Photo: Dmitry Demidovich.

The Wrecking of the Liberal World Order 

Guidotti, Andrea. (2024). “The Wrecking of the Liberal World Order.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies. January 17, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0013

 

In his book, “The Wrecking of the Liberal World Order,” Vittorio Emanuele Parsi argues that the neoliberal distortion of democracy has led to its erosion, giving rise to populism. This phenomenon has permeated both public discourse and the political culture of mainstream parties. Faced with this challenge, these parties find themselves at a crossroads, having to decide between a defensive response to the surge of populist movements or adapting and converging with their political platforms to prevent substantial losses in electoral support.

Reviewed by Andrea Guidotti

Some major shifts are shaping international politics in recent decades. Firstly, there is a noticeable decline in American leadership as the primary global force, accompanied by the simultaneous ascent of authoritarian powers such as China and Russia, altering the power dynamics among major nations. Secondly, terrorism, particularly its religiously charged variants, has gained increasing relevance and urgency, raising concerns in some regions, with the Mediterranean standing out prominently. Thirdly, during Donald Trump’s presidency, the United States veered away from the multilateral system, exhibiting unprecedented revisionist stances. Lastly, the ascent of nationalist and, more significantly, populist movements has tainted political discourse, disengaging citizens from liberal and, particularly, democratic principles in distinct yet interconnected ways.

In his book “The Wrecking of the Liberal World Order” Vittorio Emanuele Parsi, Professor of International Relations at the Catholic University of Milan, Italy, delves into the current state of the international political and liberal system. With a keen focus on the ongoing changes within the system, potentially jeopardizing its stability, Parsi’s central argument posits that since the 1980s, the Liberal World Order has gradually given way to the Neoliberal World Order, fundamentally altering its intrinsic nature.

The book contends that the foundational pillars of the system face challenges from various political and ideological movements: (i) Neoliberalism, which highlights the shortcomings of ‘big governments’ in terms of resource mismanagement and hindrance to the efficiency of market mechanisms; (ii) Neoconservatism, countering the ‘progressive’ agenda by emphasizing traditional values and principles of law and order; and (iii) Ordo-liberalism, utilized to justify state policies favoring capital at the detriment of labor.

The Liberal World Order is grounded in two fundamental objectives: firstly, the establishment of a system that is both open and institutionalized, ensuring the potential for democracies to flourish and prosper; and secondly, the reinforcement of the domestic political and socioeconomic systems upon which the overarching system is constructed. These goals were envisioned to materialize through the establishment of the United Nations, a universal and comprehensive institution replacing the ineffective League of Nations. It acknowledged the privileged status of the great powers that emerged victorious in World War II – the United States, the Soviet Union, China, the United Kingdom, and France.

The fundamental distinction between Liberalism and Neoliberalism lies in the nuanced relationship they establish between democracy and the market economy. Democracy, built on the premise of equality despite inherent individual differences, contrasts with the free market economy’s tendency to thrive on inequality, rewarding the most efficient entities and individuals based on their abilities/capabilities, productivity, and merits. The Neoliberal project, therefore, deviated by downplaying concerns related to inequality and fostering a system where increased productivity, driven by technological advancements, exclusively rewarded capital investments. This shift was not isolated; it emerged as a response to the widespread perception among politicians of stagnant wages and growing job insecurities.

The underlying logic was as follows: ‘income does not matter; consumption does.’ In simpler terms, as long as the middle class could maintain its consumption levels due to the newly implemented policies, it might not be overly concerned about the growing levels of inequality. What tends to be overlooked in these arguments is the reality that, even if there is no deliberate attempt to eliminate economic inequality with the aim of preventing political inequality, people do not need convincing that their unequal economic power translates into political disparities. Consequently, public policies geared towards creating more favorable conditions to attract international capital began to progressively fuel unemployment among the middle class, heighten job insecurities, erode the Welfare State, and bring an end to redistributive policies. In essence, an ideological clash between economic freedom and political sovereignty (the efficacy of democracy) emerged within and from the framework of the Liberal World Order.

