Photo: From Netflix.

Climate Satire and Anti-science Populism in Don’t Look Up

This commentary reviews the 2021 film Don’t Look Up, an allegory about climate-crisis apathy in an imagined populist future in the USA. 

By Heidi Hart

Allegory is as tricky an art form as satire. The 2021 film Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay, attempts both in its treatment of impending planetary crisis. McKay’s production company’s name, Hyperobject Industries, apparently refers to eco-philosopher Timothy Morton’s term from his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, which posits that global warming is a force too immense and strange to be easily graspable. Since 2013, that “hyperobject” has come all too close to home for humans faced with record heat waves, wildfires, monster storms, and floods, even in the most unlikely places. If the recent COP26 Summit on climate change is any indication of the future, governmental inertia will continue to prevent the broad, deep changes necessary to unhook wealthy nations from dependence on fossil fuels. The planet may well be as doomed as Don’t Look Up declares it is, though from a different (hence the allegory) threat. 

Photo: From Netflix

The film’s chirpy aesthetic (retro 1960s titles, upbeat dance music, onscreen memes) belies its serious theme, announcing satire as if this were not obvious enough. In the not-too-distant future, a couple of scrappy astronomers from an average state university (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet on a collision course with Earth. When they finally get the attention of the Trump-blonde-style US President (Meryl Streep), she and her wisecracking Chief of Staff son (Jonah Hill) dismiss the crisis until a steamier political scandal calls for a distraction. The astronomers appear on a shallow Fox News-ish talk show, and, predictably, DiCaprio’s character is rewarded with “sexy” status while Lawrence’s explosion of grief and anger leads to a cascade of “crazy lady” memes. President Orlean stages an aircraft-carrier press announcement, à la George W. Bush, of a Pentagon-backed plan to nuke the comet before it strikes. 

When that mission fails, enter a slightly spacey Steve Jobs type (Mark Rylance), who – without bothering with the inconveniences of peer review – breezes in and excites Madame President with a whole new plan to mine the comet for valuable resources before exploding it. Randall Mindy, DiCaprio’s character, wins brief fame and a fling with “Fox blonde” talk-show host Brie Eventee (Cate Blanchett). Meanwhile, the disenchanted Ph.D. candidate who discovered the comet in the first place, Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), drifts into the baggy counterculture world of Yule (Dune star Timothée Chalamet). As the comet speeds ever closer, threatening tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, an already split USA breaks into irreparable halves, with “Just look up!” memes battling “Don’t look up!” rallies featuring the President in a MAGA-style baseball cap. Distrust of science and faith in the quick tech fix meet in a populist frenzy. When the mine-and-explode plan fails, too, last concerts- and dinners-on-Earth ensue. I won’t give the ending all away, but it does send bits of phones and photographs drifting into the cosmos. The film’s post-credit epilogue is a darkly comic take on billionaire space tourism (enough said here as well).

Maybe it’s just my age as a too-earnest Gen Xer, but the film’s meme-based satire and too-obvious allegory trivialize a genuinely terrifying future, instead of destabilizing comfortable assumptions, as satire does when it works well. As an example, Daniel Dencik’s 2013 Expedition to the End of the World works as almost-mockumentary about a group of researchers and artists sailing to Greenland to witness its melting ice. Like Don’t Look Up, it features soundtrack music suddenly interrupted, but in an oddly uncomfortable, not gimmicky, way. Random conversations about spiders and microbes unsettle black-and-white ideas of what humans can know about threatened ecosystems. Genre ambiguity (is this satire or not?) fosters curious criticality in viewers, instead of cementing already entrenched political differences, as Don’t Look Up does in its heavy-handed treatment of American populism. 

Another example of humor used effectively in environmental film is Benedict Erlingsson’s Woman at War (also 2013). This film features an Icelandic eco-warrior who also happens to be a choir director, leading her community in songs about national pride and thus complicating the environmental/populist binary. A band of musicians (who may or may not be visible to her) pops up on hillsides, in her flat, and at the airport, echoing Icelandic outdoor music practices and adding an element of estrangement as well. The protagonist’s difficult decision to adopt an orphan in Ukraine complicates the drama further, showing the challenges activists face in caring for the planet and its human occupants. Ultimately the film’s surprise, humor, and ambiguity foster energy rather than despair in the face of climate crisis. 

Don’t Look Up is one of many films imagining an impact event on Earth. Most do not relate to climate change directly but hold implications for the current planetary crisis. Bille August’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997) imagines deadly microbes deposited by a meteorite in Greenland’s ice, which now, in real life, is thawing at a rapid pace and releasing long-dormant and potentially dangerous bacterial archives. Lars von Trier’s rhapsodic disaster film Melancholia (2011) juxtaposes a rogue planet’s impending impact with the beauty, cruelty, and banality of life on a wealthy family’s estate; the film’s feverish slowness, set to orchestral music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, foreshadows the strangeness of time’s passing in our current age of pandemic and collapsing ecosystems. More recently, Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) alters Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same title by framing interspecies genetic mutations in the eerie “Area X” as the result of a meteor strike. Though VanderMeer did not set out to write a climate-crisis novel (Woodbury, 2016), his “new weird” Southern Reach trilogy reflects dark ecology anxieties and aesthetics. None of these films is satirical, and none takes on the political divides that Don’t Look Up sends up, but all three show how planetary dread is easier to narrate and digest if it concerns a crisis humans have not caused. 

This distinction brings us, naturally, to the film often mentioned as a forerunner of Don’t Look Up: Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1964 Dr. Strangelove. That film, with its subtitle How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is also satire about impending planetary doom, but it works in a far more terrifying way than Don’t Look Up, for three important reasons. First, it brings seriousness and humor into such close contact (lines like “You can’t fight in here! It’s the War Room!” amid heavy discussions of US military policy against pre-emptive strikes) that viewers need to bring their own critical curiosity to the giant table in the Pentagon. Second, war film conventions in the B-52 scenes (profile close-ups, relentless repetition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) make the pilot’s gung-ho cowboy bravado all the more painful to watch today, as it comes close to truth in this age of endless wars and the populist-militarist January 6 insurrection. Third, Dr. Strangelove does not imagine a random object from space colliding with Earth; human arrogance is what unleashes the ultimate nuclear disaster, via one rogue pre-emptive strike that automatically triggers the Soviet “Doomsday Machine.” 

Photo: From Netflix.

 

Watching Dr. Strangelove again for the first time in ten years, now that human-caused climate crisis is pressingly upon us, I found the ending more moving than I’d remembered. The soundtrack’s counterpoint in the final scene (mushroom cloud after blinding mushroom cloud, to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again” in Vera Lynn’s warm voice) served its painfully satirical purpose, unlike the glib ending of Don’t Look Up, with Earthly debris scattering in space to the tune of Bon Iver’s breathy pop song “Second Nature.” In both cases, music is meant to work against the images onscreen, as has become a film convention since its first uses as a distancing technique (Adorno and Eisler, 1947), but to very different effects. I would rather feel the shock and sadness of humans’ destruction of our home than be mildly entertained by an imaginary comet and political caricatures. Too much is at stake in this age of ideological and environmental menace for satire to fall short. 

References

Adorno, Theodor and Hanns Eisler. (1947/2010). Composing for the Films. Continuum.

Morton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press.

 

English Defence League (EDF) stages a rally in Birmingham on April 8th, 2017 to protest the "Islamisation" of the UK amongst other issues. UK is suffering divisions between locals and foreigners. Photo: Alexandre Rotenberg.

Reciprocal populism: The interaction of right-wing anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups in Europe

Despite their ostensible opposition to one another, extreme right-wing, anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups like “Sharia for Europe” share a common dynamic of “reciprocal populism.” This emerges when antagonistic actors embedded in the same social context draw on similar themes and images in performing a populist political style based on symbolic action. Through this contestation, each casts the other as the principal threat to the survival of a morally “pure” community. While the focus is on the opposition between right-wing anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups, “reciprocal populism” is best understood not as a binary process but rather as co-evolution among multiple actors who forge coalitions and display a range of tactics and strategies in their ongoing performance of populism.

By Erkan Toguslu

In this commentary, I briefly analyze two extremist groups in Europe that have been feeding one other by drawing on the same themes and images in the pursuit of their agendas: right-wing, anti-Islam movements and the radical Islamist outfit “Sharia for Europe.” Despite their apparent ideological opposition, these two networks have exhibited what Eatwell (2014) calls “reflexive hybridity,” which describes the phenomenon whereby contesting groups borrow intentionally from each other as they battle it out in the public sphere. While these extreme movements are very heterogonous and would not necessarily define themselves as “populist” in terms of ideology (instead adopting labels such as “religious” or “patriotic”), the symbols, discourses, and narratives they evince reflect a certain populist political style and performance.

Both the anti-Islam movements and the “Sharia for Europe” groups are committed to a pure understanding of authentic community, expressed variously in national, cultural, or religious terms. Both groups charge that an immoral cosmopolitan “global” elite threatens the “pure” community’s way of life, requiring defensive action “before it is too late.” This reflects the central premise of ideational approaches to populism, which claim that the central feature of the phenomenon is a moral division between the “pure” people and a corrupt elite (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017). In this school of thought, populists will delineate the concrete referent for the “pure” people in various ways, be it a particular social stratum (“the workers” or the “hardworking middle class”), “the nation,” or a specific ethnic group. Whatever referent is selected, the result is an idealized conception of the “pure” community (Taggart, 2004).

In short, the approach of populists toward the moral construction of a “pure” people set against a “corrupt” elite involves a high degree of idealization and the cooptation of imagery and symbolism that can be deployed flexibly and often strategically in an ongoing process of discursive construction. When opposing groups are pitted against one another in a public sphere characterized by plural media and information affluence, dynamic reciprocal interaction emerges, the result of which is a form of mutual radicalization. The present analysis explores this dynamic as it has emerged between anti-Islam and Islamist groups in Europe in recent decades. Specifically, it analyzes the symbols and narratives underpinning the production of populist performativity across such groups.

Theoretically, the analysis draws on Roger Eatwell’s (2006) notion of “cumulative extremism,” which refers to the escalation of violence between two antagonistic groups—in his research as in the analysis here, militant Islamists and groups opposed to Islam. Drawing on this idea, we adopt the term “reciprocal populism” to explain how opposing movements reinforce each other’s populist discourse and style through sustained interaction. These styles and discourses are reinforced through socially embedded interconnectedness — namely, the mechanisms and micro-processes of reciprocal exchanges between groups embedded in a shared social environment. More specifically, they take the form of embodied social practices both online and offline, targeting the opposing group through propaganda.

The extremist group “Stop Islamization” was founded in Denmark in 2005 by the far-right politician Anders Gravers Pedersen. It soon morphed into a transnational network in various countries under the label “Stop the Islamisation of Europe” (SIOE). The SIOE organized the so-called “Counter-Jihad” summit and many other international conferences to mobilize members from across Europe. Some of the most infamous right-wing, anti-immigrant movements in Europe of recent years feature in the SIOE network, including many groups under the banner of the so-called Identarian Movement, Germany’s far-right anti-migrant Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), and the neo-Nazi organization Vigrid, as well as the so-called Pro-Cologne Movement (which was rebadged as the Pro-Germany Citizen’s Movement), Pax Europa, the Cities against Islamization (CAI) initiative, and the “Casuals United” protest group in the UK, which later rebadged itself as the “Pie and Mash Squad.” All these groups have identified Islam and the supposed threat from the spread of shariʿa law as pressing problems for Europe. They are also linked to other far-right organizations and parties across the continent and beyond.

A woman holds a placard reading “Muslims will destroy the crusade and estabilish the Islamic State!” outside the Regents Park Mosque in London, UK on 24 January 2014.

