Populism and Incompetence in Updating the ‘System’

Far-right Golden Dawn party supporters attend the main pre-election rally outside the party's headquarters in Thessaloniki, Greece on June 15, 2014. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Why do many societies suddenly exhibit xenophobic and anti-systemic tendencies? Persuading those with phobic views is essential, and if persuasion fails, it indicates a failure in addressing the underlying issues. The examples illustrate that populism thrives in environments where social problems remain unresolved or experience significant delays due to incompetence or bureaucratic practices. Instead of efficiently solving problems, responsible agents often opt for the easier route of criticizing populist approaches, which proves to be ineffective.

By Hercules Millas

The rise of populist discourses in recent decades, posing a threat to democratic regimes and fostering contempt for fundamental institutions, particularly the judiciary system in this context, is often linked to the failure of some states to address the everyday needs of their citizens. The expectation is that citizens should uphold and adhere to democratically established laws and the constitution of their country, resisting the demagoguery of populist leaders. However, a fundamental shift is required and at this point what is needed is to put the horse in front of the cart: laws and constitutions should be designed to earn respect and compliance by serving as effective tools for problem-solving rather than mere principles to be upheld out of propriety. Without this transformation, the proliferation of populism is likely to persist, eroding trust in institutions such as justice and law over the long term.

As an introduction, a case in Greece serves as an enlightening example to illustrate the challenges associated with illegal property occupation, particularly concerning second homes. The issue of squatting transcends national boundaries and is prevalent in both developed and developing countries. Effectively addressing this phenomenon is consistently complex, expensive, and time-consuming. While, in theory, the unauthorized occupation of another person’s property is considered illegal, practical deterrents and punitive measures often fall short. Squatters, armed with manuals, often sourced from the internet, employ strategies to prolong their stay in properties against the will of the rightful owners.

The state security forces, upon receiving complaints related to illegal property occupation, typically restrict their involvement to referring the cases to the appropriate court. This approach results in significant delays in restoring possession. Often exceeding a year, the process is prolonged due to the occupiers’ utilization of various procedural delaying tactics, such as presenting false rental contracts, filing harassment complaints against owners, lodging appeals, and more. In Greece, in particular, the retrieval of access to one’s property can span several years, during which the property is usually found vandalized and looted.

A potential "solution" to the problem gained attention in Greece when the far-right racist organization Golden Dawn took action in 2009. It is important to note that this organization has since been dissolved, and its leaders are incarcerated for their involvement in murders and actions reminiscent of Nazi ideology. However, for a period, its members effectively assisted property owners grappling with squatting issues. The process was straightforward: applying to the organization was sufficient. Within a few days, the property would be returned to the owners, sometimes even cleaned, and painted. Golden Dawn employed a simple method: threatening squatters with physical harm and more severe consequences.

In similar cases, citizens faced a dilemma: to remain law-abiding and watch their homes from a distance or to circumvent the law and reclaim their houses with the help of Golden Dawn. Most Greeks trust the state and its law-enforcing mechanisms expecting that they will be protected against outlaws and criminals. But on this issue of squatters they see that Golden Dawn was more efficient. The crucial point is this: The collaboration of the owner of the house with the criminal organization is not perceived by many as something against humane behavior or against established law and order. This perception stems from the frustration with the slow administration of justice by state mechanisms, including local police and the court. Although the state condemns squatters and recognizes the property rights of owners, the prolonged legal processes make citizens feel abandoned and unprotected. The populist promises of Golden Dawn-type entities, advocating for quick solutions by bypassing the law and established order, resonate as sensible and promising to many voters.

Naturally, this example is extreme, involving a criminal organization resorting to bullying and force. Despite ignoring potential justifications of the squatters in this case, it serves the purpose of illustrating how populist promises may seem more practical, sensible, and useful to many. The counterargument, suggesting that such "solutions" herald the end of democratic regimes and foster anarchy and authoritarianism, lacks persuasiveness for individuals desperately fighting for rights acknowledged by all but unsecured by the existing administration. The notion of a potentially dangerous rise in anarchy does not resonate as sensible to citizens already experiencing anarchic treatment, such as by squatters, in an environment where protection is lacking. In these conditions, an anti-systemic stance or understanding gradually gains supporters.

The argument that a democratic regime is "slow" in addressing similar social problems, and that this is the price societies pay for maintaining a lawful and orderly milieu, can be perceived as resigned acceptance, saying, "Sorry, there is nothing to be done!" While it’s true that time-consuming and exhausting bureaucratic procedures aim to prevent injustice or harm, the concern that expedited processes may lead to injustice contributes to a mood conducive to populism. Populist leaders claim to transcend unnecessary obstacles, presenting themselves as "practical" and "pragmatic." They don’t waste time on trivial "details" such as courts, appeals, constitutions, and the like. This narrative aligns well with the image of a "single" man, a strong, determined, and daring leader.

There are several areas where democratic governments struggle to address problems promptly and take decisive measures. Issues such as illegal immigration, terrorism, general security and anarchy, inflation, unemployment, and police force bullying are among these challenges. While some of these problems are inherently complex, some fears and demands expressed by the public are often considered unwarranted phobias and unjustified whims. I will delve further into the topic of immigration.

