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What's wrong with Green populism?

With hard-right parties on the rise across Europe, Greens can learn from this recent surge in ‘populism’ by developing a positive and inclusive conception of the term. A Grand Narrative about a ‘Europe of hearts’ can speak to people directly and produce a different kind of patriotism to that of the nationalists: Europatriotism.


‘Progressive parties lack good populists who can lift people up with a smile and a tear’ – Jonathan Holslag

The May elections for the European Parliament, ushering in national victories for the Front National, UKIP, the Dansk Folkeparti, the FPÖ, the Flemish N-VA and the Alternative für Deutschland, signify a new surge of populist euroscepticism. If right-wing and left-wing sceptics are added up, their representation in the European Parliament has jumped from 20 to 30 percent.

Post-election coalition formation, moreover, has brought chagrin for the two most pro-European fractions. The ECR, which now includes the Finns, the Danes, the AfD and the N-VA next to the British Conservatives, has risen to be the third party in the EP, painfully demoting Verhofstadt’s liberals to fourth place. Closer to home, the left-wing eurosceptics of GUE/NGL, celebrating victories for Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Sinn Féin in Ireland, have pushed the Greens from fourth to fifth position.

It has therefore become urgent to face the challenges of populism anew, if only to be better prepared for a near-sure UKIP surge in 2015 and a possible presidential win by Marine le Pen in 2017. Greens must stop dismissing populism as the generic fountainhead of political irrationality and evil, and try to learn from this formidable antagonist. So far, they have been more busy calling populism the enemy than knowing their enemy. Doing so, they are also wasting the opportunity to know themselves better.

Fascists? Anti-Europeans? Name-Calling the Right

First, the new European populisms (in the plural) are not anti-democratic per se but take democracy literally, as direct popular rule or sovereignty of the people, and stand opposed to liberal, pluralist or checks-and-balances democracy. This literal conception is also a birthmark of the Green Left itself (‘power to the people’), which should be more self-critical in this regard and more sensitive to such left-right proximities.

Populism cannot therefore be summarily equated with ‘right-wing extremism’ (read: fascism). If populists are terribles simplificateurs in the Jacobin tradition, we must not repeat their mistake, and instead must recognize the great diversity of populist movements and the challenges they present to our own basic values and ideas (freedom, democracy, tolerance etc.). Let us distinguish more carefully between those we can learn from and should talk to, and those who we must not talk to but simply fight.

Secondly, populists cannot simply be dismissed as anti-European. There are many intensities of scepticism and rejection of the EU, varying e.g. between that of the moderate ECR fraction, the more radical EFDD (which includes UKIP and oddly also M5S, having recently changed its name to include a reference to direct democracy), and the motley crew of non-inscrits which ranges from populist democrats in the FN, the FPÖ and the PVV to neo-fascist anti-democrats in Golden Dawn and Jobbik. One could even argue that the populists involuntarily promote European integration, not merely by conducting supranational parliamentary strategies and forging transnational alliances (the paradox of the ‘nationalist International’), but also by deepening the democratic representation of European citizens (as they do on the national level).

What Greens Can Learn From the ‘Populists’

One thing our populist challengers can teach us is a better appreciation of the emotional intelligence of ordinary citizens. It is often said that populism is the emancipation of the ‘underbelly’. This dismissive quip is rooted in a traditional view which sharply contrasts ‘blind’ and ‘irrational’ emotions with rationally conducted high culture and politics. But the term gut feeling already suggests greater complexity. Like images, emotions (and for that matter, charismatic personalities) may act as fast and efficient information carriers and offer channels for good citizenship. Green left politics is nothing if it does not itself become an intelligent ‘politics of the heart’.

Following this, Greens must invent and cultivate a form of europatriotism: a lighter form of ‘love of country’ which counters the narrow and exclusive nationalism pandered by the populists. This patriotism must be more modest and inclusive, allowing for self-relativisation and thus for multiple, mixed identities and loyalties (e.g. city pride, regional pride). Europatriotism opens up a third way between ‘grounded’ nationalism and abstract cosmopolitanism. Europe can and must become our homeland: a physically safe and socially secure society which promises to bring the good life within reach of all European citizens.

The ideological novelty introduced by populist parties, particularly in the Northwest, is their nationalization of the values of liberal democracy, secularism and individualism, constructing something like a ‘libertarian nationalism’ or ‘national individualism’. They have successfully pasted the emancipatory ideals of the sixties (our own) and those of the consumerist ‘Me Age’ on to the defence of national sovereignty, identity and culture against forces threatening from the outside: Islam, economic globalisation and European integration. ‘Me first’ (my welfare, income, lifestyle, opinions) and ‘my people first’ (our collective welfare, income, culture, traditions, wisdom) are not seen as contradictory – as in fascism, communism, old-style nationalism or classical liberalism – but as continuous and contagious.

