The Promise of Populism

Iron Curtain Lessons

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of populism. Frequently used as a synonym for fascism, it is not as consistent as the press would have it. Especially behind the former Iron Curtain.

Bad and worse. Poland, 2012.
Bad and worse. Poland, 2012.

Blame it on the ideology. Though news media could pay more attention to its details, populism makes a habit of oversimplifying politics.

Indeed, populism is an us-versus-them politics. It claims to represent the will of the people.

Not all the people, but the masses of yore. Left out are the elites, who exploit the citizenry and use the state and press against them, and minorities.

Populism is a politics of clientelism. Populists earn the people’s loyalty by rewarding them with benefits in exchange for their votes.

Whether it be Poland or Italy, the model is the same. Their differences manifest themselves regionally. Particularly in former communist states in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

The reason to learn about populism in the region is clear. According to a 2017 study commissioned by the Blair Institute, “Populists are strongest in Eastern Europe.”

The question is why. To begin with, populism is a consequence of decades of living under authoritarian regimes. It takes root in political environments with weak party systems, in which the state was the stronger entity.

Communism encouraged distrust in government and political pluralism. It fostered civic passivity and weak moral values, which complicated the transition to democracy and capitalism.

Ill-equipped for the end of communism, this transformation brought about growing inequality and made people vulnerable to the empowering narratives offered by populists.

The rise of Third Way social democrats, inspired by Britain’s New Labour, opened left-wing parties to neoliberalism, not only in the UK but also in the US and Germany.

The story was the same in Poland. First, there was the shock therapy of the post-1989 transition to market capitalism. Then, ahead of EU accession, Polish social democrats endorsed the Third Way to satisfy integration criteria, by burying public debt.

The democratic changeover created a new class of citizenry without the long-term sources of income of the communist era, which Guy Standing would call the “precariat” two decades later.

Populists succeed in channelling their resentment and anger. Their success was bolstered by the Internet and social media providing free-of-charge tools for galvanising citizens and giving them a sense of participation and community.

The CEE version of anti-elitism is highly anti-communist. Populist politicians often stage witch hunts for former collaborators to clean the system of the last vestiges of its evil past.

The post-communist transformation was justified by alignment with the West and by the promise of joining the European Union. Everyone worked hard on behalf of that goal. But when it was achieved, they found an ideological void.

Rafal Matyja put it best: “A departure from communism demanded, however, something more than returning a free market and rules for democratic rivalry – it demanded creating a political nation and building a country. Construing a new community and new institutions serving it. Both were neglected.”

Politicians and communities failed to build an overarching vision that would provide them with that. Populists built on that need, which was especially strong in post-communist countries. The systemic paternalism of the communist era left Homo Sovieticus submissive and nostalgic for the old order.

In Escape From Freedom, Frankfurt School psychoanalyst Erich Fromm explained why Germans converted to Nazism. Although populism can’t be compared to it (though the Nazis exploited the populist toolkit), there are similar prerequisites for its success.

An escape from freedom is an escape from responsibility which seduces uprooted and insecure individuals yearning for a sense of belonging. The need for attachment is stronger in a group that ranks insiders as morally superior to outsiders.

Along with the divide et impera approach, the immoral ‘them’ threaten superior ‘us’ in terms of physical danger (refugees and terrorism) and challenge our sovereignty (the laws of the European Union, refugee quotas allegedly imposed by Brussels), our identity (Muslims, degenerate cosmopolitans, sexual minorities), our jobs (immigrants) and our welfare system (immigrants, refugees, minorities).

A common enemy, be it real or imagined, is a comfortable tool for producing narratives of strength and emotional attachment. Therefore, PiS politicians or Viktor Orbán demonstrate their staunch opposition both to the vulnerable ones, such as refugees and minorities, but also to the strong ones, for example, Brussels or Angela Merkel.

The economy provides fertile ground for such agitation. The CEE countries still lag behind EU averages in terms of GDP and wages, despite persistent growth. Poland and Hungary are around 2/3rds of the EU average in terms of GDP per capita.

This discrepancy is exploited by politicians who try to persuade citizens that we are treated as second class citizens.

In Poland, despite consistent economic growth throughout the 21st century, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) managed to persuade Poles that “Poland is in ruin.” Why fight for a system that’s so destructive, they ask.

Perhaps because without such narratives, this government would not be in power. Indeed, it’s a narrative with legs, as it articulates public anxieties and frustrations, and also aspirations, that previous governments did not.

Herein lies the positive aspect of the populist moment we are living in: Populists slapped complacent, bipartisan democracies in the face and showed them that if they want to win, they’d better get busy.

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.