The religious foundations of the European Financial Crisis

The European financial crisis has divided European nations. The division runs between north and south and some have even described the division as one between saints and sinners. In this contribution Josef Hien sheds light on the cultural underpinnings of this division and argues that religious foundations are at the heart of this divide. He concludes that a “interdenominational” compromise is necessary in order to overcome the polarized status quo. Weiterlesen

Reading recommendation: Populism and democracy

The online publication the Conversation recently started an informative and interesting series on the phenomena of populism.

The series also includes contributions and analysis from members of our research unit on democracy and democratization at the WZB.

In the latest post of the series, which sets out to explore the origins of the rise of populism and its complex relationship with democracy Thamy Pogrebinschi, John Keane and Wolfgang Merkel contributed their perspectives on the recent or not so recent development of rising populism in democracies. Below you will find the short contributions of the three. If you are interested in what the other contributers had to say you should check out the above hyperlinks to the original post on the Conversation.

Thamy Pogrebinschi sets out to differentiate variants of contemporary populisms and concludes that rather than an ideology populism itself serves as a politically empty cocoon that ultimately is characterised by its appeal to popular souvereignity and actually points to the underlying problematique of capitalism and democracy. She writes:

The concept of populism is highly contestable, but clarifying the difference between its left-wing and right-wing variants is both the best and the worst starting point for making sense of its contours.

Populism is not an ideology. Yet populism of the left and populism of the right produce different sets of ideas, identities and effects. Populism can be so politically empty that it joins forces with ideologies as different as socialism and nationalism. Populist discourses can thus favour exclusion, or inclusion.

The experiences of Latin America and Europe illustrate this difference well. In Latin America, populism has tried to include workers and middle class citizens socially dislocated by capitalism. In contemporary Europe, populism is attempting to exclude people dislocated by wars, and by capitalism in different parts of the world.

In both cases, however, the appeal to popular sovereignty exposes the deep tension between democracy and capitalism. We should therefore care less about definitions, and ask the real question: is representative democracy now so overshadowed by capitalism that it is no longer able to make room for the popular sovereignty upon which it was founded?

John Keane highlights the historical dimension of the complex and problematic relationship between democracy and populism going back to the greek concept ‚dēmokrateo‘ concluding that what is necessary to tackle today’s populist movements is a radikal egalitarian and redistributive turn in order top restore faith in our democracies. He writes:

Ancient Greeks knew democracy could be snuffed out by rich and powerful aristoi backed by demagogues ruling the people in their own name. They even had a verb (now obsolete) for describing how people are ruled while seeming to rule. They called it dēmokrateo. It’s the word we need for making sense of the contradiction that cuts through contemporary populism.

Populism is a democratic phenomenon. Mobilised through available democratic freedoms, it’s a public protest by millions of people (the demos) who feel annoyed, powerless, no longer “held” in the arms of society.

The analyst D W Winnicott used the term to warn that people who feel dropped strike back. That’s the populist moment when humiliated people lash out in support of demagogues promising them dignity. They do so not because they “naturally” crave leaders, or yield to the inherited “fascism in us all”.

Populism attracts people because it raises their expectations of betterment. But there’s a price. In exchange for promises of popular sovereignty, populism easily mass produces figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

And in contrast to the 19th-century populist politics of enfranchisement, today’s populism has exclusionary effects. The dēmokrateo of it all isn’t stoppable by anodyne calls for “dialogue”, or false hopes populism will somehow burn itself out. What’s needed is something more radically democratic: a new politics of equitable redistribution of power, wealth and life chances that shows populism to be a form of counterfeit democracy.

Once upon a time, such political redistribution was called “democracy”, or “welfare state”, or “socialism”.

Wolfgang Merkel argues that the emerging right wing populism in Europe has three main causes: (1) discontent with European integration; (2) economic exclusion; (3) disaffection and fear of influx of migrants. He thus sees the rise of right wing populism as a rebellion of the disenfranchised and concludes that politicians from established political parties should aim to listen to the disenfrenchised and grant them a voice. He writes:

From a normative standpoint, things are clear: cosmopolitans who uphold equality, global justice, ethno-religious tolerance and human rights cannot accept right-wing populism. Nationalism, chauvinism, ethno-religious intolerance are incommensurable with the values of an open and tolerant society.

