An iconoclastic look at personality-based rule in democracies, II [the EU]

April 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

It is the good fortune of the European Union that Silvio Berlusconi is no longer Prime Minister of Italy at the time of this overview. No single leader of the past two decades on the continent can be considered a more suitable counterpart to Putin — Paolo Flores d’Arcais even calls Berlusconism “Putinism refitted for the West”. In the same article d’Arcais notes: “A democracy founded on the monopoly of career politicians has in fact transformed the public sphere into a private sphere, & political representation into a self-enclosed trade, in which the only measure of success is the personal profit that can be made from it. In this situation the relationship between representative & represented is reversed: the latter do not feel they are represented at all, but that they can choose only between more or less complete alienations of their will. It is not by chance that voter participation has fallen”. Unfortunately, this is a trend all over & not the peculiarity of a few isolated cases.

The grounds on which democracy is built are exactly the opposite of personality-based rule: it should be about giving voice to all of the people of a state & not about equating the state with a single voice. To a large extent, it is technology that has exhumed leadership out of abstraction: whereas the average person once could only relate to their leaders by the face on a coin, the printing press & news media made it possible for the personality or life of leaders to come to the fore. The twentieth century brought us television & the internet which inevitably furthers the processes of individualizing leadership. This is to say, technology enables the manufacture of a leader’s persona.

Probably, it is Merkelism that people will think of as most prominent in the EU today. Unlike Putin or Berlusconi, the populism surrounding German Chancellor Angela Merkel does not seem to be a self-garnered image. Re-election in September 2013 has gained the decade-long representation the title era of Merkelism, very often compared to the humorless premiership of Margaret Thatcher. To show their attachment, many have come to call her Mutti, the endearing form of “mother” in German. This month, there was even talk of the “Merkelization of female political dress” — presumably another of the negative influences of her leadership.

The era of Merkelism affects the EU almost as much as it does Germany; gone are the days of German reservation of utilizing their political power [especially evident in the Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble]. The EU remains, in many ways, an institution with unrealized democratic principles, but let us focus strictly on personality rule. Starting in 2013, the campaign for spitzenkandidaten, which effectively enabled voting for presidents of the European Commission for the first time, was “selling [the] proposition [as] strengthening European democracy by giving voters a choice on who would lead the EU’s executive body”. This shows that both the general public & governing bodies find a correlation between democracy & individual leadership. Politics has been irreparably individualized.

With the case of Hungary, we move away from managed democracies into the territory of illiberal democracy, as Viktor Orbán calls it in his now famous July 26, 2014 speech. In it, he openly renounces foreign influence in Hungary — especially financial influence — & the liberal dogma that has been the bedrock of Western European ideology. Orbánism is nothing new: shameless populism paired with increasingly authoritarian policy, now referred to as the next Western Putinism. & indeed, Orbán confirms Russia to be an influence on new national policy, along with Singapore, China, India, & Turkey. In the same speech he says “a trending topic in thinking is understanding systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies, & yet making nations successful”. The idea is to make an exportable package of a competitive nation-state that will replace the immoral & ineffective liberal democracies rife today.

A good comparative article argues that “Putin’s and Orbán’s approach is exactly the opposite of old-style ideologies that follow a blueprint which is contained — & accessible — in some manifesto or book of political philosophy[…] What matters, then, is not the articulation of principles, but successfully projecting the image of the populist leader who truly cares about the people, knows what is best (even if he cannot always reveal what he will do next), & will defend the nation against its innumerable enemies inside & outside.” So far, Orbánism hasn’t proven itself very exportable, nor even especially popular within the country — protests against Fidesz leadership are a relatively frequent occurrence, the most recent happening on March 15 [the anniversary of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution] due to a secretive nuclear deal with Russia — true to its illiberal promise, Fidesz has pronounced most of the details of this 12 billion Euro deal a state secret for the next thirty years. It cannot be said that an Orbán consensus exists at this point; nor can it be said that an appropriate opposition exists in Hungary today. It is a classic case of consolidated power.

In other EU states, the situation isn’t much more inspiring. Sarkozyism is taking promising steps for a return in 2017 — unless le Pen gets her way. Meanwhile, Cameronism is the only “ism” invented for an active EU politician to have it’s own Wikipedia page; David Cameron also attempts the rare trick of making “a consistent line of thought” by way of his Open Public Services White Paper. Bulgaria’s Boyko Borisov also deserves an honorable mention for already being deemed a “historical figure” in text books & for being a striker for FC Vitosha Bistritsa at the same time as Prime Minister. In Greece, at this point, it is Varoufakism that is more likely to dominate than any cult of Tsipras — as the world watches on, whether hopefully or sinically, Varoufakis has become a meme celebrity.


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