Grueso, Gadea Mendez & Sezer, Julide (2022). “Mapping European Populism: Panel 3 – Scandinavia Under Magnifier: Populist Radical Right Parties and the End of Nordic Exceptionalism?” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS).June 17, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0006
This report is based on the third panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on April 28, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four Scandinavian countries, namely Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.
ECPS organizes a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. This report is prepared based on the third panel of the series focusing on Scandinavian countries on the theme of “Scandinavia under magnifier: Populist radical right parties and the end of Nordic exceptionalism” which was held online on April 28, 2022.
The panel is moderated by Dr Liv Sunnercrantz, Department of Media and Social Sciences, University of Stavanger, Norway, and included the following speakers; Dr Anders Hellström, Department of Global Political Studies, Malmö University, Sweden; Marie Cazes, Doctoral Researcher, University of Jyväskylä, Finland; Dr Lise Lund Bjånesøy, Department of Administration and Organization Theory, University of Bergen, Norway; Dr Susi Meret, Department of Politics and Society, University of Aalborg, Denmark.
Dr Anders Hellström: “The Sweden Democrats in Swedish politics – The Mainstreaming of Extremism”
“In general, there has been a ‘mainstreaming of extremism’ (in Sweden) as theorised by Ruth Wodak: What was depicted as extreme to say in the area of immigration one decade ago is considered normal today. The difference between the mainstream right and the populist right has, in that sense, vaporised.”
Dr Anders Hellström introduced how extremism has been mainstreamed in Swedish politics with the case of Sweden Democrats (SD). The main themes he addressed are: the nine stages in the development of the Sweden Democrats (SD) within Swedish politics, the ‘mainstreaming of extremism,’ the discussion about going ‘beyond’ Swedish exceptionalism, and what ‘the new normal’ may come to mean in Swedish politics.
According to Dr Hellström, there have been nine stages in the development of the Sweden Democrats. Before 2006 (1), the SD received very little media exposure, and when they were mentioned in the press, they were, at best, referred to as ‘devils in disguise’ or as ‘fascists in uniforms.’ Between 2006 and 2010 (2), the media interest in the SD escalated, and the other parties gradually abandoned their ‘cordon sanitaire’ approach to the party; but, even if these other parties wanted to attract SD voters, SD politicians were still referred to, in the political debate and the media, as either racists or ‘political clowns,’ sometimes both. In the third stage, between 2010 and 2014 (3), the SD got into the national parliament, and the national debate on Swedish identity issues, as a result, became highly polarised; the party gained a lot of media attention, and the public debate was rife with discussions around this ‘new’ political party. Between 2014 and 2018 (4), the party space in Sweden became significantly more multi-dimensional: instead of just a left-right socio-economic-political divide, there was now also a socio-cultural divide. Before this period, it was ‘the SD against the rest,’ in terms of political parties, but afterwards, the SD’s positions on certain topics like immigration became more eligible. In 2019 (5), the SD was getting increasingly tamed, and their policy positions thus came to be seen as normal by other political actors, and it became less shameful among the electorate to vote for the SD. Before the pandemic, the SD had, in fact, become the largest party in the Swedish national parliament.
However, the 2020 pandemic marked a sixth stage (6) in the SD’s development, and the SD lost voting support (the SD is now approximately 10% behind the Social Democrats). The theme of how Sweden handled (or mishandled) the pandemic was seen as something exceptional, not only by the SD but by many others in the public debate. For instance, Ebba Busch Thor, the leader of the Christian Democrats (KD), declared that the government had “with relieved courage” allowed a high spread of infection, which had severely negatively affected the old people in Sweden; at the same time, Jimmie Åkesson, the leader of the SD, had said that the government had conducted a “massacre” on the elders. Many other political actors besides the SD thus verbalised a similar criticism against the government.
In 2021-2022 (7), the SD became part of a bloc, together with the Christian Democrats, the Moderate Party (M) (which are mainstream right parties), and the Liberal Party (L), to pursue an anti-liberal agenda (the presence of the Liberal Party, in that sense, may seem ironic). The idea was to form a new conservative government to replace the Social Democratic government. But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 (8), far-right parties in Sweden (and elsewhere) suffered from their previous admiration of Putin. The Social Democrats benefitted from this and are now getting very high poll figures. Whereas before, immigration was their only relevant political issue, their rhetoric has shifted significantly when compared to their view of the topic of Syria in 2015, and the SD now speaks of the need to protect and allow Ukrainian refugees into Sweden (which was not the case for Syrian refugees). The national elections that will take place in September 2022 (9) will tell whether the political debate will foremost be on defense (and the issue of NATO membership), the climate or gang violence.
Dr Hellström interpreted the rise of the SD as an end to ‘Swedish exceptionalism.’ Indeed, he referred to the work by Jens Rydgren, who said that his explanations as to why Sweden did not have a leading anti-immigration party (like Denmark and Norway had) no longer apply. Working-class voters (and voters in the southern parts of Sweden and middle-aged men) have turned to the SD; and the salience of the socio-economic policy dimension in political competition is no longer hegemonic, as the political is now also about culture and identity. Moreover, there is today a growing consensus between the Left and the Right, as there has been a ‘moralisation of politics.’
In general, there has been a ‘mainstreaming of extremism’ as theorised by Ruth Wodak: what was depicted as extreme to say in the area of immigration one decade ago is considered normal today. The difference between the mainstream right and the populist right has, in that sense, vaporised.
According to Dr Hellström, there was, a decade ago, a meta-debate in Swedish politics, in which all the mainstream parties agreed that they should debate with the SD (even if they were deplorable). The consequence was that the average voter, who probably had not heard of the party, suddenly became aware of its existence thanks to the exposure awarded by that debate. Thus, Hellström remarked, such parties benefit from the truth contained in Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
But all is not lost yet, Dr Hellström reminds us: to understand what is happening around us, we need to understand both regressive and progressive sentiments. When we build toward a new normality, we should remember that “the future points in both progressive and regressive directions simultaneously”—and it is up to us to decide which comes to fruition.
Reported by Gadea Mendez Grueso
Marie Cazes: “From Rural to Radical Right: A Brief Perspective on Finnish Populism”
Despite populism has always been present in the Finnish Parliament ever since the 1960s the support for the Finns Party seems to be dropping. Several reasons may be cited: their new leader seems to not be as charismatic and attractive to voters, the coronavirus crisis has negatively impacted voter’s trust in the party, and the Russia-Ukraine war has had a huge impact on the party, which has been forced to completely review its position on NATO adhesion.
Marie Cazes presented a historical approach to populism in Finland, a country with a long relationship to the topic. She presented the main Finnish populist parties: the Finnish Rural Party (Suomen Maaseudun Puolue, SMP), which was created by Veikko Vennamo in 1959 under the name of Suomen Pientalonpoikien Puolue (Finnish Party of Small Peasants), came into the government in the 1980s and became bankrupt in the 1990s; and the Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset), which was created in 1995 after the bankruptcy of the Finnish Rural Party and became very successful, winning its first major electoral victory in 2011 (from 4,1 percent to 19,1 percent of the vote), and taking part in the Sipilä government (Centre, National coalition) in 2015. In June 2017, the Finns Party split after the election of Jussi Halla-aho, who was considered too radical and even condemned for hate speech, as chairperson; thus, ‘Blue Reform’ was created.
As Cazes explained, the origins of Finnish populism were very rural, and it was a form of agrarian populism. The Finnish Rural Party was itself created in 1959 by Veikko Vennamo as a split from the Agrarian Union, due to divergences of opinion with then-president Urho Kaleva Kekkonen regarding the countryside: Kekkonen had a more conservative idea in favour of preserving traditional social rurality ‘as it was before,’ even though Finland was facing a deep rural/agricultural crisis in the 1950s-60s.
Thus, Finnish populism, linked to ancient agrarianism ideology, rose by presenting itself as the ‘defender of the forgotten people’ from the countryside, who had supposedly been neglected by the ‘elites’ in Helsinki. As such, it was constructed in opposition to other parties (and to Kekkonen, who had been president for 24 years), with a very strong anti-communist rhetoric. Some researchers have talked about these parties as “hegemony challengers” (see Palonen & Sunnercrantz).
Cazes then described the rise and fall of the Finnish Rural Party (SMP): after having some electoral success in the 1970s, it collapsed, and rose again in the 1980s, when, in 1983, it got a second breakthrough in the parliamentary elections. That time, its narrative had changed, and the party presented itself as a critic of corruption, as its main concern became less focused on rurality, and its electorate changed too, becoming a bit more urban (as there were cases of corruption in several big cities, for instance concerning the construction of the subway in Helsinki). Because Kekkonen was no longer president, and because the image of the party changed, so that Finnish politicians no longer considered the SMP as an extreme-right party, it ended up being part of two governments, from 1983 to 1987, and from 1987 to 1991, which fomented tensions within the party. In the end, the Finnish Rural Party only had 1 MP in the 1995 election, and finally went bankrupt.
Four members of the SMP decided to create a new party, and thus, the Perussuomalaiset, or Finns Party, was born. Until the 2000s, the party was following the heritage of the Finnish Rural Party, and its agenda of the critique of elites. In 2003, the party had 3 MPs, including Tony Halme (a former famous wrestler and actor), a charismatic character with ‘colourful’ rhetoric who opened the door to critiquing immigration, making homophobic statements, etc. This ‘turning point’ led to the incorporation of new members affiliated with nationalist associations, and to the prominent critique of immigration.
But the real breakthrough of the Finns Party was in the parliamentary elections of 2011 when they gained 15 percent of the vote (from 4 percent previously). One of the main reasons for this success was not only the criticism of immigration but also a deep Euroscepticism (with a strong reticence to helping countries like Greece through the EU). They accessed the government in 2015, which resulted in a dramatic loss of voter support, as they could no longer credibly criticise the policy of the government regarding the migration crisis. The split of 2017 and the election of Halla-aho as the leader showed the radicality of the party, which had undergone a steady radicalisation process through the 2010s decade: after this turning point, the party could no longer be characterised as a moderate populist party, and it truly became the anti-immigration, nationalist, nativist, welfare chauvinist party that we know today.
Currently, the support for the Finns Party in view of next year’s parliamentary elections seems to be dropping. Several reasons may be cited: their new leader seems to not be as charismatic and attractive to voters, the coronavirus crisis has negatively impacted voter’s trust in the party, and the Russia-Ukraine war has had a huge impact on the party, which has been forced to completely review its position on NATO adhesion (of which they had been very critical in the past). Finally, Marie Cazes reviewed the main features of Finnish populism: its strong rural roots (which is still prevalent in Finnish nationalism), and the fact that populism (Finns Party and Finnish Rural Party) has always been present in the national parliament, ever since the 1960s.
Reported by Gadea Mendez Grueso
Dr Lise Bjånesøy: “Public perceptions of the populist radical right in Norway”
The Progress Party is considered a borderline case in terms of classification that there is no scholarly agreement on defining it as a populist radical right party. The data from Norwegian Election Studies shows that voters consistently associate the party with exclusionary policies against immigration and immigrants in Norway while the party has a large portfolio including many different issues beyond immigration.
Dr Lise Bjånesøy presented public perceptions of the populist radical right in Norway with a case study of the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FRP). Bjånesøy started with a brief history of FRP stating that the party was established in 1973 by Anders Lange and in the late 1980s, it made strong anti-immigration policies part of its program and then started gaining more support. The party entered government for the first time in the fall of 2013 as the junior partner of the Conservative Party, stayed in the government coalition until 2020 and chose to leave the coalition just before the pandemic.
Dr Bjånesøy noted that the Progress Party is considered a borderline case in terms of classification that there is no scholarly agreement on defining it as a populist radical right party. The data from Norwegian Election Studies shows that voters consistently associate the party with exclusionary policies against immigration and immigrants in Norway while the party has a large portfolio including many different issues beyond immigration. They have political candidates who are primarily concerned with other issues than immigration and minorities although policies for immigration and minorities remain very important for the party. What is interesting about the Progress Party, according to Dr Bjånesøy, is that there are two different wings in the party; one is a more libertarian wing, and the other is a clear populist radical right-wing, a situation which makes it difficult to label the party as populist radical right.
In the second part of her speech, Bjånesøy presented some results from two different studies in which Progress Party is included. Both studies using different concepts focus on different aspects of public perceptions of the populist radical right. One is political tolerance and the other one is negative partisanship. Political tolerance implies the willingness to put up with things that one rejects or opposes, and in this study, whether or not people allow the expression of opinions that they dislike is taken as the test for tolerance. The second study is related to negative partisanship, and this is concerned with negative effects or repulsion towards a political party. Negative partisanship reflects voting behaviour that one would never consider voting for that party.
As Dr Bjånesøy explained, the first study is designed to put political tolerance to the test in five different countries, inspired by a real-life scenario from 2010 related to the populist radical right party in Sweden; Sweden Democrats faced difficulty to find a venue for their election night gathering and they had to lie about the purpose of the event to secure the venue. In the experimental setting, they asked people about four different groups (mainstream right party, populist radical right party, one anti-Islamic group, and one neo-Nazi group) from five countries (Norway, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Sweden). They told people to imagine that one of these four groups has asked to rent a community centre to host a meeting for its members and asked how much they agree or disagree to rent it to these groups. The results show that everyone wills to rent the centre to centre-right parties, for the two extra-parliamentary groups; 80 percent of people disagree renting the centre to neo-Nazi groups and 50 percent disagree to rent it to an anti-Islamic group. The study included Progress Party in Norway, PPV in the Netherlands, FN in France, AfD in Germany and SD in Sweden to the list as populist radical right parties. The results show that there are large variations in public political tolerance of the populist radical right in European democracies and that tolerance does not only depend on the far-right in terms of ideology but also the party institutionalization matters; for example, the inclusion of populist radical right in the government brings in higher tolerance as is the case in Norway.
In the second study, Dr Bjånesøy investigates why many people would not consider voting for the populist radical right. The studies have found that populist radical right parties have a particularly high negative share of partisanship, and it seems that negative partisanship is an interesting tool to look at concerning populist radical right. Bjånesøy says, in her study, she takes Norwegian Progress Party as the case study and reminds us of the results of the first study she explained before (political tolerance) that Progress Party is the populist radical right party with the highest political tolerance. Using the data from Norwegian Citizen Panel, Dr Bjånesøy asked people if they would vote for Progress Party, and more than 50 percent said they would never consider voting for this party. While voters are asked to explain their reasons in their own words, four different categories have emerged: blank rejection; they strongly disagree with the party without stating a particular reason for it, immigration policy issues; they describe the party as prejudiced to migrants and racist, other policy issues; the voters pointed at the party’s stance on environmental issue and economic issues, political style; they expressed their dislike of the behaviour of the candidates and the tone used in the political debates.
Bjånesøy concludes her presentation by pinpointing that the Progress Party can be considered a borderline case in terms of being a member of the populist radical right party family. The voters strongly and consistently associate the party with exclusionary policies towards immigration and immigrants, but the policy issues it highlights are beyond the area of immigration. The party is fully tolerated by the public and, at the same time, it is the most disliked party with a high share of negative partisanship.
Reported by Julide Sezer
Dr Susi Meret: “From success to failure? The recent developments of the radical and populist right in Denmark”
“Denmark has female leaders for the far-right populist parties which seems contractionary concerning the power structures. Voters’ profiles show that the higher the education level the less likely it is to vote for the Danish People’s Party (DF) and that the rate of white people with manual skills and unskilled is high among the supporters of the party. Statistics show that the voters of right-wing populist parties and radical left-wing parties earn less than the ones who vote for centre-right and liberals. In terms of geographical distribution, electoral support for DF is high in non-urban southern Denmark.”
Dr Susi Meret started her presentation by highlighting four points to explain why the Danish case is particularly important in terms of the populist radical right. In this line, Dr Meret mentioned: 1) Denmark is an established liberal post-war democracy with a developed welfare state system and with higher levels of wealth and wellbeing in comparison to the rest of Europe and is also known for high levels of trust and happiness. 2) Populist radical right parties fared well since 2000 and until recently, with the Danish People’s Party (DF), the main radical right-wing populist (RRWP) party in Denmark, consolidating its position within the parliament. 3) Electoral support for DF is rising in the years 2001-2015, reaching average levels between 15-20 percent. 3) DF has considerable political influence; it acted as a support for the minority cabinet (DK) between 2001-2011 and between 2015-2019, and now they are in opposition. 4) The issues on the agenda of DF are similar to the ones on the agenda of other RRWP parties in other Scandinavian countries; welfare-nationalism, anti-immigration and anti-Islam politics, Euroscepticism and pro-NATO.
Dr Meret continued by pinpointing sentences from DF’s principal program which reflect the party’s populist radical right views; “The party’s overall goal is to re-establish Denmark’s sovereignty and freedom and to secure the Danish nation and the monarchy’s existence.” The program also has a strong anti-immigration stance; “Denmark is not and has never been an immigration country and DF is against the development of Denmark into a multicultural society. (…) to the extent immigrants can maintain themselves and their families, they can get a temporary permit to stay and to work (…) Refugees must not be turned into immigrants.” As seen from the party program, Dr Meret explains, DF is against immigration and holds an anti-Islam position for which the party’s strong opposition to the Syrian refugees’ permanent stay in Denmark is an example. DF was pushing hard for sending them back to Syria but met with resistance from civil society organisations. Per economic policy, it maintains a welfare-nationalist chauvinist approach and holds a critical position towards European politics, in particular against Schengen, free movement and the monetary union.
Then, Dr Meret focused on the question of what explains the rise and the consolidation of DF. In this regard, she pointed to the growing salience of value politics in the form of the old and new left and right, and particularly national identity, migration and recently climate change. Since the 1980s, electoral volatility/fluctuation has increased, and loyalty to political parties has diminished, which increased support for DF. Also, socio-economic and other divides are exacerbated and attention towards social cohesion and welfare nationalism has risen vis-à-vis increasing migration flows. From the 1990s onwards, as a consequence of bloc politics, the proportional electoral system has donated small parties with relatively strong power in the political structure, which also prepared a convenient context for the rise of DF. Dr Meret highlighted that the legitimization of populist radical right by Liberals in 2001 and by Social Democrats from 2015 onwards also helped in the increase of support for DF.
Dr Meret also discussed voting trends for populist radical right examining voters in terms of gender, education, class and income. While populist radical right gains more votes from white male voters and women are still left-wing leaning; the gap is closing between the two as RRWP has become more mainstreamed and normalized. Meret added that Denmark has female leaders for the far-right populist parties which seems contractionary concerning the power structures. Voters’ profiles show that the higher the education level the less likely it is to vote for DF and that the rate of white people with manual skills and unskilled is high among the supporters of the party. Statistics show that the voters of right-wing populist parties and radical left-wing parties earn less than the ones who vote for centre-right and liberals. In terms of geographical distribution, electoral support for DF is high in non-urban southern Denmark.
Dr Meret indicated that radical right-wing populists in Denmark perform exclusionary populism; they stand against the elite, against the establishment and for “the people,” which are considered common denominators of populism, and the anti-immigration approach is coming as an additional denominator from the polls in the country. The definition of “the people” comes from an ethno-nationalist understanding of community and the people with a narrative of common roots encompassing belonging, shared history, and the same values with an emphasis on Christian values lately. The idea of “our Denmark,” in their understanding, refers to whites, which gets criticism from the civil society organizations. RRWP describes Denmark as a homogenous community whose grounds are challenged by globalization, Europeanization and migration flows and refugees. The anti-gender aspect of RRWP, Dr Meret argues, is an interesting and concerning development in Denmark and it has an emphasis on the Muslim veil. Concerning the LGBTQ issues, DF does not hold a contrasting position, but it expresses that the issue should have a limit and must not dictate the agenda.
Dr Meret says that DF’s new leader Morten Messerschmidt who held the office in January 2022 is internally challenged by the party members on the ground that he is not a good fit for the party, particularly in these times when the party is in crisis. The other right-wing populist party, New Right has also a female leader and follows a very conservative approach such that they present a hard-line anti-immigration agenda wanting to stop asylum altogether, on the other hand, they pursue an ultra-liberal economic agenda which is different from DF. Dr Meret also mentions the extra-parliamentary radical right-wing party “Hard Line” led by Rasmus Paludan, which run for the 2019 elections but could not get enough votes to enter the parliament. The party’s worldview is ethno-nationalist, racist and strongly Islamophobic defending the prohibition of Islam in Denmark. The party often uses social media and has a social media channel named “the Voice of Freedom” to mobilize the youth, they live-stream their demonstrations on online channels to get more attention, for example, they encouraged people to burn Quran in public spaces, which happened in Denmark before Sweden.
As another form of the populist radical right, Dr Meret talked about a transnational movement “Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordfront)” which derives from Sweden in 1997 and is represented in most of the Nordic countries. Their worldview encompasses racism, neo-Nazism, antisemitism, and rallying for a ‘racially pure’ Nordic region against the extinction of the white autochthonous population. The movement, as it is written on their website, organizes “revolutionary national socialist combat organization.” They use vandalism and violent attacks as forms of their action repertoire for which bomb attacks on refugee housing and vandalism against Jewish graveyards are examples.
Dr Meret concluded her presentation by underlining the main takeaways from the case of RRWP in Denmark. The rise and electoral consolidation of RRWP (especially DF) should be considered in the long durée and in the light of the mainstream reactions. The current wave of RRWP emphasizes ethnic homogeneity and assimilationist models, and ethnic and religious groups are increasingly racialized, also by government policies. Extra parliamentary far-right milieus have proliferated in recent years but seem still weaker than in other countries. Far-right repertoires of action and organization are different, inspired by groups and organizations outside Denmark but also exporting their own products.
Reported by Julide Sezer
 Jens Rydgren, and Sara van der Meiden,“The Radical Right and the End of Swedish Exceptionalism,” European Political Science 18, no. 3 (2019): 439–455
 Ruth Wodak, “‘The Boundaries of What Can Be Said Have Shifted’: An Expert Interview with Ruth Wodak (Questions posed by Andreas Schulz),” Discourse & Society 31, no. 2 (2020): 235–244, doi:10.1177/0957926519889109.
 Ruth Wodak, “‘The Boundaries of What Can Be Said Have Shifted’: An Expert Interview with Ruth Wodak (Questions posed by Andreas Schulz),” Discourse & Society 31, no. 2 (2020): 235–244, doi:10.1177/0957926519889109.
Blink, Melissa & Robinson, Tom. (2022). “Report on Panel #4 / Mapping European Populism: Populist Radical Right in Europe’s Heartland and the UK.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). June 9, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0005
This report is based on the fourth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on May 26, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from three countries in Europe’s heartland, namely Germany, Austria, France, and the UK. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.
ECPS organizes a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. This report is prepared based on the fourth panel of the series focusing on heartland Europe and the UK, on the theme of “Populist radical right in Europe’s heartland (Germany, Austria, France) and the UK,” which was held online on May 26, 2022.
The panel is moderated by Dr Luke Cooper, Member of the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit at LSE, and included the following speakers; Dr Ralf Havertz, Associate Professor of International Relations at Keimyung University in South Korea; Dr Karin Liebhart, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, the University of Vienna; Dr Gilles Ivaldi, CNRS Researcher in Political Science at the Centre for Political Research at Sciences-Po, Paris; Dr William Allchorn, Postdoctoral Researcher and Associate Director at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, University of Leeds.
Dr Cooper, in his introductory remarks, noted that the case studies of the panel demonstrate the unevenness of the rise of the radical right in this century, which Cas Mudde has referred to as the fourth, and arguably most successful wave of the post-WW2 radical right. What distinguishes this wave, he says, is the degree of convergence between the mainstream centre-right and the new radical right. Also notable is the radical right’s success in taking over governments around the world and emerging as a formidable political force. Dr Cooper explained that he would be employing Cas Mudde’s distinction between the radical right and the extreme right. The former accepts the basic principles of democracy but launches a slow, steady incursion on its basic foundations, like the rule of law and constitutionalism. The extreme right rejects democratic principles altogether.
According to Dr. Cooper, one of the countries under discussion in this panel plays a special role in Mudde’s account of the fourth wave: Austria. After all, it was the rise of the Austrian Freedom Party (the FPÖ) and its entry into Austrian government that was met by diplomatic sanctions in the EU at the time. The attempted but failed cordon sanitaire was accompanied by sustained protests and demonstrations within Austria itself. It was, in other words, the moment the dam burst. Over the next two decades, we witnessed a gradual but uneven centre-right and radical right convergence. Mudde’s characterization is also valuable, according to Dr Cooper, because it avoids excessive focus on the 2008 financial crisis, reminding us that the origins of the rise of the radical right in this century extend further back than just 2008.
Germany’s radical right populism, in contrast, may look like a rapid response to the financial crisis. The AfD burst onto the scene, initially, as a Eurosceptic party, becoming increasingly extremist and white nationalist through gradual purges of its more moderate members. In many current discussions, Dr Cooper notes, the fall of the AfD is emphasized. After all, the story goes, Germany has demonstrated the strength and reserves of its democratic character, as well as the societal depth underlying its democratic institutions. He wonders how this prospect is seen by the panellists, especially in the context of the global shocks we might soon expect to see; inflation, for example, is a phenomenon often identified with the previous collapse of German democracy. That historic episode naturally haunts discussions of the far-right in Germany today, he notes.
The other two cases, Britain and France, also reflect the unevenness and complexity of the rise of the European radical right. Dr Cooper in his account of Britain’s current government, highlighted that the government is increasingly authoritarian but also appears to be in a state of genuine subjective confusion, he says. It sees itself as continuous with Thatcherism, although its main pitch to the electorate underlined the damage her government did to Britain and the damage that regional deindustrialization left behind. It has also committed to sharing Britain’s wealth across towns and regions more evenly. Dr Cooper points out another contradiction: the government sees itself as part of a great British tradition of liberty but has launched an attack on the human rights agenda, including, most prominently, the Human Rights Act, which brings the European Convention of Human Rights into British law. Furthermore, he notes, the British government seems to reject the foundational elements of international refugee law. Its most recent piece of legislation, the Nationality and Borders Bill, and the high-profile proposal to summarily deport refugees who arrive in the UK by irregular or informal means to Rwanda are both examples of this attitude. The current British government has, in sum, a “viciously authoritarian, very ethno-nationalist agenda”, although its political elites are nevertheless confused.
In his remarks on France, Dr Cooper pointed at Marine Le Pen and the Front National National Rally as the central focus of those studying French populism. However, he thinks the Macron project is also a curious case for students of populism and authoritarianism. After all, he says, Macron’s initial pitch to the French electorate had many elements, in terms of style, language, and appeal, of a ‘populist insurgency’ in the first round of 2017’s French presidential elections. Macron adjusted his language quite significantly in the second round, making a more unifying pitch to the electorate instead. Another interesting subject is the way that the radical right’s key priority, namely the alleged ‘Islamization’ of Western societies by non-white Muslim immigrants, is taken in France’s national political debate. French centrists, as well as France’s left and centre-left, seem to pitch themselves in very uncertain times when confronted with the topic. The French state has also recently been accused of repressing human rights organizations advocating for the rights of the French Muslim community, by levying defamation laws against them in an attempt to close them down.
Dr Cooper concludes the opening remarks by highlighting that in each of the cases, a series of ‘meanings and un-meanings’ seem to complicate the already complex and uneven picture of the radical right’s rise in Europe.
Reported by Melissa Blink
Dr Ralf Havertz: “The Rise of Radical Right Populism in Germany”
Dr Havertz describes Germany as a latecomer regarding the development of radical right populism. When the AfD was founded in 2013, most neighbouring countries had already had some experience with such parties, where they had already participated in government or been tolerated or supported by minority governments. It is now firmly established as a radical right populist party in Germany’s party system. It poses a challenge to Germany’s democratic system because it is located somewhere between right-wing populism and right-wing extremism, and it will remain an opposition party for the foreseeable future.
Dr Ralf Havertz detailed the rise of radical right populism in Germany in his lecture at the panel. He starts by describing Germany as a latecomer regarding the development of radical right populism. When the AfD was founded in 2013, most neighbouring countries had already had some experience with such parties, where they had already participated in government (as in Austria) or been tolerated or supported by minority governments (as was the case with the Danish People’s Party in Denmark). This has not, to date, happened in Germany: no party on this side of the political spectrum has participated in government, nor has it supported governments so far. The cordon sanitaire had held up so far, although, Dr Havertz notes, talks take place behind the scenes between the CDU (Christian Democrats), the Free Democrats, and the AfD – especially in the east of Germany.
Currently, the AfD is a strong opposition party in Germany’s Bundestag, and movements such as Pegida and the Identitarian Movement have attracted many participants with their various organized activities. Dr Havertz notes one might almost speak of a division of labour between these groups: Pegida and the Identitarians are the organized movement side, whereas the AfD supports the radical-right populist agenda in the parliament. The current state of affairs shows that something in Germany has changed – for a long time voting and expressing support for the populist radical right (PRR) was stigmatized due to Germany’s experiences with the Nazi regime and its atrocities. It has, however, become much more common to voice radical right opinions in public, and people are less inhibited in voicing their rage against governments, policies, and ‘othered’ groups. So, it is more common to vote for radical right parties, and the AfD especially.
What has driven this change? Dr Havertz points to three broad changes that occurred in Germany, which were related to economics, culture, and media. The first was the economic transformation; a shift from Fordism to neoliberalism brought about higher competitive pressures, which created insecurities and uncertainties for workers, as well as changes to Germany’s social welfare system. The PRR instrumentalized the rage and resentment borne of these changes and channelled it against “the elite” or “the establishment” as it is sometimes called.
The second change Dr Havertz described occurred in the aftermath of the Student Movement of 1968, which triggered a phase of modernization and liberalization in German society, bringing about improvements for minority groups and those who were subject to discrimination, including refugees, and immigrants, women, and the LGBTQ community. The PRR again instrumentalized dissatisfaction with these changes and organized a cultural backlash, again directed at “the elite”, whose cosmopolitan character was the focus of populist ire. It was also directed at the minorities who were the beneficiaries of the changes described.
The third change occurred in the media environment with the emergence of the internet and social media, which have changed the way citizens communicate. Radical and extreme messages are much easier to express and disseminate broadly while simultaneously targeting specific recipients. The AfD and Pegida, especially, make use of this, whereby they have certainly contributed to the polarization of German society. All these developments converged roughly at the same time.
On this note, Dr Havertz mentions the AfD’s precursors. There were other radical right populist parties in Germany before the AfD; when they dissolved, they recommended their members to join the AfD instead, which is true for Pro Deutschland, for example. Some of these parties still exist on the regional level, though no longer on a national level. The same is true for Die Freiheit, Die Republikaner, the Bund Freier Bürger, and the Schill-Party. The AfD, on the other hand, can be considered the most successful radical right party in German post-war history, having reached the 5 percent threshold for parliamentary representation in every election since 2014, on regional, national, and the European level. This means, also, that they earn money and can provide employment opportunities, not just for party members, but also for members of Pegida and the Identitarian Movement.
Then there were the crises: the global financial crisis, and the Euro crisis. The latter was particularly salient for the AfD, as it was initially primarily a Eurosceptic party. Its founders were dissatisfied with the German centre-right approach to European integration, and strongly opposed the ‘rescue package’ with which the EU responded to the Euro crisis and Greece’s fiscal problems. Angela Merkel’s support for this policy made her a central hate figure in the radical right’s protest marches. The AfD could, to some extent, even be considered an anti-Merkel party. Having now lost this hate figure, the AfD and German radical right more generally will need to find a replacement.
In its first two years, Dr Havertz says, the AfD’s orientation was primarily driven by the party’s ordoliberal leadership. Though there were other wings, including a national-conservatism group, it was initially described as a “party of professors.” It was considered a party with considerable competence in the area of economics, which is also how they portrayed themselves. In the party’s first years, its face was Bernd Lucke, one of its first three speakers (chairpersons) – an economics professor at the University of Hamburg. He was often on TV, discussing economic issues based on his credentials. But right from the start, there were also some conservative members and others from the new-right and radical right. Some right-wing extremists also joined the party, and 2015 marked a strong turn to the right when Lucke and several other economic-liberal members left the party. Frauke Petry challenged Lucke’s position as speaker and prevailed. This meant a strengthening of the party’s national-conservative wing and also brought about a power shift within the party, from West to East German members. Soon, the Eastern states’ party associations gained a dominant position in the AfD.
Relatedly, the AfD has performed much better in the East Germany than in the West Germany, on both federal and sub-national levels. Also notable is that the party has attracted significantly more male than female voters. The party’s gender gap is very wide and has increased in national elections over time.
Another important development in the party was the development of “Der Flügel (the Wing)” – a right-wing extremist party faction under Björn Höcke’s leadership – which resulted in deeper internal division into a mostly Western economic-liberal faction and a mostly Eastern national-conservative/right-wing extremist wing. After its classification as a certain case of right-wing extremism by the Federal Agency of the Protection of the Constitution (the domestic intelligence service), Der Flügel was forced to dissolve.
Dr Havertz then provided an overview of the AfD’s programmatic orientation and ideological features, namely populism, nationalism/nativism/anti-immigrant positions, Islamophobia, authoritarianism, antisemitism/historical revisionism, Euroscepticism, anti-feminism/anti-genderism, ordoliberalism/social populism as well as welfare chauvinism (which Dr Havertz notes as a contradiction), and Covid-scepticism.
He concludes that the AfD is now firmly established as a radical right populist party in Germany’s party system. It poses a challenge to Germany’s democratic system because it is located somewhere between right-wing populism and right-wing extremism (meaning that its populism has anti-democratic implications) and it will remain an opposition party for the foreseeable future.
Reported by Melissa Blink
Dr Karin Liebhart: “Right-wing Populism and the New Right in Austria –– Recent Trends and Manifestations”
The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) can be considered a right-wing populist party since 2017. Under its then-chairman, Sebastian Kurz, it took on several main characteristics of right-wing populist parties, for example, its strong focus on its political leader, its support of strong controls on immigration, a welfare chauvinist rhetoric, and so on. However, radical right populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has been the main representative of right-wing populism in Austria for decades and is known for its considerable political success since the 1980s.
Dr Karin Liebhart, in her lecture, outlined the history and current circumstances of Austria’s populist radical right. To begin with, she discussed the labels she finds appropriate for each of the players in Austria’s radical or extreme right parties. The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) can be considered a right-wing populist party since 2017. Under its then-chairman, Sebastian Kurz, it took on several main characteristics of right-wing populist parties, for example, its strong focus on its political leader, its support of strong controls on immigration, a welfare chauvinist rhetoric, and so on. Radical right populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has been the main representative of right-wing populism in Austria for decades and is known for its considerable political success since the 1980s.
The new extremist right is a label Dr Liebhart recommends for the Identitarian Movement, which is extreme right, racist, nationalist, anti-pluralist, and sees itself as a part of the global alt-right. It declared war on 1968’s cultural liberalization, which took place in Austria as well as in Germany. Its prime political aim is to fight the so-called “great exchange” and Islamization of Europe. The Austrian branch, founded in 2012, is a stronghold of the Generation Identity group, which seeks not electoral results, but rather seeks to influence wider public debate. They closely cooperate and collaborate with parties in parliament, like the FPÖ, and with student fraternities.
Dr Liebhart continued by discussing the more moderate side of Austria’s right-wing populist spectrum. In October 2017 the ÖVP, led by Sebastian Kurz, won the general elections. Journalists at the time noted that Austria was quite a curious case of populism; just months earlier Kurz had taken leadership of the centre-right ÖVP and rebranded the party as a political movement, “the Movement for Austria.” The movement focused entirely on Kurz’s personality, and he simultaneously directed the People’s Party sharply to the right. Votes saw a dramatic increase, from approximately 20 percent to approx. 30 percent. The elections ended in a right-wing populist coalition government; upon coming first place in the national elections, Kurz invited the radical right FPÖ to join as the junior partner in a coalition. Unlike in the years 1999 and 2000, when the FPÖ’s ascent to parliament was met with protests and diplomatic sanctions, 2017’s election outcomes were not met by significant protests from abroad.
Both parties, Dr Liebhart says, focused their election campaigns on anti-immigration policies and rhetoric. This strategy had been pursued by the FPÖ since the late 1980s but was fairly new for the ÖVP. Kurz essentially managed to occupy a political space until then monopolized by the FPÖ and soon made immigration his signature. The 2017 general election was incredibly significant, Dr Liebhart noted because it showed that right-wing populist attitudes were no longer limited to the fringes of the political landscape, becoming instead a mainstay of Austrian political culture. She says, in 2019 Cas Mudde said that the ÖVP has become “one of the most right-wing of Europe’s conservative parties,” while the FPÖ successfully shifted Austria’s political discourse firmly to the right.
Dr Liebhart then provided a brief history of the FPÖ. After Jörg Haider was elected chairman in 1986, the party became an explicitly radical right populist and Austrian nationalist party. Since it has direct roots in nationalist socialist ideology, Dr Liebhart feels that it does not belong to the ‘new’ type of radical right parties. Until Haider’s takeover, the FPÖ only played a very minor role in Austrian politics. Once in power, Haider focused on criticizing the political establishment, foregrounded immigration and integration issues, and rejected the idea of Austria as a subordinate subject of a larger German nation, promoting, instead, an ethnically defined Austrian national identity. Haider’s demagogic politics and focus on ethnonationalism did very well at the polls. He also ensured that the ‘Islamic threat’ became a particularly salient topic in Austria, which he combined with Eurocepticism and hostility towards the EU.
In 1999, the FPÖ joined the ÖVP as a junior partner in a coalition government for the first time. This was short-lived due to internal conflict, leading Haider and the FPÖ’s ministers to leave the party and found the “Alliance for the Future of Austria.” After Haider’s unexpected death in 2008, the Alliance lost significant electorate support and failed to reach the 4 percent threshold in the 2013 general elections. Haider was succeeded by Heinz Christian Strache, who further radicalized the party’s ideology, communication, and campaign strategies. This led to some renewed electoral success; the Alliance made it a junior partner to regional governments in upper Austria, for example. In 2006, 2008, and 2013, the party’s campaign posters were very racist, xenophobic, and focused on the construction of ethnic Austrian identity.
Returning to the 2017 coalition government between the FPÖ and ÖVP, Dr Liebhart noted that it operated harmoniously for more than a year, which was facilitated by the ÖVP’s shift to the right under Kurz’s leadership. Their policies were virtually identical regarding such as family politics or the restriction of asylum policies. Another example that demonstrates the parties’ convergence is the fact that both used the same slogan in the 2019 elections: “Someone who speaks our language.”
In any event, the coalition turned Austria into a Eurosceptic and outspokenly anti-immigration country, aligning it more closely with Poland and Hungary than with other Western European countries. The “Ibiza affair” of May 2019 – during which a secretly recorded video showing Strache and Gudenus of the FPÖ discussing illegal practices was made public – blew up the coalition. Interestingly, Dr Liebhart notes, the FPÖ lost significant votes but the ÖVP did not. The ÖVP’s slogan, “our way has just begun,” was widely successful. In the subsequent snap elections, the ÖVP gained 37.5 percent of the other share and joined a coalition with the Green Party. However, Kurz, Austria’s “most charismatic and successful politician” in decades, eventually had to resign in 2021 following bribery investigations.
Under Herbert Kickl, the FPÖ’s chairman since 2021, the party has managed to regain support amongst potential voters. This is partially because Kickl presents himself as the only representative of the opposition to the government’s COVID-19 measures, and the main politician trying to defend the people’s democratic rights against supposed incursions by the government. The FPÖ is very active in organizing anti-Corona-measure rallies. In this vein, it closely collaborates with right-wing extremist groups like Generation Identity, and even Neo-Nazis. Importantly, Dr Liebhart says, the Coronavirus and related rallies have offered the radical right a new stage. Speaking specifically on the Identitarian Movement, Dr Liebhart says that it has, especially in Vienna, taken over and appropriated the anti-Corona-measure demonstrations. One slogan often touted at the rallies reads “the government should control the borders, not the people.”
Dr Liebhart concludes her lecture by saying that “the lasting impact of the transformation of the ÖVP into a right-wing political force on Austria’s political landscape and culture should not be underestimated.”
Reported by Melissa Blink
Dr Gilles Ivaldi: “The Populist Radical Right in the 2022 French Presidential Election: Party Fragmentation and Electoral Outcome”
Marine Le Pen presented a two-fold strategy; she simultaneously detoxified her and her party and hid her more radical policies, such as anti-immigration and EU scepticism, which Dr Ivaldi calls “de-demonization strategy.” She also presented a left-wing social populist set of economic policies to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, which is the number one issue for voters. While Le Pen tried to downplay her populist political tendencies, Eric Zemmour embraced them and forwarded a hard-line campaign that helped to portray Le Pen as more of a moderate.
Dr Gilles Ivaldi, in his presentation, provided an overview of the performances of the two populist politicians in the French Presidential election, Marine Le Pen (National Rally) and Eric Zemmour (Reconquête!) and the factors that contributed to their success and failures.
Dr Ivaldi began his speech by highlighting that Le Pen and Zemmour appeared in election champaigns in very different, divergent stances and platforms. On the one hand, Zemmour mixed populism, nativism, and authoritarianism and could comprise a very classical populist platform and manifesto. On the other hand, Le Pen, as Dr Ivaldi argues, presented a two-fold strategy; she simultaneously detoxified her and her party and hid her more radical policies, such as anti-immigration and EU scepticism, which Dr Ivaldi calls “de-demonization strategy.” She also presented a left-wing social populist set of economic policies to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, which is the number one issue for voters. While Le Pen tried to downplay her populist political tendencies, Zemmour embraced them and forwarded a hard-line campaign that helped to portray Le Pen as more of a moderate.
The two candidates also diverged in the issues they attempted to tackle during the election. Le Pen focused, as stated previously, on the cost-of-living crisis currently impacting Europe and the rest of the world. Zemmour, instead, focused his attention on immigration, and law and order. This benefitted Le Pen because she was seen to take the reins on cultural and socioeconomic issues that voters prioritised.
When the results were declared, Le Pen came second to Emmanuel Macron, collecting 23 percent, with Zemmour falling short at the end of his campaign due to his close alliance with Putin on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Dr Ivaldi summarised, “Altogether, Marine Le Pen checked many important boxes in this election – she responded to the traditional issues of the populist radical right agenda, she established a more respectable image for her party, and she checked the boxes of the cost-of-living issues for voters.” She also, importantly, narrowed the gender gap for populist parties historically in France – mostly men favoured Zemmour, whereas, both women and men voted for Le Pen through the election rounds. Similarly, where the young and old favoured Zemmour, Le Pen appealed to every age demographic.
When the election reached the second round of voting, this is where Macron prevailed. However, Le Pen did manage to earn the votes of around 13 million French citizens, most surprisingly, with many of those coming from traditionally left-wing voters. As Dr Ivaldi summarised, “In this election, there were two fronts working against each other – the traditional Republican front and the anti-Macron front.” Although the former ended up winning, the latter provided a substantial threat to this ‘tradition.’
At the end of his speech, Dr Ivaldi provided very valuable insights into the future of French politics in the years to come. Firstly, he predicts that Le Pen will still be the dominant radical right party leader in France. Zemmour, however, will likely fade with political marginalisation. Lastly, French politics will continue to be polarised on three main fronts – the radical right and left and with Macron holding the centre-ground.
Reported by Tom Robinsons
Dr William Allchorn “From the Margins to the Mainstream: The UK Populist Radical Right at a Time of Transition”
Dr Allchorn offers three key takeaways from the journey of right-wing extremism to the radicalisation of the mainstream in UK party politics. Firstly, British exceptionalism thesis (that the UK is the ‘ugly duckling of the European radical right’) is historically true but became increasingly problematic in the 21st century. Secondly, since the demise of UKIP, the UK extreme right has become even more marginal, fragmented and violent. And finally, the contemporary UK radical right are organisationally marginal but pursues anti-immigrant socio-economic frames which are increasingly mainstream post-Brexit.
Dr William Allchorn began his presentation by introducing a conception of UK radical right politics by Roger Griffin – the idea that the UK is still the “ugly duckling” of the European radical right (Griffin, 1996). By interrogating this claim with specific examples of electoral performance, Dr Allchorn provided a clear picture of radical right politics in the UK previously and in contemporary politics today.
Beginning with the British National Party (BNP) in the 1990s, the party rose to prominence due to its stances toward immigration and Muslim communities (demand-side) and its organisational moderation and ideological moderation (supply-side). The party peaked at the 2009 general election with 52 counsellors across the UK being elected but still without parliamentary representation. With the reduced salience of immigration as a political topic coupled with a neo-fascist legacy commanded by the divisive leadership of Nick Griffith, party popularity subsequently fell.
Following on from the BNP were the extremist radical right parties that were significantly fragmented. Parties included the English Defence League (EDL), National Action (NA) and National Front (NF). This extremist anti-establishment collective represented, what Dr. Allchorn labels, “a move towards a post-organisational space of anti-Islamic protest” in UK politics without much electoral representation or recognition.
With the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the UK saw a move towards classical populism and the prevalence of the ‘corrupt elite’ versus ‘the real people.’ On the demand-side, anti-immigration and anti-establishment viewpoints went arm in arm with a charismatic leader in Nigel Farage, on the supply side, a neo-fascist past and a strong rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s liberal-conservative coalition government. Its popularity initially spiked in the 2009 European Elections and with notable successes in subsequent European Elections and various local and by-elections. At its height, they fielded 22 MEPs, 2 MPs and notable Conservative Party defectors such as Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell. In the 2014 European Parliament Elections, UKIP won with its populist stance and platform which contributed to the Brexit referendum.
The 2015 general election saw the fall of the UKIP party domestically without them winning a seat leading to Farage’s resignation and subsequent party infighting. Although they claimed victory following the outcome of the Brexit vote, the 2017 general election compounded their demise and UKIP was labelled radical with Theresa May’s Conservative Party consolidating right-wing, especially working-class voters. The 2019 general election further oversaw the radicalisation and mainstreaming of the extreme right in its support of the conservatives.
Dr Allchorn concluded his presentation with three key takeaways from this journey of right-wing extremism to the radicalisation of the mainstream in UK party politics. Firstly, referring back to Griffin in the introduction, he stated, “We can suggest that the British exceptionalism thesis (that the UK is the ‘ugly duckling of the European radical right’) is historically true, but became increasingly problematic in the 21st century.” Secondly, “Since the demise of UKIP, the UK extreme right has become even more marginal, fragmented and violent.” And finally, “The contemporary UK radical right are organisationally marginal but pursues anti-immigrant socio-economic frames which are increasingly mainstream post-Brexit.”
Lordkipanidze, Mariam & Albrecht, Héloïse (2022). “Report on Panel #1 / Mapping European Populism: Populist Authoritarian Tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe, and Challenges to the EU.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 26, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0004
This report is based on the first panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on February 24, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars who are experts on populist politics in CEE (Central and Eastern Europe) countries, namely Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and Serbia. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.
ECPS organizes a panel series to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. This report is prepared based on the first panel of the series focusing on Central and Eastern Europe, on the theme of “Populist Authoritarian Tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe, and Challenges to the EU,” which was held online on February 24, 2022.
The panel is moderated by Bogusława Dobek-Ostrowska, Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Institute of Political Science, University of Wrocław, and included the following speakers: Dominika Kasprowicz, Professor of Political Science, the Institute of Journalism, Media and Social Communication, Jagiellonian University, Poland; Zoltan Adam, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Economic Policy and Labour Economics, Institute of Economic and Public Policy, Corvinus University of Budapest; Dr Vassilis Petsinis, University of Tartu, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies); and Miroslav Mareš, Professor, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University.
Prof Dobek-Ostrowska opened the panel by defining ‘authoritarian populism’ as a political ideology whose beliefs include cynicism about human rights and hostility to the state, opposition to immigration, and an enthusiasm for a strong defense and foreign policy. Prof Dobek-Ostrowska continued her introduction by reminding attendees of the geographical scope of the ‘Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)’ which comprises 11 EU members (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Croatia), 6 Balkan states (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania), and 4 post-Soviet Union states (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova). The moderator pointed out two overarching issues addressed by the speakers of the panel in the context of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Serbia; 1) the analysis of authoritarian populism in connection with the question of the quality of democracy in CEE, 2) mass media freedom in the region which sheds light on the questions whether populist authoritarian tendencies exist in CEE and If so, how strong they are.
Prof Dominika Kasprowicz: “Populism in Poland 2015-2021: A short journey from theory to praxis”
According to Professor Kasprowicz, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), as a typical populist power, is characterized by anti-elite rhetoric and targeted the previous ruling elites and the EU establishment. This is part of the usual populist strategy: the creation of ‘the Other,’ as the enemy of the currently governing political elite and its own ‘people.’ In Poland, this list of enemies is long, and migrants, particularly those who do not come from culturally close countries, are included.
