Written by Italianieuropei Thursday, 02 August 2012

On Friday 6 July, was held in Rome the seminar “The New Faces of Populism. Grassroots Movements, Insurgents, Pirates at the Assault of the Citadel of Party-based Democracy” organised by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, the Fondazione Italianieuropei and the Centro per la Riforma dello Stato. The initiative was structured in two sessions. The first one raised the issue of the place and role that political parties play today and the crisis that has been undermining them for decades. This panel was chaired by Ernst Stetter, Secretary General of FEPS, Massimo D’Alema made the introductory remarks. The second part of the seminar focused on grassroots movements, pirates, populist groups etc. across Europe and their challenge to established political parties. This session was chaired by Giuliano Amato, while Mario Tronti, President of the Centro per la Riforma del Stato, delivered the opening speech.


Political Parties in Europe

In his introductory remarks, Massimo D’Alema focused on the crisis that political parties have been facing for the last thirty years and on the problem of identifying adequate solutions that would let political parties acquire a new role in society.

As Mr D’Alema explained, there are several causes for the political parties’ crisis. The societal transformations, occurred over the last decades, and the decline of the social compromise, the welfare state, led to the decline of mass parties. The cleavages around which those parties were created are no longer relevant to interpret and understand contemporary society. Besides, new factors emerged: a sort of Americanisation of politics resulting in a personalisation and loss of autonomy of the party; a primacy of economics over politics, and finally the increasing influence exerted by the media. In a context of economic globalisation, these features took away role and meaning to national politics. Hence, the crisis of political parties is not understandable other than within the crisis of power that characterised the nation-state for the last thirty years.

The reduction of the party’s organised basis, social links and “identifiability” halved the political parties’ capacities. To sum up, what was jeopardised the most was the role of the parties as bridges between society and political decisions. This progressive loss of contact with the people made the party as disconnected from the citizens as bureaucracies are, that is as a cold and far organization disconnected from social reality. Moreover, decisions seem to be taken in increasingly more opaque and impenetrable places.

Against the supremacy of the economic rationality, the space of freedom for politics has diminished. Politicians are no longer free to defend their ideas and ideals and, consequently, they do not seem to be able to offer alternatives anymore. Politics is thus reduced to “do the homework” imposed by economy. In this context, populism emerges as a reaction to elites’ detachment from common people and to European integration, the second favourite scapegoat for populist mobilisation. Accordingly, populism is «a call to the people against the elites, a call to the national ethnos and demos against the globalisation and the European Union».

Hence, the problem is to identify how political parties, and by extension democracy, can get out of this grip between populism and technocracy, how they can find again a vital space.

Of course, finding a solution to this question demands a critical reflection on the response parties have given to changes in society. They have largely adapted themselves to the trends and to a very articulated society, in which participation and mobilization take up several forms, becoming less and less ideological and increasingly programmatic. The above described processes seem to be unavoidable, however, Mr. D’Alema underlines that it is possible to contrast this trend it two ways: through a bottom-up action and through a top-down one.

As for the former, we shall increasingly take into account the European dimension. A merely national project cannot revitalize the European party-system. Indeed, the new social cleavage is between the global financial capitalism and the interests of the citizens/workers. In this context, the approach must be re-motivating Left-wing parties and reconstructing them around this cleavage. It is only in a conflictual context that politics will offer alternatives and get back its role within society.

As for the top-down action, it is necessary to re-establish the links with society; this requires a multiplicity of actions and the capability to act on the different levels. Nowadays, political parties must be able to use any form of social communication and interaction, but at the same time they must make any effort to make the party member feels that he/she is part of a community.

What must be preserved are, on the one side, the autonomy of politics, and the other side, the spirit of belonging. Otherwise, parties will be only political elites without any function of political guidance.


During the debate, most participants agreed with Mr. D’Alema’s interpretation of the situation; however, they also brought into the discussion more insights on specific aspects of the political parties crisis.

Discussion was opened by Rita di Leo (University of Rome “Sapienza”) by introducing the idea that personalization of the politics is a typically Italian phenomenon, mainly expressed by Silvio Berlusconi. She also emphasized the existence of three kinds of politics: power politics, the “economy politics”, and the politics as a project. Finally, she claimed that the discussion should be orientated mainly around the search for solutions.

Coming back on Berlusconi’s People of Liberty, participants stressed the idea that more than a personal party, it is a media party and this is why it is so specific to Italy. Italian media, was argued, encourage anti-political movements and extol their virtues as the new social ideology. Professor Gheorghe Stoica (University of Bucharest) argued that parties, in order to preserve their autonomy, should work on the basis of three conditions: they must have a clear identity, an efficient organisation, and be part of the society, especially in times of crisis, when they ought to be a mean to reassure citizens. Indeed, as Luciano Bardi (European University Institute) put it, the problem arises when the capability of developing effective policies (responsibility) does not meet the electors’ aspirations (responsiveness).

