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European and US Populism: Key Insights for Strong Minds

The Informant tackles the mechanisms of populism again. While populists may be on an electoral winning streak, they are clueless about the challenges

Cognitive psychology offers the tools to understand how populist movements leverage envy and fear to gain popular support. Yet populists do not offer solutions to the big problems of the modern world, such as globalization and climate change. While we desperately need a rational approach to confront issues, populism appears to be part of the problem, and not part of a solution.

Try this simple experiment. Ask a friend or acquaintance to pick between two types of vacations:

  • Vacation A a week with your family in a pleasant place (by the sea, if you like the sea, or in the mountains, if you like the mountains) where nothing super exciting will happen, but you will relax a bit for sure.
  • Vacation B : two weeks in the most exciting and expensive place you can imagine, everything paid, either alone or with whoever you prefer, with the possibility of indulging in your most enjoyable vices. With a catch! After the vacation you will have to drink a potion that will totally erase your memory of those two weeks. Videos, photos and holiday reports will also be deleted. It will be as if that vacation had never taken place.

After a few questions to probe the possibility of a workaround, the subject of your experiment will give up:

I’ll go for vacation A . What’s the point with a beautiful vacation if there is nothing left to tell or even just to remember? 

Don’t be surprised. “Memorable” is the best vacation you can aspire to almost by definition: how long you’ll remember it defines how good it was.

Stories give meaning to our lives in a way. Our ability to remember those stories and tell others about them is the basis for a satisfying life and for our well-being. If you take the narrative away, you take away the ingredient that makes life worth living for us all. That’s why virtually everyone will pick vacation A. An OK vacation still wins over an exceptional one that we would not be able to remember.

The Story of our Life

This experiment is not my invention, of course. Research on these mental mechanisms is what the cognitive psychology of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky is about.

Kahneman himself presented the vacation example during a well-known Ted Talk in which he introduced the experiencing self and the remembering self, i.e. two aspects of our minds which, incredibly enough, act in blissful ignorance of each other.

As illustrated in an interview with the New York Times, the difference between the experiencing self and the remembering self is not a mere philosophical exercise. They are key concepts with which Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman has deciphered human happiness, after years of research on the subject (and centuries of failures by philosophers, I would add). Thinking of ourselves as a single self who can decide what we like and what we don’t like is the wrong assumption that, until recently, has been derailing our attempts to define happiness.

Our lives are made of more or less pleasant moments that flow without us realizing it. If someone asked us how we feel right now, our experiencing self would provide an answer. If the question was about how we felt during a past event,  though, someone else would respond: the remembering self. In the latter case, the report would hardly reflect our experience very faithfully. The highlights that we recollect, good or bad, would dominate our story. The report would be the result of the narrative that we built around those moments to remember them.

As Kahneman explains in his New York Times interview:

“The remembering self exercises a sort of ‘tyranny’ over the voiceless experiencing self. Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”

We could almost say that we “are” the narrative we make of our life and the events that surround it. And I’m not only talking about our  vacations, but also about how we give meaning to our entire existence. The question about the favorite holiday is nothing more than a thought experiment aimed at pitting the two “selfs” one against the other, making them emerge clearly before us. Let’s keep this aspect in mind because it’s the key to understand human behavior.

Let’s Talk about Populism Again

In my article in March 2018, I explained the mechanisms that lead to the success of populist movements (in Italian) with the help of cognitive psychology. In the age of social media, the understanding of narrative and cognitive biases is the main tool for deciphering the evolution of society in the widest possible sense of the term. One of the main conclusions I reached in the article was: populists hail the overturn of the status quo and the “establishment”, as if they were responsible for a now unbearable existential condition. A large share of the population supports anti-system ideas that are often stupid and impractical, without realizing that those ideas could be harmful primarily for them.

I wrote:

In this context, it is understandable that many opt for the populist choice, no matter how irrational it may be from a logical viewpoint. Demolishing the system that offers a 1,300 Euros salary will hardly get them a pay raise. Losing those € 1300 is more likely to be the outcome. Yet many will turn a deaf ear to this logic. They prefer to bet on messing up a “system” from which, in their perception, they are not getting enough.

