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.

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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Supporters of (PML-N) are showing their zeal during public gathering meeting regarding general election campaign held at Lyari area in Karachi, Pakistan on June 26, 2018. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

A Quest for Identity: The Case of Religious Populism in Pakistan

Abstract

Since its founding, both civil and military Pakistani governments have used religious populism to consolidate support and legitimize their actions. This has paved the way for religious populism to become a part of the nation’s cultural imagination and identity. During the country’s “infant” or “fragile” democratic phase, religious populism was repeatedly used to consolidate support. Religious parties and groups hold great political sway in the county. Through the use of religious populism, these factions have been allowed to nurture their own “people” who are partisan towards “others.” The weak level of governance, political turmoil, and distrust in institutional capabilities has pushed the public into the arms of religious populists. 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Raja M. Ali Saleem*

Introduction

Walk into a public school in Pakistan and ask the pupils, “what is the meaning of Pakistan?” and it’s likely they’ll chant “la ilaha illallah."[1] This exemplifies the extent to which religion has seeped into the Pakistani imagination. This is not surprising in a nation-state that was founded on the idea of religious difference from India’s Hindu majority—a difference that resulted in the partition of one country into two. Since then, over the period of nearly eight decades, both civil and military governments have used religious populism to consolidate support and legitimize their actions. This has led religious populism to become a part of the nation’s cultural imagination and identity. There has been some evidence of what one can describe as left-wing populism in Pakistan, but it has also been tinged with religion.

Pakistani populism, however, does not have a long list of leaders associated with it, due to several reasons. First, populism is anti-elite by definition and this anti-elite sentiment unites ordinary people behind the leader. But what if different regions of the country define “elite” differently? Should the Pakistanis, in the 1950s and the 1960s, have fought against the Punjabi-Mohajir elite or the Punjabi elite, the feudal elite or the civil-military bureaucratic elite, the West Pakistani elite or the Urdu-speaking elite or the business elite? The fragmented Pakistani society allows for populism but creates lots of hurdles for truly national populism. The polarization of the society— a hallmark of populism—is improbable where divisions in society are multi-dimensional. 

Second, populism is about ordinary people and their struggles. Therefore, if the leader cannot speak the local language, it is difficult (though not impossible) for him or her to become a populist leader. It is challenging to become the true, long-lost, and authentic leader of the masses when one cannot even speak the language of the masses. 

Populism has also been successful in Pakistan because it feeds on an open democratic society. Although populist movements may emerge under dictatorships, they are rare. 

T.J.P members are holding Jinnah Rally on the occasion of Birthday Anniversary of Father of Nation Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi on December 25, 2017. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

The Founding of Pakistan, Its Muslim Identity, and Secularism

Pakistan was carved out of the former British colony of South Asia. The political campaign for independence, the Pakistan movement, gained momentum in the 1940s, giving a voice to South Asia’s Muslim minority—"the people” in this case, who felt underrepresented in the politics of India as compared to “the others,” the Hindu majority (Jalal, 2010). South Asian Muslims are a rich and diverse blend of ethnicities and sects of Islam (Eaton, 2019). Establishing an “other”—Indian Hindus—created a point of convergence for the Muslim minority.

The founding father of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a secular man, faced a dilemma at the time of independence in 1947. He had created a nation based on a Muslim identity but was not interested in establishing a theocracy. Non-Muslims, especially Hindus and Christians, were welcomed as citizens of the new country. In his first address to the Constituent Assembly in 1947, Jinnah said: 

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state” (Government of Pakistan, 2021)

During the first decade after independence, when Jinnah or his close associates were ruling Pakistan, religious influence was not peremptory. Religious and cultural sensitivities were kept in mind during the selection of the national flag, as the white-coloured portion represents the country’s minorities. This white is set amidst the deep green symbolizing the Muslim majority (Dawn, 2011). The national anthem also does not show a predominant Islamic influence as explained below:

There are three religious references in the anthem. In the opening stanza, there are two such references: the blessed sacred land and the country being the centre of belief and faith. In the final stanza, the poet talks about Pakistan being ‘under the shade of Mighty and Glorious God.’ However, none of the three religious references are specific to Islam. References to the sacredness and blessedness of the national territory, or its being the centre of belief, are a common theme in anthems, and the word used for God is not Allah (the Arabic word for God used in the Quran) but Khuda (a Persian word used initially for Ahura Mazda, the god of Zoroastrianism)” (Saleem, 2017 95)

Jinnah also handpicked Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Dalit[2], who served as the country’s first minister of law and labour but was later forced out of office and relocated to India (Balouch, 2015). The Parsi and Christian communities felt welcomed and played a pivotal role in developing the services sector (Notezai, 2019; Lentin, 2017)

This seemingly pluralistic and secular dream of Pakistan was gradually Islamised. After Jinnah’s death in 1948, the Objective Resolution, a blueprint for the constitution, was introduced which stated that, “sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to Allah Almighty alone” but also included “the state shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people” (Ahmad, 2019; Pal, 2010; Yilmaz 2016)

Gradual Increase in Reliance on Religion 

This gradual increase in the government’s reliance on religion was synonymous with the growing political incapacity of Pakistan’s leadership. In fact, it can be argued that it was the incapacity of the leadership that forced the instrumental use of religion. However, it must be clear that during this period, Islam was more of a symbolic influence instead of a source of law. Political infighting and an alliance with the United States (US) gave confidence to General Ayub Khan, encouraging him to impose the first martial law. General Ayub (1958-69) initially did not use Islam to legitimize his hold on power. He was vehemently opposed to the religious right using religion in politics, and during his rule, Jamaat-i-Islami leader Abul A’la Moududi was sentenced to death. However, in the latter part of Ayub’s rule, he changed his tactics. The Ayub administration tried to delegitimize Jinnah’s sister Fatima Jinnah,[3] who fought an election against Ayub Khan to end the military regime. Ayub resorted to orthodox Islamism, claiming women are not allowed to rule in Islam (Ahmed, 2019; New York Time, 1964)

A war with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir facilitated the rise of Islamic populism. India was “otherized” and the narrative of Pakistan was further Islamised and militarized (Kapur & Ganguly, 2012). The need to defend “the people’s” faith and nation became influential in the collective national imagination. The religious spirit from 1965 is evident in the era’s iconic songs, today a part of the nation’s communal memory. Vocabulary such as momin (pious Muslim), marde mujahid (valorous religious warrior), shaheed (martyrs), and ghazi (fighter) were used to glorify the “holy” war (Malik, 2018). However, Ayub—a military bureaucratic authoritarian leader, who was not a practicing Muslim—was never comfortable with religious populism.   

Early Populist Leaders

If today one is asked who the first populist leader in Pakistan was, the most likely answer would be Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. This demonstrates our lack of knowledge about Pakistan’s history, particularly the history of East Pakistan (the territory of the modern country Bangladesh). Consciously or unconsciously, East Pakistan’s role in Pakistan’s history is downplayed or ignored. The first populist leader of Pakistan was Abul Kasem Fazlul Haq, popularly known as A.K. Fazlul Haq or Sher-e-Bangla (the lion of Bengal). Fazlul Haq was elected Prime Minister of Bengal twice and remained the PM for six years (1937-43). He was immensely popular with the masses as he was anti-elite and fought against the Hindu and Muslim landlords.  

Moulana Bhashani was another populist leader from East Pakistan. He was called the “red moulana.” It is hard to find a more fascinating political figure than Moulana Bhashani in the erstwhile united Pakistan. He not only fought the British, the West Pakistani politicians, and the Pakistani military but also his brothers-in-arms, Bengali Awami League leaders H. S. Suhrawardy and Mujibur Rahman. His commitment was only to the poor Bengali peasants that he represented all his life; he never held any government or official position. For his populism, he was called Mazlum Jananeta (leader of the toiling masses).

The heyday for left-wing populism in Pakistan was the late sixties, with Moulana Bhashani and Mujibur Rahman in East Pakistan and Bhutto in West Pakistan all raising anti-elite banners. Both Mujib and Bhutto rejected the constitution and political culture of that time and vowed to create a new country with the help of masses. Both claimed that the “people” were with them and those on the opposite side were opposed to the people. Both were left-wing populists who thought socialism would restore power to the masses for the first time since 1947. They upended the politics of both wings in different ways. Mujib’s populism became a precursor of the Bangladeshi independence movement, while Bhutto’s populism eroded as he began tackling practical socio-economic and governance issues.[4]

Women take keen interest in pictures of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Founder of Peoples Party (PPP) in Hyderabad, Pakistan on April 03, 2011. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

Bhutto’s Left and Right Populism 

Systematic and institutional discrimination faced by East Pakistanis (who were ethnically Bengali) became a flashpoint for civil war[5] (Nada, 1972). Mujib was the face of Bengali nationalism. Civil unrest, the use of brute military force against Bengali civilians, and invasion by India led to the formation of Bangladesh, in 1971. Mujib became its first President. This event generated ontological insecurity in what remained of Pakistan. Pakistanis could not understand how they lost a war and why half of their countrymen and women decided to leave. It was a critical juncture in national history, and it ushered Pakistani politics down the rabbit hole of religious populism.

Bhutto’s slogan, “roti, kapra aur makan” (bread, clothes, and shelter), and his campaign made ordinary people interested in politics. The era of mass politics was not new to East Pakistan, but it was Bhutto who introduced mass politics to West Pakistan. The following is an excerpt which contrasts Bhutto’s style with Mujib’s and shows the contrasts between populism in East and West Pakistan:

“When Bhutto was introduced to politics, he had no personal constituency of his own and did not develop one for as long as he remained in his job as foreign minister… [it was] when he began to tour the country that he developed a personal following. As with Mujib, the size of Bhutto’s following increased very rapidly but, in contrast to Mujib, people were attracted to Bhutto for the novelty of the cause that he had begun to espouse. Bhutto’s type of populism was not a new phenomenon in Third World policies. Very deliberately he had fashioned his style and his idiom after such Third World leaders as Sukarno [Indonesia], Nkrumah [Ghana], Peron [Argentina], and Castro [Cuba]. But for West Pakistan, this populist approach was a new development; until that time, West Pakistani politicians had followed a very low-key approach toward politics, preferring to negotiate among themselves rather than to use popular support to further their aims and ambitions. Bhutto was a new kind of leader. Accordingly, the constituency that he cultivated for himself was new—a constituency was galvanised into action very quickly, but when he left the scene, the constituency still remained. Like Peronism, Bhuttoism was to survive Bhutto” (Dutt, 2000: 351).

After the humiliating defeat in war and Bangladeshi independence, the Pakistani military took a backseat and the first directly elected national assembly chose Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as Prime Minister. Bhutto and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had been elected on a populist platform which had elements of both socialism and Islamism. Bhutto introduced the term “Islamic socialism” and claimed that Islam and socialism are compatible. However, he was soon forced to make “compromises” due to the increasing power of the religious right which promulgated religious populism against the “un-Islamic” Bhutto government. The 1973 Constitution made Islam the state religion and declared that not only the President, but the Prime Minister of the country would also be Muslim. 

Bhutto’s popularity slowly began to wane as he became more and more authoritarian. He managed to get rid of elected opposition governments in two provinces. The religious parties, which had never accepted Bhutto’s religious credentials, suffered because of Bhutto’s oppression; envious of Bhutto’s popularity, they gradually ignored their differences and decided to form a united front. Their street power, rioting, and right-wing political collective forced Bhutto to make further concessions such as constitutionally declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims and banning nightclubs and alcohol for Muslims and replacing Sunday with Friday as the weekly holiday (Dawn, 2014). The religious right, and the opposition, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), “otherized” the “corrupt,” “elite,” and “un-Islamic” PPP leadership while positioning themselves as the legitimate reflection of “the pious people.” 

The PNA was a populist and consolidated right-wing political alliance, consisting of nine political parties of the country. It competed in the national election in 1977 with the slogan Nizam-e-Mustafa[6] (system of [Prophet] Muhammad)—i.e., if the PNA won, they would instil Prophet Muhammad’s system of governance. Bhutto was targeted as a “sinner” running a “sinful government.” 

