Europe in weight­less­ness:

Can west­ern democ­racy sur­vive the pop­ulist of­fen­sive?

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Philippe de Lara,

Philippe de Lara on ways to com­pre­hend and re­sist the of­fen­sive of pop­ulism in the West

Since the col­lapse of com­mu­nism and the en­large­ments of the EU at the turn of the cen­tury, many po­lit­i­cal alerts have been dis­turb­ing the sta­bil­ity and self-con­fi­dence of lib­eral democ­ra­cies, spe­cially of “Euro­pean con­struc­tion”: the growth of anti-sys­tem par­ties in all coun­tries, the re­jec­tion in 2005 of a new Euro­pean treaty by two found­ing na­tions of the EU, France and the Nether­lands, the per­cep­tion of the great re­ces­sion of 2008 as a be­trayal of the prom­ises of glob­al­iza­tion, the un­ex­pected com­ing to power of euroscep­tics and anti-lib­eral forces in Aus­tria, Hun­gary, Italy, Czechia and Ro­ma­nia. Yet, all this could not al­ter the peace of mind of elites or rather a strange mood of con­fi­dent res­ig­na­tion in the “pol­i­tics of in­evitabil­ity”, as Ti­mothy Sny­der rightly coined it. We still lived in the bor­ing and peace­ful world of “the end of his­tory”. 9/11 was a huge shock and trig­gered wars that are still on­go­ing to­day, but in the af­ter­math Is­lamic ter­ror­ism did not al­ter the busi­ness-as-usual mood in west­ern coun­tries, de­spite twelve deadly at­tacks be­tween 2004 and 2014 caus­ing about 215 deaths (and more than 170,000 peo­ple killed by Is­lamic ter­ror­ism in the world in the same pe­riod. Africa’s share is over­whelm­ing, fol­lowed by Afghanistan and Iraq).

2015 was a turn­ing point: in that year alone, Is­lamic ter­ror killed 414 peo­ple in west­ern coun­tries, 155 of them in France. More than one mil­lion refugees ar­rived in Europe (216,000 in 2014), trig­ger­ing panic and anger across the EU. The same year, “pop­ulist” par­ties had ma­jor suc­cess in many elec­tions: in Den­mark, the Peo­ple’s Party won 21.1%, while the Lib­eral Party, once dom­i­nant fell to 19.5%; in Spain the “in­dig­nants” of Pode­mos, a party born just two years ago, won 20.7%; in Poland, PiS won pres­i­den­tial and par­lia­men­tary elec­tions with 37.6% and has ruled Poland since then; in United King­dom, the break­through of UKIP at 12.6% in 2015 pre­ceded Brexit next year. The year be­fore in Hun­gary, the fas­cist Job­bik had jumped from 16.6% in 2010 to 20.2%. At the Euro­pean elec­tions, “na­tional-pop­ulists” par­ties were on top in France, United King­dom and Den­mark and gather at least 140 seats (of 751) in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. In the mean­time, Vladimir Putin con­sol­i­dates his power. His 5th (de facto 6th) re-elec­tion in 2018 was ob­tained by much less fraud than in 2012. It was time to take pop­ulism and au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism se­ri­ously. The pol­i­tics of in­evitabil­ity turned out to be no longer in­evitable.

