Populism, Polarisation and the Post-Political City
Populism is perhaps the defining phenomenon of contemporary politics. The Brexit referendum and the election of President Trump have shown the divisive power of a populist rhetoric, and how quickly it can divide a nation. The term is applied across the political spectrum; from the left-wing 'pink tide' presidents of Latin America to the disruptive right-wing parties of Europe. Our challenging economic, environmental and political climate has become the perfect catalyst for its prolific growth, with support for populist parties tripling since 1998. But what does populism mean, how is it affecting our liberal democracies, and what does architecture have to do with it?
The Dutch political scientist Cas Muddle defines populism as, “a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people.” This theory subscribes to a good/evil Manichean view of society, where ‘the people’ may become a homogeneous entity with a common interest, in pursuit of what Carl Schmitt would call, collective action. Populist leaders, often legitimately, criticise the ‘elites’ in power, by asserting that the government no longer acts in the interest of the people. They claim to represent the ‘silent majority’, whose voices are not addressed in the current political hegemony, which in turn personalises and moralises the political debate. It eliminates any productive disagreement from the democratic discourse and facilitates the delegitimization of any citizen or political contemporary who does not conform to the idea of the ‘real people’ (as demonstrated by Donald Trump’s innumerable ‘twitter storms’).
Depending on the political context, populism can act either as a threat or a corrective to democracy. It can be constructive when it acts towards a predetermined goal or social movement, where all the participating parties are in agreement with the cause. Ernesto Laclau suggests populism is the essence of democracy in its capacity to act as an emancipatory force. It can facilitate a shift across the political spectrum from an authoritarian to a democratic model, when the public gains critical mass and acts collectively. Populism can act as a positive force in liberal democracies and to be used as a device to voice the concerns of the unheard population.
Fig.1 Populism’s Manichean Struggle - The Pure People vs The Corrupt Elites
Populism is fundamentally pro-democratic. However, whilst a traditional party leader seeks to stand as a fallible representative of some people, the populist claims to represent the absolute popular will of all people. This extreme majoritarian model refutes the authority of any unelected bodies, such as the UN or EU, who may seek to limit the powers of any individual. With no means of control, a populist leader is free to make significant constitutional changes to prevent any future legitimate political contestation. These independent institutions were founded specifically to prevent this from happening, and to protect the freedom and fundamental rights to minorities within our pluralist society.
“The people only appear in the plural, and as a people, it is capable of neither decision nor action as a whole.”
Liberal democracy is founded on pluralism, where society is divided into a heterogeneous collection of overlapping social groups, each with their own irreducibly different identities and interests. The acceptance of pluralism means the commitment to sharing political space with others whom we accept as free and equal. A failure to welcome pluralism presents a threat to individuality, equality and minority rights and, in some instances, has been the crucial reason for the rise of many far-right parties in Europe, such as Austria’s ‘Freedom Party’ and Belgium’s ‘Vlaams Belang’.
Whilst populism supports democracy, it opposes liberal democracy. By proposing to represent the singular voice of the people, and refuting any contention, it is inherently anti-pluralist. The real danger in populism is its ability to act as a force that discredits/undermines opposing beliefs, denies diversity and rejects citizens as free and equal. Politics may be defined as the struggle between opposing forces to which there is no rational consensus. By going against pluralism, populism eliminates the conflict between the different beliefs within society and fails to recognise the agonism that is constitutive of the political. The political theorist Chantal Mouffe, states “that the task of modern democracy is to turn antagonism into agonism” – a conflictual relationship of adversaries not enemies. Therefore, populism presents a critical threat in entirely dissolving political conflict, as well as the liberal democracies and independent institutions that support it.
“The key feature of consensus is the annulment of dissensus…the end of politics”
Jacques Rancière, 2001.
Rancière argues that the elimination of conflict from politics, and the proliferation of the neo-liberal laissez-faire model, has caused a shift to a politics of consensus, where any act of dispute is deemed extreme and illegitimate. Thatcherism, Reaganomics, and Blair’s third way have caused the centralisation of politics, and the prioritisation of unfettered economic growth. Since then, both the left and right have been governed under fundamentally the same model, leaving many citizens feeling like they no longer have a real political choice. The professor Eric Swyngedouw states this has resulted in the ‘Post-Political city’, a contemporary space that is in direct opposition to its historic conception.
Originally the city could be read as an archipelago, a collection of individual entities (oikos/house), that coincided in the collective (polis/political). Swyngedouw defines the later as “the site for public encounter, democratic negotiation and the spacing of radical dissent and disagreement." The Romans developed the city to an empire, which required a network of infrastructure to conquer and expand their land (urbs/urbanisation). This growth enabled a new condition of cohabitation for diverse groups of people (civitas/citizens). It was the agonistic relationship between urbs and civitas that constituted the idea of the city. However, the privatisation of land fundamentally altered this condition, as urbanisation became the only device to integrate the increasingly fragmented urban territories.
Architecture must reinstate the conflict between urbs and civitas, to re-politicise the city. From the global urban riots of 2011, it is clear that public space has the power to facilitate real political action. However, buildings themselves have the potential to radically intensify this conflict beyond open space. Office KGDVS and Dogma, in their theoretical city plan for Daejeon, South Korea, sought to define new limits to the city by creating a sequence of monumental urban rooms. The inhabited walls that enclosed these rooms drew the necessary frontiers to become the genesis of the city. Upon future development, each room would gain a specific character within a pre-determined boundary. The heterogeneous collection of unique rooms created a pluralist condition, where each space facilitated encounter, negotiation and conflict.
Fig.3 Re-Politicisation of the City – Masterplan for a new Administrative Capital, South Korea, Office KDGVS & Dogma. Whilst not every project can be as radical as this, architecture must respond to the post-political condition. With globalisation and the continuing cultural osmosis between international borders, it has become increasingly pertinent to express the pluralism inherent in society. Architecture can facilitate the re-politicisation of the city by creating civic spaces that express difference and enable a conflictual relationship to manifest. As Mouffe states:
"It is not in our power to eliminate conflicts and escape our human condition, but it is in our power to create the practices, discourses and institutions that would allow for these conflicts to take an agonistic form."
Chantal Mouffe, 2005.
Manichean – A dualistic theory, where a powerful force of good (God) is opposed by an eternal evil power (the devil).
Liberal Democracy – A form of representative democracy, operating under the principles of liberalism where equality and the rights of individuals are protected. It is the type of democracy used by much of the Western world.
Pluralism – An ideology that recognises the diversity of views, interests and convictions between two or more actors within a political body.
Antagonism – A hostile we/they relationship between two enemies who do not share any common ground.
Agonism – A productive we/they relationship where the conflicting parties, although acknowledging that there is no rational solution to their conflict, nevertheless recognize the legitimacy of their opponents.
Neo-Liberal – A policy model that seeks to transfer economic control from the public to the private sector. It tends towards free-market capitalism and away from government spending, regulation and ownership. It is characterised by the belief that economic growth will lead to human progress. This model was widely adopted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s.
Laissez-Faire – Translated as ‘let go’, it is an economic system where private transactions are independent from any governmental regulation or intervention. It founded on the belief that the individual is the basic unit of society.
Third Way – A middle ground between ideologies of the left and right.
Fig.2https://www.demorgen.be/nieuws/vlaams-belang-voert-actie-tegen-antwerpse-moskee~be5e05a5/ Fig.3 https://divisare.com/projects/271090-office-kersten-geers-david-van-severen-dogma-a-grammer-for-the-city