Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
World-famous sociologist Frank Furedi holds Studium Generale lecture
A former left-wing sociologist, who, in his latest book, defends populism in Hungary and Poland. The auditorium at the Minderbroedersberg was packed on Tuesday evening when Frank Furedi (1947, Hungary) gave his lecture 'Taking democracy seriously: a defence of populism', organised by Studium Generale.
Populism has become "the fascism of the 21st century," but Furedi suggests that we take a reality check. "A few days ago the populists did very well in Estonia, but before that also in Sweden, England, everywhere. Is it possible that all these 40 million people voted the wrong way? Is it plausible that all those people suddenly acquired these fascistic, racist sentiments? Or is something else going on?"
It's all in his latest book Populism and the European Culture Wars. A book that he didn't want to write at all, Furedi explains on his website. He was researching a longer-term project on the fear of freedom through history. "But then Brexit happened. A culture war against populism exploded in Europe."
A war in which populism became a dirty word, Furedi says, strolling in front of a full hall. Sometimes it is justified to call it a dirty word. "Some populists try to promote fear of immigrants, of Islam, but what we fail to recognise here is that established politicians in fact do the same thing. Take a look at the language in which populists are denounced. In Italian newspaper articles it says: Salvini is 'just like Hitler'. The present situation in Hungary or Poland is 'just like the 1930's in Germany'."
The voters are also supposed to be unable to see right from wrong, says Furedi, who recalls the term 'deplorables' used by Hillary Clinton. "In Europe, when leaders lose a referendum, they say: the issue is too complex. In other words: ordinary people in the streets, who can barely tie their shoelaces, are too stupid to understand. In the past 25 years, a lot of voters have turned into morons, apparently, and cannot be trusted anymore."
The denouncing of citizens says it all about the undemocratic spirit of Brussels, Furedi argues. "Instead of taking them seriously, it is much easier to dismiss them, to call them racists, because then we don't have to hold a debate. After all, we are way above the racists, way above any prejudice. So it is easier to talk to people like us and to flatter ourselves."
One of the unfortunate things that has occurred, Furedi continues, is that "there is a political world out there that is unable and unwilling to engage with the problems of everyday life. Many people don't feel part of the national conversation, don't feel heard. Their way of life and values such as their sense of nationhood is being condemned. Nationalism is seen as the first step towards Nazism. We forget that nationalism, which arose during the French Revolution, was a way for the people to feel agents of their own destiny. Now, national sovereignty is something only a populist could believe in."
The EU elite tries, on the basis of its own values, to remodel the rest of the world to its own image. "It has become extremely illiberal and intolerant. Also it holds, for example, a double standard about diversity. Recently, the EU attacked Hungary, because it doesn't share European values. Orbán replied that if there is one historic characteristic about these values, then it is that they are pluralistic: Christian, conservative, liberal, fascist, et cetera. But the EU decides for every country what the European values are. That is contradictory to the tradition of the Renaissance, Enlightenment, with their emphasis on equality and disagreeing."
Democracy depends on taking discussion and debate seriously, Furedi concludes. "Don't worry too much if people vote the 'wrong' way. And don't blame democracy, but yourself. It's always better to look at your own weaknesses and failures than to blame others."
In the Q&A session lots of questions pop up. Critical ones: What about the populists in Poland who changed the rule of law in a fundamental way ("that has been going on in the US for hundreds of years, look at Trump and Kavanaugh now"). Advisory ones: How to prevent Italy from adopting fascism again ("listen to the Italians, they are not fascists").
And clarifying ones: What is actually his definition of populism? "I don't like the word at all. I only use it because others do. What I am defending is what I call ‘the populist moment’. The moment when people are beginning to call into question the legitimacy and the authority of the political leaders, when people are asking to be taken seriously."
Who is Frank Furedi?
After the failed revolt against communism in 1956, his parents fled Hungary and set course for Canada, where Furedi (1947) studied Political Science at McGill University. At the time, he was renowned for being contrary and controversial, was a member of the radical student movement and later on - during his PhD research in London - founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
Over the years, his left-wing ideas became overshadowed by right-wing conservative convictions, as we can see from his critical attitude towards the environmental movement, his plea for re-evaluation of power and - in recent years - populism's right to exist.
As a professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, Furedi has accumulated many followers who follow him closely. Furedi is not just a prolific writer but also figures prominently in the media. Well-known works include: Culture of Fear (1997), Paranoid Parenting (2001), Therapy Culture (2003), Politics of Fear (2005) and Populism and the European Culture Wars (2017).