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Democracy versus populism – on the power of parties, history and media

Is democracy still evolving or has it been the victim of deliberate political idiocracy with the recent resurgence of populism around the world? Brain Milne gives a detailed examination of the current status of European democracy and how it is dealing with an apparent crisis of conscience.

Democracy is at a crossroads where one road leads straight over a cliff, another just goes in a circle back to where it is now and nobody knows where the other goes. The dilemma is that driving off the cliff may be no worse, indeed measurably better, than the road to somewhere unknown. That is how European politics look at this moment.

History

The problem with such metaphors is that one can play with them to make them say whatever one wants them to say. In other words, make them up. That is how it is easier to arrive at a crossroads metaphor than it is to describe what is happening. Thus, what is happening is compared to something with an element of the unknown, whereby the person making up the metaphor does not him or herself know the unpredictable outcome. It is how I feel when people use history to explain the present. Long before fake news became a much discussed topic, I was looking at history as a mass of fakery. Try to find two countries that share historic detail about any single event. Europe needs a complete European history, not a pot with mixed but not matching ingredients thrown in. History is a useful tool in some people’s hands that is as dependent on nationalism as populism is on the emphasis of the role of ‘the people’ and often juxtaposed against ‘the elite’. It is especially useful when the parts of history looked at are normally minor, quite obscure matters that are conveniently embellished and brought to the fore to rationalise matters that have no other means of explanation. Nationalism and populism are not the same things, although one has frequently combined with the other to blend the defence of nationhood and national identity with being a popular movement of the people, often irrespective of their origins. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf used that method to make a blustering outburst of overblown self-centred autobiography and faux ideology as the foundation of what became a mass movement. It is time to expose and correct that tendency on our continent. Far more important at present, is that if we are to pursue the kind of ‘ever closer union’ that will deliver us a federal future, we need to use history so that it is convergent, that means ‘warts and all’ honesty. By being honest we have a better chance of becoming a democratic union. That undoubtedly implies that what we have now is not really democratic. To call the present structure of the EU truly democratic is stretching the truth somewhat since it is made up of countries that are relatively democratic through to countries that are very clearly not. No matter how democratic any single country may be, not one of them can sincerely be called a true democracy. At present the wave of xenophobia across the EU that is mainly directed at refugees, particularly those of a particular religious background, at minorities who may have been among us for centuries, of foreigners generally but includes fellow Europeans. That xenophobia is also found and appears to be increasing in the most democratic countries. It is one of a number of symptoms of social unrest that populism feeds and thrives on.

It is a moment in time when populism is becoming politically fashionable. History that should advise us not to go down that road is left aside. Populists are cautiously exaggerating facts that work in their favour, thus avoid being shown to be liars, to achieve and retain extensive electoral support. If we examine their manifestos thoroughly it becomes very clear that once they have power they will maintain it by adopting a more autocratic approach than previous regimes. Some of the discontent they rely on and nurture will eventually be suppressed, whilst that which offers them the greatest support will be used to remind people what they have purportedly done for them, thus secure their rein on power.

Democracy

Democracy is being undermined, at least the tattered fragments of what we considered to be democracy are. The word democracy is bandied about without people knowing what it actually means. That is part of the problem. What is far more depressing in a most curious way, is that very few people understand almost any political system and how it functions. Take the UK as an example where the population is largely without civic education that would at least tell people once in a classroom, but then talking to people who have had civic education in their curriculum here in France where I live I get much the same impression. That allows politics to continue without transparency. Thus the word ‘overturn’ that has some kind of revolutionary credentials has become linguistic currency at present, although without substance. Until that changes the rhetoric will remain the same, but the bridge between parliaments, the parties and those who elect them will never be built. I am lightly amused by how many people can recite the Greek etymology of democracy then come to a sharp halt when asked to put it into context in the contemporary. That it is a participatory ‘thing’ without actual form and that voting is the minimum participation comes as a complete surprise to some people.

The worst form of government

Winston Churchill made a speech in the House of Commons on 11 November 1947 in which he is quoted as saying: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” He appears to have been quoting an unknown predecessor whose aphorism is now viewed as a Churchillian original thought. It shows that he clearly knew at least a little political theory and was, as his command of history showed, well read. It also begs the question about what political democracy offers us in what are usually utilitarian systems that if looked at closely would offer little to believe in or hope based on those who represent us. That kind of democracy has never involved irreversible votes that shape the entire future, whether by plebiscite or within the parliamentary system through those who represent us. Decisions made through that kind of vote are how we define dictatorship.

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Winston Churchill

The decision is an absolute, thus by democratically making a decision we make it undemocratic through it becoming immovable, something that can never be repealed or overturned. Thus, democratic systems do not allow such votes, accordingly allowing possible change. What is there in the first place or becomes unpopular will often be confronted with demands that it be overturned. In fact voting itself in a parliamentary system is about ‘overturning’ the previous democratic vote by the electorate when they elect a different party to govern. If the same party win the election that is ‘confirmation’ of their policies, decisions and actions. Even coalitions are formed to ensure a majority party gains the larger share of governing supported by a partner or partners or the ruling party takes on partners to remain in office. Thus little substantively changes. There is no actual compromise, other than in a situation in which all parties form a coalition during a national emergency such as during a war.  In the latter situation democracy tends to take the back seat. Therefore, democracy is itself a source of frustration.

