Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Spectre of Populism

The spectre haunting Europe in the spring of 2011 is Populism. The search for political support, from votes in democratic elections to acceptance of policies between elections, through appealing to the self-interest of large and vocal groups by unscrupulous, even immoral means, has become a mainspring of political activity. Such means consist mostly of promises that are either: 1) impossible to deliver, or 2) temporarily feasible but non-sustainable on the proposed scale in the longer run, or 3) feasible and sustainable only at the very heavy cost of compromising an overriding public interest, including the rule of law. An example of the first is a manifesto commitment to stopping immigration altogether (by border controls or building walls), or making it illegal and repatriating immigrants; the second, an overambitious programme of large-scale public works, or a commitment to overgenerous welfare provisions and inter-regional transfers; the third encompasses criminality in government activities such as condoning and encouraging illegal buildings or tax evasion. It follows that, of necessity, a populist leader must be an inveterate and shameless liar, sometimes a rigid ideologue, often a criminal.

Paradoxically it is the nature of liberal democracy that generates populist politicians. The requirement to submit to the vote at regular, relatively short intervals makes for the need to try and fool all of the people at least some of the democratically critical time; or fool a majority of supporters for some of the time, until it becomes absolutely obvious to that majority that you cannot deliver at all, or can only do it for a short time, or that the costs of keeping promises are immense and make everybody worse-off. And when the opposition to populism is divided or gormless, populism can thrive even without commanding a majority.

In a representative democracy the purchase of the people’s representatives directly, and very cheaply with respect to the value of what you can obtain in exchange, including immunity from prosecution and blanket impunity, can be even cheaper than taking over a derelict but branded party or founding your own afresh (though this can also be a very profitable business). And once you have built temporary power, you do not even have to buy the people’s representatives out of your own pocket, for you can reward them at public expense. These long-standing techniques are greatly facilitated by the modern possibilities of building up monopolistic or quasi-monopolistic control of the media, in the absence of legislation against the conflicts of interest that are bound to arise.

United States pork barrel politics currently displays its populist public face in the Tea Party but while the Obama government is in power populism is held under some restraint. In Europe we already have the real thing. Clearly Italy with its inordinately disreputable and discredited Premier on trial for a remarkably broad array of criminal activities, backed by his populist ally and accomplice the Northern League, ideologically committed to undeliverable economic, fiscal and cultural policies (yet making fast progress beyond its current 8.3% of the seats), is what I had in mind in characterizing populism. But European populism, or populist-like policies, is widespread and gaining support elsewhere. The map reproduced below is from SPIEGEL ONLINE, 15 April 2011 (just before the Finnish elections, therefore putting True Finns at only 4% of the seats. Spiegel – quite rightly in the circumstances – uses indifferently “right wing”, “right wing populist” and “populist” tout court.)

In Finland, on 17 April half a million voters (19%) endorsed the racist, xenophobic and eurosceptic, anti-abortion “True Finns” party, catapulting it into third position, neck and neck with the first two parties. Its leader Timo Soini holds the balance of power in the formation of a new government. There may be dangerous repercussions on the measures to rescue the Euro agreed by the European Council on 24-25 March, including the additional billions for the euro bailout fund, the planned reform of the fund, and the rescue package for Portugal which is still to be finalized. True Finns are opposed to assisting "wasteful countries" (like Greece, Ireland and Portugal). "We were too soft on Europe," says Soini; Finland should not be made to "pay for the mistakes of others."

Recently right-wing populist parties have impacted government formation in Belgium, the Netherlands and, more recently, in Sweden. The SD (Sweridge Democraterna) cleared the minimum 4% threshold to enter the Riksdag where it obtained 5.7% of the seats, enough to deprive the incumbent center-right coalition of an absolute majority. Last year the anti-Islam anti-EU Dutch Freedom Party gained third position with 15.5% of the seats, making Premier Mark Rutte dependent on the goodwill of its populist leader Geert Wilders. In Belgium the Flemish Interest/Vlaams Belang obtained 7.8% of the seats. In Norway the so-called Progress Party holds 22.9% of the seats. In Denmark the anti-immigration, anti-Islamic Danish People's Party, that supported a center-right minority government for almost ten years, is now the third party in Parliament with 13.9% of the seats. In Switzerland the right-wing People’s Party (PV) is the largest group in the Federal Assembly with 31% of the seats. In Austria the Freedom Party (FPO), founded by Jorg Haider, and the Alliance for the Future of Austria hold 17.5% and 9.2% of the seats respectively. In Romania in the European elections of 2009 the Great Romania Party obtained 8.7% of the votes. Populist representation in Parliament is also present in Latvia (Fatherland and Freedom LNNK 5%), Lithuania (Order and Justice IT 12.7%), Slovakia (Slovak National Party, 5.4%), Bulgaria (Ataka 10.1%), Greece (Popular Orthodox Rally LAOS 5.6%). In France, the Front National of Marine Le Pen is not represented in Parliament but gained 15% of the vote in the first round of administrative elections, and 12% in the second round; the latest opinion polls give her the top position in the first round of the forthcoming presidential elections. The only other country in continental Europe without populist representation in Parliament is Germany.

