a square in Brussels full of political messages written in chalk
By Bjorn Beheydt.

IETM - International network for contemporary performing arts presented the opening keynote speech Art in the Age of Populism by Eric Corijn from the IETM Brussels Plenary Meeting 2017 livestreaming on the global, commons-based peer produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv Thursday 23 November at 16:00 - 18:00 CET (Brussels, UTC +1) / 10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. EST (New York, UTC -5) / 3:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. GMT (London, UTC +0) / 17:00 - 19:00 EET (Bucharest, UTC +2) / 23:00 - 01:00 SGT (Singapore, UTC +8).

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IETM Brussels Plenary Meeting gathered 800 performing arts professionals from all over the world to discuss the role of art in the age of populism.

The opening keynote speaker Eric Corijn is a professor in Urban Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium.

“Populism” has become a container concept which needs clarification. But regardless of the shapes it takes, it comes down to a way of doing politics, pretending to express directly the voice of the people without mediation. Thus it is a symptom of the crisis of representative democracy, of the void between politics and the citizen. If we don’t want to give up on democracy by choosing for an authoritarian system, we have to search for new forms of democracy. That search, intertwined as it is with the question of representation, challenges the producers of art, culture and knowledge. What are the shortcomings of existing forms of representation? How can art and science contribute to participatory democracy? What are the mental maps for a world in transition? 

You can also view the video archive of the plenary Pluralist Populist Poetics that livestreamed on Friday 24 November at 10:00 - 10:45 CET (Brussels, UTC +1).

In the “age of populism”? Would that be our own phrasing? Would we spontaneously call it like that? Or is that giving in to the dominant framing of established politics and media? Populism as a proxy for demagogic postures, unrealistic proposals, manipulating public opinion, extremism… All bad things to be rejected. A top down framing to name all anti systemic resistances, all forms of opposition, and in the same move avoiding focusing on the ideological nucleus (racist, nationalist, fascist, socialist, …?). How then can we make sense of a notion that is used in so many occasions in so different ways and is not opening a political or societal debate? A container concept with hardly any common meaning. 

The critical comments directed towards “populism” is that it advocates the possibility of expressing the voice of the people, the will of the people, that it speaks for the unheard, against the “elites” and does so without the mechanisms of representative democracy. The main criticism is that it is an anti-democratic way to replace the existing parliamentary democracy as a way to constructing the expression of what is called “general interest”. That construction follows different steps: debate, grouping in political fractions, election in which individual voters compose (groups of) political representatives, then forming majorities, governments and decision making….. Populism as a shortcut for democracy and thus to be rejected.

True: populism pretends to speak in the name of the “people”, expressing what would be already a general opinion or feeling, something that is not represented in the existing order, something that is repressed, excluded, hidden. 

In that sense, I do share the criticism. “THE PEOPLE” do not exist as such, they are not a given, they are the product of a political process that exactly constructs the will of the people, builds it, makes it. “The people” does not have a voice. All those pretending speaking in the name of the people do speak in the name of their own image of the population, in most cases a very partial perspective, an ideological viewpoint of what the people should be…

Thus, from a theoretical or an analytical point of view, populism as a means of directly, without intermediaries, expressing the political will of the people is very doubtful and is in many cases related to a very authoritarian view of representation: the leader, the führer, the father of the nation, the charismatic chairperson, mythological, sometimes mystical expressions.  And yes, in that sense populism is generally not at the side of democracy.

That explains why the spread of the term is related to the rise of the extreme right. They combine a frustration with the existing order with a perspective of strong state, right wing policies and dominant leadership. We can say that most extremist movements have been mostly kept out of power. Luckily! But we also witness a growing tendency towards authoritarian forms of government and rightist ideas with elected leaders that also do refer directly to the people as opposed to their own institutions, constitution or constituancies. A form of “populism from above” ….  See Poetin, Trump, Erdogan, Duda and Szydlo in Poland, Orban in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, Netanyahu, and even Macron has some Jupiterian tendencies.

And so you see that “populism” has nothing to do with “popular”. Nor do populists mostly come from the most popular strata of society. On the contrary, most of them come themselves from elites, from rather wealthy or mighty groups and circles. Quiet another concept of “’people”, the concept of the magazines. So, the concept of “populism” is rather fuzzy and does not allow for clear-cut political analysis. As you can see: I am not a great fan. I rather like to think and analyse “anti-systemic movements”. But unfortunately, those who make mainstream discussions within the system happen to prefer “populism” as a negative label for those to be excluded from the system.

