It is pointless to ask: how can we combat populism? As if there were options on a table and we – people who resist populism – were supposed to choose one of them according to their efficiency in different contexts. Isn’t it true that there’s only one option available to assure a victory over populism? That is to deepen democracy; a complete overhaul of our democratic system. The true question therefore is not: how can we combat populism but – how can we reconstitute democracy?
We are leaving a decade of unprecedented systemic crisis. Economic collapse revealed an essential intrinsic political instability. “Democracia Real Ya!” – “Real democracy now!” was people’s response to the financial breakdown. New social movements and progressive forces were born and the economic status quo was declared war on. But the crisis has still not been conquered. Populism is proof of this fiasco. What happened?
In 2011 Polish economist and ex-Vice Prime Minister Jerzy Hausner wrote: “there is no way out of the current systemic crisis without turning in the direction of culture” (Hausner: 2015). We have not recognised that the economic and political crisises comprise an even more essential breakdown – a cultural crisis.
Cultural Crisis in Europe
„[C]ultural crisis” says American anthropologist David Bidney “is the negative counterpart of cultural integration, it (…) involves the disintegration, destruction or suspension of some basic elements of sociocultural life” and it “manifests itself as a state of emergency” (Bidney: 1946).
Jan Werner Müller – German historian and political scientist – noticed that populism is simply a form of identity politics about addressing a moral claim (Müller: 2016). Thus, populism is above all a response to a cultural crisis. Populism arose “when” – to quote Hanna Arendt’s essay The Crisis in Culture – “cultural and moral ‘values’ were sold out together” (Arendt: 1977).
One of the most striking expressions of current cultural crisis, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s recent letter to DiEM25 – Democracy in Europe Movement – and its founder Yanis Varoufakis reads: “Democratic Europe is an oxymoron, as Europe is the heart of financial dictatorship in the world. Peaceful Europe is an oxymoron, as Europe is the core of war, racism, and aggressiveness. We have trusted that Europe could overcome its history of violence, but now it’s time to acknowledge the truth: Europe is nothing but nationalism, colonialism, capitalism, and fascism.” (Berardi, Varoufakis: 2017)
Bifo’s letter was provoked by the pathetic squabbles of Europe’s political leaders over the fate of refugees, and the heartless response from civil society. Indeed, isn’t the insular reaction of both groups the undoubted proof of Europe’s cultural crisis? Isn’t the reactionary discourse around refugees – themselves a false enemy – the result of Europe’s failure to seriously confront this cultural crisis?
Cultural crisis manifests itself also as an exhaustion of creative and future oriented forces of culture. During cultural crisis, culture serves more as a repository of past values and symbols than like a repertoire of methodologies used to invent new ones as American sociologist Jeffrey C. Goldfarb puts it (Goldfarb: 2011).
He notes that there is an essential relationship between democracy as a political system and democracy as a social regime within a particular culture. In his analysis of the transition from communism to liberal democracy within a former Soviet Bloc, Goldfarb presents how culture transformed the political culture of Eastern societies and allowed a new political system to be constituted. This is precisely the task which stands in front of us today. Thus, even before we address the question, how do we reconstitute democracy, we have to ask, how can we reinvent democratic culture?
Reinventing Political Culture of Democracy
“Democratic culture” has two meanings. First an area of culture ruled by democratic principles and second the political culture of democracy. According to Goldfarb, the reinvention of democratic political culture begins with the appearance of new democratic behaviours in an area of culture which mirror new democratic behaviours within society. Culture empowers them and makes them become new democratic customs of society. New democratic customs transform political culture and allow new political system to be established.
To reinvent democratic culture, we need to cultivate democratic impulses and behaviours on the culture-based level (where groups and individuals incessantly engage in the symbolization and aesthetization of reality, and participate in negotiating collective values), on the cultural level, or ‘social culture’ level as researchers like Pascal Gielen say (Gielen: 2015, Stokfiszewski: 2017) (where grassroots creative efforts of collectives, groups and social movements with regard to types of organization are made) and on the institutional level, or ‘artistic culture’ level to refer once again to Gielen’s works (where cultural production and arts are).
Goldfarb asks: how does it happen that culture can enable or disable democracy? Detecting democratic impulses and behaviours within the three cultural levels should aim at – precisely – answering this question. Which practises, forms of organisation and modes of production of subjectivity and commonality in the three cultural levels encourage (and which of them discourage) a future democratic culture? It’s needless to say that within each of those three levels we witness different types of cultural practices and expressions according to class and gender backgrounds. Those factors have to be taken into account when reinventing culture of democracy.
Then – it is necessary to carefully analyse democratic impulses, behaviours and practices of our societies to exactly understand the current meanings of categories such as: subjectivity, self-determination, community, institution, transformation, advocacy, identity, politics, conflict, war, violence and their influence on the renewal of political culture of future democracy.
The Most Difficult Task
After completing all of these steps, we reach the most difficult point yet. We cannot avoid a discussion on whether there is or there is not a phenomenon called “European culture”. Can a critical vision, to which Berardi appeals in his acknowledgement, connected to Europe’s imperialistic identity still inspire societies? Or – is Zygmunt Bauman’s influential concept, stating that European culture is once and for all culture in the making (Bauman: 2004), still enough to satisfy our aspirations regarding the future? Either we challenge the issue of “European culture” as an inherited entirety of knowledge serving rather to open than to limit possibilities of new action, or we’ll indeed be left with “nationalism, colonialism, capitalism and fascism” as Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of Europe.
This article is based on my intervention during “L’Europe face au populisme” conference organised by Columbia University Global Center in Paris on 2nd and 3rd of October 2017. I’d like to express my thankfulness to the organisers for their invitation and inspiring discussions during the conference.
Arendt, Hannah, The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Its Political Significance, in: Arendt, H., Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1977).
Bauman, Zygmunt, Europe: An Unfinished Adventure (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004).
Berardi, Franco ‘Biffo’, Yanis Varoufakis, Resignation letter from Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi to DiEM25 and Yanis Varoufakis’ reply, ‘openDemocracy.net’, 8 July 2017, http://bit.ly/2u9xCmK (access: 15.10.2017).
Bidney, David, The Concept of Cultural Crisis, ‘American Anthropologist’, New Series, Vol. 48, No. 4, Part 1 (Oct. – Dec., 1946).
Gielen, Pascal (ed.), No Culture, No Europe: On the Foundation of Politics (Amsterdam: Valiz/Antennae Series, 2015).
Goldfarb, Jeffrey C., Reinventing Political Culture: The Power of Culture versus the Culture of Power (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011).
Hausner, Jerzy, Culture as a Way out of Crisis, in: Dietachmair, Philipp, Milica Ilić (eds.), Another Europe — 15 Years of Capacity Building with Cultural Initiatives in the EU Neighbourhood (Amsterdam: European Cultural Foundation, 2015).
Müller, Jan-Werner, What is populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
Stokfiszewski, Igor, On Social Culture: Manufacturing Commonality Beyond Cultural Institutions and Independent Artistic Scenes, in: Stokfiszewski, I. (ed.), Culture and Development: Beyond Neoliberal Reason (Warsaw: Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw, 2017).