Professor Dominika Kasprowicz presented the case of Poland, seeking to understand the populism phenomenon through the framework of Communication and Media studies. In this regard, she particularly highlighted the impact of populist communication on social media and concluded that the tendencies of mass communication go in favour of the populists in the office.
Since 2015, Poland, among other countries in the region, is experiencing a progressing and very radical political and social change that has been dictated and designed by a mindset that we can easily define as ‘populist,’ as all the characteristics that normally distinguish the populist phenomenon are present: the appeal to ‘the people,’ the anti-elitist rhetoric, and the radical tactics in terms of pursuing political change. Prof Kasprowicz suggested that the process of radical political change started by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in the country is now almost concluded, containing all three features of populist ideology. Contrary to what scholars might have expected, the Law and Justice Party is now still in power, and its popularity is not decreasing. Prof Kasprowicz cited two main reasons for this; first, the Law and Justice Party’s populist ‘appeal to ‘the people’ has proven to be extremely efficient, as their rhetoric was filling the void left by neoliberal centrist parties and they capitalised on the so-called ‘losers of transformation.’ Second, their political praxis of ‘welfare chauvinism,’ a very selective and ‘picky’ understanding of who is considered ‘good enough’ to be subsidised by public money, was proven to be very efficient in the Polish scenario and happens in all aspects of the important spheres of domestic life. Thus, the ruling party is biased and selective in funding the media, NGOs, and different social groups (e.g., cutting off subsidies to NGOs that are not close enough to the populist power and its goals, only subsidising citizens that belong to the target groups and social stronghold of the party in power). The reforms made by the party are designed and oriented to benefit particular groups considered to be allies of the ruling party.
According to Kasprowicz, the Law and Justice Party, as a typical populist power, is characterized by anti-elite rhetoric and targeted the previous ruling elites and the EU establishment. This is part of the usual populist strategy: the creation of ‘the Other,’ as the enemy of the currently governing political elite and its own ‘people.’ In Poland, this list of enemies is long, and migrants, particularly those who do not come from culturally close countries, are included. Therefore, anti-migrant rhetoric is also a typical feature of the ruling party, and in the past 5 years, the artificial fears that were fuelled by the messages of the ruling party regarding, for instance, the Polish-Byelorussian border, have motivated pro-governmental sentiments.
The authoritarian tendencies in the country cannot be overlooked either, as the so-called ‘charismatic leadership and the ‘non-democratic praxis’ that is happening in the country, for Kasprowicz, have already “caused a radical and irreversible social change.” The lecturer concluded her presentation by expressing concern over this change, the state of democracy and civil liberties in Poland, as well as the diminishing balance of powers in the country. Finally, Prof Kasprowicz, expressed the challenge that scholars, practitioners, and citizens faces: How to handle the mainstream politics in para-democratic systems that have been invaded by the populist radical right?
Reported by Mariam Lordkipanidze
Prof Zoltán Ádám: “The Orbán regime after 12 years, before the April 2022 general elections”
“Hungary’s EU membership does pose some institutional constraints on the government, but apart from that, there is no domestic authority that is not controlled by the government of the majority. This has become the perfect soil for the totalitarian approach to power which populists tend to exhibit. Therefore, Hungarian democratic standards have been steadily declining for the past decade, democratically underperforming relative to its level of economic development.”
Professor Zoltán Ádám presented the case of Hungary as a prominent example of populism. He emphasised the importance of the Hungarian case and its populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a world-stage political actor who often meets with other autocratic leaders and likes to associate with leaders of the European far-right, as having an impact on surrounding Central European fellow populists and the wider context.
As Prof Ádám reminded us, there are many definitions of populism, but he opted to focus on historian Federico Finchelstein’s definition, which describes populism as a “form of authoritarian democracy for the post-War world,” finding a link between fascism and populism, in the sense that populism, Finchelstein argues, can be seen as a “democratic reincarnation of fascism,” as it exhibits the same majoritarian or totalitarian approach to power. One of the key characteristics of populism is the diminishment of liberal democratic institutions that could defend social and political minorities; therefore, in this definition, populism is a political system in which the liberties provided for minorities in a democratic society are increasingly endangered or eliminated. For Prof Ádám, this elimination of liberties, sometimes to an extreme extent, is what we are now witnessing in the world: an originally popularly and democratically elected political figure thus becomes an autocratic dictator, e.g., through the incarceration of their political opponents. Populism, then, is characterised, according to Finchelstein, by the cultivation of highly personalised political leadership, with charismatic leaders who dominate the political system, and tend to extend social rights, while eliminating political rights and freedoms.
Viktor Orbán’s Hungary since 2010 is a prime example of that what Finchelstein describes. Orbán (from the Fidesz party) had been in power before between 1998 and 2002, but he did not have then what he has had since 2010: a two-term majority in the parliament. Indeed, when a coalition of parties control two-thirds of the Hungarian parliament, that coalition has very little to no constitutional constraints on its power. Hungary’s EU membership does pose some institutional constraints on the government—as a consequence, the conflicts between the Hungarian government and the EU Commission and other bodies of the EU have been a recurring phenomenon in the past decade—but apart from that, there is no domestic authority that is not controlled by the government of the majority. This has become the perfect soil for the totalitarian approach to power which populists tend to exhibit. Therefore, Hungarian democratic standards have been steadily declining for the past decade, democratically underperforming relative to its level of economic development (see Freedom House and V-Dem indexes).
Prof Ádám suggested that one of the potential explanatory factors behind this democratic underperformance is the ‘exclusive’ nature of the Hungarian political system: without strong opponents, Fidesz received 53 percent of the overall vote in 2010, 46 percent in 2014, and a little under 50 percent in 2018, which all three times translated into a two-thirds majority of the seats in the parliament. The Gallagher Index, which measures the discrepancy between votes received and parliamentary seats controlled by political parties, shows that Hungary exhibits a very high degree of discrepancy between the two, having a more distortionary electoral system than any other country.
The lecturer concluded his presentation with the perspectives of future Hungarian elections and the increased chances of the opposition. Indeed, an interesting political situation is now unfolding among Fidesz’s political opposition: the six major opposition parties, realising the distortionary nature of the country’s political system, started to coordinate. They fielded joint candidates at the 2019 local elections, winning a number of major cities, including Budapest, and held primaries for the 2022 parliamentary elections, even picking a joint prime minister candidate, Péter Márki-Zay. The polls showed that this time, the race between Fidesz and the united opposition was much tighter than in the past. (However, Orbán and his nationalist-populist Fidesz party won a landslide victory for the fourth time on April 3, 2022.)
Reported by Mariam Lordkipanidze
Dr Vassilis Petsinis: “Scanning the far right in Croatia and Serbia”
Dr Petsinis pointed out that “de-radicalisation” in the case of Serbia, or the “long-term transformation processes” of larger conservative right-wing parties in the case of Croatia, side-lined the radical and extremist right-wing parties in both contexts. In Croatia in particular, the Homeland Movement has been emerging as a “formidable contender” with the “potential of both antagonising HDZ and additionally side-lining the political forces of the radical and extremist right.”
Turning to the post-Yugoslavian region,Dr VassilisPetsinis talked aboutfar-right politics in Croatia and Serbia, focusing on the following questions: Why are the radical and extremist right-wing parties in Serbia and Croatia weak? How has the engagement of the governing parties (the SNS in Serbia and the HDZ in Croatia) impacted the weak performance of the radical and extremist right?
Dr Petsinis started by making a tentative distinction between ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’ right-wing parties on the basis of their political origins and active political engagement. He sketched out two categories: radical right-wing parties andextremist right-wing parties. According to him, radical right-wing parties were, in a lot of cases, the result of mergers between existing established parties, and so, are by-products of top-level formation processes and strive to promote their political causes through parliamentary and democratic institutions and procedures, having sometimes participated in coalition governments in their respective countries (e.g., Estonia’s EKRE, Latvia’s National Alliance, Sweden’s SD). In comparison, extremist right-wing parties often represent the culmination of bottom-up formation processes led by a political (occasionally semi-paramilitary) core, and so, they are more prone to a militant engagement in politics through systematic mass-mobilisation and patterns of policy-making that often harbour anti-democratic implications (e.g., early Jobbik in Hungary, ‘Our Slovakia,’ Bulgaria’s Ataka and Greece’s Golden Dawn).
Most importantly, the parties of the radical right ‘scrutinise’ the liberal democratic constitutional order, but formally respect democratic institutions and procedures. In contrast, the parties of the extremist right ‘antagonise’ the liberal democratic constitutional order, and often multiply attempts to subvert—or substitute—democratic institutions and procedures. However, this distinction became very ‘idiosyncratic’ within the party politics of Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s and 2000s, largely due to the protracted warfare and the wars of secession of the 1990s.
On the one hand, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), one of the oldest political parties in Serbia, oscillated, in the 1990s and 2000s, between the categories of radical and extremist right-wing party. It endorsed ‘Greater Serbia’ and even sent a paramilitary unit to the Croatian and Bosnian fronts, with recurring phases of partnership and tension with Slobodan Milošević’s Socialist Party (SPS). Between 2000 and 2007, the SRS bound together anti-Western nationalists, former SPSvoters, and various ‘losers’ of the transition, and so it became Serbia’s strongest opposition party. The turning point came in February 2003, when the leader Vojislav Šešelj voluntarily surrendered himself to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksandar Vučić became the leading figures within the party. However, Nikolić and Vučić soon departed from the SRS and set up the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), which putlower stress on nationalism, formally endorsed the EU accession process, and took advantage of the fragmentation of the centre and centre-right political parties in the country (DS, DSS, SPO, etc.).
The SNS overwhelmingly won the parliamentary (2016) and presidential (2017) elections, whereas the SRS started to become marginalised (with a mere 8.8 percent in the 2016 parliamentary elections). The SNS consolidated its grip onpower in the 2020 parliamentary elections (61.60 percent of the vote), dominating a continuum that stretches from the liberal centre to the conservative right, relying on the pattern of political clientelism to secure support and on the opposition’s persistent fragmentation. The ‘deradicalisation’ of this segment that originated in the SRS and then evolved into the SNS led to the marginalisation of the SRS, which is not even currently represented in the Serbian parliament. There are, however, some extra-parliamentary parties and groupings of the more radical and extremist right in Serbia: the ‘traditional’ Serbian nationalism of Dveri, the National-Socialist fascist platform of Srbska Akcija, and peculiar cases like Levijatan, which combines elements of National-Socialism with animal rights and ‘anti-vax’ conspiracies.
On the other hand, in Croatia, a party comparable to Serbia’s Radical Party is the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), a party accused of historical revisionism, which in the 1990s endorsed ‘Greater Croatia’ and dispatched a paramilitary unit (HOS) to the Yugoslavian wars of secession. In contrast to the SRS, this party gradually lost popularity and became fragmented during the 2000s, and, despite its efforts to come back into political relevancy, it has not been represented in the Croatian parliament for years. As happened in Serbia, there was a process of reformation, as the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) consolidated its public appeal between 2012 and 2016, and a right-wing faction emerged within it. This factionslowly capitalised on the ‘socio-cultural Euroscepticism’ among certain segments of the electorate, focusing on the opposition to the rights of LGBTQ+ people, abortion, and EU refugee quotas. Thus, it has decisively marginalised the forces of the Croatian radical and extremist right.
Like the SNS in Serbia, HDZ consolidated its grip on power following the Croatian parliamentary elections of July 2020, relying on political clientelism. But there has also been a new party that emerged to the right of the HDZ: the Homeland Movement (Domovinski Pokret), currently the third-largest party in the Croatian parliament, led by Miroslav Škoro, a former singer and TV host. It presents a national-conservative program similar to the one supported by the right-wing faction of the HDZ: seeking to safeguard ‘Catholic values,’ wants to strengthen ‘law and order,’ and seeks to revise national legislation on minority rights. The gradual emergence of this party poses a challenge to the endeavours of PM (and leader of HDZ) Andrej Plenković to shift the party narrative of HDZ more firmly towards the centre, and it further marginalises the older and more traditional parties of the Croatian radical and extremist right.
To conclude, Dr Petsinis pointed out that “de-radicalisation” in the case of Serbia, or the “long-term transformation processes” of larger conservative right-wing parties in the case of Croatia, side-lined the radical and extremist right-wing parties in both contexts. In Croatia in particular, the Homeland Movement has been emerging as a “formidable contender”with the “potential of both antagonising HDZ and additionally side-lining the political forces of the radical and extremist right.”
Reported by Héloïse Albrecht
Prof Miroslav Mareš: “Comparison of authoritarian and populist tendencies in the Czech Republic and Slovakia”
Prof Miroslav Mareš argues that there has been a shift from parties linked to the totalitarian past (KSČM, K–LSNS), which have now declined, to rising modern populism. The populist and extremist spectrum in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia is relatively unstable: new issues for these parties to appropriate and rally around keep arising (e.g., the anti-vax movement, the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis that is likely to emerge), which opens the future to populism and authoritarianism in the post-Covid era.
Prof Miroslav Mareš, in his speech, compared the authoritarian and populist trends in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.Even though the Czech Republic and Slovakia’s democracies may fare relatively well compared to other Eastern European countries, both countries face the challenge of the populist wave. Professor Mareš highlighted, moreover, that the right-wing populist parties in both countries have deep connections with the larger European populist right.
Prof. Mareš explained that he used a relatively broad concept of populism for his analysis because, while the impact of the populist far-right is strongly felt in both countries, other forms of populism (centrist and leftist populism) also play a role that needs to be considered to truly understand the populist tendencies in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He highlighted the fact that in both countries, the various currents of populism have developed with significant overlaps. Populism, identifiable as the “struggle for the unity of people against an alleged ‘establishment’,” has been dynamicallydeveloping in these countries in the post-1989 era. The partisan strain of populism has been the most dominant, but individual actors (e.g., Czech President Miloš Zeman, other non-partisan actors in the public space like the ‘anti-vax’ movement), as well as some media (the so-called ‘disinformation scene’), have also played a role in the spread of populism. Both countries present the basic division into right-wing extremism, right-wing populism, centrist populism, left-wing populism, and left-wing extremism.
The lecturer then presented a brief overview of the trend toward populism and authoritarianism in the Czech Republic. At the moment, it is important to mention that right-wing extremism in the country is relatively weak, if we look at the partisan level, without parliamentary or regional/local representation, and only some small hard-liner groupings linked to the anti-vax movement, partly pro-Kremlin and with a pan-Slavic orientation. However, the country now has a relatively strong right-wing populism, thanks to the parliamentary representation (9.56 percent in 2021) of the Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) movement, led by Tomio Okamura. Most importantly, centrist populism in the country is strong and has a strong presence in major newspapers; it is especially represented by the ANO (‘Yes’) party, which is currently the strongest party in the Czech parliament, a member of liberal structures at the European level, but which has been labelled as an ‘entrepreneurial party’ (term used by Hloušek, Kopeček, and Vodová, 2020) because it largely depends on one entrepreneur, its leader (and previous president of the country, now in the opposition) Andrej Babiš, who is the owner of important newspapers. On the other hand, left-wing populism is relatively weak in the political spectrum, but has some impact on the media. Finally, left-wing extremism (largely associated with the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia[KSČM]), only has one member in the European Parliament after the 2021 elections, and no domestic national representation (3.60 percent).
In contrast to the Czech Republic, Slovakia has a relatively strong right-wing extremism, with the so-called ‘hard-liners’ of Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS)—rooted in the neo-fascist movement, despite some slight attempts at moderation in the last few years; it received 7.97 percent of votes in 2020, but some members of the party split from it in 2021 (distancing themselves from the strong ties to historical fascism of LSNS). Likewise, right-wing populism finds relatively strong representation in the country, with the national-conservative, “We Are Family (Sme Rodina)” party—which is a governmental party since 2020 (8.4 percent of the votes that year), strongly associated with the figure of its leader, businessman Boris Kollár—as well as the extra-parliamentary Slovak National Party (3.16 percent in 2020). The impact of centrist populism in the country is questionable. Left-wing populism in the country is strong, represented by the Smer–SD (Orientation – Social Democracy) party, a member of socialist international structures and of the Party of European Socialists, which received 18.29 percent of the vote in 2020, and is currently in the opposition. Left-wing extremism is still weak in Slovakia and mostly confined to the non-partisan scene, but important Smer–SD deputy LubošBlaha and his followers are well-known for their sympathies to some left-wing extremist entities.
Finally, Prof. Mareš, drawing a comparison between the two countries, concluded that: the strongest position comparatively is that of centrist populism in the Czech Republic, and that of left-wing populism in Slovakia; on the other hand, right-wing populism is strong in both countries, even though the ideological positioning of the parties on the ground (SPD and Sme Rodina) is different. There has been a shift from parties linked to the totalitarian past (KSČM, K–LSNS), which have now declined, to rising modern populism. The populist and extremist spectrum in both countries is relatively unstable: new issues for these parties to appropriate and rally around keep arising (e.g., the anti-vax movement, the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis that is likely to emerge), which opens the future to populism and authoritarianism in the post-Covid era.
Schütz, Imke & Wolf, Maximilian. (2022). “Report on Panel #2 / Mapping European Populism: The Peculiarities and Commonalities of the Populist Politics in Southern Europe.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 14, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0003
This report is based on the second panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on March 31, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four south European countries, namely Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, which have many similarities and varieties in terms of right- and left-wing populist parties, groups and movements. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.
This report is based on the second panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on March 31, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four south European countries, namely Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, which have many similarities and varieties in terms of right- and left-wing populist parties, groups and movements.
The panel, which opened by Dr. Erkan Toguslu’s welcome speech on behalf of European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), was continued with the overall assessments of Dr Daphne Halikiopoulouwho is a Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Reading over the populist politics and tendencies in these countries. Then, 2-hour panel went on with the striking presentations made by Professor Sofia Vasilopoulou on populism in Greece, Professor Oscar Mazzoleni on Italy, Professor Andrés Santana on Spain and Professor Susana Salgado on Portugal. Each presentation was followed by a Q&A session. The panel was moderated by Professor Halikiopoulou.
This report is a by-product of this fruitful panel and intended to keep the record of this successful scholarly gathering. The report includes brief summaries of the speeches delivered by our panelists and, also, links to the full video of the panel. ECPS thanks Imke Schütz and Maximilian Wolf for writing the report.
Prof Sofia Vasilopoulou: “Greece: A Case of Populism in Decline?”
Prof Vasilopoulou argued that the 10 years of populist success in Greece were not as straightforward as they may at first appear. While, in opposition, SYRIZA ran on a “radical left ticket” of anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal and anti-imperial discourse, their stint in government from 2015 to 2019 was instead marked by fiscal consolidation and a significant reduction of their anti-capitalist discourse.
Professor Sofia Vasilopoulou, Professor of Politics at the University of York, sought to shed some light on the unique populist conjuncture in Greece, almost exactly 10 years after the “seismic” 2012 elections that saw the far-left and far-right reshuffle the playing field amid an ailing Greek economic situation marked by unmanageable debt, huge unemployment, and a war of words with the European Central Bank (ECB). She argued that it was that election — indeed two elections in rapid succession, in May and June respectively — that lastingly changed the party landscape in the country. The center-left PASOK, until that point one of Greece’s two main parties, came in third, ceding much ground to the more radical left SYRIZA, which became the largest opposition party. On the right, meanwhile, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, running on an anti-democratic platform, managed to gain some 7 percent and almost 20 parliamentary seats in the process. By the time of the next round of elections in 2015, SYRIZA became the largest party, gaining over 35 percent of the vote as PASOK essentially vanished from the political scene, while Golden Dawn was able to solidify its hold in Greek politics. More surprisingly, SYRIZA finally formed an unexpected coalition with the radical-right ANEL, an unusual bedfellow for the left-wing SYRIZA in a country that historically has struggled with coalition governments.
Following this historic overview, Prof Vasilopoulou argued, however, that these 10 years of populist success in Greece were not as straightforward as they may at first appear. While, in opposition, SYRIZA ran on a “radical left ticket” of anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal and anti-imperial discourse, their stint in government from 2015 to 2019 was instead marked by fiscal consolidation and a significant reduction of their anti-capitalist discourse. Despite the discord between the party’s pre-electoral promises and its governmental record, Prof Vasilopoulou noted, they were able to consolidate their status as a major player in the Greek system, coming second in the 2019 elections. The story of Golden Dawn is even more complex: after their dramatic rise to the Greek parliament, a number of legal issues, including a five-year-long trial around the murder of an anti-fascist rapper in Greece and a number of violent attacks on migrants and political opponents, finally led to the imprisonment of a number of its leaders and the designation of the party as a ‘criminal organization.’
So how are we to interpret these developments? Prof Vasilopoulou’s work focused on the demand side of Greek politics, specifically voter attitudes around the values of liberal democracy. Data from the European Election Study 2019 indicated that significant portions of the Greek electorate held illiberal opinions. On the question of the value of a judiciary independent of political influence, some 10 percent were opposed while another 20 percent saw themselves as ‘on the fence.’ On whether a government should be able to prohibit a peaceful protest under certain circumstances, approximately a quarter of respondents ‘agreed’ or ‘agreed fully.’ On a more positive note, freedom of public media free from political influence scored better, with only 5 percent disagreeing. Approximately a quarter of Greek respondents felt that ‘having a strong leader that bends the rules to get things done’ is a good thing, while, reflecting populist attitudes in the country, over half of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘the people and not politicians should make the most important policy decisions.’
Prof Vasilopoulou linked these sentiments to another important statistic which indicated that some 75 percent of the Greek population felt dissatisfaction with the Greek political system. In all, she argued that these persistent illiberal attitudes provide fertile ground for threats to Greek democracy in the future, particularly if they will again be able to find concrete political expression in anti-democratic movements like Golden Dawn.
Reported by Maximilian Wolf
Prof Oscar Mazzoleni: “Italian Multiple Populism: Evidence, Causes and Impacts”
Prof Mazzoleni argues that Italy’s political system provides a structural gateway for populist parties. Three structural features, in particular, enable populist parties’ continuity. First, the political system is characterized by low legitimation and low stability. Low public trust in politics and parties is the second contributing factor. Anti-politics and anti-elite discourses flourish in Italy’s public spheres as a result and enjoy both legitimation and momentum. Lastly, Italian MPs have some of the highest salaries among European politicians, so there are strong financial incentives for new actors to enter Italy’s political arena.
Professor Oscar Mazzoleni, Professor of Political Science at the University of Lausanne, reflected on Italy’s status as a ‘laboratory of populism.’ To begin, he explained why Italy can be considered a case of ‘multiple populism’ – Italian populism is not limited to the radical right; there exists a multiplicity amongst Italian populists. For one, populist parties have been persistently present in Italian politics since the 1990s. Second, both cooperative and competitive patterns evolved between populist parties as they competed in the country’s electoral arenas, for both parliament and government. Third, Italy’s populist parties espouse various ideologies: there are regionalist, radical-right, nationalist, left-wing, moderate, and syncretic populist parties. This highlights the ideological flexibility and the complexity of Italian populism.
So why does populism thrive in so many forms in Italy, despite parties’ diverse ideological and organizational features? Prof Mazzoleni argues that Italy’s political system provides a structural gateway for populist parties. Three structural features, in particular, enable populist parties’ continuity. First, the political system is characterized by low legitimation and low stability. Not only has the system shifted from proportional to majoritarian, but changing parliamentary coalitions exacerbate instability. Low public trust in politics and parties is the second contributing factor. Anti-politics and anti-elite discourses flourish in Italy’s public spheres as a result and enjoy both legitimation and momentum, especially when connected with anti-corruption stances. Lastly, Italian MPs have some of the highest salaries among European politicians, so there are strong financial incentives for new actors to enter Italy’s political arena.
Since the 1990s, populist trends in Italy have foreshadowed trends in other Western European democracies. According to Prof Mazzoleni, two of the most notable trends are the breakdown of the traditional party system with its mass party organizations after World War II and the permanent redefinition of the relationship between politics and the media. The former led to an unprecedented openness of the political system to new parties, while the latter introduced a strong media logic into politics. One well-known case combining these two trends is Berlusconi, who switched from the media to politics. For these reasons, Prof Mazzoleni argues, it is reasonable to label Italy as a ‘laboratory of populism.’ Another factor that contributes to Italy’s ‘multiple populism’ is the populist actors themselves. Living up to populism’s chameleon reputation, Italian populists stand out for their entrepreneurship and flexibility; both the political system’s insiders, like Salvini, Meloni or Bossie, and its outsiders, like Berlusconi, Grillo or Conte, are confronted not only with the uncertainty of their parties’ electoral success but must also deal with the challenges of managing their authority both inside and outside their parties. Furthermore, they have had to develop strong political marketing skills – when in government positions, populists tend to tone down their agendas and discourse, to ensure the party’s continued political success and authority.
Prof Mazzoleni recommends, then, that the study of populism focus on populism’s impact on policy and changes in the polity. Observing these dimensions, one might investigate the reciprocity of populist and mainstream parties’ performative styles. Changes in the latter’s performative style set the context in which populists must act and influence the framing opportunities they can take advantage of. This is particularly visible in Italy, where the populist performative style connects with anti-party attitudes. Slowly transforming democratic communication and reshaping constitutional and judicial rules, populists reshape their structural opportunities over time. Thus, it is important to connect the dimensions of polity, policy, and politics when examining populists’ success.
In sum, the case of Italy as a ‘laboratory for populism’ sheds light on populist actors’ myriad forms and paths. The openness of Italy’s political system to anti-establishment actors leads to the continuous presence of a multitude of populist actors. Extending the scope of populism research to include populism’s effects on the polity dimension could yield valuable insights and greatly improve our understanding of populism.
Reported by Imke Schütz
Prof Andres Santana: “Podemos and Vox: Opportunities and Challenges Posed by Left- and Right-wing Populism in Spain”
Similar to the Greek case, Prof Santana argued that the opening for (right- and left-wing) populist movements in Spain was caused, primarily, by the dysfunction within the political system and the deadlock amongst the traditional Spanish political elite. As long as there is dissatisfaction with the political status quo, there will always be a gap for what he termed “political entrepreneurs” to profit. Furthermore, as populist support in Spain tends to be urban and young, the problem looks set to persist.
Professor Santana, Professor of Political Science at the Autonomous University of Madrid turned the spotlight on the populist battleground of Spain. By way of introduction, he noted that Spain was not always a populist battleground: until 10 years ago there were two relevant parties in Spain, the centre-left PSOE and the centre-right PP; much like in the Greek case, however, the mid-2010s proved a fruitful conjuncture for populist movements on the right and left to gain and consolidate some ground. For a long time, Spain had considered itself “immune” to populist challenges.
All of this changed, however, in 2014 when — almost simultaneously — Podemos on the left and Vox on the right threw the “Iberian exception,” and Spanish democracy into disarray. Vox, born in late 2013, was initially as unsuccessful as many other small right-wing movements vying for influence in Spain, gaining a few percentage points here and there; however, Vox did not follow those others to what Santana called the “graveyard of small right-wing parties,” instead, becoming, some years later, a serious player in Spanish politics and polling as high as second in recent polls. Podemos, led by a university professor and born out of the ‘Indignados’ protest movement, came into being around the same time and, much more immediately than Vox, made an immediate impact on the Spanish political scene, winning some 1.2 million votes in the 2014 European Parliament elections.
Despite both movements coming into being in the ‘populist moment’ of the mid-2010s that spawned many similar movements on the right and left throughout Europe, Prof Santana argued that, while many such movements have since faded into irrelevance again, this is unlikely to occur with Podemos and Vox. He noted that the Spanish electoral system generally rewards larger parties, meaning the barrier for new challengers is relatively high; this very mechanism, intended to strengthen and stabilize the winners of elections, has had the unintended consequence of generating a significant turnaround for medium-size parties: while, in 2015 and 2016, Podemos was able to secure some 20-25 percent of the vote, behind PP and PSOE, the next election in April 2019 saw their support crater to 14 percent and a new movement, Ciudadanos, taking third place; this was only to last until an election re-run in November of the same year, where Ciudadanos dropped to 6th place, while Vox — led by the enigmatic Santiago Abascal, leapfrogged the field to come third with 15 percent of the vote. This “dance,” as Prof Santana called it, attests to the fact that the Spanish electoral system is not built for five major parties; indeed, he argued, it struggles to accommodate three. In his estimation, Vox looks most likely to secure that coveted third spot in the political space, with Podemos relegated once again to a fringe movement.
Similar to the Greek case, Prof Santana argued that the opening for both populist movements in Spain was caused, primarily, by the dysfunction within the political system and the deadlock amongst the traditional Spanish political elite. As long as there is dissatisfaction with the political status quo, there will always be a gap for what he termed “political entrepreneurs” to profit. Furthermore, as populist support in Spain tends to be urban and young, the problem looks set to persist.
Reported by Maximilian Wolf
Prof Susana Salgado: “Support for Right-wing Populism in Portugal: Protest or Deep-rooted Attitudes”
Some believed that Portugal’s history under the Salazar regime would deter right-wing populism. Indeed, support for right-wing parties was negligible for a long time, Chega’s success, however, has undermined Portugal’s long-standing reputation as immune to populism. As Chega crushes this long-held view, Prof Susana Salgado urges us to keep an eye on Portugal’s youths.
In the last contribution, Professor Susana Salgado, Principal Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon, investigates whether support for right-wing populism in Portugal is a manifestation of deep-rooted attitudes or if it is merely a protest phenomenon. To begin, Prof Salgado points to the nationalist and populist party Chega as a case study of Portugal’s right-wing populism. The party was founded a few months before the 2019 parliamentary election. As expected, Chega’s obtained vote share of 1.3 percent was insignificant. Despite this initially poor vote share, public support has been growing exponentially. In the same year, Andre Ventura, the leader of Chega, ran for president and increased the party’s publicity. He surprisingly received 11.9 percent of the vote, placing him close to the 2nd runner-up. The snap election in 2022 confirmed the trend of electoral support: Chega increased its number of MPs from 1 to 12 as the party with the third-most votes.
Some believed that Portugal’s history under the Salazar regime would deter right-wing populism. Indeed, support for right-wing parties was negligible for a long time, Chega’s success, however, has undermined Portugal’s long-standing reputation as immune to populism. To explore whether latent populist sentiments existed prior to Chega’s emergence, Prof Salgado tested for latent populist sentiments amongst various Portuguese population groups in 2017. Her data revealed that Portuguese politicians, as a group, are most negatively regarded and blamed for many of the country’s issues, followed by the wealthy, then immigrants. These results suggested that an attitude of blame towards politicians could be a structural characteristic of the Portuguese population. Moreover, it appears that news items containing anti-elitist and right-wing populist content had a greater influence on the study’s participants than left-wing populist news items. Thus, Prof Salgado suggests that respondents were more susceptible to right-wing claims and potentially more prone to right-wing populism. She also found that anti-immigrant discourse activated more populist sentiments than anti-elitism discourses. Prof Salgado furthermore noted that Chega’s voters do not, according to self-assessments, consider themselves right-wing, and refuse the radical-right label. Moreover, they consider themselves less right-wing than voters of the Conservative party. Correspondingly, Chega integrates its supporters’ self-perception into its image as a conservative, nationalist, liberal and anti-establishment party.
To further explain Chega’s attractiveness to Portuguese voters, Prof Salgado turns to Ventura’s tactics and political discourse. Prof Salgado’s work reveals that voters’ main motive to vote for Chega was a desire for change. Chega voters evaluate Portugal’s state of affairs and economic problems more negatively than other voter groups. These attitudes correspond with the geographical distribution of Chega voters; districts with relatively high numbers of immigrants and few hospitals and schools showed the highest electoral support for Chega. Accordingly, Chega voters’ testimonies emphasize their desire for improving their regional situation, and for someone who cares about them. To gain popularity, Ventura taps into these desires; he promotes Chega as an anti-system party and uses typical populist discourses, such as exclusionary ideas, calculated ambivalence, provocation, appeals to a national identity, an ideal nation, and historical and religious symbols. While Ventura paints other parties as a syndicate apathetic towards the ‘authentic people,’ he presents himself as the people’s ‘true representative’ – a typical populist tactic.
Finally, Prof Salgado notes three interesting demographic characteristics of Chega’s voters. First, men tend to vote for Chega, while women tend to vote for left-wing parties. Second, voters with higher education tend to vote for right-wing parties; contrary to the belief that the uneducated are particularly susceptible to populism and right-wing parties, Chega’s voters are not the least educated. Finally, Portugal’s young voters tend to vote for new parties such as Chega. In conclusion, Chega crushes the long-held view that the Portuguese are immune to right-wing populism. Furthermore, Prof Salgado urges us to keep an eye on Portugal’s youths.
Wolf, Maximillian; Grueso, Gadea Mendez; Robinson, Tom; Lortkipanidze, Mariam; Schutz, Imke; Sezer, Julide; Aelbrecht, Heloise and Blink, Melissa. (2022). “Symposium Report—The Future Course of Populism in the Post-Pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 2, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0002
The ECPS’s First Annual International Symposium, titled “The Future Course of Populism in the Post-Pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy,” was held online in Brussels on February 18, 2022, and brought together scholars from the political, social, and economic sciences, as well as populism experts and civil society audiences, to discuss the impact of populist policies on the national, regional, and global management of the Covid-19 pandemic. In doing so, the symposium aimed at contributing to informed predictions on the post-pandemic international political landscape. This report is the product of these fruitful conversations and is intended to keep the record of the Symposium. It includes brief summaries of the speeches and, also, links to the full videos of presentations.
This report is based on the ECPS’s First Annual International Symposium titled “The Future Course of Populism in the Post-Pandemic Era: The State of Globalization, Multilateral Governance, and Democracy,” which was held online in Brussels on February 18, 2022.
The symposium brought together scholars from the political, social, and economic sciences, as well as populism experts and civil society audiences, to discuss the impact of populist policies on the national, regional, and global management of the Covid-19 pandemic—i.e., how populist leaders handled the pandemic, to what extent they could use populist strategies and tactics while dealing with pandemic-related issues, and what kind of challenges populist policies pose to global governance and democracy. In doing so, the symposium aimed at contributing to informed predictions on the post-pandemic international political landscape. This report is the product of these fruitful conversations and is intended to keep the record of the symposium. It includes brief summaries of the speeches and, also, links to the full videos of presentations.
The symposium was held under the auspices of Sir Graham Watson, Honorary President of ECPS, who delivered the opening remarks. Distinguished scholars in the field contributed their insightful speeches: Mark Findlay (Professor, Director of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Data Governance, Singapore Management University), Manuel Funke (Kiel Institute for the World Economy), Aline Burni (German Development Institute), Eckart Woertz (Professor of Contemporary History and Politics, The University of Hamburg), Neil Robinson (Professor of Comparative Politics, The University of Limerick), Axel Klein (Professor of Social Sciences on East Asia / Japanese Politics, Institute of East Asian Studies, Duisburg-Essen University), Jens Maesse (Institute of Sociology, Justus-Liebig-University Gießen), Brett Meyer (Tony Blair Institute for Global Change), and Sheri Berman (Professor of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University). The closing remarks were delivered by Hercules Milas (ECPS Advisory Board Member).
The symposium panels were moderated by: Eser Karakas (Professor of Economics, Strasbourg University, ECPS Advisory Board Member and Senior Research Fellow), Werner Pascha (Emeritus Professor of Economics, Institute of East Asian Studies, Duisburg-Essen University), and Naim Kapucu (Pegasus Professor, School of Public Administration & School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs, University of Central Florida).
Last, but not least, Professor Ibrahim Ozturk (Director, Resident Senior Research Fellow at ECPS) chaired the organization committee composed of ECPS staff members and interns. We would like to thank everyone who contributed to the event and made it a real success.
Professor Mark Findlay: “Rehabilitating Globalization, Repositioning Populism, Proportioning Pandemics – Does Law Have a Place?”
To counteract mythologies, divisive languages and the structures of hate and exclusion, it is necessary to create safe spaces for informed dissent, the exercise of common sense, considered challenges to obsessive rationality, and allow for prudent doubts – a space for the collective flourishing of human consciousness.
Beginning with globalization, Findlay argued that critics and pessimists—whether populists or not—had fundamentally misunderstood what the term meant; globalization, he argued, is a process, one incredibly effective at tackling global crises. As such, it is not in itself good or bad; rather, how it is employed, what structures it engenders, and who benefits from them, are the more important questions. Findlay noted that the globalization of today has developed into a mechanism for proliferating a neo-colonial and neoliberal economic order—as such, it is seen by many, including but not limited to radical, disenfranchised protest movements, as the cause of savage exploitation, rather than as an opportunity to arrest the true sources of marginalization. Globalization, Findlay argued, has become a scapegoat, catching the blame for the insidious effects of neoliberal free trade, radical individualism, and co-option of legal protections for exclusionary private property rights which exploit the global North-South divide. Legally speaking, he argued that global law has become an accomplice to neoliberal expansionism, a consequence of neo-colonial political domination from the North and focused almost entirely on the protection of private property, rather than the defence of human rights.
Climate change and more recently the Covid-19 pandemic, however, have shown us that the shared consequences of global crises cannot be avoided through national protectionism. Globalization, Findlay suggested, needs to be re-thought as a process for international engagement which might provide legitimate legal pathways for wider representative governance and universal democratic rights. The internet has proven valuable in this regard, he argues, as it disrupted previous understandings of intellectual property and has changed the way in which we understand the concept of property itself; this has led to large-scale transformations in a number of legal structures and presents the ability of the law to adapt and transition. It is these transitions that might allow us to combat populist anxieties, and come to represent, he believes, “a new global moral culture,” away from the dysfunctional, individualist structures that fuel populist resentment and towards a communal understanding of wealth as well as of crises.
Law, if reformulated as a communal resource, can provide the foundational background for a transition into a normality that is more concerned about human dignity than it is about individualist and exclusive wealth creation, which has been the heart of populist politics in recent decades.
Thus, a new understanding of the law—and the necessary transitions it must undergo—might reclaim and rehabilitate globalization. At the moment, Findlay maintained, neoliberal globalization promotes power asymmetries and disaffection; cultural identity has become a battlefield—populism and ‘cancel culture’ are used as languages of criticism, and the necessity of multiculturalism is ignored. This new emotional grammar, a “taxonomy of disaffection,” aims to give a voice and a language to the experiences of resentment, indignation, and anger that a structurally flawed global system engendered. The issue is that, as it stands, this emotionally charged discourse misses the mark: neoliberalism, the true culprit in his eyes, is let off the hook in favour of superficial cultural grievances. So again, Prof. Findlay asked, how can we rehabilitate globalization? His answer: by settling the sources of disaffection with globalization. He expressed the hope that the ‘neo-statist’ impulse witnessed throughout the pandemic proved the insufficiency, rather than the usefulness, of protectionist logics.
Regarding populism, Prof. Findlay noted a number of paradoxes. Authoritarian populist politics are driven by a sense of economic injustice and exclusion, yet this is the essence of neoliberal wealth creation, which most right-wing populists nonetheless celebrate. Populism rejects conventional, establishment political remedies, but neoliberal elites capture political institutions and processes under populist governments. Findlay argued that inequality is essential for populism in order for an ‘other’ to emerge and the Manichean ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ discourse to function. In power, populists thus often perpetuate the very conditions they claim to combat.
The process that allows this apparent contradiction to sustain itself in paternalistic authoritarian regimes like Trump’s or Bolsonaro’s is what Prof. Findlay termed ‘anxiety governance.’ It is what got Trump elected and was the driving force behind the ‘Brexit’ movement. It is a sense of anxiety, set in the context of radical technological transformation and ever-accelerating economic shifts, fuelling a fear amongst populist voters that they are unable to access political spaces and will thus be left behind. The Canadian truckers’ protest, argued Prof. Findlay, is an example of this: the physical attempt to overtake the traditional spaces of governance occurred under the facade of ‘reclaiming liberal rights,’ when the protest was, in many respects, fed by populism, anxiety, and anger.
Populist populations have been told that their space is restricted, their economic power is shrinking, and that they must, therefore, rely on the authoritarians of the world to give that power back to them. In other words, Findlay explained, populist politics creates anxiety—and an anger against that anxiety—then offers a ‘politics of hope’ as an answer to it. It is the power of populist charisma, however, that Prof. Findlay considers the truly challenging dimension. This power rests on populist leaders’ mass-legitimized ability to create political narratives, name enemies, and bring “new tonalities into the political conversation.” Social media is crucial to these dynamics: ‘Twitter populism’ demonstrates the anxiety, echo-chambers, toxic feedback loops, and crowd-sourced funding that enable and strengthen populist leaders. Unfortunately, Findlay said, artificial intelligence (AI) has been co-opted into the populist machine.
What, then, can be done? And what is an antidote to anxiety? Findlay suggested a return to considerations of human dignity. It is essential, according to Findlay, that the inequality that underlies neoliberal economic politics, driving discrimination and exclusion, be revealed. Anxiety politics, he said, is the product of collective experiences, but it is bound together by a constructed confusion and maintains a mythological dimension. It is important, then, to expose and acknowledge the genuine risks to be feared and talk back at the voices who stir up misplaced anxieties for populist gain. He cited vaccine scepticism as an example of such misplaced fear; besides the danger inherent in such a public health discourse, we must combat the underlying structures that enable and strengthen the resonance of discourses of that kind. For this reason, finding and occupying (actual or digital) safe communal spaces is critical—transformed law, he says, might provide helpful signposting for this shift.
The pandemic, Prof. Findlay argued, proved a double blow against human dignity in two almost contradictory fashions: on one hand, the right-wing populists charge that public safety measures have eroded our libertarian rights grows stronger as the ‘new normal’ of day-to-day pandemic management lingers on; on the other, the facts two years into the crisis speak of an untold suffering and a lack of consideration for those populations, especially in the Global South, who are dying in their thousands due to lack of vaccines and effective protective equipment as global logistics’ slowdowns and ‘panic protectionism’ have again exposed the unequal dividing lines in the neoliberal economy Only by recovering human dignity as a guiding principle, enshrined in an adaptable and effective legal framework, can we provide the platform by which globalization could be turned into a positive tool that might yet engage the threats and challenges posed by the pandemic, global warming, and other global crises. This, in turn, should be embedded in a broader return to what Findlay termed ‘sociability’: pandemic risk, vaccine scepticism, and ‘economic realism’ are all products of a neoliberal individualist logic which diverts attention away from the importance of globalized sociability and solidarity. Human dignity can only be understood as collective and universal.
Reported by Maximillian Wolf
Populism and Governance in the Time of Pandemic
Dr. Manuel Funke: “Populist leaders, the economy, and the pandemic: What can we expect?”
Populists are bad for the long-term health of certain nations, with key economic and institutional indicators all suffering. This, however, does not mean that populism as a phenomenon will disappear. The key focus of the research on populism over the coming years has to look into the factors that more directly determine populist leaders’ success or failure in getting re-elected, as neither reduced growth nor excess mortality seemed to lastingly affect populist popularity.
The first panel of the symposium came from Dr. Manuel Funke of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Kiel, Germany. Dr. Funke began his talk by addressing the fact that, although the academic scholarship on populism as a political phenomenon has grown exponentially over the past years, the research of what happens when populists are in power—and in particular, what happens to economies under populist leadership—remains somewhat undertheorized.
Much of Dr. Funke’s attempt at remedying this deficit centred around a 2020 paper co-authored with two Kiel Institute colleagues, Prof. Dr. Christoph Trebesch and Dr. Moritz Schularick, and succinctly titled “Populist Leaders and the Economy.” Their paper, he explained, sought to provide some concrete empirical data on whether the impact of populist governance was detectable in a number of key economic metrics. To achieve this, they sampled a vast database of articles on populism spanning some 60 countries over 120 years, finally classifying over 1500 leaders into a two-by-two matrix: ‘populist’ or ‘not populist,’ and ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing.’ Out of this mountain of data, said Dr. Funke, emerged 50 clear-cut populist actors. Some immediate trends became clear: populism reached its ‘peak’ popularity—primarily owing to the wave of Latin American populist regimes—in the 1950s and 60s; there has, however, also been a discernible uptick in instances of populist leadership since the 2000s, as new forms of right-wing populism spread throughout Western democracies. Dr. Funke added that the average time in power for populist leaders, at around seven and a half years, was nearly double that of non-populist leaders assessed in the same time span, and their rate of re-election, at around 30 percent, was also twice as high as their non-populist counterparts.
As concerning as those numbers are, they at least provide clear-cut timeframes in which Dr. Funke, and his team were able to accurately assess the economic impact of those populist leaders’ governance respective to control cases elsewhere. Dr. Funke noted that not only are populist campaign promises often centred around redistributive policies in favour of the ‘little man,’ but that those proposals often come in tandem with protectionism and economic nationalism. Overspending and fiscal mismanagement is rife, and checks and balances aimed to limit the power of government and restrict the leaders’ options with regards to monetary policy often come under threat over the course of prolonged populist rule.
While such tendencies are well-known and documented, Dr. Funke’s team sought to establish just how significant the impact of populist rule was in real terms. Turning their eyes to perhaps the most influential economic determinant of all, economic growth, the team examined national output indicators from those countries under populist rule and comparing them to the global average growth rate over the same period, finding a 1 percent output loss—a “growth gap”—over that period. The trend became even more pronounced after the team took a more rigorous methodology, constructing hypothetical counterfactuals—which Funke terms “doppelganger economies”; in such cases, populist leadership shows up to a 10-percentage point gap in economic growth indicators over a 15-year timespan. Their findings also showed a 10-percentage point increase in import tariffs, a greater debt-to-GDP ratio, and a marked erosion in indexes highlighting the functionality of the judiciary.
Although this historical approach is not completely compatible with the post-Covid landscape, Dr. Funke cited another paper by the Kiel Institute on the impact of populist governance on Covid management. That paper, assessing 11 populist leaders compared to 42 non-populist ones, found reduced containment efforts and an excess mortality rate that was twice as high in populist-run states at the end of 2020, per data by the Oxford University Covid-19 Government Response Tracker.
It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude, argued Dr. Funke, that populists are bad for the long-term health of certain nations, with key economic and institutional indicators all suffering. This, however, does not mean that populism as a phenomenon will disappear; the key focus of the research on populism over the coming years has to look into the factors that more directly determine populist leaders’ success or failure in getting re-elected, as neither reduced growth nor excess mortality seemed to lastingly affect populist popularity. The ‘dual crisis’ of economy and public health precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the numerous factors at play, means that even scientists have no access to the full picture; as Dr. Funke concluded: “We will have to wait and see.”
Reported by Gadea Mendez Grueso
Dr. Aline Burni: “Will the pandemic bring an end to populism? What are the lessons from the pandemic in a comparative perspective?”
From the outset I believed the claim that ‘the pandemic would bring an end to populism […] is too strong to be held, and it is too early to reach meaningful conclusions’ with the pandemic still ongoing in many countries… On the whole, the prolonged crisis can create new conditions and open up new discursive opportunities for populists. How effectively they can capture those new discursive openings, and how easily they can be countered by centrist actors, will have to remain to be seen.
Second on the panel examining the ties between the pandemic and populist politics was Dr. Aline Burni, researcher for the German Development Institute. Dr. Burni’s sought to illuminate, in a comparative perspective, how the political transformations brought about by the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic two years ago have shaped populist discourse and its popularity.
In response to more hopeful commentators, Dr. Burni stated from the outset that she believed the claim that “the pandemic would bring an end to populism […] is too strong to be held, and it is too early to reach meaningful conclusions” with the pandemic still ongoing in many countries. She noted that the impact of Covid-19 on populist movements differed substantially from region to region and depending on whether the movement was in government or in opposition. While early evidence suggested that populists had lost popularity as a result of their own mismanagement of the crisis when compared to non-populists, for example, those initial studies focus on populists mainly in Europe and predominantly during the first wave of the pandemic; it would be premature, she argued, to draw long-term conclusions from these short-term trends.
According to Dr. Burni, the pandemic was, in many ways, new territory for all global political actors, not just populists. While the link between the emergence of crises and the resonance of populist discourse is well-documented, data from the early months of the pandemic showed a noticeable decline in popularity of populists in power, as scientific denialism and early mismanagement undermined the legitimacy of many populist governments in the West and elsewhere. While populists in opposition also struggled, their popularity stabilized rather quickly. Overall, however, Dr. Burni diagnosed a clear difficulty among populists to capitalize on the Covid-19 crisis: next to the inherent difficulties of mobilizing against a health crisis, she argued that citizens valued, above all, expertise and decisive leadership throughout the pandemic, and that most governments experienced a drastic ‘rally around the flag effect,’ particularly in the early months. Staples of populist discourse, like anti-immigration stances, also quickly faded into the background as many nations shut their borders to prevent the spread of the virus. All these factors, combined with obvious showcases of populist mismanagement in the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), or Brazil, made for a potent anti-populist surge in many democracies worldwide.