So, let us examine in some more debt the context, the societal changes that have affected the rise of populism as a form of criticism to the existing (democratic) order. Populism as a symptom of the crisis of representative democracy.

Maybe it is good to start with a reference to the DNA, to the original structuring of the modern democratic state. Let’s agree that this form is the product of the long and broad process of the Enlightenment as a philosophical process and then the industrial revolution as an epochal shift (as opposed to the tales of the ancient origins in Athens excluding slaves, woman and foreigners). Democracy is based on the idea that human reason and human action in mundane affaires should preside over religion and the representatives of God on earth.

Years of religious wars could not be stopped by installing monoreligious regimes, hence the challenge of thinking the possibility of living together without sharing religious belief. That is the origin of the idea of separating the state from religion, departing from one state religion to freedom of religion in a modern state. Or maintaining a state religion but enlarged with freedom of thought and eventually alternative religion. Such principles are surely not yet shared by a majority of the world population today.  Religious freedom ensured other basic conditions for democracy: freedom of thought, freedom of expression, open debate, etc.

Once you decide that power does not derive from God and is not naturally given to specific human beings belonging to nobility or clergy, once you leave these ideas of the Ancien Regime behind, then you have to start thinking what exactly is “the people” that legitimate power, what is its membership. The population is no longer “subjects of the king”, or of the emperor. The population becomes the source of legitimate power through forms of citizenship. But who then is a citizen?  Is it only the people paying taxes, the rich people? (“No taxation without representation” lays at the origin of the House of Commons). Is it only men or also woman? Is it only adult people and then from what age? Is it also people with illness, or imprisoned??? In short: it seems clear that not everybody becomes automatically a citizen with the attached political rights. There is thus an ongoing discussion on membership, on belonging or not. Not the whole population has ever been “the people” to be expressed as a collective political will.

And here I want already to point out two characteristics interesting for our debate on democracy: the divide between DEMOS and ETNOS and the national bias of the foundation of modern democracy.

Let’s take a look at the French Revolution as the most clear-cut expression of radical transition from Ancien regime to Modern State. There “the people” have been defined as: “partners in common law and common parliament”. Not subject of the king, no membership via status groups, no subjects but partners, equal participants. That is the republican approach building a “DEMOS” with a rather universalistic approach to what is humanity. The inspiration comes from the French “Lumières”, with its emphasis of universal values as The Good, The Beautiful or Truth and Freedom (see Voltaire). In the republic membership is only determined by accepting the values of the republic. The law is the law of the soil, “le droit du sol”. 

The romantic vision is opposing such a contractual vision. The nation cannot be the result of free choice, of free will, of a social contract.  Society exists before the individual. It has a history, an identity, a language, a collective soul, a Volksgeist (see Johann von Herder), a way of life, a… particular culture. The people are part of an “ETHNOS”. They are bound by kinds of original bonding, by blood ties, “le droit du sang”.

Universal republicanism versus particular nationalism. Every conception of democracy weavers between those poles and most real formats combine them.

That dilemma got its outcome in Europe, here 15 kms south of Brussels, at the battle of Waterloo. Napoleon, exporting the republican ideas with his destructive armies, was defeated by a coalition of the reactionary forces. The congress of Vienna organised the new Europe basically on the principle of nation states. Maybe not with a state religion, maybe with some freedoms, depending on the constitution, but always with a state culture: one people, one language, one culture, one history…. The modern democratic state got a national identity. Nationality is the basis of citizenship. And nationality has a cultural format. 

