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21.05.2019 | Jonas Lüscher
Corruption, nepotism, “Führer“-politics, redeemer-myth; I simply can`t believe in “good populists.“

Jonas Lüscher Foto: Ekko von Schwichow

Dear friends,

Now that I have read Michael’s letter, I’ll try to supplement it and respond with a few remarks to Ágnes and Yvonne.
Ágnes’s distinction between populists and ethno-nationalists seems to me to be interesting, but I’m not sure whether it can hold up in this unambiguousness upon closer examination. Precisely the two figures that Ágnes names as examples of actual populists, Perón and Chávez, are extremely multi-faceted personalities. Perón was a self-confessed fascist, a multiple puchist, a militarist and nationalist, a social reformer, a working-class hero, a charismatic personality, an opportunist flip-flopper between left and right, and yes, availed himself of populist methods.

But can we really assume that this iridescent political style was owing primarily to concern for the well-being of the people and not rather above all to Perón’s will to power and the awareness of their own greatness and status as saviours? Was not Peronist social policy largely clientelism and Peron’s three terms of office marked by nepotism? Just as Chávez's period of government was marked by corruption and nepotism, and his style of governing became increasingly authoritarian. Wasn’t Chávez’s chief concern Chavez, and Perón’s Perón?

I don’t really believe in the "good populist" who acts out of concern for the good of the people.

I don’t really believe in the "good populist" who acts out of concern for the good of the people. The very emergence of an oligarchy, even if it may act only in secrecy and not as shamelessly as in today’s Hungary, seems inherent in populism. Populist politics is always the policy of a strong man (rarely a strong woman), a leader politics linked to a myth of salvation and a redeemer; for the leader, populism is above all a means to the end of his own power, and often of course of his own enrichment.
That is why I think it makes sense to call Orbán’s ethnonationalism populism. The fact that populism appears in different manifestations is indeed the premise of our dialogue. And here I find Ágnes’ suggestion that Orbán’s populism no longer focuses on the people but on the nation interesting.
Ágnes writes: “These ethno-nationalist parties do not even claim to support the ‘people’; they support the ‘nation’...”.What Ágnes is referring to here is, if I understand her correctly, the concept of the “people” in the sense of "the simple citizen" as opposed to the member of the "elite".
The concept of the people is a polyphonic one. On the one hand, it is used by populists to arouse a kind of class-struggle impetus – the simple, hardworking man of the people here, the aloof elite there – and on the other hand the concept of the people always has a “völkisch” connotation.

The Swiss tribune of the people Christoph Blocher manages masterfully to let these two facets of the term resound simultaneously when he presents himself as quite the class warrior - grotesquely equipped with a fortune of 10 billion euros - as a man “from” and “for” the people, because he succeeds both in creating an inclusive “we” and in the same moment in defining this “we” exclusively, invoking the Swiss founding myth of 1291 and exploiting simple resentments towards the “other” and the “foreigner”.

If you say “Volk”, you are conjuring up the adjective “völkisch” as well.

In German-speaking countries at any rate, if you say “Volk”, you are conjuring up the adjective “völkisch” as well, and in this context it is of interest that in the late nineteenth century, as part of efforts to purify the German language of foreign influences, “völkisch” was proposed as a substitute term for the one originating from the Latin, namely “national”.
In short, I’m not sure whether it really makes a big difference at the end of the day whether the populists refer to the nation or the “Volk”: the result is that we always have to fight the same evil, ancient tendencies – nationalism, racism, exclusion of dissenters, illiberalism, anti-intellectualism and a brazen, painful celebration of the worst resentments.
(Allow me here a brief, fundamental interim remark: Yvonne rightly admonishes us in her post to employ precise language. Such language will nevertheless occasionally be lost in translation in this multilingual dialogue. For example, my comments on the concept of the “Volk” are very German-specific. Ágnes used in her text the English term “the people”, and Orbán himself will use a Hungarian term. The variation “völkisch” thus exists only in German, and the German concept of the people has a different history and etymology than the English term “the people.”
So, as this example shows, in our polyphonic dialogue, it will not always be easy to attain linguistic precision in translation. This difficulty should oblige us to be all the more precise.)
Ágnes is of course right in pointing out that ethno-nationalists of Orbán’s sort have nothing to offer except protection from external and internal enemies, and that their ideologies are therefore negative ones. But I wonder if this is not simply because of their weakness in geopolitical and economic terms and because they are just waiting for the opportunity to promise grandeur, purity and greatness.

Like Putin, who, when the opportunity arose, didn’t hesitate for a moment to carry off a grand symbolic gesture and incorporate Crimea, thereby tying into the old story of Russian greatness. Or the Brexiteers, who immediately after the referendum again struck up the old tune of ‘Rule Britannia’ and daydreamed of resurgent colonial greatness.
And I am convinced that, in addition to the military and economic impotence of these countries, it is not least the binding forces of the European Union which have ensured that these dreams have not all too easily become reality.

“Democrature”, as Ágnes calls it, means more cruelty and humiliation and less freedom.

