DISCUSSION PAPER ON POPULISM AND CLIMATE CHANGE, M van Duin
It is not easy to write a paper on populism, because the phenomenon is linked with the socio-economic and political situation in many parts of the world. Therefore this article starts with a short global outline and a sketch of the interplay of key factors. Some related issues will be briefly mentioned, but not elaborated further. Focusing more and more on populism, the article reads as the peeling of an onion: the same subjects are addressed, but more in depth every time.
1. The outline
First of all: what is populism? Populism shows many faces throughout history and nations/cultures. In general one could state that populists feel disadvantaged, not heard. They believe that an elite makes decisions without their input, decisions not in their favour or interest. This results in a counter movement against decision makers and/or less participation in society.
Why is it that populism is on the rise in so many developed countries? What is the role of socio-economic factors? Developed countries are based on the ‘dominant neo-liberal financial-economic system’ (DFES), which is based on credit/debt, competition, profitmaking and growth. This system has been spreading over the world, commonly known as globalization. In the process many national governments have transferred control over the public domain to the corporate world / the markets. Many of the old DFES-countries have a more or less democratic system and uphold a strong belief in equal opportunities, conveying: ‘You are a free individual and on your own. If you do your best and compete well, you will succeed in life.’ At the same time the gap between best and worst paid labour, and between rich and poor, has increased considerably; a few (26) individuals possess as much as half the poorest world population (data Oxfam 2019).
At the same time new technologies and artificial intelligence are on the rise; internet and social media have become everyday life pillars. Climate change and its threats are becoming more apparent and are demanding more political attention. Wars, poverty and climate change are expected to lead to increasing migration.
2. The interplay
The world’s capital has two faces: old money and new money – in other words real money and virtual / speculative money. The first is privately owned by certain families and businesses. The other is highly partly virtual, volatile and the object of (legally allowed) financial speculation based on competition and credit/debt, while aiming for profit growth.
Another distinction in the world’s capital is formed by public money versus private money. In the global financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, public money was used to save private institutions such as banks. The rationale: otherwise the DFES would have collapsed.
In spite of criticism of the DFES after the 2008 crisis, there has been no systemic change to date. On the contrary: the corporate world is expanding its influence in law making; administrations don’t bother, or struggle, to make regulations stricter. Many governments have become an intrinsic part of the DFES through shareholding, thus blurring the boundary between the private and public domain. In many countries the free market has entered public health care and education systems, often driving up prices. Social safety nets and pension systems are weakening. At the same time internet and social media are connecting people, and make previously hidden realities publicly known. The downsides of the new media are loss of privacy, data mining, increased social control, docility through ‘following’, fake news, and market- and information manipulation.
The increased market control, new technologies and artificial intelligence have led and are leading to a less reliable labour situation for many: less fixed jobs, more short contracts, more freelance workers and self-employed. In many old DFES-countries labour migration has led and is leading to growing immigrant populations, often with different religions, cultures and languages. Regarding climate change there are two prevailing political opinions: 1) tackling it relies on ‘green’ DFES, or 2) climate change is regarded fake news. There is little attention in politics or media for the intricate link between climate change, poverty, war and migration. Yet, this ‘third road’ offers the best option to address and solve these issues: in their coherence and based on (international) co-operation.
3. The consequences. A new reality
More or less freedom
Over the last decades the attractive power of the corporate world somehow got a hold of societies at large, supported by aggressive advertising on television, internet and in the new media. Its dominant morality of competition, outsmarting each other while maximizing profits, appealed to the imagination of many. Here a new type, strong, modern hero-type human being saw the light – or so it was thought. In their naivety many governments took over this enthusiasm and gradually handed over control of public areas to the markets. The assumption was that this withdrawal would allow for more individual freedom, freedom of choice and of identity. A new mantra was born. Gradually the boundaries between the public and private world began to fade. The downsides of the market approach in the public sphere were generally overlooked or ignored: egocentrism, selfishness, loss of group connection and solidarity, greediness and exploitation. The process gradually resulted in the weakening of societal systems based on solidarity, such as social safety nets, unions, pension funds and health care systems, as well as in freezing wages, growing power and profit of (health) (insurance) companies, the disappearance of public money into private pockets, and gross enrichment of a few people.
