Populism for all the people

By Jim Dagg

I don’t know how it feels to everyone else but, as a Canadian who believes he lives in a mostly just pluralist welfare state… left-wing populism seems to make a lot more sense than right-wing populism. Characterized as wanting to address socio-economic challenges, rather than socio-cultural ones seems clearly the better way to deal with societies ills. If people are working and/or feeling supported by their government, then they have less to be resentful about.

The inclusionary vs exclusionary comparison further validates this viewpoint. Where the left tends to want the state to provide material support to the poor (“including” them in beneficial policies), all the right seems to offer is an enemy (“excluded” immigrants and assorted others) on which to place blame for their problems.

Further, the targeting of elites seems so much more natural for the left. Neo-liberalism, as a jobs-killer is an excellent external elite. Also large corporations which don’t pay enough taxes and don’t give their workers a fair wage are great targets. On the right, when they want to make enemies of immigrants and others they have to blame someone for the policies that permit such things to happen. When the right is in power, that could be trouble. Luckily in Europe you can always blame the EU – which is so naturally an elite.

I appreciated the authors (Fieschi and Mudde/Kaltwasser at least) who spoke about populism’s relationship to democracy. It can be “both a threat and a corrective for democracy”. Because they give voice to groups that feel ignored by government, populist parties can alter the political discourse in a positive (say corrective) way. Mind you, they don’t necessarily want change (particularly on the right): they benefit from a thriving resentment.

Medium Matters

By Jim Dagg

The Neffati piece focuses on print journalism and specifically the editorial reign of Philippe Val at Charlie Hebdo. This is old media at its richest: Charlie Hebdo had a loud voice in France and an engaged readership. During the Second Intifada in late 2000, Val engaged in a public debate via sequential weekly columns with other Charlie Hebdo journalists. It concerned the left’s support for Palestinians against Israel. Val received an “abundance of angry letters” (how clunky is that?!) from his readers due to his Islamophobic stance. Did his work aid populist villainization of Muslim immigrants? Not directly: the medium uses too many words and too much subtlety.

In the Doerr piece, we see the (right-wing) Swiss People’s Party’s use of a cartoon with white and black sheep to promote deportation of immigrants who commit crimes. This cartoon was important because it was adopted and applied by right-wing operators “across Western Europe”. These groups felt they were engaged in a transnational community of like organizations. This use of “visual communication” was powerful and re-usable: its full message could be understood easily by a mass of people.

The Ozcetin article introduces a multi-season TV show built to spread the government’s message on Turkish pride. A perceived slight of the show at an awards ceremony by “cultural elites” was seized on to make the populist message even stronger. Television is the insidious medium: a long-running show can bend the cultural fabric over time, establishing a new reality for the masses.

Finally, the Strick article, separate from its bewildering definition of fascisms as based on reaction to developments (isn’t that just regular – admittedly reactionary – politics?), introduces us to memes used by far-right actors. Similar to the sheep cartoons above, these are easy to create and share broadly; and they can deliver powerful messages. As internet memes these can go viral and be seen by huge numbers of people, beginning with radicals, and spreading to the potentially radical-izables.

Manufactured division

By Jim Dagg

It’s so infuriating to see right-wing populists creating the idea of “gender ideology” as just another weapon for stoking fear in the general population and thus mobilizing support for themselves. We can identify it readily as yet another “empty signifier”. As usual, it’s a label designed to manufacture anger and division. By opposing LGBT ideas with the normal operation of the family and the state, anti-gender initiatives become nationalist ones. This nationalist link (you are a danger to Poles if you’re not also Catholic and heterosexual) is even more strained than the argument that immigrants threaten the nation. But, similar to anti-immigrant campaigns, anti-gender campaigns also villainize real people.

Gender ideology’s headline enemy is LGBT people and their freedom: they get most of the vitriol. They are the most obviously different; they are labelled usefully as un-natural. But as the right identifies the heteronormative family as the intended victim of dangerous “gender ideology”, it also attempts to limit rights in such a family. Reproductive rights –contraception and abortion – are opposed, and male dominance is supported. These views get to ride for free on the “gender ideology” train.