In France, Em­manuel Macron’s vic­tory in 2017 ap­peared rightly as a vic­tory against pop­ulism, in­clud­ing in its dis­tin­guished guise of Fran­cois Fil­lon, once a fron­trun­ner can­di­date of the cen­ter-right Les Répub­li­cains, but also an overtly pro-Rus­sian politi­cian ready to break the Euro­pean sol­i­dar­ity on sanc­tions and to rec­og­nize the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea. But France was an ex­cep­tion. In Aus­tria (2017), in Ger­many (2017), in Italy (2018), in Nether­lands (2017), at the Brexit ref­er­en­dum in the United King­dom (2016), not to men­tion Trump’s elec­tion in the United States, pop­ulists won or pro­gressed enough to be­come cen­tral play­ers in the “sys­tem” they de­nounced from the out­side a few years ago. Mostly right ex­trem­ists or con­ser­va­tives, pop­ulists have also a no less suc­cess­ful left brand: in Spain, Pode­mos in­creased in 2016 its pre­vi­ous score to 21.2%; in Ger­many, Die Linke did not match the tri­umph of AfD (which went from 4.7% in 2013 to 12.6% now) but main­tained its share at 9.2% and won 5 more seats; in France, La France In­soumise (LFI) reached 11.03% and 17 seats in the leg­isla­tive elec­tion fol­low­ing Macron’s elec­tion (it had none in the pre­vi­ous As­sem­bly); in Italy, Five Stars in­creased their score to 32.7%, slightly beat­ing the so-called Cen­ter-Right coali­tion (37%), ac­tu­ally dom­i­nated by the far-right Lega Nord (47% of the 265 seats of the coali­tion). In 2019, par­lia­men­tary elec­tions will be held in eight EU coun­tries and at the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. Re­sults are in most cases highly un­pre­dictable.

The mag­ni­tude of the chal­lenge to democ­racy is ob­vi­ous. Un­der­stand­ing it is not so ob­vi­ous, and that’s our prob­lem. The forces la­belled as “pop­ulist” are het­ero­ge­neous. The con­cept of pop­ulism is not fully ad­e­quate (no more than con­ser­vatism). It over­es­ti­mates the unity of protest against lib­eral val­ues and un­der­es­ti­mates its dis­rup­tive power. “Na­tion­al­ism” is even worse be­cause 1) it con­fuses ag­gres­sive and xeno­pho­bic na­tion­al­ism with pa­tri­otic pride and care for na­tional cul­ture and iden­tity (Ukraine pays a heavy toll for this con­fu­sion), 2) it is blind to non-na­tion­al­ist mo­bi­liza­tions: ex­treme right groups are more of­ten than not hos­tile or in­dif­fer­ent to na­tion. They are fight­ers of “Chris­tian civ­i­liza­tion” or of white supremacy. Ho­mo­pho­bia and racism have no na­tion­al­ity (Putin’s im­pe­ri­al­ism nei­ther, so these groups are wel­comed in Moscow, mak­ing the na­tional-pop­ulists un­easy). Such groups are very tiny, but this does not im­pair their ca­pac­ity to vi­o­lence. In­side or out­side of elec­toral com­pe­ti­tion, this neb­u­lous web of or­ga­ni­za­tions desta­bi­lizes the po­lit­i­cal field by in­tro­duc­ing a new po­lit­i­cal di­vide (or di­vides), un­a­menable to the tra­di­tional right-left divi­sion: win­ners and losers of glob­al­iza­tion, pro-Euro­peans and euroscep­tics, par­ti­sans of pro­tec­tive clo­sure and of open­ness. They per­me­ate mod­er­ate par­ties: for in­stance, with its new

leader Lau­rent Wauquiez, Les Répub­li­cains in France is no longer the party of busi­ness and mild con­ser­vatism, but the pro­tec­tor of mod­est house­holds, vic­tims of in­se­cu­rity and lower in­comes. There is more -- these forces do not tend to re­shape the po­lit­i­cal de­bate and po­lit­i­cal al­ter­na­tives. They rather tend to shift from one is­sue to an­other (im­mi­gra­tion to­day, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism against iden­tity to­mor­row, tax re­bel­lion later, etc.) and a grow­ing part of them is in­clined to vi­o­lent pol­i­tics, both at the far right and the far left: open­ness to oth­er­ness and con­cern for the planet can be as vi­o­lent as racism.

Pop­ulist par­ties are of­ten on the verge of split or ex­plo­sion: the French Na­tional Front may split on Europe or fam­ily val­ues is­sues, Geert Wilders’ au­thor­ity is chal­lenged within his party and out­side by the euroscep­tic Fo­rum for Democ­racy!, Five Stars live in per­ma­nent psy­chodrama, and one re­mem­bers the seem­ingly fa­tal cri­sis of FPÖ in Aus­tria af­ter the sex­ual scan­dal and the un­timely death of its found­ing leader Jörg Haider in 2008. But with all the in­gre­di­ents of fleet­ing move­ments, these par­ties con­tinue to es­tab­lish them­selves in the po­lit­i­cal land­scape.

