Populism: a European warning shot and what to do about it

This sudden emergence of populism was in fact a true sign of modernity. This is what you might describe as a warning shot – and when you see it happen, you have to realize that something is very wrong with democracy. An interview.

Marek Beylin
14 June 2013

Rosemary: Working from Poland as part of Counterpoint’s Reluctant Radicals EU-wide programme – see Marek’s article in this series for openDemocracy here - what’s most interesting for you in this collaboration?

Marek: Poland is not so unique: the same changes, currents, and the same dangers that one can observe in Poland can be seen throughout the whole of Europe. So when I watch what is going in Poland, I have the impression that I am observing a European model, and the same goes for the rise of populism, which I have been following for a number of years now. Of course there are different local expressions for the fear, the rage and the negatives being expressed, but the basis is very similar.

Populism started to interest me when it was growing in Poland, not despite democracy, but when I noticed that it was a phenomenon integral to democracy. This was during the very aggressive political electoral contest run in 2005 by the Rights and Justice party of the Kaczynski twins and Donald Tusk’s Civic Party. What I noticed was that both parties spoke the same language: they proclaimed that a moral and mental revolution was under way. They both claimed that democratic Poland and its twenty years of changes had been a moral catastrophe, and that Poland had been totally ruined by the corrupt elites who had profited at the expense of the ordinary Pole, whose livelihoods had been destroyed as a result. 

This was a very effective campaign: the two parties won about two thirds of the seats in the Polish parliament, and had it not been for the battles between them that then ensued, they would have formed a coalition government.  Had this occurred, we would now have a similar situation to that which exists in contemporary Hungary: but fortunately, the Poles got lucky – Polish luck. 

Nevertheless, this constituted a huge explosion in populist thinking in Poland, and for me it was very astonishing to see how identical were the methods of the antidemocratic and anti-liberal party of the Kaczynskis and the liberal party of Tusk. They behaved in exactly the same way.

Q. Did you think this was a Polish phenomenon at the time, or identify it with other European countries?

A: At the time I associated these developments with the rise of Jorg Haider in Austria and also of Le Pen in France, for a particular reason.  In all these three cases the language of hatred and exclusion was spread on top of already existing national traditions. 

In the case of Poland, you could find the roots of these discourses at the end of the nineteenth century when a certain kind of national Catholicism became symbolic of Poland, and was part of a wave of burning nationalist feeling across Europe. All this reworked and reinforced by the communist ideology of power and  a uniform society. The same is true for Le Pen: this goes back to narratives that emerged in various circles at the beginning of the twentieth century. And in the case of Jorg Haider, you have to go back not just to Nazi Austria – but to the nostalgia for an imperial Austria that set in once it was demolished, at the end of the first world war. So you could find this line that goes deep into history, and for me it was deeply interesting to see the perverse forms in which these languages now re-emerged, and dominated very different traditions.

Populism had now given itself two tasks – to redefine what had to be done in the immediate here and now, and to rewrite and reinterpret the past. As traditional and harking back to earlier discourses as the terms of this populism seemed to be, what I and no-one fully realized at the time was that this sudden emergence of populism was in fact a true sign of modernity. This is what you might describe as a warning shot – and when you see it happen, you have to realize that something is very wrong with democracy. Now of course we can identify what is wrong. But at the time, seven or eight years ago, this was mystifying – a harbinger of something to come that we found it difficult to decipher or to comprehend.

Now it has become quite banal to say that populism arises when the promise of democracy has failed, when you can see no future for yourself, when your hopes of a good life have been thwarted by financial crisis and other problems over which you have no control. This is when populism replaces democratic mechanisms. 

But I don’t think this constitutes one uniform danger. Here I agree with Lila and Catherine with respect to what they say about the ‘Reluctant Radicals’ in their book. When the sympathizers for these parties – not the core activists –  call you a “traitor” or a “corrupt elite” or a “horrible Jew” – you should be asking yourself what they really want to say with these phrases, as it is often the case that they want to be saying something rather different. I find this encouraging, because when you look at the very large number of people who are thinking in this way you see it is a huge variety of people – the poor and the rich, the plebeian and the top managers, the pro-European and anti-European, the feminists and anti-feminists, the anti-Semites and the philo-Semites – you can find nearly all these categories in this very large group of people often alluded to as ‘Kaczynski’s nation – a nation apart’. 