Bhutto won the elections handily but there were allegation of rigging and demonstrations started in the major urban centres. The government and the PNA leadership sat together; just when they were close to an agreement, the military imposed a third martial law on the country (Niazi 1987). Generals not only removed Bhutto from office but also subjected him to a trial that mocked due process. He was executed in 1979 (Schofield 1980)

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was a leader whose populism was an amalgam of left and right populism. He talked about socialism. True to his slogan of roti, kapra, aur makan, his signature policy was the nationalization of the economy. All his life, he was castigated by the right-wing, and they were instrumental in his downfall and murder. However, he also talked about the glory of Islam, otherized “Hindu” India, and promoted pan-Islamic identity. The two highpoints in his prime ministership were the unanimous approval of the 1973 Constitution, which declared Islam as Pakistan’s state religion and had numerous Islamic references, and the convening of the Organization of Islamic Conference’s (OIC) second summit in Lahore in 1974, when he managed to get most leaders of Muslim-majority countries—many of who were destabilizing each other—together on one stage. Was he a left populist or a religious populist? It is difficult to state definitively.

Zia’s Military Coup, Religious Nationalism, and Islamisation

Military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq ruled Pakistan for eleven years (1977-88) and ushered in a phase in which religious nationalism was fully espoused as the state narrative. He instigated a period of Islamization the likes of which Pakistan had never seen before—and hasn’t seen since. He uplifted right-wing Islamist parties to counter democratization and in exchange promised to introduce the Nizam-e-Mustafa (Snellinger, 2018). Left-wing parties, women, and human rights workers protesting the regime were curbed by state security forces and otherization and were exposed to ferocious outbursts of right-wing mobs. Television, radio, press, school syllabi, and other institutions promoted Islamic values and a spirit of jihadism. 

Numerous amendments based on conservative interpretations of Islam were made to the constitution.[7] For instance, the Federal Shariat Court was established. This court could declare any law unconstitutional if it deemed the law un-Islamic (Yilmaz, 2014). In this court, religious clergy served as judges and decided matters in the light of the Quran and Sunnah (Kennedy, 1990). The Soviet-Afghan war next door further added to the narrative of Islamic nationalism. Pakistan’s alliance with the US was termed as a “jihad” to defeat the “godless” Soviets (Lodhi, 2012). The Afghan war also brought petrol-dollars from the Gulf, resulting in the funding of many madrassas where jihadists were trained, creating even more of an audience with an appetite for Islamism (Lodhi, 2012).

Zia’s use of religious nationalism has in many ways shaped contemporary politics and populist rhetoric. However, Zia was not a populist. Although Pakistan’s other two long-term military dictators, Ayub and Musharraf, thought themselves as popular leaders, Zia knew better. He instrumentalized Islam, used the US and Arab support, and plied Pakistan’s military to brutally oppress the opposition—but he never thought he could win elections. The best evidence of this, is the referendum question he drafted in 1984 to get himself another five-year presidential term. The ballot paper asked voters: “Do you endorse the process initiated by the President of Pakistan, General Mohammad Ziaul Haq, for bringing the laws of Pakistan in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and for the preservation of the ideology of Pakistan, and are you in favour of continuation and further consolidation of that process and for the smooth and orderly transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people?” Citizens could then vote “yes” or “no” (Aziz, 2015). He was not asking people to vote for him. He was asking people to vote for Islamisation, for the preservation of Pakistan’s ideology, and for the ending of martial law and the return of democracy. It would have been difficult even for people who hated Zia to vote “no.”

Pakistan is still grappling with the impacts of Islamic nationalism installed by both Zia and his predecessors. As the country’s institutional fabric, such as the legal system and parliamentary forums, have embraced sharia-inspired ideals, religious populism is now a matter of political success and survival (Aziz, 2015). At a micro level the social fabric of society has also been altered. The region that once perplexed the British due its diversity is increasingly pushing towards a homogeneous society where religion (Sunni Islam) and nationalism are knotted together.

Muslim League-N Chief, Nawaz Sharif awards the ticket of NA-172 constituency to Hafiz Abdul Karim during meeting in Lahore on October 30, 2010. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

Populism after Zia

General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime came to an end when he was killed in an air crash in 1988. After nearly a decade under Zia’s control, the country had the opportunity to hold democratic elections. Misgovernance, corruption, institutional clashes, and poor economic management led to highly unstable conditions that threatened the survival of the fragile democracy. Four elections were held between 1988 to 1999; governmental control alternated between the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). 

During the “infant” or “fragile” democratic phase, religious populism was repeatedly used by politicians and parties to consolidate support. The PPP was now led by Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the former prime minster Z. A. Bhutto.  Like her father, the young Bhutto relied on reformist populism to galvanise voters. Her slogan, borrowed from her father’s campaign: roti, kapra, makan touched a nerve with the working class and poverty-stricken masses (Sekine, 1992). Bhutto’s lineage as the daughter of the first democratically elected head of state further added to her appeal—in Pakistan, dynastic politics is the norm (Sekine, 1992). Educated at Oxford, Bhutto was viewed as a modernist who had ambitions of developing the country and ending its reliance on Islamic populism (Sekine, 1992).

Her brand of populism was countered by the religious populism of Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N. Sharif was one of the conservative political protégés that Zia had cultivated to retain his power (BBC, 2018). During PML-N’s two terms in office, the party relied heavily on religious populism. In opposition to the PPP, PML-N members frequently “otherized” Bhutto by using Islamist populismFatwas were issued questioning the legitimacy of her government; the mullahs felt a woman heading an “Islamic” country was sinful (Azeem, 2020). Attacks such as these forced Bhutto to hide overt markers of femininity—for example, she hid her pregnancy during her first election campaign by wearing loose-fitting clothes(Khan, 2018)

Moving beyond religiously infused, populist sexism, Bhutto was portrayed as an “agent of the West,” placing her in opposition to “the people.” Her position against Zia’s Islamised legacy, criticism of radicalization of youth, promotion of “un-Islamic” programs such as family planning, and her affiliation with the Shia sect of Islam made her a prime target of the right-leaning PML-N and radical religious groups (Azeem, 2020). Eventually, she was forced into a self-imposed exile. After Bhutto’s second government was dissolved, Nawaz Sharif faced no real political opposition; thus, the clientelism between the state and religious factions continued (Javid, 2019; Puri, 2010).  

Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf’s Military Coup

A fourth military-led coup deposed the second Sharif government in 1999. Going into self-imposed exile, the Sharif family sought refuge with long-time ally, the house of Saud. General Pervez Musharraf, like his predecessors from the military, sought control to “stabilize” the country. Unlike Zia, the Musharraf regime did not rely on religious populism. After nearly two decades as a refuge for international Islamist terrorists, Pakistan was under immense pressure to reform. The terrorist attack of 9/11 triggered the American-led “war on terror” in Afghanistan. The changing mood in the White House defined the Musharraf regime’s actions. Pakistan’s status as an ally in the “war on terror” ensured that the cash-starved state could sustain itself on incoming foreign funds[8] (Ibrahim, 2009). The “carrot and stick” model, masterfully employed by the US, ensured that Pakistan complied with its demands in return for a monetary reward. The rekindled Pakistan-US alliance temporarily quashed the use of religious populism within the Pakistani government.

The Musharraf government’s crackdown on terrorist hubs on the Pakistan-Afghan border, school-curriculum reforms, madrasa regulation efforts, economic liberalization, and banning of terrorist outfits (parties, groups, and non-government organizations (NGOs)) were welcomed but were not fully achieved or implemented (Afzal, 2014; Morgan, 2011; Looney, 2008). The noose tightening around the necks of radical groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPL)—after years of direct or indirect support from the state—led them to rebel. The Musharraf tenure ushered in one of the most violent periods in contemporary Pakistani history, where suicide bombings ravaged cities across Pakistan (Looney, 2008). The state’s distance from religious populism was met with violence which brought the “war on terror” home. 

The Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) episode, in 2006, exemplified the state’s struggle to distance itself from radicalism and how the radicals pushed back with the use of violence and religious populism to gain public support. The mosque was serving as a madrassa where hundreds of students were radicalized and sent off to fight in places such as Kashmir and Afghanistan. The government laid siege to the complex and after months of failed attempts, a confrontation between the security forces and mosque residents left several devotees dead, injured, or arrested (Scroggins, 2012). The around-the-clock broadcasting of the event made it a national debate. Non-state factions (radical religious groups) used Lal Masjid as a rallying point. They recruited  volunteer suicide bombers from across the country to attack the “tyrannical” and “puppet of the West” government that was “in cahoots” with the “kafirs[9]” (Scroggins, 2012)

The groups that felt pressure from the government’s crackdown used religious populism to define religious extremists as “the people” while the state and its supporters became the enemy “other.”[10] Local and international terrorist groups such as the Taliban (Pakistan or TLP), al-Qaeda, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and others orchestrated dozens of suicide bomb attacks all over Pakistan’s major cities, killing thousands of people (mostly civilians and security forces) (Scroggins, 2012). Benazir Bhutto, on her return to Pakistan, also became a victim of the raging violence. She was killed in Rawalpindi (a twin city of the capital Islamabad) during a pre-election rally in 2007. It is widely believed that TLP was responsible for her death due to her anti-Mujahideed-e-Islam[11] stance and polices (The Economic Times, 2018).

A gradual shift to democracy during the late 2000s and 2010s brought the PPP and PML-N back to power, respectively. While terrorist attacks had paralysed economic activity and terrified the public, the continued appeal of religious populism provided jihadi groups with a stream of fresh recruits. Within the seemly “non-radicalized” public, the debate of “good” versus “bad” Taliban was common. Middle class and educated individuals were also gravitating towards the Taliban’s cause. Conspiracy theories regarding America, Zionism, Hinduism, etc., combined with years of Islamised content promulgated through media and the education system, caused large factions of the public to sympathise with the Taliban’s fight against the Americans and Pakistan’s “puppet” government (Siddiqui, 2018; Blair, Fair, Malhotra, & Shapiro, 2011).     

The case surrounding Asia Bibi, which spanned nearly two decades, demonstrates the extent to which the prolonged use of populist Islamism by state and non-state actors has shaped the social fabric of Pakistani society. Asia Bibi[12] was falsely accused of blasphemy when a fight between her and her fellow fruit pickers escalated. Asia is a Christian Pakistani. She became the face of the plight of many non-Muslims and non-Sunnis, especially those who were harassed and/or killed by being roped into false blasphemy charges. The circumstantial evidence pointed towards her innocence, yet populist religious factions used their street power and violence to pressure the courts into handing down a death sentence and then prevented it from being revoked. In 2011, the liberal Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer,[13] was gunned down by his own security guard—a state-provided security officer—for publicly supporting Asia Bibi’s predicament and stating that the blasphemy laws should be removed. 

The killer, Mumtaz Qadri, shot Taseer 28 times in a busy market and in broad daylight. Qadri’s arrest and confession was shocking. He was convinced that his actions were “heroic” and safeguarded the country against the ghustakh-e-rasool.[14] Video clips and pictures of him soon surfaced where he was seen smirking and sitting calmly reciting nats[15] and declaring his victory (BBC, 2011). More worrying than his individual behaviour was the reaction of a huge faction of the public. More than 300 lawyers volunteered to act as his defence and rallies raged throughout cities in support of Qadri (BBC, 2011). Sentenced to death by hanging, some of Qadri’s last words to his supporters were, “distribute sweets when they hang me” (BBC, 2011). He is now immortalized as a ghazi and his resting place is a shrine and mosque complex in the vicinity of Islamabad (Pasha, 2016)

Asia, after nearly twenty years, was acquitted of the charges on October 31, 2018 by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. This was a bittersweet victory. This was not only justice delayed but also due safety concerns for Asia Bibi and her family, she had to seek asylum in Canada. Pakistan was no longer safe for her. The news of her release spread through the country like wildfire—a fire that engulfed every city and small village for four days. The destruction of public property, economic lockdown, theft, and vandalism left the country with an economic loss of 260 million PKR, in Punjab alone (Malik, 2018)

The master orchestrator of these protest was the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TL), a party that gained momentum thanks to its populist Islamist rhetoric of “saving the pride and greatness of the Prophet.” The vigilante group has massive support and has frequently hurt or aspired to kill those they deem as “blasphemers.”[16] The vigilantes have now entered politics and, since 2018, their political party is called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which won a stunning number of votes despite its first-time participation in general elections.   