The article struck a cord and received many comments, not all positive, including some from a Dunning-Kruger specimen who provided corroborating evidence to what I had written in the article. But not all critical comments were foolish. For example, Igor Santarpia’s remark was noteworthy, albeit his response was aimed more at me personally than to the content of the article:

And it is here that he, our “chief” who is probably part of that world of “specialists” that globalization rewards, falls into contradiction. Admitting that no-vax or other anti-scientific theories are in fact crap and the result of narratives, unfortunately he slips over the same fallacy … how much of what you describe about debt, macroeconomics and other really critical aspects of our time (all key ingredients of populism) weigh in on your narrative?

The attempt to bring the discussion down to the personal level is not nice, but the observation deserves attention. That’s why it sort of lingered in my mind all this time. Are narratives clouding my judgement too? Are they impairing my ability to see reality for what it is? And more generally, if cognitive biases really can affect our thoughts so much, how do we protect ourselves from whatever keeps us from perceiving reality for what it is?

One way is to “test the alternative hypothesis”. Having acknowledged that technology (particularly IT) has been offering jobs that are safe from the challenges of globalization for years, the alternative hypothesis translates into the following:

“If I did not work with technology, would I be so quick to dismiss the current situation with a ‘that’s the way it is’? Or would I create bizarre narratives and join the army of those willing to vote for the circus clown just for sake of breaking the system? “

Interesting question. Are we looking at social classes 2.0? A phenomenon that differentiates people between those who gain in the new globalized world and those who don’t? Even a well-known figure in Italian culture appears to have endorsed this hypothesis recently.

According to Alessandro Baricco, populism is caused by contention between the Elites and the People (source WikiPedia).

The elites of Alessandro Baricco

A few weeks ago Alessandro Baricco wrote about this in La Repubblica, arguably the largest italian daily newspaper . In his “It’s time for the elites to step up their game” the author talks about populism (he avoids that word, though).

Simplifying a lot, the well-known writer depicts a society split into two groups: on the one hand, an elite of “smart” people who make the world go round; and on the other hand, “the others”, those who, until recently,  have been happy with whatever the system set up by the elites passed on to them.

But now something has changed. Something has broken. The others are no longer satisfied. They are now convinced that the elites no longer carry out their task of generating enough wealth and work (and with them social fairness) for all. The “elected” try hard to preserve the status quo, but the people are pissed off and no longer drinking the Kool-Aid. The economic crisis has further exacerbated the situation. Today’s populist mess is the direct consequence of such contention, according to Baricco.

This begs the question: who are the elites?

Baricco writes:

“Let’s understand who these famous elites are. The doctor, the college professor, the entrepreneur, our company executives, the Mayor of your city, lawyers, brokers, many journalists, many successful artists, many priests, many politicians, the board of directors, a good part of those who seat in the VIP area at the stadium, everyone with more than 500 books at home: I could go on for pages, but you get the point. The boundaries of the category might be blurry, but in short, that’s the elite, those humans I just described. “

At first glance, Baricco’s narrative is interesting,. Yet, like all interesting narratives, as usual, the question is: “… but is it also true?” Let’s take a closer look.

A population is made up of people with different education, personality, wealth and intelligence, all features that defeat rigid categorization.  And I’ve only named the few that came to mind. A population can be “segmented” in various ways: males and females. Those who earn more than X and those who earn less. Those who live in this or that neighborhood of some big city. And so on.

“Segmentation” can assist in creating models that allow us to describe our societies, or some other phenomenon. However, when it comes down to it, all models only offer an approximate description of reality. Not coincidentally, statisticians and data scientists often declare: “All models are wrong. Some are useful”.

Which begs another question: can a model that claims to classify the entire Italian, European or even world society according to a binary logic be accurate? The answer is “No”. It is practically impossible. Such a simple model has zero chance of producing meaningful analyses. The world is way more complex than that.

There are powerful people who are not rich, rich people who have no culture, others who do not even try to influence politics, politicians who bear a lot of weight and other politicians who bear little weight or none .. and so on.