These are depressing results for any progressive of left or right but insofar as they are expressions of voter-support for divergent, non-progressive policies, are still within the aegis of representative democracy; unlike what is happening in Italy, where the state itself is under assault from criminal and sectional interests, and is classically undefended by a fragmented and incompetent opposition.

It is Hungary, however, that can be defined as a laboratory for the new, national, populist Europe, with mounting aspirations to ethnic identity and zero tolerance of social diversity, with the Hungarian national-conservative Fidesz party rising to power last year behind populist calls for law, order and more police. (Soon after he was sworn in, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán promised a "noticeable increase in public security within two weeks.") Furthermore, “The ruling Fidesz party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán used its two-thirds majority to whip a new constitution through parliament on Monday [18 April 2011], and critics across Europe are in uproar. The move, they fear, will convert the party's conservative, nationalist ideology into a state doctrine, cement its power well beyond the end of its term and upset the democratic system of checks and balances” (SPIEGEL ONLINE, 19 April). The new Constitution reduces the powers of the constitutional court and broadens government powers over the magistrature, over budgetary and fiscal matters and over the media – extending it, through government nominees, beyond the current government tenure that is expected to end in 2014. The new authority controlling the media since the beginning of the year, Nmhh, already exercises censorship with orwellian efficiency. This is the very essence of Berlusconi’s project.

On the night the new Hungarian constitution was approved the German public TV network ARD commented: “The constitutional state has largely been abolished, future elections are effectively meaningless, the media are being whipped into line, as are theaters and museums and everything else that could shape the nation's culture." … "Barely a trace remains of pluralism, of variety, of the basic features of a free society. If you talk to people in Hungary about politics these days, you're confronted with fear, like in the days of East Germany. In this state, Hungary no longer belongs in the EU. It is a disgrace for Europe. But Europe is saying nothing."

The Süddeutsche Zeitung commented: "The constitution enshrines a spirit of ideological, ethnic intolerance, both externally and domestically. Some are being reminded of the fascist rhetoric in Europe between the world wars. Neighboring countries are getting unpleasant memories of the cultural arrogance and power of the Hungary of old, whose Magyarization programs they were subjected to. The new constitution claims that the state of Hungary represents all other Magyars, meaning the three million living in neighboring countries." (the quotes from both sources are taken from SPIEGEL ONLINE, 19 April).

In the 2010 Hungarian elections the extreme right party Jobbik also entered Parliament with 16.7% of the vote. In 2009 the Jobbik-backed para-military Hungarian Guard was banned, but new private militias have been re-created and have been harassing Roma villages over Easter, forcing the Roma population to evacuate, and have been involved in beatings and clashes (SPIEGEL ONLINE, 28 April; see also their Photo Gallery). “The police and the judiciary have lost control over the growing right-extremist citizen groups and paramilitary-style gangs. In recent months, extremists have repeatedly staged marches, primarily in eastern Hungary, against "Gypsy criminality." And police in the villages which have been targeted have shown a preference for standing aside.” The Hungarian state appears to have retreated from certain regions and left them to the right-wing vigilantes. So much for the promise of a noticeable increase in public security.

In Hungary the populist Executive has succeeded in identifying itself and its values with the state and has permanently altered what was a representative democracy, and by which it came to power, so that its populist policies cannot be removed by democratic vote. It is here, in the embodiment of populist values in place of democratic values within the modern state, rather than as policies on offer to the electorate in party manifestos, that the threat to the entire post-war social democratic settlement lies.

Voters are faced with: the global economic crisis, and the associated mass unemployment; enhanced international competition and protectionist temptations; rampant inequalities and the challenge of migrations, concentrated in a few areas and sectors; the euro crisis and the prospect of all having to share the cost of bailing out countries perceived as non-deserving; the exploitation and resulting demise of the welfare state. In short, they have strong objections both to re-distribution and to lack of re-distribution of income and wealth, i.e. ultimately to the re-distribution processes such as they are. In these conditions, voters will abandon nebulously felt democratic powers in return for equally nebulously-offered protection of their living standards and their way of life.