According to Parsi’s book, the first problematic dimension of the current Liberal World Order is its altered distribution of power, coinciding with the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar system, where the US no longer stands as the sole global great power. On one hand, China is growing more assertive in the Pacific and Indian Ocean, implementing a ‘String of Pearls Strategy’ that involves cultivating privileged diplomatic, commercial, and military relations with certain countries, aiming to control vital sea lines of communication and strategic logistical supplies. Specifically, China seeks to assure its neighbors that it is a reliable actor, refraining from unnecessary threats as long as its perceived interests remain intact. On the other hand, Russia, exemplified by the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine, is endeavoring to expand its sphere of influence, willing to employ military means if deemed necessary. Additionally, both China and Russia are strategically involved in the Middle East, where the American presence has become increasingly problematic. While not explicitly sharing a strategy against the US, it is evident that Russia and China have been striving to establish a common platform against American hegemony.

The second problematic dimension involves the ‘molecularization and privatization of the threat,’ a consequence of the proliferation of terrorist groups that particularly destabilizes Western public opinions and political elites. In particular, Islamist terrorism has demonstrated a significant capacity for deconstruction within the Liberal World Order. Two noteworthy aspects emerge here. Firstly, the Mediterranean region has regained significant importance, serving as a focal point for indirect strategic actions against European countries to undermine their political stability. Secondly, Russia has reopened the front of contention in the Baltic Sea with respect to NATO.

The third problematic dimension is the American shift concerning the system during Trump’s presidency. Trump built his political credibility by addressing concerns about the emergence of ‘jobless growth,’ where economic expansion fails to translate into an expansion of job opportunities. In another light, argues Parsi, there’s the phenomenon of the ‘rentierization of the capitalistic system,’ which significantly favors financial investments over productive ones. Moreover, Trump pledged to deconstruct the Liberal World Order from within to rectify these distortions. Within Trump’s framework, the US revealed itself as a revisionist power within the system. By rejecting multilateral practices as a means to express its vision of a ‘constraint-free’ America, the US administration undermined the foundations of its own credibility in the eyes of both partners and allies, as well as adversaries.

The fourth problematic dimension revolves around democratic contamination caused by sovereigntist populism and technocratic oligarchies. The emergence of populist movements has led to a democratic deformation wherein opinions are simplistically and systematically transformed into decisions. The neoliberal distortion of democracy and its erosion have fostered populism, intoxicating both public discourse and the political culture of mainstream parties. These parties are then confronted with the choice of either defensively responding to the rise of these populist movements or adapting and converging with their political platforms to avoid significant loss in electoral support. According to the book, two strands of populism are crucial to this analysis: one targeting economic and financial elites, advocating for policies perceived as betraying the interests of American workers, and the other embodied in Trump’s politics, characterized by racial and ethnic-based nationalism and the notion of a ‘true America’ with distinct political inclinations. In a broader sense, populism can be viewed as a signal of discontent but also as a call to restore the balance between elites and the common people. Crucially, even when acknowledging that economic and social inequality naturally arises from individual differences in abilities and resources, this acceptance should not be used as a justification for the perpetuation of existing political inequality.

Professor Parsi concludes the book with a chapter on the pandemic and its relationship with the current (Neo)Liberal World Order, exploring potential solutions to the issues discussed throughout the book. Covid-19 showed that we were not all equally vulnerable to the virus, as its impact is asymmetric both for natural and especially economic reasons. This asymmetry mirrors the asymmetries, imbalances and inequalities inherent in the (Neo)Liberal World Order, where a few dictate its political and economic structure, disregarding the interests of the many and violating the foundational principles established post-WWII. Consequently, three key takeaways are proposed as potential remedies or paths worth pursuing: (i) rebuilding an up-to-date Liberal World Order by way of revitalizing democratic regimes in such a way that they can gain back control of market dynamics; (ii) the premise of the project should be a privileged relationship between the two sides of the Atlantic, i.e. democratic powers; (iii) We must not forsake values in favor of interests only, ensuring that those with underrepresented political strength are not overlooked or allowed those to wield power solely based on their economic and status position, influencing and shaping the rules of the game regarding the functioning of the system.