Historically, democracy is embedded in what we call a “multiple society paradigm”. If we ask you to what society you belong hardly anybody will answer: I am part of humanity or not even I am a European. Most people will indicate a country, as if that is the primal identification. And that identity remains with migrants, even coming from very different places and even after a number of generations. There is no model for a global democracy, nor for a continental one. Democracy is based on sovereignty of the people which is the people of a country narrated as a nation with a cultural identity. Here we see the central position given to –a certain form of – culture and the arts. Here we sense the importance of education and media. (Gramci called it the hegemonic structures and Altusser named them the “appareils idéologiques d’Etat, some still speak of “superstructures”)
A country is told to have a common history and that history produces a tradition, a national identity. And it is that common narrative that has to be represented both in politics and parliament and also in education, museums, collections and the arts. Here we see what “representation” really means, what building the “idea” of a nation means: it is about offering a collective mental map to “the people” of “a state”. Now we can understand how some populists can express “the people” without ever asking them, without membership or participation: they are speaking in the name of “the idea of the people, the nation, the historical political subject”. That is why populism is always related to some forms of essentialism… People are then always determined by something outside themselves: their religion, their nation, their culture, their gender, their class…. Individuals cannot extract themselves from these structuring essentials.  So: common history produces identity and tradition that can be collectively represented. And all that is territorially bounded, a country has clear-cut borders.  On this side the nation, across the border another. Within it is rather homogeneous, the difference is outside. And those bounded countries, after the second World War have gone through an economic boom and that could support a widening of democracy to social inclusion, the project of a social welfare state, … but for the members of the national community… And that explains also why most political parties and social movements have a national horizon. “Their people” are also mainly nationals. 

illustration of a business man crossing paths with a nun
But here we are. That is not the world we live in anymore. We are now in the era of globalisation. The world has become one …. One… big market. It apparently all started in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall, the implosion of the blocks and the integration with the market economy. The –so-called-  first, second and third worlds evaporated. Some – Fukuyama -  thought it was the End of History, the inclusion of the whole planet in one global liberal system. In fact, it all started earlier, with the election of Thatcher and Reagan in 1979 and 1980 and the shift away from welfare politics in favour of monetarism and austerity. Or even earlier in 1974, the big economic crisis, called the oil crisis, the first generalised recession in global economy. That marked the end of the (exceptional) Golden Sixties, of the “Trente Glorieuses”. We do not have the time to analyse this globalisation process in detail. But let me point out some essential features that will enlighten our discussion on the arts:

The globalisation process has been specifically instructed by neoliberal market policies based on liberalisation, flexibility of the labour market, privatisation and deregulation. It is a very particular form of globalisation. Economy and the market emancipated even further from state regulation. No individual country has been capable of maintaining the market within its borders and thus regulating it alongside their own national guidelines. Nearly all politics have been forced to submit to one social ideology. The market, economy and finance become global, but democracy, culture and representation remain national. Government shifted from regulating economy in function of social goals to regulating society in function of global competition. Parliaments submitted to governments. Governments submitted to new public management theories regulating national policies alongside expertise and not following political discussion. We have witnessed an overall decline of democratic control. Hence a rapid decline of political and societal debate. For some we live in “post-political” times. Anyway, there has been a decline in trust and recognition, a divide between government and “the people”,  a rapid decline in democratic belief and a growth of egocentric individualism.

Globalisation is also urbanisation. In the beginning of the 1900 10% lived in cities, now more than half and in the most developed continents up to 75%. Cities also grow bigger. In 1900 we had only 11 cities of one million, in 1960 a 166 and nowadays near to 600 and 15 of more than 20 million! In 2030 we forecast 750 cities of more than 1 million of which 150 in China. Cities contain also the new post-industrial economies. Cities are the nodal points of the new world system. That does not function integrating territories in one great planetary surface, but rather in networks. And alongside these networks people are migrating, fleeing from poverty, war or oppression, moving towards a better life. And they arrive in cities, adding to an already superdiverse local population. Yes, the world system is now structured differently than in the 19th century. Networks govern the space of flows, while democracy only deals with national territories.

And here we go again with our leitmotiv for years now: A city is not a country! Here in Brussels two thirds of the population does not have Belgo-belgian references. One third of the population does not have a Belgian ID-card and half of the “Belgians” have foreign roots. Here in Brussels we have more than 180 nationalities, multiple religions, many languages spoken, and above all with multiple forms of lifestyles and all forms of mixity … In the same period that Brussels became a small world city, our national state Belgium stopped to offer one integration model. The federal state was organised in three regions and in three communities of which two operate in this city! Brussels got two “national” integration models.

But, to imagine social cohesion, to imagine “the people” we cannot refer to a common history, to common roots. Urban citizens do not share the past. We all come from elsewhere. Cities are places of arrival! What we have to do is imagine a common future, a destiny, a project. And such an urban project has no clear-cut strong identity, let alone a tradition. The national repertoire does not help a lot, languages spoken do not necessarily refer to a same cultural reference. Urban images are hybrid, mixed, composed… So, we immediately understand that classical representative democracy is even more in crisis in cities. To be “represented” cities do need more consultancy, more participation, more coproduction, need participatory democracy. And as said in cities “networks” are more important than “territories”. So: for an urban integration model, it does not suffice to tell people that they are in “the local” of the state. The urban is not the national.

