1989 Generation Initiative

The subtle difference between Democracy and Ochlocracy: Italian Populism, Media and the European Response

Written by Luca Lo Scavo

What is populism and does it affect the EU? Sloterdijk’s seminal article offers a very compelling analysis and a debatable conclusion. The German philosopher defines populism as an ‘aggressive form of simplification [that] withdraws from reality’, which leads to ‘incompetence in power’. UKIP provides a useful example of populist practices. After achieving its main electoral goal – getting the UK out of the EU – it withdrew from the responsibility of dealing with the consequences of that decision and left the country with empty expectations. He then concludes that the EU, as an elitist, undemocratic corporation is not affected by populism. He argues, in fact, that since the EU is not accountable to voters, it cannot be vulnerable to populist parties either.

In his analysis Sloterdijk shrewdly points out how the process of ‘aggressive simplification’ is linked to media representation. Far from unfair generalisations, social media has become a very powerful means of communication that has the potential to shape voters’ minds but also ‘poison public judgment’. It is indeed worth noting that the process of ‘aggressive simplification’ is the down side of a broader, twofold phenomenon. Here, the media, in particular social media, swings between two dangerous extremes. On one hand, social media is very democratic through the way is allows every citizen to actively contribute ideas, by uploading videos, photos and posts. The internet enabled people to comment and participate in live events. On the other hand, the extreme degree of accessibility to ideas, true or false, and the scale of diffusion has made social media virtually unaccountable. The internet in particular can be a very powerful tool employed to delegitimise people and parties without holding concrete evidence. If misused, social media can contribute to a dangerous simplification and false electoral promises.

2017 has already provided a good example of this dilemma in Italian politics. The 5-Star Movement (M5S) has in fact started a campaign against biased information in the media, which supposedly supports elitist groups in Italy and systematically attempts to delegitimise the M5S. In favour of freedom of speech and truth-telling, Grillo’s party proposed a ‘Popular Jury of Truth’ aimed at assessing news and reporting biased information. This is a useful example of a the issue at hand – information misrepresentation, and a misleading proposal fomented by demagogues.
The proposal of the M5S is also emblematic for the dangerous shift from democracy to ochlocracy. The Greek historian Polybius coined ochlocracy to define a degenerated form of democracy based on a chaotic multitude misled by demagogues, who are self-interested and narrow-minded. Both democracy and ochlocracy offer indeed people’s representation but with noteworthy differences. In ancient Greek, in fact, the term for people is either demos (in democracy) or ochlos (in ochlocracy). Demos is an organised ethnic community with hierarchical structure and from a specific geographical location. On the contrary, ochlos is a pejorative term, that defines a chaotic multitude that has no internal consistency and is subject to demagogues’ self-interests. Polybius was particularly concerned with the loss of liberty that demagogues impose over people. They easily corrupt citizens with easy promises and immediate benefits that have no long-term vision and are only aimed at demagogues’ personal advantage.

What does this tell us then? I argue that a lot can indeed be learned from Polybius’ argument and the key to understanding it is ‘responsible representation’. It is time for populist parties to take responsibility for what they say and what they do. The European Union plays indeed a crucial role in this. As pointed out by Sloterdijk, the EU superficially does not suffer from populism because it is very undemocratic. Let us people have a say in European politics through institutionalised and formal institutions. People are angry and vote populist parties because they feel unheard and populist parties promise the impossible because they do not have to take decisions. Let us allow the populist MEPs work with other MEPs to address people’s concerns in an institutionalised framework that allows responsible representation.

European institutions should be reformed to accommodate and address people’s concerns and represent them. European Democracy is not direct democracy, where passengers can take control of the airplane and fly it. European democracy is – should be – a responsible indirect democracy where people’s interests are truly mediated and represented. A major change in European institutions is then needed, but it is not the only one. We have to change too. We have to be careful in using social media and responsible with the information we share and disperse. Europe can only survive and flower with active, responsible citizenship.


Image: http://www.newyorker.com/cartoons/a20630

Peter Solterdijk (15.7.2016)

What type of Europe? The case for a more responsible representation. Seminal Articles: Rosa Brunello (June, 2016), Ulrike Guerot (June, 2016)

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