The ‘new populism’, contempt for democracy and totalitarianism

Populism is relevant to antisemitism. Populism splits us into ‘the people’ and the ‘enemy of the people’. ‘The people’ is an idea, in contrast to the materiality of infinitely diverse, flesh and blood actual human beings. The liberal democratic state develops ways in which those actual people, with different interests, can live together. But populism says that the unity and purity of ‘the people’ is corrupted by the dishonest and self-serving claims of a hidden liberal ‘elite’, which secretly controls all the institutions of democratic society.

Thus founded on conspiracy fantasy, populist movements are potentially vulnerable to antisemtic takeover. So far, mainstream right-wing populism has generally resisted the temptation of antisemitism, being more seduced by a philosemitism, which imagines Israel as a white, Islamophobic, civilised, colonial enclave in the Middle East, and so as a model to follow. That imaginary Israel is similar to the Israel that is imagined by the antizionist populism of the left;  what they disagree about is whether Israel should be regarded as symbolic of all evil or a virtuous model to follow.

The re-emergence of populism in the mature democracies in the 21st century has offered hope to antisemitic thinking of a route back into the mainstream. Antisemitism is, in general, symptomatic of anti-democratic thinking and anti-democratic politics. 

We are interested, therefore, in a research agenda on contemporary populism, its relation to democracy, and contempt for democracy, conspiracy fantasy, and antisemitism. 

To what extent does populism gain its virulence from the underlying material grievances of people who are excluded from society by unjust structures of discrimination? And how is underlying grievance related to the layers of politics and ‘culture wars’ that mediate political action?

Antisemitism is attractive to anti-democratic politics and thought. Openness to antisemitic ways of thinking in scholarship, and tolerance of of them, are related to a broader emerging carelessness about democratic culture and the democratic state. 

We are interested in a research agenda to understand the consequences of the ways in which academic disciplines are increasingly embracing, as standard assumptions, radical critiques of existing society – and of the enlightenment liberal tradition that underpins the core values of the university.

Frequently this critique looks more like contempt. Robert Fine wrote of the necessity to hold the critique of existing conditions in one hand, but also to hold the ‘critique of the critique’ in the other. Following Hannah Arendt, he argued that the experience of 20th century totalitarianism taught us something important about the menacing potential of contempt for what exists, especially when it is combined with a utopianism that requires the ‘new world’ to be built from scratch. Our research agenda on antisemitism and populism will focus on the relation between the 21st century populisms and 20th century totalitarian movements.

It is not accidental that antisemitism was associated with both National Socialist and Stalinist totalitarianisms. Antisemitism has the potential to function as an emotionally satisfying way of exemplifying the ‘enemy of the people’. Conspiracy fantasy, the temptation to account trivially for the injustices that we feel unable to face rationally, and to blame somebody, and to aspire to conspiratorial power oneself, is on the rise in the 21st century. The fragments of older antisemitisms remain virulent in the cultural unconscious, available to those who decide to pick them up and mould them into contemporary ideologies or worldviews.

Contemporary academic cynicism about science, truth, democracy, law, and all of the key elements of liberal democratic culture is reflected in popular cynicism of the same. The proliferation of conspiracy fantasies around the COVID-19 pandemic, and around the vaccination programme, is illustrative material of this phenomenon.

Anyone who is serious about understanding contemporary contempt for democracy must also relate to the antisemitism that so often elbows itself into the discourse of movements that are contemptuous of democracy. 

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