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Vico’s Revolutionary Thinking on Metaphysics, Machiavellian Political Analysis, and Historicism

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“What is Truth?–Pontius Pilate

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] W [/yt_dropcap]e live in an Orwellian world of “post-truth” and “alternative facts” wherein the famous question of Pilate to Christ is repeatedly heard: “what is truth?” In effect it means that we no longer believe in truth and consequently we no longer believe in metaphysics, which is essentially a belief in, and a search for truth, as difficult as that may be.

Truth has become something “esoteric,” kind of ancient quest which has now been superseded by a positivistic world based on empirical quantifiable science based on sheer utility. Truth is a commodity we can no longer afford in our “enlightened” modern times.

What seems to be one of the major preoccupations of current political analysis is the Machiavellian quest for power based on a philosophy that asserts that “might is right” and the “end justifies the means,” that there are winners and there are losers. The winners bend facts and reality to their own convenience, at best they believe in relative useful short term truths, while the losers believe in metaphysics and its universal transcendent truths, a la Plato. In other words, Plato is passé and Machiavelli is in vogue. Take your option.

But there is a philosopher of the 18th century, the Neapolitcan Giambattista Vico, who offered another alternative to these two extremes. Yet many, even in his native land, have no clue of his philosophy of history, or simply ignore it. What good can come out of a Naples? Let’s take a brief look at it.

Vico’s New Science (1725) is a watershed to modern historicism. He was however too far ahead of his contemporaries to have any direct impact on them. They had already embarked on a Cartesian paradigm of reality which now pervades modern culture. We modern men can hear Vico’s wake up bell much more clearly in the wake of what rampant rationalism has wrought on us.

For all the modernity of his philosophy, Descartes shared with the ancient Greeks a bias against history which held that history is not the proper subject of science; that it represents a dimension of being in which the question of truth has neither purpose nor answer. Within this historical tradition searching for absolute certainty there is no place for any knowledge based on the particularity of sensory experience and contingent historical events. Tradition and the senses are seen as sources of permanent deception and truth is not found in them.

Descartes was convinced that he had found the final basis of certainty in his thinking “I” (the famous “cogito ergo sum”) which is beyond history and all its contingencies and delusions. The only way this “I” and its related ideas can get back to the physical world is with the help of mathematical ideas that determine it. There the true language of nature is to be discovered. In other words, truth is to be found in nature, not in history.

This ancient Greek tradition was now living under the cover of the Christian West. Descartes was trapped within it. The Greek world could not, and in fact never produced any kind of philosophy of history. It could not since it held that the contingency of historical events did not yield truth and could not therefore be the content of authentic philosophical reflection. When truth was sought in the empirical world, it was derived from the calculability and rationality of nature. Moreover, this drive to see truth only in what is uniform and not in what is contingent and changing (well symbolized by Plato’s world of timeless unchanging ideas, the transcendent forms) led Greek historians to look for laws and continuities in history and to treat them as analogies to the uniformities of nature.

Herodotus finds in history the “law” that human hubris brings down divine punishment. This is analogous to the idea that there are limits within nature beyond which no man dare venture beyond. Thucydides, on the other hand, is even more radical in his pursuit of uniformity. He finds the historical process dominated not only by objective factors in politics and economics but also by impulses and passions driven by subjective psychological emotions. Thus the movement of history is subsumed to the movement of cosmic occurrences. The driving forces for both is the same.

Here Plato’s remarks in Georgias is relevant. There he proclaims that a mathematical relation (based on timeless laws) governs the relation between gods and humans. Thus Thucydides also believed that regard for the timeless laws of historical movement gives a better view of what happens and what will happen, for it will always be in accord with human nature. In other words, to see the timeless in time makes prognosis possible and enables us humans to plan for our future.

The above, broadly outlined, was the classical view of history that greatly influenced Descartes. On one hand it holds that history is contingent, that it cannot be part of the orderly course of the cosmos and thus it is ultimately irrelevant to the question of truth. On the other hand, it also holds that history may be integrated into the cosmos but has to be seen in mere analogy to processes that are controlled by natural laws. Either way history per se is robbed of its driving force and is discredited scientifically.

The geniality of Vico’s conception of history is that he turns the above upside-down. He calls his philosophy of history a science since for him history is not only a possible, but also a privileged object of science. In fact, for a noetic standpoint, he sees the natural sciences as burdened by a lack of truth. At least in the West, this is indeed a reversal of the usual movement in the search for truth. It has taken us modern and post-modern men some three centuries to realize that it is truly revolutionary.

