Photo: ubisoft.com

Eivor the Trickster: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the popularization of tricksters, anti-fascist neo-paganism, and Scandinavian mythology

ABSTRACT: In the latest installment of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, developer Ubisoft brings its acclaimed series to Viking-era England and casts Eivor as the protagonist. She is a fierce Viking whose saga is shaped by the player’s choices throughout the game. In this commentary, we argue that by choosing to focus on Scandinavian mythology, emphasizing the trickster aspects of Odin and Loki, and giving Eivor similar trickster qualities as the main character in Valhalla, Ubisoft popularizes a type of anti-fascist neo-paganism while also popularizing traditional trickster characters (such as Loki) in the person of Eivor, called a “trickster spirit” in one of the game’s arcs.

By Omer Sener* & Mustafa Demir

How do we define a trickster, let alone a popular one? We know tricksters are found across cultures and traditions: Myrddin the Wizard, Nasreddin the Scholar, and Sun Wu Kong, the wise and victorious Stone Monkey. All of these figures have shared characteristics, such as being able to transform both their identities, whether understood as metaphorical or physical, and “the society’s norms” (Wiget, 1990: 86). In addition, they are “timeless, universal,” and “disrupt all orders of things, including the analytic categories of academics” (Wiget, 1994: 95).

In the latest update to its beloved series, entitled “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla,” we find Ubisoft placing tricksters at the forefront of the game’s narrative. By taking its latest game to Viking-era England, it also benefits from the richness of Scandinavian mythology and its trickster characters. While AC Valhalla is not the first game to take advantage of Scandinavian folklore (Skyrim also comes to mind), it could be the first such game to make the trickster the central character of the game.

In AC Valhalla, the player shapes the story of Eivor, a fierce Viking warrior with a warm heart, throughout the game. As the game uses Scandinavian lore as a backdrop, Odin (known in Scandinavian mythology as the All-Father) and Loki (a trickster and companion of Odin, known for his cunning mind and transformations), also make an appearance. The game, as a whole, emphasizes the trickster aspects of Odin and Loki. Perhaps most importantly, the game gives Eivor similar trickster qualities, such as a cunning mind, ambiguity in terms of gender and loyalty, and the ability to communicate with the divine. Furthermore, by casting none other than Einar Selvik—the famous Norwegian musician—as Bragi (the game’s bard and companion of Eivor) and having him sing most of the songs heard in the game, Ubisoft popularizes a type of anti-fascist neo-paganism. At the same time, it popularizes traditional trickster characters (such as Loki) in the person of Eivor, called a ‘trickster spirit’ in one of the game’s arcs.

In the Glowecestrescire arc of the game, Eivor finds herself participating in a Gaelic festival called Samhain. During the festival, Eivor puts on an animal skull (symbolically representing her transformation into animal form) and goes from door to door, telling riddles, and receiving gifts from the hosts. While the Samhain festival later transformed into Halloween (Simpson & Weiner, 1989), what is important for us here is that Eivor is called a “trickster spirit” in this part of the game.

While this is undoubtedly the highlight of Eivor’s tricksterism in the game in the literal sense, many allusions are scattered throughout this latest installment in the franchise. First of all, the player is given the option of choosing Eivor’s gender, as we are told that we cannot ascertain the character’s gender from historical records. In this sense, Eivor is similar to Loki, the Nordic trickster, who ‘has the ability to change his shape and sex’ (Encyclopedia Britannica, Loki). Similarly, while we have observed the aforementioned metaphorical transformation of Eivor (by donning the Samhain mask) during the Glowecestrescire arc, we find out that Basim, a legendary assassin in the game, is an incarnation of Loki.

Thor fighting Loki on a beach in Anyer, Banten, Indonesia. Photo: Ari Wid

There are other similarities that connect Eivor to Loki, the traditional trickster of Norse sagas. Loki is a ‘companion of [the] great gods Odin and Thor’ (Britannica), and Odin is always seen at the side of Eivor throughout the game, giving her advice or commenting on her actions. At the same time, Loki is also “the enemy of the gods,” causing “difficulty for them and himself” (Britannica). Not surprisingly, Eivor also eventually challenges the Norse god Odin, even fighting him as part of a boss fight toward the end of the game. This contradictory character of Loki is also reflected in other aspects of Eivor in the game, based on player choice and game design. While Eivor can choose to spare or slay her enemies throughout the game, she regularly finds herself in the position to raid monasteries and settlements, which is a central mechanism in the game that allows players to develop their own settlements with the materials gained through raiding.

Through these intentional similarities, Ubisoft popularizes Norse mythology, and the traditional trickster character Loki, as part of Scandinavian and Germanic culture, through the game’s protagonist Eivor. This process of popularizing traditional cultural elements is called “cultural populism” (or one aspect of it) in Cultural Studies. Jagers and Walgrave (2007) hold that populism is a discursive practice. For Barr (2009), populism is a well-devised strategy. For yet others, it is a kind of performance, and within the realm of International Relations, it is a type of political strategy (Moffit, 2017). On the other hand, cultural populism, as mentioned above, is the “infusion of popular cultural elements into ‘serious’ works of art” (McGuigan, 1992: 3). In our case, cultural populism can be understood as the popularization of traditional cultural and mythological elements through the popular medium of gaming.

Cultural populism also has a negative connotation, as it can be criticized as a means of trivializing art or cheapening the quality of entertainment (e.g., TV films versus arthouse cinema, airport paperbacks versus “serious” literature). While this kind of populism does not mobilize the masses, it can still affect the consumer in more subtle ways. For example, it can trivialize the complexity of characters, turning them into caricatures, or water down traditional stories with shallow characterizations, under the assumption that consumers cannot handle the complexity of the original material.

By featuring Einar Selvik, the Norwegian musician known for his anti-fascist stance and neo-pagan music, Ubisoft’s latest game also popularizes neo-paganism. This is underscored by the inclusion of many other pagan elements throughout the game, such as the pagan festivals of Ostara, Samhain, and the Yule Festival, among others. This links with other cultural elements of the game. Norse cultural elements are also utilized extensively by proponents of neo-paganism, with Thor, Odin, and other Norse deities of particular importance. Although the game does not explicitly promote neo-paganism, it features pagan elements heavily, thus popularizing the pagan aspects of Norse mythology and culture.

Thus, through Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Ubisoft takes us back to Viking-era England. Players are able to control Eivor as a trickster character, a Viking leader, and a problem solver, whose actions depend on each player’s choices. In this commentary, we have argued that by choosing to focus on Scandinavian mythology, emphasizing the trickster aspects of Odin and Loki, and giving Eivor similar trickster qualities as the main character in Valhalla, Ubisoft contributes to the rising popularity of a type of anti-fascist neo-paganism, while also popularizing traditional trickster characters (such as Loki) in the person of Eivor, called a “trickster spirit” in one of the game’s arcs.

As explicated above, in the virtual space of gaming, participants not only observe and are exposed to stories but also are given opportunities to live in and be part of the cultural elements and narratives in a fashion that is remarkably close to real-life experience, if not more. This encourages participants to engage emotionally with the epic elements of said culture. Thus, in general, the realm of gaming and interactive entertainment is open to the soft power, even sharp power, activities of third parties. This certainly is not a new thing, as the prominent example of the US army sponsoring video games for new recruits shows (Jacques, 2009).

Whether video games such as the Call of Duty series have been used to securitize certain groups or communities is an open question, which can be investigated as the topic of another commentary. For now, we can at least rest assured that Ubisoft is aware of this phenomenon, as they include a disclaimer at the start of each entry in their franchise: “Inspired by historical events and characters, this work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations, and gender identities.” As Burns rightly points out, this is necessary given the sensitivity of the topics that the series has been exploring from the beginning (Burns, 2012).

(*) OMER SENER holds a PhD in Cultural Studies and Literary Criticism. His research interests include tricksters, cultural populism, video games, Asian American (Japanese, Korean and Chinese) literature, comparative literature, and creative writing.

References

— (n.d.). “Loki.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Loki

Barr, Robert R. (2009). “Populists, Outsiders and Anti-Establishment Politics.” Party Politics. 15(1), 29–48

Burns, Matthew Seiji. (2002). ‘Assassin’s Creed, Multiculturalism, and How to Talk About Things.” https://matthewseiji.com/notes/2012/8/17/assassins-creed-multiculturalism-and-how-to-talk-about-thing.html (accessed on June 4, 2012). 

Jagers, J., & Walgrave, S. (2007). “Populism as political communication style: An empirical study of political parties’ discourse in Belgium.” European Journal of Political Research. Vol. 46 (3), pp. 319–345. 

Jacques, John. (2009). “US Army has Spent $32.8m on America’s Army.” Game Rant. December 10, 2009. https://gamerant.com/army-spent-328m-americas-army-game/ (accessed on June 4, 2012).

McGuigan, J., & Mcguigan, D.J. (1992). Cultural Populism (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203413609

Moffit, Benjamin. (2017). “Transnational Populism? Representative Claims, Media and The Difficulty of Constructing A Transnational ‘People’.” Javnost: The Public. 24(4), 409–425. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2017.1330086

Simpson, John & Weiner, Edmund. (1989). Oxford English Dictionary (second ed.). London: Oxford University Press

Wiget, Andrew. (1994). Dictionary of Native American literature. Garland.


[1] This commentary includes spoilers about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, particularly regarding the identity of the protagonist and the ending of the game.

Caricature of The Five Star Movement in carnival parade of floats and masks, made of paper-pulp in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy in January 2018.

Institutionalized Populism: The “Strange Case” of the Italian Five Star Movement

The Five Star Movement (M5S) is one of those populist parties that is often misunderstood. Throughout the years, the media, independent journalists, and bloggers—as well as well-known academics and commentators—have struggled to define this “strange political creature.” Some have labeled it a polymorphous “hybrid-party” and others a “movement-party.” The mistake most analysts make when discussing the M5S is that they somehow forget the party’s left-wing origins.

By Amedeo Varriale*

Italy’s Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S) has long been considered a left-wing populist formation. This is mainly because its original agenda was dedicated to addressing five themes (the so-called “five stars”) that were the preserve of the 20th century’s post-materialist left-wing parties and movements—public watersustainable transport,sustainable developmenttechnology, and environmentalism. They are typical issues of the post-1968 New Left (Tarchi, 2015: 337).

The New Left encompassed various European parties that gradually abandoned their original radically authoritarian, Marxist, statist positions to embrace contemporary issues such as environmentalism, feminism, and globalization (Damiani, 2016: 13). We know that these left-wing establishment parties[1] adopt a more liberal and libertarian outlook than the anti-systemic extreme left.[2] Today, the Dutch Socialist Party, the M5S, La France Insoumise, SYRIZA, and PODEMOS flirt with populism rather than with Marxist–Leninism and are no longer necessarily inspired by the old Soviet (or even Chinese) model (Moffit, 2020: 55–70). Today, some contemporary left-wing parties may very well be fully populist, given they adopt a particularistic form of politics that involves people-centric appeals and unmediated forms of communication. In this way, they go beyond the clientelist, formalist, and territorial politics of the traditional social-democratic mass parties.

The Five Star Movement, one of the youngest children of the reformist and progressive New Left (which some scholars like Luke March associate with the “radical left”[3]), is a perfect example. It gained serious popularity, not by using outdated Marxist tropes but by embracing left-wing populism[4] and mobilizing disenchanted voters in a period of widespread social malaise. This form of populism, quite different from the significantly more anti-migrant and socially conservative right-wing variant, is an ideology that combines left-wing politics and populist rhetoric and themes. The rhetoric of left-wing populism often consists of anti-elitist sentiments, opposition to the establishment, and speaking for the “common people” (Ibid). While themes like anti-capitalism, social justice, pacifism, and anti-globalization are very much relevant to these populists, class struggle and class society, as well as socialist theory, are not as important as they are to traditional left-wing parties (Ibid). The case of the Five Star Movement, which will be analyzed in the following paragraphs, is very much a demonstration of this.

Suppose we follow Cas Mudde’s (2004: 543) lead and treat populism as an ideology that considers society as two homogeneous and antagonistic groups (“the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”) and holds that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. In that case, the Five Star Movement is a left-populist party. The raison d’être of the party ever since its first protests (the V’Day protests in 2007) has been to pressure professional political elites to step down in order to take politics back to the people (Tarchi, 2015). Their first offensives were against the Italian establishment, which they saw as untrustworthy and detrimental to the commonwealth (Tarchi, 2015).

Populists of the left purport to give a voice to the silent majority—the ordinary men and women who (according to the populists) are being let down by career politicians, bureaucrats, corporate bankers, the media, and the European techno-managerial establishment in Brussels and Strasbourg that has usurped governing power. Unlike the populist right, the grillini (a term used by Italian pundits to refer to supporters of the M5S’s “guarantor” Beppe Grillo) do not openly argue that Italian ethnic and cultural identity is under threat by a wave of immigration perpetrated by financial corporations (or “liberal elites” conspiring to create a new order based on multiculturalism and cheap labor). Instead, the grillini propagate the left-wing populist narrative that social democracy has failed—in no longer representing its old electoral base and betraying its egalitarian principles (Gandesha, 2018).

Moreover, Grillo has openly called for the left to abandon the concept of class struggle in favor of a so-called caste struggle (Tarchi, 2015: 351; Zazzara, 2019: 110). To some degree, this is a defensible approach, at least according to proponents of left–populism like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (Moffit, 2020: 65). For some time, high-ranking M5S members like Alessandro Di Battista and Grillo himself have justified their attacks on elites by arguing that “the caste” has steadily impoverished Italians (Ci hanno impoveriti). The leadership argues that only the M5S (the so-called “true democrats”) can “open up parliament like a can of tuna” to restore to power everyday citizens with ordinary qualities such as common sense (Tarchi, 2015). This is in line with their call for direct democracy, a feature that, alongside anti-elitism, is central to understanding the true ethos of the party.

Beppe Grillo speaks during a public meeting of the 5 Star Movement in Florence, Italy on March 8, 2009. Photo: Giacomo Morini.

Ideology and Discourse

The French political scientist Guy Hermet (2000: 80) long ago observed that populism’s capacity to capitalize electorally on cultural, financial, and political crises and its futurist, quasi-utopian, and millenarian features make it palatable to left- as well as right-wing forms (Tarchi, 2015: 374). Hermet’s vision has been borne out by the Five Star Movement, which has deftly navigated Italy’s post-2009 recession and post-2015 refugee crises in recent years. Beyond established thinkers like Hermet, newer commentators like Albertazzi and McDonnell (2008) advance the idea that populism can indeed be left-oriented.[5] In fact, popular sovereignty in the past has very much been a theme of focus adaptable to the republicanism and commitment to democratic principles of the center-left (Tarchi, 2015: 373).

Nevertheless, the Five Star Movement cannot be treated as a classic left-wing party and has never been particularly committed to liberal republicanism. Yet its overt focus on the majoritarian aspects of democracy (linked to what Peter Mair defined as the popular pillar of democracy[6]) and commitment to the nation’s sovereignty and the volonté générale of Italian citizens falls in line with the definition of left-wing populism provided above. For example, expanding the welfare state—a typical left-wing policy—and the so-called Reddito di Cittadinanza (a kind of universal basic income scheme) were “signature policies” that the M5S took to the 2018 elections (Mancini, 2020).

The overt hostility toward elites embedded within the M5S ideology saw Grillo and his circle try (and fail) to introduce a “recall” procedure[7] and referendums without a quorum (i.e., against privatization of water, nuclear energy, and the Euro) into the Italian system (Tarchi, 2015: 341; Adnkronos, 2014). However, they were successful in reducing parliamentary salaries and the number of MPs (Brunetti, 2019). Another great success was blocking arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has intervened militarily in Yemen and thus been party to severe breaches of international human rights laws (according to the United Nations, a child under the age of five dies every ten minutes in Yemen). Such policies reflect a blending of the polymorphous ideology of populism and the zealously egalitarian and pacifist values of the New Left.

In order to understand the discourse and ideology of the “strange political animal”[8] that is the M5S, we must first look at the background of its founders—Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio.[9] Grillo, an ex-comedian, is well-known for his passionate tirades against the establishment (i.e., the leftist Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia or Forward Italy). Casaleggio was a wealthy entrepreneur from the technology sector who invested in the revolutionary “Gaia project”—inspired by the 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology” written by the media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron—that seeks to dismantle parliamentary, representative systems to bring democratic processes online (Musso and Maccaferri, 2018). It is for this reason (among others) that Chris Bickerton (2018) has spoken about the Five Star Movement as a “techno–populist” party. Grillo has never hidden his admiration for the internet and has gone so far as to point out that the web is a collective good and a necessary one since “even prostitutes do their business online, without the inefficient and unfair mediation of pimps (Tempi, 2013). In addition, both founders expressed convictions that the web reflects the values of the egalitarian left (it is apparently “Franciscan, anti-capitalist”) and that “online, ideas and sharing ideas are worth more than money” (Natale and Ballatore, 2014: 10; Grillo and Casaleggio, 2011: 9).

