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September 2, 2014
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The many faces of a hard to place political style

By Andrew Graham-Yooll
For the Herald

Latin American governments of late have put “populism” in the front line of the region’s politics.  But the comeback kids of rule by central order and vilification of all rivals were also much in evidence in the European Union elections last May 25. So populism might best be described as a fever in full contagion.
Professor Loris Zanatta, 52, of the University of Bologna, who was recently on his annual lecturing visit to Buenos Aires, said that “populism is something we had thrown out as undesirable, but now it has been recovered and is studied widely in academia.”

Its qualities and shortcomings are many and varied. “It is not pluralist, hence it would not appear to be democratic, although it claims to be, and gives people a sense of belonging; it wants to be everything in and for the community, it has no single left or right ideology,” Professor Zanatta said.

A populist leader can be relied upon to make sweeping statements, which fall short of being reliable when placed under scrutiny. Take for instance the President’s speech at the Malvinas Museum on June 10, “Our history is only one and cannot be fragmented”. This sounds great, but falls flat under the mildest scrutiny. History is broken up into little bits all the time.

Professor Zanatta remarks: “Most elements in society have fragmented since the eighteenth century, but populism conveys the idea that an old-fashioned form of stability can be recovered. The premise hinges on the need for a strong central authority that promises to take care of the community, and that it can protect the most differing groups and social sectors if they unite behind the one leadership. There is an assurance that unmet ambitions can be met by supporting the leadership. The leaders, in turn, seek a homogeneous unity and prefer to talk to the people without need for the media, except for its own press. A populist regime will run into trouble if it encounters an independent judiciary, with independent intellectuals, and will fight against or try to split any group that it considers a rival. It is not democratic even though it claims to respect the institutions of a constitutional system.”

Professor Zanatta’s interpretation of populism is the product of research into the subject for several years, and his findings and explanations are to be found in a recent book, El Populismo (Populism), published by the Katz imprint in Buenos Aires. The first edition, published in Rome in October last year, has been short-listed for one of Italy’s leading publishing awards.

It is interesting to confront Zanatta’s findings with those of the late Argentine political scientist, Ernesto Laclau, who died on April 1, aged 78. Laclau was originally a Marxist who spent almost half a century with the University of Essex, in southern England, where he came round to the idea that populism was natural to Latin America, while a Western style of democracy is not. He could be said to have given the two Kirchners something like an ideological blank cheque. It is, or was, Laclau’s view that “populist supremacy in Latin America is positive for the continent, it ensures participation in public life and political decisions of the population and thus strengthens the democratic process, preventing it from being reduced by technocratic tutelage through economic influences.”

In an interview with Brazilian journalist Daniel de Mendona one day before his death in Spain, Laclau was trenchant in his condemnation of Western-style democracy in the region, “The liberal state in Latin America was used by local oligarchies to organize a patronage machinery.”

Professor Zanatta, in conversation with the Herald during his stay in Buenos Aires, said that “populist leaders tell their followers that they (those seeking or holding power) are the honest group that can be everything to everybody. It seems like a pathological circumstance. Until quite recently, and probably still, the word “populism” was used as a form of insult, a bad word, almost as a dismissal of a view that might fit into the context of political adversaries. Now it is commonly used and quite normal. And since the last EU elections we have seen just how many votes the populist political lines have been able to gather. Quite impressive. But it also has to be seen as part of a political reaction to a climate of severe economic crisis,” Zanatta explained.

There is nothing new in that, he said. The attractions of a strong central authority seeking to gather all around and seize control of all institutions while claiming to respect them, eventually isolating the opposition into holding an almost symbolic presence, has been around for quite some time. Political scientists who have sought a political answer to the question, “What is populism?” have found these elements recurrent over the last two decades.

“If we talk about it so much, that is evidence enough that populism is everywhere,” Professor Zanatta said.

For Professor Zanatta, the concept of populism has strong religious content, with clear origins in the reformation. The idea was ever-present in Catholicism, and less favoured in Protestant Anglo-Saxon societies. “Populism tends to resort to the typical attributes of an authority imbued with religious charisma.” He says that capitalist Protestant societies tend to reject the idea of a central order as not being beneficial to the search for wealth on an individual basis. “You might even see the rejection of a populist system right back in Calvinism.” Catholicism sees group progress as beneficial as the ultimate end, while Protestantism sees it as robbing the individual of his own ability to grow and profit.

Zanatta’s book is broad in its coverage and yet cautious in its qualifications. It stops short of calling populism an authoritarian resource, and the author sees it used by all sides in the political spectrum. The book covers a considerable variety of personalities, not just the obvious Peronism, but also the inevitable “Cavalieri” Berlusconi, the equally bombastic Hugo Chávez and the historic Fidel Castro, among others.

Zanatta’s study is a useful education in one of the weird and less celebrated aspects of political mobilization, but which has effects far beyond our daily political reckoning.

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