Populism2

Populism (studies) does not exist, but it still matters

By Aurelien Mondon

Despite the provocative statement made in the title, the aim of this article is not to argue that populism (studies) does not exist or that it cannot be a useful concept, or that there may not be space for a lively field of populism studies to develop. Yet the argument developed here is that it is only possible if our understanding of populism serves a purpose such as helping us make better sense of the world around us. If, on the contrary, the term is used to obscure, deflect and divert attention away from processes of power formation and consolidation, then populism and populism studies do not exist: they are a simulacrum, a con. To explore these issues, I first (re)engage with the concept of ‘populist hype’ originally developed with Jason Glynos (2016) and apply it more precisely to academia. I then turn to one key contradiction in populism studies whereby definitional debates are both incredibly lively and yet often used to conceal power. In both sections, I explore the way in which populism has often been conflated with the far right, losing its explanatory power and legitimising such politics. Finally, I conclude with some reflections on the future of populism studies.

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The title of this article is a reference to Pierre Bourdieu’s 1973 lecture ‘Public opinion does not exist’ as it seems particularly fitting here. As Bourdieu explained ‘in saying that public opinion does not exist, I mean it does not exist in the form which some people, whose existence depends on this illusion, would have us believe’ (Bourdieu, 1973). This, in a nutshell, is the argument I deploy in this article with regard to populism and populism studies. My aim is not to argue that populism does not exist or that it cannot be a useful concept, or that there may not be space for a lively field of populism studies to develop. Yet this is only possible if our understanding of populism serves a purpose such as helping us make better sense of the world around us. If, on the contrary, the term is used to obscure, deflect and divert attention away from processes of power formation and consolidation, then populism and populism studies do not exist: they are a simulacrum, a con.

While definitional concerns are not core to the argument of this article, it is worth clarifying nonetheless that my work is generally closer to the discursive approach (see Stavrakakis et al., 2018; Katsambekis, 2016, 2020) than to Bourdieu’s. Here though, I would like to focus on the way we as academics use populism, our role in shaping ideas and public discourse, and the impact this has on society. As such, this article is indebted to and builds on an increasingly vibrant self-introspective field (Hunger and Paxton, 2021; Goyvaerts, 2021; Brown, 2022; Dean and Maiguashca, 2020; Eklundh, 2020; Katsambekis, 2020; Kim, 2021; De Cleen and Glynos, 2021). To do so, I first (re)engage with the concept of ‘populist hype’ originally developed with Jason Glynos (2016) and apply it more precisely to academia. I then turn to one key contradiction in populism studies whereby definitional debates are both incredibly lively and yet often used to conceal power. In both sections, I explore the way in which populism has often been conflated with the far right, losing its explanatory power and legitimising such politics. Finally, I conclude with some reflections on the future of populism studies.

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Populism

Is populism a kind of ideology, or is ideology only a part of populism’s definition?

By Franz X. Barrios Suvelza

Contemporary social science has been interested in highly charged topics such as populism. However,theses discussionhave neglected to address the pure methodological challenges that defining such topics can pose. Since debates on populism’s definition have been bogged down in discussions of content, this article proposes to explore specific formal methodological techniques of definition building, that populism experts have used without necessarily being aware ofthem, or which they considered uninteresting, or which they have simply ignored. Three of them are discussed: i) backtracking the generic formal families of analysis, ii) constructing a three-segmented definitional field, and iii) articulating a multistoried definitional procedure. These three methodologies, which draw on Althusserian and Weberian methodological works, are then tested by analysing what role the dimension of ideology plays in the whole definitional work on populism.

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Defining populism has been plagued by many difficulties. Looking at the dynamics of these debates, at least three patterns can be identified. First, the discussions tend to initially focus on what specific theme should determine the definition of populism. Thus, one major issue has been whether populism should be defined as an ideology or as a strategy (Mudde, 2017; Weyland, 2017). Focusing on one theme, however, is only one option within a specific family of analysis of which those who struggle for the appropriate theme to define populism are not necessarily aware. Second, scholars often believe they are defining populism, when in fact they are defining either an aggravated version of the definiendum, i.e., an authoritarian, charismatic leader who mobilises masses to achieve his or her selfish political goals; or what counts as populism is an object that is merely adjectivised as populist. And third, the definition of populism usually culminates in an initialsentence, which provides sufficient groundwork for research, but is inevitably incomplete. Though scholars understandably want to keep their definition simple, it seems inevitable to come to terms with a follow-up sentence that includes further definitional aspects until one arrives at a more than minimal, yet compact definition of populism.

The purpose of this article is to highlight several formal definitional techniques that can help address these three shortcomings in the definitional work on populism and, on this basis, clarify the role of ideology in defining populism. Formal techniques do not care about substantive aspects of definitions, nor do they care about normative expectations associated with the definiendum. Moreover, the evidence supporting the methodological formal techniques presented here lies not in the actions of populists in reality, but in the impact of mental maps on our way of grasping the world. The formal requirements in definitional work can range from the most basic to the most complex. As for the former, the definition of populism is already in formal disarray when scholars jump from one topic to another in one and the same text (critical Mudde, 2007, p.12). So Peruzzotti (2013, pp. 62, 65, 72), who refers to populism in the same article linking it interchangeably to concepts such as ‘regimes’, ‘movements’, and ‘strategy’, or ‘form of politics’. This article will, however, focus on more sophisticated formal challenges in the definitional work.

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Health check at Polish border in Slubice, Poland on March 17, 2020. Photo: Shutterstock.

The Use of Medical Populism to Claim the Right to Rule in Poland during a Public Health Emergency

By Joanna Rak

The coronavirus pandemic has considerably impacted ongoing political conflicts, power struggles, and (in)stability of political regimes across the world. Election campaigns and elections are vital for the final results of this impact. It is due to the tremendous risk a public health emergency poses to the ability of state authorities to provide safe, universal, equal, genuine, and transparent elections. From this perspective, critical elements of the electoral cycle include cancellation, postponement, postal voting, electronic voting (Landman and Di Gennaro Splendore, 2020, pp. 1061–1062), and candidates’ access to the mass media while running campaigns (Francia, 2018).