Imran Khan, addresses a press briefing on April 20, 2016 in Islamabad. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer

Religious Populism and Imran Khan

Religious groups’ use of the rhetoric of religious populism has helped them gain a key position in society and politics. The murshid (students/disciples)—or “the people”—of these “sacred” leaders are “defenders” of their faith. They demonstrate their loyalty to the pir (spiritual guide) by going against the misguided “liberals” and puppet governments. With the power of religious conviction, “the people” feel they are unstoppable. Their creation was facilitated by the encouragement and—at the time—tolerant behaviour of the government. The post-9/11 withdrawal of support and disowning of such factions has only led an intensifying of their use of religious populism and an expansion their networks through social media platforms (Anthony & Hussain, 2018; International Centre for Religion and Diplomacy, 2012). Religious populism is now a “must have” for politicians and parties hoping to win support and legitimacy. Recognizing the undeniable need for religious populism and simultaneously the government’s need to reinvent its image in a more moderate light, a new wave of religious populism has taken root in Pakistani politics.     

This new wave of religious populism is now part of mainstream politics—and is represented by Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.[17] Khan launched PTI in 1996 as a small, personality-driven party run by himself and several of his close friends and family members. However, since the early 2010s, it has been able to amass a huge following. PTI’s has used various streaks of populism, including social-welfare, accountability, self-reliance, national revivalism, and religion. Following the 2018 elections, PTI has gained a majority in the federal parliament and most provincial assemblies. Religious populism is a core rhetoric of PTI and its leaders. Over the years, Khan and his party have overtly embraced Islamist populism; however, this is a more moderate and modest version compared to the radical Islam of orthodox groups and former dictators.  

This “moderate” religious populism is advanced under the guise of “human rights.” The earliest example is the “good” and the “bad” Taliban debate instigated by Khan. PTI voiced its sympathy for the Taliban, who they believed had been “used” by the US during the Soviet era and were now being hunted. Khan believed there were “good” and “bad” Taliban, a common conservative position at the time (Mullah, 2017). The party talked of mediation, conflict resolution, and rehabilitation. Thus, PTI was a rational and pro-peace building party that believed in reforming and integrating the “good” Taliban back into society (Afzal, 2019; Mullah, 2017)

However, the antithesis to Khan’s narrative was the tragic Army Public School (APS) attack in 2014. Nearly 130 innocent kids were ambushed and killed by the Taliban, in the city of Peshawar. Targeting defenceless children generated a consensus that the “good” Taliban was just a myth. But this has not stopped Khan and his team from positioning themselves as “peace loving Muslims” now that US troops are exiting Afghanistan. Under PTI leadership, the country is keen to play a positive role in stabilizing the region. It is again facilitating the integration of the Taliban into the democratic system of Afghanistan on the same premise—that the Taliban is a legitimate political force that needs to be negotiated with rather than handled through force (The Hindu, 2021; Afzal, 2020).   

PTI’s reformist “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan) is an Islamist populist’s utopia. Khan’s election campaign of 2018 merged the ideologies of welfare-ism and Islamism: he modelled “New Pakistan” on the early structure of the state of Medina (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). Khan has repeatedly expressed his desire the follow the examples of the four rightly guided caliphs of Islam. In countless speeches, his “struggles” and actions against “the others” are quoted in references to the state of Medina and the period of the first four caliphs. This idealization has garnered PTI immense support in a deeply religious country where Medina and the Prophet Muhammad’s life have unparalleled respect and devotion. In a way, Khan has re-packaged the dream of enforcing Nizam-e-Mustafa, the conservative slogan from the 1970s seeking the enforcement of Sharia laws. Now, under Khan, it more modern and “tolerant”—and in line with Pakistan’s need to revamp its image on “moderate” lines.     

The Islamic populism used by PTI is also civilizational. Khan won the hearts of most Pakistanis when he called out the previous governments for their close ties with the West. He specifically targeted the International Monitory Fund (IMF) and said he would not take a “begging bowl” to the Western nations because it made Pakistan’s government a de facto “puppet” in their hands (Kari, 2019). Ironically, once in power, PTI was forced to take an IMF loan; however, the members were able to maintain their anti-West rhetoric on religious grounds. Through social media, Khan shares “good books” with the youth as highly recommended readings. Most of these books are related to discourses on Islam. Khan feels the youth need to be “re-educated” about their “roots” from a non-Western stance. He evokes extreme pride and sentimentality by using the works of the pan-Islamic national poet, Allam Iqbal, by calling them shahneen.[18] There is also an excessive emphasis on conspiracy theories such as the CIA creating the Taliban and the West’s Machiavellian intentions towards Pakistan (Abbas, 2012).

Khan and the party have been highly un-sympathetic to the plight of factions that fall outside their Sunni-Muslim in-group, “the people.” When the ethnically and religiously distinct Shia Hazara protesters refused to bury their dead after repeated deaths due to targeted terrorism, Khan said their right to protest was the victim’s way of “blackmailing” him (Dawn, 2021). The government also washed its hands from assuming responsibility for an attack by conveniently blaming India for sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan (Dawn, 2021). Khan’s Islamist populism also surfaced when he called the Aurat March’s (Women’ March) feminist slogans a “Western concept” and highly unnecessary in a Muslim society. He said that in Pakistan, women are highly protected and respected—claims that run contrary to statistical evidence on violence against women in the country (Dawn, 2020).    

Khan’s Islamist-infused populism also has a transnational element. His government has extensively collaborated with Turkey by introducing and popularizing TV serials with exceedingly Islamised content. The state’s motivation to transmit Ertugrul Ghazi is the prime example of this transnational, Islam-inspired, civilizationalist populism (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b). PTI has repeatedly been proactive in highlighting its support for Muslims worldwide. Khan has felt the “ummah” needs to unite and that Islamophobia needs to be addressed; however, next to nothing is done when the rights of non-Sunnis and non-Muslims are violated in Pakistan on a daily basis (Shams, 2020).

Conclusion               

The various instances and incidents of religious populism in Pakistan have shaped the identity of its people. Since its founding, religious populism has been employed by civil and military governments to consolidate their support and legitimize their actions. As a result, religious populism has become part and parcel of the Pakistani national imagination and identity. 

The plurality that was once the crown of South Asia has now been brushed aside. Today’s mostly homogenous citizens glorify Turkey’s Islamist Erdogan and Muhammad bin Qasim and have disowned freedom fighters who faced down colonial forces such as Rani of Jhansi and Raja Ranjit Singh, labelling them as “infidel” others. 

A void has been created by years of Islamic populism that has erased the collective memory of the Ganga-Gamani[19]identity—that of a pluralistic culture. Disengaged, misled, and misinformed, today’s Pakistanis are Arabized and are now increasingly being Turkified—all at the expense of their South Asian heritage. 

Religious parties and groups hold great political sway in the county. By using religious populism, these factions have been allowed to nurture their own “the people” who are partisan towards “the others.” The weak level of governance, high political turmoil, and distrust in the country’s institutional capabilities have pushed the public into the arms of religious populist groups.

Islamist civilizationism (Yilmaz, 2021) has allowed for “the people” to feel victimized by “the others,” legitimizing their anger, resentment, and hatred. Unlike the Taliban, they do not take up arms against the enemy; rather, they harbour xenophobic and racist ideas towards anyone from the otherized groups or sympathetic to the “other’s” ideals. Today, Islam is Pakistan, and a Muslim a Pakistani. “What is the meaning of Pakistan?” Most would answer, “la ilaha illallah muhammadur rasulullah."[20]

 


(*) RAJA M. ALI SALEEM (Ph.D.), a former civil servant, has degrees from four reputable universities and has more than twenty years of diverse experience. Dr. Saleem did his masters in Pakistan Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University. Later, he graduated from the University of Manchester (Master in Economic and Social Studies) and the University of Calgary (Master in Business Administration). Finally, in 2015, he was awarded a Ph.D. degree in Public Policy by George Mason University.


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Footnotes

[1] During Pakistan’s independence movement, a very popular slogan was “Pakistan ka matlab kiya; la illah illalah,” which means, “What is the meaning of Pakistan; I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah.” The two verses rhyme and as most will realize, the second part of the verse is the first part of the Islamic shahada. This slogan is still very popular.

[2] Dalits are a caste within the Hindu system. Dalits are the most oppressed and marginalized caste and known as the “untouchables.” Their social status historically prevented them for being an integrated and accepted part of mainstream Indian society. The move to elect a Dalit representative in 1947 was a progressive move to dispel centuries of religious caste-based oppression of the subclass.      

[3] Fatima Jinnah played a critical role in the independence movement and was called madr-e-millat (mother of the nation). She was very popular, and Ayub was only able to defeat her because the elections were indirect and state power was used to Ayub’s benefit.

[4] Many populist leaders cannot graduate to become effective managers or administrators. They struggle to govern as governance requires political compromises and logical evidence-based data analysis and decision-making. Donald Trump is the most recent example.

[5] In 1947, Pakistan had two wings that were not geographically contiguous. The east wing is current-day Bangladesh and west wing is current-day Pakistan. The two wings were separated by more than 2000km of Indian territory, and, ethno-linguistically, they were poles apart. The only common factor between the two was the religious identity of Islam. The West Pakistani elite, which dominated the military and bureaucracy, was unwilling to share power with the East’s larger population and accept Bengali language and culture as equal.   

[6] A catchy slogan, devised by the religious parties in the 1970s, that was vague enough to acceptable to Muslims of all hues. Its vagueness made it acceptable to all opposition parties many of whom were against implementation of Sharia laws or Sharia driven laws.

[7] The parliament was forced in 1985 to legalize/approve these changes in lieu of lifting of martial law.

[8] Estimates suggest that Pakistan received some 18 billion USD in military and economic aid from the US for its cooperation in the “War on Terror” from 2002–2011. 

[9] Non-believers, in this case non-Muslims 

[10] This version of religious populism was ferociously dangerous. The conviction of the people on a faith-based model made them ruthless towards the “others—who are judged kafirs and deemed worthy only of death.  

[11] Translation: Warriors of Islam: radical, armed, Islamic militants 

[12] Asia Bibi was a fruit picker form the district of Sheikhupura (some 30 miles outside of Lahore). Bibi and her family were, reportedly, the only Pakistani Christian family in the small village of Ittan Wali. Living as non-Muslims in a small town was not without challenges. After refusing “advice” to convert to Islam, she was accused of blasphemy in 2009. According to various accounts, a fight broke out between Asia and her fellow berry pickers wile harvesting falsa berries (which are harvested in the hottest month of the year). The fight is said to have started over Asia drinking water from the same glass as the Muslim women. After a heated argument, Asia was dismissed from the farm and falsely accused of blasphemy. In 2010, the local district court sentenced her to death under these charges.        

[13] Taseer was an Anglo-Indian (with a Christian mother and a Muslim father). His identity as a Pakistani was not fully accepted by many who felt suspicious of his intentions due to his mixed-race background.     

[14] Someone who commits blasphemy, in this case against the Prophet. 

[15] Poems that praise Prophet Muhammad.

[16] After hearing a speech by TL leader, a young high school student killed his teacher in class on perceived blasphemy charges; then-leader Khadim Rizvi did not deny his role in the tragic incident.     

[17] Pakistan League of Justice.

[18] Shaheen means a hawk. In Iqbal’s poetry they symbolize the potential of Muslim youth. He felt that the Muslim youth were misguided and unaware of Islam’s history and potential. If they embraced their historical roots and worked hard, they could excel in life as the apex creatures—the hawk, which knows no bounds and soars to great heights.  

[19] The merger of Persian and Sanskrit culture that was a hybrid identity of Northern India.

