost naked whose only task in Berlusconi’s TV programs is to shake their body in alluring ways) into the ideal model of womanhood.

And thus we come to another valuable contribution of Kappelin’s book, after the effective part on women’s role as mirror of Italy’s decadence (and again here we could remind that on the contrary Nordic countries are on the top in the world’s gender equality ratios): to the huge concentration of media power achieved by Berlusconi much attention is drawn upon (see particularly chapter four, Makten over medierna), but this problem is not presented at all as an Italian peculiarity. Rather, Kappelin warns that also countries which have repeatedly condemned Berlusconi for his conflict of interest have no safe defence against such a risk.

The final part of the book focuses on how Berlusconi has changed Italian political style, turning electoral campaigns into sales where even the promise of one million – and not half a million, as Kappelin writes – new jobs can be sold to people in search of an encouraging fairy-tale, with immigrants welcomed as scapegoats (chapter nine, Dragkampen i Italien – resultat och misslyckanden), and on the dangerous meeting between authoritarian democracy and media populism (chapter ten, Auktoritär demokrati och medial populism). No one before Berlusconi, Kappelin points out, had dared to draw a comparison between Mussolini and himself with a kind of self-congratulation. But what the author argues is not that the founder of “Forza Italia” is the new Mussolini: the difference is that the latter aimed at building a new Italian,  whilst the former is satisfied with the existing one. The point is rather that the centre-right parties, with Berlusconi in the forefront, have taken over and reverted the “cultural hegemony” based since 1945 on antifascism as the key-source of national identity, and have systematically put down liberal institutions (starting from parliamentary and judicial powers) – and politics itself.

In this perspective, Berlusconi’s Italy appears as a political laboratory for the whole Europe. This is the somehow not expected conclusion from a non-Italian author, which enables the book to be not only a commented review of stereotypes about Italians (and about differences between Northern and Southern Europe), but a more demanding reflection about possible future developments of democracy at an international level. Out of Italy many have laughed when seeing Berlusconi’s blunders and listening to his hymn (“Meno male che Silvio c’è”), but – Kappelin warns – his “style” has become a model for a new generation of right-wing politicians, starting from David Cameron in the UK.

Thus it is not easy to get rid of Berlusconism as though it were a mere interlude in Italian history, perhaps cherishing the always comfortable thesis that it has been a further demonstration of the Gattopardo’s core idea: in Italy everything is to be changed so that nothing changes. On the contrary, Berlusconi, this is Kappelin’s conclusion, has substantially changed the way Italians look at themselves – and at the the others – as well as the ways of contemporary politics. And it will take time to go back to previous ones – or to find something new.

[1] See H. Berggren, L. Trägårdh, Social Trust and Radical Individualism. The Paradox at the Heart of Nordic Capitalism, in The Nordic Way, Stockholm, Global Utmaning, 2010, pp. 18-19.

[2] In Italian in the book, see p. 18.

[3] In Italian in the book, see p. 29.

[4] The book has been written before the “Ruby affaire”.

“Karlson” – A Stasi “Kontakt Person”. An episode of Iceland’s Cold War legacy



Iceland’s geographical position gave this small nation a special strategic importance in the political and military chess game between east and west during the Cold War era. Placed in the mid Atlantic, Iceland constituted an important post for the NATO defence forces and surveillance activities. This importance can be seen in the presence of American troops at a NATO base in Keflavik from 1951 until 2004. The military base and the NATO alignment created stark divisions among the population and was one of two major cleavages that characterized Icelandic politics throughout the post- WWII era, especially during the Cold War. The other cleavage that marked Icelandic politics of the time was the left-right dimension. The four traditional parties of the Icelandic party system ranked in a different order on these two continuums, with the right wing Independence Party allying with the Social Democrats in its support for NATO and the military base, while the centre agrarian Progressive Party supported NATO membership but joined forces with the Socialist Party in the opposition to the military base. The Socialists however were stern opponents of both the base and NATO membership, while they expressed sympathetic views for the People’s Democratic Republics in the eastern bloc.[1] Left wing socialists held up ties with their sister parties in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, while bourgeois politicians cultivated their links with western or mainly American liberal democracy.  The political discussion was framed in terms of the Cold War and the press, which throughout most of the 20th century was a party press, continuously suggested that the political motives of their opponents were conspicuously linked to or derived from either the interests of Soviet or Eastern European communism or US capitalist imperialism.