As a response to the activities of the SIOE network, a highly diffuse and non-hierarchical Salafī jihadi network made up of various individual preachers as well as militant groups and organizations has sprung up with the explicit goal of spreading and promoting the imposition of shariʿa law in Europe. Transnational outfits like Al-Muhajirun, Islam4UK, and Sharia for Europe have connected with local groups like Forsane Alizza in France, Einladung zum Paradies (Invitation to Paradise, EZP) and Millatu Ibrahim in Germany, and Profetens Ummah in Norway, to promote the Islamicization of Europe.

Both sets of identity-based movements organize and participate in rallies and demonstrations and seek to persuade public opinion against the other through propaganda in the public sphere. Alongside this “spectacle” mobilization and “street populism,” both sets of networks share common features that belie their strident opposition to one another. First, they are, for the most part, transnational in their aims and their reach. Second, they bring together diverse people from all walks of life, many of whom do not share the same primary ideology and whose opinions on various issues may differ. Third, they hone in on an evident vision of moral community, dividing the world into a “pure” people under threat from an “enemy” Other, and then mobilize into protest action based on such a division.

Spectacle Activism and Street Populism

One way to gain analytical purchase on populism is to examine its discursive manifestations — namely, the narratives, discourses, and symbols that populist actors and movements use to challenge the “corrupt” elite or antagonist Other in the name of the “pure” people. Here, we can usefully draw on Benjamin Moffitt’s understanding of populism as a “stylised milieu of contemporary politics” and a public performance designed to mobilize the people, typically against a backdrop of manufactured crisis (Moffitt, 2016). The street performance of extremist actors can be viewed as a salient example of such stylized populist mobilization. In Moffitt’s schema, populist performance breaks into several elements — the “performer” (i.e., the populist leader or movement), the “audience” (voters or the population at large), and the “stage,” comprising both traditional (print, radio, TV) and new media (the internet and social media). Understanding performative populism in this way allows us to see how the reciprocal populism of the far-right anti-Islam and Sharia for Europe movements has emerged and consolidated over the last decade.

Both sides value public clashes as a central aspect of their populist performance, with mutual contestation in public space serving as propaganda to mobilize supporters. For example, Salafī preachers have organized street activities called da’wa in various European cities, where copies of the Qu’ran are distributed, and Islamic preachers give strident sermons on busy street corners to large groups, partly to provoke a negative response. This often results in clashes with both the police and far-right militants, which are then badged as public displays of resistance to an oppressive state (represented by policy) or bigoted citizenry (the far-right thugs). The Islamists upload photos and videos from these clashes as evidence of their bravery, assertiveness, and resistance to those social forces seeking to “oppress Islam.” Black clothing and flags feature prominently, as does militant attire. One prominent propaganda video features a Salafist leader dressed in a djellaba (traditional North African robe), army jacket, and a turban announcing the group’s intention to attack and demolish the Atomium, a landmark monument in Brussels built for the 1958 World Fair, as a symbolic act of resistance.

The far-right, anti-Islam groups are equally adept at using this kind of public clash as a symbolic performance. For example, Les Identitaires (formerly Bloc Identitaire) — a French anti-migrant, nativist, and anti-Muslim movement — has deployed propaganda and public performance techniques to rally support and create a narrative of crisis around the supposed challenge of Islam in Europe. The group, founded in 2002 in Nice, has since become active across Europe and engages symbolically in various social debates by organizing street demonstrations. They target primarily young people to promote anti-migration and anti-Islam ideas. Its founding members have links with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (Rassemblement national). Its members occupied the rooftop of a mosque in Poitiers in 2012. It regularly references totemic historical events and symbols to gain visibility and recruit impressionable people, especially the young. They distribute so-called “identity soup” (“La soupe au cochon”) containing pork meat (which both Muslims and Jews are forbidden to eat) in various cities in France and Belgium in collaboration with the Antwerpse Solidariteit group, which is close to the far-right Vlaams Belang in Belgium. Other very provocative public actions by the network have included very public consumption of non-halal food products in Muslim-populated areas, members dressed in pig costumes occupying a halal fast-food restaurant, broadcasting the call to prayer in Montluçon, a small town in central France in the middle of the night using a loudspeaker to protest plans to open a mosque there, and defacing a street sign in Brussels to read “Sharia Street” to denounce the apparent Islamization of the city.

In the UK, the English Defense League (EDL) has presented a master class of public propaganda techniques designed to perform symbolic opposition to Islam and to galvanize anti-Islam movements. The EDL was established in 2009 in the English town of Luton with the stated aim of “protecting” non-Muslims from radical Islam (Goodwin et al., 2016). The EDL has organized demonstrations in areas with large Muslim populations and draws heavily on classic Christian iconography — particularly the crucifix and the imagery of the crusaders of the middle ages — in its flags and banners. This kind of visual antagonism through the heavy use of Crusader imagery actually bolsters the radical Islamist mobilization because it highlights the Islamist propaganda that Western countries (especially the United States) have been waging a modern-day crusade against Muslim lands, especially since the First Gulf War in the 1990s. Thus, we see cumulative extremism at work in its purest form, with the EDL and Islamist groups pointing to the salience of the Crusader image in public demonstrations and propaganda campaigns. Both sides — the anti-Islam extremists and the Islamists such as ISIS and Al Qaeda and Salafist groups in Europe — can thus point to the Crusader images as emblematic of an ongoing conflict between the Islamic East and the Christian West that is playing out on the streets of Europe today. In this way, opposing networks paradoxically settle on the same techniques and symbolism in their campaigns of populist mobilization, each pitting an “enemy” Other against the “pure” community they are seeking to defend.

The role of women is another crucial symbolic resource in the mobilization of both networks. Pro-shariʿa groups deploy a narrative based on the apparent decadence of Western societies in which women are supposedly exploited as objects of sexual desire and their role in the traditional family undermined. Fully covered Muslim women feature prominently carrying banners and voicing slogans in the public demonstrations sponsored by Islamist groups. In opposition to this image, anti-shariʿa movements emphasize the supposed subordination of women in Islam and use the sexual liberation of women in Western societies as a central symbol of propaganda. For example, the EDL makes extensive use of Angel imagery during its demonstrations, with these icons depicted in a highly sensual way. Indeed, the overt sexuality in the EDL portrayal of women in demonstrations is designed to contrast with how women participate fully covered in the Salafī extremist milieu. Again, in a classic example of “reciprocal populism,” both sides point explicitly to the way women are publicly depicted by the other as evidence of their opponents’ “moral degradation.”

Despite their ostensible opposition to one another, extreme right-wing, anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups like “Sharia for Europe” share a common dynamic of “reciprocal populism.” This emerges when antagonistic actors embedded in the same social context draw on similar themes and images in performing a populist political style based on symbolic action. Through this contestation, each casts the other as the principal threat to the survival of a morally “pure” community. While the focus is on the opposition between right-wing anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups, “reciprocal populism” is best understood not as a binary process but rather as co-evolution among multiple actors who forge coalitions and display a range of tactics and strategies in their ongoing performance of populism.

References

Eatwell, R. (2006). “Community Cohesion and Cumulative Extremism in Contemporary Britain.” The Political Quarterly. 77(2), 204–216.

Eatwell R. (2014) The Nature of ‘Generic Fascism’: Complexity and Reflexive Hybridity. In: Pinto A.C., Kallis A. (eds) Rethinking Fascism and Dictatorship in Europe. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137384416_4.

Goodwin, M. J., Cutts, D. & Janta-Lipinski, L. (2016). “Economic Losers, Protestors, Islamophobes or Xenophobes? Predicting Public Support for a Counter-Jihad Movement.” Political Studies. 64(1), 4–26. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9248.12159

Moffitt, B. (2016). The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style and Representation. Stanford University Press.

Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, C. R. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Taggart, P. (2004). “Populism and Representative Politics in Contemporary Europe.” Journal of Political Ideologies. 9(3), 269–288. https://doi.org/10.1080/1356931042000263528

Photo: Netflix.

Youth Populism and the Aesthetics of Dread in Je suis Karl

Right-wing populism does not need staged violence to attract new recruits. Online rabbit-holes and the “smart branding” of a new “hipster image” in place of skinhead aesthetics were more than enough to set Generation Identity in motion. The world is still not safe for young people – not because of immigrants, but because of genuinely dangerous and far less graspable forces. This commentary reviews the 2021 German-Czech film Je Suis Karl, about far-right agitation and radicalization among young people. 

By Heidi Hart

“Just crossed the border!” squeals a middle-aged Frenchwoman in a car, in English, filming herself. She and her German husband have just smuggled a Libyan refugee out of Hungary; his face jumps into the screen from under a blanket. This jittery, found-footage effect carries over into the next scene, as the couple’s teenage daughter returns home to Berlin from visiting her grandparents in Paris. The family, with two young sons they call “the Bonsai,” have a comfortable, bourgeois life that seems a bit smug in their “multikulti” do-gooding and cooking with fresh herbs. 

After the father Alex (Milan Peschel) accepts a package delivered for an elderly neighbor, tragedy strikes as a bomb inside the box decimates half of the apartment building. Outside in the street, Alex struggles to stand up in the falling ash and cradles a dead blackbird in his hand. A pulsing soundtrack follows emergency vehicles onto the scene. Alex’s wife and sons have been killed in the explosion. 

Filmed partly around Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, Je suis Karl (2021) recalls the protests and counter-protests there in 2015-16, when I lived in that area and passed rows of police vans every Monday night to lead a Quaker vigil for nonviolence and inclusion. After the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, tensions were high all over Germany, as the populist PEGIDA organization drew supporters who feared the “Islamification” of Europe. My community’s own do-gooder impulses felt small in response to the rising wave of nationalist fervor, especially in the former East Germany (Jegic, 2018).

Je suis Karl also recalls the “Je suis Charlie” slogan popularized – and polarized in right-wing circles – after the 2015 attack. As the film’s plot unfolds, Maxi (Luna Wedler), Alex’s daughter who has survived the bombing, finds herself recruited by a confident young man involved in a pan-European youth group armed with pamphlets, YouTube videos, concerts, and conferences that stoke young people’s socio-political anxieties. Maxi’s father has identified the courier of the explosive package as having a “dark beard,” unintentionally feeding the xenophobic biases of groups like the film’s fictional Re/Generation Europe, based on the “hipster” far-right group Generation Identity in Germany. 

The truth turns out to be even more twisted, when group leader Karl (Jannis Niewöhner) reveals that Re/Generation planted the bomb to stir up anti-immigrant fears. Because this is genuinely multicultural Berlin, however, public reaction has been more compassionate than enraged. At a conference in Prague, where Karl seduces Maxi to win her over more completely to the cause, plans emerge for more staged violence. 

Karl plots his own shooting in France, amid campaign events for a far-right female candidate who comes across as a younger version of currently embattled Marine Le Pen. Named Odile (like the “evil twin” ballerina in Swan Lake), this seemingly fun and engaging young woman draws Maxi into her circle of approval and influence, with a campaign slogan that reads simply “POUR” (“FOR”). 

After the shooting, the feel-good, ostensibly female-friendly, rhetorically upside-down appeal of Re/Generation Europe (their pamphlet includes language about “protecting diversity”) explodes into openly racist attacks in the streets. Maxi escapes with her father and his refugee rescue Yusuf (Aziz Dyab), who have tracked her down and cradle her in an underground tunnel while Yusuf sings soothingly in Arabic.

