Populism and Antipopulism: Beyond the Post-1989 Paradigm

Petr Agha, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Copenhagen in the iCourts Centre of Excellence for International Courts of the University of Copenhagen, discusses the clash between populism and antipopulism, and the implications for Europe, in conversation with Oliver Garner.

Oliver Garner: To start our conversation, how would you define the concept of antipopulism for our listeners? Is it synonymous with liberal constitutionalism post-1989, or is the concept defined more intimately in reaction to populism in recent years?

Petr Agha: Let me start with the word populism. It is important to start with this term before we move on to antipopulism. I have been for a long time quite critical of the entire concept, and I think that the word and the concept of populism is some sort of overgeneralized outline. As such it cannot convey under this one umbrella the substantial variations in degrees and forms of the multitude of phenomena that we are faced with and which this concept is supposed to describe. So, most importantly for our inquiry as academics, it does not give us much to actually understand the current sense of the crisis of the European project. Why? Because it explains both too little and too much. What is actually expressed in such a diagnosis, when we say there is a populist movement or populist backlash?

To me, it is remarkable how the fundamental diagnosis of the current developments in Europe just mirrors the populist discourse, it is as if academia borrowed from the populists and again created a dichotomy which is reversed.

For us academics we have the norm, Europe, liberal democracy etc, and then some sort of aberration occurs, populism occurs, and this is the framework within which we are operating. And within this juxtaposition, the ideology of the European project is never questioned, beyond, of course, the usual problems of democratic deficit etc.

So, instead of trying to understand what is going on, we ended up with two sets of dichotomies here. One is familiar from the literature on populism, it is the people versus the elites, that is taken from the populist camp, and from our understanding of populist politics, we have the values versus the populists and I hope this is not too much of an oversimplification. I think that this is the first problem. Now, such a divide is of course not factual – it is foremost an ideological construction, it is an ideological phenomenon and its function, in my opinion, is to show that the European project with its institutional design – all these structures and institutions – is not related to its own history.

The fact that we have constructed the European project as ahistorical provides us with the opportunity to show how beneficial and universal such a design is to be imposed on the entirety of Europe. Because it is ahistorical and because it is beyond ideology, then it becomes a canonical concept and a norm, some sort of a blueprint. On the other hand, Eastern European populists are presented as if they are carrying the baggage of their own history; they are shown to be peripheral and provincial. So this is another juxtaposition that we are using and that is clouding our ability to actually address the issues at stake.

The other thing that I wanted to raise is that the populist East in this juxtaposition is always determined only in relation to the West, in which the West is seen as universal and as the norm, and we are always measuring Eastern European populists against this norm. Boris Buden calls this tactic “repressive infantilization”. We are making kids out of nations, and they are supposed to learn how democracy works and they are supposed to liberate themselves from their past and their mentality. As a result of these observations, I think that the current political situation in Europe, which is serious and concerning, is unfortunately only debated asking questions like how to prevent the escalation of populism, how to provide a remedy for the pathology of modern democracy, how to maintain or restore the existing political order.

Instead of taking populism as a serious challenge to the European project as a whole, we only look at it as some sort of an unusual pathology – it is a hiccup, and it is the return of the repressed but it is never addressed as a structural problem of the entire European project.

Having created this perception or this narrative of what is going on in Europe, it is also detrimental to our ability as academics to actually analyze the situation. Instead of looking at the changing configurations of party politics, and our ability to identify the rise of new political divisions that go beyond the traditional right and left spectrum, we have invested a lot of energy into this antipopulist narrative. We have created a framework, a picture, that makes sense maybe within European institutions, as perceived in Brussels, but it does not allow us to actually provide any meaningful analysis.

Once we have created this antipopulism discourse, it marginalizes the critical voices that might inform Europe of what needs to be changed in order to keep the project running and legitimate and accepted, because we have assumed that there is a blueprint which is constituted and there is no escaping it.

This is the way things are and the way the entirety of Europe wants to be run and governed. The last point that I would like to make is that, what I have described as an internal crisis of Europe is a structural problem that was conceived in 1989, and post-1989 the crisis of Europe as a structure was exported into the Central and Eastern European region. We point the finger at them, instead of maybe looking at what needs to be changed in the institutional design of the European project as such.