In Poland, the right-wing ruling Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) was not eager to postpone the presidential election, which was to be held during a public health emergency even in the face of rising infections, deaths, and widespread criticism (Bill and Stanley, 2020). The incumbent president Andrzej Duda, and at the same time the PiS candidate, was the frontrunner to win a second five-year term. However, as the number of infections and deaths from coronavirus disease increased and the inefficiency and weaknesses of the Polish health care system were exposed, the level of public support for Duda began to decline (Pytlas, 2021). The independent media strengthened the image of Duda as an indecisive, passive president, following the president of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński’s orders. At the same time, the most influential politicians of the ruling party, including Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, were engaged in maintaining, increasing, and rebuilding support for the incumbent president (Rezmer-Płotka, 2021). Significant support also came from partisan institutions, especially state media subordinated to the ruling party since 2015, which engaged in the discursive legitimisation of Duda and the delegitimisation of his counter-candidates and opponents organising resistance (Rak, Bäcker, and Osiewicz, 2021). As the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights underlined, for the first time in democratic Poland, the public broadcaster TVP failed to meet its legal duty to provide fair and balanced coverage (ODIHR, 2020, p. 4).

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Specialist in hazmat suits cleaning disinfecting coronavirus cells. Photo: Shutterstock.

Crisis and Populism: The role of crisis management and exploitation

By Vasiliki Tsagkroni

Just within less than two decades, the world has been experiencing an era of constant crises; from the economic crisis that erupted in 2008  that led to the eurozone sovereign-dept crisis, to the EU crisis that followed the UK’s vote to Brexit, to the refugee crisis of 2015 emerging from the confluence of conflicts in the Middle East, to a more recent health crisis of Covid-19 pandemic, and a culmination of democratic back-sliding, raising a debate on a possible ongoing crisis of democracy. The latter has brought populism to the centre of the discussions at an academic level and in the broader societal audience due to the observation that crisis and the rise of populism are intertwined. The existing scholarship on populism has constantly been expanding, reflecting the steady growth of populist actors across the globe; from transforming democracies in Latin America since the early 1990s (Weyland, 2013; Levitsky & Roberts, 2011) to the populist far-right in the early 2000s in Europe (Betz & Immerfall, 1998; Mudde, 2007) and from the newer expressions of inclusionary populism that occurred after the economic crisis of 2008 (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2013), to Brexit and Trump and the menace of nationalist populism (Inglehart & Norris, 2016) and the populism in post-communist context (Pirro, 2013).

The emergence of populism has sparked a debate regarding its definition and raised the issue of the ambivalent relationship between populism and democracy. The latter pinpoints the need to identify populist breakthrough and persistence causal mechanisms in different environments. The multiple and variable explanations of the effect of populism spurred a level of confusion and disagreement among scholars when it comes to comprehending this phenomenon and its impact on democracy, with studies urging deluging effects and others calling for no concerns. However broad the debate is, though, including among other issues of definition, use of the term, strategies of measurement, causes and consequences, a shared thought underlines every discussion: populism has changed politics on a fundamental level.

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TurkishMalaise

The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay

Girdap, Hafza. (2022). “The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 6, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0012

 

Author Cengiz Aktar argues that Turkey is witnessed a victory of a non-democratic system—and the majority of society supports this transition. The regime consolidates its discriminatory, oppressive, autocratic politics by gaining the support of non-AKP constituents through the discourse of “native and national.” Thus, the situation in Turkey is not a simple deviation from the norm; it is a more complex socio-political conundrum. In other words, the regime represented by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is not the reason for but the result of society’s mindset which is a reasonable part of the “Turkish malaise.” 

Reviewed by Hafza Girdap

Power holders claim power through different means such as traditions, religions, ideologies, and economic dynamics. And when these leaders consolidate their power, it becomes a necessity for them to keep that power. They want to eliminate even a tiny risk or threat. Drawing on the strongman concept in The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay Professor Cengiz Aktar highlights the impact of the end of Turkey’s European Union accession process, the return of political Islamism, the Gezi Park protests, and the December 2013 corruption investigation. These milestones mark the authoritarian turn in the Turkish regime, triggering threats that resulted in a crackdown on all opposition—not only political actors but also all dissidents regardless of their affiliations.

Laying out Turkey’s historical roots in the Ottoman Empire, and its fluctuating relations with Europe and the West, Aktar investigates the recent Turkish malaise, touching on these ongoing relations. At the end of the book, readers are provided with the insights of two prominent scholars: a sociologist, Nilufer Gole, and a historian, Etienne Copeaux, both of whom Aktar interviews.

Throughout the book, Aktar theorizes on three striking points to summarize the nature of Turkish authoritarianism. The first aspect is the mass support for the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This support differs from historical examples, including the pre-1950, one-party era. Considering the fact that the AKP administration holds 30 percent of total votes, imposing their discourses, ideologies, and even injustices on the rest of society accommodates the regime’s oppressive nature. 

Secondly, the weakness of Turkey’s institutions plays a significant role in Turkish authoritarianism. The most apparent example is the “Turkish-style” presidential system which has almost no checks and balances. Aktra argues that almost all of Turkey’s institutions—judiciary, law enforcement, even Parliament—bow to the strongman and have become like sub-offices of one man. 

At a “book talk” event I attended, Professor Aktar stated that even in Russia, people are protesting Vladimir Putin and his war crimes. In Turkey, the only people standing up to Erdogan are women’s and feminist movements and those unjustly dismissed by emergency decrees following the supposed July 15th coup attempt. Yet these groups have not been sufficiently and efficiently united to make their voices more powerful. 

The last point Professor Aktar mentions is society’s (non)response to past persecutions, pogroms, and genocide. This, I believe, is where Aktar highlights and supports his proposition of a “Turkish malaise.” Aktar has stated that since such crimes against humanity—including the Armenian genocide—have been “swallowed” by the majority of Turkish society, Turkish authoritarianism has been nurtured and strengthened inherently by not only the leader(s) but also the people. Referring to Hannah Arendt’s theory of the masses, Aktar explains this phenomenon as the regime’s legitimacy, which is formed by the majoritarian constituency.  

Furthering his argument on the impact of mass support, Aktar asserts that Turkey is witnessing the victory of a non-democratic system with which a majority of the society agrees. The regime consolidates its discriminatory, oppressive, autocratic politics by gaining the support of non-AKP constituents, too, through the discourse of “native and national (yerli ve milli).” Thus, the situation in Turkey is not a simple deviation from the norm; it is a more complex socio-political conundrum. In other words, the regime represented by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is not the reason for but the result of society’s mindset, which is a reasonable part of the “Turkish malaise.” 

In addition to the discussion of the relationship between authoritarianism and society’s content, Aktar also explores the de-westernization process—predominantly through the derailment of the EU accession process. As a well-known expert on EU-Turkey relations, Aktar defines this break as missing a golden opportunity for democratization. “Unmooring” from Europe has strengthened Erdogan’s move towards neo-Ottomanism as well as political Islam. In correspondence with feeding Turkish authoritarianism, institutional collapses due to “undemocratization” have been aggravated since the end of the accession process. This could be interpreted as the “last step towards the West,” one of the chapter titles in the book. The collapse of institutions has also aided Erdogan, allowing him to establish a monolithic, Islamist, nationalist discourse that eventually became an authoritarian regime. The most recent manifestations of Turkey’s dictatorial one-man rule are the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque, the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention (which provides protections for LGBTQ+ citizens), and the unconstitutional appointment of a regime-friendly president to Bogazici University, arguably Turkey’s finest university. 