As several reviewers have noted, the film’s plot is contrived and Maxi’s conversion not entirely convincing (Van Hoeij, 2021Kenigsberg, 2021). German director Christian Schwochow’s efforts to frame a tale of right-wing infatuation is strategically similar if ideologically opposite to the left-wing teenage drama Wir sind die Welle (We Are the Wave, 2019), in its treatment of rising political zeal amid hormonal surges and generational resentments. In that case, students who feel their comfortably liberal parents are not doing enough to counter environmental and racial issues take things into their own increasingly radical hands. 

While this youthful phenomenon is nothing new, right-wing populism does not need staged violence to attract new recruits. Online rabbit-holes and the “smart branding” of a new “hipster image” in place of skinhead aesthetics (Somaskanda, 2017) were more than enough to set Generation Identity in motion, though the movement’s various iterations have faced de-platforming and outright bans in the past four years (Hume, Langston, and Bennett, 2021). Conceived before the Covid-19 pandemic, Je suis Karl seems even more contrived today, when anti-vaccine sentiment has joined with far-right ideology seemingly overnight, especially in German-speaking countries (Morris, 2021).

Photo taken from Netflix.

 

What Je suis Karl does convey effectively, aside from plot, is a material sense of dread in an uncertain world. The film includes several overt visual references to the German series Dark (2017-20): dead birds falling from the sky, and a feathery black mask that Maxi wears, recalling the pattern over young people’s burned eyes in that complex time-travel series. Particularly striking moments occur when Maxi’s father Alex keeps trying to answer his cell phone and sees instead the dead bird, over and over, in his hand, or when he buries the bird in a flowerpot under the bonsai that recalls his dead sons’ joint nickname. 

Just as Dark is not only about time and missing children (its sidelong theme is environmental-existential dread), Je suis Karl is also, by unavoidable default, about the malaise and anxiety facing those coming of age in a time of climate crisis and seemingly unbridgeable political divides – even before the pandemic threw school and social life into numbing disarray. Recurring visual motifs like the dead bird might seem heavy handed, but the film’s cinematography treats those moments with equal parts jitter and blur, creating a palpably unsettling quality. 

The sound of dripping water in the tunnel in the film’s final scene recalls similar aesthetics in Andrei Tarkovsky’s sensually rich work, for example in the toxic chemical plant where he filmed Stalker (1979) near Tallinn, Estonia. This final sound, more than Yusuf’s singing, undermines what would otherwise be an easy or sentimental ending. The world is still not safe for young people – not because of immigrants, but because of genuinely dangerous and far less graspable forces. 

Je suis Karl is now available for streaming on Netflix.

EatingWorld

Eating and Environmental Consciousness

The effects of global warming are no longer part of an abstract, future dystopia or a hard-to-comprehend “hyperobject.” Summer 2021, with the whiplash of Covid outbreaks and re-openings, supply chain breakdowns, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires from California to Turkey, and heatwaves even in Siberia, was a sobering wake-up call for many who had believed they would not live to feel climate collapse. 

By Heidi Hart

“Western consumers should put aside their reservations about eating crickets,” states a recent Economist commentary, “and give plant-based burgers, 3d-printed steaks and vat-grown artificial tuna a try” (Pascual, 2021). What is happening here? Consumers in privileged countries have taken dietary luxuries for granted for several generations, eating beef and buying wild-caught fish at the supermarket, choosing to go gluten-free or vegan for health or political reasons, abiding by religious food traditions and taboos. Now, simply finding what you want to eat is not so simple after all.  

Covid-era food shortages, with familiar items missing from grocery shelves in wealthy countries, are only part of the story. Long-term droughts, locust invasions, and lingering shortages from the 2014 Ebola outbreak in west African countries complicate the picture (Burgeon, 2021). The current megadrought in the western US, one painful side-effect of global warming, is straining farms and ranches beyond their already environmentally costly water use for irrigation (Nelson, 2021).

Climate leaders Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac (2020: 16) have envisioned two scenarios for Earth’s livability in 2050, depending on the level of global warming in the next several decades. In once scenario, air pollution is endemic, droughts and famines commonplace, and food production unpredictable. “Disasters and wars rage, choking off trade routes,” they predict in this scenario. “In some places, the inability to gain access to such basics as wheat, rice, or sorghum has led to economic collapse and civil unrest more quickly than even the most pessimistic experts had previously imagined.” 

In the alternate scenario, which seems painfully far-fetched after the recent disappointments of COP26, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac (2020: 26) imagine emissions halved every decade until 2050, keeping global warming at the 1.5-degree threshold. In this case, industrial agriculture has given way to regenerative farming, which involves “mixing perennial crops, sustainable grazing, and improved crop-rotation on large-scale farms.” Food shopping has shifted from large commercial centers to small, local markets and co-op purchasing groups. Meat and dairy products have all but disappeared. “We’ve come to realize,” the authors continue, “by growing our own, that food is expensive because it should be expensive – it takes valuable resources to grow it, after all. Water. Soil. Sweat. Time.”

However idealistic this scenario sounds, it does reflect present concerns about food deserts, in which poorer city dwellers do not have access to fresh produce and other healthful options, and about farming practices that deplete rather than nourish the soil. 

Environmentalists have long spoken out against genetically modified foods and pesticide-heavy industrial agriculture. Proposed solutions include organic and no-till farming, which regenerates the soil with minerals, as well as  “multistrata agroforestry,” which creates vertical plant layers and horizontal “blankets” of crops to mimic forest biodiversity (Hawken, 2017: 46-47). Dietary changes by individual consumers, such as avoiding environmentally costly beef consumption, can make a difference as well. 

These solutions come with their own problems, however. The effects of global warming are no longer part of an abstract, future dystopia or a hard-to-comprehend “hyperobject,” as environmental philosopher Timothy Morton described it in 2013. Summer 2021, with the whiplash of Covid outbreaks and re-openings, supply chain breakdowns, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires from California to Turkey, and heatwaves even in Siberia, was a sobering wake-up call for many who had believed they would not live to feel climate collapse. 

Regenerative farming may not be enough in areas without sufficient water. Consumer food choice may become a luxury even for those who have never had to worry about finding the ingredients they need in a short errand to the market. For those who have already suffered from food insecurity, indoor “vertical” farms and 3-D printed meat (Pascual, 2021) may still be far out of reach. Privileged proponents of “full stomach” environmentalism may come closer to understanding their “empty stomach”-driven counterparts (Guha, 2006 in Nixon; 2011: 5), but this is a long process, and the planet is warming and drying and flooding more quickly than human empathy may be able to catch up. 

Two results of this profound environmental stress have already begun to show: on the one hand, increased rigidity around food choices among those wealthy enough to choose (dietary “purity culture” that crosses political lines and spills into Covid vaccine debates as well); and on the other hand, deeper engagement with food sources that takes Indigenous values as a guide. Creating community gardens based on historical practices in the Ute (Utah, US) tribe is one example; growing only as much as each community needs and working from a shared economy allows the tribe to “go from an experience of exploitation to one of authentically living with each other” (Braidan Weeks, in Bitsóí and Larsen, 2021: 67-68).

“As a human being who cannot photosynthesize,” writes US Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, “I must struggle to participate in the Honorable Harvest” (2013: 180). What she means by this term is the ecologizing mindset that treats plants as beings in their own right, that honors the animal killed for meat, that does not take more than one’s share. “Cautionary stories of the consequences of taking too much are ubiquitous in Native cultures,” she notes, “but it’s hard to recall a single one in English. Perhaps this helps to explain why we seem to be caught in a trap of overconsumption, which is as destructive to ourselves as to those we consume” (Kimmerer, 2013: 179). 

Learning limits and humility is difficult for humans used to consumption-based economies. Paradoxically, though, Indigenous gift economies have fostered a sense of abundance and community reciprocity, rather than scarcity and individualism. Kimmerer (2013: 29) recalls an experience at a market in the Andes, where the transition “from private goods to shared wealth” created a sense of gratitude and, with a meal in every basket exchanged, “justice” as well.

The deep community work required to shift collective mindsets may seem impossible, but with droughts and supply chain breakdowns already occurring, it may soon become essential for survival. The alternative is a future of pandemic-style hoarding and water wars. Smarter farming, access to birth control, education for women, and local food co-ops (see Hawken, 2017) may help ease the strain of feeding a crowded, warming planet. At the local level, learning to share rather than hoard one’s groceries is a good start.  

References

Bitsóí, Alastair Lee and Brooke Larsen, Eds. (2021). New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, & Climate Crisis. Salt Lake City, UT: Torrey House Press.

Figueres, Christiana and Tom Rivett-Carnac. (2020). The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis. New York: Vintage.

Guha, Ramachandra. (2006). How Much Should a Person Consume? Environmentalism in India and the United States. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 

Hawken, Paul, Editor. (2017). Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. New York: Penguin. 

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

Morton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

COP26A

Grief, Rage, and Courage at COP26

At the end of the conference, the 1.5-degree goal still appears far out of reach. “Beyond that threshold,” scientific consensus warns, “the likelihood significantly increases of deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and species extinction. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius”. With this dire situation in mind, climate activist Greta Thunberg has called COP26 a “global greenwashing festival” – using a term coined in the 1980s that refers to corporate sustainability claims that do not actually improve the environment.

By Heidi Hart

Observing the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) from a virtual distance has created a fractured impression. The official program website shows a swirling green and purple Earth, with links to live-streamed press conferences, speeches, and the #TogetherForOurPlanet Twitter feed. This Earth looks clean and healthy, as if such an ideal were an easy goal to reach. Meanwhile, mounds of trash fill the outskirts of the conference city Glasgow, amid a garbage-collectors’ strike that makes human “throwaway society” all too clear (Gross, 2021).

News reports showed internal fault-lines even before the conference began. In the pre-conference summit in Italy, G20 leaders from the wealthy countries “collectively responsible for around 80 percent of current greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide” largely failed to come together, though they did agree to cuts in methane leaks and in coal financing overseas (Economist, 2021). Protests on the outskirts of the main Glasgow conference and around the world have included thousands of young people, who insist that carbon reduction pledges fall woefully short of the profound value shifts and decolonializing efforts that must occur in order to avoid unlivable conditions for humans and countless other species (Pruitt-Young, 2021). 

COP26’s makeup of 30,000 delegates consisted mainly of political and business leaders, who worked to draft a document that, before the delayed end of the conference, reflected disappointment in wealthy countries’ failure to reach earlier goals of financial reparation to their poorer, more climate-stressed neighbors, as well as “rage” at ongoing resistance to urgent carbon-cutting measures (New York Times, 2021). The final document created a new “Glasgow Climate Pact” that includes accelerated carbon-reduction plans, efforts to support poorer countries in adaptation measures, and worldwide infrastructure for a carbon market, but extends the target year for emissions cut to 2030, rather than the 2025 date set in the 2015 Paris agreement – “[n]ot the stuff of triumph, but not a trainwreck, either” (Economist, 2021).   

Speeches included several long, populist ramblings (by India’s prime minister Narenda Modi, for example, who did conclude with a concrete pledge to “reach net-zero emissions by 2070” [Economist, 2021]), but some voices from marginalized communities also found a place to be heard. Elizabeth Wathuti, a climate activist from Kenya, named the climate-change-induced drought leading to failed harvests and starvation in her country, where she has seen children crying by a dried-up river after walking twelve miles to reach it with their mother. “As we sit comfortably here in Glasgow,” she called for an opening of hearts and a moment of silence for those suffering and dying in poorer countries affected most painfully by global warming (see the complete video here). As Mary Annaïse Heglar has noted, “Climate grief is not an illness to cure. It is a condition we will have to live with.” Grief can lead to courage (Marvel, 2018), if not the easy optimism some may expect from a global climate conference. 

