Six remarks on an alternative way of exercising democratic rule
I. A practice and a reproach with a long democratic tradition
It’s strange how so-called populists have acquired the reputation of being a danger to democracy. The list of their sins includes stirring up discontent as grist for their mills, dividing the people and declaring themselves to be their only true representative, telling the people what they want to hear, making unrealistic promises to them and offering ‘simple solutions’ to complex problems, engaging in nationalistic and xenophobic rabble-rousing, cultivating an authoritarian personality cult and showing no respect for the rule of law.
It’s strange because populists carry on so extremely democratically. It’s as if the critics of populism had forgotten all they know about the democratic competition for office, where politicians with a pronounced will to power not only seize on popular discontent wherever it is loudly proclaimed, but also track it down, dig it up, and incite it in order to direct it against those in office and in favor of themselves. No democratic politician has ever shown any shame when it comes to descending from on high to mingle among the masses so that they can celebrate him as one of their own. He cultivates this type of ‘down-to-earth common touch’ by occasionally rounding up his beloved people in rental halls so he can chew their ears off about how open he alone is to hearing the problems of the people “out in the country.” And strangely enough, down-to-earth democrats in the opposition always manage to hear the same thing from the problems of car drivers, single mothers, retirees, tradesmen, small businesses, or workers, no matter how different or conflicting they may be: it’s the nation that has a problem because it is badly governed by the wrong people. And democrats don’t even have ‘simple solutions’ to offer, as the new populists are accused of doing, but only a single one: better use of power, so that the national community, whose suffering all the above cited problems are supposed to testify to, can move forward. A better life for citizens through a better ruled nation — this one promise, for which the predicate ‘unrealistic’ would be the most polite imaginable, is what the publicity tours that breathe life into an election campaign amount to. Though not considered nationalistic rabble-rousing, it does very well call for a standpoint that is inherently nationalistic: citizens are to merge their concerns into a concern for the state of the nation and the use of power — that also makes it clear even to the most cosmopolitan democrats that foreign countries and foreigners present a special challenge. And as for the authoritarian cult of personality: the credibility of the promise of good, better rule has always been guaranteed by the strong leadership qualities of the candidates — as can be seen by the size and devotion of their following as well as their determination to finally ‘clean up’ the capital, bring its political goings-on ‘into line,’ and ‘govern’ it properly. And here, too, democrats should not pretend that the cult of a leader willing and able to assert himself is not an essential feature of their political system.
No wonder the insult ‘populism!’ did not have to be reinvented for the Trumps and the Salvinis[*] of this world. Long before them, this reproach had its firm place in democratic life: in the arsenal of countercriticism of governing democrats. It has always been a good democratic custom to accuse competitors of self-servingly exploiting the discontent that has brought one to power oneself. Pandering to the dissatisfied masses by promising to improve their situation is definitely underhanded, as democrats in office know all too well. Long before the new populists emerged, they would therefore offer the clarification that a government that serves the people simply includes hardships for citizens. After all, what awaits politicians in office committed to the well-being of their people are objective constraints and necessities that considerably restrict their room for maneuver when it comes to their friendliness to the people. This has never argued against the agenda they dutifully execute, but only against the — ‘populist’ — promises of salvation made by the opposition. These have always been ‘too simple’; those in charge therefore constantly feel challenged to teach those they govern such complicated facts of the situation like this one, that a cake can’t be distributed before its been baked. The profession of sovereign servant of the people therefore always includes the rejection of the populus, the people; it is part of the eternal wisdom of democrats in office that members of the people notoriously misunderstand the ‘well-understood’ vested interest their representatives are bound to. This much disdain for citizens is simply included in their deep respect for the task of representing them as a people.
When established democrats take turns year in and year out making all these accusations and counter-accusations, condemning the new populists in rare unanimity as enemies of democracy, it says less about the newcomers than about themselves. At any rate, their accusations against the annoyingly popular populists concerning machinations outside the bounds of, or even hostile to, democracy do not hold water. Obviously, it is rather more the case that populists are first and foremost democratic competitors and annoying ones precisely because of that. Established democrats are also admitting this when they acknowledge the success of their new competitors with the self-criticism that they, as good representatives of the people, might now and then have been remiss in the matter of ‘showing understanding for the fears and worries of ordinary people.’ Still, they are all the less ready to share with radical newcomers the job of ruling or of criticizing from the opposition. When they so unanimously award the booby prize ‘populism’ to their new, right-wing rivals, they are claiming solely for themselves the positions that the ‘rule of the people’ offers its movers and shakers.