As the Covid-19 crisis progressed, however, and the initial shocks made way to a ‘new normal’ of pandemic management, data—especially from Europe—showed a stabilizing of populist movements. While some populist-right actors, like the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) managed to weather the early stages of the pandemic without suffering much loss of support, others, like Chega in Portugal even gained support in the months that followed, with the party going from one MP to twelve in the 2021 elections. As pandemic politics persisted throughout many Western democracies and lockdown measures and vaccine mandates proved less and less popular, most populist actors in the West consolidated their positions. Populists in government were hit more lastingly, with Donald Trump losing the 2020 presidential election, but even then, he received the second highest electoral tally in US history with over 74 million votes, behind only Joe Biden’s 81 million; Bolsonaro and Johnson, though weakened, remain in power. “Populists in government have been resilient despite their mismanagement of the pandemic, at least in these prototypical cases,” Dr. Burni concluded. “Therefore, in a nutshell, I do not think that [populism] will be defeated by the pandemic.”
To explain this stabilization, Dr. Burni pointed to several factors. First, the pandemic will likely aggravate economic and political conditions that populists thrive in—for example, see the impact of post-Covid inflation, slowed GDP growth, rising income inequality and shocks in the job market. Additionally, populists will likely bring cultural issues like immigration back on the agenda, especially in Europe. Other extant political conditions troubling many democracies—such as corruption, lack of trust, polarization, and cultural cleavages—remain and have, at times, been aggravated by the pandemic. The ‘anti-vax’ movement in the West, largely already captured by far-right populist actors, is a key example of old anti-system discourses receiving a fresh coat of post-Covid paint.
The old fault lines that energized the pre-pandemic ‘culture war’ discourse in the West not only remain in place but have been invigorated by a new anti-authoritarian thrust in response to lockdown measures and mandates. As mainstream parties who so successfully channelled the initial ‘rally around the flag’ effect mismanage the ‘new normal,’ the easier it will be for populist actors to adjust to their own ‘new normal’ and incorporate more failures of the status quo parties into their existing anti-elite discourse. As Dr. Burni concluded, “On the whole, the prolonged crisis can create new conditions and open up new discursive opportunities for populists.” How effectively they can capture these new discursive openings, and how easily they can be countered by centrist actors, remains to be seen.
Reported by Tom Robinson
Panel 2 Pandemic of Authoritarianism/Populism: The State of Democratic Institutions, Rights and Freedoms
Professor Eckart Woertz: “The need for multilateral institutions against global challenges: The impact of populism on Euro-Mediterranean Cooperation 25 years after the Barcelona Process”
The 2021 EU Agenda for the Mediterranean is an area where populism has had a marked influence. It largely bypasses the issue of migration, with its wording essentially trying not to cause too much disagreement from the Eastern European side, while the Palestinian cause is not even mentioned. With ‘resilience’ becoming the new mantra of the EU, it has somewhat downgraded its earlier discourse on the export of democracy in favour of a much more malleable technocratic notion, compatible with more authoritarian forms of government.
Panel II was inaugurated by Dr. Eckart Woertz, professor of Contemporary History and Politics at the University of Hamburg and Director of the GIGA institute for Middle East Studies. Dr. Woertz talked about the impact of populism on Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. To begin, Dr. Woertz pointed out that the idea of Mediterranean cooperation is not a politically neutral one. Indeed, the notion of ‘Mediterraneanism’ reverberated in Mussolini’s ideas and French colonial policies, and this baggage should be considered to a greater extent by the European Union (EU) and European politicians in general.
The 1990s marked the pinnacle of Mediterranean cooperation, with the Barcelona Process or Euro-Mediterranean Partnership that started in 1995 at the Barcelona Euro-Mediterranean Conference. After the great European disunity regarding the Iraq war, European ‘Mediterranean cooperation’ shifted into a neighbourhood policy—a kind of ‘privilege bilateralism,’ where some countries (like Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, etc.) were regarded and treated as ‘good pupils,’ and others as ‘bad students’ (e.g., Algeria).
Another landmark was the establishment of the Union of the Mediterranean in Barcelona, which to this day functions as a vehicle of projects between European states and other regional actors. Here we find a tension between a drive towards a re-nationalization of policies by conceptualizing this as an exclusively Mediterranean union, and a push to make it a broader European initiative—which is why, today, we find non-Mediterranean countries like Sweden or Finland part of the Union for the Mediterranean. Therefore, increased institutionalization does not necessarily mean increased consensus when it comes to Euro-Mediterranean policy.
How has populism affected Euro-Mediterranean cooperation? Dr. Woertz argued that most of the impact has come from right-wing populism, with the topic of migration being a major stumbling stone. Populist leaders in Eastern European countries, in particular, have opposed the refugee quota system proposed by Angela Merkel. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has become a kind of bugbear of the EU, actively torpedoing a more unified stance and damaging the core brand of the EU as a model of democratic cooperation. Thus, it has been very difficult for the EU to push forward initiatives, for example regarding human rights and NGOs, not just in the Mediterranean, like in Egypt or Turkey, but also in Hong Kong, where Orban openly sided with European adversaries. As Dr. Woertz explained, this kind of personalistic populist approach can exacerbate existing tensions that are rooted in diverging national interests. Euro-Mediterranean cooperation is also affected, however, when Europe is on the receiving side of populism from the MENA region (e.g., Turkey, Israel under Netanyahu, Tunisia under Kais Saied).
The 2021 EU Agenda for the Mediterranean is an area where populism has had a marked influence, argued Dr. Woertz. It largely bypasses the issue of migration, with its wording essentially trying not to cause too much disagreement from the Eastern European side, while the Palestinian cause is not even mentioned. With ‘resilience’ becoming the new mantra of the EU, it has somewhat downgraded its earlier discourse on the export of democracy in favour of a much more malleable technocratic notion, compatible with more authoritarian forms of government.
In summary, Dr. Woertz outlined the extent of populist influence on Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. Whether in power (most notably Eastern Europe but also in Italy, with Salvini as Minister of Foreign Affairs), or in opposition, populists still have considerable influence in terms of agenda-setting, perhaps best illustrated by French President Macron’s own co-opting of populist rhetoric on migration. Nevertheless, the weight of institutions behind Mediterranean cooperation has somewhat mediated the impact of populism, and the pre-existing national interests that remain provide a potent counterweight to the new wave of nationalisms taking hold. The situation remains dynamic, however: we have seen that the personalization of power within populism can exacerbate existing tensions and lead to the relative emasculation of the diplomacy-making bureaucracy necessary for cooperation.
Reported by Mariam Lortkipanidze
Professor Neil Robinson: “Future course of global governance under the rising hybrid regimes that cohabitate with populism”
According to Professor Robinson, possible solutions to populist problems will be the restoration of a global social contract or dealing fairly with the consequences of economic change on a global level. However, even this might only solve the populist problem in some countries, but not in all. Mechanisms used to solve such problems in Western liberal democracies might even exacerbate the problems and causes elsewhere.
Next was Professor Neil Robinson of the University of Limerick, who spoke of the undertheorized connection between populism and what he called “hybrid regimes.” Introducing his subject matter, Robinson pointed to two ways in which populism today threatens the existing liberal order. First, populism is a threat to globalization as a process: in general, economic actors demand the facilitation of international trade and its regulation, as a key driver for creating and maintaining global governance; populists, as a threat to economic liberalism, jeopardize the economic actors’ ability to press for global mechanisms of regulation. Second, populism is a threat to political liberalism: while often themselves creating a demand for global governance issues like human rights, populists undermine the liberal NGOs and IOs that advocate for such values. Pointing out that populism in established democracies is predominantly driven by domestic changes, Prof. Robinson briefly explained the economic motivations that mobilize the economically disadvantaged. Referring to Trump voters or to supporters of Brexit, he described how communities that support populist main narratives frequently promote forms of sovereigntism.
Prof. Robinson then turned towards the cases where politicians use populism to exacerbate crises of democracy. Two cases were distinguished: in the first case, populists come to power and use this to make significant changes to the democratic order, leading to a “hybridization” of the political regime. He cited examples of such a turn in Venezuela, Hungary, or Poland. In the second case, politicians in power use populist discourse to secure power and to consolidate their position against challengers. Here, the political space gets constricted. In addition, their use of the populist logic of social and political antagonism often reformulates the basis of legitimate political agency. From the post-Soviet space to nowadays, Russia exemplifies this shift to authoritarian law. These countries are normally not perceived as being a threat to the international liberal order and to global governance because of their alleged peripheral or small economic position. Furthermore, they are not seen as actually affecting global governance or playing major roles in international organizations, or indeed, as is the case with Russia today, become pariahs whose very resistance consolidates the organizations themselves.
It is sometimes argued that such countries reject so-called Western modernity, because the international liberal order is based on its rules rather than on brute power. However, for Professor Robinson, it would be too simplistic to break this down into some form of revolt against the West and modernity. According to him, there are two key issues that need to be considered when trying to assess the impact of hybrid populist regimes on the liberal international order. First, one must differentiate between states that are “rule-benders” and states that are “rule-breakers.” In short, rule-breakers (e.g., Russia) endeavour to become the centre of new regional projects, both in terms of security and economy, carving out a zone of influence that lies considerably outside the liberal international order. The rule-benders (e.g., Hungary), on the other hand, are more constrained by a greater degree of relative democracy and international commitments with neighbouring states.
The second key issue of which to be aware is hybridization as a political rather than an economic revolt. Global governance and a liberal international order seek to enforce certain standards of political behaviour and promote certain types of issues in politics, such as human rights. Rather than opposing the global economy, hybrid states would reject the political elements of global governance. Being part of global financial systems and benefiting through revenues from global trade, hybrid regimes are economic actors. Thus, these hybrid regimes wish to decouple political issues or perceived political issues such as security from value-driven politics, which are often cherished by Western states. In short, depending on the power, type, and immediate environment of the hybrid regime, the degree of revolt against global governance varies.
The standard solution to populist problems is to advise the affected countries to sort out their problems at home, to get rid of their basis for populism. This answer, according to Professor Robinson, needs to be revised. Possible solutions would be the restoration of a global social contract or dealing fairly with the consequences of economic change on a global level. However, even this might only solve the populist problem in some countries, but not in all. Mechanisms used to solve such problems in Western liberal democracies might even exacerbate the problems and causes elsewhere.
Reported by Imke Schutz
Professor Axel KLEIN: “Is there populism in Japan? A closer look at Asia’s oldest democracy.”
Polarization might be the missing link in the Japanese population: political education in Japan does not encourage people to become critical and question their own stance; the Japanese system is a very closed and competitive market, with very few people being encouraged to become involved in politics, while the media does not like to be overly critical of the government. Thus, populism may be a latecomer to Japan, but the political and sociocultural predispositions of Japanese society make its emergence relatively less likely.
Dr. Axel Klein, Professor of Social Sciences on East Asian and Japanese politics at the Institute of East Asian Studies of the Duisburg-Essen University, dealt with the topic of populism in Japan, or, more concretely, the conspicuous lack thereof. As Dr. Klein pointed out in his introduction, Japan is not discussed when scholars talk about populism. In fact, some scholars, such as Ian Buruma and Jennifer Lind, have argued that there is no populism in Japan. Their arguments focus on the lack of elites in the country’s population, its society’s egalitarianism, its low immigration, and the government’s contribution to Japan’s economic growth. Another key for understanding Japanese politics is its political system: Japan has a one-party-dominant regime, in which the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been in power for sixty-two years.
Nevertheless, some figures have been labelled as ‘populist’ in the Japanese public discourse. For instance, Shinzo Abe (2012- 2020), the longest-serving prime minister, is an example of such a politician. Indeed, Abe tried to push his opinions on national security legislation, and consequently, one of the biggest newspapers in Japan, Vox, labelled him a populist. Another example was prime minister Koizumi Junichiro (2001- 2006): his different leadership style, clashing with people in his own party for being too inflexible and against reform, as well as his media savvy and his ambitious reform projects, all led to him being called a populist. This is because, Dr. Klein explained, in Japanese public discourse, populism has come to refer to ‘mass opportunism.’ The discourse of mass opportunism occurs when the politician engages with the public generously, shows attention to public opinion, and tries to satisfy the target audience. So, promises to raise the child allowance or reduce taxes would be enough for a politician to be seen as a populist in the Japanese political landscape.
To counter this, Prof. Klein aimed to clarify this conceptual confusion by focusing on two of the more prominent definitions of populism in the literature today. First, the political-strategic approach sees populism as a strategy through which a leader gains support from unorganized followers and comes to encompass governmental power by establishing, or claiming to establish, unmediated links to these otherwise weakly attached mass constituencies. Second, the ideational approach pioneered by Cas Mudde and others sees populism as a ‘thin-centred ideology’ that divides society into two opposed groups, the ‘pure people’ and ‘the elite.’ The ideational approach sees populism as always aiming to be the expression of the general will of the people. Applying these two important concepts of populism to the Japanese politicians most often labelled as populist, Prof. Klein concluded that, in the absence of a ‘pure people vs. elite’ discourse, and of serious anti-pluralism or illiberalism, it would be difficult to seriously consider them as actual populists.
Prof. Klein therefore introduced the concept of ‘Populist In Name Only’ (PINO), to refer to such figures that may be called populist by those who seek to attack them politically but are not actually populists. Examples of this phenomenon include the Reiwa Shinsengumi Party and its leader Tarō Yamamoto, who argue that Japanese people lack love and money from the state; the Okinawa Party, whose goal was to remove US military bases; and Hashimoto Toru, the former leader of the Japan Restoration Party who was aggressive in attacking bureaucracy. But none of these have populist tendencies in the theoretical sense.
Consequently, the cultural and political background of countries plays a crucial role in determining and measuring populist figures and actions. Due to the political culture in Japan, some ways of competing politically and being outwardly in favour of reformist ideas may brand one a populist, whereas similar strategies may be seen as acceptable (and not populist) in a Western democracy. In fact, Dr. Klein concludes, there are no serious populist politicians or populist parties in Japan, according to any serious theoretical definition found in the literature today. The small number of phenomena discussed in Prof. Klein’s speech allows Japan to be considered as ‘low on populism.’ This, however, raises the question why there is so little populism in Japan. If one looks closely at the country, there are multiple opportunities to have populism in the territory: there is rising social inequality, one dominant party, and a ministerial bureaucracy that could be categorized as a ‘corrupt elite.’ Furthermore, Dr. Klein observed, the economic crises and negative effects of globalization should lead the population towards some political frustration that would eventually open space for populism.
Dr. Klein’s presentation demonstrated that polarization might be the missing link in the Japanese population: political education in Japan does not encourage people to become critical and question their own stance; the Japanese system is a very closed and competitive market, with very few people being encouraged to become involved in politics, while the media does not like to be overly critical of the government. Thus, Prof. Axel Klein concluded that populism may be a latecomer to Japan, but the political and sociocultural predispositions of Japanese society make its emergence relatively less likely.
Reported by Julide Sezer
What’s Next in a Post-COVID-19 World?
Professor Jens Maesse: “Post-neoliberalism in Europe? How economic discourses have changed through COVID-19 pandemic”
New institutional structures have been formed in the EU since the pandemic’s onset. The system of economic observation was rearranged, and new elements were introduced. For example, rescue packages were adopted according to the needs of the pandemic situation; a short-time allowance, ‘Kurzarbeitergeld,’ was established as a global model; a €750 billion investment fund was created; taxes within the EU have changed; European supply chains are constructed with transnational economic awareness; and, finally, the role of the ECB as a crisis manager has been confirmed once again. Thus, EU economic institutions were further developed, and some were extensively modified. These developments prove problematic for populism as it has changed the context.
In his presentation, Professor Jens Maesse from the Institute of Sociology at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen, Germany, presented his research and explained how economic discourses have changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Maesse outlined three different levels of neoliberal influence and analysed how they were impacted by the pandemic. In doing so, he examined the discursive logic and structure of institutions within the European Union, as well as the EU economy in the world global economy.
First, the Professor Maesse explained the context that allowed the collapse of neoliberalism during COVID-19, outlining a number of key reasons: the rise of China as a major economic partner, technological competitor, and systemic rival; Brexit-populism—a shock experience which changed the political majorities in the EU; various ambivalent experiences with crisis management since 2009; and, finally, climate change and the changing production chains within Europe since the 1990s. As such, he concluded, “the neoliberal competition state does not make sense anymore.”
Indeed, since the Covid crisis, there has been a sharp change in economic discourse in Europe. The first, according to Maesse, was one of temporality. Previously, institutional temporality created space for categorizations and evaluations over longer timespans; today, the virus has replaced discursive temporality in a logic of what he called “crisis-deixis,” a process of specification and localization. Second, the authority is no longer the same: during the pre-crisis period, in the neoliberal EU-Maastricht system, the authorities were in competition. However, the crisis has become a master signifier and a discursive authority. It has become a dominant element that challenges the neoliberal balance. Finally, the ethical themes within economic discourse have radically altered: there has been a shift from professional objectivity to more emotional investment and, indeed, sometimes hysteria. Thus, Professor Maesse holds, one of the pandemic’s consequences has been a major transformation in the way EU economic experts perceive the EU and its economic policy. There is a new discursive logic in Europe, based on reasoning, and it is this discursive shift that has further occluded populist discursive logics.
Moreover, he elaborated, new institutional structures have been formed in the EU since the pandemic’s onset. The system of economic observation was rearranged, and new elements were introduced. For example, rescue packages were adopted according to the needs of the ‘Corona’ situation; a short-time allowance, Kurzarbeitergeld, was established as a global model; a €750 billion investment fund was created; taxes within the EU have changed; European supply chains are constructed with transnational economic awareness; and, finally, the role of the European Central Bank (ECB) as a crisis manager has been confirmed once again. Thus, EU economic institutions were further developed, and some were extensively modified. These developments prove problematic for populism as it has changed the context in which it previously existed and thrived. In the world economy, however, there is a perpetuation of existing trends. Brexit, the crisis of the North Italian industrial structure, the ‘under-stratification’ of the central and Eastern European industrial suppliers, and the tourism crisis in Southern Europe show us that the world has not really changed, and that familiar problems persist. Professor Maesse argued that we, now, “observe an intensified path-dependency and further splits and fissures among European regions, classes and sub-economies,” a state of affairs that remains quite similar to the old one.
Professor Maesse concludes that Covid has had many consequences for European economic discourse. Firstly, according to him, “economic experts [now] speak in the name of the ‘crisis’ as authorization device and take measures that no longer follow a clear economic theory.” Second, institutions and their structures are constantly changing, and “there is no longer any decency and continuity possible in the institutional path.” Third, national societies and communities are now “dis-embedded and reticulated along post-national spaces of inequality.” Finally, the structures of the European and global economy are constantly creating new crisis events. Thus, he concludes that the post-neoliberal ‘new normal’ lies between the old and the new structure.
Reported by Heloise Aelbrecht
Dr. Brett Meyer: “An analysis of populist leaders’ responses to Covid-19”
Many populist leaders have been in power for a long time. Blaming establishment figures for everything that goes wrong is an essential strategy of the populist playbook; once populists themselves become the establishment politicians, however, no-one else remains to blame and citizens’ patience may eventually run out.
Dr. Brett Meyer, research fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, presented his research on populists’ performance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Meyer’s research tracked the types of policies populist leaders pursued, how their countries fared in terms of cases and deaths, and how the pandemic affected support for populists.
At the start of the pandemic, many believed that the nature of the crisis would prove a problem for populist leaders, who tend to eschew expert advice and favour show over substance. Indeed, Dr Meyer found that 2021 saw the biggest decline in the number of populist leaders ever, down from seventeen to thirteen populist leaders in power, the lowest number since 2004. Correlation does not equal causation, but this trend provided an interesting topic for investigation.
In August 2020, Dr. Meyer published a report detailing populist leaders’ responses to the pandemic in its first few months. Most headlines stating that populists were doing poorly during the pandemic focused on the US’s Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, both of whom downplayed COVID-19. However, only five of the world’s eighteen populists downplayed the pandemic during the early months. The remaining thirteen took it seriously: most responded similarly to non-populist democratically elected leaders. Five of the thirteen, however, took ‘illiberal responses,’ involving punishing lockdowns, excessive emergency powers, and biased enforcement. Dr Meyer also looked into the responses of populists in Northern and Western Europe. Although there are no populists currently in power there, there are many right-wing populist parties. Like most populists around the world, they took COVID quite seriously.
Dr. Meyer also elaborated how COVID affected support for populists. In 2020, he looked at support for different types of parties in Western Europe over the first few months of COVID. He found that the lead parties in government enjoyed big boosts in support, but that other mainstream parties did not benefit from COVID. Right-wing populist parties suffered most. Dr. Meyer later expanded his sample to track support for leaders in both Western and Eastern Europe. He found that before the pandemic populist-led governments enjoyed higher support than non-populist governments. This immediately changed upon the onset of the pandemic and remained so throughout. Towards the end of the collected sample support flipped in favour of populists again, but by this time several populists in Eastern Europe had lost power.
Dr. Meyer also investigated how populist- and non-populist led governments polled against death rates in corresponding countries. He found that, at the first spike in mortality numbers during the pandemic, support for non-populists shot up, and remained at a high point throughout the pandemic. Support for populists suffered a gradual decline after the first mortality spike, a trend that continued after the second spike. Dr. Meyer referred to this as a “flight to seriousness,” foreshadowing the consequences COVID might have for populism. During crises like pandemics there is increased support for established politicians, perhaps because they are the ones who appear to follow experts’ advice and take responsible approaches to the crisis. Puzzlingly, populists did worse even when they took COVID seriously. This might, again, be explained as a lack of patience for populist leadership styles during uncertain times.
Finally, Dr. Meyer discussed populists’ prospects going forward and how the opposition might counteract populism. For one, many populist leaders have been in power for a long time. Blaming establishment figures for everything that goes wrong is an essential strategy of the populist playbook; once populists themselves become the establishment politicians, however, no-one else remains to blame and citizens’ patience may eventually run out. Furthermore, Dr. Meyer found that of three of the four elections that populist leaders lost in 2021, the opposition parties had focused their campaigns entirely on ousting the populist leader, despite their very different goals and commitments. This was successful in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Israel.
An issue, however, is that an ideologically diverse opposition uniting may dislodge populism but lack the stability to form a lasting government once the populist has been ousted. Israel’s extremely diverse government is taking strategic policy steps, focused on implementing institutional changes designed to prevent populist retrenchment. Another issue appears in countries like Turkey, where populist leaders have set up significant institutional roadblocks, granting them institutional protection and increasing the chance of electoral corruption. Again, strategic institutional changes appear an advisable tactic.
Reported by Melissa Blink
Dr Sheri Berman: “Populist and non-populist governance performance during the Covid pandemic and prospects for democracy in the West going forward”
Studies show that the higher the levels of self-reported ‘pandemic fatigue’—that is, tiredness of dealing with Covid and restrictions on freedom—the more people grow dissatisfied with their governments and with democracy itself. Even in places with relatively high levels of trust and compliance, like Germany or Canada, we are now seeing that “restrictions on individual freedom can have very obvious, very serious negative political consequences.”
Dr. Sheri Berman, Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, began her talk with a basic observation: COVID-19 appeared as a crisis at a particularly difficult time for democracy. Since approximately 2010, scholars have observed a period of backsliding or ‘autocratization’ during which numerous countries seemed to turn their backs to democracy. Data from Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute also shows that satisfaction with democracy has been in decline over the past decades, a decline that is particularly prevalent in the US.
One manifestation of this dissatisfaction with democracy is growing support for populism, which tends to feed off dissatisfaction with the establishment. At the beginning of the pandemic some feared that the crisis would accelerate these negative trends. However, data sources like V-Dem and others did not find any broad trend towards leaders, populist or otherwise, using the pandemic to further erode the foundations of democracy. Particularly in Europe there was no acceleration of autocratization or general increase in support for populist parties. In the US, however, the health of democracy did continue to decline during the pandemic, and the populist portion of the Republican Party grew ever stronger, to the point where it is now a dominant tenor in the party. Neither, though, did the pandemic boost the fortunes of democracy; dissatisfaction with democracy remains quite high.
Professor Berman mentioned two notable connections. The first is that satisfaction with democracy is partially dependent on performance. She explains that democracy enjoys ‘systemic legitimacy’—people value it not only for its outcomes, but because they value its central goals and tenets. As such, democracy does not rely on performance legitimacy as much as contemporary dictatorships do, for example. Nevertheless, performance also matters. Dr. Berman cites data from the Bennett Institute, which found strong connections between actual crises and levels of satisfaction with democracy. When crises hit and governments seem unable or unwilling to deal adequately with incoming problems, satisfaction with democracy goes down. This was observed throughout the Euro and refugee crises, and again during the pandemic. Leaders who seemed to react clearly, effectively, and rationally were generally rewarded.
One might wonder why some leaders were better able to respond to the needs of their population than others. This leads to the second significant connection: both satisfaction and performance are linked to the variable of trust. One study, recently published in The Lancet, found that when citizens were more trusting both towards their government institutions and towards fellow citizens, pandemic outcomes were better because, Dr. Berman argued, individual citizens are more willing to sacrifice for the common good when they can expect politicians and fellow citizens to do the same. Trust creates a feedback effect, enabling governments to do better. The United States, Dr. Berman notes, is anomalous here: trust in government has plummeted, reflected in the way the pandemic played out in the US, as people were hesitant to follow rules, and suspicions about leaders’ and experts’ directions persisted. The politicization of vaccines was, according to Dr. Berman, another tragic result of this mistrust.
Finally, Dr. Berman commented on the contemporary situation: studies show that the higher the levels of self-reported ‘pandemic fatigue’—that is, tiredness of dealing with Covid and restrictions on freedom—the more people grow dissatisfied with their governments and with democracy itself. Even in places with relatively high levels of trust and compliance, like Germany or Canada, we are now seeing that “restrictions on individual freedom can have very obvious, very serious negative political consequences.” They can trigger right-wing fears, for example, as seen in the US and Canada. She also noted that these restrictions have negative effects on the left, too, where increasingly, many people are willing to support severe punishments for people who disagree with their views on necessary health measures.
Dr. Berman warned that we do not want to end up in a situation where the long-term implications of extensive government restrictions on freedom are tested: hardening views on the left and further triggering populist attitudes on the right and dissatisfaction with democracy overall. As such, Dr. Berman concluded, scholars and analysts would do well to turn their attention increasingly to the potential long-term consequences of the crisis on populism and other social and political trends.
I am honored to be writing this foreword for the first research report of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). This newly-founded, Brussels-based independent research organization investigates and analyzes the various manifestations of populism and the challenges posed by its increasing spread across the world.
The world has been suffering from the fatal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years. This horrible and costly experience has reminded us that we really do live in a global village in every sense. A contagion that emerged in a wet market in one part of the world spread in a matter of months to all four corners of the earth and turned rapidly into a global pandemic. As of January 17, 2022, almost 329 million people have been infected, and over 5.5 million people from every walk of life and continent have died. It is evident that problems emerging in far-flung places have the potential to affect us all in ways we could scarcely imagine.
At the risk of stretching the metaphor, the rise and spread of the most recent wave of global populism carry many of the same characteristics and pose, in the view of many, no less a global threat than COVID-19. Alongside renewed racism, rising authoritarianism, and ongoing oppression, exclusion, mass persecution, extremism and radicalization, bigotry, fanaticism, xenophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and climate change denial, populism has come to reinforce the sense that the world confronts a new age of severe global crisis that threatens to spiral out of control and which no country or region on earth can hope to avoid.
After all, who could possibly argue that the poisonous mixture of populism and religious bigotry we see today on the streets of Lahore does not affect the feelings and security perceptions of the people walking peacefully through the streets of Amsterdam? And who among us can ignore the fact that the anti-Islamic discourses and exclusionary populist narratives expressed from the comfortable rostrums of splendid buildings in European capitals have no impact on the Egyptian youths who watch TV in their lounge rooms and are mobilized by feelings of hate and enmity? Against this backdrop, we can readily see that opposing extremisms fuel each other and create fertile ground for a vicious cycle of worsening extremism that threatens to engulf the planet.
If we agree that the physical, offline world is a global village, it is no stretch to argue that the online world is a global town hall. And in this online global town hall, conspiracy theories, extreme emotions, and destructive discourses spread much faster than in the offline global village. So, the ECPS has decided to examine authoritarian religious populists and to research the dangerous nexus between faith and populism in cyberspace and, of course, its fatal effects in the offline world. I am sure that this report, as an impressive product of comprehensive research across five different Asian countries, will help us to understand the role of digital space in Asian democracies, especially concerning religious populism.
Being aware of the fact that the global rise of populism can lead to democratic decay, the spread of authoritarianism worldwide, and threats to global peace, security, and stability, I want to thank the scholars who have poured their efforts into preparing this report. I also sincerely hope that this report will fill a crucial gap in this research field and become a valuable resource for scholars and practitioners alike.
Dr. Bulent Kenes
ECPS Executive Director
4. Executive Summary
Turkey, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia span one of the longest continuously inhabited regions of the world. Centuries of cultural infusion have ensured these societies are highly heterogeneous. As plural polities, they are ripe for the kind of freedoms that liberal democracy can guarantee. However, despite having multi-party electoral systems, these countries have recently moved toward populist authoritarianism. Populism —once considered a distinctively Latin American problem that only seldom reared its head in other parts of the world— has now found a home in almost every corner of the planet. Moreover, it has latched on to religion, which, as history reminds us, has an unparalleled power to mobilize crowds. This report explores the unique nexus between faith and populism in our era and offers an insight into how cyberspace and offline politics have become highly intertwined to create a hyper-reality in which socio-political events are taking place. The report focuses, in particular, on the role of religious populism in digital space as a catalyst for undemocratic politics in the five Asian countries we have selected as our case studies.
The focus on the West Asian and South Asian cases is an opportunity to examine authoritarian religious populists in power, whereas the East Asian countries showcase powerful authoritarian religious populist forces outside parliament. This report compares internet governance in each of these countries under three categories: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. These are the digital toolkits that authorities use to govern digital space. Our case selection and research focus have allowed us to undertake a comparative analysis of different types of online restrictions in these countries that constrain space foropposition and democratic voices while simultaneously making room for authoritarian religious populist narratives to arise and flourish.
The report finds that surveillance, censorship, disinformation campaigns, internet shutdowns, and cyber-attacks—along with targeted arrests and violence spreading from digital space—are common features of digital authoritarianism. In each case, it is also found that religious populist forces co-opt political actors in their control of cyberspace. The situational analysis from five countries indicates that religion’s role in digital authoritarianism is quite evident, adding to the layer of nationalism. Most of the leaders in power use religious justifications for curbs on the internet. Religious leaders support these laws as a means to restrict “moral ills” such as blasphemy, pornography, and the like. This evident “religious populism” seems to be a major driver of policy changes that are limiting civil liberties in the name of “the people.” In the end, the reasons for restricting digital space are not purely religious but draw on religious themes with populist language in a mixed and hybrid fashion. Some common themes found in all the case studies shed light on the role of digital space in shaping politics and society offline and vice versa.
The key findings of our survey are as follows:
The future of (especially) fragile democracies is highly intertwined with digital space.
There is an undeniable nexus between faith and populism which offers an insight into how cyberspace and politics offline have become highly intertwined.
Religion and politics have merged in these five countries to shape cyber governance.
The cyber governance policies of populist rulers mirror their undemocratic, repressive, populist, and authoritarian policies offline. As a result, populist authoritarianism in the non-digital world has increasingly come to colonize cyberspace, and events online are more and more playing a role in shaping politics offline.
“Morality” is a common theme used to justify the need for increasingly draconian digital laws and the active monopolization of cyberspace by government actors.
Islamist and Hindutva trolls feel an unprecedented sense of cyber empowerment, hurling abuse without physically seeing the consequences or experiencing the emotional and psychological damage inflicted on their victims.
Over 60 percent of the world’s population has access to the internet, with some 4.66 billion active users in January 2021. While there is a global divide in access to the internet related to income disparities and unequal human development, the overall growth remains staggering. The largest share of the planet’s internet users, nearly 52 percent, reside in Asia, with its dense population and steady increasing uptake of digital communication technology. Moreover, the widespread availability of cell phone technology and the rapid development of the mobile internet has meant that digital platforms are a well-integrated part of daily life. In 2009, less than 1 percent of internet traffic was generated by mobile phones compared to 50 percent in 2020. Internet use is forecast to grow again in 2022 and beyond. It is, thus, not surprising that governments are keen to adopt digital technologies such as high-speed internet, smartphones, social media, and artificial intelligence (AI) as part of their governance strategies. As a result, political processes—including in the region’s democracies—are becoming highly intertwined with digital space.
At the dawn of the internet age, the global community shared a sense of optimism about the prospects for a bright digital future. Indeed, the web was often spoken about as an agent for democratization. Cheap and ready access to the internet was hailed by scholars as an inherently democratizing development that would ensure the widest possible dissemination of information to the people. The internet was supposed to facilitate the creation and expression of ideas and political views by ordinary citizens in a media ecosystem dominated by powerful corporate or state-controlled television, radio, and print media. Indeed, many democratic theorists cast the world wide web as a virtual Habermasian “public sphere” promising a global “society engaged in critical public debate.” The online network society was expected to serve as a forum for the formation of public opinions, like the coffee houses of Vienna (in Habermas’ original theory), in which all citizens would have equal access to influence public debate. Several mass protests in the late 2000s and early 2010s that were mostly organized and facilitated by digital social media further boosted this techno-optimism in developing countries. The Arab Spring, in which Twitter featured prominently as a mobilizing tool, saw the fall of dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen.
This optimism over the increase in cyber activity and access to the internet came in the wake of the “third wave” of global democratization that began in the 1970s and peaked after the end of the Cold War. However, the first decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed a significant “democratic retrenchment” worldwide and the rise of an unprecedented wave of populist governments on virtually every continent. Unlike in the past, this new wave of populism has affected longstanding democracies once thought immune. For instance, America and India, the world’s two most populous democracies, have seen populist leaders rise within the democratic system. Moreover, despite unprecedented democratization since the mid-2000s, Pakistan and Turkey, countries with a history of military interventions, have chosen populist Islamist leaders.
Over the years, the populist wave has not only expanded but diversified as well. There are at least three broad categories of populism today. The most familiar is anti-establishment, where the “political elite” and other groups are demonized as part of the populist narrative. Socioeconomic populism is a center-left outlook featured in movements such as the Wall Street Protests and the leadership of political leaders such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. The last and most widespread category is cultural populism, which pictures elements within society and outside the country as “the enemy” of the “pure people.”
Along the spectrum of cultural pluralism, religious populism is prominent and has been championed by leaders around the world since the early 2000s. While most major religions of the world have been politicized by populist leaders and religious movements, there is distinctiveness in how they manifest. When Islam is politicized and deployed as Islamism by populist leaders, it manifests not only as a way to distinguish “the pious people” from “the corrupt secular elite” but also wields a religious symbolism and style wherein followers are encouraged to adopt explicit religious morals and “traditional” lifestyles in everyday life. These populists are nevertheless adept at leveraging technology and have been at the forefront of political messaging in digital space. As early as the 2000s, political parties in Muslim-majority countries were exhibiting a greater online presence compared to those in non-Muslim countries. Given that democracy is in a precarious state across the Muslim world, introducing draconian measures is not difficult for such governments, even on digital platforms.
In non-Western, non-Muslim-majority countries, identarian populism, another form of religious populism, has arisen. It uses religion to demarcate a civilizational division between “the people” and “the Other.” Arguably the most pernicious example here is India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party, led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has long espoused a highly exclusivist and chauvinistic Hindutva politics, which declares Hindus to be “the true people” and non-Hindus by implication as “Other.” Despite its moralistic overtones, the BJP has shown little interest in moral reform but still champions a Hindutva construction of society as the epitome of “civilization.”
Consequently, in a world where democracy appears “in retreat,” the early digital optimism has given way among analysts and intellectuals to a kind of digital pessimism, or at the very least skepticism. While at one end, individual citizens can use social media and digital technology to stay informed and engage in online and offline activism, there is a growing concern that authoritarian (and democratic) governments can use digital tools to assert their control over this space. Extensive digital capabilities—especially AI and Big Data—are increasingly being utilized by governments to exert control over their citizens. Indeed, some observers are talking about the spread of full-blown digital authoritarianism —namely, “the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to survey, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations.” In response to the rise of digital activism, authoritarian regimes—not just populist ones— have been fast to catch up and adapt, launching their own digital countermeasures of repression. Governments have been observed employing advanced digital technologies to undermine democracy in various ways, including surveillance, censorship, disinformation, cyber-attacks and hacking, internet shutdowns, and targeted arrests.
Against this backdrop, the present report contributes to our understanding of how emerging digital technologies affect, enable and undermine democracy, human rights, freedom, and the electoral process. While scholarship on the topic is in its infancy, the focus has generally been on Western democracies. Despite the scale of internet usage in Asia, this part of the world— and the Global South more generally— has been largely excluded from such studies. Thus, studies focusing on non-Western countries that have witnessed democratic backsliding under the rule or influence of authoritarian religious populists are sorely needed. In all the cases analyzed in the present report, digital platforms have been used intensely by governments and dissidents and can reveal much about the contested role of digital technology and the future of democracy.
States implement multi-layered and complex measures to manipulate the use of and access to cyberspace by people residing in their territory and to restrict online freedoms. The key measures in the toolkit of digital authoritarianism are:
Censorship includes “restrictions on what information can be publicized or viewed on the Internet.” Examples of internet censorship are blocking undesirable content, apps, and social media and passing laws that allow the removal of certain forms of content. Some countries have created so-called “sovereign internets,” facilitated by technology. Think of the “Great Firewall” of China and Russia’s Roskomnadzor, which enforces data localization, and Iran’s National Information Network (also called the Halal Internet).
Disinformation campaigns involve the spread of large volumes of false content by state-owned and regime-friendly media against the opposition. This can include social media manipulation through “cyber warriors” using bots and cyber-trolls. Examples include Iran’s so-called “cyber battalions” linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG). Disinformation campaigns also involve the manipulation of elections, including voter engineering and influencing voter behaviors and outcomes by micro-targeting propaganda and individualized campaigns using AI and Big Data capabilities. The creation of “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” in elections can also undermine meaningful exchanges of ideas in electoral debates.
Cyber-attacks and hacking. Cyber-attacks include any “attempt to gain unauthorized access to a computer, computing system or computer network with the intent to cause damage. Cyber-attacks aim to disable, disrupt, destroy or control computer systems or to alter, block, delete, manipulate or steal the data held within these systems.” Such attacks often target opposition groups’ data centers, networks, social media accounts, and computer systems to undermine their public image and spy on their campaigns. There are reports that the Iranian government has been proactively gathering intelligence on Iran’s opposition by hacking applications, even secure ones like Telegram, which uses sophisticated symmetric encryption.
Internet shutdowns. “An Internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of Internet-based communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unavailable, for a specific population, location, or mode of access, often to exert control over the flow of information.” Short of complete shutdowns, governments can disrupt the internet and other electronic communications through rolling blackouts or selected blocking/filtering of the internet and social media.
Targeted arrests and violence occur when “a large group of abusers collectively attacks a target through a barrage of threats, slurs, insults, and other abusive tactics.” There are many reports of influential digital activists and actors being physically assaulted, arrested, and sentenced to jail.
Surveillance. In the digital realm, this usually takes the form of software that is specifically “marketed for or that can be used (with or without the authorization of the business) to detect, monitor, intercept, collect, exploit, interpret, preserve, protect, transmit, and/or retain sensitive data, identifying information, or communications concerning individuals or groups.” Today, this includes facial recognition technology (FRT), video surveillance, and so-called smart policing, monitoring communications and social media, tapping mobile phones, monitoring locations, using spyware, intercepting networks, biometric identification, and text/data mining.
There are several frameworks for monitoring and measuring restrictions on freedom on the internet. One of the earliest frameworks to investigate and analyze internet filtering and surveillance practices was developed by The OpenNet Initiative (ONI). Initially, the ONI focused on measuring internet filtering under four main categories: pervasive filtering, substantial filtering, selective filtering, and suspected filtering. Further elaborating the index, ONI distinguished filtering based on its locus—namely, whether blocking is conducted centrally and infrastructurally (at the level of the underlying internet architecture) or decentralized (at the level of ISPs). In their later work, ONI researchers studied how governments “shape, limit, and control the Internet.” Unlike the first-generation controls, which often focused on denial of access, the second generation utilized a repertoire of manipulation techniques to normalize and legalize control. These techniques included “distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, targeted malware, surveillance at key points of the Internet’s infrastructure, take-down notices, and stringent terms-of-usage policies.”
A more detailed categorization, which is partly based on previous work by ONI, is used by Freedom House in its annual Freedom on the Net reports. Here, three areas are covered: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. The current report follows Freedom House’s framework, which offers a comprehensive conceptual apparatus to investigate modern manipulations of the internet. The table in the Appendix provides a brief explanation of each category of violations of internet freedom based on the Freedom on the Net 2021 report.
Governments can erect several types of obstacles to restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections. This includes making the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons. Governments can also exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure to restrict connectivity or impose legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers. Finally, national regulatory bodies can impose controls on service providers such that digital technology fails to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner.
The state can block or filter internet content—or compel service providers to do so. As well, state or non-state actors often employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content. Often, restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process. Limits can also be self-imposed, such as when online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship. There are also examples where online sources of information are controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest or where economic, regulatory, or other constraints exist that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online. Finally, the online information landscape may lack diversity and reliability such that conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues.
The constitution or other laws of a country may fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and may be enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence. Violations also occur when laws exist that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those protected under international human rights standards. In some countries, individuals are penalized for online activities, or the government restricts anonymous communication or encryption. Another concern is state surveillance of internet activities, which infringes on users’ right to privacy, and the monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies, which also infringe the right to privacy. In serious cases, individuals are subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or other actors concerning their online activities. Finally, the websites of government and private entities, service providers, or individual users may be subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack.
India’s current prime minister and leader of the BJP, Narendra Damodardas Modi, worked at a tea stall in his childhood and rose to become the leader of one of the world’s largest democracies. His first taste of politics came during his meteoric rise within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindutva social movement linked to the BJP. In launching his election campaign in 2013, Modi emphasized social mobility and progress for a “new India.” An end to corruption, dynastic politics, and socioeconomic gulfs seemed tantalizingly close when he was elected as prime minister in 2014.
However, after nearly two consecutive terms, Modi’s promised “new India” has yet to materialize, while there has seen a drastic decline in democratic freedoms, mainly due to right-wing policies. According to the Freedom House Index, freedom for Indian citizens declined for a third straight year in 2020–21. With a ranking of 67, India has been downgraded from “Free” to “Partly Free” status. Ripples of deteriorating democracy are also felt in cyberspace. Nearly 58 percent of India’s population has access to the internet, and this is rising fast. The total number of internet users in India rose from 795.18 million at the end of December 2020 to 825.3 million at the end of March 2021. As the following discussion shows, despite widespread internet access and India’s positive track record of democracy, today internet freedom in India is severely compromised.
In 2014, Modi declared, “I dream of a Digital India where access to information knows no barriers,” a far cry from where the country stands today. During its second term (2019—present), the BJP government has increasingly resorted to full internet shutdowns. The most prominent example was the full shutdown in the Jammu and Kashmir state in 2019. The only Muslim-majority state in India before its autonomy was taken away that same year, Jammu and Kashmir’s internet was totally blocked for almost five months. Even when restored, only 2G or 3G service was available in most places, making the opening only partial. The 4G internet service was only available after more than a year. Another service block in 2019 came during the protests against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (2019), which was widely seen as targeting Muslims. Largely organized by civil society concerned over the discriminatory nature of the law, the protests soon spread all over India. Lasting well into 2020, many parts of the country saw massive internet shutdowns at the peak of the protests. As Figure 1 shows, India has recently had the largest number of internet shutdowns globally. Inspired by the federal government, the state authorities in India have also started using network curbs. In October 2021, in the state of Rajasthan, the districts of Jaipur, Bikaner, and Dhausa closed mobile network services and cell phone access to curb cheating in regional examinations. The country lost $2.8 billion in 2020 due to internet shutdowns.
The Indian government frequently uses Section 69A of the IT Act 2000 to block websites. The 2009 blocking rules published by the Indian government are themselves vague and allow the government to withhold information on which sites are actually being blocked. There has also been a marked increase in the number of blocked websites. Some 633 websites were banned in 2016, rising to 9,849 in 2020. Investigative journalists have revealed that most blocked websites belong to human rights groups, separatist movements, feminist platforms, NGOs, and even sites linked to United Nations agencies. The government justifies most blocks on the grounds of “national security.”
The year 2020 was quite testing for India. In addition to the burden of COVID-19 and the continued economic downturn and massive unemployment, there was the Indo-China border clash, all of which presented the BJP government with a range of social and political issues to address. The government responded by cracking down in cyberspace. Between January and October 2020 alone, India blocked 100 websites, 1,364 online domains, and 157 Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Due to the extensive blockade of content, the use of Virtual Private Network (VPN) has surged. Only 3.28 percent of Indian internet users used a VPN in 2020. In the first two quarters of 2021, 25.27 percent of users used one.In October 2021, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs recommended that the government ban VPNs in India. No action has been taken as yet.
India has one of the largest number of Facebook users globally, the third-largest Twitter population, and is the world’s largest market for WhatsApp. Under the government’s 2021 information technology rules, issued under the IT Act 2000, social media platforms are required to remove content identified as “illegal” by the government within three days, provide access to user information for law enforcement officials. The rules also extend the data retention period to 180 days and increase the penalties for non-compliance for the global platforms, putting end-to-end encryption in India at risk. These rules have been presented as necessary to protect individuals’ privacy, stop terrorism, riots, and breakdowns of law and order. Yet, the regulations give the government greater control over social media.
Since the law came into effect, firms have been obliged to share a monthly report with the government. These briefs showcase the amount of content removed. The first three months of published data revealed that Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, and others removed a staggering 110.88 million posts. While content that is sexual or graphic in nature makes up a hefty chunk of the requested take-downs, there is also the question of what constitutes “terrorism” and “hate speech,” which the government frequently requests be removed from social media sites. Despite the tradition of rule of law in India, mob lynching of minorities triggered by misinformation via social media continues as well.
When India was struck by the Delta variant of COVID-19 in 2021, posts on social media that were critical of Prime Minister Modi’s handling of the virus were removed from these platforms because of the pressure from the government. Deemed “false statements,” these were posts from opposition leaders and concerned citizens over the mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Online streaming services have yet to face legal reproach by the BJP government, yet the government has supported the RSS (and the broader Sangh Parivar Hindu nationalist movement, of which it is a part) in their protests against these services. The group targeted Netflix and Amazon Prime for offending Hindu religious sensibilities. The government has also done little to prevent harassment of producers and movie stars by Sangh Parivar attackers, who have bullied them in person and online.
Digital surveillance measures ranging from targeted to mass surveillance have been normalized in India. Events such as the Mumbai attacks of 2008 have justified these measures as necessary for “security.” Thus, the Central Monitoring System (CMS), an ambitious surveillance system that monitors text messages, social media engagement, and phone calls on landlines and cell phones, among other communications, was launched after 2008. Under the law, citizens targeted by it are not obliged to be informed whether their data has been intercepted. There are reports that the CMS has become a mass surveillance tool by the state without valid legal and constitutional authority. In addition, Indian police in several states have routinized the use of fingerprinting and FRT to stop and screen people on flimsy pretexts, turning vital public spaces into privacy-violating zones. The CMS and the FRT have frequently been used to profile and target protesters. These tools have been extensively used in the conflict-ridden zone of Jammu and Kashmir and for profiling people based on race, religion, and profession (among other factors) without legal permission.
Under such close monitoring, it is not surprising that journalists and social media activists continue to be arrested under terror or treason charges. Independent right-wing organizations, such as those of the Sangh Parivar, use these laws to file reports regularly against those opposing the government online. Legally speaking, right-wing factions act as “partisan supporters” reporting these incidents. Since 2016, India’s rank on the World Press Freedom Index has slid from 133 to 142 in 2021. Moreover, India is seen as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job.