It was in this circumstances that in the fifties and sixties young left wing people sought to undertake their university education in the Eastern block and more often than not the Socialist Party in Iceland (SEI) was in one way or another the go-between in arranging for such student positions. Many of these left wing students kept contact with each other even though they did not study in the same place or country. At a point in the late fifties these students had formed an organisation, SÍA, Sósíalistafélag Íslendinga Austantjalds (The Society of Socialist Icelanders in the Eastern Bloc) that had considerable influence within SEI, the Icelandic Socialist Party.[2] In 1962 members of the youth organisation of the conservative Independence Party managed to get hold of – in fact steal – some of the internal correspondence of the SÍA group and subsequently the correspondence was published letter by letter in the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið along with some political explanations from a right wing standpoint. The correspondence was also published by the Conservative youth organization, Heimdallur, in a special booklet labelled the “Red Book”. Remarkable as it may sound, the correspondence between the Icelandic students in SÍA shows a great deal of criticism of the socialist system as practiced in the Eastern bloc, though in general of course their views were very sympathetic to the People’s Democratic Republics. From the standpoint of the conservatives in Iceland the purpose of the publication of the SÍA correspondence was to show that the students in Eastern Europe, along with the Socialist Party of Iceland, were plotting a communist takeover in cooperation with their communist allies in the east, even though they knew that the system was not working well and had all sorts of flaws.[3] This whole affair exemplifies the frenzy and the tone of the political discussion in Iceland during the Cold War and the suspicion that was created around the students that studied in the Eastern Bloc.

The legacy of heated feelings of the Cold War has in many ways survived the Cold War itself. The demand for some sort of reckoning or historical rectification has frequently come up, particularly in relation to the publication of documents that have become accessible after the fall of communism. This has been felt in Iceland mainly at a general political level but its implications have also been personal – putting the spotlight on the individuals that supported communism and in particular those who studied in the Democratic People’s Republics, not the least the German Democratic Republic. This paper will examine to what extent demands for a historical reckoning are relevant by looking at a particular case that can be found in the Stasi archives. By conducting a case study of this kind, a light is shed on important factors that tend to be lost in the more ideological and normative public political discussion. The case examined is the one of a young student who became a Stasi informer in the early 1960s, know as “Kontakt Person Karlsson”.


“Kontact Person (KP) Karlson”

According to the archives of East Germanys State security service (Stasi) one Icelandic student cooperated with the Stasi while studying in East Germany.[4] His name was Guðmundur Ágústsson, who after returning to Iceland became a bank manager. In 1959 he arrived as a young student via Vienna in East Germany, where he first attended a language course in Leipzig before taking up his studies at the University of Economics in Berlin-Karlshorst. Later his sister followed him to East Berlin.

On the 9 February 1963, four years after entering East Germany, a note is found in the Stasi files concerning “making contact with the person”.[5] Before this remark in the files, the Stasi had already gathered information about Guðmundur Ágústsson , since a report explains that he seemed to be “open towards our problems”.[6] In this first description of Guðmundur Ágústsson to be found in the files, his appearance is described as “modest and dutiful”, also his “perfect moral conduct” is underlined,[7] contrary to the one of his sister who, according to the report, is “in some cases very impulsive”.[8]

According to the minutes of the first meeting between the Lieutenant Koch as representative of the Stasi and Guðmundur Ágústsson, Koch explained to the Icelandic student that lately pubic disorder in East Germany was increasingly initiated through West Berlin and therefore it was necessary for GDR “to take measures against the enemy’s intentions. In order to do so we have to involve foreigners, and since we knew that he [Guðmundur Ágústsson] was a member of our brother party SEI, we have turned to his person”.[9] According to the minutes Guðmundur Ágústsson answered positively to the request of the Stasi; he agreed to visit West Berlin and establish contacts with students there as well as to report on activities at the University of Economics where he studied.

Guðmundur Ágústsson was, according to the Stasi files, one of 25 Icelandic students studying at the time in the GDR. All were members of the SEI. They all came to East Germany through the mediation of the SEI or the Federation of Icelandic Trade Unions. During their first meeting Lieutenant Koch asked Guðmundur Ágústsson not to talk with anyone about his contact to the Stasi and they agreed to use the codename “Karlson” for him. After this meeting the Stasi run “Karlson” as a “Kontakt Person” (KP) in its files. “Kontakt Persons” were individuals used by the Stasi, sometimes without their knowledge, but also, as in this case, people who knowingly cooperated with the Stasi. “Karlson” knew, as the documents indicate, that his interlocutors were working for the Stasi.