II. Deliberately departing from established politics in the name of the beloved people
And yet it is precisely the ostracized “populists” themselves who attach importance to being an unmistakable “alternative” to the (old) political landscape in every respect. They want to be a threat to that democratic political scene, since it constitutes a complete betrayal of the people.
This starts with questions of political style: in contrast to the ‘statesmanlike’ manners that professional democrats adopt when acting as character masks of their high positions, i.e., as members of a democratic elite, populists affect their own, particular behavior that equally showcases their personal fitness for power over and for the people. They cultivate the uncouth customs they claim to have learned by watching ordinary people; they find the ugly manners of the proletariat to be beautiful because they are the ‘coarse’ customs of the common people; a democratic politician should not be ashamed of them, but rather shamelessly cultivate them — in parliament, on a state visit, or on a beach holiday. And at this point the question of political style already stands for more than that, namely, for the populist politician’s claim to a direct, totally ‘authentic’ identity with his beloved people. This is also the spirit in which ‘taboos are broken’ — whether really or only allegedly — when populists behave outrageously on the public and parliamentary stage: they very explicitly want to push the ‘limits of what can be said’ because they want to expose established political customs as merely ‘politically correct’ rules of those who would ‘dictate attitudes,’ against which they take the people’s side. It is easy for them to do this, since these customs are in fact a catalog of commandments and prohibitions regarding “respect!” for one’s fellow human beings — especially for the notoriously threatened minorities and other victims of discrimination, who in any case do not get fewer in number in a democratically ruled, egalitarian class society. Democratic decision-makers practice this respect themselves, but they especially urge it on their people: those in charge want to properly rule over all the conflicts among the people — economic, moral, ethnic; so the conflicting members of the people have to get along in the spirit of ‘tolerance.’ When populists oppose that with their right-wing rabble-rousing, they do it in the name of the people’s sacred right to their opinion. The populist politician himself directly says what this opinion consists in without waiting for instructions from the people, but always in their name and as bluntly nationalistically and aggressively as the right of the people dictates. And in such a way that the obligatory and exclusionary character of the free opinion exemplifying his friendliness to the people can’t be ignored.
Evidently, populists also object to the established moral standards of democratic policy-making. They demonstrate their contempt for the so-called ‘culture of compromise’ that democratic parties congratulate themselves on when they manage to peacefully and successfully overcome the clashes of interests of a liberal, competitive society — for self-praise, it is obviously irrelevant which compromises are reached between which interests and with what results for whom. Populists oppose that with a morality of struggle: they attach importance to the very disrespectfulness they are accused of; to their dogmatic conviction that they possess an absolute claim of validity; to their unwillingness to engage in a solutions-oriented ‘give and take’ for the common good that has to be negotiated in the oh-so laborious democratic way. Having to relativize one’s interests in this way is repugnant to them — that is precisely what makes them so popular. The interest of the people for whom they speak does not tolerate compromise; so populist politicians won’t brook disagreement either.
With this morality of political struggle, populists are tangling with a lot more than the prevailing political culture. They are taking on the way that democratic power is exercised in general. Their disrespectfulness and ruthlessness extends to the whole ensemble of institutions and procedures of the democratic, constitutional state: everything from the ‘checks and balances’ of the ‘separation of powers’ to the independent press. They frankly boast about their contempt for official and unofficial institutions of constitutional, impersonal rule, which is quite wrongly celebrated by democrats in general as institutionalized restraint on rule. Without hesitating, they declare the journalism business to be a ‘lying press’ that only fabricates ‘fake news,’ represent their opponents’ criticism of their high-handedness as a witch hunt or even an attempted coup, and the judiciary’s objections to be the machination of a ‘deep state.’ The remarkable, thoroughly authoritarian arrogance that populists exhibit here is not just slander by the attacked ‘establishment’ but is something they themselves demonstratively cultivate. With a great deal of self-confidence and an insulted sense of what is right, they treat constitutional procedure as an truly illegitimate burden — and counter by insisting on the direct unity of their personal power with the will of the people. When an Italian prime minister accused “dear Matteo” on the open floor of parliament of having no respect for democratic institutions, his target Salvini responded the way anyone would who sees the people entirely on his side:
"I would do again everything I’ve done, everything. [I am here] with the great strength of being a free man, so that means I am not afraid of the judgment of the Italians. … Whoever is afraid of the judgment of the Italian people is not a free man or a free woman.” (Il Giornale, August 20, 2019)
III. Intensifying the traditional discontent of democratically elected rulers with the provisions of the constitutional state
So populists can cite a strong, arch-democratic argument for their authoritarian hubris in office: the voice of the people, which they, the populists, quite officially embody according to the rules of that democratic shrine, free elections. Populists are quite fond of this democratic institution since the beloved people use it to empower those who lead them. At least when the people elect the populists to power; an election victory by opponents, conversely, is evidence that the sovereignty of the people has been squandered and the people have once again been deprived of power by the establishment. At the very least, then, this raises the question of whether everything was aboveboard in the election. For populists, the election is the realization of their unity with the people, which is established long before an election; in this respect, it is the empowerment of the people themselves. It is therefore only logical that populists dislike the constitutional requirement that, according to basic constitutional rules, they ‘share’ the power the people have awarded them. There is a permanent danger that people and leadership will be divided; that by limiting the power of the elected government, the authority exercised by the people will itself be devalued.