The M5S web portal “Rousseau” (directly inspired by the French thinker’s ideas of the volonté générale, civic nationalism, and direct democracy) is central to party organization. Through the portal, party members (not just MPs) choose what candidates to field for important local, municipal, regional, and national elections (Stockman and Scalia, 2019). Time and time again, the press and committed constitutionalists have criticized the party’s “digital primary” process for its lack of transparency, as explained in the book by a veteran of Italian journalism Bruno Vespa (2018). In conversation with someone intricately linked to the movement, Vespa underlines how—contrary to the conventional wisdom—decision-making within the movement is not at all bottom-up but is instead quite top-down. Ideas other than those of Grillo and Casaleggio are readily dismissed (Vespa, 2018). This has sometimes resulted in members being expelled, including Federico Pizzarotti, the former mayor of Parma, and Giovanni Favia, an M5S politician from the Emilia-Romagna region (who revealed to journalists that there is no democracy in the M5S as Casaleggio manages every single programmatical aspect), and many others.[10]

Grillo’s agenda, especially on immigration, has often conflicted with that of the activists who are in theory able to use “Rousseau” to advance proposals and policy ideas. For instance, when two Five Star MPs (Maurizio Buccarella and Andrea Cioffi) proposed decriminalizing illegal immigration, Grillo reprimanded them, saying that it was not in the electoral program, although the majority of the members had voted in favor. Rather than implement the members’ decision, Grillo has since ignored or avoided discussing it in public (Parodi, 2019). Nonetheless, the M5S cannot exactly be considered pro-immigrant either. Grillo has always been skeptical of multiculturalism, as numerous posts on his blog make clear: “Citizenship for those born in Italy to parents born elsewhere makes no sense” (Grillo, 2012). It is clear given their positioning in parliament—abstaining on votes that would make access to Italian citizenship easier for immigrants—that Grillo’s party supports ius sanguinis (citizenship inherited through parents) to the current policy of iusoli(citizenship by birth) (Tarchi, 2015: 344).

It is also true that Grillo’s partisan leanings are ambiguous—he has never declared himself right-wing and did once attempt to become a candidate for the center-left (but in practice neoliberal) Democratic Party. Moreover, he often reiterates his passion for leftist egalitarian principles. He once stated that “Everyone counts, regardless of their social position. I want a single mother with four children to be able to become mayor of a city…” (Tarchi, 2015: 342). Interestingly, this ambiguity has led pundits to question whether the Five Star’s success among older, disenchanted center-right voters is merely a direct result of his and Luigi Di Maio’s (former M5S leader, deputy prime minister, and current Italian foreign minister) rants against pro-immigrant NGOs (rather than migrants themselves). Both Grillo and Di Maio have been given to localist, folkloristic, identitarian discursive–performative devices that sometimes resonate well with the populist right (Damilano, 2020).

Grillo is known to begin some of his semi-ironic public addresses by pointing to the audience and shouting “Italians!” Here, perhaps, observers have drawn a false equivalence with Mussolini’s nationalistic populism (Scanzi, 2013). Nonetheless, Di Maio has accused Grillo of being too centrist and has openly expressed his sympathy for national–conservative values of economicterritorial, and popular sovereignty. Di Maio has said that “the term sovereignty is found in the very first article of the Italian Constitution… Sovereignty means… defending the interests of Italians. If this is a crime, then arrest us all [the M5S] because this is what we have started doing.”[11]

Commentators like Fabio Bordignon and Luigi Ceccarini (2019: 167) are perhaps correct in defining these left-wing populists as “multi-ideological” (rather than “post-ideological”). Grillo (2013) has stated in his blog that he is “proudly populist” and has always wanted the M5S—which is supposed to be an “idea, not an ideology”—to function as a big-tent party (Tarchi, 2015: 339). For Grillo, the M5S is a political force to mobilize the young and the old, the wealthy and the poor, and both private and public sector workers. The big-tent approach comes from the goal of fundamentally destabilizing representative democracy by forcing it to abandon programmatic parties in favor of partyless democracy,which all forms of populism promote to some degree (Mair, 2002). Grillo insists on “a state without parties governed by citizens directly, for a limited amount of time and as a civic service” (Tarchi, 2015: 339).

Setting aside the fact that the M5S is polymorphous and is understood to have many currents within it, we can argue (taking Grillo’s words at face value) that his organization is “neither left-wing nor right-wing—it is a movement of Italians” (Il Fatto Quotidiano, 2013). In any case, a close look inspection of the M5S shows it seeks to mobilize the angry, the frustrated, and the disenchanted—those Italians who nurture a profound distrust for mainstream politics. Nevertheless, the core message of the party hues close to the ethos of the left—namely, foregrounding environmental issues and harshly criticizing the economic and political power of the big industrial groups (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2013: 432).

Supporters of Five Stars Movement in Naples rally with Italian flag and political symbol of the movement in Napoli, Campania, Italy on May 30, 2018. Photo: Antonio Balasco.

Organizational Structure

The Five Star Movement has not been a fully institutionalized party for long (the party first entered parliament in 2013 and was in opposition before June 2018). For this reason, the organizational structure is skeletal and deliberately so (Sun, 2019: 33). At the top, of course, we find the “Guarantor” of the party, Beppe Grillo, known to have strong links with the Casaleggio family and its company, Casaleggio Associati. His role is to set the tone and preserve the dynamic, protest-movement-like nature of the organization (as dictated in its party manifesto[12]) as well as to decide “who’s in and who’s out” (Tarchi, 2015: 359). In other words, Grillo—alongside Casaleggio, the movement’s chief ideologue, and his apprentice Di Maio (who quit as leader in early 2020[13]), both technically below Grillo in the M5S hierarchy—have set the political agenda.

Yet, it is inaccurate to view the M5S strictly as a hierarchical, top-down, leaderist party. Indeed, Bordignon and Ceccarini (2013: 438) have referred to it as a stratarchical organization because power is effectively dispersed through the ranks. Since those ranks are often in open disagreement with each other, there is a tendency toward internecine conflict. It is unclear whether the Members’ Assembly (“Assemblea Degli Iscritti”)—an advisory board of mostly parliamentary members that meets annually—is below Grillo and the party head (who is a political and legal frontman) vis-à-vis administrative decision-making and policy proposals (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163).

What is certain is that the Committee of Trustees (“Comitato di Garanzia”) has the power to supervise applications for membership and policy proposals. In 2018, the committee comprised Vito Crimi (who replaced Di Maio as “political head” in 2020), Roberta Lombardi, and Giovanni Cancellieri. It shares some power on important decisions with the Board of Arbitrators (“Collegio dei Probiviri”) (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163). The board’s task to monitor members’ compliance with party rules and take disciplinary action if needed (as when two MP’s were expelled for giving unapproved interviews on state television while under the M5S banner) (Tgcom24, 2021). The role of treasurer is essential, as it oversees internal and external financial resources (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163). Di Maio has held the role previously, but somewhere in the summer of 2020, the position went to the MP Sergio Battelli, who took on the delicate task of managing the EU’s Recovery Fund in Italy (Zapperi, 2020).

To be clear, the majority of these roles have been assigned to party members through internal (albeit relatively non-transparent) procedures of direct democracy. While direct democracy is essentially unconstitutional in Italy, the fact that Grillo himself owns the party logo and that the “Rousseau” platform (used for political purposes even as the party has access to public funds) is entirely in the hands of a private commercial firm like Casaleggio Associati casts some doubt on the bottom-up, spontaneous, protest-like image of the party that Five Star politicians like to portray (Biondo, 2019).

Five Star activists and grassroots members do not really appear to be entitled to all this liberty of self-expression (as much as Grillo claims) because if ever activists cease to “toe the party line,” they risk expulsion (or worse). More than once, Casaleggio’s son Davide—who inherited all the property of the Rousseau Association after his father’s death—has threatened to sue his own MPs and take complete charge of the platform if they fail to pay their membership dues on time (Lombardo, 2020).

A large demonstration was held by the 5 Star Movement against the privileges of politics in Rome, Italy on February 15, 2020. Photo: Gennaro Leonardi.

Domestic Policy

The domestic policy of the Five Star Movement has been relatively straightforward. It advances partially redistributive and quasi-socialist economic policy to reduce socioeconomic inequality in Italy. Recent studies conducted by Ruth-Lovell (2019), Doyle (2019), and Hawkins (2019) show that governing populists of both the left and the right have committed to reducing the gap between the very rich and the poor and are more likely to do this with a welfarist approach rather than via tax relief (Moffit, 2020: 52–54). The aforementioned Reddito di Cittadinanzareally a policy of welfare chauvinism(in both its positive and negative aspects)—has been the M5S’s way of presenting itself as a pro-social and pro-working-class party committed to an essentially leftist agenda (Brancaccio and Fruncillo, 2019: 129–158).

Political opponents from both the left and the right have attacked these welfarist policies as too costly and poorly implemented. Nevertheless, the Five Star Movement has continued to operate as a populist force in government. Certainly, the party has steadily institutionalized itself and has had to back away from some “binding” commitments (e.g., holding a referendum on the Euro, opposition to the single market, and the promise not to ally with old rivals, like the national populist[14] Lega party and the Democrats). Still, the party has managed to implement a series of its 2018 election pledges to spec (Di Maio, 2020). For example, M5S MPs successfully maneuvered to rescind the dysfunctional Fornero Law (a labor-market reform from 2011 aimed at reducing youth unemployment), scrapped the “golden pensions scheme” for MPs, and introduced harsh measures to combat public corruption (known as the spazzacorotti or “bribe destroyer” law) and a new decree to combat climate change. The M5S has worked hard to reduce the cost of the Italian state and limit the privileges of the political class (Di Maio, 2020). A referendum pushed forward by the Five Star Movement in conjunction with some other parties legislated a drastic reduction in the number of Italian MPs in September 2020. The move has been viewed favorably across the political spectrum and by most voters in Italy. In sum, the M5S has managed to shift the parliamentary demographic of the country. The arrival of grillini MPs into both of Italy’s chambers (the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate) after 2013 has produced a significant increase in the degree to which ordinary Italians feel involved and engaged in official political processes (Rapisarda, 2018).

Citizens who had never considered a political career nor had any involvement whatsoever with public administration—including former doctors and surgeons, tradesmen, volunteers from the private sector, primary sector workers, and teachers (among others)—have nonetheless begun to work in state institutions for the very first time (Agenzia Italia, 2019). The new civic consciousness and engagement of the “ordinary Italian” have been viewed as part of a great season of change in the history of Italian democracy (Ibid). Moreover, the number of young women in parliament has increased markedly, and commentators on the progressive left and more liberal right consider this a significant step forward for the country (Ibid).

The coalitions that the M5S has joined have also produced a marked turn in Italian policy toward the EU, often in a positive direction. To begin, the M5S—and its coalition partner and fellow populist outfit Lega—were the first parties in many years to openly confront Brussels over its uncompromising and often hostile approach to budgetary matters (Moschella and Rhodes, 2020: 4–5). Thus, the Troika had a hard-time taming Italy’s populists, in contrast with the position it had in conflicts with the Greek state in the past. Indeed, the Italian populists have aggressively defended a spending program that included both an expansion of welfare and a generalized cut of taxation—against the much-defended austerity approach of the European Commission (Politi2018). Of course, an expansive budgetary approach is what led Italians to vote for radically populist and Euroskeptic parties in the first place.

Most pundits will argue that the most controversial aspect of the Five Star Movement’s domestic policy has been its tough line on immigration and security (the latter actually unrelated to migrants). Most M5S MPs voted to save Matteo Salvini (the deputy prime minister and off-and-on ally of the movement) from prosecution after he repeatedly refused to allow a rescue ship full of migrants to enter Italian ports in breach of international humanitarian laws (Reuters, 2021). Another controversy arose around a publicity stunt led by Salvini and the justice minister (from the M5S). In a classic example of “penal populism (a term coined to describe the use of crime in populist propaganda[15]) the two were in attendance for the cameras when the narco-terrorist Cesare Battisti—who had just been extradited from Brazil—landed back on Italian territory.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio attended a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium on September 21, 2020. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Foreign Policy

The Five Star Movement’s foreign policy has always been somewhat contentious. From the outset, the grillini have rhetorically advocated for a re-alignment—or at least a reconsideration of aspects of Italy’s classic foreign policy orientation. Thus, the party has challenged Atlanticism, Europhilia/Europeanism, military interventionism—including peace-keeping operations —as well as large-scale multi-national capitalist projects (such as the EU-funded Trans-Adriatic gas pipeline or TAP)—in favor of a politically different direction. A big part of the Five Star Movement’s agenda has involved tilting Italy’s foreign policy axis toward China and, to a lesser degree Russia (Coratella, 2020). This “Euro-critical” approach—usually accompanied by mild anti-Americanism—comes directly from within the more socialist currents of the M5S, especially those led by the rabble-rouser Di Battista and the more institutionalist but no less ideologically driven Roberto Fico, the current president of the Chamber of Deputies.

Long before their first experience in government (which continues to this day), the Five Star had always exhibited a thinly veiled hostility toward neoliberal Western powers. This has included the German and French governments (in the latter case, by sending party representatives to meet the leaders of the insurrectionist “Gilet Jaunes” or “Yellow Vests” to express their sympathy), but also the United States before Trump. Grillo, Di Battista, and other leading figures in the organization have never really hidden their affinity for the developing world and certain “rogue states” (Tarchi, 2015: 352). So much so that in government, the Five Star Movement refused to recognize Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido as president (Binelli, 2019). The party’s support for withdrawing Italian troops from Afghanistan is another example of a deep skepticism toward globalism and a quasi-isolationist weltanschauung typical of populists of both the left and the right (Nelli Feroci, 2019: 12).

The Five Star Movement’s uncompromising opposition to Italy’s adoption of the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM), its constant critiques of NATO’s defensive strategy (an approach reminiscent of the old Italian communist left of Enrico Berlinguer), its position against EU sanctions on Russia, and its desire to reform the statute of the European Central Bank (ECB) all align neatly with the party’s populist ideology. The more ideological populists are usually highly critical of the mainstream media and high finance “castes” (Panebianco, 2020).

The early Five Star Movement in opposition (2009–2018) was undoubtedly a lot more Euroskeptic than the current one, which had to evolve politically once confronted with real institutional power. Governing the third-largest EU member state has inevitably meant making compromises with other parties once demonized (especially the Democratic Party) and shelving some of their more bizarre and radical policies. These include initiatives such as ceasing negotiations over the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), MP selection by lottery, and scrapping Article 67 of the Italian Constitution, which exempts MPs from any “vincolo di mandato”—the obligation to act strictly according to the voters’ mandate.

Five Star MPs (with some exceptions) are now more cautious in pointing the finger at the EU as the perpetrator of Italy’s evils (namely, low growth and high unemployment). Still, they remain critical of most of their old enemies and have continued to antagonize them subtly. For example, the agreements of former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte—known in Italy as “the people’s lawyer”—with China over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) were frowned upon in Washington (Nelli Feroci, 2019: 10).

Furthermore, allegations have surfaced that Five Star’s political operations have been financed by Venezuela’s authoritarian government, which has worried the other parties they worked with in parliament to get bills passed (Bozza, 2020). Rhetoric and bizarre proposals aside, in its three years as part of governing coalitions, the Five Star Movement has never entirely severed ties with Italy’s foreign allies nor seriously damaged or impeded progress in diplomatic and economic relations. In fact, in commenting on the foreign policy of the populist coalition (of which the M5S was supposedly a senior partner), the former Italian diplomat Ferdinando Nelli Feroci (2019: 11) has pointed out that “despite uncertainty and ambiguity,” the populists have “pursued a line of relative, albeit often hesitant continuity.”

Five Star Movement office in the downtown in Ginosa, Italy on July 19, 2019. Photo: Diego Fiore.

Transnational Alliances

Even if there are ideological similarities that can be drawn with other movements or anti-establishment parties like the Pirate Party in Germany or the Gilet Jaunes, there has been no substantial political agreement between the Five Star and such political forces apart from limited political flirtation and informal communication (during the early days). The Five Star Movement (along with UKIP) formed the Euroskeptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group in 2014 after a vote on the “Rousseau” platform (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48). Unsurprisingly, because Grillo initially wanted to present the party in international as well as national politics as anti-establishment and radically reformist, he pointedly excluded the option of joining the somewhat ideologically similar but more moderate Greens/EFA (Ibid).