You mentioned the importance of the ideological dichotomy between populism and antipopulism. In terms of these structural defects do you believe that the post-1989 settlement which you mentioned could have been determined differently in order to avoid this present phenomenon of apparent Member State “backsliding”? Beyond the post-communist context, do you think that the problem may even go back further to the post-war settlement, as argued by scholars such as Michael Wilkinson in his concept of “authoritarian liberalism”?

First of all, I take issue with the term backsliding. What do we mean when we say that someone or something is backsliding? Do we mean a two-speed Europe, where you have some parts which slide back to their original positions, or do they slide back in terms of the forward movement of the current European project? Either way this description presupposes that there is some sort of a direction in which the European project is heading, but some members unfortunately are not able or willing to go along with the rest of Europe. Now, we can also look at this movement or development from a different point of view, and we can look at this backsliding movement precisely signalling the fact that the European Union no longer has one direction. It might just be a direction in which some parts of Europe do not want to take part anymore. There are different ways of looking at this backsliding, so if you employ a slightly different perspective you get completely different data or results from this.

We all like to talk about ifs and ifs do not really help to solve the issues of the present but they are very important in creating a platform that might analyze the foundations of the current predicament. I believe that what we are experiencing now is precisely deeply rooted in the narratives and ideology of the early 90s. So, talking about Mike’s authoritarian liberalism, this is precisely one of the profound ways of looking at a problem and it is a really cool book.

A number of great authors have in the past tried to reflect, narrate, or analyze what went wrong, and we find many different accounts. Some of them gained a lot of support in the literature, others are brilliant but were kind of dismissed or did not find enough support, and some of them are in my opinion completely mistaken. But this is just my opinion and I am sure that others would disagree with me. All these books share one thing in common which is very important –  this feeling that something is dramatically changing, something is going on and different authors want to capture different elements of it.

Going back to Mike’s excellent book and to your question – yes, we can trace the roots of the problem all the way back to post-1945, but I think that this line of argumentation is only indirectly connected with what I think needs to be said about the populist movement in Europe. First of all, Mike’s book, from my understanding, is some sort of a culmination of his previous work on the debt crisis and the Greek crisis, and therefore he connects different dots in the picture in front of us. But on the other hand, the European Union did not adopt an alternative approach, and this was a true eye opener for many of us. The way that the entire situation [the Eurocrisis] was dealt with was the moment when a lot of us, including me, started thinking slightly differently about the European project.  The important message of his book is that it shows that what happened, what we have experienced, was not just some random occurrence or something very specific, but it was an expression of the far-reaching patterns in the very design of European integration, and I think his book points precisely in this direction.

First, the 2008 crisis had a very different impact in the Central and Eastern European region, we had a different crisis that inspired this movement, and I do not think that you can really create a direct link between populism in Eastern and Central Europe and 2008. Maybe the refugee crisis was the point.

European academia somehow tends to give precedent to Western-centred discourses, for two reasons: the first one is prosaic – the most influential scholars and institutions reside in the West and therefore they reflect a certain intellectual and social milieu. This is why I think that the activities of CEU at the moment are so very important, because I believe they can truly bridge the gap between Eastern and Western academia. The second reason is more substantive, and it is close to th

e heart of the problem. The situation in the Central and Eastern European region is still predominantly analyzed through Western eyes. There is a whole generation of amazing scholars who were born in the Central and Eastern European region, but intellectually matured within a very specific post-communist paradigm. This paradigm is basically characterized as “catching up with the West”, where the idea of the West and its institutional and economic effects were never really questioned, because there were virtually no alternatives back in those days.

In your RevDem op-ed, you discuss claims that populists are pursuing a genuine constitutional project.  Do you believe there is any validity to claims by the Hungarian and Polish governments that they do abide by the concept of the rule of law, albeit in a particularistic manner conducive to their own constitutional identity, or do you think that the rule of law establishes universal principles that must be followed, regardless of local context and history?

I used the words to provoke a bit, to shift the debate a bit, because again the entire point of my op-ed was to reorient our perception. Of course, I am not at all supportive of what the Polish and Hungarian governments are doing, but I think we really need to look at it closely and carefully. In order to be able to gain a perspective that I think might help us understand what is going on, we should focus on the rule of law as a concept – what role it plays in these developments. The first thing to say is that there are many ways of looking at the rule of law.

On the one hand, it [the rule of law] is a certain concept that is defined in the literature, but at the same time it is a political device that is being used in political debates, it has an ideological function, so it is not just a legal or constitutional concept.