The first week of climate talks ended with a focus on agriculture and land use, with somewhat vague pledges to increase international “dialogue” on the commodities that lead to deforestation (beef and palm oil, for example) and to promote “innovation” in sustainable farming, without the concrete goals or attention to biodiversity that protesters demanded (Economist, 2021). The second week began with discussions about adaptation to the inevitable droughts, floods, and famines that will result even in the best-case scenario of the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and about “loss-and-damage” efforts in which wealthier countries compensate poorer ones for the damage their carbon emissions will continue to cause. These discussions have been largely disappointing for developing nations (Sengupta, 2021).

On November 10, a draft of COP26’s “cover decisions” outlined stronger pledges than in the Paris agreement to reduce emissions (and, unlike that document, actually uses the phrase “fossil fuels” [Economist, 2021]), but without mentioning specific dates or enforcement measures, and without offering developing countries the financial assistance they need to help with decarbonizing efforts. One dramatic and encouraging turn of events occurred that day, when China and the US announced a long list of future joint measures to reduce emissions in concrete ways, from research and alternative energy policies to methane reduction and bans on illegal deforestation (Economist, 2021). Critics have noted, however, that China’s methane efforts are only are their own terms, and the joint list is still not enough to curb global warming already out of control (NPR, 2021). 

At the end of the conference, the 1.5-degree goal still appears far out of reach. “Beyond that threshold,” scientific consensus warns, “the likelihood significantly increases of deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and species extinction. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius” (New York Times, 2021). With this dire situation in mind, climate activist Greta Thunberg has called COP26 a “global greenwashing festival” – using a term coined in the 1980s that refers to corporate sustainability claims that do not actually improve the environment (Watson, 2016). The “PR event” that Thunberg calls COP26 has failed to address deeper issues of “colonialism and beyond” that cost poorer countries as their wealthy counterparts show unwillingness to sacrifice fossil-fueled industrial comforts (Campbell, 2021). 

Thousands of people taking part in a demonstration against climate change in Glasgow city centre during UN COP26 climate conference on November 6, 2021. Photo: Bruno Mameli

Alongside the official meetings in Glasgow, a large-scale “counter summit” took place, drawing on indigenous and other “frontline” communities. This alternative conference also included progressive lawmakers and landworkers, along with representatives from trade unions, social justice organizations, and faith groups (Lakhani, 2021). On the design level, the summit’s website applies COP26’s signature purple background but with emergency- and heat-signaling orange as well. Images of humans attached to rising plant spores offer a sense of hope from the ground up. 

Discussion topics at this People’s Summit for Climate Justice included carbon pricing, the impact of British mining in Brazil, trauma and resilience among activists, environmental warfare in Kurdistan, and energy transitions in Latin America. The program offered virtual as well as in-person participation and translation services, to be as globally inclusive as possible. While this conference may not have been as optimistic as its official counterpart (with headlines such as “Landmark Agreements at COP26 Put Nails in Coal’s Coffin” celebrating cutbacks in large banks’ support of fossil fuels), it has taken a more local, grassroots approach that does not shy away from painful questions of colonialism, racism, and “slow violence” (see Nixon, 2011). 

Where to go from here? For all its limitations, the very fact of US-Chinese cooperation is a large and unexpected step. Financial commitments to decarbonization and reparations may materialize at least in time to keep warming below the truly catastrophic 2.7-degree increase the world is headed toward today (Chestney, 2021). Elsewhere in the world, many communities feeling the stresses of global warming still find themselves left out, however, from deforested Indigenous zones in Brazil to rural areas in France with out-of-reach gas prices, where residents feel very far away from the “green energy transition” discussed in Paris (Cohen, 2021).

Historian Andreas Malm takes a boldly Leninist approach to current climate debates, seeing the need for a revolution that actually challenges capitalism. Though Malm might be accused of “cosplaying revolution while the planet burns,” one reviewer of his new book White Skin, Black Fuel finds his attitude to be one of “tragic realism,” a historically informed climate grief that calls for courage, too (Tooze, 2021). Malm and his collective call for direct and even destructive action to dismantle new carbon-emitting machines, pipelines, and even the homes of the planet’s most damaging capitalists (see Malm et al., 2021). But this radical approach is not the only possible solution to a climate crisis that leaves no safe place on Earth (Peach, 2019).

Indigenous and other frontline leaders, like those who participated in the COP26 counter-conference, are bringing generations-deep wisdom to the crisis at hand. As Ute Indian Tribe (Utah, US) representative Braidan Weeks has put it, “Creating a sustainable future means empowering communities to take care of themselves and reassess that value of always having to produce. Why do you need five hundred pounds of tomatoes? You don’t. My community needs a hundred pounds of tomatoes and we do that by growing and sharing it together” (Bitsóí and Larsen, 2021: 67). Traditional controlled-burn practices to reduce the impact of wildfires (Sommer, 2020), international support of the Water Protectorsorganizing to stop the Dakota Pipeline in the US, and land-rights movements from the Arctic to Latin America are only a few of the efforts inspired by communities who have long put circular economies over ideologies of endless growth.  

On a smaller scale, individuals can still make a difference in choosing how to consume (or not), how to travel (or not), and how to recreate responsibly in natural areas. Developing an attitude of care that does not avoid grief or even rage is a good place to start, to cultivate the courage needed for protecting Earthly futures. For those of us lacking the youthful energy of activists like Greta Thunberg and Elizabeth Wathuti, the example of an older climate educator in Sweden is inspiring: 73-year-old Gitte H.D. has just released a “climate rap” that demonstrates how people of any age can feel and act for climate care. There’s still time to learn and change. Enjoy her video here, with the kind of concrete advice large climate conferences often fail to deliver. 

References

Bitsóí, Alastair Lee & Larsen, Brooke. Eds. (2021). New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, & Climate Crisis. Salt Lake City, UT: Torrey House Press.

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Malm, Andreas & the Zetkin Collective. (2021). White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. London: Verso Books. 

Hundreds of immigrants had to wait at the border between Greece and FYROM waiting for the right time to continue their journey from unguarded passages on September 24, 2015 in Idomeni, Greece. Photo: Ververidis Vasilis.

Ethnographic Reflexivity: Why listening to individuals matters in an age of populistic cacophony

Populism and migration studies should be a vital voice to people and should include individual narratives and multi-perspectival methodologies into work instead of limiting themselves with the meta-narrative discussions and frameworks. Until then it can produce multi-perspectival, grounded narratives that develop a certain critique before populism.

By Dilek Karal

In a book club or let it be an intellectual cafe of castaway academics, one of us said: “How weird is that we all are KHK[i]people…” KHK was the abbreviation for governmental decrees that cost more than a hundred and fifty thousand people their jobs and more in Turkey… Among them were bureaucrats, state officials, journalists, teachers, and us: a group of academics trying to survive in different countries rounded in a Zoom meeting discussing “ethics.” 

Another meaning of KHK –that you could not find any international report or local dictionary was that– the labeled, scapegoat, the unwanted… one step further: terrorist. All times’ usual suspects, persona non grata. Its effect grew in your gut and your surroundings after you got it like an epidemic. If you become a KHK person, you get scapegoated, isolated, have to explain yourself, or keep your silence to have a second chance out of humiliating, pejorative legal mechanisms. 

All of us paused and thought over the memories of the past 6 years that drastically changed our lives after the controversial coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Not all of us had the KHK but some of us were still unwanted ones of the state since we either were families with people, the state found dangerous or we were dangerous because of our opposing positions or views to government. This was a scene beyond overarching holistic discourses and populistic cacophonies. Life experiences and stories of real individuals, where their life is directly affected by any populistic discourse or action. Like it happened to me and my colleagues.

The problematic aspect of generalist or data-centered perspectives in social science is that when a bad happens to thousands of people, you get the feeling that a personal story is of non-significance. Just a thing, among other things. All the pain, social isolation, curfew, fear become unfortunate “normal” as if it does not count. Overall, the immigrants in this personal example are just numbers in totalistic data-centric perspective of today’s migration studies, however, as being one of them, I can personally tell beyond data or any dictionaries. This personal example reminded me of the two major problematic perspectives that we encounter in today’s populism studies: responding to generalist and data-centric claims of populists with generalizations. Second, limited space is given to populism in ethnographic studies.

Taking anti-immigrant discourse as a departing point example, I suggest digging into reflexive ethnographies more to make human narratives more vivid and distancing migration research (or any kind of social research) from highly populistic and politicized discussions on migration today. In this short introductory discussion, I claim that populism studies to be a vital voice to people, should and must include individual narratives and multi-perspectival methodologies into work instead of limiting themselves within the meta-narrative discussions and frameworks. Until then it can produce multi-perspectival, grounded narratives that develop a certain critique before populism.

Populism vs. Individual

Defined as a “thin-centered ideology and rather a discursive frame” (Mudde, 2007), populism is a meta-discourse between discourse and ideology playing in with the “antagonism between people and elites against the backdrop of popular sovereignty” (Aslanidis, 2015: 88). As Frank (2017) pointed out earlier, as individuals evanesce from the public space, populism speaks for the masses. “The defining claim of populism emerges from the democratic necessity and impossibility of the people speaking in their name. Populism emerges as an event by exploiting this tension between the authorized representation of public authority and the enactment of popular power that proceeds without authorization” (Frank, 2017: 631). That is how populism stands against the individualization of discourse. 

Anti-elitism, people centrism, popular sovereignty stands as the core dynamics of populism (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2012) along with xenophobia and anti-immigrant discourse. However, the populistic perspective considers people, the nation as a collective or as if an organism that moves in tandem. That is why we encounter much of a terminology “our nation”, “others”, “elites” as if there are groups of people carrying fictitious banners of their group. Similarly, immigrants are the modern scapegoats for populist leaders. They are considered as the perfect other of populist vision of the nation. However, immigrant as a general term is more generalized in the hands of populists where they are counted as long as they are considered as a nation of immigrants.  

There is no space in populistic policies for the individual. The only individual at the center is their “charismatic leader” in the Weberian sense. As once philosopher Carl Jung used to define Hitler: You cannot speak to Hitler, such an initiation is alike speaking to a whole nation. Rather than an individual with weaknesses, psychological problems, or clumsiness, populistic leaders are perfectionated personalities as “nation” in their terms.[ii]

Possibility of an Ethnographic Reflexive Critique towards Populism

As expected, populism did not find a large resonance in ethnographic studies or anthropology though it is largely handled as a topic of political science or more generalist frameworks. The growing political wave was “anathema to anything and everything anthropological thought has ever represented” (Bangstad, 2017). While ethnographic studies centered upon individual experience as a core starting point to evaluate social, populism and alike ideologies are mostly seen as topics of the more holistic kind not suitable for ethnographic studies. Similarly, Mazzarella (2021) names populism as an awkward topic to discuss for anthropologists, criticizing the ethnographic and anthropological studies’ distancing themselves from political or popular topics. 

In this regard, anti-immigration discourse is overall highly populist where individuals’ stories dissolve from the scene while answering populists’ holistic claims. For example, when a populist leader calls immigrants a burden on the economy, we are trying to prove that they are not. However, within this dichotomic thinking, we are underestimating the humanitarian value of individual for just being a human being, even this individual is a person who cannot make any contribution to the economy. Think about immigrants who are elderly, living with disabilities, or just children. I insist that instead of defending immigrants via generalizing data before any populist policy, we should propose the value of the individual through developing more of an individualistic discourse both in populism and migration studies.

I claim that reflexive ethnographies can present alternative research methodologies both for the study of immigration and anti-immigrant populistic discourses. Ethnographic reflexivity, on the other hand, is mainly the researcher’s positioning herself as a part of research and adding her insights, observations, distance or closeness to the narration of the research and analysis. While “postmodern individual is structuring itself via language, that is narrative” (Neyzi, 1999: 3), we should seek new frameworks to develop a critique of populistic meta-narratives, epic and didactic stories that consider people as long as they belong to a group with clear boundaries such as a nation. 