“Karlson’s” first job assignment consisted of establishing a contact with an Icelandic student in West Berlin, “with the aim of assessing if this contact could be further exploited”. In order to do so “Karlson” should find out, “with whom he [the friend] has contact”, and further, he should report about groups and “their participation in actions against the anti-fascist protective barrier” (meaning the Berlin Wall)[10] and evaluate the general mood in West Berlin. “Karlson”, according to the minutes, agreed to do so. But he did not agree to introduce his acquaintances in West Berlin to the Stasi.[11] The reason he gave was that in his opinion the friend “was politically not ready”.[12] However “Karlson” proposed approaching another Icelander in West Berlin who might be willing to cooperate with the Stasi. According to “Karlson” this was a friend who had gotten an invitation from the Free University of Berlin to become a lecturer. The minutes state that at this time it had not yet been decided whether the acquaintance would accept the job at the Free University or not, because in the words of “Karlson”, a “decision on this matter would be made by the SEI”.[13]

Five weeks later at the following meeting “Karlson” could not report much, because he had not traveled to West Berlin. However, he had by now learned that his friend would take the position at the Free University in West Berlin. Until the year 1962 the acquaintance had been working as a lecturer at the University of Greifswald. Both he and his wife were members of the SEI. “The KP estimated the [name blackened] as a very humorous and outgoing person, who sometimes because of his comical appearance, his physique and his facial expressions is viewed as ridiculous.”[14]

Furthermore, “Karlson” reported in this meeting that he had recently received another visit from an Icelander, but he was politically not organized and in “his political development not yet mature”. Therefore “Karlson” declined bringing him into contact with the Stasi. In addition the Stasi noted in the minutes of the meeting that the KP would “soon get his own flat on the basis of his collaboration and his political work.”[15]

In May 1963 Lieutenant Koch gave his first evaluation of his Icelandic spy:

The [Kontact Person] is honest in the cooperation, but had not yet been reviewed. He takes his tasks seriously, makes his own proposals and he is venturous. His [cooperation] is based on conviction.

Control: Regular meetings every 14 days in the CA [Conspiratorial Apartment].

Range of duty: Supply of suitable candidates for recruitment. Naming appropriate candidates, as well as being used on special occasions in West Berlin.”[16]

In the following meeting “Karlson” and his Stasi officer discussed mainly how to establish the actual contact with the Icelandic lecturer at the Free University in Berlin. First of all, it was agreed that there was “no need to pretend to be a member of the press, but the KP should just contact him as an employee of the Stasi”.[17] “Karlson” agreed to organize the meeting. During the meeting they discussed three more Icelandic students living in West Berlin, but the minutes state that “Karlson” did not want to be the person who “arranges the meeting”.[18] Therefore they agreed on a different approach: while “Karlson” would celebrate the moving into his new apartment with the Icelanders from West Berlin, he would contact the Stasi as soon as his Icelandic friends would leave. On the way back to West Berlin the Stasi would have then the possibility “to address” the Icelanders at the checkpoint in Friedrichstraße: “this way the (KP) would be kept out from the conversation and the staff can safely carry out their own conversation.”[19]

At this meeting it was further agreed that “Karlson” would participate at the upcoming regional Social Democratic Party Congress as a member of the media and report to the Stasi about it. Furthermore he should monitor the preparations for the rallies on May 1 in West Berlin. One day before the first of May “Karlson” received specific instructions. In particular, he should find out where the loudspeaker van with the “inflammatory agitation” was stationed that was supposed to “disturb the activities on May 1 in democratic Berlin”.[20]

During this meeting the status of the recruitment of the Icelandic lecturer was also discussed. According to “Karlson” the Icelandic lecturer wanted to find out whether the people whom he would meet were “really from the Stasi”.[21] Furthermore, the Icelandic lecturer informed “Karlson” that the Senate of the Free University of Berlin had told him that they were informed about his membership in the SEI. They also warned him not to get involved with “Russian agents”.[22]

At the next meeting, on the 1st of May, “the Kontakt Person ‘Karlson’ had returned from his excursion to West Berlin and shared his observations about the deployment of the police, the position of the radio car, the tribune and more, which were then immediately submitted to the headquarter.”[23]

According to the minutes of the meetings “Karlson” reported about his intended trip to England, France and Italy. The minutes end with the note that the next meetings will be arranged by phone. Although there are no further minutes of meetings to be found in the archives, one can assume that the contact continued, since a receipt exists for the 28 January 1964 with the note: “The Kontakt Person ‘Karlson’ was given 50 DM for costs.”[24]

On 20th of November 1964, Lieutenant Koch closed the file, since “Karlson” had returned to Iceland. The file contains also the exact statistics of the border crossings by “Karlson” to West Berlin, and thanks to the collection of data by the Stasi, we also know that “Karlson” for example, on the 4th of February 1964, brought “2 nylon shirts; 2 pairs of women’s stockings, 20 PCs. cigarillos (Intershop); 250 gr coffee and 1 kg bananas”[25] from West Berlin to East Berlin.