[20] “I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

China-BRI

Populism and the rise of hybrid governance models: Saving the multilateral cooperation

As compared to the existing top-down and rigid hierarchical governance models, the hybrid governance models (HGMs), which allow loose and minimal institutional structure are in continuous flux, more flexible and adaptable to the external shocks. However, an inherent weakness in that “hybridity” approaches is their equalization of the irregularity, arbitrariness, and uncertainty with “high adaptability,” which invites populism into the discussion. 

By Ibrahim Ozturk

Introducing the Problem

The limited capacity of the current liberal multilateral order (MLO) to properly address challenges such as successive financial crises, worsening income distribution, increasing migration, climate change, environmental degradation, pandemic, and unbalanced trade structure between different countries and regions have stimulated debates that neo-liberal globalization has reached its limits (Mearsheimer, 2019; Rodrik, 2020). These problems have put the existing multilateral organizations, such as the World Trade/Health Organizations, the IMF/WB, the UN, and the EU, which possess the global public good (GPG) characteristics for collaborative solutions, under immense stress. 

On the one hand, excesses of unmanaged globalization have limited nations’ sovereignty, independence, and autonomy. However, global companies have remained immune to proper regulation. Existing mechanisms are not sufficient to motivate them to behave in the benefit of stakeholders. Therefore, mentioned failures have triggered a process of “governance crisis,” populist waves, and the search for alternative governance in the periphery as well as in the centre (Acheria, 2017 & 2018, Subacchi 2020). Increasing number of alternative regional or national cooperation models are emerging with both potentially positive and negative ramifications (Johnston, 2018). As taken together, populism and hybridity increasingly motivate new approaches to the state-economy-market-company relations at the international, regional, national, and even corporate levels (Aiginger, 2020). For instance, different varieties of the “parastatals” are rising recently in the field of state-owned enterprises, sovereign wealth funds (SWFs), and special economic zones (SEZs) (Khanna, 2012).[1]

Under the observation that populist hybrid regimes offer individual, or at best, regional solutions, rather than providing more comprehensive and participatory solutions to existing problems, this article proposes that the MLO should be reformed to make it more participatory, fair and transparent. The view defended here is that the rising hybrid regimes should be effectively amalgamated into the existing MLO to address the underlying reasons that motivated their rise. However, in the absence of a decisive and a benevolent hegemonic leader that requires a “collective leadership” to manage the mentioned “creative destruction” for the upgrading of the rule-based, multilateral liberal statuesque. The recently ratified such comprehensive agreements between Japan and the EU to fill the leadership gap that arose after the withdrawal of the US in the field of global cooperation and even damaging it under Trump’s rule may evolve into a new stage with the return of the Biden government to international cooperation mechanisms after the US elections. 

After discussing the nature of emerging populist-hybrid regimes as well as the characteristics of the needed hybrid governance (HGMs), recent attempt of Japan and the EU will be very briefly mentioned to highlight the importance of collective leadership in strengthening the existing MLO and open the door for their reformation finally.

On Hybrid Regimes and Populism

After the hyper-globalization era of the 1990s, when unfettered free markets dominated, the so-called post-Washington consensus came during the 2000s, this time with more emphasizes on macroprudential regulatory institutions (mainly) in the financial, social, and distributional sectors. Finally, a new phase of global (dis)order is emerging, called the age of hybrid norms and fragmented governance. By describing it as “multiplex world”, Acharya (2017: p.7) goes on to identify it as follows: “… [It refers] broadly to formal and informal interactions among states and other actors, at global and regional levels, based on common principles and institutions that are not dominated by a single power or group of powers. Instead, leadership is diffuse and shared among actors that are not bound into a hierarchical relationship linked to differential material capabilities.” 

Given these approaches, hybridity represents the absence of a dominant and coherent paradigm advocated by a coherent core. Rather the contrary, competing norms coexist and challenge one another. As Jessop (2013: p.8) underlines, “governance models and structures are characterized by different and changing degrees of hegemony and hierarchy, overlapping spheres of influence, national components and transnational influences, interdependences and pockets of self-containment, embryonic and dying regions, marginal spheres and areas of confrontation.” In such a conjuncture, the rise of pluralistic and diversified governance structures is necessary and unavoidable. As viewed from this perspective, the clash of norms opens up new opportunities for more pluralistic patterns of globalization such as hybrid governance models (HGMs) and carves out precious space for emerging countries (Menard, 2004, 2010)

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel hold a news conference after a summit with China’s President Xi Jinping, in Brussels, Belgium on September 14, 2020. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

However, this outlook calls for different institutional responses to cooperation strategies to reflect the proliferation of transnational challenges, the diffusion of new ideas, and the expansion of actors and processes envision. As compared to the existing top-down and rigid hierarchical governance models (i.e., the EU or former Soviet models), the HGMs, which allow loose and minimal institutional structure are in continuous flux, more flexible and adaptable to the external shocks. However, an inherent weakness in that “hybridity” approaches is their equalization of the irregularity, arbitrariness, and uncertainty with “high adaptability,” which invites populism into the discussionIn the given context, it might be fair to define HGMs as populist regimes because of their divisive rhetoric of “we” and “others” and the way they criticise the global order. Both of them strongly express their emphasis on independence, autonomy and national interests. The HGMs seek to legitimize their underlying ideology through “the West versus the rest” rhetoric, and accordingly, they criticize the global establishment as serving predominantly in the interests of developed countries.

Notwithstanding, such legitimate criticisms of the MLO give a pseudo message that both HGMs and their populist ideologies can serve as a “democratic corrective” to the statuesque. On the contrary, again on a pretty legitimate ground, populist rhetoric of the HGMs can be seen as demagogy in a post-truth world towards consolidating the power of the “one-man rule” inside and authoritarian regimes outside through appealing to and claiming to embody the will of the people, nations, and therefore sustaining several authoritarian tendencies (Weyland, 2021). The gist of the point is that in the context of governance, the long-term issue concerns its sustainability. In contrast to the predictable, transparent, accountable, and rule-based institutionalized governance, the so-called HGMs open the door to a heavy populism, which generally attributes domestic problems to the “external enemies” or “imperialists” for the sake of self-legitimation (Öniş & Kutlay, 2020). Conditional upon the political needs and priorities, that antagonism can be easily and pragmatically extended other areas of international fragmentation, such as trade wars and economic protectionism.

A brief reference to China’s state capitalism and its implications on the dissemination of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can help to understand the inherent populism tendencies involved in HGMs. China has so far adopted a more selective approach to globalization in line with its underlying model of authoritarian capitalism. Overall, reflecting the opportunism and pragmatism of China, three dimensions of its political economy can be linked to the HGMs, as argued in this paper. 

First, outside, China demands and requests for a greater say in the existing international institutions through modestly reforming the basic institutions of the MLO, such as World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to better reflect China’s increased economic power and status had encountered rejection and resistance by the US since 2010 until the related reform package passed in 2015. While the vested interest was hindering the long overdue reforms, China’s push for a regional institutions such and the BRI and The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), within which it would be dominant or at least have considerable impact was a reflection of Beijing’s frustration over the Western, especially American, dominance of the existing international multilateral bodies. In that context, reflecting both the emerging global conjuncture and his personality, Xi Jinping’s thought or doctrine has shaped China’s development and global engagement for decades to come, and perhaps longer.

Second, inside, China builds an authoritarian regime under rigid control of the Communist Party, which is facilitated by increasing digitalization of the governance processes. Among other things, it legitimizes several unfair trade practices, which are inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and distortionary industrial subsidies to the SEEs. Both the US and the EU have declared that these policies have built Beijing’s manufacturing base, at the expense of its competitors. 

Third, the BRI, which evolves at the interface of China’s state capitalism and the liberal world economy, represents a modern form of old-historical tributary realm of influence, with the ultimate objective of expanding China’s influence. In other words, China invents the BRI as a “Chinese way of rule breaking, second stage towards hegemony before the final stage. President Xi states that: “We should not be a bystander or a follower, but an active participant and leader. We need to let more of China’s voices be heard and more Chinese elements to be noted in the process of making international rules, to maintain and expand China’s interests in pursuing development…in the future, the Chinese nation will forge ahead like a gigantic ship breaking through strong winds and heavy waves.”[3]

Notwithstanding, as compared to what other great powers (the UK, the US) did throughout the 19th and the early 20th centuries, when they were hegemonic powers, Chinese way might be more peaceful way of expanding her realm of influence by providing some kind of regional public goods such as infrastructures, security alliances, financial networks and so forth. Since 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping initiated China’s gradual reform and opening era, state economic enterprises’ (SEZ) governance model has been closely supervised and gradually evolved through a “trial-error” and “learning by doing” process. That experience has partly shaped China’s state capitalism both inside and outside. Reflecting all these experiences, through the BRI, China’s expands its foreign economic policies and external reach. It is disseminated by the Chinese leadership as a model Chinese way of cooperation in doing business (Grimmel & Li, 2018).

Recent observations on the functioning of the BRI in infrastructure development across Eurasia and Africa since 2014 show that China’s insistence on an institution-less and contingency model of governance has created many problems. As BRI’s fragmented, multi-centric, multi-layered, and multi-pivotal sub-networks of interconnected and interwoven regional and international contact and diplomacy have not allowed the third parties’ participation with the credibility and experience of international best practices to oblige and engage Chinese companies in a rule-based, win-win game. Therefore, it has failed to fulfil a needed GPG for practical cooperation in bringing solutions to the global infrastructure gap. It neither performs an ex-ante rule-based contracting, for instance, at the stages of tendering, funding, construction, and operation nor an ex-post performance based-analysis to accurately measure the cost-benefits of the services it provides. 

It seems that the current harsh competition between the Western paradigm of governance, which supports rule-based, structured, and centralized cooperation, and the Asian (and increasingly Chinese) models that promote flexible and non-structured contingency models would determine the future course of the expected forms of governance.

Japan’s Prime minister Shinzo Abe is welcomed by former EU Council President Donald Tusk and former EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the EU Japan leader’s summit meeting in Brussels on July 6, 2017. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

The EU-Japan’s Cooperation: Balancing Hybrid Governance

China’s efforts to export its systemic aspects through BRI with the mentioned institutional loopholes and implementations have triggered dangerous retaliatory acts from the US, increasing requests from the EU for further reciprocity wide range of economic activities and opposing waves in many developing countries. The BRI case shows that recently evolving HGMs need some transferable institutional lessons from the Western experience of public good provision. 

In an environment of fragility created by the US’s withdrawal from multilateral cooperation mechanisms in the Trump administration and China’s efforts to expand its disproportionate and unilateral sphere of influence to fill this gap, cooperation between countries with a shared vision, such as Japan and the EU, is critical in providing the leadership required for the production of Global Public Goods (GPGs). After long years of passive position, both Japan and the EU have taken a more active initiative through several comprehensive agreements to create new opportunities and somehow balance China in the Asia-Pacific region and other critical geographies.

A recent EU-China policy paper clarifies the position of the EU visa-a-vis China as follows: “In different policy areas, China is simultaneously a cooperation partner, with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives. A negotiating partner with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests. An economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership. Finally, a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance,” (EU-Commission, 2019).

Under mounting lobbying from the industrialists, Germany also pronounced its “strategic industrial policy” to create “national winners,” and Brussel adopted measures to force China for reciprocity and fair competition. It can be argued that eventually, China reacted positively. After almost eight years, the EU and China have finalized the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment by the end of 2020, which was first proposed in 2012 and have arrived at a common language acceptable to European approaches, norms, and values. That shows, if the EU acts as a unified actor, similar to the US, it has an opportunity to exploit international pressure on China (Berkofsky, 2019).