On parties

Throughout this article I am using, and would highly recommend reading, French philosopher Simone Weil’s 32 page political essay Sur la suppression génerale des parties politiques (On the Abolition of All Political Parties) written a short time before she died in 1943 in which she wrote of parties that: ‘Political parties are organisations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice. Collective pressure is exerted upon a wide public by the means of propaganda.’ (p.15)

We are stuck between a rock and a hard place wanting more democracy in a world where it appears to be past its prime with no new alternative. Therefore, once small, often insignificant nationalist and secessionist parties have filled a space by offering what we now call populist manifestos. The demographics of frustration are probably where we find some of the answers to why this is happening. Too much emphasis is placed on older people who yearn for a glorified past or, at the other extreme, young people confronted with a grim future. The reality is that when we look at electorates supporting demagogues like Matteo Salvini, leader of the far right Lega in Italy, who wants to bring together ‘all the free and sovereign movements’ that are actually nationalists who want to defend their people and borders against outsiders, we find a lot of prime aged people who are usually in a range of low paid workers with no positive trajectory into the future down to the unemployed who have gone from dead end employment down to nothing with no real prospects. Somehow or other the politicians who ride on them have the ability to convince them that their country will rise again, phoenix like, from its present malaise to renewed glories. In Hungary Viktor Orbán is doing that by rubbing salt into old wounds using ‘immigration’ to make the pain worse. When it was not the East Bloc years but the collapse of the old empire at the end of WW1, then the slide into the not often enough mentioned second disaster of siding with national socialist Germany comes to the fore. We are so often told that the 20 century was shaped by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife by Gavrilo Princip on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. As a consequence, at least conventional history informs us, on 4 August 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia and France and Belgium had been given an ultimatum by the Germans, who demanded they be allowed to enter Belgian territory to defend themselves against France; Belgium rejected that demand and then armies seriously began to move against each other.

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Simone Weil

Populism – Hungary and Orbán

No doubt Orbán’s people are carefully reconstructing history (yet again) to prove that Serbia (one of their vassal states then) was entirely to blame. Looking at history neutrally tells us that Germany had been building up tensions with France since 1905, their closeness to the Austro Hungarian empire was a very good excuse for military action against Belgium, Luxembourg and into France. Russia was already politically very close to the Balkan states who were trying to free themselves from Austria-Hungary, thus Prussian expansionist ambitions were translated into military action. The 1903 revolution in Russia that is less well known than the 1917 one scared the German empire anyway, because it more or less ended the absolute power of the Romanovs who then became constitutional monarchs with a parliamentary system that was trying to make Russia into a modern state. British and French diplomats sat back watching until all was too late on 4 August and, as one might say, the balloon went up, Europe was thrust into a continental war. The assassination had been a single event with most of what happened already waiting to happen and would probably have happened sooner or later without Franz Ferdinand being assassinated. Now Orbán is playing the card that Hungary can again be a mighty state as it was before 1914, but better off without the people they can blame for the mess they are in right now. The assassination is always there in reserve to blame everybody else if it appears they are being treated badly by neighbours. At the moment they conveniently have immigrants although they have taken in far less refugees in both numbers and proportion than other European states.

Unravel all of that and there is absolutely no sense to any of it. That populism is made up of as much reconstructed history as it is of what it will achieve in their great future usually implies they have no actual plan for the future behind the rhetoric. Thus nationalism becomes a kind of shield to hide behind in Hungary, although it is now over a century since it had any traction whatsoever and was the beginning of the end of what was and will never be again. But the socioeconomic groups who support the populists have nothing else to hang onto, history lies to them by telling them their ancestors were part of a mighty empire that can rise again, just as the English right wing are doing with the whole UK, without any substance that includes the often bloody way empires have often ended. It is where the solidarity of Europe needs to be used to show people that we need to drop these reconstructions, old rivalries and consolidate against contemporary competition in the world. That consolidation also includes maintaining peace as we have, the Balkans excepted, since the civil uprisings in the wake of WW2 were over and both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain’ saw peace, albeit under the political shadow of conflict. That peace was in its way confirmed in 1989/90, but has been under-exploited because we still bear far too much reference to events like Sarajevo in 1914 ending a powerful empire that can be revived to live fully in today. As and when we see the downfall of the populists we need to use the full potential of history presented with all of its mistakes and failures instead of glories way back when to enforce our aim to be a peaceful level playing field. Now the countries who were the main players at the beginning of the 20 century need to concentrate on bringing on the countries that need to catch up which is not just a matter of throwing money at them.

Dumbing down

Populist movements are highly dependent on the lack of knowledge that is as often as not presented from childhood on as history in schools with curricula set by governments that no matter how liberal or progressive they may appear still put national interests first. That means upholding omissions and sometime outright lies that construct a history tailored to explain the importance of national interests as a traditional that must be upheld at any price. If that means disagreement with neighbours, even to the point of starting a war, such unscrupulous principles are swept aside by displays of overblown patriotism. Strong leaders carefully choose language that impresses rather than informs, whether those words are truthful or contrived does not interest the speaker. For them it is quintessentially that being believed strengthens their political message in order to achieve the outcome they desire. The consequence of that is that people are no longer able to ask themselves and others whether what they are being led to wish for is a good thing to aspire to without questioning whether the arguments for that aspiration by politicians are good or bad. In this situation of moral folly it is only bureaucrats and technocrats who hold on to reasons for retaining ‘truth’ and a duty to state them in the face of political downfall or defeat in war when the population they administer require explanations about how their nation arrived at that state of complete decline and ignominy. Even then the presentation and amount of how much truth is discretionary. Instead, it is usually the party in office which decides. Again, Weil described this as: ‘Political parties do profess, it is true, to educate those who come to them: supporters, young people, new members. But this is a lie: it is not an education, it is a conditioning, a preparation for the far more rigorous ideological control imposed by the party upon its members.’ (p.15)