Professor Aktar argues the Turkish malaise as linked to the West’s approach and describes this situation as “between misunderstanding and blind detachment, appeasement and complicity, containment and the fear of seeing this large country implode and disintegrate” (p. 66).

As a gender studies scholar, I would also like to touch on the gendered lens on the issue provided by Professor Nilufer Gole. Professor Gole problematizes the implications of two notions in her discussion: “mahrem” (sacred, private) and “meydan” (public). Even though the debate on the return of political Islam has mostly been based on the headscarf (veil) issue, and despite the regime’s oppressive and subjugating attitude towards women, conservative (pious) women have become more active politically and more visible in modern life, which makes them the “agents of change” in both their private and public lives. In other words, the notions of “mahrem” and “meydan” play a significant role in challenging their implications and realms. Gole describes this paradoxical turn as a challenge to patriarchy with preserved pious agency. “Meydan” also refers to the uprising in Gezi Park, in which masses from different segments of Turkish society protested against the Erdogan regime’s oppressive policies. In both referrals, “meydan” represents a resistance against political Islamist oppression. Gole argues that the “soul of contemporary Turkey” cannot be comprehended without “understanding the manifestations of mahrem and meydan which express both the malaise of modernity and its transcendence.” (p. 85)

To conclude, the Turkish malaise can be ascribed to both domestic issues and foreign relations and embodies immensely complicated concerns. Internally, a vicious correlation between the regime’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies entrenched with nationalistic and political Islamist proxies, and society’s belief in a national will and the notion of Turkey as a “blessed nation”—along with their pathetic contentment with the idea of a strongman—diminishes the chances of revitalizing democracy and democratic institutions. Externally, even if the gates are closed for Turkey to march to the West, “transactional” deals are still on the table, and this dilemma worsens the “malaise” for Europe, since relations relating to security issues and geopolitical necessities (e.g. refugee issues, economic interests, etc.) are still important.


The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay by Cengiz Aktar (Transnational Press London, 2021). 99 pp. £14,50 (Paperback), ISBN: 978-1-80135-076-1

Anti-vaccine activists protest outside Governor Andrew Cuomo's official residence in Albany, New York on June 14, 2020. Photo: Wirestock Creators.

The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and the Pandemic 

Wolf, Maximilian. (2022). “The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and the Pandemic.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies. March 9, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0011

 

Paolo Gerbaudo’s Great Recoil presents a timely, wide-ranging and perspicacious, yet focused and detail-attentive summary of the present political conjuncture leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, an incisive prognosis of the political terrain of the years that will follow it and offers a bold new approach to combating the illiberal populist discourse plaguing the West today — while laying the groundwork for the progressive transformations that need to replace it. 

Reviewed by Maximilian Wolf*

The Covid-19 pandemic has not been an easy time to be a populist. Those in power, whether it is Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, or Boris Johnson in the UK, quickly demonstrated the dangerous insufficiencies of populist governance — from corrupt PPE deals to unsubstantiated accusations against China and the peddling of dangerous conspiracy theories. Those still vying for influence in their respective democracies, meanwhile, were forced to change tactics as lockdown measures proved, overall, popular in most Western countries and new alliances with the ‘anti-vax’ crowd made for some strange bedfellows. 

Today, two years from its onset, the pandemic has ushered in some significant and lasting changes in populist discourse throughout the world; populist popularity has largely stabilized — Johnson and Bolsonaro, though weakened, remain in power, Trump lost his election but still received well over 74 million votes (the second highest tally ever, behind Biden’s 81 million) — but their reputation has, on the whole, been lastingly damaged by record case and death numbers, fiscal mismanagement and alarmist discourse regarding vaccines that has struggled to mobilize more than the most conspiratorial among their followers. For all its damage, Covid seems to have provided democracies with an overdue booster shot of healthy skepticism towards populist politics. 

The flipside of this coin, however, is that global politics (not least since the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces) have remained in a state of prolonged crisis — and crises breed populists. The political landscape, especially in the liberal West where two years of strict distancing measures and curfews were met with the greatest resistance, has been irrevocably altered by Covid-19; unaccustomed to such degrees of political uncertainty, the ground remains rife for the populist seed to sprout. As Dr. Aline Burni noted on a recent panel for ECPS: “The impact of the pandemic [on populism] has not been homogeneous,” adding that prolonged crisis can “create new conditions and open up new discursive opportunities for populists.”

In The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and the Pandemic (Verso, 2021), Paolo Gerbaudo of King’s College London has put forth a perspicacious and timely new take on what this post-Covid political landscape in the West might look like. His “diagnostic of the present” (Gerbaudo, Loc 105)[1] examines the most critical ideological shifts that characterized the ‘populist moment’ of the last decade, and how these currents will shift as we feel the aftershocks of the pandemic. In so doing, he not only introduces an intriguing new vocabulary to elucidate those macroscopic transformations that precipitated the rise of the populist wave of the 2010s but speculates on how the pandemic might — or might not — alter their course in the coming years. 

Gerbaudo’s core contention is that the era of unchallenged hegemony of the neoliberal consensus is over: already weakened and slowed down by successive crises, diminishing growth and growing disillusionment among working class voters throughout the West, the pandemic has brought the centrifugal, expansive tendencies of globalized capitalism to a grinding halt, triggering in its place a centripetal impulse, a reorientation inwards and the return of what he calls a “protective neo-Statism” (Gerbaudo, Loc 101) — Covid as a watershed moment, the birth of a new hegemonic era of endopolitics (Gerbaudo, Loc 179).

The Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant, heretofore unseen emergency measures mobilized in response to it — from closed borders to huge financial interventions as businesses faltered and millions were furloughed, to massive expansions of nation-state powers to control, track and surveil its citizens — constituted the perfect storm for the already embattled exopolitics of Western neoliberalism. Gerbaudo however explicitly affirms that, while Covid provided the “tipping point,” (Gerbaudo, Loc 764) the resonance of such inward-looking, nationalistic, and security-centered discourses has been steadily growing over at least the past decade — one need looks no further than the immensely successful slogan to ‘Take Back Control’ championed by the Brexit campaign years before the pandemic. While the growing salience of ‘illiberal’ and anti-globalization discourse is nothing new, Gerbaudo approaches it from a phenomenological angle, as he defines this era of the ‘Great Recoil’ as one characterized, above all, by a state of “global agoraphobia” (Gerbaudo, Loc 1129). This agoraphobia — the fear of open spaces — was already the driving force behind the endopolitical impulse which found its expression in the global popularity of authoritarian and nativist populist discourse. 