The Icelandic lecturer at the Free University in West Berlin refused being recruited by the Stasi. On the 19 December 1963 one meeting had taken place between the lecturer and the Stasi at Café Sofia in East Berlin. At this meeting the Icelander stressed the “security of his person”. He said that “if the contact should become known it would have serious consequences for the party and him.” He also pointed out in this context the “unprofessional work of the security organs of the Soviet Union concerning the radar station in Iceland, where arrests had been made and which greatly damaged the reputation of the Soviet Union and caused great dismay for the comrades of the SEI.”[26] Lieutenant Koch was not very optimistic about a possible cooperation, since the Icelandic lecturer said that he “does not want to have anything to do with the secret service”.[27] But at least the reader of the files learns that the Icelander was very “sloppily dressed”, wore summer shoes in December and “a grey suit, a red shirt and a blue tie”.[28]


“Kontakt Person Karlson” revisited

In Iceland a discussion of the relations between Icelanders, Communist parties and secret service organizations in the eastern bloc have regularly surfaced – not only throughout the Cold War but also in the post Cold War era. Several times the issue has come up whether some Icelander had been working for Stasi.[29]

In early February 1995 a documentary film, “Í nafni sósíalismans”, (In the Name of Socialism) by the historian Valur Ingimundarsson and the journalist Árni Snævarr was shown by RÚV, the Icelandic State Broadcasting Television. The film was based on some documents that the authors had had access to after the opening of the Stasi archives in Germany and it spurred some discussion in the Icelandic media.[30] The name of the banker Guðmundur Ágústsson came up, as it appeared that he had been a Stasi agent in the period 1963-1964. The documentary claimed that Guðmundur Ágústsson had the codename “Karlson” in the Stasi files, and that one of his missions was to recruit Árni Björnsson, who at the time was a guest lecturer at the Free University in West Berlin. Árni acknowledges in the film that he had had some encounters with the Stasi, but that he had not answered indirect requests for him to become an informer for the secret organization. He does however mention an incident when his nice had been visiting him and had gone to a theatre show in East Berlin. When she did not return, Árni Björnsson became worried and went to a border control gate to ask about her. There Árni was detained for a while, until a Stasi officer came and asked if he had not received a message from them some while ago. Árni Björnsson acknowledged that and asked about his nice. There were no news of the girl, but in light of the circumstances Árni Björnsson thought it would be wise to agree to meet with the officer two weeks later. He says that he met with a Stasi officer two weeks later in a coffee shop and that was the end of it.

On the other hand, Guðmundur Ágústsson, alias “Karlson”, had refused to talk to the makers of the documentary, so his side of the story appeared in a newspaper only after the film had been shown on national TV. In an exclusive interview with the newspaper DV, Guðmundur Ágústsson explains that he had agreed to do some trivial exercises for Stasi in order to secure his own peace and eventually a safe passage home for him, his German wife and their child. Guðmundur Ágústsson refers to his contact person at Stasi (Lieutenant Koch) as the “young man with the cigarette”. He tells of a “spy mission” to West Berlin in the following way:

I met the young man with the cigarette and he asked me if I could go over to West Berlin and check if there was a military truck convoy in a certain boulevard in the southern part of the city. I was also supposed to stop by the Wall there in the neighborhood and see if a big hole was being dug in the ground behind a hill. I went to these places, but there were no army trucks, no digging and no hole. So I stood there like a fool. I went back and told the young man that nothing was there. That was the last I heard from Stasi. I probably did not pass the test or possibly Stasi was just training the young man in talking to somebody.[31] 

Later in the interview Guðmundur Ágústsson reflects on the documentary value of the Stasi files about himself. “I understand that there is a large folder on me in the Stasi archives. I do not think I want to see it. But the documents are there and people must then remember that the text that is written there is just what a man with a cigarette thought about me. He might even have been trying to look good in the eyes of his superiors. I never wrote a single letter for them.”