This moral dumbing down of people is a deliberately constructed barrier to protect the political class, who have become increasing more like a privileged caste rather than simply a class in some respects, certainly the career politicians who even without a seat in parliament seem to be increasingly extra-parliamentary parts of that institution. The prime example at present must be Nigel Farage in the UK who has stood for election to the House of Commons seven times, in five general elections and two by-elections, has never won any of them, but is often more visible and heard than secretaries of state and senior ministers. Whilst not exclusively his idea, what is now known as Brexit has become closely associated with him. The irony is that Brexit is an experiment that requires a recreation of the past in which its advocates, who style themselves as patriots and conservatives who are the epitome of being English. They do so without appearing openly British, which would entails inclusion of the characteristics of being Scots, Welsh or choosing the appropriate part of being Northern Irish, although they will go out into the world proclaiming their ‘Britishness’ in order to give an impression of inclusion. In essence, they have either knowingly and unknowingly based their entire argument on tenets of French revolutionary thought by dismissing Edmund Burke’s thoughts that were the very foundation of Conservative ideology that demand justifications for attaining the best decisions that are conducive to liberty and civilisation itself and were then used to justify the UK’s involvement in at least three bloody continental wars that there was no absolute need to be involved in. That has led to the generally accepted and ill informed notion that WW2 was fought to preserve European democracy when in fact it was a competition to protect domination with one of the contenders, France, very quickly knocked out of the contest. From 1933 until Germany began to invade and lay claim on territories lost at the end of WW1 then into WW2 the actual problem was not fascism that was in fact very attractive for many people, but the fact that although national socialists obtained power legitimately, its claims that it was the ‘will of the people’ was too revolutionary for a parliamentary democracy that relied on its multi-party participation to justify legitimacy and, wherever necessary, to apportion blame for all that was ‘wrong’ to the previous government, especially if that had been a rival party.

In the case of Brexit, Theresa May has tried to propagate a ‘British’, but not universally accepted, pseudo-revolutionary version of Maximilien de Robespierre, later Napoleon Bonaparte and more recently Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, claiming to be representing the ‘will of the people’ in order to avoid being a ‘Menshevik’ thus adopt progressive change in collaboration with the EU by negotiating favourable (to the UK) change, by sidestepping parliament and claiming to know and embody that will of the people. Her attempt has simply accelerated the descent into the equivalent of pre-revolutionary chaos, by creating a standoff between two fronts, almost equal in size, neither of them any kind of majority, in which she is claiming to support the entire population, who in return are behind her, when actually it is a little over a quarter of a 65 million population. She has, even more blatantly than an Orbán or Salvini and on the way to a Goebbels, created a fiction of a democracy that exists on the basis of lies, constructions and reconstructions with unachievable promises that is designed to placate a faction of her party that is willing to walk over the grave of democracy in order to recreate the UK as a world power that has no substance other than in their nostalgia for an imagined past that all of them will be too young to have known. She is by no means unique in what claims to be an exemplary democracy. On the other side of the Atlantic the people of what the UK regards as its closest ally, even above commonwealth nations, Donald Trump was elected president in 2017.

Populism – USA and Trump

Trump has recreated a notion of a USA in which opposition to his post Burkean conservatism is now being called treasonous, even denouncing legitimate opposition by the Democrats and within his own Republican party. His demonisation of Hispanic people in a country that was once more Hispanic than Anglophone and inaction on obvious injustices against Afro-Americans whose origins in the USA are mainly the outcome of slavery, thus began with injustice, so has created an All American equivalent of Jews and Roma in Third Reich Germany that is as yet without a ‘final solution’. That is supported by aggressive evangelical Christians whose willingness to take up arms to even fight against forces for good that are not that, merely by their definition, and play right into the hands of populist politicians who play out the ‘good Christian’ role, but in reality are simply in it for themselves. What is perhaps most ironic is that when the 13 colonies fought the British for independence, one of the aims was to break away from the kind of governance that had been established in England over the centuries that was in part a conflict between monarchy and the political class but never of the people as a whole. The founding fathers wished to see an end to that that kind of political regime. The Constitution of the USA does not mention political parties. The founding fathers did not originally intend for American politics to become partisan. In Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, both written in 1787, they wrote explicitly about the dangers of domestic political factions, thus political partisanship in the form of formal parties.

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Enter Trump

Furthermore, George Washington, the first President of the USA, was neither a member of a political party when elected, nor throughout his period in office as president. Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing the conflict and stagnation that he described in his farewell address in 1796. This was however at exactly the point in time political factions or informal parties began to form during the struggle over ratification of the federal constitution. Friction between factions increased as attention shifted from the formation of a new federal government on to the question of how authoritative it would be. The Federalists, led by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, wanted strong central government, while the Anti-Federalists, led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, advocated states’ rights instead of centralised power.  Federalists united around the commercial sector while their opponents drew strength from those in favour of a predominantly agrarian society. Madison, on the other hand, saw factions as inevitable due to the nature of mankind, which is to say that as long as men hold different opinions, have variable amounts of wealth and property, they will continue to form alliances with those people most similar to themselves and will sometimes work against the public interest, thus breach the rights of others. He questioned how to guard against those dangers. In effect he was arguing that a representative republic is most effective against partisanship and factionalism. The consequent partisan battles led George Washington to issue that warning in his Farewell Address: “Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.” The Federalists won, so that what was an open system of governance that was strongly influence by the Enlightenment, particularly through the thoughts and writings of Thomas Paine who is considered a founding father and hero despite dilution to the point of disappearance of his ideas, has now even surpassed the conservatism of Burke into something that bears closer resemblance to the resurgent populism in Europe at this point in time. It may be said that American politics deteriorated rapidly after the political party system was adopted, but now it is at risk of being attacked from within to force a single party rather than no party on the nation. It is unlikely to happen, but the possibility cannot be dismissed entirely. This in turn feeds back into Europe and what is happening now.