Reflexivity values ethnographies though the critique of the categorical and national character of migration research claiming perspectival, political and performative nature of categories are lacking to describe migration phenomenon (Dahinden, Fischer & Menet, 2015: 31-33). Alike reflexive methodologies can develop objective and realistic research that inherently facilitates a critique towards populism: irrational populistic cacophonies vs. human narrative and experience.

Contrary to dichotomic thinking present in sociology, in search of a more social constructivist way, autoethnography also functions as a passage “by definition operates as a bridge, connecting autobiography and ethnography in order to study the intersection of self and others, self and culture” (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 446). Researching of the self through autoethnographies, qualitative researchers develop introspection via “diaries, journals, freewriting, field notes and narratives of his or her lived experiences, thoughts and feelings, and then using these as data” (Ellis, 1991 as cited in Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 451). Through a reconstruction of experiences, reflections and memories, the researcher became both the subject and the object of research (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 451). I argue that reflexive ethnography can fully integrate reflexivity without abandoning its claims to develop valid knowledge of social reality before populistic claims (Davies, 1999: Preface). Autoethnography provides us means to deconstruct the dichotomy between the researcher and the researched. In this regard, “Author’s own experiences emotions and meanings become data for exploration” (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 451). 

This type of knowledge is omnipresent in multiple mechanisms of migration policies however, has it given value in social science apart from ethnographers or sociologists? As Fischer (2017) claims “anthropology has to “reinvent itself as a vital public voice, activating society and supporting values of the social good for the contemporary worlds emergent around us.” That sound critique can be reversed and directed towards any studies around popular topics including but not limited to populism studies while “all the apparently informal sayings, doings, and feelings that in fact become decisive for formal political outcomes, especially in populist times” (Das, 2006; Gutmann, 2002; Spencer, 2007 in Mazzarella, 2021: 54). If so, why do not we activate the power of the individual as an agent who produces multiple, vivid discourses instead of assigning individual a presupposed subaltern, subordinate, pathetic role in politics and research?[iii]

References

Aslanidis, P. (2015). “Is Populism an Ideology? A Refutation and a New Perspective.” Political Studies. 64 (1_suppl):88-104. doi:10.1111/1467-9248.12224

Bangstad, S. (2017). “Academic freedom in an age of populism.” Anthropology News. Feb. 13.

Dahinden, J.; Fischer, C. & Menet, J. (2020). “Knowledge production, reflexivity, and the use of categories in migration studies: tackling challenges in the field.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2020.1752926Das 2006

Davies, C. A. (1999). Reflexive Ethnography: A guide to researching selves

and others. Routledge: London and NY.

Ellingson, L. L., & Ellis, C. (2008). “Autoethnography as constructionist project.” In: J. A. Holstein & J. F. Gubrium (Eds.), Handbook of constructionist research. (pp. 445-465). New York: Guilford.

Frank, J. (2017). “Populism and praxis.” In: Rovira Kaltwasser et al. The Oxford Handbook of Populism. pp. 629–643.

Mazzarella, W. (2021). “The Anthropology of Populism: Beyond the Liberal Settlement.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 48:45–60. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102218-011412.

Mouffe C. (2018). For a Left Populism. London: Verso.

Mudde C. (2007). Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Mudde, C. & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2012). (eds). Populism in Europe and Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy. 

Neyzi, L. (1999). İstanbul’da Hatırlamak ve Unutmak: Birey, Bellek, Aidiyet. Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları: İstanbul.


[i] After the controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the government in Turkey, using emergency decrees, dismissed more than 152,000 civil servants, including academics, teachers, police officers, health

workers, judges and prosecutors. Turkish government has taken more than 150,000 people into custody during the state of emergency and arrested more than 78,000 on terrorism-related charges, 50,000 of whom are still in jail (European Commission, 2019). 155,560 people are still currently under investigation due to their alleged links to the coup attempt (Hurriyet Daily News, 2019). (Information retrieved form the report: Political Persecution and Intersections of Violence against Women in Turkey by Hand in Hand for Women).

[ii] For a detailed discussion on totalitarian leadership and its reflections among public please see Arendt, H. (1964). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York: Viking Press

[iii] For a detailed discussion of subordinated individual please see Spivak, G.C. (1988). “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In: Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. London: Macmillan.

A dying stalker in jacket and gloves in damaged gas mask with filter reaching out his hand to camera on destructed apocalyptic wasteland city background.

“Ruin Porn,” the Populist Apocalypse, and Art as Antidote

This commentary considers several populist frameworks for apocalyptic thinking in Europe and the US, in historical and environmental perspective, with reflection on art forms that counter right-wing “ruin value.”

By Heidi Hart

Teaching American undergraduates in Berlin in the early 2010s, I asked my students to create short documentary films in places that held particular historical interest for them. Many of them chose dystopian remnants of the former East Germany, from an empty-windowed primary school to the famous Spreepark with its silent Ferris wheel and tumbledown dinosaur parts. Following the Abandoned Berlin website, these young students on the cusp of the Instagram age were already sensitized to dystopian films and graphic novels, though the totalitarian resurgences and up-close climate crises of our current decade were yet to come. Ruins seemed fun then; Berlin’s gentrification had not yet transformed all the peeling, shell-pocked back courtyards of now trendy neighborhoods. 

Ten years later, ruins have become pathologically fun (I think of the selfie-driven tourism around Chernobyl) and at the same time painfully foreboding. Abandoned office buildings during the Covid-19 lockdown, with dead, ghostly potted plants, became a harbinger of an upended labor market amid rapidly intensifying climate disasters, from monster floods and megadroughts to heatwaves in unlikely places,  as capitalism’s costs have become apparent on a planetary scale. The “new weird” genre of film and fiction, in which strange life forms might overtake an abandoned swimming pool (as in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation), now seems too close to home to be merely entertaining. 

Especially for climate educators, artists, and activists, ruins are more than Instagrammable tourist destinations or spine-tingling movie scenes. They are all too real, as in the loss of giant redwood trees to California wildfires, the flooding of a temple complex in Thailand, or the exposure of archaeological sites as a dam-built reservoir recedes to record low levelsin Utah. The climate crisis has made “the fragility of our collective cultural enterprise” all too clear, as “[p]apyrus rots, paper burns, museums get sacked, hard drives crash” (Scranton, 2015: 100), not to mention whole towns charred to chimney-stumps by a wildfire. 

For some populist groups, however, ruins and apocalyptic thinking hold a different and dangerous power. Instead of a sense of weirdness or “wrongness” (Fisher, 2016: 13) that might lead to critical re-evaluation of human industrial comforts, ruins in the right-wing populist or eco-fascist imagination can signal pleasure in a world without humans at all – or at least without those white supremacists would like to see gone. 

Two elderly German men, one wearing the armband signifying blindness, the other his helper, sitting on a crate amid the rubble during Battle of Berlin in May 1945. Photo: Yevgeny Khaldei – Everett Collection.

This take on what is now called “ruin porn” is not new. “Ruinenwert” or “ruin value” was “one of Hitler’s favorite concepts … actually foreseeing the future ruins that would symbolize the greatness of the Third Reich, even after the demise of the empire” (Horvat, 2021: 88-89). Going back further in German culture, ruins were a key focal point in much Romantic art (see Pinto, 2016); the aristocratic gardens designed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe just outside Weimar include “sham ruins” to evoke the melancholy of time’s passing.   

Well aware of this history, Hitler commissioned Albert Speer in 1934 to design a Greek-inspired proto-ruin for the Zeppelinfeld rallying ground (Horvat, 2021: 88). Speer provided Hitler with “a science fiction drawing that depicted the Zeppelin Field after the Götterdämmerung – or ‘after the Apocalypse’ – overgrown with ivy and with its column fallen” (Horvat, 2021: 89) according to the National Socialist “law of ruins” (Speer, 1970: 56). More recent architectural projects in Germany (the renovation of Frankfurt’s Old Town, for example) have raised specters of Nazism not only in their valorizing of an ideal “Heimat” but also in the far-right populist views of the designers and their political supporters (Moore, 2018). 

The idea of a violent collapse of civilization (or at least the democratic version) has also regained traction among far-right groups in Germany. The case of Franco A., a soldier posing as a Syrian refugee and caught retrieving a loaded weapon from an airport bathroom in 2017, exposed a complex network of military and police personnel planning attacks on individuals and on the German government. Their goal: an unspecified date of armed insurrection that would send German democracy up in flames (Bennhold et al., 2021). 

Author Dirk Laabs has traced the spread of this far-reaching movement in a recent book that reads “like a cancer diagnosis,” describing secret meetings, weapons stashes, and contact with the AfD party, as groups with names like Uniter and Nordkreuz have  attempted to cause “Germany to fall like a house of cards on ‘Day X’” (Hemicker, 2021, translation mine). Members have ranged from elite soldiers to one of Angela Merkel’s former security officers. Though assassination plots and an attempt to storm the Reichstag in August 2020, fueled partly by anger at Covid restrictions, have mostly failed, the threat of “spontaneous” attacks remains (see Laabs, 2021). 

In addition to end-times ideologies in Europe, eco-fascist fascinations with human ruins left behind, and widespread far-right interest in the Middle Ages (often for racist reasons, imagining a “threat from the East” [S.N., 2017]), apocalyptic notions appeal strongly to many Trump supporters in the US. Building on post-9/11 wishful thinking for a conflagration in Israel that would bring about the Second Coming of Christ (as popularized in the Left Behind fiction series [see Gribben, 2004]), an ideology of Trump’s inciting chaos to accelerate the end of the world has gained traction even among those who dislike his personality (Lecaque, 2019). 

Though Trump himself is hardly a religious figure, “his lack of apparent belief in anything has freed him up to seek out and uniquely cater to whatever group would show the most allegiance” (Morris, 2020). Stacking his staff with Christian fundamentalists, inciting reactionary thinking in his rally rhetoric as well as actual chaos on the world stage, Trump appears (even after his 2020 loss) to revel in teetering at the edge of the end times. The January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington evoked a Götterdämmerung atmosphere, amid economic crisis and a global pandemic. What ruins of American democracy would be left behind? 

As Amir Ahmadi Arian pointed out as early as 2017, anti-Trump apocalyptic thinking is equally dangerous. The Spiegel’s post-election cover image of Trump as an open-mouthed meteor hurtling toward Earth is one example of “push[ing] Trump so far down the ladder of evil that he ultimately ceased to be a human, and became endowed with magical destructive forces” (Arian, 2017). The risk in demonization is turning one’s enemy into a god and taking pleasure (however guiltily) in watching the world burn. 

A doll in a gas mask in abandoned city of Pripyat in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in February 2016. Photo: Ondrej Bucek

Some antidotes to enjoying the threat of destruction (or commodifying it, in the case of Chernobyl tourism) include rhetorical “prose” instead of “poetry,” as Arian suggests, as well as clear-eyed and compassionate approaches to images of loss, toxicity, and decay. A helpful model is Andrei Tarkovsky’s iconic film Stalker (1978-79), filmed in the literal ruins of a “factory and two hydroelectric plants” outside Tallinn, Estonia (Riley, 2017: 21). In the film, the “stalker” or guide leads a writer and professor into this toxic landscape (which may well have led to the director’s early death from cancer), imagined as a mysterious “Zone” where wishes can come true. It is actually a liminal space between the “remnants of a ruined civilization” and “imminent human catastrophe” (Tarkovsky, Jr., Schlegel and Schirmer, 2018: 164), where humans must come up against their limits.

