Wednesday, December 27, 2017
Populism as post-fascism
The book written by Federico Finchelstein, "From Fascism to Populism in History," is an excellent account of the movements that have challenged democracy as a result of the successive socio-economic and institutional crises of the last 150 years. It challenges simplistic definitions of populism based on contemporary examples, to give a broader perspective that includes present and past movements not only from Europe and North America, but also from South America (most notably, Argentinian Peronism), Asia and Africa. These broader perspective manages to find elements in common of movements as diverse as the American populists of the XIXth century, the Latin American populisms and the current conservative national-populism of Trump, Le Pen, Putin, Orban, Erdogan and others. These elements are placed in historical context and include the well-known emphasis on the people as opposed to the elites, but also the almost religious role of the leader, the scapegoating of internal and external enemies, and how these features have interacted with different communication technologies such as mass television and Internet-based social networks. A key and illuminating aspect of the book is how it addresses the relationship between fascism and populism. Although one lesson of the book is that one should try to avoid simplistic lessons, perhaps one way to summarize this relationship is that populism is not pre-fascism, as it is sometimes claimed today by critics of Trump, Farage and similar leaders, but it is post-fascism, in the sense that in an evolutionary sense it has learned from the experience of fascism. The movements led by Mussolini, Hitler and Franco were successful attempts to destroy democracy (from within or from without) in which violence and the cult of violence were crucial features. Instead, populism does not attempt to destroy democracy, but to use it, to manipulate it, to erode those democratic institutions that constrain the destabilizing strategies of populist leaders. Finchelstein also argues that traditional political ideologies are secondary in analyzing populism, which is especially clear in the case of Peronism, where the relevant leaders have defended ideologies that go from almost fascism, to neo-liberalism to socialism. Admitting that I am biased, something I missed in the book, which pretends to be a global perspective on populism, is a chapter or a section on the secessionist populisms of Europe and other places. As in other studies of populism, only the Italian Northern League is mentioned among these separatists movements, but Catalan, Scottish, Quebecquoise or Corsican nationalists also share many of the characteristics of the other populist movements described in the book. Some of these movements started as national-populist attempts to manipulate democracies in their starting periods, but ended up in dramatic wars, as was the case in Yugoslavia. But then this would perhaps break the clean distinction between violent fascism and peaceful populism.