Can Europe Make It?

Theory and practice - weekly comments roundup


A look at some of our new debates, as well as this week's best reader comments on our Can Europe make it? debate.

Alex Sakalis
29 July 2013

Ideology or empiricism? Theory or practice? Skimmed or full fat?

If you have yet to read the highly entertaining spat between leftist titans Slavoj Zizek and Noam Chomsky on precisely this subject, then I highly recommend it, even if it’s more for the novelty factor rather than the content of the debate.

Here at Can Europe Make it?, we prefer not to take sides. It’s interesting to analyse both the theory and the practice from both a nation-state and a supranantional level. Two of our current debates symbolise this. Firstly, our ever-expanding debate on populism welcomes two new contributors this week. Aurelien Mondon, writing on Populism or the fear of democracy, drew some critical responses, such as this from jobardu:

The author has the right idea but misses many fundamental ideas. The most fundamental is the idea of government as a social contract and the need for free and open debate as a feedback mechanism to correct policies that aren't functioning as planned or intended. It was telling that the author never mentioned the words "principle" or "political correctness" in the article. Yet it is precisely the absence of principles and the imposition of political correctness that drives much of today's populism. That makes it mainstream in most analytical contexts.


Mainstream political culture, self-defined as liberal, denounces those who disagree, adopts the "show me the person and I'll show you the rule" style of ruling, with equal justice under law replaced with varying degrees of protection (privilege ?) associated with different socio-economic categories, and positions on issues that differ depending on which groups are involved. In the US modern neo-liberalism has been called "noble principles selectively applied".


The author continues this authoritarian tradition by effectively denouncing populists as "extreme right wing" and issuing a call to discredit, disaffirm and co-opt populists and bring them back onto the liberal plantation.


Yet that train has left the station. Many populists aren't right wing and, in fact, are more liberal, less racist and left wing than many in the mainstream culture who call themselves liberal. What would be more helpful would be a grouping of people around principles and desired outcomes because the old labels divide and make the majority of people easily manipulated into an emerging feudal hierarchy.

and Damian Hockney:

'Democracy' and 'populism' mean very different things to different people - 'populist' is often just used as a smear against someone demanding something which the people clearly want, while democracy is increasingly shorn to its basics of just being 'the right to vote' while never asking 'for what?' or 'on what basis and using what information not controlled by the state/elite?'.

We also featured an article by Giorgos Katsambekis and Yannis Stavrakakis, which drew this comment from Bill Schneider:

This whole exchange is a dull discussion going over much old ground in debates about populism. While there are some issues of interest - notably the debate on the need (or not) for a left-wing populism and the nature of the mainstream - the stress on concept disputes tends to highlight the irrelevance of academic commentary (and think-tank commentary serving up a watered down version of it.)


I do not find a vague call to "sharpen our analytical tools and escape our one-sided euro-centric parochialism by adopting a historical, comparative and cross-regional perspective" and engage in "deconstructive exercises" inspiring or helpful. Put in brutal populist language , it is waffle-ly call for abstruse theoretical navel gazing.

Harsh. I feel the debate has been interesting and prescient. Especially as AConcernedCitizen points out:

It highlights the trend for political leaders and media to call popular ideas 'populist' as if it was a bad thing. The growing tendency for policies to created and enacted without recourse to more democratic measures is worrying.

If theory is perhaps not your thing, maybe you would find our nascent debate on the Left in Poland to be more to your tastes. Our first article is by Anna Grodzka, who is actually doing something to challenge the stereotype of Poland as a bastion of Catholic conservatism and compliant neo-liberalism. Roger Manser writes:

Anna appropriately emphasises Poland's neo-liberalism, but I found it more interesting to read how she sees the Church as an extension of the neo-liberal state. For me a more critical issue is how many Poles define themselves in very small minded ways, which I would guess the Church encourages?


As part of this self-definition, the neo-liberal state (and presumably the Church) harks back to the past, defining the country in terms of its independence from Russia. Polish coal is one symbol of that independence, placing the country at odds with its European partners and ecologically minded Europeans. For the future, Poles need to move beyond their historical narrowness (socially as well as economically, as Anna suggests), but the question is how?

Look forward to more excellent articles on the What's Left in Poland theme, and also check out our new Spotlight on Bulgaria showcasing our ongoing coverage of the criminally under-reported protests in Bulgaria.

Auf wiedersehen, pets.

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