Thanks to decades of critical scholarship in the social sciences, it is now common for scholars to reflect on their positionality vis-à-vis research topics and subjects and to demonstrate awareness of the power structures that shape their knowledge production. While this often amounts to deliberations about one’s individual identity in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, etc., scholars are rarely expected to question the ideological assumptions that underpin how they, both as individuals and as members of societies, make sense of the world. Taking certain ideological positions for granted as universal – liberal, secular, individualist, etc. - presents a problem in the study of political life-worlds that claim to offer alternatives, especially those with revolutionary system change on their horizon.
In my Identities article, ‘Stateless citizenship: 'radical democracy as consciousness-raising' in the Rojava revolution’, published in the special issue ‘Radical Democratic Citizenship: From Practice to Theory’, I write about ways in which protagonists of the self-determination system that has been in the making in majority Kurdish regions of Northern Syria since 2012 imagine their political struggles as a long-term effort for liberation from capitalism, patriarchy and the nation-state. I argue that this amounts to a decolonization effort that – in the words of my interlocutors – beyond the concrete work of building institutional infrastructure, aspires to transform dominant ‘mentalities in society’, including patriarchal and statist thinking which developed over thousands of years of power and domination. While sharing fragments from my fieldwork in Rojava, I decided to consciously center the ideology of the Kurdistan freedom movement, as articulated by imprisoned political leader Abdullah Öcalan, in my conceptual framework.
Extinguishing migrant Muslim communities
Gender, as expressed on namely the bodies of Muslim women, is positioned at the centre of the radical right’s linkage between migration and religion. This link is visible in the persistent debates on the ban of Muslim body-covering, which in Austria has been promoted by the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) since the turn of the century.
FPÖ’s debates on the ban of Muslim body-covering – of the headscarf in kindergartens and schools or of full body-covering in public spaces – which re-emerged since 2015, illustrate that the radical right instrumentalizes the intersection of gender, body and religion in its search for new forms of governing.
As I explore in my recently published Identities article, ‘Radical right populist debates on female Muslim body-coverings in Austria. Between biopolitics and necropolitics’, the radical right’s debates over female Muslim body-covering are embedded in the neoliberal reorganisation of societies and a crisis of governability, which radical right-wing actors use to implement their own biopolitical and necropolitical projects.
A broad and perhaps underappreciated feature of radical right populism is its simultaneous mobilization of cultural Christianity, on occasion combined with secularism, and women’s (and sometimes LGBT+) rights in a racializing, anti-immigration, and anti-Islamic discourse. Take for example the recent reaction in the USA of Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who proclaimed on Twitter that ‘I am being attacked by the godless left because I said I’m a proud Christian Nationalist’ and added that she is even being called ‘a Nazi because I proudly love my country and my God’. By the same measure, in Italy, the League (La Lega) chairperson Matteo Salvini has previously maintained publicly his certainty that ‘Madonna will bring us the [political] victory’ and praised in religious conservative media the ‘traditional (heterosexual) family’.
Concocted by the conservative quarters of the Vatican, the disparaging term 'gender ideology' has been taken up not only by the radical right, but also by some centre-left, liberal commentators, seemingly unconcerned with the concept's troublesome history. One notable example is the Economist's last year article denouncing the so-called 'trans ideology', titled A backlash against gender ideology is starting in universities. In my Identities article, 'Framing ‘gender ideology’: religious populism in the Croatian Catholic Church', I consider the provenance of how the 'gender ideology' frame was utilized by the Catholic church in Croatia – one of the earliest cases of widespread anti-gender mobilization in Europe.
Having gone through a double transition to a capitalist liberal democracy, the revived religious nationalism in Croatia competed with liberal values from the 'free Western world'. The generous Vatican agreements signed in the late '90s by the authoritarian, right-wing government provided fertile ground for a blossoming of Catholic evangelization and proliferation of lay activism. In contrast to current research on the populist radical right which demonstrates the manipulation of religion committed by political actors, I identify factions of the Church itself as populist entrepreneurs. Polarizing populist discourse is traced back to Pope John Paul II's warnings against 'the war of the powerful against the weak', and connected to newer doctrinal, papal writings on issues of gender, ecology and politics.