The Wrecking of the Liberal World Order by Vittorio Emanuele Parsi (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). 325 pp. €139,09 (Hardback), ISBN: 3030720454, 9783030720452

Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte holds a Galil sniper rifle with outgoing Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Ronald dela Rosa (L) at Camp Crame in Manila on April 19, 2018. Photo: Salma Bashir Motiwala.

The Philippines: From ‘People Power’ to Democratic Backsliding

Kenes, Bulent. (2023). “The Philippines: From ‘People Power’ to Democratic Backsliding.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies. June 14, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0014

 

In his recently released book, scholar Mark R. Thompson underscores how the “people power” narrative gradually lost credibility in the Philippines, as evidenced by the opposition’s resounding defeat in the 2022 elections. This outcome demonstrated the diminishing appeal of this discourse among the majority of Filipinos. Given Thompson’s assessment of Duterte’s election and his populist legacy as the latest iteration of a cyclical pattern in Philippine politics, his book represents a valuable contribution to the literature on populism.

Reviewed by Bulent Kenes

On May 9, 2016, Rodrigo Roa Duterte was elected as the 16th President of the Philippines by the Filipino people. Despite his controversial reputation, which he had acquired during his long political career as the mayor of Davao City, Duterte emerged victorious. He pledged to establish a regime similar to the one he had implemented in Davao City, with the goal of restoring “law and order” throughout the entire country. Following his inauguration, public trust in him soared to an astonishing 91 percent. What factors contributed to Duterte’s remarkable success as an illiberal and penal populist leader? How did the socio-economic environment and troubled political history of the Philippines play a role in the frequent rise of populist strongmen like Duterte? In his recently published book, “The Philippines: From ‘People Power’ to Democratic Backsliding,” Mark R. Thompson explores the socio-political, economic, and structural factors behind the convergence of democratic backsliding and the rise of strongman leaders within the Filipino context.

Thompson’s book utilizes a structuration approach to analyze the country’s recent shift towards strongman rule within the historical backdrop of nearly a century of Philippine presidential politics. The Philippines stands as one of the few global cases of “hyper-presidentialism.” The book highlights the fact that Philippine presidents possess significantly more formal power than their counterparts in the United States, particularly when it comes to their wide discretion over budgetary matters, which is essential in a patronage-driven democracy, making them the “patrons-in-chief.” They can subordinate the legislature, the courts, and independent bodies, despite theoretically being coequal branches of government or constitutionally mandated agencies, thus establishing the President’s authority as nearly omnipresent throughout the state apparatus.

Thompson’s book traces this “tyrannical potential” of Philippine presidents back to the American colonial era. One section of the book explores how a patronage-driven democracy facilitated executive aggrandizement by three transgressive presidents – Quezon, Marcos, and Duterte – who employed strongman messaging as they disregarded weak formal democratic checks. It also examines the stronger but uncertain informal constraints imposed on presidential power by elite strategic groups that employed a liberal reformist discourse. This dynamic first emerged after the manipulated 1949 presidential elections and resulted in Magsaysay’s victory four years later. However, a similar effort two decades later failed to prevent Ferdinand E. Marcos from imposing martial law. Yet, Marcos was later ousted by a people powermovement with a similar elite “hegemonic bloc” at the forefront. Following Marcos’ downfall, corruption scandals, which seemed inevitable in a patronage-dominated system, undermined the promise to restore “good governance” and also discredited the elite strategic groups promoting it. With the weakening of reformism and elite guardianship, a political opportunity arose for Duterte’s highly illiberal messaging. Duterte swiftly regressed Philippine democracy after winning the presidency in 2016. As a pioneer in political violence, Duterte fundamentally transformed Philippine politics by making violent populism appealing to the majority of Filipinos.

The first authoritarian leader in the Philippines was Commonwealth President Quezon, and three decades later, Marcos followed in Quezon’s footsteps. Even before declaring martial law in 1972, Marcos had already become the most powerful president since the country gained independence in 1946. He crafted an elaborate justification for martial law, citing not only threats from the far-left (communists) and far-right (oligarchs), but also utilizing strongman messaging that promised to address poverty, injustice, and bring about political change. Marcos argued that authoritarian rule was necessary to restore order and accelerate development. He imposed strict restrictions on the previously free press, which was factionalized and oligarchical, suppressing opposition criticism of nepotism and favoritism. The Marcos regime quickly transformed into a highly “sultanistic” system, blurring the boundaries between the public treasury and the private wealth of the ruler. Marcos and his wife Imelda became the wealthiest couple in the Philippines and among the richest in the world.

