Mabel Berezin


On her book Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Culture, Security and Populism in the New Europe

Cover Interview of September 24, 2009

The wide angle

My work concerns democracy, culture and political engagement.  Scholars usually analyze democracy through the study of liberal political regimes and movements or post-authoritarian transitions.  In contrast, I have focused on illiberal politics to explore the conditions for democratic practices.  I begin from the premise that we can learn much about democracy and democratization by exploring illiberal regimes—such as inter-war fascism—as well as the conditions under which illiberal or non-democratic movements emerge—such as in contemporary Europe.

My first book, Making the Fascist Self argued that Italian fascism principally rejected the split between the public and private self, the core of liberal democracy.  It hypothesized that at particular historical moments certain social groups perceive the cultural bifurcation of a public and private self to be untenable and that political movements and parties that reject this split on cultural grounds gain political ascendance.

Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times revisits many of the claims about liberalism and illiberalism that I first explored in Making the Fascist Self.  My new book is a cultural analysis of the populist response, particularly its right wing manifestations, to changing political and social environments of contemporary Europe.

The book argues that the right is primarily a response to changes in the nature and structure of the European nation-state and the way individuals situate themselves and are situated within the nation-state.  If we think of the nation-state in terms of experiential and legal security, then we can conceptualize it as an arena that adjudicates risk for its members.  To the extent that it contains threat and minimizes risk for its members, then it will be able to ensure a generalized type of democracy that brings democratic sentiments in line with democratic procedures.

The interconnected dimensions of Europeanization—the expanding processes of European integration, and of globalization—have altered the social and political landscape of contemporary Europe.  Insecurity in both the public and private domain has been one response to these processes.  Fear—of immigrants, crime, disease, unemployment, and now terrorism—has become a recurrent theme in European public discourse.  Europeanization and globalization have fueled social and cultural anxieties that imbue the rhetoric of fear with emotional resonance as well as political salience.  Although the European right is not alone in its evocation of insecurity, it has been the most effective in bringing the emotion of fear to the foreground of political discourse in Europe.

The summary point is that when the European nation-state begins to mutate, if not dissolve, due to the push of European integration and the attendant processes of Europeanization, then the evolving political space reconfigures both the social and cultural relations as well as institutional relations upon which the old nation-state had been built.