How is that possible? Does not the individual really gain more freedom by letting the markets reign? In some cases yes, in many other cases no. Like in earlier times, the outcome proves to be largely determined by the amount of money one has from birth. Individuals in old money families had and have again a much better position than others. However, in the old days the elite would consider it more or less its moral duty to look after the less fortunate, which is by and large no longer the case. At the same time public social safety nets have become weaker. So the socially disadvantaged may now find themselves stuck in their position more than in the (recent) past.
Why does the market approach not work? In short: because it causes flawed identity formation, and because the belief in equal opportunities is unrealistic. These aspects are elaborated below.
Flawed identity formation and hero image
Bombarding society with aggressive advertising leads to false identity formation incentives. In simple words: in the DFES world the market has hijacked identity formation. Isn’t it sad that the following applies to so many: ‘I consume, therefore I am’? Such flawed identity formation forecloses true development, hampering the possibility of being a creator, which is an important condition for happiness. What’s more, because of their weak identities many (unhappy) people can be easily manipulated and are susceptible to addiction. So a vicious circle emerges.
Flawed identity formation can also lead to a narcissistic personality structure with rigid characteristics. Such a person easily feels threatened and senses a strong need to belong. Therefore shelter will be sought in ‘the own group’. Such a group is closed to the outer world; no-one from outside will be allowed in.
How is it possible that the market can manipulate so strongly? Because it has and is imposing a hero image on society, leading to a huge overvaluation of ‘heroic’ individualism reached through consumption and competition, in which a person is happy, healthy, young, beautiful, rich and independent. If he/she is not the above, a person is perceived less worthy. This is the hidden message. But of course, the majority of people is not happy, healthy, young, beautiful, rich and independent, or at least not of all these at the same time. Again, false identity formation is triggered with clear aspects of addictive consumerism. After all, nobody wants to be less worthy…
In many DFES-countries the notion of equal opportunities is very important. But for genuinely equal opportunities a level playfield in society is a prerequisite, and that does not exist. Neither in education, nor in (financial) appreciation of the different professions. In a system where education has to be paid for by its recipients, resulting in a huge debt for those from non-rich families, the notion of equal opportunities simply does not hold. In a system where many jobs are roughly underpaid whereas for others the sky is the limit, the notion of equal opportunities does not hold either: in order to ‘succeed’ and become a ‘hero’, a person will be tempted to pursue a position that does not suit him/her. But nevertheless the notion of equal opportunities remains strongly interwoven in the fabric of many societies, esp. in the old DFES countries. Therefore many people are led to believe that equal opportunities do in fact exist. As a result they (unconsciously) blame themselves for not ‘succeeding’ in life, for not becoming a ‘hero’.
Roots of populism
All of the above leads to a semi- or unconscious sense of powerlessness, insecurity, inferiority, being a loser, mental paralysis and/or anger and stubbornness in many people. In order to break away from this unpleasant state of mind, a couple of strong psychological mechanisms start to play a role: 1) projection and projection identification leading to a borrowed (weak) identity and docility or followership, 2) reinvention and retreat into one’s historic group or ‘tribe’ while emphasizing its identity and importance, and 3) true or false victimhood combined with the designation of a scapegoat.
Here lie the roots of populism which is on the rise in many countries. Populists are likely to resort to borrowed identities while following ‘strong men’, stress the historic culture and identity of their home group or nation, and feel victimized by and oppose other groups such as immigrants.
This process can be perceived as a regression, similar to a psychological regression as a result of trauma, stress or fear.