Once the M5S joined the EFDD, it was clear that Grillo’s political marriage to Nigel Farage and like-minded people was one of convenience (Ibid). Belonging to one group or another in the European Parliament usually signifies something deeper than just ideological affinity and is always somewhat functional to long-term strategic objectives at the domestic level. At least, this appeared to be the case for the Five Star Movement. It and UKIP were distant on the environment, domestic economic policy, and many aspects of foreign policy. However, they surely agreed on the fact that elites have abandoned the “losers of globalization” and that Brussels is a bully that prevents nation-states from making their own monetary decisions and controlling their own borders (Ibid). Both parties saw themselves as representing the “Europe of the people” rather than of the big banks (Michieli and Luxardo, 2016: 1–14).

Either way, the Five Star Movement (and apparently UKIP as well) treated EU alliances as secondary to what occurred in the national arena (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48). By 2020, M5S had already broken away from EFDD and was left with just 14 MEPs[16] (Bresolin, 2020). Other members of EFDD relied on the movement because even if they voted differently on certain motions regarding the environment and relations with foreign superpowers (albeit similarly on EU integration issues), they still needed a big party from a large member state like Italy to avoid problems related to funding and finances, and voting rights in executive positions.[17]

Bressanelli and De Candia (2018) report on recent research that the Five Star Movement is only moderately Euroskeptic. This soft Euroscepticism results in the Five Star voting like the European left-wing GUE/NGL and G/EFA on issues that do not explicitly involve more EU integration or direct democracy. At the end of the day, the movement did not really fit the EFDD due to its staunch anti-globalism, anti-immigration policy, and skepticism toward issues related to the environment or state intervention. A keen eye would notice that M5S and UKIP voted the same way less than half the time and are on different ends of the spectrum despite a shared populist style of communication (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48).

The “Rousseau” base voted overwhelmingly in favor in another vote on whether to join Guy Verhofstadt’s center-left ALDE. However, the existing ALDE membership decided it was a dangerous move that would risk a split by those group members more hostile and skeptical toward the Five Star Movement (Ibid). Verhofstadt himself feared the alliance might damage his image.

By 2017, many realized that Grillo’s strategy of moving away from the UKIP hardliners and the rest of the EFDD had some political logic. With the 2018 general elections approaching and a very weakened center-left after Matteo Renzi’s departure, the M5S wanted to project itself as an institutionally responsible party ready to lead the nation and to capture the majority of moderates and center-left voters disenchanted with the Italian Democratic Party (Ibid). If the M5S wanted to have a shot at becoming Italy’s leading party following Renzi’s exit from politics, it had no choice but to assure wealthy Italian families, national corporate and political elites, and international financial markets that it was not an “extremist” group and did not intend to leave the Eurozone. To some extent, this strategy paid off —M5S took 32 percent of the vote and emerged as the leading Italian party in competition with the center-right, although it had to ally with Lega to form a government.

From Opposition to Power: A Five-Starred Future?

In mid-2021, the Five Star Movement was polling between 16–17 percent and was lagging behind the right-wing parties (Lega and Brothers of Italy) and the center-left Democratic Party (Termometro Politico, 2021). This is undoubtedly disappointing for a party that saw significant electoral gains off the back of the 2008–2009 financial crisis and the refugee/immigration crisis of 2015 to become the leading party by 2018 (Bulli and Soare, 2018).

Having spent the last few months of 2020 in the lost cause of saving Conte (who used to present himself as a Eurosceptic populist before his purported switch to being a staunch Europhile anti-populist), the grillini are really struggling with their political identity (Di Niro, 2021; The Submarine, 2020). Defending Conte until the end and then supporting the candidacy of former ECB head Mario Draghi as prime minister cost Grillo, Crimi, and Di Maio their parliamentary majority, with many MPs fleeing the party (Cuzzocrea, 2021). Also, the “pure heart” populist Di Battista publicly distanced himself from the party that he had helped build, showcasing his disdain for what is largely seen as a technocratic executive serving with the support of a center-right–center-left political coalition (Pucciarelli, 2021). This “grand coalition” was created to help Italy overcome the Covid–19 crisis and includes characters as distinct from each other as Enrico Letta and Matteo Salvini.

The Five Star’s identity had almost always been taboo for its semi-centralized leadership, which must constantly appease the infighting among distinct ideological currents and personalities within. Recently this ideological divide had become too obvious to deny. In December last year, 22 EU-critical Five Star representatives from the Chamber of Deputies voted against a motion on the new ESM or abstained (Il Fatto Quotidiano, 2020). Even more M5S Senators appeared happy to take the political risks of pitting themselves against party chair Di Maio by voting in favor (Ibid).

The party is highly factionalized. The first is the institutionalist faction (or centrist faction) made up of MPs who follow Di Maio and Fico — the former more centrist and moderate, the latter openly progressive–leftist —in strategy. Both cabinet ministers want M5S to remain a party open to almost any kind of alliance to stay in power. The second is the “rebel hearts” who prefer to follow Di Battista’s guidance on policy and approach. This radical-left-wing populist faction has always been committed to anti-capitalism and hardline, anti-political (sometimes Manichean) principles. Di Battista and his followers are obviously less keen on broad alliances. Then there is the futuristic techno–populist factioncomprised of traditional M5S activists who rally behind Casaleggio and Grillo on the party’s blog to bring about a digital revolution that involves direct democracy at the national level. One of the oldest factions, its members maintain a cordial yet ambiguous relation with Di Maio’s wing mainly because they know they are forced to work within institutions if they want to change them. The fourth grouping is the environmentalist faction which does not have a true reference point or political figure within the party but oscillates between Grillo’s futuristic techno-populists and Di Battista’s populist-left.

Alessandro Di Battista conference with his supporters during M5S event in Imola, Italy on October 17, 2015. Photo: Benny Marty.

Last, but not least, there is a minority that feels better represented by Conte and went out of its way to convince moderates from other opposition parties to vote to save his second prime ministership. We would possibly call this the loyalist faction as it comprises all those who believe Conte is the only one that can lead the movement in a fully Europeanist and responsible direction. These loyalists believe Conte did his best in administrating Italy during the Covid era by cooperating with European allies like the Germans and the French. This faction is careful to behave institutionally (probably even more so than Di Maio and Fico’s) and follow the Italian constitution to the letter. In fact, after some experience in government (initially alongside Lega), Conte’s men evolved away from the anti-politics approach of the past and came around to the idea that it is impossible to rid Italy of the establishment altogether. They now realize that the vast array of checks and balances introduced into the Italian political system after the Second World War mean that political actors are inexorably drawn into the establishment.

It bears noting that the institutionalization of the M5S has meant it has shed many of those right-wing, anti-establishment voters that contributed to its success in the highly volatile general election of 2013. Back then, Grillo’s team could rely on its anti-establishment appeal, which later manifested in Gianluigi Paragone’s[18] now-defunct Italexit–No Europe for Italy party that gave a direction and meaning to the M5S’s more nationalist proposals. Even if Paragone claims to lean socialist,[19] in and out of parliament, he has focused a lot on issues concerning territorial (e.g., anti-immigration) and economic (e.g., Italy’s disputes with the European Commission on the budget) sovereignty that are seen as the preserve of the political right.

For a party that has worked very hard to appear honest, hard-working, law-abiding, and a vehicle for reform to bring ordinary people into the political sphere, the M5S has had to make painful choices. The party was famously committed to eschewing all political alliances with other forces, refused to participate in mainstream media or television talk shows (as they feared being scapegoated), declined to recognize the legitimacy and importance of parliament, failed to address the inefficiency of the horizontal and decentralized[20] online platforms (occasionally mediated in a more authoritative, top-down manner by Grillo), and refused to admit that even an anti-establishment populist party can be susceptible to corruption and mismanagement (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 149–171).

All these aspects are manifest in the problems faced by Five Star mayors and local councils in Rome and Turin[21](Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 149–171). Above all, the backtracking on commitments and promises has seen the M5S become a party of government and a quasi-institutionalized organization. The political understanding that led to coalitions with Lega and the Democratic Party and ongoing parliamentary representation since 2013 has eroded the rebellious “anti-politics” quality of the early Five Star Movement. The result has been electoral poison in a country where elections have become highly volatile and with an electorate increasingly populated by non-voters who no longer identify with mainstream politics (Corbetta and Gualmini, 2013).

With Conte gone and following its many ideological and programmatic about-faces, the left-wing populists of the Five Star Movement are now on the verge of collapse. After changing course vis-à-vis sanctions on Russia, failing to deliver an EU referendum, changing its position on mandatory vaccines (this was one of Grillo’s favorite rallying cries), and completely abandoning its opposition to the TAP, there is a sense voter do not trust the party. The party’s fate appears to dovetail with that of populists in government (of both the left and right) in many parts of the world, thanks to the challenges associated with managing the Covid-19 crisis (Zangana, 2020).

On the right, Donald Trump lost the pivotal 2020 election, and Salvini — while back in government —is hamstrung in pushing his Eurosceptic agenda with Draghi in charge. On the other side of the Alps, Marine Le Pen (although ahead in polls) will struggle against Emmanuel Macron, who has reinvented himself as a civic nationalist who is “tough” on Islamists. Across the Atlantic, Jair Bolsonaro’s “machismo” stance on the virus has radicalized his own supporters and damaged his credibility with moderate conservative voters. He is now viewed as a full-blown authoritarian abroad and is widely blamed for more than 300,000 Covid-19 related deaths in Brazil.

On the left, the picture is not looking so bright either. The Five Star Movement, which was actually one of the most popular left-leaning populist forces worldwide (perhaps even more than Pablo Iglesias’s PODEMOS in Spain), has now become a pale imitation of the neoliberal Democratic Party and has lost more of its support in less than two years as a result. SYRIZA, the original and arguably most successful left-populist government in resisting EU edicts, are now out of government in Greece and have lost most of their “propulsive force” (a term used by Enrico Berlinguer to describe the Soviet Union’s downward spiral). Notwithstanding the effects of the pandemic, left-wing populists will most likely try to revive themselves as early as 2022, given the European Commission’s poor handling of the vaccine rollout offers a political lifeline that can be capitalized on at the ballot box.

Attacks on Big Pharma—at which the Five Star Movement excelled in the early days—are as effective when launched from the radical left as from the right. The European populist-left, unlike the center-left, is starting to understand that progressivism, environmentalism, and LGBTQ+ rights are not the only issues to be taken into consideration during agenda-setting. The public zeitgeist teaches us that much ground is being cleared for the right on socioeconomic issues, which is disadvantaging the left. Suppose the Five Star Movement were to return to being the unrelentless force that undermined the very legitimacy of the Italian neoliberal status quo. In that case, it will be because it will have returned to its roots as a credible big-tent party for the working classes, as the electorally more successful populists on the right (e.g., Chega!, Vox, Rassemblement National, and Fidesz) are. The “losers of globalization” are today no less disenchanted with mainstream politics than they were after the infamous collapse of Lehman Brothers, which for some remains an open wound (Stephens, 2018).

Conclusion

The M5S is one of those populist parties that is often misunderstood. Throughout the years, the media, independent journalists, and bloggers—as well as well-known academics and commentators—have struggled to define this “strange political creature.” Some have labeled it a polymorphous “hybrid-party” and others a “movement-party.” The mistake most analysts make when discussing the M5S is that they somehow forget the party’s left-wing origins.

Some accuse the movement of pandering to the anti-immigrant “far-right” due to its short-lived coalition experiment with Salvini. Others like Bickerton focus too much on its “techno–populist” media-savvy, treating it primarily as a vehicle for a digital revolution. Instead, one must attempt to understand the Five Star Movement in its entirety and for what it really is—namely, a legacy of the New Left and an institutionalized populist-left party. The Greek intellectual Takis S. Pappas reminds us that populists tend to march toward institutions and can remain entrenched inside for extended periods as they seek to remake them (Pappas, 2019: 74).

Grillo has managed to bring an initially disorganized mass of his followers (who all held differing beliefs yet with a common anti-establishment denominator) together by mobilizing them online and giving a political flavor to anti-political protest. This protest was against pro-austerity center-right and center-left forces that dominated Italy’s bipolar system. However, there is no doubt that the majority of Five Star Movement activists, supporters, and parliamentarians—even when identifying as “post-ideological”—have views that fit much more readily with the left than the right. Their commitment to expanding welfare, technological innovation, migrant integration, environmental protection, civil liberties, and half-hearted (but still crucial) anti-capitalist crusades are certainly not those of the populist right. National populists of the right are instead mainly concerned with defending a nation’s borders, the traditional family, and ethno-cultural identity and tend to favor Atlanticism. For this reason, in assessing the ideology, discourse, and policies of the Five Star Movement, we must treat it as a case of left-wing populism or “social-populism.”

Even today, while being an active part of liberal Italian institutions, most of the policies they push forward are considered too radical and too leftist by neoliberal actors on the right and left (such as Forza Italia and the Democratic Party). The M5S clearly opted for a strategy of political compromise to retain its grip on power and maintain its parliamentary majority so as to ensure its influence over domestic policy (especially when it comes to the handling of EU funds). Yet, there is reason to believe that the scholar Marco Tarchi was right about the movement. Grillo’s creation is potentially a case of the purest forms of populism in Europe (Tarchi 2015: 333).

Not only have they upended Italy’s bipolar party system, but they have shepherded scores of ordinary people with no prior political experience into parliament and other state institutions. Their populist style and communication (always present to some degree since Benito Mussolini and Guglielmo Giannini) are now embedded within the democratic system and process. Evidence of this can be found in many anti-political television programs like “Piazzapulita” (“clean slate”), “Dritto e Rovescio” (“obverse and reverse”), and the daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano (“the daily fact”). The latter is openly sympathetic to the Five Star cause. In addition, examples of systemic populism manifest in the series of organized rhetorical attacks, threats, and brawls in parliament launched by Grillo’s MPs.

Only time will tell whether the Five Star Movement will disappear from the political scene (after Casaleggio’s death, Di Battista’s departure, and the betrayal of some of their core principles and constituencies, things are looking difficult for Grillo’s people). However, what is certain is that the legacy endures. The M5S has demonstrated the kind of impact that populists who institutionalize themselves can have. The Five Star’s presence in institutions has culminated in a drastic cut in the number of MPs (as well as their salaries), something virtually unprecedented in a large Western democracy. This sets a precedent that some may see as a curtailing of democracy. Instead, it should be understood part and parcel of Italy’s apparently functional “populist democracy.”


(*) AMEDEO VARRIALE is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of East London, UK. He earned a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Politics and International Relations from Kingston University in 2016 and has a Master of Arts from the University of Westminster. His research interests include contemporary populism and nationalism. He is currently participating in a ‘go-to textbook’ project funded by the University of Toronto, where his next publication, “English Nationalism: An Anatomy,” will be available shortly. Varriale has a keen interest in public policy and has been an active voice—through scholarship and journalism—in British public debates over freedom of speech, individual rights, and national identity.


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Mancini, A. (2020). “E Alla Fine Il Movimento Cinque Stelle Divenne Casta. Cosa Ne È Stato Delle Sue Promesse.” The Vision. November 20, 2020. https://thevision.com/politica/m5s-casta/ (accessed on May 25, 2021).

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Footnotes


[1] Those are usually populist parties that oppose neoliberal mainstream mass parties and some of the institutions those actors operate in but are not against democratic principles and necessarily opposed to checks and balances. See Damiani (2016: 13) and works by Schedler (1996) and Abedi (2004).

[2] According to Damiani (2016: 13, 15) radical left parties are somewhat more moderate than extreme left parties given the former (unlike the latter) do not explicitly want to dismantle the democracy per se and have decided to abandon authoritarian and totalitarian objectives. The extreme left is revolutionary not reformist and wishes to overcome the bourgeoise, capitalistic and liberal-democratic system altogether.

[3] See March’s paper “Contemporary Far Left Parties in Europe: From Marxism to the Mainstream?” published by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Institute in November 2008.

[4] A complete definition can be found on the website of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). See https://www.populismstudies.org/Vocabulary/left-wing-populism/.

[5] See the introduction to Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy (2008) by Albertazzi and McDonnell.

[6] In his chapter in Democracies and the Populist Challenge (2008), co-edited by Mény and Surel, Mair explains that liberal democracy is composed of “two pillars” (the constitutional and the popular), which he juxtaposes in his analysis.

[7] A “recall” is a procedure by which voters from a constituency can legally remove an elected official before her term comes to an end. A small number of countries including the United States have adopted this system. In Italy, it remains unconstitutional. 