The emergence of parties

Parties as we know them in the modern world arrived in England when the successor to Charles II (son of the executed Charles I), James, was found to be a Catholic. Those parliamentarians who wished to have James excluded from succession to the throne came to be known as Whigs and those supporting him known as Tories. An incidental aside, the two names have inherently negative connotations: ‘Whig’ means a horse driver in Scots Gaelic and ‘Tory’ means outlaw in Irish Gaelic, a less than auspicious beginning to the existence of political parties. Over time Tories came to represent and support the Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) Church, gentry and maintenance of a reasonably strong monarchy, whilst Whigs supported non-Anglican protestants, the wealthy middle class and later on industrial, mercantile interests whilst being generally supportive of the supremacy of parliament’s power to govern, while the authority of monarchy was to be largely reduced. As the power of monarchy declined, those parties gradually transformed in to the conservatives and liberals we have in their respective parties today. What is part of the overall picture today, different forms of socialism and social democracy, actually had quite apolitical origins, in fact in its earliest forms were both influenced by and influenced Thomas Paine. The politicisation followed later. As industrialisation and industrial capitalism replaced monarchy as the most powerful political force, parties changed to align with particular interest groups, thus conservative groups like the Tories remained royalist but were moving closer to capitalist interests, Whigs were becoming modern Liberals and Democrats who were closer to progressive, educated middle classes, whereas socialist parties took sides with workers in lower paid trades and manual labour in general.

During the 19 century the preoccupation with the ‘working class’ led to the divisions that saw derivative forms of socialism emerge as  workers’ associations or cooperatives with individual worker and peasant possession to end private ownership and favour of the nationalisation of land and workplaces. They were, respectively, so-called anarchism and communism, neither of which set out to be or become parties. What they became, as too others that incorporated aspects into their brand of ideology, bears no similarity to the original proposition. What they share is merely a claim that they ‘lead’ the workers for whom they exist. If we retrace history we find pure opportunism whereby the workers’ parties tended to be formed out of the trade unions that were a modern version of what had been trades guilds that were opening to larger membership than their predecessors.

What all types of party had in common was having a strong controlling hand in all public affairs in such a way that they had greater control than any interest group or sector of society. Ministers and secretaries of state often came from sectors in which they had particular interests or investment, thus often spoke through the medium of their party manifesto in such a way they exerted influences that attracted extra-parliamentary members into parties that best represented their interests. As distinct ideologies developed with the support of members, they began to declare they represented the particular interests of those people, thus partisanship without too many questions arose. Again Simone Weil analysed this very precisely when she wrote: ‘When a country has political parties, sooner or later it becomes impossible to intervene effectively in public affairs without joining a party and playing the game. Whoever is concerned for public affairs will wish his concern to bear fruit. Those who care about the public interest must either forget their concern and turn to other things, or submit to the grind of the parties. In the latter case, they shall experience worries that will soon supersede their original concern for the public interest.

In fact – and with very few exceptions – when a man joins a party, he submissively adopts a mental attitude which he will express later on with words such as, ‘As a monarchist, as a Socialist, I think that . . .’ It is so comfortable! It amounts to having no thoughts at all. Nothing is more comfortable than not having to think.’ (p.21)

The dichotomy of politics into left, right and centre is in fact little different to the formation of parties. It dates back to the French Revolution when, in 1789, the National Constitutive Assembly met to decide whether, under France’s new political regime, the king should have the power of veto. If that was to be the case, they asked, should that imperative be absolute or simply suspensive. When they voted either way, supporters of the absolute veto sat on the president’s right, the noble side, which according to Christian tradition, is the honour of being seated at the right side of God or to the right of the head of a family at dinner. Those who wanted a highly restricted, suspensive veto were seated on the left. At the time of the Revolution the notion of having parties had not been part of political thought, except through the eyes of their most favoured philosopher and father of the revolutionary ideology, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as an evil that must be prevented. However there was the Club des Jacobins that was originally a forum for free debate. Its transformation within a short time was never anticipated, but under the pressure of impending war and the ever present threat of being sent to the guillotine, in due course it turned into a totalitarian party.

Bearing in mind the following was written in 1943 whilst the author, a French Jew, was a war refugee in England, we see that very little has changed from their origins to the present: ‘Political parties were established in European public life partly as an inheritance from the Terror, and partly under the influence of British practice. The mere fact that they exist today is not in itself a sufficient reason for us to preserve them. The only legitimate reason for preserving anything is its goodness. The evils of political parties are all too evident; therefore, the problem that should be examined is this: do they contain enough good to compensate for their evils and make their preservation desirable?

