The People, this stranger

The word "people" is at the foundation of all modern democracies, but who is the "people" to whom our Constitutions refer? Is it the same "people" continually invoked in the several political populist movements that are recently growing in Europe?

Cinzia Sciuto
Cinzia Sciuto MicroMega, Italy
Source: MicroMega
The People, this stranger - NewsMavens
Il Quarto Stato, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo. Wikicommons

Why this story matters:

"We the people", begins the Constitution of the United States of America, “la sovranità appartiene al popolo" solemnly proclaims the Italian one, and "gouvernement du peuple, par le peuple et pour le peuple" is the founding principle of the French Republic.

The word "people" is at the foundation of all modern democracies, and demo-cracy literally means "power of the people".

But who is the "people" to whom these Constitutions refer?

Is it the same "people" continually invoked in the several political movements that are recently growing in Europe and that are deemed -- sometimes they self-styled -- "populists"? "The people vs the elite" is the new dominant narrative, most often exploited by populist right-wing movements -- like Lega in Italy, which is currently ruling our country along with another "populist" but post-ideological force, the 5 Star Movement. But it is also referred to by political factions on the left of the political spectrum, such as the Spanish Podemos and their Laclau & Mouffe-inspired populism, and Power to the People in Italy.

Are we certain, however, that, by accepting the dichotomy of "people vs elites", we do not stray from the definition of "people" in our Constitutions? The people in this sense is perhaps a universal and "normative" concept, the people as the aspiration of the nation, rather than as a social class opposed to an abstract elite. Repurposing the class struggle by pitting people against elites makes it overwhelmingly unclear who belongs to the people and who belongs to the elite. Does the elite include researchers and scholars, who have traditionally represented the higher classes but who now live, at least in Italy, in conditions of extreme job insecurity? Do they belong with the judges of the Constitutional Courts (the elite, without a doubt) who watch over the constitutionality of the laws of the parliament -- the place where the popular power express itself?

Are we certain that this new dichotomy can reflect social realities that are more complex than ever?

Everyone invokes the people, but nobody knows what it is, where to find it, what are its real interests and how best to represent it. And perhaps this should be our starting point: to rebuild the political culture we lost in the last thirty years. There are -- at least in Italy -- no more places where political cultures can grow, places in which to study reality and literally cultivate new ideas. Because of this, we should welcome initiatives that address these matters before turning to the problem of political representation, like with Italy's Cantiere delle Idee and the "Ragione in Rivolta" political school. And only Europe -- which is more than the technocrats in Brussels, incidentally — can be the political horizon for a new progressive political culture in the third millennium.

Details from the story:

  • In Europe, there is a growing number of movements and parties called "populists," in reference to the opposition between the people and the elite.
  • These "populist" parties range from right to left on the political spectrum.
  • In Italy, two populist parties, the right-wing extremist La Lega and the 5 Star Movement, which describes itself as "neither right or left", won the latest elections and formed the new government a few days ago.


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