[8] Chiara Corbetta and Elisabetta Gualmini used this phrase in their 2013 book on Grillo’s politics to describe the Five Star Movement.

[9] Gianroberto Casaleggio, the movement’s leading idealogue, passed away in 2016. The digital war machine of the movement (not just the blog but the “Rousseau” platform) then passed to his son, Davide Casaleggio.

[10] Favia admitted as much in an interview broadcast on the TV program “Piazzapulita” in September 2012. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oah6vq4QHPY (in Italian). 

[11] Di Maio made this statement on 30 July 2018 whilst commenting on the proposal by the governing coalition to appoint Marcello Foa as president of RAI (the Italian state broadcaster). For the full statement, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ug2FjaPNJ0 (in Italian).

[12] This agreement, among other things, asserts that the Five Star Movement is not a party and not meant to function as one.

[13] Di Maio resigned as political head on 22 January 2020 but remains one of the movement’s leading cabinet ministers.

[14] Eatwell and Goodwin deploy the term in their 2018 book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy to define parties opposed to mass immigration, globalised capitalism, and supra-national institutions like the European Union. Lega is certainly a right-wing party. However—as Mudde (2007) and others have noted—it is hard to label it as “radical/extreme right” (in Elisabeth Carter’s sense of the word) because of its relatively liberal positions on the role of the state, the individual, society, the market economy and commitments to anti-fascism, regionalism and localism. This locates Lega in contradistinction to the “palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism” (Griffin, 1995) of the neo-fascists located further on the right.

[15] See, for example, Pratt’s Penal Populism (2006) and Anastasia and Anselmi’s chapter “Penal populism in the multi-populist context of Italy” in Multiple Populisms: Italy as Democracy’s Mirror (2020) edited by Paul Blokker and Manuel Anselmi.

[16] By 2021, the number of MEPs had fallen to ten after some defections to the Greens.

[17] Parties that are not able to form a large EU party grouping end up as non-attached members and have no voting rights in the Conference of Presidents, a key executive organ in the European Parliament.

[18] Paragone was expelled from the party in December 2019 due to his arguments with the leadership and other MPs over their increasingly Europhile turn. He accused the party of having abandoned its manifesto commitments.

[19] In November 2019, Paragone said as much on the TV program “Piazzapulita” while still an M5S MP. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iqx7ijLo2A (in Italian).

[20] Bordignon (2013) and Ceccarini (2013) have adopted this terminology in relation to M5S’s online platform and party activities.

[21] Five Star mayors Chiara Appendino (Turin) and Virginia Raggi (Rome) have been investigated for alleged misconduct in office.

RuthWodak

Prof. Ruth Wodak: I am very worried about the future of Europe

In this session, one of the leading scholars on populismProf. Ruth Wodak, answers questions by Selcuk Gultasli on politics of fear, welfare chauvinism, the role of socio-political context and media, the normalization of the far-right agenda, and the future of Europe. Wodak said she was very worried about the future of Europe and stressed that the EU is endangered as a member of the transnational club. Stating that some EU countries abide by the EU conventions, but others do not, risking the EU’s unity, she underlined that some EU member countries like Hungary and Poland behave as if nothing has been learned from history. 

 

EU flags in EU Council building during an EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium on June 28, 2018. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

Prof. Ruth Wodak: I am very worried about the future of Europe

“Currently, lying doesn’t matter. That is what I call ‘post shame’. You don’t have to be ashamed, you don’t have to apologize for lying, for offending people, for swearing, for being sexist or racist or whatever. It just doesn’t matter. This characterizes a new stage in the development of the far-right. Certain conventions and taboos have been violated and such new discourses have become acceptable.”

By Selcuk Gultasli

One of the leading scholars on populismProf. Ruth Wodak, said she was very worried about the future of Europe. Prof. Wodak, who is Emerita Distinguished Professor of Discourse Studies at Lancaster University, UK, and affiliated with the University of Vienna stressed that the EU is endangered as a member of the transnational club. Some EU countries abide by the EU conventions, but others do not, risking the EU’s unity. She underlined that some EU member countries like Hungary and Poland behave as if nothing has been learned from history. 

Prof. Wodak believes we are now living in a “post shame” age where all norms have been attacked by the populist and far-right parties. Lying for politicians has become so normal that nobody cares anymore whether they tell the truth or simply lie. “This shamelessness, as I call it, also implies a mobilizing capacity because many people, Trump voters, for example, were very happy that Trump ‘finally said what everybody was thinking’,” Wodak said. Despite many negative developments, Wodak thinks populist parties can be defeated at the ballot box. The latest example is the elections in the US where Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump. 

The following are excerpts from the interview. 

How does the “politics of fear” work for populist parties? How do they instrumentalize fear?

This is, of course, always context dependent. Far-right populist parties thrive whenever there is a crisis. They either construct or exaggerate a crisis or instrumentalize existing crises. They create unreal scenarios of threat and danger, and then they position themselves as the only party and the only politicians who can save “us” from this crisis and danger. In this way, they first create fear and then hope. This is an interdependent pattern. Which is, of course, not new, which has existed for many, many centuries; but they are very clever at employing this pattern.

Your book “The Politics of Fear” was published before Donald Trump and Brexit, before the surge of populist leaders, and it is very to the point. How do you explain this?

In the meantime, there is the second edition. It just came out in 2021. It’s updated: I also write about Trump and Brexit and the many new socio-political developments which occurred since the first edition. As for the first edition, it was obvious to look at the Austrian, Italian and Hungarian examples. “The politics of fear” was very successful in the far-right.

The oldest European far-right populist parties, like the Front National and the Austrian Freedom Party, became much stronger, especially after 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain. (Jörg) Haider’s party, the Freedom Party, for example, gained many votes because they instrumentalized xenophobic rhetoric against migrants from the former Eastern bloc countries. Interestingly, in 2015, in the refugee movement, we experienced a very similar xenophobic pattern in far-right discourse. The only salient difference was that now refugees  were coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Africa, Somalia, Sudan, etc. But basically, the exclusionary rhetoric is very similar.

There Is No “One Size Fits All”

As you have stated in your lectures: almost all populist parties in Europe are successful. Why is this the case?

This is an interesting question. Again, it’s context specific because it’s very different in the south, where there exists bigger polarization. Moreover, left-wing and centre-left parties have been quite successful in Spain, Portugal, and Italy; right now, we have a technocratic government in Italy. The Lega (a populist right-wing party), which was initially very successful, had to leave the government in Italy. In Greece, there exists huge polarization. But it’s different in the rich countries—and I am now speaking of Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, and Norway, probably the richest countries in Europe. The fear was created that the people would lose out; thus, they haven’t lost yet, but they [were made to fear that they] would lose all the social benefits etc., because refugees were and are arriving. Such fear was mobilized and instrumentalized. We label this phenomenon “welfare chauvinism.” 

Then there are countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, etc., which are poorer countries; [in these countries], the far-right creates fear that people might lose their “true” national identity and their national language and maintain that Christianity (i.e. the Christian Occident) is threatened. People were mobilized through such fears. For example, look at Hungary: many Hungarians had emigrated to Western countries, so huge fear was created that the “true” Hungarians would die out. This is a trope that Viktor Orbán frequently uses. In sum, there exist very different reasons for the success of the far right. There is no “one size fits all.” One must really look at the context, the history, at the socio-political and economic developments, to understand cultural developments and explain how these parties work.

When and how do populist parties become unsuccessful? Is there a way to defeat them at the ballot box?

Obviously, examples exist. In some countries that has already happened. Sometimes they even “shoot themselves in their own foot.” Like in Austria: The Coalition-Government from 2018-2019 (with the far-right Freedom Party as coalition partner) failed because of big scandals, and they lost a lot of votes. But they seem to have found a new agenda, new “enemy images,” new niches, a new way of mobilizing voters. In other cases, it really depends on other factors: if there is a good opposition, if there’s an alternative program, you might have a chance [to defeat far-right populism]. If there is no alternative program, other parties will not defeat them; one has to provide alternatives, provide more participation so that citizens feel that they are acknowledged and that their worries are being taken seriously. A third possibility is that the party vanishes but then, the conservative parties usually take on their agenda. That’s what I call, now in my second edition, “normalization.” In this way, the far-right agenda becomes normalized, and the mainstream conservatives implement the programs of the far right. Indeed, the parties might vanish or become smaller, but the agenda survives.

There Are Many Politicians Who Lie a Lot

Former US President Donald Trump with a serious look as he delivers a speech at a campaign rally held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, PA – August 2, 2018. Photo: Evan El-Amin

What do you mean by “post shame” age?

I think this is important. There’s a lot of talk about a “post truth era.” Indeed, there are many politicians who lie a lot. Of course, the example of Donald Trump is obvious, but lying is not new in the far right. Or in politics tout court. As Hannah Arendt and other theorists have shown, they (the liars) were sanctioned, they had to apologize, or they would lose votes; they even resigned. Currently, lying doesn’t matter. That is what I call “post shame.” You don’t have to be ashamed, you don’t have to apologize for lying, for offending people, for swearing, for being sexist or racist or whatever. It just doesn’t matter. This characterizes a new stage in the development of the far-right. Certain conventions and taboos have been violated and such new discourses have become acceptable. This shamelessness, as I call it, also implies a mobilizing capacity because many people, Trump voters, for example, were very happy that Trump “finally said what everybody was thinking.” The appeals to the people, to this alleged homogeneous people, is a very important strategy. These politicians construct themselves as those actors who can not only save the people from alleged dangers but who “dare say what everybody thinks.”

One of the terms you use is “shameless normalization.” What is so shamelessly normalized in recent years?

It is exactly what I have just mentioned. The shamelessness is making it acceptable to lie, to violate conventions of dialogue and negotiation, to denounce and defame your enemies in ways which violate many taboos. We were used to politeness conventions, to values which support and maintain interaction, and negotiations, i.e. arrive at compromises. Currently, it seems to be the case that we live in parallel worlds. We now seem to live in parallel discourse worlds, and those worlds cannot interact with each other anymore. Let’s take the example of Victor Orbán of Hungary again: The European Commission and many heads of state have criticized Fidesz’ and Orbán’s policies. Article Seven has been invoked against Hungary but it seems not to matter. Orbán will say, “okay there’s some little formal things which we can change to abide by the rules,” but basically the content of the undemocratic policies doesn’t change. The EU seems quite helpless and doesn’t really have the resources to implement the sanctions, mostly also due to the rule that all heads of European member states have to vote unanimously in such cases. In this way, Orbán has implemented some really authoritarian measures—for example, restricting press freedom, the freedom of universities and science, and so forth. 

You argue that instrumentalizing the media, both traditional and new, is part and parcel of the immediate success of populist movements. What should media do to escape the trap of the “mainstreaming” of populist parties?

That’s also a good question. If possible, media should, on the one hand, comment and explain what is happening, not just print what was said but frame it in a different way. They also don’t always have to print every provocation and scandal on page one. On the other hand, scandals sell well, so there is an important economic side, which has to be acknowledged. Right now, in Austria we are experiencing what is called “message control.” Media who are not reporting and printing what the government handouts every week in press conferences receive less subsidies, they receive fewer official advertisements—they’re basically starved by the government. It’s very difficult for them to survive as independent media; the pressure is huge. It’s not like in Turkey where journalists are being put into jail, but there exist subtle ways of disciplining the media and journalism. On top of that, there exists the option that every politician creates his/her own media. Trump tweeted; he didn’t need the media. He delegitimized the quality media as “fake news.” He legitimized what he called the alternative facts. He could do that via his own propaganda tool—tweets. He didn’t need the quality and mainstream serious media. Politicians can remain in their own bubbles, in their “parallel worlds.” That is a very dangerous development, and we observe the delegitimization of serious quality media in all the far-right parties.

US President Joe Biden defeated one of the strongest populist leaders in the world, Mr. Trump. Are there any lessons for Europe to take as it deals with its own populist leaders?

Yes, absolutely. The victory of Joe Biden has many reasons of course but one really big factor was that Trump failed in the Covid crisis. He spent a lot of money to start producing the vaccines, but he relativized the danger of the Covid crisis and, of course, the hundreds of thousands of dead Americans could not be dismissed. Covid created more dead Americans than both World Wars. Probably, without the Covid-crisis, Trump would have won. 

Secondly, Biden, only won by a small margin. All in all, he had millions of more votes, but if you look at the specific states, his victory was very small. Thus, it was important to have democratic institutions which didn’t fail. Justice was maintained. Indeed, some Republican senators abided by the rules and not to Trump’s big lies. 

Thirdly, Biden had an alternative program. Biden promised not only to fight the crisis and to provide vaccines, but he also promised better health services, higher minimum wages, to fight against poverty, tax the very rich, etc. 

Another example: There exists by Leonie de Jonge a very interesting study illustrating how such shifts happen. De Jonge works in the Netherlands. She did a study on the far-right parties in Belgium, where there are two far-right parties: one in the Flemish part and one in the French part. And there exist two social democratic parties, one in the Flemish part and one in the French part. In the Flemish part, the Social Democratic Party tried to overtake the far-right by proposing ever stricter anti-immigration measures and adopted xenophobic rhetoric. They lost heavily and the far right won. Xenophobia is the brand of the far-right. You shouldn’t compete with their brand. In the French part, the Social Democrats won. Why? Because they aligned with the media, they created a “cordonne sanitaire.” The media didn’t publish every provocation and scandal. They also proposed a left-wing program against poverty, for human rights and gender equality and anti-discrimination. The Social Democrats won; the far-right lost. This is truly like an experiment, where you can observe how different programs and alternative strategies might work.

EU: Nation States Remain More Powerful Than Transnational Entity

European Union flags against European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

After the Cold War, it was believed by many academicians that liberal democracy had won, and all the countries would reform themselves to attain the standards of liberal democracy. Right now, we witness just the opposite. What went wrong?

This is a question we could write many books about. I think that there are many factors. One factor is, of course, neoliberal economic policies which cut through the social welfare systems. The huge rise of inequality is obvious. Look at the United Kingdom, for example but also what happened in the European south. The second important factor is the fear “of losing out.” In the financial crisis of 2008, one could say simplistically the banks were saved but not the people; the fact that our generation cannot provide a better life for the next generation is a huge problem. The third factor is global inequality and continuous uncertainty. We all live on one planet, and we all face problems like climate crisis and migration. Countries have changed, they have become much more diverse; and such phenomena have triggered fears with respect to national identity issues, which we already talked about. And there are many other factors… 

If the trend continues i.e., the surge and the success of populist parties, what sort of a Europe shall we have in 20-30 years?

I am not a prophet, and I am also not a political scientist. I believe that the EU is endangered as a transnational entity. If the EU cannot guarantee human rights anymore, which are part and parcel of the Treaties, if it cannot guarantee the convention of child rights, it might fall apart into countries which abide by the conventions and countries which go a very different way, like Hungary, Poland, and so forth. Then, the EU might remain an economic area, but it would not guarantee what the EU, actually, stands for. 

I personally am very worried about this because we can observe such developments. For example, we have witnessed that heads of state cannot find a compromise on how to save hundreds of unaccompanied refugee children stranded on Greek islands. As if nobody has learnt from history! Strong reforms are necessary. The EU members and the EU Commission will have to consider reforms. Hopefully the citizens can participate through referenda, [determining] which direction the reforms should take. There’s an inherent contradiction in the structure of EU that, on the one hand, there exists the European Parliament. We all vote for the MEPs [member of European Parliament]. On the other hand, the heads of state are the most powerful actors. The nation states remain more powerful than the transnational entity. I think this contradiction has to be solved in some way. Otherwise, I don’t see how the EU will be able to continue in a positive, peaceful way.

Who is Ruth Wodak?

Ruth Wodak is Emerita Distinguished Professor of Discourse Studies at Lancaster University, UK, and affiliated to the University of Vienna. Besides various other prizes, she was awarded the Wittgenstein Prize for Elite Researchers in 1996, an Honorary Doctorate from University of Örebro in Sweden in 2010, and an Honorary Doctorate from Warwick University in 2020. She is past-President of the Societas Linguistica Europaea. 2011, she was awarded the Grand Decoration of Honour in Silver for Services to the Republic of Austria, and 2018, the Lebenswerk Preis for her lifetime achievements, from the Austrian Ministry for Women’s Affairs. She is member of the British Academy of Social Sciences and member of the Academia Europaea. In March 2020, she became Honorary Member of the Senate of the University of Vienna. She is member of the editorial board of a range of linguistic journals and co-editor of the journals Discourse and SocietyCritical Discourse Studies, and Language and Politics

She has held visiting professorships in University of Uppsala, Stanford University, University Minnesota, University of East Anglia, and Georgetown University. 2008, she was awarded the Kerstin Hesselgren Chair of the Swedish Parliament (at Örebrö University). In the spring 2014, Ruth Wodak held the Davis Chair for Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. In the spring 2016, Wodak was Distinguished Schuman Fellow at the Schuman Centre, EUI, Florence. 2017, she held the Willi Brandt Chair at the University of Malmö, Sweden. Currently, she is a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna (IWM). 

