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Right-wing populist politicians have had electoral success in quite some countries. This has led to much debate about how far you can go in criticizing these politicians. Can you call them fascist, even though they are democratically elected? Does that not insult the voters with their legitimate concerns and does that not downplay the seriousness of the Holocaust? Perhaps, but also the accusation of fascism is an expression of a social concern. Moreover, it is a concern that can be said to be legitimate because democracy must fundamentally be alert to totalitarian threats. On the basis of Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism, I will argue here that politicians have to account for whether their political narrative does go not at the expense of pluralism. Such a narrative presents a hero with a history and a goal, and an enemy that obstruct the hero from reaching this goal. In this, the narratives of right-wing populist politicians tend to have an absolutist, sometimes even mythical, gist that contrasts with the democratic demand of pluralism. As such distrust seems appropriate.
Populist movements emerge just about everywhere in the West protesting against the ‘political establishment’ in the name of the ‘people’. In particular, right-wing conservative and authoritarian movements, and especially their leaders, are often reproached for being ‘fascist’, which in turn leads to the reproach of ‘demonization’, ‘censorship’, and so on.
But also more moderate voices claim that comparisons with fascism have no use and do not belong to a democratic debate, because freedom of expression must be respected. Or it is forwarded that this comparison invokes a Godwin argument, referring to the ‘law of Godwin’ which states that every internet discussion ends in a comparison with practices from the Second World War. Such an argument kills the discussion.
Another argument is that the accusation of fascism not only blames the leaders of such parties, but also their voters. Of course there will be extremist lunatics among the supporters, but the vast majority of these voters will be ordinary citizens with legitimate concerns. Worries about identity, certainty, values and so on. It does not seem fair to equate these people with Nazis. Moreover, these parties say to full-heartedly embrace democracy as they claim to stand up for the ‘people’?
In addition, a fierce approach could only be counterproductive, because people feel insulted, making them militant in their convictions. It is stressed that it is important to let everyone participate in the democratic process.
So can’t you respond in such sharp terms? Concerns about the low responsiveness of established politics may be legitimate, and a vote for an anti-establishment party may be a means of expressing those concerns, but the reaction that a particular party, politician, or statement is ‘fascist’ is an expression of a concern that seems just as legitimate. You can say that it is not the most sensible or constructive expression of this concern, but that also applies to a vote for a populist politician.
At the very least you can say that it is strange that populists are allowed to say stupid things and non-populists cannot. That seems to me to be stigmatizing and paternalistic.
One of the underlying reasons not to use the term ‘fascism’ is that the fascism of the Nazis has been a one-off period of extreme darkness, that originated from a deadly cocktail of historical circumstances. This situation has been so extreme that fear of a new fascist regime would not be justified. In fact, calling every new populist a fascist detracts from the seriousness of the Holocaust. Our institutions are believed to be strong enough to withstand anti-democratic threats, so there is no cause for concern. After all, only in the remote and idiosyncratic state of North Korea there is a classical totalitarian regime in power and the similarly totalitarian regime of the Islamic State seems to have been displaced. So why not give populist leaders the ‘benefit of the doubt’, give them the chance to see if they can deliver what they promise. Right?
But how strong is democracy? How much right-wing populism can she tolerate until she bursts? That is hard to say. But the resilience of democracy does not seem endless. In fact, she is probably much smaller than we suspect.
In her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt examines how the totalitarian regimes of the Nazis and the Soviets could have emerged. It is a remarkable book, way too long, unbalanced, that goes from historical analysis to hermetic considerations. Is it an analysis of the development of European anti-Semitism or does it analyze the phenomenon of totalitarianism? At the same time you see that Arendt raises the question that she treated much more systematically in later works such as The human condition or Eichmann in Jerusalem. That question was: what is the nature of totalitarianism and what can we do about it?
The depth of Arendt’s thinking usually disappears in interpretations of her work. I am afraid that will also apply to my reading of her analysis. With this disclaimer in mind, Arendt’s depiction of totalitarianism is that of a system that removes humanity from human life. This is done through the presentation of an inescapable truth that is separate from any human action. The organization of the totalitarian system is entirely focused on reproducing this truth and making everyone complicit in the system. Existing social ties between people are broken and every individual is subjected to the system, this includes both the executioner and the victim. Evil lost its meaning, as it is a concept that applies only to people and not to a system. Evil has become a ‘banality’, a mere administrative act.
To counter such dehumanization, a political system must take humanity as its starting point, so that people become resilient and so that they are not seduced again. According to Arendt, the essence of being human is that man is both an individual and a member of a collective. Only within a collective an individual can actually become an individual. After all, by contributing to a collective kaleidoscopic narrative, she can be recognized as an individual. Man is a ‘political animal’, she is an individual who participates in a community in which a collective story is created on the basis of pluralism.
Arendt thus takes an anti-liberal position. In liberalism, and certainly in the economic version of liberalism, people are not featured as individuals because there is no connection between them. There are only separated persons who try to fulfill their own needs. Precisely by separating every person from a political community, liberalism creates a climate in which totalitarianism can grow.
The ideal of equality is also not inviolable for Arendt. For the state – and that is not the same as a political community – citizens are equal to each other, you can only be an individual by being unequal to everyone else. Moreover, society consists of different groups that are not equal to each other. People can make connections themselves, we are free to pursue inequalities.
Arendt has often made controversial and sometimes unfortunate statements, for example about racial segregation in education in the southern United States. She felt that the government should not intervene, because a school belongs to society, not to the state. As a Jew that had to flee from Nazi Germany, she had a great distrust in the state.