Meanwhile, Thompson emphasizes the presence of four influential non-governmental strategic groups (the Catholic Church hierarchy, big business leaders, civil society activists, and top military brass) that have played pivotal roles in constraining presidential power since independence in 1946, particularly during the later stages of the Marcos dictatorship and in the post-people power era. While not directly part of the government, these groups maintain close ties to the state, with representatives from big business and civil society often holding high-ranking positions in presidential cabinets. They possess extensive organizations that enable them to mobilize supporters in favor of or against a president, either through nonviolent means such as demonstrations or, in the case of the military, through a show of force via military intervention.

The book also integrates three key themes from existing literature – patronage democracy, political violence, and widespread impoverishment – to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Philippines’ recurring democratic crises. From a structuralist perspective, according to Thompson, the democratic transition that commenced after Marcos’ downfall in 1986 was only temporary. The “people power” uprising in Metro Manila in February 1986 captured global media attention and received praise from world leaders. This peaceful overthrow of an authoritarian ruler by civilian protesters demanding democratic restoration demonstrated the potential for change. However, Thompson argues that the perception of people power has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis in the Philippines, particularly since the time of Corazon C. Aquino, the widow of the assassinated opposition politician Benigno “Ninoy” S. Aquino, Jr., who assumed the presidency after the heavily manipulated snap presidential elections in early February 1986 that triggered the uprising. 

Author recalls that two additional crises unfolded in the subsequent three decades. Another “people power” style uprising took place, but this time it was directed against the freely and fairly elected President Joseph E. Estrada in 2001. His successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, faced immediate and long-term legitimacy issues throughout her scandal-ridden tenure. In 2016, Duterte was elected, pledging a brutal “war on drugs.” Duterte’s popularity during his term created a strong political demand for a presidential candidate with a similar strongman image. Surveys indicated that 85 percent of Filipinos preferred “partial” or “full continuity” of his rule. Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos, Jr., the son of the Marcos dictatorship’s ruling couple, positioned himself as the rightful heir to Duterte’s legacy and won the May 2022 presidential elections with ease. Running alongside Duterte’s daughter as his vice-presidential candidate, the Marcos-Duterte tandem successfully positioned themselves as the successors to Duterte. Despite hopes from opponents that “Dutertismo” would fade away in 2022, there is little indication that Marcos intends to deviate from Duterte’s illiberal path. 

According to Thompson, this democratic backsliding occurred against the backdrop of historically rooted structural conditions in which neoliberal economic strategies revived economic growth but failed to significantly alleviate poverty, thereby enabling Duterte to secure power. The author highlights the fact that while post-dictatorship presidents in the Philippines restored financial stability and stimulated economic growth, they were unsuccessful in eradicating mass poverty. “Proletarian populists” who promised to help the majority of Filipinos who identified themselves as poor were either overthrown or subject to electoral fraud. This created an opportunity, according to Thompson, for Duterte to present himself as the last hope for Filipinos. By convincing many that they had been betrayed by the “irresponsible ‘yellow’ elites,” Duterte, as president, initiated a “war on drugs” that resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings by the police and vigilantes linked to law enforcement. He justified these murders by dismissing liberalism and human rights as “Western” concepts. By late 2018, the Chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights estimated that up to 27,000 suspected drug users and dealers had been killed in the drug war. Duterte even targeted mayors and local officials accused of having drug links – by June 2021 more than half of the forty-four mayors, vice mayors, and other local officials identified by the Philippine president as being “narco politicians” had been killed.