According to Baricco’s story, the elite plots to keep the others at bay according to a well-defined plan carried out through the centuries. Who is the mastermind of this plan? How did “the elected” get enlisted? All interesting questions that Baricco does not offer any answer to, a bit like your typical conspiracy theorist on the web. I wonder: as a computer programmer, am I part of the elite too? Should I count whether I have more than 500 books at home? And, if I discover that I am elite, where can I find the details of the plan? Will Intelligence Services contact me when someone at the headquarters realizes that I now qualify?

In short, Baricco leaves some big questions unanswered. The world is varied. A primitive classification, good and bad, friend and foe, might go down well for not particularly sophisticated audiences. From an intellectual like Baricco, though, I expect a little bit more.

Baricco also says more. In the text that follows, the Game indicates the digital revolution of the last 20 years, with reference to his latest book :

Nothing would have happened if it weren’t for another part of the Game, a fatal flaw. The Game has redistributed power, or at least the possibilities to get to it: but it has not redistributed money. Nothing in the Game is about wealth redistribution. Knowledge, possibilities and privileges get redistributed. Wealth does not. The asymmetry is obvious. In the long run, this was bound to cause the social anger that spread silently like an immense gasoline puddle. I have probably already mentioned that the economic crisis threw a match in it. A lit match.

Elites aside, many seem to share this feeling: in the globalized economic system we live in someone makes a lot of money, others earn way less or others still are losing. Unsurprisingly, different groups end up creating opposing narratives to defend or condemn the status quo, similarly to the last century’s dichotomy between Left-wing and Right-wing, albeit along different separating social lines.

And now the discussion becomes really interesting, and way more complex.

Let’s establish some solid points. If we compare the current situation to that of thirty, forty or fifty years ago, is mankind generally better or worse off?

This is a difficult question. As Kahneman taught us, the answer depends largely on the “mythological” narrative we have built of the past, in addition to the weight we give to those fleeting personal feelings. The gap between those perceptions and the answers that classical metrics provide (and with which we traditionally measure the quality of life) can be abysmal

I recently read a fairly sturdy book that relies on solid data to show that the human condition has improved a lot according to pretty much all the metrics. For example, a look at the graph of life expectancy demonstrates that, even in Africa, people have today the life expectancy that Western countries enjoyed only as recently as the 50’s .

One of the many stats that show how things got a lot better over the last century

The book in question is “Enlightenment NOW ”  by American psychologist (and scientific writer) Steven Pinker .

Steven Pinker relies on data to depict the world in an optimistic light (fonte: WikiPedia)

Pinker looks at the life of contemporary man and assesses different aspects: What does a salary buy. The medical care a population generally has access to. General schooling levels. Life expectancy in different countries. And so on.

In a nutshell: globally, we are generally better off now than we have ever been in the past. And there is more. Pinker explains that globalization made this possible, i.e. the global architecture wherein every country produces the goods whose production it masters best and exports them at low cost all over the world. Pinker also states that differences in wealth and social class have created prosperity even for the poorest, and that, if the rich earn a lot and others earn something, it is generally a good thing: in the end everyone walks out with a gain.

Personally, I think that we should handle Pinker’s optimism with care. If, on the one hand, it is true that the system based on free markets, civil rights and free movement of people and goods has worked well until today, on the other, nothing guarantees that the formula will continue to function indefinitely. The ecological problem is the first consequence of a growth that cannot be unlimited. In addition to that, today’s tumultuous technological developments will have enormous consequences for people’s jobs and other aspects of our society.

That being said, there is little question: the situation of the average person today is vastly better as compared to an average individual even just a few decades ago. So let’s accept with reserve the notion that, according to pretty much all the classical metrics, mankind is much better off now than it was before.

How come, then, that things don’t add up and populists still enlist millions of enraged people in most Western countries? According to common logic, a person whose basic needs are now met better than a few decades ago should be relatively happy with the situation.

Which mechanism leads a person with a decent job to wear a yellow vest, hit the street and smash everything? Or to confidently vote for political figures and parties that are blatantly inadequate and have no viable political offer, except a vague promise to change everything without even explaining how?

If Pinker was here in front of me, I would ask him: “How can you say that people are happy if they declare themselves dissatisfied and, above all, act as such?”