On the other hand, after the highly ineffective “Silk Road Strategy” announced by the Hashimoto government in Japan in the mid-1990s to fill the gaps that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Empire (Öztürk, 2006), Japan has recently taken a similar position with the EU. Through the partnership for quality infrastructure, Japan offers collaborative opportunities, fair distribution, and a level playing field for all (Pascha, 2020a, 2020b). These similarities motivated two like-minded soft powers to take joint and decisive steps. To that end, Japan and the EU have signed strategic, economic, and digital agreements with the potential of protecting and promoting free trade, multilateralism, and the rules-based order. They want to develop multilateral international cooperation mechanisms in geographies where China has been quite active through its BRI, not only in Asia but also in the Europe-Balkan region and Africa.

Ongoing efforts for inclusive partnership between the like-minded actors, such as Japan, EU and multilateral organizations (i.e., the World Banka, multinational companies, civil society organizations) would create the required synergy for the needed public goods for cooperation with hybrid characteristics provided they fulfil the following properties (Berkowsky, 2020; Söderbaum, 2015).As Evenett and Baldwin (2020) correctly note, there is an obvious need for alternative ‘interface mechanisms’ (i.e., the BRI) that allows different forms of capitalism to co-prosper. Second, global and regional problems require international consensual compliance between different coalitions in creating alternative and more efficient public goods (Kaul, 2013). Third, as they are still needed with their proved performance after World War II, the MLO should be amended through viable reforms rather than thrown aside. 

To synthesize these three factors, HGMs with GPG characteristics should be more open, transparent, accountable, and inclusive; on the one hand, and also reflect the facts, figures, norms, and civilizational values emerging in the new geo-strategic geographies, on the other. Having possessed these properties, the new HGMs conserve the West’s contributions while allowing the East’s indigenous contributions.

In that context, by considering the risks, uncertainties, complications, and fragilities of the current global power shift from the West to the East (Allison, 2017), the opportunities and threats in creating alternative HGMs through a comparative institutional approach should be sought. In that context, the EU-Japan cooperation mentioned above might offer a “buffer mechanism” to refrain from a dangerous East-West divide by proposing a more balanced and integrated approach to the needed and desired global governance reform (EU Parliament, 2020; Berkowsky, 2020). The rise of that synergy, however, depends on several factors, ranging from the harmony of cultural texture between Asia and Europe to the ongoing regionalization experiences in Europe, which is passing through new challenges, and in Asia, that has reached a new height with the ratification of recent free trade agreements, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP, 2020; EU Parliament, 2021).

Conclusion

This article argues that neither the current MLO nor the new populist and ideological approaches that reflect some aspects of “arbitrariness” and “contingency” under the so-called HGMs that are emerging in many countries is capable of solving participation constraints for international cooperation by addressing main principle-agent problems amongst the major stakeholders. The article believes that the creation of alternative GPGs for effective, inclusive, equitable, and sustainable cooperation through relevant HGMs is possible and needed. Provided that they combine the norms, values, and principles of both the West and the East in cooperation, they can more easily address existing challenges in development-related sustainable infrastructure projects such as transportation, communication, cybersecurity, data flow, energy, and industrial locations. 

Similar to the transformation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC, 1951) into the current EU over time, it can be expected that a new multilateral cooperation mechanism that starts in a relatively narrow area of infrastructure would eventually reach a tipping point to transform into the expected GPG. Considering the lack of required leadership that has resulted in the current global “reform fatigue,” a comprehensive economic, strategic, and cyber agreement between Japan and the EU, two “like-minded” entities, would help to supply some of the needed and expected GPGs in the manner mentioned above.

References

Acharya, A. (2017). Global governance in a multiplex world, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS), 29, Global Governance Programme-266.

Acharya, A. (2018). Constructing global order: Agency and change in world politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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[1] Parastatals are wholly or partially publicly owned but often privately managed; they include wealth funds, extractive companies, utilities, administrative and judicial centres, export-processing zones, and urban-development authorities that run—with little or no democratic scrutiny—some of the most significant pools of money and sites of growth.

[2] Known as “Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” In Chinese,  习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想.

[3] On the other hand, despite such an “over-determination” to lead the new stage of global power shift, BRI has not a well-thought and well-prepared architecture. Such developments as global economic crisis, American containment policies, and several domestic economic challenges forced China to announce BRI to stimulate domestic demand and find external export markets in developing countries, mainly, through large-scale overseas (infrastructure) investment. See Jinping, Xi. (2014). A speech at the Collective Learning Session of the Politburo of CPC Central Committee, Dec. 5. The Governance of China. http://english.scio.gov.cn/featured/xigovernance/2018-11/28/content_74217442.htm (accessed on March 12, 2021).

The post-technology dystopia/utopia of series such as Tribes of Europa appeals to purity impulses that may be heightened in the age of COVID-19, when “somehow people feel that their societies now are unsafe for them” and this anxiety can fuel “regressive populist movements”.

Everybody Wants to Be ‘Origines’: Nativism, Neo-pagan Appropriation, and Ecofascism*

This paper explores the tensions that emerge in neo-pagan media and practices, when they appeal not only to far-right enthusiasts but also to those with a left-leaning, environmentalist bent. New Age appropriation of Indigenous cultures and the anti-human temptations of ecofascism further complicate the picture. Ultimately, any group that follows a purity mentality, seeking deep, unadulterated roots in nature, risks nativist thinking and exclusion of those without the privilege of imagining themselves doing heroic deeds in equally imaginary, old-growth woods.

By Heidi Hart

Introduction: Primeval Streaming

In the Netflix series Tribes of Europa, a group of post-apocalyptic survivors has retreated to the forest, where they live “happily” and “in harmony with nature,” to quote the opening voiceover (Netflix, 2021). These “Origines” live protected, or so they think, from the other tribes warring over the former European territories, decimated by an unexplained global and technological meltdown in 2029. The sudden crash of a drone-like object in the forest drives the series’ central conflict, resulting in heavy bloodshed between the Origines and rival tribes. 

The Origines call their forest home “Refugium,” fear another tribe called “Crows” (a name that would carry obvious racist overtones in the US), and utter lines such as “We are the voices of the forest, the blood of the earth, and the breath of the wind.” These lines ring painfully close to Blut und Boden Nazi rhetoric. The Origines’ unironic use of the word “Heimat” is also problematic, in light of the Nazi fetishization of that term, for all the critical cultural work around it in the decades of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or reckoning with the past, in Germany (Krug, 2018). In one of the opening scenes, the young protagonists’ dancing to a contemporary indie rap song gives a sense of forgetfulness of that past, as does the series’ Game of Thrones-like aesthetic of violence and torture (see Gjelsvik and Schubart, 2016)

According to series creator Philip Koch, the “shock” of Brexit led him to develop this dystopian-utopian fantasy (Scott, 2021), with its “ruin porn” (Riley, 2017) of abandoned concrete structures and geodesic dwellings in the woods. The idea of a destroyed European Union certainly haunts the series, but on a deeper level, it echoes back-to-nature fascinations on both the political right and left, especially in a time of ecological collapse. The nativist idea of retreating to one’s roots, to an imagined state of Indigeneity, or to an impossibly “virgin” wilderness (see Solnit, 1994: 52) may seem like a 1970s hippie fantasy and is certainly nothing new, but it has gained traction as ecological anxiety and COVID-driven outdoor adventurism have led more privileged humans to bake sourdough, take to the road in converted vans (Anderson, 2020), and watch screen fantasies of a simpler life in the woods. 

This paper explores the tensions that emerge in neo-pagan media and practices, when they appeal not only to far-right enthusiasts but also to those with a left-leaning, environmentalist bent. New Age appropriation of Indigenous cultures and the anti-human temptations of ecofascism further complicate the picture. Ultimately, any group that follows a purity mentality, seeking deep, unadulterated roots in nature, risks nativist thinking and exclusion of those without the privilege of imagining themselves doing heroic deeds in equally imaginary, old-growth woods. 

The Real Barbarians?

COVID-era Netflix offers another pagan fantasia to viewers more or less confined indoors. Like Tribes of EuropaBarbarians is informed by Game of Thrones and the recent explosion of “Viking TV.” This series also valorizes forest-dwelling as Heimat and, in its real-life historical setting, portrays the Romans as vicious colonialists who not only demand unreasonable tributes from their Germanic neighbors but behead and crucify them as well. Blonde tribal teens appear as innocent, playful, and fierce when necessary. They joke about human sacrifice and fear the wolves on the outskirts of the forest, a repeated motif that comes uncomfortably close to contemporary anti-immigrant rhetoric blaming the “wolf” of fairy-tale infamy in Germany (Bennhold, 2019). A key moment occurs when the young heroine Thusnelda takes the heraldic eagle from the Romans, making it a tribal icon – with its inevitable future on the German flag. 

The invading Romans come across as the “true” barbarians here, fitting paradoxically into liberal, post-colonial critique as much as they do into nativist, pro-Germanic narrative. Meanwhile, the series’ torchlit ceremonies and marches recall atavistic Nazi aesthetics, as does its “primeval forest” or “Urwald” setting, not far from that of the 1936 propaganda film Ewiger Wald, or Eternal Forest, which has found a new generation of fans on white supremacist websites. Both that film and the Netflix series focus on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, a weighty historical moment for the German far right (see Winkler, 2015). Though Barbarians writer Arne Nolting claims that part of the series’ goal is to reclaim this material, Teutoburg Forest remains a pilgrimage site, and the battle that took place there is “an ideological rallying point” for white supremacists (Rogers, 2020). German Studies scholars have expressed concern, via social media threads (see Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum, 28 October 2020), that this series also promotes essentialist thinking and toxic masculinity. 

Some neo-pagans claim that, although their Germanic ancestors (literal or figurative) may have beaten back the Romans in 9 A.D., they have long been a “conquered people” (Lindenschmidt, 2015) under Christianity, and their practices constitute anti-colonial resistance. Combined with the idea that “when they destroyed paganism, Christians made exploiting nature possible” (Kaplan, 2016: 27), a Romantic inheritance with appeal to the ecologically conscious left, especially in light of many evangelical Christians’ support of Trump in the US, neo-paganism’s ideological tangle remains complex. 

Martin Heidegger.

Roots and Purity

Concepts of ancestral “roots” and “unspoiled” countryside have a long and tangled history, too, especially in German culture, and not just because of these ideas’ appeal in stereotypically xenophobic, rural communities. The still-influential philosopher Martin Heidegger, an unapologetic member of the Nazi party, extended his love of the literal forest to ideas of rootedness in language and existence itself, “not simply a rootedness in the soil, in the past, or in the tradition from which one ‘views’ the world” but “something concealed, mysterious, and chthonic whose meaning lies hidden beneath the surface of the earth” and that validates the “destiny of a Volk” (Bambach, 2003: 19). His quasi-poetic wordplay shows a fascination with etymology as a depth-seeking practice: where is a German word’s most profound origin, and what does that mean for a nativist sense of identity? In his 1951 “Bauen Wohnen Denken,” Heidegger traces the German verb “bauen” (“build”) vertically back to the Old High German (and Old English) “buan,” or “to dwell in one place;” he then relates this word horizontally to “ich bin” (“I am”), linking dwelling with Being itself (Heidegger, 1977: 324-325).

This close link between home and existence, and the fascination with what lies underneath the ground, continues to surface in German literature and film, and not always with ill-considered tribal forest scenes. For example, novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s critically sensitive take on the Heimat problem, Heimsuchung (Visitation or Haunting, 2008), treats historical trauma in a way that reverberates in one piece of land over centuries, with particular attention to the years during and after the Second World War (Goodbody, 2016). The philosophically informed and ecologically terrifying Netflix series Dark invites viewers to ask why a cave in the woods can have such a strong pull, and how much damage humans can do to each other once inside it. 

One writer responding directly to the toxic aspects of Heidegger’s nature-driven thought is Elfriede Jelinek, best known for her unsparing critiques of Austrian “whipped cream” culture and the violence it sugarcoats, for example in her novel Die Klavierspielerin or The Piano Teacher (Hanssen, 1996). Jelinek’s 1991 spoken-text play Totenauberg (its title a play on the name of Heidegger’s Black Forest cabin) includes an “old man” character (Heidegger) and a “middle-aged woman,” meant to stand for Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who was Heidegger’s sometime lover and, in what gave their relationship an excruciating twist, a Jewish antifascist who, with her teacher Karl Jaspers, coined the term “banality of evil” when writing about the Nuremberg trials (Diner and Bashaw, 1997).

