Critique & Humanism | 23 | 2007 | The Spectre of the People: New Forms of Populism
Issue Editor: Boyan Znepolski
Issue: 1, 2007, p. 167, ISSN:0861-1718
In Bulgarian and English (English edition)
only the electronic version of the articles is available
The people in the Bulgarian press and politics in the 1880s and 1890s
The rhetoric born of the French Revolution and the new concepts of popular sovereignty, public opinion and the rights of the people played an important role in the formation of modern Bulgarian political culture. The purpose of this text is to trace the ways in which the power-holders in the Principality of Bulgaria strove to legitimate their power through the people in the 1880s and 1890s. It will try to describe the struggle in the public political sphere as a contest for the right to interpret and represent the will of the people. The different uses, senses and meanings of the term people in the Bulgarian public political sphere in the period under review will be sought and revealed. The study will also try to answer the question of what devices and early forms of what is now called populism but was defined in nineteenth-century Europe as demagogy, statesmen and politicians used in their attempts to reach the real people, the enfranchised population of the country. In this sense, it will also seek an answer to the question of how rational and critical the political debate was according to Jurgen Habermas’s criteria for a modern public sphere. Not least, the study will try to reveal the notion that statesmen and politicians had of the people and their attitude to the real people, to the majority of the country’s total population.
The second golden age historicisation of official culture in the context of Bulgaria’s 1300th anniversary celebrations (1976–1981)
Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, Sofia
In the sources on which this study is based, the first high-level mention of the 1,300th anniversary of the foundation of the Bulgarian State (in 1981) is found in a statement made at the July 1968 plenum of the Central Committee (CC) of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) in connection with a resolution of the Politburo of the CC of the BCP on the writing and publication of a multivolume history of Bulgaria. By that time professional discourse about the past had begun to emancipate itself from the ideological discourse, a process that would continue in the years to come. The late sixties also saw changes in the mode of sharing and articulation in public of the historical truth that had been valid in the previous two decades; in a way, the dominant ideology adjusted itself to the new discourse on history, gradually assuming responsibility for Bulgaria’s entire past. This, however, does not apply to the conceptualisations of anniversary celebrations in the period; one may say that the dominant subjects and intonations in them were typical of an already outdated, earlier style of political propaganda. The reason for this may have been that despite the rise of a new discourse in the 1960s, anniversary celebrations, being basic techniques of directing and staging the political as a mass spectacle, followed an unchanged format of official pomp and propaganda whose exclusive, invariable, consistent and ultimate purpose was open and aggressive demonstration of the uncontested, absolute and total power of communism – a format imposed since the end of the 1940s. This can be seen without difficulty in a series of Politburo resolutions on celebrations from the late 1960s and even in the 1974 resolutions on celebrations of the centenary of the April 1876 Uprising and the 1878 Liberation.
The national-populist legacy of socialism
Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, Sofia
Why is not voting a shameful thing? One of the few points of consensus that have emerged in the Bulgarian public sphere in the last fifteen years or so is that voting in elections is something good in principle, while non-voting is a sign of civic immaturity, social autism or plain indifference and cannot be a valid, publicly defensible position. Why is distancing oneself from the political a bad thing, while the childish enthusiasm that can bring to power a king or a general is considered to be something entirely acceptable? Why do even Ataka’s critics insist on pointing out that Ataka’s electorate must be treated with respect? The standard answer of political analysts is that low voter turnout, i.e. abstention of a significant percentage of the population (although the definition of the acceptable percentage of voter turnout is purely situational – for example, if it was more than 60% in previous elections 40% in the latest ones is considered low) leads to a crisis of legitimacy of institutions. But should legitimacy be based solely on the popular vote? We continue to go to our GPs and entrust our health to them even though the legitimacy of the National Health Insurance Fund is quite problematic in our eyes. This is also the case in many other spheres and levels of social life. We comply or participate in social interactions without questioning the legitimacy of the institutions and forms through which we interact.
Reflections on Bulgarian populism
Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, Sofia
The purpose of this text is to propose several theses on populism in Bulgaria today. The Bulgarian political debate seems obsessed with the subject. Hence, the need to elucidate the phenomenon of populism in Bulgaria is obvious and does not require justification. To achieve my goal, I will use the tools of political theory and its history rather than the much more commonly applied approaches to populism from the perspective of sociology, comparative political studies, transitology studies, etc. Yet even such a modest goal encounters serious difficulties. Analysts in Bulgaria were very slow to address the issue and did so (almost in panic) only after populism broke into the public sphere through national elections and took extreme forms. I must remind readers that there were serious voices even back in 2001, when the Simeon II National Movement (SSNM) won the parliamentary elections, warning that the SSNM was opening the door wide to populism in Bulgarian politics for years to come. As I was one of the proponents of this thesis from the very beginning, I have never had the illusion that after such a rupture any party system could quickly recover its previous ‘pre-populism stability’. What is certain and stable, however, is that the debate on the issue will continue long enough to enable the Bulgarian political community to understand and describe its first mass post-communist encounter with populism. So that we would be better prepared next time.
