It is doubtful that anyone in America has heard about this, or frankly could give two shits if they had, but the European community has reacted with disgust at the recent results of the Greek parliamentary elections held on May 6, 2012 in which the Golden Dawn (a party advocating Neo-Nazism) received a startlingly high 7% of the vote. Of course, the European community has reacted with disgust at these relatively high electoral numbers, with bloggers heaping shame on the Greek electorate for its perceived proto-fascist bent. (Neni Panourgiapenned an article for Al Jazeera critical of the party’s frequent vigilante and racist ideology in which she identifies such a proto-fascist movement as a more general ‘European Problem’).
Ms. Panourgia’s article nicely documents the terrorist tactics employed by the Golden Dawn since the 1970’s, and identifies their racism and bigotry. However, the article leaves unanswered its author’s most potent question, posed in the last third of her piece:
“Why would Greeks, who fought against totalitarianism in massive numbers and paid one of the heaviest tolls in Europe for their participation in the resistance against Nazi Germany, vote for this despicable, emetic, and deeply anti-political formation, even as a protest?”
This is a question that is not on its surface an easy one to answer, yet with some careful consideration, one can pose a partially satisfactory answer. Being an amateur student of Western history, I for one am not surprised that the populist Golden Dawn party should see a surge in public support at a time when Greece and the rest of Europe are being driven ever closer to the brink of economic disaster. The austerity programs which left millions of people unemployed and begging in the streets have been perceived as a massive failure by all but the financiers of the European monetary system (not to mention Germany and France, who were forced to shoulder heavy burdens in order to inject capital into the Greek economy and who saw their continued entanglement as an undesirable alternative to restrictive austerity whose principle effects would be felt only in Greece), and given the rise of serious talks of kicking Greece out of the Euro, one must expect a steep incline in populist anger to manifest itself in the polls.
A rise in public outrage is to be expected in times of economic decline—we’ve witnessed it in America in recent years with the Tea Party movement, and before that with the much more subdued xenophobia of Pat Buchanan’s failed presidential campaign. Both of these domestic movements contained more than a hint of racial or other types of bias and short-sighted reactions, but even by the worst accounts they are not seriously comparable to Nazism. However, given that it seems to be only natural for people to lash out at something—anything—in difficult times, one can’t help but wonder whether criticizing these movements on their face, as many in America have done with the Tea Party and Mr. Buchanan, and as Ms. Panourgia has more recently done with the Golden Dawn, is a constructive project. Not surprisingly, such tongue-in-cheek criticisms—almost always made with a condescending tone from a privileged universalist position of multiculturalism, which always risks nothing but words—will be well received by the indoctrinated left, and conversely easily dismissed by those on the right who are consumed by populist rage.
Slajov Zizek, an intellectual hero of mine for some time, has written extensively on the subject of populist anger, dedicating an entire chapter to it in his 2008 book, In Defense of Lost Causes (IDLC). Though he himself ultimately disagrees with the theoretical implications of populism for reasons too complicated to get into here, he nicely elucidates some of its more desirable practical qualities. From a starting point, he describes populism as occupying a position that is:
“ultimately always sustained by ordinary people’s frustrated exasperation, by a cry of ‘I don’t know what’s going on, I just know I’ve had enough of it! It can’t go on! It must stop!’—an impatient outburst, a conviction that there must be somebody responsible for all the mess which is why an agent who is behind the scenes and explains it all is required.” (IDLC, 282).
Zizek’s initial observation seems similar to the much rehashed critiques of populist movements levied by liberal-multiculturalists who esteem tolerance of otherness as the highest virtue; namely that such movements are the product of an infantile lashing out at the world, or an oversimplified view of a complex situation. Anyone who has had any experience with the Tea Party or has studied the rise of Nazism after World War I can attest to the fact that these criticisms are undoubtedly well founded. However, they fail to recognize the aborted revolutionary potential that is present within all populist movements from the rise of fascism in post-war Europe to the modern day reprisal of Nazism in Greece and elsewhere in the Eurozone. The problem with populism, is that it correctly identifies an injustice (almost always capitalist excesses that have led to difficult economic times for the “average” citizen), but fails to recognize that the source of that injustice is systemic. Rather than direct criticism at the system directly, populists movements almost always take for granted the fact that the system is inherently sound, moral, and good, preferring to single out a behind-the-scenes actor whose excessive qualities have poisoned the erstwhile harmonious structure. Or, from Zizek:
“For a populist, the cause of the trouble is ultimately never the system as such, but the intruder who corrupted it (financial manipulators, not capitalists as such, etc.); not a fatal flaw inscribed into the structure as such, but an element that does not play its part within the structure properly. For a Marxist, on the contrary (as for a Freudian), the pathological (the deviant misbehavior of some elements) is the symptom of the normal, an indicator of what is wrong in the very structure that is threatened with the ‘pathological’ outbursts…. This is why fascism definitely is a populism; its figure of the Jew is the equivalential point of the series of (heterogeneous, inconsistent even) threats experienced by individuals: the Jew is simultaneously too intellectual, dirty, sexually voracious, hard-working, financially exploitative . . .” (IDLC, P 279).
The problem with populism is not that it is inherently “proto-fascist,”—far from it. In many ways, the populist rage that is so easily condemned by self-described rational thinkers as childish outbursts of temperamental dilettante political actors is in actuality only slightly misguided. If we are to single out one problem with populist rage, it is not, as its critics would allege, that it is too radical in its ideology and openness to brash or even violent political action. On the contrary, the problem with populism is that it is not radical enough in its thinking and execution—it does not pursue the logic of its own presuppositions to their rational end.
For example, in post WWI Germany, instead of directing anger toward central bankers and speculators, the National Socialists fixated on the figure of the Jew, upon whom all of the properties of the evil capitalists were transposed. This was rather convenient for those who were in power at the time, as they ultimately had used all of the dirty capitalist tricks to consolidate wealth for themselves. It would have been patently against their own interests to direct populist anger against the very system that ensured their survival, and so the Jew—a figure that had historically been mistrusted in European history—made a convenient scapegoat. Modern populism is strikingly similar, except that the specter of illegal immigration has been transplanted in the place of the figure of the Jew.
It is for these reasons that the holier-than-though, let’s-all-just-talk-about-this, criticisms of the multiculturalist left are ultimately misguided. Leaving behind the obvious fact that it is impossible to use reason to diffuse rage (be it justifiable or otherwise), the liberal multiculturalists completely overlook the positive aspects of populist political movements—namely, that they are essentially 85% correct in that they identify a serious problem, only they fail to look for solutions in the proper way. One can’t help but wonder whether there is not some kernel of truth within modern populism that can be harnessed and put toward some more positive revolutionary purpose. These movements at their most profound can be used as engines to affect positive change, or they can devolve into self-destructive forces of horrific proportions–begetting childish violence for its own sake.
At a time when popular anger is on the rise, it would behoove those on the left to take notice of the revolutionary potential at its center, especially at such a key time in history. Perhaps the biggest difference between our current situation and that which gave birth to National Socialism in the 1930′s is one of scale: in post WWI Germany, the state of economic inflation and the general destitution of the populace had gotten so bad that people had taken to burning their paper money for heat rather than spending it. The situation in Greece has not yet become so dire, though it is fast approaching a tipping point.