Totenauberg is not just a dialogue between these two historical figures, though, as Jelinek also includes skiers and other performance athletes, some hunters and men in Tracht (traditional Bavarian dress), and even a few cheerleaders. As the “old man” laments that nature has simply become an image for those who consume it (in a statement foretelling today’s outdoor selfie culture), the other nature enthusiasts lay their claims to “authentic” enjoyment of the woods and mountains (see Jelinek, 1991: 25). This text shows, uncomfortably, how outdoor recreation can be as much about ego as eco-awareness, and how concerns about the purity of that enjoyment cross conventional political lines. 

Mad vikings warriors in the attack, running along the shore with Drakkar on the background.

Current Nativist Tensions

In our present moment, the appeal of purity culture across the political spectrum (from the vegetarian “QAnon shaman” who helped to storm the US Capitol to left-leaning consumers of organic-only foods), can lead to a strange nexus of virtue and violence, onscreen or otherwise. Adherents of “conspirituality,” a blend of New Age beliefs and conspiracy thinking, include anti-vaxxers on the right and left as well. The post-technology dystopia/utopia of series such as Tribes of Europa appeals to purity impulses that may be heightened in the age of COVID-19, when “somehow people feel that their societies now are unsafe for them” and this anxiety can fuel “regressive populist movements” (Richards, in Haslam, 2021: 8).  

Recently in North Carolina, a group belonging to what the Southern Poverty Law Center has termed “the neo-Völkisch hate scene” (Ball, 2021) purchased a church building, causing anxiety and pain for their Black neighbors. Claims of “ennobling” pagan practices rooted in white European heritage, along with an ideology of “healthy, active lifestyles” and rules about racial purity (Ball, 2021) are painfully familiar in a part of the US that is deeply split about reckoning (or not) with its own racist past. Fans of Wiccan culture and “Viking rock” bands such as Wardruna may argue that neo-pagan fascinations are not in themselves dangerous, but the agendas of groups like North Carolina’s Asatru Folk Assembly (Ball, 2021) show how thorny such attractions can be.  

In Norway, a recent self-examination by a Viking re-enactment blogger has caused intense debate. After years of cultivating craft skills and appreciation of pre-Christian culture in Scandinavia, Ingrid Falch found herself implicated a few too many times in right-wing propaganda. “Unfortunately,” she writes, “blood and swords sell more tickets than cooking and spinning wool. Better keep it speculative, cheap and easy – reproducing the stereotypes making sure that ‘most people’ won’t see the difference between you and the Q-shaman” (Falch, 2021). For all the efforts to puncture too-earnest Norse aesthetics with humor, as in the Norwegian TV series Norsemen and Ragnarok, this “beast I can’t control” has led Falch to leave the re-enactment community. The resulting online repercussions have been brutal at times, often reinforcing ideas of white supremacy and misogyny associated with neo-pagan culture (Falch, 2021). 

Collapsing beds situation for Corona Virus patients. Medical staff work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for COVID-19 multiple patients inside a special hospital in Bergamo, on November 11, 2020.

Problems of Appropriation

What about Indigenous fantasies relating to cultures not one’s own? In the US, wealthy suburbanites have been purchasing Dances with Wolves-style tipis ever since that film appeared in 1990. A recent manifestation of this trend is the use of traditional tipis as “après ski” pods for COVID distancing (see Compass Rose, 2021), which often leads to exactly the opposite effect, as libertarian business owners make free with Native traditions for entertainment. On the other end of the political spectrum, shamanic training groups, Vision Quest trips, and festivals such as Burning Man have long attracted educated, left-leaning whites (Aldred, 2000). “White guilt” over several centuries of Native genocide and oppression may contribute to this phenomenon, but much of the attraction seems to be toward spiritual nourishment in an age when religion is often associated with right-wing politics (Olomi, 2019).

In Germany, a generation raised on Karl May’s Western adventure novels has contributed to ongoing romanticization of Native American culture (Schumacher, 2020) that may seem innocent of right-wing politics but fosters damaging stereotypes. In addition, what many “Indian hobbyists” in Germany may not know is that Nazi researchers studied US discriminatory policy toward Native peoples in order to hone the 1935 Nuremberg Laws (Miller, 2019). Meanwhile in southern Sweden, Wild West fascinations have become more complicated, as a theme park called High Chaparral became a camp for 500 Syrian refugees in 2015 (Loewinger, 2017).

White appropriation of Native symbols and rituals is of course different from European seeking of ancestral “roots” in the primeval woods, but it is equally problematic. A drum circle intended for specific cultural or medicinal purposes, for example, can become an excuse for vague trance-like experiences when used in a New Age setting, and shows disrespect to the very Indigenous practices it takes as inspiration (Johnson, 2020). Adrienne Keene of the Native Appropriations project has created an open call for Indigenous voices to address this issue, with additional attention to cultural practices in the COVID era and in relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement (Keene, 2020). As Mark Rogers has put it, “Everyone wants to be an Indian, but nobody wants to be an Indian,” referring to Paul Mooney’s comment about “everyone want[ing] to be Black” without the “experience of being part of that culture” (Rogers, 2014, 2018).  

Debate is ongoing in the US about sports team mascots named for Native peoples, or using racist nicknames (National Congress for American Indians, n.d.); traditional clothing imitated in fashion, such as feathered headdresses (Wood, 2017); stereotypes in Hollywood films, from Pocahontas to one-dimensional warrior figures (Little, 2021); appropriations in the classical music world, as in quoting or imitating traditional songs stripped of their cultural purpose (Davids, 2019); and academic writing about Indigenous topics without consulting those who know them best, an issue of concern outside the US as well (Arbon, ed., 2010). With the regenerative agriculture movement gaining traction around the world, Indigenous voices are also speaking up about the need to give credit for soil restoration practices where it is due, and to reconsider value systems driven more by “commodification” than by the land itself (Mangan, 2021).

Ecofascism and “Avocado Politics”

To return to the problem of purity culture, back-to-nature advocates across the political spectrum often cite a wish for “unspoiled” wilderness (Cross, 2018), meaning outdoor spaces free of others except themselves. Especially in the age of COVID, this wish has resulted in what is now termed “wreckreation” in the American West (Wilkinson, 2020), with overcrowding and trash becoming increasingly problematic, though the political stakes for public lands protection are very real (Hart and Soyer, 2021). As an avid hiker in the mountains where I live, I admit to getting up at 5 a.m. to walk my favorite trails without the noisy, selfie-obsessed crowds I have come to resent – and this reminds me, uncomfortably, of Heidegger’s comment in Elfriede Jelinek’s play, about his own resentment of nature becoming only an image. I have felt smug triumph when reading about quieting oceans during the pandemic, and I have laughed at recycled satire about overpopulation and climate destruction (The Onion, 2011)

In a more innocent time, I might have been a deep ecology adherent, following the ideas of Arne Næss about the natural world as more than “natural resources” and about the need to acknowledge human-nonhuman interconnectedness. These ideas do in fact permeate most ecological discourse in academia, with reference to Donna Haraway’s metaphor of tentacle-like entanglements among species. While I draw on this thinking in my own work in the environmental humanities, I am also aware of the dangers of wishing for a post-human utopia, however tempting the overgrown cities Alan Weisman evoked in his 2007 book The World Without Us. For all my own selfish wishes to have a mountain trail to myself, my long study of Nazi nature-cult thinking has made me wary of ideologies that promote purity and idealistic “harmony with nature.”

Ecofascism, the belief not only in racial but also in environmental purity, posits that the world really would be better off without us – or at least without the darker-skinned climate refugees a warming planet will increasingly push out of their homes. This nexus of ecological and racial purity, an ideology that also fosters “deep” connections with the natural world, complicates conservationist thinking, as young activists are discovering amid the hype surrounding COVID-era planetary recuperation (Newton, 2020). What this ideology ignores, too, is that the first wave of climate refugees is the wealthy, who can afford to flee the California wildfires or rising coastlines in Florida (Bakkalapulo, 2018), and as “climate gentrification” (Hu, 2020) pushes marginalized people further away from affordable housing.

Though many deep ecologists disavow far-right, eugenics-driven thinking about population reduction for the planet’s sake (Drengson, n.d.), that movement’s tendency toward oversimplified ideas of purity, depth, and harmony has contributed to ecofascism insofar as it ignores political misuses of “nature” in the past century. Murray Bookchin (1999: 203) expresses it this way: “Vital as the idea of “interconnectedness” may be to our views, it has historically often been the basis of myths and supernatural beliefs that became means for social control and political manipulation.”

Likewise, immersive ecological artworks and “primeval TV” series such as Tribes of Europa can promote a feel-good sense of environmental connection, rather than encouraging activism that takes environmental racism into account, too. 

Over the past decade, ecofascism has become a draw in far-right recruitment, linking deep-ecology ideas of humans as “parasites” with its own anti-immigrant sentiment (Lamoureaux, 2020). White supremacist shooters from Christchurch to El Paso have also identified as ecofascists (Lawrence, 2019). In Austria, “avocado politics,” in which brownshirt ideology hides in green political agendas (Gilman, 2020), has led to an unlikely alignment between the center-right People’s Party and the Greens. Austrian agitator Elfriede Jelinek’s work seems as urgent as ever, with its uncomfortably close-to-home portrayals of right-wing immigration policies (Dege, 2016). Her Heidegger- and purity-culture critique Totenauberg would be a timely piece to revisit as well.

Conclusion: Contamination, Curiosity, and Reciprocity

While back-to-nature idealism can certainly foster environmental care, it has a dangerous side, too. Narratives such as the currently popular series Tribes of Europa and Barbarians promote a nativist vision of paganism that veers close to the “blood and soil” ideology of Nazism. Purity culture in eating and recreating, along with the seeking of “unspoiled” nature, however understandable, can feed this ideology across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, appropriating Indigenous cultural practices works as a wishful-thinking kind of nativism that bypasses the real experiences of Native peoples who have suffered oppression and genocide. And as deep-ecology values spill over into ecofascism, this form of environmental activism becomes not only anti-immigrant but also anti-human.

How to untangle the toxic threads that have found their way into ecological consciousness, from Martin Heidegger’s nativist philosophy of “rootedness” to today’s Viking re-enactment controversies? One approach is to allow for what some environmental artists call “contamination,” the practice of refusing purity in one’s work in order to accept that the planet is irrevocably compromised and, at the same time, to salvage what is left. Some artists work intentionally with waste and pollution, as in John Sabraw’s work creating pigments from contaminated streams in the UK (Surugue, 2019), while others, as in the Parallel Effect group’s recent Vigil for the Smooth Handfish, work with rituals for grieving a planet already in collapse (Audrey Journal, 2020).

In more practical terms, many conservationists are becoming less focused on restoring an “ideal” state of nature and more concerned with managing the messes that already exist. Emma Marris’ book Rambunctious Gardens (2011) has won an enthusiastic following but has created controversy, too, as it goes against conventional wisdom about removing non-native, invasive plant species. At the same time, Marris outlines concrete practices for rewilding and assisted migration, such as building wildlife bridges over highways. Climate adaptation thinking has its dangers, too, in terms of normalizing catastrophe; as Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright (2018: 71) have noted, “simply to claim that ‘society must adapt’ is to represent social responses to climate change […] in a way that makes these adaptations seem natural and functional.” That said, the crisis at hand does not allow the luxury of wishing for a pristine future based on an imagined, “harmony with nature” past. 

An ethos of planetary care that does not fall into nativist or purity thinking requires critical evaluation of environmental media (even in the form of Netflix entertainment!) and of one’s own attitudes (the wish to have the forest to oneself, for example). One aid in this can be learning about Indigenous approaches to land and culture without disrespectful appropriation. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), written from her dual perspective as a botanist and as an Indigenous woman learning about her own heritage, has become a guide for environmental thinking that views other species as kin but does not sentimentalize those relationships. Curiosity and humility are key, so that humans can ask, “Who are you?” instead of “What is it?” (Kimmerer, 2013: 42) and can appreciate what we see and hear without needing to own it (see Robinson, 2020).  

