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A Morbid Democracy

Old and New Populisms


Monica Simeoni

The crisis of democracy in Europe and the inability of the political parties and élites to adequately meet the challenges of globalisation exposes the increasingly fragmented middle classes to the temptations of Euroscepticism, and, in some cases, xenophobia. This appears to be a portrait of contemporary reality, but the current crisis has deep roots. The Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset described the pathologies of the mass man and of the nascent democratic system as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century, in a significant text entitled Una democracia morbosa, which appears to foreshadow the present state of affairs. The crisis of the average man, the degradation and devaluation of culture appear to be the distinctive traits of the new, post-ideological democracy of our times, known as «audience democracy». The political parties, faced with this profound crisis, in some cases seek dangerous shortcuts through demagogic and rhetorical use of the term «people», while the charismatic figure of the leader gains in prestige as a reference model. Resentment, caused by lack of representation of the just demands of the citizens, can turn to anger and destabilise the institutions of democracy. There is therefore an urgent need for an inclusive Europe with a renewed welfare system, based around the citizenry and not the masses.
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2. The Hetero-direction of Crowds


2.1. Gustave Le Bon: The Psychology of Crowds

The observations and studies of the controversial but important French scholar, Gustave Le Bon, provide suggestions concerning the psychological and emotional consequences of crowds. In one of his most important works he offers us a number of in-depth considerations, different from those of Ortega and set in a different context, which can help us to understand the importance of the phenomenon (Le Bon, 2004). Le Bon lived at the end of the nineteenth century, in France, in a period that influenced not only positivist sociology but also the other social sciences.

A military doctor and anthropologist, like Lombroso, Le Bon shared the positivist theories typical of those times whereby human behaviour was determined by social context. Inheritance, even in its criminal aspects, became an expression and the basis of a lifestyle inspired by Spencer’s evolutionism and reflected concretely in the psychological, medical, psychoanalytic populist Paris of the 1870s (Van Ginneke, 1991, p. 121). Post-revolutionary France which had consecrated the crowds as new social protagonists of history had, however, also divided scholars.

In particular, the riots, revolts and revolutions that made the history of those years and created France a country and a democracy quite unlike the other European nations of the time, were examined. In 1884, universal male suffrage was introduced and relationships between the elites and masses became an important element for political scientists to analyse (op. cit., p. 135). Paris was a...

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