‘Identity politics’, called that way in the social debate, basically focuses on 2) and 3). However 1) is also important as this article will elaborate further.
4. A psycho-social approach
Competition and heroism
Why are the mores of the corporate world so appealing to so many? Because the corporate world embodies and advertises the prototype of the hero: independent and strong, healthy and wealthy, a good competitor and a winner. In many, certainly in old DFES-societies, the psychological pressure to become a winner-hero is very strong and embedded in the psycho-social fabric. Hence everybody likes to identify with the winner-hero, as it offers a feeling of empowerment and invincibility, and a pleasant (but false) sense of identity. This also explains the incredible influence of sports- and pop music ‘hero’s’ and the degree of identification with these people which borders on hysteria. Social media amplify this effect to unimaginable proportions.
The psycho-social pressure to become a winner-hero has also invaded politics. Since a couple of decades not political ideas, but political people are placed in the foreground. These politicians magnify their personal importance and career in a narcissistic manner through the (social) media, aiming for many followers, e.g. US president Trump. After their political activities they often disappear in high corporate positions, ignoring public interest altogether. No wonder that many ordinary people have lost confidence in politics and the government: who is listening to the needs of so many, in an era of narcissistic politicians and government withdrawal from the public domain? No wonder that many insecure people with low self-esteem look for a ‘strong man’, a political hero to follow. But unfortunately these ‘strong men’ are not concerned with law making to ensure social security or restrict financial speculation…
Is heroism a bad thing then? Is competition bad? Heroism as such is deeply rooted in the human psyche and has many positive sides. A true hero is he or she who struggles to reach maturity (see beyond) or a certain goal. Competition can boost this struggle. A true hero will take responsibility for others weaker than him/herself, not revel in narcissistic self-magnification or in hero projection by followers, as false heroes are inclined to do. False heroes believe they don’t have to struggle since they ‘already have it all’, and don’t build a strong personal identity.
Competition in sports and games and other harmless human activities is fine, for as long as there is a level playfield. But when competition invades all realms of human life, including basic aspects of existence and identity, it will degrade the social fabric, weaken solidarity, create winners and losers and ultimately lead to the right of the strongest. This will not heal the world, only co-operation and sharing can do that.
One could argue that the right of the strongest is only natural – but is it, really? In the animal kingdom males compete for females, so that the strongest will win and a healthy offspring is guaranteed. But in human societies the right of the strongest has to do with money and power, not with reproduction. On the contrary: in the human world having a lot of children is intrinsically linked with poverty…
Finally, also solidarity, empathy, compassion and co-operation are deeply embedded in the human psyche. But unfortunately these aspects are regarded second rate or weak, because they are not perceived to contribute to modern heroism.
Apprehension and anxiety; climate change
At last, climate change is getting more political attention. A growing number of people accepts the reality of climate change, but feels anxious and powerless. Others, especially populist groups, still consider it fake news. They feel that governments use climate change to force through technology and energy innovations while depositing the bill with society, especially with socially weaker groups like their own. And they have a point. In societies where environmental costs are still ignored and carbon taxes still heavily debated, vigilance is in order to ensure that the transition costs are shared fairly. The problem of the populist stance is, though, that the climate policy agenda can become a scapegoat projection screen and hence meet with a lot of resistance. This is dangerous: in order for governments to take adequate measures, they need support from society. If not, populist movements such as the yellow vests in France will complicate and delay things. It is not for nothing that Extinction Rebellion wants a civilian council to incite and correct politics. Therefore it is imperative for the climate movement to recognize and intercept the climate denial tendency, and understand and support the needs of the socially disadvantaged, including – and especially – populist movements.
Non-acknowledgment of climate change can also be caused by normal psychological repression mechanisms, triggered by (unconscious) apprehension, anxiety and survival instincts. Again, these mechanisms need to be understood and climate denial openly discussed. The sooner everyone understands what is at stake, the better our collective response can be.