As this agoraphobia is experienced, it manifests itself in the three triadic ‘master signifiers’ that, in Gerbaudo’s view, already anchor and delimit the endopolitics of the Great Recoil: sovereigntyprotection and control (Gerbaudo, Chapters 3, 4 and 5). He dives deep into the origin, genealogy and contemporary inflection of each of the three terms over the course of three chapters, and outlines their relation to the current sociopolitical conjuncture, arguing that, so far, only the populist right has effectively moulded its discourse to match this neo-Statist impulse. 

Whether it is Brexit, Le Pen, Salvini, or Trump: Gerbaudo locates the origin of their recent popularity in their ability to recognize the growing salience of endopolitical (or anti-exopolitical) discourse and articulate it in reference to an excluded “Other” — be it immigrants, the European Union or the ‘cabal.’ In line with the recent ‘affective turn’ in the literature on populism, Gerbaudo thus views populist popularity as in large part determined by their ability to inflect their discourse in relation to the master signifiers that emerge out of collective emotional experiences; in the era of global agoraphobia, the discourse promising to ‘take back control,’ re-establish borders and protect its citizens proved a powerful discursive tool, particularly among working-class voters and those who felt left behind by the liberal exopolitics of the last 50 years. 

Importantly, however, it must be borne in mind that these master signifiers are not a priori reserved for right-wing, exclusionary discourse: populist left actors, like Syriza or Podemos in Europe — and albeit nowhere near as successfully as its counterpart — have also managed to penetrate a largely similar bloc of alienated voters employing a globalization-critical and anti-capitalist discourse surrounding economic and social security and democratic control — in Gerbaudo’s terms, a “socialism that protects” (Gerbaudo, Loc 267). Although the content of their endopolitics differs strongly, both have tapped into the same rising disillusionment with the globalized exopolitics of the neoliberal center while articulating their resistance in different ways. In this view, the populist moment was just the democratic expression of this growing agoraphobia related to the demand for sovereignty, protection, and control, with different populisms simply representing differing ways of inflecting this “neo-statist trinity” of signifiers within the same social context (Gerbaudo, Loc 4203).

For Gerbaudo, this presents an opportunity. Looking to the future, the second half of his book applies its discourse analysis to develop strategic insights for a progressive politics in the neo-statist era of the Great Recoil. The centripetal impulse, cemented by the ‘return to the nation-state’ we have witnessed throughout the pandemic, is here to stay; rather than rejecting national politics out of hand — as the orthodoxy of internationalist progressivism has largely maintained — Gerbaudo’s final chapter aims to re-situate the question of the nation within the progressive discourse of tomorrow. He argues for a “progressive reclaiming” of nationalist terminology as a way to hegemonically combat its capture by the right-wing ethno-nationalist imaginary (Gerbaudo, Loc 3795). Although his notion of a “democratic patriotism” as a way to “overcome the false opposition” between modern cosmopolitanism and a retrograde nationalism remains opaque, Gerbaudo makes a strong and convincing case for a deepening and reinvigoration of democratic processes and the re-articulation of the nation as a “protective structure” as the means of embedding the master signifiers of protection, sovereignty and control at the heart of a progressive discourse suited for the challenges of the post-Covid era (Gerbaudo, Loc 4000).

Overall, Gerbaudo’s Great Recoil presents a timely, wide-ranging and perspicacious, yet focused and detail-attentive summary of the present political conjuncture leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, an incisive prognosis of the political terrain of the years that will follow it and offers a bold new approach to combating the illiberal populist discourse plaguing the West today — while laying the groundwork for the progressive transformations that need to replace it. 


The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and the Pandemic by Paolo Gerbaudo (Verso, 2021). 288 pp. £13,59 (Hardback), ISBN: 9781788730501 


(*) Maximilian Wolf, MPhil, is an intern at the European Center for Populism Studies. Maximilian was born and raised in Vienna, Austria. After receiving his BA in Politics at the University of Exeter (UK), he completed his MPhil in Political Sociology at St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge (UK). His work has focussed on discourse analyses of both right- and left-wing populist phenomena, and an abridged version of his Master’s thesis, entitled Locating the Laclausian Left: Progressive Strategy and the Politics of Anxiety, has been accepted for publication in issue 3/2022 of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Populism (forthcoming). Besides ECPS, Maximilian now works for a governance think-tank in Vienna. Beyond populism, he is passionate about health and fitness, rugby, chess and science fiction. 


[1] Gerbaudo’s book is, at the time of writing, only available in eBook format; the present review will therefore have to rely on Kindle ‘locations’ in place of page numbers.

A young African woman hugging a white northern woman after a protest. Photo: Sabrina Bracher.

Nice White Ladies: The Truth about White Supremacy, Our Role in It, and How We Can Help Dismantle It 

In her book, Jessie Daniels deconstructs whiteness and scrutinizes individuals’ contributions to and relationships with it, making “Nice White Ladies” an excellent work of literature for those who understand that the practice of anti-racism cannot be disentangled from self-work. However much one may already know about the subject matter, Daniels’ confronting, academic, and personal approach will surely provide her readers with fresh insights.    

Reviewed by Shirin Ananda Dias*

In her book “Nice White Ladies,” Jessie Daniels deconstructs white womanhood and details how it is historically and culturally linked to the inter-generational perpetuation of everyday, systemic, and institutional racism by white women in both the United Kingdom (UK) and, most notably, in the United States (US). Both by drawing on existent literature on race, gender, cultural and blackness studies and by giving detailed ethnographic and personal examples, Daniels details how white women – often with good intentions – contribute to the cycle of racism and demonstrates their complicity in the infliction of everyday micro-aggressions on communities of color. 

Although the book is largely a cultural critique, it also serves as a “self-help book” for those seeking to break free from the toxic chains of whiteness, which inflict pain and suffering not only upon BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color), but also upon white women and their families, through generational guilt and self-destructive defense mechanisms transmitted throughout decades. The book’s six chapters take the reader through Daniels’ personal and academic journeys, zeroing in on her experiences with white womanhood and racism throughout her life and academic career. She furthermore provides the reader with alternative constructive modes of ‘being white’ in a diverse and multicultural society.