As it is apparent by now, two parallel stories have been told of the same course of actions involving  “Karlson”. On the one hand there are the files written by Lieutenant Koch, whilst on the other there are the stories and experiences as these are remembered by both Guðmundur Ágústsson, the student, and Árni Björnsson, the lecturer. Much of the factual evidence comes forth in both stories, but the interpretation and explanations of what actually happened and what it meant is very different.
Whose truth? – a discussion

After the Berlin wall came down and the Stasi archives were opened the news came to Iceland that Guðmundur Ágústsson had been a Stasi informer in 1963-1964. More than 30 years later, in 1995, Guðmundur Ágústsson had to explain to the Icelandic press that by cooperating with Stasi he had “secured himself peace and a safe passage home with his German wife and child”.[32] And still just over ten years after the explanations in the DV newspaper, Árni Björnsson, who was the friend of Guðmundur Ágústsson that worked and lived in West Berlin in 1963-1964, came forth in the scholarly magazine Þjóðmál to explain his involvement with Guðmundur Ágústsson and Stasi. Árni Björnsson was reacting to another article in the magazine where he was named as a likely Stasi informant.[33] The title of Árni Björnsson’s article is “Stasi and I. What is the truth?” He does not takes issue with the Stasi files themselves or even the reports by the Stasi officer that approached him, but points out that they are based on the officer´s personal interpretation, social conditions and circumstances. He therefore asks whether that interpretation is necessarily the whole truth.  In other words, Árni Björnsson is suggesting a cautious approach in interpreting the files and documents that can be found in the Stasi archives.

At least two lessons can be derived from comparing the two different accounts at issue. Firstly, it seems clear that Stasi did not necessarily ask its Icelandic informers to collect sensitive or hidden information, but asked for all sorts of public information, such as reporting about public student meetings and the curriculum of the Free University. This could make the Stasi request for cooperation look almost trivial to the student in question, so much that it would seem irrational to refuse such a small favour and risk being considered uncooperative by such a powerful organization as Stasi was then.

Secondly, the Stasi files give us a fragmented and indeed limited view of what really was going on. This is due to three main factors:

a) The nature of the reports to be filled out gives limited space for accounting for different and sometimes complex situations.
b) The evaluation and interpretation of the writer of the report is subjective and coloured by Marxist ideological phrases. Furthermore the reports are written by officers for their superiors and it can be expected that things that might be thought interesting for the secret police are overemphasized.
c) The fact that some of the files and reports may be missing limits their comprehensiveness.

In light of the latter point, an important lesson can be learned about the way in which documents and reports of official agencies not meant for publication, be they secret agencies or ordinary embassies, should be interpreted. To be sure, uncovering such secret files can provide valuable and important information, as recent WikiLeaks documents on embassies have shown, for instance. However, such documents call for careful consideration of the circumstances in which they were written and of the values and motivations of those who wrote the files. The limitation of the files makes them useful for political polemics, since they leave so much space for interpretation, but not for careful, detailed historical accounts of the past. And last but not the least, one may also just be stunned by their banality.



Guðmundsson, Birgir and Meckl, Markus, 2008, Á sumarskóm í desember. Ísland í skýrslum austurþýsku öryggislögreglunnar Stasi, in Saga, Tímarit Sögufélags, XLVI: 2, 2008, pp. 86 – 113.

Knabe, Hubertus,1999, West-Arbeit des MfS. Das Zusammenspiel von „Aufklärung“ und „Abwehr“Ch. Links Verlag, Berlin

Ólafsson, Jón , 1999,  Kæru félagar.Íslenskir sósíalistar og Sovétríkin 1920-1960, Mál og menning, Reykjavík

Snævarr, Árni and Ingimundarson, Valur, 1992, Liðsmenn Moskvu, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík


[1] Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (1977) The Icelandic Multilevel Coalition System. Expanded version of a chapter in E. Browne (ed) Cabinet Coalitions in Western Democracies. Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavík.

[2] Ólafsson, Jón , 1999,  Kæru félagar.Íslenskir sósíalistar og Sovétríkin 1920-1960, Mál og menning, Reykjavík bls. 212-213

[3] Ibid pp. 214

[4] In the archives of the Stasi there are approximately 250 pages concerning Iceland. Among the material is one folder concerning the collaboration of an Icelander with the secret service. A complete overview over the material found is given in Icelandic in the article: Birgir Guðmundsson and Markus Meckl, Á sumarskóm í desember. Ísland í skýrslum austurþýsku öryggislögreglunnar Stasi, in Saga, Tímarit Sögufélags, XLVI: 2, 2008, pp. 86 – 113.

[5] Report on the contact of the person, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, BL. 9.

[6] Investigation report, ibid. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 5

[9] Report on the contact of the person, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, BL. 10.

[10] Minutes of the Meeting, 20. 2. 1963, ibid. 13.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. 14

[14] Minutes of the Meeting for the 15.3.1963, p. 15-16.

[15] Ibid p. 16.

[16] Assessment of “Carlsson”, dated on the 7.5. 1963, ibid p. 18. In the documents one can find different spellings for “Karlson”.

[17] Minutes of the Meeting for the 19. 4. 1963, ibid. 19.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. 20.

[20] Minutes of the meeting, 30. 4.1963, p. 21.

[21]Ibid. 21.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Report from 6 May 1963, ibid, page 23.

