L'italia al tempo dei populismi by Carmelo Conte differs from other publications on the theme of the political-social-cultural phenomenon of "populism", as it is a work that combines balance, lucidity and breadth of vision. It is not only an essay for experts or "insiders" but a narration that can be shared and participated by the general public. At the same time, it gives us a wealth of data, analysis, information and interpretative reconstructions that are more precious and useful than ever, in order to try and understand the processes in progress and the decisive themes for our future. A hermeneutical profile that crosses different dimensions and logics: from the linguistic and massive criteria to the more specific aspects of political culture, from party dynamics to the historical, distant and more recent origins of these trends, to the outlining of development models for the future.
A precious book, therefore, also in a dialectical sense, as it enriches and provokes a public debate that should not be missing in a historical phase of great decisions and transformations. Without discussion and debate, democracy suffers and is emptied of substance. This urgency challenges everyone, beyond personal opinions and electoral propensities, all the more so in a historical period in which the "time of the web" seems to flatten and dis-embody every perception in a mass of flimsy dust of chatter, likes, inconclusive emotions and chameleon-like opinions.
The clarity and precision of Carmelo Conte's beliefs and reasoning, and his ability to always offer coherent motivations and reasons to the theses and analyses proposed, involves and empowers those lucky enough to read it. However, to better understand this vision it is necessary to dialogue with its creator directly.
I think your book is very interesting, from different points of view, and also extremely educational and formative as it takes a historical perspective from 1989 to today (and towards the future), as well as a vision which is both Italian, European and international dealing with the delicate topic of Italy and populism(s)?
As far as the possible future is concerned, I find Jacque Attali's thesis convincing, according to him three powers have coexisted in history and still do, albeit in different forms: the religious one, which fixes the time of prayer and determines the access to a future life; the military one (the State), which organizes defences and conquests; the mercantile one, which produces and markets the fruits of labour. Each of these powers administers man's time but, as history teaches, when one of them prevails over the other two, social and institutional jolts might take place: rebellions, dictatorships, coups d'état. In our time the market dominates, not having been tempered and politically governed, has - on the one hand - determined progress and innovation and, on the other, malaise and social involutions, of which populism is an inrolled expression. In Italy it has assumed atypical and more worrying characteristics because it is marked by anti-Europeanism. From here we must start to take the countermeasures that must be political, first of all, rather than economical.
Do you not think that this term is not easy to use because it seems to present risks of ambiguity and polysemanticism? In your book you propose many interesting definitions (which are also cultural) of this concept. Inspired by you, I would also add one: "process of symbolic-mediatic self-identification of a part with the whole nation-society". Do you like it? Can it be corrected?
Yes, populism is an ambiguous phenomenon, not definable once and for all. It expresses the negation of the democratic system and is an essential component of the authoritarian regimes, because, as Hegel claims: people are nothing without a leader. It denies "me" in the name of "us", except depriving people of their intersubjectivity in order to give its representation to a leader (Salvini) or to an algorithm (the Rousseau platform). The term has distant historical origins and has taken on, time after time, different meanings: in ancient Athens and Rome, in dictatorships such as the Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Stalinist Russia and in evolved democracies such as the USA and the EU. It demands, everywhere to make the people (all the people) its own pole. In many ways the one in action has international characteristics and resembles the distant past, especially the '68 riots. As that was worldly and liberating, so much this is worldly and reactionary, with Trump as an exemplary interpreter who, not by chance, many people call the first white president of the United States.
I also appreciated the space you reserved for the decisive importance of communication and mass languages in political and economic societies. You speak of the risk of facts being replaced by images.
The simplification of communication is connected to the speed impressed by modernity in deciding and choosing in real time. It is functional and it has to seem true and interesting, regardless of reality, a story for the masses, not of the masses, and to make a clash of ideas appear as if it is only a clash of more or less true stories. This way, without contextual repetitions, the protests made against the adversaries/enemies become facts. The prevalence of media over reality is particularly worrying in Italy, because it is predominant and hegemonic: the populist forces are both in the government and the opposition, in RAI and Mediaset and the Internet, with branches and influences from the democratic West, as well as the East.
The dangers that you analyse in depth are evident, but don't you think that such risks of propaganda simplification, weakness of programmes and political projects are partly endemic, physiological (unfortunately) within an increasingly global, fast, technological and digital mass society?