Obviously, populists do not bear the peculiar organizational form of the democratic, constitutional state very well — and they are in the first place certainly not alone in this. Democrats are always chafing at a contradiction contained in this pair of terms:
On the one hand, the democratic, constitutional state sees and celebrates itself as rule of the people. As is well known, the linchpin and high point of this form of state are free elections; this is where the true sovereign, the people who are always the focal point, celebrate the greatest conceivable act of self-determination by choosing their ruling personnel. It is this periodic event that distinguishes democracy as a system of freedom and differentiates it as rule of the people from a so-called tyranny. It is regarded as the greatest possible gift to the nations of the world; wars are even waged in its name — also and especially against nations that are to be given elections afterwards. The magnificent walk into the polling booth is the final act of an election campaign in which simply everything that the sovereign people are concerned about and, in the opinion of the candidates for power who are wooing them, should be concerned about is reliably transformed into a call for a vigorous leadership, one that is willing and able to ‘get things done.’ There is no need that is not met by sending one’s own man or woman to the apex of power. After the votes have been counted, these figures are then in fact personally empowered to rule; they only have to answer to ‘their conscience’ — in some countries, the principle of ‘winner takes all’ even applies. And when the winners then celebrate their triumph in the fight to exercise power over a country and its people with marching drums, trumpets, and parades, this is by no means considered disreputable, because this power has come about democratically. A democratic people comes to know the validity of its voice in the glory of the victor and in the fullness of power that is granted to him; in short, in the empowerment of a ruling person.
On the other hand, the democratic, constitutional state sees and celebrates itself as the rule of law. And that means that the great victors who the people empower become heads of a power apparatus whose mode of functioning is supposed to guarantee impersonal rule. Immediately after the election victory, they are sent to ‘hold’ offices that confront them not only with all kinds of fixed tasks but also with limits on authority that cannot be challenged. While exercising their power, they have to grapple with an officially recognized opposition, which is allowed to move in the corridors of power with its own full authority, to obstruct the government using all the parliamentary rules, and in the process likewise to claim to speak for the people. Moreover, the elected executive has to acquiesce to controls on his exercise of power, occasionally also to binding objections to his law-implementing orders by robe and wig wearers, even though and precisely because members of the judiciary are expressly not elected representatives of the people. Instead, they are the guardians of a constitution that is deemed to be the binding standard for the actions of government and the decisions of free, elected representatives; but this is intended to serve members of the people all the more, because their rights are thereby protected from a ‘tyranny of the majority.’ On top of that, the elected government is then confronted with a free press — with the explicit right and self-imposed mandate not only to inform about the government’s actions but also to criticize them. And even though the agents of the ‘fourth estate’ have no mandate from the electorate, they too can claim to speak for the people. And finally, the elected leader has to stand for election again and again at periodic intervals.
Modern popular rule, in which the word of the people is regarded as sacred, celebrates itself for all these restrictions on the power of elected governments — so that the term ‘democratic, constitutional state’ is now by and large seen not as a contradiction, but as a redundancy. In practice, certainly, democratically elected rulers are always aware of this contradiction. It is nothing new that they find such constitutional restrictions on their powers annoying and complain about how ‘laborious’ democratic governance is. Invoking their ‘mandate’ from the voters, they sometimes interpret their right — anyway always their entitlement — somewhat more generously than officially intended. Violations of constitutional procedure are already firmly expected, so that investigative committees and other control and sanction mechanisms are an integral part of the democratic power apparatus and a popular field of activity for party competition. The fact that such mechanisms exist is more important for praising the constitutional state than the fact that they are apparently necessary.