[24] Recipt, 28.1.1964, ibid., page 27.

[25] BStU 12225/66

[26] Report of the 20 12 1963, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, p. 29 f. The matter the lecturer might be referring to here is an episode often called “The Hafravatns case” that came up in February 1963. Two deputies from the Soviet Embassy were expelled from Iceland for trying to recruit an Icelandic man as a spy. See: “Miklu fargi af mér létt”, Morgunblaðið 28th February, 1963 pp. 23-24

[27] Ibid. 33.

[28] Ibid.

[29] For a discussion of these connections between Icelanders and the Eastern Bloc see e.g.: Árni Snævarr and Valur Ingimundarson, 1992, Liðsmenn Moskvu, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík; Jón Ólafsson, 1999, Kæru félagar, Mál og menning, reykjavík ; Rauða bókin :leyniskýrslur SÍA, 1984, Heimdallur, Reykjaví k; Helgi Hannesson, 1989, “Sósíalistafélag Íslendinga austantjalds og SÍA skjölin 1956-63”, Háskóli Íslands. Sagnfræðistofnun Ritröð sagnfræðinema, Reykjavík.

[30] See Morgunblaðið web page: http://www.mbl.is/mm/gagnasafn/grein.html?grein_id=176466 and DV, daily on the 6th and the 7th of February 1995.

[31] „Fékk frið og heimferð fyrir konu og barn“, DV 7th of February 1995

[32] DV, daily newspaper. 7.th of February, 1995 pp. 1-2

[33] Árni Björnsson, „Stasi og ég. Hvað er sannleikur“. Þjóðmál II:4 (Winter 2006), pp. 28

Ingerid S Straume and J F Humphrey (eds.), Depoliticization: The Political Imaginary of Global Capitalism (Malmö: NSU Press, 2011)

This split, so the thesis goes, aims to stifle any truly creative political critique of our institutions, thereby avoiding genuine structural changes that might hurt private capital’s interests. In this view, ‘depoliticization’ is the diminishing of any public capacity to imagine, create or deploy new forms, such that the depoliticizing political-economy split is an inherently anti-democratic defence of capitalism.

For example, discussion on who should bear the cost of the economic crisis is depoliticised. In business, transnational corporations wriggle out of any democratic scrutiny exercised in national interests. In law, institutions and rights become fixed in a way that can tend to immobilise political thought and action. In the symbolic field, undermining everything, the capacity to think or posit new institutional forms is deadened by fear and indifference.

In this way, runs the thesis, global capitalism feeds on depoliticization, so capitalists promulgate it until the freedom and autonomy of a political life is no longer possible. This authoritarian state is, the book suggests, the inevitable and imminent outcome. However, this is not so much a warning about fascism’s resurgence. Rather it is an intricate, provocative and mostly quite convincing theoretical elucidation of the subtle, sub-conscious architecture on which the current drift towards authoritarianism is constructed. The benefit of this work lies in the way it points out opportunities for a redesign: reconnecting politics with economy – politicising the debate, imagining and implementing new forms – becomes a key objective with a new and significant value.

Depoliticization assembles its tally of authors from five countries, representing over a dozen disciplines spanning economics, history and philosophy as well as political and social theory. There is a preponderance of Scandinavian contributors, but nevertheless the stated intention is to urge more transnational debate on our (perhaps Western) political fate and legacy.

In accordance with its central theme, the essays are organised in two parts: Economy and Politics. Opening with Straume’s more in-depth look at how the depoliticizing political-economy split leads to personal suffering (principally, it detaches us from reality and creativity), part one goes on to dissect capitalism’s ‘economic logic’. Arnason cites Baechler, Wallerstein, Boltanski and Chiapello to expose not only the irrational ‘spirit’ that underpins its multiple manifestations, but also and critically, the social-historical context that spawns it all. D T Cochrane’s ‘power theory’ harmonises Thorstein Veblen and Castoriadis in order to critique Marx’s Labour Theory of Value and pin down capitalism as ‘the valuation of control’. According to Lundkvist, this control commodity is used unaccountably by an oligarchy of transnational corporations to choke off market competition. Their strategically managed alliances and mergers give the lie to any notion of a ‘global free market’. Instead they spiral inexorably towards a ‘capitalist planned economy’. J F Humphrey rounds off part one by connecting the discussion to the current economic crisis. He draws out from Marx how money transforms from a means of exchange to become the ultimate commodity: production determines distribution, exchange and consumption, such that what is produced has no (social) value other than to satisfy the need for accumulation; or as Cochrane might say, control.