In recent decades, there has been a surge in population movements from developing countries to developed ones, particularly towards the United States and the European Union. This trend was not at all notable prior the Industrial Revolution, as global disparities in welfare standards were not as stark as they are today. The factors driving immigration, besides economic considerations, include a) increased access to information about new opportunities, b) greater ease of travel compared to the past, c) improved living standards in developing countries, enabling the "middle classes" to afford the costly journey to their desired destination, and d) the capacity of host countries to accommodate and absorb newcomers either as cheap labor or as immigrants with limited prospects of repatriation. The net result is a growing influx of economic migrants to these "wealthy" countries.

However, it is evident that this trend presents a considerable challenge. The "poor" countries of Asia and Africa make up roughly 70 percent of the world population. Even if only 1 percent of the potential immigrants were to seek relocation, it would amount to sixty million people, and the 10 percent nearly equals the combined population of the USA and the EU. Moreover, only 19 percent of illegal immigrants were repatriated in recent years (See: Migration Information Source, ‘Recalcitrant’ and ‘Uncooperative’). The legal frameworks governing immigration were established at a time when the issue of illegal economic immigration was not as prominent. (It’s important to note that the refugee issue is a distinct economic, political, and ethical matter, which will not be addressed here.)

The issue of illegal economic immigration has created a strained social atmosphere within the EU, and this will be the focus of my discussion. The unrest is complex and multifaceted: some perceive an intrusion of "foreigners" threatening the social and national composition, as well as the unity of their country; others express their fear that their jobs are jeopardized; and still others emphasize the costs incurred by the country in trying to accommodate the newcomers. There are also those who dismiss these views as irrelevant, nationalistic, or even racist, opting to approach the entire issue from a humanitarian standpoint.

Eventually, in December 2023, the European Parliament and the Council reached an agreement on the "New Pact on Migration and Asylum of the EU," initially proposed in December 2020. This new pact is aimed at managing and normalizing migration for the long term, ensuring a more rapid and effective response to future crises, including the instrumentalization of migrants. It took the EU three years to reach a consensus on measures that may seem self-evident. Understandably, the EU needed additional time to identify the problems and propose new measures. The implementation of these measures is expected to take further years, highlighting the lengthy process involved in recognizing and addressing complex issues. During those years of “dormancy,” populist attacks on the existing "system" resonated as logical and appealing. Tensions within the EU were escalating, providing a fertile ground for populist narratives. Populist leaders skillfully exploited the delays, criticizing and condemning the perceived inefficiencies of the "system." They advocated for pragmatic, efficient, and strong single leaders as an alternative and their complaints found hospitable ears.Unfortunately, the New Pact on Migration of the EU arrived belatedly, contributing to the populist narrative of systemic failure.

The issue of populism cannot be solely framed within the dichotomy of good or bad, right or wrong, useful or harmful and legal or illegal. This complexity arises from its connection to popular perceptions and aspirations. In a democratic society, determinations of what is right, ethical, wrong, or unethical are not dictated by experts or authorities, as in authoritarian regimes. Instead, these categories of right/wrong and the related laws are relative and shaped by the democratic process—through votes, elections, and decisions made by elected bodies. Constitutions or internationally recognized principles like human rights may act as a "safety valve." Still, even these are neither “holy” in the sense that they may not be changed, nor established in the absence of some kind of social and communal consensus.  

To fight populism solely based on "humanitarian principles, ethics, laws," without considering the perceptions and wishes of the citizens, is counterproductive. The priorities lie with the needs and understanding of the voters, which should take precedence over abstract principles and laws. It’s essential to recognize whose principles are being referred to if they are not reflective of the people‘s. Haughtiness and great trust to one’s convictions do not constitute a democratic approach to problems. The “worried” citizens do not change their minds when they are accused and confronted as racists, xenophobic and as being “wrong in their judgments.” On the contrary, they feel that the populist leaders who are called “racists” are closer to them, since they share their worries. 

Populist leaders leverage their arguments by addressing the immediate needs and demands of the masses, which may sometimes be influenced by undemocratic or racist perspectives. However, these concerns should not be dismissed outright. It is crucial to comprehend, address, and confront them, not on theoretical grounds, but by actively solving problems, dispelling fears, and curing phobias. To ignore and disregard offhandedly phobias, prejudices, stereotypes, xenophobic tendencies and similar manifestations of a section of a community, calling names and by assigning negative characterizations stops short of understanding what is going on. Labels at best describe situations but don’t explain what happens and why they occur. The undemocratic tendencies are not to be cured by psychoanalysis and/or by philosophizing on ethics.  They may be superseded when the conjuncture which creates them vanishes.

The main point of my argumentation can be succinctly summarized: Why do many societies suddenly exhibit xenophobic and anti-systemic tendencies? Persuading those with phobic views is essential, and if persuasion fails, it indicates a failure in addressing the underlying issues. The examples provided illustrate that populism thrives in environments where social problems remain unresolved or experience significant delays due to incompetence or bureaucratic practices. Instead of efficiently solving problems, responsible agents often opt for the easier route of criticizing populist approaches, which proves to be ineffective. The relevant procedures – which were decided in the past for societies that faced different problems – should be expedited, if needed risking some harm that may incur to some. Delays involve much more serious harm to many. 

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