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Like Ancient Greece, Modern Society Is Still Enthralled by Demagogues

Judging by the success of populist parties around the world, their demagoguery works.

In thinking about the rise of populism against centrist politics today, it is interesting to remind ourselves that similar divisions occurred in Ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotle, who lived in the 3rd century BC, and his mentors Socrates and Plato were questioning the concept of existence in different aspects on the base of logic. On the other hand, sophists would praise the relativity of knowledge, putting man’s perceptions at the center.

According to the sophists, it was not facts or observed phenomena that constituted reality, but rather what an individual perceives, thus making it essentiality all about rhetoric. As great demagogues, sophists would make their living by selling the art of demagogy to the people of Ancient Greece.

This time around, populist politics, whose actors favor demagogy to target the masses with their convincing rhetoric, focus on what people want to hear rather than the facts. Modern-day populists are employing so-called post-truth politics as their method of choice to derail centrist approaches shaped by facts and logic.

Aristotle described man as a “political animal” — zoon politicon — referring to communitarian life and its inevitable result as a development of politics. Living in a collective also developed along with the distinction between “us and them.” This distinction has become a fundamental issue that gives a sense of solidarity, belonging and, ultimately, identity to a society. Each identity has developed at the same time or beyond other identities. The foreigner, the unknown and often the potential enemy is positioned as one of the main factors that represent the “other” in this sense. Communities have maintained their existence by establishing a social structure based on solidarity against those who are “the others.”

Beyond Nationalism

German philosopher Ferdinand Tönnies, who describes this social structure as Gemeinschaft (community), claims that it has disintegrated as a result of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism. A new social structure then developed in the modern age, which he describes as Gesellchaft (society), on the basis of individualization in European societies.

Emile Durkheim, who conceptualized this distinction as mechanical and organic solidarity, emphasizes that collective consciousness is very strong in the former, while in the latter individual consciousness is more developed. This new social structure, fed by migrations from rural to urban areas, refers to a modern stage where diverse cultures and identities share a common ground, and thus the division of “us and them” begins to fade. This means that cosmopolitan thought and social structure, which are important features of modern societies, are widespread in the Western.

Nationalism, which developed in Europe during the early modern period and laid the foundations for the nation-state, designates a process of reconstruction of the “us and them” distinction around mass populations. Nations appear, on a very large scale, as constructions around the concept of “us.” This process, in which centrist and homogenizing policies dominated at first, has followed a process of multiculturalism that advocated pluralism and diversity since the 1960s, followed by a process of globalization, which became evident in the 1980s and, finally, the development of liberal democracy at the end of the Cold War in 1989.

Such developments created optimism in the development of a civilization of mankind, but caused great disappointment soon after. One can put forward many reasons for this. However, the most prominent phenomena among them are ethnic awakenings, micro-nationalisms in different parts of the world, the emergence of new ethnic minorities as the result of global migration and, consequently, a rise of xenophobia and racism.

This new situation, where cultures are getting politicized and identity politics dominate the political sphere, makes us consider the ongoing process as the rebirth of the Gemeinschaft. According to Ulrich Beck, “today’s great problem is the jarring contradiction between our already-close-to-cosmopolitan plight and the virtual absence of a cosmopolitan awareness, mindset or attitude.”

French sociologist Alain Touraine expresses his frustration about this new situation in such words: “We were convinced that we have been transitioned from the Gemeinschaft to Gesellchaft; that is, instead of whom we are to what are we doing. However, we have acted in the opposite direction, and from every possible point of view, from the most negative aspect to the most disgusting point, the communitarian spirit emerges everywhere.” The communitarian soul was, in fact, always present. Experiencing the Gesellchaft was maybe just a historical case in certain geographies and certain periods.

The misconception of Marxist theory, which defines the class as a fundamental subject of history and ethnicity as a transitory fact, has failed, along with many ideas, with the decline of the working class, the unions and the leftist politics defending them. In their work on ethnic awakening, Stephen Castles et al., remark that ethnic mobilization is replaced by class as the result of the decline of its influence in advanced industrial societies.

The Communitarian Soul

One can claim that ethnic or national communitarianism, which expresses a social organization where emotions predominate and are fed by nationalism, is providing nations with a new communitarian soul. It can be argued that this development, which reintegrates the “us and them” distinction, involving millions of people, is different from the process of early nation building. Unlike a republican or a multicultural model, this new communitarian process does not entail integrating varied ethnic or migrant groups and, therefore, it cannot be defined as an inclusive one.

Instead, it is exclusive, which creates an isolationist solidarity based on economic concerns against migrant or refugee groups for nations who belong to a dominant culture and identity. This can be described as a new communitarian soul around “being the host.” This soul, based on the judgment that “this is my country,” identifies itself as being different from the individuals belonging to other identities, and mostly against newcomers. This new communitarian mentality has emerged, in particular in the societies of migrant states with a conservative, reactionary and exclusionary discourse.