The neoliberal paradigm is another cause of the populist rise and of the crisis of the political parties. As Mr. D’Alema explained, politicians today are reduced to merely do their homework because of the prominence of the new dominant class, which includes the international finance, banks, etc. The last decades saw a dramatic increase in the inequalities. As a consequence, the fight against inequalities must be seen as a way to counter the populist emergence and presence in society.

Another problem concerns the fact that over the three level of traditional parties’ activity in Europe – the local, the national and the European – populist parties only operate on one, either the national or the local. So, one possible solution for traditional parties could be returning to be active and effective on all the levels, while at the same time stopping to demonize the European one. However, Massimo Luciani (University of Rome “Sapienza”) considers that political parties are tightly connected to the institutional system they have been created in; but the national level is no longer sufficient to face the challenges of a continuously changing society, and there is no institutional structure favourable to the development of cross-European parties yet. Also electoral systems and forms of government have an impact on political parties’ formation and configuration. Pierre Musso (University of Rennes 2 and Télécom Paris-Tech) focused on the populist discourse, which, he said, is too vague and has lost its substance. The populist narrative is based on an ambivalent concept of the people: ethnos, that is the identity of the people, and demos, understood not as a civil body but as a crowd. The crowd, Musso explained, is made by those who do not extend their ideas, unlike the ruling class. Therefore, populists reduce the public to a crowd being abandoned by the elites. This is the so-called “Sarkoberlusconism”, a variation of the neo-interventionism that develops an anti-elite rhetoric of the traditional parties. This meets the point of Daniel Smilov, from Bulgaria (Centre for Liberal Strategies), who reminds that populism is the result of citizens’ distrust in the classic channel of democracy. Populism uses politics as a negative tool. He raised thus the following question: how to manage the damages made by politicians? A part of the answer may be that the parties have to take back responsibility for political education, as they used to do before the 1980s.

The question of the transition from populism to technocracy, that is from Berlusconi to Monti, was also raised during the debate. Technocracy, was suggested, is not an Italian specificity, since the growth of the technocratic power is present everywhere. How come are we only realising that our representatives are unable to face societal changes? In the 1960s and the 1970s, technocracy was already a problem studied and thus identified. But back in those years, politics was able to use and control technocrats for its purposes, at the service of a democracy that had a future. As Marco Almagisti (University of Padua) explained, the personalization of the parties is also a phenomenon that has existed for decades, although this process accelerated in the last twenty years. Even in the era of the mass parties, the personalization existed; the main difference with today is that the leaders were to be accountable before the members of the party.

Finally, it has been underlined that, in spite of the fact that the state context is important to the analysis, it is not enough: the crisis is mainly of the Left because for too long Europe has been characterized by the cultural hegemony of the Centre-Right.

Populist movements in Europe

Mario Tronti introduced the second session of the seminar with an analysis of the roots that permitted the emergence of populism, but also of the concept of people and, more accurately, how to define it. He also raised the issue of the current crisis and the division of the world in two classes, the people and the elites (the technocracy). Finally, he provided answers to the question of how to connect the Left to today’s world.

If Mario Tronti recognised that the emergence, and the “pollution”, of the first populist movements contributed to the crisis of politics and democracy, it is also possible to see the issue the other way round. Indeed, the crisis of the political parties that occurred in the early 1990s provided also the perfect context for populist movements to emerge and gain ground in society. Populism is present everywhere in Europe, although with diverse intensity: Italy is, by all means, one of the countries that is more affected by it. The disintegration of the form of the parties offered in Italy the “Berlusconian” solution to the crisis, carried by an anti-political rhetoric. Yet, populism is a catch-all concept under which a diversity of phenomena can be labelled.

The problem of populism is not new and shows some positive aspects. At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was characterized by the emergence of populist movements; in Russia, populism offered criticism to the capitalist development of society; and of course we cannot forget the Latin American populist parties and leaders.

Nowadays, the main problem concerns the definition of “people”. The second point raised by Mario Tronti relates to the division of Europe between the Europe of elites, of technocracy, and that of the other people.

Today, a problem for Left-wing parties is that of re-defining their own people, while the best way to fight populism is to re-establish a link with the people. One of the main points raised by populist movements is that of the lack of representation of the people. To find an answer to the questions above, a sociological analysis of the problem is necessary. To conclude, Mario Tronti defines two great “missions”: creating a “European people” and giving voice to it not only at national but also at the supranational level. The European people need a forum, a place where they can express themselves.