This Cold War-era film, with its dripping tunnels and overgrown train tracks, may call up contemporary associations with Chernobyl, but its slowness avoids the quick thrills of “dark tourism” that trivializes places where humans and whole habitats have died. It also counters eco-fascist celebrations of “empty” landscapes. The film works as a deeply phenomenological meditation on industrial waste, but with as much attention to human pain and care as it gives to human arrogance. 

Films and artworks like Stalker that approach ruins with critical curiosity recall Jacques Derrida’s term “hauntology,”coined in a 1993 corrective to triumphalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not wanting to throw Marx out with the Cold War bathwater, Derrida re-imagined the 19th-century philosopher’s thinking as a “spectre” (as in Marx’s own words about the “spectre of Communism” haunting Europe) countering neoliberal fantasies of endless growth (Salmon, 2021, Derrida, 2006). 

In the wake and waste of these fantasies, grass and water surface: “Stalker’s visual landscape represents a natural world that industrialization is incapable of industrializing, a landscape that modernization can no longer modernize” (Riley, 2017: 22). In the moment when the Stalker lies down in that grass to feel it fully, however, the film overcomes any illusion of natural “purity” restored after humans have gone. 

Still, even critical contemplation of human-made ruins can be a luxury. For Indigenous communities whose worlds have already ended, ruins are not just artifacts or aesthetic reminders of human fallibility. In 2020, the Indigenous Action group in the US released Rethinking the Apocalypse: An Indigenous Anti-Futurist Manifesto. This document refuses White end-times ideology by acknowledging cycles of death and rebirth that include human-made climate crisis. 

From a post-apocalyptic perspective that carries genocide, stolen and poisoned sacred lands, forced education and mass graves of Native children, the end of the capitalist-industrial world may mean a rebirth of more grounded values – but not in the ecofascist sense of removing humans perceived as “other.” The manifesto includes this passage, as much invocation as provocation, with a different take on “ghosts” from Derrida’s:

As Indigenous anti-futurists, we are the consequence of the history of the colonizer’s future. We are the consequence of their war against Mother Earth. We will not allow the specter of the colonizer, the ghosts of the past to haunt the ruins of this world. We are the actualization of our prophecies.

This is the re-emergence of the world of cycles.

This is our ceremony.

Between silent skies. The world breathes again and the fever subsides.

The land is quiet. Waiting for us to listen.” (Indigenous Action, 2020).

Likewise, as slave histories are rising up amid fear and backlash in the American education system, Black artists are finding powerful ways to expose their own inherited ruins. Choreographer Mayfield Brooks’ 2021 Whale Fall takes its title from the bodies of whales that fall to ruin and feed smaller creatures on the ocean floor, as a way to embody grief and regeneration through movement and sound in a bare-bones theatre. Brooks describes the piece not only as a vehicle for processing the generational trauma of slavery but also as a response to experiencing Covid; “I just felt like my body was decomposing” (Kourlas/Brooks, 2021). This slow, solitary piece ends with a trio of Black women in a ritual of nourishment after grief. 

Making art with or from ruins is not new for artists from marginalized communities. Beverly Buchanan’s 1981 Marsh Ruins is a humbler, more historically embedded land installation than ephemeral works by Andy Goldsworthy or monumental constructions by Robert Smithson. In a tidal area on the Georgia coast, Buchanan constructed mounds of tabby (“a concrete made from lime, water, sand, oyster shells, and ash,” once used to build slave quarters (Art Papers, 2020) that serve as carriers of collective memory. Her work responds to literal tabby ruins in the area, including the remains of a former slave hospital that inspired the artist to create a container for “loss and unknowability – affirming the incompleteness of the historical record – while also evoking strength and endurance” (Groom, 2020: 51).

Having grown up in a privileged relationship to ruins (exploring a skeletal castle near my childhood school in Germany or visiting Native American sites in the American desert), I am learning to see these remnants with more attention to histories of power and loss. I try to take to heart Beverly Buchanan’s tongue-in-cheek attitude toward tourism, making her own mock signs to direct people to her “roadside attraction” Marsh Ruins (Groom, 2020: 14). I will not be visiting Chernobyl, for all its overgrown mystique.

I am also more aware of my own tendencies to romanticize natural spaces that humans have apparently left behind, and to wish to hold memory in place – of the American mountain town where I lived before “resort” development, or the 19thcentury foundations exposed as drought dries up the local reservoir. After all, as Caitlin Desilvey has noted, “With each act of preservation, the vulnerable object becomes (a little bit of) us, and its unmaking threatens to unmake our identities as well” (2017: 13). This threat to identity can be an opportunity for more humility, for knowledge of our human limits in a world we’ve damaged beyond our own control. 

References

Berardini, Andrew. Ed. (2021). Sirenomelia: Emilija Škarnulytė. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Derrida, Jacques. (2006). Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.

Desilvey, Caitlin. (2017). Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Fisher, Mark. (2016). The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books. 

Gribben, Crawford. (2004). “Rapture Fictions and the Changing Evangelical Condition.” Literature and Theology18(1), 77–94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23925696

Groom, Amelia. (2020). Beverley Buchanan: Marsh Ruins. Boston, MA: Afterall Books/MIT Press. 

Horvat, Srećko. (2021). After the Apocalypse. Cambridge, UK:  Polity Press.

Laabs, Dirk. (2021). Staatsfeinde in Uniform. Wie militante Rechte unsere Institutionen unterwandern. Berlin: Econ Verlag.

Pinto, J. A. (2016). “Speaking Ruins: Travelers’ Perceptions of Ancient Rome.” SiteLINES: A Journal of Place11(2), 3–5.http://www.jstor.org/stable/24889511

Riley, John. (2017). “Hauntology, Ruins, and the Failure of the Future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.” Journal of Film and Video. 69(1), 18–26. https://doi.org/10.5406/jfilmvideo.69.1.0018

Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.

Speer, Albert. (1970). Inside the Third Reich. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. London:  Trafalgar Square. 

VanderMeer, Jeff. (2014). Annihilation. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

Demonstrators hold placards in support of Syrian refugees during a protest in Istanbul on July 27, 2019 against Turkish government's refugee policies. Photo: Huseyin Aldemir.

The populist zeitgeist in Turkey: A Cornelian dilemma ahead

Increasingly, Turkey is experiencing a deep wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment because of a rapid increase in refugee numbers and the populist rhetoric of political leaders. Anti-immigrant sentiment is shared by almost all political parties and regardless of political or ideological roots, people have increasingly defended an anti-immigrant agenda. The most pervasive arguments are related to the economy, unemployment, and cultural incompatibility.

By Fatih Karakus*

Turkey, hosting one of the largest refugee populations in the world with around 4 million, is experiencing a deep wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, a result of the last decade’s rapid increase in refugee numbers and the populist rhetoric of political party leaders. Anti-immigrant sentiment is shared by almost all political parties across the spectrum. However, the parties differ in their target groups. 

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu announced that he will make sure that Syrian refugees will be repatriated if his party wins elections. In a more critical tone, the CHP mayor of Bolu municipality, Tanju Ozcan, declared that they will charge non-Turkish citizens ten times higher than ordinary residents to encourage them to leave their city, stating that “this hospitage has lingered too long.” 

In a similar vein, the leader of far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli also voiced his concerns over the permanent settlement of Syrian refugees, arguing for “safely sending back” all the refugees. Another nationalist party, the Iyi (Good) Party, also defends anti-immigrant policies. Its leader Meral Aksener promised to send 4 million refugees back to their countries if she was elected. 

However, none of these parties has defended repatriation as fervently as the leader of the newly established Zafer (Victory) Party, ex-academic Umit Ozdag. He incited violence against refugees (including recent Afghan immigrants) in both open and subtle ways. To this end, he even posted a photo of a corner store run by an Afghan refugee which resulted in the owner changing the store’s name to avoid potential attacks. As an example of a textbook definition of right-wing extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric, Ozdag alleged once that Syrian refugees will be instrumentalized in the upcoming civil war. Zafer Party, through its ideology, rhetoric, and activities, resembles Germany’s anti-immigrant AfD(Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany) Party and France’s RN (Rassemblement national – National Rally).   

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also kept a populist agenda but used a more religious tone. While its partner MHP and the opposition parties (except for the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party – HDP) maintain similar stances on immigration policies, AKP’s populism has targeted non-Muslims, including Turkish citizens such as Armenians, Jews, etc. Erdogan, on many occasions, has also instrumentalized Syrian refugees against the European Union (EU) by threatening to open the borders to Europe. In many cases, Erdogan proved that his stance on immigration is not an indication of humanitarian concerns, but a practical one.

At this point, we should note that citizens from each voter base, regardless of political or ideological roots, have increasingly defended an anti-immigrant agenda. The most pervasive arguments are related to the economy, unemployment, and cultural incompatibility. As far as the economic and employment-related anti-immigrant sentiments are concerned, there are studies supporting the claims of increased unemployment that is associated with increased immigrant flow in Turkey (Isiksal et al., 2020; Ceritoglu et al., 2017). When it comes to cultural incompatibility, Turkish citizens are perpetuating a widespread argument, which is also the case for the West (Huntington, 1996; Mondon & Winter, 2020) and accepted as “cultural racism” by many (Fanon, 1967; Bonilla-Silva, 2014), a subtle replacement of biological racism (Parker, 2018). Cultural incompatibility is especially raised against the Afghan refugees who fled from the Taliban regime and voiced mostly by secular and Kemalist circles based on their fears of Islamic extremism. 

Again, we should note here that while criticizing Europe and the United States for Islamophobia and Xenophobia, Turkey is no better in its approach towards immigration and foreign nationals. Greece’s recent pushbacks and violence against refugees, as reported by Amnesty International, have been criticized by all political parties including the ruling AKP and its opposition. On the other hand, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Syrian refugees are being forced to sign “Voluntary Return Forms” by Turkish officials. 

Based on the economic variables, current figures of refugees hosted, potential for other waves of immigration within and across the regions, and increasing anti-immigrant sentiments among voters, we may project a similar agenda between major political parties during the upcoming presidential election campaigns. Even Erdogan’s AKP may change its tone towards refugees as well as Europe. As implied in the title, Turkish voters will probably have to choose between similar options that will all lead to problematic results in immigration policy. What makes it even worse is the lack of institutional and economic leverage that can benefit refugees as they struggle against the rising anger about their very existence in Turkey. The looming tension and pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment are causing refugees to be on tenterhooks. Policy makers and practitioners in the field should be hypervigilant about waves of immigrants at Turkish borders on the chance that Turkey decides to send them back to their home countries. 


 

 (*) Fatih Karakus is a doctoral student at the Criminology Program, the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University. He is researching the impacts of right-wing extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric on the sense of belonging and integration of Muslim newcomer communities and the ways to build resilience. Previously, Karakus worked for the Turkish National Police Istanbul State Security Department as the Chief of Social Movements Bureau and Political Parties Bureau. He also served as the Chief of Bureaus at Immigration (Foreigners) Division at Diyarbakir Police Department and directed the in-take procedures of Syrian Refugees fleeing from ISIS threat.


 

References

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2014). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of

racial inequality in America. (4th ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Ceritoglu, E.; Yunculer, H. B. G.; Torun, H. & Tumen, S. (2017). “The impact of Syrian refugees on natives’ labor market outcomes in Turkey: Evidence from a quasi-experimental design.” IZA Journal of Labor Policy. 6(5), 1-28. 

Fanon, F. (1967). Toward the African revolution. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Huntington, S. P. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Isiksal, H., Isiksal, A. Z., Apeji, Y. (2020). “The impact of Syrian refugees on the Turkish labor market.” International Journal of Operations Management. 1(1), 27-34.