Several of the articles observed that anti-gender arguments characterize “gender ideology” as a form of totalitarianism. Say what?! Ignoring the fact that there is no actual ideology… they emphasize its claimed non-democratic character: that a minority would impose new constraints on the freedom of the general population. Clearly – at least to some – the opposite is true.

You gotta believe

By Jim Dagg

We get a very depressing look at multicultural intolerance out of our readings on Europe this week. The 2015 refugee crisis was the largest such challenge since the Balkan convulsions of the 1990s and the largest of non-European stock in … a very long time.

It is depressing to see that in Hungary this was seen as an opportunity for a party with an anti-immigrant message to establish a super-majority (able to change the constitution) in parliament. The Fidesz party, under Victor Orban, accomplished this by building a populist platform targeting the EU and financier/philanthropist George Soros that could mobilize the strong socio-economic discontent in rural Hungary. Hungary’s unprocessed history of antisemitism didn’t hurt either: they were primed to be angry about “other” refugees entering the country.

The Soros Myth was clearly an important tool for manipulating the Hungarian people. The campaign included 1) claims that Soros financed the Muslim migrant “invasion” 2) an all-citizens survey on alleged non-credible instructions from Soros to the EU for smoothing the way for immigrants in Europe, and 3) ominous “Big Brother” posters showing a (very creepy) Soros face. How did this campaign convince the Hungarian people? I’d say they just wanted to believe it all. It gave them an excuse for their antisemitism, and their islamophobia – which really amount to other-phobia. And it allowed them to vent their frustrations and anger at a target that was not their own government.

The Qanon pieces this week show that it is a malign twin to the Soros Myth. The details in this extended conspiracy theory are too fantastical to be believed by a rational person. But consider people who are suffering under COVID restrictions. They don’t know anyone who has been sick, and they’ve been in forced isolation from their friends and family. They are feeling manipulated, suspicious, and angry. Once they are suspicious of a conspiracy, Qanon allows them to dig as deep as they want. But you have to “want to believe”.

Rehabilitating fascism and electing authoritarians: how it happened

By Jim Dagg

In “1984”, George Orwell wrote “who controls the past controls the future”. We are seeing this over and over again in this course. Bull’s article in this week’s readings positions “counter memories” as a commonly used and powerful tool of populist parties. With her focus on Italy, she highlights Berlusconi’s work in the 1990s vilify the left, which he has simplified to “communist”, and to which he assigned false blame for the Bologna massacre (at least). This was part of his work to rehabilitate the AN (heirs to MSI, and hence Mussolini). The second part of the “1984” quote is “who controls the present controls the past”. That part applies to Berlusconi – the media tycoon – just as aptly.

Bull’s notion of an “empty signifier” – what a great term! – is new to me. The signifier really is empty to begin with. Using Berlusconi as the example again, he co-opts “freedom” and fills it with the specific meanings that will appeal to a sufficient coalition of the population. In the winter of 2022, we in Ottawa saw the same term “freedom” used in precisely the same way by the trucker convoy. 

The Kalb chapter was dense and powerful.  He described the devastating effects of neo-liberalism on workers in former Soviet satellites. Then he showed how the reaction produced today’s populist authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland especially. While notionally western parts of the individual Visegrad countries have become important manufacturing centers for Europe, the eastern parts of these countries have fallen behind. Easterners in Hungary were then hurt badly by the financial crisis of 2008 and turned to populists for the answer. Orban was elected in 2010 and transformed Hungary into an “illiberal national workfare state”. The idea spread to Poland next.

 Kalb believes that, in transition to open markets, there grew a rift between the self-perceived “deserving” and “undeserving” workers. He claims this undermined possible solidarity among workers and was a missed opportunity. His description of conflict and hierarchy-seeking makes sense, but would broad solidarity among workers in eastern “provinces” have made any difference to their prosperity – or their precaritization 😉?

