democraciaAbierta: Opinion

What does populism mean?

We live in a perverse form of mass democracy. We are not guided by moral values or by spiritual values, we are only guided by desires, fear, hate and resentment. Demagogues use these feelings. Interview to Dutch philosopher Rob Riemen (pt. 2). Español

José Zepeda
19 February 2020, 9.35pm
Rob Riemen by Rene Castelijn
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Image: René Castelijn

Jose Zepeda: In your books 'To Fight Against This Age' and 'Nobility of Spirit' you talk a lot about the masses. Do you think there are less and less citizens and more and more groups?

Rob Riemen: It's a fact. I hope that many people still know the work of Ortega y Gasset The Revolt of the Masses (1929). But approximately thirty years earlier, it was a French psychologist, Gustave Le Bon, who first wrote about the masses, the collective identity. Here is what happened. In European history, the French revolution takes place, which is a decisive moment in history, because the people rebel. They do not accept the absolutism of a monarch. It is over. The French Revolution begins with the promise of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. But that promise is not fulfilled. Very soon, the French revolution ends in a bloodbath, in terror (1793-1794). Then the old powers return, although real absolutism is no longer possible. The people have taken their place.

This is when - Rousseau plays a central role in this process - the absolutism of the monarch is replaced by the absolutism of the people, that of popular sovereignty. It is when the nation, the people, is born, that it becomes history, through a language and a certain cultural tradition. But there are groups of people that become universal. And from there, step by step, nationalism is born. I repeat, this means that people no longer owe their identity to 'knowing themselves' but to the fact that they are French, German, Bavarian, Dutch or whatever. That's when the thinking stops. It is only a collective identity that seeks a leader. Le Bon points out that these leaders are often men of action, strong men. He says they are beings who border, in a way, on madness.

Let's look at history. We've had Franco, Mussolini, Hitler.

The second point, if we were to talk to individuals as a mass, I am convinced that 99 out of 100 would say that they do not want to belong to a group. No one wants to be just part of the mass. But people lack the ability to avoid it, because everyone hears the same stupid song. Summer is coming and some silly song of the season arrives. A billion people listen to it. Where does the idea come from that, if something has a million "likes’,that it's automatically great?

This is mass phenomena. All equally stupid and vulgar, but people yearn for belonging, because imagine if you were not part of the group. There is the fear of being an outsider, of wearing the wrong shoes, the wrong T-shirt, the fear of being looked down on, excluded from your group. This fear is deeply rooted in people and is related to the fact that they have not learned to develop their own personality. And they will not learn it, because foolish forces are useful for our economy, in our commercial world. Cattle with the right to vote.

In short, we have to deal with an organized imbecility. Our society exists thanks to the organization of imbecility.

JZ: Societies dominated by fear are sensitive to the false promises of fascist ideology and its autocratic leaders. Do we have to deal with neo-fascism today, or do we have to talk simply about populism, which is something different?

BR: What does populism mean?

JZ: Populism exists on the right and on the left. It does not have a face. Fascism does. Fascism always talks about violence, populism doesn't. I think, but I am not an expert like you, that populism has learned the lesson of fascism.

BR: To begin with, populism is the most meaningless word. If you figure out where it comes from, it meant something totally different than it does today. It comes from Russian history. There were people like Alexander Herzen, and Tolstoy, and Turgenev, who were true populists. They wanted the peasants to have a voice, so they were really left-wing. That the word has become meaningless is proven by the fact that academics have to add many terms to describe something they simply cannot do.

Some fundamental issues. Firstly: why do we use the term populism? Because there are no longer any political thinkers. They were replaced by political scientists. What those political scientists want most is to be scientists and they are hostages of a paradigm that has no place in politics, because politics is not a scientific object. Just like human existence, which is not a scientific object either. Everything we use to understand Mother Nature does not belong to the paradigm with which we can understand human beings and their world.

It is a criticism that Jean-Baptiste Fico made against the thought of Descartes. He said: Don't make that mistake. To understand the human being you need history, poetry, literature, music, philosophy, theology. All of this. However, these political scientists no longer know anything about it. They are vassals of their definitions and theories. They search and search for something that does not exist and then they call it populism.

The second reason why we began to use the word populism is because we are faced with a painful, shameful reality that we prefer not to see. No one wants to know uncomfortable truths. When you are faced with a painful truth in life, the first thing you do is deny it. No, it can't be true. The same thing happens in politics. We experienced this in the 1970s when the Club of Rome published its report The Limits of Growth, in which it said: "If we continue with economic growth as the most important dogma, there will inevitably be an environmental crisis. And we are destroying the earth.” They were saying this already in the 1970s. What was the reaction? Denial... And now it's almost too late.