Such positions can only be understood from the point of view that for Arendt, a political system seems to have one purpose only: to resist totalitarianism by guaranteeing pluralism and individuality.
What can we learn from Arendt? Firstly, that German fascism is merely one manifestation of totalitarian thinking, there is no reason to fear the return of the form of fascism from last century, but we cannot exclude other forms of totalitarian thinking in advance – whether it has a right, left or religious character. We cannot take democracy as given, instead we must always be vigilant when the dialectical relationship between individual and community appears to be under pressure.
Such a case occurs when people are no longer recognizable as individuals. On the one hand because they hide in faceless mass. Arendt speaks of the ‘mobs’ from the nineteenth century that made the streets of Paris unsafe. It seems that with the yellow vests in France and elsewhere these mobs are back again, screaming and rioting, acting as a group, not as individuals. On the other hand, individuals disappear because persons are seen as only representatives of a certain group. Anti-Semitism removes the possibility for Jews to become individuals, because they will never be anything else than Jews.
With the internet, new ways have come to make you invisible. You can hide anonymously in chat rooms or you can rant on Twitter under a pseudonym.
We must be vigilant if pluralism is undermined. For example, due to overly strong market thinking or because of a too technocratic policy. But also, and above all, when political measures are proposed that are based on a singularly understood idea of popular sovereignty. Not only is such sovereignty a fairy tale – after all, how could you figure out what exactly the people want – it also makes it possible to declare some parties as ‘enemies of the people’. Jews, Muslims, journalists, scientists, artists. It is scary how often it is the same list that is being proposed.
Also here the internet plays has a negative role. Undisputed conspiracy theories are rampant. Enemy images are distributed in codes that are known to the insiders, but which mislead outsiders, so that highly radical ideas can acquire a militant following. A series of horrible terrorist attacks is the sad proof of this.
How does the danger of totalitarianism return to everyday politics? What can you address a right-wing populist leader to? Quite simply, the question to be asked is one that should be put to every democratic politician, namely: how do you intend to counter totalitarian tendencies? How do you ensure that each person can be an individual who feels connected to a community?
Politicians tell a narrative, the version of the ‘truth’ that should apply: they focus on a protagonist who pursues a goal, but who is obstructed in this by an antagonist. For a right-wing politician the protagonist is the individual who wants to be free, with the government as the bad guy. For the left, society itself is the hero that strives for solidarity, but is opposed by competition and greed. In the political arena both sides will have to account for their story, with parties on the right having to account for their individualism and parties on the left with their socialism.
This happens quite automatically in conventional democratic processes. Politicians are forced to become acquainted with each other’s stories, to make compromises, and to work together, so that their narrative will never become completely leading for the state. The danger of a singular truth that transforms the state into a totalitarian system is thus avoided.
But it is more difficult for populist politicians to account for their narratives than it is for conventional parties. Simply because populism has intrinsic totalitarian tendencies, perhaps without the politicians and their voters recognizing this. This is the case because any appeal to a singularly conceived popular sovereignty goes against the principles of pluralism and moreover always implies the exclusion of certain groups.
After all, in the story of a populist politician, the protagonist is the ‘people’. An elusive unit that is assigned numerous properties. Any reconstruction of this mythical concept means that certain communities are part of this ‘people’ and others are not. In addition, there are reconstructions of a shared past and a shared goal that is being pursued. The most central question is who is bothering you in achieving that goal. Are they the outsiders, is it the elite, the newcomers or a ‘fifth column’?
Populism becomes especially dangerous when a call is made to eliminate these antagonists, by stopping them, removing them, locking them up. Then the story no longer fits into any democratic tradition.
It is here that contemporary political populism coincides in a dangerous way with the conspiracy theories that are being spread over the internet. When politicians refer to the eradication of enemies, sometimes in the code language that is only understood by insiders, these theories are given political legitimacy and totalitarian tendencies no longer play a role in the digital underworld only, but also in the upper world of society, so that thinking in terms of exclusion, incitement and even worse becomes normalized.
With that, it may happen that populist stories reveal patterns and motifs that we know from the darkest periods of history. A politician should be asked to account for this. Not from the reproach that someone is a fascist, but from the simple demand that you can impose on every democratic politician, namely that she can defend herself against this reproach. And yes, as I have tried to make clear above, this will require more effort for a populist politician.
That certainly does not only apply to the right. In quite a number of countries left-wing parties run into problems with their narrative about the Palestinian issue, where the state of Israel is the major opponent that makes it impossible to fulfill the goal of the Palestinians – a state of their own. The often proposed solution, the abolition of the state of Israel, goes hand in hand with a clear anti-Semitic sentiment. Also here, politicians must account for their story.
And what about voters’ responsibility? The idea seems to prevail that totalitarian tendencies will not be that bad, and that a populist voice is needed to make a statement against the way in which the established parties are politically committed. A vote for populism is then mainly a signal that the current politics is not sufficiently responsive to developments in society and does not pay attention to new values and concerns.
Such a protest vote assumes that democracy is strong enough to undergo a populist scourge. Few will agree to an authoritarian regime and even much less people will pursue a totalitarian system. Their naivety can be explained. As long as the political leaders get the benefit of the doubt, it is difficult to expect the voter to recognize any anti-democratic tendencies. Calling someone a ‘fascist’ may not help much, but it also doesn’t help to make this a taboo. After all, democratic pluralism demands vigilance, benefits of the doubt will not do.
Arendt, H. (1958). The human condition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Arendt, H. (1959). Reflections on little rock. Dissent, 6(1), 45-56.
Arendt, H. (1973). The origins of totalitarianism: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in jerusalem: Penguin.