Op/Ed #2 – What to expect from Meloni and the Brothers of Italy

By Jim Dagg

Italians have elected a government led by the FdI (Brothers of Italy) party. Opponents call it neo-fascist, though its leader – and now Prime Minister – Giorgia Meloni calls it post-fascist. What should we expect from Meloni’s government?

FdI is definitely on the far right. The Thesis of Trieste, passed at a party congress in 2017 is the party’s ideological platform. Using a model of R.R.P (radical right party) characteristics, one analyst establishes the importance of “nativism, nationalism and authoritarianism” as well as “euro-skepticism” in this platform. Having said that, the platform is one thing; implementation when in power is another. History shows that situational parameters (social, political, economic) and the abilities of the leader have a huge impact on the ability to implement a program.

Meloni is an excellent politician. She has a reputation within the Italian establishment for “pragmatism and sharp intelligence”. And as a woman who has made it to the top of Italian politics… she is tough. In 2012, she led a split from Berlusconi’s mainstream center-right “People of Freedom” alliance, creating the FdI and became its first (and only) leader. She is a fiery and captivating speaker. She is charismatic: even the attempt to mock her in a video “Io sono Giorgia” worked in her favour. When the national unity government of Mario Draghi took power in 2021, she kept her small party in opposition, aware that Italians tend to vote for change. During the snap election which followed Draghi’s resignation, as it became clear that Meloni might win, she began to moderate her positions – including on supporting the euro. In the end, her party won 26% of the vote, up from 4% in 2018. Her coalition partners each won under 9%, putting Meloni in the driving seat of a strong majority government.

Pragmatic, smart and tough, Meloni will play the cards she has been dealt and look for opportunities to implement her party’s program. She has already said that she is leading a center-right government, not a far-right one. She tried hard to recruit a non-political technocrat as finance minister, though she was unsuccessful. She has fully stepped away from euro-skepticism: €200B from the EU – in COVID recovery grants and loans – is immediately at stake. She knows that Europe makes it easier for Italy to manage its huge debt, and that 71% of Italians support use of the euro. She is a full-throated supporter of Ukraine, in complete alignment with EU policy – and against the policy of far-right fellow-traveller Viktor Orban in Hungary. In affirming this recently, ‘she said that Italy was fully, and “with its head held high, part of Europe and the Atlantic alliance.”’  She has no interest in changing the abortion law nor laws that permit same-sex civil unions, as these have proven popular to the population at large. Smart politicians – even true believers – know when the time is not right.

Meloni will pursue her far-right policies where she can: most likely under the categories of nativism and nationalism. This may include new legislation around perceived “illegal” immigration and all aspects of “welfare chauvinism”. Both initiatives are likely to target Islamic immigrants especially. An amplification effect is likely: when the government discusses and passes laws which move to the right in this way, they shift the understanding in the community. This may lead to self-justification for additional official (police) and unofficial (vigilante) action against the identified communities. This is what the world should watch out for.

Talented and determined though she is, Meloni faces daunting challenges. The economy is projected to contract by 0.7% in 2023 and inflation is at 9.4%. She couldn’t recruit as she wanted for some cabinet posts, including for the Minister of Economy and Finance: Giancarlo Giorgetti, who got the appointment and was in Draghi’s unity government as Minister of Economic Development, actually said that he was not confident he could do the job. Meloni’s coalition partners Salvini (The League) and Berlusconi (Forza Italia) have made a habit of expressing approval for Putin and his war in Ukraine. They may choose to make trouble for her for their own reasons. And EU human rights rules as well as economic factors may make it difficult for her to implement some of her agenda.

Meloni’s government, like any democratically elected government in history, will need to be pragmatic about implementing her party’s program. Meloni will likely prioritize some high-profile policies which advance the nativist and nationalist aspects of her platform. But anything more will be limited by situational considerations including an inflationary yet shrinking economy, Italy’s immediate dependency on the EU, and Meloni’s own dependency on mercurial partners Salvini and Berlusconi.

Life in the interregnum

Jim Dagg

For me, this week’s readings worked well to show us how the neo-fascist actors in three countries operated in the midst of their wilderness years. The connection with the idea of an interregnum period was clear.