Not that Vico rejects everything that preceded him. He accepts much that is normative in tradition, borrows from what is universally acknowledged and then makes new unexpected inferences. His beginning point is an idea for which he can formally appeal to Aristotle. Simply put, the idea is that real knowledge of something is present only when that something is understood to be caused and its causes and origins are known.

From this idea Vico draws a revolutionary conclusion and it is this: if knowledge is knowledge of causes and we can speak of truth only in as much as we can establish those causes, then properly speaking we may know fully only what we ourselves have made. That is to say, we can only do justice to the Aristotelian equation of truth and knowledge of causes when we ourselves are the cause of something. Therefore, since history is the sphere of human achievements wherein we function as causes, we can attain there to true knowledge as in no other sphere.

In this concern of Vico, to demonstrate that even the shadows of the most distant past may prove to have more truth than the exact sciences, we begin to sense the far reaching implications of his speculation. Let us explore briefly the most important of these implications. In the first place it is worth noticing that after Vico the very facticity despised by the Greek world is worth knowing and can in fact be accorded the privilege of truth.

For Anselm, the cosmos that God conceived and made (one and the same operation for God) was the object of truth. In other words, the truth consists of knowing the logos content of the world. Its content are not facts but their reference to the Logos. As we have observed, for Descartes the ontic giveness of the thinking I is truth of the first order, while deduced truths are secondary. So, in both Anselm and Descartes a form of being is the truth. In the former being as a conceived and made totality; in the latter being focused on the existing subject of thought. Something is true because it has a share in being.

With Vico it is otherwise: historical facticity is privileged to be the content of possible truth. We know this truth and its causes because we ourselves are the causes. Here the thesis is this: something is true as, and because, it is made by us. Secondly, Vico dares to light up even mythical prehistory with the torch of truth, despite the fact that objective knowledge of events is largely ungraspable in this sphere. He can do so because he is convinced that he has found a new and modern form of knowledge; a form of knowledge by now familiar to us as hermeneutics, a truth that is disclosed in the grasping of causes; a truth of “understanding” which is present when something that is related to us reveals itself to us.

For example, when we encounter another personal life that affects our own personality. Admittedly it is rare but it constitutes the essence of true friendship hardly graspable in a cold objective fashion. That is what Vico means when he says that we may find the principles of the prehistoric world within the modifications of our own human spirit. In other words, there is an analogy between prehistory and us that makes it intelligible.

This should intimate that properly speaking Vico is the grandfather of modern hermeneutics even if little or no credit is accorded to him in courses on mythology or history of religions. It is on the basis of Vico’s speculation that Bultman attempts later the feat of demythologization and Jung that of the interpretation of myths and the archetypes of the human mind. Even if Vico does not use the term “understanding,” it is obvious that he has entered the field of hermeneutics to break through to new modern aspects of human experience: humanity can comprehend history because history derives from it.

Vico’s speculation is nothing less than the proclamation of the historicizing of the understanding of reality. The modern age is the story of the implications deriving from such a view of reality. This view was so novel that it went largely ignored.

Here we should take notice that throughout his speculation Vico’s anthropology remains always anchored to a theological base. That such is the case can be gathered from his restriction of the human knowledge of truth to the knowledge of history. The world of nature remains accessible only to the divine insight, since God created nature, not us, and therefore only God can see it as his work.

Even when Vico asserts that we may know history as “spirit of our spirit,” he never means to say that history can be regarded wholly as our own creation. On the contrary, he says that treating the historical past as a kind of objectification and echo of our own spirit is possible only because our spirit is privileged to have a part in the divine Spirit and is thus put in a position to see in history the providence of God and the thoughts of his divine spirit. In other words, the meaning of history is manifest to our spirit to the degree that we look to providence.

A corollary to the above view is Vico’s rejection of a conclusion that one may be tempted to draw from his anthropological outlook, namely that within modernity philosophy can replace theology as the representative of the human spirit. Vico expressly opposes the notion of the rationalistic philosopher of history Polybius (second century B.C.) that religion becomes unnecessary when philosophers undertake the explanation of the world. Vico argues that philosophers did not suddenly fall from heaven but emerged from an intellectual tradition rooted in religion.

By taking an anti-Cartesian stance Vico is basically saying only a belief in providence can relate us to the orders of family, tribe, and nation. It is only when these institutions are transparent and let the divine planning that is operating in them shine through that they can bind us together. The very semantic meaning of the word religio in Latin is “to bind together.” So, despite Vico’s important principle that things are true and perceptible only for those who cause them, humanity is never for him the wholly autonomous lord of the history that it creates. His concept of providence give things a different aspect: humanity meets itself in history because it is built into it as the agent of providence and therefore it can perceive the earlier self-manifestation of providence.