National populism versus democracy
New Bulgarian University, Sofia
The phenomenon of new populism has been the subject of many studies and analyses in recent years. Despite the great variety of approaches, their purpose may be summed up as follows: defining populism and its main forms, identifying the new forms of populism in the contemporary world, and analysing the specific risks posed by populism today. Populism has long been a subject of study for political scientists. Its origins can be traced back in history. Historically, populism is associated with specific phenomena that emerged in different parts of the world: the Populist Party in the USA in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Russian Narodniki in the same period as well as the völkisch ideology of nineteenth-century German Romanticism. Populism had numerous manifestations in the twentieth century as well, such as agrarianism in Europe in the interwar period, the populist rhetoric of the fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany or Peronism in Argentina after the Second World War. In its contemporary forms, populism ranges from the left-wing Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to the right-wing and far-right populists in Europe (Heider in Austria, Le Pen in France or Siderov in Bulgaria). Considering that these phenomena are so heterogeneous in their genealogy and historical context, the theoretical question is: To what extent can we find a common framework and structure allowing us to define populism?
The old and the new
International Institute for Strategic Studies, London
I will begin with a couple of aphorisms. The first is Voltaire’s. When he was told that something was very bad Voltaire’s answer was a question. That question is, ‘It is bad, but compared to what?’ Populism is bad, but if you want a good example of what the total absence of populism leads to you simply have to look at the way we handled in France, in January, February and March 2006, the attempt to introduce a new labour law without any regard whatsoever for any representative of the population, from the governing party down to the common man. The absence of populism is certainly not a functional or a desirable approach. The second aphorism has a controversial genealogy because, depending on which websites you go to, it is attributed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt or, sometimes, to John Foster Dulles. It is an aphorism about Latin America. When asked about America’s relations with a man who definitely was not a populist – the dictator of Nicaragua, a true oligarch who made absolutely no effort to establish eye contact with the people – the retort was, ‘Well, yes, he is a bastard, but he is our bastard.’ And I somehow had the impression when listening earlier on about Evo Morales or Hugo Chavez that the real problem was not that they were or were not populists, but the fact that they were not America’s bastards. Hugo Chavez is an awful man. I even sign petitions against him. I usually don’t sign petitions. But when you look at his predecessor you will see that Americans had no problems with him. He was just a totally corrupt oligarch who greatly increased social inequalities in a country where rule of law was totally absent. When you have that sort of situation you should not be surprised that you have had a seesaw in Latin America for the last one hundred and fifty years between the populists and the oligarchs. One Hundred Years of Solitude is the name of the book if you want to find out more about this.
The populist moment
Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia
‘A spectre is haunting the world: populism. A decade ago, when the new nations were emerging into independence, the question that was asked was, how many will go communist? Today, this question, so plausible then, sounds a little out of date. In as far as the rulers of the new states embrace an ideology, it tends more to have a populist character.’ This observation was made by Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner exactly forty years ago. A time long enough for populism first to disappear and then to re-emerge as the major player in global politics. And now, like then, there can be no doubt about the importance of populism. But now, like then, no one is clear about exactly what it is. Is there one phenomenon corresponding to this one name? Populism was the term of choice for describing Russia’s nineteenth-century Narodniki; later, there was an ambitious attempt through populism to capture the elusive nature of those political regimes in the Third World governed by charismatic leaders. Populism then became a favourite concept in describing Latin American politics in the 1960s and 1970s. This frequent transformation in the use of the word has only reinforced Isaiah Berlin’s claim that it suffers from a Cinderella complex: there is a shoe in the shape of populism, but no foot to fit it. What is striking about the present use of the term is the almost unimaginable diversity of policies and actors it tries to cover. The attempt, for example, to put Chavez’s leftist Bolivarian revolution and the ideology and politics of the current anti-communist government in Poland under one umbrella is almost an act of violence against common sense. And what could be more confusing than describing Silvio Berlusconi’s recent administration in Italy and the present Iranian regime both as populist?