I was surprised to see the term “deep state” used for a phenomenon that actually seemed appropriate (unlike its reuse in the US in recent years). Embedded fascist sentiment among “leading members of the armed forces, the security services, and the bureaucracy” was poisonous in Italy during the “First Republic” – and likely beyond. They were involved in terror attacks – and due to their positions in the state were often able to falsely implicate leftist actors.

During this time, the MSI – in spite of its transparent neo-fascist nature – was able to participate in legislative elections and was actively concerned about increasing its support.

Britain’s National Front dreamed of transnational links with dictatorial regimes in Libya and Iran as well as the Nation of Islam in the US. The link seemed necessary to the establishment of a Third Way (between capitalism and communism) which had to be on a global scale. The fact they were not taken seriously by any of these makes them seem rather comical.

The Mammone reading highlighted for me the lack of a coherent doctrine among neo-fascists in Italy. This was not actually a surprise given our discussion in recent weeks of the “whatever works” nature of fascist politics. To the rescue came Benoist, with his ND (Nouvelle Droite) structure and Gramscian ideas about building an altered culture to the right’s benefit. This was immediately embraced by Italians who cloned their own ND (Nuova Destra). This was the way out of the interregnum.

Op/Ed #1: A war of fascist aggression that will not end well

Jim Dagg

Vladimir Putin said that he was launching his “special military operation” in order to deal with “neo-nazis” who persecuted a peaceable ethnic Russian minority. In his speech on the day of the invasion (February 24, 2022), he said “We will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.” We will “stop this nightmare, this genocide of millions of people who rely only on Russia, only on us”. On the second day of Russia’s “special operation”, an ambulance brought a small boy to a children’s hospital in Kiev. His parents died in the shrapnel of exploding shells, as they drove through the city. The boy survived the attack but needed emergency surgery to stabilized him. Even so, he was not in good shape, showing little sign of brain activity. It’s not clear whether the boy survived.

Since coming to power as the chosen successor to an enfeebled Boris Yeltsin at the end of 1999, Vladimir Putin has succeeding in building a fascist state. This statement is supported by the two-element definition provided by British historian Roger Griffin: creation/exploitation of populist ultra-nationalism and promoting the idea of regeneration of a great nation that his been under threat. Putin’s favourite tactic is to accuse the West of disrespect and aggression against the Motherland, in order to build Russian fear and outrage. This plays on both elements of the definition.

Further, Putin claims that Ukraine is historically one with Russia – with roots as far back as the 9th century. Harking back to medieval roots is a favourite tune of fascists and other right-wingers in Europe and beyond. Other former USSR states with significant Russian minorities (such as the Baltic states) are worried that, a Putin success in absorbing Ukraine might make them next. This pattern was exploited in the late 1930s by the Nazis who claimed to be saving persecuted ethnic Germans when they stole a chunk of Czechoslovakia.

So Putin is, in some ways, following in Hitler’s path. That said, there are fascists who are good at war, and fascists who are not. Hitler spent years building a military mindset in his people, establishing their belief in their duty to fight and fight well for the Fatherland. He built a formidable fighting machine. Putin, we are told, also spent a decade in reforming the Russian military. And yet, the Russian air force is absent from the skies of Ukraine. A 40-mile convoy of tanks and other military equipment was stalled for weeks on the road to Kiev, before turning back to Belarus in disgrace.

More recently, Ukraine regained thousands of square kilometers in a couple weeks. It doesn’t yet feel like the Soviets chasing the Nazis out of Ukraine, but it’s getting there. And just last week, someone – maybe using marine drones – blew up part of Putin’s favourite bridge (joining Crimea to Russia’s north Caucasus). In retaliation, Putin used 83 cruise missiles, worth an estimated $500M USD, in a single day, on non-military targets. Western military experts have, since July, pointed to evidence that Russian supplies of such missiles is limited. Does that sound like a wise use of resources by a leader focused on winning a “special military operation”? No, it sounds like a wounded leader trying to demonstrate strength to his people, in the most effective way he can manage.