Vico’s most important hermeneutical insight is that human beings cannot be explained objectively, they can only be “understood.” The element of freedom in human nature resists the reduction to object of observation. Indeed, understanding is radically different from explaining. I can only understand and empathize with the personal life of another only because I have the same personal structure of being. Since I have a responsible relation to the meaning of my existence (i.e., to its logos), I am able to understand others in a similar relation. I can be affected by the boredom and emptiness, the failure or success of others and can understand that other beings are also called, like myself, to grasp their own destiny (in theological language, their salvation) with the same fear and risk of failure, the same hope of success.

This solidarity is underpinned by the same life-agenda, the same human journey from cradle to tomb. The journey into the self is a universal journey as Dante too well understood. Moreover, the ability to understand rests on a relationship or analogy between those who understand and those who are understood. In more literary terms, this idea of congeniality is the psychological superstructure of the basic Vichian literary, anthropological insight that readers and/or commentators are in solidarity with an author. Simply put, this is the solidarity of a common humanity. Both reader and author are bearers of personal life and marked by the gift and fear of freedom.

The most basic Vichian principle that we can derive from this hermeneutics is that people, being intrinsically free, cannot be explained, they can only be understood. In turn this means that in practice I first need to understand myself if I am to understand others. How can I possibly speak seriously about the guilt of others if I loath to face my own? So the question becomes: how do I get to know myself? As per the above outlined Vichian hermeneutical principle, self-knowledge cannot be reached by mere self-analysis focusing obsessively and narcissistically on my self (as much self-help literature would suggest), rather I will begin to discover it in as much as I get to know the world in me and myself in the world.

Sadly, the me-generation of the seventies and eighties and beyond, so concerned with its “life-style,” has yet to discover that Christianity is psychologically much more sophisticated in its insistence that paradoxically one finds oneself when one loses oneself, and that narcissism inevitably leads to selfish egotism. Presently we have a president in America who exemplifies that kind of narcissism.

As I encounter others, they become mirrors for me in which I may more clearly see myself. Medieval and Renaissance Man had no problem understanding that we know ourselves only in humanity, and life teaches us what that is. Action is needed to affect the world and in turn let the world affect us. In other words, we can never know ourselves directly by contemplating our navel in a lotus position. The process of self-knowledge begins with a detour, via and encounter with history. The basic reason for this detour is that we are never “objects” of knowledge, not even of self-knowledge.

Only free beings can understand other free beings. We understand ourselves only in as much as we attempt to understand others. Which is to say, the world is a macrocosmic reflection of me and I am a microcosmic reflection of the world; the inner and the outer are analogous. I receive self-awareness by encounter with the world. This is particularly true of the world of history which as the human sphere is my direct analogue. Even more simply expressed, my life-history reflects the history of human-kind. Only thus can the Bible or others’ autobiographies have anything to say to me personally. Vico for one wrote his autobiography with such an hermeneutical principle in mind.

It should be stressed here that this Vichian understanding of one’s humanity as grounded in historical reality is very important in the writing of a human history, i.e., in the writing of what Man has achieved in the world, be it the history of science, or of art, or of law, or government, or of any other cultural artifact. In other words, when an author writes such a history he has to keep in mind that in relation to history Man cannot document himself as a mere object. As an historical being I am constantly included in my understanding of history.

We experience ourselves only by the detour of encounter with history, but the opposite is also true: we experience history only by the detour of self-understanding. That is the Vichian hermeneutical circle. As Vico himself aptly puts it: while it is true that Man makes history, it is also true that history makes Man. The way I see myself is influenced by the course of history. Such a course may produce a Hegel with the vision of Man as a spiritual being, or a Marx with the vision of Man as constituted by economics but marching toward some ultimate purpose, be it only social justice. These pre-judgments are practically inevitable for they are directed by Man’s understanding of himself.

The understanding of history can never be “presuppositionless.” When the historian claims that he has broken free from the presuppositions of his self-awareness, he is no longer viewing human history but a degenerated form of pseudo-nature. Only as a bearer of freedom can the historian understand history as the sphere of freedom. But that freedom ought not be understood as an abstract kind of “choice.”

“Pro choice” by itself is a meaningless statement, for choice always implies commitment to something. Choice without responsibility and commitment transforms freedom into license. Confusion about this important distinction abounds in so called free democratic societies, but calling ourselves free ought to mean an ability to pursue a goal, to actualize ourselves by grasping our destiny as humans, for in the final analysis, what we know or don’t know of our nature and the goals of such a nature inevitably affects the way we view and interpret other people and even history as a whole.