In the first chapter of the book Daniels places white womanhood in historical context and lays bare, through a cultural and historical lens, how and why white women often feel threatened by and entitled to protection from the ‘other.’ Without vilifying the ‘Karens’ of today’s society, Daniels details how their (sometimes subconscious) feelings of white supremacy, entitlement to protection, and (lethal) power over the ‘other’, are surviving legacies of the colonial period. Within white supremacist society, black men were often lynched to protect white women –the underlying sentiment has survived through generations, resulting in instances of modern-day women weaponizing their white womanhood by using police and law enforcement against BIPOC. Daniels hereby demonstrates and emphasizes how white women’s actions perpetuate colonial cultural legacies to this day, and how they are consequently beneficiaries of colonialism and slavery.

In chapter two, Daniels illustrates how white feminists on both the left and right of the political spectrum tend to perpetrate and exacerbate racial inequalities through their supposedly universal and neutral feminist activism. From the pink pussy hats to the #metoo movement and other movements aiming for women’s liberation and “equal representation, compensation and power in the public sphere as men” (Daniels, 2021: 86), Daniels shows that these movements for women’s rights are far from universally inclusive. On the contrary, these feminist movements tend to engage in gender-only, (neoliberal) feminism that is oblivious to white privilege, race, and institutionalized racism (as well as other relevant intersections). Daniels therefore criticizes so-called liberal feminists on their lack of intersectionality and calls for the inclusion of critical race theory in feminist activism with the objective of the liberation of all women.

In chapter three, “The Shallow Promise of the Wellness Industry,” Daniels shows how women are targeted by all sorts of ‘self-care’ trends – clean eating, skincare products, yoga, mindfulness – which promise fulfillment and inner peace in a capitalist society.  In one sense, these trends are shallow in their failure to deliver true fulfillment; in fact, their intertwinement with the capitalist system ensures that fulfillment is ever out of reach. Daniels, however, focuses on a different source of shallowness: namely, that purveyors of the wellness industry create white-only spaces, and construct a specific normative identity, namely the white-hetero-lady who is in need of care. In creating and orienting itself around this identity, the wellness industry excludes communities of color and obscures the reasons for their struggles. Wellness is portrayed as a product for consumption, instead of something that is contingent upon larger structural issues like systemic racism and poverty.  Daniels also touches upon the wellness industry’s self-help books and criticizes renowned authors such as Brené Brown, for her work’s blindness to whiteness and white-shame, and Eat-Pray-Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, for romanticizing her soul-seeking journey to India without reflecting upon the white privilege that afforded her the means leave everything behind, travel, and ‘find herself.’ 

Chapters four and five discuss identity and kinship. In chapter four, “Love and Theft,” Daniels investigates the psychological and cultural reasons behind certain white women’s appropriation of BIPOC identities. Here Daniels discusses female academics such as Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug. She argues that it is the underlying emptiness that resides in whiteness, and, furthermore, white guilt, which drive white women to appropriate non-white identities, so that they can be seen and heard, or to deal with the psychological trauma of being white. Daniels furthermore details how white women, through ‘blackfishing’ or appropriating indigenous Cherokee identities, become the beneficiaries of policies like affirmative action, whereby their successes rest on the backs of those communities who need those policies most. 

Not all white women deal with whiteness and white guilt in the same way as the Rachel Dolezals of the world. Daniels shows how many white women engage in white saviorism in order to assuage their white guilt. An example she discusses is the adoption of BIPOC children by white families, where an undercurrent of white saviorism can perpetuate microaggressions towards communities of color, with the indirect message being that white mothers are more capable of motherhood. As is furthermore shown in the chapter “Protecting White Families,” white women often engage in practices that benefit white families and disadvantage communities of color, by raising their adopted children in a “color blind”, household, rather than a “color aware” one, thereby implicitly downplaying racism’s existence. One’s own contribution to and participation in cyclical institutionalized racism and racial segregation often goes unnoticed; well-meaning and protective mothers, who accumulate wealth within their white families and shield their children from education in multi-racial settings, which Daniels coins as the “new Jim Crow,” seem unaware of the implications of their actions. In all examples, from white women physically protecting their homes with guns from Black Lives Matter demonstrators to those well-meaning women who accumulate wealth and education for their white families, Daniels emphasizes and illustrates how white families are “one of the most powerful forces of reproducing white supremacy” (Daniels, 2021: 193). 

In the last chapter, “The Lie that is Killing All of Us,” Daniels details, through myriad examples of mental health cases (including her own mother’s), how whiteness not only poses a lethal threat to communities of color, but, even more so, how it threatens white communities. She argues that although white people are the beneficiaries of white supremacy (in that they have, for example, greater access to healthcare than communities of color do), white communities are also plagued by higher rates of depression than communities of color, and increasing addiction, mortality, and suicide rates. Daniels illustrates how nice white ladies suffer under the burden of white guilt. Building on this, Daniels exemplifies the impact white guilt has on the individual and collective health of white people and communities. In this vein, Daniels demonstrates how feelings of emptiness – inherent to whiteness – are often the root cause for infliction of harm of others, and for self-destructive behavior. 

In the concluding section, Daniels refers back to previous chapters and provides the reader with detailed methods to develop an alternate, more constructive and justform of whiteness and white womanhood. Jessie Daniels herself strives to be “white without going white, to not take up all the space, to swerve away from the supremacy of whiteness” (Daniels, 2021: 234). The suggested liberators methods include, for example, rethinking social relationships with people who actively participate in the oppression of BIPOC, giving agency to women of color, and being their accomplice in dismantling white supremacy, amongst many other suggestions.

A potential critique of the book is that certain argumentations are rather reductionist, such as Daniels’ proclamations that the Kardashians’ cultural appropriation derives from their white guilt, or that the suicide of a white health worker during COVID-19 was motivated by the burden of white survival guilt. This is where Daniels draws hasty conclusions and appears to disregard the complexity of the human psyche despite her background in critical social psychology. Although I concur that there lays trauma in whiteness, not all behavior is necessarily attributable to whiteness and its discontents. 

Despite this criticism, the book does insightfully deconstruct whiteness and scrutinizes individuals’ contributions to and relationships with it, making “Nice White Ladies” an excellent work of literature for those who understand that the work of anti-racism cannot be disentangled from self-work. However much one may already know about the subject matter, Daniels’ confronting, academic, and personal approach will surely provide her readers with fresh insights.  It is a work that I would highly recommend to both academics and laymen seeking to understand the complexities of white womanhood and racism. I would especially recommend the book to white women, as no matter how “woke” one might be, there might be a “Nice White Lady, whether big or small, in all of us.


Jessie Daniels, Nice White Ladies: The Truth about White Supremacy, Our Role in It, and How We Can Help Dismantle It, Seal Press, 2021, 304 pp., $28, ISBN: 9781541675865


(*) Shirin Ananda Dias is an alumna of SOAS university London, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in Social Anthropology. Her two main regions of academic interest are the Middle East and South Asia, where she indulges in political anthropology focusing on ethnic and religious nationalism and populism in the broader framework of globalization and contemporary international relations. She is currently enrolled in the MA program “Social and Cultural Anthropology” at the University of Amsterdam where she is finishing writing her master dissertation on the expression of Hindu nationalism in right wing Hindu nationalist Facebook groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


People passing by portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey on December 28, 2015.

Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey

Demir, Mustafa, (2022). “Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey by Ihsan Yilmaz.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 17, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0008

 

Ihsan Yılmaz’s new book presents a detailed analysis of Turkey’s political and sociological evolution, from the country’s anxious birth as a “fearful nation,” preoccupied and weighed down by historical traumas to the present. Yılmaz’s study provides a detailed account of the polity’s “never-ending” nation-building process and offers keen insights into why this process is intransient. His book highlights the political nature of defining citizens as either “desired,” “tolerated,” or “undesired” and the way this definitional process functions as a tool in hegemonic rivalries between “political tribes” in polities such as Turkey.

Reviewed by Mustafa Demir

Ihsan Yılmaz is Research Professor and Chair of Islamic Studies and Intercultural Dialogue at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. In his most recent book Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State, and Islam in Turkey, published with Cambridge University Press in 2021, Yılmaz presents a highly detailed analysis of modern Turkish history. Not only does this engaging book provide fresh insights into the emergence and development of modern Turkish political culture, but also a new theoretical framework that incorporates emotions into the sociological analysis in a highly innovative way. Each chapter is arguably worthy of its own book-length treatment, and Yılmaz’s ability to cover much ground in a single monograph is commendable.

The scholarship on Turkey, especially on its emergence and its process of nation-building, provides a fascinating case study for social and political scientists. This is reflected in the vast literature on the case, with thousands of theses, articles, and books written on this very topic. Nevertheless, gaps in our understanding remain. One such gap, I believe, is the incomplete and controversial nature of Turkey’s nation-building project. Contested efforts in this regard have created pronounced political and ideological fault-lines in Turkish society. The nature of Turkey’s political process has kept this historical dynamic intact; it is not merely a research subject but rather an enduring game of political brinkmanship. In this game, those wielding power all too often point to those on the other side as “undesired citizens.” 

Against this backdrop, Yılmaz weaves his own personal story through the narrative in this weighty (in terms of both coverage and impact) book. In so doing, he critically reflects on the emotional aspects of the political decisions and socio-political “transitions” that have roiled his homeland. Yet Yılmaz’s critical reflection gives the book a crucial degree of objectivity, allowing him to transcend his own experience and reach out to (and draw on) other, often divergent, scholarly perspectives on Turkish political developments and decisions. This is well reflected in the book’s diverse bibliography (As those familiar with Turkish academia will know, the field is characterized by sharp divisions—even tribalism—with tribes forming virtual “citation cartels” that prefer to explore contentious social and political developments only through the lenses they feel comfortable with, making no attempt to understand one another).

A New Frame to Analyze Turkish Political History

As mentioned, Yılmaz deftly instrumentalizes his personal story in developing a novel framework to map many of the key socio-political “transitions” in Turkey. The first such transition —to Kemalist secularism — is one Yılmaz encountered when he became “a religiously observant [university student] in a staunchly laicist state that was not comfortable with religious expression in the public sphere.” Yılmaz then frames Turkey’s transition to Erdoğanist Islamism through the lens of his own experience as a university professor teaching students from all segments of Turkish society. As an academic and columnist, Yılmaz wrote many articles in daily newspapers in Turkey criticizing the Islamist AKP government in power after 2003. He was fired from his university position due to growing government pressure in early 2016.

At first glance, Kemalism and Erdoğanism appear antithetical, one staunchly secular, the other avowedly Islamist. However, Yılmaz demonstrates that they are connected by a central element they share — a commitment to Turkish nationalism. Drawing once again upon his personal history, Yılmaz recounts how he awoke only later in life to the exclusive, illiberal, sharp, and destructive nature of Turkish nationalism through his experiences and observations during his years as a university lecturer between 2008 and 2016.

Indeed, Yılmaz’s role as an educator is highly salient since education — or, more precisely, its role in nation-building — is a through-line across the book. In the preface, Yılmaz references another book, Füsun Ustel’s “Makbul Vatandaş” ın Peşinde (In Pursuit of the “Acceptable Citizen”), published in 2004. Ustel’s book focuses on how education was instrumentalized in building a nation in the initial period of the Kemalist Republic of Turkey. As he highlights, Ustel’s book inspired him to tie his story, experiences, observations, and travails to the story of Turkish politics and political history.

Yılmaz builds on Ustel’s insights but takes the matter further, looking not only at education but other sectors such as religion and media. While Ustel’s work focuses more on the Kemalist mission of re-dressing and creating an “acceptable” model of modern citizenship via education, Yılmaz’s work focuses more on the political and hegemonic aspects beyond the early Kemalist mission of modernization. It is also important to highlight that Yılmaz treats the notion of “desirable” as dynamic and in transition. Thus, the definition of “desired citizens” is political and highly changeable. Yılmaz also introduces two new terms, “tolerated” and “undesired” citizens. These additional categories allow him to avoid the trap of dichotomizing, familiar in much Turkish, scholarship and provide a subtle degree of analytical flexibility that opens up space for exploring “gray zones” in between the desirable and the undesirable. Thus, he is able to show how changing political landscapes bring shifts in how these definitions are applied to one kind of Turkish group or another, as observed during the transition from Kemalism to Erdoğanism. Yılmaz also highlights the Erdoğanist attempt to redefine what is a “desired citizen” in Turkey. In doing so, he provides not only fresh insight but a robust new conceptual framework to analyze the uncompleted process of nation-building in Turkey.

A further appeal of the book is its approach to Turkish political history, which appears very close to Erik Zurcher’s. Like Zurcher, Yılmaz does not separate political and historical periods sharply; rather, he focuses on the ‘transitions,’ highlighting how even as the new emerges, it draws heavily on what has gone before. For example, distinct from the established view on modern Turkish political history — which rehearses the idea of a radical break with the past in the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 — Zurcher’s account presents Turkey as always, already in transition, in a continuous process of evolution. Here, elements of the Ottoman past were brought through into the Kemalist Republic, whose core elements were also retained, to a greater or lesser extent, in later transitions to multi-party democracy and through into the present. Similar to this approach, Yılmaz’s account considers Erdoğanism less a radical break than yet another transition in a long historical process of social and political change.

What Sets Yılmaz’s Account Apart?

The book is structured around the concept of citizenship, which, rather than being treated as a legal definition, is taken as a dynamic concept responsive to hegemonic movements within the polity. As the title of the book suggests, creating desired citizens is unthinkable without its obverse: eliminating undesired elements. Thus, the book is equally, if not more, a story of undesired citizens. Again, however, Yılmaz’s frame is not black and white. Creating the Desired Citizen, as mentioned, establishes the category of “tolerated” citizens, alongside desired and undesired ones.

