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Is the World Undergoing a Deep Populist Transition?

The political momentum and social appeal of the current populist backlash illustrates the persistence of dark collective layers that the postwar transition was meant to have banished.
Populism news, global rise of populism, populist wave, populist wave Europe, democracy news, politics news, Five Stars Movement Italy, history of fascism, European political history, European politics news

M5S rally in Naples, Italy, 05/30/2018 © Antonio Balasco / Shutterstock

July 25, 2019 10:26 EDT

In academia, we seem to have a fondness for the trope of the “wave” and “wave theory.” Samuel Huntington gave us the waves of democratization — a process of global, though asymmetrical, shift from authoritarian and oligarchic to democratic forms of government and state institutions. Andreas Wimmer linked the waves of nation-state formation in the last 200 years with another wave of violent international conflict during the same period. There are waves of revolution, of globalization, of decolonization, of authoritarianism, terrorism and liberalism, and, more recently, of populism as well. We like waves because they periodize the mess of history and impute deeper meaning to what we are describing, what we are experiencing in the present and to what we are projecting into the near future, both desired and feared.

Arguably, waves illustrate discernible patterns of significant change in a particular direction, whereas often such changes tend to be either quite diffuse or sustained over time. They may refer to localized or more global developments, and either to more sudden bursts of change or to longer-term shifts that crystallize over time in profound shifts. But what they describe is invariably far messier and uncertain than what they present as a trend. It is relatively easier for historians to observe these so-called waves with the benefit of hindsight and the safety of distance than to use them in reference to something that is still ongoing.

What may seem as an inexorable or sustained wave today may expire violently and turn into a frantic reversal. In this sense, waves always raise, or at least imply, complex questions about the resilience and (ir)reversibility of the changes that they describe. We need little further reminder of this beyond this year’s anniversary occasions, like the 100 years from the founding meeting in Milan that established fascism, not to mention three years from the EU referendum in the UK and the election of Donald J. Trump as US president, and so on.

Watching the Waves

Recently, I attended a conference dedicated to another fascinating historical schema of waves and transitions. Although the two can be used interchangeably, as in the case of democratization, transitions often describe a deeper, more transformational and indeed seemingly more durable change over time. I have to confess that the concept had not troubled me much before, even as I had used the wave trope in my own research on interwar fascism and contemporary populism.

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Yet the more I thought about transition as I was preparing my talk, the more I was drawn to it as a tool for explaining the rise of anti-liberal populism in recent years. I prefer it because it captures more accurately the notion of departure from what many assumed to be a stable prior state and the deeper shift toward a new, but different, future equilibrium. The populist “wave” of 2016 was by all standards seismic. But what can it tell us about longer-term trends, both pre-existing and subsequent? Russian President Vladimir Putin certainly thinks that ongoing shifts toward national populism amount to a much deeper structural change that in his view has rendered liberalism obsolete.

In 2007, I was in Italy when the Five Star Movement (M5S) organized the first of a series of campaigns against elite corruption. The rallying cry of this novel form of mass protest, conducted largely through the movement’s ground-breaking digital infrastructure, was the rather uncivil exhortation “vaffanculo” appended to the names of select elite targets read out publicly by the comedian and co-founder of M5S, Bepe Grillo. At the time, the event was largely explained away as a naïve, fringe gimmick. A decade later, the populist startup graduated into being the largest parliamentary party in Italy and the driving force of a populist coalition in government.

Whether this is a lasting change or not, whether M5S will consolidate its dominant position or be eclipsed by the populist Lega party — or prove a blip —remains a moot point. What is more important is its role in what may well be a deeper populist “transition” that has shattered the rules of the political game and rendered a return to business as usual difficult if not impossible. Could it be then that the V(affa) Day celebrations, as they were called by Grillo, may have been such a momentous symbolic departure, giving vent to and normalizing radically different perceptions, attitudes and norms about politics as a whole?


Departures, of course, cut both ways. The fabled democratic transition has had its fair share of ebbs and flows that continue to defy predictions, as the recent decline in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index has reminded us once again. In 1939, Norbert Elias chronicled with some degree of optimism a centuries-long “civilising process” toward a less violent, more interdependent and empathetic humanity. The devastating irony of his book’s publication on the eve of World War II was hard to miss or explain away, providing a cautionary note for those wishing to predict the future. Departures and transitions are messy, tentative or uncertain, pointing to different longer-term conclusions depending on the level of historical resolution that one employs.

We shall keep wondering, amidst shocking counter-spurts and false starts, if a deeper populist transition is well underway, exposing in its wake the liberal postwar “never again” narratives as a doomed shallow fiction or a frustrated moral cry. Nevertheless, regardless of the answer to this question, we are left with an eminently useful reminder of the utter fragility of historical trends, past and present. This is because nothing ends in a conclusive way, and nothing starts on a clean slate. As Steve Mentz poignantly noted, “cultural habits … layer themselves atop and alongside each other, intersecting and accumulating and recombining [w]ith legible but messy transitions.”

The political momentum and social appeal of the current populist backlash illustrates the persistence of dark collective layers that the postwar transition was meant to have banished or exorcised, but of course did not and could not. If there is a blessing in disguise in all this, it is precisely that any transition, welcome or frightening, is always reversible or open-ended.

*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

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

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