“The Game” (A. Baricco) and “Enlightenment NOW” (S. Pinker), both available in the Informant’s private library.

As usual, psychology explains fairly simply what various funny narratives don’t explain at all. In particular, we need to understand the three aspects that play a fundamental role in shaping people’s narratives and the beliefs.

I have already discussed Kahneman’s experiencing-self vs. remembering-self dichotomy. This is one aspect. The other two are envy and fear. Envy and fear can feed funny narratives and lead millions of people into perceptions that are not coherent with measurable reality. From there to disruptive choices, including irrational ones, it is but a short step. This is even more true in a world where traditional media and social media are formidable (and widely available) tools to influence minds through cognitive biases.

Let’s proceed with order.

Envy

As far as dissatisfaction goes, having one’s basic needs met is not necessarily enough to be happy. Believe it or not, having enough for ourselves may no longer be enough if some around us have more. Particularly if TV and social media are there to remind us of this situation all the time. Particularly if we convince ourselves that the 1000-euros iPhone, the exotic vacation or the new car will bring happiness. Particularly if we come to the conclusion that the lack of access to certain consumerist vanities is unfair.

Envy is a deeply-rooted feeling. It is so strong that it is not even a human exclusive: envy has been demonstrated in monkeys and also in other mammals. A Dutch ethologist, Frans de Waal, is the author of surprising discoveries about monkeys and their moral values. If De Waal had not shown us otherwise, we would only attribute those values to humans. A particularly significant experiment has placed two Capuchin monkeys in neighboring cages . The human lab agent instructed each monkey to return one of the marbles it had in the cage. As a reward, each monkey received a piece of cucumber, a reward that they both found adequate for their effort.

Frans De Waal’s experiment demonstrates envy among monkeys

At one point the operator started to reward the second monkey with a more delectable grape, while the first continued to receive cucumber. Well, the first monkey resents the situation, throwing the cucumber back at the agent and shaking the fence of the cage furiously as a display of anger for the unfair treatment. “What the heck did you give me? I want grapes too!” the monkey would have screamed if it had the gift of speech.

Obviously, envy and a sense of fairness are not exclusively human features. Rather, we share them with other animals. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that experiments with dogs and elephants have led to similar results.

That being the case, how can we be surprised that many humans also find it unfair that some members of society have more than others (themselves, to be specific)? And it is not surprising that the history of humanity has passed through Marxism, which is the most powerful attempt ever to create an egalitarian narrative.

Marxism has essentially died out, overcome by the recognition that life is better in democratic countries with free-market economies. A system that distributes wealth unevenly is better than one that distributes poverty equally to everyone. The decline of Marxism, however, did not represent the decline of envy. If we replace the cucumber with a €1300 salary, we get a striking similarity between the Frans De Waal’s monkey and our contemporary Homo Populista.

Fear

As Cambridge Analytica knew (and probably still knows today), if you want to manipulate consensus, the best way is to shift it a little step at the time, making threatening images flash in people’s minds. People will take care of the rest by creating “reaction narratives” in response to the perceived threat. Obviously these narratives go in the direction intended by the manipulator.

Unsurprisingly, fear has a predominant weight in the human mind. Until 2 or 300.000 years ago, humans were more or less halfway in the food chain. Lions, panthers, crocodiles and sharks were all species we would better steer clear of: confrontation would hardly see the human prevail. Then we discovered that, with language, we could get organized and take all the other species for a ride, making them harmless, subjugating them in some cases. Our sense of danger, however, has remained the same: over-developed for the threats of our world, but, at the same time, unable to handle the new threats, such as the use of social media to manipulate our thoughts.

Skillful manipulators can trigger our fears to convince us to take out an insurance policy, buy a gun or vote for a political huckster that professes to be a sworn enemy of criminals, particularly foreign ones.

