Il Duce: Populism as fascism
Among scholars of political science it is deemed not worth asking whether a political movement in democracy is populist or not, it is only a question to what extent.1 Consensus has been established also on populism being understood as a pseudo- and post-democratic pathology of politics in western democracies produced by the public perception that democratic ideals are corrupted.2 So it seems worth discussing what extent of populism in the democratic discourse is a danger to democracy itself, because: “Taken to the extreme populism descends into totalitarianism”.3 What is a extreme of populism? And when does it start to be effective in the sense that it threatens a democratic system? The most prominent failure of democratic systems in modern history are the cases of the Weimar republic being taken over by the national socialists and the rise of fascism in the Italian republic after World War I, both examples of societies being in the transition phase from an authoritarian to a parliamentarian political system. For reasons of preserving clarity of argument, the latter example, Italian fascism and its leader, Benito Mussolini, shall serve as a reference point in order to point out what ideological ingredients and methods of communication of a totalitarian political movement are per definition “populist” and are able to gain popular support under specific political and historical conditions. Starting with a working definition of populism consisting of elements widely agreed upon in the political theorists’ community, the argument of this paper will shortly address the ideological context and nature of fascism and the historical conditions under which it could flourish in the years 1919 until 1922 with an emphasis on the specific methods, styles and images the leader of the movement, Benito Mussolini, applied to symbolize the claims of fascism. A conclusion on the question whether populism in its extreme means totalitarianism finalizes the paper.
The definition of populism for this paper consist of the following elements explained in detail in the following sequence: a) The construct of people and the antagonizing of the political landscape by naming ‘people’ and ‘other’; b) the operationalization of equivalential chains with the creation or absorption of empty and floating signifiers; c) The specific historical situation or ‘organic crisis’ which enables the establishment of the populist discourse; d) the characteristics of populist representation and identification in the concept of the leader symbolizing the people.
a) The construct of people and the antagonizing of the political landscape while naming ‘people’ and ‘other’: Cas Mudde defined populism in 2004 as “[…] an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘ the pure people ’ versus ‘ the corrupt elite ’ , and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volontégéné rale (general will) of the people”.4 This notion is shared by Laclau5 with his concept of ‘articulation’ and also by Panizza6 with his definition of populism as anti-status quo discourse simplifying the political landscape by division. The pseudo-objectivity of a general will constitutes an additional construct which might grant rhetoric superiority in a political discourse.7
b) Operationalization of equivalential chains with the creation or absorption of empty and floating signifiers:8 While every social demand or democratic subject is particular in the first place, it can form in combination with others addressed to the same entity an equivalential chain representing the totality of all demands or a popular subject. The equivalential links are stronger in case of a lacking potential for demand absorption in the respective political system and might deepen the divide of “power and the underdog”.9 Emptying the particular content of a demand is the precondition for charging it with universal representation of the totality of frustrated social demands while in the same time increasing its ability to integrate. Not only creating own empty signifiers, but occupying or shifting (“floating”) signifiers in the political discourse so that they are identified with one self, enables a populist political movement to create and exploit anti-institutional resentment in a society.
1 Laclau, Ernesto (2005): “Populism: What's in a name?”, in: Francisco Panizza (Ed.), “Populism and the Mirror of Democracy”, London, p. 45.
2 Mudde Cas (2004): “The Populist Zeitgeist”, in: ”Government & Opposition” 3/2004, Oxford, p. 541.
3 Panizza, Francisco (2005): “Introduction - Populism and the Mirror of Democracy”, in: Francisco Panizza (Ed.), “Populism and the Mirror of Democracy”, London, p. 29.
4 Mudde Cas (2004): “The Populist Zeitgeist”, in: ”Government & Opposition” 3/2004, Oxford, p. 562.
5 Laclau, Ernesto (2005): “Populism: What's in a name?”, in: Francisco Panizza (Ed.), “Populism and the Mirror of Democracy”, London, p. 33.
6 Panizza, Francisco (2005): “Introduction - Populism and the Mirror of Democracy”, in: Francisco Panizza (Ed.), “Populism and the Mirror of Democracy”, London, p. 3.
7 Ibd., p. 4.
8 Laclau, Ernesto (2005): “On Populist Reason”, London, p. 129.
9 Laclau, Ernesto (2005): “Populism: What's in a name?”, in: Francisco Panizza (Ed.), “Populism and the Mirror of Democracy”, London, p. 37.
- Quote paper
- Johannes Wiedemann (Author), 2010, Il Duce. Populism as Fascism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/162294