Her research interests focus on discourse studies; gender studies; identity politics and the politics of the past; political communication and populism; prejudice and discrimination; and on ethnographic methods of linguistic field work. 

Professor Wodak has published 10 monographs, 29 co-authored monographs, over 60 edited volumes and special issues of journals, and ca 420 peer reviewed journal papers and book chapters. Her work has been translated into English, Italian, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Arabic, Russian, Czech, Bosnian, Greek, Slovenian, and Serbian. 

Recent book publications include The Politics of Fear. The shameless normalization of far-right populist discourses (Sage 2021, 2nd revised and extended edition); Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Migration Control (Multilingual Matters 2020; with M. Rheindorf); Identitäten im Wandel. (Springer 2020; with R. de Cillia, M. Rheindorf, S. Lehner); Europe at the Crossroads (Nordicum 2019; with P. Bevelander); The Routledge Handbook of Language and Politics (Routledge 2018, with B. Forchtner); Kinder der Rückkehr (Springer 2018, with E. Berger); The Politics of Fear. What Right-wing Populist Discourses Mean (Sage, 2015; translated into the German, Russian, Bosnian, and Japanese); The discourse of politics in action: Politics as Usual’ (Palgrave, revised 2nd edition 2011; translated into the Chinese); Methods of CDS (Sage 2016, with M. Meyer; 3rd revised edition, translated into the Korean, Spanish, and Arabic); Migration, Identity and Belonging (LUP 2011, with G. Delanty, P. Jones); The Discursive Construction of History. Remembering the German Wehrmacht’s War of Annihilation (Palgrave 2008; with H. Heer, W. Manoschek, A. Pollak); The Politics of Exclusion. Debating Migration in Austria (Transaction Press 2009; with M. Krzyżanowski); The SAGE Handbook of Sociolinguistics (Sage 2010; with B. Johnstone, P. Kerswill); Analyzing Fascist Discourse. Fascism in Talk and Text (Routledge 2013; with J E Richardson), and Rightwing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse (Bloomsbury 2013; with M. KhosraviNik, B. Mral). See http://www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/profiles/Ruth-Wodak for more information. 

SaraKamali

Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War Against the US

Author Dr. Sara Kamali discusses her book Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War Against the United States (University of California Press, 2021) with Dr. Todd Green, associate professor of religion at Luther College. Based on over a decade of research, Homegrown Hate is a groundbreaking work that directly compares White nationalists and militant Islamists. In this timely book, Dr. Kamali examines their self-described beliefs, grievances, and rationales for violence, and details their organizational structures within a transnational context. She presents compelling insight into the most pressing threat to homeland security not only in the United States, but in nations across the globe: citizens who are targeting their homeland according to their respective narratives of victimhood. She also explains the hate behind the headlines and provides the tools to counter this hate from within, cogently offering hope in uncertain and divisive times.

White Mushroom. Photo: Stephan Morris

Witnessing Beyond the Human*

The “poetry of witness” tradition ranges from Brecht’s Nazi-era ballads, Paul Celan’s broken German folk rhythms, and Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary lyrics on the Vietnam War to Terrance Hayes’ recent poem on the killing of George Floyd. As important as these works continue to be, with textual gestures that communicate trustworthiness, human-centered witnessing is now coming into question. Climate crisis and pandemic have led to a heightened sense of human fragility and ecological interconnectedness. Witnessing beyond the human can take many forms; when it enters the popular (and even populist) imagination, it holds the possibility of greater empathy for other species.

By Heidi Hart

“The poetry ancestors scattered to all parts of the world.

Each family of trees, animals, winds, stones needed a poet.”

  • Joy Harjo

As populist movements gain traction, their environmental rhetoric tends to fall into two camps: unchecked extractivism for human use and distrust of scientific expertise on the one hand (McCarthy, 2019), and ecofascist fantasies of a “pristine” world without humans (particularly immigrants) on the other (Lubarda, 2020). What links these seemingly contradictory positions is a focus on people, the key element in the term “populism.” 

In academic and artistic circles, meanwhile, efforts to de-center the human, in terms of entanglement with other species, build on older models of witnessing to create a sense of truthfulness. Whether these efforts can actually prove persuasive remains an open question, but the work of imagining non-human subjectivities may leak far enough into popular media to reach even those who distrust climate science. This paper describes projects building on the “poetry of witness” tradition and their related popular manifestations, to argue that multispecies thinking can be adapted into mainstream media and cross ideological divides. 

The wax figure of Bertolt Brecht – opening of the waxworks “Madame Tussauds”, Unter den Linden, Berlin on July 10, 2008.

Background: Human Witnessing in Words

During Nazi-era exile in Denmark, poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht responded to his times with sharp-witted ballads and elegies that mixed reportage with biblical rhythms of mourning (Greenstein, 2010: 70). In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish-Romanian poet Paul Celan bore witness to the reverberations of genocide by re-enacting folksong rhythms in his poetry – and at the same time breaking down the German language that had been used in the service of unspeakable brutality (Franklin, 2020).

From the Spanish Civil War through the Vietnam era, American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote what is now called “documentary poetry” to collect and distill traces of “the first century of world wars” (Huber, 2018). In our own time, Terrance Hayes and others have borne witness to the grief, anger, and activism rising from the death of George Floyd (Hayes, 2020). Though the “poetry of witness” tradition has suffered from white privilege and over-personalization in the US, shifting attention from “atrocities at home and abroad” (Hernández, 2021), it has been a key measure of literary trustworthiness, especially in the “post-truth” Trump era. 

Why poetry? As environmental writer Andri Snær Magnason points out, poetry allows humans to “scale up” language to meet a crisis, since we cannot amplify it the way we can numbers (Magnason, 2021). How can poetry, then, best rise to meet our present crisis on a planetary scale? How to address wildfire, mass extinction, monster hurricanes, ice loss, floods, and ocean acidification, to name just a few of the threats that seem overwhelming today? 

A more pressing question might be, how trustworthy is a human poet anyway, when humans – though with varying privileges and complicities in the carbon-industrial complex – have been the agents of a once healthy planet’s demise? Poetic efforts toward de-centering the human “I” to make room for other species’ presences, can foster complex and generous truth-telling. When spread into popular (if not populist) media, they can do at least some of the work of “transcending human-centered exceptionalism” (Demos, 2016: 19).

Build A Bear Lion King display in Arrowhead mall in Glendale, Arizona, USA on July 29, 2019. Photo: E. Murphy.

Making Room for Other Species

In his book The Media Ecosystem, Antonio López describes a process of decolonizing what he calls media “monoculture,” in which Disney monopolizes “magic” (López, 2012: 9) and TV “teaches us what is normal by showing us that common people are middle class, white suburbanites” (57). Metaphorically applying principles of regenerative agriculture and even Bill McKibben’s “media equivalent of the farmer’s market” (143) can aid in disrupting a hegemonic media landscape, as can learning about Indigenous practices of community ritual and collaboration. 

Likewise, a literary geography of well-educated humans writing testimonials of their time on Earth can be a form of “monocropping,” too, not only in shutting out less privileged voices but also in assuming that only human perspectives count. Looking to older sources than Disneyfied talking animals, López points out that “[t]races of our ancient past can be found in how children are allowed to play as if animals, plants, or spirits can talk to them” (9). He cites Hayao Miyazaki’s films as a strong example of “respectful tales of nature spirits” and “ecological allegories of connection” (9). He also describes do-it-yourself, collage-like punk aesthetics as ways of being “more than a witness” in making “something participatory and real” (29)

Even for environmentally engaged writers and artists, stepping aside to listen to other species does require some DIY resourcefulness – and most of all humility, as humans are just beginning to understand how an octopus, a fungus, or a forest experiences the world. Philosopher Vinciane Despret’s attempts to understand animal subjectivity often take the form of questions, as in her alphabet-structured book What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? (2016), because the answers are still piecemeal and contingent. 

Donna Haraway, known for her influential thinking on multispecies entanglements, cautions against essentializing groups of animals, humans included. This point is a helpful antidote to right-wing, populist thinking that privileges humans over all other species, either by promoting unchecked growth or by wishing humankind away from an imagined, pristine “Nature.” “Individual critters matter,” Haraway writes; “they are mortal and fleshly knottings, not ultimate units of being” (Haraway, 2008: 88)

Because human understanding of nonhuman subjectivity is so difficult, “stories built through layered and disparate practices of being and knowing” (Tsing, 2015: 159) may be the best approach. This can take time and many false starts. Even clumsy reckoning with other species’ perspectives can yield a strange, new insight: “[t]he way selves relate is not necessarily akin to the ways in which words relate to each other in that system we call language” (Kohn, 2013: 100)

Photo: Dora Zett

Risking Interspecies Poetics

For all the difficulty and even impossibility of meeting other species in words, poets have tried for centuries to do exactly this. Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century meditation on his cat, “Jubilate Agno,” written at great length while in a London asylum, is equal parts biblical cadence and playful invention. The descriptive poem, in which an animal or plant is treated from a distance (and often given quasi-totemic power in a moment of personal realization), has continued to be the most accessible mode of human-nonhuman literary encounter. 

In the time of mass extinction combined with pandemic lockdown, the elegiac mode for mourning lost species has taken on new digital dimensions. The Vigil for the Smooth Handfish project, presented by the Parallel Effect for Lost Species Day in November 2020, was a scheduled online event that featured an animated image of a now-extinct fish that did appear to have hands, along with original poems and songs. The overall goal was to encourage participants to slow down, take time for a contemplative experience amid the confusions of the COVID year, and allow grief even for a small fish most people had never heard of to open a “space for a digital congregation, to contemplate loss, grief, the parameters of care, the interconnectedness of conservation and radical hope, and ‘collaborative survival’” (Parallel Effect, 2020). 

Another literary mode of approaching other species is the persona poem, in which the speaker takes on the “voice” of another creature or entity. Not surprisingly, this style of poetry is popular for schoolchildren, as in an Arizona writing program that includes “Poems by Pets” (Grunberger, n.d.), though the fictional mode of “zoopoetics” can be traced through the works of Kafka and into science fiction such as Octavia Butler’s Clay Ark (Magnone, 2016). Contemporary poets seeking contact with other species’ subjectivities tend to avoid speaking directly in nonhuman voices, knowing the ethical problems of presuming that “speech” (see Appadurai, 1988: 17, 20).

American Navajo (Diné) poet Tacy Atsitty’s speaker-persona slips obliquely in and out of nonhuman attributes, imagining what a cow needs, licking salt, and needing to be reminded “how I am human” (Atsitty, 2018: 25, 71). Turkish poet Ece Temelkuran takes another sidelong approach, in a collection titled “Meadow: The Explorer Encounters the Virtues in the Shapes of Animals” (2010). The poet’s impulse is to wriggle as closely as possible to her mysterious subjects (“I removed/ my eyes, thrust them under the earth,” 32) but she realizes that, in the case of a black swan, “She is none of the stories made up about her” (37).

Some poets test these limits, taking multispecies witnessing as a challenge. On one end of the risk spectrum, Brazilian poet Sérgio Madeiros keeps his words on the page but saturates them “in animist epistemologies that disperse divinity and personhood across a broad spectrum of beings,” such as a soldier in dialogue with a tapir “also identified as an old woman and a cannibal soul,” creating a “pluriverse” informed by Indigenous storytelling, Zen poetry, and avant-garde aesthetics, in an effort to resist human exceptionalism (McNee, 2017)

On the other end of the risk spectrum, multispecies researcher Eben Kirksey has experimented with biopoetic storytelling, in collaboration with chytrid fungi that reproduce with zoospores. Offering “death back to life, by offering bits of stuff to them – bait, like baby hair, pollen, or hemp,” this “composition without a composer or conductor” allows for decentralized creativity in a “cascade of reactions” (Kirksey, 2019). If this approach seems too lab-intensive, too biologically invasive, or too problematic in light of chytrids’ role in Central and South American frog extinctions (Platt, 2021) to work as trustworthy witnessing, there is a middle ground, a poetics of voice that allows nonhuman voices to be heard as well.

Two hooded crows are fighting on the summer lawn. Photo: Oleg Elkov.

US Poet Laureate and jazz musician Joy Harjo (Muscogee Nation) writes in playful relationship with other species, notably the crow. In an intertitle section of her 2015 book Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, she writes, “Humans in this world fall too easily to war, are quick to take offense, and claim ownership. ‘What drama,’ said crow, dodging traffic as he wrestled a piece of road kill,” (Harjo, 2015: 24)

In her 2010 album Red Dream, Trail Beyond Tears, Harjo sings with a crow. The song “Urban Crow Dance” emerged after “a crow followed me to the studio the first session,” the poet recalls (Harjo, 2010). With an underlying drone, syncopated percussion, flute, and the crow’s own voice, Harjo speak-sings, “C’mon, crow!  Dance!” She counts out the dance beat, lets her voice recede, and banters with the bird “(“Be that way, then!”), imitating his call as the song ends. Somehow this interaction sounds as respectful as it is awkward, with two voices meeting in equal, playful author-ity. Harjo’s Native heritage, with generations of human-animal storytelling, gives her the credibility to take this risk. 

Recording and interacting with animal voices (as in the many jazz responses to whale song [e.g. Rothenberg and Saarimaki, 2015]) is of course nothing new. Bernie Krause’s Great Animal Orchestra project has led not only to the pleasures of multispecies listening but also to groundbreaking research on biophony, leading to the “acoustic niche hypothesis” (Krause, 2016) in which different creatures adjust their frequencies to create individual sonic territories and adapt to other species’ soundworlds. Moths jam bats’ echolocation signals, for example, and in return bats “have managed to figure out what the moths are doing and have adjusted their echoing signal from a loud ping to a soft whisper” in order to “creep up on their prey, drawing to within a wing’s length without being detected” (Krause, 2012: 97).

Scientific discoveries aside, though, the widespread practice of field recording risks artistic extractivism or what Dylan Robinson has called “hungry listening” (Robinson, 2020). From Indigenous perspectives, sound collection can be a form of consumption, of wanting to claim and fix sensory material in place. Likewise, relying only on human emotions as a channel for understanding non-human experience can risk shallow empathy rather than real engagement, as in the controversial work of Peter Wolhlleben, whose Secret Life of Trees has reached a wide audience by describing botanical “emotions” while sidestepping scientific forestry research and practice (Kingsland, 2018).

Poetry and other art forms that include nonhuman voices are most generous when they allow for the unexpected, for the awkward pause or caw, for a moment of being “beside ourselves” as humans (Kirksey, 2019). An attitude of “guest listening” and of witnessing through conversation rather than monologue (Robinson, 2020: 53, 70-71) can open a space for other species to be at once surprising and less “other” – simply themselves. 

Common octopus (Octopus vulgaris). Photo: Vladimir Wrangel.

More-than-human Witnessing in Popular Media

While poets, artists, and environmental humanities scholars have been finding ways to imagine nonhuman subjectivities, scientific researchers with communicative gifts have entered this stream, too. Suzanne Simard, a silviculturalist or forest scientist, has succeeded where Wohlleben’s project, however popular, has fallen short. Her new book Finding the Mother Tree draws on decades of research into ectomycorrhizal fungi that form communicative networks under the visible forest, an idea that has gone viral in human parlance as the “wood wide web.” Though Simard still uses anthropomorphic terms like “matriarch,” her clear and compelling writing helps general readers understand how trees pass information from generation to generation, adapting “energy flow” to changing conditions (Simard, 2021; Slaght, 2021).

In a similar, reciprocal flow between research and art, Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest uses visual poetry to reach a wide human audience in New York’s Madison Square Park. A grove of giant, leafless Atlantic white cedar trees, earlier slated for clearing in New Jersey, has taken up residence in a public space. The towering, lifeless trees speak for themselves witnesses to ecological vulnerability, as actual “ghost forests” appear more and more frequently in US coastal areas (Smith, 2021)

Less charismatic species, such as kelp or mushrooms, have also gained in mainstream awareness – and not only because of their nutritional or psychedelic potential. The 2019 Kelp Congress in northern Norway attracted not only artists and researchers but practically the whole town of Svolvær as well, as citizens marched in a ceremony honoring the kelp that had saved several villagers from a Nazi assault on their town – by providing smelly but effective cover for several days (Johannessen, 2019). Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s scholarly book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015) may have a daunting title, but it laid the groundwork for such popular projects as Louie Schwartzberg’s 2019 film Fantastic Fungi and widespread at-home mushroom cultivation as a “new pandemic hobby” (Matei, 2021)

As for the charismatic whales, elephants, and household pets treated as subjects of popular books and TV shows on “how animals think” or “how animals communicate,” this is nothing new; nature documentaries have been reaching mainstream audiences for decades. What climate crisis and the looming sixth mass extinction have added to the picture is a dual sense of urgency and intimacy. 