For right-wing populists, fear of foreigners is an all too easy button to push. There is a continent of 1.2 billion people pressing to come to Italy and Europe. The ethics of human rights and free movement of people may no longer be adequate to handle the problem. The “sovereignist” narrative finds fertile ground in this context and fear serves as an excellent fertilizer. I do not address the issue in this article because I have already done this before (in Italian). The risk of massive immigration from Africa makes people feel threatened and this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The immigration aspect is not the only one that triggers fear in Westerners.  A more subtle threat might turn out to be even more frightening. Globalization has had many positive sides until now. Yet it begins to scare many, especially considering the latest perspectives that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is opening up, which almost certainly will translate into hundreds of millions of lost jobs.

A few days ago, newspapers and newscasts talked about Davide Dattoli, a fellow Italian who, thanks to his creation, Talent Garden, entered the list of “Forbes 30 under 30” of young entrepreneurs, the only Italian in the group. A really smart guy.

Davide Dattoli, Talent Garden CEO and founder, interviewed on Italian TV

Italian newscaster TG1 interviewed him and Dattoli said:

The real challenge today is to understand that jobs will change continuously. Every five years new jobs are born and die. The new standard is learning the skills for a new job, going to work and immediately going back to learning.

[journalist] What will the jobs of tomorrow be, tomorrow meaning in one year, and not necessarily twenty?

We see more and more the need for software developers who are becoming the blue collars of the future. We see the need for data experts, people who use data to build new solutions. The need for user experience experts who can apply ​​digital design to technology. But also marketing experts who master online communication to companies. 

When I heard this statement, I thought of various things. I thought that, at least up to a few years ago, I could blithely have declared the same thing. Moreover, IT workers know what Dattoli is talking about very well. Being a computer engineer means being constantly forced to keep up to date. No sooner does one acquaint themselves with the latest amazing development framework than, a short three years later, that framework is already considered old and a more modern challenger stands up to take its place. Or even a brand new paradigm that makes the existing stuff look obsolete.

Today, however, I would tread carefully before making a statement like that. And not because I think it is no longer true (it is!), but because it looks damn close to the description of a dystopian future, a future where people, far from living peaceful and satisfying lives, are bound to be frustrated and constantly struggling with a sense of inadequacy. Not to mention the time stolen from one’s family and one’s recreational activities that make life somewhat pleasant (the experiencing-self, as we say in Italian, “claims its share too”).

Let’s consider this. Throughout our lives, when we have talked about the beauties and advantages of technology, we have always done so by explaining all the bad things that have been wiped out and all the beautiful things that have come to stay. Off the top of my head: clean water, plenty of food, warm houses in winter that turn cool in summer, medical care (moot in the US, but please, no digression), free and immediate access to knowledge, cinema, television, etc. A bargain for everyone, apparently.

This is all fantastic, yet, suddenly, things may no longer add up. If learning a trade at a young age won’t be enough to earn a living and we will be forced to re-invent ourselves constantly well into our senior age in a constantly changing world, what would distinguish our condition from that of modern slavery?

And have we even considered that not everyone has the ability to adapt, especially after the age of fifty? How do we deal with those who wait tables for a living or drive a cab? Do we also advise them to become software developers, graphic designers or Machine Learning experts? And it’s not only about cab drivers. Doctors, lawyers, journalists and teachers risk being replaced by computers and machines. Anxiety could assail even those who have always considered themselves safe.

If the situation is what Dattoli describes, one can understand the distress that grips the contemporary man and woman when they sense that they cannot keep up with technological progress and everything that comes with it. From this point of view, Santarpia’s remarks seem to be grounded.

If this is the situation, we now get why people in Italy or elsewhere are no longer confident that technology will keep working wonders for them: they can sort of see the day when they will no longer have a job, but no one explains to them what they are going to do the next day.

Italian Populists (Graphic by Luca Passani).

The answer to the question

“If I did not work with technology, would I be so quick to dismiss the current situation with a ‘that’s the way it is’? Or would I create bizarre narratives and join the army of those willing to vote for the circus clown just for sake of breaking the system? “

There is no answer to the question. I don’t know for sure either. It could very well be that, if globalization had not smiled on me in some way, I would now swell the ranks of populists who are rambling on social media. Or maybe not. Perhaps my acquired taste for un-sugarcoated truth would have led me to the same conclusions, albeit bitter in that case. One thing is certain though: it wouldn’t make much difference in the great scheme of things.

