Populism and the question of political time

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, comments on the quickening pace of politics in the context of a resurgent populist movement.populismoriginalThe many remarkable political developments of the last year – most notably the vote in favour of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as President – are less extraordinary than they may seem at first sight if we regard them as recent moments in a longer-term acceleration of political time. It was Harold Wilson who (supposedly) said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, but fifty years later this seems like an understatement. The pace and rate of political change today seems unprecedented.

One way in which we might view the current success of ‘populist’ political parties and movements is that they are a response to this acceleration of political time. Populists often berate politicos obsessed with the minutiae of political intercourse, hooked on Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. But of course, there is a paradox here: populists have come to prominence and to power precisely by the use of those media that most readily lend themselves to the acceleration of political time. Donald Trump’s victory would not have been possible thirty or even twenty-years ago: not just because of the direct line he had in the election campaign to his followers on Twitter, but by the saturation coverage he received in the ‘mainstream’ media.

Populists have thrived on the permanent election campaign that has come to characterise the politics of democracies. It was not their invention. Nor was it a simply technologically-driven process, made possible by innovations in broadcasting and digital communications. Rather, the permanent election campaign is a central feature of neo-liberal governance. The logic of neo-liberalism transforms citizens into consumers, and political knowledge into a marketable commodity. Political knowledge was once tough to digest and even tougher to produce; but today it has been broken down into eminently digestible, often tasteless nuggets, and virtually anyone can add to the stock of knowledge through a tweet or by posting in the comments section on the website of a national newspaper.

Populism seems like a reaction against neo-liberalism. But, in fact, in its most prominent contemporary form – that is, the populism of the authoritarian nationalist right – it follows the same relentless logic of commercialisation and de-politicisation. A politics that promotes dissent, or even that calls for careful deliberation of important matters is routinely dismissed by populists. It promises instead to outdo the technocrats by providing quick and ‘simple’ solutions to what are deeply complex, and often intractable problems. Most obviously in the shape of Donald Trump, it offers the prospect of an effective politics by adopting the ruthless efficiency of the modern corporation (or at least what is supposed to be its ruthless efficiency, which in reality often masks inefficiency, inertia, and corruption).

By appealing to an idealised past of social harmony and effective authority, populists may seem to venerate a simpler and more authentic world, where politics was not driven by the permanent election campaign. But this is a veneer – populism in its contemporary forms is very much a product of a (hyper-) modern world of accelerating political time and diminishing public space. It is driven along by these transformations rather than presenting a challenge to them.

Populism might prompt us to think more seriously about the question of political time, because it may frame certain central problems about how we are governed in the present. Despite its avowals, populism does not slow down political time but accelerates it to the point of permanent crisis and reaction. We are seeing the manifestation of this ever-greater acceleration in the multiple crises of politics. How we slow down political time is a question now worth asking.

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ICC drops its Kenyatta case, leaving culture of impunity intact

This article was contributed by Frederick Cowell of Birkbeck’s School of Law. It was originally published on The Conversation.

“One down, two to go,“ was how Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta reacted to the International Criminal Court’s decision to drop its case against him.

Kenyatta had faced charges of being an indirect co-perpetrator of crimes against humanity after post-election violence in Kenya. On 5 December, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, announced that she was discontinuing the case against him.

The cases against Kenyatta’s two Kenyan co-accused, including Vice President William Ruto, have not yet been dropped – but as his reaction showed, they now have reason to be hopeful.

This is a major blow to the ICC’s credibility, and it’s likely to have implications for its ability to prosecute political leaders.

To the Hague

The ICC became involved in Kenya in 2009 after political parties failed to reach an agreement on the establishment of a special domestic tribunal to deal with the 2007-2008 post-election violence. An independent commission set up by the Kenyan government passed on the names of individuals suspected of being responsible for its orchestration to the ICC. The move seemed popular, with the Kenyan media pushing the slogan “don’t be vague, let’s go to The Hague.”

In January 2012, after an independent investigation by the prosecutor’s office, charges against six individuals for Crimes Against Humanity were confirmed. The Court ultimately proceeded with cases against four individuals accused of responsibility for the violence, which claimed over 1000 lives. The charges against Kenyatta included responsibility for orchestrating rape, sexual violence, and murder during attacks on the supporters of his political opponents.

This did not stop Kenyatta running in the 2013 presidential election. The Kenyan government and the African Union (AU) had been lobbying for the prosecution to be delayed. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the UN Security Council has the power to defer prosecutions for up to a year, and it was argued that a deferral was necessary in order to allow the Kenyan government to co-ordinate the campaign against Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The UN Security Council refused, and the Kenyan government sided with the anti-ICC states at the AU who were denouncing the court as imperialist.