Speaking of the home front, Putin and his defence minister announced plans on September 21 to mobilize reserve troops, numbering up to 300,000. This seems motivated by the unexpected loss of large numbers of troops in the conflict to this point. Polls quoted at this time showed a majority of Russians in favour of the “special operation”, but only a minority supporting mobilization. Demonstrations against the mobilization and the war broke out in Moscow and over 30 other cities in the following days. 1300 people were arrested and some apparently were issued draft notices. Assuming that the most-eager and best-trained soldiers were already fighting, what can be expected from the next wave of soldiers? Two videos circulating in Russia in October showed men in uniform who claimed to be a group of 500  recent draftees. “They complain of ‘animal-like’ conditions, of having to buy their own food and bulletproof vests.”

Ukraine has a demonstrated will to fight, and the support of a united West. As per CNN, Russia has “poor and inflexible leadership, sour troop morale, inadequate logistics and hardware beset by maintenance issues”. It won’t happen soon, but Russia will lose this war.

The New Right

By: Jim Dagg

The chapter from “German Angst” deals primarily with “New Left” student activism around 1968. It takes as a given that this period of protest was important in the maturation of West German democracy. I find this a satisfying change from last week’s “Not Narrating” piece which discounted the meaning of these times as being about experiment and sensation. A key point made here was that fear drove both the New Left (that they would miss their moment) and the opposing “liberal conservatives” who feared the revolution, and who thus attempted to create general fear of the Left. Fear was all around.

The three pieces on post-war far-right thinkers were all quite absorbing and surprisingly non-contradicting. They showed a concurrence that the far right must wait out the current period of hated liberal democracy (an interregnum), before they can expect their thinking to become dominant. Benoist promoted the “Gramscian” idea that their winning strategy is to aim to gain cultural hegemony. Once done, the way would be clear to “long-term durable power”. This is what we see in the US close-up, manipulated through social media and television.

The New Right is desperate to avoid being tarred with the Nazi brush, or even the fascist one. The Griffin article tries to make the “fascist” label stick – providing a pretty cool core definition for it – however I’m not sure that’s a worthy goal. The origin of the policies is not the point: the aim of them is.

Evola had a common theme: that the meanings of race, gender and class are “cultural and spiritual rather than biological”. This is very convenient for avoiding the racist label, for example. Benoist leverages this in advocating for “cultural” racism – that France should be for the French and Algeria for the Algerians”.

Reading the three articles on the New Right put me into an alternate universe, where progress was regress, up was down. Multiculturalism is bad, the French Revolution, the Enlightenment and the Renaissance were steps backward. Liberal states are totalitarian because they “impose administrative equality”. It’s disorienting and you can see how it can be seductive.

Coming to terms

By Jim Dagg

From “Discomfort Zone” we know that most Germans were insistent that they didn’t “really” know what was going on in the death camps. Marianne B’s memoir shows the conflict between pride at her achievements, and willful blindness to what was going on. People did this to save their own self-image and sanity for the rest of their lives.

In both “Hearing Voices” and “Judgment” we see that the West was keen to find and prosecute leading figures in the late forties. By the early 50s, West German were focusing more on their own suffering and re-building. In the late 50s, they developed a new desire to examine the guilt of the German people for the Nazi era. This was prompted partly by a high-profile trial of a “mobile killing squad”. Willie Brandt’s speeches emphasized that shame and guilt were appropriate.

The “Fragebogen” article shows how the 131-item questionnaire could never be up to the task. But was there an alternative? None comes to hand. Its use in literature helped show its weakness at subtlety. There was no “why” around choices that individuals made in the Nazi era. Filtering was necessary and this tool was chosen. The idea may have come from Germans (Marxists!) working in the Office of Strategic Services. Considering the level of intrusion and stress caused by the survey, how well were the results used? We know from “Judgment” that many Nazi judges sat on the courts.

“Not Narrating” argues that informal self-emancipation groups were experimenting, and not trying to drive democratic change. Such groups in fact produced their own internal tyranny.  Rather than driving change, activist groups were interested only in the rush of the moment, which had to be genuine, and non-planned.