When all is said and done, fairness, equality, rights and duties are only human inventions. The human actors act agitated on the stage of the world, then they calm down, they cry, they laugh, they change their mind according to what they think on the spur of the moment. Sometimes they create quite convincing narratives that others believe and make their own. With a little abstraction effort you can look at things from the outside. It looks like an old black and white comic movie, with a piano accompanying the frantic accelerated moves of the actors.

When things go wrong, however, there is little to laugh about. A brawl might ensue, like the one we homo sapiens enacted in the last century. And if by chance, atomic weapons were involved, today it would be worse. Much worse.

So?

Another interesting reaction was that of a Patrizia on the FB group of Radio3 Rai in which someone had posted my article on populism. The lady asked me who she should vote for at the election, based on what I had written. She resented me when I told her I didn’t have an answer for her.

The exchange was interesting. In practice Patrizia would say: “How dare you demolish my construction without indicating an alternative?” The objection is not surprising at all. Most people want one narrative to make their own and that’s it. What a pain to be continually forced to review and reinvent one’s system of beliefs and values. How did I dare bring so many convictions into question and then abandon the reader in the middle of uncharted territory to fend for themselves?

Unfortunately for Patrizia I do not have easy solutions to the problems of the world. Endorsing one Italian political party over another? No dice! I make no claims about knowing what needs to be done in the future. However, I can comment on what absolutely should not be done. The problems that stand in front of us are serious and threaten the existence of humanity. And the way to deal with them certainly is not to make concessions to the populist silliness that runs throughout Italy, Europe and the whole world.

The Challenges of the Near Future

Those who stand as candidates to run a country face immense challenges.

The climate catastrophe appears to be looming. In all probability, remedying it will mean the redde rationem of an economic model based on the assumption that unlimited growth is possible. Will the current system be able to adapt and give valid answers to enough people? Or do we risk that everything collapses leaving the whole world without institutions capable of managing chaos and avoiding catastrophic conflicts? No one has an answer right now. The traditional parties do not have it, let alone the populists who grope in the dark, with the aggravating circumstance of the lack of a governing class worthy of the name.

The other big problem is related to the changes introduced by globalization.

“9702” wrote in a comment to my article:

” Why rack one’s brains to understand the demands of millions of people who are rejecting globalization, why understand the dislike of the weaker groups against migratory waves, believing that it is all a Russian conspiracy to conquer the world (?) with the complicity of weak governments (??) is enough to put the soul at peace and continue to believe that today we live in the best of all possible worlds.

The columnist does not care about the great problems of our time,  the inequalities,  nor the fact that half of Europe has not yet recovered to pre-crisis income levels, nor that, in all of Europe, there has never been so much poverty as today, that in the USA the employment rate has been falling for 20 years: he just wants to believe that things are going well, because HE is fine “

Whenever we talk about globalization, inevitably the discourse shifts to inequalities.This, however, means taking for granted that inequalities are the absolute evil. And here is a big problem: this statement has to be proven.

We said that Steven Pinker thinks, with the support of data, that this is not the case at all. From globalization some get more than others. This is true. Much more, in fact. If you think that some “lucky winners” have accumulated wealth comparable to the GDP of a small nation, investigating the matter further certainly makes sense.

And yet, logically, the equation “inequality equals absolute evil” is not obvious at all. If we imprisoned the 100,000 richest people on the planet, confiscated all their possessions and redistributed them to the poorest 20% of the population, would we be able to improve the situation of the latter (and possibly others) significantly and lastingly? I really do not think so. We would not succeed at all. In fact the opposite effect would be guaranteed. The infrastructure that allows the world to generate goods and services that hold our economy together would fail. States would lose the resources they need to do good for society in general, not just for the rich. Whatever we do about inequality, we need to be careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by jamming a mechanism that offers something to everyone.

That said, people’s envy and their remembering-self also claim their share. A mechanism to decrease either inequality or its perception would certainly be positive. How can we figure this out?

Nobody can say with certainty, but this much seems clear: calmly and rationally. We need reforms that maximize social utility, perhaps even diminishing the sense of perceived unfairness, while preserving the middle class and the entrepreneurial class. Proletarian expropriations would bring great satisfaction to many, of course, but, once the initial euphoria had passed, we would leave a country unable to restart its economy. And it is a healthy economy that produces the resources for the welfare state, not the currency that nations can easily print.

