Interview. Loris Zanatta is Latin American historian at the University of Bologna and at the University’s Buenos Aires headquarters. A profound scholar of contemporary Argentina, for more than 20 years he has been analyzing populist phenomena in Latin America and Europe.

In populism, a nostalgic longing for community

“What is populism? If you ask me, I don’t know. If you don’t ask, I know.”

This brief formula is emblematic of the confusion that regards the concept of populism nowadays. Perhaps, some say, it would be better to avoid this term due to the ambiguity it has reached in public discourse. However, as Loris Zanatta highlights in his works, populism remains a persistent topic. “The more the word is cursed, the more curious historical phenomena reappear, and in order to define them we are not able to find a more appropriate concept. We might as well take this concept seriously and analyze it.”

In your works emerge the possibility to identify what you call “the populist ideal type,” although you insist on the great heterogeneity of these political phenomena. Thus, as you affirm, the origin of populism lies in the pre-modern and holistic conception of society, where the religious and sacral dimension structured the community.

You have grasped what is my approach to the study of populism, to which I tend to give a minimalist interpretation, in the sense that we should not pretend too much from it. If I had to define it in a concept, I would say “nostalgia for unanimity.” In the ancient imagination dominated by the sacred, which preceded modern revolutions both political and scientific, the social order was considered a natural one. The great revolutions overturned this paradigm, proposing a social order not originated by nature and god, but derived from the rational dimension of man. The core of populism lies in this ancient vision of the social order: above the political pact (constitution), there is an idea of people conceived as a natural organism. And in this conception of the community, the religious element is decisive: the people of populism are mythical, sacred, a community of faith. And in the contemporary world faith is called ideology, of the people, of the homeland.

From what you have just said, we could point out the paradox that populism is the other side of modern politics, in the sense that it represents a latent force in our systems.

Populism is certainly a constituent component of modernity. When I say that populism originates from an ancient imaginary idea, I do not absolutely mean that it is an anti-modern or residual phenomenon of the past. The basic problem here is that the populist tendency is to destroy what I call the “constitutional pole.” In this case, populism as a physiological component of every political order tends to become a political religion. The pluralist dialectic ceases and a manichaean conception of society is established. To conclude on this point, however, I need to clarify a point. Populism is not a new phenomenon; the novelty, at least in the vast majority of cases, is that populism is weaker today, in the sense that it cannot become authoritarian and overwhelm the constitutional pole compared to the past.

You identify some factors that may favor, if not give rise to, populism. The most relevant is what you call the “disintegration of the community.” In other words, when a society feels the loss of its historical centrality and a strong loss of identity occurs, the populist discourse of a mythical past emerges inexorably. Given the political and cultural crisis that we are experiencing, should we expect a long era of populism?

Absolutely. We will have a situation of populism that will be endemic in Europe for a very long time, and populism will become an endemic form of our systems. But not only in Europe. The phenomena of Islamic fundamentalism, according to my view, are part of the populism category. Referring to a sacred idea of the world, and perceiving modernity as a disruptive force that threatens their identity and cultural references, they are proposed as an immediate antidote to these radical changes.

In your historical-empirical perspective of populism emerges a pejorative interpretation of such phenomena, in contrast to other interpretations that we could define as “progressive populism,” for example what Ernesto Laclau claimed in his “populist reason.”

Yes, even if in very schematic terms, it is like this. I see populism as a serious problem. From a Marxist-Piscoanalytic perspective, Laclau saw populism as the possibility of creating a political subject with the concrete political aim of overturning the power relations within society. As a historian of Latin American politics, I cannot avoid to consider the social effects of populist phenomena—I must analyze them in practice and not only in potential—which have been dramatic. The key lies in the idea of pluralism, which means freedom to fail and make mistakes that populism by its very nature can never tolerate.

In one of your last works you say: “Populism is a manichean vision of the world. But it does not consist in the content of that manichean scheme, but in the scheme itself.” Therefore, the power of populism lies in its capacity to propose as absolute its “scheme of interpretation” of the social reality.

You stressed a very important point in the criticism of populism. Populism, in fact, simplifies the complexity of the world, and no other generation has gone through such radical transformations in such a short period of time. This type of continuous transformation, which also corresponds to a disintegration of ethical references and concrete social ties, generates a demand for reintegration and identity as a reaction. Reconstructing an identity in a world that is constantly crumbling requires a process of simplification, and here is the winning force of populism. It reduces complexity to a manichean pattern. An unbeatable vision that is destined to win always on this level. Populism has a function of consolation in the face of the complexity of life that promises redemption.

As we have said, populism is and will be present on the political stage for a long time. However, I believe that representative democracy cannot be the cure to populism. Representative democracies are experiencing a structural crisis for various reasons. The first that comes to mind concerns the idea of post-democracy, which insists on the increasingly symbolic function of parliamentary systems and on the substantial primacy of economic forces. How can we think about an alternative? Perhaps looking beyond the nation-state—that is to think of an expansive tendency contrary to the regressive nature of populism?

I fully agree with the analysis of the structural crisis of current democracy. Sometimes when we talk about the crisis of liberal-democratic systems we focus too much on current events and lose sight of the historical perspective. Representative democracy is a distant relative of those of the early 19th century. There can be changes, even very significant ones. The challenge to populism should impose a transformation of democracy, maintaining its constituent principles (separation of powers, pluralism). As you said, we are in a phase of retreat, and the appropriate response would be to see a cosmopolitan horizon beyond the national communities, thinking of a model of community with universalistic principles beyond the state. The European Union can certainly be a political laboratory for this, but considering the current situation, I see it as a utopian dream. In any case, I trust that this populist earthquake will provoke the energy for a radical response.

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