The 2020 Oscar-winning film My Octopus Teacher is a human act of witnessing, but one that shows new possibilities of interspecies connection in a rapidly warming ocean environment. Though filmmaker Craig Foster edited the project heavily to create a narrative arc about his own healing from depression through a “love story” with another creature (Thiyagarajan, 2020), the film has reached a far wider audience than scholarly or poetic efforts to come close to a nonhuman “other.” Perhaps such projects can shift even a populist imagination away from either a “people only” or a “world without people” ideology.  

Conclusion

The “poetry of witness” tradition ranges from Brecht’s Nazi-era ballads, Paul Celan’s broken German folk rhythms, and Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary lyrics on the Vietnam War to Terrance Hayes’ recent poem on the killing of George Floyd. As important as these works continue to be, with textual gestures that communicate trustworthiness, human-centered witnessing is now coming into question. Climate crisis and pandemic have led to a heightened sense of human fragility and ecological interconnectedness. Witnessing beyond the human can take many forms; when it enters the popular (and even populist) imagination, it holds the possibility of greater empathy for other species.

Works that include other species’ sounds are difficult to present without coming across as precious or extractivist. Still, this can be done with playfulness and openness to chance, as in Joy Harjo’s jazz-inflected “Urban Crow Dance.” As artist and activist Olafur Eliasson has put it, “The fastest way to make a populist into a humanist is to listen,” in an artistic experience that encourages openness and empathy (Lauter, 2021). This applies to more-than-human empathy as well. 

As I have considered a range of works that de-center human author-ity to make room for other species, I am well aware of the imaginative leap such works require. To return to the Kelp Congress in Norway in 2019, one helpful guide for researchers and artists was a speculative philosophy text by Emanuele Coccia, “The Cosmic Garden”:

“Imagine you have no eyes. There are no colors in front of you. No forms. No patterns. No outlines. The world is not a variety of bodies and intensities of light. It is a unique body with different degrees of penetrability.

Imagine you have no ears. There are no noises, no music, no calls, no language you can understand. Everything is but a silent excitement of matter,” (Coccia, 2019: 17).

The text goes on to ask the reader to imagine having no legs, no arms, no hands, no “movement organs” (Coccia, 2019: 18), only a penetrable and penetrating presence in a fluid world. These words, which do not pretend to “be” an entity like giant kelp but rather press toward imagining its experience, allow the gap between us to remain. This humility in witness, knowing how far the writer is from really knowing how it is to be a plant, is what makes the text trustworthy.

The distance between humans and nonhumans, however inspiring moments of unexpected connection (the crow following Joy Harjo to the recording studio, for example), is no reason for despair. As climate-aware writers and artists test the limits of interspecies poetics, it is helpful to remember “the animal dimension in my own speaking” and even writing (Abram, 2010: 168) as the body leans forward to think through a phrase, and as the voice grows quieter or louder to make an urgent point. 

A beyond-human poem, or a book or film or even viral video, can be a kind of kin, too (Robinson, 2020: 95), expanding beyond what populist rhetoric (either human-focused or anti-human) counts as valuable. These varied forms of witnessing in human language, even in the effort to move beyond it, create a system of reaching relations, like tentacles spreading to touch, if not completely comprehend, the pluriverse in which we live. 

(*) This article is adapted from a paper presented at the 2021 conference Trust Me! Truthfulness and Truth Claims Across Media, Linnaeus University, Sweden. 


References

Abram, David. (2010). Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Appadurai, Arjun. (1988). “Introduction: Place and Voice in Anthropological Theory.” Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 3, No. 1: 16–20.

Atsitty, Tacey M. (2018). Rain Scald: Poems. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Bilodeau, Chantal. (2015). Sila: A Play. Vancouver, B.C.: Talonbooks.

Chaudry, Una & Hughes, Holly. Eds. (2014). Animal Acts: Performing Species Today. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. 

Coccia, Emanuele. (2018). “The cosmic garden.” In J. Andermann, L. Blackmore, & D. Morell, Editors, Natura: Environmental aesthetics after landscape.17-29. Zurich: Diaphanes.

Demos, T.J. (2016). Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Despret, Vinciane. (2016). What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? Translated by Brett Buchanan. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Greenstein, Edward L. (2010). “Lamentation and Lament in the Hebrew Bible.” In: K. Weisman, Editor. Oxford Handbook of the Elegy. 67-84. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haraway, Donna J. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Harjo, Joy. (2015). Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Kirksey, Eben. “Molecular Intra-Actions: Storytelling with Chytrids.” Keynote address, Multispecies Storytelling in Intermedial Practices conference, Linnaeus University, Sweden, 23.01.19. 

Krause, Bernie. (2012). The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co.

López, Antonio. (2012). The Media Ecosystem: What Ecology Can Teach Us About Responsible Media Practice. Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions.

Moe, Aaron M. (2014). Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Robinson, Dylan. (2020). Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Simard, Suzanne. (2021). Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering Wisdom in the Forest. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.  

Temelkuran, Ece. (2010). Book of the Edge. Translated by Deniz Perin. Rochester, NY: Boa Editions.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Young, James O. (2010). Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. Chichester, UK: Blackwell.

Photo: Anton Watman

The Closing of Civic Spaces in the Time of Terrorism in Nigeria (June 17, 2021)

While debates on the effects of the post-9/11 counterterrorism measures (CTMs) on civil society organizations (CSOs) exist, there is a paucity of data on how CTMs are shaping the spaces and actors of CSOs in Nigeria. During this ECPS seminar, Dr. Emeka Thaddues Njoku will discuss CSOs’ perceptions on the effects of counterterrorism measures, the countermeasures that CSOs are taking, and the government’s views on the security threat posed by CSOs with Saskia Brechenmacher. 

Date and Time: Thursday, June 17, 2021, 19:00 CEST

Register Here

Speakers 

Dr. Emeka Thaddues Njoku is currently a 2021-2023 Newton International Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society. In 2019-2020, he was selected as a Post-doctoral Fellow for the American Council of Learned Societies (African Humanities Program), New York, USA. In 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 he held two pre-doctoral fellowships of the Social Science Research Council’s Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa program. Njoku was also a 2017 Fellow of the Brown International Advanced Research Institutes (BIARI), Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, Providence, USA. 

Dr. Njoku’s research focuses on the intersection of civil society organizations and security governance, particularly post-9/11 international and state-level counterterrorism policies and practices. He won several research/travel grants from the Institute of International Education, American Political Science Association, Centennial Center for Political Science & Public Affairs of the American Political Science Association, Makarere Institute of Social Research and the University of Ibadan Postgraduate College. 

Njoku’s work has appeared in VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Development in Practice, Development Policy Review, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly and a forthcoming edited book by Manchester University Press.

Saskia Brechenmacher is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge and a fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where her research focuses on gender, civil society, and democratic governance. Prior to joining Carnegie, Brechenmacher worked as a graduate researcher at the World Peace Foundation in Boston, and co-led a research project on corruption and state legitimacy in Uganda for the Institute for Human Security at Tufts University. She has advised major governmental and private funders on strategies to protect and defend civic space in countries experiencing democratic backsliding. 

Brechenmacher’s writing has been published in the National Interest, the HillNew America WeeklyOpen Democracy, and elsewhere. Brechenmacher is a graduate of Carnegie’s James C. Gaither Junior Fellows Program, a 2017 Atlantik-Brücke Young Leader, and a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow. She also gained experience at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in London, and the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague.

EmergingMarkets

Populist attacks on institutions as a reaction to the hyper-globalization

This article explores the discrediting and decommissioning of the institutional foundations of the economy by populist leaders and its impact on economic performance in major emerging market economies (EMEs). One situation that justified these attacks that also attracts public support in recent years is argued to be the devastating effects of the global economic and financial crisis on developing countries (DCs) in general.

By Ibrahim Ozturk 

During the heyday of globalization, since the 1980s, the major emerging market economies (EMEs) not only increased their share of the global gross domestic product (GDP) in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) but also achieved a remarkable “convergence” (Lee, 2018; Lee, 2013) in terms of per capita GDP to that of the average developed country. Their share increased steadily from 36 percent in 1980 to 58 percent in 2016 (OECD, 2018). However, recent challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis have eroded optimism for the continued convergence. 

Around the world, economic problems are attributed to the excesses of globalization. In a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic or the 2008 economic crash, citizens of nation states might view their plight as being like a small boat sailing through a rough storm; whatever measures they take on the boat will not save them. These perceptions have helped various populist parties ascend to power or become coalition partners all over the world in the recent years. Although different economic, political, cultural, and security concerns shape populism across the right-left political spectrum, in this article, we will explore populism in selected EMEs without making a right-left distinction. We’ll look at the BRICS (BrazilRussiaIndiaChinaSouth Africa) countries and the MINTA (MexicoIndonesia, Nigeria, TurkeyArgentina) countries, all known as both middle income and populist countries—and all candidates to fall into the “middle income trap” (Kyle & Gultchin, 2018). As the main argument of this article, our sample set shows that populism and institutional erosion coexist, with the former causing the second. 

After summarizing the major repercussions of hyper globalization on developing countries (DCs) and looking at the domestic political reaction to this process, the third section will focus on the attacks made by populists on institutions, including the visible erosion of governance indicators in the sample country groups. The last part summarizes the main conclusions. 

Impact of Globalism on National Economies

The failure of DCs to manage the challenges posed by the rising “multiplex world,” a term recently coined by Acharya (2017), prepared the ground for populism and allowed populist parties to make electoral gains not only in DCs but also in several developed ones. As Rodrik (2018) puts it, to the extent that radical globalization works against ordinary households at the micro-level and violates the independence, autonomy, and sovereignty of nation-states at the macro-level, it fosters feelings against openness, globalization, and also large regional agreements. However, objective and speculative factors in the rising objections should be adequately addressed. 

First, as the Great Recession of 2008-2010 showed, because of their weak institutional governance, democratic check and balances, and excessive dependence on external markets, (particularly in finance), DCs cannot isolate themselves from the contagious effects of an erratic crisis in major capitalist countries. In addition to the ongoing harsh global competition, the economic recession of 2008 and subsequent fiscal crises have led to mass unemployment and distorted income distribution; together, they increased the perception of economic insecurity in DCs. 

Second, there are also perceptions that large companies or international organizations use free trade and unconstrained financial and fiscal agreements to constrain national governments in legislating socially desirable policies against their perceived interests. For instance, austerity programs implemented after 2008 worked against the most fragile segments of society, those living on a low and fixed income. 

Third, new technological shifts of the fourth industrial revolution like automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, cyberspace, big-data, and cloud technology have created downward pressure on the wages of low-skilled workers in non-export and import-competing industries. Capital mobility, which allows businesses and entrepreneurs to move to different countries where factor prices are lower and income and corporate tax are more competitive, creates downward pressure on the wage level of the less skilled labour force and kills local employment capacity. Overall, under excessive globalization and turbulences, income distribution skews in favour of large company owners and highly skilled workers, mainly in the export industries (Li, Hou, & Wu, 2017; WEF, 2017).

Fourth, given these factors, governments in DCs face the challenge of managing the distribution of the cost and benefits of national growth through an appropriate mix of taxes, safety nets, and subsidized public delivery of social services (health, education, low-cost housing) (Gill & Krahas, 2015). For instance, by considering the adverse impact of the pandemic on the poorest segment of society, which could trigger social unrest, the IMF, as the lender of last resort, called on governments to close the income gap between the richest and poorest by taxing wealthy businesspeople and spending more on the poor (The Guardian, April 1, 2021). However, contrary to those expectations, as Krugman (2008) has noted, neither governments nor the “winners” (i.e., entrepreneurs, companies) from free trade compensate the “losers.” The worst is that, as mentioned before, capital mobility or the fear for the so-called “capital flight” would undermine the existing premature efforts for the taxation of wealthy business globally to close existing income gap (Piketty, 2018; Piketty & Goldhammer, 2014). Rather the contrary, as recent experiences under pandemic have shown, the super-rich increased their wealth in many developed and developing countries (Financial Time, May 14, 2021), whereas the most vulnerable segments of the society have received quite unequal and inadequate support. This is because, on the one hand, the capital has various lobbying opportunities to soak up Covid cash; on the other hand, the businessman is “stateless” and therefore triggers the fear of abandoning the country because of more favourable tax privileges and financial supports elsewhere.

DCs have limited capacity to take advantage of the favourable global economic conjuncture and give back their gains before they are consolidated during the crisis. Additionally, they are exposed to the new problems mentioned above. While significant aspects of the negative repercussions are attributable to uncontrolled globalization, national governments are not entirely exempt from responsibility. As a result, the failure of DCs to properly manage globalization causes massive alienation and feelings of abandonment amongst the “silent majority,” preparing the ground for the exaggeration, falsification, and exploitation of problems and, therefore, manipulation of the electorate by populist politicians.

Populism as an Internal Reaction

As Luiz (2016) puts it, intensifying tension between the insiders or winners (the status quo) and the outsiders or losers of globalization determines the course of populism. Mudde (2004, 2007, 2013) and Müller (2016) underline the anti-elitist and anti-globalization characteristics of populist rhetoric. Some authors like Mouffe (2018) and Kaltwasser (2019) interpret populism as a reformist opportunity for democratic correction against the status quo and elites, and therefore, they present it as a member of the democratic club (Canovan,  2005). 

Mouffe supports populism because of its potential contribution to “radical democracy” through the mobilization of excluded sectors of society against the status quo. Following the same line of analysis, Jansen (2011, 82) contends that “a political project is populist when it is a sustained, large-scale project that mobilizes ordinary, marginalized social sectors into publicly visible and contentious political action, while articulating an anti-elite, nationalistic message that valorises ordinary people. It is therefore difficult to imagine democratic politics without populism. The dominance of a predominantly anti-populist logic may reduce politics to an administrative enterprise with over-proportionate input from colleges of experts and technocrats.” 

By looking at empirical data, it is necessary to question the ultimate goals of populists and to analyse where populist policies will go, regardless of their intentions, because of the “built-in mechanisms” they contain. Populism should be judged by its attitude when it consolidates its power and to changes through free and fair elections, rather than its idealistic and romanticized rhetoric before it comes to power and its actions during its initial years of inexperience (Lewis et al., 2019).

Rosanvallon (2006) argues that populism might take the form of a political expression in which the democratic project allows itself to be eliminated by a non-democratic ideology. With its orientation to make democracy less pluralistic (in political rights) and more inclusive (in the realm of social rights), contemporary populism is a fusion of nationalism (with its notion of the unified people) and authoritarianism (with its lack of tolerance for any alternative discourses). This suggests that populism is not just anti-elitist; it is anti-pluralist—and herein lies its profoundly undemocratic character (Weyland, 2020; Mueller, 2015). 

To sum up Norris and Inglehart’s (2019: 445) words, populism is an authoritarian philosophy and style of governance, in which “legitimacy flows from popular sovereignty and vox-populi, superseding minority rights, constitutional checks-and-balances, and decision-making by elected representatives.” Moreover, populists’ “divide and rule” strategy scapegoats marginalized groups, which serves to consolidate the leader’s power, to distract public attention from his failures, or to conceal from the people the nature of his rule or the real causes of economic or social problems (Munro, 2021).  In the context of this paper, populism is accompanied with stereotyping and stigmatizing “enemies of the nation”—other nations, international organizations, capitalists, or minorities. 

What are the effects of populism on economic development? 

The ultimate task in economic development is to achieve an inclusive, productivity-oriented and sustainable growth. Other main objectives include the generation of satisfactory income through employment creation and the prevention of erosion in the overall wage level without sacrificing macroeconomic stability. The question to ask here is, What are the available ideological and economic policy tools at the disposal of populists to manage external conditions and the resulting domestic imbalances properly? What is the capacity of populist governments to ensure sustainable, inclusive, and productive growth vis-a-vis hyper globalization?