A Quick Look at the situation in Europe and the US
The lessons of Cognitive Psychology are general enough that we can apply them to populists everywhere (and also to time-honored run-of-the-mill political propaganda, for that matter).

For example, cognitive psychology helps to explain why traditional progressive parties have succumbed to populist movements in Italy. Socialist and Marxist ideas have historically had much more traction in Europe, and Italy was no exception. After the fall of Communism, abandoning Marxism and embracing free-market ideology has made logical economic sense for left-wing parties whose agenda is protecting workers and the poorest parts of Italian society.

From the viewpoint of the experiencing-self, this move was almost a no-brainer. Better economy means more jobs, which in turn means more money for welfare. From the perspective of the remembering self, though, this has been a catastrophic faux pas. Giving up on the dream of a socialist egalitarian heaven on earth was too much to stand for those (many) who once voted for PCI, the Italian Communist Party.

The fuzzy anti-capitalist rhetoric of left-wing populists turned out to be preferable to the message that entrepreneurs were no longer exploiting workers and, suddenly, being grateful to the factory boss was proper behavior.

Donald Trump (by Antonio Giambanco/VNY).

If we look at the US, the context is quite different. For reasons that I won’t go into here, socialist ideas generally have a stigma stateside (and the first amendment barely keeps Marxism legal). Social envy is also generally frowned upon. (Being from Europe, I am constantly amazed at how differently the term socialism is perceived in the US. That’s why I put it in quotes. But let’s not digress.)

In terms of the experiencing-self,  the US has being doing OK (or even great) for the overwhelming majority of its people. As Pinker observes in his book, the American poor are fed, sheltered, have smartphones and air-conditioning. As far as the middle class goes, they have been having a great time. Saying that the richest part of the US did great for themselves would be an understatement.

What about the remembering-self? Things in the US, at least until a few years ago, have been good. Very good. Italian sociologists have often used the term ascensore sociale (social elevator) to describe how one can improve their condition and social status through education and hard work. Blue collar workers were able to send their kids to school and college, and they would end up as doctors and engineers, i.e. one social level up, hence the elevator metaphor.

While I never found the expression used in the North-American media, I think I can safely claim that nowhere else was the social elevator as active as here in the US. I can’t think of any other place where so many Italians (and Russian, French, Germans, Irish, etc. for that matter) have gone over in the last century with very few personal resources, just to end up as middle class (or even in the top 1%) one or two generations later.

Add a won world war in which the US defeated the quintessential villains, and you have the playground for a very happy remembering-self. But there are substantial challenges coming our way. Technology is changing the landscape dramatically. Artificial Intelligence is removing jobs way faster than it’s creating new ones. To add to that, you have highly-specialized (and highly paid) jobs on one side, and boring low-paying jobs on the other, which translates into fewer middle-class jobs. This is bound to translate into higher inequality that will likely trigger envy also in the US.

Lower salaries and more unemployment are bad for the experiencing-self, but they are also harmful to the remembering-self: Are we going to be nothing but anonymous cogs in a huge machine that nobody controls any longer ? This is fertile soil for all kind of narratives, possibly incompatible with one another, but all meant to cope mentally with a looming future of human irrelevance.

Unsurprisingly, the traditional liberal political offer that embraces free-markets has lost much of its appeal among its traditional electorate. That’s why even a generally rich-friendly political offer, such as Trumpism, could be presented (with a little help from Cambridge Analytica) as a viable way to jam the machinery. That’s why US left-wing champions, such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are no longer afraid to use the S-word when offering “socialist recipes” in their speeches. If socialist measures are what it takes to pull the handbrake, so be it.

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (Flickr/Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez)

Some will pick Mexicans and immigrants as the scapegoat to explain where the threat lies, while others will point at the greedy rich as the origin of all the world’s problems. Hard as it may seem to believe, these appear as two sides of the same coin: the people’s remembering-self struggling to regain its balance in the face of major changes in our society. Opposite narratives are simply the result of each individual’s attempt to remain consistent with their past narratives. After all, demolishing one’s set of beliefs and building a new one is not an activity that most humans enjoy.