What this means in fact  - and of course this is also a fine Polish tradition - is that they cannot find any common ground for their fears and their needs. If you talk to them, or precisely listen to what they are saying, you will hear that a lot of them want a better-organised state which is capable of conducting politics in a better fashion. They want the accelerating changes to stop for a moment. Or they simply want the incriminated prime minister Tusk and the president to show some remorse for their individual culpability and some care about how they conduct themselves. This is a complex of demands. This is very little to do, in fact, with what Kaczynski says ‘on their behalf’. And even more than this – Kaczynski is determined to present ‘his nation’ as a unified and uniform nation, but his ‘nation’ is multicultural, and he doesn’t want to admit this.  And this I feel is a reason for optimism.

However, responding to this phenomenon could come unstuck if everybody who opposes Kaczynski’s politics, whether they are democrats, liberals, socialists, neoliberal, whoever, in fact maintains the same as Kaczynski on this point, and concedes his argument, saying, ‘This is indeed a horrible unifying of the National Us behind anti-Semites and so forth and so on’ – if they believe what he claims, then they finally become his unconscious supporters, and this view of populism will leave the people in all their diversity mute and without any proper voice at all. 

Then we will see what populism does to ‘the nation’. It is a banal point often maintained by political scientists that populism can move people. But as in the Polish case, I think we can see that what ‘populism’ really does is to deprive people of a proper voice, and reduce them to speaking in a language that bears no relation to their own reality, needs and fears. This is the best way nowadays to turn the citizens of your country into phantoms.

Q: How should the opposition parties conduct themselves? Are they going to be able to solve people’s problems just by drawing them back into ‘the mainstream’? On the positive side – could a technology like the internet help express the tremendous diversity we encounter in our cities? Might that be a way around this false, unifying force?

A: I don’t believe in ‘the mainstream’ or the main political parties having a solution. And my optimism is of course qualified by one reservation – it does depend on Europe not being destroyed by the crisis in the markets, by the whole situation we are in, and for now there is a 50.50 probability of this maybe. 

But if not, as a non-believer in political parties as a source of salvation nowadays or in the beneficial power of states - this power is vanishing and that of political parties too because they don’t know who they represent or for whom – nevertheless we Europeans never were so free as now, and never were so involved in all kinds of public activities – small, big, local, more national or general in importance. You can see a hundred million European people who are involved in something – dealing with public problems, effecting small policies, changing their environment – doing something. This is the democratic energy.

Q: But populism surely is a counsel of impotence that destroys this sort of energy. 

A: Populism doesn’t only take place in the political sphere. It is also in the imagination of every citizen – it is part of the imaginary of all democratic individuals, including these people who are mobilized in democratic activity. There is always this possibility of populism.

Q: Please say more about this ‘imaginary’. Is it the result of the majoritarian emphasis of democracy ?

A: Yes, that’s the first point. A lot of people don’t understand why as part of a majority they should agree with all the demands of any minority. You can of course say this is a lack of education, but it is much more than that – it is a whole social and cultural system that everyone in our societies learns. They learn that the people hold the power in democracies, and if this is the case – why should this not be the case for the majority?

Q: So it is interesting that you refer to two populisms in Poland – because this isn’t the only country in Europe or the rest of the developed world where you have a completely divided nation with two clashing claims to the ‘National Us’.

A: Fortunately in Poland, as in France or in Germany or the UK – majorities are vanishing. It is nearly the case that there are no majorities any more. This is a new phenomenon – we are all minorities now, and you can’t identify any stable ongoing majority. Of course some problems, some issues will gather the majorities together, but other problems will not and if the majority ever exists it is punctual in time. It is not something which can be depended on to have a continued lifespan. Of course very few people welcome this. This is one of the bases of the populist revolt – how to restore a majority for which they are nostalgic.