And I’ll say even more! The old world, the industrial twentiest century has delivered us three planetary manmade challenges. If we do not take them on they will destroy our system, will get over tipping points of no return and leave us with an irreversible new situation. We know them:

  • Our relationship with nature is perverse. We have exploited nature as a resource without considering its sustainability. Our ecological footprints are way too high! We need a number of planets to sustain our way of life. We are destroying resources and species. The most urgent and most visible challenge is of course climate change. Notwithstanding different international treaties and many declarations, the emissions are today way higher that twenty years ago! And that is because governments do not want to do what is necessary if it is not compatible with existing economic priorities. An then we have not spoken yet about reducing our ecological footprint, caring for biodiversity, developing healthy food production etc.
  • Global social inequality is a scandal. While less than ten procent of the world population owns more than 80% of the wealth, 70% of humanity has to survive on 3%. What is this for a world where 8 people own as much as half of the world population? This is of course immoral. But it is also economically very risky. Too much private money in a financialised economy leads to credit and debts that will never be totally reimbursed unless you maintain harsh austerity and dedicate all growth to paying back debts and. We do live on a financial volcano even more dangerous than global warming.
  • And then there is migration, super-diversity and cultural mixity instructing the agenda of identity politics. In our diverse world the national concept of society maintains commonness and identity as the basis for social bond. Ethnos still dominates over Demos.  But in this urbanised world we have to learn to live together in diversity, on the basis of difference. We can, no longer maintain our model of building societies on the integration in one established national community. Communities do not deliver society. Cities have multiple communities to be integrated in one society

And see: nation states and international agreements do not deal sufficiently with these challenges! But in cities they all three come together and create a sense of urgency. Today, in this world, with these governance systems, cities are not sustainable. If we want to save urban life, if we want to make cities liveable, if we want to avoid big clashes, we need to solve very concrete questions: regulating land use, water management, food production, air quality, traffic congestion, housing, population densities… you name it. Most of our cities are coastal cities, and if we don’t do anything to climate change - and we don’t do anything seriously -, then we will have sea level rise and millions of people will be on the move … If we want to keep our cities together we have to deal with our social geography based on social inequalities, and care for our poor and excluded inhabitants… With the increase of structural unemployment and poverty our redistribution mechanisms will not suffice, especially when our rich people refuse to pay their taxes and try everything to avoid them. And so we see in cities the emergence of new forms of solidarity in the commons, in shared economies, in new forms of exchange and reciprocity. And these commons do not like privatisation. Basic resources, like water, seeds or knowledge cannot longer be privatised, they have to remain public goods! They are part of basic human needs that cannot be commodified, have to be kept frtom private and market interests.  And,  in cities,  we have to reset the place of culture in a superdiverse context. Education, media, arts, community centres… they all need to be reset and thus rethought. The old regime is dying, the new society has still to be put in place. Global planetary challenges are urban urgencies.

car parked in front of a large mural
Photo by Eric Corijn. Can the city save the world?

What to do? How to (re)imagine a society? How to deliver an inclusive image and project? How to reinvent democracy? Everybody seems to accept now the diagnosis that existing models are not inclusive and based on inappropriate dominance and exploitation. Our globalised economy does simply not need all the people and thus economic actors want to exclude, expel and even eliminate! That is why there is an ever-renewed debate on who is member and who is not, on who can take part and who will not. We hardly hear positions that everybody needs to be included, there are no models anymore for full employment, universal human rights are contested.
The still hegemonic neoliberal answer is entrepreneurial. All those who actively contribute and can sustain themselves can stay and we will give them rights of access. They say that overall society cannot sustain welfare without contribution, no rights without plights. Hence we have to accept exclusion. Societies cannot include everybody is the position. Economic utility is the standard, all social rights become conditional. All social standards are at risk to be brought back to the 19th century.
As opposed to that you get the essentialist arguments in favour of natural rights, of organic membership, of the peopled as an ethnos. Here we enter the populist era! That is what neoliberal globalists reject as being populist, because anti-systemic. When you start from the idea that not all inhabitants, all humans can be “in” you have to determine criteria. That is why new nationalism, or islamophobia, or racism or sexism, and other forms of extreme right “populisms” try to restrict the definition of people and to legitimate exclusion and expulsion. That is also why new forms of authoritarian leadership and a return to protective states all want to define reasons for exclusion.
Overall this era is characterised by a struggle between “a certain idea of the people” and the globalised elites. Two ways of legitimising exclusion. Where have the inclusive voices and models gone?