Despite his obvious illiberalism, Duterte claimed democratic legitimacy, aligning with larger global trends. Unlike Trump and right-wing populists in developed countries who targeted immigrants, Duterte identified drug users and dealers as “enemies of the people.” His violent populism went beyond the typical “penal populism” seen in the West, representing an extreme form of illiberal rule that embraced an aggressive “us versus them” mentality. Thompson reminds that through his “war on drugs,” Duterte garnered massive popular support, surpassing the levels achieved by other illiberal populists globally. However, according to him, Duterte was not the first Philippine president to extensively employ political violence to consolidate power. Quirino relied on local warlords to intimidate the opposition during his presidential election campaign in 1949. As a young man Marcos, Sr., was convicted of killing his father’s chief political rival. In his controversial reelection campaign in 1969, Marcos employed not just local paramilitaries but also national military force, which he had increasingly brought under his personal control in the run-up to declaring martial law in 1972.

Thompson highlights that while many contemporary illiberal populist leaders have marginalized, imprisoned, or even assassinated those targeted and othered by their rhetoric, Duterte stands out for instigating state-led mass murder against his own country’s civilian population through his war on drugs. While Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey intensified attacks against Kurdish rebels and Vladimir Putin in Russia waged the brutal Second Chechen War and later invaded Ukraine, these are military campaigns rather than “peacetime” massacres, as clarified by Thompson, although Erdogan’s campaigns against Kurds have also involved attacks during peacetime. These strongman presidents effectively crafted messaging to justify their concentration of power, often resorting to political violence and exploiting persistent poverty as a pretext for their power grabs. As poverty rates and unemployment remained high during the post-Marcos era, the liberal reformist discourse appeared uncaring and morally self-righteous.

Furthermore, Duterte eroded democracy through less violent means as well, eroding judicial independence, marginalizing independent institutions, and bullying local leaders, according to the book. His patronage politics undermined institution-building. The country’s bureaucracy has a history tainted by political interference and corrupt practices, with widespread perception of corruption in the courts. Duterte capitalized on a “legally cynical public” that lacked trust in a flawed judicial system, where drug offenders often had their cases dismissed on technicalities and bribery and manipulation were common accusations. Duterte, a former prosecutor, presented his drug crackdown as a silver bullet, appealing to the belief that the corrupt legal system needed cleansing before meaningful reforms could be introduced.

The rise of Duterte’s violent populism was also facilitated by the weakening of key elite strategic groups mentioned earlier in the book. For example, Duterte effectively outmaneuvered the church by threatening to expose its sex scandals, claiming personal childhood abuse by a priest. Institutional barriers were swiftly sidelined, resulting in the emergence of an illiberal democracy. As a political innovator, Duterte drew from and transformed traditions of local political violence in the Philippines, which he continued during his presidency. He also employed the strategy of securitizing problems and scapegoating the urban poor in other policy areas, notably in his highly militarized but ineffective response to the pandemic.

The book argues that the Philippines’ recent democratic backsliding is a result of Duterte’s violation of democratic norms in a patronage-driven democracy with weak institutionalization, following the patterns of Quezon and Marcos before him. The book also closely examines pseudo-reform programs used to divert attention from the persistence of mass poverty. Recently, Duterte’s drug war has primarily targeted the poor, with urban residents who are petty drug users and dealers becoming the focus, while mass poverty continues to endure. However, this approach proved effective in legitimizing his highly illiberal rule.

Like previous presidents, according to the author, Duterte did not harbor a general hostility towards the oligarchy; rather, he used such rhetoric as a means to attack his political enemies and favor his own allies. However, the broken promises of his predecessors to combat corruption and alleviate poverty had paved the way for simplistic solutions to the country’s complex social problems, exemplified by Duterte’s “dystopian narrative” of the drug war. The drug war’s popularity across class lines indicated that Duterte had successfully redirected the grievances of the poor away from the failures of social reform. In line with Marcos and Quezon before him, Duterte exploited the persistence of poverty to justify the erosion of democratic values. Employing pseudo-social reforms, Duterte portrayed his drug war as a panacea for the nation’s social issues, garnering support across different social strata, despite the fact that it harmed and disproportionately targeted the poor.