Things are less clear when we try to explain the rise of right-wing populist parties. People who belong to the enlightened, cosmopolitan, middle and upper classes often argue that right-wing populism is the result of a demagoguery that is especially attractive to uneducated people from the lower classes. This explanation is not just inadequate; it bespeaks arrogant ignorance.

Right-wing populism in Europe has three causes: a general discontent with European integration; economic exclusion; and disaffection and fear of a large influx of migrants and refugees. Large swathes of the lower middle class complain of their exclusion from public discourse. The neo-liberal version of globalisation and the general failure of the moderate left to address the distributive question have created feelings of impotence and marginalisation among the lower classes.

Right-wing populism is thus a rebellion of the disenfranchised. The establishment parties have arguably committed serious political errors. It’s high time that they leave their fortress of normative arrogance and grant a democratic voice to the non-represented. If they fail to do so, right-wing populists will transform our democracies: they will become more parochial, intolerant and polarised.


The Conversation kindly allowed us to repost the above statements. Here is the link to the original post.

Das Problem der Demokratie ist nicht die Krise, sondern der Triumph des Kapitalismus

Mehr substanzielle, weniger symbolische Politik tut Not. Gespräch der Neuen Gesellschaft / Frankfurter Hefte (NG/FH) mit Wolfgang Merkel. Das Interview erschien jüngst in englischer Übersetzung online in Social Europe. An English Translation of the following interview was just published as Democracy’s Problem Is Not The Crisis But The Triumph Of Capitalism, on Social Europe.

NG/FH: Die in gewisser Weise ständig gestellte Diagnose einer »Krise der Demokratie« hat sich in den letzten Jahren dermaßen verschärft, dass mittlerweile sogar gefragt wird, ob wir überhaupt noch »echte« Demokratie in den Kernländern der OECD haben? Das gipfelt in dem Befund, unsere Länder seien in Hinblick auf die Kernfragen ökonomischer Macht im Prinzip reformunfähig und künftig nur noch ein Spielball der wirtschaftlichen Macht. Was wäre ein gültiger Maßstab, um die Krise der Demokratie und ihre Qualität zu beurteilen, und was ist die Antwort in Bezug auf die gegenwärtige Lage?

Wolfgang Merkel: So einfach sind die Diagnosen nicht. Kaum eine von ihnen vermag zu erklären, was ihr Referenzmaßstab ist. Ist es die normativ vermutete »echte« Demokratie? Ist es ein versunkenes goldenes Zeitalter der Demokratie? Beides wäre falsch. »Eine« echte Demokratie gibt es nicht. Wäre es die direkte oder die repräsentative Demokratie? Wünschen wir mehr Konsens und Inklusion oder vertrauen wir der Effizienz der Mehrheitsregel? Bevorzugen wir zentralistische oder föderale Demokratien? Wollen wir mehr Schweiz mit ihrer Konsensregel oder doch das »Westminster-Modell« mit seinem rabiaten Mehrheitsprinzip? Die Annahme, dass es ein besseres Zeitalter der Demokratie gegeben hat, ist geschichtsvergessen. Wann sollte das gewesen sein? In den 60er und frühen 70er Jahren? Fragen wir doch die Frauen, die ethnischen Minderheiten, Homosexuelle in den USA, der Schweiz, Deutschland oder anderswo, ob sie das auch so sehen. Die Demokratien heute haben erhebliche Probleme, aber sie sind aufs Ganze gesehen keineswegs schlechter als in irgendeiner Vergangenheit.


Ist die Politik der Troika undemokratisch?

Die Fakten sind bekannt. Seit dem Ausbruch der Finanz- und wenig später der Eurokrise erlebt Griechenland die dramatischste Wirtschaftskrise Westeuropas seit 1950. Die Arbeitslosigkeit stieg von 7,8 % im Jahr 2008 auf 27,5 % (2013); die Jugendarbeitslosigkeit beträgt das Doppelte. Das Wachstum brach in den fünf Jahren nach Ausbruch der Krise um 29 % ein, der Mindestlohn wurde um ein Viertel gekürzt. Die desaströsen Kennziffern könnten fortgesetzt werden und deuten doch die soziale Katastrophe nur an.