Scuola Lacaniana di Psicoanalisi del Campo Freudiano
Università Saint Louis, Bruxelles
I DISCORSI CHE UCCIDONO
1 Dicembre 2018
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me
The English saying contains more than a grain of truth, but also several implications worthy of being explored. In practice, one can, indeed, find words that can be/become stones. Some words have an impact similar to what stones can achieve because of who utter those words, in which context, affecting which public, be they, very schematically, followers or antagonists (opponents). In the populist discourse, words are meant to be stones thrown at those who oppose the people: the bankers, the journalists, the intellectuals and, of course, the Jews. These are the enemies of the people (1). As such they have to be neutralized, put at the margins and, in some cases, eliminated. One cannot allow a comparatively small group of people to prevent the leader who represents a large majority from translating its program into public policies. Violence, not just verbal, becomes justified in the name of the people to advance the interests of the people against the opposition that attempts to defend and maintain its (unjustifiable) privileges. Populist words will be referred to and interpreted as an alibi by individual perpetrators of violence against any and all the opponents
Populist leaders announce that they represent the “true people”. They claim to be entitled to correctly and sharply differentiate the true people from the rest of the population that, putting obstacles to the activities of the leader in favor of the/his people, logically represents the undifferentiated “enemies of the people”. These enemies have a very important function to perform in the eyes of the populist leader and his followers. They constitute the target of any and all kind of dissatisfaction arising from the populist leader’s policies and his inability to solve the problems of his true people. The “enemies of the people”, among whom a place has to be reserved for foreign powers, serve also as scapegoats when difficulties arise. Their existence is exploited in order to launch waves of mobilization that are also meant to show and prove that the populist leader still enjoys the large support of his people. Arbitrary violence is manipulated by the populist leader in two ways. By suggesting that it is totally spontaneous and practiced against domestic and foreign wrongdoers and by showing that the leader knows how to put an end to it because the people trust him, believe that he is the only one who can give meaning to their difficult lives. Indeed, violence is allegedly not desired by the leader, but it is considered the inevitable consequence of the unacceptable behavior of the opponents. The populist leader and its supporters are obliged to resort to violence whose responsibility is attributed to the opponents’ attempt to dramatize their plight and the country’s.
The populist (and the authoritarian) leader’s words are (meant to be) interpreted by the followers as a sort of license to resort to violence, even if, of course, murders are not openly contemplated. Leaving aside, though not underestimating its significance, what I will call “economic populism” –resentment and envy for those groups who are in affluent economic conditions–, the most important contemporary form of populism can be defined “cultural populism”. It aims at the exclusive protection and promotion of the interests and preferences, but above all of the culture of the natives, the indigenous, the insiders: Front National, America First, Prima gli Italiani (2), UKIP, Swedish Democrats and so on. Insiders vs Outsiders is a simple, but powerful simplification easy to apply. It sets the citizens against the foreigners. In order to shape a stronger distinction it emphasizes all the negative elements that can be attributed to the foreigners. Of course, they steal jobs from our people. They do not accept and respect our culture. They rob, rape, kill. They cannot and do not want to be “integrated”, to become law-abiding citizens. Since the foreigners, the migrants often use violence, they must be contrasted, whenever necessary, by applying all the measures that will teach them how to behave.
Highlighting the threats, often well beyond the reality reflected in the numbers (perceptions, though wrong, and misconceptions, often manipulated, do count and should not be underestimated) , the populists create a situation of diffused fear and legitimate reactions of all kinds. In some cases, they reflect and amplify popular reactions. In fact, it cannot be denied that, often, the populists are indeed representative of a variety of attitudes, preconceptions, emotions on which they thrive and build additional consensus. Their speeches reflect what large sectors of the people feel and expresses. In any case, those speeches repeatedly provide justifications for all the actions and reactions of the populist leader’s followers. Violent words are not stones, but they may suggest that stones can be used for well-deserved punishments. Two types of stones have made their appearance in contexts in which populist sentiments are dense, deep, and widespread. There are stones thrown directly by the authorities themselves, for instance by the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn and, to a lesser, but incisive, extent by the Italian deputy-Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, and stones thrown by isolated individuals who have become prey of the populist discourse and its not so hidden content.
In Italy there have been several instances of discrimination and violence against the migrants. Those instances have taken the form of blatant exploitation on the workplace and even of beatings and, much more rarely, killings. Even when, rarely, isolated (lone wolves), the perpetrators of violence against the migrants know that they will have the possibility to justify their actions pointing to the migrants’ previous behavior. They too have done so, that is, engaged in illegal forms of behavior. Moreover, it is their very presence that poses an unacceptable challenge to our (the citizens’) way of life. We, the people, are simply trying to defend ourselves. Contrary to the bankers, the journalists, the intellectuals, the establishment, we, the people, live side by side with the migrants. It is us who suffer all the negative consequences of a situation created or accepted by the elites who do not know what they are talking about. And who do not prove capable of facing and solving the problem by reaffirming the culture of the people. Once more, all these statements contain more than a grain of truth. The populist leader relies on these statements and sentiments and has no scruple in inviting in a more or less subtle way “his” people to react, if necessary, confronting violence with violence. Nevertheless, there is a good news in Italy. So far the judiciary has not wavered in implementing the law also against the populist rank-and- file. The words of the law have so far had the upper hand over the stones of the haters of the migrants.
*Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Bologna
- Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism?; Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, provides an excellent, short and sharp, analysis of the phenomenon.
- The Italian case and its long roots are convincingly presented by Marco Tarchi, Italia populista. Dal qualunquismo a Beppe Grillo, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2015.