For example, US President Donald Trump’s motto, “Make America Great Again,” the UK Independence Party’s Brexit campaign motto, “We Want Our Country Back,” as well as the Alternative for Germany slogan, “Take Your Country Back,” reveal such reactionary discourses that glorify the past when the issue of immigration was perceived as being less acute. Ultimately, we are living in a world where millions of people are not satisfied with where they live. On the one hand, everyone is trying to migrate to another place or dreams of it, or at least of being globally interconnected. On the other hand, there exists a communitarian world where no one wants a stranger to be their neighbor.

In this sense, an emphasis on identity and values ​​in order to foster a communitarian mentality is critical. Newcomers are generally accused of putting the “real” identity of the host society in danger as the result of new practices they bring, which are presumed to corrupt the values of the local society. Newcomers are described as a threat to the national culture. It can be argued that such justifications are expressed mostly by populist politicians, and judging by the success of populist parties around the world, it works.

The problem is obvious to a populist: people who have migrated to their countries en masse, who are on the news all the time, visible in almost every public space — people who are not same us, the others, foreigners.

This success of populist politics, which has reached a position that can determine the political sphere today in terms of its achievements in many countries around the world, can be sought after using the distinction of “us and them” in a predominant way. Such rhetoric can easily gain the support of the masses because it shows the voters the “exact problem” in a concrete and simple way. The problem is obvious to a populist: people who have migrated to their countries en masse, who are on the news all the time, visible in almost every public space — people who are not same us, the others, foreigners.

In a debate about what gives rise to populist politics and the xenophobia that feeds it, a global migrant population of 65 million, driven by factors such as economic insecurity, conflict and climate change, is hard to ignore. Global social inequality and poverty, due to globalization and its component neoliberalism, which created the structural changes — the marketization of social relations and daily life, the dominance of finance capitalism, the fading of the welfare state, etc. — constitute some of the main causes of mass international migration.

As a result of the structural changes that neoliberalism has created in economic and social policies beyond the production process, migration occurs in the zones where poverty is widespread and the population is increasing, moving toward the zones where economic conditions are better. We see this in those migrating from African countries to Europe despite all the risks of crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and in the thousands who formed caravans and marched from Central America to the US border.

And of course, these newcomers are the first subjects to be blamed for problems such as decreases in incomes, rise of unemployment, increase of cost of living, etc., that occur in prosperous countries due to structural changes.

Nothing New in the West

This analysis should also include the free circulation of capital and goods that make up some of the opportunities that the globalization process has created, thanks also to mass media and transportation technologies. The unrivaled superiority and economic prosperity of Western countries since the Industrial Revolution began to disappear with developmental successes in areas such as Asia and Latin America. It can be claimed that globalization, which has made the pioneer of the West and is advantageous for these societies at first, began to work against the West as a result of opportunities provided by the global economy to non-Western countries.

Policies aimed at preventing capital flight and efforts to increase border security support this claim. At this point, it can be said that terrorist attacks in the West often provide a justification for harsher border protections. These restrictions on free movement are among the main issues that populist leaders defend.

These factors can also be added to the fact that the world population is growing rapidly and that managing these vast masses of people has become very difficult. The population of over 7 billion needs to meet basic needs such as housing, education and health. Today’s world population does not have the characteristics of the mass society of the 19th and the first half of 20th century. But far beyond that, although today’s world benefits from more advanced technology, it still remains similar in a cultural sense. In other words, today’s global society has not overcome being a mass society — it still keeps its features, which is to say that one can hardly claim our global society has achieved ethical or cultural enlightenment.

In this sense, the criticism of the Spanish philosopher Ortega Gasset toward the early modern European society which was made up of the mass man — whom he describes as spiritually and culturally void, who doesn’t question and is one-dimensional — can be applied to the current global mass society. We have developed new technologies, and thus created a new form and complicated social structures. Gasset, in his book The Revolt of the Masses, describes the societies that are dominated by the masses as consisting of very similar people. “Ordinaryzation,” in other words homogenization, brings about one of the important characteristics of these societies. People are tactful, and sometimes intolerant of differences. Because of their lack of historical conscience and cultural depth, masses can easily drag societies into conflict.

Im Westen nichts Neues — nothing new in the West, the German title of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. This phrase resonates in my mind while reading political news, particularly concerning the West, where enlightenment has been achieved, individual freedoms secured, modernity constructed. Not much has changed since Ancient Greece: Politicians are almost the same politicians; societies are almost the same societies.

It is tragic to observe that the cultural form of societies remains almost same through the ages, with people still readily manipulated and mobilized by a hollow rhetoric. We are witnessing the rise of populist politics in different parts of the world today, from Brazil to Hungary and the Philippines, because mass societies can be easily mobilized, open to manipulation, can easily support identity politics and, eventually, can easily slide into communitarianism, which stands awkwardly in contradiction to our highly interconnected global society.

But let’s not sound too pessimistic and remember the existence of people and platforms that act for the general good, using the light of logic and common sense. The number of people who advocate for truth, peace, diversity, heterogeneity, ecology and so on may not be massive, but their voices give us hope to believe in the future despite regressions. As a matter of fact, when it comes to Greek philosophy, it is the ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle’s ideas that we remember first, not of the sophists.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.