There is no doubt that the information system proceeds by archetypes (the word, the image, the communicator), and this allows it to use the same technological and communication means of the market or to obscure the contents and enhance the appearance. This would be the first task that should be carried out by politicians, seen as the art of governing, or rather elaborating and imposing rigorous and qualified projects. A capacity that has lost not only the responsibility of the ruling classes, but also of the citizens who, in the face of the party crisis, have protested to the wind, unconsciously giving free rein to the financial potentates. It was a serious mistake to confuse parties with party politics and their degeneration, starting at the dawn of the 1990s. It is necessary, then, to find new forms of organization of civil society, to profess a new belief concerning territories, needs and merits: not that of the anonymity of the crowd nor that of multinationals. The latter must be respected for the role they play in the economy and not lived as global mantras that type and store, at an instantaneous speed, social media as a product of low consumption. The direct knot is not, however, in the means used but in making residual the social fallout of globalization.
The current populisms seem to assume more specific connotations than in the recent past. I am thinking, on the one hand, of the ever-increasing weight of geopolitics and, on the other, of the unscrupulous use of the social media and the almost daily political commentary on news stories, which risk giving chaotic, dispersive and increasingly conflictual information.
Populism always takes different forms, according to the times and places in which it manifests itself. In this phase it refers to global trends that it challenges in principle, but suffers from (if it does not accept them) in point of fact. That is to say that instead of studying its scope, intercepting it and trying to rule it, it opposes it by raising the flag of the people, of the territory, of a language, of a belonging, putting us against them. Instrumentalizing Abraham Lincoln's motto "public sentiment is everything", transforms political debates into news, appeals, complaints, as well as claiming, conflictual or racist slogans. A drift in which three forms of populism are confused and contradict each other: the social one that supports the fair distribution of the results of progress; the identity one that poses the problem of borders, emigration and race; the sovereign force which postulates central authoritarianism.
How can the trend be reversed on a political planning level? Why do you consider Southern Italy as a strategic axis, also from a European perspective?
Modernity seems to credit the triumph of individualism and money over ideologies, culture, the environment and the real economy, which seems inexorable because it is opposed only by alliances of states, religions, territories, sovereignisms, which are worse than evil. To build a democracy "after a democracy", it would be necessary, instead, to shun populism by bringing out values of altruism and solidarity, that is, a new "infinite" of freedom. In this perspective, the role that the great continental powers can play is decisive, including Europe, which could play a historical role if, after the expansion towards the East, it were to be completed in the West, in the Mediterranean area, which is still a place of intersection of international development. A choice that would make the South of Italy central, which, instead of following the model of the North in the sign of the so-called "muddle", could act as a driving force for Italy in the new century.
Another fundamental scenario is identified by you and underlined several times in the major themes of research, education and public development investment.
Technology, once dominated by philosophy, has – today - a structural prominence and unimaginable possibilities for growth, such that can be applied not only to the production and communication systems, but also to knowledge itself: to make it a "single mind" beyond the human kind, in which all the scientific and governance possibilities of the world are pulsing and living. For this reason, it is on knowledge, understood as "a new god of the universe", that we must invest, unifying and at the same time diversifying studies, teaching, research and experimentation. From the first levels of learning to the extremes of human experimentation, where the node is the link between biological intelligence and artificial intelligence. Knowledge is an enterprise that produces knowledge and new life.
Your book also mentions international and European situations that are at the origin of a social, cultural and economic malaise and discomfort to which populism attempts to propose solutions. This seems to me to be a central and essential theme, which has been treated little or badly before. Can you summarize this important procedural and causal aspect?
Populisms are a disease of democracy, therefore not a solution but the problem itself, a degenerate derivation of globalization, or its poisonous fallout on the social side. They are not made up of dreamers and creators of egalitarian societies, but of bearers of social resentment, indifferent if not adverse to the structure of institutional power as much as helpful to world powers like Trump and Putin. They pretend to decline society, territories and institutions from the point of view of the people as a formless or global mass, while doing exactly the opposite. Globalization has to be faced and integrated from the local point of view giving rise to a synthesis: the so called glocal. This is because new technologies allow us to have space and time without the limits of the past.