I think that, for our conversation now, it is important to highlight one aspect of what the rule of law actually means, and that is the technocratic post-political nature that it carries with it. It has many positive functions and the literature on populism is full of excellent examples of how well it defended the values which are important for European society. But, at the same time, we want to shed a new light on already tired debates – we have read many articles that support this claim.

Now, in trying to do this, our discussion moves back again to 1989 when Europe as a continent, as a project, reached, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ideology, a seemingly universal agreement on not just the basic values that united Europe, but also on the practicalities of how the European project was going to be built. This agreement was built, in my opinion, as an antidote to the super ideological nature of the communist regimes. Europe not only represented universal values, but it also represented an institution that had a blueprint of what needed to be done in order to overcome the legacies of the communist past. 

Europe presented a blueprint which was to be followed by post-communist countries as they wanted to join the EU, and the Eastern European countries were simply no partner in this because there was no alternative at the time. There was one ideology that collapsed and there was another one which seemed to work. So Eastern European countries joined the project that was functional and that obviously provided a lot of good for its citizens and its members.

However, the blueprint of liberal democracy is not only the rights of minorities, non-discrimination, freedom of expression, and the welfare state. It is also market regulation and deregulation and privatizations, and these states had to completely restructure and rearrange their socio-economic and cultural realities. These measures had a far-reaching impact on the societies, and at the same time, they also benefited the Central and Eastern European countries. But I think that the West benefited a lot from it as well through the opening of new markets etc.

The other aspect that I think is worth mentioning is more philosophical. The rule of law also consists in keeping large parts of the decision-making processes away from democratic contamination. Again, this was supported by the ideological experience that Eastern European states had with the communist regime, which was perceived as super ideological. But in the context of the European project this created a very specific situation which is very different to nation states. Because once the European project is built on something which is apolitical, for obvious reasons, it does not have the same legitimacy as it would have had if it were to come from the nation state.

So, one the one hand, it is fine when you have the rule of law within the nation state, because it is supported by some sort of national legitimacy. But once you elevate it above this level, you have a different situation all together. Where does the legitimacy of these experts come from? Well, shared values, output legitimacy etc. But what if the post-Cold war ideological and economical consensus is crumbling – and I think that it is – and what if the outputs largely differ according to different regions and different social classes? Then what becomes of the rule of law once we have created this as the spine of European integration? And now comes the constitutional project that I wanted to mention.

If you have the rule of law as the spine of the European project as we know it, once you challenge it you are not just engaging in political argumentation, but you call into question the entire project and its foundations.

This is why by its very nature this is a very radical claim, and this is why I used the expression of constitutional project because the actors want to create a new constitution.

You mentioned the EU’s distinct sources of legitimacy compared to nation states, so my question for you is do you believe that the EU has sufficient authority and legitimacy to enforce values such as democracy and the rule of law? Does this go too far beyond what you mentioned as the apolitical technocratic blueprint exercise?

Legitimacy has been on the plate forever, and there are so many different ways of looking at it and again I am pursuing my own research line, so I am trying to support my claims here. In no way do I think there are universal answers. But I remember that, in 2014, Jan Komárek published his paper on existential revolution in Europe, and I believe that was one of the first papers in the top EU legal journals which invited the readers to include in their discussion about Europe and its problems also the experience of the Central and Eastern European countries.

Since then I think there is this growing understanding that perhaps our research and thinking about Europe and the populist wave also needs to include the experience, history and socio-economic realities of Central and Eastern Europe as well. And this line of research I think indicates that the universal principles that you mentioned – democracy, the rule of law etc – were perhaps universally applied but they were not universally created. Their universality was assumed and not just by the Western countries. Also in the Eastern countries we welcomed these things without actually knowing the consequences they would have.

One of the legitimacy problems which I think somehow escaped the radar of our thinking about the future of Europe is the degree of change, and how much everything changed from the 90s when all these designs and ideologies were created. The socio-economic realities of the Central and Eastern European countries changed, but so has the so-called “old Europe” and so has the European project. But it seems to me that we are still operating with structures, ideologies, recipes, and different blueprints that tried to gain their legitimacy from the post-1989 situation and the atmosphere there was in Europe.