Q: And isn’t it the case that across the board, it is more than their life is worth as mainstream national politicians if politicians fail to promote a faith in that resurrectible, fictional ‘majority’. Consequently, they have little interest in arguing that our societies will thrive only when people skill themselves in encountering and taking advantage of diversity. They have to cling onto the one state church despite the proliferation of counter-lifestyles in order to purvey this rosy image of a past when invariably ‘we were great’ which could once again be our future destiny… ‘British jobs for British people’ – that is what they are always driven to say. Isn’t that a systemic flaw not at all confined to the populist parties, and which is taking us down a very dangerous road?  

A: I agree that this is a very dangerous road. But we have two big heavy arsenals against this ever-present danger: one is universities and education, and the other is culture – in Poland the universities are institutionally weak, but however there are some hundred thousand people studying and it changes something, even if the education provided is not first class. 

But a much bigger ally is culture – culture is destroying these kinds of monocultural illusions and I see it in Poland – where theatre, art exhibitions, film, literature – of course you can say it is a niche – but these very marginal movements make such a difference. You can see a quite good experimental theatre in a small town in Poland – to which let’s say ‘normal people’ go. And they go because they find something there that they want to see there – they want to see how it is – or more importantly perhaps – they want to see how it isn’t! These are small movements but evolving. Free access can be given on the internet to a lot of these experiences – and this movement can accelerate: it will be larger.

Q: But take the media laws in Hungary… here we have a very effective counter-movement to that expression of emergent diversity – don’t we? A race against time? What is happening in the Polish media?

A: The media in Poland like everywhere else are weak and weakening. There is a diminishing number of readers and a diminishing volume of advertising. So even Gazeta Wyborcza which was always very strong – the strongest journal in Poland – is still strong, but it has also become weaker. The problem is that there is nothing that could replace this serious media output. They will not disappear, but they will probably become more elitist – this is the destiny of all paper-based media through to the electronic - i-phones and e-journals.  These will be for elites, and that is not a happy outcome. It is not a good thing – but it may provide a basis for doing something better. 

However I don’t believe in television or in public television today: it is a quite horrible sort of aggregating enterprise. But perhaps the future of good television lies in those channels which are involved in the making of very specialized niche channels – perhaps there will be enough audience for example for a high culture channel to appeal with good debates. There is in Poland one channel called TV Culture which is quite good but which has I believe maybe 0.5% of the Polish viewing public as its audience. So it is a small, precarious enterprise without any money.

Q: So, apart from the mainstream political parties being encouraged to listen much more carefully to what people across Kaczynski’s nation have to say – what further suggestion would you make for moving forward in our aggrieved societies, under these broader conditions we have been discussing?

A: The first recommendation is to talk – people-to-people. Society must begin to organize itself with all the different foundations and non-governmental organizations that have the proper jurisdiction, launching a plethora of small educational schemes which teach children and people generally just how to talk – how to talk to each other, how to understand each other and how to tackle that other big problem implicit in democracies, that it is a system based on mutual suspicion. In a democracy, of course you should have trust. But actually everybody is suspect in a democracy. “Perhaps he has more power than me, perhaps he is plotting something.” Democracies teach us not only how to be open with one another – but also how to be suspicious. So we have to locate this suspicious face of democracy and show people how to talk and how to hear what someone else is saying. 

There is a spirit of the times: it exists I think, and the problem I have set myself is how to transform this free society of free individuals into a powerful society of free individuals. I see a lot of diffused powers and enormous energy, but very often in a crisis situation, these societies don’t know how to gather together in order to resolve an issue. They don’t know how to organize. Organisation has become one of the most suspect terms in contemporary democracies – it sounds so ominous. Yet for me - I was, you will remember, educated under communism - I don’t believe in politics or in public doing without organization. You have to have them.

Q: Isn’t a strongly organized majority exactly what you’d rather avoid?

