Letter from Rome: Populism on the rise?

Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

As an American of Indian descent living in Rome, my perspective on national politics may be a bit skewed. I still follow U.S. politics more closely than Italian or Indian affairs, partly because I am a regular absentee voter in those elections but mainly American politics are more straightforward than the notoriously chaotic systems of both Italy and India. But when there’s a political shake-up in any of these places, I feel duty-bound to try to understand what just happened and what it means for the country’s future. So please indulge my stab at pre-mature punditry - I think the recent national elections in India and the European elections in Italy may tell us something about the viability of populist movements in multicultural democracieslargely governed by technocrats.

In the Indian elections, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained an absolute majority in the Parliament, knocking the Congress Party, which has ruled post-colonial India for all but six years, out of power. In his four terms as chief minister of Gujarat state beginning in 2001, Modi gained a reputation as an economic reformer, helping Gujarat create jobs and modernize its infrastructure, which is almost universally decrepit in the rest of the country. The BJP is a Hindu nationalist party and Modi has been heavily criticized for doing little to stop violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims that took place in Gujarat in 2002. As a result, Modi was banned from travelling to the United States (the ban was rescinded after the BJP’s victory) and his election has concerned religious minorities, some of whom blame the BJP for creating an increasingly hostile climate for non-Hindus.

No one should easily dismiss the threats to religious freedom posed by the BJP or any other nationalist party. Hinduism may be a generally tolerant religion, but it does not take much to incite violence against “foreign” or minority religions for political purposes. Even if the BJP is not directly responsible for attacks against Muslims, Christians and others, Modi and his party have much to lose if they preside over an increasingly fractured and violent society, which, among other bad things, would scare away nervous foreign investors.

Things will go much better for India if Modi promotes economic freedom instead of religious nationalism. The Indian economy made great strides in the last two decades but has since slowed down considerably. Modi would be smart to downplay the reluctance of his party to welcome foreign competition in the retail sector and show the outside world that India is open for business. The BJP has the advantage of being a large national party with much popular support, but it can easily be lost if they are perceived to be a religious version of the Congress Party. They should also be cautious of the Aam Aadmi Party, whose simple leader Arvind Kerjiwal and his message of anti-corruption and economic populism resonate with the poor and the struggling middle class.

Populists everywhere have a knack for over-promising when it comes to economic growth, mainly because they think that wealth simply exists as a natural phenomenon and can be re-distributed at will, without any negative effects on incentives to save and invest. It may be asking too much for elected politicians to limit what they promise, but they can at least make sure that their policies don’t always match their rhetoric. A certain amount of hypocrisy can indeed be the tribute vice pays to virtue, and it may explain why leftist governments are often able to implement free-market reforms more easily than right-wing ones can. The rhetoric appeases the poor and scares the rich but actually helps them by discouraging conspicuous consumption, while the policies would ensure economic growth and help everyone.

Quite surprisingly and perhaps inevitably given the running comedy known as the last few Italian governments, this formula may even work well for Matteo Renzi and the Partito Democratico. Unlike his counterparts in the UK and France, he managed to keep the euro-skeptics at bay because his focus has been on making it easier for Italians to earn and keep more of their money for themselves, even if it’s not always the case. It’s a message Italians used to hear from Silvio Berlusconi during his “3 i” campaign of Impresa, Inglese e Internet. This being Italy, Renzi’s victory is being called a “bad omen” because it makes his government more prone to defections, however. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

The populist message that has the upper hand in Europe and India finds a prophet in Pope Francis and a scholar in the French economist Thomas Piketty. The pope continues to criticize “our” economic system, even as he declines to get bogged down with details. Piketty has come under fire for his use of data, but perhaps more importantly for his reliance on elites to suddenly turn away from accruing power and wealth for themselves and selflessly start implementing more egalitarian policies, such as a global wealth tax. It’s too bad Piketty didn’t learn from his fellow Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who was much more aware of the inherent tensions between freedom and equality in our liberal democratic age.

All this recent talk of populism and inequality around the time of the European Champions League final and just prior to the World Cup in Brazil got me thinking of Alexandre Kojève (an additional shout-out to my friend David Levy for suggesting a Hegel reading group!). Considered one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, Kojève refused to court the post-war Parisian intellectual scene. As Allan Bloom put it in an introduction to a collection of Kojève’s lectures, “Kojève's decision to spend the hours when he was not philosophizing as a bureaucrat preparing the ground for the Common Market was his response to the atmosphere of existential despair so fashionable in France after the war. He said he wanted to re-establish the Roman Empire, but this time its goal would be a multi-national soccer team. A serious man, he implied, would adapt himself to the vulgarities which would necessarily accompany the dull business of providing for all equally and the suppression of the anomalies of nation, class, sex, and religion.” A brilliantly accurate description of today’s Europe, managed by elites from Brussels while the people are fixated with their soccer matches. I must plead guilty to being much too passionate about my sports teams, but I’d like to think I have some faint realization of their relative unimportance in the grand scheme of religion and politics. (Perhaps Kojève would still call me a hopelessly delusional bourgeois.)

Kojève once wrote a memo to Charles de Gaulle encouraging him to create a “Latin Empire” to counteract the Anglo-American one. It’s hard to tell how serious Kojève was about the prospect or if he wasn’t ironically flattering de Gaulle’s messianic pretentions, but he did describe something distinct about the Latin model, just as he described Japan’s way of dealing with modern commercialism, i.e. by losing itself in equally meaningless art and other trifles. He also realized there was no turning back against the tsunami of liberty and equality that brought about the end of history.

Bloom contrasted Kojève with one of the latter’s own students, the French liberal Raymond Aron: “The extent to which Aron represented the political was impressed on me a long time ago when I was having one of my periodic visits with Kojève at the Economics Ministry. The great Hegelian, the spokesman for the end of history who had unraveled history’s hieroglyphs, was unusually agitated that day because the Fourth Republic was traversing one of its many crises. Finally he announced, ‘I must call Aron.’ It was the only time I ever heard him express the need for enlightenment from another.”

Politics and the need for prudent men to interpret and lead in times of crisis are somehow permanent aspect of human life. And it seems we are re-discovering this now with the rise of new populist parties. Depending on particular aspects of the concrete political system in question, it can be easier or harder for populists to have some effect on government. Some, like the Tea Party in the US and the Reform Party in Canada, have been incorporated into one of the major parties, where internal debates over tactics and candidates can take place and reform a party’s image, leading to real changes in policy. But if populists refuse to do what it takes to win elections, whether it’s working with other like-minded groups within the political system or finding inspiring but not frightening leaders, they will remain a gaggle of rabble-rousers and probably do more harm than good to their countries in the long run.

Kishore Jayabalan