Blinkenberg builds on this in part two, working from Jacques Rancière’s argument that money as power requires the exclusion of ‘virtue’ (or perhaps ‘social value’). Rather, an ‘authoritative allocation of values’ ascribes virtue in order to legitimise acceptable political actors. Here depoliticization is a method of ‘value-neutral’ policing that safeguards the hierarchical distribution of power against democratic egalitarianism. Changing the hierarchy’s regimes for ‘truth-production’ by disclosing the function of truth, is what Foucault sees as the purpose of intellectual and political action, according to Jacobsen. Yet relativism, Foucault’s ‘tyranny of perspectives’, means that any claim to objective truth always proceeds from an infinite regression of fundamental hegemonic discourses, dissolving objectivity. Such impotence is perhaps made manifest in Europe’s Kafkaesque language shift from ‘pedagogy’ and ‘education’ to ‘learning’, as argued by Straume. Commodified and assessed by endlessly uncertain tribunals, ‘learning’ comes packed with a capitalist payload of quantitative, computable subtexts: competition, employment, product and again control are deemed virtuous for the ‘entrepreneurial citizen’. The lost ethos of autonomous critique, inspired by love in Castoriadis’ pedagogic scheme, is de-valued, de-personalised and effectively de-commissioned. Finally, Nilsen’s analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut illustrates the outcome of extreme wealth inequality and a switch from ‘productive capitalism’ (growth) to ‘finance capitalism’ (no growth). This is demonstrably a grand repetition of deteriorating trust, consciousness and intelligence that sets up the apparently imminent, unavoidable descent into despotism and dictatorship.

But democracy’s shallow grave may not be dug yet. If you’re prepared to bury your head in the text and not the ground, you can find some genuinely useful arguments here.  For example, Cochrane’s frankly excellent reading of capitalism as ‘the valuation of control’ provides a strong theoretical case for competing to command assets socially. Similarly Straume’s first essay shows that depoliticization rests on the inability to provide ‘sufficiently robust meaning’, such that teaching critical thinking to every citizen becomes a political as well as an educational mission.

‘Depoliticization’ is not directly addressed in every essay; for some it remains at the side. However, the papers overlap each other well enough to be stitched together with a good narrative, and so the eight authors cover the theme well. Collectively, they delve deep into capitalism’s depoliticizing traits, often working at the level of language and meaning. There are some quite fascinating technical constructions offered in explanation of unconscious or unobvious shifts, such as: controlled ‘free markets’; consumption determined by production; or money, power and control commodified for accumulation. There are also references to more popular economics (Stiglitz and Soros for example) and the odd graph (not listed in the contents) to explain relevant numeric data.

Given their intensity and density, some of the essays are wonderfully clear although in at least two, the author’s purpose or line of thought becomes obscured; whether by poor writing or poor translation is unclear. More of a practical problem was the lack of an index; while the use of footnotes rather than endnotes means locating a cited source requires endless flicking.

But the only real issue was in terms of a personal take on ideas. For me the capitalist paradigm of ‘growth’ appears to be accepted without question, despite its physical impossibility. Moreover, there was a tendency to dismiss ‘logic’ or ‘evidence’ too readily, while quantity always seemed subordinate to quality. I would have liked to have seen these points more clearly and fully discussed, not lost in the background as ‘value-neutral’ givens. But then, this is not so much a criticism of the work as a rejoinder to the discussion; which the authors would surely welcome.

Giulio Santagata, Il braccio destro. Quindici anni di politica con Romano Prodi (Bologna: Pendragon, 2010)

Perhaps, the nearly three dozens of foreign citizens–British, Canadian, American, Icelandic, German, Mexican, Taiwanese and Scandinavian–who asked me this question were simply devoid of the knowledge, the economic interests, the political background, or the spiritual attitudes that have led millions of Italians to choose Berlusconi as their national leader and international representative. On the contrary, far from being a neutral question, all of these inquisitive foreign citizens displayed invariantly their genuine astonishment at Berlusconi’s electoral success, for they were unable to perceive in his public persona anything positive or appealing.

Most commonly, their negative perception of Berlusconi was associated with sad, stereotypical notions about Italy and the Italians, such as being lecherously over-sexed, endemically corrupt, and in bed with the Mafia. Sometimes, however, their negative perception was more sophisticated. In particular, there appeared to be recurrent concerns that billionaires or media moguls à la Berlusconi could establish new parties and seize self-servingly the democratic processes of their own native countries. In this perspective, my interlocutors seemed worried that some sort of “Berlusconism” could cross Italy’s boundaries and take over the rest of Europe, analogously to the historical experience of fascism, which emerged in Italy and was later adopted in as different countries as Portugal and Germany.