As an historical being the author of a human history has to bring himself to the understanding of history. Many scientists find this kind of Vichian hermeneutics uncongenial. They shun it since their pride and joy is Cartesian rationalism in tandem with a condescending attitude toward what is alleged to be a “retrograde and primitive” mytho-poetic mentality steeped in magic (usually understood as mere superstition) and religion. They have no use for authors such as Nikolai Berdyaev who always keep in mind the non-objectifiable element of freedom in history and present myth as a deeper reconstruction of life; for indeed myth grasps a dimension of human life that is simply inaccessible to an objective scientific study.

An exclusively objective kind of history is inconceivable, for there will always be a need for mystification, a longing for worlds beyond that secretively direct things. That longing derives from the fact that the subjects are included in the history they seek to know and, unless they are mere robots with no feelings and emotions, they are bound to feel and disclose the historical in themselves. Berdyaev for one points out that penetrating the depths of the ages means to penetrate the depths of the self.

As Vico has well taught us, history presents itself from within by recollection of the origin, goal and meaning of our existence. He was the very first philosopher in the West to understand, way ahead of Cassirer, that myth forms an element in all historical interpretation, and that it a nefarious intellectual habit to pose the dichotomy of poetic myth and “objective” history.

It is that false dichotomy that renders many modern history textbooks distasteful to most young students. They have intuited that those texts which present themselves as “scientific” fail to grasp the understanding subjects share non-objectively in historical understanding; that the author and the students of history too are integral part of history; that behind the illusion of complete unbiased documentation and geo-political analysis, there is a human being who is also concerned at some level with actualizing meaning of some kind. The mere writing of a history text points to it. And meaning relates to the totality of being.

Indeed, in all historical understanding of details a preliminary attempt is made to grasp the whole of history and its meaning. Willy nilly, these subjects who choose what they deem important out of the millennial vortex of history, are involved in an “act of faith” which cannot be objectively explained as is the case in science. These geo-political analysts delude themselves that it is all scientific and objective. But there is a bottom rock “act of faith” even on the part of science.

From the above we can confidently assert that since Vico’s speculation on history the investigation of human existence and its history in the sense of objective science is no longer feasible and that moreover human existence as a whole is subject to the Vichian hermeneutical law of understanding.

In other words, from Vico on human existence has to be disclosed by way of understanding rather than by way of explanation. It is here that historicism touches the circle of science. Science, on the other hand, in touching the circle of history has to grasp that we can understand humanity and its history only in a venture. Individually, this courage for venturing on a journey of self-knowledge and actualization of meaning can be drawn from the basic realization that the secret of humanity is also our own secret.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Women’s Plight During Natural Calamities: A Case Study of Recent Floods in Pakistan

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Starting mid-June 2022, flooding and landslides caused by heavy monsoon rainfall have brought widespread destruction across Pakistan. © WFP/Saiyna Bashir

Recently, at the United Nations general assembly, the Prime minister of Pakistan’s speech started with the challenge of climate change, which is bringing havoc into the country through floods. This shows Pakistan’s serious concern about drastic climate change in the world which is impacting Pakistan. It is estimated that around 1/3 of Pakistan is under water, which has affected 33 million people. Above 1500 deaths are recorded. The infrastructure of about $10 billion has been destroyed. The PM Shehbaz Sharif in the UN specifically highlighted women’s plight and mentioned children’s deaths. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is the eighth most affected country by climate change. While, Pakistan has less than 1% share in global greenhouse gas emissions, it is more on the receiving end of the devastation of climate change. After a decade, Pakistan is standing in the position it has witnessed in 2010 but, more horrific.

Natural calamities like floods not only bring devastation with them, rather they also bring other illnesses such as waterborne diseases. It also brings more hardships for women and children. There is a general understanding that natural calamities do not make any difference in gender. It impacts all members of society equally. The United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Asaka Okai, said that whenever a disaster strikes, women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men. Women are experiencing more impact from the devastation caused by the flood. Women are victims because, during floods, natural cycles don’t stop, which occur in the body of a female, such as menstruation, and pregnancy. Similarly, women are the target of harassment, rape, insecurity, and diseases.