All in all, the constitutional state enjoys the reputation of preventing with its various checks and balances the ‘arbitrariness’ of those who rule, doing so in such a way that there actually can no longer be any question of rule itself. This is not the truth about the separation of powers. What elected rulers are confronted with here by no means merely limit and relativize their freedom to exercise power, but rather are elements of the very process by which their will is molded into perfectly formed acts of rule that not only require but also deserve the obedience of the people and the recognition of their many champions. The constitutional state institutionalizes the empowerment of the ruling personnel, including making everything that it decides and makes mandatory for its people worthy of recognition. Hence, constitutional procedure is an instrument of ‘divided’ rule, a means of securing the freedom of those in power to have the society at their sovereign disposal. When democrats regularly swallow their traditional anger about such restrictions, they are showing their respect for this ‘laborious’ achievement of constitutionality. On suitable occasions, they then praise their system of rule for its considerable ‘stability’ and also recommend it to the opponents of their system in the Far East.
Populists, too, do not want to do without this achievement of constitutional procedure. They even insist on it — albeit against the process by which it comes about, i.e., against the autonomy and independence of the relevant, divided powers. For them, the term limits on holding office that is part of democracy is nothing but an opportunity to renew their empowerment. In the same vein, they demand from the press more like constructive criticism according to standards set by those in power, namely, direct propaganda; they don’t expect the judiciary to check their executive freedom, but rather to confirm it. Populists do not abolish such institutions; instead they confront them with the demand that they function as reliable executive organs of the ruler elected by and for the people. To be sure, this demand contradicts the way these institutions function, but by no means their function for rule. The fact that constitutional procedure is a means of securing the freedom to rule is absolutized by populists for their personal freedom from all the constraints that the procedure imposes on them as elected rulers.
IV. Radically enlisting the people as a service to their identity — or: why ‘right-wing populism’ is a redundant term
With their absolutism of a people-empowered rule, avowed populists have a different attitude toward the people they govern than their democratic-constitutional opponents with their famous checks and balances. In a modern democracy, a people constitute a rather mixed bunch, consisting of the characters of a competitive, capitalistic society with their interdependent, conflicting interests and a broadly diversified ‘social hierarchy’ that a people increasingly intermixed by ethnicity, morals, and worldviews sorts itself into. To enlist this collective of people with competing interests for the nation’s cause, i.e., for the interests of the power that makes a nation out of them in the first place — that is the concern of both variants of democratic rule. Each has its own way of carrying it out.
The democratic, constitutional state, with its party pluralism and its system of self-checking for constitutional and proper actions, is notable for recognizing the antagonistic self-interests of its competing citizens in order to ‘politicize’ them, i.e., transform them into contributions to a common, national cause. This begins with the proclamation of the good news that the governed people are recognized as equal, free persons. Their biological characteristics, ethnic features, and also their origin — provided their status is settled — are a private matter that confers no disadvantage and no privilege. The same applies to the question as to how this state’s citizens ‘view’ the world: religious or any other doctrines, virtues, commandments, and identities they may impose on, or attribute to, themselves and their respective communities are all equally welcome. They only have to accept that this, too, is their private affair, merely their take on the social conditions determined by other, more official authorities. The state also declares their economic differences to be a private matter: whether poor or rich, whether businessman, employee, or something in between — all equally enjoy state protection of their private property. What the state thereby recognizes is not insignificant; hence its citizens must also recognize that some of them need the money that others already have and want to increase; that some are suited for, and must function as, a means for increasing the money of others with their work in order to live from it themselves; that the livelihood of some subtracts from the others’ wealth they are working to increase; that the results of their contradictory cooperation turn out correspondingly different. This is how the democratic state, precisely by sovereignly recognizing the equality and freedom of its citizens, puts its official stamp, its seal of approval, on capitalist society with its competition and classes. The economic substance of the common good is the success of free, capitalistic business; the state draws the means of its power from what it yields.