It would be far more relevant, however, to ask: do they do the slightest bit of good? Are they not pure, or nearly pure, evil? If they are evil, it is clear that, in fact and in practice, they can only generate further evil. This is an article of faith: ‘A good tree can never bear bad fruit, nor a rotten tree beautiful fruit.’(Weil, p.2)

From later in the 19 century onward, subcategories developed in order to place every political party or their factions on a kind of spectrum from left to right. Thus, political parties can be said to be more or less left wing, more or less right wing or centrist in relation to one another. Individual party members, especially those prominent as actively engaged as parliamentarians or high profile activists can also be categorised, even within their party when they deviate from party ideology. As the vocabulary describing political position developed it expanded into ‘far-right’, ‘far-left’, ‘centre-right’, ‘centre-left’, ‘right-wing coalitions’, ‘left-wing blocks’, ‘left leaning’, ‘right inclined’ and several others. However, they also provide one of the clues to the lie of the populist right-wing parties who deliberately gather support among the lower socioeconomic and least advantaged classes. They deny their own history, in many cases to make themselves more attractive than they would otherwise be, to particularly impressionable people who they can offer all manner of promises. They play the card of the once monarchist, truly patriotic party that has both the nation and its people as its cause, when often such parties attract the most ambitious and covetous individuals who lust for power, wealth and often both.

Populism – Italy and Salvini

The present Italian populism is an interesting example of having fictions become what is accepted as truth. Matteo Salvini, now Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, began his political career as a member of the left-wing Leoncavallo that shaped his political orientation before his metamorphosis into the main representative of the right-wing faction of Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania, that is now simply Lega.  Originally they stood for independence of Padania, their name name for the Po Valley, in the north of Italy. They also have a close relationship with the Lega dei Ticinesi in the Italian speaking Swiss canton Ticino with whom they share an interest in the Insubria project, a historical-geographical region which corresponds to the Duchy of Milan  that existed from 1395 until 1810 when it formally became part of Lombardy at first under Austria then later Sardinian rule. In 1861 it became part of the Kingdom of Italy. For several centuries it was an area stretching between two rivers, the Adda in the east and Sesia in the west, between the San Gottardo Pass in the north and the Po in the south, thus larger than Padania. Either as a part or whole of the old Duchy of Milan, the area has never been independent, having been first a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Empire, then crown land of France, Spain and the Austrian Habsburg monarchies respectively. Lega became Alleanza Nord, a merger of Lega Lombarda and Liga Veneta, eventually amalgamating sister movements in Piedmont, Liguria, Emiliano-Romagnola and Tuscany. The present configuration is neither exclusive to Padania nor Insubria, but simply most of northern Italy, the area wealthier than the south. In any of the forms it has adopted or aspired to, it is nostalgia for the rebirth of a territory that has never been independent, as least since 1395. Northwest and northeast Italy are very dissimilar culturally, linguistically and historically, have even been enemies. Bringing them together is without historic foundation. Now Lega appear to have given up their cause founded on the idea that northern Italy should secede from the south and has become a national part by abandoning their argument that the north discard the poorer south that has always been its burden. It has been a process of invention and reinvention that has captured hearts and minds, but when scrutinised is simply a product of propaganda that relies on the ignorance of the people it attracts.

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Matteo Salvini

There are also significant contradictions in the position of right-wing populist parties as champions of the poor and oppressed, given that whilst they have mostly been anti-monarchist, their roots have most often been monarchist and sometimes still undergoing a transformation from pro-monarchists. They are always conservative, often nationalist and frequently proclaim their version of Christianity as a fundamental value, thus not historically workers’ parties at all given the secular or religion neutral and internationalist basis on which those were mainly founded. Spain stands out as an exception after being declared a republic by a short lived left-wing government in 1931; from 1936 to 39 Francisco Franco led a pro-monarchist nationalist alliance that won the civil war. He formally declared it a kingdom in 1947, although the monarchy was not actually restored until after his death in 1975. Other populist movements are simply regional; some of them even creating an image of an old ethnically distinct group that has been oppressed and absorbed to the point of near extinction they will turn around. Thus Lega has gone from being a regional independence party to possessing a national identity with people they proclaim to be their natural following very successfully by carefully handpicking their political manifesto that includes forgetting their original exclusively localised ambitions. They have transmuted from a movement to a party without formally denouncing their past. Furthermore, in the 1980s, even as a separatist movement they proclaimed left-wing ideals that have now been transformed into essentially hard right ideology. In simple terms, it is pick and choose politics where the ‘ingredients’ that have appeal in left-wing movements have been snatched up and carefully absorbed into their apparatus to make them attractive for grassroots voters. Thus far populist parties have not shown signs of any becoming pro-monarchist, although their propositions are not always clearly republican. As Napoleon Bonaparte should remind us that the line between a supreme leader, for instance a dictator, can easily be crossed into becoming a monarch. It is a tendency toward the disingenuous rather than the unambiguous that is ever present in the presentation of nationalism that inevitably relies on reconstructed histories of times when kings and queens were often recognised for heroic leadership of ‘their’ people. As it is, a number of men who have become president of their nation have been the first of a dynasty where that line is blurred. For them, the vagueness between idealised history and their form of power is the lie that lends legitimacy to their position.

Populism and nationalism

It is therefore extraordinary to look back over history at how political parties evolved. In most cases they were a development that began as rivalry between absolute-monarchist and pro-parliamentary with less royal powers groups within parliaments that eventually directed their countries toward constitutional rather than absolute monarchy and then on to abolishing or at least diminishing royal rule. The factionalism that bred the extremes within parties and the differences between them relied on, and to this day still relies on, different presentations of nation, past, present and future. Sifting through those differences there is no absolute certainty any of them will be the truth, indeed even where truth is present it is usually embellished with reconstructed history. In that respect, even nostalgia of the kind we are experiencing at present is as much self-deception as it a ruse to make an impossible return to the values of a glorified past. Nations and their people who populists proclaim as unique are now becoming embroiled in a contradiction as one of their most prominent political faces at present, Salvini, wants to bring together nationalist movements and parties across Europe. Those are, he said, parties who wish to defend their people and borders against outsiders, that he calls ‘free and sovereign movements’. Whilst being a Eurosceptic, he is also proposing to bring together groups which, on the basis of their ideologies, exist exclusively for and within their own countries. Such an alliance would thus be a consolidation of nationalist groups who reject internationalism to oppose a union that came to be for a large part as a force against nationalism and the wars it has caused over the centuries. It suggests there is good reason to suspect the motives of movements who respond to his appeal. Consolidation and success would end liberal democracy as we know it, exactly one of the things already common to regimes in Hungary and Poland where institutions such as judiciary are ousted and media are being subjected to intervention that is seeing interference, censorship and complete domination increasing, reminding us repeatedly of Germany immediately after the election of 1933.