Last but not least, the con­cept of pop­ulism con­fines the is­sue to pol­i­tics. Mean­while, dis­rup­tive votes and al­le­giances go along with wider so­cial phe­nom­ena: 1) dis­po­si­tion to ver­bal and phys­i­cal vi­o­lence on any is­sue, se­ri­ous or fu­tile: lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion, noisy neigh­bours, aca­demic con­tro­ver­sies, as well as im­mi­gra­tion or abor­tion. 2) Con­spir­acy the­o­ries have a grow­ing in­flu­ence. A re­cent poll in France (IFOP, 2017) re­veals that 35% of re­spon­dents be­lieve that the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment took part in the 9/11 at­tacks, in­clud­ing 47% among young peo­ple (18-34), 44% among peo­ple un­em­ployed and at­tend­ing school. 22% sus­pect or are sure that Is­lamist at­tacks in Paris in Jan­uary 2015 (20 peo­ple killed, in­clud­ing satir­i­cal jour­nal­ists, po­lice­men, cus­tomers of a Kosher gro­cery store) were in fact planned or ma­nip­u­lated by the French se­cret ser­vice. This last fig­ure jumps to 34% in the group of re­spon­dents aged 18-24. 55% of re­spon­dents be­lieve that the Depart­ment of Health con­spires with phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies to hide the harm­ful­ness of vac­cines from the pub­lic.

All this is wor­ry­ing and be­wil­der­ing. Yet, there is at least one con­stant and uni­ver­sal fea­ture of all dis­rup­tive par­ties: they are sup­ported by Rus­sia and sup­port­ing Rus­sia. This may be a good start­ing point to grasp the un­catch­able. Rus­sia ex­ports not only lob­by­ing, fake news, cy­ber-at­tacks and cor­rup­tion of politi­cians and of elec­tions (plus out­right war in Ukraine). It ex­ports mean­ing: how­ever ir­ra­tional, in­con­sis­tent, eaten up by re­venge, and un­suc­cess­ful do­mes­ti­cally and glob­ally, even ridicu­lous (see Vladimir Putin’s am­bigu­ous dis­gust for ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity: as Sny­der puts it, Putin is “of­fer­ing mas­culin­ity as an ar­gu­ment against democ­racy”), Putin makes sense of the cri­sis of democ­ra­cies. Rus­sia does not have to be an at­trac­tive model to pro­vide an in­tel­li­gi­ble frame­work for a sit­u­a­tion felt as mean­ing­less by many west­ern cit­i­zen.