At the same time, the democratic, constitutional state never requires its citizens to be satisfied with their respective lot in the great, national whole. Recognizing their interests goes hand in hand with recognizing their all-around discontent; and both may lead to political proposals. The democratic political system thrives — as was stated at the beginning — on the competitors for power being interested in cultivating citizens’ dissatisfaction. This, however, requires a threefold understanding on the part of the discontented: that their discontent cannot lead to anything other than a request for better governance; that the democratic officeholders who look after their discontent are responsible for a common good that only recognizes their respective interests as merely particular ones; and that this common good demands different things from the different interests. Some people must accept an authority separate from themselves being responsible for politically safeguarding their private power over others. The others must respect the fact that being subordinated to those who run the economy regularly thwarts their calculations, even though it is the condition for everything they can expect from government. The required understanding is wisely not left to the parties involved, instead being institutionalized in the entire system through procedures enacted under the rule of law. The consequences of this manner of recognizing and subordinating antagonistic interests to the cause of the nation turn out very differently and are entirely a matter of class; yet, the form of this subordination is egalitarian: a competition between equal citizens with differing economic interests and political claims, all of whom are equally entitled and compelled to pursue their interests in accordance with the necessities and alternatives dictated by the national interest as defined by the state. The democratic, constitutional state entrusts the relative importance of competing interests to the rules of competition and the requirements of the sovereignly-defined common good, according to which these interests get their chance for success. Truly the perfect form of bourgeois rule.
The national identity of a people governed in such a democratic way under the rule of law is a peculiar thing. Clearly, the members of the nation have a deeper bond beyond the reality of the competitive society and its management by the state. But what that exactly consists in is to be found in the prevailing liberal pluralism, too, namely, a whole series of national ‘narratives’ — from the history of the nation with its highs, lows, and breakdowns of civilization; to the higher and lower national culture — whose clarity or even consistency does not matter in the least. After all, what’s at stake is symbolizing the community of the people, which is not itself subject to debate but already fixed as its premise. Established democrats stress the fact that what binds the people together is not found in the blood of its members; what is decisive, rather, are the common values that, as the firm standpoint of the citizenry, must be valid. And the values that are meant here aptly reflect precisely the very principles that the democratic, constitutional state establishes for itself and its people with its rule. If the state recognizes personal freedom and private property, this is preached as the tolerance that the citizens should display toward each other; if the state refrains from ruling on the basis of economic, ethnic, or ideological differences, this should be acknowledged by the citizens themselves in the form of the respect they owe each other as equally free persons. In this vein, democracy itself is also declared a value that forges a bond between the members of the nation; the citizens cultivate it by acknowledging the results of the democratic process, no matter how the benefits and damages are distributed. A democratic people therefore celebrates its common bond in a collective achievement of abstraction. This includes, on the one hand, disregarding their conflicting existence as competing owners of private property for whom money and the competition for it is their ‘real community,’ and, on the other hand, looking for a commonality that consists in nothing but idealizing principles of bourgeois rule into a catalog of virtues of free, equal people. They live, enlightened in this way, in a democratic, class society; membership in the democratic community of values apparently also includes a certain arrogance, at any rate lifting a democratic people above the masses of the world’s peoples. In some places, this is even good for a sense of mission that the nation bears through a few foreign wars. An enormous and lasting amount of educational work is definitely part of it — not least shown by the never ending story called ‘political correctness.’
To repeat: the way bourgeois rule is organized results in the will of the elected authorities being enforced. The avowed populist sets this result above the procedure established for it and against its formalisms and conditions because he sees them hindering more than enforcing the ruler’s will. He thus makes his own demands on the collective of free and equal competitors.
It is certainly okay for him, too, that a market economy–based democracy grants all citizens the status of being private individuals and private owners who individually seek to earn their own living by competing for money; likewise, that they compete while occupying very different positions in the ‘social hierarchy.’ The populist also relies on the productive power of class society for the strength of the national cause, i.e., the strength of the state power that is in charge of it. However, the populist regularly sees the presumption of wanting to be more than a merely particular interest in the inevitable discontent of free and equal citizens, in the opposing political demands that they pursue based on their particular, competing interests. He does not concede these interests any right of their own alongside, and certainly not against, the will of the head of state who, evidenced by his election victory, embodies the entire people’s will for rule. Though he does not negate the competing economic interests of his free citizens, he absolutely insists on that abstraction, the people, i.e., on the political negation of the manifold competitive struggles that as a practical matter materially determine the life of his society. In positive terms, he insists on the absolute priority of the elected authority’s decision-making freedom, in which the democratically enfranchised will of the people is realized, over all subdivisions of the people based on the class society or otherwise, and over the demands that arise from them and come to be represented in the subdivisions of the democratic, constitutional state. A populist insists on a direct identity between people and leadership; an identity that does not have to be first and repeatedly established the way the people function as the source and basis of the power of their rule — thus not first by the democratic-constitutional ‘politicization’ of purely self-interested competitors. The identity the populist has in mind only accepts a people being the basis of a sovereign political will. The fiction of one will of the people is realized in the sovereignty of the rule that they serve as a mass at its disposal.