A:  I see that I am sounding completely contradictory. On the one hand I state that there is no such thing as a majority in society any more and I welcome this, but on the other hand I would like to have one in order to win effective political battles. But, you see the minorities could be very powerful. So perhaps the question we should ask ourselves is not how to establish a strong society, but how to establish strong minorities?

Q: And what is strong? Take the criticism of the Occupy movement for not having party political programmes – do you think that was a weakness?

A:  The Occupy movement and the Indignados are such an important symbol for me since at the same time they encapsulate all I hope for and all I fear. My hopes  - because they managed to formulate some very important ideas that were not clearly articulated on a large public stage until they did this, and because they were so numerous, they were heard – heard not just by politicians who are not so important, but far more significantly, they were heard by the whole of our societies including the silent majority, which perhaps learned something about their own real problems. So it was a really fantastic civic education for everybody, and more, I think it was a democratic education because they behaved as democrats who wanted to reform their democracies – so really hats off! to these people!!

But this is the fear. Our states are largely designed like accountancy firms – they legitimate what exists and only what exists as a real force, and they endow it with power. So to be not only heard, but to be able to execute something in the state, you have to be able to show your influence not only in terms of your numbers and your powers, but you have to show it continuously. This is probably the biggest problem we have – those of us who want change, how to establish continuity. I have read that the Indignados want to establish a political party – and let’s see. Who knows? It could be one of the ways to do something effective. But I would prefer it if they launched into our midst some permanent Greek agoras, in which they could be constantly building up the impact of their hopes, their fears, their demands and their expectations.

Q: So you want a widening horizontal conversation? But it has to have some relationship to representation – you want politicians who are willing to listen to people…. ?

A:  Well, you have to have some kind of representation. Theoretically everybody could speak about everything in Madrid or in Occupy Wall Street. But there were leaders nevertheless. However, representation now is a very fluid phenomenon. Perhaps in fact you don’t need a constant national representation. Perhaps what you really need is some leaders and a stable area of occupation in which to proceed with your exchanges. 

It’s complicated, because on the one hand as a citizen you know that you have to affect politics to get something done. But in our society very often you achieve your goals not through the direct power of politics, but through the simple power of voice and of being together, in a park or on the streets. If you are heard clearly by other parts of the population, politics will come to you! 

Q: As Europeans we have not been allowed such spaces for conversation. Do you think we could start doing this? It would have quite a surprise effect if nothing else!

A:  We must. And it should consist of two movements at least: on one, I agree with Habermas’ recent idea about how to unify Europe. He wanted to do this by starting above the heads of citizens with getting expert commissions together. Why not? It’s one way of raising the many issues. But it is only any good at all if it is accompanied by another way of raising issues, which is gathering a lot of grass roots organizations to discuss these matters together. Perhaps these kinds of movement which bring together a lot of different European circles, organizations, foundations, citizen groups – could be enabled by the European institutions at Brussels opening up the forums for discussion. If you had these two movements – one from higher up, but working in tandem with the bottom-up initiative – perhaps you could create this kind of European political space capable of unifying Europe politically around some core objectives. 

Because, without this, I don’t see a good future for our democracies.  After the financial crisis, once we saw how weak our democracies were in the face of the markets, it became very clear that a strong democracy can only exist on the European level, not diffused at the national level.

Q: This inescapable conclusion seems to be rather what the European powers have tried to avoid at all costs. But when one looks around for the bottom-up kinds of agency you are talking about, I can’t help being rather depressed by the extent to which we seem to lack a sense of who and what is outside us – internationally, in class terms, or simply in terms of people with other interests, let alone being capable of cultivating and absorbing some reluctant radicals…  What could be in it for them?

A: This is very challenging and perhaps we can say that for it to happen, the self-organisation of society along these very challenging lines will not be enough. The state too has to promote the formation of these kinds of forums,  institutionalizing the horizontal, bringing people together. Perhaps this will be the main new role of the democratic state under these new conditions. 

Of course we don’t know precisely yet how to do it. But we can begin to work on this. 

Q: I wonder if you could tell me a little more about that other surprising Polish development – the ACTA campaign which emerged from nowhere at all seemingly!

