Brazil has fallen, who will be next? Authoritarian populism is rattling the Western World, whose liberalism had hitherto appeared unassailable. Michael Zürn, one of the directors of the Berlin Social Science Center, held a lecture in Belgrade last week at the invitation of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, on the reasons behind the success of the new Right.
Why is authoritarian populism flourishing?
We can distinguish between three explanations – economic, cultural, and political. The economic explanation points to the losers of globalization and the growing inequality within many societies. The losers of globalization are organizing against a liberal, cosmopolitan elite, and this explanation has some empirical evidence to support it, which we saw with Brexit, where support for leaving the EU was strong in the ‘rust belt’ of Northern England, and partially in the U.S. as well, where the election was decided in old industrial cities. It’s not necessarily about the poorest people, but those who are losing their economic status.
However, you consider that explanation incomplete?
If the problem is mostly about the economy, about people wanting the state to provide social security, why are they voting for Trump or Berlusconi, who are themselves, by all objective parameters part of the elite? Why not vote for left-wing parties promising stronger protection? The second question is why this populism is also potent in countries which are the winners of globalization, such as Turkey, whose growth rates for the last twenty years are unmatched in this part of the world. Finally, why do right-wing populists boast twenty or twenty five per cent support even in Scandinavian countries, which are rich, stable democracies, where inequality is much lower than in the U.S. or the U.K.?
Empirically speaking, the cultural explanation seems somewhat stronger. There is talk of a counterattack by the ‘traditionally modern’ way of life of industrial society, which has been exposed to a very radical liberalization – multiculturalism, LGBT movements, etc., for the last 15 to 20 years. Support for authoritarian populism can therefore partially be understood as resistance to liberalism run amok, liberalism which some people can’t understand anymore. For example, the first act of the new left-wing government in Berlin was to abolish gender segregated toilets in the city government’s offices. That may be a good thing, but the question is whether people consider that to be a priority. I think the movement which started off by calling for tolerance and pluralism has almost turned into a mechanism for virtue signaling. In Western Europe you have to live in a city, you should have at least a few friends from the LGBT community. If you don’t, you are considered very traditional. That is what the protest is directed against, and that is the point at which the economic and the cultural converge as a fear of losing one’s status, which is essentially the driving force for the hatred against liberal cosmopolitanism.
It appears, then, that even the middle class is turning its back on liberal policies, since it too was betrayed by them.
Hillary Clinton won more than 80% of the vote in each of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. Donald Trump, on the other hand, won more than 90% of the vote in many rural areas. Even in the days of the most heated class conflicts, it would be difficult to find areas where socialists or conservatives won by those margins, and that says volumes about how sharp these divisions are. It is clear that people who live in the countryside are not necessarily poorer. This is about the middle class as well, and the fear of losing both social and economic status.
There is, however, a third explanation, which I would perhaps consider to be the most important. A consequence of the rise of stabile democracies is a completely new way of doing politics. In the politics of the 1920s and 1930s, at least the voters and their representatives were part of the same culture. Today, there is an enormous social distance between the representatives of the Social Democratic Party and the social democratic voters. Parties were willing to compromise because they wanted to capture the votes of various groups; they brought in experts to highlight common interests. Institutions like banks, European or international institutions, where decisions are not made by majority vote, but by experts, became ever more important. People realized this was going on at some point, and they ‘struck back by majority’, as highlighted by right-wing populist parties.
Do you think that these institutions, such as the EU, can be reformed, or will they remain lifeless bureaucratic mechanisms?
I wouldn’t say, for example, that the policies of the European Commission were any worse than those of the majority of member states. I would even say that they were better on numerous occasions. The problem is that these decisions are more or less made behind closed doors, and that there is no visible political competition to find the best solution within these institutions. If a person doesn’t like the solution which is the result of this process, there are two ways they could react. They could say “Well, I don’t like it, but I like the EU, so I will accept it”, which works for a while, but not for long. On the other hand, they could say “I don’t like it, and that’s why I don’t like the EU”. To avoid that, the European Parliament should be strengthened, and a few referenda could be called at the European instead of the national level. If Europeans were to vote together, that would build a sense of a community which has decided on a certain problem.
That could be possible if cosmopolitan liberalism isn’t already spent as an ideology…
If you conclude that European institutions should be more democratic, there are two possibilities. The first is renationalization, and the second is democratization. Renationalization cannot be a viable solution in a globalized world, because it is no longer globalized only by political decisions, but by the development of our technologies. All decisions made by the British government outside of the EU will have an effect on other Europeans. I often use the example of people who live on Pacific islands. They are going to lose not only their homes, but their countries as well within the next 10 or 15 years, that is almost certain at this point, and they are going to lose them because of climate policies they had no vote on. If democracy means that those who are affected by a decision should make the decision, then national decisions are always somewhat undemocratic in a globalized world. They are also inefficient, because the big problems we are facing today, such as regulating financial markets, climate change, and international terrorism – are international. Those advocating renationalization like to present migration as a big problem, because that is where they can offer a solution – they can close the borders. However, problems like climate change or financial market regulation have no national solutions, and that is why these people don’t like to talk about them.
How do you define the “Chinese model”, which doesn’t fit into the European dichotomy between liberalism and authoritarianism?
It’s not a form of Stalinist totalitarianism, where the political subsystem completely controls every other subsystem. What is special about the Chinese system is that it allows a good deal of autonomy for the economic subsystem, and from what I have seen and heard from Chinese colleagues, the scientific subsystem as well. They are much more modern, and therefore much more critical of the government than Russian scientists. Therefore, this is not the authoritarian populism in the style of Putin, since the Chinese are aware of the economic value of open borders, so they defend the international order against authoritarian populists to an extent. When Trump declared his trade war, China stood up to defend the World Trade Organization from the U.S. On the other hand, the Chinese naturally don’t want international organizations to meddle in domestic issues on human rights, democracy, etc. I would call what we have been seeing in China for the last five or six years a new form of modern totalitarianism, which uses digital technologies to exert almost complete control over the people.
Interview by Michael Zuern for NIN weekly, published on November 8 2018. Author: Marko Lovric