This highly demanding abstraction, this empty identity of a people in the political will of, and in practice demanded by, its leadership, requires of a people the quality of an action group — for the cause its leaders define in its name as its objective. Being obligated to this quality draws on ideological images of the nation as a collective that means far more than mere citizenship for its members. It possesses instead the irrefutability of a natural determination: a sense of belonging that informs every legal determination, every interest, and especially every private calculation, like the territory a tribe dwells in that therefore gets the status of a highest value as a homeland. Populists do not necessarily need ‘blood and soil’ as a guarantee of national belonging, even if they do their utmost to make this idea ‘speakable’ again in the form of a national community’s ‘DNA.’ This imagery of the idea of nationality as something determined without question likes to keep up with the times. In any case, the intended identity of the people is not regarded as something imposed, as a work of state force — and precisely for this reason is regarded as absolutely justifying the claim on the people by the state power. Populists consequently present this claim as a protection of the people’s identity from the threat of being estranged: by attacks from the rampant ‘liberalism’ and ‘pluralism’ of Western democracies and, in particular, from the great, general welcome that establishment democrats supposedly show for everything foreign and to all foreigners. The state’s publicly proclaimed liberal indifference toward the private customs, preferences, and origins of its citizens recognized as private owners; their obligation to recognize, at least in practice, the equivalence of the plural ways in which relationships are established and made sense of — all this, to the populists, seems like a denial of the unity of the citizens as a people. Through such an officially decreed tolerance toward new, and thus strange (familial, sexual, religious) customs, and especially toward foreign people, the members of the people are deprived of their inner unity. The identity of the people demands in particular the exclusion of all things foreign, including foreigners; otherwise, the people will be degraded into a mere population, into a motley bunch of individualists who are only kept together by the external, bloodless bond of a passport, hence forced together by the all-the-more encroaching commands and bans of a politically correct vice squad. This is how the people are denatured into a self-denying community under the heel of a ‘liberal’ or even ‘humanitarian’ canon of values that causes the special nature of their own, national “we” to disappear. And with that, the people itself are at the breaking point — threatened in the worst case with ‘extinction’ through ‘ethnic replacement,’ in any case with a weakening to the limit of their very ability to survive. So, what is called for is a program to force people into line, which is every bit the equal to the politically ‘correct’ education of the people by the hated liberals.
V. The contradictory development of globalized competition into a struggle for national sovereignty
When populists define their people in such a way, they intend to hold them accountable in a claim to power that is directed against more than the domestic ‘establishment.’ Populism also stands for an outwardly directed ambition that fully corresponds to the internal mobilization of the people: the reconquest of national sovereignty. Populists, who are therefore commonly called ‘sovereignists,’[†] blame its loss on the machinations of an international elite of ‘globalists’ who have turned their backs on the people. They have led the nation under the tutelage of nothing but supranational, i.e., foreign, authorities — UN, EU, NATO, WTO, etc. — and handed it over to a ‘world government’ or a ‘Brussels dictatorship,’ possibly even committing the “insanity of a total dissolution of the nation states in favor of a global multiculturalism” (AfD[‡] chairman Jörg Meuthen, AfD Kompakt, April 7, 2019). In doing so, they have sacrificed their own people’s sacred right to self-determination on the altar of ‘globalization.’ Every readily cited ‘loss of social status’ of the members of one’s own nation in the globalized world, whether it has occurred or is feared, stands for this loss — namely, for the fact that the state no longer has the basis of its power under control.
What populists are polemicizing against is the political, institutional foundation of a success story that is — from an imperialist point of view — unparalleled in world history: the truly global triumph of the capitalist system, which all modern states and state leaders want to have as their system, including the populists. What the hated ‘globalists’ have achieved with their global framework of rules is, after all, the opening up of the entire world to the free competition of businessmen for their own enrichment — plus a strong ‘liberalization’ of this competition, i.e., the removal of all kinds of ‘protectionist’ restrictions on cross-border business. In this way, they have achieved a true ‘world market,’ thus completing that freedom on which free peoples live because their rulers bind them to the free competition of capital in order to draw the means of their power from it.