Mondon, A., & Winter, A. (2020). Reactionary democracy: How racism and the populist far right became mainstream.Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Parker, C. S. (2018). “The radical right in the United States of America.” In: J. Rydgren (Ed), The Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right (pp.738-769). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Caricature of Italian politicians Beppe Grillo, Matteo Renzi and Matteo Salvini in carnival parade of floats and masks, on January 2018 in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy. Photo: Kokophotos.

Prof. Pappas: We need creative leaders with realistic agendas against populism

Professor Takis Pappas: “I think that exactly as populism begins with some extraordinary leaders with radical ideas about how to reconstitute democratic societies, the liberal recovery requires creative leaders with realistic agendas of how to renew the liberal institutions and make them fit for contemporary political realities.”

Interview by Erdem Kaya   

Challenging ahistorical definitions Professor Takis Pappas, who is a professor and an associate researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and works for the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project “Populism and Civic Engagement”(PACE), views modern populism as a phenomenon emerging against political liberalism in the post-war Europe and the Americas. Pappas referring to a minimalist definition of democracy takes modern populism simply as “illiberal democracy” which stands as an unstable category between liberalism and autocracy. Pappas designed a causal model based on a detailed comparative analysis of prominent cases to develop a theoretical explanation of modern populism. In his perspective, in order to counter populist politics, we need creative leaders with realistic agendas as well as the adaptation of liberal institutions to present-day political realities of the democratic world. 

The following is the excerpts from the interview. 

Your research underlines the necessity of the clarification of the basic concepts and exposes the conceptual and methodological errors in populism literature. To begin with, how do you outline the common problems within the growing literature on populism?

The literature on populism has grown fast but also in a haphazard way. As a result, the concept of populism is being stretched to a breaking point. It was several decades ago that Margaret Canovan, among others, warned that, the more flexible this concept would become, the more tempted political scientists and others would be to label “populist” anything that doesn’t fit into previously established categories. This is what has actually happened. Today, “populism” is everywhere and almost everything is “populist.” 

This highly problematic situation has two main causes: On the one hand, there is in the generic literature of populism a tremendous lack of empirical knowledge about the cases classified as populist and, on the other hand, there is by now a very large number of attributes, or features, that are commonly attributed to populism while in reality they are quite common in other political phenomena, as well. 

What is, therefore, necessary in order to get out of such an impasse and be able to make useful and meaningful theoretical propositions, is to first focus on the core properties that are unique to the concept “populism” and, second, to acquire detailed historical and political knowledge of the cases that fit the definition of the concept and, therefore, ought to be classified as populist.

Populism Is Time- and Space-specific

Your argument specifies the concept of populism focusing on post-war Europe and the Americas as a spatiotemporal realm instead of searching for a timeless, one-size-fits-all definition. Can you please unpack your approach and explain the rationale behind it?

Populism, like all other political phenomena, is time- and space-specific. Think about “democracy” and how this concept applies in three different spatiotemporal settings: ancient Greece, 19th century Europe, and our own times in still early 21st century. The concept is the same but the ways it materializes across historical eras and places is entirely different. The same happens if you try to compare the populism of, say, the Gracchi brothers in the late Roman republic, the 17th century Levellers in England, and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In more than one senses, all three are expressions of a generic populism. So what? To study them comparatively is as meaningless as studying together ancient Greek democracy and, say, Germany’s post-war and contemporary democracy! 

What my work brings into focus, instead, is modern-day populism. More specifically, my interest in populism stems from, and addresses, a real historical and political puzzle, namely, the transformation of post-war liberal democracies into populist ones. I ask why, and how, certain societies with a previous liberal tradition may allow into power populist leaders who subsequently establish illiberal democratic regimes. Obviously, my work finds empirical resonance precisely in those countries in which liberalism became established, however feebly, in the aftermath of World War II. With no exception, those countries are to be found either in Europe or in the Americas.

Modern Populism Is Synonymous to Illiberal Democracy

Your definition of modern populism as “illiberal democracy” and “the rejection of liberal democracy” is quite straightforward. Modern populism is still democratic and not autocratic though it is clearly against the liberal canon. But you also take populism as an unstable category in the liberalism-autocracy spectrum. When does a populist party cross the Rubicon and cease to be democratic in this spectrum? Should we then drop the title of populism for nondemocratic autocracies, such as the Orbán government in Hungary?

My theoretical work hinges on just two pairs of clearly defined opposites: democracy vs. nondemocracy and liberalism vs. illiberalism. Now, if you agree with me that modern populism is synonymous to illiberal democracy, then we end up with only three basic political systems, or regimes: liberal democracy, illiberal democracy, and autocracy. In this view, populism stands midway between democratic liberalism and the rejection of democratic pluralism. Which way it will go eventually depends on a large variety of reasons including structural and agentic factors, external crises, and other conjunctural events. 

Telling when a party passes from one type to another is easy when we have clear and easily operationalized definitions of the basic political systems. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela, for instance, which was conceived as a populist force under the leadership of Hugo Chávez has in more recent years transformed into an authoritarian party under its current leader Nicolás Maduro. Quite the opposite is, for instance, the case of Greece’s PASOK—a classic populist party that in more recent years (and amidst the financial crisis that befell on that country in the early 2010s) recast itself as a liberal force. There are many other similar cases.

In your recently published book, Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis you argue that extraordinary or charismatic leadership plays a prominent role in the populist emergence. What does it take to be a successful populist leader in the first place?

Indeed, I know no case of successful populism that is not being led by a leader with charismatic qualities. To put it in a nutshell: No charisma, no successful populism. In contrast to ordinary, non-charismatic leaders whose rule is rather impersonal and procedural, charismatics display two different characteristics—the personal nature of their authority and the radicalism of the political goals they seek to achieve. Accordingly, I understand, and define, political charisma as a distinct type of legitimate leadership that is personal and aims at the radical transformation of an established institutional order. Under this definition, charismatic leaders are not identified as such by their electoral success, which would make for a tautological analysis, nor by any physical or personal characteristics, such as physical height, oratorial skills and the like. 

My definition of charisma requires leaders combining two characteristics: full personal authority and radical political aims. Come to think of it, this type of authority is both extraordinary and rare. For, in the reality of ordinary politics, most parliamentary democracies are ruled by collective decision-making processes in the pursuit of moderate and piecemeal reforms, not radical change. But then, when I looked at my cases of populism, I realized that, with no single exception, all had emerged out of extraordinary leadership action. Most typically, the charismatic populists have had founded their own parties (or, as in the case of Trump, taken full control over existing ones) and, by exercising full control over the party organizations, used them as their means to radically change liberal democratic systems into illiberal ones. 

Populist and Nativist Parties Constitute Different Classes

In your studies, you argue that nativism is often conflated or inaccurately identified with populism. What is the difference between nativism and populism? 

This question of yours takes us back to the quest for empirical data. Try to compare factually, for instance, Denmark’s Progress Party and Hungary’s Fidesz. Both parties are often classified as “populist.” But what makes them similar? The question is apparently rhetorical for the differences far exceed any similarities those parties may have. Simple comparison of the cases easily reveals that populist and nativist parties constitute different classes which should not be kept analytically separate. Populist parties depend on charismatic leaders, tend to develop in flawed liberal democracies and, when in office, pursue comprehensive illiberal political agendas. In contrast, nativist parties are mostly led by ordinary (non-charismatic) leaders, grow particularly strong in Europe’s most politically advanced and economically strong liberal democracies, aim at specific policies rather than entire political system overhauls, and, interestingly enough, have never won power singlehandedly. There are several other differences between populist and nativist parties, which I have presented in booksarticles but also in simple infographic form.

Your research on the theoretical and comparative study of populism fills a critical gap in the literature. What do you think is the main challenge in theorizing populism?

The real challenge is to understand what causes populism and how it then afflicts our liberal democratic systems. There are several gaps in our knowledge which my work tries to fill in logical order. You see, to establish causality, we need to do meticulous empirical research on the significant cases of populist occurrence. But to do so, we must previously have selected the cases carefully and organized them into coherent classificatory system. But this is a far from easy task, especially when our definitions are unclear and ambiguous. 

Everything Begins with a Charismatic Leader

You developed a causal model for the theoretical explanation of the populist emergence. How does your causal model work?

Yes, I have developed a model including the causal chain of populism informed by the detailed comparative analysis of significant cases over long periods of time. It is based on the interplay of three factors: political structures, individual agency, and the activation of micro- and meso-mechanisms that are absolutely necessary to produce the populist outcome. Everything begins with a charismatic leader who emerges against major crises of democratic legitimacy, often involving the collapse of entire party systems. That leader then is able to activate a chain of mechanisms including the politicization of resentment, the forging of “the people” as an inclusive social category, and active social mobilization against established constitutional legality. It is interesting to see how similarly this model works in ostensibly dissimilar countries with strong populism such as Italy and Venezuela or the United States and Hungary.

There is also the political significance element you refer to. You do not choose Japan or Australia as negative cases where populism has not turned into a major political force though these are liberal democracies. What makes Brazil and Spain negative cases and different from Japan and Australia?

Japan and Australia (which, not unimportantly, are island nations) are solid liberal democracies with no populism worthy of serious consideration. But Spain and Brazil present an altogether different but very interesting puzzle. Given the strong populism in other countries in their respective neighborhoods (Italy and Greece in Southern Europe, Argentina in Latin America) why did populism come so late in Spain and Brazil? Remember that the Spanish PODEMOS was founded as late as 2014 and had never had the success of contemporary populist parties in Greece or Italy. As of Brazil, it remained paradoxically free of populism at least until the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro in the presidency of this country. In my book, I dedicate separate chapters in each of these two countries trying to address this paradox. 

The historical phenomenon of modern populism in your perspective excludes the varieties of populism in non-Western parts of the world where liberal democracy has not turned into an overall political tradition. There are flawed but functioning democracies such as South Africa, India, Mongolia, South Korea that are outside Europe and the Americas but definitely meet Przeworski’s minimalist definition. Do you see a possibility to extend the comparative study of populism to include the non-Western cases where there is a steady progress towards liberal democracy? 

My research focus is, indeed, on western-type democracies that have already experienced modern liberalism but made a switch from liberal democracy to populism. My interest does not extend, therefore, to states which, even if they allow elections, lack any liberal tradition. Russia and Turkey are such representative cases. Also here belong the various pre-liberal faulty democracies examined by Fareed Zakaria in his 1997 essay on the rise of illiberal democracies. With the exception of South Korea, the other cases that you mention would belong in this group of non-western and non-liberal countries along with the cases mentioned by Zakaria including Belarus and Kazakhstan, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia, the Islamic republics of Iran and Pakistan, the Palestinian National Authority and Haiti. 

Liberal Democracy Needs to Remodel Itself

Liberal democracy in the post-war period has spread and gained global acceptance under the US hegemony. So, in a similar way, how do you think a possible unraveling of democracy in the US would affect of the fate of liberal democracy in the Western world?

Unsurprisingly, populism tends to grow strong where liberal democracy becomes weak or inefficient. After decades of continuous self-advancement and expansion, liberal democracy has reached a point at which it needs to remodel itself. Institutions need both to be respected and become more congruous with new social realities, including identity politics; politicians must find new ways for achieving consensus on critical issues rather than serving polarized policies; and markets also have to become more controlled by benevolent states intent to fend off inequalities. Populist leaders, like Trump and his political kin, thrive precisely in environments of institutional inefficacy, political polarization, and economic inequality. In such situations, liberal democracy may indeed unravel, as it happened in the US under Trump’s presidency. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was during his presidency that some of the biggest countries in the world—including India, Brazil, Turkey—saw their electoral democracies deteriorate and even turn to authoritarianism.

And, as my last question, I am wondering how you would define the best way to counter populist politics. Do you think “liberal mind” or liberal democracy the only antidote to modern populism?