Understanding liberty

It is therefore urgent to defend conceptions of liberty and democracy which counter the nationalist versions offered by the populists. The polemic with populism offers a unique insight in the risks these ideals entail – which, like all great ideals, generate a dark side as soon as they are absolutised. Both freedom and democracy will turn into their opposites if they are not moderated and morally bounded.

Within the limits of the nation, ‘national individualism’ preaches a limitless freedom. Adding the sovereignty of the individual to the sovereignty of the people produces a double categorical imperative: I have a right to everything; the people have a right to exclude everyone. In this way, it feeds both the narcissism of individuals and that of the nation. In our (let’s call it European) conception of freedom, individualism must be interpreted differently: internationalist, solidary, free-thinking and green.

Liberty cannot flourish without limits. Freedom and moderation presuppose one another (as conservatives always knew). Many limitations to freedom enlarge rather than restrict discretionary spaces (e.g. seatbelts). Our European freedom must therefore be a socially bounded and morally responsible freedom. Over against ‘national individualism’ we should develop a ‘social individualism’, which creates opportunities for all individuals to emancipate themselves from group pressures (including those of the nation), to test their limitations (including national borders) and to live and think differently from the majority, if needed in a minority of one. Every citizen is entitled to the material and cultural assets which are required to become a true individual. This principled pluralism rejects all absolutist notions of identity, culture and personality. It is precisely this horror of absolutism which captures the soul and the heritage of European culture.

‘The Tyranny of the Majority’

Our (let’s once more call it European) idea of democracy can likewise be set in contrast to the populist conception. We saw that populism is not inimical to democracy, but revitalizes its primary and classical (‘Athenian’) meaning: direct popular rule. Populists, however, tend to nationalize democracy: they see it as a historical property of ‘our’ culture which cannot be shared with strangers (e.g. Muslims). In addition, it cannot flourish outside national frameworks. Since there is no common European culture or European people, they say, trying to build European democracy is a mission impossible.

Against this, we must uphold the principles of liberal representative democracy. The populist tradition favours popular unity, cultural homogeneity and majority rule, and remains suspicious of political professionalism and political elites. The liberal tradition, instead, fears the tyranny of the majority, and emphasizes the separation of institutional powers, the interaction between elected representatives and their electors, and constitutional guarantees for minority views and lifestyles. Populists turn against all elites (except that made up of themselves) and want to abolish the gap between rulers and ruled. Our liberal tradition, on the other hand, recognizes the productive interaction between elites and their ‘peoples’. Even though we should remain aware that (one more lesson to be learned from the populists) ‘power is never in good hands’, not even if we ourselves have a hand in it.

Another way to draw this contrast is to distinguish between ‘majoritarianism’ and ‘minoritarianism’. Popular sovereignty is routinely manifested through the majority vote, which expands the (largest) part of the people into the whole (pars pro toto). This totalisation gives the people (viz. its spokespersons) complete possession of the political truth. But our European democracy can only be a democracy of minorities, and hence suffers from a constitutional ‘truth deficit’. Democracy does not represent the unity but the diversity of the people, which itself is nothing but ‘a sum of minorities’ (Rosanvallon). It protects minorities from encroachments by the majority and organizes political, cultural, ethnic and other forms of plurality. However, since minorities usually feature minorities of their own, and can equally oppress them (women, gays, deviants), a ‘democracy of difference’ is ultimately obliged to defend the minority of one: the dissident, the whistleblower.

The Appeal of Populist Nationalism

Another left-right proximity in European politics is that many populist parties defend the traditional welfare state and the interests of the old working class. Simultaneously, they nationalize social protection and social justice, excluding ‘strangers’ from benefits, health care and education. The tragedy of the old left is that it likewise confines the acquis of social security to the nation, refusing the option of a European Social Union. But the good life for all is a truly European promise and mission. We have a duty to mitigate the enormous inequalities that divide Europe’s rich north-western from its poor south-eastern parts. Europe can only become our homeland if it is able to protect its citizens against the bads of globalization and create opportunities for all to rise socially. Now that the American dream has broken, this great social promise is finally returning to Europe. Greens must therefore not only fight neoliberalism in Europe and elsewhere, but also rally against the ‘national socialism’ of both the old left and the new right. ‘Socialism in one country’ must become ‘socialisation in one continent’.

