Group of European Pensioners from Savings Banks and Financial Institutions


Index of documents > Euromeetings Magazine > Euromeetings Number 22

A ghost is haunting Europe: a ghost named populism. It poses dangers, it calls for analysis, it requires understanding and it demands collective and individual reactions.  

1. It is an important phenomenon
What a brisk tour through opinions from the most diverse geographical and ideological origin on the importance of “modern” populism. 
In the first place, those who, due to populism, fear an imminent collapse of the liberal system initiated in the post-war period. Without going so far, the approaches being branded as populist affect and shall affect the European Union. In fact, the perspectives expressed by Jean-Cleaud Juncker, head of the European executive, are not precisely favourable. The fact is that these populisms put at stake the existence of the European Union. In much more concrete terms we find those who, due to this risk, fear that the Eurozone growth could be reduced by one percentage point. Something like 104.500 million euros. All withing the context of the securitarian drift occured in the 14 European countries analysed by Amnesty International. It is not about finally affirming, like Richard Falk does, that there are necessarily pre-fascist elements. However this should not be either denied a priori.

2. Who are they
Let’s take a look at the list provided by the Spanish newspaper ABC at the beginning of 2016 including the names of some populist politicians: Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Pablo Iglesias, Alexis Tsipras, Yanis Varoufakis and Beppe Grillo. This list, as you may probably have already noticed is not complete, but it already allows some tentative points to be made. Firstly, the list contains indeed leaders from the so-called “right wing” and the so-called “left wing”, and secondly, only in the USA we find the leftiest democrat (pre-candidate against Hillary Clinton) to the extent that he has continuously used the term “socialism” and the current president, hardly suspicious of leftism. There are right-wing politicians in the government such as Trump and Kazynski or Tsipras on the left spectrum as well as people who have very little chances of accessing the governmental arena, such as Varoufakis. That the list is incomplete is shown by a table published by The Economist (data from 2015) which also allows once again confirming that “populist” is an adjective applicable to both right and left-wing.   
One will also observe that, similar to the cases offered by Sanders and Trump, both populists but with different political views –“left-wing” and “right-wing” respectively- Greece provides a political party labeled as both populist and “left-wing” (Syriza) and another on the “right-wing” spectrum (Golden Dawn). The Italian political arena only provides two, the Lega Nord and Forza Italia (Berlusconi’s party), however the 5 Star (Cinque Stelle) movement is not included, which some classify as populist according to its empirical background, although perhaps not to the same extent as the Lega Nord.     
Donald Trump’s counterpoint is necessary since we do not seem to be confronted with independent phenomena. Let’s take as an example the following statement: “I, for one, am not interested in defending a system that for decades has served the interest of political parties at the expense of the people. Member of the club-the consultants, the pollsters, the politicians, the pundits and the special interests-grow rich and powerful while the American people grow poorer and more isolated. This statement may well have been made by Pablo Iglesias or Donald Trump (it was actually the last who made it). The fact is that they are progressively building a new category at international level.
Their trend to manipulation leads them to break their electoral promises once they have reached power, which can be seen both in the cases of USA’s and Greece’s leaders, Trump and Tsipras respectively.
A warning is necessary: the presence of parties or political behaviours labelled as “populist” differs significantly from country to country. Historical and geographical factors, as well as differences in the local political and economical conditions (as we will see later) are involved. However, for the time being, it is sufficient to underline what they may well be, from a quantitative point of view, the two ends of “populism” in Europe. On the one hand, Portugal, where according to António Guterres, “populism does not receive the voter’s support”, on the other hand, Italy, where one can almost affirm that all the parties, to a greater or lesser degree, are populist. 

