The Politics of Antipopulism

By Petr Agha

The mainstream media and academia as well as political elites identify populist movements as the most important threat to the current liberal democratic regime. Populist actors have indeed unsettled and begun reshaping the European political landscape. In response to this, European institutions and their agencies and think-tanks hurl themselves into obsessive anti-populist agendas in the name of humanity, cosmopolitanism, human rights, social justice or other empty signifiers that have become so commonplace in the repertoire of the EU institutions. Even though most of these developments are worrying, the focus on the so-called populist movements obfuscates the limits and the contradictions inherent in the very idea of liberal capitalism itself. How do we move beyond the current impasse of the mainstream discourse, caught between a moral denunciation of the fallacies of the system and a refusal to take stock of the motivations of these newly emerging (constitutional) projects?

The year of 1989 marked the triumph of liberal capitalism. The recent developments in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region, which are most commonly described as “democratic backsliding”, indicate that the easy-dream scenario of creating a carbon copy of the West in the East in a relatively short and painless evolutionary catching-up process, where the focus has been on the big legal-constitutional transformations, has evaporated. What can we take from these developments?

The mainstream academic thinking is currently largely unable to look beyond the paradigm established in 1989, which solidified a particular version of not just the European project, but also the ideological dominance of liberalism. Nor has it come up with a workable analysis of either populism or the crisis of the liberal project. The current political situation is debated in narrowly liberal democratic and Western centric elitist frameworks, usually asking “how to prevent the escalation of populism”, how to provide a “remedy for this pathology of modern democracy” and “maintain” or restore existing political order”. The veil of populism managed to capture the imagination of many academics and journalists and has become a very powerful catch-all phrase to describe political projects which profess to divert from or reform the current political and institutional paradigm. In other words, populism is usually understood as an “unusual and pathological” turn in (Western) politics that needs to be combated.

“Anti-populism” suddenly appears in the political field as a clear discursive repertoire. What is does is pit the populist movements against the entrenched liberal order, understood as a yardstick that simply demonstrates the misfit between these competing visions. Of course, recent developments are troubling – however, to understand them, no serious analysis may come out of the anti-populist trajectory. Moreover, the discourse hinders our ability to analyze changing organizational patterns of party politics, to identify the rise of new political divisions rooted in the decline of traditional economic identities and political identification, and to understand the nature of social antagonisms and the complex processes of collective identity formation. The current crisis of the European project can hardly be explained as a simple clash between democratic values and the rule of law on the one hand, and the so called back-sliding populist movements, on the other. Instead, what we have on our hands is a multi-layered conflict of identity, history, values, religion and interpretations of the meaning of democracy.

The growing influence of non–democratic bodies and mechanisms, including central banks, constitutional and other courts, regulatory bodies, and international treaties, which are deployed to combat the worrying developments in the region, only further exacerbates the crisis. Populism creates a political discourse that extends beyond legal framing, and the rule of law (as a policy) is unable to contain this emerging discourse. The political realm extends into constitutional matters, despite all efforts of constitutionalists to shield them from it. Constitutions – as constitutional texts – do not seem to provide sufficient scope for thinking about the relationship between populism and liberal democracy. To believe that constitutional rigidity is able to contain the tension inherent in constitutionalism beyond the state is illusory. This would leave us with only authoritative legal order and the rules that emanate from it. The idea that, by framing certain parts of public life as constitutional, they could be entirely locked away from the reach of politics is counterproductive and dangerous.

The social, political and economic changes of the past decade created a very specific situation from which we need to learn, and we can only do so if we listen. Paul Blokker with his “populist constitutionalism” opens the door in this direction. His work, simply put, shows that populists are also pursuing a genuine constitutional project. But if we prefer to use a number of labels without precise knowledge of the dynamics at play, the only conclusion we can reach is the further entrenchment of such labels in our scholarly and political imagination. The problematic nature of the post-1989 transformation of Europe remains concealed, so do the cracks in the very architecture of the EU when we direct our energy and imagination into anti-populist academic and political projects.

What we need is a comparative grasp of specific processes and their local effects. So far it seems that we rely on over-generalized concepts such as global civil society, cosmopolitan democracy, illiberalism, populism, and European values. To better understand the current dynamics at play, we need to revisit the foundations of today´s predicament of Europe – the events set in motion in 1989. Why is it important to go back 30 years in time in order to be able to understand the current situation? And why is the CEE region the place to look for answers? The countries of the former Eastern bloc adopted the European project, largely without reservations, and in its totality. It is therefore not much of a surprise that it is precisely in these parts of Europe where we find the first serious cracks in the ideology of the European project, as the post-1989 understanding of the world begins to crumble. The effects of the (perceived) victory of Western liberalism, which set in train these social transformations, are only just beginning to work their way throughout Europe.

Petr Agha is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Copenhagen, iCourts Centre of Excellence for International Courts with the IMAGINE: European Constitutional Imaginaries: Utopias, Ideologies and the Other (ERC project) and a co-director of ReOPEN.

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