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Populism and fraternity in Portugal

There are moments of truth in which, due to some sort of blip in the functioning of the oligarchic system that governs our present world, we glimpse another humane populism.

lead Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Costa welcomes Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras during the Southern EU Countries Summit at the Belem Cultural Center in Lisbon Portugal, on January 28, 2017. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved. Much is said of populism these days. Those who practice it do not admit they are doing it; those who do not practice it call for the need to do it (see Chantal Mouffe in openDemocracy). 

Quite what populism is, is another matter. If by that we mean a kind of politics that appeals to the masses, that is easy to recite, and that evokes quick emotional responses, then in truth one can understand why some people would like to have that on the left. After all, one can only be puzzled as to why the masses sympathise more with the policies advocated by Trump (which are decidedly against their interests) rather than the policies proposed by Sanders (which would decidedly improve their lot).

Part of the explanation has to do with the way an increasingly sophisticated and technically effective apparatus of marketing manipulates people’s emotions. To call it “media”, as we used to do, only adds to the confusion. Ever since Trump and his colleagues decided to take the post-truth argument seriously and started debunking what used to be called ‘media’, we moved onto a more complex terrain. 

Indeed, the instruments that the Republican Party used in order totally to unhinge traditional American politics have little to do with ‘opinion’ and far more to do with techniques for affecting subliminally people’s proneness to respond emotionally. In the predictable future, this process is likely to be further enhanced by the increased power that large-data manipulation techniques will soon derive from a new generation of quantum computers. Should that happen, we might still witness in our lifetime the collapse of electoral democracy. There should be little doubt in anyone’s mind that people’s feelings and responses can be manipulated through psychologically-empowered marketing techniques. Those who deny that, claiming that it amounts to calling voters stupid, are simply hiding their heads in the sand and negating the obvious evidence that consumer-enhancing techniques are an integral part of our daily experience. 

Looking at today’s political landscape, there are many on the left who argue convincingly in favour of developing a political practice that appeals to the masses and mobilizes them emotionally (a populism) but which works in the interests of the majority of those persons who constitute those masses. There are, indeed, moments of truth in which, due to some sort of upset or blip in the functioning of the oligarchic system that governs our present world, we are given a glimpse of what that kind of populism might look like. The Sanders moment was one such. We are presently witnessing another such moment in Portugal with the enigmatic figure of Prime Minister Costa.

The populous You cannot have ‘people’ in the sense that populism requires, without persons feeling that they are part of some design grander than themselves (‘Great America’, ‘the German Volk’.

Populism refers to populus, the folk. But who is this people/folk? One obvious answer is that our present nations are the result of long and painful historic processes of constitution of national hegemonies that facilitate the experiencing of emotions of communality. In that sense, ‘people’ does not really refer to national citizens. The ‘people’ are those who live in the nation, but not in the individual sense of each one of them. Participating in the ‘people’ involves a sense of shared fate; a sense of adherence to a joint interest rooted in a common past; a communality.

You can have democracy without ‘people’, but you cannot have populism without ‘people’. The problem, therefore, is that if you call for populism, you call for the mobilization of history. But not history in the linear sense of a politically ordered past.  Rather, history in the ontogenetic sense of that which went into making each singular person that participates in the ‘people’. In short, you cannot have ‘people’ in the sense that populism requires (the sense of folk) without persons feeling that they are part of some design grander than themselves (‘Great America’, ‘the German Volk’). This involves discussing something that present-day political scientists do not like to talk about: I mean the third principle of modern politics, what used to be called fraternity.

Now this has been a much-abused word. It would seem that our contemporaries, who talk all-too readily of equality and of liberty are a little coy when it comes to talking of fraternity. In fact, there are even those who claim the word should not be used at all because it relies on a male-oriented metaphor. 

Yet, even then, in those heady days of Revolution, when we had not yet understood fully how language fosters oppression in surreptitious ways, it already was not meant to exclude females. Might we resolve the matter if we make it quite clear from the outset that what we have in mind when we say ‘fraternity’ is the metaphor of siblinghood and that the alternative metaphor of neighbourhood might also have done just as well? One thing we cannot afford to do, however: stop speaking about what the metaphor of fraternity was meant to designate.

Freedom, equality, fraternity

For most people to have freedom, fraternity has to be in place; for equality not to become a prison, fraternity is indispensible.

The liberal democratic understanding of political existence that has been hegemonic in Europe and America since WWII is torn between the values of freedom upheld by a financially-based right-wing and the values of equality upheld by a bureaucratically-based left-wing. 

What this means is that even the more avant-garde political thinkers who defend left-wing populism simply choose to forget fraternity as a value. They forget that fraternity is the putty that puts ‘people’ together and that keeps politics going (both nationally and transnationally). Between the open door to greed that the cultivation of freedom has become and the closed door to movement that equality has come to foster, we seem to have chosen to disregard that which makes political communality operative: co-responsibility, the sense of being one, the fact that without fraternity society cannot exist.