Giulano Amato opened the discussion supporting the idea that populism can be considered as a sort of “disease” of the system, provoked by the fact that a part of society feels no longer represented. Populism, therefore, occurred because a large component of the population felt that it had been deprived of its power over itself. People felt like they were no longer able to make decisions concerning their own future, they felt that sovereignty had been taken away from them. This decision making capability had been “stolen” by an obscure and uncontrolled force, before which political parties appear helpless. This is what was called neoliberalism. In this context, elites seem to be accomplices of this “theft”.

Progressive political parties, to open once again the communication channels with the people, have to confront these powers. Also, the only moment of the democracy is the electoral moment, but this takes place only every five years. Parties should offer to their members a form of belonging. This would give them real power; it would take back the power taken by liberalism. Hence, the parties must be able to represent all the interests, not only the strong ones.

The success of populism lies in the fact that it gives the illusion to restore people’s power.

Then, the discussion turned to the German model. Angelo Bolaffi (Political Philosopher and Germanist) and Ernst Stetter (Secretary General of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies) here seemed to disagree on the political party system. While Dr. Bolaffi defended the point that Germany’s strength lies in the stability of its political parties and in the continuity of the party system, according to Dr. Stetter the German traditional party system no longer exists. For Angelo Bolaffi, stability lets parties legitimate the political situation, while Ernst Stetter gave a more clouded lecture of the situation. The fact that no clear majority is possible anymore preludes a coming loss of the stability of the system.

They also evoked the Pirates (Die Piraten). Dr. Bolaffi warned the assembly by saying that they are not to be mistaken with Grillo’s movement. The Pirates, in fact, have no leader, no emblematic figure to represent them in the media, there is no controversy among the members on the political leadership. Indeed, the only remaining populist rage in this movement is addressed against some democratic processes. And yet, explained Dr. Stetter, one of the main reasons of success of this movement is that it transcends the usual political cleavages: their members come from the whole political spectrum and are no longer satisfied with the existing political process.
Another peculiarity of this movement is, of course, its strong presence on the internet.

As far as the 5-Star Movement is concerned, during the discussion it was suggested that it is unlikely that it will become a representative force within society. The argument presented in support of this affirmation is that there are two main aspects in populism: the anti-political rhetoric and the reconstruction of symbolism, and “Grillism” is limited only to the first one. Populist movements are generally made by those who fear not to be represented. Pierre Musso argued that we are currently going through three different crises: that of financial capitalism, which is the major cause of the loss of link between parties and population, the crisis of the national state, and finally the crisis of political representation. Politicians should be a symbol of strength and values.

The fear of not being represented has a long tradition in the U.S.; Stefano Rizzo, Coordinator of International Activities at the Centro per la Riforma dello Stato, recalled that, at the turn of the twenty-first century, President Theodore Roosevelt was a great opponent of the power of capitalism. Let us then not forget the 1968 movement. And today, there is the Tea Party movement, which represents an American peculiarity.

According to Mr. D’Alema, the left/right cleavage has to be transferred to the European debate. There are three dimensions of the European debate that are intertwined: the inter-state clash, the intra-state clash and that about different policies. The opposition between Left and Right is where these clashes have to be settled. Dr. Bolaffi, however, advocated the idea that, as far as Europe is concerned, the principal debate is the one between supporters of the European project and eurosceptics. Therefore, to construct the “European people”, called for by MarioTronti, it has to be decided and defined where the cleavage lies. Another participant to the seminar proposed that Left-wing parties must focus on welfare and the protection of labour at the European level. David Kitching raised two issues: the definition of populism and how to frame a conversation on this topic. In fact, he argued, populism is a too vague a word, which was also used a century ago to define some progressive movements. Also, it was argued, the survival of these movements will not depend so much on their choice of a leader but on their organisational capacities. In the end, even the tendency to develop some form of leader cult represents only some sort of institutionalisation of these movements, which will make them last in time. The challenges, according to David Kitching, are bringing back the discourse on welfare and providing answers to exactly those questions that offer opportunities to populism. Ernst Stetter, for his part, said that the only chance for Progressive parties was to win on a European level.

By way of conclusion, Mario Tronti briefly came back on the question of primary elections, which he considers to be self-delegitimizing. In fact, primary elections give the impression that the party, unable to select a political leader, decides to delegate this responsibility to people outside the party organization, and this means self-destruction. On the subject of primary election, most of the participants agreed on rejecting them as a viable option for the future