European angst: Populism, Extremism and Euroscepticism

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EUROPEAN ANGSTFinally, the third, and most interesting European angst discussion of the day was between famous UK-based Turkish author Elif Shafak and communist superstar Slavoj Žižek, who was welcomed as such by the suddenly student-packed concert hall.

While in my opinion, Elif Shafak said some very beautiful sounding things, such as “the language of humanism can travel east and west”, they often felt like platitudes, the things we were supposed to say and think. It was Žižek who brought the meat to the table.

But in essence, his take on populism is the fairly common one among the radical left: Trump is only a symptom of the true problem that is liberal democracy today, which is inexorably entwined with capitalism and inequality. This argument has the huge advantage over other approaches, from condoning racist sentiments to pretending that talking about tolerance and acceptance will make these things appear as if by magic. At least the radical left has determined a cause, which is of course the first step to finding a solution.

Half way through the talk, Shafak declared that “there are no enemies”, only different points of view. To which Žižek responded in his usual dramatic manner: “But would you have said that in 1942? Sometimes you have to say: He is the enemy, he must be destroyed.”

The problem, I think, is defining the enemy. Although Žižek was not directly comparing anything to Hitler’s regime, for people like him and most Bernie Sanders supporters, the enemy is the capitalist system, and, consequently, the people who contribute to keeping it the way it is – the Establishment. And although I believe this is true to a large extent, I don’t think it is productive to call the Establishment our biggest enemy. Choosing the status quo itself as the main antagonist in our political story has led to more votes for Trump, our natural villain, and to many young people completely turning their backs on their natural allies, i.e. the people who may not be as revolutionary as Sanders or Noam Chomsky, but who nonetheless share their ultimate goals of improving the lives of the disenfranchised.

One contribution from a nervous, but passionate student really stuck with me. She said it was very interesting to have all these talks, but that what we were lacking was the “inspiration to be brave’. Inspiration to fight the angst, in other people as well as within ourselves.

Today’s politics isn’t as devoid of this as we might think. At his confirmation hearing last month, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, big-shot oil titan and Putin sympathiser, was ruthlessly challenged by many senators, including Marco Rubio, a former candidate in the Republican Primaries. ‘Little Marco’, criticized during his campaign for lacking in passion and authenticity, drew surprise and reluctant admiration as he verbally took down this Republican president’s cabinet nominee.

We may of course view this change cynically – he might not turn out to be so critical of the new government in the long run. But whatever happens next, I choose to consider it a testament to the power of an all-out villain: they can bring out the best in people. Even to Republicans such as Rubio, what is effectively the coup d’état of Wall Street and corporate cronies of the worst, most nihilistic kind, may turn out to be the ultimate inspiration to be brave.

It may be that, once again, the lines of opposition are being drawn with unusual clarity between Good and Evil. Whatever our explanations for this mess, I think we better make sure we’re on the right side, pure and simple. And if the false equivalencies typical of the views of a lot of well-meaning voters today is proof of anything, it’s that it isn’t as simple as it seems.