Inclusive democracy is under treat. The late Benjamin Barber defined globalisation as “Jihad versus Mac World”, two sides of the same coin, the struggle between fundamentalisms and neoliberalism. But: both are not interested in democratic rule.  The era of populism combines these two characteristics: a restricted view on access, membership with increased conditioning AND a restricted domain for political action in the field of economy, production and consumption, production of life and survival. Rejection of political and societal regulation. Or market law or divine law.

That is why resistance has to take different forms and occupy different domains. We have to re-instate basic democratic principles to start imposing human rights as unconditional for all the members of humanity! That is the first inclusive principle, the rule of the people wherever they are and wherever they come from, in the name of humanity and the planet. Democracy needs to install a Demos and cannot derive from the Ethnos. Therefor the starting point has to be Humanity and not Nationality, let alone Community.

That is also why we are in a very profound and systemic transition. It is more than just about choices, policies and measures.  The 19th century idea of the modern state as a nation-state was inclusive for many localised communities. National culture was a means of integrating a lot of local cultures and dialects. Today, nationalism is at the side of exclusion and more and more even of expulsion. More and more we see how cities and the urban way of life is in opposition with national policies. Urbanity is a post-national type of society and resists by nature closing borders and minds.

So, yes, we have to reinvent and re-instate “the people” as the sovereign, as the source of legitimate power. Is then a progressive, an emancipatory form of populism possible or even necessary. Some authors like Chantal Mouffe say clearly yes. But, whenever you want to name it populism or not, it may not be a discourse of an already constituted “people”, of an existing essential core that serves as integration reference, of an imaginary that is already shared by some categories and where other categories have to be educated. “The people” as a (global) subject for the necessary systemic transitions do not exist. No, the “people” to become the actors of the new democracies have to be produced, they are not already there, they are the product of identification of a transitional counter hegemony, of a new narrative to be told alongside new practices and solidarities. That new historical subject is under construction.

And these “people”, the new political subject, the new citizenship, live in a multiscalar world, in networks around the globe, with totally different forms of membership and alienation. They do not just live in one territory. That is why politics can no longer be just “national” and then afterwards “inter-national”. We see that moist of the new political movements and practices do remain within their national frame. They have to become really multileveled at a global and a continental scale, and also at the networked metropolitan scale. The national scale will survive, but it should not be in our mind-set the main and only access to the world, the main scale of citizenship. Countries do stand between us and the world. We need global democracy and regulation, we need to build the new society within metropolitan multicultural contexts… If the countries want to survive they have to find a place in such a triangular construction: the world system, the system of nation-states and the system of urban networks. 

And finally, here we are back at our initial question, what then about the arts in the era of populism? In my view, the arts, the artistic sector and artists take a central position in rebuilding a collective vision, a new inclusive narrative, a reinvented democracy. Why? Because media, education and other existing forms of socialisation, the institutions for socio-cultural reproduction, still work with the old models, with a welfarist and industrial attitude of last century adapted to a global market “context”. They are part of the old world! They have to be remodelled. And remodelling the imaginary, proposing forms of imagination and symbolic expression, is that not the profession of artists? Art and research are at the heart of the knowledge society.

But then, they themselves have to also depart from the old forms and thoughts in the sector. That has been partially the process of deconstruction in the era of post-modernism. But now it is time for reconstruction, for recombination and thus for a renewed cultural contract between the arts and society. Not submission. Not instrumentalisation. But not isolationism either. Not a defensive position on artistic freedom. Confronting the challenges of the world. Embedding in a moving context. Being part of the edges in transition: the sustainable transition, renewed equality and solidarity, the urban commons, living together on the basis of diversity, the new cosmopolitanisms, etc. Enough challenges for creativity and innovation.

Art and artists need to contribute to a new reference system, a new repertoire to help us, the people, making sense of our lives in transition and to help us finding the courage to resist all the destructive forces at work. We need art to fight depression and burn out delivered by this world.  Art can help giving us ways of imagining a hopeful future, because… the times they are a’changin.

Imagine…  all the people…. (living for today).


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