Ti­mothy Sny­der new book The Road to Un­free­dom. Rus­sia, Europe, Amer­ica ex­plains how this works: “The col­lapse of the pol­i­tics of in­evitabil­ity ush­ers in an­other ex­pe­ri­ence of time: the pol­i­tics of eter­nity. Whereas in­evitabil­ity prom­ises a bet­ter fu­ture for every­one, eter­nity places one na­tion at the cen­ter of a cycli­cal story of vic­tim­hood. Time is no longer a line into the fu­ture, but a cir­cle that end­lessly re­turns the same threats from the past. […] Now, what has al­ready hap­pened in Rus­sia is what might hap­pen in Amer­ica and Europe: the sta­bi­liza­tion of mas­sive inequal­ity, the dis­place­ment of pol­icy by pro­pa­ganda, the shift from the pol­i­tics of in­evitabil­ity to the pol­i­tics of eter­nity. […] As so­cial mo­bil­ity halts, in­evitabil­ity gives way to eter­nity, and democ­racy gives way to oli­garchy. An oli­garch spin­ning a tale of an in­no­cent past, per­haps with the help of fas­cist ideas, of­fers fake pro­tec­tion to peo­ple with real pain. Faith that tech­nol­ogy serves free­dom opens the way to his spec­ta­cle. The oli­garch crosses into real pol­i­tics from a world of fic­tion and gov­erns by in­vok­ing myth and man­u­fac­tur­ing cri­sis.” Putin’s prospect is as ab­surd as it is sim­ple, yet ef­fi­cient: af­ter re­duc­ing “Rus­sian state­hood to his oli­garchi­cal clan and its mo­ment, the only way to head off a vi­sion of fu­ture col­lapse was to de­scribe democ­racy as an im­me­di­ate and per­ma­nent threat. […] In 2013, Rus­sia be­gan to se­duce or bully its Euro­pean neigh­bours into aban­don­ing their own in­sti­tu­tions and his­to­ries. If Rus­sia could not be­come the West, let the West be­come Rus­sia.” This mak­ing sense of our predica­ment is tremen­dously at­trac­tive be­cause it fills a gap, but also be­cause, de­spite its unique delir­ium, we re­sem­ble Rus­sia in two fea­tures: 1) sys­temic cor­rup­tion spreads in all West­ern coun­tries, fed by tax cheat­ing, grey econ­omy mix­ing le­git­i­mate and crim­i­nal money, lead­ing to a para­dox­i­cal blend of daily ac­cep­tance and deep dis­trust to­wards elites. For that mat­ter, Ukraine’s orig­i­nal­ity is to com­bines post-soviet klep­toc­racy with west­ern-like cor­rup­tion and clumsy ef­forts to get rid of both. 2) Rus­sia’s pub­lic sphere is per­vaded by lies, but un­like the old-style soviet lie, it is not based on po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­ganda but on credulity and bull­shit. Peo­ple are con­di­tioned to be­lieve any­thing, but what they be­lieve does not mat­ter. Like­wise, in all demo­cratic coun­tries, con­spir­acy the­o­ries on all kinds of sub­jects are flour­ish­ing, ul­ti­mately fu­eled by the be­lief that all our mis­for­tunes are caused by a sin­gle global con­spir­acy, glob­al­iza­tion (or cap­i­tal­ism, or Jews, or Freema­sons, or what­ever). Credulity goes along with dis­trust to­wards all elites, politi­cians but also doc­tors, pro­fes­sors, etc.

This sit­u­a­tion is not un­like that in the post-war Europe: ex­pec­ta­tion of jus­tice and progress born dur­ing the war against bar­bar­ian­ism con­fronted with at­tempts of re­con­struc­tion and delu­sions of or­di­nary life and or­di­nary gov­ern­ments, suc­cumbed to the sirens of com­mu­nism. This hap­pened not only in France and Italy where Com­mu­nist Par­ties had strong in­flu­ence. In all demo­cratic coun­tries, a lot of peo­ple were se­duced, im­pressed by soviet com­mu­nism, or at least con­vinced by its ir­re­sistible ef­fi­ciency. Europe over­came this chal­lenge.

This is a new one (although it also stems partly from the soviet legacy). In­ter­na­tional re­ac­tions to the Skri­pal case and the April chem­i­cal bomb­ings in Syria are per­haps signs of leav­ing this state of weight­less­ness. Maybe in­ter­na­tional re­tal­i­a­tions against As­sad and his Rus­sian men­tor will fol­low, maybe Euro­pean coun­tries will not just ex­pel diplo­mats but pass Mag­nit­sky Acts, maybe they will stop Nord Stream 2, thor­oughly in­ves­ti­gate hos­tile for­eign ac­tiv­i­ties on their soil. Free­dom is a supreme value of Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion, but to cher­ish a value is not enough to rec­og­nize that we ne­glected to cul­ti­vate it and that it is in dan­ger.


The anger fac­tor. The forces la­belled as “pop­ulist” are het­ero­ge­neous. The con­cept of pop­ulism is not fully ad­e­quate as it over­es­ti­mates the unity of protest against lib­eral val­ues and un­der­es­ti­mates its dis­rup­tive power

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