The populist Zeitgeist in today’s Europe
University of Antwerp, Antwerp
I am thinking about what is the challenge of populism: Is it an opportunity or is it a threat? To answer this question, we have to make a distinction between populism as an ideology, and populism as a style. My position would be that even though, theoretically, populism as an ideology is a key threat, in practice, today in Europe, populism as a style is the main threat. Let me explain. Without going into a detailed discussion of the definition of populism as an ideology and as a style, I will say that here I use the term populism as what is called a fan-centred ideology – which means that it is an ideology with a limited range, unlike liberalism or socialism, but like nationalism, for example. In its essence it is an ideology according to which society is divided into two antagonistic parts – both are homogenous, and that is a key element in it: one is the pure people, and the other is the corrupt elite. So, populists see society as being divided between these two homogenous groups – they do not distinguish within those groups. In their view, the whole elite is corrupt and all the people are pure. The second aspect of populism as an ideology is that it believes that politics should follow what is called the general will of the people, or common sense. And what is crucial is this monism: according to populists, there is something like a general will. This means that you can or you even have an obligation to implement policies that are good for all people. As an ideology, today in Europe you will find populism mainly within what I call the populist radical right, and here I disagree with François Heisbourg who said that national parties like the Front National in France are neofascist. I don’t think they are – they are what is generally called radical-right, but they are also, and this is very important, populist.
Populism in a comparative light: Western Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, and South America
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington
I would like to speak briefly about the rise of populism in Europe, comparing Western Europe with Central and Eastern Europe, giving attention both to political parties and ideology. I would also like to add some comparison with populism in South America. Let us start not with a defi nition of populism but the idea that the core ideological appeal of populism is as an alternative to consensus-oriented liberal centrism. The political evolution of Western European political parties in the second half of the twentieth century was obviously towards consensus-oriented liberal centrism. It brought with it at all times the possibility or risk of attack on the system from either side. Populism is ideologically eclectic and can find an entry point either from the left or the right. Throughout the initial post-war decades in Western Europe, however, there were several safeguards against populism. First, the rapid economic growth that Western Europe enjoyed from the late 1940s through the end of the 1970s kept most citizens part of a rising economic pool. It was a fairly inclusive growth in which most people benefited. Associated with it were forms of patronage that had a positive political side, such as the use of patronage in the building of the German parties in the 1940s and the 1950s. Second, on the left there was also a safeguard. Although euro-communism enjoyed some popularity in Western Europe, its association with the Soviet Union throughout this early part of the Cold War helped blunt the appeal of a populism from the left – it was just too associated with Stalinism.
Populism in East-Central Europe
Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Paris
In February 1989 I gave a talk at the IWM in Vienna which was entitled After Communism, What? Its main thesis was that the crumbling of communism in East-Central Europe brings with it the prospect of democratic change but that its success will depend on the new balance found between the democratic ethos of opposition to totalitarianism and the resurfacing of deeper undercurrents of the region’s political culture. Just as the term return to Europe was ambiguous, so the term return of democracy was problematic for anybody who had studied pre-communist politics of East-Central Europe. The test case, I thought, would be Poland, and I had ventured the following proposition: The mix of Catholicism and nationalism that prevailed in Polish society had made it particularly resistant to communism (certainly in comparison with the egalitarian, social-democratic ethos of the legacy of Masaryk’s pre-war Czechoslovakia). However, the question was: Would these assets of the Polish political culture in a context of resistance be also the most conducive to the establishment of a liberal democracy after the collapse of dictatorship? The question implied some doubts on the subject. The developments of the following decade suggested that these had been exaggerated and that Poland was displaying a remarkable combination of Catholic ethics and the spirit of capitalism. If Catholics even in Eastern Europe today behave more like Protestants in Max Weber’s time and if the experience of unfreedom and resistance paradoxically provided the conditions for the reinvention of a democratic culture associated with dissent and with the Solidarity movement, then one could dismiss the parallels with the first transition to democracy of the 1920s. Similar arguments could be made about the rest of the region from the Baltic to Hungary. With consolidated democracies and their new anchor in the European Union a new East-Central Europe (not a new Europe!) was in the making.
Right turn: The landscape of Polish politics in the first decade of the twenty-first century
Warsaw University, Warsaw
Jarosław Kaczyński, speaking at a rally of his supporters on November 1 2006 at the Gdańsk Shipyard, the cradle of the Solidarity movement twentyfive years ago, said that ‘we stay where we stood then, while they stay where the ZOMO stood.’ By we he meant his party, Law and Justice (PiS), and the government he heads, and by ‘they’ – all those who are his opponents. ZOMO, of course, is the acronym of the infamous communist riot police, one of the symbols of martial law introduced in 1981 to suppress Solidarity. Kaczyński’s statement provoked cries of protest from many of the former anti-communist opposition members who now disagree with the PiS and who thought Kaczyński had gone too far, but that did not seem to detract him. In fact, he specialises in using strong words and categorical judgements to describe and attack his opponents, and his close collaborators follow with zeal. Liberal intellectuals, doctors on strike, journalists and the legal profession, among others, have been the target of intense criticism from the PiS leaders. The latter did not stop even at implying that judges from the Constitutional Tribunal were creating obstacles for the changes the country urgently needs. The leaders of the PiS do not mince their words: the language they use is divisive, sometimes abusive, and represents their opponents as dishonest, unpatriotic, and caring only about their material and political self-interest. All this is more than just a rhetorical style; indeed, it reflects the substance of PiS politics. This politics is based on a dichotomous vision of the world, where we stand for good and they represent evil.