According to statistics, about 650,000 women are pregnant and 73,000 are about to give birth. In Pakistan, most women give birth to their children in homes, but due to flooding, their houses are destroyed. They are not left in safe shelters. Due to floods, they are shifted to camps where all family members live together and the privacy of females has decreased. According to estimates, about 1000 health facilities are partially or fully destroyed in Sindh and 198 health facilities are destroyed in Balochistan, which also decreases access to health care. Destruction of infrastructures such as roads and bridges has increased difficulty in reaching clinics and hospitals. Women are not receiving proper medical facilities and care, which increases the mortality rate. Women go through natural cycles of menstruation for which they need sanitary materials. As per media reports, women living in flood-affected areas are using tree leaves. Living in a conservative society, it is considered taboo to talk about these things. When NGOs started to collect sanitary materials for women, they faced a lot of criticism from the conservative faction of society, saying that instead of collecting unnecessary things, they should gather food for them.

During this disaster, people become homeless, due to which they are shifted to camps where access to toilets and clean drinking water becomes difficult for women. This also increases the chances of getting diseases. Living in camps, women face security issues. Male members of their families go in search of food while women and children are alone in camps. Harassment cases are reported from these areas. Recently, a case of a teenage girl was reported in Shahdadpur. The victim was raped by two rickshaw drivers who are familiar with her. They told her that there is ration distribution for flood-hit areas. If she agrees to accompany them, then you can give her access to that.

In Pakistan, women are responsible for performing house chores. Due to flooding, there is standing water everywhere. Women have to move in those waters to perform their tasks. Stagnant water is the breeding place for water-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, and typhoid. In Sindh, the percentage of malnourished kids is 41.6% (National Nutrition survey of 2018). Malnourished women and children are more prone to these diseases. The National Disaster Management Authority has reported the deaths of 536 children and 308 women. Widows and orphans face food and security issues. In Sindh and Balochistan, it is not acceptable for a female to go out of the house. NGOs should keep this in mind while distributing rations to the public. These sufferings during disasters pose deep imprints on the psychosocial and mental health of females. Their suffering will not end here in the camps but, when they move to their homes, standing water from flooding is waiting for them. There will be no home to live in for them, which gives rise to the same issues they are facing in camps.

The media has always played a major role in highlighting issues that are of major concern. It should highlight the issues faced by women during this situation by sending female journalists who can cover flood-hit areas. So, they can bring these issues to the public to make people aware of the issues faced by women. This will help in sensitizing the public that the issues which are faced by females are a matter of serious concern and importance.  It will assist the government authorities to make policies that will also cater to the issues of Pakistan’s 48.5% population of females, which makes up a major chunk of the population. NGOs and government institutions that provide relief equipment to these areas should also keep in mind teenage girls and pregnant women. NGOs who distribute rations should make two counters so that widows and orphans can also get access to food easily without complication.  To control harassment and rape issues, law-enforcing institutions should deal with these criminals seriously so, no other person thinks about committing these types of offences. Nonetheless, it is yet to be witnessed whether the concerned authorities be able to cater to the plight of the women during catastrophic floods in Pakistan or whether the women will be left in despair and self-help.

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Anatomy of right-wing populism

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Twenty-five years ago, Fareed Zakaria introduced the concept of illiberal democracy: he revealed how some legitimately elected governments undermine liberal democratic principles by eroding the rule of law and the protection of fundamental freedoms. He predicted that this new form of regime would significantly damage the status of our democracies if not appropriately challenged. After almost two decades, the 2014 speech of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán marked the official birth of illiberal democracy in modern Europe, with a discourse that echoes the 1997 article. Except that it is the exact opposite of what Zakaria hoped to hear.

Orbán’s rhetoric and attitude are supported and endorsed by several populist leaders across Europe and beyond. What the Hungarian PM represents is the result of a long democratic recession that Larry Diamond estimated to start in the early 2000s in continents such as Asia and Africa. It appears that it is now the turn of Europe, as we can deduct from the rising popularity of multiple anti-establishment and nationalist parties across the continent. Despite populism not being exclusively a right-wing phenomenon, most of its support in the EU is represented by radical right parties that are often Eurosceptic.

This aspect is also confirmed by the outcome of the last European Parliament election in 2019. The results indicate a nationalist trend and a shift from the centre-right to the far-right within the populist vote: the relative populist electoral strength was highest in two European parliament groups, namely Identity and Democracy (ID) (including Salvini’s League and Le Pen’s National Rally) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) (including Brothers of Italy and Law and Justice in Poland), which are both very critical of the union and formed exclusively by right-wing (or even far-right in some cases) populist and nationalist parties. These two groups, albeit not achieving the brilliant results they were expecting, have won 135 seats in the European Parliament, and their main parties happened to be very strong nationally. Considering that the historic European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) have lost 65 seats combined from the previous election, it is not a bad outcome overall for right-wing populism.

