Populism, Democracy, and Neofascism: Two Essays

LARB presents two recent essays by Jean-Luc Nancy, translated from the French by Sarah Clift.


Populism and Democracy

POPULISM AND DEMOCRACY are an odd couple. The first, populism, rejects the pejorative connotation that its name represents for the second, democracy, which it in turn criticizes for being hypocritical. The second declares itself the sole form of legitimate existence. Both of them claim to be supremely popular. Their virulent opposition in the current discourse is matched only by the indecision that hangs over their respective meanings. What “people” are they talking about, both together and separately?

The Latin populus and the Greek demos, which, despite important differences, are sometimes translated one for the other, have one thing in common: both involve the assembly of those belonging to an organized collectivity as a public reality (res publica — this word is related to populus). Considered as a totality, the people is identical to the public thing, itself identified as city, nation, homeland, state, or, precisely, “Republic.” The word people functions, then, like a sort of tautology of belonging or affiliation. Considered from within the republic, the people is distinct both from instances of public authority (consider the famous formula senatus populusque romanus) and from the populist fringe whose membership always remains doubtful: the “masses,” or “plebes” (another word from the same family). Between internal distinctions and external identity, attractions and repulsions are constantly being played out.

In fact, to put it succinctly, identity is de jure: it is not simply given, but must be conceived and instituted, while distinctions are de facto: the so-called social contract does not function without the need for governance or without the pressures of refusal or opposition. Assenting to the public institution cannot happen without the dissent of the passions (whether they be those of interest, inclination, or impulse).

That is why it is not a contract, but rather a difficult contraction in the process of childbirth: in short, the people must be produced as a public or communal (communism) thing, even though an untameable anarchy presses from within. It is the same difficulty, on both sides, of establishing an identity, because at stake in both is the same deep legitimacy that does not want, and nor should it be allowed, to return to the identical.

This is all well known. It eats away at all thinking about society and politics as soon as they are not representations of an entirely given or identified order — theocratic, autocratic, indeed, if we can say “ontocratic” or nomocratic (patriotism, nationalism, autonomism). Or rather, such representations are called upon and valued when dissent crosses into assent in a harrowing way. This happens when resentment arises: the failure of democracy brings discontent, bitterness, and revolt to the people who no longer recognize themselves as a people. Henceforth, “populism” means “democracy that avenges its own failure.”

For the failure is undeniable. But the mistake is to believe that it is the failure of a democracy that has already existed. In actual fact, it has only been the name and idea of democracy, accompanying a huge transformation in the living conditions of the entire (and increasing) human population. This transformation is called “technical” and includes both financial and legal techniques as well as mechanical, biological, and computer technologies. Today, we have already reached a genuinely explosive (or implosive) state of this transformation on every level: economy (exponential increases in both wealth and poverty), ecology (depleted natural resources), education (nothing more to teach but techniques).

It is therefore entirely futile to seek to replace a people without an identity with one falsely identified as the avenger or the savior of its own identity. It is futile to combat resentment with dissent and think we have found assent. Indeed, ours is a much more demanding task: to remake “people,” to repopulate in every imaginable way.

Originally published in Libération on November 4, 2018



What is “neofascism,” and should we be using this term?

The “neos,” like the “posts” or the “paras,” are often signs of an inadequacy. We make these words up to avoid the work of reflection. “Neo,” but in what sense? Is it just the conditions that have changed? That’s always possible, but does it really get us to the heart of the matter? If it is truly different, in what sense, then, is it “neo”? And if it isn’t really all that different, in what sense, again, is it “neo”?

If we closely associate the idea of fascism with its most forbidding historical reference, Nazism, it is clear that there is no equivalent anywhere in our own day to the ideology or myth of the Aryan race. If, on the contrary, we are referring to the origin of the term in the “fasci italiani di combattimento” movement of 1919, the specific context of Italy during that period, and in particular its socialist and futurist components, are wanting. Between these two references alone, there are already plenty of differentiations to be made.

It becomes even more complicated if we want to examine all that could be characterized as “neofascism” since 1945. Differential analyses are doubtless necessary and can compromise nothing in the way of subtlety or discernment. Just as Boulanger was not Mussolini, nor Mussolini Hitler, nor Franco, nor Salazar, nor Pétain, nor Doriot, nor Mosley, et cetera — likewise, Poujade was not Le Pen, who was not his daughter, et cetera … to say nothing of so many others. But it is no less necessary to refrain from classifying everything that we describe as “fascism” as identical, either because we are wrong or else because there is a genuine identity that we lose sight of, an identity not of essence but of nature — if we can risk making such a distinction.

The nature of fascism can be characterized as the inverse of democracy. On both sides, it is a matter of the power of the people. But whereas in democracy the people itself is postulated, in fascism it is incarnated. I mean “postulated” here in a Kantian sense: a reality of the people must be thought, or represented, in order to serve as a rule in the conception of politics. And I mean “incarnated” in a phantasmatic way since neither an individual nor any other alleged entity (race or nation, for instance) would be able to incorporate a people.

In this sense, fascism is premised upon a rejection of the democratic postulate: it rejects democracy’s will to regulate itself in accordance with an idea of the people that itself responds to the visionary or ideal character of this idea and, in its place, substitutes its own decision to affirm the tangible reality of the people.

It is clear that the democratic postulate involves a fragility that is constitutive: in one sense, democracy itself declares that, in order to have a functional democracy, what it names is not, and must not, be made present. Conversely, fascism involves a force that is constitutive: it affirms itself as the only real, almost immediate, expression (be it in the immediacy of a figure or symbol).

Democracy nourishes a fundamental need of institutions, laws, and rules. On one side, the complexity of institutions and rules increases the fragility of democracy. So when the concrete material and spiritual situation of a country seems to expose that fragility as a serious or even pathological weakness (regardless of the actual causes), we can see how it is that the fascist reaction arises.

But that does not mean that fascism arises, always and everywhere, under the completed figure of an armed hero or even of a catchy slogan. In fact, there is something old-fashioned about what such images evoke today. Contemporary sensibilities are more focused on a cinema verité or reality TV depiction of the “common people” or the “middle class.” There are many reasons for this, which I will not analyze here, but all of them have to do with a kind of general de-symbolisation that goes hand-in-hand with the general technological and cultural connectivity of society.

But the fascist motivation remains the same even if it is no longer necessary to show the fasces of the lictor, the memory of which has, in any case, been lost. The meaning indeed remains the same: the lictor accompanies the high-ranking magistrate whose orders he is ready to execute. A power of execution without delay combined with the prestige of an immediately perceptible authority, this conjunction of material and impassioned forces seems to guarantee total compensation — active, recognizable, and participatory — for what democracy no longer seems capable of ensuring.

We must only add the following: on both sides, those of democracy and fascism, the powers of techno-economic domination are very much at ease. In democracy, they can rely on the weakness and complexity of institutions and rules; as regards fascism, they have no difficulties tying their own aims to it. But when the material situation darkens, the first becomes prey for the second, because the people rejects its postulation to demand the immediate satisfaction of its needs and its phantasms.

In the long run, the people also ends up suffering from what fascism imposes on it. But that takes time … and it also depends upon whether the people is capable of entering into the exercise of the postulation such as I have characterized it here. This exercise is difficult and calls for a certain kind of virtue to resist the appeal of idols. This virtue is what we must try to cultivate in democracy.

Translated by Sarah Clift


Jean-Luc Nancy, born in 1940, is a French philosopher and the Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Chair and a professor of philosophy at The European Graduate School.