So it seems to me that the EU, which knows that it has a legitimacy problem, and tries to address it, is to a large extent leaning on old arguments which are persuasive to some parts of Europe and to some parts of the population, and they resonate well with the European institutions because they are representing this. But this reliance on these old arguments does very little to counteract the narrative of crisis from which populists get their force. You have again a juxtaposition of the European institutions defending the project, using arguments which no longer seem to be valid that much, and on the other hand, you have the populists that are actually gaining power from how the European Union is denying that there needs to be a substantive change for obvious reasons. The populists, as I have been presenting them, they are not the good guys, there is also a lot of reasons for trying to build these walls in protecting the values which are important.

The populists are so successful in what they are doing because they draw attention to the necessity for the social embeddedness of any legal order.

So, on the one hand, Europe is presenting this legal order or the rule of law as something which is universal and apolitical, and populists know there needs to be social legitimacy. In this way the populists expose precisely this tension in the current European project.

On this theme of the validity of the EU’s arguments, and a move towards recognizing the need for social embeddedness, do claims that the EU has turned towards “civilizational” language and practices, for example, in evoking the “European way of life”, suggest that antipopulists may be learning from the playbook of populists?

Again, a really good question and it is a difficult one as well. What is the European way of life? What is the civilizational language of Europe? The first question is who defines the shape and substance of this. These are the questions that need to be asked and I think, yes, the EU is learning from what is going on, but what does that actually mean for the European project and its future? During our discussion today I have repeatedly said that the main target of our inquiry should not just be populism, but the broader conception of the European project.

What we call populism, and I am referring to Ernesto Laclau, is a specific way of structuring the field of the political. There is a field and then the populists come and they kind of structure the debates that are being held. Antipopulism, as I have described it, preserves the sense of supremacy of the existing order. So this process of populist backsliding creates a situation where these once hierarchical relationships between Europe and its peripheries are organized around different lines. I think they have managed, in certain parts of this discussion, to create a certain sense of horizontality.

This turn to civilizational language and practices, as you call it, acknowledges this development and it opens another plane, a much needed one, where this dynamic is being played out. But the problem is that it is precisely a field where Europe is lacking. This is why I think that the populists have dominated the field of civilizational language. So, the question is – is it going to be effective? I don’t know. I recently read Francis Fukuyama again, his 2018 work, and he talks about the need for identities to be shared.

It is not that individuals just want the recognition of their individuality, but they want to have recognition of their sameness with other people. This is one of the things that we have completely forgotten in our quest to protect liberal rights of individuals, that we do not just want our rights to be protected, but we also want to feel the sameness with others.

My feeling is that the EU, as it is, is unable to build such a narrow identity which would be rooted in this sameness and solidarity, for example. So, we might have a format of broadly shared identities, as Europeans, which might help us, but I do not think this is ever going to be enough.

For our final question, and continuing this idea of whether the EU is capable of creating such an identity and replicating the successes of populists projects, do you think that the powerful use of symbols and narratives creating this idea of sameness as an identity can be used in a way that is less divisive and more respectful of pluralism and the institutional constrains of constitutionalism? Could we see a form of populist constitutional project which does not come with the same destruction of the pre-existing order?

Well, I think it is a mistake to equate populism with passionate politics only. It is not just symbols and narratives. There is also a great deal of real-life concerns. I think populists’ repertoire builds on these two concerns. What are actually the symbols of the European Union and what is the story that the EU is projecting? Are these symbols and stories not precisely the targets of the current discontent? These are the targets of populists, precisely these two things.

We do have, as defenders of the European project, symbols and narratives but they are not working. They even seem to be counterproductive.

This is a really difficult situation that we find ourselves in because it is obvious now that this kind of technocratic nature of the European project was working against the backdrop of a certain understanding that the values and normative frameworks are shared, and they are not. Suddenly these European narratives need to be completely rethought.

If we are talking about inclusion, human rights, prosperity, and welfare, the everyday experience of European citizens is different in certain parts of society and certain parts of Europe as a continent. If the experience is different, then such a rhetoric is of no consequence, and it is again fueling the populist movement. Marta Nussbaum, and again I am using a liberal thinker to illustrate this point, precisely illustrates this in her recent book called Political Emotions – if you want to stimulate positive emotions towards institutions, you have to do this through very concrete actions.

This is why we need to understand what the root causes of populism are. Once we understand what is really at stake, and this requires us to step out of the antipopulism paradigm, it is precisely in this moment that we can actually single out the policies that can be effective for the future of Europe. However, such policies need to be shared amongst the members of the EU. We not only need a better message, we also need better messengers.

In collaboration with Teodora Miljojkovic.

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