Just like the value of freedom can degenerate in the hands of politicians like Trump or Schäuble into base greed, and the value of equality can degenerate in the hands of people like Sarkozy or Theresa May into a reason for the bureaucratic denial of common humanity, so fraternity in the hands of populists like Erdögan or Putin (not to speak of the well-known 1930s examples) can easily become a monstrosity. For most people to have freedom (not only for the oligarchs to have freedom to accumulate yet more wealth) fraternity has to be in place; for equality not to become a prison, fraternity is indispensible. The fact is that if you forget to cultivate one of these three principles, the other two become monstrous justifications for inhumanity.

The problem with fraternity is that our individualist civilization has led us to understand it in a deeply twisted way. We are taught to assume that individuals are a gift of nature and that fraternity is something that we must imprint on them once they have come into existence. But that is not actually how things happen. Each one of us who is a person was born as a nonperson and became a person in the early period of their infancy. We had to enter into society by learning how to communicate as a human among humans. 

A precondition for thought is company, as Donald Davidson wisely advised. Others were there in us before we were there. Fraternity is the product of the primacy of alterity. We do not have to learn to be fraternal, because it is only through experiencing fraternity that we can become persons (that is, humans who are full members of human society possessing adult thinking and acting politically among other humans). When we fail in fraternity, as we inevitably do, we are not failing to exercise fraternity; rather, we are undertaking to diminish, to control, to reduce, to redirect our fraternity. We must look at fraternity not as a desire, but as a fate; not as an affirmation, but as a confirmation.

Fraternity and difference

The only way for sociocultural difference not to be a cause of discrimination among humans is for humans to be fraternal in their difference.

We experience fraternity because we are produced in a shared world. As infants, we are called into linguistic communication by participating in intersubjective relations, that is, by experiencing fraternity in the company of our carers. Having been brought to personhood is a condition of all persons and no one was brought to personhood nowhere and on their own. 

To be a person is to be in company and to be in company is to have been somewhere at some particular time. Fraternity is always historically specific (somewhere and at some time) but it is what makes each one of us participate in the ‘people’. It is in that sense both a generic condition (that links each one of us to the whole of humanity, and even beyond it to the animals and things that share our environment) and a specific condition (since it marks us with particular, historically situated participations: houses, families, nations...).

If we approach fraternity the wrong way round (that is, as a form of positive identity rather than as a condition for having an identity) we come to look at each home, each village, each nation as if they existed at the expense of all the others. Once we look at fraternity as a confirmation, however, there is no good reason why the one instance of fraternity should deny the others. 

The propensity for fraternity is not in the family or the nation, but in the persons that keep on producing nation, village, or family. History, therefore, is not in the nation, the family or the village – that is a phantasmagoria. History is in each one of us who are made in such a way that we cannot but come together as a nation, a village or a family.  The only way for sociocultural difference not to be a cause of discrimination among humans is for humans to be fraternal in their difference; for them to know that first came fraternity and only then came difference.

Humane populists

Humane populists would not deny fear, but highlight the way in which the cultivation of fraternity will reduce the reasons for fear.

Populists by definition manipulate people’s emotions. Is it truly possible not to do it destructively, as Trump or May do, but creatively, humanely? Any form of decently humane populism (if such a plan is to be realistic) must be based on fraternity as much as on freedom and equality.

We need a new politics of emotion; but one that is based not on fear but on ecumenical values with a universal reach. By ecumenical, I mean values that foster the contexts of human communication, starting from home and finishing in the broadest forms of identification that go well beyond humanity (so that animal protection, for example, and conservation must be seen as ecumenical values). 

It must be a politics of fraternity that operates at all levels: familial, regional, national, transnational, global. The politicians of today who are sowing strife and humiliation make people feel emotional by frightening them with monstrous depictions of the other.  They play on the ghosts of crusade, on the ghosts of barbary; they play on modes of communal constitution that are rooted in the historical long term. 

Humane populists would have to counter that not by denying fear, but by highlighting the way in which the cultivation of fraternity will reduce the reasons for fear. They have to operate a transformation of ‘antagonism’ to ‘agonism’, in the terms that Chantal Mouffe proposes. The present political world is stuffed with politicians who are visibly in the service of oligarchs whose interests are in denying the means to a fraternal politics of care. 

People correctly feel that they cannot trust them. The success of a humane populism would depend on the constitution of a new political class that shows their people/s that they mean to care; that agonism does not imply antagonism, the desire to destroy the opponent. Prime Minister Costa in his ‘unhinged machine’ (the popular name of his unsteady left-wing coalition) seems to have understood that. May it last.[1]


[1] This paper responds to two papers by Chantal Mouffe in openDemocracy.net: 21 Nov. 2017 and 5 Dec. 2017.  For a further explanation of the theory of the person here proposed, see https://haubooks.org/world/

About the author

João de Pina-Cabral is Professor of Social Anthropology at the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent and Research Professor at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon.


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