The Populists are Part of the Problem

The world needs rationality. Populists are the antithesis of that. By taking advantage of social media, populists foment fear, envy and discontent to get to power, but they don’t have a rational plan that leads to improving the problems they have exploited to convince people to vote for them.

Last year it was easy to foresee what would happen had the populists come to power in Italy. The last twelve months have provided significant practical examples, both in Italy and abroad, of how the varied populist proposals are inapplicable in practice.

An Italian exit from the Euro currency is perhaps the most striking example: after having campaigned against the Euro and against Europe, the Italian populist government has chosen a finance minister who travels the world swearing on his honor that the Italian government has never even considered leaving the European monetary union .

The economic aspect is equally important. In the past, the Italian populists had spoken (among other things) of “happy economic de-growth” (decrescita felice), but obviously they have steered clear of any plans that would indicate what this means in practice (and, above all, who will pay for what). The issue was promptly abandoned once the populists got to power for fear of the economic repercussions on Italy’s growth.

As far as sensitivity to environmental problems goes, Beppe Grillo’s movement had made an ecologist choice at its foundation. In France the yellow vests took to the streets in revolt against the increase in the price of gasoline that had been decided as part of the agreements to address climate change. The 5 Stars Movement in Italy, in spite of its position as a government party, promptly supported the French protest in contradiction with its past positions.

In England the promoters of Brexit managed to win the referendum thanks to Cambridge Analytica. Unfortunately no one had thought about how to solve a whole series of fundamental questions for the country concerning trade and the borders of the state in case of a victory of the “leavers”.

Italian populists (5 Stars Movement, again) speak of Universal Basic Income (UBI), also known in Italy as Stipendio di Cittadinanza (citizenship salary). The welfare measure was financed through an increase of the Italian deficit (and therefore a public debt increase that will weigh on future generations). To date, Italian Finance Minister Tria refuses to explain how the measure will be financed next year (in Italian). Obviously the problem is only postponed.

A short aside on the Universal Basic Income. It seems obvious that those who propose it are not taking the needs of the remembering-self into account. Assuming (with reserve) that the Italian UBI meets the needs of the experiencing-self, UBI recipients will hardly be happy about their new roles of state alms beneficiary and slackers. Their remembering-self is completely humiliated. Enacting measures that help people find a job would be a wiser choice.

Conclusion

Populist movements have been on an electoral winning streak all over the world, despite the lack of a viable and adequate political offer to face today’s challenges. Some consider the populist phenomenon somewhat positive, as a harbinger of change and capable of bringing attention to people’s problems.

I disagree with this view. Through social networks, people are manipulated by those who want to achieve electoral success and by those who want to create havoc in other countries as part of geopolitical maneuvering. This leads further away from rational solutions to problems, which is what the world desperately needs.

One thing seems certain: not only do the populists have no solution, but they appear as an integral part of the problem. The populist inability to confront real problems is evident both in Italy and elsewhere. Populists hope that the constant reference to people’s feelings will magically generate solutions, but the practical experience of populist governments shows that more harm is done than good. As already explained, selecting representatives among the subjects of the Dunning-Kruger effect has led to ridiculous governments unable to devise and enact long-term plans.

And yet there are many and very serious problems to be solved.

The ecological problem could get us to the place where the free-market economy can no longer satisfy mankind’s needs, with no alternative social organization ready to take its place.

AI-supported automation threatens to wipe out hundreds of millions of jobs around the world, pushing down the salaries of those who will still have a job. Even when people’s material needs are satisfied (experiencing-self), the frustration that would result from this situation might be devastating for the remembering-self of millions of people.

Tomorrow’s sapiens (and their remembering-self) could face a challenge far worse than capitalist exploitation: uselessness and irrelevance. I have not heard any serious proposals on how to deal with these problems, neither by the populists nor by others.

How will we address challenges of a near future that is already here today? The answer to this question is what I would like to hear from those who run for leadership positions. The nonsense that populists offer is a distraction, not a solution.

 

 

 

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