Along with the CMS, India has been using other ways to snoop and surveil its citizens. In July 2021, India was also caught up in the Pegasus spyware scandal. Pegasus is Israeli software that has purportedly been used to spy on terrorists and marketed exclusively to governments. However, like many other governments worldwide, the Modi government has bought this spyware and secretly used it to spy on anyone considered a political threat. The Supreme Court of India has ordered an inquiry into the matter as of October 2021.
Indonesia’s recent surge in attacks on minority religions has been instigated mainly by right-wing Islamist movements who have enjoyed much greater freedom after the sudden collapse of the New Order regime in 1998. After a period of democratic flourishing in the 2000s, Indonesia has recently been in a steady state of democratic decline, as highlighted by its 2017–2021 scores by Freedom House. Further complicating the matter, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has deliberately side-lined democratic norms in the interests of building a modern economy, which he and his supporters contend is a prerequisite for the future consolidation of democracy. The government’s reduced tolerance of criticism and discriminatory regulations against minorities has been an unfortunate consequence. Combined, both elements have led to increased abuses of religious freedom. Interestingly, Indonesia’s level of discrimination against religious and social minorities has seemingly remained unchanged since 1998. There are also signs of an increased Islamization with a rise in the visibility of Islamic gatherings, modest clothing, Muslim-only residential compounds, and Shariah-compliant banks.
Given shrinking public space, minorities have resorted to going online. Social movements such as those supporting LGBTQ+ or women’s rights have sought refuge on cyber platforms. While online communities enable like-minded individuals to interact, there are still limitations as the Indonesian government censored, regulated, and controlled the internet. Though Indonesia’s internet governance laws (see Table 1.0 in the Appendix) have been described to be well-intended, censorship regulations have created controversies. This highlights the presence of a specific moral compass being used by the government imposed on its citizens. Additionally, their loose definitional parameters also facilitate their instrumentalization by the government.
The Indonesian government has resorted to internet shutdowns to manage riots. In 2019 alone, there were three reported cases: one protesting the 2019 presidential election results, a successionist riot in Papua in reaction to the arrest and racist treatment of Papuan students in East Java, and a second similar riot in Papua triggered by racism toward Papuan students in Wamena. Of the three riots, the internet shutdown was the longest in the second riot spanning a two-week period from August 21 to September 4. While the Jakarta State Administrative Court ruled that the internet shutdowns in Papua and West Papua in 2019 violated the law, the Constitutional Court ruled otherwise on October 27, 2021. In April 2021, internet access in West Papua was disrupted on three separate occasions coinciding with events related to Papuan successionist movements. These coincidental disruptions were blamed on a damaged sea cable in the area.
Indonesia continued its tactic of banning websites deemed inappropriate, including those that purportedly promote religious extremism, pornography, entertainment streaming websites, and websites promoting content piracy. This practice of selective blocking started in 2008 when the government attempted to prevent its citizens from accessing an anti-Islamic film, Fitna. In 2018 alone, nearly 3,000 websites disseminating extremist ideologies were blocked, and about 9,500 other sites were under review. Based on Google’s recent “Content Removal Transparency Report,” Indonesia submitted the largest amount of requests from January to June 2021 on all of Google’s platforms, including YouTube, Google Search, and Blogger. While the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology is responsible for blocking sites found inappropriate, ministry officials do not assess the sites requested for review. Instead, agencies like the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) are responsible for the assessments. One potential issue is how such assessments are made and what happens when agencies disagree. Additionally, repeated blocking of popular websites has driven Indonesians to become au fait with countermeasures such as VPNs. In 2019, Indonesia had the most extensive VPN usage in the world. In addition to website blocking, the government banned homosexual emojis in 2016, citing its potential for public unrest.
Indonesia recently passed an internet bill that mandates online service providers to remove or block content on their platforms when requested by the government. According to Ministerial Regulation 5/2020, the law is essential to address disinformation and the destabilizing effects of “fake news.” Under the new rules, service providers must also register with the government by the end of 2022 to obtain the licenses required to operate. This is not the government’s first attempt. Indonesia threatened to ban Blackberry (a handset maker) in 2011 and Telegram (a messaging service) in 2017 on security grounds. These mandatory registrations and the threat that licenses will be withdrawn enable the government to exert control over multinational companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix. In complying with Ministerial Regulation 5/2020, these companies are required to ensure that their platforms do not contain or facilitate the distribution of prohibited content. Unfortunately, as with other censorship laws, defining what is prohibited is problematic due to its broad definition.
One of Indonesia’s cyber laws, known as UU ITE, severely threatens civil liberties. This law, passed in 2008, has been used more frequently by Jokowi’s administration than previous administrations in response to the growing polarization on social media and to counter accusations against it such as corruption and misconduct. In November 2020, it was reported that since 2016, more than 300 criminal cases had been brought under UU ITE. The key issue with the law is its broad definitions. Though its stated purpose is to safeguard the populace against immorality through its criminalization under Article 27(1) of UU ITE, what is deemed immoral is not clearly defined, leaving it open to manipulation. Similarly, in this article and Article 27(3), “transmission” of immoral content is open to interpretation, thus, enabling even private consensual sharing of “immoral” content to be considered an offense. Not only has the government leveraged UU ITE, but also the police, government officials, and business people who form the three largest cohorts to make use of the legislation to pursue their interests.
In Indonesia, cyber harassment is a common way to target “the Other.” The weak legal framework for combating cyberbullying emboldens trolls such as the Muslim Cyber Army, which has a history of harassment and intimidation of individuals deemed to have insulted Islam. Numerous members of this group who go by a multitude of aliases were arrested for crimes such as spreading false reports and inciting racial and religious discrimination. In such an atmosphere, LGBTQ+, non-Muslims, Ahmadis, and other marginalized groups commonly self-censor.
For six decades under the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional ruling coalition, Malaysia functioned as a hybrid regime. In 2018, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition defeated Barisan Nasional in the general elections, and for the first time, Malaysia experienced a peaceful transition in government. The contested Anti-Fake News Act in December 2019 was also repealed as part of the reform promised by the new government. Unfortunately, the PH experiment lasted for a mere 22 months before a soft coup by the Malay Muslim establishment. Since then, Malaysia has dropped in the rankings on various measures of democratic freedoms. The overly broad, colonial-era Sedition Act remains in place. The change in government and the COVID-19 pandemic actively prevented private media from covering events. However, Malaysians enjoy greater freedom online than they do offline. It is also worth noting that despite the 2020 soft coup, the Perikatan Nasional government has maintained a relatively open space for dissent online.
Returning to the prime ministership in 2018, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad—introducing his new agenda—promised no internet censorship under Section 3(3) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (hereafter the CMA). However, over the years, there has been an increase in laws that govern cyberspace (see Table 1.0 in Appendix for detailed laws).
The Malaysian government has yet, to completely shut down the internet. The closest the government was accused of affecting the entire network was in 2012 when mobile phone usage was disrupted during a rally. Officially slow internet speed was blamed for the disruption. Another reason given in 2016 was that the government was more focused on providing greater coverage across the country than on increasing the internet speed. In general, Malaysia suffers from a relatively low mobile internet speed, which was 31.34 Mbps on average in September 2021 (the global average was 63.15 Mbps). Slow internet connections were exacerbated during the lockdown period in 2020 and 2021 as more people went online. The government remains committed to improving this by introducing 5G technology in Malaysia in 2023.
The Malaysian government has actively blocked thousands of web pages that fit the definition of the “offensive” contained in the CMA Act 1998. As of April 2021, 18 websites were confirmed blocked in the country, whereas many others face anomalies, ranging from pornography to websites that criticized Islam. From 2018 until 2020, 2,921 pornographic websites were blocked, while 4,277 pornographic websites were blocked from 2015 until 2016. Most of the banned websites included terrorist-backed platforms, gambling sites, and the like, which infringe the Muslim ethos of the country. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocks websites when it receives complaints and applications from government ministries and agencies. This means that the MCMC may abuse its power against the opposition. For example, during the general election in 2018, the MCMC ordered 11 internet service providers to block three websites of Malaysiakini, a popular online news portal known for its neutrality (and thus not being a proxy for the government), on live updates of the election results for fear it could affect “national stability, public order and harmony, and economic stability.”
Compared to the other case studies, the Malaysian government has been less restrictive toward social media companies. In 2018, 97.3 percent of internet users owned a Facebook account, making it the most popular social networking site, whereas 98.1 percent of users preferred WhatsApp as a communication channel. At the same time, the MCMC had requested social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to take down content violating local social and cultural norms. For Twitter, 275 legal demands were made to remove or withhold content from 2012 until 2020.Interestingly, out of the total, 153 requests, or 55.6 percent, were made from July through to December 2020, a huge spike compared to previous years. The same trend is observed with Facebook posts with 376 items of content restricted between January and June 2020, more than double the previous count at 163 from July until December 2019. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for the government to clamp down on critics under the guise of combating fake news. This is done through the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No.2) Ordinance 2021, which was enforced throughout the Emergency Ordinance period from January until July 2021.
The government has also prosecuted online news portals. The latest major case would be the Federal Court’s finding in February 2021 that the online news portal Malaysiakini is liable for contempt of court over five readers’ comments that the court alleged “clearly meant that the judiciary committed wrongdoings, is involved in corruption, does not uphold justice and compromised its integrity.” This goes beyond proxies to individual users as well. The 2012 amendment to the Evidence Act 1950 enables enforcement of Section 114A against social media organizations, online forums, news webpages, or even public places that provide wifi, all of which may be liable to legal action from an online user’s action. Although Malaysiakini was fined an exorbitant RM500,000—beyond the RM200,000 sought by the prosecution—they were able to crowdsource the fund within a few hours after the judgment.
Prosecution and harassment of users are the most common methods for the Malaysian government to control the internet. In 2020, six journalists from Al Jazeera were investigated for alleged sedition, defamation, and transmitting offensive for airing a critical documentary. Al Jazeera’s staff were faced with abuse and death threats for allegedly sullying Malaysia’s image. Similarly, a Bangladeshi national, Mohamad Rayhan Kabir, was arrested and later deported for criticizing the government’s treatment of undocumented migrants in an interview. Individuals are commonly charged and prosecuted under Section 233 of the CMA 1998 or the Sedition Act 1948. Fahmi Reza, a well-known graphic designer, has been investigated at least nine times by the police for his satirical artworks criticizing the government. Even a 17-year-old, Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, who exposed a male teacher on TikTok for allegedly making a rape joke in class, was served with a defamation suit and called on by the police to make a statement apologizing for “breaching the peace.” Ain also faced cyberbullying. During the pandemic, civil servants were barred from sharing online comments critical of the government.
In 2020, the Department of Community Communication (J-KOM) was awarded a budget of RM40 million. The opposition accuses J-KOM of being the government’s propaganda machine and of funding “cyber troopers” who are paid to create positive content for the government and ruthlessly criticize the opposition. It is also true that bots flood social media, spread disinformation, and engender further social polarization at the behest of the state.
In this environment, self-censorship is common in Malaysia. To make matters worse, the MCMC released a statement in January 2021 reminding internet users not to post anything offensive involving the “3Rs”: royalty, religion, or race.
The decolonization of British India in 1947 and its subsequent division into two countries, India and Pakistan, was a highly traumatic event that took millions of lives. In the over seven decades since, Pakistan’s politics has been very turbulent, with long periods of military-led dictatorships and hybrid regimes interspersed with a few short periods of democracy. The 2018 general elections brought a new party to power, but the military remains the most potent political force, and while this remains the case, the prospects of true democratization in Pakistan remain thin. After more than three years in power, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has largely failed, and misgovernance and corruption have increased. In a populist fashion, the last three years have seen increased curbs both in and out of cyberspace by the government as it seeks to consolidate its position in office.
The digital footprint of Pakistani citizens has drastically increased in the last decade, with cheap cellular and internet packages becoming available. According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), 98 percent of households own a mobile phone. In addition, there was a 17 percent growth in internet usage in just one year, with 90.1 million users recorded in October 2020. Despite this development, the future of internet freedoms, and freedom overall, is bleak in Pakistan due to the ever-increasing rules that control cyberspace. Unsurprisingly, the military establishment, backing the PTI government, has warned the public about “internal enemies” carrying out “fifth-generation warfare” online to justify the curbs.
Pakistan has a high rate of internet outages. Blackouts on social media and the internet are not uncommon in Pakistan. Since 2005, the state has used blackouts to restrict information from the public. There are three types of shutdowns. First, there are regular internet shutdowns on specific dates, primarily religious and national holidays, as the government argues that there is a greater likelihood of terrorism on these occasions. Second, there are regional shutdowns in areas where there is insurgency or threat of insurgency, such as border areas close to Afghanistan (merged districts, formally known as the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas) and areas in Balochistan. Finally, there are local internet shutdowns, usually for a few hours when the government perceives a threat of terrorism or communal violence. Such shutdowns usually happen at times of protest. In 2012 alone, an estimated 507 million Pakistani rupees ($49 million) were lost due to internet outages during Eid (a religious festival), and another 500 million rupees were lost during curbs designed to discourage Ashura processions, a Shia religious practice. Despite these mammoth losses, such blackouts are justified as necessary for “security.”
Long-term shutdowns are usually disciplinary mechanisms. Areas experiencing extended shutdowns are usually the ones where those that the state treats as “Other” tend to reside. Nevertheless, the latest annual report from the PTA has no information about the internet shutdowns.
The censorship of websites is one of PTA’s key activities. A hefty chunk of the blocked content is done so based on “indecency” such as pornographic websites and content that threatens Islam or the state. The exact number of websites blocked is unclear as PTA reports give contradictory numbers. They vary between 824,000 URLs to 418,139 URLs.This banning trend has escalated in the last four to five years.
In August 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting published a report called “Anti-State Trends,” which highlighted websites and trends from June 2019 to August 2021 it considered “anti-state.” The report accused separatist movements, political opposition, critical Tweets, and India of colluding with separatists in waging a “fifth-generation warfare” against Pakistan. In reality, these movements are less “anti-state” and more critical of the present government. There are trends of blocking the websites lending support to these factions.
PTA is armed with legislation to ban the operations and content of intermediaries such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and many more. It usually forces these companies to remove materials and restrict their content based on local laws and sensibilities. If these requests are denied, then the operations of these companies can be blocked.
One of the most famous episodes of this kind of censorship was when YouTube was banned in Pakistan in September 2012 after refusing to take down a crude anti-Islam inflammatory movie, “Innocence of Muslims.” The ban continued for more than three years. During this time, the National Assembly passed a non-binding but unanimous resolution to lift the ban, and courts also ordered negotiations, but the ban was not lifted till 2016. More recently, TikTok has been a target of repeated bans because of its potential to “corrupt” and “misguide” the youth due to its dance dub mashes, pro-LGBTQ+ content, etc. In addition, it has become a routine matter to suspend messaging applications on social media during times of protests or huge processions. The big social media intermediaries, such as Facebook and Twitter, are not completely banned nowadays, but they continue to be banned for very short periods as a “security measure.” For instance, in April 2021, a major social media blockage was put in place when the militant religious organization Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) carried out protests in Punjab.
On the pretext of stopping fake news and criminal activity, the PTI government enforced the Rules for Removal of Unlawful Online Content in 2020. This highly problematic regulation compelled the Asia Internet Coalition to write an open letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan to condemn the measure and its consequences. These regulations demand that big tech firms open a local office in Pakistan, mandate storing Pakistani users’ data within the country and oblige companies to remove content when ordered. The near future will indicate the degree to which this law has been instrumentalized.
Over the years, Pakistan has earned the title of a “surveillance state.” The “war on terror” alliance with the United States allowed Pakistan to enhance its surveillance capabilities with modern standards. As a result, a mass surveillance network has been built in Pakistan since 2005, with the government obtaining technology from both local and foreign surveillance companies, such as Alcatel, Ericsson, Huawei, SS8, and Utimaco, to use against its citizens. Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, human rights activists, and feminists, among others, now suffer at the hands of this well-designed apparatus.
Through content monitoring and interception, social media have led to cases of enforced disappearances and harassment of journalists and human rights activists who have used platforms, such as Twitter or YouTube, to challenge state narratives and criticize the state. In addition to the “establishment” (i.e., the nexus of politicians and the military), the PTI’s online followers are known for harassing anyone from opposition leaders to journalists critical of PTI facing cyberbullying at their hand. These insults are highly derogatory, and chauvinistic sexism is rampantly used to target women victims. In addition, those who oppose the army, take a positive stance vis-à-vis India or show “liberal” tendencies also encounter similar hostility in online space. Despite the explicit abuse, to date, there are no records of actions taken to curb this bullying under cybercrime laws.
A glimmer of hope was visible for democracy in the 2000s when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) defied the odds by defeating the Kemalist hegemony in Turkish politics.With peace-building processes to reconcile with historically marginalized communities, reforms to improve human rights, and a commitment to join the European Union (EU), the odds of democratization seemed promising when the AKP came to power.
However, after 2010, the AKP has taken an increasingly authoritarian path. The narrative of the ruling government instils fear and insecurity to legitimize growing authoritarianism. These changes that increasingly curb dissent, criticism, and muffle debate are present both on and offline. Since 2016, 150,348 individuals have been dismissed from office, with 500,650 being criminally investigated, with 96,885 arrested, while 3,003 educational institutions and facilities closed, 6,021 academics have been driven out of their jobs, 4,463 legal professionals such as judges and prosecutors have been terminated, 319 journalists arrested, and 189 media outlets completely closed. In addition to massive crackdowns, it is common for the state to use military custody, and various people have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured, both inside and outside the country, without reasonable evidence in many cases.
By 2020, cyberspace had become an essential space of resistance in Turkey. Between 78 and 82.6 percent of the total population uses the internet. In addition, some 54 million people, 64 percent of the total population, use various forms of social media, with the average time spent on the internet per day averaging 7 hours and 57 minutes in 2021. Turkey’s digital realm is thus a highly contested political space. It is, thus, not surprising that the digital realm has been meticulously regulated and increasingly surveilled by the AKP government through various measures.
The Gezi protests in 2013 marked the beginning of internet closures to curb the ability of civil society and activists to organize in Turkey. The aftermath led then Prime Minister (now President) Erdoğan to label Twitter the “worst menace to society.” What followed was a marked increase in internet governance. Internet blackouts are one of the many ways of controlling the space, and the newly formed Telecommunication Technologies Authority (BTK) looks over these procedures. While the government insisted that internet curbs are in place to combat “terrorism,” there was also a political motivation behind some of these.
The Turkish government’s internet shutdowns peaked between 2015 and 2017. The eastern regions faced the major brunt of internet and cellular shutdown during this period. During high-risk security incidents, such as the 2015 Suruç suicide bombing and the 2016 Atatürk Airport bombing, localized internet and cell phone blocks were put in place. With the government’s growing authoritarian approach, digital anti-terrorism laws are increasingly used to persecute marginalized groups such as the Kurds. Most shutdowns have occurred in the southeast, where Kurdish resistance is firmly grounded. One example was the 2016 landline and internet closure in 11 cities in the region with 6 million citizens devoid of access following the arrests of the mayor and co-mayor of Diyarbakir, which led to protests. Additionally, these internet shutdowns cost millions of dollars to the Turkish economy. Even though internet shutdowns have decreased from six in 2016 to only one in 2020, the cost is still high, at US$51 million in 2020.
The political climate in Turkey has given birth to many “threats” manufactured by the AKP government, such as “FETOists” following 2016, demonizing youth activism during Istanbul’s Bogazici University events of 2021 or the Gezi protests along with pre-existing hostilities toward minorities.
Human rights organisations have reported that the right to privacy online and offline in Turkey has been increasingly under threat. In April 2014, Turkey passed a new law that expanded the surveillance powers of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) that was given sweeping powers to amass private data, documents, and personal information in all forms without a court order. Working in tandem, the BTK and the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) have targeted pornographic websites, weblinks belonging to armed groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and since 2016 have targeted sympathizers of the Gülen movement, and LGBTQ+ and pro-Kurdish voices.
In addition to the lack of transparency, since the website owners do not always receive clear reasons for blocks, they cannot appeal the decision. Without accountability, mere suspicion and precaution are considered sufficient reasons to block a website. From just four websites being blocked in 2006, the number jumped up to 1,014 in 2008 when Law No. 5651 was initially introduced, a dramatic annual rise was visible in 2013, 2014, and 2015 with respective annual blocks of 19,715, 36,287, 27,812, which coincided with the Gezi protests, the corruption exposés and a wave of terrorism in Turkey. From 113,137 websites blocked in October 2016, the number more than doubled in three years to 288,310 in December 2019. Similarly, 450,000 domains, 140,000 URLs, and 42,000 Tweets have been banned in Turkey during 2020. While this pace of blockage has slowed down, the laws in place still play a key role in regular surveillance of websites that are taken down in thousands on an annual basis. Even information platforms such as Wikipedia faced a ban in Turkey when Ankara’s 1st Criminal Court found that certain articles linked Turkey to “terrorist organizations.” The court demanded that relevant articles be edited before the website could function again in Turkey. The ban was lifted in 2020.
Social media intermediaries in Turkey have faced various types of restrictions. It was reported that YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook were all temporarily blocked or throttled in 2016 until they agreed to remove “objectionable” content. Even as early as 2014, the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) was mobilized to urge Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to remove critical information that was impacting the AKP’s chances in the future local elections. While Facebook was quick to comply, Twitter and YouTube were blocked nationally for several hours before they eventually complied. Twitter’s 2019 Transparency Report revealed that in the first half of the year, the Turkish government made 350 information requests on 596 accounts as well as 6,073 removal requests on 8,993 accounts with a 5 percent compliance rate. Turkey had the highest number of legal demands for removals. Facebook’s 2019 Transparency Report also reveals that the government made 2,060 legal requests and 2,537 user information requests; Facebook was compliant with 73 percent of requests.
In addition to social media, the search engine Google has since complied with the thousands of content removal requests by the Turkish state, which peaked in 2016. The government has further cemented its hold on these entities by allowing them incentives to open data centers in Turkey that are obliged to follow Turkish laws under Decree-Law No. 678. Moreover, over-the-top media services (OTTs), such as Netflix, PuhuTV, and BluTV, are now regulated by BTK, and the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issues mandatory licenses to OTTs before they can stream content in the country. In October 2020, Law No. 7253 with harsher requirements for social media companies was introduced. The impact of this new law is still to be seen.
While keeping pressure on social media, the Turkish government has also kept the prosecuting individuals for their internet activity open. Particularly after the 2016 coup attempt, many people faced the government’s wrath. Six months after the coup, the Ministry of Interior stated that more than 10,000 individuals were investigated, 3,710 faced some legal action, and 1,656 people were arrested for their online activity. More recently, in the two months between mid-January and mid-March 2018, 6,342 social media accounts were investigated, and 2,177 individuals were subjected to legal action. Another report states that, between 2013 and 2018, there were more than 20,000 cases against citizens because of their social media activity. They are sometimes indicted under “terrorism” under Article 314(2) on association with an armed organization and Article 147(5), which concern crimes associated with terrorist organizations and aims.
Essentially limiting space for AKP opposing voices has left a void for healthy debate, and pro-AKP voices tend to dominate physical and digital space. In a blunt move during May 2020, Turkey’s Directorate of Communications warned Turkish citizens that even liking or sharing a post could lead to trouble. Journalists, scholars, opposition leaders, and civil society leaders who are critical of the government are more likely to face prosecution. A large number of arrests has a chilling effect and has given rise to self-censorship. Law No. 7253 not only asserts control over social media companies, it also makes individuals using social media ever more vulnerable to the legal system as “the legal or natural person who facilitates its users to create, view, and share content such as text, image, sound, or location to enable social interaction” are open to scrutiny.
While the AKP is also blocking users from digital space, there is also a parallel attempt to leave AKP trolls quite ungoverned as they indulge in cyberbullying. Academics, journalists, and artists who have criticized AKP have found themselves attacked under a culture of “digital culture of lynching and censorship” by the AKP army of trolls. A significant number of trolls are graduates of pro-AKP Imam Hatip schools. It has been reported that these individuals receive regular payments, and there are also traces that pro-AKP networks further provide benefits to successful trolls, which include entities such as TRT and Turkcell. In addition, AKP has used bots to boost its presence in the digital space, leading to its narrative overrepresentation on online platforms. It was revealed that on a daily average, some 26.7 percent of the top ten trends of Twitter were made by fake accounts or bot trolls. In the same year, the highest impact of these accounts led them to constitute 47.5 percent of the top five Twitter trends.
Religious leaders and movements wield influence, leading to pressure on governments in how they govern digital space. These curbs are justified in civilizational terms, drawing on various themes, including morality, religion, nationalism, and the like. Consequently, many rationales are provided on religious–nationalist lines for cyber governance.
In Indonesia, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) has attempted to facilitate self-censorship on two occasions. In 2017, the MUI issued Fatwa No. 24 of 2017 to guide Muslim interactions online, prohibiting the spread of hoaxes. Previously, in 2016, the MUI’s branch in Central Sulawesi prohibited married Muslim women from uploading their photos online. It was believed that such acts could “have negative impacts on the individual and their families.” These groups also drive movements that claim to make one a better Muslim with trending hashtags such as #antiselfie, #indonesiatanpapacaran (literal meaning: Indonesia without dating)—this movement advocates singles marrying without courting in advance—as well as #hijrah and #akhwatbercadar (meaning, veiled Muslim ladies).
While highly diverse culturally, Malaysia has a Malay Muslim majority. Since Mahathir’s first term as prime minister, Islam has been institutionalized within the state apparatus. Consequently, the administration of cyberspace involves justification that has Islamism logic. The MCMC has been deliberating censoring Netflix shows with themes of nudity, sex scenes, and LGBTQ+ content on the platform. Politicians and the government also condemn fake news and justify internet curbs, especially through self-censorship. The ministry deems “fake news” as “fitna” (slander). A religious term is thus instrumentalized to target opposition and critical groups.
In Pakistan, the narrative has become dense in terms of justifying cyber security. In addition to claims that online spaces promote “fifth-generation warfare” against the country by foreigners, religious justifications are being used for cyber governance. The 2020 law has excessively focused on preserving “decency and morality” and promoting “Islamic culture” as opposed to “Western rock and roll” culture. Thus, around 95 percent of the websites banned in 2019 were because of religious reasons.
The Erdoğan regime has always focused on raising a “pious youth” as part of its ideological program. Typically adopting religious connotations in his language, Erdoğan has repeatedly delegitimized public demonstrations against the government, from the Gezi protests in 2013 to those at Bogazici University in 2021, arguing these are Western ploys to bring down the country. Using the same rhetoric that Western values are “corrupting” the youth, AKP trolls have targeted LGBTQ+ communities online. While it has never been illegal to be gay in secular Turkey, the AKP has requested that TikTok’s local moderation ban LGBTQ+ content. “Cleaning up social media” platforms of “questionable” advertisements from Twitter, Pinterest, and the Turkish PeriscopeCo are quite common. This prevents LGBTQ+ and other opposition forces from generating advertisement-driven revenue from the platforms that support them. The anti-queer “moral” jihad also saw Netflix pressured to cancel a Turkish series with an LGBTQ+ storyline.
In 2011, the government ran a “Safe Use of the Internet” campaign, which mandates that organizations offering public internet access (e.g., libraries, cafes) use a Turkish-built filter called the “family filter.” Essentially designed to block foreign and domestic sites containing adult content, the law was positioned to safeguard young children from age-inappropriate content. By 2017, the BTK had blocked some 1.5 million websites in areas such as cafes and refuses to share a list of the websites it blocks.
Interestingly, religious leaders and popular figures that hold power to sway public opinion have a paradoxical stance toward the internet. In countries where they warn against the “evils” of cyberspace, they use the same space to communicate their messages to followers. Of course, each country differs in this regard, yet overall, these religious figures seem to hew close to the line of populist governments and find justifications for the authorities’ authoritarianism.
Religious leaders in Malaysia have usually not taken any firm position regarding restricting online freedom. Instead, they encourage self-censorship to avoid invoking the wrath of God. The highest order of muftis via fatwas have permitted social media usage, but it is deemed prohibited when the platforms are used for actions such as calling someone a bad name, insulting and degrading others, betraying and lying, slander, and malicious gossip. In a less centralized manner in 2014, two muftis, in vain, urged the National Fatwa Council, the country’s highest Islamic authority, to release a fatwa prohibiting conversation through social media or messaging apps between unmarried men and women.
In India, beyond religious leaders, Bollywood celebrities have also played a key role in adopting the Hindutva ideology and defending the BJP’s questionable actions. The most prominent of them is Kangana Ranaut. An active Twitter user with millions of followers, she has been suspended on the platform in the past for Islamophobic Tweets. However, since 2014, Ranaut has actively defended the BJP’s politics. Recently she declared that “India got freedom in 2014” (since Modi’s victory) rather than 1947. India’s vast entertainment industry, which influences millions of Indian citizens, has many pro-BJP voices both in front of and behind the camera, which give full support to the BJP, whereas those who question them face a massive backlash from RSS-affiliated online trolls.
In Pakistan, the religious political parties have never done well, politically never managing to gain more than 10 percent seats in general elections. However, religious movements such as TLP that advocate for severe blasphemy punishments and right-wing clerics such as Maulana Tariq Jamel, Farhat Hashmi, and late Dr. Israr Ahmed have millions of followers on their social media. Ironically while they use these platforms actively, these individuals have repeatedly warned against the “dangers” of “Western technology” and have expressed concern over “anti-Islamic” sentiments of “misguided” liberal youth and Westerns.
Internet governance is also justified by pro-government religious institutions and scholars in Turkey. During the last two decades, Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), the centralized religious authority, has provided faith-based explanations to back Erdoğan’s moral crusade against the “external” and “internal” enemies. For example, in 2016, the “Social Media and the Family in the Context of Privacy” forum was held to guide Turks on building strong Muslim families, including the rights and responsibilities of each member to avoid the dangers of social media. The President of Diyanet at the time, Mehmet Gormez, directly targeted social media in his opening speech. More recently, Diyanet has published a booklet, “Social Media Ethics,” which advocates for stronger control of the realm and the use of Islam as a yardstick. Ali Erbas, the current president, often uses his bully pulpit to promote pro-AKP stances. His inflammatory comments on LGBTQ+ youth “spreading HIV” became a polarized Twitter debate. Erbas has also used his Twitter to participate in AKP-led political campaigns highlighting Islamophobia. In 2021, a Twitter post targeting Islam by far-right Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders led top AKP leaders and Erdoğan himself to criticize the Dutch firebrand, and Ali Erbas was also found following the trend of condemning Wilders.
Beyond Diyanet, a host of pro-AKP Islamic scholars have echoed similar narratives. These figures include a close AKP circle of individuals such as Nihat Hatipoglu, a TV show host, and Hayrettin Karaman, a columnist, both Islamic scholars. They use these mediums to sow the idea that social media is full of misinformation targeting Turkish national interests, and it harbors the ability to mislead youth. Karaman has gone as far as publishing a highly emotive poem in his column that warns readers of the dangerous pull of capitalism and immorality of social media, while Hatipoglu has issued a so-called “tele-fatwa” warning of ethical ways of exchanging messages between unmarried women and men.
Faith being a highly emotive subject, once instrumentalized, it seems to hold power over millions. Our case studies show that populists have a nuanced approach that creates a moral or religious crisis. Consequently, they justify their authoritarianism as means to “save” “the people.” These real-life realities are echoed online and, for many, lead to serious consequences such as losing personal safety and possible legal prosecution.
There is no blasphemy law in India, but hate speech is punishable under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. However, rather than formal punishment targeting minorities (Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Adivasis, Sikhs), it is common for the BJP and its pundits to encourage or overlook the questionable acts of the pro-Hindutva “cyber volunteers.” In the country, 87.4 percent of fake news spreads via social media, which sometimes results in communal rioting or targeting harassment and killing of individuals accused of consuming beef known as “cow lynching.” Most events of mob killing by BJP representatives have been dismissed or have led to blatant victims blaming who “asked for it” because of their “hurtful” actions.
In other regions, explicit blasphemy laws are in place that permit curbs on freedoms online. In Indonesia, blasphemy is covered by Articles 156 and 156(a) of KUHP (criminal code) and in the 1965 Presidential Decree (No. 1/PNPS/1965) on the Prevention of Blasphemy and Abuse of Religions. As outlined in Article 156(a), those “who purposely express their views or commit an act that principally disseminates hatred, misuse or defame a religion recognized in Indonesia,” face a maximum of five years imprisonment. When an online video of Jakarta’s Governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok), a Chinese Christian, discussing Qur’anic verse surfaced during his election campaign in 2016, Ahok was charged and later sentenced to 20 months in prison for insulting Islam. It led to the end of his political career. In 2021, an Indonesian Christian preacher landed in hot water after uploading a video stating that he was the “26th Prophet,” while in Europe, Interpol’s assistance was sought to extradite and trial him. Unfortunately, this encouraged some clerics to demand the “head” of the accused. Additionally, the pornography law has been used to target the LGBTQ+ community. Due to the loose definition, the law aids in identifying “suspects” and sometimes leads to public humiliation such as being strip-searched, photographed, and forced to march naked into police vehicles.
Malaysia also has strict laws on blasphemy. Under the law, Sunni Islam is recognized, with Shiites, Ahmadis, and those from al-Arqam being “deviant.” There is evidence of groups spreading sectarian hatred. One such example is Gerakan Banteras Syiah, with more than 25,000 followers. The government has also suspended a Tamil-language daily for mistakenly printing an image of Jesus Christ holding a cigarette under the law. More commonly, the laws have been instrumentalized to target the LGBTQ+ community. There has been some discussion steered by the minister of religious affairs to regulate LGBTQ+ activity online, yet nothing has come out of it. There is no law against simply watching porn online in Malaysia, but the MCMC is active in blocking the websites, and in 2013, two persons who were charged for posting pornographic images of themselves on their blog were charged and tried.
Similarly, the colonial-era blasphemy law enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution is misused by right-wing clerics and movements both off and online. These groups have mainly targeted minorities and democratic voices. It is common for people to face imprisonment and, in the worst cases, be issued death sentences if their internet posts or cell phone messages show “questionable” remarks about Islam. While governments and political parties have stayed away from making anti- or pro-comments, the grassroots clerics and their movements have used cyberspace to pressure the state judiciary to target these individuals by running online campaigns.
While Turkey remains secular via its constitution, blasphemy charges have been made possible under a 2016 amendment to the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). While no specific religion is mentioned in the legislation, it is usually used to “defend” Islam. For example, under the amended article, the pianist Fazil Say was tried and sentenced to a jail term for tweeting his skepticism over Islamic values, while actress Berna Lacin was charged with blasphemy for contesting capital punishment in a Tweet in 2018 (she was acquitted after two years). Also, two journalists were each handed two-year sentences for reprinting the Charlie Hebdo sketches satirizing Islam under the law in 2016. In 2020, Enver Aysever, a journalist, was arrested and charged for mocking clergy and their attitude during the COVID-19 pandemic. Astonishingly, people who shared the video of “Bella Ciao” being played in an Izmir mosque were also warned to take off the posts or otherwise face charges by Izmir’s Chief Public Prosecutor.
The countries that display direct targeting of minorities are mainly confined to India and Turkey. In the former, the hurried abrogation of Articles 35a and 370, in August 2019 from the constitution of India, the region of Kashmir administered by India, has witnessed one of the world’s worst forms of suppression of freedoms, lasting 213 days. The region alone accounts for 90 percent of internet shutdowns in the country. The curbs are justified as means of primitively controlling jihadist activity in Kashmir. Despite the crippling impact on tourism, healthcare, education, and the overall economy, the curbs continue. Between January 2012 and March 2021, there were 518 government-imposed internet shutdowns across India, resulting in the highest number of internet blocks in the world so far. In Turkey, the internet shutdown that explicitly targets a region is based on ethnicity rather than religious conflict. Due to the prolonged conflict with the Kurdish community, the regions with Kurdish resistance pockets, as mentioned above, have faced the largest brunt of internet blackouts. However, like India, these are explained as measures to curb “terrorism,” whereas it is rooted in an ideological conflict between the Turkish state and the right of the Kurdish people to exist freely.
Change is a hallmark of the twenty-first century. Once considered a Latin American issue or a rarity, the most recent wave of populism has resulted in a drastic global political transformation so much so that it looms large in two of the world’s largest democracies (the United States and India). Impressively, if worryingly, it has latched on to religion which has the power to mobilize crowds and cloud judgment regarding the capabilities of populists in power. This report has brought to light a unique aspect of this nexus between faith and populism, and it offers an insight into how cyberspace and politics offline have become highly intertwined to create a hyper-reality in which events are taking place.
Religion and politics merge in each country to shape cyber governance. For most countries, the last two decades have been dominated by the introduction and rapid adoption of digital technology. Thus, there is still debate about where laws should and should not intervene. The wading of religion into politics in context, it has to be said, usually begins with the right intentions—to regulate cyberspace in the interest of citizens. However, over the years, both politicians and political movements have used relatively lax legal frameworks to their partisan advantage.
Nevertheless, partisan entities have exploited the law in an instrumentalized fashion to curb opposition, exert control, and use the space for growth in popularity. Most populist governments’ cyber governance politics mirror their offline undemocratic policies. For stakeholders outside the ambit of power, cyberspace allows them a medium of connection to spread their ideology. Ironically there is a love-hate relationship with social media. Most of these leaders organize and communicate with their followers using digital media, yet, at the same time, constantly warn against the “ills” of such platforms. Essentially, morality has been a common theme used by all stakeholders to justify the need for increasingly draconian digital laws. Moral panics about digital space simply juice up widespread anxieties and catalyze populist appeal while simultaneously acting as a curtain for their undemocratic actions.
Mirroring and interconnectedness of cybers and offline spaces in quite evident. Firstly, it is noteworthy that populists understand the value of digital space. Thus, in most cases, we notice an active monopolization of the realm that uses both religious and security-driven justifications to limit space for opposition and civil society and at the same time reclaim that space for themselves and their allies. With total control over an alternative space, populists replicate offline socio-politics there. Essentially, this sees populist authoritarianism migrate to the digital realm and also plays some role in shaping offline events such as the case of cow lynching in India or Tweets leading to trials under blasphemy laws in Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
The future of democracies is highly intertwined with digital space. The narrative that plays a part in bringing a movement to life or aiding political victory is determined in this realm to a great degree. While the overall picture of free digital space seems precarious in the near future, on the other hand, the individual differences in each case study offer some hope that a move toward democracy might lead to a reconsideration of digital authoritarianism. However, the degree of social damage they are causing is hard to determine. Today Islamist and Hindutva trolls feel an unprecedented sense of cyber empowerment where they can hurl abuse without even physically seeing any consequences or feeling the victim’s plight.
IHSAN YILMAZ is Research Professor and Chair at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He is also a Visiting Research Associate of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, Regent’s Park College, The University of Oxford, and a Non-Resident Senior Scholar at the European Center for Populism Studies (Brussels). He has conducted research on religion and politics; authoritarianism; digital authoritarianism; populism (Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, India); securitization; “sharp power”; nation-building; citizenship; Islamism; ethnic-religious-political minorities and their securitization (Middle East, Pakistan, Indonesia); Muslim minorities (Australia, Turkey, the UK, and the USA); Islam-state-society relations in the majority and minority contexts; Turkish politics; Turkish diasporas (the UK, Australia, the USA); transnationalism; and intergroup contact (Australia). Professor Yilmaz was a professor of political science at Istanbul Fatih University (2008–2016). He was a lecturer in law, social sciences, and politics at SOAS, University of London (2001–2008), and was a fellow at the Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Oxford (1999–2001). He is the author of Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
RAJA M. ALI SALEEM is an Associate Professor (Public Policy) at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a former civil servant and has more than 20 years of diverse experience in government and academia. His research focuses on religious nationalism, the relationship between church and state, the politics of Muslim-majority countries, especially Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, local governments, public financial management, the role of the military in politics, and democratic consolidation. In 2020, he was a Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. His first book, State, Nationalism, and Islamization: Historical Analysis of Turkey and Pakistan, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2017.
MAHMOUD PARGOO is a research fellow at Deakin University (Melbourne) and a visiting fellow at the AI-enabled Processes (AIP) Research Centre, Macquarie University in Sydney.Mahmoud is the author of Secularization of Islam in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Routledge, 2021) and lead-author of Presidential Elections in Iran: Islamic Idealism since the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
SYAZA SHUKRI is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia. Her area of specialization is in comparative politics, specifically in democratization and politics in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Her current research interests include populism, identity politics, inter-ethnic relations, political Islam, geopolitics, and gender studies, specifically in Muslim-majority contexts. Among her recent works is “Populism and Muslim Democracies,” published in Asian Politics & Policy. She is also currently working on a book chapter on Islamist populism in Malaysia since 2018. She has degrees from the University of Pittsburgh (where she graduated summa cum laude), the London School of Economics and Political Science, and International Islamic University Malaysia. She can be reached at [email protected].
IDZNURSHAM ISMAIL, the founder of stratsea.com, possesses a Master in Strategic Studies and a First Class Honours in Biological Sciences from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Nanyang Technological University (NTU), respectively. After his stint as a Research Analyst at the Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR, RSIS), he resided in Indonesia for numerous years, gaining experience in organizations such as The Jakarta Post, the Wahid Foundation, and PAKAR. He specializes in security-related issues, particularly terrorism and unconventional weapons. His current research includes non-traditional security themes such as public health.
KAINAT SHAKIL is a non-resident Research Associate at the European Center for Populism Studies. Her research explores populism from the perspectives of religion, emotions, and gender. The regional focus of her work is mainly Pakistan and demographically Muslim-majority countries. Previously, she was a researcher at The Shahid Javed Burki Institute of Public Policy at NetSol (BIPP)— a Pakistan-based think-tank— where her work focused on reviewing public policies from a people-centric perspective. A large part of her work was qualitative research mapping to understand the public’s perceptions, feelings, reactions, and engagement with government policies and vice versa. Shakil also develops interactive cultural, historical, and political curricula for middle school pupils with a focus on inclusivity. Before working as a full-time researcher, she was an Erasmus research scholar at Middlesex University London and the recipient of the US State Department’s cultural scholarship, Global UGRAD.
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Sener, Omer & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “From Populism to Racism: The Chinese American Trickster Tradition from Sun Wu Kong to Wittman Ah Sing.” ECPS Working Papers. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) July 1, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/wp0002
This article discusses the Chinese American trickster tradition focusing specifically on archetypes and several key themes, such as racism, populism, and essentialism. We argue that the figure of the Monkey King is central to Chinese American literature, particularly in Chinese American women’s writing, and the concepts of populism and racism are made relevant through the cultural appropriation of this folk figure in the writings of Chinese American authors. Furthermore, the article discusses tricksterism in relation to politics and cultural production, particularly the Monkey King. In this regard, the article makes an original contribution to the literature on tricksterism and cultural populism by analyzing the Chinese American trickster tradition from these fresh perspectives.
There is a thriving Chinese American trickster tradition with distinctive characteristics peculiar to Chinese American literature, specifically Chinese American women’s writing. Producing some of the earliest examples of Chinese American women’s writing, the Eaton sisters—Edith Eaton (also known as Sui Sin Far) and Winnifred Eaton—used trickster techniques in their writings, although they did not create a trickster tradition based on one protagonist, like Sun Wu Kong. On the other hand, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Gish Jen, all established Chinese American authors, have developed a Chinese American trickster tradition with trickster characters. The primary source and inspiration for these characters is the Chinese trickster tradition with hints of the African American Signifying Monkey (Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land comes to mind). It is fair to say that Kingston’s trickster character Wittman Ah Sing became the basis of the Chinese American variety, while Tan and Jen further shaped this evolving tradition with new tricksters, such as Mona, Lanlan, and Kwan Li.
When we talk about the Chinese American trickster tradition, the monkey as an archetype emerges as a prominent motif. This can take the form of an actual monkey-like character in the narrative, or like the Signifying Monkey, through narrative elements and language use. However, the use of the monkey trickster as an archetype is ever-changing and open to new interpretations, as each author brings something new to the table, with new characters as well as new trickster narratives and traits. Writing about the dynamic nature of myths and tricksters, Estella Lauter holds that “myths are part of the dynamic of history instead of being one of its reservoirs”—as such, myths are not “records of a completed process” (1984: 3). set Never set in stone, tricksters as archetypes adapt, change, and transform as time goes on through new narratives and via cultural adaptation. Thus, they are dynamic and fluid rather than static.
Kingston, Tan, and Jen have all contributed to the development of a Chinese American trickster tradition which, as mentioned, draws extensively on the Chinese trickster tradition. However, it is distinguished from the classic approach by its distinctive trickster types and styles, its own arguments, and a “communal signification” (Vizenor, 1993: 187). It is therefore focused on the concerns of the Chinese American community and its ethnic heritage.
The main aims of the Chinese American trickster tradition can be summarized as follows: Re-establishing bonds with one’s ethnic community, reclaiming one’s heritage, and reinterpreting the same ethnic heritage and traditions. “Ethnic” here signifies the broadest range of cultural and racial elements, concerns, and issues. As such, while gender plays an important role, the connecting tissue of the Chinese American trickster tradition is ethnic belonging as well as inter-ethnic relations and tensions.
Maxine Hong Kingston bases her trickster character—Wittman Ah Sing, an assertive and popular trickster—on the Monkey King. The Sing (星) in Wittman’s name means “star” in Cantonese). Kingston’s primary concerns in writing The Woman Warrior, published in 1989, were gender inequality, patriarchy, and oppression. However, her central theme and driving point in creating Wittman Ah Sing and writing Tripmaster Monkey, published some years late, was to create a popular Chinese American trickster who is concerned for the wellbeing of his community and fights racial stereotypes of the Chinese.
Shades of Populism in Culture
According to Jagers and Walgrave, populism is a type of discursive practice and is essentially a form of rhetoric (Jagers & Walgrave, 2007). For others, populism is a well-devised strategy (Barr, 2009) formulated with the intention of transforming the existing system of governance or taking over the state apparatus. For others still, it is essentially a political style or performance (Moffit, 2016).
Although there are many different approaches to populism—focusing variously on ideology, strategy, style, or discourse (Mudde 2004; Bar 2009; Moffit 2017)—there is a scholarly consensus that it is a social plague creating antagonistic us versus “the enemy” other binaries. Furthermore, populist figures see such divisions as an opportunity and try to capitalize on them by further dwelling on the sociological faultiness to portray themselves as the savior of the “real people” of the country from the exploitation of the enemy “Other.” Thus, exaggerating divisions and threats, the populist aims to deconstruct society’s social fabric in a way that defines the interests of “the people” (i.e., the populist’s followers) versus those opposed (“the Other”). Therefore, “notwithstanding its competing definitions, leaving its ontological nature to the discussion in the extant literature, … populism is about constructions (construction, de-construction, and re-construction) of ‘the people(s),’ and mobilization in an antagonistic fashion by the populists. This is because construction of ‘the people’ is ‘the main task of populists’.” (Yilmaz et al. 2021: 3).
Populist divisions and binaries are created at different levels or in different dimensions such as “vertical” and “horizontal” (Taguieff, 1995: 32–35) or in civilizational terms (Brubaker, 2017). Concerning this civilizational aspect of populism, Taggart (2000) explains how populists construct “heartlands” and appeal to the people, stirring a feeling of nostalgia in them. Thus, populists invite the people—“the rightful owners” of the native land to reconstruct and live in these “heartlands.” In the construction of these heartlands, the primary reference is to history. However, more than history, it is the culture that keeps those emotions alive in mind and practice. Therefore, we argue that it is culture that allows for the conversion of certain periods of history into emotional spaces— namely, “heartlands” that people yearn to reconstruct and live. In this regard, we can view certain aspects of the trickster, as in the example of the Monkey King, appropriated for the purposes of patriotism, nationalism, and populism, as the tools of culture used to carve out history for “heartlands.”
Populism in Literature
Populism as a concept is more discussed in the realm of politics than culture. However, culture and populism are related concepts that need to be scrutinized in relation to one another. Hence, the merging of the two concepts as “cultural populism” is understood to mean “primary cultural production” or “aesthetic populism” also denotes the “study of popular cultural texts” (McGuigan, 1992: 2). As such, cultural populism can be understood as the infusion of “popular cultural elements” into “‘serious’ works of art” (McGuigan, 1992: 3). Thus, at the intersection of populism and culture, we see that populism lacks the default negative connotation it has vis-à-vis politics. Rather, at least in one of its meanings, it is understood simply as the popularization of art and cultural production among the masses.