Giulio Santagata’s new book offers a different answer to this frequent, value-laden question that I was put so often over the past fifteen years. It does so by recounting with great analytical skill, vivid personal participation and significant intellectual honesty his own experience as Romano Prodi’s “right hand” over the past two decades of Italian political life—Romano Prodi being the one and only left-wing candidate to ever beat, twice, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy’s general elections.

The book comprises three sections, which are devoted respectively to: the history of the political alliance called “the Olive tree” (13-46); Santagata’s organisation of numerous electoral campaigns (49-87); and Romano Prodi’s two short-lived governments (91-146). Together, these three sections reveal the inner frailty and the limited outreach of the political coalition that supported Prodi’s candidacy and governments.

The main factor at play with regard to the coalition’s inner frailty would appear to have been the sheer number and variability of the political parties that formed it. Many, short-lived, endlessly reinventing themselves in search for an invariably evanescent appeal, these parties shared a common fear and a common fault. First of all, they were all afraid of a strong leadership, whether Prodi’s or anyone else’s. Secondly, they regarded each other not much as allies, but as competitors. Eventually, the need for visibility of so many parties and party leaders worked against Romano Prodi, given that his alleged supporters were busier attacking each other than striking jointly at Berlusconi and at his right-wing agenda.

The limited outreach of the same parties was due in primis to the limited resources and media connections available to them. In this respect, Berlusconi’s being a media mogul and billionaire running for office who, more or less manifestly, told newspapers and TV broadcasters what to say, did make a difference. Still, the obstinately self-referential aims of left-wing professional politicians does strike Santagata as equally relevant, for these quarrelsome political leaders claimed incessantly to know better than their own voters, who clearly liked the notion of a unified Italian left. Inevitably, such better-knowing strategists were shown to be tragically out of touch with their potential voters’ hopes and demands.

It must be realised that some of the hopes and demands of the Italian voters were likely to be the result of cunningly induced dreams and fears, which right-wing politicians were better able to exploit. After all, these politicians had contributed decisively to give shape to them, thanks to Berlusconi’s tight grip on Italy’s mass media. Similarly, some hopes and demands were clearly the expression of the vocal plethora of small- and medium-scale interest groups that Prodi’s government was trying to overcome in the name of liberal “modernity” and ever-useful “national interest”. Others could be even the desiderata of Italy’s organised crime and endemic corruption—sad stereotypes are not necessarily off the mark all the time.

Yet, a third element should be considered as well. Santagata hints at it in the final section of the book, in which he discusses the disastrous effects of the ongoing global economic crisis. The recipes that were proposed in the fifteen years of Prodi’s political career were very much in tune with those of, say, Britain’s New Labour or Germany’s social-democrats. Prodi’s governments were eager to liberalise the economy, privatise what little was left of public banks and State-owned industrial concerns, and, to a significant extent, ride the wave of rampant financial activities. Like Blair and Schroeder, Prodi was willing to embrace globalisation as a positive force. In this economic perspective, the difference between his novel “post-communist” left and Berlusconi’s right was not so pronounced.

On the contrary, the only voices to criticise left-wing liberalisations, privatisations and the embrace of globalisation were a handful of so-called “radicals” on the left of Prodi’s left, and even fewer old-fashioned nationalists on the right. Everybody else, the “moderate” and “right-thinking” majority, had taken aboard the “univocally liberal and free-market thought” that had once characterised staunchly right-wing politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (144).

In brief, a monolithic faith in the correctness of free trade and free-market economics was established in Italy too, both left and right of the political spectrum, soon after the collapse of the USSR. Certainly, there were the few exceptions noted above, but they were marginalised as a nostalgic leftover of the Cold War era. The seventy-year-old Soviet alternative to liberal capitalism had been proven utopian by the collapse of the Eastern bloc and, with it, any serious challenge to free trade and free-market economics. As a result, liberal capitalism was glorified not solely as the only path ahead, but also as the right one, as though the failure of the Soviet remedy meant that there had never been any pathology to begin with. Yet, after twenty years of “moderate” and “right-thinking” Thatcherism, the global economy entered in 2008 such a dramatic global crisis that even Berlusconi’s own minister of financial affairs was heard calling for “more public intervention” in the economy and “the unspeakable communist word ‘nationalisation’.” (144)

Possibly, as Santagata suggests, the result of this global crisis is that the left will stop being ashamed of its traditional socialist lexicon and reformist aims, thus rediscovering “ethics, equality, welfare, labour, solidarity… capitalism, sustainability, redistribution of wealth.” (144) Whether Romani Prodi will be the most credible Italian political leader to be at the helm of this counter-counter-reformation, though, is far from clear.