Part of the greater dilemma is how governments use their powers. At present in the UK we are seeing the governing Tories excluding a large part of the electorate who voted against Brexit by use of the expression ‘will of the people’ as though the result of the referendum was unanimous. Theresa May has also claimed to have the entire population of 65 million behind her. However, look closer. We have been told very often that there are around three million EU nationals in the UK. There are also citizens of the 53 countries in the commonwealth plus Irish nationals. There are unknown numbers of others from other countries that include a probable legitimate number, but also uncountable illegal immigrants. The majority of people definably resident at the time of a national census are counted. That was her 65 million. The June 2016 referendum was extended to the over 46 million registered voters who include commonwealth and Irish citizens; of the total population, 19 million were excluded by being under the age of electoral franchise or excluded for such reasons as being imprison or simply not registered but also over one million of the estimated over 13 million UK nationals living abroad, of whom UK authorities believe 1.2 million are in EU states, but estimates run as high as three million, were excluded under the ’15 year rule’. There were also three million EU nationals who were excluded, except Cypriots and Maltese who are also commonwealth citizens and Irish nationals. An estimated 167,000 postal ballots were rejected and an unknown number either sent out to late to return or did not arrive although people were registered. When May made her claim of having the support of 65 million people, we can already calculate that that was fewer than 42 million, allowing for only around 23 million we know were not included, but then more than 16 million did not vote to leave the EU which brings her support down to lower than 27 million of the 65 million in her claim. Again a political fabrication; call it what one will; a lie or fake news by any standard.

Professionally I have seen enough regimes where egos comparable with the one running amok in the USA at present were running the country. Working in those countries, some of them ‘communist’, others military juntas and others simply corrupt dictatorships,  I could never feel free, because there was always somebody ‘breathing down my neck’ in case I learned something, heard something or worse than that, I discussed something that was critical of the regime and its head especially. I did, of course, report negatively, knowing I would never work in those countries again whether I wanted to or not. The USA was still considered the model of democracy and global progress then, for many people in this world that persists, for them the USA represents freedom. The hard line Trump is proceeding along is precisely the inspiration the right needed. Now he seems to be moving into overdrive to drive populists into a frenzy that will stir up the people who believe that they will make the world better for them to go out to elect. The right is gaining momentum in Europe with nobody doing anything substantial to turn that round, to recuperate lost ground in what were liberal democracies that emerged from the grossness and ruins of WW2. The left and centre are floundering wondering how to gain or regain power, thus missing what is happening under their noses. Nationalism is resurgent and internationalism being kicked into the long grass. Recently Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times hit the nail square on the head in one of the closing sentences of a critical article about the present. What he wrote, ‘The blooding process has begun within the democratic world.’ is frighteningly true if we look about us in the world; fascism has every prospect of returning as we believed never again, but this time it knows what mistakes it made last time. Trump is a warning, but also a symptom of a malaise that is killing democracy. Now is the time for people who have the courage and will to act rather that sit waiting to be invited to their own ideological funeral along with democracy.

Parties in competition

Politics has been contained as a form of contest between parties but not as interest groups representing particular constituencies. When parties were forming within parliaments, they basically consisted of monarchists, those who wanted another royal family and those who were opposed to monarchy to some degree. The common people were of little interest to them, especially because they could not vote – that was a privilege for a quite small minority of men. In Western Europe, that tunnel vision was disturbed by the Enlightenment which in turn contributed to the appearance of early ‘socialists’ who were actually non-political in the sense that they put the common people before the privileged minority. That clearly contributed to the configuration of overtly anti-royalist parties and, very early on, created the need for a fixed party ideology that transformed loyalty to the crown into party loyalty, in turn into what has become partisan alignment. Since universal franchise began people have often stuck with one party for generations, sons as their fathers, but in many cases have no notion or care what that party’s actual ideology is. If one takes the UK, with its so-called mother of parliaments and all the mythology attached, no party dares to be overtly anti-royalist because that is said to be unpatriotic, although their origins may well have been republican. Certainly liberals, now Liberal Democrats, can trace parts of their origin back to Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Commonwealth’ from 1653 to 58 where the proposition was as it was named, the common wealth of the nation. Despite the sentiment, the implied equality did not happen. Rather than be a pioneering nation that broke the European mould, they brought back monarchy then set the course for parties to start the process toward modern politics. Although some political rights were extended further than before, voting was still a minority privilege, most certainly not even giving women due consideration for two and a half centuries.

Fast forward, after 1789 into the 1790s, the French Revolution allowed what might have settled down to be an apolitical system become a party oriented system. Not only did royalists hide behind their new ‘conservatism until they could restore or replace the old regime, but allowed already strong religious influences to shape emergent parties. Saying separation of religion and politics is stating an ideal, however politics lost all ideals it my ever have had by the mid 19 century, then watched capitalism take over the strings from the church without dropping the veil of religious morality they could hide behind whenever necessary. Thus parties are an aberration, but one we are stuck with, that even undermine principles a nation is built on such as the constitution of the USA. Since we are stuck with them, one might simply say they should at least raise their own money from members, rather than earn generous politicians’ salaries, but in an ideal world they would simply disappear. That would necessarily need to be without any movement dominating to bring about  a one party state as some countries did to the extent that the single remaining party was actually only predicated on a kind of perverse ideology that only called itself a party since in a party system, a single party is not possible.