Towards Yvonne’s text, I feel much as Michael did: I find it hard to understand. Probably because it poses more questions than it provides answers or gives suggestions.
Her introductory remark that she looks with a certain schadenfreude at the growing populism in the West is, I believe, a necessary provocation, which rightly draws our attention to the fact that our perspective is all too often a Eurocentric one. I also agree with Michael’s objection but would put it a little differently in order to get behind the meaning of the concepts of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, which Yvonne describes as the Unholy Trinity.
Überforderung graphicrecording.cool In accord with Judith Shklar, I want to insist that cruelty is the worst thing people do to other people. And I insist that this is true in the face of all the compelling arguments for pluriversalism and cultural relativism. It is certainly true that cruelty has been and is still perpetrated in the name of democracy, human rights and the rule of law; but at the same time, it cannot be denied that democracy and the rule of law are fairly successful in preventing cruelty.

This applies, first and foremost, to what I would describe as liberal social democracy, which is characterized above all by the fact that its citizens have understood it is possible, as a collective, to outwit chance by using the instruments of democracy, the rule of law and the welfare state to make up for the injustices of birth and the blows of fate. I think this is an achievement worth fighting for, because of one thing I’m certain: “democrature”, as Ágnes calls it, means more cruelty and humiliation and less freedom.
In her text, Yvonne suggests in several places the idea that populism fulfils a kind of outlet function for pent-up and unsaid or unsayable sentiments. That’s certainly true in a way. But we must not forget that this is a topos that has been instrumentalized and cultivated by populists. “We’re still allowed to say this, aren’t we?”, “But this has to be said”, “No one but us dares say this anymore” are classic sentences exploited by populists.

They maintain the existence of taboos, yet these sentiments can usually be declared (with well-founded exceptions) with impunity, though the speaker must expect sharp opposition. The case of the evolutionary biologist in Yvonne’s text seems to me a good example. I doubt that at any American university a professor would lose his job just because he admits to having voted for Trump. At least I came across no confirmed cases in an internet search. And I’m sure that the alt-right media would not have failed to exploit such a case.

But he shouldn’t then be surprised if his colleagues think he is a blockhead and disparage his power of judgement – fortunately so, I should like to add. With the statement of the evolutionary biologist that his open declaration of support for Trump would cost him his job, he legitimizes his decision: I’m angry that politically correct, liberal virtuecrats limit my freedom of speech and I, therefore, voted for Trump, and the fact that I can’t say this out loud without risking my position shows just how important and right my decision is. (By the way, it shouldn’t be forgotten in this connection that along with Trump, Mike Pence, who is, to put it mildly, sceptical of the theory of evolution, was also elected.)
It is exactly these sleight-of-hand tricks that we wearyingly have to expose time and time again.

The will to disrupt, to destroy the status quo, plays a crucial role in the electoral success of some populists.

Nevertheless, the picture of the pressure cooker and its explosion has its justification. At least in some societies. The will to disrupt, to destroy the status quo, plays a crucial role in the electoral success of some populists. In the United States, hope for improving the living conditions for a certain population group had been shattered in the last thirty years. Incomes had stagnated or even fallen and the hope that one’s own children may have it better one day had proved deceptive.

Five presidents from both political camps had promised to do better, but even after Obama improvement was not really in sight. It doesn’t surprise me that voters fall victim to the fatalistic idea that the times demand someone like Trump, from whom they don’t hope for any solutions but whom they trust will totally destroy the “rotten system” and thus prepare the soil for something completely new. This destructive impulse was probably also behind Bolsonaro’s electoral victory (Carol will be able to tell us if this assumption is right).
Makes sense...? graphicrecording.cool But if discontent over precarious living conditions were the only reason that voters succumb to the siren song of the populists, then in affluent countries like Switzerland there should be no significant populist movements. But the opposite is the case. The right-wing populist Swiss People's Party has been the strongest party in parliament for twenty years and has dominated the political discourse in the country for thirty years. Their voters are by no means the left-behind and the hopeless, society’s losers. Most of them are middle-class citizens who are extremely well-off financially. They are living in every respect in impressively safe circumstances.

Those who no longer have to worry about the safety of life and limb and about their economic situation, are thrown back on the very big questions.

My hypothesis why the Swiss have nevertheless eagerly responded to populist fear mongering is as follows. Most Swiss no longer have to worry about existential concerns. There is almost full employment, crime is vanishingly small, life expectancy is rising and is now eighty-three years, the welfare state is well developed, levels of wealth and income are among the highest in the world, and the wealth gap is relatively low compared with other countries, freedom of expression is guaranteed, healthcare is luxurious, and educational institutions are among the best in the world. In short, in the areas for which the state and the community are responsible, there are objectively few reasons to worry.

And that is probably the problem. Those who no longer have to worry about the safety of life and limb and about their economic situation, who can fulfil practically all their material wishes, are thrown back on the very big questions. Why am I here? Why doesn’t my consumption make me happy? What is the meaning of my life? These questions are admittedly scary. Anyone who poses them calls his way of life, his very existence, into question. They throw him back on himself. In this situation, the offer of right-wing populists is gratefully accepted.

It is a kind of ghost train offered where the welfare recipient, the refugee, the left-leaning vegetarian and the cosmopolitan gay serve as bogeymen. This pleasurable proffered fright, which makes use of all people’s resentments and diffuse fears, is much easier to endure than dealing with the really frightening big questions that would otherwise have to be faced.
With this, perhaps somewhat daring hypothesis, I want to come to an end for today, but not without coming back in conclusion to Yvonne’s letter.
If we want to get beyond analysis and the criticism with this dialogue, then we should keep in mind a question that Yvonne poses in her text: “What is the ‘better deal’ on offer” that can awaken the positive aspirations of those who are now seeking race-baiting messianic figures who express their dreams (and other people’s nightmares)?
Greetings from Munich,