A: There were two surprises. First that it happened at all. Nobody thought that this ACTA treaty would provoke people to go into the streets and protest in such great numbers – thousands and thousands of people. People of all political persuasions. They felt that they were directly under attack in one of their basic freedoms – free access to the internet and to its resources. This was people fighting for their personal freedom against the government. And what is interesting in this story is that during these protests, from the beginning, they were adamant that politicians were not to be invited into the process. A majority of that movement maintained this stance to the end – they didn’t want to negotiate directly with government, and rejected the invitation to talk from Prime Minister Tusk. They were saying – “OK, we can discuss these issues. We have a perfectly good network for discussion, so let’s get on with it.” Of course they issued their own invitation to discuss, orchestrated by one of the expert bodies involved on the website of one of the government ministries – there was a huge and lengthy discussion.  But they chose the time and place. 

The other great surprise was that there is such a thing as ‘society’, it turned out, behind all those political divisions. OK – it is fluid and diverse and comes together only at certain moments – a kind of punctuation in the political process. However, it does exist. So it showed that the big division between the Rights and Justice Party and the Civic Party did exist, but was only one of many such conflicting interests, and not the main division as both parties contend, bolstered by their huge influence in the media.

Now this period of mobilization is over, and on other subjects more recently, people who tried to lead the same kinds of protests have failed in these attempts. They have not chosen issues that in the same way appealed directly and personally to those thousands and thousands of people.

Q: Could this have happened anywhere in Europe – why Poland?

A: Of course there is a tradition of fighting for freedom in Poland – for sure. But there is also a big tradition, as there is in other countries, to seek the good life alongside but outside the system and in some way heading for the exit. You can imagine that both these were contributory factors influencing the wider society. This has always been an important social practice in Poland: how to preserve life over and against the system, and the solution sought was to live a much more private kind of life: “I take particular care of my own immediate local environment, and this is where I channel all my civic virtues, and I don’t care much about what is going on anywhere else.” 

So, you know, there was a strong aspiration for freedom among some Polish minorities, but I’m not sure how influential that really has been in the wider society. More important has been an energy that we see every day as normal democratic practise. This was neither a question of learning to fight for freedom in the former socialist countries, or emulating western democracies when one got the chance – no, this is just a basic definition of all democracies. Democracy encourages people to be energetic and to express all their differences, for good or ill of course.

And of course there are strong counter-movements to this emergent energy. If you don’t see good prospects ahead, or any future - if what you see is some kind of horrid nightmare – you will certainly not be disposed to believe that those who lead us have the wherewithal to make smart choices about what direction our societies should go in. So the problem is more one of the general situation. 

Now we have the superpower of the markets and anonymous financial tendencies that we don’t know how to monitor, let alone understand, hanging over our democracies. This is a real danger to them, and our ignorance in this regard is the real source of this wave of populisms. Each of them claims that we can restore the power of ‘the people’ in the face of such phenomena. And this is bullshit. We can’t. We cannot do this at present. With all our experiences, all the books we have read, we don’t know how. We do know of course that Europe as a united political entity would be stronger in the face of this superpower than separate states. But even so, perhaps that united Europe is also not enough to curb these global forces. 

So there is a project to make a United States of Europe under way. If it works, it could at least be a stabilizing force, first of all in the markets and then in our societies – but the really big changes that are needed go beyond this as well. 

Of course each of us in each of our societies can only do what we can do - and we must do this. But I don’t know how the markets can be made to respect the power of our societies and to invest in society, and this is a key problem. 

In the meantime, I agree with the question posed in the title of the Reluctant Radicals book – how to recapture the reluctant radicals. It is a problem, but I agree with the authors there is a way to do it. I agree with them that it is possible to reclaim many of these people from being outsiders in the system, and transform them into enraged citizens who want to modify it and not to abolish it or exit from it. And this would be a big step forward, and one well worth attempting. New eras establish themselves very slowly and for a long time, nobody recognizes that this is what is under way.  In the meantime, we can only carry on looking for these signs.

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