On the other hand, populism, in its negative connotation, is also present in the cultural domain. Hence, cultural populism is criticized for trivializing art or cheapening the quality of entertainment (TV films versus cinema, popular bestsellers versus literary books). This kind of populism does not mobilize the masses; rather, it affects the consumers in ways more subtle, which are criticized (creating less complex, watered-down versions of literary characters or stories, with the assumption that the masses cannot comprehend more complex forms of storytelling or art).
Finally, concerning cultural populism and mass media, the criticism that populism creates “lowbrow” (cf “highbrow”) culture is worthy of discussion and analysis (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017: 108). As can be observed in our paper, the difficulties involved in popularizing classical literature (in the form of the Chinese classic Journey to the West) and creating popular forms of culture in the form of animation films and TV cartoons while appropriating the themes as characters to popular political leaders (as in the case of Mao Zedong), are all the more apparent here, and worth discussing in relation to populism and tricksterism.
Wittman Ah Sing
This article attempts to identify and analyze the different trickster types in the Chinese American tradition. Each of thesehas specific functions and attributes (ranging from countertypes to mediators), in line with specific themes (such as populism, essentialism, and racism). Hynes and Doty have previously categorized tricksters and identified their attributes, such as trickster as “shape-shifter,” “deceiver/trick player,” and trickster as “situation-inverter” (1997: 34). We argue that such categories are necessary to comprehend the functions of tricksters in the Chinese American trickster tradition.
There are different dimensions of the trickster created by Kingston. In Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, Kingston creates a new trickster archetype with Wittman Ah Sing. On the second level, she creates a “trickster countertype” in the person of Wittman, countering the culture and dominant worldviews that produce stereotypes of Chinese Americans. Wittman Ah Sing set an example in Chinese American literature as a new archetype by being the first fully-fledged trickster protagonist written by a Chinese American author. The concept of archetype was initially used to mean a “symbolic figure” in tribal lore (Jung, 2003: 4).
According to Jung, while it can be “disseminated … by tradition, language, migration,” an archetype can also “rearise spontaneously” with no apparent influence from outside factors, and at any given time or location (Jung, 2003: 13). Joseph Henderson also talks about “trickster archetypes,” but unlike Jung, whose definition is based on parapsychology, he bases his definition on the study of tricksters in oral literature. Henderson gives the example of the Coyote in the Native American oral tradition as a trickster archetype ( 2005: 28). Henderson holds that a “trickster archetype” can assist people in “mediat[ing] between the powers of good and evil” (2005: 28).
So, a trickster archetype is not an archetypal figure with a purely evil or purely good presence but is marked as a go-between with the abilities of “creative experimentalism” (Henderson, 2005: 28). In parallel to these definitions, by “trickster archetype,” we mean a model that sets precedence in creating trickster characters in a literary tradition. A trickster archetype contains the basic attributes of all other tricksters within the same trickster tradition, as it represents the trickster tradition as a whole.
On the other hand, tricksters that follow the archetypal example take a specific attribute of that archetype and embellish it, developing in this way new types. In this sense, Wittman Ah Sing is the trickster archetype of Chinese American women writers’ fiction (and Chinese American literature in general) and was followed by other trickster characters with different traits.
Referring to her study of myths in the work of women artists and poets of the twentieth century, Lauter explains her stance regarding the uncovering of myths and archetypes. She remarks that “[t]hese women have not discovered truths that are outside history; they have simply responded to the imperatives of their own history in ways that may disclose the imperatives of ours” (Lauter, 1984: x). Thus, while these writers write and rewrite traditional trickster figures, and in some cases, create a new trickster archetype, they also write to respond to their own past and present in a dynamic understanding of meaning production through tricksters.
Wittman Ah Sing parallels other trickster archetypes, such as the trickster archetype of the Coyote, but especially the Monkey King of classical Chinese literature. In line with Henderson’s description of a trickster archetype, Wittman’s actions and character are ambiguous. His transgressive and disruptive behavior can be considered harmful, but his intentions and the results of his actions can be considered positive and constructive. Like other trickster archetypes from various traditions, Wittman Ah Sing also stands out with his creativity, experimenting with new trickster strategies, and becoming the prime example of the trickster in Chinese American literature.
With this said, let us now look at the attributes of tricksters in the Chinese American tradition and the general discourses and themes that they are associated with in Chinese American women’s fiction.
The “Awkward Dinner Guest:” Populism and the Chinese Trickster
One of the themes and discourses that is relevant to Chinese American tricksters is populism. We argue that one of the trickster archetypes is the trickster in the guise of an “awkward dinner guest,” who—after getting himself drunk—challenges the hosts by asking difficult and bizarre questions. Nevertheless, such questions can lay bare underlying problems, however discourteous it may be of the guest to raise them (Moffitt, 2010). In fact, according to Moffitt, the “awkward dinner guest” is the very personification of populism in relation to liberal democracy (2010).
In this trickster guise, the awkward dinner guest can be a positive force, laying bare the shortcomings of the system and challenging the status quo. However, the guest can also be a hindrance in a democratic context. The functioning of democracy is undermined if the guest challenges democratic practices. However, the trickster can also be a force for good if it can “identify otherwise overlooked political problems” and become the voice of minorities and “marginalised groups” (Gidron & Bonikowski, 2013). In this sense, Wittman Ah Sing is the perfect example of a popular and populist trickster who becomes the voice of marginalized Chinese Americans. The discursive challenge to populism is highlighted in Wittman’s tricksterism through the example of Wittman’s unsuccessful efforts to find work at an employment office. Here, unemployment as a recurring issue in American society is laid bare and implicitly critiqued via the narrative.
Furthermore, in line with the Monkey King archetype, Wittman Ah Sing creates chaos, disrupts authority, and challenges stereotypes about Chinese people created by the majority culture (Kingston, 1998: 78–79). Similarly, Wittman’s final aim is to create his own one-man show through which he plans to share his populist discourse about tackling stereotypes. Through the show, he aims to unite the Chinese community, echoing in a way the discursive goals of a populist “leader of the people.”
However, it is more noteworthy that the very archetype of Chinese tricksterism, Sun Wu Kong, on which Wittman Ah Sing was based, was also utilized as a banner holder of populist political discourse. Thus, in the context of this trickster archetype, the trickster is not only the awkward dinner guest but a cultural hero of populism itself. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the archetypal Chinese cultural hero and trickster, Sun Wu Kong, was used by the Chinese Communist Party as a symbol of communism, appropriating the figure of the trickster to fit the party’s populist discourse. It is no coincidence that a cartoon version of Sun Wu Kong, the Chinese trickster, was shown on Chinese national television for decades.
What is more, books and films were published in China where Sun Wu Kong was identified with none other than Mao Zedong through political undertones and allusions. In Havoc in Heaven, a Chinese animation film from 1965, the Monkey King challenges the authority of the Jade Emperor in line with the Journey to the West narrative. The difference here is that, unlike the classic novel, the animation has a “political backdrop” that became apparent to viewers and film critics in China, who noticed the political undertones with its revolutionary themes (Harvard Press, 2014). In light of the film, Mao was “compared … to the mischievous Monkey King,” and Heaven, where the Jade Emperor resided, was compared to the Chinese bourgeoisie, which Mao was fighting against.
Thus, Monkey King became a populist trickster who challenged the despotic ruler in the form of the Jade Emperor. This strife between Monkey King and the Jade Emperor was appropriated to fit the populist discourse of China’s communist government. However, even before the new political and populist signifiers attached to Monkey King, it can be said that the original Chinese trickster archetype had populism as a central theme, as he went on to challenge all the gods stuck in their old ways, as a way of challenging authority and mobilizing the masses, in the form of his monkey followers (Harvard Press, 2014).
The Trickster Countertype
A countertype is created in the face of a stereotype about a certain group or ethnicity. Thus, countertypes are positive portrayals that show how wrong the stereotypes are concerning the targeted group, as they demonstrate the positive traits of that group or show the opposite of the stereotype. In this way, a countertype operates as a “positive stereotype” (Nachbar & Lause, 1992: 238).
Two important cultural examples that showcase countertypes about African Americans are The Cosby Show and the American film Shaft. Nachbar argues that The Cosby Show presented an African American family with none of the stereotypes associated with African Americans, while Shaft presented the viewers with an African American private detective protagonist who was assertive, courageous, and clever (Nachbar & Lause, 1992: 238). However, The Cosby Show’s presentation of Black people can be criticized. The countertypes in the show do not represent the conditions of the majority of African Americans. Rather, the show presents a middle-class version that ignores the poor living conditions and economic inequalities true for many Black people in American society even today.
Similarly, Shaft’s creation of a countertype for Blacks is not entirely benign, as the film lauds gangster culture and presents Black men as dangerous and prone to violence. These examples presented as countertypes were, in fact, criticized for showcasing a selective and sometimes misleading and harmful version of the ethnic group they were thought to represent. Another criticism against countertypes in general is that they fail to meaningfully change or transform the stereotypes they confront. Countertypes on their own are not politically effective in overcoming stereotypical depictions. The main criticism of countertypes is that despite their utilization in media and literature, the stereotypes associated with ethnic groups persist in other domains of popular culture and popular imagery.
The trickster countertype functions similarly to the cultural countertype, with a few significant differences. While the countertype directly aims to replace existing stereotypes, the trickster countertype does not necessarily aim to take the place of a stereotype. Rather, a trickster countertype, such as found in Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land, functions to challenge and dispel the essentialism, inequalities, and cultural reductionism that create stereotypes. Another significant difference of the trickster countertype is its ability to utilize some of the traits of the stereotypes about a particular ethnic group to mock and disrupt the dominant discourses that made these stereotypes possible.
Rather than countering stereotypes headlong, the trickster countertypes often point at the problems and inequalities. The trickster countertype does this effectively by utilizing the trickster’s characteristics of transgression and transformation. The trickster countertype depends largely on the existing trickster narratives, and ethnic-minority writers such as Gish Jen create trickster countertypes as protagonists.
Jen transforms Sun Wu Kong into a trickster countertype in her novel. While in Tripmaster Monkey, Kingston creates a Chinese American trickster archetype and countertype in the person of Wittman Ah Sing, in Mona in the Promised Land,it is Mona who follows in the footsteps of the trickster archetype, disrupts inequalities, racism, and essentialism in the American society, while at the same time providing a utopian alternative with her trickster powers.
The Trickster Mediator
Tricksters have always been noted for their role as mediators between the known world and the supernatural world and as interpreters of the gods, as they communicate with the unseen world and channel their knowledge to the world of humans.
When discussing aspects of tricksters from Afro-Caribbean folklore, Gates emphasizes the role of Afro-Caribbean tricksters as mediators (1989: 6). Esu, a trickster in the Yoruba oral tradition and other African cultures, is mainly known for his function as the “messenger of the gods,” as he makes sense of the messages of the gods, and brings those messages to men, and carries the wishes of men to the gods in turn (Gates, 1989: 6). Given the tricksters’ ability to cross boundaries, they can also take on the role of a messenger between the world of the gods and the mortal world (Stookey, 2004: 129). Hermes, a mythical figure from Greek mythology who is characterized as the messenger of gods, also performs the role of the trickster: as a trickster, he is not bound by any restrictions and can also communicate “lies and deceits” (Stookey, 2004: 130). As a trickster, Esu is, like Hermes, a “shifty mediator” whose mediation can be disruptive and full of tricks (Hyde, 2008: 125).
For Gates, the tricksters’ tricks are themselves his “mediation” (1989: 6). Although most tricksters have some attributes of mediation, not all tricksters are messengers of the gods and communicators of gods’ wishes to humanity. The trickster as mediator is a specific type whose relationship with the supernatural is his primary attribute and specialty. Like the two classic trickster mediators, Hermes from Greek mythology, and Legba from African folklore, all trickster mediators are scarcely “rule-governed;” therefore, they can both make sense of the gods’ messages and leverage them for their trickster ends (Stookey, 2004: 130). Another attribute of the trickster mediator is his role in making sure that human beings offer sacrifices to the gods; otherwise, he brings them suffering and afflictions (Hyde, 2008: 125).
Like the trickster mediators Hermes, Legba and Esu, the Monkey King has also mediated between deities and mortals. The Monkey King is constantly in touch with the supernatural world, always summoning spirits, gods, and demons, either to his aid or to question them for a wrongdoing. Like the trickster mediator, he can also be mischievous in his communication and tricks humans and deities into believing in him, twisting and distorting facts for his benefit.
When the Monkey King visits the Underworld, he communicates with Yama, the King of the Dead, and then erases his records from the archive of the dead to become immortal. When he is appointed to a position to take care of the horses in the palace of the Jade Emperor, he ditches work to trick the gods and eats the pills of immortality. As part of his penance for wrongdoing in a past life, Monkey King is also punished for his trickery in his mediation with the gods: he promises Kwan Yin, the goddess of Mercy, that he will join a Buddhist monk on his journey to India and abide by his rules. But after a while, he relapses into his old violent ways, fighting and killing many of those who cross his and the monk’s path on the journey to India. Because of his mischief, Kwan Yin metes out another punishment, forcing the Monkey King to wear a magical iron helmet that causes him severe headaches whenever he descends into mischief.
As a trickster mediator, Kwan Li in The Hundred Secret Senses also communicates with the supernatural world, which she calls the World of Yin. In line with her attributes, she is also a trickster mediator, as she has a close affinity with the Monkey King trickster of the Chinese tradition. While Kwan follows the patterns of a trickster mediator, she is a reinvention of the Monkey King character, emphasizing his attributes of mediation. Like traditional trickster mediators such as Hermes and Esu, Kwan Li interprets the messages she receives from spirits residing in the World of Yin and conveys them to her sister Olivia and anyone who comes to her to seek help from the World of Yin.
Unlike traditional tricksters, Kwan Li has an altruistic nature, always wanting to help her sister Olivia and her friends. However, it is striking to observe that as a trickster mediator, Kwan Li is also not a stranger to the idea of sacrifice. While traditional trickster mediators like Esu request that humanity makes sacrifices to the gods, Kwan Li gives up her own lifeto save a precious friend from death.
The Trickster Disruptor
One of the key characteristics of tricksters in various oral traditions is disruption. The trickster’s attribute of disruption creates chaos, unsettling the balance and breaking the “order of things” (Wiget, 1994: 95). The Monkey King often disrupts the schemes of the authorities to achieve his aim of immortal life. He tricks the Jade Emperor, the ruler of the universe, and disrupts the Heavenly Peach Banquet, wreaking havoc there after realizing that the authorities have not invited him. Following the example of the Monkey King, Wittman Ah Sing also creates chaos, disrupting parties and challenging accepted stereotypes about Chinese people (Kingston, 1998: 78–79).
The trickster disruptor is different from Wittman Ah Sing and the traditional Chinese trickster Monkey King in one important aspect: The Monkey King and Wittman break the order of things with a particular aim and with positive results in the end. While the Monkey King destroys opponents and the many bandits who cross his path on the way to India, his ultimate aim is to safely take delivery of and bring the Buddhist scriptures back to China for the good of the community. Similarly, despite Wittman’s transgressive behavior, his particular aim is to found his own one-man show and, through his show, bring together his disparate community.
The trickster disruptor breaks the balance and makes life difficult for others, creating disorder and chaos without any particular aim, acting as a negative force. Even if the results of her actions may have some relatively positive outcomes, this is not deliberate and conscious, as the trickster disruptor disturbs the balance without such goals. However, despite the trickster disruptor’s primary role as a troublemaker, she shares one significant trait with the trickster mediator—namely, the source of inspiration. This source is the Chinese oral tradition, through which proverbs, stories, sayings of Chinese scholars are incorporated into the trickster discourse. Despite this positive aspect, the trickster disruptor’s role is often not welcomed by society. Finally, like the trickster mediator, the trickster disruptor also feels she belongs nowhere. Since she leads a liminal life, even if she may feel some connection to particular individuals and places, she is not ultimately bound to any one place or person.
Trickster Techniques in Kingston, Tan, and Jen’s Work
In this final part of the article, we would like to look at some of the trickster techniques that refer to a specific use of language, characters, and style in a given text, which gives the text its trickster qualities, which in return has ideological functions and implications for the writer and readers. According to Gerald Vizenor, the “trickster is a liberator and healer in a narrative, a comic sign, communal signification and a discourse with imagination” (1993: 187). By identifying the trickster both as a sign and a discourse, Vizenor emphasizes that the trickster does not necessarily always appear in a given text but can also manifest itself as a discourse and style.
A trickster language and style are not necessarily only apparent in texts with trickster figures, given that the trickster can also manifest itself as a “language game in a comic narrative” (Vizenor, 1993: 187). Henry Louis Gates Jr. emphasizes the trickster’s use of formal language, particularly in the context of the Afro–American trickster figure of the “Signifying Monkey” (Gates, 1989: xxi). The Signifying Monkey becomes relevant in analyzing the narrative style and language of the trickster, given that it is more a rhetorical device or a “rhetorical principle” than an actual figure (Gates, 1989: 44), and it has significant functions in the production of meaning alongside the trickster’s actions in the text. The Signifying Monkey, as the “‘ironic reversal’ of the insulting stereotype of the Black as monkey-like, uses language to break away with stereotypes, using different language tropes such as puns, metaphors, repetition, irony, and hyperbole, all of which constitute his trickster ability of ‘Signifying’” (Gates, 1989: 52).
The most important aspects of a trickster tradition in the context of Chinese American literature in general and Chinese American women writers’ fiction, in particular, are their stance against essentialism and stereotypes and their close-knit connections with different forms of storytelling. The trickster technique of Kingston, Tan, and Jen foregrounds storytelling as a significant part of the construction of identity and community. By telling their stories from multiple perspectives, the tricksters in Kingston, Tan, and Jen’s novels create narratives that do not have one central “authorial” perspective that dominates their trickster novels. Their challenging essentialist constructions of Chinese identity is another significant and definitive aspect of the Chinese American monkey trickster tradition. This technique is apparent in Kingston’s characterization of Wittman Ah Sing, who invokes the trickster Monkey King. He also culturally dismantles reductionist depictions of the Chinese through his trickster ability of transgression. Kingston’s trickster strategy, which challenges essentialist discourses about Chinese Americans, is shared with Jen, who also challenges Chinese stereotypes in the trickster character of Mona.
A significant technique in the Chinese American monkey trickster tradition is building a trickster identity that is fluid and subject to change. It has been noted by critics such as Hynes that essentialist conceptions of identity are rigid, static, limited, and limiting and that the trickster figure provides a significant challenge to this static view of identity, intersecting with the postmodern conception of identity. Hynes remarks, pointing to the divergent character of the trickster, that “the logic of order and convergence, … is challenged by another path, the random and divergent trail taken by that profane metaplayer, the trickster” (1997: 216).
Another trickster technique utilized by the authors is the use of laughter and parody to dismantle dominant ideologies and hegemonic constructions. The novel is “a fundamental liberation of cultural-semantic and emotional intentions from the hegemony of a single and unitary language” (Bakhtin, 1998: 366). According to Bakhtin, “the rogue, the clown and the fool” represent the negative side of the Rabelaisian novel (1998: 406), as symbols of what Bakhtin calls “Rabelaisian laughter” and as figures that clearly have trickster qualities. In Bakhtin’s view, Rabelaisian laughter signifies a quality in the novel that operates to bring out “the crude, unmediated connections between things that people otherwise seek to keep separate” and to “destroy … traditional connections and abolish … idealized strata” (1998: 170). On the other hand, for Bakhtin, the positive side in Rabelais’ conception of the novel form relies “upon folklore and antiquity” (1998: 169–170). Thus, Kingston, Jen, and Tan use laughter and criticism to expose ethnic stereotypes and essentialist constructions of ethnic identity on the one hand while maintaining their connection to their cultural narratives and myths through trickster strategies and figures in their novels on the other.
Another central aspect of a trickster technique in the fiction of Chinese American women writers is “liminal cultural position,” characterized by the transgression of existing boundaries, whether they are cultural, ethnic, or ideological boundaries. Liminality as a concept was first coined and discussed in the context of anthropology as a phase in the rites of passage of tribal peoples. Arnold Van Gennep, who coined the term “rites of passage,” uses the term “liminal” while discussing initiation and transition rites of tribal societies (1960: 11, 21, 53).
Van Gennep also associates rites that involve passing through a door or a portal with the liminal, calling them “liminal/threshold rites” (1960: 21–22). As part of the rites of passage of a tribe, the liminal phase represented a threshold in the ritual, which was preceded by the separation of the individual from the society. The trickster’s apparent autonomy from society’s norms and restrictions is a metaphor that stems from the actual condition of the liminal phase in the rites of passage of a tribal society. As Turner observes, the person who goes through the “liminal period” in the rites of passage gains an ambiguity and enters a “cultural realm” that is unstable, and completely separate from and dissimilar to the past and coming phases of the ritual ( 2008: 94–95).
At the same time, the attributes of liminality as a condition are, also, the attributes of the person who dwells in the liminal space, what Turner calls the “liminal personae” or the “threshold people” and what we call the trickster embodying a “liminal position,” echoing Smith’s argument that the trickster has a “liminal cultural position” that allows him to move beyond the confines of the world (1997: 12). Hence, the main characteristic of liminality is ambiguity and the condition of eluding any fixed definitions or classification. Therefore, “liminal entities” “are neither here nor there” and are “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial” (Turner, 2008: 95).
Tricksters are relatively free from society’s laws and restrictions, which allows them to expose these same restrictions and create new spaces of meaning production on a textual level. Despite liminal space being confined to the homogenous and monolithic character of the tribal society, the liminality utilized in the fiction of the trickster writer functions as a bridge between different cultural influences, genders, and ethnic groups in a society while also evading monolithic definitions of culture and ethnicity, reflecting Van Gennep’s association of threshold rites with liminality (1960: 21).
Paralleling the liminal space of threshold rites, which allows the initiated individual to travel between the world of immortals and the world of gods or from the world of the dead to the world of the living (Van Gennep, 1960: 53), the trickster in the liminal space of the novel can cross ethnic boundaries and challenge existing worldviews. In this way, Wittman Ah Sing can defy Frank Chin’s claims to a belligerent and patriarchal Chinese tradition and reject being enlisted in the Vietnam War. Mona Chang of Mona in the Promised Land can go beyond ethnic boundaries and freely exchange cultural traditions with Sherman Matsumoto of Japan and Seth Mandel, a Jewish American. A “liminal position” informs and empowers the fiction of trickster writers such as Kingston, Tan, and Jen. What we call the “liminal space” of the trickster text allows for questioning ethnic stereotypes and becomes useful for women and people of color in the face of racism in a patriarchal society.
In this article, we have analyzed the different aspects of the trickster in Chinese American literature and attempted to provide an overview of the different trickster types and discourses found in the Chinese American trickster tradition, from populism to countertypes, with particular attention paid to the novels of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan and Gish Jen, whose writings, we argue, have had an enormous impact on the way the Chinese American trickster tradition found its unique identity within American literature.
Finally, we discussed the Chinese American trickster tradition through the lens of the techniques utilized by Chinese American authors in shaping and influencing the literary tradition in question. During our research, we have found that while Tan and Jen’s trickster characters are female, they are still based on the male trickster Monkey King, and their primary concern is to challenge ethnic stereotypes, create inter-ethnic and inter-communal harmony, and challenge racist ideologies.
To conclude, the Chinese American trickster tradition evolves with each new novel and short story that utilizes trickster techniques and characters. While each is worthy of study in its own right, we can nevertheless trace common origins in classical Chinese literature and in the figure of Sun Wu Kong.
(*) OMER SENER holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and Literary Criticism. His research interests include tricksters,cultural populism, video games, Asian American (Japanese, Korean and Chinese) literature, comparative literature, and creative writing.
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 The title of the article in question, “Havoc in Mao’s Heaven,” is a reference to the animated film, Havoc in Heaven, and could also be a reference to a quote attributed to Mao Zedong: “There is great chaos under Heaven; the situation is excellent” (“天下大乱，形势大好”). Understood to refer to the Cultural Revolution, as a way of creating order through chaos, the attribution of the quote to Mao is nevertheless questionable.
 We use “liminal space” to denote the complete narrative space of a trickster text that accomodates the trickster, while using “liminal position” to denote the liminal attributes of the trickster in literature. Thus the trickster has relative freedom in the liminal space of trickster fiction, which allows him or her to cross the “limen” of societal restrictions and hierarchies.
Kenes, Bulent (2021). “Richard B. Spencer: The founder of alt-right presents racism in a chic new outfit.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). June 28, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0010
Richard Bertrand Spencer is a well-groomed, well-educated advocate for the creation of a “white ethno-state” in North America for a “dispossessed white race.” He has also called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to halt the “deconstruction” of what he describes as “white culture” and to achieve a “white homeland.” Spencer has become the most recognizable public face of the white supremacist and nationalist movements. As an ardent white supremacist and ethnonationalist, Spencer says America belongs to white people, who he claims have higher average IQs than Hispanics and African Americans, and that the latter are genetically predisposed to crime. In Spencer’s “America,” Asians, Muslims, and Jews don’t qualify as “white” either.
White supremacy and white nationalism are real threats to democratic societies across the globe, as evidenced by the presidency of Donald Trump and the massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. As more people embrace a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-multiculturalist worldview, this has fuelled hostility and violence toward those deemed “others” or “outsiders” because of their religion, skin colour, or national origin (Jipson & Becker, 2019).
Driven by fear over the loss of white primacy and white privilege, white nationalists believe that white identity should be the organizing principle of Western society (Jipson & Becker, 2019). The United States is a hub of white supremacy, whose adherents fear that demographic changes will lead to the extermination of the white race and white culture—even though the US remains 77 percent white (Jipson & Becker, 2019). Eight years of Republican demagoguery against the US’ first black president, Barack Obama, made it easier for some whites to be persuaded that the system is rigged against them (Harkinson, 2016).
As a natural result of this process, hate crimes against Muslims, immigrants, and people of colour have been on the rise in the US since 2014. In 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) documented 892 hate crimes. The next year, it counted 917 hate crimes. In 2017—the year Trump took office, stoking nationalist sentiments with promises to build walls, deport Mexicans, and ban Muslims—the US saw 954 white supremacist attacks. In 2018, white nationalists killed at least 50 people in the US. Every perpetrator of deadly extremist violence in the US in 2018 had links to white nationalist groups (Jipson & Becker, 2019).
Richard Bertrand Spence is a well-groomed, well-educated advocate for the creation of a “white ethno-state” in North America (Beckett, 2017) for a “dispossessed white race.” Spencer has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to halt the “deconstruction” of what he describes as “white culture” (Lombroso & Appelbaum, 2016; SPLC, n.d.; Graham, 2016 & Kirchick, 2014) and to “reconstitute the Roman Empire” (Scott, 2014). Spencer has become the most recognizable public face of the white supremacist white nationalist movements. In 2008, in an article in Taki’s Magazine, a far-right publication, Spencer coined the term “alternative right,” from which “alt right” is derived as a sanitised word for the extreme right (Younge, 2017)(ADL, 2018).(Paul Gottfried, a Jewish paleo-conservative also employed the term “alternative right” when he gave a speech entitled, “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right,” at the H.L. Mencken Club’s Annual Meeting in November 2008. For this reason, some sources credit Gottfried with birthing the term.) Spencer further popularized the term when he chose “Alternative Right” as the name for an online publication that debuted in 2010 (ADL, n.d.).
Spencer rejects the label “white supremacist” in favour of the more opaque “alt-right” and prefers to describe himself as an “identitarian” (Cox, 2016);however, the SPLC has described him as a leading “academic racist,” who “takes a quasi-intellectual approach to white separatism” and as “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis.” The ADL says Spencer us a “leader in white supremacist circles that envision a ‘new’ right that will openly embrace ‘white racial consciousness’” (Cox, 2016).
As an umbrella term “alt-right” is used to describe a movement that is a mix of populism and white nationalism and was birthed predominantly online (Helsel, 2016). The alt-right portrays refugees, Muslims, and progressives as a threat to white culture (Jipson & Becker, 2019). As a loose network of people who promote white identity and reject mainstream conservatism (Beckett, 2017, alt-right has been used by Spencer to refer to people who oppose, among other things, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, and open immigration (ADL, 2018).
Spencer has beguiled the American media. Profiles of Spencer have been accompanied by brooding portraits: the racist, looking serious in a blazer; the racist, slouching picturesquely against a wall. Spencer, who has basked in the media attention, was not shy about telling reporters that image is everything; that he and other young racists are the hipster whisperers, ready to bring a new generation into the white nationalist fold (Beckett, 2017). “We have to look good,” he said, because no one is going to want to join a movement that is “crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid” (Fox, 2013).
Growing up in a wealthy part of Dallas in the 1990s, Spencer attended St. Mark’s School of Texas, an elite, all-boys prep school long associated with blue-blooded conservatism. Spencer’s father, an ophthalmologist, did not care much about politics but voted Republican out of habit.Spencer was friend with the only African American student in his class, John Lewis. Lewis says he never thought of Spencer as racist, but another classmate who asked not to be identified recalls Spencer making “a bunch of conservative, racially laced comments” that were objectionable even in high school. However, Spencer says he did not think much about race back then. After graduating high school in 1997, Spencer went to the University of Virginia, where he double majored in music and English and became deeply involved in avant-garde theatre, trying out and discarding various radical ideologies like costume changes (Harkinson, 2016). Eventually,Spencer came to embrace his ideology—and then continued further out on the ideological spectrum (Fox, 2013).
Red Pilled: Waking Up to Reality
After entering the humanities master’s program at the University of Chicago, Spencer discovered Jared Taylor, a self-proclaimed “race realist” who argues that blacks and Hispanics are a genetic drag on Western society. By the time Spencer entered Duke as a Ph.D. student in European intellectual history, in 2005, his views were on his sleeve. Fellow students recall Spencer openly sharing his opinions on biological differences between races and endorsing books such as Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We?, which argues that Hispanic immigrants are less suited than Europeans for assimilation. Yet Spencer was charming enough to maintain collegial relations with his peers. “Not many of us had ever come across an out-and-out fascist,” says a college professor who studied in the same history Ph.D. program as Spencer. “We didn’t know how serious he was” (Harkinson, 2016).
Spencer uses a metaphor to explain the jarring experience of waking up to a different worldview. In the 1999 movie “The Matrix,” the character of Morpheus offers Keanu Reeves’s character, Neo, a choice between taking a blue pill—“the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe”—or a red pill, which shows “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” In the alt-right’s telling, the so-called “normies” swallow the blue pill, digesting the fiction of racial equality, while those who get “red pilled” are stripped of the virtual-reality cloak that blinds them, waking up to the shattering realization that liberalism is just a mirage designed to obscure the hard, ugly truths of a world programmed by genetics. “You’re destroyed by it,” Spencer says, “and put back together again.” After getting red pilled, Spencer began quietly pursuing related ideas through his academic work (Harkinson, 2016).
After dropping out of Duke, Spencer remained preoccupied with race while at The American Conservative, where he became an editor in 2007. Spencer was fired, because he was “a bit extreme for us,” recalls TAC editor Scott McConnell. Then, Spencer moved to a new job as the sole editor of Taki’s Magazine, the online vanity publication of Taki Theodoracopulos, who was notorious for his racist remarks.Spencer steadily evolved Taki’s into a magazine aimed at white nationalists. By 2009, he’d published essays by Jared Taylor and was regularly using the term “alternative right” to describe his youthful brand of anti-war, anti-immigration, pro-white conservatism (Harkinson, 2016). In December 2009, Spencer left Taki’s Magazine.
In 2010, he founded AlternativeRight.com, a white supremacy-themed webzine aimed at the “intellectual right-wing,” (SPLC, n.d.). The site caught the attention of the conservative publisher William Regnery II, who had tried to start a whites-only online dating service and funded the white nationalist National Policy Institute (NPI). With Regnery’s backing (Harkinson, 2016), Spencer became president of NPI in 2011, following the death of its chairman. Concurrently, he also oversaw NPI’s publishing division, Washington Summit Publishers, home of such scientifically bogus works as a 2015 reissue of Richard Lynn’s Race Differences in Intelligence and screeds by other white nationalists, including Jared Taylor, editor of the racist American Renaissance journal, and Sam Francis, the late editor of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens’ newsletter (SPLC, n.d.).
According to NPI’s mission statement, it aims “to elevate the consciousness of whites, ensure our biological and cultural continuity, and protect our civil rights. The institute…will study the consequences of the ongoing influx that non-Western populations pose to our national identity” (SPLC, n.d.).Under the auspices of NPI, Spencer has worked to create an intellectual class of white separatists. The group rejects the calls for violence which appear in Internet chat rooms and public campaigns of hate. Spencer prefers a more professorial approach of publishing books and organizing conferences.
“Our goal is to form an intellectual community around European nationalism,” he said (Mangan, 2016). The “lesbians” and “Latinos” have advocates working for them, so why shouldn’t whites, Spencer asks in a video (Fox, 2013).
NPI seeks to preserve the “heritage, identity and future of European people in the US and around the world” (Mangan, 2016). In 2012, Spencer launched an offshoot of Washington Summit Publishers that he called Radix Journal, a website and biannual publication (SPLC, n.d.), andhe also started to host a weekly podcast, “Vanguard Radio” (Bar-On, 2019).No longer confined to the dark corners of social media, Spencer tried to bring a scholarly air of respectability to a movement commonly associated with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan (Mangan, 2016), and he managed to seize on an extraordinary presidential election to give overt racism a new veneer of radical chic (Harkinson, 2016). He envisions a world in which his ideals are embraced by the mainstream, and he has vowed to keep pushing until that happens (Cox, 2016).
However, Spencer has failed to conceal his movement’s darker side. While being interviewed by David Pakman, he was asked if he would condemn the Ku Klux Klan and Adolf Hitler; he refused, saying, “I’m not going to play this game,” while stating that Hitler had “done things that I think are despicable,” without elaborating on which things he was referencing (Pakman, n.d.). In early 2016, Spencer was filmed giving the Nazi salute in a karaoke bar, and leaked footage also depicts Spencer giving the Sieg Heil salute to his supporters during the August 2017 Charlottesville rally (Bernstein, 2017). After Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Spencer urged his supporters to “party like it’s 1933,” the year Hitler came to power in Germany (Cox, 2016). In the weeks following, Spencer quoted Nazi propaganda and denounced Jews (Goldstein, 2016). At a conference Spencer held celebrating the election, he cried, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” (Bradner, 2016). In early-to-mid 2017, when Spencer’s following was at its height, his supporters would reportedly give him the Sieg Heil salute when he entered a room (Marantz, 2019).
Spencer emerged as one of the most visible white separatist agitators during the Trump campaign (Mangan, 2016). After Trump’s election, Spencer was the focus of a lot of media attention. He never denied that his objective is white supremacy. “I’m trying to normalize ‘racism,’ as you call it,” he told ABC (Ali, 2016). His far-right ideas had travelled quite rapidly from the margins to the mainstream and were infecting the US body politic at the highest level (Younge, 2017a).
In some ways, Spencer resembles an older generation of “academic racists”—or “racialists,” as he prefers to put it (Harkinson, 2016). In his writing, speeches, and interviews, he has given an intellectualized explanation for how he came to advocate for a whites-only “ethno state.” While in graduate school, he has said, he was compelled by critiques of multiculturalism and political correctness and by demographic data indicating that whites are en route to minority status in the US (Williams, 2017).
One of Spencer’s first acts after taking over NPI was to move its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Whitefish, Montana, where his family has a home (SPLC, n.d.).Whitefish, where Spencer lived after 2014, was not particularly thrilled with his presence. Several local restaurants have refused to serve him. He was compelled to resign his membership from the exclusive Big Mountain Ski Club after he got into a chairlift argument about the Iraq War with the neocon Randy Scheunemann, a former adviser to US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and to John McCain during the 2008 election. In 2014, a local human rights group known as Love Lives Here urged the city to bar Spencer from conducting NPI business in town but settled for a resolution condemning hate groups (Harkinson, 2016).
It’s possible to connect the Spencer family’s business interests and geographic history with Richard Spencer’s racist politics. The family’s farm holdings are a legacy of its ties to the Jim Crow South, passed down by Spencer’s grandfather, who built the business during the turbulent civil rights era.Generations ofSpencer’s family lived in the South (Williams, 2017). There is a long history of white supremacy in the American South, which has also contributed to the attitudes and, especially, symbolism used by the modern alt-right (Bezio, 2018). Records Show Spencer’s mother attended segregated schools as a girl in the small north-eastern Louisiana city of Monroe. Later, she other inherited farms in northeast Louisiana from her late father. The region has a history of slavery and racism. Throughout the civil rights era, the Ku Klux Klan targeted black residents in northeast Louisiana (and elsewhere) with lynchings, cross burnings, and other violence. In Tensas Parish, where the Spencers own 3,000 acres of farmland, blacks didn’t win the right to vote until 1964. However, in an open letter sent to their local newspaper, Spencer’s parents, Sherry and Rand, said that while they love their son, “we are not racists. We have never been racists. We do not endorse the idea of white nationalism” (Williams, 2017).
“You Will Not Replace Us!”
Spencer abdicated his position as editor of Radix Journal in January 2017 to serve as the American editor of his new site, AltRight.com. Launched on January 16, 2017, AltRight.com brings together several well-known white nationalist personalities (SPLC, n.d.). According to Spencer, however, the site is populist and a big tent for members of the alt-right (Wilson, 2017). Swedish publisher Daniel Friberg of Arktos Media is co-founder and European editor of the site (Porter, 2017). The SPLC describes the common thread among contributors as antisemitism, rather than white nationalism or white supremacy in general (Solomon, 2017). In the same year, Spencer rented space in Alexandria, Virginia, to serve as a hub for the alt-right movement. Some local residents were—and are—not pleased. The city has received at least 25 complaints about Spencer’s rental (Anand, 2017).
On May 13, 2017, he led a torch-lit protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, against a vote by the city council to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War (CBS News, 2017). Spencer led the crowd in chants of “You will not replace us!”; “Blood and soil”; and “Russia is our friend” (Hayden, 2017; Laughland, 2017).
“You will not replace us” refers to the idea that white Americans are being “replaced” by non-white people through “demographic replacement,” while “blood and soil” is perhaps better known in its original German, “Blut und boden.” The concepts “blood” (meaning racial identity) and “soil” (referencing the land) are inextricably linked in the expression, which meant that peasants and farmers were the most racially “German,” while urban dwellers were racially suspicious. In 1933, “blood and soil” even became an official Nazi policy, requiring that farmers were certifiably “Aryan” in order to receive certain benefits from the state (Coaston, 2019). Local police reported minor verbal confrontations between two opposing groups but confirmed no arrests had been made(Laughland, 2017).
Things didn’t go as quietly at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesvilleon August 12 of the same year. Spencer was one of the promoters and scheduled speakers at Unite the Right, which was ostensibly organized to oppose the removal of Confederate monuments. The rally attracted more than 500 white supremacists and many hundreds of counter-protesters, and confrontations between the two groups sparked violent clashes. A white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyerand wounding 30 (ADL, 2018). James Alex Fields Jr., a 22-year-old neo-Nazi from Ohio, would later plead guilty to killing 32-year-old Heyer. Fields and eight other people who attended the rally are in state or federal prison after being convicted of a variety of crimes. Spencer wasn’t accused of any criminal wrongdoing related to Charlottesville. But he and more than two dozen others are defendants in a civil lawsuit brought by people injured during the rally (Barrouquere, 2020). This lawsuit has accused 25 far-right individuals and groups of conspiring to commit violence. At a federal courthouse in Charlottesville, attorney Karen Dunn told the court that, following the march, Spencer declared to a crowd: “We own these streets. We occupy these grounds”(Smith, 2018).
The repercussions for the alt-right and the larger white supremacist community were immediate. Scores of them were “doxxed”—their real identities exposed—and as a result, some were fired from their jobs, had to leave their universities, or were rejected by their families or romantic partners. Many white supremacists’ social media accounts and websites were taken offline, and some were kicked off popular crowdfunding websites, eliminating a key income source. Meanwhile, Spencer, who helped spearhead the events in Charlottesville, has become increasingly unpopular in the alt-right due in part to the perception that he failed to capitalize on the energy generated by Unite the Right (ADL, n.d.).
Since that weekend in Charlottesville, dissension and infighting has overtaken the alt-right movement. On one side are the American Nationalists who believe white supremacists should appeal to whites by using innocuous symbols like the American flag and avoid openly white supremacist symbols like swastikas. On the other side are the National Socialists and other hard-right groups whose members display white supremacist symbols at rallies and don’t care about “optics” or appealing to the white middle class. Spencer, who walks the line between the two groups, appears to be testing out new ways of attracting attention (ADL, 2018).
In October 2017, two months after the rally, he returned to Charlottesville to lead 35-40 people in an unannounced “flash mob.” Afterwards, Spencer called it a “great success” and a “model” for future events. This kind of small event with no advance warning hugely diminishes inherently risky interactions with law enforcement or counter-protesters. Spencer only employed the “flash mob” model a couple of times before turning his attention to scheduled public events like campus speeches (ADL, 2018 & Hawley, 2017).
In December 2017, Spencer announced that he had formed a new organization with other alt-right leaders. “Operation Homeland” was unveiled as a core group of alt-right leaders and activists poised to lead the movement as a whole. The group held a demonstration in December 2017 in Washington DC, to protest the acquittal of an undocumented immigrant in the 2015 murder of a young woman in San Francisco (ADL, 2018).
If You Aren’t a White American, That’s Fine—But You Should Leave
Spencer’s clean-cut appearance aims at concealing his radical white separatism and his goal of establishing a white ethno-state in North America. His writings and speeches portray this as a reasonable defence of Caucasians and Eurocentric culture. In Spencer’s worldview, white people have been “dispossessed” by a combination of rising minority birth rates, immigration, and establishment politics and policies (SPLC, n.d.).“We are undergoing a sad process of degeneration,” he said about minority births in the US. “We will need to reverse it using the state and the government. You incentivize people with higher intelligence, you incentivize people who are healthy to have children. And it sounds terrible and nasty, but there would be a great use of contraception.” He didn’t mean the government should encourage people to use birth control pills and condoms (Fox, 2013); he was advocating for eugenicist forced sterilisation (Stokes, 2017).
As an ardent white supremacist and ethnonationalist, Spencer also openly advocates for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to achieve a “white homeland.” He says America belongs to white people, who he claims have higher average IQs than Hispanics and African Americans and that the latter are genetically predisposed to crime (Stokes, 2017). Asians, Muslims, and Jews do not qualify as “white” either. Spencer knows that a white ethno-state is at most a distant dream, but he hopes America’s non-whites can be made to agree that returning to the lands of their ancestors would be best for everyone: “It’s like presenting to an African that this hasn’t worked out…We haven’t made each other happier. We are going to have to take part in this paradigmatic shift together” (Harkinson, 2016).
Despite often saying, “you have to look at culture and not just race,” lighter skin colour apparently matters more to Spencer than acculturation when it comes to Hispanics.When pressed about what really sets whites apart, he waxes decidedly unscientific: “I think there is something within the European soul that we haven’t been able to measure yet and maybe we never will… and that is a Faustian drive or spirit—a drive to explore, a drive to dominate, a drive to live one’s life dangerously…a drive to explore outer space and the universe. I think there is something within us that we possess and that only we possess” (Harkinson, 2016). In line with Spencer, NPI is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the US, and around the world” (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Spencer claims, among other things, that Africans have benefited from white supremacy and that Europe would always be more his home than it would be for Blacks (Younge, 2017).
Moreover, he said in an interview that, “The American nation is defined by the fact that it is derived from Europe…white Americans, European-Americans, in particular Anglo-Saxon Americans, Anglo-Saxon Protestants…defined it in a way that no other people did. So, of course, African Americans have influenced American culture and American identity. Of course, Asians have and so on. But it really was Anglo-Saxons who truly defined it. Who made America what it is. Who were indispensable…” (Letson, 2016).
Spencer is also known for his public advocacy of violence against non-whites. He has advocated for the enslavement of Haitians by whites, the ethnic cleansing of racial minorities from the US, and even the ethnic cleansing of Turks from Anatolia (Holt, 2018). He claimed, “Today, in the public imagination, ‘ethnic-cleansing’ has been associated with civil war and mass murder. But this need not be the case. 1919 is a real example of successful ethnic redistribution—done by fiat, we should remember, but done peacefully” (Fox, 2013 & SPLC, n.d.).
On the subject of neo-Nazism, Spencer has expressed admiration for the political tactics of American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwellfor using “shock as a positive means to an end” (Miller, 2018). Therefore, the SPLC has classified Spencer as a leading academic racist, but he rejects the notion that he is driven by hatred and considers “racist” a “slur word” (Fox, 2013). Spencer believes that if you aren’t a white American, that’s fine—but you should leave (Harkinson, 2016).
Despite having no visible tattoos advertising white pride or hate against non-whites, Spencer is a racist (Wertheimer, 2017). His stances conflict with common mores in American society (Wertheimer, 2017. Spencer supports nations segregated by race and called the idea that America is based on rights “silliness” (Helsel, 2016). SPLC (2016) underlines Spencer’s alt-right claims depart from traditional, establishment conservatism and embrace more identity-based politics, such as American Identitarianism. The alt-right proclaims to have move passed the right–left divide, towards a politics that promotes racial homogeneity and to challenge and dismantle mainstream conservatism(Gray, 2015).
“Even if all immigration was stopped tomorrow, there is still going to be a massive minority population,” argues Spencer. “All I know is that in order for white people to survive, we’ll need consciousness of ourselves, or we really will reach a state of humiliation, if not extinction. White people are going to enter a new world where we are a hated minority, where it is seen as a good thing that we have less power. We must fight against that” (Mangan, 2016). He evenclaims that “The alt-right would not exist if it weren’t for terrible immigration policies and social justice warriors and liberalism and maybe the Barack Obama presidency.” He says, “they made us” (Harkinson, 2016). According to Spencer, immigration “is a kind of proxy war—and maybe a last stand—for White Americans, who are undergoing a painful recognition that, unless dramatic action is taken, their grandchildren will live in a country that is alien and hostile” (NPI, February 2014).
In a promo for NPI’s 2013 Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., Spencer opined that both Europe and America are experiencing economic, moral, and cultural bankruptcy under the pressure of “mass immigration, multiculturalism, and the natural expression of religious and ethnic identities by non-Europeans” (SPLC, n.d.). He said on another occasion that,“I believe that selective deportations could set a new tone and that millions would self-deport. It does not matter to me whose ‘fault’ it was that they are here, or if that’s even the right way to look at it. The survival of my people takes precedence” (Mangan, 2016). However,Spencer has said he would gladly accept Germans, Latins, and Slavic immigrants in his proposed ethno-state — ironically, groups that faced severe discrimination in late 19th-century America (SPLC, n.d.).
Spencer and his group claim that their history and identity as white people is being erased by “political correctness.” Specifically, they see the identity and history of whiteness in the US as antithetical to those of people of colour. They claim to be marginalised and oppressed by policies of inclusion and diversity; thus, they reject multiculturalism and diversity (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Spencer subscribes zealously to the idea that America’s white population is endangered, thanks to multiculturalism and lax immigration policies that have gone unchallenged by mainstream conservatives. He envisions a future for the US along the lines of “a renewed Roman Empire,” a dictatorship where the main criteria for citizenship would be whiteness (Harkinson, 2016).
According toSpencer, it falls to people like him to be engaged and savvy if America is going to combat the growing threat of diversity. In particular, he’s irritated by the rise of minority births, which outnumbered white births for the first time in 2011. “Even if we shut off all immigration, the country is going to demographically undergo a tremendous transformation,” Spencer said. White people “need to start thinking about a new ethno-state that we would want to be a part of. This is not going to happen in the next election or in the next 10 years probably, but something in the future that would be for our great grandchildren” (Fox, 2013). Spencer justifies his claim by saying that, “By 2042…white people will become a minority… In 2042 are we going to all decide oh well you know race doesn’t mean anything anymore. Identity is meaningless… No. I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. I think whites are going to be, they’re going to have a[n] amplification of their consciousness of being white”(Letson, 2016).
During the American Renaissance conference, in April 2013, Spencer suggested his solution: “The ideal I advocate is the creation of a White Ethno-State on the North American continent…so that our people can ‘come home again,’ can live amongst family and feel safe and secure.”
How, he was asked, in a nation with more than 100 million blacks, Asians, and Latinos, could a whites-only territory be created without overwhelming violence? He offered an answer: “Look, maybe it will be horribly bloody and terrible” (Cox, 2016).