Romania Mare and Ataka: National populism and political protest in Rumania and Bulgaria
Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Paris
Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Paris
On 26 November 2000 Corneliu Vadim Tudor took everyone by surprise when he won more than a quarter (28.3%) of the vote in the first round of the Romanian presidential elections. Having made it to the runoff, the leader of the political party România Mare (Partidul România Mare, PRM, Greater Romania Party), who entered politics in 1991, scored his biggest win to date (33%). In the subsequent parliamentary elections his nationalist party polled 20% of the vote. Incapable of repeating their 2000 success, România Mare and its leader have since managed to retain the support of around 13% of the electorate by embodying the aspirations of national pride combined with an authoritative presence of the nanny state. Five years later, in June 2005, Bulgaria likewise saw a nationalist vote: Ataka, a party created two months before the parliamentary elections, won 8.93% of the vote and twenty-one out of a total 240 seats in parliament. The emergence of this radical xenophobic party provoked a huge outcry from the public and the political class, with some MPs even calling for a boycott against the elected nationalists. Even so, in the October 2006 presidential elections Volen Siderov, the leader of Ataka, made it to the runoff owing to the absence of a credible political alternative to the outgoing president, Socialist Georgi Parvanov. Securing 24.05% of the vote (just 3% more than in the first round), the xenophobe tribunician seemed to have reached his limit – which is only half good news. Could we be witnessing the emergence of a similar, even if not simultaneous, phenomenon of national populism in Bulgaria and Romania? Western analysts often compare the two countries because of the similar way in which they broke with communism (that is, on the initiative of their communist parties).
The banality and extremism of populism: Analysis of dangers
Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, Sofia
No matter how we define populism, we should mention one of its basic assumptions: that the will of the people should be fully represented in the political process. The will of the people should not be frustrated, disregarded or reinterpreted by representatives and intermediaries. When we take into account this basic assumption, it seems that populism is the political ideal of adequate and full representation of the people – and in our analysis we should take into account this kind of normative claim. But when we take it into account, it becomes apparent that if we ask the question of whether populism is dangerous or not, we will get very contextual answers because this depends very much on the will of the people in a particular political environment and in a particular society. Furthermore, it has to be said that as a political ideal, populism finds ample support in other principles of democracy: for instance, the principle of popular sovereignty, the principle of equal respect of the interests of all, the principle of equality, etc. So, obviously, starting from this point, it will become apparent that there are forms of populism which are not dangerous or at least which are quite common for the political process in democracy, and I suggest we call these forms pedestrian populism or garden-variety populism. If we try to define the major features of this pedestrian populism, we will probably see that it constitutes a challenge against the existing system of representation.
Populism has no home country
Radio Deutsche Welle, Bonn
My (not particularly original) thesis is that populist parties are, above all, parties of negation and that the moment they enter government they lose much of their energy and persuasiveness. I will try to illustrate this with somewhat unsystematic observations on the common aspects of populist parties and their development after they enter government. I will also offer a few remarks on populism in Germany, where I live. Populists usually dominate the pre-political space and that is precisely why integration into the political is usually lethal for them. By pre-political space I mean, for instance, the pub as a classical pre-political place as well as the town square, TV shows (such as Volen Siderov’s on Skat Television) and, above all, Internet forums as a tribune of the newly emerged populisms. When, however, a populist party enters government, this saps its energy. As we can see in the case of Ataka in Bulgaria, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria or the Vlaams Blok (now Vlaams Belang) in Belgium, the slogans of populist parties which sound very convincing, powerful and heroic in the town square or in a smoky pub, begin to sound very hollow in the parliamentary chamber or the corridors of power. The same applies to the body language of populists. Here again we have excellent examples in Volen Siderov in Bulgaria, Jörg Haider in Austria or Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. Their body language – be it spontaneous, coached or modelled on their idols – is designed to appeal precisely to large anonymous crowds gathered in a town square where the leader stands above, electrifying the masses much more with his body than with his words. Such body language, of course, doesn’t work in the parliamentary chamber. Firstly, because in the parliamentary chamber the populist leader will be facing a large number of political opponents and relatively few claquers, i.e. his favourite audience cannot see him in his usual role unless it sees him on television; and secondly, because – deprived of a genuine, natural outdoor contact with his audience – the populist leader loses his momentum.
On populism, post-populism, and contemporary myths
Interview with Michel Wieviorka by Boyan Znepolski