But not only climate change is cause for (unconscious) fear: also globalization, labour migration and new technologies / artificial intelligence are. The less certain one is of his/her means of existence, the less likely one is to face other life-threatening challenges such as climate change. This probably also explains why climate change is denied or considered a ‘hobby for intellectuals’ in many populist circles. Yet, at the same time another phenomenon is on the rise: the use of climate change by new right-wing intelligentsia for their own agenda. Recognizing climate change, they propagate the demise of a part of the world’s population, an end to immigration and a return to pre-industrial lifestyles in which the ‘white man’ rules again. In other words: eco-fascism.
The situation described above makes clear that climate change and social-economic justice are interlinked in more than one way. It is about time this insight surfaces in mainstream politics, so that challenges in either field can be addressed adequately and simultaneously.
If and when the right of the strongest in human society will prevail, the future of the world looks grim. The needs of a large proportion of the world’s population will likely be ignored by a small elite which will live in protected enclaves. In fact this is already starting to happen in Fortress Europe and behind the Mexican Wall demanded by US president Trump. It is a form of apartheid: climate apartheid.
On the other hand, if and when other values such as solidarity, empathy and compassion are revalued, a better world scenario can unfold. But for that to happen, a more realistic understanding of the human identity will have to develop as soon as possible. This self-understanding will have to be based on the acknowledgement that we are heavily interdependent vulnerable creatures who are part of nature/creation and for whom group living is necessary, but who also have a strong tendency to selfishness, greediness, indifference, antagonism, corruption, destruction and violence that needs to be kept in check. Only through being honest with ourselves and allowing solidarity and compassion to be our guidelines we can hope to steer away from disastrous climate change and warfare.
5. Depth-psychological analysis
Psychological dichotomy and hero archetype
The Swiss psychiatrist and researcher Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) discovered that the Western world suffers from a psychological dichotomy by cutting itself off from nature. The predominant Western motives are ‘masculine’: competition, conquest and dynamic, linear growth, while ‘feminine’ motives such as sharing, caring, empathy, co-operation and a more circular approach to life, are being neglected or made less important. This dichotomy leads to a distorted sense of identity and self, both in individuals and in groups, and triggers large scale projection- and projection identification mechanisms. Ironically, in modern societies these projection mechanisms have become widely accepted and are regarded normal. This is potentially dangerous because it blocks true identity formation, freedom of choice, willpower and resilience. Interestingly enough, many populist groups are anti-feminist and anti-LGBT, and promote ‘old-fashioned’ manhood.
Jung also developed the concept of archetypes, based on his study of mythology in different countries and cultures. One of the most important archetypes in every human being – besides ‘mother’, ‘father’ and a few others – is the hero archetype. This archetype stands for the inner struggle to reach psychological maturity through gaining strength (often by defusing an imminent danger), breaking free from parental guidance, and accepting responsibility. Thus a new reality, a new identity, is created. Many myths, legends and fairy tales all over the world tell about this heroic struggle. Their popularity can be explained by the semi-conscious recognition, or ‘knowing’, in all readers and listeners.
Last but not least, Jung spent many years studying symbolism. He discovered that the image as such directly appeals to the un-conscious. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that the modern, imposed hero image (through imaging!) is resonating with the hero archetype present in all of us, making everyone vulnerable to the message of the former. Yet, the hero archetype evokes a person to struggle to reach true self-maturity, with whatever family background, talent or profession one has or pursues, reaching for and internalizing heavily fought inner strength, wisdom and responsibility. During this struggle a person is his/her own hero, which is a necessary step in adequate identity building. But if and when this process is frustrated through identification with the imposed (false) hero image, a person may remain his or her own hero in a perverted sense. This can lead to inflation (an inflated self-image) and narcissism, often hiding insecurity and anxiety in deeper layers of the psyche.
