aposto-logoPazartesi, 20 Mart 2023
Pazartesi, Mart 20, 2023
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Claiming anger

How can we successfully become a “real” people?

By Ekin Tümer

In her book explaining how populism transformed democracy, Me the People, political theorist Nadia Urbinati defines “people” as such: “In its modern configuration, the category of the people has three key meanings: (1) persona ficta, or the collective sovereign that acts as one, and in whose name laws are made and enforced; (2) the sociohistorical body that lives in a specific territory and is sometimes identified with the nation; and (3) the political collective or constituency that claims and achieves political agency through movements of opinions, parties, and representatives.”

Populism can be defined as a set of political positions that emphasize a particular idea of "the people" and pits this group against "the elite" or, more simply, as "popular self-interest". Moreover, it is most pronounced in the third case when the people become a political subject which constitutes a field of competition for the rulers. Mario Tronti, a former member of the Senate of the Italian Republic from the Democratic Party, explains this by saying: "We have populism because there is no people."

More than an idea, the people is always there, in all its tangibility. However, the populist leader doesn’t perceive the people as a polyphonic whole, but chooses the “part” of the public that reflects his ideology. The only people with whom the populist leader has a dialogue is the "right people" who support him under all circumstances, whom he makes dependent on him through unrealizable promises and intense, primitive emotions. Those who don’t conform to the “right people” are marginalized, and dispensable. Because they are the “wrong people”, who betrayed the leader in some way by stepping out of line. The leader tries to replace the people he finds wrong with the right people; he pits the two against each other with divisive words and actions when necessary. This is like dividing the people into teams for a kind of ethical/moral match. While the leader watches what is going on in his box seat, the people stop focusing on the root of the problems and compete to win, to be the "right people".

The people, who should be treated as an inseparable whole, is divided into obedient "real" parts and questioning "unreal" parts. This is precisely what the populist leader wants, to find the ground on which he can fictionalize his own narrative of reality. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explains this in a striking way: “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” When the people is polarized, there is no longer a people, there are those who tell the truth and those who fabricate lies.

A populist leader doesn’t like people “that acts as one” as established in the first definition of Urbinati. If there are no separated, decomposed parts, reality becomes unbendable. The leader's voice is drowned out by a powerful crowd that speaks a single truth, and cannot be silenced. In this case, the leader loses the power to soothe the people with excuses such as "it was such a disaster that no one could have overcome it" or simply, "it was fate". The people include everyone and they are empowered, so they have the right to demand accountability when those they empower fail to take responsibility. The people need to remember their right to do that.

The state is not, and cannot be, by any definition, a shouty father figure at the top. Because this is against its nature. The purpose of the state's existence arises from the people’s demand to live freely, with equal rights in secure territories and to remain safe from harm. The state is not a person who can be hurt by the people’s dissatisfaction, nor is it a person to fear. The state is accountable to the people and doesn’t possess the luxury of not apologizing.

The power of a people united in their demand for accountability exceeds the power of the populist leader, it frightens him. Today, there is a healthy anger that lies within the people's demand for accountability. Because what we are seeing now, we are seeing it completely bare: those who are failing to understand the extent of our anger, those who are failing to understand that this anger will not blow over in a year or two as it is demanded of us, those who are offended by our mourning, the hastily cleaned areas so the governing powers don’t have to see the damage, the men who lined children up for a press statement, the men who yanked down the hood of a freezing child’s coat so his face would show on the TV screen, the men pushing and shoving each other in a race to get in the frame, those who silenced the ones who were saying “No help came here”, those who cast a shadow over support efforts, those who displaced students at the first opportunity, those who tried to demolish the single-storey construction inspection building while the rubble has not yet been removed, those who detained earthquake victims, those who are occupied with cleaning criminal records…

Unity of the real people who are forced to appease the frail and shameless hearts that are triggered by every reality, every insurgence, every life, who are threatened and pitted against each other if they don’t comply, who have very little left to lose, surpasses this system. This is exactly why we need to remember, there is no “right people” or “wrong people”, we are all the real and the only people, and we can stand as a grand, polyphonic voice.

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Related Keywords

persona ficta


box seat



Nadia Urbinati

Mario Tronti

the Italian Republic

Democratic Party

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