There is no violence? Look at what's happening right now. What are the consequences of Trump's policies? What are the consequences of Orban's policies? The consequences of Putin's policy. It does not take much to exploit a mass society, where you can turn people against each other.

The painful truth we are faced with is that we are all responsible for the return of fascism. Because it IS the return of fascism.It can not be considered anything else. There is no theory behind fascism. Benedetto Croce knew that.

It can be recognized by several features. And the ones we see today are identical to those of the 1930s. It is argued that Mr. Trump or Wilders or Orban or Erdogan are not the same as Hitler. That's true. They are not. But there were many fascisms. I mean Mussolini was a fascist, Franco was a fascist, Videla was a fascist. France was full of fascists. We're talking about fascism, not Nazism. Nazism is something different.

Third, there is no violence? Look at what's happening right now. What are the consequences of Trump's policies? What are the consequences of Orban's policies? The consequences of Putin's policy. It does not take much to exploit a mass society, where you can turn people against each other. We have seen this in the Balkans.

Yes, we do have to deal with fascism. And how can fascism return, seventy years after the war? Well for various reasons. The most important is that democracy is a certain state of mind. Institutions follow afterwards. You don't maintain a democracy just by having more institutions. You have to cultivate the democratic spirit.

This means that you don't have a society of the masses but a society of citizens. Of citizens who are well informed and NOT indoctrinated by all kinds of propaganda that we call 'fake news' today. They are people who are able to think critically think, reflect, and naturally have their own interests. Because these interests exist, there are different political currents. In a democracy these people meet to deliberate on what is a good society and where we should go. Step by step, and from time to time a step back. That is a cultured, democratic society.

However, it has been a long time since we lived in such a democracy. That's one of the big lies we're facing today. We haven't lived in a democracy for a long time! In fact, we live in a perverse form of mass democracy. We are not guided by moral values, by spiritual values, we are only guided by desires, fear, hate and resentment. Demagogues use these feelings. The world of Facebook that wants us to believe that everything is fine if you have enough 'likes'.

Something's wrong. It cannot be right. There is a big difference between us who live in the free West and those who live in Turkey, in Russia, in Saudi Arabia, in China. These people have no freedom. We are still able to change things. Although, thanks to the PVV (the far-right Freedom Party in the Netherlands) we have lost our subsidy in the province of Brabant. But you can still say whatever you want, and in the United States you can say whatever you want, even if it is harder, it is still possible. In other words, we can still change something. But we do not have much time, time is running out.

JZ: You said we still have time, but not much. We have space, but little. Does this mean that you are still optimistic?

BR: I don't want to be a pessimist. The energy has to come from somewhere. Because if you're a pessimist, maybe you can do politics or make a lot of money on something very ordinary, start a TV show... for example. What I want is to be realistic.

This is the most important reason why I insist that we once and for all recognize the return of fascism. The moment we understand that, the paradigm changes. Then we will know that we are facing a secular religion in which people believe in a false Messiah. It also means that it is useless to fight against fake news, because when people believe in something, the facts don't matter. And everything changes. There will be a totally different strategy.

Let's start with the recognition that we are witnessing the return of fascism. Let's listen to Benedetto Croce, who lived it all. We need other politicians, other people who dare to have a vision - and not go to the eye doctor for that - who dare to opt for Europe. Who understand that the current European Union has little to do with Europe, because it is an economic union, which must become a genuine European Union. That instead of academics we need an intellectual elite, which also includes artists, all kinds of people capable of changing this world through ideas. Fortunately, there are many initiatives everywhere. But still on a small scale and not interconnected. And the established media does not cooperate.

One last comment. I was recently in the United States for the Nexus Institute. I spoke to friends at the New York Times and the Washington Post. I asked them why they refuse to pronounce the f word... ...while in Mexico and Spain there is no problem. But the so-called quality media do not dare. They told me, one independently of the other: We can't do it because our readers don't expect it from us. I replied, what does it matter? They answered, that's our business model.

I said: what you describe is what we call kitsch in Europe. The moment you constantly take into account the expectations of the readers in your environment, what you do is kitsch. You have to educate the readers, inform them. Tell them the truth. Tell them also the things they do not want to read or hear, but which are the truth.

In conclusion: fear, hypocrisy and cowardice are everywhere.

To read the first part of Rob Riemen's interview click here.

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