In many Indigenous cultures, reciprocity is also essential to co-regulation with the land. One way to express this is to ask for consent before entering a forest, logging it, or building a home there, a practice Native communities in the US are now asking others to honor, especially as oil and gas interests threaten traditional lands (Danesh and McPhee, 2019). In more personal terms, reciprocity can be a form of gratitude. As Kimmerer puts it, “What could I give these plants in return for their generosity? It could be a direct response, like weeding or water … Or indirect, like donating to my local land trust so that more habitat for the gift givers will be saved” (Kimmerer, 2020). If nativism is a kind of narcissism, critical curiosity and reciprocity can break the mirror we humans seem to want to project everywhere, and so that we can see the world around us as a subject, not the object of our deep, dark forest dreams. 

(*) This article follows up on topics of neo-paganism in the Feb. 3 commentary “Music and the Far-Right Trance,”calling critical attention to nativist themes in entertainment media, problems of cultural appropriation, and ecofascist strains in environmental activism. 

References

Bambach, Charles. (2003). Heidegger’s Roots: Nietzsche, National Socialism, and the Greeks. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Biel, Janet. (1999). The Murray Bookchin Reader. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Erpenbeck, Jenny. (2007). Heimsuchung. Frankfurt a. M.: Eichborn, 2007.

Gjelsvik, Anne and Rikke Schubart. Editors. (2016). Women of Ice and Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones, and Multiple Media Engagements. London: Bloomsbury.

Heidegger, Martin. (1977). Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper & Row.

Jelinek, Elfriede. (1991). Totenauberg. Hamburg: Rowohlt. 

Kaplan, E. Ann. (2016). Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Mann, Geoff and Joel Wainwright. (2018). Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. London: Verso.

Marris, Emma. (2013). Rambunctious Gardens: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. London: Bloomsbury. 

Richards, Barry. (2021). “Leaders.” In: S. Alexander Haslam, Editor, Psychological Insights for Understanding Covid-19 and Health. London and New York: Routledge.

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

Solnit, Rebecca. (1994). Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape of the American West. Berkeley: University of California Press.Winkler, Martin M. (2015). Arminius the Liberator: Myth and Ideology. Oxford: Oxford 

Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras gives press conference of 81st Thessaloniki International Fair in Thessaloniki, Greece on Sept. 11, 2016. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

Anatomy of a Populist Speech

Abstract

In January 2021, two party leaders in the Greek parliament debated the government’s handling of the Covid-19 epidemic. This made possible a detailed analysis of the populist argumentations of one of the speakers. His basic method was the repeated use of arguments that were “true” but irrelevant to the matter at hand. Other “methods” were accusations made out of context, mixing up issues, deriving generalities based on singular cases, ignoring certain aspects, and making unfounded insinuations. Analysis of these discursive aspects contributes to our understanding of populist discourses.

Keywords: Populism, demagogy, populist discourse, discourse analysis

By Hercules Millas

Usually, one feels that one is confronting populism when one hears a particular kind of discourse. There is a palpable sense of deceit and demagoguery. In this article, I will try to show that populist argumentation is basically composed of a “plethora of irrelevant true arguments,” even though it may or may not include other methods such as lying, silencing, and the like.[1]

The opportunity to study a populist speech in detail was given to me when I listened to a debate in the Greek parliament between Prime Minister Kostas Mitsotakis and the leader of the main opposition party, Alexis Tsipras. Mitsotakis leads the New Democracy Party, and Tsipras heads Syriza (united left and environmentalists). The debate took place on 15 January 2021 and on the topic of the Greek government’s approach to the Covid-19 pandemic and its performance in addressing the crisis. My study focuses just on the debate between the two leaders, excluding the arguments advanced by other political parties in the Greek parliament.

Mitsotakis presented graphs and statistics showing Greece’s performance in handling the Covid crisis relative to other European countries. The comparative approach demonstrated that Greece had been relatively successful in coping with the pandemic, at least until the day of the debate. I was curious to hear the opposition’s counter-arguments. I tried to put myself in Tsipras’ shoes. It occurred to me that the opposition leader had two alternatives, either to acknowledge the government’s positive performance or to claim the opposite. Tsipras had little choice but to pursue the latter, given any opposition leader is “compelled” to hold the government to account. Thus, Tsipras’ only option seemed to be a refutation of the argument of Mitsotakis by all means.

I foresaw a populist counterattack and decided to take notes of the arguments. Later, I found the complete debate on the parliamentary website, and I transcribed it.[2] I had ample time to carefully examine the arguments and the counter-arguments and decipher Mitsotakis’ and Tsipras’ “methods.” The leaders spoke five times in total. After an initial speech from the prime minister, all the other party leaders presented their views; a second round followed, with Mitsotakis assuming the final right of reply. Mitsotakis spoke for a total of 89 minutes and Tsipras a total of 94 minutes.

I summarize Tsipras’ argumentation—which I will discuss in further detail below—as follows:

  1. He mentioned many “truths”—that is to say, situations and evaluations that nobody can deny or oppose. Usually, this kind of argument is known as “truism.”
  2. He shrewdly used his body language (and style of address) to support his arguments.
  3. He repeated the same accusative and pejorative characterizations against Mitsotakis.
  4. He “returned serve” to accusations launched at him to get even.
  5. He condemned successful government initiatives as failures on the ground that they could have been “even better.”
  6. He used the technique of irony, insinuation, silencing, and arbitrary, debatable views as valid assumptions.
  7. He asserted general conclusions based on isolated singular events.
  8. He associated unrelated situations to reach conclusions.

1 – Mentioning various self-evident “truths”

This tactic composed the basis of Tsipras’ argumentation. The truisms had nothing to do with the agenda of the debate — namely, the policies vis-à-vis the Covid-19 pandemic that were followed (or ought to have been followed) by the government and their consequences. The first big part of his speech included the following: “We experience a pandemic… the Greeks are facing problems … we should be showing solidarity… the politicians are usually hypocritical and express extreme views … citizens lives should be the main concern of everybody … we should help those who are fighting on the front-line of the epidemic … one should learn from one’s mistakes… we should face reality … tomorrow looks problematic … all of us should do something about the situation… ideological prejudices may result in death …”

Tsipras elaborated at length each of these logical, self-evident, and widely-accepted arguments, but they were not supported by corresponding examples of government action (or inaction). These truisms could have been voiced by any politician, in any country, and under any circumstances. Nobody could object to these comments. Why then did Tsipras voice them?

The answer is that they proved useful since populism is addressed to the sentiments of the listeners. The citizens who follow a debate pursued in this manner and are short of critical thinking see and listen to a person who is clearly espousing some basic, sound principles; they feel that they share the same principles with him. They see somebody who thinks like them and who has the same sensitivities. He is for the needy; he sees the same social problems, and so on.

That the other side does not speak in the same way or repeat the self-understood realities is usually interpreted as indicating a lack of “sensitivity” and an inability to act accordingly. In this sense, populist argumentation is very effective. Probably, the strongest point of this discourse is that its refutation is impossible simply because all arguments are true—they are, in fact, truisms.

During the rest of his speech, Tsipras adopted this approach many times, re-iterating a similar set of “arguments,” “proposals,” “warnings,” and “advice”: “One should accept and learn from one’s mistakes … due to the lockdown, retailers are facing problems … the timing of an action is important … delays have a price … many of our compatriots are dying … vaccines should belong to the people … we should face reality … one should not be pedantic … one should take the initiative… we should discuss the issues between us … vaccines save lives … the economy faces problems … people are losing their jobs.”

 2 – Body language and style of address

The shrewd use of body language while speaking is not unique to populism and is, in fact, a common feature of all rhetorical debate. Yet, since populist conclusions are not related to inductive reasoning but to emotional insinuations, the body language and the style of the orator are of particular importance. All politicians have this in mind, and they pay attention, not so much to the consistency and sense of their arguments, but to the appearance of the speaker—his posture, his self-confident style vis-à-vis his opponent, and so on.

Tsipras often appeared as being ready to compromise and to come to terms with Mitsotakis for the sake of the common good while simultaneously accusing Mitsotakis of ill-will to the point of insult, as I show below. Tsipras also often appeared shocked and exasperated with Mitsotakis’ policies and actions. A couple of times, when Tsipras referred to well-known numbers, facts, and examples, he declared, “these are not my numbers, not my sayings, but yours; they are numbers from independent agencies… This is not something that I say; scientists all around the world are saying it … It is not us who say that, but the media worldwide.” This is all redundant as it could hardly be otherwise. Facts, data, and statistics cannot be “somebody’s” —they have to be from a reliable source. It suffices to mention the source. Utterances of the kind “these are not my numbers but of the X source” is an unnecessary, excessive emphasis that seeks to create a favorable impression on the unsophisticated listener.

3 – Repeated pejorative characterizations

Many derogatory accusations against Mitsotakis accompanied Tsipras’ speech. The following phrases were used as general characterizations: that Mitsotakis has ideological prejudices, believes himself to be omniscient, has no sense of responsibility, is detached from reality, lacks awareness of reality, is in favor of the elite, and is in favor of exploiters. In addition, words or their derivatives directed against Mitsotakis by Tsipras included arrogance, hypocrisy, complacency, indifference, unclear mind, carelessness (2 times), negligent, obsessive, slanderous, unserious, divisive (2 times), incompetent (3 times), irresponsible, vulgar (returning the same expression used earlier by Mitsotakis), without dignity, and liar. All these were heard in a speech that lasted 90 minutes.

This tactic serves a purpose. The listener watches a speaker who is against all these vices, which means—logically—that he is exempt from these. Since Tsipras is so much against ideological prejudices, arrogance, and the like, this should mean that they do not apply to him.

This approach is the other side of the “repeating of irrelevant truths” mentioned above. The mentioning of many “truths” works in favor of the speaker’s image, which is enhanced. Derogatory characterizations work against the image of the Other; the opponent’s image depreciates.

4 – “Returning serve” against accusations

Anyone familiar with Greek political life over the last decade will notice that the above-mentioned negative characterizations present a peculiarity. Some of them are new utterances in Greek political life, having been first used against Tsipras and his political party. A closer look at the above accusations recalls that there is a process of “returning serve” against adjectives that have been used lately against “us” (in this case, Tsipras and Syriza). Some of these are the following:

“Having ideological prejudices” — this was originally used against Tsipras for his leftist ideological vision. “Arrogance” was once used to characterize Tsipras’s harsh accusations against the Right. Tsipras’s wish to change the “right-wing” policies of the European Union was cast as a “lack of awareness of reality.” His anti-liberal stand has been called “obsessive,” and his policies in dealing with the EU were labeled “incompetent.” Finally, Tsipras has been called a “liar” for going back on promises that he would not follow the EU’s instructions and “memorandums.”

The use of such language is a strategic choice. By “returning” the accusations with the same wording, the “charges” are neutralized, and Tsipras gets even. As mentioned, many of these characterizations were used in the past against Tsipras and regarding some of his actions and policy decisions. Now, they are “returned,” mostly out of context. This is a way to counter-balance attacks. Probably it is reckoned that this kind of a symmetrical counterattack will cancel out and nullify the accusations recently addressed toward “us,” thus cleansing the record of them. The repeated use of some accusative adjectives also nullifies their worth through superfluous repetition. All in all, the method can be seen as a psychological and political defense mechanism.

5 – Things could have been “even better”

This is another “true” argument that cannot be contradicted. The best performance could have been better. An Olympic champion can be criticized for failing to run a little faster and break a record. Mitsotakis demonstrated by graphs and statistical analyses that Greece had a much lower death rate per 1 million people relative to other European countries. He said that it is a macabre and sad endeavor to talk about people who have lost their lives, but that still, in general, Greeks have followed the rules and done fairly well, comparatively speaking. Mitsotakis showed a map of Europe with the national death rates indicated by different color codes; Greece and Finland were colored the same, sharing the lowest death rate in Europe at the time of the parliamentary debate.

