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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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4. Populism: From the Origins to Post-modern Times


4.1. Russian Populism

Historical populism was not born in Western Europe but in nineteenth-century Russia, thanks to small groups of young students and intellectuals. The word itself takes its origin from the Russian narodničestvo which, in, derives from narod, people. From this the term narodnik, “populist” (Bongiovanni, 1996, p. 703).

With the ascent to the throne, during the middle of the nineteenth century, of Alexander II, rumours went around that the land would be distributed among the serfs who believed that they might become free farmers at last. In their thousands they flocked to the cities looking for confirmation of the news. Revolts and disorder followed because very few knew how to interpret the Tsar’s proclamations: illiteracy was rife. The serfs refused to work the land of the nobles. The strikes escalated into clear, violent refusal (Venturi, 1972, p. 25). The student movement, which provided populism with its first substantial support, came out in favour of the serfs. The students, taking advantage of this air of revolt coming from the country, claimed more open access to the universities, hitherto limited almost exclusively to those destined to become state officials. Everyone else, peasants, bourgeois, soldiers, merchants, were excluded (op. cit., p. 32). Moscow and Saint Petersburg were the main centres of the revolt. The government made some concessions but the upheavals and revolts spread to the countryside too with the support of the students’ avant-garde movements and a handful of professors.


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