The US constitution does not mention parties as either mandatory or optional but that does not mean that it has the power to prohibit or direct them. There again, the constitution does not include an official language in the USA, although English was perhaps taken for granted since the nation was ‘born’ in the 13 colonies that fought their way out of British rule. Almost as soon as the ink was figuratively dry, the nation was expanding to take in former French and Spanish territories without taking in those languages. Indigenous languages appear never to have been on the agenda, indeed every attempt was made to eliminate them entirely.   The contemporary political party system in the USA is effectively a two party system dominated by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party although there are around 45 functioning parties nationally. These two parties have won every US presidential election since 1852 and controlled the Congress to some extent since at least 1856. Although the notions of left and right are used, sometimes more libertarian Democrats referred to as socialists, the reality is that there is probably far more difference between factions in the two parties than there is between the actual parties according to electoral manifestos. Democracy is shaped by the interpretation of the agenda on which the party in power defines it. At present, Donald Trump has gone far further to the political right than most of his party’s members. He is also a president who has never wasted his breath on praising predecessors, but thus far has never spoken out against the founding fathers or George Washington who would not approve of contemporary US governance that defies the principles that were behind the constitution they gave life to.

Irony

It is ironic that in the UK the memory of Winston Churchill is so often invoked as a great patriot at the point in time the country is withdrawing from the EU given that he was an advocate of a federal Europe, which toward the end of his life he even foresaw the UK part of, and is considered one its founding fathers. Again, those deceitfully using Churchill as a beacon to illuminate their version of what he was are omitting what he said about democracy and governance, cited at the beginning of this article. That is pick and choose history in which the true accounts are omitted in order to construct hyperbole because facts too often give rise to opposing arguments. I imagine that Churchill would have read Weil’s essay in which her first assumption was that the parties and those in a parliament prevent democracy, meaning the electorate, finding out what the true, correct solutions to problems are. That most certainly describes the present UK situation and, assuming we can still call it a liberal democracy, the USA despite Trump. Had Weil been alive now she would probably have critically revisited the opposing positions of Burke and Rousseau, found that it would be better to oppose both the direction Burke’s conservatism led to and the over interpretation of Rousseau by revolutionaries and, in turn, fascists who adopted some of the mantle of revolutionary thought. She may well have taken note of Theresa May’s use of the expression ‘will of the people’ that is so close to Rousseau’s ‘general will’, which is a means of escaping the predisposition toward enthusiasm in all arguments for use of ‘the will of the people’ that becomes invalid the moment there is actually any form of resistance such as a challenge to the claims of nationalists, fear of counterrevolution against what is actually exclusively the will of government or even the kind of confrontation there is at present between the two ‘tribes’ of ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ in the case of Brexit. Those change it in to ‘the will of some people’ which is not useful political rhetoric.

So here we are with Trump, Orbán, Salvini and others who use populist messages that are carefully embellished to gain and hold widespread electoral support. The most successful tool at present is fear of the other which manifests itself in the shape of immigrants. It has maintained others in office, May for example, and is threatening to undermine the position of others such as Angela Merkel. Trump has been a pioneer of political chicanery of a kind seldom tolerated in a true democracy. Every possible titbit of gossip through to exaggerated claims about Hillary Clinton as a rival contender for the US presidency was heaped into the pages of all available media. Even Clinton supporting media repeated accusations in detail before reports then moved on to repudiation. Fake news, targeted propaganda and all manner of less than honest reports were used in such a way that they overshadowed the many reasons the US electorate had for not trusting, thus electing, Donald Trump. It worked. Nobody has successfully cried ‘Foul!’, although it has been attempted. The Republicans won, by their democratic standard that is all that counts.  Orbán, and Salvini are both in high office because they stirred emotions, their questionable pasts are overlooked because the propaganda machinery that worked for them painted their rivals as worse. In the UK, May contemptuously uses untruths, allows her cabinet to do the same, yet whilst the truth is available to those who wish to see it, she still holds office and may well see the present term out. Voters appear either so used to not having the truth or have simply given up and become complacent, so that with trust in politicians almost completely gone, no effort is really made to protest with the intent of removing them from office. The two sides stand firm against each other, Leavers and Remainers, locked in a slow motion battle of words that appears to go nowhere. The opposition is generally not opposing, not even as a gesture that would convince people to vote for them next election. Democracy is in some kind of stasis, perhaps close to death, the main parties are moving in the same direction although saying very different things and there we find Weil yet again, back in 1943, describing the illness that has dulled minds to take a strong hold of the political world and determine political alignments:

Nearly everywhere – often even when dealing with purely technical problems – instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind. This is an intellectual leprosy; it originated in the political world and then spread through the land, contaminating all forms of thinking.