Tsipras resorted to comparing Greece to the unreasonable benchmarks, not comparable cases. In fact, he compared Greece’s record to that of other countries only once — when he noted that Greece had experienced the worse economic recession in Europe due to Covid-19. He said: “Greece in this field is the last in Europe. You may say that this is due to the epidemic. All countries are experiencing an epidemic but not the same impacts. These are the comparisons that one has to take into consideration.” In all the other cases, he was adamantly against any “comparative” approach, unless it was to compare Greece to “the hypothetical condition.”

In all the other cases, he used the conjunction “if” as a conditional. “If you had taken some more precautions… if you had made more tests… if you had put more busses into circulation… wouldn’t we have fewer deaths?” At some point, Tsipras said: “If, if, if, if, I can use many ifs of this kind.” And, actually, he did. This is a common trend of populist argumentation: good outcomes could always have been better.

6 – The use of irony, insinuation, silencing, and debatable views as valid assumptions

Defense mechanisms operate rather unconsciously and as automatic reflexes in all debates, not just in populist discourse. For example, some facts are “forgotten,” and others are unduly emphasized according to the purposes of the speaker. These tactics operate to complement the populist approach.

Irony involves humor or sarcasm. It is an indirect way of expressing criticism. It is also an accusation that is difficult to respond to since it is not openly stated. Usually, it is a sneaky way of voicing an attack that would not be possible to bring to the fore otherwise, either because it cannot be documented or it is ethically not permissible. In sum, it is difficult to answer an ironic statement for two reasons. First, the criticism is not openly stated, and any effort to counter it implies that one accepts the accusations —namely, that “what is insinuated concerns oneself.” Secondly, the accuser may hide himself behind the pretext that he is simply “making a joke” and that his opponent lacks a sense of humor.

Tsipras, for example, was ironical and “humorous” when he attributed the sentence “coronavirus is not contagious in the buses” to his opponent. Meanwhile, he overlooked or obscured what Mitsotakis had really said —namely, that the government had increased the number of buses to control congestion. Tsipras jokingly said that somebody living on the island of Lesbos had been required to go to the island of Limnos to be vaccinated. In contrast, it was in fact claimed by others that the person concerned had given Limnos as his home address. He was also sarcastic when he asked rhetorically, “how many deaths do you need to accept that you have been unsuccessful?” A probable answer of the kind “how many deaths do you think would make me successful” would sound macabre and counterproductive for Mitsotakis. So, the sarcasm was ignored.

An example of assuming characteristics—the validity of which first needs to be proven—is when Mitsotakis is presented as the proponent of the “elite,” of the privileged classes, and of his immediate environment. This was repeated quite often by Tsipras, placing himself “on the side of the needy.” This supposedly diametrically opposite social status of the two leaders is presented as self-evident. That there is no need to prove the accusation makes it even more persuasive: it does not need to be proved because “everybody knows it.” This is the vicious circle of truth.

It was insinuated (because it could not be demonstrated) that Mitsotakis has said that “the pandemic cannot be managed” or “God will help us in that.” In both cases, it was not made clear precisely who had said these things or when and where they had been said. For these accusations, one may use the term “lies.”

There were various cases of arbitrary characterizations: “You are working in favor of certain social groups … you are in favor of the elite … you are against the social security system (and in favor of a privatized one) … you have not recruited new personnel into the hospitals (that Mitsotakis had, in fact, announced the opposite was ignored) … you only support private interests … some of us cannot pay the €500 fines handed out for violating the restrictions you impose while others go to Dubai to celebrate Christmas (inferring that those heading abroad are in the same camp as Mitsotakis—the “elite,” and the “neoliberals”).

Naturally, the political programs of the socialist Tsipras and center-right Mitsotakis differ. Moreover, each part has its self-evident facts and truths, which form its respective ideological framework. The “truths” of each are valid within each group, and the supporters of each group perceive the arguments of their leader as rational and understandable. Each argument, however, needs to be documented and proved when presented to the other side, as it was in the case in the parliamentary debate. Therefore the “numbers” that Mitsotakis presented were more persuasive to the third-party listeners, whereas the “arguments” of Tsipras were persuasive only to his in-group. Actually, no single personality can be the conclusive judge of a reality for everyone.

7 – Conclusions based on isolated events

The method of reaching conclusions based on an isolated case of secondary importance is an everyday phenomenon. It usually starts with a saying of the kind, “let me give you an example…” That is to say, a single example is considered enough to prove a case. If there is some bad guy in the village (in a family, a city, a nation, etc.), the whole community can be blamed. This is the way stereotypes and prejudices operate.

Tsipras said, “you vaccinated your own families, and if we had not made it an issue, you would have continued doing that.” But how many families were they? Were they really going to continue with the vaccination?

On the other hand, Mitsotakis presented numbers, statistical analyses, and graphic presentations. Tsipras demonized these because they impair the stereotype, i.e., the populist story. The listeners who are unaccustomed to numbers do not see the populist approach anyway. The single “typical” example is more persuasive to many people (How can one be sure that an example is “typical”?).

During this debate, Tsipras said: “If you feel content saying ‘the pandemic cannot be managed’ [without evidence this was ever said] and if you make macabre comparisons of the dead, as you did a while ago mentioning the percentages of the dead, then you will never learn anything from your mistakes.” And again, “4,500 deaths! The people mourn for their fathers, their grandfathers, grandmothers, for their wives. Furthermore, the government, instead of trying to limit the pandemic, tries to find refuge in the statistics.” Or, “The dead people are not statistics; they are human beings. When you say that the numbers are positive in comparison to other countries, the families that at this moment feel the pain of their losses will not feel any better.”

That many people mourn is true. It is also true that the “good numbers” are not a consolation for those who feel the pain of their losses. One may add that the people are also worried; they are concerned for the coming days, anxious about the future, etc. Naturally, the sound management of the pandemic cannot rule out the pain that comes with a single death.

Is there, however, anybody who would disagree with the above? Don’t all politicians see what is happening? Here, one sees the same tactics: various “truths” that are irrelevant to the debate are repeatedly mentioned, all addressed to the listeners’ feelings. On top of this, the populist, through rhetoric, makes an effort to demonize the numbers. And that is because numbers are difficult to cope with. They give a clear picture of the situation. Tsipras tried to “discredit” the numbers since he could not reject them.

The sentence “the dead are not statistics; they are human beings” is devoid of meaning. It is voiced either because of ignorance or as a conscious choice, as demagoguery. Statistics and human beings cannot be compared; they are heterogeneous categories. Statistics are tools that humans use and, like photographs, depict some situations. They may be about heart attacks or traffic accidents in a country. The numbers themselves are not heart attacks or accidents; they only give information about these. Similarly, the statistics about the pandemic inform us about the pandemic. I feel embarrassed to be in a position to try to demonstrate what is self-evident!

The numbers and the statistical information on 15 January, the date of the debate, showed that among the 30 countries of Europe and in the case of Covid-19 deaths per million inhabitants, there were only three countries that were in a better situation than Greece: Norway, Finland, and Iceland. These numbers change every week, but in general, Greece managed the pandemic reasonably well. This is not a consolation to the people who have lost loved ones, but it is a consolation to many Greeks that feel that they do not belong to the unfortunate countries that had many more losses. The demonizing of numbers is a way out for populists but does not serve self-awareness.

8 – Associating unrelated situations to reach conclusions

This method is basic for populists and is, to boot, an ancient technique. There is an ancient Greek story known as the Paradox of the Court or Protagoras’ Paradox. It is said that the famous sophist Protagoras took on a promising pupil, Euathlus, on the understanding that the student would pay Protagoras for his instruction after winning his first court case. After finishing the course, Euathlus decided not to enter the legal profession but entered politics instead, not paying Protagoras for the lessons. Protagoras decided to sue Euathlus for the amount owed.

The teacher argued that if he were to win his suit, he would be paid his money. If Euathlus were to win, Protagoras would still be paid according to the original contract because Euathlus would have won his first case. Euathlus, however, claimed that if he won, then by the court’s decision, he would not have to pay Protagoras. If, on the other hand, Protagoras won, then Euathlus would still not have won a case and would therefore not be obliged to pay. The question then is, which of the two men is right?

There are various versions of this story and many more uses of its hidden demagogy. There are actually two distinct cases that are shrewdly combined to reach the desired end. In the first case, Protagoras loses; in the second, he wins. The student simply repeats the first trial, in which he wins, avoiding mentioning the possible second suit. It seems as if history is being repeated—in the same land—in the parliamentary debate of 15 January 2021.

Tsipras said: “According to Mitsotakis, nobody asked him to take more austere measures in Thessaloniki where there were a high number of virus cases, whereas the local authorities had warned him.” Mitsotakis answered that he had said, “Nobody among the opposition in the Parliament had warned him.” At this point, Mitsotakis seems to be correct. However, Tsipras answered back, saying: “The opposition cannot tell the government what to do since the relevant information is not in its possession.” Now it seems that Tsipras is correct, and consequently Mitsotakis wrong!

The approach of Tsipras was to introduce new issues to the initial claim, which was simply “what Mitsotakis had said.” In so doing, he first stated that the opposition could not tell the government what to do since it does not control the situation, and second, he indirectly accused Mitsotakis of (naively) expecting the opposition to propose what the government should do. Tsipras is right in both these new issues. And by this approach, the initial argumentation is bypassed. The changing of the agenda is used repeatedly in populist discourse.

An assessment

1 – Populist speech is characterized by arguments that are “true” (truisms) but irrelevant to what is being discussed; by the merging of various unrelated issues; by the repetition of negative characterizations against the opponent and by some other “auxiliary” techniques such as silencing, irony, insinuations, “tools” which are used in almost all debates. “Lies,” per se, are secondary. Examples of all these were presented above.

2 – The populist discourse is both difficult to notice (to recognize) at first glance and very influential. In the case of populist politicians, this technique is a powerful tool precisely because populist speech is hard to distinguish, but also because the messages are addressed to the unconscious part of the human intellect, to the feelings. This article is written hoping that it will help the receptors of the populist speeches be more ready to understand what is being done.

3 – The populist approach presented above differs from demagogy and lies due to its social dimension. Populism is a term that presupposes two components: The addressor and the addressee; the populist agent that propagates the populist views, speeches, promises, hopes etc., on the one hand, and a group of audience, followers, and believers that share the populist messages as a social group, on the other hand. In other words, for the listeners who do not believe in the populist leader, orator, etc., the populist person is only a charlatan, a demagogue, a liar. In connection with this, it is understood that the way to cope with populism is not limited to fighting the populist agent. Improving the ability of the listeners’ comprehension is also needed. The opposition should not be directed to the addressor only but to the addressee, too. Intelligent persons with critical thinking skills are the best barrier against populism.

4 – Finally, all the above are about the techniques that populists use, the tactics, and the methods. What populism actually produces is a different topic. Still, in the above example, we see some of the “essence” of the populist worldview, understanding, ideology, or whatever other names one may see fit to describe this phenomenon. We see:

  1. A Manichean world of good (“us”) versus the negative, the dishonest, the unpatriotic “other.” This is done mainly on an ethical basis.
  2. Socially, the supposed divide is between the “people,” the in-group, “us” versus the “elite,” the rich, the out-group. It is a quasi-class divide.
  3. The out-group beyond the national borders are the foreigners, the leftists, the Jews, the enemies of “our” country (if the source is politically right-wing and conservative), or the imperialists, the capitalists, and the neoliberals if the accuser is a leftist.
  4. In the last resort, the whole endeavor leads to a world of strife, nationalist stereotypes, and widespread othering.

[1] This article does not aspire to define populism. It is a case study of a special discourse which, as a working hypothesis, here is called populist. This discourse is characterized by a special technique which, if it is encountered repeatedly in other cases, too, it may shed light on “populist argumentation.” 

[2] See: https://www.hellenicparliament.gr/Vouli-ton-Ellinon/ToKtirio/Fotografiko-Archeio/#7fb5d5dd-3f51-4456-8432-acb1015ed39d. Or see: hellenicparliament.gr.