'A radical Islamist terrorist targeted the nightclub (…) in order to execute gay and lesbian citizens, because of their sexual orientation. It’s a strike at the heart and soul of who we are as a nation.'
- Donald Trump
PRR’s LGBT stances
The statement from then-Presidential nominee Donald Trump followed the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Later, in 2020, Trump referred to himself as 'the most pro-gay President in America'. Simultaneously, he appointed overtly anti-LGBT candidates to judicial positions and oversaw various policies legitimizing the exclusion of LGBTQ+ people.
Trump’s contradictory attitude towards LGBTQ+ minorities is emblematic of a broader Western trend in populist radical right (PRR) politics: PRR actors often adopt pro-LGBTQ+ stances whilst simultaneously propagating not only heteronormative family values and conservative religious moralities, but actively anti-LGBTQ+ policies.
When work is political
The work of workers’ co-operatives and their worker-members hold great relevance in politically and economically rather dismal times. My Identities article, ‘Radical democratic citizenship at work in an adverse economic environment: the case of workers’ co-operatives in Scotland’, explores five workers’ co-operatives in view of how they collectively and democratically make decisions as well as give space, therein, to personal matters and circumstances of the worker-members.
A few words on the dreary economic and political backdrop. In the current context, we look back at a history of decades over which the political system we know as (representative) democracy has been hollowed out and populated with corporate interests ). Oligarchs hold political offices and wield power over policy makers through powerful lobbies and politicians move between political and top-salaried corporate offices. The massive lack of declared annual revenues by directorship-holding politicans may well be seen as testimony to the deficit in holding politicians accountable. Cronyism prospers amongst the economic and political elite as public money is secretively being handed out to the hands of corporations. In an interview, Oskar Lafontaine, once member of the Schröder cabinet in Germany, dispels the myth about Germany being a democracy but in fact an oligarchy. According to Devenney and Woodford, this holds true about the UK, too. At the same time, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, the UK demonstrates a record high of distrust in the government – down to 15% in 2019.
An interview with Aurelien Mondon, by Giorgos Venizelos. This interview was first published in Populism, Issue 4, July 2021.
You keynoted the 5th annual Populism Specialist Group workshop which focused on the theme ‘Populism: New Perspectives’. What are your general impressions? Where is the field moving these days?
The various panels and papers confirmed to me that part of the field is moving in some very interesting and promising directions and it was a real honour to provide a keynote for the Populism Specialist Group as it is to me the most exciting forum to discuss populism. This is because scholars who present at the workshop tend to come from more critical approaches. Sadly, it would be mistaken to think that this necessarily reflects the wider environment and, unfortunately, there is much out there that continues to play into what some of us have termed populist hype or anti-populism. While critical approaches have progressed in recent years and occupy now a central place in discussions on populism, there is still plenty of work to be done and plenty of damage to be undone, something that is unavoidable when a term like populism becomes so central to mainstream politics.
On April 11, 2015, Pia Kjaersgaard, former leader of radical right populist Danish People’s Party concluded in her opinion piece: ‘We must dare to say that Christianity is better than Islam’. One year later, during the so-called burkini debate in France, Marine Le Pen, leader of radical right populist National Rally (formerly National Front), wrote in her blog: ‘This is the soul of France that is in question (…) France does not lock away a woman’s body, France does not hide half of its population under the fallacious and hateful pretext that the other half fears it will be tempted.’
These examples illustrate phenomena that have interested both academics and the public following the rise of radical right populist parties in the last couple of decades. More clearly, how are religion and gender featured in the rhetoric of such parties? These debates reveal two paradoxes.
The recent protests in Myanmar and elsewhere are lazily interpreted as a sign that people in these places want what people in the West already have: free elections, the rule of law, protection for minority rights, and so on. This is a very comforting reading for the powers-that-be.
There is another, more accurate reading, however, which comes to mind when we consider that even in the West there have been mass popular protests recently: for instance, the gilets jaunes in France, the indignados in Spain, and the Occupy movement more generally. The rapid spread of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and beyond, the success of populist politicians of the left and right, and the widespread distrust of the authorities everywhere are all signs that Western-style institutions are disappointing for people. It seems that they would like more in the way of democracy, although it isn’t exactly clear what would satisfy them.
Has anyone actually figured out what a more democratic system would be like, and how it would work practically?