3. How they define them
There has not been an agreement yet on the definitions to be used. Let’s take a look at the following examples:
The first one comes from a list Gino Germani made from La razón populista (On populist reason), a book by the Argentinian Ernesto Laclau, one of the instigators of the Spanish party Podemos. “Populism”, reads the quote, “generally includes opposite components, such as being the standard-bearer of equal political rights and the universal participation of the common people, but linked to a certain form of authoritarianism often under a charismatic leadership. It also includes socialist demands (or at least the demand for social justice), a vigorous defense of the small property, strong nationalistic features and the denial of the importance of social classes.     This is accompanied by the statement according to which the common people’s rights are confronted with privileged interest groups, generally considered as anti-popular and against the nation”. Note the likeness this last point shows with Donald Trump’s already quoted statement. 
The second one comes from Moisés Naïm, of Venezuelan origin, in the current orbit of the Spanish newspaper El País. It reads: “Us against them: the people against the elites; Catastrophism: the past is terrible; They are the enemy, both internal and external, who must be criminalized; Militarism against diplomacy; Undermine the experts for being part of the elites, Undermine the press; weaken the checks and balances; Messianic approach: I am the solution”. 
The Global Trends, published in 2017 by the National Intelligence Council comes in third place. Its characterization of populism, one of the trends which, according to this report, could alter the world, is the following: “Populists, both on the right-wing and on the left-wing of the political spectrum, have been growing bigger and more present across Europe. They are characterized by their suspicion and hostility towards the elites, the conventional politics and the established institutions. They reflect the rejection of the economic effects of globalization and the frustration caused by the political and economical elites’ reactions to people’s concerns.  Anti-immigration and xenophobic feelings within the central democracies of the Western Alliance can weaken some of the essential pillars which uphold the West strength to promote diverse societies and stimulate global talent. Populist movements and its leaders, both from the right-wing and left-wing spectrum, can make the most of the democratic system to encourage, on the one hand a popular support which strengthens their power through a strong executive and on the other hand, the slow but steady erosion of the civil society, the rule of law and the standards of acceptability”. 
There is one last characterization of the economic populism from the work laid by Sebastian Edwards and Duriger Dornbusch. According to them, this would be the economic approach which: “underlines growth and income redistribution while it reduces the emphasis on the inflation risks and financial deficit, the external constraints, the reaction of economic agents before aggressive anti-market policies”. Populist approaches, they say, “in short, fail”, not because conservative economy is better, but as a “result of unsustainable policies”.  
At this point, it is obviously clear that it is not possible to provide a final definition. It seems sufficient to settle for these characterizations of a phenomenon that, as can be seen, cannot be easily defined, given its blurred boundaries to other political proposals which influence the drafting of a populist proposal at the same time this influences those of the conventional parties.        However, it does seem to make sense to ask oneself what it is which is causing this tide, which, as we have seen, does not affect all considered countries in the same way, but which does finally affect. 

4. What feeds them
As we seem to find ourselves before a phenomenon which despite its blurred boundaries affects all European political parties to a greater or lesser extent, it is then worthwhile to ask ourselves about the factors that may have led to such situation.
There are, firstly, political factors and the first one of all is the crisis of the traditional parties (in particular, the Democratic Party of the USA and the Social Democratic parties in Europe). Nonetheless the problem is deeper and it is linked to the feeling of unease in Europe regarding the functioning of democracy itself. There seems to be a wide variety of reasons including the perception of corruption, the increasing inequality and the perception of public institutions as something upon which citizens can no longer rely. 
Secondly, we find the cultural domain, the mentalities and what we can call the “tweet culture”. It is about the role that new information technologies have played, which while indeed do provide a better access to news and information, they also appear to be at risk of producing those “ideological bubbles” much bigger than the ones produced by the traditional media when we read the newspapers and we listen to radio and TV programs that match our own prejudices, which feed rather into feelings than into facts.      
From an economic point of view, the crisis that broke out in 2008 has made the disposable income as well as the wealth of many families plummet and has struck the young particularly hard. As we know, frustration triggers aggressiveness and this searches for an object against which it can unleash its self-destructive power (increase of the number of people suffering depression and eventually suicide), street violence and search of objects (wether real or fictitious) to blame on for oneself’s situation.    
We can equally generalise the problematic situation of the middle classes, who fear slipping into poverty, insecure about their future as unemployed or as pensioner. Insecurity is a situation that demands means of security, preferably easy ones.   
The economic crisis has had a significant effect on almost every society, that is, that “the powerful have become even more powerful and the vulnerable more vulnerable” as a general trend. In this way, social inequality has grown bigger within the different countries and particularly inside the European Union, where on top of this (being this particularly relevant) the situation of the social justice or the perception of this one has worsened.  
But the problem is that of the polarization, that is to say, situations in which the ends of such scale, before the decrease of the intermediate elements (the middle classes), create forms of confrontation in which violence is not excluded, in the most extreme cases through revolution or military or police repression. It is clear that these dichotomous options can reinforce trends towards polarization, but it is not about its causes, which in classical terms (Karl Marx) as well as in more contemporary ones (Warren Buffet) can be called “class struggle”.   

5. What to do
We can make a list with the possible solutions both in personal and in collective terms in various fields: from family to the participation in educational and media programmes. Here is an exctract of this hypothetical list (the full list is available in the complete text):  
1. Counterweight (not denial) to the “tweet” culture: educate in the media. 2. Counterweight to the “adamist” culture: the past exists (hence intergenerations). 3. Emotion, but rationality when necessary. 4. Images, but ideas. 5. Group, but individual. 6. Darwin, but Kropotkin: competitiveness, but mutual help.
The omens that can be gleaned from this text can be softened by what has been said in this synopsis: Trends in keeping with the above mentioned points are also perceptible in the European Union. The immediate future will depend on the strongest of the two tackled trends (both of them will always exist), but as it happens with Tao, it cannot be ruled out that one keeps taking the place of the other and vice versa, as it has been the case so far, at least in this Europe to which the European Union belongs. Time will tell.  

José María Tortosa
Guest speaker