Anti-populism and "normality" from Greece to Chile

“We will not return to normality, because normality was the problem” Español

Antonis Galanopoulos
10 February 2020, 11.46am
Clash between protesters and anti riot police in Plaza Dignidad | Santiago, Chile | 23 January 2020
Fernando Lavoz/NurPhoto/PA Images

This slogan was projected on a wall of a building in Santiago, the capital of Chile, during the protests that are still unfolding in the country and soon became viral in social media networks across the world:

“We will not return to normality, because normality was the problem”

Normality was the word that was chosen by the Chilean president and the mainstream media and political discourse in order to signify his attempt to move the country onwards, away from the social unrest. When president Pinera announced his decision to lift the state of emergency, he did it stating his intention to restore institutional normality or recover full constitutional normality according to another statement.

References to normality have started to appear at an accelerated pace since the first days of social unrest. Washington Post predicted that a return to normality in Chile may take a lot longer. Another official was arguing that “today all Chileans are worried about regaining normality”.

Both protestors and the opposition criticized and dismissed this call to return to normality. A young protestor was holding a sign that reads: "We can't return to normality, we haven't achieved anything yet" while Camila Vallejo, member of the Chamber of Deputies with the Communist Party, stated 'We will not allow that an alleged normality is imposed to pave the way to impunity”.

The Chilean movement is trying effectively to undermine the nodal point of the rival political discourse. This attempt, through signs and wall projections, to respond to the presidential call and resist the “return to normality” draws analogies with the poster production during the May 1968 movement in France. A specific poster is actually very relevant: rows of sheep moving towards one direction under the slogan “Retour A La Normale…” (Return to Normal).

Just one day before the protests erupted, the Financial Times has published a portrait of the Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera, presented him as a “committed crusader against populism”:

But Mr Piñera is unbowed, invoking classical myth in his fight against the demagogues. “Ulysses tied himself to a ship’s mast and put pieces of wax in his ears to avoid falling for the…siren calls,” the silver-haired 69-year-old leader tells the Financial Times during a conversation at the presidential palace in Santiago. “We are ready to do everything to not fall into populism, into demagoguery.”

Almost three months ago, in July, Sebastián Piñera shared the stage with Mauricio Macri at the Mercosur summit to discuss the dangers of populism. The type of State that populists believe in, he claimed, "might work in heaven, where nobody needs anything; or in hell, where they have everything. This type of system produced a type of demagogy that might trick some countries for long periods of time".

The profound anti-populism of Chilean president and his call to “return to normality” echoed the -very similar- mainstream political discourse in Greece during the years of crisis and austerity.

The implementation of austerity policies in Greece was connected with a call to make Greece a “normal” country. The first appearance of this discursive repertoire was traced to the discourse of the coalition government of New Democracy and Pasok (2012-2015). The signifier of “normality” evolved as the nodal point of the mainstream pro-memorandum, pro-austerity discourse and the idea of a “return to normality” became the central message of the period.

The profound anti-populism of Chilean president and his call to “return to normality” echoed the -very similar- mainstream political discourse in Greece during the years of crisis and austerity.

Curiously enough, the discursive repertoire of normality re-appeared in the discourse of SYRIZA, especially after the SYRIZA-ANEL government (2015-2019) signed a new agreement with the EU institutions. The recent electoral win of New Democracy in July was praised by politicians and opinion-makers once again as a step towards the desirable “return to normality”. The signifier of normality acquired in the above mentioned three periods, different content and various (political, economic, cultural and aesthetic) connotations.

Τhe Greek crisis was discursively constructed not only as an economic one but also as a moral and a cultural crisis. Schematically, the crisis was a result of Greece’s abnormality, of a multilayered economic, political, cultural failure and the main source of this abnormality was populism; populism as a political practice and populism as a generalized political culture that is supposedly dominant in Greece. Consequently, populism emerged in mainstream discourse as the condensation of everything pathological in Greek politics: irresponsibility, demagogy, immorality, corruption, irrationalism, statism.