Hostility towards the court had being building in the AU since 2009 when the prosecutor issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. While some AU members still support the ICC, there is a strong sentiment in favour of total non-co-operation with the ICC.

Finally, in September 2013, the Kenyan Parliament voted to withdraw from the ICC – and while this could not stop the case against Kenyatta, it made it very difficult for the prosecutor to proceed.

Dropping the Kenyatta charges

On 3 December, the Trial Chamber at the ICC rejected a request made by the prosecutor for a further adjournment of proceedings. Over the course of 2014, the prosecutor’s office held a series of conferences with the Kenyan government aimed at gathering evidence, such as records of phone conversations held before the outbreak of violence in 2007 and information held by the Kenyan security and intelligence services.

ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. EPA/Michael Koor

The process faced endless delays, and although the judges noted the government’s lack of co-operation they said that in the interests of justice, they could not grant the extension that the prosecutor’s office was requesting. This resulted in the decision to drop the charges.

Kenyatta expressed excitement at the result; his British lawyer, Steven Kay QC, said that the prosecutor’s office owed him an apology for bringing the proceedings and for “impugning his [Kenyatta’s] integrity.”

For her part, Bensouda reiterated that the Kenyan government’s steadfast refusal to co-operate had posed “severe challenges” to the case. She also criticised the “relentless stream of false media reports” and widespread attempts at witness intimidation, which she said had led to her being forced to dismiss the charges. Crucially, the Court held that she could bring new charges at a later date should new evidence arise.

Impunity forever

The decision to cease Kenyatta’s prosecution almost certainly sends a signal that repeated failure to cooperate with the ICC can reap rewards.

The ICC still has outstanding arrest warrants for Bashir and two other individuals in Sudan who are who are charged with committing Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide in Darfur. Bashir has long resisted any attempt to prosecute him, and this recent decision will almost certainly give the Sudanese accused political ammunition against the ICC.

And while some states have co-operated with the ICC to ensure prosecutions of military leaders responsible for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, most notably Uganda, the mission of the ICC was always meant to be much more ambitious. At the court’s creation, many optimistically hoped it would end the “culture of impunity” surrounding political leaders, bringing old tyrants to justice and deterring new ones from committing crimes.

Even though ICC is prosecuting the deposed former president of Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo, the Kenyatta case sends the message that if a political leader can hang onto power, de facto immunity is still theirs.

The Conversation

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If history repeats itself, it’s time for the battle stations

TProfessor Jean-Marc Dewaelehis post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

Sebastian Haffner book cover

As an applied linguist, multilingualism, multiculturalism, immigration and acculturation are central aspects of my research. This is by nature always political. My mission as an applied linguist is to defend diversity and promote tolerance – through my teaching and in my research. There are things I can observe here in the UK through my “Belgian eyes” that might not seem as immediately obvious for fellow Brits.

Reading Sebastian Haffner’s moving autobiography on his childhood and young adulthood in Germany between 1914 and 1933, I was struck by some striking similarities with the present day. In fact, “striking” is not the right word – “chilling” is more accurate.

Adolf Hitler was perceived by most Germans as a clown in the 1920s, and dismissed with a wave of the hand.

Hitler’s favourite public places in that period were beer halls where he gave impassioned speeches against Jews and Marxists: perfect scapegoats.  He presented himself as a “good German” who wanted the best for his country, pretended to value peace, but insisted on more national assertiveness.

Hitler loved to brandish the weakness of German democracy and of his political opponents, who were being forced to accommodate each other, while his own message was clear and uncompromising.

While the National Socialists (NSDAP) did poorly in the elections in 1928 (gaining less than 3% of the vote), they grew steadily, gaining 18% of all votes in 1930.  More importantly, their political agenda strongly influenced the programme of the main democratic parties.

Leaders of democratic parties did not stand up to Hitler, did not organize mass demonstrations against the NSDAP but tried to placate Hitler by offering him prominent positions in the government, which he rejected. He came second in the presidential elections in 1932, with 35% of the vote. Hindenburg appointed him chancellor in 1933.  After the Reichstag fire, Hitler forced Hindenburg to suspend basic rights and allow detention without trial. At new elections in March 1933, the NSDAP obtained 44% of the vote. The boycott of the Jews started in April 1933. No mass protests happened in reaction to this measure.

Germany withdrew from the League of Nations in October 1933. When Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler became head of state and head of government and the ‘Hitler myth’ grew.

Now, what was it that David Cameron called UKIP supporters again: “A bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”? It does not seem to have done the UKIP any harm. What is Nigel Farage’s favourite posture? Holding a pint of beer in an English pub with a disarming smile, and claiming to represent true Britishness. His message?  Simplistic but unambiguous: no more compromising, more assertiveness, exit the European Union, and stop immigration into the UK. What is the reaction of the Conservatives and Labour? Hardening their stances on immigration and drifting towards more and more Europhobia. Add to that Conservative plans to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights (on the spurious argument that prisoners can’t be allowed to vote) and claiming that a vote for UKIP would benefit the other major party.