In 2017, Bridgewater’s populism index in developed countries revealed that this phenomenon was at its highest rate since 1930s. In addition, the think tank Timbro estimated that more than a quarter of European electors vote for authoritarian populist parties, with Poland and Hungary among the four countries with most support. Political scientist Cas Mudde observed instead that the average support for these political forces is the highest since 1940s, with over 20% since 2010. Slightly different estimations are calculated but nevertheless this shows to what extent have these parties grown in recent years. One might consider these factors as alarming, since many scholars claim the expansion of populism and nationalism could eventually topple liberal democracies and favour authoritarian regimes, as already occurred in history.

What do we mean by right-wing populism?

First and foremost, before getting into the details of right-wing populism, an overall definition and brief explanation of populism must be provided. Mudde defines populism as an “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’”. Populists also believe that all members of the ‘pure’ group have the same aims and abide by the same principles, hence they do not accept a pluralist society consisting of diverse needs and concerns. Some of them also claim that this perceived faction of ‘the people’ comprises only of one ethnicity, class and religion.

Populist parties no longer seek out compromise and consensus through tolerant and democratic practices, but instead try to overthrow what they believe is a corrupt and broken system. In this way they undermine democratic institutions such as courtrooms and media, while attacking any aspect of society that opposes the common will of ‘the people’. They also refuse the search for a balance between the needs of the majority and the minority, as they claim that disregarding the interests of the majority is a violation of democracy, thus supporting “a form of democratic extremism or, better said, of illiberal democracy”.

Moreover, the cult of the leader is crucial in the populist world. This may sound obvious because a charismatic figure is always needed in politics in order to move masses and influence opinions, regardless of the political party. However, populist leaders declare they embody the will of the people and often appeal to the worst instincts of the population, manipulating fears and anxiety to increase their support. As politics is not only made of rational thinking, but also emotions and sentiments, they interpretate fear and desperation with (sometimes false) claims and simplistic solutions to contrast complex issues.

Populist groups are usually considered ‘catch-all’ movements, meaning that they follow the popular support rather than choosing a specific side. However, it could be discussed that this wide definition of populism is reductive. In fact, French economist Thomas Piketty deems it as a generalisation and refrains from using this word since there is a variety within that group: any party criticizing the current establishment is labelled as ‘populist’ without differentiating the diverse forms of this phenomenon. For instance, right-wing populists are usually hostile to immigration and minority rights, whereas left-wing populists are often culturally inclusive.

It could be further discussed that the argument about the people versus the elite tends to be overused as we have cases in which the political system is widely corrupt, and thus brings to legitimate concern and popular discontent to demand for more transparency and equality, such as in Greece, Spain and Italy. The movements that have emerged in these countries (Syriza, Podemos and 5 Star Movement respectively) showed a different approach to politics in comparison to prominent right-wing populist parties, as they have not undermined or taken over democratic institutions when elected to govern their respective countries.

Nonetheless, the majority of European populist parties have right-wing tendencies. This type of nationalist populism (also defined as ‘national populism’ by British academics Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin) is mainly based on xenophobic and protectionist sentiments, in addition to be against the neo-liberal establishment. Right-wing populist parties tend to regard nationality as a rigid and unmodifiable homogenous identity (mistakenly connected only to ethnicity), and they are therefore against any form of pluralism, whether it is based on culture or sexual orientation. Although some national populists consider themselves patriots defending their sovereignty, it could be argued otherwise. Italian scholar Maurizio Viroli observes in his book that the terms ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ are often misused: while the former mostly reflects a protectionist and isolationist approach (rather than sovereignty), the latter is also based on the respect of other cultures.

Furthermore, most right-wing populist parties are willing to live in a democratic context, but they are against the liberal values of present-day democracies, such as media freedom and minority rights. As a matter of fact, they believe they represent the true nature of democracy, which focuses on the needs and interests of the majority that felt excluded and neglected by the ‘corrupt elite’ in recent years. Nevertheless, by emphasising the importance of the majority at all costs, they end up discriminating who is not part of ‘the people’, hence appearing to be a regressive and undemocratic response to a legitimate concern.

What are the causes of the global rise of populism?

Political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris suggest that the rise of populism is mainly due to economic inequality, which was partly caused by phenomena such as globalisation and austerity. The shift from the industrial age to what Piketty describes as a “globalised era of hypercapitalism and digital technology” has created high levels of inequity around the world. Piketty also argues that the concentration of wealth is disproportionate because the ratio of economic growth is lower than the so-called ‘return on invested capital’, hence much of the resources end up in the hands of a microscopic part of the population. Indeed, the latest Credit Suisse report indicates a great disparity in the world, with 1.1% of the population owning almost half of the global wealth (45.8%), and the bottom 55% of the population possessing only 1.3% of the total resources.