During his speech, he quoted Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and termed his mission a “sort of white Zionism” that would inspire whites with the dream of such a homeland just as Zionism helped spur the establishment of Israel. A white ethno-state would be an Altneuland—an old, new country—he said (SPLC, n.d.). “So that we would always have a safe space,” he said. “We would always have a homeland for us. Very similar to…how Jews conceive of Israel” (Letson, 2016).
“We want our identity, too,” Spencer argues. “Blacks are quite good at identity politics. They know who they are. We want that, too…When they talk about ‘white privilege,’ they’re making us feel guilty about the fact that we are awesome. I’m not trying to justify slavery or say we weren’t terrible to other people. We definitely were. But I am proud of the fact that we changed the world and dominated the world. We should be trying to expand white privilege, not feel guilty about it” (Mangan, 2016). Stressing that they live in a world of a “white guilt complex,” Spencer said, “Yes, white people are generally better off than many other people…(But) all of these institutions are not acting on behalf of white people. They are acting on behalf of non-white people. And you can talk about this being fair” (Letson, 2016). Typically, white supremacist discourse includes notions of a “racist double standard” that affords Blacks preferential treatment from social institutions. They use metonymical concepts such as “black assault[s]” discussing the way Blacks “burden” the state to show that a zero-sum game exists wherein “black gains equate to white losses.” This discourse presupposes that Black survival and success has become the white person’s burden (Brown, 2009).
According toSpencer, even Martin Luther King Jr. “is a fraud and degenerate in his life, has become the symbol and cynosure of White Dispossession and the deconstruction of Occidental civilization. We must overcome!” (NPI, column, January 2014).As Villet (2017) notes, white victimhood is a generic right-wing tactic that inverts the left’s narratives of minority discrimination and neo-colonialism. This tactic denies that there is such a thing as white privilege and attempts to camouflage white domination.Whites can surely be victims of crime or discrimination as individuals, but white victimhood goes much further. It implies that whites as a demographic group are victims of discrimination, oppression, or even persecution. The most extreme version of this victimhood is “white genocide” (Villet, 2017).The perceptions of “reverse” discrimination have a significant influence on whites’ decisions to join the alt-right (Adams & Roscigno, 2005).
Spencer claims that the alt-right seeks to “restore” the US as a white, European country, instead eliminating racial others.He denies that his organisation is dedicated to the eradication or marginalisation of minorities but rather seeks to promote white racial pride (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018).However,he was caught on tape using racist slurs against African Americans and Jewish people. The expletive-laden audio recording was released by former Breitbart writer, Milo Yiannopoulos. The 54-second long audio, supposedly recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, appears to feature an angry Spencer ranting against Charlottesville citizens. On the recording, Spencer says, “Little fucking kikes. They get ruled by people like me. Little fucking octaroons. My ancestors fucking enslaved those little pieces of fucking shit.” Later, he continued, “Those pieces of shit get ruled by people like me…That’s how the fucking world works…”(Coaston, 2019).He declined to deny that the voice in the video was his. Spencer also later tweeted a link to a right-wing video titled: “Never Apologise” (Wilson, 2019).His radical ideas have been cited as a source of concern by the SPLC and ADL (Los Angeles Times, 2017).
The Alt-right: An Ideology Around Identity
Spencer believes the alt-right is “deeply connected” with his work. “I would say that what I’m doing is we’re really trying to build a philosophy, an ideology around identity, European identity,” he said (Gray, 2015). Unlike old-school white supremacism, the “alt-right” incubated online, fed by memes and inside jokes and vicious battles over feminism and videogame culture. The Associated Press’ standards guide defines “alt-right” as “as a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.” “In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist,” the standards guide noted (Beckett, 2017).
Therefore, some have argued that the alt-right is simply the latest iteration of an old, racist strain of US politics. And indeed, the alt-right’s ultimate vision—a racially homogeneous white ethnostate—is similar to that of earlier groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, and the National Alliance. Yet, according to Hawley (2017), the alt-right considers itself new and distinct, in terms of both style and intellectual substance. Stylistically, it has attempted to distance itself from the ineffectual violence and pageantry of what it derisively calls “white nationalism 1.0,” instead preferring a modern aesthetic that targets cynical millennials on social media and online message boards. Ideologically, the movement represents a break from American racist movements of the past, looking not to US history but to the European far-right for ideas and strategies. Spencer is often inspired by ideas that are alien to most Americans—especially those of the European New Right. The European far-right has in turn adopted tactics pioneered in the US, such as online trolling(Hawley, 2017).
Alt-righters reject mainstream conservative politics and espouse extremist beliefs and policies typically centred on ideas of white nationalism. The alt-right is a loosely connected far-right, white nationalist movement (ECPS, n.d.).Dylan Matthews defines Spencer’s alt-right as a label that blends together straight-up white supremacists, nationalists who think conservatives have sold out to globalization, and nativists who fear immigration will spur civil disarray. People who identify with the alt-right regard mainstream or traditional conservatives as weak and impotent, largely because they do not adequately support white racial interests or are not adequately racist or antisemitic. Some alt-right adherents prefer other labels, such as the “New Right” and the “Dissident Right.” They identify with a range of different ideologies, all of which centre on white identity (ADL, n.d.)
One body of adherents is the ostensibly “intellectual” racists who create many of the doctrines and principles of the white supremacist movement. They seek to attract young, educated whites to the movement by highlighting the achievements and alleged intellectual and cultural superiority of whites. Alt-righters use terms like “culture” as substitutes for more divisive terms such as “race,” and promote “Western Civilization” as a code word for white culture or identity (ADL, n.d.). According to Bar-On, Spencer defends “racialist and antisemitic agendas” of the Old Right under a new metapolitical guise, acting as a cultural influencer rather than a direct political actor, and using various media outlets to “disseminate his views to ordinary people in an accessible manner” (Bar-On, 2019).
White Supremacy to Reinstate White Power and Domination
However, many newspapers have given instructions to their reporters to use the term “white supremacist” or “neo-Nazi” rather than “alt-righters” while referring to people like Spencer (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018).White supremacists drew on discontent rooted in political fundamentalism and the fear of abdication of power to non-Whites (Dobratz & Shanks-Meile, 1997). Early forms of white supremacy relied on anti-Black social rituals and actions such as burning a cross on a Black person’s property, spewing racial epithets such as “nigger,” denying Black people social opportunities, and committing to Jim Crow segregation. These violent and coercive actions defied US reconstruction efforts and alienated Blacks from mainstream society (Dobratz & Shanks-Meile, 1997)—an alienation that persisted until the civil rights movement began in the 1960s (and persists in some ways today) (Feagin & Vera, 1995). Thus, extremists had to search for new ways and strategies to spread their message of hate in the midst of an increasingly racially tolerant society (Brown, 2009).
White supremacists often combine derogatory notions based on physical appearance with cultural attributes such as language, geography, character traits, and customs. White supremacist metaphors not only highlight unwarranted physical inadequacies, but they also position Black people in an inferior social and cultural position. White supremacists use metaphors such as “lower evolutionary plane” and “jungle dweller,” and spatial concepts such as “pull it down” and “lowest scale,” and “total bastardization,” to support the racist notion that “Negroes” cannot live in a civilized environment among human beings. The positioning of whites (presumably men) as warriors and civilization builders reinforces a broad racist ideology that buttresses the belief that the nation is synonymous with “Whiteness”(Brown, 2009).
Accordingly,“race is something between a breed and an actual species,” Spencer says, likening the differences between whites and people of colour to those between golden retrievers and basset hounds. “It’s that powerful” (Harkinson, 2016).The specific types of messages that are propagated by Spencer and other white supremacists are about reinstating white power and domination. Spencer said, “… I am proud of the fact that we changed the world and dominated the world. We should be trying to expand white privilege, not feel guilty about it,” (Mangan, 2016). Spencer has also said, “America was, until this past generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us” (Seipp, 2016: 1). In a speech at Texas A&M University, he repeatedly stated that the US “belonged to white men,” and that he is “European.” He conflates European identity with whiteness and presents race as a rigid notion (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018).Spencer also claimed that “We don’t gain anything from other racial groups’ presence. They need us and not the other way around,” (Jackson & Stelloh, 2016).
Antisemitism & Islamophobia
In Spencer’s “ethno-state,” whites should live separately not only from non-whites but also from Jews. While Spencer generally shies away from blatant displays of antisemitism, he began expressing antisemitic views more openly in 2014, when he wrote that Jews have an identity apart from Europeans. At a press conference two years later, he announced that he did not consider Jews to be European.
Spencer has been influenced by a number of white supremacists, including the late Sam Francis, Jared Taylor, and retired professor Kevin MacDonald, who wrote a series of antisemitic books. At the 2016 conference, a number of people in the audience threw Nazi salutes after Spencer “hailed” Trump’s victory in the presidential election. Spencer, who refused to condemn the salutes, has aligned himself with groups and individuals who openly express virulent antisemitism, including TWP and Patriot Front. Spencer has also shown a willingness to work with antisemitic leaders such as Matthew Heimbach, the former head of TWP, and Mike “Enoch” Peinovich, who runs The Right Stuff website(ADL, 2018).
As an atheist (Spencer, 2017), Spencer believes that the Christian church held some pragmatic value, because it helped unify the white population of Europe. But he opposes traditional Christian values as a moral code, due to the fact that Christianity is a universalizing religion, rather than an ethnic religion. Spencer’s Radix Journal has promoted paganism, running articles such as “Why I am a pagan” (Beinart, 2017). He is also blatantly Islamophobic. According to Spencer, Islam, “at its full flourishing … isn’t some peaceful denomination like Methodism or religion like Buddhism; Islam is a black flag. It is an expansive, domineering ideology, and one that is directed against Europe. In this way, Islam give[s] non-Europeans a fighting spirit and integrates them into something much greater than themselves” (Interview with Europa Maxima, February 2017). Therefore, Spencer aggressively supported Trump’s “Muslim ban” (Buchanan, 2017).
A “Psychic Connection” With Donald Trump
During the 2016 presidential race, the alt-right, which was a tiny, marginal, and almost exclusively Internet-based phenomenon, achieved mainstream attention (Wertheimer, 2017) thanks in part to its connection with the presidential campaign, and then administration of, Donald Trump. For years, Spencer’s “identitarian” movement barely flickered in the dark corners of the internet (Cox, 2016) on sites such as Reddit and 4chan. But Trump’s ascendancy was like kerosene dumped on a brushfire(Harkinson, 2016).Then the term “alt-right” was often applied to a much broader group than it is today; at times, it seemed to refer to the entirety of Trump’s right-wing populist base (Hawley, 2017).Spencer argued that “If Trump wins we could really legitimately say that he was associated directly with us, with the ‘R(acist)’ word, all sorts of things. People will have to recognize us” (Harkinson, 2016).
Throughout the presidential campaign, Spencer was a vocal advocate for Trump due to his signature proposal to build a wall along the US border with Mexico and his racist statements referring to Mexicans as criminals and rapists (SPLC, n.d.; Barrouquere, 2020). Spencer believed the alt-right had a “psychic connection” with Trump in a way they did not with other Republicans. He said the alt-right had, before the election, been like a “head without a body…The Trump movement was a kind of body without a head…I think moving forward the alt-right as an intellectual vanguard can complete Trump” (Gray, 2016).
On election night, Spencer exulted in Trump’s victory. “The alt-right has been declared the winner. The alt-right is more deeply connected to Trumpian populism than the ‘conservative movement’,” Spencer tweeted. “We’re the establishment now” (ADL, 2018).An extremist website associated with Spencer also wrote: “It was a time when more people joined our movement than ever before and when our ideas began invading the mainstream” (Ali, 2016).For Spencer, Trump is not the logical outcome of a radicalized Republican Party, but an entirely new phenomenon born of the alt-right’s growing prominence and mainstream conservatism’s collapse (Posner & Neiwert, 2016).
Trump’s victory emboldened the bigots and channelled their thinking in a fashion not seen in modern times. A president who draws a moral equivalent between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protesters, who baits black athletes and black journalists, and brands Mexicans rapists and Muslims terrorists. “Trump wouldn’t have run the campaign that he ran if he didn’t feel some sense of loss, that America has lost something,” Spencer argued (Younge, 2017). In an interview,Spencer also stated that he didn’t think it was just an unusual election with an unusual candidate: “I think this really was a paradigmatic shift. The new paradigm that Donald Trump brought into the world was identity politics and in particular white identity politics” (Letson, 2016).
Only days after Trump’s surprising victory, the NPI held its fall conference on November 19, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Spencer, flush with victory, offered the toast, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” to the nearly 200 attendees. He was met with a handful of stiff-armed salutes from the crowd. At other points in his speech, like Trump’s assaults on the media, Spencer used a term employed by Nazis to attack the media—“Lügenpresse,” German for lying press. “It’s not just that many are genuinely stupid,” he said of reporters. “Indeed, one wonders if these people are people at all.” One tactic of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime was to declare enemies inhuman. Spencer speculated that the media may be “soulless golem,” a reference to magically animated beings from Jewish folklore (Lombroso & Appelbaum, 2016;Jackson & Stelloh, 2016; Mangan, 2016). The gesture electrified the more radical sectors of the white supremacy movement. He later stated that it was done in a spirit of “irony and exuberance” (Stokes, 2017, Jackson & Stelloh, 2016; Helsel, 2016).
Nevertheless, Spencer gained international notoriety after this speech (Helsel, 2016). Though the ties between Trump and him have not been officially recognised by the former president, the connections between Trump and white nationalist movements have been a lingering question in light of the alt-right’s support and Trump’s refusal to condemn the racially motivated violence in Charleston in August 2017 (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Furthermore, Spencer was among the most optimistic about Trump’s presidency. “With Donald Trump, we feel like we have a dog in the fight for the first time,” Spencer told the Guardian. “And with him there’s a real chance we could start influencing policy and culture.” His hope was that “alt-right” ideas could enter the mainstream (Gabbatt, 2016). According to him, the Trump phenomenon was about identity at some deep level: “He’s not a mainstream conservative…It’s important for young people to listen to a speaker articulate what this means on a metapolitical and philosophical level” (Mangan, 2016). Spencer expressed his hope, saying, “I don’t think Donald Trump is alt-right. I don’t think Donald Trump is an identitarian as I would use that term. I think Donald Trump is a kind of first step towards this. He’s the first time that we’ve seen a genuinely if, you could say incomplete, politician who’s fighting for European identity politics in North America…” (Letson, 2016).
The intense media coverage of the Nazi salutes, while further raising Spencer’s profile, also splintered the alt-right, with some leading right-wing figures denouncing Spencer and his antisemitic beliefs. The outrage over the Nazi salutes even led to Trump explicitly disavowing and condemning Spencer’s group. When Trump appointed Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s executive chairman, as his chief strategist, the move prompted widespread alarm and protest—and seemed to cement the “alt-right’s” rise. Bannon had once described Breitbart, a popular right-wing site, as “the platform for the alt-right.” At his inauguration, Trump, an unabashed populist, made a clear effort to separate the “white” from the “nationalism” (Beckett, 2017).
In November 2018, an openly frustrated Spencer declared, “The Trump moment is over, and it’s time for us to move on.” The SPLC reported that the white nationalist movement was dissatisfied with Trump’s presidency (SPLC, 2018). Spencer believed Trump was practicing a “con game” and not clearly developing a white nationalist agenda as Trump “gives us nothing outside of racist tweets, and by racist tweets, I mean tweets that are meaningless and cheap” (Yee, 2019). In 2020, following the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Spencer even said that he regretted voting for Trump (Palmer, 2020). In August of that year, Spencer announced that he planned to vote for Joe Biden. “The MAGA/Alt-Right moment is over. I made mistakes; Trump is an obvious disaster, but mainly the paradigm contained flaws that we now are able to perceive. And it needs to end…It’s not based on ‘accelerationism’ or anything like that; the liberals are clearly more competent people.” Shortly after, Biden’s campaign forcefully disavowed Spencer’s endorsement. Andrew Bates, the rapid-response director for the Biden campaign tweeted that, “What you stand for is absolutely repugnant. Your support is 10,000 percent unwelcome here” (Sheth, 2020).
Conference Series and Abusing The First Amendment
Strong free speech protections in the US enable Spencer to hold conferences (SPLC, n.d.).Judicial interpretations of the First Amendment of the US Constitution follow such a logic: The right to free speech must be universal, with no exceptions. Thus, Nazis and white supremacists must be allowed to speak freely, even at a university campus where no one seems to want them, and even when their speech openly rejects other core values, such as the dignity of all persons. The US permits limits on free speech rights only in rare cases of “fighting words” that pose an imminent threat of violence. No one has yet used the “fighting words” argument against Spencer, despite Charlottesville (Peterson, 2017).
By exploiting the First Amendment, Spencer has focused on getting college students to attend his annual events, including the NPI conference, and he’s had some success(ADL, 2018). NPI’s first conference, held in DC in 2011, drew about 85 people. Its second, in 2013, attracted a little over 100 (Harkinson, 2016). In Spencer’s view, his resentments have cropped up among younger, college-educated whites for whom “enforced multiculturalism” on college campuses is giving shape to a new kind of white identity politics (Harkinson, 2016). Spencer has influenced a younger generation of college-age racists. In 2010 and 2011, leaders of the now defunct racist student group, Youth for Western Civilization, invited Spencer to speak at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and Providence College in Rhode Island. In both speeches, Spencer attacked affirmative action (ADL, 2013).
The white-nationalist groups seem to believe that teens and 20-somethings are particularly susceptible to their messaging, said Oren Segal, the director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism. Segal noted that the groups are aiming for a younger demographic by reaching out through social media and trying to set up talks on college campuses or disseminating fliers there. Spencer also made a highly publicized visit to Texas A&M University in December 2016, further fuelling concerns about the alt-right on campus (Wertheimer, 2017). Although over 10,000 people signed an online petition to ask university officials to ban Spencer from speaking on campus, the university and student representatives simultaneously condemned and supported Spencer’s presence on campus. They claimed that while they disagreed with his message and ideology, they supported his right to appear and speak, per the First Amendment (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018).
In 2016 and 2017, Spencer launched a college tour to bring his white nationalist message to campuses nationwide (Mangan, 2016). After Texas A&M University, he spoke at Auburn University in April 2017. In October 2017, he spoke to a small, mostly hostile audience at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In March 2018, he spoke to a small group of supporters at Michigan State University, while members of TWP fought with antifa activists outside, leading to a number of arrests. After the MSU speech, Spencer decided to cancel his college tour, saying he would try to find other methods of reaching the public (ADL, 2018).
Across the whole tour, Spencer’s visit to Texas A&M University was unique for several reasons. In addition to being his first visit and speaking engagement on a university campus, it is Texas A&M University’s military and racialised history that made Spencer’s presence so provoking. Spencer gave his speech at the Memorial Student Center (MSC), which is a student union dedicated to the memory of Texas A&M University students who lost their lives in war, specifically World War II. Though Texas A&M University officials and students lambasted the event as insulting to the legacy of the university students who fought Nazi Germany, as a historically white institution, the university has had a highly contentious and problematic history (Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018).Its first president (and 19th governor of Texas), Lawrence Ross Sullivan, was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan (Slattery, 2006). At A&M, Spencer spoke to a ballroom of nearly 400 individuals. “America, at the end of the day,” Spencer told his audience, “belongs to white men. Our bones are in the ground. We own it. At the end of the day America can’t exist without us. We defined it. This country does belong to white people, culturally, politically, socially, everything” (SPLC, n.d.).
Spencer’s Efforts to Spread His Ideas Internationally
Spencer and his alt-right movement has exploited all possibilities to build bridges with their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic. However, his efforts to reach out to European nationalists have not gone well. In October 2014, he attempted to hold an NPI conference in Budapest, Hungary, as part of an effort to reach out to “European traditionalists” all over the world (Gray, 2014).On paper, Budapest seemed the ideal venue for the NPI, which thinks rising discontent with EU migration policy has created an opening for it. Economic stagnation and political sclerosis in the European Union have given fodder to anti-immigrant parties across the continent, and Hungary is home to Jobbik, one of Europe’s largest far-right parties, which won 20 percent of the seats in parliament (Seddon, 2014a).Dubbed the 2014 European Congress, the conference featured an array of white nationalists from both Europe and America. Among the scheduled speakers were Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, Philippe Vardon from the far-right French Bloc Identitaire movement, Russian ultranationalist Alexander Dugin, and right-wing Hungarian extremist MP Márton Gyöngyösi (SPLC, n.d.), who once called on the government to draw up lists of Jews who pose a “national security risk” (Seddon, 2014).
Hungary’s populist strongman Viktor Orbán ordered the country’s interior ministry to ban the conference after several parties and ministries complained about it. Interior Minister Sándor Pintér said in a statement that the conference was against Hungarian law protecting “the human dignity of others, of the Hungarian nation or of national, ethnic, racial of religious communities” and vowed to bar the conference speakers from entering the country (Seddon, 2014). Before the conference even started, the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade released a statement condemning “all xenophobic and exclusionary organizations that discriminate based on religion or ethnicity.” Planned reservations at the venue, the Larus Center, were cancelled. On Oct. 3, Spencer was arrested while meeting informally with other participants at a cafe that was to have been an alternate venue. He was jailed for three days, deported, and banned for three years from entering all 26 European countries (SPLC, n.d.). He wasdeclared a “national security threat” (Harkinson, 2016).
In 2016, the Home Office of the British government also banned Spencer from visiting Great Britain, citing his white supremacist views. In November 2017, Poland’s state-run news agency PAP reported that Polish authorities had extended Spencer’s ban from the Schengen area for another five years (ADL, 2018) citing Spencer’s Nazi rhetoric and the Nazis’ genocide of Slavic people during World War II (The Guardian, 2017). Spencer had to cancel his plans to travel to Poland fora far-right conference in Warsaw after seeing reports the government was threatening to keep him out of the country. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski described Spencer as someone “who defames what happened during World War II, defames the Holocaust”(Haaretz, 2017).In July 2018, Spencer was detained at Keflavík Airport in Reykjavík, Iceland, en route to Sweden and was ordered by Polish officials to return to the US (Michel, 2018).
Despite these efforts to keep Spencer at bay,the idea ofwhite victimhood has crossed international borders and the idea of white people falling victim to an “onslaught” of refugees and immigrants has become a major factor in elections across Europe (Villet, 2017).Spencer has partnered with two Swedish outfits to create a media company and keep race at the centre of the new right wing. Called the Alt-Right Corporation, it links Spencer with Arktos Media, a publishing house begun in Sweden to print English-language editions of esoteric nationalist books from many countries. The other Swedish partner is Red Ice, a video and podcast platform featuring white nationalists from around the globe. It was natural for Spencer to turn to Swedes as partners in the new enterprise, given the country’s history as an exporter of white nationalist ideas. But forging formal bonds between nationalists across the Atlantic makes even more sense as the politics of Northern Europe is heavily driving the politics of immigration and Islam in the US (Feder & Mannheimer, 2017). Spencer believes in white pride and the unification of a pan-European “white race” in a “potential racial empire” (Harkinson, 2016)
Spencer has also advocated for the US pulling out of NATO and called Russia the “sole white power in the world.” His former partner, Nina Koupriianova, under her penname Nina Byzantina, referred to herself as a “Kremlin troll leader” and regularly aligned with Kremlin talking points. She also had ties to Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right ultranationalist Russian leader in the Eurasianism movement (Bertrand, 2016). Koupriianova has translated several books written by Dugin (Gessen, 2017; Porter, 2017a). The books were later published by Spencer’s publishing house, Washington Summit Publishers (Shekhovtsov, 2017). “I think the fact that we’re inviting Dugin is expressive of the fact that we want to have a real healthy dialogue with the major currents of Russian conservatism,” Spencer said (Gray, 2014). Spencer also explained the chants in support of Russia during the Charlottesville rally: “There is a common brotherhood that stretches from Portugal to Siberia and includes North America. Even though we’re very different, we obviously have common ancestry and there’s that tie of blood”(Laughland, 2017).
His wife and Spencer have each appeared on Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language news and propaganda network. Spencer admires Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism, and he would gladly admit most Russians into his ideal ethnostate (Harkinson, 2016). Histhoughts on the Ukraine crisis hew closely to Moscow’s: “…I am more sympathetic towards Russia as a major power entering the world stage. Russia has the opportunity, to put it bluntly, to make the world a better place.” He also said, “I’m sympathetic toward Putin in many ways” (Gray, 2014).
Spencer and the alt-right have also lifted up Bashar al-Assad as a hero. Support for the Syrian president means they can further tangle internet conspiracy theories, tap into a deep vein of antisemitism, anti-interventionism, and anti-globalism, and wind up their biggest enemy: liberals. Spencer is able to aggressively support Trump’s “Muslim ban,” while also getting behind the Syrian dictator just because Assad was “educated in the West and offer[ed] a civilized variant of Islam.”Spencer said he’d been “aware” of Assad since the early 2000s. The core of it for Spencer was that Assad, in addition to being the “rightful, legitimate ruler of Syria,” was fighting ISIS (Buchanan, 2017).After the 2017 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, Trump’s decision to strike Syria caused a rift between the then-president and his alt-right supporters. Spencer led a protest against Trump’s decision, leading to a handful of skirmishes with counter-protesters in front of the White House. “We want walls, not war!” chanted some of the protesters accompanying Spencer (Hernandez, 2017).
He also criticized the Trump administration following the targeted killing of Iranian General Soleimani for escalating tensions between the US and Iran. In January 2020, Spencer tweeted: “To the people of Iran, there are millions of Americans who do not want war, who do not hate you, and who respect your nation and its history. After our traitorous elite is brought to justice, we hope to achieve peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness” (Palmer, 2020).
Spencer and His Movements Are Hypermasculine, Misogynist and Anti-feminist
While the group led by Richard Spencer is typically defined by its racist views, sexism is also central to its ideology (Paquette, 2016). The alt-right is hypermasculine, misogynist, and anti-feminist. The alt-right women claim feminism has failed white women, robbing them of the opportunity to have a male provider, a happy family, and a nice home. According to this narrative, the #MeToo movement only confirms the dangerous world feminism has created for women, a world where men no longer respect them for their femininity and fertility and, hence, feel free to assault, harass, and rape them(Love, 2020).An aspect of their subculture is its connection to the online world of misogyny, known broadly as the “manosphere.” Men in this movement believe they are being stripped of power by women and pro-feminist social structures. They are hostile to women on a personal level, with some believing that women are objects to be possessed and used for sexual gratification, while others resent women for their own inability to attract them or to form meaningful relationships with them (ADL, n.d.).
The alt right opposes “women’s liberation” because it gives women choices that make it less likely that they will “get married, have children, and perpetuate the white race” (Center on Extremism Report, 2018: 7). Its members call liberated women “thots,” which means “that ho over there,” and celebrate the femininity and fertility of women who accept their traditional sex/gender roles, calling them as “tradhots” (Center on Extremism Report, 2018: 6–7). In short, the alt-right would return white women to their biological roles as wives and mothers for the white race (Love, 2020).
The predominant demographic of the alt-right is white men aged 18 to 35.Alt-right populism is the product of people for whom whiteness and masculinity have been their primary form of social capital. The suggestion that whiteness and maleness are no longer a form of political or social currency means that there is now room for forms of citizenship and leadership that do not belong to the proverbial “old white men” (Bezio, 2018).
The Guardian reporter Adam Gabbat’s (2016) observations at one of Spencer’s meeting also confirmed these descriptions:
“When the time came for questions, I pointed out that there were very few women at the event. It prompted a surreal discussion between six white men about the sexual preferences of women. The almost entirely male audience cheered when Spencer made his statement about women’s desire for a ‘strong man.’ ‘I’ve looked at a lot of romance novels that women read and I’ve noticed a distinct pattern,’ Spencer said. ‘Romance novels about cubicle-dwelling boring computer programmers don’t sell very well. Romance novels about cowboys and Vikings seem to be very popular. We might want to look at something like that and see if that tells us something about human nature” (Gabbatt, 2016).
During the 2016 US presidential election, Spencer tweeted that women should not be allowed to make foreign policy (Bowman, 2017, Hayden, 2017a). His views about women—that their role in politics minimal—would be unrecognizable to almost anyone in modern America. “I don’t necessarily think that that’s a great thing,” Spencer said of women voting in US elections. Spencer has also suggested that the US should be protected from what he views to be the danger of having a female commander-in-chief (Hayden, 2017a). He also stated in an interview that his vision of America as a white ethnostate includes women returning to traditional roles as child bearers and homemakers (Cox, 2016; Paquette, 2016).
Although the alt-right movement appears to be composed primarily of white men in their “manosphere,” similar to other far-right movements that emphasize hypermasculinity and patriarchy (Kimmel, 2017; Lyons, 2017; Tien, 2017), white women continue to participate actively in white supremacist movements. The presence of women as “shield maidens,” “fashy femmes,” and “trad wives” serves to soften and normalize white supremacy.Women in the alt-right serve as auxiliaries rather than leaders. This partly explains why women’s participation receives less media and scholarly attention. However, white women shield white supremacy in less subtle and more traditional ways, representing their roles as community service and social welfare. Women in white supremacist groups have organized church socials, Klan picnics, charity fundraisers, and white nationalist online dating sites (Love, 2020).These white men and women provide fertile ground for an anti-modern populist mobilization (Kelly, 2018).The internalization of traditional patriarchal gender normative beliefs influence affiliation with the alt-right movement (Boehme, & Isom Scott, 2020).
According to some sources, in late 2007, Spencer dated a woman who is Asian American. The two met when she was working for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. “I am not the only Asian girl he has dated,” says Spencer’s ex (Harkinson, 2016). Spencer acknowledged that some of his comrades would probably find that “terrible.” Later, he said that he would not date a non-white woman again and that he still wants interracial relationships barred. That belief is core to the alt-right’s most radical goal: an all-white country (Cox, 2016).Spencer also opposes same-sex marriage, which he has described as “unnatural” and a “non-issue.” Despite his opposition to same-sex marriage, Spencer barred people with anti-gay views from the NPI’s annual conference in 2015 (Falvey, 2016).
In October 2018, Koupriianova accused Spencer, in divorce documents, of multiple forms of abuse. She provided hours of recordings and text messages to the press in order to substantiate her allegations. Court documents detailed emotional abuse, financial abuse, and violent physical abuse, frequently in front of their children. She has accused him of choking her, dragging her by her hair, and attempting to punch her while she was pregnant, according to divorce filings. “One of [Spencer’s] favourite statements to me is, ‘The only language women understand is violence,’” Spencer’s wife alleged. She claimed he called her “genetically defective” and a “parasite”, and that he verbally abused her in front of their young daughter. “I’m famous and you are not! I’m important and you are not!” Spencer would sometimes tell her when he was angry, she claimed (Beckett, 2018).A caregiver to the children testified in court about Spencer’s abuses towards both her and Koupriianova. She also suggested that Spencer had sometimes failed to provide for his family and care for her and their children (Beckett, 2018).Spencer denied all allegations made against him and was not charged with a crime.
Moreover, the documents said that Spencer’s “controversial public life” led “his entire family to be targets of violence.” “Despite the risk to his family,” Koupriianova argued in the court, “[Spencer] continues to engage in extremely polarizing public speech advocating ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’ and a white-only ‘ethno-state’ which tends to invite passions and violence.” “Most, if not all, of his public speaking events result in violence,” the affidavit stated. The documents also claimed that Spencer was verbally abusive to their children’s babysitter, including in front of their children, where he allegedly called the babysitter a “fucking sub-mediocre human being” and a “fucking moron” (Ansari, 2018).
Spencer, the Alt-Right, and Social Media
The alt-right has flourished online (Guynn, 2016) and its expansion can largely be attributed to the internet (Love, 2017)—and especially social media, thanks to the anonymity these platforms provide users of extreme ideologies (Lyons, 2017).Swastikas and Hitler references have long punctuated the irreverent banter on the message boards of Reddit and 4chan, but they are no longer just jokes as they’re swept up in a tide of the alt-right’s memes such as Pepe the Frog and Napoleon Trump (Harkinson, 2016).Cyber-bigots, including Spencer’s followers, who maintain First Amendment protection, anonymously and blatantly promote racism, and propagate a separatist ideology (Brown, 2009).
The alt-right is generally hostile towards the conventional media, including by using the term “lügenpresse,” a term used by the Nazis and meaning “lying press. Alt-right Twitter trolls have aggressively attacked journalists (Gray, 2016).Spencer has also embraced the young internet activists who create the racist, antisemitic and misogynistic memes, symbols and slogans that characterize much of the alt-right’s online presence(ADL, 2018). Their rhetoric in cyberspace shows that right-wing images of Black identity haven’t much changed since the time of slavery. The key elements of White supremacy are reinforced by their representation of Black men as hypersexual, aggressive, and violent, which define their physical bodies as inferior to white men.These groups no longer have to communicate in isolation. The Internet provides them immediate access to their followers and makes it easier to spread messages of hate (Brown, 2009).
Facebook banned two pages associated with Spencer, just days after Congress grilled the social network’s CEO about its influence on the public (Dalrymple, 2018). Spencer has also faced crackdowns from other tech companies. In 2016, Twitter suspended both the NPI’s account and the account of Spencer himself, though his personal page was eventually reinstated. A year later, after Charlottesville, Twitter yanked Spencer’s verification badge but allowed him to continue using the platform. Web-hosting company Squarespace has also booted the NPI (Dalrymple, 2018).
After Twitter suspended the NPI’s official account (@npiamerica) and its online magazine (@RadixJournal), in addition to a separate book publishing company run by Spencer called Washington Summit Publishers (@washsummit), Spencer told The Daily Caller, “This is corporate Stalinism.” He said, “Twitter is trying to airbrush the alt-right out of existence. They’re clearly afraid. They will fail!” In a YouTube video, entitled “Knight of the Long Knives,” an apparent reference to the purge of Nazi leaders in 1934 to consolidate Adolf Hitler’s power, Spencer said Twitter had engaged in a coordinated effort to wipe out alt-right Twitter (Bennett, 2016).
Spencer also said, “I am alive physically, but digitally speaking, there has been execution…across the alt-right.” He said, “This is a clear sign that we have power. Even if it’s in our own little small way…we have power, and we’re changing the world” (Andrews, 2016). In response to the purges, many alt-right users transferred to Gab, a Twitter substitute platform with a much more aggressive free speech policy (Bennett, 2016). However, Spencer’s ability to raise funds has been hampered since he was kicked off Facebook and other major fundraising sites (Barrouquere, 2020).
Following the Charlottesville rally, as the alt-right’s views became better known, many people who had flirted with the movement broke ranks, leaving it smaller but more ideologically cohesive(Hawley, 2017).Spencer’s NPI has mysteriously gone quiet and appears to be in disarray (Barrouquere, 2020). The most recent article on the NPI website was posted Dec. 15, 2019, three months after Hatewatch began asking questions about the non-profit’s status. The previous post was from Nov. 6, 2018. The website still says Spencer is “President and Creative Director” but lists no other officers (Barrouquere, 2020). Despite its diminishing power, the members of Spencer’s alt-right movement still tend to demonstrate in-group love and outgroup hate of “others.” Therefore, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) listed white supremacy of the sort practiced by Spencer and the alt-right as America’s largest domestic terrorist threat.
Bar-On, Tamir. (2019). “Richard B. Spencer and the Alt Right.” In: Sedgwick, Mark (ed.). Key Thinkers of the Radical Right: Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy. Oxford University Press. pp. 224–241. ISBN 978-0190877606.
Brown, Christopher. (2009). “WWW.HATE.COM: White Supremacist Discourse on the Internet and the Construction of Whiteness Ideology.” Howard Journal of Communications. 20(2). 189–208. doi:10.1080/10646170902869544
Kenes, Bulent. (2021). “CasaPound Italy: The Sui Generis Fascists of the New Millennium.” ECPS Organisation Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). June 18, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/op0010
CasaPound Italy is one of the most interesting and ambiguous populist right-wing extremist groups emerged in Europe. Its supporters say they are not ‘racist’ but are against immigration because of its impact on wages and houses; not antisemitic, but anti-Israel vis-à-vis Palestine; not homophobic, but supporters of the ‘traditional family’. Never before there was in Italy an explicitly neo-fascist group enjoying the strategic viability and the marge of political manoeuvre that was secured today by the CasaPound. Although CasaPound remains substantially marginal from an electoral point of view, its visibility in the Italian system is symptomatic of the ability of the extreme right to assimilate populist and alternative agendas in order to increase the attractiveness of their communication campaigns.
The last two decades have seen the rise of populist right-wing extremism characterized by political campaigning targeting immigration, European integration, and globalization (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014)and a growth in nationalist, radical populist parties and movements in Western Europe. In the contemporary European Fascist “black galaxy,” Italy has been an important incubator and generator of ideas. Italian post-war Fascism “may be seen as the vanguard of right-wing extremism for roughly 40 years.” (Mammone, 2015: XIV) CasaPound, as Mammone (2015: 213) describes it, is “the most interesting, and atypical in some ways, right-wing enterprise of these recent years” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
The majority of these populist, right-wing extremist organisations have been defined by their opposition to immigration and multiculturalism, the effects of international capitalism on workers’ rights, and their concern for protecting national and European culture. This is combined with “anti-establishment” rhetoric used to appeal to those who are disillusioned with mainstream political parties, the media, and government. As members of an anti-establishment movement, CasaPound supporters have very low levels of trust in the government, the EU, political parties, trade unions and the press (Bartlett et al., 2012).However, according to Bartlett et al. (2012), these organisations do not fit easily into the traditional political divides; one of the most difficult to classify is CasaPound, which was originally founded in Italy in 2003 but was formalised in 2008 under the name CasaPound Italia (CPI) (Jones, 2018).A “populist” rubric is a staple of new-Fascist politics and CasaPound is no exception: theirs is translated through the rhetoric and material enactment of an “exclusionary welfarism” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
Today, CPI is the most visible neo-fascist organization in Italy—and probably one of the most visible extreme right movements in Western Europe (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).CasaPound’s emphasis on nationalism, its welfare chauvinism that privileges ethnic Italians for the receipt of welfare services, and its direct take-to-the-streets approach have made it a member of the “new right” European street-based movements (Bartlett et al., 2012). CPI has also been central to again normalising fascism in the country of its birth (Jones, 2018).Thanks to CPI, similar extremist organisations and far-right populist parties’ extremist violence, harassment, and xenophobia re-emerged in Italy. Italy’s intelligence services have warned about the growing appeal of radical right groups, especially among young people (Povoledo, 2018).
As with other far-right groups, the economic crisis in Europe in the early 2010s provided CasaPound with fertile ground for spreading its ideas. The crisis allowed the CPI to strengthen its criticisms of international capitalism as well as eurozone fiscal policy. It has also argued against the weakening of the nation state and the increasing power of unelected technocrats (Bartlett et al., 2012).CasaPound was born as a single-issue movement as a result of the social problem associated with the lack of housing spaces for Italian families (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).Since its origins, CasaPound has stood out for its attention to the issue of affordable housing, engaging primarily in struggles on the social and cultural right to adequate shelter for Italian families (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
The group’s name is composed of two elements: i) “Casa,” the Italian Word for “house.” The largest number of eviction orders in 2008 were issued in Rome (7,574), among which almost five thousand were for arrearage. During the following five years, the evictions numbered over 31,000, of which 19,273 were for arrearage. In Rome, the evictions numbered 11,612 (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). ii) “Pound,” referencing the 20th-century American poet Ezra Pound, who supported Mussolini’s dictatorship (Redman, 1991), adhered to the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic), and was an antisemite (Kington, 2011; 2012). The organization’s name explicitly connects it with one of the pillars of the group’s ideology, Ezra Pound’s theory of housing rent as “usury” (Pound, 1985), and the poet’s views expressed in his poem Canto XLV opposing rent and rapacious landlords. For the poet, everything that is not used by its owner becomes capital, which is then brought in the market obliging others to pay a monthly tangent: the rent (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).
Since its birth, CasaPound has conceptually associated its political engagement to Ezra Pound’s conception of “holiness” of the “house.” The groups’ opposition to market capitalism has to do with this, since the house is given a symbolic value that goes beyond its material price (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
The name CasaPound also has a great symbolic meaning, since Ezra Pound was the incarnation of the ideal fascist revolution, meaning the struggle against plutocracy (Redman, 1991; Feldman, 2013). Despite manyscholars having demonstrated the influence of the poet’s anti-capitalist and anti-communist discourse on CasaPound (Rinaldi & Feldman, 2015; Lidell, 2012) Ezra Pound’s daughter, Mary De Rachewiltz, has repeatedly gone to court to stop CasaPound from using her father’s name (Kington, 2011, 2012).“This organisation is hiding behind Pound’s name for intellectual cover,” De Rachewiltz said and added: “He made mistakes and we have to take the good part of him, just as he did with others. He fell into certain antisemitic clichés that were rampant in Europe and the US at the time.” Pound later told the American poet Allen Ginsberg that his worst mistake in life was his “stupid suburban antisemitic prejudice” (Kington, 2012).
A Brief History
CasaPound was born as a youth organization on December 26, 2003, in Rome, during the occupation of a building in the Esquilino district, a multiethnic neighbourhood populated mostly by Chinese and Bengali people (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). On that night, five men broke into a huge, state-owned, empty office complex. According to the story of the seizure of the building, which is now part of the group’s origin myth (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020),a few days earlier, the men had put up fake fliers, appealing to the public for help to find a lost black cat called “Ezra.” It was a way to avoid suspicion as they surveyed the building before breaking in. Nothing was left to chance: the date, between Christmas and New Year, was chosen because there wouldn’t be many people around. Even the name and colour of the cat wasn’t casual: “Ezra” was a nod to the American poet; black was the colour associated with their hero, Benito Mussolini (Jones, 2018). While the details may differ, the repetition of this narrative very usefully serves the purpose of mythmaking. Multiplied by the attention of media, CasaPound has been able to frame a Fascist archetype, creating an at once folkloric and banal construction of “the neo-Fascist” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
CasaPound was founded as a branch of the Fiamma Tricolore (FT) party of Pino Rauti, making specific reference to the history of the post-war neo-fascist party Movimento sociale italiano (MSI, Italian Social Movement, which was founded on December 26, 1946) and Mussolini’s legacy. The occupation on the same day was not accidental, since it furnished an explicit initial link between the CasaPound movement and the fascist era and its legacy (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
The man giving orders that night was Gianluca Iannone (1974-), who came from a more “old style” Fascist activism (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). Then 30, Iannone had “me ne frego” (“I don’t care” – the slogan used by Mussolini’s troops) tattooed diagonally across the left side of his neck (Jones, 2018). At the beginning of the third millennium, Iannone already had an interesting career behind him as member of a minor extremist extra-parliamentary right-wing group which was dissolved by law in the 1990s for hate-speech and racism. In 1995, he had been one of the founders of the Rupe Tarpea Produzioni, an independent record company that produced, and still produces, Nazi rock groups such as Hobbit, Intolerance, etc (Jones, 2018).
In 1997, Iannone founded the rock band ZetaZeroAlfa (ZZA), which gave voice to concerns that had been disregarded by established parties of the radical right: housing, globalization, and the need to revolt against the establishment (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). ZZA became an evangelising force for fascism. Touring all over Italy, the band sang raucous punk-rock songs with lyrics such as, “I love this proud people / that doesn’t know peace.” However, the song that became a crowd favourite was Cinghiamattanza, meaning “death by belt”: at all the gigs, it became a ritual for fans to take off their belts and lash each other (Jones, 2018).
Iannone was also one of the leaders of the Romanist hooligans, the animator of the fascist pub Cutty Sark which was a meeting point for Rome’s extreme right, and the owner of the “non-conventional” bookshop Testa di Ferro in Rome, which disseminated nostalgic fascist literature. Armed with charisma and a strong reputation, Iannone became the leader of the “right-wing” house occupations in Rome (Wolff, 2019;Jones, 2018).
The men gathered together and hugged, feeling that they had planted a flag in the centre of the Italian capital—in a gritty neighbourhood which was home to many African and Asian immigrants. Iannone dubbed their building “the Italian embassy.” The building became the headquarters of the movement called CasaPound (Jones, 2018). In this building, which is still occupied by activists, there are three apartments per floor that host the activists and 23 families. The police did not intervene at the time of the occupation, nor did they act in the following months or years. Successive mayors of Rome have treated the fascist occupation with a degree of tolerance (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
Actually, it was not the first building that was occupied by the group. In 2002, CasaPound occupied a state-owned building in Rome and established the so-called “Casa Montag.” The name came from Guy Montag, the protagonist of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451(1953). Indeed, Bradbury’s critique of a totalitarian state was transformed into Casa Pound’s intolerance against anti-fascism in Italian politics. CasaMontag became the first example of right-wing Occupazioni Non Conformi (ONC, or Non-Conventional Occupation), which aimed to use musical events to get young people to discuss politics in a non-structured way (Wolff, 2019).
CasaPound Has Already Fulfilled Its Mission by Normalising Fascism
Initially, Casa Montag did not have a real political and communitarian aim but was a centre for people to meet, socialise, play music, and discuss political and social issues. The squatting inside Casa Montag and subsequent building occupations had the primary goal of housing Italian families that lost their houses and protesting against the rising rents in Rome and related real estate speculations: the group’s slogan was “rent is usury: stop the increasing costs of living” (Bartlett et al., 2012). Iannone has called usury “the worst thing… the head of the octopus… which creates unemployment, debt and threatens the future of our children” (Lidell, 2012). CasaPound argues for a form of “social mortgage” (mutuo sociale)—a housing policy that would guarantee all Italian workers the right to own a property; the right of home ownership is crucial to the movement’s message (Bartlett et al., 2012).
Only one year later, in 2003, Iannone led the expedition that occupied the building in via Napoleone: CasaPound. That squat occurred under the slogan “Occupazioni a Scopo Abitativo” (OSA: Occupations for Housing Purposes). Several others followed. Many make a clear distinction between ONC and OSA, arguing that the former has a metapolitical nature while the latter has a social purpose (Wolff, 2019).The concern for housing is the core of CasaPound’s ideology and policy and is reflected in the group’s name as well as its use of the turtle as its main logo: “The turtle is one of the few living beings which is fortunate enough to have with them the house” (Bartlett et al., 2012). The stylized turtle symbol also refers to the Roman formation called Testudo, the army of Rome that showed the greatness and force of the Empire and which emerged “from a vertical order and from a hierarchical principle.” Contextually, the octagonal shape is reminiscent of the historical monument Castel del Monte, built by the “last Cesare” in Italy. The arrow is the same as that in the flags of other far-right movements across Europe (Wolff, 2019).
From 2006–2008, Iannone was active as leader of a youth group in the FT trying to conquer the party’s leadership—without success (Wolff, 2019).In 2008, CasaPound, whose activists define themselves as “third millennium fascists”(Gretel Cammelli, 2018; Bulli, 2019),broke off from the FT to become an officially registered association with offices in all major Italian cities under the name CasaPound Italia (CPI). As a legally recognized association, CasaPound was eligible to receive voluntary pre-tax donations (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).CPI openly rejects left-wing and right-wing labels, and distances itself from traditional parties and has instead rooted itself in the tradition of Italian Fascism (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
Starting from 2011, however, CPI regularly took part in local and national elections, and progressively expanded its programmatic agenda on socioeconomic affairs. At first, its candidates ran as independents within centre-right coalitions (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). In 2013, it developed a new strategy as an independent political party and participated in local elections in February (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). CPI’s evolution is also reflected in changing electoral slogans between 2013 and 2018: from “Direction Revolution” to “Direction Parliament” (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).
While the results at the national level have been poor (0.14 percent in 2013), CPI won 0.69 percent of votes in Lazio, comprising 8,734 votes in the city of Rome. In 2014, it struck up informal relations with the Lega Nord (LN) and contributed to the election of an LN candidate to the European Parliament (EP). In 2015, a new political formation called Sovranità established an alliance between the two parties supporting the LN’s leader Matteo Salvini and secured the election of its own officials to local councils. In 2016, CasaPound participated in the elections as an independent party, winning 1.14 percent of the vote in Rome, equivalent to around 14,000 votes. In the 2017 local elections, CPI scored results above five percent and elected council members in different municipalities within Central Italy. Moreover, a former member has been elected mayor of L’Aquila as part of a right-wing list (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018;Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
Italy’s political panorama is defined not just by radical right-wing parties, which received considerable support by voters during elections in March 2018, but also by the presence of extra-parliamentary organizations that increasingly engage in the public debate by presenting radical arguments and propositions. One of these is CasaPound Italia (Wolff, 2019).CPI ran with an independent list in the local and national elections. On this occasion, CPI failed to elect any candidates to parliament (winning a meager 0.9 percent of votes), yet doubled its electoral support compared to the previous national elections—from 50,000 to about 130,000 votes (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018;Gretel Cammelli, 2018).The results of the 2018 elections were a shock to the Italian political establishment, delivering a historical blow to the parties of the centre-left; the feared entry of the neo-Fascists into Parliament did not materialize, however (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
Nevertheless,CasaPound has already fulfilled its mission by normalising fascism in Italy. At the end of 2017, Il Temponewspaper announced Benito Mussolini as its “person of the year.” It wasn’t being facetious: Il Duce barged into the news agenda every week of the year. Even a left-wing politician in Florence said that “nobody in this country has done more than Mussolini.” More than 75 years after his death, he is more admired than traditional Italian heroes such as Giuseppes Garibaldi and Mazzini. Moreover, in just 15 years, CasaPound has grown so large that its initial ambition—to be accepted into the theatre of “open debate”—is now obsolete. Instead, its leaders now talk of eradicating anti-fascism entirely. Fascism, Iannone enthuses, was “the greatest revolution in the world, the completion of the Risorgimento [Italian unification].” Mussolini’s regime was “the most beautiful moment of this nation” (Jones, 2018).