There is, too, a knock-on effect in other EU countries, including those up to now relatively unaffected by populism (whether as a result of their voting system or the maturity of their democratic values) but vulnerable to the wave of North African refugees connected with participation in the Libya mission, causing bickering and conflict, and leading to a waning of solidarity among these countries in their determination to rid Europe of a rogue state on its Mediterranean borders.

What can we do? Re-value political participation and activism. Never accept that "politics is dirty" or that "all politicians are corrupt", this is false. Fight indifference in all its forms. Forge political alliances by looking for common ground rather than indulging in unaffordable splits and unacceptable assaults upon people’s aspirations and self-sufficiency. Avoid dogmatism. Defend the democratic state and the rule of law. Speak up; those with access to media or academic outlets should use it to argue for representative democracy and refute the frightened selfishness of populist policies. And be counted. Never fail to vote whenever you have the opportunity.


chilosi said...

In part populism of the Right is the consequence of populism of the Left: the two are mutually reinforcing. Populism of the Left (but also of the Right such as in Greece) would pay no heed to budget constraints: in Italy the last Prodi government fell (whatever the apparences) because the Left of the coalition insisted to increase public expenditures in a way the would have made the public debt unsustainable. But the basic reason why social strata that in the past would vote for the Communists or other parties of the Left vote presently for the Northern League is the populist policy towards immigration opposing every effective measure to bring it under control, such as the Turco Napolitano law which came too late, vocally opposed by the populist Left advocating in practice unrestricted immigration. As a matter of fact in many cases (in France, in the Netherlands, in Scandinavia) the surge of right populism and para-fascist parties has probably been induced by the socially destabilizing impact of immigration processes too sudden and uncontrolled. As to Hungary part of the responsibility for the present para-fascist regime may be assigned to the lamentable performance of the socialists before, and their populist policies paying no attention to the sustainability of public finances, and lying about their true situation, in the same way as the populist Right did in Greece.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mario
your post on “The Spectre of Populism” is an appropriate description of common deviations of societies from the route of progress. Unfortunately, though, it is not a good picture of Italy where since 20 years the organised crime reins in society under the veil of political leadership.

The incessant criminal power of the Italian political leadership is based upon the full consent of the Italian "uncivil" society that stipulates with it ignominious pacts with the aim at sharing the underlying profits.

The dissent is punished by civil death, unemployment and poverty. Marginalisation is your destiny if your attitude does not imply fierce action, corruption and violence. The society is primitive. It remains folded out, incapable of any kind of progress.

Alice from Wonderland

D. Mario Nuti said...

Sure, Alberto, populism can also belong to the left. Gordon Brown's fiscal policy was definitely populist. The fall of Prodi's government was the result of left populism on the part of his allies, but his electoral defeat was probably affected by the late Tommaso Padoa Schioppa's fiscal squeeze. TPS chose a strategy of fiscal austerity in the first years in government, so as to benefit from later relaxation closer to the elections. Except that the government fell too early, and such simple-minded strategy came unstuck. A very small dose of populism would not have hurt Prodi. Quite the contrary.

Yes, Alice, you are right. Italy suffers from a tight, long-standing, deep interconnection between politics and organised crime, both nationally and in the regions,South North and Centre. This is a lamentable and most depressing feature of Italian politics, though fortunately the fight against organised crime is the responsibility not of the government but of police, cabinieri and magistrates.

chilosi said...

"Tommaso Padoa Schioppa's fiscal squeeze. TPS chose a strategy of fiscal austerity in the first years in government, so as to benefit from later relaxation closer to the elections"

I don't think TPS had the political cycle in mind. What he did was a measured continuation of the policy of gradual reduction of the mountain of Italian public debt which has been the responsible policy of the governments of the Left in Italy since the first Prodi government, and which unfortunately was interrupted by the Berlusconi government between 2004 and 2006, when the Debt/GDP ratio increased from 103.8 to 106.5. TPS reduced the ratio in 2007 to 103.5, a very responsible policy, in particular seen from the hinsight of the subsequent international financial and economic crisis whose fiscal consequences have raised the ratio to 115.8 in 2009. This has brought Italy in the group of Piigs, making an attack on the Italian fiscal position not unlikely and the financing of the debt more onerous. Had the same responsible stand been taken by Tremonti before TPS the Italian fiscal situation would have been better and the risk premium on our debt lower allowing at the same time some fiscal compensation for the fall in aggregate demand during the depth of the crisis.

