An Apology of Populism (4): Democracy by Conflict, not by Consensus

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My name is Sebastiano I’m a 24 years old student in Macroeconomics and co-founder of TRAM:E (Theory, Reflection, Action, Movement: Europe). Born Italian, raised Belgian, French, German. Migrant by nature. Boundaries, borders… not my thing. Polyglot.

“I don’t know what distinguishes us”. The Socialist Spitzenkandidat Martin Schulz couldn’t have found better words to put in the hands of ‘anti-European’ and ‘populist’ parties ahead of the May 25th elections. While in a televised debate with Mr Juncker, his Christian-Democrat opponent, he reckoned that the current president-designate and himself “agree far more than they disagree”.

In all fairness, these comments should’ve come as no surprise: the EP has been ruled under a ‘grand coalition agreement’ since pretty much its first elected legislature. Plans to re-edit such an agreement were already in motion before the elections, and the nomination of Juncker by the European Council was only the first of many bargaining chips. The Parliament’s ‘institutional coup’ was very much needed to assert its role as the European Union’s lower house. Yet, it did not sweep away the tradition of ‘backroom deals’ in which European leaders indulge more often than not, as many soon-to-be-vacated top EU jobs are expected to be handed over to leading Socialist figures.

Without becoming absorbed in speculations over some petty horse-trading, the process raises a few eyebrows – and concerns, too. Might it be that the ‘populist’, anti-establishment discontent with the EU was not only legitimate, but also…right? What is to be understood is that these parties and movements are not necessarily anti-democratic. Rather, they oppose the system of representative democracy, which, they deem, feeds corrupt élites – the European ones being the most corrupt of all – and starves the citizens. Building with demagogy on legitimate discontent, they often drag voters into a pit of xenophobia, nationalism and what not.

Chantal Mouffe, a Belgian political theorist, developed the concept of ‘post-politics’ to refer to the representative system in European countries. There has been over the past few decades – says Ms Mouffe – a ‘consensus at the centre’, a blurring of the lines between the Left and the Right. A convergence of the opposite factions on the idea that contemporary globalisation and Europe’s present-day shape, driven by trade agreements such as TTIP, are ‘alternativlos’: without alternatives. Such trade agreements are encouraged by corporations and secluded from voters, developing what Colin Crouch, English political scientist, calls ‘post-democracy’.

Provocatively, though devoid of commendatory intent, Ms Mouffe argues that in such a post-political, post-democratic Europe, “right-wing populist parties are, in many countries, the only parties who argue that there is a real alternative”. Unacceptable and economically unsound as it may be, the Eurosceptic ‘alternative’ has certainly been the most vocal and mobilised “passion toward change”. It is a common impression that the political programmes of EPP and PES (and ALDE…) differ very little between them. Notwithstanding, these parties go back to ‘business as usual’ as if the wake-up call due to the rise of the Eurosceptics had never happened.

For a democracy to be mature and effective, it requires a genuine choice between alternatives to be offered to voters. What is offered, instead, is alternation. Tony Benn, British Labour politician, epitomised it by stating: “parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact”. Little space is allowed for those who are not against Europe, but who simply want a different type of European integration. So little, that the cork popped giving way to Marine Le Pen’s, Nigel Farage’s and Beppe Grillo’s twaddle.

Many European citizens do no longer see the European project as the giant endeavour it is, but as a matter of course. To counter the ‘withdrawalist’ blather, pro-Europeans argued that the solution to this crisis is not less, but more Europe! But more Europe for what? To impose more austerity policies on peripheral countries? The pro-European narrative needs to get away from technocratic buzzwords and focus more on emotions and vivid ideas. Democracy, peace, human rights are values still very popular with citizens, who merely don’t trust established, pro-European parties to represent those values anymore.

The European institutions – the Council, the Parliament – have long thrived on the consensus underlying the grand coalition approach. When confronted with Eurosceptics, ‘mainstream’ parties demonised their ‘anti-European’ and ‘anti-democratic’ adversaries. They shot the messengers instead of confronting their arguments. They let the Eurosceptics occupy the narrative with their crowing. Adapting to the latest polls, they legitimised the populist discourse on issues such as migration and failed to provide their own answers to globalisation.

In an attempt to protect their cherished ‘Brussels consensus’, mainstream parties clubbed together against the common enemy. But the essence of democracy is conflict, not consensus. After decades of grand coalitions, we must wean European democracy off its dependence on consensual solutions. A mature and effective democracy is one that copes with conflict, not one that is fearful of it. For the European project to move forward, we must re-learn to live with conflict and appreciate its value as a breeding ground of ideas and passion. The rise of ‘populists’ might just be our chance to do so. (The end)

Sebastiano Putoto is a guest on this blog.

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