Book Review – Open 20: The Populist Imagination
The Populist Imagination comes in a timely moment. The 20th issue of Open, the cahier on art and the public domain published by NAi, is a collection of essays dealing with “the role of myth, narratives and identity in politics”. Contributions include authors as diverse as Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau, Italian writer collective Wu Ming, American media scholar Stephen Duncombe, and French literature professor Yves Citton, among others.
The subject of populism – and, more generally, myth-making – is especially urgent these days, mostly because of two world-scale phenomena: the emergence of political figures and movements that are strongly characterized by a mythological appeal, and the mass-mediated channeling of collective imagination sustaining such figures.
On both ends of the political spectrum, both President of the United States Barack Obama and Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders represent media-savvy interpreters of widespread heart-felt emotions, supported by a matching rhetorics of desire and imagination.
Be it the change promised by Obama or the evil forces of communism which Silvio Berlusconi claims to protect Italy from, from the United States to Europe we’re all experiencing a return to epic narration in politics.
Internet, social media, and a general decentralization of political discourse have made populism a widespread phenomenon, giving unprecedented space to previously marginal factions. Geert Wilders’ PVV party in the Netherlands, Lega Nord in Italy, and the Tea Party in the US, show how similar rhetorics have caught on throughout the Western world.
These neo-epic narrations are all rooted in a fictional fascination for a glorious past and the identification with the leader’s actions as the deeds of a hero, usually struggling on behalf of his (selected) people for ideals such as freedom, change, or national identity. Through an analysis of different examples of populism, Open 20 sets out to break down the dynamics of the populist appeal. Why is populism so strong? And is it so bad after all?
According to Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau – interviewed by Rudi Laermans – populism is a necessary counterpart to institutionalism, which on its own would create a political paralysis. Dutch sociologist Willem Schinkel even argues populist desire is the only critical tool for democracy, trying to bring presence in its empty representation. After all, people come before democracy, which is about mediation before goals.
Laclau’s “internal frontier” and “empty signifier” echo throughout the book, working as conceptual pivots. In both European right-wing and South American left-wing populism, “the people” works as a basic signifier, complimented by an empty one that is filled by politicians with terms like “the market” or “dream”. Regardless of each politician’s brand signifier, in order to succeed they have to connect to “the people” – that is, a kindred electorate that is also wide enough to be politically influent.
It is through an epidemiocracy (Citton), a spinozian economics of affects, that simplified, formatted myths – conservative or emancipatory – allow a “mobilization of abstractions” (Duncombe). We shouldn’t take populism as demagogy, though: the latter is a top-down circulation of myth, the former is bottom-up and has positive qualities to it.
In particular, mythopoiesis is a very powerful bottom-up myth-making practice, which Wu Ming explain in reference to the Zapatista movement and the figure of Subcomandante Marcos, as well as their own experience. While the Italian collective’s account of the ambiguities and dangers of direct involvement in mythopoiesis sounds like a cautionary tale, Stephen Duncombe’s “dreampolitik” chapter focuses on the importance of utopian thought in the progress of society.
To be true to itself, the book’s final chapters are very visual and provide a sort of populist glossary, including very practical examples of imagery manipulation by populist movements like Italy’s Lega Nord.
While maintaining a relatively consistent theoretical framework, Open 20: The Populist Imagination is clever in illustrating how populist dynamics give way to different and opposite results. Instead of denouncing the emergence of populism as an often right-wing, xenophobia-driven movement, the authors put the phenomenon in a much wider perspective, recognizing its momentous importance and progressive potential. Just like the media that channel it, populism has room for resistance and activism, too.