This leprosy is killing us; it is doubtful whether it can be cured without first starting with the abolition of all political parties.’ (page 32)

For democracy to be real, the hypocrisy of parties who play out the role of defenders of democracy, whereby no description matches another, that use hyperbole and even blatant lies to take and hold office must be dismantled. In that respect the EU is failing dismally since each of the political blocs in its parliament contain at least one party that does not fall in line with an intended shared ideological framework. Thus, not only is it a further level of factionalising by grouping but even then there is no consistency. The only ones that actually appear consistent are the two hard right wing groups, Europe of Nations and Freedom and Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, that are both essentially anti-EU, although the fact the two are separate also adds a grain of doubt to their substance. Too many parties, in too many blocs, with so many ideological positions and no assured consistency within their groups does not inspire confidence. At this point in time when truth can be so easily dismissed by somebody calling it fake news and untruths can be widely acclaimed as facts, Weil’s leprosy is already spreading; a cure can only happen if we contain further contamination whilst looking at the bacterium under a microscope, then finding treatment to contain it until the remedy is discovered then shown to work. It is perhaps too late to actually ever abolish political parties, but there is always the compromise that would allow people to be elected as party members who once in parliament will not sit in party blocks, not debate and vote under party directives but as representatives of constituencies who take their party line and their constituents’ views into full consideration then, unfashionably, put country before party. If Europe is going to be successful, our continent must be innovative, trying political approaches that have never been tried in the modern political world, thus bringing us closer together instead of running the risk of too many parties and groups opposing each other that it slows governance to close to permanent deadlock. I have relied on Simone Weil a great deal, not absolutely because her essay contains solutions, rather more because it is full of clues. That 75 years on from when it was written so much has changed little, if at all, should be an alarm bell that we cannot refuse to hear. We can begin by examining history, warts and all, learning from mistakes and not reconstructing versions that make nations rivals, then we can move on to the most difficult step. Honesty.

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Categories: Authors, Brian Milne

3 replies »

  1. You speak a mouthful – well, figuratively-speaking, anyway!
    Ignorance is the oxygen of populism.People are much more easily duped when they are uninformed or mis-informed. WWII can easily be presented as a fight against evil dictatorship where the white-hats won decicively, when it was really a struggle to be top dog in Europe – or at least stop the other contestant from getting the prize. Hitler promising to make Germany great again masked his real agenda, which was a straight-forward power grab and tenure for life, and enough people were too poorly-enough infomred to see through the scam. It reminds me of the pick-pocket who taps your left shoulder to diverty your attention while he lifts you wallet from your right pocket.
    And thank you for the bit about the origins of political left and right – I know it came from just after the French revolution, but the actual issue of the time is very interesting. While Conservative v Progressive is probably a close description of the underlying difference, right and left have come to mean much more and much less than that, I think.
    And we can think of a hundred ways in which the notion of nationalism and patriotism can get twisted to say anything one wants them to – one reason they’re so dangerous.
    You’ve probably already read Madeleine Albright’s recent book Facism, and Umberto Eco’s essay in teh New York Review of Books, titled Ur-Fascism. If not, drop everything and do so – both are excellent reads and, given the generation the authors are part of, add a perspective that we can’t.
    Thank you, Frances

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I know the Eco essay but have not read Albright, only reviews so know of it rather than its content. I have started to look at things I am finding regaining relevance, for instance I blew the dust off Lenin’s ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’ which he wrote as an exile in Zurich before he went off to lead the revolution then transform himself from a sage analyst of political history into a despot who became a living contradiction. Interesting analysis nonetheless historically and a good indicator of history repeating itself. I am also looking at such things as Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘ Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism’ in which his chapter ‘On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy’ tells us a lot about Trump and the path he is treading, also ‘Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality’ as a refresher on nationalism. In that respect, your analysis of Hitler and naturally those who thrived on a cult of personality, be it Napoleon, Stalin or a good list of others, works very well because we have Trump and now Bolsonaro, along with Erdoğan who is using Islam as a vehicle ro undermine representative democracy, Orbán skillfully conning Hungary and others who are to degrees more charisma than genuine, who tread that same path we have been warned about because of the luggage their means to achieving their own tenure. They should all remember that dictators are also mortal and their time comes sooner or later, often leaving their nations in tatters.

    Of course, and we have discussed this at home since my wife is a sociologist who generally is brighter than me but a bit less political, as with any social scientist, serious journalist or other analyst of the world in which we dwell at present, everything is heavily laden with personal prejudices along with own analyses. Thus, when I read Simone Weil’s essay again after many years it startled me that I was reading a work from the time of WW2 that is totally pertinent right now. She was not predicting anything but looking square on at her own time, yet history has completed a cycle round to where we are. If the actual conflict was there we would call it war but conventional definitions do not allow that. So figuratively said, we are in a state of war, which given I am a decade younger than Albright I just lack the witnessing of. There again, symbolically, when my family moved to London and as an eight year old I was witnessing the Cold War, I still shudder remembering that people I now consider contemporaries who were then in their mid-teens would look up at the sky when they heard aircraft because they remembered German bombers and V1 rockets and by then we were awaiting Russian rockets bearing hydrogen bombs to finish off Hitler’s job on the city. I makes it closer than those just half a decade younger then progressively so down the years. The tensions are there. Thus politicians who are prepared for the contemporary conflicts they need to back up their neo-nationalism and this absurd desire for the revival of empires that can never possibly be recreated, know what they are doing behind out backs. At least the more intelligent, power hungry and personally malign ones. Thus, my analysis is what I express. It may coincide or cross tracks with others, but it is part of a dismal picture too many people are too disengaged to see. So I spoke (well wrote) my truths, others will express them differently, others will entirely disagree but we need this discourse.

    So, thank you for your comments that contribute to pushing the discourse another small step forward.

    Like

    • I forgot, I am also reading James Miller’s ‘Can Democracy Work?: A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World’. It is pretty good. I have quite a few books on democracy but this one is pacy and less tedious than most historians make it.

      Like

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