While globalisation had its own advantages (such as giving work to millions of people in emerging economies), it has also displaced many low skilled jobs and produced economic stagnation in developed countries. This has resulted in an ever-increasing wealth gap; this disparity, in turn, has created underserved communities who began to distrust the global system. Already twenty years ago economist Joseph Stiglitz (in his book Globalization and Its Discontents) warned us that rising inequality would pave the way for the rise of anti-establishment parties, such as nationalists and populists.

The 2008 financial crash further deepened the economic gap: the main consequences of the so-called ‘Great Recession’ have been high levels of unemployment, growing inequality and impoverishment of the working and lower middle classes. Moreover, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the austerity policies implemented by the European Union, including tax raises and spending cuts, exacerbated the situation. The austere measures were in fact not combined with effective social protection systems, hence degrading the conditions of workers as well. This circumstance thus led the EU into an identity crisis, which we are still experiencing today with the rise of several Eurosceptic parties. 

Some might discuss that this is connected to the decline of liberal democracy, as the European Union is mainly based on liberal values. Mudde observes that the crisis of democracy results from the failure of the liberal establishment in the political system, and not from several external challengers trying to undermine it. In fact, he also claims that “contemporary populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism”. The fact that the liberal system could be or become undemocratic is not unrealistic as it sounds, especially if we consider that in history liberalism was not always applied in democratic contexts, such as in many European countries in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The democratic crisis was also caused by the deterioration of traditional parties that lost touch with the lower middle and working classes, which have stopped trusting a system that has sold them false promises and has not met their needs. As a matter of fact, the level of trust towards parties across the EU has been in a declining trend in the last decade (just over 20% in 2019). This is also demonstrated by factors such as lower electoral turnout and decreasing participation in political activities, but also by the growing interest towards non-traditional parties. This aspect is critical because once you cease to identify in a political movement, you automatically find refuge in national identity, ideology or religion.

Furthermore, the advent of right-wing populism has cultural determinants as well: the 2015 migration crisis has indeed displaced millions of asylum seekers and economic migrants, many of which coming from Muslim countries. Their religion is a key aspect because right-wing populists have increasingly exhibited xenophobic attitudes towards Islam, which is seen as a civilisational threat, particularly after 9/11 and the rise of ISIS. Whereas there is no justification for such discriminatory behaviours, raising a question about EU’s handling of the migrant crisis may be a legitimate concern. According to Article 79 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the union “shall develop a common immigration policy aimed at ensuring, at all stages, the efficient management of migration flows”. It could be discussed whether some member states have not put enough effort and resources to cooperate and find a common solution, but it is also true that the EU could have anticipated the crisis by implementing appropriate immigration controls and reception systems. In fact, Mudde acknowledges that migration policies were often “undemocratic in spirit”, meaning that they were not the outcome of collective discussions and decisions taken together with the population. Hence, right-wing populist parties have exploited this crisis to criticize the EU with improbable scapegoats: for instance, describing migration from Africa and the Middle-East as an invasion or claiming that NGOs and liberal institutions are plotting for an ‘ethnic replacement’ of the European people.

Conclusion

As a result, right-wing populists (or at least most of them) reject liberal democratic values rather than democracy in its entirety: those values that are entrenched in the EU and other international institutions. However, the populist response does not seem to respect EU fundamental goals and values, nor basic democratic principles. The main issue is the approach used to criticize the liberal system. Populist movements tend to appeal to the fears and anxieties of the voters to attack the elites, which are perceived as always corrupt and distant from the population. This cannot be accepted as a fair argument, because, as we cannot generalise that all populists are fascists or xenophobic, then we cannot assert that the so-called elite is all corrupt either. As a result, neither the growing populist sentiment nor the liberal establishment are to be completely eradicated, but rather challenged and improved through collective discussions and decisions.

Moreover, the rise of right-wing populism is not the consequence of a single issue, but it is driven by a combination of mutually reinforcing economic and cultural aspects (from unemployment and wealth inequality to racism and xenophobia). These factors are the result of a series of events that affected our society in the last decades, such as globalisation, the Great Recession, the 2015 migrant crisis and the decline of traditional political parties. It would be thus too simple to only blame the vulnerabilities of the liberal establishment or the opportunism of populist leaders, as both approaches have had negative repercussions on the public.

