By Kumar David –
Populist earthquake redraws Italy’s political landscape – Neo-populist wave sweeps the West
“In democracy, citizens first exercise the powers of sovereignty, and the powers will be abased and afterwards lost if they are committed to an unwieldly multitude”. ~ (Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, Ch. II; Edward Gibbon)
For long I have described neo-populism as a Twenty-first Century phenomenon both in the capitalist West; and elsewhere as the progressive capitalism of Modi or the semi-fascist peril of a return of Rajapaksa. If we use the term neo-populism too widely for the far-right (Hungary’s immigrant demonising Fidez, Austria’s FPO, Holland’s PVV and Germany’s AfD), loonies like Trump, ‘Big Tent Centrists’ like Italy’s Five Star, France’s Macron, and left populists like Spain’s Podemos, then we empty the concept of content. Therefore, today I will confine myself to a broad discourse and just one example.
I delineate modern neo-populism by three characteristics; ethnic or nationalist extremism, cultural backwardness, and economic populism. If I use the Rajapaksa undertaking to give it local context; it is ethno-centrist (Sinhala-Buddhist), culturally regressive cum anti-elitist (anti-modern cum anti-Western) and haphazardly economic-populist. Two additional features worth mention in the local case are great-leader besotted and home to corrupt politicos.
Though we identify great-leader infatuation and domicile of corrupt-politicos as markers in the Rajapaksa case, these are not universal in the West where neo-populists cannot, generically, be termed corrupt. Ethno-centrism is universal; “no immigrants, blacks, Muslims”; “We are the people” (Germany); “Take back control (Brexit), “Make America Great again”, etc. The great leader feature though not universal goes back well before Rajapaksa decided to ride again, to Il Deuce, Mein Fuhrer and Peron. Trump-populism is pompous. The fading libido of jaded lecher and convicted tax-fraudster Silvio Berlusconi, against whom there are 20 trials still pending, has resurfaced. A pompous leader, even if sordid, is a frequent but not universal adornment of populism’s paraphernalia.
Ethno-centrism, anti-modernism, cultural backwardness, rejection of internationalism, and anti-elitism, need further some comment. Fear of waves of immigration – sudden large-scale ethnic mingling with those of a different colour or faith and fear of cultural dilution – has been the largest psychological factor driving masses of people into the arms of the far-right in Europe. The simplistic left-liberal stance of open borders, welcoming all men as citizens of the world, or the lesser version of throwing borders open to all who are oppressed in their homes, has proved infeasible. As the Danish labourer said to the Australian aid-worker “Why don’t you take them to Australia?”
I despise brown skinned Lankan emigrants who gripe about discrimination in the West but had no qualms in oppressing and disenfranchising Upcountry Tamils as kalathonis, though they had been here for generations. Still the truth is that racist and religious intolerance in America and Europe, though nowhere near as bad as bigotry among my compatriots, is the biggest single factor in the rise of neo-populism in those countries. It is not only cultural differentiae; claims for social services and housing, food-stamps and willingness of immigrants to work for less worsens unemployment and erodes wages. Stories, true or false, of Somalians collecting social-security in two or three different places, Armenians taking over neighbourhoods and variations on Donald Trump anti-Mexican bigotry is standard fare in the US. Vox populi, vox dei, so, where there is strong public sentiment, immigration limits are needed however squeamish liberals and left feel. Would the liberals and the left rather have a neo-populist backlash?
This is a bitter retreat: a concession to cultural primitivism, anti-modernism, religious mumbo-jumbo and prejudice. But it is an unavoidable retreat. Fortunately, European and American neo-populisms are not anti-Wi-Fi, do not preach that men can booze themselves silly but women not permitted to buy a bottle of beer, or that halal meat is infected with quotations from the Koran. For that you need the political cave-men of the Joint Opposition, a constitution-violating president and a bunch of looney BBS monks. We, of course, have all that.
Italy, one nation or two?
I will devote space to last month’s Italian general election to bring into focus some features of exploding Twenty-first Century European neo-populism. One should minimise names and numbers since details obscure the big picture but it won’t be possible to do so altogether.
League: An alliance of the right-extremist Northern League (NL) of Matteo Salvini and Berlusconi’s mainstream conservative Forza Italia (FI). The driving ideology of this coalition is right neo-populism like France’s National Front and Dutch, Austrian, German and other excrescences. The alliance won 37% of the vote – the largest of any group and secured 265(P)/137(S) seats – P for parliament S for senate. It gained 138(P)/20(S) seats. Both NL and FI have their base in prosperous northern Italy and are strongly anti-left and anti-immigrant.