As a strategy of legitimation, Duterte relied on extravagant but largely hollow promises of implementing social reform, eradicating corruption, and eliminating illegal drugs, which proved remarkably effective as political tools. His “brute force governance,” characterized by personalized strongman rule, blame-shifting, and securitization, undermined the mechanisms of accountability. This enabled him to maintain public approval, despite the drug war’s failure to effectively address substance abuse and the ineffectiveness of widespread lockdowns in curbing the spread of the pandemic. Despite the highly illiberal nature of Duterte’s rule, he continued to claim democratic legitimacy based on competitive elections and high approval ratings, while adhering to constitutional norms. This undermined electoral opposition and weakened resistance from critical figures such as Catholic bishops, influential business groups, and civil society activists. According to Thompson, among the major strategic groups in the Philippines, only the military remained a significant check on Duterte’s power.

In conclusion, Thompson underscores how the “people power” narrative gradually lost credibility, as evidenced by the opposition’s resounding defeat in the 2022 elections, particularly with Marcos, Jr.’s victory. This outcome demonstrated the diminishing appeal of this discourse among the majority of Filipinos. The recent democratic backsliding in the Philippines serves as a cautionary tale about the failure of a liberal reformist project to improve the lives of ordinary people and fundamentally reshape the political system to reduce reliance on patronage, strengthen institutions, and mitigate political violence. Given Thompson’s assessment of Duterte’s election and his populist legacy as the latest iteration of a cyclical pattern in Philippine politics, this book represents a valuable contribution to the literature on populism.


 

Mark R. Thompson. The Philippines: From ‘People Power’ to Democratic Backsliding. As part of “Elements in Politics and Society in Southeast Asia.” (Cambridge University Press).  May 25, 2023. 86 pp. 21,24  ISBN: ‎ 1009398482. DOI: 10.1017/9781009398466  

People with masks of world leaders arrested, taking part in a demonstration march against climate change in Glasgow city centre during UN COP26 climate conference on November 6, 2021. Photo: Bruno Mameli.

Time for a change: Replacing the populist model with elite theory

By N. Scott Cole

“At last,” the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Populism declare, “everyone understands that populism matters. Recent political events have brought the word ‘populism’ to the center of discussions across the globe” (Kaltwasser et al., 2017, p. 1). A quick glance at scholarly and journalistic commentaries appears to justify this verdict.  In the United States, this concept is employed to understand Donald Trump’s rise to power and how he governed. Eric Oliver and Wendy Rahn (2016) state that, “Trump stands out in particular as the populist par excellence” (p. 189). Across the Atlantic, this term is also applied to comprehend the antics of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Duncan, 2021). The populist approach is even used to explain the Brexit vote (Bale, 2019). In Brazil, the racist, homophobic, and anti-democratic actions of President Jair Bolsonaro are also analyzed from this perspective (Rachman, 2020). As Yascha Mounk (2018) states, populists have “been gaining strength in every major democracy, from Athens to Ankara, from Sydney to Stockholm, and from Warsaw to Wellington.  Despite the obvious differences between the populists who are on the rise in all these countries, their commonalities go deep — and render each of them a danger to the political system in surprisingly similar ways” (p. 7).

While some embrace this term’s success, Oliver and Rahn (2016) admit that the populist concept has problems, especially its promiscuous tendency that allows it to be applied to politicians of the left, right, and center. “Given this diversity,” they ask, “does the concept of populism still have utility? A rich body of comparative research suggests that it does” (p. 190). When it comes to understanding recent political trends around the world, the present article disagrees. It aligns itself, instead, with William Brett’s (2013) comment that, “‘Populism’ is a classic example of a stretched concept, pulled out of shape by overuse and misuse” (p. 410). While some commentators are impressed by the “wave of policymakers, pundits, and scholars [who] are gripped by this [populist] phenomenon” (Kaltwasser et al., 2017, p. 1), this study views such enthusiasm with a dose of skepticism. It does not consider populism to be a perfect guide. This article argues that elite theory, while not infallible, is a more useful approach when it comes to understanding politics. 

Why is elite theory better than the populist model when it comes to analyzing politics? The elite approach has several advantages that elude the populist perspective. Specifically, it can precisely define its subject matter, clearly identify which actors need to be studied, and accurately explain their political behavior. The populist school fails on each of these dimensions. Also, the elite approach employs a variety of concepts that make it more theoretically rigorous than the alternative perspective.   

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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.

***

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.

***

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.