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29.04.2019 | Jonas Lüscher & Michael Zichy
An initial thought...

Jonas Lüscher Photo: Ekko von Schwichow Michael Zichy Foto: Herbert Rohrer, Wildbild

Dear friends,

here are a few first thoughts that should help us get our discussion on populism going. First of all, a necessary clarification: instead of populism, it would probably be more accurate to use the plural and speak of populisms. Obviously, populism appears in various forms. In the specialist discussions, a distinction is made primarily between right and left populism. But even this distinction is of course not sufficiently fine-grained. In this project we want to trace the differences, but also the similarities, between the many manifestations of populism under different social, economic and religious conditions. To this end, we have put together a very diverse group.

Ágnes Heller, who spent a large part of her life in the United States and now lives in Hungary again, the country she was forced to leave forty-two years ago, knows both the peculiarities of American politics that led to the election of Donald Trump and the conditions in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have dominated politics for many years. In addition, in Ágnes Heller we have a conversation partner who, as a child, experienced or rather survived the horrors of fascism, and who, in the 1970s, after many years of political confrontation with the Communist regime and oppression by it, had to leave her homeland. She is an interlocutor who knows not only the populism of the present day on both sides of the Atlantic, but also the two most consequential political ideologies of the twentieth century that, as Heller herself will tell us, have made use of populist mechanisms.

With Maria Stepanova we have in our group a profound authority on the Russian situation, who has not only critically followed Putin's politics as a journalist and publicist for many years, but also explored the depths of Soviet remembrance in her most recent novel In Memory of Memory.

In her debut novel Dust, Yvonne Owuor not only described the politics of Kenya’s present but also illuminated the colonial and postcolonial history of her country. She is currently observing her homeland from a distance. Working on her new novel at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, she has had the opportunity to compare populist trends in Germany and conditions in Kenya.

Carol Pires will be report to us from Brazil, where the next few months will show how swiftly and deeply the authoritarian and populist new president, Jair Bolsonaro, will change the country.

In Cairo, Youssef Rakha observed with his peculiar intellectual distance the popular uprising in 2011, the subsequent rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, the second revolution – or, depending on the perspective, coup – and the now rigidifying military government. He has already suggested in preliminary talks that he intends to explore the connection between populism and Islamism.

Michael Zichy, an active politician in the Austrian Greens, knows the conditions in his country well and observes with concern the changes in society that are now taking place in the second year of the right-wing coalition.

Jonas Lüscher was politicized in his youth in Switzerland by the strengthening of the specifically Helvetian right-wing populism of the Swiss People's Party, which has now been the strongest party in the country for twenty years. Today he observes with concern the entry of the right-wing conservative to openly right-wing extremist Alternative for Germany into the parliament of his adopted home. Such a diverse group is ideal for following the track of the phenomenon of populism.

Eliten graphicrecording.cool We want to initiate the discussion with a thesis: It seems to us that there is a narrative which all populists use. The state, it is said, is in the hands of an aloof, globalist-minded, mainly urban elite, who have long since lost touch with “normal“ citizens and can no longer understand the everyday worries of the “people“. But they, the populists, do not belong to this elite and are therefore the only ones who understand the public's fears, openly articulate them and take them seriously. Where populists are already in government, as in Hungary or the United States, the narrative is slightly different: now it is the opposition, or more the supranational institutions, the EU, the UN, against which the “true interests“ of the people must be defended.

These stories are interesting for several reasons. First, many leading populists themselves are not in the least “ordinary“ people. For example, Christoph Blocher, the face of Swiss right-wing populism, presents himself as a people's tribune and almost as a farmer-like figure who is very close to the people; yet in fact he is a chemical entrepreneur in possession of a fortune of around 10 billion euros. Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi are similar examples. Why, notwithstanding this, are the claims of these men that they are close to the people, are aware of their concerns, and are they actually working for them, still believed?

Second, populists boast of saying out loud what the “silent majority“ only thinks, and so claim to represent the true interests of the people. But are they really doing this? Or have they rather only succeeded in perfidiously manipulating the people? Is it true that the opinions and interests of the majority are actually suppressed by an elite and its dictates of political correctness? If this is not the case, why is it that this narrative is nevertheless so seductive?

And finally, third: Is the thesis of the existence of an aloof political elite, a “classe politique“, true at all? For which countries is it valid, for which not? Are we, the discourse participants, part of this elite and thus part of the problem? Or is it rather that, given the complexity of the world and political decisions, an elite is simply needed? Does this elite actually practice moral terror and pronounce bans on thought, or is the discrepancy between the political elite and ordinary people the inevitable consequence of the fact that it is difficult to communicate political relationships in a globalized world?

Who would like to pick up the ball and answer our questions with a first essay and report on the specific conditions in his or her country?


Michael und Jonas