How precisely are crisis and political movements related? Looking at ‘breakdown’ and ‘world-systems’ approaches to social movements, Donatella Della Porta explains how conventional accounts of extreme rightwing politics fail to explain the new forms of political backlash against late neoliberalism.
Reboot or reformat?
A few weeks ago, former Minister of Finance Matej Lahovnik – via video conference from faraway Glasgow – explained what is wrong with our nation. From afar he participated in a round table discussion entitled “Resetting Slovenia?” organized by a group of right-wing intellectuals, in which two economists, a lawyer and an IT specialist, the latter two also former ministers, participated as well. Lahovnik’s harsh words, stingingly directed at the situation in the government, were as follows: “There is no pilot in the cockpit of the government plane, most likely he is off in the toilet being sick. The flight attendant has left, the copilots are praying to God for help, others are looking for parachutes and realizing that there are none, and still others are waiting for the journey to come to an end, however long it takes.”
This amusing instance of former colleagues of the prime minister (described at this same event as “a generals without an army”) making such a big splash attracted the attention of political commentators and ordinary people alike. The entertaining tone turned it into a real hit, and a peppered and complex description of the situation – the indecision of the prime minister and for example the resignation of his chief of staff – served several purposes. There is no doubt that the metaphor was well thought out and planned.
I point this out because it seems symptomatic of the new style of jargon: telling the story of the vomiting pilot is an excellent method of shaping the opinions of the citizens in a public discourse. It would be nothing new were it not for the development of the style being worthy of reflection. When we look at it more closely, this innovative new style of speech moves along predictable tracks, becoming juicy, brief, humorous, and frequently highly offensive or cynical. Since we are in the midst of a severe economic crisis and an even greater crisis of government, people find stories about panic on an airplane quite apt. It is based on a principle that we could “sloganize” as “give them bread and humour”. Since our defence mechanisms in the face of successful jokes are powerless, sometimes counter jokes are invented in response, thereby acknowledging the autonomy of the first. Let me just mention a recent one as an example of what we can expect. It was told by the Minister of Education, who was formerly a colleague of the prime minister and his fellow party member, about the same person at roughly the same time: “Chuck Norris has resigned from public life since Borut Pahor is such a great prime minister.”
So there we have it: duelling jokes! The characterization of a Slovenian Chuck Norris and his caricaturized opposite in the airplane toilet as a new element in public discourse has been placed there out of a specific need. But what has happened to cause politicians and intellectuals to take refuge in almost coercively funny speech, in jargon that simultaneously draws two faces on the same person – according to one our prime minister is a total loser, and according to the other a superhero? It would be inadequate to characterize both jokes as picturesque witticisms offered up to citizens for their entertainment and enjoyment. The question is why this witticism is as it is, why its use is on the increase – and what content does it even have?
The answer to the first is simple: at a time when politicians try to shake off a poor public image, when citizens are fed up with them, and when they can’t find an exit from the current reform crisis, they need to find a way of massaging their egos. In order to gain some minimal attention they take refuge in the world of coarse allegories, witticisms and jokes, which turn mediocrities into either freaks or heroes. Let us assume that the joking mentioned is just a shallow tactic and that what we see happening is highly developed populism which goal is to gain approval for oneself and arouse sympathy or antipathy towards others.
If we agree on the thesis that it is simply a desire to entertain we have probably fallen short of the real explanation: a more complex one would go further. The story about the missing pilot has more than the function of derision. Its motivation is to vividly illustrate the situation in which we find ourselves – it has an educational value. It is a way for citizens to learn about difficult economic issues, if I may exaggerate ever so slightly. And since that goal is virtually impossible to achieve in the manner adopted by Lahovnik, the effects of this “humorization” cut both ways. On the one hand it follows the logic of success of the comedian, and the criteria of attraction, but on the other hand the metaphors are so oversimplified and inappropriate that they are banal. Put more simply, humorous descriptions are not merely an innocent gesture of populist-style entertainment, but an important aspect for the formation of public opinion. Unfortunately in a direction which should not be to our liking.
The title of the round table discussion itself illustrated the same tendency. The populist approach only touched on the crisis situation and of course critique of the opposition who believe that Slovenia is in need of a “reset”. This computer terminology assumes that we have gone down a dead end and it is no longer possible fix things or reestablish them. As someone put it: Slovenia should not only be reset, but maybe even reformatted. And a long debate ensued as if the dilemma was not demonstrably unproductive.
The light-hearted nature of the descriptions, promising change through the mere touch of a key, is of course just an ordinary figure of speech coined from everyday experience of anyone who uses a computer, as just about every citizen does. There would be nothing controversial about invoking this phrase were it not for the fact that “resetting Slovenia” is complete conceptual idiocy: surely no one can think of and consequently wish for the complete undoing of Slovenia and its return to its original state, even if that were possible. Even more inappropriate is “reloading the same program”; this is something the authors want even less. But unfortunately this metaphor is strictly speaking an educational failure and of no interest to anyone. So why does it work so successfully and popularly among people? Obviously not due to its functionality but rather as empty enthusiasm over some unspoken promise that does not even offer a solution. We know that empty words, no matter how amusing they may sound, do not offer solutions.
I am afraid that populism of all kinds is on the rise here: social populism like that of the president of the party of retirees, economic populism like that offered by neoliberal economists and the prime minister, and rhetorical populism like that offered by the intellectuals from the round table discussion cited. It is not surprising that the media enthusiastically portrays them not only as intellectual heroes but also as the future leaders of a new party in the offing. And that was what it was all about: one more act of the former masters of politics who supposedly have had enough of politics and yet apparently want to re-enter it and steer it in a new direction. We have known for a long time that political apathy is at its peak in Slovenia. To leave politics to be rescued and led by self-interested entertainers is most certainly a step in the wrong direction.
Published 8 February 2011
Original in Slovenian
First published by Dialogi 11-12/2010 (Slovenian version)
Contributed by Dialogi © Boris Vezjak / Dialogi / EurozinePDF/PRINT
In the June issue of ‘Merkur’, Jan-Werner Müller responds to advocates of ‘talking to the right’. Liberals need to enter the political fray and try to win over their illiberal opponents. However, liberalism must also define its red lines when engaging with populists.