Populism is not inevitable, of course. But nor has liberal democracy been carved in history’s marble. In fact, history has never ended and is full of surprising twists. I believe that today we are living through an era in which democratic states reconsider whether they want to stay liberal or take an illiberal path without abolishing their democratic semblance. I also believe that the liberal states are reconsidering their “liberalism.” Immigration has posed to them a real challenge, which is how to stay liberal while also accommodating within their national borders (and their societies, their economies, and their politics) significant numbers of illiberal others. In short, the real question is: What are the limits of liberalism? Or, put in another way: How much of illiberalism are liberal states able to bear? In all those cases, it would be naïve to say that the “liberal mind” or some liberal ethos would be sufficient to counter the foes of liberalism. I think, instead, that, exactly as populism begins with some extraordinary leaders with radical ideas about how to reconstitute democratic societies, the liberal recovery requires creative leaders with realistic agendas of how to renew the liberal institutions and make them fit for contemporary political realities.

Who is Takis Pappas?

Takis Pappas is a trained political scientist with a Ph.D. from Yale University and an expert on populism, democracy, and political leadership. Currently, he is a professor and an associate researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and works for the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project “Populism and Civic Engagement” (PACE). Having extensively published on populism in English and Greek, Pappas is a frequent keynote speaker at many academic and non-academic events, and a regular op-ed contributor in Kathimerini, Greece’s major newspaper.

Pappas has authored five books, the last of which is Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2019) and coedited two. He has also authored Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece (Palgrave 2014; also translated in Greek), and co-edited European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (ECPR Press, 2015). 

His articles have appeared in American Behavioral Scientist, Comparative Political Studies, Constellations, Government and Opposition, Journal of Democracy, Party Politics, West European Politics, and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia among others. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a virtual interview from Moscow with news agency Press Trust of India (PTI) on June 5, 2021, addressed a number of pressing issues. Photo: Nick Raille.

The Contours of Populism in Russia: An Elite Strategy to Preserve the Status Quo

Few scholars would concur with the assumption that populism as we conceptualize it in the West applies unproblematically in Russia. Being different than in the western European countries, populism is played in the Russian media sphere not to mobilize but to depoliticize the population and remove politics from the public discourse when the powers that be feel under challenge. Here, the message is that politics and governance are not the business of the ordinary people and that the authorities will take care of complicated issues.

By Ilkhom Khalimzoda

Few scholars would concur with the assumption that populism as we conceptualize it in the West (Western Europe and North America) applies unproblematically in Russia. Although Russia has a very long history of populism dating back to the Narodniki of the late 19th century, the renewed focus in the West means that populism in Russia is again in the spotlight. This renewed attention requires a clear idea of what Russian populism is and how it manifests through the political system.

Minayeva (2017: 130) has described the differences between populism in the West and Russia as follows:

For Europe and the United States, populism is a technological component of liberal democracy, which at the present stage is more competently used by opposition parties. In Russia, populism does not entail a change of political elites while maintaining the political system but is a way of preserving the existing state of affairs. The current President of the Russian Federation decided the issue of countering the Populist movement, effectively leading it as the leader of the country.

Of course, scholars have long recognized distinct regional forms and manifestations of populism. We can now turn to unpack that idea in more detail.

How Should We Understand Populism?

As is well understood, populism remains a contested concept in political communication research and is studied heavily in political manifestos and the mass media (Engesser et al., 2017: 1109). For some, populism is a political style or logic, and for others, it is an ideology, discourse, or a strategy of governance (Burrett, 2020). In sum, there is no broad consensus concerning the conceptual definition of populism, which is inherited chiefly from the democracies, because— as noted above— it is described as a component of liberal democracy that is most skilfully used by opposition parties (Minayeva, 2017). One scholar has even described it as a “slippery slope” that escapes precise definition (Ylä-Anttila, 2019). Nevertheless, there is a core of at least five key elements that comprise populist communication. Thus, populist discourse manifests in advocacy for the people, attacking elites, ostracizing others, invoking the heartland (Engesser et al., 2017: 1111), and making unfeasible promises to the electorate (Kynev, 2017).

The Contours of Populism in Russia

Populism manifests itself differently depending on contextual conditions (Priester, 2007). Its appearance may also change depending on the needs of the actors (right- or left-wing) and the political system (democratic or authoritarian). For example, in Western Europe, it is opposition parties that adopt populist rhetoric the most, while in Central European countries like Hungary and Poland, populists have acquired sufficient support to gain power and govern. Naturally, populism differs in Russia. Populism is undoubtedly used both by the establishment and the opposition. Indeed, Mamonova (2018) speaks of “populism in power” in Russia, “where governmental leaders use populist rhetoric and practices to gain popular support and maintain their positions.”

In Russia, populists spread their message through party press, mainstream mass media, and also more recently, through digital platforms. The most intensified media visibility of the populists is seen close to election time. In his investigation on electoral populism, Kynev (2017) has found that both the ruling party and oppositional actors adopt populism in practice. For example, he notes that mediatized public discourse—or, indeed, any political demand that enters the public domain—forms part of the ruling class’ populism. The opposition, however, promises more legislative achievements, such as raising salaries and pensions or ensuring prices remain low and stable, neither of which, needless to say, are ever implemented. Readers can find plenty of case studies in Kynev’s work.

Populism in the Russian Media

In a recent paper, Burrett (2020) examines the Russian media from 2000 to 2020 to analyze whether the label “populist” is appropriately applied in the case of President Vladimir Putin. The study uncovered a range of different political communication strategies used by the president during his 20 years in power. For example, Putin’s first term in office covered the war in Chechnya and the discourse around that, as well as his initial attempts to paint himself as an anti-elite president, ready to fight for the country against a corrupt elite. However, according to the study, once he became the core of the new Russian elite, he changed his rhetoric to position himself against the global elite. In all this, his control over the media has allowed these shifting (and somewhat contradictory) messages to be disseminated to large audiences in Russia. Overall, Burrett finds that Putin can be described as populist in discursive terms only since he has consistently deployed some aspects of populism while avoiding others.

Populism and Popular Culture

In a chapter titled “State propaganda and popular culture in the Russian-speaking internet,” Vera Zvereva (2020) has analyzed in depth the way populist messages have been crafted strategically for maximum impact with Russian audiences. She notes how in Russia, “political messages are often … expressed in the language of popular culture.” As a result, populists translate “complicated ideas—i.e. the workings of modern social systems—into simple categories that are clear to everyone, while its arguments are often based on the ‘politics of fear’.” She further points out that populist messages are often overly “simplified, black-and-white constructions around ‘the people, their ‘enemies’ and the ‘dangers’ they bring are borrowed from the genres of popular culture, with noble heroes and innocent victims, scheming enemies and evil powers” (Zvereva 2020: 236).

Populists Love Affairs

As many scholars have noted, a central element of populism today displayed in the media is the idea of the virtuous “heartland” set against the villainous Other (immigrants, globalists, liberals, etc.). Russia is no exception. In their recent edited volume, The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism, Tumbler and Waisbord (2021) bring together several chapters that show how anti-immigrant disinformation has a long history across the globe and how a diverse network of actors pushes anti-immigrant disinformation, bolstering and promoting anti-immigrant attitudes among the wider public. This sort of disinformation is strongly associated with the ideology of exclusion and nativist supremacy that underpins right-wing populism and far-right extremism. The modus operandi is to spread fake, incomplete, or manipulative information on given topics through social and mass media. In this regard, scholars stated that “anti-immigrant disinformation is part of a culture war in which an ecosystem of actors (far-right, alt-right, populist, and conservative) reinforces a common opposition to a pluralist worldview” (Culloty & Suiter, 2021: 10).

Also, on the Russian media sphere, among others, political actors like Vladimir Zhirinovsky (leader of the Liberal Democratic Party) have normalized anti-immigrant disinformation, blending populist and nationalist rhetoric, often in cahoots with sympathetic media outlets. Another very intriguing example is a Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (now in prison), who released YouTube videos describing himself as a “certified nationalist” and advancing thinly veiled xenophobic ideas (Luxmoore, 2021). Although he has retreated from his ultra-nationalist stance in recent years, it is still interesting to observe how populism is an appealing strategy.

Conclusion

As we can see, different than in the western European countries, populism is played in the Russian media sphere not to mobilize but to depoliticize the population and remove politics from the public discourse (Zamiatin, 2018) when the powers that be feel under challenge. Here, the message is that politics and governance are not the business of the ordinary people and that the authorities will take care of complicated issues. As Zvereva (2020: 234) puts it, “the state authorities try to present politics as either too complicated for ‘ordinary people, or as a battleground of malevolent forces, or a stage for eccentric individuals. This strategy helps to marginalize the political voices of the opposition and exclude the very possibility of critical public discussion of domestic and foreign policy issues.”


 

References

Burrett, T. (2020). “Charting Putin’s Shifting Populism in the Russian Media from 2000 to 2020.” Politics and Governance. Vol 8, No 1 (2020): Leadership, Populism and Power. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i1.2565

Culloty, E.; Suiter, J. (2021). “Anti-immigration disinformation.” In: T. Howard and W. Silvio (Eds.). The Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Engesser, S.; Ernst, N.; Esser, F. & Büchel, F. (2017). “Populism and social media: how politicians spread a fragmented ideology.” Information, Communication & Society. 20:8, pp.1109–1126, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2016.1207697

Kynev, A. (2017). “Elektoralnyy-populizm-na-rossiyskih-vyborah [Electoral-populism-in-Russian-elections].” Вестник общественного мнения. No. 1–2 (124). P.65–84. https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/elektoralnyy-populizm-na-rossiyskih-vyborah/viewer (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Luxmoore, M. (2021). “Navalny’s Failure To Renounce His Nationalist Past May Be Straining His Support.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Libertyhttps://www.rferl.org/a/navalny-failure-to-renounce-nationalist-past-support/31122014.html(accessed on September 1, 2021).

Mamonova, N. (2018). “Vladimir Putin and the Rural Roots of Authoritarian Populism in Russia.” Open Democracyhttps://www.opendemocracy.net/en/vladimir-putin-and-rural-roots-of-authoritarian-populism-in-russia/ (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Minayeva, A.V. (2017). “Russian Populism: Political Reality or Perspective? [ROSSIYSKIY POPULIZM: POLITICHESKAYA REALNOST’ ILI PERSPEKTIVA?” Вестник Пермского университета. ПОЛИТОЛОГИЯ. 2017. NO 4. https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/rossiyskiy-populizm-politicheskaya-realnost-ili-perspektiva/viewer (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Priester, K. (2007). Populismus: Historische und aktuelle Erscheinungsformen. Frankfurt a. M.: Campus.

Scoones, Ian; Edelman, Marc; M. Borras Jr. Saturnino; Hall, Ruth; Wolford, Wendy & White, Ben. (2018). “Emancipatory rural politics: confronting authoritarian populism.” The Journal of Peasant Studies. 45:1, 1–20, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2017.1339693

Tumber, Howard, and Silvio Waisbord, (Eds.). (2021) The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Ylä-Anttila, T. (2019). “Populismista, eli meistä ja muista.” Media & Viestintä. 42(2). Noudettu osoitteesta https://journal.fi/mediaviestinta/article/view/83377.

Zamiatin, Alexandr. (2018). “Depolitizatsiia: kak nas otluchali ot politiki.” Colta. July 3. https://www.colta.ru/articles/society/18498 (accessed on September 3, 2021).

Zvereva, V. (2019). “State propaganda and popular culture in the Russian-speaking internet.” In: M. Wijermars, & K. Lehtisaari (Eds.). Freedom of Expression in Russia’s New Mediasphere. (pp. 225–247). Routledge. BASEES/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429437205-12