Providing a synopsis of the chapters in this book is difficult as each one is complex and polysemic enough to warrant a book of its own. It seems more productive, then, to conceive of this book in its entirety as a corpus of Turkey’s modern history. Beginning with the ontological insecurities shaping the political culture and guiding the strategic mind of the founding elite in the first chapter, the second traces the roots of these anxieties through history, providing a “thick description” of the historical context in which these anxieties and insecurities were born. The following three chapters examine the core components of Kemalism and its conception of the desired/ideal Turkish citizen, followed by an interrogation of the changing identity of desired and undesired citizens as Kemalism itself changed. The second half of the book then follows this approach in dealing with Erdoğanism—its rise, hegemonic move to power, and attempt to define its own desired, tolerated, and undesired citizens.

In a nutshell, this book presents a detailed analysis of Turkey’s political and sociological evolution, from the country’s anxious birth as a “fearful nation,” preoccupied and weighed down by historical traumas, to the present. Yılmaz’s study provides a detailed account of the polity’s “never-ending” nation-building process and offers keen insights into why this process is intransient. His book highlights the political nature of defining citizens as either “desired,” “tolerated,” or “undesired” and the way this definitional process functions as a tool in hegemonic rivalries between “political tribes” in polities such as Turkey.


Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State, and Islam in Turkey by Ihsan Yılmaz, Cambridge University Press, 2021, 250 pp., $80.19 (hardcover), ISBN: ‎978-1108832557

English Defence League (EDF) stages a rally to protest the "Islamisation" of the UK in Birmingham on April 8, 2017. Photo: Alexandre Rotenberg.

Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century

Girdap, Hafza. (2022). “Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 24, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0007

 

Lars Erik Berntzen aims to probe the growth of far-right and anti-Islamic twist in Western Europe and North America since 2001 through his book “Liberal roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century” by focusing on a specific context in terms of spatial and temporal meanings. According to his book, through “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” far-right seems to abandon the old, traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. 

Reviewed by Hafza Girdap

Focusing on a specific context in terms of spatial and temporal meanings, Lars Erik Berntzen aims to probe the growth of far-right and anti-Islamic twist in Western Europe and North America since 2001 through his book Liberal roots of Far Right Activism: The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century.

The book sheds a light on the shift from a positive approach to an adversary attitude towards Islam and Muslims following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. Highlighting the transnational impact of these incidents, Berntzen delves into anti-Islamic activism conducted by pioneering movements and political parties in Europe, such as Stop Islamization, Defense League, Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), Dutch Pin Fortuyn List (LPF) and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV). The author also draws attention to the hypocrisy of far-right politicians and activists who portray themselves as liberals to avoid stigmatization by using certain discourses of human rights as proxies to exploit anti-Islamic agendas. As a very convenient issue, women’s and gender-based rights are claimed by Marine Le Pen of the National Rally (FN), for instance, to “denigrate Muslim men” (Berntzen, 2020: 2). 

Laying out the background of the book, Berntzen states his research questions in the first chapter. The initial purpose is to explore the background of leaders, their official ideology, organizational networks, and the mobilization of sympathizers. In order to conduct such a research, he also presents four steps. First, he focuses on “tracing evolution of anti-Islamic expansion between 2001 and 2017” specifically in Britain, the US, Netherlands, Germany, Norway and Denmark. Subsequently, a frame analysis of eleven anti-Islamic initiatives from Norway, Britain and Germany is raised covering the time period of 2010-2016. His third step in this research is a network analysis of those anti-Islamic initiatives. And finally, the book investigates mobilization of anti-Islamic groups “that were active during the summer of 2016.” 

Berntzen’s overall finding which he shares in the first chapter is that a significant change is observed within the approach of far right towards Islam and Muslims. He explains such a change as a shift from authoritarian and ethnocentric to a modern, liberal, and transnational anti-Islamic activism. In other words, far right takes on a liberal attitude and appearance by a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality, animal rights, preservation of Christian and Jewish heritage. However, the author addresses this situation as an ideological duality considering the view of Islam as a threat to Western civilization along with the profiles of anti-Islamic activists and politicians. Hege Storhaug, a Norwegian feminist activist, is given an example of aforesaid hypocrisy since she aligns with Hungarian politician Viktor Orban’s and the Polish Law and Justice Party’s policies which do certainly not prioritize gender equality and gender-based rights. 

As a scholar focusing on identity representations of Muslim immigrant women in Europe and North America, Berntzen’s work stood out to me in terms of drawing on the most influential concepts on identity formation in resettlements of Muslim immigrants: Islamophobia, anti-Islam and anti-Muslim. The way he differentiates these concepts through the social movement theory is also striking since framing and mobilization play an important role in identity politics. As far as I am concerned, Islamophobia represents an irrational, emotional fear; whereas, the author argues, anti-Islam refers to the “shift the theoretical focus from reaction to action, in line with the agency-oriented perspective dominant in social movement analysis” (Berntzen, 2020: 38). At this point, inclusion of liberal positions which portrays Islam as an existential threat to Western civilization and as an ideology not compatible with democratic and progressive issues; anti-Islam justifies and legitimizes transnational mobilization of far-right organizations. Among the most influential discourses of this liberal far-right are women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and their perception in Islamic tradition. Berntzen maps the ideology of anti-Islamic far-right combining with not only the expansion of collective action and networks but also with party politics. While doing so, he draws on both international critical incidents such as 9/11 terror attacks and Prophet Muhammed cartoon crisis and local incidents to demonstrate the anti-Islamic expansion of the far-right in different contexts and circumstances. 

To sum up; Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century scrutinizes anti-Islamic ideology and movements of far-right by diving into distinctive conceptualization of Islamophobia, anti-Muslim and anti-Islam. Claiming it to be an ideological duality, the author of the book highlights that anti-Islamic far right posits a semi-liberal worldview and action towards Islam presenting it to be incompatible with modernity, human rights and liberal issues. In other words, by “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” (Berntzen, 2021: 11) far right seems to abandon the old, traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. Such a strategy, seemingly, focuses on more the ideology (Islam) rather than the individuals (identities). As he puts in several parts of the book while explaining why he favors “anti-Islam” concept rather than “anti-Muslim” and “Islamophobia”; this distinction represents the new transnational anti-Islamic movement to be transforming from ethnic based nationalism, oppressive authoritarianism which focuses on Muslims towards a liberal position which promotes equality, justice and democratic values putting an ideological standpoint forward.