The poignant discord between the hero archetype and the modern hero image remains unaware, and as such creates enormous psychological tension and frustration. The ‘failure’ to reach modern day ‘heroism’ results in feelings of powerlessness, anger, low self-esteem and a weak identity. The affected person will likely unconsciously blame him-/herself for the ‘failure’, split off the desired heroic position from his/her own psyche, project it onto a perceived hero such as a political leader, athlete or pop artist and identify with this person, thus resorting in a borrowed identity and docility/followership. This idolatry could even be seen as present day Roman ‘bread and play’. Many (young) people, especially women, will easily suffer from unhealthy, addictive perfectionism, burn out and other negative psychological effects, whereas others, especially men, will resort to a reinvented historic group identity and rebel against other groups.
Victimhood and victim behaviour
Another interesting aspect, well known in depth-psychology, is that of victimhood and victim behaviour. Intrinsically linked with the scapegoat mechanism, victimhood means that a person of group is or considers him-/herself a victim of something or someone.
Here we enter dangerous terrain. It is of great importance to always make a distinction between real victimization on the one hand, and felt or acted victimhood to attract attention on the other. Very often actual victims are not noticed or ignored; e.g. the victims of climate change in poor countries, whereas the victimization claimed by populists is only partly real. When it comes to the loss of social security, the lack of a level playfield in society, and reduced appreciation of a large number of professions, they are right. But when it comes to the ‘danger’ of migrants or of women’s emancipation, they are wrong – although the victimization that they play out will largely be triggered by the first-mentioned factors and must therefore be taken seriously. They are also wrong when it comes to climate change: not they are victims, but people in poor countries (in the first place). Yet here too, a sharp eye must be paid: the warning given off by their played-out victimization is real. After all, the climate policy bill should not be deposited with them.
Victim behaviour is a well-known phenomenon in depth psychology. It has a negative connotation, because the affected person places responsibility for his/her well-being and actions with others, and remains passive. A person who suffers from victim behaviour can in this way constantly demand attention and suck a lot of energy away from others. Often a scapegoat is designated who would bear the blame of their unwell-being.
On the other hand, true victimization often remains hidden. In order to psychologically heal a person, it is important to expose the actual victimization (in therapy), so that the person can process and integrate it and regain action perspective. The same applies to groups, such as the true victims of climate change. When it comes to populism, it will have to be carefully examined to what extent its victimization, ignored until then, is real or merely a feeling. Only then can appropriate measures be taken, so that people no longer are, or feel like, a victim and can develop a more realistic identity and world view – including the reality of climate change and the equivalency of sexes and races.
Lastly, the scapegoat. In antiquity rituals helped cleansing society from errors and sins. In ancient Hebrew times two goats were used as scapegoats every year. One was ritually offered to JHWH, while the other, ‘carrying the sins’, was sent into the desert where it would perish. These rituals symbolized how all man made sins were dissolved by God/the transcendent and by nature/life, allowing humans to restart afresh and with a clean slate.
Unfortunately such rituals are not practiced anymore in modern (DFES) societies. But the deep psychological need to cleanse off sins, remains. What happens is that sins, or experienced ‘sins’ such as failure or powerlessness (experienced victimhood), are split off from the personal or collective un-conscience and projected onto other persons or groups: scapegoats. In populist movements scapegoats can be refugees, migrants, women, LBTGs, people of colour, politicians, the government, left wing people, journalism, and even climate change as fake news.
Together, the above explained borrowed identity and docility/followership, regressive historic ‘tribal’ identity, experienced victimhood and scapegoat projection, offer fertile ground for (violent) nationalism, populism, racism, xenophobia, radicalism and extremism.