Rodrik (2017, 2018) defines economic populism as “anti-establishment orientation, a claim to speak for the people against the elites, opposition to liberal economics and globalization (anti-foreign capital and companies), and often (but not always) an affinity for authoritarian governance.” With a similar approach, several economists who are also interested in economic populism (see Houle & Kenny, 2018; Dornbusch & Edwards, 1991; Kaufman & Stallings, 1991; Sachs, 1989) describe it as an “irresponsible approach” through redistribution of wealth and government spending. One critical issue is the pressure of “short-termism,” which is efforts by populists to meet short-term expectations they create. It is incompatible with the needed time dimension of structural reforms, which are costly initially but fruitful in the long run. The economic policy populists tend to follow is characterized by an initial period of massive spending financed by foreign debt and followed by a second period marked by hyperinflation and the implementation of harsh economic adjustments. 

Moreover, quite understandably, populist leaders focus on redistribution policies to improve the living standards of the so-called “silent and pure majority” against the “comprador bourgeoisie” or “corrupt elite.” However, as Pareto-optimality implies, when there are no effective external and domestic compensation mechanisms to make one better off without making someone else worse-off, populism relies on different bargaining strategies, sometimes even coercive policies, via highly politicized resource transfers across social classes. As will be discussed below, the excessive short-termism of populists also ignores inter-generational accounting principles and does not allow circumstances for the needed consensus and reform coalitions that increase productivity through technological transformation and upgrading human capital—and therefore achieving high-quality growth. 

Taken together, populism has problems with the principles of good governance, such as pluralism, participation, accountability, and transparency for market-based economic development. 

Populism, the Market, and Institutions

In the context of hyper globalization, the motivation of populists to discredit institutions reflects a lopsided view—that these institutions serve the elites, oligarchs, and international interests rather than the citizens. However, this approach does not fully capture the meaning, existence, evolution, and the role of institutions in economic development. As Polanyi (1944), North and Thomas (1973), and North (1997) showed quite succinctly, there is no development without robust institutional design defining the rules of the game. Markets are not God-given, but they are “designed” with the help of institutions. 

As North (1990: 3) contends, “institutions are the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, are the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction. In consequence, they structure incentives in human exchange, whether political, social, or economic.” More recently, Rodrik et al. (2004), Acemoglu et al. (2005), and Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) showed that societies with more flaws tend to have much “worse economic institutions” than those that don’t. This takes us to the role of politics in the design of institutors. As Dore (1986) showed in Japan’s economic development, and more recently, as Wen (2016) proposes quite assertively for the Chinese economic transition“market creation” needs political coordination and capacity to set proper priorities and reach a workable compromise among the major stakeholders. 

To start with, by denying institutional check and balances (i.e., the separation of the legislature, executive, and judiciary) and the autonomy of several key institutions such as the central bank, statistical institutes, court of auditors, and competition board, in the name of sovereignty and people’s self-determination via elections, populists take a strong anti-institutional stance. This stems from their belief that unelected national or supranational institutions serve the interests of the corrupt elite, global companies, and developed countries at the expense of the pure people. Reflecting the same position, populists also oppose the oversight of international anchors over their governance. They go further and also discredit science and scientific evidence/findings as untrustful and declare “folk wisdom” as more valuable. 

Such denials of science, professionalism, expertise, and institutions means that populists underestimate the importance of contemporary governance, which strives to bring solutions to conflicts of interest through different institutional designs and innovations that can alleviate problems of collective action and participation. Given the fact that political parties lose importance and elections serve the leader’s authority when populists are in charge, populist opposition to the autonomous institutions in favour of popular sovereignty cannot be easily interpreted as an indication of a “democratic corrective” or a process of “creative destruction” for better outcomes (Peruzzotti, 2017; Edwards, 2010). 

However, autonomous institutions, based on professionalism, expertise, and division of labour, play a crucial role in fulfilling citizens’ collective demands through pre-determined and agreed-upon rules and delegation mechanisms such as free and fair elections (Bezes & Le Lidec, 2016). Several uncertainties that come with the weakening of autonomous institutions, and reliance upon ad-hoc rules, arbitrariness, and irregularity, include the lack of predictability and short-sighted decision-making which result in lower investment, misallocation of resources, and finally, lower growth (Acemoglu et al., 2013; Helpman, 2008; Kartik & Sideras, 2006; Rodrik, 2000 & 2012; Yıldırım & Gökalp, 2016). 

A striking example of this is the attempt to limit central bank autonomy, which, most of the time, results in the loss of price stability as politicians run expansionary macroeconomic policies to fuel short-term growth at the expense of fiscal and monetary discipline (Edwards, S. 2010; Learner, 2019). The suggestion is that the autonomous but accountable and transparent institutions have the most credibility within modern governments—and therefore, governments should avoid interventions in fundamental institutions, such as the judiciary or Central Bank as well data monitoring agencies, like public statistical institutions that are empowered to produce scientific, impartial, and reliable data. 

Table 1 shows how authoritarian populist governments undermine the quality of institutions. It summarizes the broader categories of governance (composed of political participation, rule of law (ROL), stability of democratic institutions, political and social integration, socioeconomic development, monetary and fiscal stability, private property, welfare regime, economic performance, and sustainability) in BRICS and MINTA country groups. Numbers in red highlight an alarming situation and underline an obvious institutional erosion in all these countries, but particularly in Russia, Nigeria, Turkey, and China. 

Considering the high level of arbitrariness and one-man rule in populist governments, rule of law evolves as the most crucial parameter for institutional robustness. Therefore, the ROL criteria given in Table 1 is supported by a further sub-set of measures in Table 2. The World Justice Project (WJP)’s ROL index in 126 countries consists of the following aspects: constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, and criminal justice. This index shows similar results for upper middle-income countries (UMI) as of 2020. There is no single country over $12,535 per-capita GDP with an average WJP score below 0,50. UMI countries exhibit dramatically lower score in the ROL index and appear to be the most probable candidates to remain stuck in the middle-income trap. 

Conclusion

Populism signifies a significant deviation from institutionalized governance due to its reliance on a leadership cult of the strong man. Populism has developed partly as a reactionary movement to undisciplined globalization and the destructive impacts this has had on national and local economies. Globalization transmits its adverse impacts onto national economies through several linked threads such as trade diversion, unfair import and superior export competition, erosion of employment and income, distortionary patents, and financial instabilities. Additionally, there are perceptions that also foster the rise of populism—specifically that local bourgeois or “self-serving, corrupt elites” have successfully aligned their interests with global capitalism at the expense of the most vulnerable segments of society. For instance, constraints such as austerity or belt-tightening programs caused by the global economic crisis prevented governments from supporting the most fragile members of society. On the contrary, big companies were given priority and were rescued during the crisis, because they were “too big to fail.” Poorer segments of society felt abandoned and alienated. The result has been the rise of chronic income inequality (Pastor & Veronesi, 2020).

Populists instrumentalize these external impacts and domestic reactions to legitimize their distrust in supranational institutions, which urge national governments to further checks and balances and reforms and strengthen local autonomous institutions. Populists also fear that elites can capture autonomous institutions and therefore discredit their role in economic development. 

However, this road leads to low productivity and slow and unstable growth. The divisive rhetoric populists use to seize power causes deep fragmentations across societal fault lines and prevents the formation of national coalitions, which are needed to upgrade the economy through collective action and participation as well as sometimes painful and complicated reforms. Relatedly, the incompatible time dimension in unstable societies also makes politicians highly oriented toward short-term fixes; therefore, long-term structural reforms, with high ex-ante cost but ex-post return, are ignored.

In the absence of institutional checks and balances and reforms and efficiency pursuits, populists give priority to high growth and income redistribution through highly politicized resource transfers. Ignorant of economic efficiency criteria and high growth through expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, populist governments end up with unstable prices, domestic as well as external deficit, and permanent fiscal and financial crises such as currency shocks. 

Populists come to power by exploiting global and national grievances and also offer various favours to voters; the process results in worse economic outcomes, which pushes populist leaders to employ even more “divisive” rhetoric and policies through creating “enemies” both inside and outside the country in an effort to hide their incompetence and legitimize their governance. These findings should negate the optimistic view of populism as a democratic corrective against the status quo. The recent assault of populist regimes on democracy and the market economy shows that they are increasingly distancing themselves from democracy and the market economy to become even more authoritarian.


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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ali Erbas, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is seen during a public rally in Istanbul on the second anniversary of failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

The Islamist Populism, Anti-Westernism and Civilizationism of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs

In Turkey under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Friday sermons of Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) frequently employ vertical populist antagonistic binaries to legitimize the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) fight against the secular Kemalist “elite,” who are charged with being insufficiently Islamic. At the same time, horizontal binaries are employed in sermons to justify Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and his harsh measures against dissidents, who are branded enemies of Islam and “the people.”

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Mustafa Demir & Nicholas Morieson

Over the past two decades, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has cemented itself as the country’s hegemonic ruling party by appealing to the conservative Muslim majority of the country. Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proven exceptionally adept at uniting Islamism and populism, fusing the two into a powerful and pervasive political force with which he has established a stranglehold over Turkish politics and society while exporting this ideology abroad via its transnational apparatuses and networks (Yilmaz, 2021a). Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) controls all mosques (more than 90,000) in Turkey, many thousands in the West, and employs imams for these mosques. It has become one of the powerful instruments in propagating the AKP’s Islamist populism and anti-Western civilizationism.

The AKP did not begin its rule as an authoritarian party. Initially, the party—though populist in orientation—promised a more liberal and inclusive society. Throughout the 2002–2008 period, Erdogan called for Turkey to join the European Union and enacted a series of reforms that sought to eliminate the secular authoritarian tutelage of the Kemalist institutions. However, after 2008, and when the European Union refused in practice to accept Turkish entry into the organization and with increasing economic problems, the AKP began a slide into right-wing nationalism colored by Islamism.

Here, Islamism is understood as a politicized version of the religion of Islam, a counter-hegemonic paradigm, which “refers to turning religion into an ideology and an instrumental use of Islam in politics […] by individuals, groups and organisations in order to pursue political objectives” (Yilmaz, 2021b: 104). It is also important to note that “Islamism is not a coherent ideology – it focuses on identity politics rather than ideas and an appeal to emotions rather than intellect” (Yilmaz, 2021b: 105). Thus, this Islamist ideology relying on antagonistic binaries where the Islamists are constructed as the true and only legitimate representatives of the pure people against the corrupt elite and their international supporters is inherently populist (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021: 5; Laclau, 2006; Wojczewski, 2020; Katsambekis, 2020).

The 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests—in which mostly secular young people in cosmopolitan Istanbul protested against the AKP’s increasing authoritarianism and corruption—shifted the party further toward the right, as it sought alliances with conservative, religious elements in Turkish society. The failed 2016 coup d’état, a somewhat mysterious event, appears to have convinced Erdogan to abandon any pretense of liberal democracy and to embrace authoritarian religious populism instead.

The AKP’s turn toward authoritarian religious populism has proven largely successful. Erdogan remains a popular political figure, and—having purged the military, bureaucracy, and the universities of so-called undesirable citizens (especially secularists, leftists, and Gulenists)— the AKP now controls Turkey’s most important and influential institutions (Yilmaz, 2021b: 203-220). Through this power, the party has re-shaped Turkish identity in ways that suit the ruling regime. Fusing their populist ideology, which emphasizes the battle between “elites” and “the people” with Islamism, the AKP created a new type of Turkish nationalism in which “the people” and the state are identified with orthodox Sunni Islam. Adding this religio-civilizational element to their populism, the AKP gained the ability to portray Turkey’s domestic political battles and antagonisms as part of a wider cosmic religious war between Islam and its enemies, especially the “Judeo-Christian” West. The internal or domestic enemies, especially secular “elites” and Gulenists, were thus branded enemies of Islam who posed an existential threat to Turkey and – more broadly – the entire ummah (Yilmaz, Shipoli & Demir, 2021).

The AKP has tried to re-shape Turkish national identity through a variety of means. The party’s ability to set a national curriculum, dominate the media (traditional and new), and direct Turkey’s religious authority – the Diyanet – is highly important. The Kemalists established the Diyanet following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to bring Islam under greater government control. The Kemalist regime was a secularizing force in Turkey and often hostile toward religion and Islamic bodies. The Diyanet was thus created to help secularize Turkey and was intended to reduce the power of Islamic authorities and increase the power of the secular state.

Under Kemalist hegemony, the Diyanet was a promoter of sovereignty, national unity, and freedom, and it glorified the founding father of Turkey. It was restructured under the AKP regime to build the “new Milli [national]” (Mutluer, 2018) citizens the AKP desires. When the Islamist AKP came to power in 2002, instead of eliminating this institute, they ironically captured and widened its capacity boosting it financially and employing it to create an Islamist–populist appeal.

Thus, the Diyanet’s importance rapidly increased after the election of the AKP in 2002, particularly after the party’s turn toward Islamist populism in the 2010s. The AKP increased the religious directorate’s budget and encouraged the body to have a more socially and politically active role. Erdogan appears to have decided that the Diyanet was an ideal vehicle through which he could communicate and disseminate his religious populist rhetoric and ultimately increase his party’s political power.

Seeing the Diyanet’s potential in this way paved the way for the elevation of the President of the Diyanet (Başkan) from directorate to permanent undersecretary (Müsteşar), and the protocol ranking of the Diyanet director’s hierarchy being elevated from 51st to 10th under the AKP. This can be considered both symbolically and practically one of the greatest prerogatives given to the society’s conservative segments. This new status of the Diyanet and its increased budget allowed the organization to establish radio and television channels. The Diyanet’s mandate was expanded to provide religious services outside mosques, from foreign policy (Özturk, 2021) to prisons, retirement homes, and women’s shelters and families (Adak, 2020). Also, the Diyanet generates the Friday sermon, which all mosques in Turkey deliver in its exact form.

Weekly Friday prayers have been considered theoretically by both Kemalists and Islamists as a very important tool to control Turkish citizens’ perspective about Islam and to construct “good citizens.” Friday as a day and Friday prayers as a ritual has a significant place in Muslim religious life. Mid-day prayer on Friday was replaced by Friday prayer, and the sermons are an inseparable aspect of this weekly prayer. Thus, a proper Friday prayer necessitates delivering the sermon. Today in Turkey, in all mosques, it is estimated that more than 15 million male citizens (women are not provided space for Friday sermons) participate in weekly Friday prayers as the audience of Friday sermons. To put this number into perspective, when including adult female relations, the number of attendees equates to roughly 30-40 million voters or around 50 percent of the entire electorate. Friday sermons continue to have a special religious status among Muslims, and attendees are forbidden to speak among themselves during the delivery of sermons.

It is not surprising, then, that as the AKP shifted from liberalism to authoritarian Islamist populism, Diyanet’s Friday sermons reflected this change. Sermons began to echo, in particular, Erdogan’s Islamist–populist narratives. For example, the Diyanet began to stress the oneness of the ummah and the notion that Turkish Muslims were victims of ever hostile Western powers. For example, one sermon asserted that “One of the most important duties of Muslims is to be one voice against unbelief and to be united before the oppressor. However, it is possible to achieve this by basing not on each other’s sect, legitimacy, race, language, geography, and ideology, but Islam’s understanding of oneness and unity. The road to unity, amity, and peace; the way to know the friend and the enemy; make the ummah smile, not the others [the Western powers] passes from here” (April 8, 2016).

Reflecting the AKP’s assertion that Turkey is the “guardian of the ummah,” Diyanet sermons began to frame Turkey as the hope of the Muslim world and indeed of all oppressed peoples. One sermon read: “Just as in the past, today, too, our nation will continue to be the remedy for the remediless people, be there for those people who have nobody by their side, and be the hope and safe haven for the victimized and the refugees” (October 11, 2019).

Diyanet sermons, particularly after the AKP’s slide into Islamist populism after 2013, have increasingly used religio-civilizationalist rhetoric and framed contemporary events within a larger, almost cosmic religious war between Islam and the West.

Following the Turkish Armed Forces’ offensive into Syria in October 2019, one sermon invoked Islamic principles to justify this operation. The sermon claimed: “…. believers never consent to the violation of the values ​​of which the religion of Islam regards as sacred and untouchable, such as the occupation of homelands and homes. They do not hesitate to launch an honorable struggle to correct the deteriorating balances, to establish an environment of peace, and to ensure justice.”

Another sermon, which coincided with Turkey’s military operations in Afrin, portrayed Turkey and the Islamic ummahas a single entity and the target of external attacks. It urged unity among Muslims to prevent further attacks: “In recent years, we have been passing through the circle of testing both as the ummah of Islam and within our nation […] By threatening our unity and vitality, the hopes of the Islamic ummah are actually being consumed” (January 26, 2018).