Noticing the common patterns of mainstream political discourse in Greece and Chile, it is worthwhile to reflect upon the emergence of both anti-populist discourse and the signifier of “normality” in the two countries and to enrich, through this comparative look, our understanding of the populism/anti-populism cleavage and the discursive uses of “normal” in politics.

Indeed, the two cases are not identical but they present significant analogies. The comparative approach between Greece and Latin American countries, strange as it may seem, is a totally legitimate approach. As Nicos Mouzelis has shown in his Politics in the semi-periphery (1986): “Despite the geographical distance and the obvious differences in cultural and historical backgrounds, Greece and (to a lesser extent) the major northern Balkan societies before their post-war collectivisation show marked and significant similarities with the 'advanced' countries of Latin America's southern cone”. Far more interesting for the purpose of this article is that Mouzelis chose to focus on three societies of the “parliamentary semi-periphery” as he called them: Greece, Argentina, and Chile.

A crisis event can lead to the dislocation of the social space, to the dismantling of previously established social and political identities, to the disruption of the previously hegemonic order. Amidst a dislocated social space conflicting narratives enter the public sphere trying to make sense of the crisis and propose possible solutions, new social identities, and collective political subjects are formulated and invade the political arena. This is a crucial precondition for the emergence of a successful populist mobilization.

Populism, understood as a political logic that aims to disrupt the established norm, provokes an anti-populist reaction that promotes its own crisis narrative, usually blaming populism itself for the crisis. This is particularly obvious in countries with a strong populist background as Greece and Chile.

Faced with the populist challenge, faced with a disruption of the order, the establishment resort in an anti-populist crusade, trying to defend the settled norms or even pre-empt their contestation by naturalizing them. Therefore, anti-populism should be understood as a particular political logic that aims to defend and reproduce the established order by discrediting the demands formulated in the name of “the people”. The ultimate aim of the anti-populist political logic is the defense of order, the preservation of the status quo and the normal, uninterrupted reproduction of establishment.

A political discourse articulated around the signifier of “normality”, attempts to hide the truth that every order of things that is now perceived as normal, as objective reality is first and foremost ... a product of an hegemonic intervention, of a radical imposition.

Different political discourses, among them the populist and the anti-populist ones, attempt to push forward conflicting articulations in order to respond to the dislocated political and social field. This is the point where the concept of “normal” makes its appearance in the stage. Describing the established order as the “normality” that should be restored after a crisis or should be defended against a counter-hegemonic project that attempts to disrupt it, one implies that this is the only way things should have been and should be again.

A political discourse articulated in such terms around the signifier of “normality”, attempts to hide the truth that every order of things that is now perceived as normal, as objective reality is first and foremost contingent and therefore a product of a hegemonic intervention, of a radical imposition. By referring to a dominant, established order as “normal”, one tries to safeguard the hegemonic order from any challenge. This kind of discourse effectively suppresses any alternatives from emerging in the public sphere, by a priori delegitimize them as abnormal and irrational. That’s why social unrest, like the one in Chile, is seen as a force that disrupts the “normality” or why populism is seen as monstrous and abnormal.

In order to fully understand the force and the pervasiveness of this discourse about “normality”, we should go back to Foucault’s work. Return to normality does not mean simply the restoration of the previous situation, but the establishment of a new order that it is perceived to be normal. We should understand all appeals to “normality” as an expression of the normativity of power which, according to Foucault, does not refer to the description or identification of normality but in its production through the productive power of rules.

To conclude, this particular discourse about normality is not a national peculiarity, it can not be explained based on any nation-based hermeneutical context or background. It is inherent in the logic of governance itself and can be better understood within the conceptual framework of capitalist realism. In this way, it can be seen as a discursive expression of the governmentality of our era, proper to the post-crisis reinvigorated neoliberal hegemony.

Today, radical politics include the subversion of normality. Or as Mark Fisher has put it: “Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”

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