Five Star Movement (M5S): Led my Luigi Di Maio (who has not so much as run a bakery or sillara kadde before!) came out as the largest single party securing 33% of the vote and 227(P)/112(S) seats. Its gains were 114 (P)/58 (S). Known as a Big Tent it is what in Sinhala we call an achcharu. It has no particular ideology but its base is in poor Sicily and less developed southern Italy. It is not rightist or racist. M5S’s founder was stand-up comic Beppe Grillo whose motto is “va fa un culo”.
The rise of both NL and M5S is stunning. Imagine 70% of Italians voted for populists! The two populist outfits won 20 million votes between them; the Democratic Party secured only 7 million. Nobody apart from these three did any better than Lanka’s snivelling sects, the JVP included. Calling the JVP a trifle is harsh but deserved condemnation.
Democratic Party: Led by outgoing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the DP is Italy’s traditional social democratic centre. The once powerful Italian Communist Party vanished into the shadows when the Soviet Union disappeared but it was one of the four minor parties in the DP led centre-left coalition which secured a mere 22% of the popular and 122(P)/60 (S) seats. It lost 227(P)/65(S) seats. Seat changes, up and down, seem huge but unsurprising in a first-past-the-post system.
Why the electrifying rise of populism? What does the clash of two populisms spell for Italy? The first question is easier. May I first blurt the compulsory party line? “Global capitalism is bust; it evokes hopelessness in the population”. Let’s rub in the numbers: 70% voted for populists – right neo-populists in the North, ‘Big Tent’ achcharu populists in the South. Hope was the one commodity in short supply; collapse of faith in establishment parties and traditional economics drove millions to strange new places. Recall Trump’s base, Brexit and Germany’s AfD surge? Emmanuel Macron is a less evil variant of the same exasperation of the masses.
They said the global left was finished a decade ago; now liberalism too is finished. Isn’t it time to build a defensive coalition on a social-democratic programme (social equity and political democracy) and a broad economic programme? Observe that both variants of Italian populism paid little heed to Italy’s ailing economy, failing competitiveness within Europe, and its giant debts.
Over in our neck of the woods Sinhalese and Tamils, and Buddhists and Muslims gouge out each other’s eyes and tear out jugulars. In Italy though they speak the same language, worship the same graven idols in their churches and belt out the same Neapolitan golden oldies, the split between industrialized north and deprived south is stark. It will eventually threaten national unity. The stats are bleak: the economy of the South shark 7% in 2001-2016 but Italy as a whole grew by 1%; 700,000 people from the south emigrated north or abroad; youth unemployment in the South is 45%. So, M5S swept nearly every FPP seat in the South, but got almost nothing in the North; the League vice-versa. The Leagues flat-tax (23%) proposal is rejected in the South as a gift to rich Northerners and the M5S’s minimum wage demand finds little support in the North. One nation united by a common language, faith and culture; divided by economic inequality!
Neo-populism, a menagerie of strange bedfellows
Bet you can’t answer this one. Who said “(the) global power structure has robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put money in the hands of a handful of large companies and political entities”? If you said Marx, Lenin or Castro you couldn’t be more wrong.
Actually, modern neo-populism has no ideology. Come on; grant that Macron, Putin, Modi and Trump (whose only ideology is narcissism) have no guiding creed in the sense of left vs right, socialism vs capitalism or liberalism vs state. So, what fuels the common neo-populist surge? Data for America alone answers the question. Millions are out in the cold; 40 million live below the poverty line, add those just above, those without hope and the ideologically ultra-right, and there you have the Trump Base – the 30% ever faithful. In North and South Dakota, Alabama and some other states nearly 40% live below the official poverty line. Sustained inequality and iniquity of political-economy explain the surge of Twenty-first Century neo-populism, as it does inter war fascism.
Oh, and that quotation you got dead wrong; that was Donald Trump in Davos in January 2018. In Davos, super-rich CEOs and Heads of grand governments weep for the poor. And we deplete the ocean when we overfish; and we destroy the earth when we ravage its climate; and we foster neo-populism when we alienate the people. It would all be a circus were it not so depressing.