It is also important to note that the Diyanet has embraced victimhood rhetoric in its sermons, portraying Muslims as victims of the West, which they accuse of opening “holes of fire in the Islamic territory.” Without naming the exact enemy, the sermons often claim that all Muslims have been victimized by “certain” enemies, enemies who even today are conspiring against Muslims, their religion, their unity, and their hopes. References to these unnamed enemies are kept obscure, and therefore are open to loading in parallel with the changing context, especially in horizontal and vertical dimensions.

In a majority of passive and hostility-loaded sentences in Friday sermons, the hidden subject refers to the enemy(ies) of Muslims as Judeo-Christian Western civilization. For example, the sermon delivered on Friday, January 26, 2018,reads: “We have been going through certain trials as a nation and as the Islamic ummah in the recent years. Those who want to weaken us and to pit Muslims against Muslims are coming at us with the weapons of sedition, terror, and treachery. They are trying to pull our country into the pits of fire they have opened in all corners of the Islamic geographyOur independence and future are targeted through various tricks and plots, plans, and traps. They are trying to drive the Islamic ummah to despair by threatening our unity and peace.”

The Friday sermon dated October 4, 2014 reads as follows: “By looking at the conditions the believers live in, it should be known how the power centers [i.e., the West] gather strength through the blood of the believers and how the brotherhood of faith that makes believers closer to each other is attacked and damaged and turned into fighting, violence, and hostility [between Muslims].” Another sermon dated October 11, 2019 echoes many of these earlier themes: “Unfortunately, the world today was turned into a place full of dark and evil traps. Those who claimed to bring so-called independence to some places have rather invaded those places […]. Those who plan to dig pits of fire all around the Islamic world have used weapons of sedition, terrorism, and betrayal to cause brothers to hit one another. Using various plots, plans, tricks, and traps, they have targeted our existence and future survival, as well as our freedom and future. They have attempted to bring us, our noble nation, to have been the flagbearer of the Muslim ummah for hundreds of years to our knees.”

This rhetoric, which closely echoes Erdogan’s religio-civilizationalism—namely, his contention that the ummah is involved in a defensive religious battle against non-believers— assists the AKP in two ways. First, it creates demand for populism by activating emotions of fear and anger. The AKP has instrumentalized Friday sermons to help construct a populist narrative that serves the party’s agenda. Through Diyanet sermons, the majority population of Turkey (i.e., Sunni Muslim Turks) is presented with statements and fatwa that evoke negative emotions and play on their sense of victimhood, their feelings of being part of an ummah oppressed by Western powers. The AKP uses this fear of and anger toward the West via the Diyanet to create a sense of permanent crisis and a belief that only the AKP can defend Muslims from a mighty opposition made up of non-Muslim powers who hate and wish to harm the ummah.

The Diyanet’s sermons serve the AKP’s religio-civilizationist populist division of society. Friday sermons have increasingly supported the AKP’s attempts – largely successful – to construct populist binaries based on religio-civilization identification. The sermons promote the notion that “we” (Sunni Muslim Turks) are the ummah, while secularists, non-Muslims, Gulenists, and certain other groups are implacable enemies of the ummah. This binary can then be used to mobilize “the people” to support the authoritarian Islamist–populist regime, which purports itself to be fighting on the people’s behalf against a non-Muslim civilizational enemy.

The AKP is hardly alone in using religion to aid its populist agenda and constructing antagonistic binaries and the sense of crisis upon which populism relies. Indeed, like other religious populist parties and movements, Erdogan’s AKP couches the vertical and horizontal dimensions of populism within a religio-civilizational frame. By this, we mean that the typically populist vertical division between “the people” and “elites” and horizontal division between “the people” and “others” is framed by a larger religio-civilizational concern or within a belief that religion-based civilizations are doomed to clash. In Erdogan’s Turkey, the Diyanet’s Friday sermons frequently employ vertical populist antagonistic binaries to legitimize the AKP’s fight against the secular Kemalist “elite,” who are charged with being insufficiently Islamic. At the same time, horizontal binaries are employed in sermons to justify Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and his harsh measures against dissidents, who are branded enemies of Islam and “the people.”

The AKP’s ability to instrumentalize the Diyanet has played an important role in the party’s increasing domination of Turkey’s political and social life. The Diyanet’s Friday sermons have assisted the AKP in fundamentally altering notions of how an ideal citizen of Turkey should appear and behave. Under AKP rule, the ideal Turkish citizen is an Islamist and a nationalist, albeit one with neo-Ottoman aspirations for Turkey. Moreover, the AKP’s ideal citizen believes that Turkey is at the forefront of a clash of civilizations and must therefore act as a defender of Muslims worldwide while also remaining vigilant at home where anti-Muslim actors—secularists, liberals, Gulenists—continue to threaten “the people.”


References

Adak, Sevgi. (2020). “Expansion of the Diyanet and the Politics of Family in Turkey under AKP Rule.” Turkish Studies. 22:2, 200-221, DOI: 10.1080/14683849.2020.1813579. 

Katsambekis, Giorgos. (2020). “Constructing ‘the people’ of populism: A critique of the ideational approach from a discursive perspective.” Journal of Political Ideologies. doi:10.1080/13569317.2020.1844372.

Laclau, Ernesto. (2006). “Why Constructing a People Is the Main Task of Radical Politics.” Critical Inquiry. 32: 646–80. 

Mutluer, Nil. (2018). “Diyanet’s Role in Building the ’Yeni (New) Milli’ in the AKP Era.” European Journal of Turkish Studies. https://doi.org/10.4000/ejts.5953https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337811594_Diyanet%27s_Role_in_Building_the_%27Yeni_New_Milli%27_in_the_AKP_Era_httpsjournalsopeneditionorgejts5953langde(accessed on May 16, 2021).

Ozturk, Ahmet Erdi. (2021). Religion, Identity and Power: Turkey and the Balkans in the Twenty-First Century.Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wojczewski, Thorsten. (2020). “‘Enemies of the people’: Populism and the politics of (in)security.” European Journal of International Security. 5: 5–24, doi:10.1017/eis.2019.23.

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Morieson, Nicholas & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “Exploring Religions in Relation to Populism: A Tour around the World.” Religions. 12: 301. https://doi.org/ 10.3390/rel12050301 

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Shipoli, Erdoan & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “Authoritarian Resilience through Securitisation: An Islamist Populist Party’s Co-optation of a Secularist Far-Right Party.” Democratization. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2021.1891412. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021a). “Islamist Populism in Turkey, Islamist Fatwas and State Transnationalism.” In: Shahram Akbarzadeh (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, 2nd Edition, 170-187. London and New York: Routledge.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021b). Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State, and Islam in Turkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turkish Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Van province of Turkey as holding a holy Quran on April 14, 2015.

How Are Religious Emotions Instrumentalized in the Supply of and Demand for Populism?

Over the past three decades, religion has become a key component of right-wing populist discourses the world over. Populist movements and leaders in nations as diverse as the Netherlands, Hungary, Turkey, India, Pakistan, and the US have increasingly practiced a discourse in which national identity is partly defined in religio-civilizational terms. The rise of religious populism has also involved the elicitation and exploitation of emotions by populists. Indeed, the addition of religion has made populism a formidable force capable of producing a range of emotions among segments of the public, thereby increasing the demand for populism.

By Ihsan Yilmaz and Nicholas Morieson

Over the past three decades, religion has become a key component of right-wing populist discourses across the world. Populist movements and leaders in nations as diverse as the NetherlandsHungaryTurkeyIndiaPakistan, and the United States have increasingly practiced a discourse in which national identity is partly defined in religio-civilizational terms. The rise of religious populism—which is primarily a right-wing phenomenon—has also involved the elicitation and exploitation of emotions by populists. Indeed, the addition of religion has made populism a formidable force capable of producing a range of emotions among segments of the public, thereby increasing the demand for populism.

Examples of this religio-civilizational discourse are surprisingly common and warrant more attention from scholars, journalists, and political analysts. For example, Geert Wilders, leader of the Netherlands’ third largest political party, the right-wing populist Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), is a prominent exponent of this discourse (Brubaker, 2017). According to Wilders, Dutch culture and identity are the product of, and inextricably linked to, Western Civilization’s “Judeo-Christian and humanist” character. In the copious tweets and articles that appear on his website, Wilders argues that Muslims pose an existential threat to the Netherlands and must be expelled from Dutch society. Moreover, Islam should not be tolerated in the Netherlands because, he alleges, it is antithetical and inherently hostile to the core Judeo-Christian principles that produced the secular culture of contemporary Europe.

In Hungary, religio-civilizational notions of identity are an important part of the discourse practiced by the ruling right-wing populist party Fidesz, and especially its leader and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Though Hungary is not an especially religious nation, Orbán describes Christianity as one of the core elements of Hungarian identity and culture and the key ingredient without which the nation would collapse. Much like Wilders, Orbán conceives of the world as divided into different civilizations and Islamic and Christian civilizations as mighty opposites doomed to clash. Yet where Wilders embraces Christian identity politics to defend secularism, Orbán uses Christian identity to defend social conservatism—and traditional conceptions of gender and sexuality—from secularism.

Religious populism is hardly endemic in Europe and may indeed be more prevalent outside the West. For example, Hindu Nationalism is a core element of the political program of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian Peoples’ Party, BJP). India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric, in which Muslims are alleged to be a foreign and hostile element within Hindu civilization. In Turkey, the ruling populist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dramatically altered Turkish citizens’ sense of national and civilizational identity through its neo-Ottoman discourse, which posits that Turkish Muslims are at the vanguard of the ummah (the global community of Muslims) (Yilmaz, 2021a). Moreover, AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan uses his considerable rhetorical skill, political acumen, and even unofficial Islamic legal opinions (fatwas) (Yilmaz, 2021b) to convince Turkish citizens that the Judeo-Christian West is at war with the ummah and that he alone stands against the existential threat to Muslims globally.

From these examples, we may learn two important things. First, religious populism is a global phenomenon (see in detail Yilmaz and Morieson, 2021). Second, it is a versatile set of ideas that people of any of the major religious traditions can use just as secular and non-religious people do. Yet why should religion, in an age of secularization, become such an important component of populist politics the world over? What is it about religion that populists find so useful?

Populism and Emotions

To understand why populists have increasingly used religious-sounding rhetoric, we must first consider how populist movements and leaders produce public demand for their political agendas. Populist discourse is centered on separating society “into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’,” and ensuring that politics is a representation of “the will of the people.” Beyond this binary, populist discourses often seek to create or exploit antagonisms in two different directions: vertically, or between the people at the top of society (elites) and those at the bottom (“the people”); and horizontally, or between “the pure people” and their class, ethnic, or religious internal and external enemies.

For a populist party or leader to achieve an electoral breakthrough and sustained political success, they must successfully construct these antagonistic groups, and moreover, create a sense of an impending crisis brought on by elites and “others” that threatens to engulf and destroy “the people.” To create this necessary sense of crisis (Moffitt, 2015), populists must elicit and exploit emotions from the general public, which help construct antagonistic relationships and create demand for populist solutions.

Emotions such as fear and rage must be elicited and harnessed and ultimately directed toward the groups and individuals allegedly responsible for creating the crisis in the first place: ruling elites and internal and external enemy groups. Populists must then portray themselves as patriotic champions of the people, who will “save” the nation and its people by overthrowing elites and defeating foreign and internal threats from “others,” and establishing a new form of democratic governance in which the will of the people is obeyed.

Emotions, therefore, are essential to populists. Not because populism relies more on eliciting emotion than all other forms of politics, but because populism cannot succeed without evoking particular emotions among a large section of the general public, especially feelings of anger toward elites and fear of “others,” but also at certain times nostalgia for a happier time now past, and love for one’s homeland.

Religious Populism and Emotions

To elicit emotions that create demand for populism, populists produce narratives that paint events, in-groups, and out-groups in a certain light (such as harmful vs. beneficial) that precipitates strong emotions in their desired audience (Brady et al., 2017). Salmela and von Scheve suggest that populists have fared incredibly well in recent decades due to their ability to capitalize on the negative emotions produced in response to the rise of neoliberal capitalism, which they claim “humiliates” ordinary people. Right-wing populists, they claim, exploit the “repressed shame that transforms fear and insecurity into anger, resentment, and hatred against perceived ‘enemies’ of the precarious self” (Salmela and von Scheve, 2018: 434).

Populists can instrumentalize religion in a variety of ways. Religion can help sacralize “the people” by tying them to an existing religious tradition. Religion can also be used to perpetuate an “us vs. them” mentality—the religion of “the people” can be framed positively, while the religion (or lack of religion) of “others” can be demonized as an existential threat to ‘us.’ For example, Christian identitarian populists in Western Europe frame Muslim immigration to Europe as an existential threat to the West’s (Judeo-)Christian culture and identity. By framing Muslim immigrants as dangerous, they provoke a fear response in the public that can easily be turned into anger against Muslims, but also toward the government elites who permit Muslims to immigrate to Europe. At the same time, populist parties such as the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) and French National Rally (Rassemblement national, RN) exploit deep feelings of nostalgia and love for one’s country by framing themselves as national and civilizational saviors, who alone can restore their nation’s greatness (Morieson, 2021).

Most of all, however, what religion offers populists is the ability to couch the typically populist horizontal (the people vs. others) and vertical (the people vs. elites) antagonisms within a religio-civilizational frame to create a narrative of elite failure and civilizational crisis. Examples of religious populists employing an emotion-based appeal to the people are not challenging to find. In Turkey, the Islamist AKP has always been adept at exploiting the emotions of the Turkish people and transforming them into demand for the party’s populist solutions. Mahir Unal, a senior Turkish politician in the populist-Islamist AKP, confessed that his party’s mobilizational strategy was “emotional vampirism,” by which he meant that the AKP “sucked and exploited all emotions in the society” (Yilmaz, 2021a: 136). Indeed, the AKP has established itself as the ruling party by exploiting several emotions felt deeply by large segments of the public, especially fear, anger, rage, a desire to sacrifice oneself for one’s homeland, and nostalgia—in this case, a deep restorative nostalgia for the glorious and dominant Ottoman Empire (Yilmaz, 2021a).

The AKP has been highly skilled at couching the traditional populist vertical and horizontal antagonisms within a larger Islamist and neo-Ottomanist frame. For example, “the people” of Turkey are conceived by the party as part of a global Islamic community—the ummah. Thus, secular elites in Turkey are portrayed by the party as not merely corrupt but anti-Muslim enemies of the global ummah. Likewise, non-Muslims and non-orthodox Muslims are portrayed as threats to the ummah who must be overcome, and for this purpose, lives must be sacrificed if needed (Yilmaz and Erturk, 2021). Indeed, Erdogan’s discourse frames Turkey’s social problems within a larger problem of clashing civilizations, and particularly within a battle between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam. By framing the corruption of the previous secular regime, Turkey’s disputes with the European Union, and the country’s internal ethnic and religious struggles, within a broader “clash of civilizations” in which the ummah is under constant threat from enemy forces, the AKP has been able to create a sense of permanent crisis and turn subsequent emotions of fear and anger into support for their Islamist populist agenda (Yilmaz, 2021a).

By couching populism’s typical vertical and horizontal antagonisms within a religio-civilizational frame, populists have at times successfully convinced segments of their broader publics that their identity, nation, and civilization are threatened by both the rulers of their country, but also internal and external enemies belonging to other civilizations. Given how frequently right-wing populists movements and parties throughout the world instrumentalize religion, we must begin to consider the power emotions related to religion play in creating demand for populism and sustaining populist government.

References

Brady, William J.; Wills, Julian A.; Jost, John T.; Tucker, Joshua A. and van Bavel, Jay J. (2017). “Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks.” Proceedings of the NAS. 114: 7313–18

Brubaker, Rogers. (2017). “Between nationalism and civilizationism: The European populist moment in comparative perspective.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 40: 1191–226.

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2015). “How to Perform Crisis: A Model for Understanding the Key Role of Crisis in Contemporary Populism.” Government and Opposition. 50: 189–217.

Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). Religion and the Populist Radical Right: Secular Christianism and Populism in Western Europe. Delaware and Malaga: Vernon Press.

Salmela, Mikko, and von Scheve, Christian. (2018). “Emotional dynamics of right- and left-wing political populism.” Humanity & Society. 42: 434–54.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021a). Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021b). “Islamist Populism in Turkey, Islamist Fatwas, and State Transnationalism.” In: Shahram Akbarzadeh (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. 2nd Edition. 170-187. London and New York: Routledge, 2021.

Yilmaz, Ihsan, and Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). “A Systematic Literature Review of Populism, Religion, and Emotions.” Religions. 12, no. 4: 272. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12040272.

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Erturk, O. F. (2021). “Populism, Violence and Authoritarian Stability: Necropolitics in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2021.1896965.