Populism, Democracy, and Neofascism: Two Essays

Jean-Luc Nancy in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

POPULISM AND DEMOCRACY are an odd couple. The first, populism, rejects the pejorative connotation that its name represents for the second, democracy, which it in turn criticizes for being hypocritical. The second declares itself the sole form of legitimate existence. Both of them claim to be supremely popular. Their virulent opposition in the current discourse is matched only by the indecision that hangs over their respective meanings. What “people” are they talking about, both together and separately?

The Latin populus and the Greek demos, which, despite important differences, are sometimes translated one for the other, have one thing in common: both involve the assembly of those belonging to an organized collectivity as a public reality (res publica — this word is related to populus). Considered as a totality, the people is identical to the public thing, itself identified as city, nation, homeland, state, or, precisely, “Republic.” The word people functions, then, like a sort of tautology of belonging or affiliation. Considered from within the republic, the people is distinct both from instances of public authority (consider the famous formula senatus populusque romanus) and from the populist fringe whose membership always remains doubtful: the “masses,” or “plebes” (another word from the same family). Between internal distinctions and external identity, attractions and repulsions are constantly being played out.

In fact, to put it succinctly, identity is de jure: it is not simply given, but must be conceived and instituted, while distinctions are de facto: the so-called social contract does not function without the need for governance or without the pressures of refusal or opposition. Assenting to the public institution cannot happen without the dissent of the passions (whether they be those of interest, inclination, or impulse).

More here.