Sound identity building
In depth-psychology a healthy sense of identity is built on four pillars (without hierarchy):
a) Family, ancestors
b) Innate character, temperament, talents etc.
c) Education and (professional) training
d) God, the Self
Ideally these four pillars or aspects are integrated in a person and give him/her a healthy sense of identity, self-confidence and self-respect. But in many societies one or more pillars are under pressure. Being born in an old money family means having a head start in life regarding education and access to society. Having a talent which matches the trendy preference of society during one’s lifetime, also offers a head start. But what about others? How can they develop a healthy identity? After all not many people grew up from the (God-given) belief that ‘you are good the way you are’, especially not the socially disadvantaged.
There is only one scenario to allow all identity aspects to bloom freely: a healthy public sphere offering effective social security, a level playfield in society, and a more equal appreciation of all professions and other (non-paid) beneficial activities.
This means that all education should be free or supported by full state scholarships. It also means that all professions should be respected and rewarded with normal living wages – not less and not much more. Perhaps a basic income for all is recommendable. Right now many professions, e.g. in cleaning, health care or construction, are being heavily undervalued, receive no or far too little respect and are underpaid. But when one thinks soberly about it: which professionals are more important than garbage collectors, road workers or (home) care workers, to keep society going? In other words, the current emphasis on higher education, i.c.t. and corporate success should end, and many ‘old’ professions – of which the majority cannot be replaced by artificial intelligence anytime soon – should be revalued. At the same time new professions need space to develop in a sound manner without under- or overvaluation. This will allow the pressure to ‘succeed’ in society – by competing, earning a lot of money and being a ‘hero’ – to flow away, while everyone is free to develop his/her (labour) identity in a healthy manner, respect him-/herself and live a fulfilled life.
6. Conclusion and summary
The decreased public control and increased private control in most societies over the last decades has created more freedom for a very small number of people, and more unfreedom for most. It has led to a growing gap between rich and poor and deep economic and psycho-social insecurity in many people. The demand for personal success in modern society, combined with weak identity formation as a result of market manipulation, leads to stress, anxiety, frustration and feelings of powerlessness, especially in socially disadvantaged groups. This triggers hero projection and projection identification, docility or followership, regressive group identity formation, victimization and victim behaviour, and scapegoat mechanisms: the main characteristics of populism.
Populism is dangerous for several reasons. It can lead to (violent) nationalism, racism, xenophobia and extremism. Populists often deny climate change, which can complicate or delay urgently needed climate policies. In order to defuse populism it is essential to fathom and take seriously its real or experienced victimhood, restore social security, offer free education to all, and revaluate professions and other beneficial activities through wage levelling. This cannot be done without restricting market control and financial speculation. Removing power from the markets will open the way to realistic, adequate identity building and healthy self-esteem for all, and to the adoption of solidarity, empathy and compassion as guidelines, increasing the odds that humanity will be able to avoid disasters as a result of climate change or warfare.
Amsterdam, September 2019
Marijke van Duin
With special thanks to Barbara Miller and Herma van der Weide
A shorter version of this paper was presented at Ecothee 19, 23-27 September 2019, OAC, Crete, Greece
Some interesting thinkers and literature
Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, 2013; Capital et Idéologie, Seuil, 2019 (English version available March 2020)
Francis Fukuyama, Identity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018 (and other work)
Martha C. Nussbaum, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, Simon Schuster, 2018 (and other work)
Peter Sloterdijk, What Happened in the 20th Century?, Polity (Eng.), 2018
Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Random House UK, 2011
Dirk de Wachter, Borderline Times – het einde van de normaliteit, Lannoo Campus, 2012 (in Dutch)
Abram de Swaan, Tegen de vrouwen (sociological study of mysogyny), Prometheus, 2019 (in Dutch)
Zygmunt Bauman, Culture in a Liquid Modern World, Polity, 2011 “In its original formulation, ‘culture’ was intended to be an agent for change, a mission undertaken with the aim of educating ‘the people’ by bringing the best of human thought and creativity to them. But in our contemporary liquid-modern world, culture has lost its missionary role and has become a means of seduction: it seeks no longer to enlighten the people but to seduce them.”