Jacob Richter said...

The European Left needs clear heads like various Marxist thinkers of Socialism of the 21st Century, populist appeal like that of Hugo Chavez and Oskar Lafontaine, and commitment to institutional organization like the German model before WWI.

BTW, there's a difference between substantive populism (check out Die Linke's draft program), of popularizing "academic" policies (Kalecki, Minsky, and Meidner, for instance), and cheap faux "populism" (price controls, tariffs, anti-immigration).

Lorraine said...

You said it, Mario.

I still feel quite a degree of disbelief to think that so many Finns fell for the cheap-n-easy vote. In the breakdown of the voting statistics they are finding that those who voted for the populist party are mainly from the more rural areas. Votes from the three larger cities (Helsinki, Turku, Tampere) were predominantly liberal or social democrats. And as a footnote, in the translation of the populist party name from Finnish to English, something critical was lost: a more exact translation is ‘Basic Finns’. That doesn’t really need much analysis…

Marilena Giannetti said...

Very scaring but unfortunally, very true!!!
I've always thought that what was going on in Italy was possible because of the very bad culture and low education of the italian population made even worst by the junk-culture spread around by the media since the '80ies (private TV channels, magazines, newspapers and State TV channels). I have always thougth that the Northern European Countries had a much more advanced civilization and democracy. But as you have clearly evidenciate, they also are moving towards an obtuse and shortsighted political scenario.
I feel very short of hope at the moment and I start to think that probably the very nature of the human being, egoism and selfishness, will always prevail. And by doing this people make the fortune of a few and the distruction of all the others!!!!
I am using my voice, but more and more often I am seen as a very "naive" person!

Branko said...

Alberto is right that there is left-wing as well as right-wing populism. There are, however, differences in the implications and operations of the two.

Left-wing populism or demagoguery is more likely to try to please the poor and the middle-classes by promising to deliver something that is unsustainable over the medium-term (Mario´s point 2).

Right-wing populism, which is sweeping Europe now is, in my opinion, much more malignant. It not only promises undeliverable or mutually incompatible things, but needs a scapegoat.

To be sure, left-wing populism also uses scapegoating (the rich often play that role) but in a less systematic way. But it seems to me that right-wing populism cannot even be imagined without having somebody to pin the blame on. Moreover, in right-wing populisms, that other who is blamed is generally somebody weak, and thus unlikely to be able to respond in kind. (The rich, in contrast, are not exactly without means to counter the left-wing populism.)

Thus, I tend to see left-wing populism of Papandreou or Chavez as demagoguery, and right-wing populism of Orban or ¨True Finns” as ante-chamber to fascism.

D. Mario Nuti said...

Thanks, Branko, for a very important and most disturbing qualification.

D. Mario Nuti said...

I asked my good friend Vladimir Popov - a frequent guest on this Blog - whether he regarded Putin and Medvedev as populists.

His answer may be of general interest: "It is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is a populist and a nationalist. He supports the "Russia for Russians" slogan (explaining though that "Russians" are all citizens of Russia, not ethnic Russians). And the slogan is supported by over 50% of the Russians, but not by Putin and Medvedev."

The chart on the % of those supporting "Russia for the Russians" can be found at:

D. Mario Nuti said...

An excellent article on Hungarian political and economic developments, by Janos Kornai, was published in the January 6 issue of NÉPSZABADSÁG; it is available in English, “Taking Stock”, at Highly recommended.

His summary:

“What has been happening in the political sphere is easy to summarize. Several important basic institutions of democracy have been destroyed. Hungary has become an autocracy. The Hungarian political regime is threatening to resemble Putin’s. The direction of the changes is clear: they are profound enough to be irreversible (or more optimistically, almost irreversible) and guarantee (or more optimistically, almost guarantee) the long-lasting rule of the group that has gained power.”

“What has been going on in the economic sphere is less easy to describe briefly, because it is full of mutually contradictory actions, regulations impossible to implement, and tendencies impossible to follow. There is no clear direction in the new rules. Let us hope that capitalism is a strong enough system to survive bad economic policy. It is indeed, but it charges a high price for weaknesses.”

“In the political sphere, the Machiavellian aim (grasping power and retaining it for a long time) has been attained in a masterful way. The plan was clear and definite. Obstacles encountered have been removed without delay or hesitation.”