 


 Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century, By Lars Erik Berntzen, Routledge, 2020. 228 pp., £27.99 (paperback), ISBN: 9780367224660

 

RedMilk1

Red Milk: A Cautionary Tale

Hart, Heidi. (2021). “Red Milk: A Cautionary Tale.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies. January 20, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0006

 

This piece reviews Sjón’s novel Red Milk, now available in English translation. The book depicts a young man’s absorption into a neo-Nazi group in Iceland in the 1950s. 

By Heidi Hart

The Icelandic writer Sjón is known for surreal tales on topics as diverse as “whaling, alchemy and the history of cinema” (Anderson, 2022), as well as for his opera libretti and collaborations with Björk. In his introduction to the 2017 anthology Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland, he writes that the subject of philosophy was not introduced for university students there until 1971. “In place of philosophy, the Icelanders had poetry and tales … Debates on the interaction of body and soul, for example, could be conducted through the medium of verses or stories about birds” (Mitsios, 2017: X). As a novelist, Sjón finds inspiration in the creatures outside his fisherman’s cottage, as he imagines a fox that multiplies into four of itself or a man transformed into a butterfly. 

But Sjón’s work is not just whimsical. In his recent novel Red Milk, he confronts two painful discoveries: that his grandfather was a spy for the Germans in World War II, and that a neo-Nazi movement took root in Iceland in the 1950s. In an afterword to the book, he acknowledges that his previous novels dealing with the Nazi period and its aftermath (The Whispering Muse and CoDex 1962) took an “ironic” and even “flippant” approach to characters’ “obsession with Nordic culture to inflate their own sense of importance in the world” (Sjón, 2021: 141). He also recalls an episode in his childhood when, perhaps as a way to push against the painful, silent story in his family, he found himself drawing swastikas. 

Though Red Milk does not tell Sjón’s grandfather’s story but imagines a semi-fictional young man who gets caught up in toxic nationalism after the war, it is haunted by the writer’s own grappling with history. Gunnar, an ordinary child growing up in the war years, is later found dead on a train in England, with a swastika on a paper found in his pocket. In order to tell this tale with both critical distance and narrative intimacy, Sjón changes positions. The novel begins with the train scene and moves backwards into Gunnar’s childhood, described in third-person past tense. As Gunnar grows up and acts on his right-wing fascinations, he does so in the book’s middle section, written as letters – so that the main character’s “I” is clearly separate from the narrator’s. 

Sjón’s magic-realist bent only shows in glimmers in this brief, dark book. In one striking scene, Gunnar the child overhears his father sobbing over his radio through a closed door. But instead of simply including this scene in the trajectory of a boy’s life on the edge of Reykjavik, Sjón slips it forward, as a dying memory. One moment Gunnar is describing a birch stick that his father kept, ostensibly to remember his own father’s beatings, and the next, “now that death has freed the grandson’s body from its incurable disease and Gunnar is slumped lifeless on a seat in a train compartment in a siding at Cheltenham Spa Station … his brain is still working” (Sjón, 2021: 16). This passage reads less like writerly sleight-of-hand than like the actual mystery of consciousness, with one last pang of conscience, too: what Gunnar recalls last is this exchange with his sister, when overhearing their father’s sobs: “Daddy’s looking at the birch.” “No, you idiot; Daddy’s frightened of Hitler” (17). 

Gunnar is not just an “idiot” in thrall to the local German teacher and cycling enthusiast, however. He is ordinary in the same sense Hannah Arendt described in her 1963 reports on the Eichmann trial, using the “banality of evil” term that became controversial for downplaying the “demonic” or “monstrous” aspects of Nazism (Kirsch and Galchen, 2013). Showing how easily average citizens can become agents of evil is Sjón’s project as well, however painful it may be to “look for what I have in common with my characters” (Sjón, 2021: 143). At the same time, his “clinical” strategy in shifting narrative positions and beginning with Gunnar’s death (“It is easier to deal with a dead Nazi than a living one” [Ibid.]), offsets too much sympathy. The anti-Muslim and antisemitic passages in Gunnar’s letters would be even more difficult to read if spoken in dialogue or overheard in his third-person head. 

The neo-Nazi group that Gunnar joins in the decade after the war is based on Sjón’s research, which also turned up the group’s wide-reaching supporters, including “Savitri Devi, George Lincoln Rockwell, Colin Jordan, and Göran Asser Oredsson – the very people who laid the foundation for the international network of far-right movements as we know it today” (Sjón, 202: 142). Gunnar is based on “one of the main actors” in this group, “who died from cancer at a young age while fanatically working on the foundation of their World Union of National Socialists” (Ibid.). His fictional letters show him to be as uncomfortably human as he is fanatical, writing humorous, simple notes to his mentally disabled brother and then rhapsodizing to Oredsson that “We, the Icelandic Nationalists, greet you with arms raised high and palms outstretched …” (76) before complaining, “Nothing is being done to safeguard our Icelandic cultural heritage” (79).

Much of Gunnar’s language in his letters (at least in English translation) sounds like current xenophobic, populist rhetoric in Europe and the US. Even phrases like “criminal hordes” (80) are not surprising in the age of Trumpian crudity, though some 21st-century right-wing groups have attempted to show a veneer of respectability (Silman, 2016). What is most frightening about Sjón’s novel is how mainstream many of Gunnar’s epistolary opinions have become (Feffer, 2019; Miller-Idriss, 2022). Though this character and his cohort may be “under the spell of Hitlerism, racism, and white supremacy” (Sjón, 2021: 142), they are not “special” (145) in that many ordinary people (including most of my neighbors in the American West) continue to find themselves hooked by xenophobic news propaganda, conspiracy theories, and resistance to public health measures, often linking this with far-right ideology. 

Like the “negative example” of Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht’s play, which used a mercenary character from the Thirty Years War to speak to 1930s Germany, Gunnar Kampen is a cautionary figure for our time. The danger in good storytelling, though, is that even a bad example can become appealing (as has often been a problem in Mother Courage stagings, for all Brecht’s efforts at distancing effects). Narrative itself is not a saving strategy in times of fascist threats; even Eichmann was an “avid storyteller,” as Hannah Arendt discovered, for all of his clichés (Norberg, 2013). At its best, Red Milk evokes a sense of threat through its slips in time and striking images, as in this moment in Gunnar’s childhood, on a car trip to Raudavatn or “Red Water”: “Halfway between the west end of Reykjavik and their destination, this unintelligible word finally conjured up a picture in his mind: A glass, brimming with red milk” (Sjón, 2021: 21). Beware the conjuring. 

References

Mitsios, Helen (Ed.) (2017). Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland. University of Minnesota Press. Sjón. (2021). Red Milk. Translated by Victoria Cribb. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.