Meanwhile, an Italian judge ordered police on June 4, 2020, to seize CasaPound’s headquarters in a move hailed as a victory by the city’s mayor Virgina Raggi from the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement (M5S). The order to seize the building, issued on the 76th anniversary of Rome’s liberation from Nazi occupation by US troops in World War Two, has not yet been carried out (Reuters, 2020), becausethe government has temporarily halted evictions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (Roberts, 2020).
“Hybridization” As an Ideological Choice and Recruitment Strategy
At the beginning of the 1990s, a new phase in the Italian party system was ushered in with the inclusion of a post-Fascist party, Alleanza Nazionale (AN, National Alliance), in centre-right coalitions. This normalization at the party level did not occur in the same way at the subcultural or grassroots level (Bulli, 2019). Though “apologizing for fascism” was still a crime in Italy (Wolff, 2019), for Italy’s modern neo-fascist groups like CasaPound, Il Duce was—and is—very much about ideology. According to CPI’s vice-president, Simone di Stefano,CPI’s youngsters already see Mussolini as the country’s father (Kington, 2013). In addition, the rise of populism, and CPI’s explicit rejection of traditional right and left categories, has changed the landscape of party politics and affected political movements, especially those of the far right. During this period, a symbolic hybridization between the far-right and the far-left (Miller-Idriss, 2018) and nostalgia defined CPI’s recruitment strategy (Bulli, 2019).
This hybridization manifests itself even in the entrance hall of CPI’s headquarters. CasaPounders painted a hundred or so men’s names, suggesting their ideological lineage. Many were obvious—Mussolini, Oswald Mosley, Nietzsche, war criminals like Hamsun, Degrelle, the writer and proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Italian fascist philosopher Julius Evola—but many more were bizarre or delusional: Homer, Plato, Dante, Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, as well as Ahmed Shah Massoud (the Afghan jihadi leader), and even cartoon characters such as Captain Harlock and Corto Maltese. “Delusional” because most of these characters are more frequently seen as representing liberal and progressive values, and “bizarre” because CasaPound mobilizes the “other” as representative of Fascist thought(Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020; Jones, 2018).
Drawing on populism, expressionism, and pluralism, as a fascists movement CPI creates political orientations that defy easy placement along a right-left axis (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). By adopting symbols, dress codes, and participation models typical of the extreme left, CPI shows its indifference to the codification of rituals according to a left–right understanding of politics. From this perspective, the group tries to differentiate itself from the “neither right nor left” rhetoric of the New Right and from the “aesthetics of the ‘Third Way’ of Italian Fascism” (Ben-Ghiat, 1996). Despite CPI being commonly placed in the category of the Italian radical right, at the rhetorical level the group asserts differences from traditional radical-right parties (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
However, all the elements that make up the multifaceted cultural imaginary of CasaPound originate from the ideology of Fascism, including its cultural manifestations, its exaltation of the masculine body, virility, and speed of action, and its concept of “lifestyle” (Bulli, 2019). In this context,CPI refers mostly to the social and labour legislation during the Fascist regime: the Labour Charter from 1927, the Verona Manifesto from 1943, and in general all documents that testify to the fascists’ engagement in social policy, corporatism, and socialization (Wolff, 2019). The party strategically downplays the most stigmatized aspects of Fascism, such as antisemitism and racism (Castelli Gattinara et al. 2013; Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
CasaPound accepted that the racial laws of 1938, which introduced antisemitism and deportation, were “errors.” The movement claimed to be “opposed to any form of discrimination based on racial or religious criteria, or on sexual inclination” (Jones, 2018). Despite its realignment with the xenophobic, law-and-order and nationalist agendas of most radical-right populist parties since 2014, CPI tends to distinguish itself from Italian parties of the extreme right by underlining its anti-establishment character (Gattinara, Froio, & Albanese, 2013) in an effort to create a political traditionalism that coexists with an open challenge to all forms of pre-defined belonging (Bulli, 2019).Even if CPI claims its origins in Italian Fascism, it builds its political message on the framework of “metapolitics”—a Gramscian approach to politics, in which cultural change and hegemony precedes political change (Wolff, 2019). Namely, unlike other radical-right organizations in Western Europe, the bulk of CasaPound’s policy positions, ideas, and practices revolve around economic and social areas (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013) andare directly inspired by the leftist current that has always existed in Italian Fascism and neo-fascism. In particular, three major concepts that connect CasaPound to three different tendencies of neo-fascism should be highlighted: the Destra Sociale (Social Right), the spiritualism of Ordine Nuovo (New Order), and the tradition of the Nouvelle Droite (New Right) (Castelli Gattinara et al.,2013),
The Destra Sociale was a group internal to the MSI and connected directly with the experience of the Italian Social Republic. Partisans of this political trend stressed the “socialist” aspects of the fascist doctrine, clamouring for a strong state able to take care of its citizens from the cradle to the grave. Similarly, CasaPound calls for a stronger state to protect citizens from the “dictatorship” of the banks and the international financial system (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).CasaPound also takes direct inspiration from Italian Fascism in its restless fight against international capitalism. The reference here is to Mussolini’s attacks against the international plutocracies which were held responsible for the destruction of national economies (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013). CPI has also opposed Italy’s austerity programme, most notably in the campaign “Ferma Equitalia” (“Stop Equitalia”). Equitalia is the public company in charge of the collection of taxes and the Italian symbol of the austerity movement. Since the beginning of 2012, different bases of Equitalia have been the target of several bomb attacks (Bartlett et al., 2012).
Among the 18 points of CPI’s political programme, the first calls for the “public control of banks.” The nationalism and autarchy of CPI is characterized by an aversion to all multinational corporations and European institutions (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). The state is also supposed to be “ethical, organic and inclusive” and “something spiritual and moral” aimed at ensuring that the nation remains independent of private and international interests. Society was seen as an “organism” in which individuals were merely tools for pursuing the interests of society as a whole (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
Ordine Nuovo was founded in 1956 by Pino Rauti and other militants of the MSI. They disagreed with the party on a number of grounds, including the recognition of NATO. The group developed a strong cultural commitment but also a sense of militancy where particular importance was given to violent actions against opponents. Numbers of its militants have been accused of terrorist activities (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).Finally, CasaPound inspires parts of its ideology from the experience and practice of the Nouvelle Droite of Alain de Benoist.
Together with the Nuova Destra, these were among the most interesting political experiments of the 1970s. Following the protest movements begun in May 1968 in Paris, intellectuals tried to renovate the right wing, emphasizing or adding issues such as federalism and ecology, but also an ethnic-identarian vision, communitarism, anti-imperialism and Europeanism (Mammone, 2008).
In line with the aforementioned ideological debate, CPI’s self-styled revolutionary fascist members have declared themselves to be “the fascists of the new millennium” (Wolff, 2019). The group has voluntarily embraced this label as effectively portraying the mixture of Fascist traditionalism with the promise of the future and a contemporary ethos. As Mammone (2009: 187) observes, CPI exemplifies “a modern blackshirt Janus with one face looking backward and the other forward towards the future.” The label also emphasizes the adaptation of a classic extreme-right movement to a fast-changing environment in which language, communication, and behaviour play a role comparable to values and ideology, thus creating a cultural imaginary suitable for the political mobilization of new members (Forchtner & Kølvraa, 2017).
“Fascism à la Carte”
The CPI’s success at recruiting new members derives from: i) Its variable approach to a new form of political identification. This consists of both a “strong” approach, allowing for a conceivable return to codified traditions and symbols of Fascism, and a “soft” attitude towards the strategic selection of symbols, metaphors, topoi, and fallacies from a wide repertoire (Reisigl, 2008). ii) Its professionalized use of political language to encourage both the embrace and rejection of an ideological understanding of politics. iii) Its mixed use of symbols and the connected cultural imaginary (Bulli, 2019).
CPI’s ideology has been described as “fascism à la carte” or “à la carte Fascism” (Albanese et al., 2014), indicating the movement’s adoption of only certain elements of Fascist ideology and making use of them to recruit members. CPI selects those elements of the Fascist tradition it finds useful for the clear definition of its own political raison d’être in ideological and social terms. However, quite often CPI ends up taking contradictory positions in order to accommodate the needs of different audiences. “Fascism” remains the backbone by which the group substantiates its criticism of supranational institutions, globalization, and the establishment; yet, CasaPound approaches it by making a strategic mix of different elements depending on the issues that are debated, selectively emphasizing some relevant aspects, and omitting others (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
Meanwhile, contextualizing its increasing popularity following the 2008 financial crisis, CPI’s position has been outlined as the typical third-wayism: “The refusal of neoliberal economic theories and the neo-nationalist defence of workers’ rights.” However, less attention has been paid to CPI’s Euroscepticism, anti-globalism/mondialism, anti-Zionism, and racism. These have manifested as cultural racism; nationalism based on identarian discourse (ethno-nationalism); “welfare chauvinism;” exclusionary nationalism,; rejecting a multi-racial society; the defence of ethnic identities; opposition to immigration; a desire to exit from NATO and to remove Italy from the US sphere of influence; a quest to nationalize strategic economic sectors; and a fight against “usury” and for the cancellation of public debt (Wolff, 2019).
CPI’s political discourse reproduces the nationalist and anti-imperialist features of Italian Fascism. In this sense, the financial crisis directly originates from the contradictions of capitalism and its “wild” economic regime, which CasaPound would instead control by means of a strong state capable of avoiding the inequalities of the market economy. The strong state would also regain the national sovereignty that has been given up in favour of transnational organizations, in particular the EU, the IMF, and the ECB (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).
Despite these stances, the group is keen to use symbols and practices that are generally considered distant from the culture of the extreme right culture. This appropriation is also applied to figures and practices traditionally associated with left-wing culture (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
The ideological pillars of CasaPound’s view of the economy are also reminiscent of the Weimar’s campaigns of economic supremacy and Italian ambitions for food production self-sufficiency in the 1930s. Economic self-sufficiency is a way to reconnect with nature, and this bucolic image of naturalism is not new to radical-right organizations. In this sense, CPI builds a discourse around natural order which affects the environment but also the economy and society at large: a societal ecology (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).Thus,CPI emphasizes its organic understanding of national identity and state sovereignty and legitimacy, conceived as natural expressions of the Italian nation: “The Italian nation needs to become once again a national organism with powerful and long-lasting life, aims and means of action, which are well above those of its single or grouped individuals” (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
The CPI, which adopts “welfare chauvinism” and “welfare populism” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020), also uses the concept of ethnopluralism to attain ideological coherence. Ethnopluralism offers a consistent framing of core themes—like social welfare and globalization—as well as issues considered of secondary importance, like gender and the environment. Hybridization thus allows CPI to emphasize its ideological roots in the tradition of the extreme right, while avoiding stigmatization as being outdated or openly racist (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020).Unlike other far-right movements and parties in Europe for which immigration is the key issue, CasaPound’s policy positions cover a range of economic and social areas (Bartlett et al., 2012).
A Political Party That Functions to Trivialize Concerns About Fascism
The social movement rhetoric and engagement in disruptive forms of protest did not prevent CasaPound engaging in institutional politics. Starting with the 2011 elections, CasaPound presented their candidates in local elections in civic lists or on the centre-right and succeeded in electing its representatives (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). The CPI leadership also announced in October 2012 that it would participate in the local elections in Rome and Lazio, and subsequently in the national elections with an autonomous list of candidates. This came as a surprise to many observers who had underlined the non-electoral nature of CasaPound’s activism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).Since 2013, CPI has regularly taken part in elections with its own electoral lists (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). However, the choice did not prove particularly successful in the first elections, when CPI won only 0.14 percent of the vote for the Italian House and Senate, and less than one percent in the municipal and regional elections in Rome. However, the success of extreme right actors is not exclusively related to their immediate results. According to the “contagion effect” literature, contemporary extreme right activism strives for the radicalization of mainstream values and political agendas more than for an immediate transformation of the status quo (Lubbers, 2001; Minkenberg, 2001).
CasaPound’s electoral participation contributed to further increasing the visibility of the group as well as its reputation as the main non-partisan actor mobilizing on the issue of national sovereignty, as well as its opposition to austerity and the EU.As a consequence, the subsequent months saw an unprecedented electoral alliance between CasaPound and the regionalist populist party Lega Nord (Albertazzi & McDonnell 2005). This unofficial electoral cartel was first tested in European Parliament (EP) elections in May 2014, when CasaPound explicitly supported one of Lega’s candidates (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
In November 2018, the election in the Roman suburb of Ostia was considered by the Italian media as “a test” for the affirmation of CPI in Italian political life. CPI got 9 percent of the votes and obtained one seat in the local municipal council (Torrisi, 2018). In the March 2018 national elections, the CPI obtained 0.94 percent of the vote (310,793 votes) but it couldn’t enter parliament. CPI’s electoral support of the euro-sceptical and xenophobic Lega under the leadership of Matteo Salvini in 2018 influenced public discourse to such a degree that its slogan “Prima gli italiani!” (Italians first!) became the slogan for Salvini’s party (Wolff, 2019).
In order to participate in the 2019 EP election, an electoral list was formed by CasaPound and United Right. CasaPound leader Simone Di Stefano topped the list; however, the coalition was unable to win any seats in the EP.
CPI has never won a seat in the national parliament or the EP, but the group has successfully made extreme-right themes more routine in the public sphere, trivializing concerns about historical fascism and racial discrimination (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).Nevertheless,on June 26, 2019, CasaPound’s leader Iannone announced CasaPound was no longer a political party; instead, the group would return back its original status as a social movement.
A Hierarchic and Meritocratic Organisation
Although the Italian Constitution bans “the reorganization in any form of the dissolved Fascist Party,” CasaPound, like other neo-fascist movements, has skirted the law by identifying as the descendants of Mussolini (Horowitz, 2017). In terms of its organisational structure,CasaPound opted for a strategy of differentiation in order to carve out a space for itself within the extreme right milieu. In this sense, the main goal of CasaPound has not been the development of a concrete organizational alternative for extreme-right activism, but rather the promotion of a claim of generic “otherness” from all existing political organizations (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
The organization of CasaPound is hierarchic and meritocratic. Those who work the most, who are most capable to commit, are recognized as leaders—and followed. The leadership is officially embodied by Iannone, who is a widely recognized figure in the subcultural milieu of the Italian extreme right. His involvement in the everyday politics of CPI has, however, decreased over time; most of the ordinary business is delegated to the vice-president, who acts as spokesperson and runs as candidate in national and local elections (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). On November 13, 2017, Simone Di Stefano was elected secretary and nominal prime ministerial candidate for the 2018 general election.
The internal structure, decision-making, and recruitment does not fully conform to either the model usually followed by electoral actors or that of grassroots organizations. Rather, it combines formal and informal features, hierarchical procedures, and spaces of socialization, merging the organizational practices of social movements with those of formal political parties (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020). All strategies and policy proposals are decided upon by the inner leadership in Rome and communicated to members, militants, and local branches. Decentralized grassroots initiatives are also possible and welcome but have to be ratified by the offices in Rome. Political activities are further differentiated through separate organizations with thematic responsibilities. There are groups in charge of social voluntary work (e.g., health, workers’ rights, the environment), ideology and propaganda (including a daily paper, web radio, and web TV), and specific campaigns (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). The leader creates or displaces social movement practices and accompanies virtually all actions that can be associated with CasaPound. In addition, personalization takes place through the systematic exhibition of symbols that can be immediately associated with the group (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
CPI has its headquarters in Rome and branches in other northern and southern cities (Bulli, 2019). The building, which sits incongruously in the heart of an immigrant neighbourhood, has served as CasaPound’s home since it was occupied (Horowitz, 2017). In 2006, the movement that arose around the first community centre gained with its student organization, the “Students’ Block” (“Blocco Studentesco”). Blocco Studentesco is a mainstay in Rome youth politics, winning 11,000 votes in school council elections in 2009 (Kington, 2013). A fascist women’s movement, Tempo di Essere Madri (“time to be a mother”), was founded by Iannone’s wife. A pseudo-environmental group, La Foresta Che Avanza, began to put “the regime into nature”(Jones, 2018). Among the many groups directly linked to CPI is the “Circolo Futurista” (“Futurist Circle”), an association devoted to the organization of cultural events (Bulli, 2019).
As of December 2017, CPI had 106 headquarters/local offices across Italy (Wolff, 2019) and Iannone described each new centre as a “territorial reconquest.” Because every centre was self-financing, and because they claimed to “serve the people,” those new centres in turn opened gyms, pubs, bookshops, parachute clubs, diving clubs, motorbike clubs, football teams, restaurants, nightclubs, tattoo parlours, and barbershops. CasaPound suddenly seemed everywhere, echoing the influential fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, who wrote in 1925 that fascism was “before all else a total conception of life” (Jones, 2018).Today, CasaPound is present in virtually all Italian regions. It owns fifteen bookshops, twenty pubs, a web radio station (Black Flag Radio) and a web TV channel (TortugaTV). CasaPound also produces publications such as the monthly journal L’Occidentale and the quarterly Fare Quadrato(Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
Members: Fascists of the Third Millennium
CPI has made enormous improvements in terms of recruitment during the last years (Wolff, 2019). CPI members, who define themselves as “Fascists of the Third Millennium” (Bulli, 2019)—complete with black boots, tattooed necks, and shorn hair—guard floors decorated with pictures of Fascist-era marches and banners reading “Arm Your Soul.” The members exhibit fondness for Roman salutes and mythic glory days (Horowitz, 2017). Members are referred to as a “camerata” (the fascist version of “comrade”) and exchange the old-fashioned “legionary” handshake, grasping each other’s forearm rather than the hand (Jones, 2018).Members of CPI’s grassroots associations do not always declare their political allegiance, thus facilitating the recruitment of new members. Often, in fact, their first contact with the movement is not an ideological one (Bulli, 2019).
It is important to underline that CPI does not envisage membership without active militancy; becoming a member entails active participation in the events and activities promoted by the group. The selection of members follows very strict, yet informal, criteria, and generally occurs by co-optation. After being introduced to the group by other militants, prospective members are invited to public events and activities organized by CPI, “as a way to test their motivation, before introducing them to the circuit of real militancy.” Sympathizers unable to become active militants can be appointed as “web supporters” in charge of promoting CPI’s messages, images, and activities online. CPI does not have staff or employees on its payroll, and elected officials are required to devote most of their emoluments to the organization (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).
Although membership in CPI is considered on the rise, it is difficult to rely on declared figures. While the founding group included a few dozen individuals, data from CPI’s official website claimed over 2,000 members in 2008 (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). In 2011, it was estimated that CPI had 5,000 members, while in 2017, the group reached 6,000.As of January 2018, the Facebook account CasaPound Italia had 230,000 followers (Wolff, 2019). CasaPound Facebook supporters were slightly more likely to be unemployed than the average Italian citizen (11 percent vs 7.9 percent) (Bartlett et al., 2012).
CPI’s Women: Deconstructing the Theory of Fascist Misogyny
The common assumption that fascism is a misogynist ideology which has tended to exclude women, has been contrasted with cases of women’s active participation in fascist politics in France, Germany, Italy, and the UK (Durham, 1998).Women “shockingly” participating in far-right politics has received much media attention despite fascist movements being known for stressing women’s responsibilities at home. Conservative ideals of good fascist mothers and wives have also been prominent in CPI’s propaganda (Provost & Whyte, 2018).According to Gretel Cammelli, “since the foundation of CasaPound, women’s presence was overexposed, but in reality, there was a small number of them.” Cammelli observed that back in 2010, in CPI “women’s roles were extremely marginal, they were basically absent from all the high hierarchies,” and that the movement is very “macho.” The researcher recalls that she went to a CPI event in 2010 and “the number of women was quite embarrassing: they were about 20 out of 500 people. Almost all of them were in the kitchen, preparing sandwiches for the men” (Torrisi, 2018).
All of this makes the movement edgy and decidedly masculine—87 percent of the CPI’s Facebook supporters are male (Jones, 2018; Bartlett et al., 2012).According to the CPI’s ideology, today as in the fascist era, the role of women is to procreate for the wealth and prosperity of the Italian nation. Women have a duty to ensure that the history of Italy is kept alive into the future, and CasaPound perpetuates a normative vision of female gendered identity (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). Caterina Froio notes that the far right has struggled with the so-called “gender gap” among members, voters, and political personnel because women represent a large potential reservoir of support electorally for the far right (Torrisi, 2018).
In 2017, CasaPound expressed support for same-sex marriage and supported abortion rights. Even if it is not officially homophobic, CasaPound believes in the “traditional family” as the basic unit of the nation. One example of this was the “Tempo di essere madri” (“It’s time to be mothers”) campaign, which advocated lowering the amount of working hours for mothers without affecting their pay (Bartlett et al., 2012).
In November 2017, the Italian edition of the women’s magazine Marie Claire published an article entitled “Do you know who CasaPound’s women are?” It profiled female militants of CPI, giving readers a glimpse into their private lives, sharing fashion tips, what they like to wear, and how they juggle their family and social lives with the demands of being part of a violently fascist movement (Torrisi, 2018). Like Marie Claire,the Italian media in general have helped CasaPound to “glamourise” fascism. Torrisi shows how media coverage focused on the movement’s female members has fawned over their beauty and their dedication to their children and husbands, while glossing over the violence and danger of this increasingly visible fascist group (Provost & Whyte, 2018). For instance, Italian media christened local spokeswoman Carlotta Chiaraluce in Ostia “Lady CasaPound” and called her a “beautiful, fascist… vote-catcher” and the “queen of the far-right movement.” Interviewed by one right-wing newspaper, Chiaraluce said that there are a lot of women in the movement, and they are all happy with what they are doing. She said: “Even if there is not a lot of media attention on this aspect, we are deconstructing the theory of the misogyny of fascists”(Torrisi, 2018).
CPI emphasises direct activism, and its strategy is based on the synergic union of ideas and actions. In CPI’s view, ideas cannot be separated from political participation (Bulli, 2019) and it has successfully managed to construct its own self-styled activism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).Thus,CPI enjoys important visibility in Italy and in the European extreme-right subcultural milieu despite its limited number of supporters (Bartlett et al., 2012).
Until the late 2000s, CasaPound was mainly engaged in expressive activities aimed at developing its network of associations. It was also protagonist of a series of demonstrations, which included the occupation of a state-owned building in Rome in 2002 (CasaMontag) and developing a number of “non-conventional” squats, the attack against the emission “Big Brother,” and numerous violent riots involving Blocco Stundentesco(Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
Meanwhile, CPI’s political campaigns have aimed to implement laws, promote referenda, and directly influence the national political debate over different topics related to housing, Italian workers, the public austerity programme, and the importance of the traditional family (Bartlett et al., 2012). In its early years, it stood out for its unconventional actions, most notably highly demonstrative protests, occupations of state-owned buildings for housing purposes, and squatting for political and cultural activities. Even during electoral campaigns, CPI combined conventional party activities such as handing out leaflets, collecting signatures, and promoting fundraising events with contentious politics, including the storming of rival candidates’ offices, clashes with anti-racist and anti-fascist organizations, and direct actions and interventions (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).
As mentioned previously, CPI builds its political narrative upon the framework of the “metapolitics”: a counter-cultural power for which cultural change is expected to precede political change. This is also confirmed by the groups’ preferred modes of activism; it engages in a number of different arenas (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015). The hybrid nature of CPI has shaped its actions, which consists of both unconventional and conventional activities (Bulli, 2019).
From its very beginnings, CPI insisted on the creation of an image that diverged from the institutional character of the Italian far right of the late 1990s (Bulli, 2019).It has adapted a “new political style.” Instead of parades, memorial rituals, or celebrations, they organize rock concerts where people can meet up and “community” can form and, through chorus and dance, celebrate itself. Music has especially played a crucial role in this strategy. Producing music and live performances has been seen as one of the principal ways of creating the desired distinction between the traditional far right and the new model proposed by CPI (Bulli, 2019).
This is possible thanks to CPI’s leader Gianluca Iannone, who is also the front man of the rock band ZetaZeroAlfa (ZZA), which lies at the origins of the entire movement. Iannone is an actor capable of updating the new political style, making the CasaPound community feel a desire to take part in the leader’s power. When Iannone sings and stands at the centre of the stage, everyone flocks to be near him. As one activist stated, ZZA is not a single artist; rather, “if you listen to Zeta Zero Alfa, you understand that they are like the tip of the iceberg, that there is a whole community behind them.” ZZA’s concerts are an important tool for communication. One of ZZA’s most well-known songs is called “Cinghiamattanza.” When “Cinghiamattanza” is performed, the activists take off their belts and begin to beat each other with them, often until bleeding, as the lyrics themselves encourage them to do (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).CasaPound defines “cinghiamattanza” or “massacre belt” as a “sport” (Lidell, 2012).
Another distinguishing feature of CasaPound is its explicit emphasis on physical activity and confrontation. The function and importance of sports and physical confrontation is more broadly conceived as a “cult of the body.” CasaPound offers a range of sporting activities to its core members and sympathisers, including trekking, speleology, rugby, combat sports and martial arts, karate, boxing, wrestling, parachuting, water polo, diving, horse-riding, motor-riding, and hockey (Kington, 2011a). These activities allow those who practise them to show courage and masculinity. CPI is also engaged with a number of youth clubs dedicated to sports, as well as with art galleries and theatre schools. Similarly, sports and leisure activities play a fundamental role in developing a sense of shared community (Bulli, 2019; Wolff, 2019).
Since camaraderie is represented as the highest form of political and social commitment for its members, CPI adopts a particular style of communication intended to present the group as a valid alternative to the traditional politics (Bulli, 2019). Thus,CPI organizes solidarity actions so as to reinforce its close connection to the social legislation of the Fascist regime. CPI’s grassroots associations play a crucial role in these activities, in which there is direct contact with those being helped and CPI promotes a series of “para-welfare activities” addressed to Italian families facing difficult times (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).Unlike conventional forms of activism, they do not seek the mediation of representative authorities to solve public problems, but seek to directly redress a problem (Bosi & Zamponi, 2015: 371). These actions were at the core of campaigns on housing rights and extended to other issues over time. CPI then mobilized on environmental requalification and voluntary work to help disabled, unemployed, and elderly people (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018). CPI’s engagement in society covers a wide range of different activities, from house-occupation and street protest to social welfare and housing programmes, from vigilante excursions against illegal migrants in the peripheries of Italian cities or against illegal street sellers on Italian beaches to pro-bono health and legal counselling, first aid teams, fundraising activities for foreign populations, and aid to orphans and single-mothers (Wolff, 2019).
CasaPound has especially used food drives to bolster its bonafides in the community and to point to the absence of the Italian state “that should take care of its own before it takes care of others.” Through such actions, CasaPound spectacularizes Italy’s social precarity, while less-than-obliquely hinting at a logic of crisis induced by the non-Italian “other” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020). CPI has especially worked for the working class and peasantry and set up its own workers’ union. In 2006, CPI members hung 400 mannequins all over Rome protesting the city’s housing crisis; and in 2012, they occupied the EU’s office in Rome and dumped sacks of coal outside to protest on behalf of Italian miners (Jones, 2018).
As mentioned above, CasaPound combines traditional right- and left-wing concerns, approaches, and symbols. For example, despite an open devotion to Mussolini, it regularly organises events to celebrate famous left-wingers such as Che Guevara or Peppino Impastato (a militant communist who died fighting against the mafia in Sicily). These ambiguities are also reflected in the group’s culture and music: its official radio station, Radio Bandiera Nera, broadcasts traditional right-wing music as well as the anarchist songs of Fabrizio De Andrè. The images used by the group include the so-called fascio littorio (the symbol of Mussolini’s ideology and regime), as well as posters of Corto Maltese or the leftist singer Rino Gaetano. These ambiguities account for CasaPound’s appeal, particularly among young people, as they strive to appear as non-conformist as possible. The anti-conformism is a strong pillar in the language of the organisation(Bartlett et al., 2012).
According to Castelli Gattinara,CasaPound aims at constructing a sense of comradeship by diversifying its political supply across numerous issues, inspired by a philosophy of life built on fascist myths and aesthetics, and on a mix neo-romanticism, irrationalism, spiritualism, and volunteerism. It is in this framework that CasaPound has developed its environmental project La Foresta che avanza (The forest that advances), which takes inspiration from the fascist’s “Mystic of the Earth.” CasaPound’s volunteerism is also mirrored by its social and civic engagement (such as La Salamandra, which operates in territories tormented by natural and/or humanitarian disasters) (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).
Iannone has stressed the logic behind the CPI’s activism and said that CasaPound works on dozens of projects and with various methods: “It is fundamental to create a web of supporters rather than focusing on elections. For elections, you are in competition with heavily financed groups and with only one or two persons elected, you can’t change anything. Politics for us is a community. That is why we are in the streets, on computers, in bookshops, in schools, in universities, in gyms, at the top of mountains or at the news stands. That is why we are in culture, social work, and sport” (Liddell, 2012). More than four in ten (44 percent) of CPI’s Facebook supporters reported participating in a street demonstration or protest. However, only one in five reported being a formal member of CasaPound. This might reflect the wider appeal that CasaPound cultural activities hold for people (Bartlett et al., 2012).
Violence as a Method of Demonstration and Expressive Action
The main traits of Italian Fascism and the mythology of violence are inseparable (Lupo, 2005). The widespread use of violence and violent vocabulary by CPI has also to be understood as an explicit reference to Italian Fascism, which was strongly characterized by a martial rhetoric and by the glorification of violence (Blinkhorn, 2000: 69). In Mussolini’s system of values, violence represented the most just and moral, as well as the most practical way to defend one’s ideas. In a similar way, CasaPound’s militants glorify their political activism in terms of battlefield values and concepts (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). Violence is actually a basis for the “militia” identity (Payne, 1999).Research (Bjorgo & Witte, 1993; Bjorgo, 1995) has shown that militants, supporters, and sympathizers are incentivized to violent action by the organization, which offers rationales for mobilization and synthesizes grievances in political and ideological discourses based on race, religion, and gender superiority. Similarly, justifications may be based on symbolized concepts such as the homeland, blood, and honour (O’Boyle, 2002; Taggart, 2000).
Despite acts of violence being rejected in official CPI policy, the group declares itself ready to defend itself in case of challenges to its survival (Bulli, 2019).CasaPound’s most explicit position with respect to violence can be found on its official website’s FAQ section: “CasaPound Italia does politics, not hooliganism. CasaPound is not interested in showing its muscles. CasaPound calls for quiet force. At the same time, however, CasaPound does not allow others to challenge its legitimate right to exist and act. We are open to dialogue, but we don’t reject confrontation when this is imposed on us and when our political and physical survival is at stake.”CasaPound militants also claim that they’re constantly under attack from anti-fascists. “We’re not a violent organisation,” one militant said, “but we’re not non-violent either.” CasaPound has sometimes relished its violent reputation, and has sometimes been angered by it (Jones, 2018). Violence is not officially endorsed, yet neither is it fully rejected; it remains an important corollary to political activism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
CasaPound’s position on violence, therefore, has to come to terms with two opposing forces: i) The necessity of protecting the movement’s external credibility, which would require a full rejection of violence; and ii) The ideas and rhetoric of Italian Fascism were built upon a number of inherently violent elements, such as the cult of bravery and squadrismo. Squadrism expresses the image and memory of fascist violence, a specific kind of political violence committed in particular against political opponents with the purpose of gaining power (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). Since Italian Fascism justified the use of violence against its opponents on the basis of the alleged superiority of its political ethics (Gentile, 1934) and also as a tool to safeguard the group’s right to expression against coercion and repression, it is impossible for CasaPound to completely disregard violence (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). In this sense, violence represents the noblest form of resistance against a hostile, repressive external world and becomes a means not only of survival but also of self-determination (Scianca 2011: 362).
CasaPound cadres often underline how physical training is fundamental for CasaPound militants, as they should always be ready and “physically trained for any threat.”Castelli Gattinara & Froio (2014: 158) note that there is a threefold function of violence within CasaPound’s identity, discourse, and practices. In the first place, violence should be understood in terms of a discursive dimension (Koopmans & Olzak, 2004). It rejects political violence as a means to achieve policy success in its external rhetoric. Yet, given its need to reconnect with its fascist past, violence cannot be fully erased from the CPI’s political platform. The result is the development of a specific narrative in which violence is framed as a defensive tool used to respond to forms of repression. Secondly, violence emerges within an aesthetic dimension, by which CasaPound romanticizes and reproduces the myth and symbolic violence of Fascist Italy. Lastly, violence plays a fundamental role in CasaPound within an identity-building dimension (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
The use of violence has been mythologized in CPI’s images and practices. A good example iscinghiamattanza (belt-fighting) in which violence is directed not against out-groups but within the in-group (Castriota & Feldman, 2014: 231-232). The practices of physical violence are used to build feelings of comradeship. The medium through which networks of solidarity are built within the community is the (male) body, through practices of physical contact where the body of the militant is symbolically blended with the collective body of the community. The most widespread of these practices is collective training in combat sports. Common participation in combat sports is a fundamental moment where the militant joins in spirit and body with the collective entity.
Besides its instrumental use as a form of action, violence also plays a fundamental role in the group’s narrative and political discourse. Violence, in other words, is rationalized as a form of resistance against an oppressive and “intolerant” anti-fascist society. Yet, when approaching internal audiences, violence emerges as a fundamental tool to strengthen solidarity and camaraderie among group members (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015) and plays a role as a constitutive element of the group’s collective identity and collective socialization (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
In the public domain, CasaPound shifts the attention away from its own use of political violence, focusing instead on repression it suffers. This strategy allows the group to avoid the stigmatization often suffered by extreme right organizations (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014). Authors increasingly recognize the importance of collective narratives, rituals, and symbolic repertoires in the development of protest events and violence and within processes of exclusive identity building (della Porta, 2013; Goodwin, 2004). In this understanding, the symbolic, cultural, and emotional aspects of political violence are often more significant than its material and strategic consequences. Recent research has in fact rediscovered the role of emotions in the construction and structuring of collective identities (Aminzade & McAdam 2001; Goodwin et al., 2001). Apart from physical violence, CPI makes strategic use of the mythology around a readiness to fight, verbal and physical confrontation, and speed of response in case of attack (Bulli, 2019).
As Castelli Gattinara and Froio (2014) have suggested, violence in CasaPound is linked to the history and rhetoric of fascism “justifying the use of any kind of violence against its opponents.” Violent activities have accompanied CasaPound since its birth. Reports on CasaPound in the newspaper La Repubblica between 2004 and 2012 show that about 15 percent of reported CasaPound actions were confrontational, while an additional 35 percent of events involved some form of violence (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).Moreover, about a third of press releases issued by CPI involve physical or symbolic violence (Pirrò & Castelli Gattinara, 2018).Another analysis of CasaPound’s activism between 1995 and 2013 reveals that 51.5 percent of activities have been confrontational and violent (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
Music is another fundamental element for understanding CasaPound’s semiotic of violence (Eyerman & Jamison, 1991). Although extreme right musical culture has generally been associated with the skinhead scene, similar tendencies have recently permeated other subcultures (O’Connell & Castelo-Branco, 2010). In the music of ZZA, violence is associated with a set of different meanings. First of all, it represents a revolutionary tool to fight the habits of consumerism and cultural homologation, and to oppose the rulers of the country and the economic system (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2014).
On December 13, 2011, Gianluca Casseri, a CasaPound sympathiser in Tuscany, left home with a Magnum 357 in his bag. On that morning, 50-year-old Casseri had a plan to shoot as many immigrants as possible. He went to a square in Florence and, at 12:30 pm, killed two Senegalese men. He shot another man in the back and throat and then got in his car and drove off. Just over two hours later, Casseri was at the city’s central market, where he shot two more men, who survived the attack. He then turned his gun on himself in the market’s underground carpark(Jones, 2018). These murders suggest that a mythological narration of the past does not prevent it from being reproduced in the present (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
Neo-Fascism as Show Business
The relationship between extreme right-wing organizations and the media is far from straightforward. The far right is, on the one hand, traditionally suspicious of the media which it blames for promoting liberal values and sustaining the status quo (Mudde, 2007); media attention, on the other hand, allows dissemination of far-right messages (Ellinas, 2010). In such a context, Castelli Gattinara & Froio (2015) underline that newsworthiness is the primary motivation for CPI’s choice of showcase activism and the group is primarily involved in the organization of highly media-friendly events and actions, specifically by tackling ongoing problems and public concerns, using new vocabularies, innovative symbols, and unconventional forms of protest.
CPI has also been well aware that their visibility depends on the capacity to offer the media a product that is at the same time personalized, spectacularized, and creating controversy and debate (Esser, 2013). The media interest in CPI can, thus, be explained by their fascination with the imaginary of violence, marked by the group’s simultaneous use of conventional and unconventional forms of activism mostly centred on its idealization of a myth of action, courage, and predominantly masculine bravery (Bulli, 2019). Images traditionally associated with Italian Fascism, such as warriors, soldiers, etc., are also part of CasaPound’s visual communication (Mosse, 1996) which aims at increasing the visibility of CasaPound in the media—which may represent a fundamental tool for CPI’s survival (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
What makes CasaPound unique is its game of smoke-and-mirrors with fascinated Italian media. The media—whether intrigued, anxious, or excited—has reported on every initiative: as Di Stefano said, “everything CasaPound did became news” (Jones, 2018). There is a convergence between CPI’s activism and its communicative strategies. In this sense, the framing, and actions of CasaPound are first based on an accurate study of the mechanisms of news production and subsequently justified ideologically. In so doing, CasaPound is more than simply recognizable; it is a “trademark” that can be identified well beyond the traditional audiences of neo-fascism. Today, vast shares of Italian public opinion are very familiar with CasaPound thanks to CPI’s performances and ability to attract media attention (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
Moreover, CPI pays particular attention to the promotion of its events on its online platforms, so that journalists often find all the information, photos, and material they need directly from the sources of the relevant group, thus allowing CPI to exert control over its own imagery and narratives. Accordingly, demonstrations and public events are organized and planned with extreme caution to produce “iconographic” results.CPI has thus demonstrated a considerable knowledge of developing a form of storytelling based on dramatization of narratives, visual staging of protest, and the construction of controversy by means of symbolic innovation and discursive hybridization (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
Thank to hybridization strategies—i.e. the strategic combination of organizational features and activities inspired by different political cultures, institutional party politics, and non-institutional contentious actions—five features of CPI’s politics are blurred: ideology, internal structure, activism, mobilization, and communication. Hybridization in these five main aspects of extreme right politics allows CPI to attract quality media attention while also validating extremist views in the public sphere (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020) via agitprop (agitation propaganda) actions—propaganda and demonstrations aimed at mobilizing public support.CPI benefits from this strategy of hybridization, which taps into commercial media demand for entertaining stories and simplified messages. Its unconventional mix of extreme right, pop-culture, and left-progressive styles helps ensure media coverage in both the protest and electoral arenas (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019).
In terms of political symbols, CPI also offers a hybrid media product associating pop and left-wing icons with extreme right codes. The goal is not only to empty established symbols of their meaning, but also to present an innovative and unusual narrative for responding to the commercial needs of the mass media (Castelli Gattinara, 2017). Through hybridization and media-savviness, CasaPound increasingly meet the commercial media appetite for sensational, entertaining stories and polarizing news. Ultimately, CPI has realized that complying with the logistics of news production helps ensure that fringe or extreme ideas drift into the mainstream (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019).
CasaPound have reconstructed fascism as what Castelli Gattinara and Froio have characterized as a “hybrid communication style.” Images of Mussolini and fascist iconography mingle with references to cultural figures sympathetic to fascist ideas, or those who might be termed proto-fascist—Ezra Pound, obviously, but also Marinetti, D’Annunzio, Sorel, Knut Hamsun, Yeats, and Nietzsche. The effect is a strange collage of nostalgic nods to the years of the fascist ventennio and to “pop culture” (Barnes, 2019).CPI’s visual propaganda also features Che Guevara and Karl Marx alongside popular pirate cartoon characters Corto Maltese and Captain Harlock, and music by anarchist songwriter Fabrizio De André (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019). This strategy has gained CasaPound a significant degree of media attention. News agencies seem to be interested in the phenomenon of “acquisition” of left-wing issues and repertoires of action by extreme-right organizations: CasaPound’s squats, concerts, and “showpiece” protests, as well as the attention it gives to issues such as homosexual rights and the environment (Castelli Gattinara et al, 2013).
Moreover, CPI activists favour hip symbols and neutral clothing—jeans and T-shirts—rather than stereotyped extreme-right styles, such as shaved heads and combat boots. This improbable mix of aesthetic influences has fascinated the Italian media, building the notion that CPI promotes a new, glamorous approach to extreme-right politics (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019).Meanwhile,to maximize the visual impact of CPI’s demonstrations, participants form ranks of seven or eight persons and then march in orderly lines separated from one another by a maximum of two meters. Ideologically, these practices clearly reflect the idea of order and unity—strategically, they help the group to exert control over its own image when it interacts with the mass media during public events and enable it to extend its visibility well beyond the extreme-right milieu (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
Competing in elections also increased CPI’s presence in the mainstream media. To enhance its political newsworthiness, CPI developed professionalized media management techniques designed to locate the party on the “friend” side of the “friend-foe” relationship between the media and the radical right. To do this, CPI specifically satiated the media’s desire for the spectacular and theatricality (Bulli, 2019).CPI made use of theatricality in all its political demonstrations, from traditional rallies to symbolic performances. By employing shocking tactics—like hanging dummies from town bridges in order to denounce rising prices, unemployment, and the pressures of immigration, or dyeing the water in the Senigallia fountain red in memory of the blood of Italians who committed suicide due to the pressures of debt—the movement achieved extensive media coverage. CPI used the term “squadrismo mediatico” (media squadrism) to describe this strategy (Bulli, 2019).
Gretel Cammelli (2018) lists some of CPI’s actions that have been defined as “mediatic squadrism”: a 2012 demonstration inside a high school in Rome that involved setting off smoke bombs and shouting for the Duce (Mussolini) to return; an incursion into the public television studio (Rai Tre) in 2009 to express disapproval of a programme (Chi l’ha visto), in which militants ran into the studio and warned the Italian public and politicians “not to play with their lives.” They had several t-shirts printed bearing the text “perfect squadrist style: dress up as a rockstar.”The media helps CPI gain visibility by providing attention to issues on which they enjoy enhanced public credibility, notably immigration and security (Boomgaarden & Vliegenthart, 2007).
When CPI has sought to clean up its image in order to penetrate mainstream Italian political debate, the media have again played a starring role in the project, helping to normalise and even glamourise the far-right movement (Torrisi, 2018).
While CPI’s outward-oriented media practices have shaped public policy and state action, and/or set the terms of public debates and agendas, it also displays an internal media politics focused primarily on reinforcing ideological consistency and subcultural identification and constructing a brand identity that ensures internal cohesion and external distinctiveness. Hence, inward-oriented activism stands out for its function in structuring collective identities and ideological coherence (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020) associated with an alternative culture and community (Atkinson & Berg, 2016).Rather than being solely an instrument of internal propaganda and control, inward-oriented media practices serve the purpose of building the collective identity of the groups, binding militants within a common culture and ensuring their coherent representation towards the outside world (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
CPI is also expert in the use of social media. It uses social media to garner support and help appeal to a young demographic. The language they use tends to be based on slogans, incitements, and abstract concepts, rather than articulated ideological positions.
In addition, they use self-produced media innovatively (Bartlett et al., 2012).It now counts on one Internet television channel (Tortuga TV) and a monthly newspaper (Occidentale). The radio channel Radio Bandiera Nera (RBN, Black Flag Radio) was created in 2007. Initially hosted on the online forum Vivamafarka, RBN is now carried on fifteen radio stations in Italy and three abroad. It puts out political and cultural news and interviews, but its main content is far-right music. In 2013, the newspaper Il Primato Nazionale was created as an online newspaper covering CPI’s internal and external activities. Since its founding, it has become the press organ of CPI and hosts articles by its most prominent political and cultural figures (Bulli, 2019).
Indeed, there is a considerable symmetry between CPI’s internal structure and its media apparatus. The group can count not only on official social media profiles (Facebook, 240,000 likes; Twitter, 18,000 followers), and on a website summarizing its basic values, activities and proposals, but also on dedicated pages for each territorial branch, and individual pages for national leaders and candidates.
Despite this fragmentation, these online platforms are very coherent in aesthetic choices and in the diffusion of messages. The graphic design and format of all websites and platforms are intended to provide a sense of ideological purity and belonging, not only through the selection of symbols, but also through the homogeneity of colours and fonts, creating a continuity between the main portal and the pages of its peripheral organizations and increasing the distinctiveness of the network. At the same time, these choices closely correspond to those observed in CPI’s offline communication and activities (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020).
The coherence of CPI’s network is ensured by online activists and “web-supporters.” Web supporters are “CPI’s online task force” and are as important as other members and activists. In this respect, CPI’s media practices also produce innovative and more flexible forms of participation beyond traditional party membership (Castelli Gattinara & Bouron, 2020). However, Facebook and Instagram closed CPI’s official accounts in 2019. A Facebook spokesman told the Italian news agency Ansa: “Persons or organisations that spread hatred or attack others on the basis of who they are will not have a place on Facebook and Instagram” (Tondo, 2019). However,a civil court in Rome has ruled that Facebook must immediately reactivate CPI’s account and pay the group €800 for each day the account has been closed (Giuffrida, 2019; Global Freedom of Expression, 2020).
Anti-Immigration & Antisemitism
While CPI supporters oppose immigration and multiculturalism, their arguments against immigration are unconventional and on “progressive” grounds (Jones, 2018) compared with other far-right-wing organisations and is an example of “care racism.” CPI argues that immigration is bad for the immigrants themselves, as it is a form of “modern slavery” (Bartlett et al., 2012).
“We want to stop immigration,” says Di Stefano. “Low-cost immigrant workers mean Italians are unable to negotiate wages, while the immigrants are exploited” (Kington, 2011a). Though Italy has fewer migrants than many other Western European countries (Eurostat, 2019),conservative lawmakers have painted an alarming picture of an invasion that has plunged the country into an unmanageable emergency (Povoledo, 2018).According to Bartlett et al. (2012), CasaPound’s arguments against immigration are mainly economic in nature. CasaPound argues that it is not against immigrants per se, but rather criticise immigration as a forced result of globalisation. They claim that globalisation creates a “multirazzista” (multiracist) society, where the rising number of immigrants prevents the state from protecting its own citizens.