Summing up: Greens should take populist nationalism seriously, rather than reject it out of hand (excluding some fascistic groups). We must recognize its inner variety, its political appeal, its democratic roots and its staying power. We should also recognize its proximity to some of our own ideals and concerns, and the need to re-examine them in the light of this challenge. Our own political story is suboptimal, and we need the populists as ‘best enemies’ to improve it. The core challenge lies in the insecurity felt by those (often lower-educated) citizens who crave for a minimum of respect, and the resultant attraction of free-of-charge, effortless identities such as the national one (machismo and religious fundamentalism function in the same way). Birthright in a particular nation offers a gratuitous form of pride: if you are nothing, you are at least something as a Frenchman, Dutchman, etc.

‘A Europe of Hearts’

Greens must develop a new Grand Narrative about a ‘Europe of hearts’. ‘Nie wieder Krieg’ has made an unexpected comeback due to the efforts of Putin and others. We can easily expand and generalize this soulful mission for Europe, by projecting a future world which attempts to minimize all forms of violence: not just physical, but also economic, political, psychical, sexual, cultural and verbal. In addition, we must learn to celebrate Europe through new post-national symbols and celebrities (Conchita Wurst!), lieux de mémoire (e.g. war landscapes), festivals and holidays, and the heritage of great Europeans (artists and philosophers rather than generals and bankers).

In doing so, Europeans must also rethink the paradox of hard and soft power. If Europe is feminine (against populist, terrorist and Putinist machismo) and celebrates the power of weakness, it is urgent to realize that we must defend it more strongly against those who only believe in hardness, intimidation and conquest. Europe is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let us therefore counter the negative prophecy of the eurosceptics (there is no European culture, there cannot be a European democracy, a European social union is impossible) with our own performative optimism. Europe we love you! We-rope! U-rope! E-You!

The themes addressed in this article will be discussed in a session at the European Green Party Council in Istanbul, named ‘Green answers to populism’.  

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  1. […] There is an excellent article in the GREEN EUROPEAN JOURNEY that I think is worthy of close examination and discussion […]

  2. I would agree with most of the article; there is, however, another aspect to populism that the article seems not to mention which could explain some of the left-right appeal of populism and which has to do with changes in working conditions and the failure of the meritocratic ideal. The structural and on-going degradation of working conditions: temp work, disposable contracts, “internships” that should be paid functions, higher and higher entry demands; or the fact that a family with two working adults is unable to get a mortgage for a house, has been responsible for much of the feeling of insecurity that populism taps into. The promise that if you study well and are willing to work hard you should be able to attain the middle class dream of a stable job, your own house and one holiday a year seems to be no longer honored by society. Although we still want to believe in the meritocratic ideal that you make your own destiny, that if you are willing then you will get there in the end, the reality is proving more and more people otherwise. The middle class is increasingly fractured with many people with good education who can’t find the work they merit. They in turn apply pressure on lower skilled workers by finding work below their level. Precarious work forms are more and more the norm: for young people it already is, and those (of the previous generation) who still have fixed contracts are starting to feel the heat.

    It seems to me that feelings of insecurity or of a potential loss of (national) identity have much more to do with the impossibility of securing a stable income than with anti-European or anti-immigrant issues. Populism (left and right) like to throw this onto immigrants or Europe but the liberalist policies of national governments over the last 20 years are much more responsible for it (although the EU must assume its share of responsibility). What I’d like the Greens to learn from populism is to take these feelings of insecurity to heart. Like populism it should learn to express itself on this in non-technical, non-specialist terms. Like populism, but much more rightfully so, it should make it clear that “green” means solidarity (between people and with all of living nature), and not hyper-individualist NIMBY ‘I eat really expensive healthy food”. And finally that green means solutions and investments that will also hold for the long-term. I think that the Green party can be a true adversary to populism, but only if it stops its endless discussions of windmills and starts to seriously reposition itself as a party that takes everyday people’s living and working conditions seriously.

  3. […] What’s wrong with Green populism? […]

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Green Party presence in Swedish government welcomed all the same

In the debate, 14/10/14


Translations: SW  

Green Party presence in Swedish government welcomed all the same

Greens are now in government in Sweden for the first time in the party’s 33-year-long history, yet the electoral result was regarded as disappointing. In light of the rise of xenophobic populists and a difficult political climate, it remains to be seen how Greens will fare in the new coalition.

An attack on democracy? UK Greens excluded from election debates

In the debate, 17/10/14


n attack on democracy? UK Greens excluded from election debates

Despite the lack of a proportional electoral system, Britain is now a multi-party country, with the Greens becoming a powerful force. Yet the major media organisations are planning to exclude the Green Party of England and Wales from next year’s televised election debates for the General Election. It’s a dangerous situation for democracy in the UK, with over a million Green voters marginalised…

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