“As far as the economy is concerned, I have not really been able to discern what the aim is. It seems as if there may not have been any detailed plans to implement. According to government pronouncements, we may in a few months’ time be informed of the plans for “structural reforms,” and then be in a position to understand the aims of the economic policy. But whatever the aims may be, they have been bungled in their implementation.”

“We have every reason to be worried about the future of this country.”

Jacob Richter said...

"Left-wing populism or demagoguery is more likely to try to please the poor and the middle-classes by promising to deliver something that is unsustainable over the medium-term (Mario´s point 2)."

Why do you brand all left populism as demagoguery? Both left and right populism have their substantive populisms and their faux "populisms." The faux "populisms" are demagoguery.

For example, in Russia Peace meant bailing out on WWI, Land meant redistributing land to the peasants, Bread meant feeding workers in the cities, Workers Control meant developing a popular accounting apparatus. The second and fourth were the easiest to achieve, followed by the first. The third was by far the most difficult one to achieve.

"To be sure, left-wing populism also uses scapegoating (the rich often play that role) but in a less systematic way."

"Scapegoating" led to independent working-class political organization in the late 19th century, while cozying to liberalism did squat. Read into "one reactionary mass."

"Thus, I tend to see left-wing populism of Papandreou or Chavez as demagoguery"

Papandreou is a faux "populist." Chavez, however, isn't a demagogue. Participatory budgeting, communal councils, communes, capital controls, economic works councils, etc. are not the hallmarks of demagogues.

D. Mario Nuti said...

“The Danes bring back border controls, France fears waves of refugees: Germany's neighbours have started to show rampant EU skepticism, but German attitudes toward Europe are no less alarming. A new study shows Germans from across the political spectrum are falling victim to right-wing populism.” See “German Voters and the Virus of the Right", by Jakob Augstein,,1518,762224,00.html#ref=nlint

D. Mario Nuti said...

In the campaign for the Italian administrative elections of 15-16 May Berlusconi and his allies have exceeded any limits of decency and legality.

Personal defamation of opponents through demonstrably false accusations (Moratti against Pisapia in Milan); shameless news manipulation and mud-slinging by corrupt journalists in their pay; incitements to withhold tax on refusal collection in Naples, or TV licence fees on alleged political bias by two RAI programmes – and simultaneous violation of the par conditio by all TV channels; promises to stop the demolition of illegal building and to legalise them...

It might back-fire, of course, but then it might succeed. It is a mistery why the opposition has not used B.’s actual criminal record, or got rid of the “Impunito” long ago on the grounds of a macroscopic conflict of interests.

D. Mario Nuti said...

"Wherever Berlusconi has been for his electoral campaign he has reached a higher peak of vulgarity. Vulgarity has become his flag": Romano Prodi on Friday 14 May in Bologna, Piazza Maggiore, to rounds of applause by about ten thousand people.

Arthur said...

You seem to equate the rise of right-wing populism in Europe with the Tea Party movement in the US. Are you sure they are the same thing?

D. Mario Nuti said...

There are similarities: anti-immigration policies; tax reduction (TEA=Taxed Enough Already) and parallel expenditure cuts, especially welfare cuts (in the US opposition to Obama's health policy reform); protectionist leanings though in different forms (against foreign trade or against foreign capital); plus or minus anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia, anti-stem cells research etcetera.

But you are right, there are differences. In the US it is primarily a middle class, mostly white, Christian, middle-age republican faction. In Eurome populism is more working-class oriented, and more broadly based both politically and socially.

See Jérôme Fourquet and Sarah Alby, "Radiographie du Tea Party", Fondation Jean-Jaurès, Note n.91, May 2011.

Jack said...

Any after-thoughts on Italian populism after the administrative elections of 15-16 May?

D. Mario Nuti said...

The elections are not over: there is a run-off in a fortnight in the larger cities where no candidate obtained at least 50% + 1 of the votes cast. So far the opposition did well. Berlusconi had turned the administrative elections into a referendum for him and his government; he actually stood in Milan where he was aiming at doubling the preference votes he got at the last elections, he got half instead. Of course now he is saying that there will be no implications for the national government.

But should Berlusconi lose Milan, or Naples (to an ex-magistrate!), the Northern League might decide to cut its losses (it did much worse than expected), leave the government coalition and bring the legislature to an early end.

An early election would make his return hard, though not impossible given the majority premium awarded by the current electoral law.