On the one hand, populists have gained popularity due to genuine issues that liberal institutions have failed to deal with. On the other hand, they have also promoted ‘culturally exclusive’ behaviours (racism, xenophobia etc.) through demagogy and propaganda, often accompanied by the spread of disinformation. Nonetheless, the liberal system has perhaps not effectively dealt with crucial challenges and has showed weaknesses that exacerbated the socio-economic crisis we are witnessing, hence allowing right-wing populist parties to flourish. The more the people have felt left behind by the system, the more they have found refuge in national identity and intolerant ideologies. Therefore, the first step to take in order to explain and fight populism would be to bear responsibility for the inequal policies implemented through the years that have left many communities marginalised and prone to vote for anti-establishment parties. A card that does not seem to have been played well (or at all), since right-wing populist parties are increasingly on the rise in many countries around the world.

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New Social Compact

Education needs a transformation. The same holds true with how we monitor our commitments

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Image source: educationcannotwait.org

Education is the key to unlock our development challenges. Yet, millions of children and young people are left behind, unable to fulfil their potential and prepare themselves for the future. In many countries, the pandemic has struck off the modest gains of the past 20 years for the generation most affected by school closures, with long-term consequences. This week, the Transforming Education Summit  comes to an end. The world’s education leaders have gathered over the last few days in New York, invited by the UN Secretary-General as part of Our Common Agenda, to debate solutions to put education back on the right track. 

The Summit has come at a time when, according to UNESCO’s latest figures, there are an estimated 244 million children and young people across the world still deprived of any form of formal schooling. Over 600 million children and adolescents are either not completing basic education or do not acquire basic skills that would help them prepare for the future. With only seven years to go until the deadline to reach SDG 4, the global education goal, they are lacking the support to access a high-quality and fulfilling education. Compounding the problem is the fact that governments in the poorer countries appear to be cutting their education budgets

The Transforming Education Summit marks a key moment. But as leaders declare their determination to improve education in their countries, we must review how to translate these words into the concrete targets, so that these promises do not ring empty, and how to monitor progress towards them. While the Summit has debated solutions to make schools safe, healthy, connected and green, countries should express the level of their ambition through national targets for each of these commitments to spur action from now to 2030. 

The issues rising to the surface during the discussions and consultation around the summit are all critical. One in six children live in areas impacted by conflict that also destroys their education opportunities. Schools are being bombed and children and teachers are killed daily. Only last year, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on the protection of education in conflict zones. But more must be done to protect the education of affected children and young people. 

The compound effects of COVID-19, a war in Europe that disrupted grain production and exports, rising inflation and a looming economic recession, mean that the world is edging closer towards a food crisis. When schools closed their doors with little to no notice due to the pandemic, millions of students were cut off not only from their education, but also from one of their principal food sources. An estimated 39 billion school meals have been missed since April 2020. It is not only children’s physical development that was impacted. Without food, children simply do not have the energy to concentrate, and their education outcomes are therefore significantly worse. 

Another, equally significant impact of the pandemic was bringing learning from classroom to home. Laptops, computers, and iPads replaced pencils, erasers and pens as back-to-school essentials– for the lucky few: because this shift was reliant on all children having access to the technology required to learn from home. Unfortunately, with two-thirds of 3–17-year-olds unable to access the internet at home, this was far from the case. These children were left behind in systems whose efforts to catch up with the times simply failed them. As with many crises, this also predominantly affected children in disadvantaged homes and communities. The pandemic shed light on the foundations of education systems, which fuel exclusion and inequality. 

Finally, with almost two billion people affected by floods, droughts and storms every year, these devastatingly real consequences that climate change is unleashing on our planet are already being felt, though not equally by all. Climate change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in the Global South, whose education opportunities are also poorer, further compromising their ability to adapt. At the same time, education systems in the Global North and in countries contributing most to global warming are yet to demonstrate how their schools will serve their climate change mitigation efforts.

Agreeing to the actions is one step, monitoring them is crucial to provide accountability and drive ambition. UNESCO has started a process where each country sets their own realistic ‘benchmarks’ in the road to achieving SDG 4. About 90% of countries have heeded this call and established national targets which they reasonably believe can be reached by 2030, in the hopes that this will accelerate progress. We encourage countries to also set national targets for 2025 and 2030 against each of the global initiatives to be tabled at the Summit. These will represent the transformation countries want to see. 

The follow-up mechanism after the Summit, based on national target setting, will be critical to convert leaders’ statements into improved education results for children and youth, as this call for action implores countries to do. The solutions to be agreed at the Summit must be appropriately monitored if we are to come out of this global education emergency. 

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