In the political programme of CasaPound, migration constitutes the third priority, and the movement states its clear opposition to the “migration mechanism.” The programme proposes “blocking all migration inflows, sending back all irregular migrants, and sustaining any identity-based movement active in other countries capable of promoting the re-settlement of people in their own countries.” CasaPound declares its desire for “a world where the differences are protected and promoted… in order to prevent the confusion and spoiling of each identity.” Succinctly, it is stated in the programme: “Stop invasion; Italians first!” (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). The “real human values” are expressed through a racially exclusionary, moralized claim on social housing. Leading up to the 2018 elections, the movement recalibrated their discursive and material focus on the housing issue in more directly xenophobic terms, with the slogan “Italians should come first and then, maybe, foreigners” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
The “manifesto della razza” published in Italy in 1938 affirmed the existence of hierarchically positioned races and the importance of preserving the “Italian race” before all others. CPI has edited its programme to eliminate any explicit references to the racist policies of the fascist epoch; nevertheless, many CasaPound statements reveal an updated version of this tendency to consider human beings different from one another (Castelli Gattinara, Froio & Albanese, 2013: 250). These statements provide an example of what in the social sciences is known as “differential racism” (Wieviorka, 1998).CasaPound does not grant any value to race as a genetic attribute, but identity is promoted as a feature deriving from the person’s culture and linked to a specific national territory. In this discourse, such identities are naturally linked to national borders and history, elements which determine the specific culture of the area in question. This specific culture in turn produces the identity of individuals, and CasaPound has declared itself ready to defend these specific cultures and traditions against the supposed risk of contamination entailed in encountering and living with different cultures. According to this logic, migrants should be sent back to their own countries because different cultures cannot live together. This example of cultural fundamentalism (Stolcke, 1995) claims different access to citizenship and civil rights depending on the origins of the individual in question (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
CasaPound’s actions often target centres hosting migrants and asylum seekers through outright attacks (Selmini, 2016) or symbolic demonstrations. Throughout 2014 and 2015, CasaPound’s leaders organised rallies against asylum centres that were due to open. All over Italy, every time a vacant building was converted into an asylum centre, CasaPound members contacted local citizens opposing the centres, offering strategic advice (Jones, 2018).This occurred, for instance, in Goro Gorino in the autumn of 2016, when CasaPound and Lega Nord activists coordinated with local resident to put together a committee to prevent asylum seekers from settling in the town, erecting a barricade across the street at night. CPI members also invaded the emergency area of a hospital in Bolzano in 2018 to protest homeless people who took refuge there overnight (Povoledo, 2018).
Furthermore, in May 2019, angry protesters and members of the CPI tried to block a Roma family from accessing its assigned council apartment in the Casal Bruciato district of Rome. When riot police escorted a woman and her child back to the apartment, some protesters raised their arms in a fascist salute; others shouted racial insults and rape threats (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2019). Some female residents in the district said, “we want to see them all hanged, burned.” “Shall we call Mussolini back from the dead?” asked another woman ironically. “I wish,” replied the others (ANSA, 2019).
Eventually, CasaPound militants went on to actually kill migrants. The first incident took place in Florence in 2011, when a CasaPound militant with a gun shot and killed two workers from Senegal; another occurred in Fermo in the summer of 2016, when a CasaPound sympathizer beat an asylum seeker to death. CasaPound’s rhetoric of opposition to migrants and different cultures open the way for violent actions and shows how the fascist past can find space for its mythological narration and thereby legitimize a specific identity in the present (Gretel Cammelli, 2018).
Meanwhile, despite CPI’s Di Stefano stating that Mussolini’s racial laws were “a mistake… We believe in the national community and the Jews in Italy are part of that,” (Kington, 2011a) CPIis antisemitic. It cooperated with Lebanese radical Islamist group Hezbollah in 2015. While CasaPound borrows a significant amount of its ideology from Italian Fascism, it attempts to disassociate itself officially from antisemitism (Staff, 2012).
CasaPound has condemned Mussolini’s racial laws as a mistake—while also adding that they have to be understood in a context in which antisemitism was a worldwide phenomenon and not specifical to Italy (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).Di Stefano said, “We are not racists, we are not antisemitic, we do not have problems with Israel,” when CPI’s political ally Matteo Salvini was denied entry into Israel on the purported basis of his CasaPound connection. In 2018, Di Stefano defended then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies regarding repatriation of illegal immigrants to Africa as “undoubtedly excellent,” and criticised humanitarian organisations and the United Nations for intervening to prevent them.
CasaPound’s Transnational Connections and Impact
Despite being a small group, CPI has been able to set an example for extreme-right social movements (Koch, 2013).Indeed, CasaPound has become a reference point at the European level, attracting the attention not only of the observers of political extremism, but also of the media and the public (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).Over the years, CPI’s leaders have been invited to explain its “political model” in many major European capitals (Paris, Madrid, London, Lisbon, Brussels, Warsaw).In 2011, the Finnish Resistance Movement invited members of CasaPound to a seminar in Helsinki (YLE, 2011). Other extreme-right organizations in Europe are also increasingly studying CasaPound’s experience: in November 2014, the leader of CPI was invited to the international conference, “The Awakening of Nations,” organized by the French Groupe Union Défense, along with other extremist groups such as the Greek Golden Dawn (and its Cypriote branch ELAM), the Belgian Nation, the Spanish Movimiento Sociale Republicano and Liga Joven, the French Mouvement d’Action Sociale, and some representatives from the online platform Synthèse Nationale (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
Moreover, CasaPound has always voraciously consumed foreign trends and repackaged them for an Italian audience: it absorbed the anti-capitalist ideas of France’s Nouvelle Droite movement and built friendships with members of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (Jones, 2018). CasaPound has also promoted initiatives outside Italy through its non-profit organization Solidarité Identités. Through the Sol.Id network, CasaPound activists have engaged in projects in Burma, Crimea, Kosovo, Palestine, and Syria. Ten percent of CasaPound’s income is dedicated to the efforts of Sol.Id. Despite the group’s engagement in Syria, in support of the Assad government’s “struggle to defend its people” CasaPound activists saw no contradiction between supporting the Syrian people in their homeland and being opposed to granting asylum to Syrians fleeing to Europe (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
On foreign policy, CPI’s core beliefs include fondness for Russia and sharp opposition to the EU, globalization, and immigration (Horowitz, 2017), and supporting a communitarian-nationalist Europe. CasaPound Facebook supporters have very negative attitudes towards the EU. CasaPound supporters were significantly more likely to cite the following when asked about their views about the EU: loss of cultural and national identity (63 percent vs only 12 percent of the Italian general public); waste of money (48 percent vs 16 percent); bureaucracy (33 percent vs 7 percent); and not enough control at external borders (46 percent vs 9 percent) (Bartlett et al., 2012). Nevertheless, CPI defines itself as a pro-European organization, unlike many contemporary radical-right movements. Once more, this element connects them to the tradition of the neo-fascist right dating back to the early 1950s, when fascist groups were transnational actors proposing an ideal European nation-state based on shared traditions and homogeneous cultures and values. To these ideals, CasaPound adds the proposal of a protectionist Europe, with the goal of achieving a European-wide area of economic and welfare self-sufficiency (Castelli Gattinara et al., 2013).
CasaPound Italy is one of the most interesting and ambiguous populist right-wing extremist groups to emerge in Europe in recent decades (Bartlett et al., 2012). Itssupporters say they are not racist—but they oppose immigration because of its impact on wages and housing; claim they are not antisemitic, but anti-Israel vis-à-vis Palestine; not homophobic, but supporters of the “traditional family” (Lidell, 2012). Never before has Italy seen an explicitly neo-fascist group enjoying strategic viability that CasaPound today enjoys. Although CasaPound remains marginal from an electoral point of view, its visibility in the Italian system is symptomatic of the ability of the extreme right to assimilate populist and alternative agendas in order to increase the attractiveness of their policies (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2015).
Like other extremist movements, CasaPound is an example of the tendency in contemporary Europe to play on fears and social crisis in order to advance a right-wing ideology (Gretel Cammelli, 2018). Despite its grassroots nature and extreme ideology, CPI has acquired national relevance and gained international media exposure. In recent years alone, the group opened 94 new local chapters, successfully penetrating mainstream public debates and receiving disproportionate attention by national media. The visibility of CPI’s symbols, campaigns, and brand among mainstream audiences is unprecedented for a fringe group so openly inspired by historical fascism (Castelli Gattinara & Froio, 2020). CPI has also exploited COVID-19, calling the Italian response to the pandemic, “amateurish and partisan” (Willson, 2020).
In the closing sentences of his essay titled “Ur-Fascism” published in the New York Review of Books, Umberto Eco (1995) warned that “it would be much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying: ‘I want to re-open Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares. Life is not that simple’.” The spectre of a new fascism currently haunts Italy—and Europe—but is not readily identifiable in the black-shirted urban and rural spectacles of CasaPound. It is alarming to see that a survey by Censis research institute showed 48.2 percent of Italians are in favour of having a “strongman” in power who does not care about parliament and elections, while a poll by Demos in November 2017 revealed that almost 60 percent of Italians were “very worried about the rise of fascism” (Bialasiewicz & Stallone, 2020).
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The Five Star Movement (M5S) is one of those populist parties that is often misunderstood. Throughout the years, the media, independent journalists, and bloggers—as well as well-known academics and commentators—have struggled to define this “strange political creature.” Some have labeled it a polymorphous “hybrid-party” and others a “movement-party.” The mistake most analysts make when discussing the M5S is that they somehow forget the party’s left-wing origins.
By Amedeo Varriale*
Italy’s Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S) has long been considered a left-wing populist formation. This is mainly because its original agenda was dedicated to addressing five themes (the so-called “five stars”) that were the preserve of the 20th century’s post-materialist left-wing parties and movements—public water, sustainable transport,sustainable development, technology, and environmentalism. They are typical issues of the post-1968 New Left (Tarchi, 2015: 337).
The New Left encompassedvarious European parties that gradually abandoned their original radically authoritarian, Marxist, statist positions to embrace contemporary issues such as environmentalism, feminism, and globalization (Damiani, 2016: 13). We know that these left-wing establishment parties adopt a more liberal and libertarian outlook than the anti-systemic extreme left. Today, the Dutch Socialist Party, the M5S, La France Insoumise, SYRIZA, and PODEMOS flirt with populism rather than with Marxist–Leninism and are no longer necessarily inspired by the old Soviet (or even Chinese) model (Moffit, 2020: 55–70). Today, some contemporary left-wing parties may very well be fully populist, given they adopt a particularistic form of politics that involves people-centricappeals and unmediated forms of communication. In this way, they go beyond the clientelist, formalist, and territorial politics of the traditional social-democratic mass parties.
The Five Star Movement, one of the youngest children of the reformist and progressive New Left(which some scholars like Luke March associate with the “radical left”), is a perfect example. It gained serious popularity, not by using outdated Marxist tropes but by embracing left-wing populism and mobilizing disenchanted voters in a period of widespread social malaise. This form of populism, quite different from the significantly more anti-migrant and socially conservative right-wing variant, is an ideology that combines left-wing politics and populist rhetoric and themes. The rhetoric of left-wing populism often consists of anti-elitist sentiments, opposition to the establishment, and speaking for the “common people” (Ibid). While themes like anti-capitalism, social justice, pacifism, and anti-globalization are very much relevant to these populists, class struggle and class society, as well as socialist theory, are not as important as they are to traditional left-wing parties (Ibid). The case of the Five Star Movement, which will be analyzed in the following paragraphs, is very much a demonstration of this.
Suppose we follow Cas Mudde’s (2004: 543) lead and treat populism as an ideology that considers society as two homogeneous and antagonistic groups (“the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”) and holds that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. In that case, the Five Star Movement is a left-populist party. The raison d’être of the party ever since its first protests (the V’Day protests in 2007) has been to pressure professional political elites to step down in order to take politics back to the people (Tarchi, 2015). Their first offensives were against the Italian establishment, which they saw as untrustworthy and detrimental to the commonwealth (Tarchi, 2015).
Populists of the left purport to give a voice to the silent majority—the ordinary men and women who (according to the populists) are being let down by career politicians, bureaucrats, corporate bankers, the media, and the European techno-managerial establishment in Brussels and Strasbourg that has usurped governing power. Unlike the populist right, the grillini (a term used by Italian pundits to refer to supporters of the M5S’s “guarantor” Beppe Grillo) do not openly argue that Italian ethnic and cultural identity is under threat by a wave of immigration perpetrated by financial corporations (or “liberal elites” conspiring to create a new order based on multiculturalism and cheap labor). Instead, the grillini propagate the left-wing populist narrative that social democracy has failed—in no longer representing its old electoral base and betraying its egalitarian principles (Gandesha, 2018).
Moreover, Grillo has openly called for the left to abandon the concept of class struggle in favor of a so-called caste struggle (Tarchi, 2015: 351; Zazzara, 2019: 110). To some degree, this is a defensible approach, at least according to proponents of left–populism like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (Moffit, 2020: 65). For some time, high-ranking M5S members like Alessandro Di Battista and Grillo himself have justified their attacks on elites by arguing that “the caste” has steadily impoverished Italians (“Ci hanno impoveriti”). The leadership argues that only the M5S (the so-called “true democrats”) can “open up parliament like a can of tuna” to restore to power everyday citizens with ordinary qualities such as common sense (Tarchi, 2015). This is in line with their call for direct democracy, a feature that, alongside anti-elitism, is central to understanding the true ethos of the party.
Ideology and Discourse
The French political scientist Guy Hermet (2000: 80) long ago observed that populism’s capacity to capitalize electorally on cultural, financial, and political crises and its futurist, quasi-utopian, and millenarian features make it palatable to left- as well as right-wing forms (Tarchi, 2015: 374). Hermet’s vision has been borne out by the Five Star Movement, which has deftly navigated Italy’s post-2009 recession and post-2015 refugee crises in recent years. Beyond established thinkers like Hermet, newer commentators like Albertazzi and McDonnell (2008) advance the idea that populism can indeed be left-oriented. In fact, popular sovereignty in the past has very much been a theme of focus adaptable to the republicanism and commitment to democratic principles of the center-left (Tarchi, 2015: 373).
Nevertheless, the Five Star Movement cannot be treated as a classic left-wing party and has never been particularly committed to liberal republicanism. Yet its overt focus on the majoritarian aspects of democracy (linked to what Peter Mair defined as the popular pillar of democracy) and commitment to the nation’s sovereignty and the volonté générale of Italian citizens falls in line with the definition of left-wing populism provided above. For example, expanding the welfare state—a typical left-wing policy—and the so-called Reddito di Cittadinanza(a kind of universal basic income scheme) were “signature policies” that the M5S took to the 2018 elections (Mancini, 2020).
The overt hostility toward elites embedded within the M5S ideology saw Grillo and his circle try (and fail) to introduce a “recall” procedureand referendums without a quorum (i.e., against privatization of water, nuclear energy, and the Euro) into the Italian system (Tarchi, 2015: 341; Adnkronos, 2014).However, they were successful in reducing parliamentary salaries and the number of MPs (Brunetti, 2019). Another great success was blocking arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has intervened militarily in Yemen and thus been party to severe breaches of international human rights laws (according to the United Nations, a child under the age of five dies every ten minutes in Yemen). Such policies reflect a blending of the polymorphous ideology of populism and the zealously egalitarian and pacifist values of the New Left.
In order to understand the discourse and ideology of the “strange political animal” that is the M5S, we must first look at the background of its founders—Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio. Grillo, an ex-comedian, is well-known for his passionate tirades against the establishment (i.e., the leftist Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia or Forward Italy). Casaleggio was a wealthy entrepreneur from the technology sector who invested in the revolutionary “Gaia project”—inspired by the 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology” written by the media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron—that seeks to dismantle parliamentary, representative systems to bring democratic processes online (Musso and Maccaferri, 2018). It is for this reason (among others) that Chris Bickerton (2018) has spoken about the Five Star Movement as a “techno–populist” party. Grillo has never hidden his admiration for the internet and has gone so far as to point out that the web is a collective good and a necessary one since “even prostitutes do their business online, without the inefficient and unfair mediation of pimps (Tempi, 2013). In addition, both founders expressed convictions that the web reflects the values of the egalitarian left (it is apparently “Franciscan, anti-capitalist”) and that “online, ideas and sharing ideas are worth more than money” (Natale and Ballatore, 2014: 10; Grillo and Casaleggio, 2011: 9).
The M5S web portal “Rousseau”(directly inspired by the French thinker’s ideas of the volonté générale, civic nationalism, and direct democracy) is central to party organization. Through the portal, party members (not just MPs) choose what candidates to field for important local, municipal, regional, and national elections (Stockman and Scalia, 2019). Time and time again, the press and committed constitutionalists have criticized the party’s “digital primary” process for its lack of transparency, as explained in the book by a veteran of Italian journalism Bruno Vespa (2018). In conversation with someone intricately linked to the movement, Vespa underlines how—contrary to the conventional wisdom—decision-making within the movement is not at all bottom-up but is instead quite top-down. Ideas other than those of Grillo and Casaleggio are readily dismissed (Vespa, 2018).This has sometimes resulted in members being expelled, including Federico Pizzarotti, the former mayor of Parma, and Giovanni Favia, an M5S politician from the Emilia-Romagna region (who revealed to journalists that there is no democracy in the M5S as Casaleggio manages every single programmatical aspect), and many others.
Grillo’s agenda, especially on immigration, has often conflicted with that of the activists who are in theory able to use “Rousseau” to advance proposals and policy ideas. For instance, when two Five Star MPs (Maurizio Buccarella and Andrea Cioffi) proposed decriminalizing illegal immigration, Grillo reprimanded them, saying that it was not in the electoral program, although the majority of the members had voted in favor. Rather than implement the members’ decision, Grillo has since ignored or avoided discussing it in public (Parodi, 2019). Nonetheless, the M5S cannot exactly be considered pro-immigrant either. Grillo has always been skeptical of multiculturalism, as numerous posts on his blog make clear: “Citizenship for those born in Italy to parents born elsewhere makes no sense” (Grillo, 2012). It is clear given their positioning in parliament—abstaining on votes that would make access to Italian citizenship easier for immigrants—that Grillo’s party supports ius sanguinis (citizenship inherited through parents) to the current policy of ius soli(citizenship by birth) (Tarchi, 2015: 344).
It is also true that Grillo’s partisan leanings are ambiguous—he has never declared himself right-wing and did once attempt to become a candidate for the center-left (but in practice neoliberal) Democratic Party. Moreover, he often reiterates his passion for leftist egalitarian principles. He once stated that “Everyone counts, regardless of their social position. I want a single mother with four children to be able to become mayor of a city…”(Tarchi, 2015: 342). Interestingly, this ambiguity has led pundits to question whether the Five Star’s success among older, disenchanted center-right voters is merely a direct result of his and Luigi Di Maio’s (former M5S leader, deputy prime minister, and current Italian foreign minister) rants against pro-immigrant NGOs (rather than migrants themselves). Both Grillo and Di Maio have been given to localist, folkloristic, identitarian discursive–performative devices that sometimes resonate well with the populist right (Damilano, 2020).
Grillo is known to begin some of his semi-ironic public addresses by pointing to the audience and shouting “Italians!” Here, perhaps, observers have drawn a false equivalence with Mussolini’s nationalistic populism (Scanzi, 2013). Nonetheless, Di Maio has accused Grillo of being too centrist and has openly expressed his sympathy for national–conservative values of economic, territorial, and popularsovereignty. Di Maio has said that “the term sovereignty is found in the very first article of the Italian Constitution… Sovereignty means… defending the interests of Italians. If this is a crime, then arrest us all [the M5S] because this is what we have started doing.”
Commentators like Fabio Bordignon and Luigi Ceccarini (2019: 167) are perhaps correct in defining these left-wing populists as “multi-ideological” (rather than “post-ideological”). Grillo (2013) has stated in his blog that he is “proudly populist” and has always wanted the M5S—which is supposed to be an “idea, not an ideology”—to function as a big-tent party (Tarchi, 2015: 339). For Grillo, the M5S is a political force to mobilize the young and the old, the wealthy and the poor, and both private and public sector workers. The big-tent approach comes from the goal of fundamentally destabilizing representative democracy by forcing it to abandon programmatic parties in favor of partyless democracy,which all forms of populism promote to some degree (Mair, 2002). Grillo insists on “a state without parties governed by citizens directly, for a limited amount of time and as a civic service” (Tarchi, 2015: 339).
Setting aside the fact that the M5S is polymorphous and is understood to have many currents within it, we can argue (taking Grillo’s words at face value) that his organization is “neither left-wing nor right-wing—it is a movement of Italians” (Il Fatto Quotidiano, 2013). In any case, a close look inspection of the M5S shows it seeks to mobilize the angry, the frustrated, and the disenchanted—those Italians who nurture a profound distrust for mainstream politics. Nevertheless, the core message of the party hues close to the ethos of the left—namely, foregrounding environmental issues and harshly criticizing the economic and political power of the big industrial groups (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2013: 432).
The Five Star Movement has not been a fully institutionalized party for long (the party first entered parliament in 2013 and was in opposition before June 2018). For this reason, the organizational structure is skeletal and deliberately so (Sun, 2019: 33). At the top, of course, we find the “Guarantor” of the party, Beppe Grillo, known to have strong links with the Casaleggio family and its company, Casaleggio Associati. His role is to set the tone and preserve the dynamic, protest-movement-like nature of the organization (as dictated in its party manifesto) as well as to decide “who’s in and who’s out” (Tarchi, 2015: 359). In other words, Grillo—alongside Casaleggio, the movement’s chief ideologue, and his apprentice Di Maio (who quit as leader in early 2020), both technically below Grillo in the M5S hierarchy—have set the political agenda.
Yet, it is inaccurate to view the M5S strictly as a hierarchical, top-down, leaderist party. Indeed, Bordignon and Ceccarini (2013: 438)have referred to it as a stratarchical organization because power is effectively dispersed through the ranks. Since those ranks are often in open disagreement with each other, there is a tendency toward internecine conflict. It is unclear whether the Members’ Assembly (“Assemblea Degli Iscritti”)—an advisory board of mostly parliamentary members that meets annually—is below Grillo and the party head (who is a political and legal frontman) vis-à-vis administrative decision-making and policy proposals (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163).
What is certain is that the Committee of Trustees(“Comitato di Garanzia”) has the power to supervise applications for membership and policy proposals. In 2018, the committee comprised Vito Crimi (who replaced Di Maio as “political head” in 2020), Roberta Lombardi, and Giovanni Cancellieri. It shares some power on important decisions with the Board of Arbitrators (“Collegio dei Probiviri”) (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163). The board’s task to monitor members’ compliance with party rules and take disciplinary action if needed (as when two MP’s were expelled for giving unapproved interviews on state television while under the M5S banner) (Tgcom24, 2021). The role of treasurer is essential, as it oversees internal and external financial resources (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163). Di Maio has held the role previously, but somewhere in the summer of 2020, the position went to the MP Sergio Battelli, who took on the delicate task of managing the EU’s Recovery Fund in Italy (Zapperi, 2020).
To be clear, the majority of these roles have been assigned to party members through internal (albeit relatively non-transparent) procedures of direct democracy. While direct democracy is essentially unconstitutional in Italy, the fact that Grillo himself owns the party logo and that the “Rousseau” platform (used for political purposes even as the party has access to public funds) is entirely in the hands of a private commercial firm like Casaleggio Associati casts some doubt on the bottom-up, spontaneous, protest-like image of the party that Five Star politicians like to portray (Biondo, 2019).
Five Star activists and grassroots members do not really appear to be entitled to all this liberty of self-expression (as much as Grillo claims) because if ever activists cease to “toe the party line,” they risk expulsion (or worse). More than once, Casaleggio’s son Davide—who inherited all the property of the Rousseau Association after his father’s death—has threatened to sue his own MPs and take complete charge of the platform if they fail to pay their membership dues on time (Lombardo, 2020).
The domestic policy of the Five Star Movement has been relatively straightforward. It advances partially redistributive and quasi-socialist economic policy to reduce socioeconomic inequality in Italy. Recent studies conducted by Ruth-Lovell (2019), Doyle (2019), and Hawkins (2019) show that governing populists of both the left and the right have committed to reducing the gap between the very rich and the poor and are more likely to do this with a welfarist approach rather than via tax relief (Moffit, 2020: 52–54). The aforementioned Reddito di Cittadinanza—really a policy of welfare chauvinism(in both its positive and negative aspects)—has been the M5S’s way of presenting itself as a pro-social and pro-working-class party committed to an essentially leftist agenda (Brancaccio and Fruncillo, 2019: 129–158).
Political opponents from both the left and the right have attacked these welfarist policies as too costly and poorly implemented. Nevertheless, the Five Star Movement has continued to operate as a populist force in government. Certainly, the party has steadily institutionalized itself and has had to back away from some “binding” commitments (e.g., holding a referendum on the Euro, opposition to the single market, and the promise not to ally with old rivals, like the national populist Lega party and the Democrats). Still, the party has managed to implement a series of its 2018 election pledges to spec (Di Maio, 2020). For example, M5S MPs successfully maneuvered to rescind the dysfunctional Fornero Law (a labor-market reform from 2011 aimed at reducing youth unemployment), scrapped the “golden pensions scheme” for MPs, and introduced harsh measures to combat public corruption (known as the spazzacorotti or “bribe destroyer” law) and a new decree to combat climate change. The M5S has worked hard to reduce the cost of the Italian state and limit the privileges of the political class (Di Maio, 2020). A referendum pushed forward by the Five Star Movement in conjunction with some other parties legislated a drastic reduction in the number of Italian MPs in September 2020. The move has been viewed favorably across the political spectrum and by most voters in Italy. In sum, the M5S has managed to shift the parliamentary demographic of the country. The arrival of grillini MPs into both of Italy’s chambers (the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate) after 2013 has produced a significant increase in the degree to which ordinary Italians feel involved and engaged in official political processes (Rapisarda, 2018).
Citizens who had never considered a political career nor had any involvement whatsoever with public administration—including former doctors and surgeons, tradesmen, volunteers from the private sector, primary sector workers, and teachers (among others)—have nonetheless begun to work in state institutions for the very first time (Agenzia Italia, 2019). The new civic consciousness and engagement of the “ordinary Italian” have been viewed as part of a great season of change in the history of Italian democracy (Ibid). Moreover, the number of young women in parliament has increased markedly, and commentators on the progressive left and more liberal right consider this a significant step forward for the country (Ibid).
The coalitions that the M5S has joined have also produced a marked turn in Italian policy toward the EU, often in a positive direction. To begin, the M5S—and its coalition partner and fellow populist outfit Lega—were the first parties in many years to openly confront Brussels over its uncompromising and often hostile approach to budgetary matters (Moschella and Rhodes, 2020: 4–5). Thus, the Troika had a hard-time taming Italy’s populists, in contrast with the position it had in conflicts with the Greek state in the past. Indeed, the Italian populists have aggressively defended a spending program that included both an expansion of welfare and a generalized cut of taxation—against the much-defended austerityapproach of the European Commission (Politi, 2018). Of course, an expansive budgetary approach is what led Italians to vote for radically populist and Euroskeptic parties in the first place.
Most pundits will argue that the most controversial aspect of the Five Star Movement’s domestic policy has been its tough line on immigration and security (the latter actually unrelated to migrants). Most M5S MPs voted to save Matteo Salvini (the deputy prime minister and off-and-on ally of the movement) from prosecution after he repeatedly refused to allow a rescue ship full of migrants to enter Italian ports in breach of international humanitarian laws (Reuters, 2021). Another controversy arose around a publicity stunt led by Salvini and the justice minister (from the M5S). In a classic example of “penal populism”(a term coined to describe the use of crime in populist propaganda) the two were in attendance for the cameras when the narco-terrorist Cesare Battisti—who had just been extradited from Brazil—landed back on Italian territory.
The Five Star Movement’s foreign policy has always been somewhat contentious. From the outset, the grillini have rhetorically advocated for a re-alignment—or at least a reconsideration of aspects of Italy’s classic foreign policy orientation. Thus, the party has challenged Atlanticism, Europhilia/Europeanism, military interventionism—including peace-keeping operations —as well as large-scale multi-national capitalist projects (such as the EU-funded Trans-Adriatic gas pipeline or TAP)—in favor of a politically different direction. A big part of the Five Star Movement’s agenda has involved tilting Italy’s foreign policy axis toward China and, to a lesser degree Russia (Coratella, 2020). This “Euro-critical” approach—usually accompanied by mild anti-Americanism—comes directly from within the more socialist currents of the M5S, especially those led by the rabble-rouser Di Battista and the more institutionalist but no less ideologically driven Roberto Fico, the current president of the Chamber of Deputies.
Long before their first experience in government (which continues to this day), the Five Star had always exhibited a thinly veiled hostility toward neoliberal Western powers. This has included the German and French governments (in the latter case, by sending party representatives to meet the leaders of the insurrectionist “Gilet Jaunes” or “Yellow Vests” to express their sympathy), but also the United States before Trump. Grillo, Di Battista, and other leading figures in the organization have never really hidden their affinity for the developing world and certain “rogue states” (Tarchi, 2015: 352). So much so that in government, the Five Star Movement refused to recognize Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido as president (Binelli, 2019). The party’s support for withdrawing Italian troops from Afghanistan is another example of a deep skepticism toward globalism and a quasi-isolationist weltanschauung typical of populists of both the left and the right (Nelli Feroci, 2019: 12).
The Five Star Movement’s uncompromising opposition to Italy’s adoption of the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM), its constant critiques of NATO’s defensive strategy (an approach reminiscent of the old Italian communist left of Enrico Berlinguer), its position against EU sanctions on Russia, and its desire to reform the statute of the European Central Bank (ECB) all align neatly with the party’s populist ideology. The more ideological populists are usually highly critical of the mainstream media and high finance “castes” (Panebianco, 2020).
The early Five Star Movement in opposition (2009–2018) was undoubtedly a lot more Euroskeptic than the current one, which had to evolve politically once confronted with real institutional power. Governing the third-largest EU member state has inevitably meant making compromises with other parties once demonized (especially the Democratic Party) and shelving some of their more bizarre and radical policies. These include initiatives such as ceasing negotiations over the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), MP selection by lottery, and scrapping Article 67 of the Italian Constitution, which exempts MPs from any “vincolo di mandato”—the obligation to act strictly according to the voters’ mandate.
Five Star MPs (with some exceptions) are now more cautious in pointing the finger at the EU as the perpetrator of Italy’s evils (namely, low growth and high unemployment). Still, they remain critical of most of their old enemies and have continued to antagonize them subtly. For example, the agreements of former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte—known in Italy as “the people’s lawyer”—with China over theBelt and Road Initiative (BRI) were frowned upon in Washington (Nelli Feroci, 2019: 10).
Furthermore, allegations have surfaced that Five Star’s political operations have been financed by Venezuela’s authoritarian government, which has worried the other parties they worked with in parliament to get bills passed (Bozza, 2020). Rhetoric and bizarre proposals aside, in its three years as part of governing coalitions, the Five Star Movement has never entirely severed ties with Italy’s foreign allies nor seriously damaged or impeded progress in diplomatic and economic relations. In fact, in commenting on the foreign policy of the populist coalition (of which the M5S was supposedly a senior partner), the former Italian diplomat Ferdinando Nelli Feroci (2019: 11) has pointed out that “despite uncertainty and ambiguity,” the populists have “pursued a line of relative, albeit often hesitant continuity.”
Even if there are ideological similarities that can be drawn with other movements or anti-establishment parties like the Pirate Party in Germany or the Gilet Jaunes, there has been no substantial political agreement between the Five Star and such political forces apart from limited political flirtation and informal communication (during the early days).The Five Star Movement (along with UKIP) formed the Euroskeptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group in 2014 after a vote on the “Rousseau”platform (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48).Unsurprisingly, because Grillo initially wanted to present the party in international as well as national politics as anti-establishment and radically reformist, he pointedly excluded the option of joining the somewhat ideologically similar but more moderate Greens/EFA (Ibid).
Once the M5S joined the EFDD, it was clear that Grillo’s political marriage to Nigel Farage and like-minded people was one of convenience (Ibid). Belonging to one group or another in the European Parliament usually signifies something deeper than just ideological affinity and is always somewhat functional to long-term strategic objectives at the domestic level. At least, this appeared to be the case for the Five Star Movement.It and UKIP were distant on the environment, domestic economic policy, and many aspects of foreign policy. However, they surely agreed on the fact that elites have abandoned the “losers of globalization” and that Brussels is a bully that prevents nation-states from making their own monetary decisions and controlling their own borders (Ibid). Both parties saw themselves as representing the “Europe of the people” rather than of the big banks (Michieli and Luxardo, 2016: 1–14).
Either way, the Five Star Movement (and apparently UKIP as well) treated EU alliances as secondary to what occurred in the national arena (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48). By 2020, M5S had already broken away from EFDD and was left with just 14 MEPs (Bresolin, 2020).Other members of EFDD relied on the movement because even if they voted differently on certain motions regarding the environment and relations with foreign superpowers (albeit similarly on EU integration issues), they still needed a big party from a large member state like Italy to avoid problems related to funding and finances, and voting rights in executive positions.
Bressanelli and De Candia (2018) report on recent research that the Five Star Movement is only moderately Euroskeptic. This soft Euroscepticism results in the Five Star voting like the European left-wing GUE/NGL and G/EFA on issues that do not explicitly involve more EU integration or direct democracy. At the end of the day, the movement did not really fit the EFDD due to its staunch anti-globalism, anti-immigration policy, and skepticism toward issues related to the environment or state intervention. A keen eye would notice that M5S and UKIP voted the same way less than half the time and are on different ends of the spectrum despite a shared populist style of communication (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48).
The “Rousseau” base voted overwhelmingly in favor in another vote on whether to join Guy Verhofstadt’s center-left ALDE. However, the existing ALDE membership decided it was a dangerous move that would risk a split by those group members more hostile and skeptical toward the Five Star Movement (Ibid). Verhofstadt himself feared the alliance might damage his image.
By 2017, many realized that Grillo’s strategy of moving away from the UKIP hardliners and the rest of the EFDD had some political logic. With the 2018 general elections approaching and a very weakened center-left after Matteo Renzi’s departure, the M5S wanted to project itself as an institutionally responsible party ready to lead the nation and to capture the majority of moderates and center-left voters disenchanted with the Italian Democratic Party (Ibid). If the M5S wanted to have a shot at becoming Italy’s leading party following Renzi’s exit from politics, it had no choice but to assure wealthy Italian families, national corporate and political elites, and international financial markets that it was not an “extremist” group and did not intend to leave the Eurozone. To some extent, this strategy paid off —M5S took 32 percent of the vote and emerged as the leading Italian party in competition with the center-right, although it had to ally with Lega to form a government.
From Opposition to Power: A Five-Starred Future?
In mid-2021, the Five Star Movement was polling between 16–17 percent and was lagging behind the right-wing parties (Lega and Brothers of Italy) and the center-left Democratic Party (TermometroPolitico, 2021).This is undoubtedly disappointing for a party that saw significant electoral gains off the back of the 2008–2009 financial crisis and the refugee/immigration crisis of 2015 to become the leading party by 2018 (Bulli and Soare, 2018).
Having spent the last few months of 2020 in the lost cause of saving Conte (who used to present himself as a Eurosceptic populist before his purported switch to being a staunch Europhile anti-populist), the grillini are really struggling with their political identity (Di Niro, 2021; The Submarine, 2020). Defending Conte until the end and then supporting the candidacy of former ECB head Mario Draghi as prime minister cost Grillo, Crimi, and Di Maio their parliamentary majority, with many MPs fleeing the party (Cuzzocrea, 2021). Also, the “pure heart” populist Di Battista publicly distanced himself from the party that he had helped build, showcasing his disdain for what is largely seen as a technocratic executive serving with the support of a center-right–center-left political coalition (Pucciarelli, 2021). This “grand coalition” was created to help Italy overcome the Covid–19 crisis and includes characters as distinct from each other as Enrico Letta and Matteo Salvini.
The Five Star’s identity had almost always been taboo for its semi-centralized leadership, which must constantly appease the infighting among distinct ideological currents and personalities within. Recently this ideological divide had become too obvious to deny. In December last year, 22 EU-critical Five Star representatives from the Chamber of Deputies voted against a motion on the new ESM or abstained (Il Fatto Quotidiano, 2020). Even more M5S Senators appeared happy to take the political risks of pitting themselves against party chair Di Maio by voting in favor (Ibid).
The party is highly factionalized. The first is the institutionalist faction (or centrist faction)made up ofMPs who follow Di Maio and Fico — the former more centrist and moderate, the latter openly progressive–leftist —in strategy. Both cabinet ministers want M5S to remain a party open to almost any kind of alliance to stay in power. The second is the “rebel hearts” who prefer to follow Di Battista’s guidance on policy and approach. This radical-left-wingpopulist faction has always been committed to anti-capitalism and hardline, anti-political (sometimes Manichean) principles. Di Battista and his followers are obviously less keen on broad alliances. Then there is the futuristic techno–populist factioncomprised of traditional M5S activists who rally behind Casaleggio and Grillo on the party’s blog to bring about a digital revolution that involves direct democracy at the national level. One of the oldest factions, its members maintain a cordial yet ambiguous relation with Di Maio’s wing mainly because they know they are forced to work within institutions if they want to change them. The fourth grouping is the environmentalist faction which does not have a true reference point or political figure within the party but oscillates between Grillo’s futuristic techno-populists and Di Battista’s populist-left.
Last, but not least, there is a minority that feels better represented by Conte and went out of its way to convince moderates from other opposition parties to vote to save his second prime ministership. We would possibly call this the loyalist faction as it comprises all those who believe Conte is the only one that can lead the movement in a fully Europeanist and responsible direction. These loyalists believe Conte did his best in administrating Italy during the Covid era by cooperating with European allies like the Germans and the French. This faction is careful to behave institutionally (probably even more so than Di Maio and Fico’s) and follow the Italian constitution to the letter. In fact, after some experience in government (initially alongside Lega), Conte’s men evolved away from the anti-politics approach of the past and came around to the idea that it is impossible to rid Italy of the establishment altogether. They now realize that the vast array of checks and balances introduced into the Italian political system after the Second World War mean that political actors are inexorably drawn into the establishment.
It bears noting that the institutionalization of the M5S has meant it has shed many of those right-wing, anti-establishment voters that contributed to its success in the highly volatile general election of 2013. Back then, Grillo’s team could rely on its anti-establishment appeal, which later manifested in Gianluigi Paragone’s now-defunct Italexit–No Europe for Italypartythat gave a direction and meaning to the M5S’s more nationalist proposals. Even if Paragone claims to lean socialist, in and out of parliament, he has focused a lot on issues concerning territorial (e.g., anti-immigration) and economic (e.g., Italy’s disputes with the European Commission on the budget) sovereignty that are seen as the preserve of the political right.
For a party that has worked very hard to appear honest, hard-working, law-abiding, and a vehicle for reform to bring ordinary people into the political sphere, the M5S has had to make painful choices. The party was famously committed to eschewing all political alliances with other forces, refused to participate in mainstream media or television talk shows (as they feared being scapegoated), declined to recognize the legitimacy and importance of parliament, failed to address the inefficiency of the horizontal and decentralized online platforms (occasionally mediated in a more authoritative, top-down manner by Grillo), and refused to admit that even an anti-establishment populist party can be susceptible to corruption and mismanagement (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 149–171).
All these aspects are manifest in the problems faced by Five Star mayors and local councils in Rome and Turin(Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 149–171). Above all, the backtracking on commitments and promises has seen the M5S become a party of government and a quasi-institutionalized organization. The political understanding that led to coalitions with Lega and the Democratic Party and ongoing parliamentary representation since 2013 has eroded the rebellious “anti-politics” quality of the early Five Star Movement. The result has been electoral poison in a country where elections have become highly volatile and with an electorate increasingly populated by non-voters who no longer identify with mainstream politics(Corbetta and Gualmini, 2013).
With Conte gone and following its many ideological and programmatic about-faces, the left-wing populists of the Five Star Movement are now on the verge of collapse. After changing course vis-à-vis sanctions on Russia, failing to deliver an EU referendum, changing its position on mandatory vaccines (this was one of Grillo’s favorite rallying cries), and completely abandoning its opposition to the TAP, there is a sense voter do not trust the party. The party’s fate appears to dovetail with that of populists in government (of both the left and right) in many parts of the world, thanks to the challenges associated with managing the Covid-19 crisis (Zangana, 2020).
On the right, Donald Trump lost the pivotal 2020 election, and Salvini — while back in government —is hamstrung in pushing his Eurosceptic agenda with Draghi in charge. On the other side of the Alps, Marine Le Pen (although ahead in polls) will struggle against Emmanuel Macron, who has reinvented himself as a civic nationalist who is “tough” on Islamists. Across the Atlantic, Jair Bolsonaro’s “machismo” stance on the virus has radicalized his own supporters and damaged his credibility with moderate conservative voters. He is now viewed as a full-blown authoritarian abroad and is widely blamed for more than 300,000 Covid-19 related deaths in Brazil.
On the left, the picture is not looking so bright either. The Five Star Movement, which was actually one of the most popular left-leaning populist forces worldwide (perhaps even more than Pablo Iglesias’s PODEMOS in Spain), has now become a pale imitation of the neoliberal Democratic Party and has lost more of its support in less than two years as a result. SYRIZA, the original and arguably most successful left-populist government in resisting EU edicts, are now out of government in Greece and have lost most of their “propulsive force” (a term used by Enrico Berlinguer to describe the Soviet Union’s downward spiral). Notwithstanding the effects of the pandemic, left-wing populists will most likely try to revive themselves as early as 2022, given the European Commission’s poor handling of the vaccine rollout offers a political lifeline that can be capitalized on at the ballot box.
Attacks on Big Pharma—at which the Five Star Movement excelled in the early days—are as effective when launched from the radical left as from the right. The European populist-left, unlike the center-left, is starting to understand that progressivism, environmentalism, and LGBTQ+ rights are not the only issues to be taken into consideration during agenda-setting. The public zeitgeist teaches us that much ground is being cleared for the right on socioeconomic issues, which is disadvantaging the left. Suppose the Five Star Movement were to return to being the unrelentless force that undermined the very legitimacy of the Italian neoliberal status quo. In that case, it will be because it will have returned to its roots as a credible big-tent party for the working classes, as the electorally more successful populists on the right (e.g., Chega!, Vox, Rassemblement National, and Fidesz) are. The “losers of globalization” are today no less disenchanted with mainstream politics than they were after the infamous collapse of Lehman Brothers, which for some remains an open wound (Stephens, 2018).
The M5S is one of those populist parties that is often misunderstood. Throughout the years, the media, independent journalists, and bloggers—as well as well-known academics and commentators—have struggled to define this “strange political creature.” Some have labeled it a polymorphous “hybrid-party” and others a “movement-party.” The mistake most analysts make when discussing the M5S is that they somehow forget the party’s left-wing origins.
Some accuse the movement of pandering to the anti-immigrant “far-right” due to its short-lived coalition experiment with Salvini. Others like Bickerton focus too much on its “techno–populist” media-savvy, treating it primarily as a vehicle for a digital revolution. Instead, one must attempt to understand the Five Star Movement in its entirety and for what it really is—namely, a legacy of the New Leftand an institutionalized populist-left party. The Greek intellectual Takis S. Pappas reminds us that populists tend to march toward institutions and can remain entrenched inside for extended periods as they seek to remake them (Pappas, 2019: 74).
Grillo has managed to bring an initially disorganized mass of his followers (who all held differing beliefs yet with a common anti-establishment denominator) together by mobilizing them online and giving a political flavor to anti-political protest. This protest was against pro-austerity center-right and center-left forces that dominated Italy’s bipolar system. However, there is no doubt that the majority of Five Star Movement activists, supporters, and parliamentarians—even when identifying as “post-ideological”—have views that fit much more readily with the left than the right. Their commitment to expanding welfare, technological innovation, migrant integration, environmental protection, civil liberties, and half-hearted (but still crucial) anti-capitalist crusades are certainly not those of the populist right. National populists of the right are instead mainly concerned with defending a nation’s borders, the traditional family, and ethno-cultural identity and tend to favor Atlanticism. For this reason, in assessing the ideology, discourse, and policies of the Five Star Movement, we must treat it as a case of left-wing populism or “social-populism.”
Even today, while being an active part of liberal Italian institutions, most of the policies they push forward are considered too radical and too leftist by neoliberal actors on the right and left (such as Forza Italia and the Democratic Party). The M5S clearly opted for a strategy of political compromise to retain its grip on power and maintain its parliamentary majority so as to ensure its influence over domestic policy (especially when it comes to the handling of EU funds). Yet, there is reason to believe that the scholar Marco Tarchi was right about the movement. Grillo’s creation is potentially a case of the purest forms of populism in Europe (Tarchi 2015: 333).
Not only have they upended Italy’s bipolar party system, but they have shepherded scores of ordinary people with no prior political experience into parliament and other state institutions. Their populist style and communication (always present to some degree since Benito Mussolini and Guglielmo Giannini) are now embedded within the democratic system and process. Evidence of this can be found in many anti-political television programs like “Piazzapulita” (“clean slate”), “Dritto e Rovescio” (“obverse and reverse”), and the daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano (“the daily fact”). The latter is openly sympathetic to the Five Star cause. In addition, examples of systemic populism manifest in the series of organized rhetorical attacks, threats, and brawls in parliament launched by Grillo’s MPs.
Only time will tell whether the Five Star Movement will disappear from the political scene (after Casaleggio’s death, Di Battista’s departure, and the betrayal of some of their core principles and constituencies, things are looking difficult for Grillo’s people). However, what is certain is that the legacy endures. The M5S has demonstrated the kind of impact that populists who institutionalize themselves can have. The Five Star’s presence in institutions has culminated in a drastic cut in the number of MPs (as well as their salaries), something virtually unprecedented in a large Western democracy. This sets a precedent that some may see as a curtailing of democracy. Instead, it should be understood part and parcel of Italy’s apparently functional “populist democracy.”
(*) AMEDEO VARRIALE is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of East London, UK. He earned a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Politics and International Relations from Kingston University in 2016 and has a Master of Arts from the University of Westminster. His research interests include contemporary populism and nationalism. He is currently participating in a ‘go-to textbook’ project funded by the University of Toronto, where his next publication, “English Nationalism: An Anatomy,” will be available shortly. Varriale has a keen interest in public policy and has been an active voice—through scholarship and journalism—in British public debates over freedom of speech, individual rights, and national identity.
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 Those are usually populist parties that oppose neoliberal mainstream mass parties and some of the institutions those actors operate in but are not against democratic principles and necessarily opposed to checks and balances. See Damiani (2016: 13) and works by Schedler (1996) and Abedi (2004).
 According to Damiani (2016: 13, 15) radical leftparties are somewhat more moderate than extreme leftparties given the former (unlike the latter) do not explicitly want to dismantle the democracy per se and have decided to abandon authoritarian and totalitarian objectives. The extreme leftis revolutionary not reformist and wishes to overcome the bourgeoise, capitalistic and liberal-democratic system altogether.
 See March’s paper “Contemporary Far Left Parties in Europe: From Marxism to the Mainstream?” published by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Institute in November 2008.
 See the introduction to Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy (2008) by Albertazzi and McDonnell.
 In his chapter in Democracies and the Populist Challenge(2008), co-edited by Mény and Surel, Mair explains that liberal democracy is composed of “two pillars” (the constitutional and the popular), which he juxtaposes in his analysis.
 A “recall” is a procedure by which voters from a constituency can legally remove an elected official before her term comes to an end. A small number of countries including the United States have adopted this system. In Italy, it remains unconstitutional.
 Chiara Corbetta and Elisabetta Gualmini used this phrase in their 2013 book on Grillo’s politics to describe the Five Star Movement.
 Gianroberto Casaleggio, the movement’s leading idealogue, passed away in 2016. The digital war machine of the movement (not just the blog but the “Rousseau” platform) then passed to his son, Davide Casaleggio.
 Di Maio made this statement on 30 July 2018 whilst commenting on the proposal by the governing coalition to appoint Marcello Foa as president of RAI (the Italian state broadcaster). For the full statement, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ug2FjaPNJ0 (in Italian).
 This agreement, among other things, asserts that the Five Star Movement is not a party and not meant to function as one.
 Di Maio resigned as political head on 22 January 2020 but remains one of the movement’s leading cabinet ministers.
 Eatwell and Goodwindeploy the term in their 2018 book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy to define parties opposed to mass immigration, globalised capitalism, and supra-national institutions like the European Union. Lega is certainly a right-wing party. However—as Mudde (2007) and others have noted—it is hard to label it as “radical/extreme right” (in Elisabeth Carter’s sense of the word) because of its relatively liberal positions on the role of the state, the individual, society, the market economy and commitments to anti-fascism, regionalism and localism. This locates Lega in contradistinction to the “palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism” (Griffin, 1995) of the neo-fascists located further on the right.
 See, for example, Pratt’s Penal Populism (2006) and Anastasia and Anselmi’s chapter “Penal populism in the multi-populist context of Italy” in Multiple Populisms: Italy as Democracy’s Mirror (2020) edited by Paul Blokker and Manuel Anselmi.
 By 2021, the number of MEPs had fallen to ten after some defections to the Greens.
 Parties that are not able to form a large EU party grouping end up as non-attached members and have no voting rights in the Conference of Presidents, a key executive organ in the European Parliament.
 Paragone was expelled from the party in December 2019 due to his arguments with the leadership and other MPs over their increasingly Europhile turn. He accused the party of having abandoned its manifesto commitments.