What the populists find fault with in this ‘globalization’ is the institutional downside of the fact that the states of the globalized world — some more actively and decisively, others more passively — have expanded the sources of their power through the internationalization of business to such an extent that these sources exceed anything that the states could ever achieve internally on the basis of their power. That means, conversely, that these sources are no longer subject to their sole, sovereign control; their access to them depends instead on multilateral agreements, partnerships, and institutions, i.e., on a multitude of more or less solidified and stabilized agreements with competitors against whom they compete at the same time. This relationship applies to all states in the modern world order, even and especially to its great movers and shakers. As is well known, it applies to the member states of the European Union in a special and particularly acute form, since they have created for themselves a common, internal market and, for most of them, even a common money — after all, money is the form of existence and the means of their national wealth — whose sovereign management they no longer decide on alone. This even applies to the USA, the godfather, main beneficiary, and regulator of this world order, which quite rightly is not only called ‘rule-based’ but also ‘American.’
It is true that the yields from this globally liberated and supranationally regulated competition are distributed in markedly different ways among the competing nations — strictly according to their respective ability to set up their own business location and their own money not only for a field of activity and transitional stage for global business, but also for its starting point and endpoint. Yet the populist dissatisfaction with this world order is strikingly similar for both the winners and the losers. The populists of this world of states can’t bear that the institutions of the so-called ‘rule-based order’ establish a quasi-legal situation that sits enthroned above their sovereignty, robbing them of a freedom of action legitimized only by their own power — and therefore consider it an attack on the identity and freedom of their people. And that is why they also discover scoundrels who hypocritically invoke supranational rights in order to scam and defend their benefits at the expense of their nation. By rejecting them, populists are not announcing that they want to limit national interests to national borders, but rather issuing a battle cry. They wouldn’t think of limiting their imperialist ambition to make use of the whole world as the source and field of activity of their own nation’s wealth and power. Instead, they are telling their competitors that they will not be guided by supranational agreements and rules, but exclusively by their own nation and its interests as they sovereignly define them. Anything else unacceptably relativizes this very sovereignty. They insist on the freedom to determine their own stance to this competition against the ‘shackles’ of the incriminated order, i.e., ruthlessly proving themselves in this competition as competitors bound only to their own interests. In announcing that they will enable the people to take their rightful place in the competition of nations, they are praising the people as the natural basis of the sovereignty of their state, enlisting them both theoretically and in practice to serve its self-assertion.[¶]
Of course, the world order does not remain unaffected by the populist standpoint of ‘reconquering’ national sovereignty — this involves not merely questions of diplomatic style and the morals of foreign political activities, but certainly also the organizational mode and substance of this competition itself. In what way and to what extent it does so, however, very much depends. The content, scope, and imperialistic effectiveness of the populist, ‘sovereignist’ standpoint depends, on the one hand, on the extent of the respective ambitions of populist foreign policymakers and, on the other hand and mainly, on the imperialist position of their respective nation in the global world order. The variants of this ‘reconquest’ range from defensive demands for concessions from partners on financial, border protection, and asylum issues to the very aggressive demand on all the states of the world to surrender unconditionally in the face of one’s own superiority and accept willingly the tasks one gives them. The populist world order, too, is rather colorful, although this is not due to the distinctive identity of individual peoples; quite the contrary. As peoples, they get their uniquely relevant particularity in the course of the competition of the powers that are in charge of them: as a more or less productively used mass at the disposal of imperialistic powers.
VI. The bill for a social-democratic success story: the working class has joined the nation — ready at all times for an alternative, consequent nationalism.[§]
The fact that with this definition and claim on their people, populists are having success with significant shares of the same people, both at home (Germany) and abroad, is a cause for concern and headaches for democrats. In particular, the decline of social democracy is eyed partly with regret, partly with foreboding; its traditional base, once known as the ‘working class,’ is not only switching parties in considerable numbers, but going right to the opposite end of the party spectrum, causing social democrats in almost all countries of the free West to plunge from the status of a ‘major party’ if not to the point of political insignificance. It is quite unfair that the decline of social democrats is attributed — even by the aforementioned base itself — to their own failings, for instance to the social ‘neglect’ of their core voters. The social democrats have not neglected anything. What is happening to them now is rather a fair reward for having achieved their highest, social-democratic goal.