Now, just imagine a scenario where UKIP evolves as the NSDAP did in Germany in the 1930s. As they became more powerful, they could become more radical in their agenda – or simply disclose what might still be under wraps. Being outside the EU and outside the reach of the European court in Strasbourg, they could start forcing the other parties in government to implement a more radical anti-immigration policy, and declare a state of emergency (see Sampson’s Dominion for an idea of what this would look like in the streets of London). Having stopped the foreign influx, and gained the political upper hand, they would have to turn on the immigrants inside the UK, using the full force of the law, starting “gently” and turning on the screw: limit and cut their benefits, their salaries, their role in British society. At what point, I wonder, would the British realize that their cherished democracy was being transformed into a fascist state? Because this is the main point of Haffner: why did nobody stand up to the NSDAP? How could they force a whole nation to become complicit in a world war and a genocide?

You might think at this point, “this can’t happen to us, we’re a civilized people”, and this is the 21st century after all. Haffner points out that this was exactly what the Germans had been thinking of themselves in the 1920s, watching the rise of fascism with “calm, superior indifference”. And what happened to the majority who had not voted for the NSDAP in the 1933 elections? Once the Nazis had grabbed the power, it became nigh impossible to voice dissent without risking one’s life.

We cannot let history repeat itself. Urgent mobilization is needed against the gangrene that UKIP ideology represents. As Haffner says: “Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals”. We need to urge politicians from mainstream parties not be infected by UKIP’s isolationist and anti-immigration agenda. They need to stand up for our human rights, our European union, our democracy. It’s time for the battle stations – or at least the ballot box – to keep UKIP out of power. Nationalism leads to war, and we want peace!

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European poll shows democracy still needs a bit of work

Professor Daniele Archibugi, of Birkbeck's Department of ManagementThis article was contributed by Professor Daniele Archibugi, of Birkbeck’s Department of Management. It was originally published on The Conversation

Every year, the UN celebrates its International Day of Democracy, even if it often feels like there is little to smile about on this front. Research to be presented at the Italian parliament to mark the occasion shows that while Europeans across the continent share a powerful faith in democracy, they think their countries are lacking some of its most fundamental components.

The research, carried out by the European Social Survey is an attempt to quantify the difference between Democratic ideals and reality.

The results confirm that the overwhelming majority of Europeans share the democratic faith. In most countries, citizens strongly believe that they should be governed by elected representatives. In countries like Cyprus, Sweden, Germany and Israel, respondents rated the importance of living in a democratic country as a nine or above on a scale of zero to ten. And in almost every other country in a survey of 29 – including 21 EU member states – it was rated at least seven or above.

But Europe is vast and brings together a huge array of nations and cultures. It seems we can’t be sure that the word democracy means the same thing to them all.

Digging inside the ballot box, the survey reveals that in northern Europe, there is a greater focus on the rule of law, while in southern countries there is a stronger desire to obtain social justice. Scandinavians fall somewhere in the middle.

Eastern Europeans appear to be something of a special case. Citizens in many former soviet states only got the right to vote in proper elections around a quarter of a century ago and continue to expect the social protection that was once guaranteed by the old communist regimes while also demanding that the rule of law is enforced. Russian respondents attached the least importance to being run by a democratic government.

The basic definition of democracy is what is known as liberal democracy. This is a government chosen in free and competitive elections, with checks and balances in place and a free media and opposition in operation. Liberal democracy was considered to be operating in only around half of the 29 countries surveyed.

People in eastern European nations do not believe their countries hold free and fair elections and they do not consider their media free. And in southern Europe, citizens feel they lack equality before the law.

Asked about the social components of democracy – such as income equality and protection from poverty – citizens gave a harsh assessment. In 26 of the 29 countries, this side of democracy was considered insufficient.

In Scandinavia the gap between what people expect from democracy and what they think is actually delivered is smaller than in any other country. But even in these countries, there is the clear perception that the social dimension of democracy lags behind the liberal.

The political class should take this survey very seriously. It shows that the public has an increasingly broad idea of what it is to be a democracy but also that they are well informed. When expectations are not met, substantial resentment can build and that is reflected at the ballot box. Voters either back new entrants to the political sphere – like UKIP – or they stay at home on polling day.

An increasingly qualified and demanding public can’t simply be administered from above. New forms of participation need to be invented. If people are asked to participate in the delivery of public goods – through direct democracy and social involvement – they will have the opportunity to improve what is provided by elected representatives only. Or, at least, they will realise that everyone should implement their own dreams, democratic dreams included.

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