For more than a century, in collaboration with the labor unions, they defined and organized a ‘workers’ movement’ whose general aim — all national particularities aside — was to provide the proletariat with full legal recognition, democratic appreciation, and a social home in class society; which the leading organizers of this movement inherently equated, i.e., confused, with the elimination of class society. This was no way for the working class to get rid of its special hardships. It remains the constitutive lie of social democracy and labor unions that workers could live well and decently from wage labor if only their representatives looked after their situation. But in the process, a notable success, and an extremely productive one for the nation, has come out of this workers’ movement: the wage-dependent class is fully ‘integrated.’ First of all, in the sense that their social hardships, including their need to struggle, have long since been fully looked after and administered by the trade unions and political authorities; for every typical hardship of the class, there is a contact point in the welfare state or trade union from which wage earners can expect — and do expect — support in coping with their proletarian hardships. But they also expect duties, since secondly, the class consciousness of wage earners has long since been successfully replaced by a self-esteem that is preformulated and cultivated by democratic representatives and advocates. They don’t see themselves as the means for a wealth that comes about through their work at their expense, but rather as the most important, indispensable contributors to the society, whose prosperity is thus — at least morally — their doing. Though notoriously getting a raw deal as the systematically worse-off part of the people, they regard themselves at the same time as the actual mainstay of the nation with their efforts and willingness to make efforts, and by doing without and their willingness to do without; they stand ready to fulfill the orders of those in charge.
There is currently no alternative being offered to this — such as a workers’ party that insists on taking its clientele into account in the face of the necessities of growth, or even fights against its existence as the laboring factor of production and cost. The triumph of capitalism and bourgeois rule over the former ‘real socialism’; the victory of the morality of competition over the official morality of workers' solidarity of the Eastern bloc: all this has finished off the proletarian ‘identity’ celebrated ‘over there’ and — with a delay — its echo in the West. It has denigrated the belief in an alternative, possibly assertive system of the socialist stripe and replaced it on a world scale by the standpoint of an insulted patriotism. And for all the the social-democratic parties’ exhorting themselves to focus again more on ‘social justice’ in order to sharpen their own ‘profile,’ what has taken hold is the standpoint — to cite the German example — that there can be no turning back to the ‘party of those worse off.’ A ‘left-wing populism’ is out of the question for social democracy; and there is hardly any demand for it anymore.
An undeniable success story: the ‘integration’ of the proletariat in all these countries has ensured a functionalization of the working class reflected in an epoch-making, worldwide accumulation of capital; an accumulation that has been able to run its usual course so productively and so free from any disruptions on the part of labor that it has worked its way into an epoch-making overaccumulation, a crisis. The devastating consequences of this global, capitalist success for the masses of wageworkers and its crisis-prone flip side; the celebrated technological advances in the productivity of capital and its various effects, problematized as ‘downsides,’ on a thoroughly rationalized, global working class; the very different records of success and damage of the competing nations, or, as the case may be, of the people who are used for this imperialistic competition in accordance with the relevant balance of power: all this forms the ‘breeding ground’ of the radical love for the sovereignty of the people — for the offer to a dissatisfied people to find their own dissatisfaction adequately reflected in the dissatisfaction of an ‘alternative’ democratic leadership with its sovereign freedom of action within and outside the country. All this makes the polemics launched from above in democratic competition, against the ‘disenfranchisement’ of the true mass base of the nation by elites alienated from and thus alien to the people, into a compelling political offer.
In this way, democratic nationalism becomes one variant richer, fascism perhaps even superfluous.
[*] Matteo Salvini, Italian right-wing populist politician, formerly deputy prime minister and interior minister.
[†] Referring specifically to eurosceptics critical of European integration. In the US, the term ‘isolationist’ is often used against those opposed to multilateral agreements and organizations.
[‡] Alternative für Deutschland, German right-wing political party.
[¶] In Germany, the populist return to the highest value, the ‘Volksgemeinschaft,’ a ‘people’s community’ beyond class or other divisions, invokes an appropriate legal claim confirming this self-image.
[§] This section deals with the decline of European social-democratic parties, the erstwhile political representatives of the working class. America, as usual, is exceptional in this regard: the goal of workers’ realizing the ‘American Dream’ through competition against each other won out over organizing a working-class political party.
 In this respect, the self-image of the American people, the ‘hard-working Americans,’ is something of an exception. It is precisely in their all being pitted against each other in their competition for money, and occupying the most disparate ranks of the social hierarchy, that American citizens regard themselves as a people, as a united, national community, sharing the family values of a society based on competition. See the article, “A victory for ‘populism’ in the heart of democracy: Donald Trump and his nation — united in the pursuit of happiness” in GegenStandpunkt 2-17.
© GegenStandpunkt 2020