Common Decency in the Populist Era

In December 2013, the former secondary schoolteacher Marian Kotleba was elected governor of the Banská Bystrica region in Central Slovakia. Kotleba was the leader of the neo-fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia, which claimed to stand up for the rights of “decent people” (slušní ľudia) in the face of corrupt politicians, “Gypsy criminals,” and the shadowy international forces of global capitalism (Walker 2019). He found his strongest support amongst the region’s first-time voters.

One of these was Veronika, a bright 18-year-old from Banská Bystrica town who one of the authors met during fieldwork. Graduating from a local high school that summer, Veronika had failed to gain entry to her chosen course at the city’s university and settled into a poorly paid clerical job. She voted for Kotleba because she felt no other candidates understood or cared about those young people who—like her—were “left behind.” Bored and disillusioned, she eventually left Slovakia for the United Kingdom, where she worked a string of jobs in hospitality and retail before gaining qualifications as a beautician. By the time of the Slovak presidential elections in March 2019, Veronika was working in a salon in a London suburb, and had started a family with a fellow Slovak émigré. While Marian Kotleba was one of the presidential candidates, Veronika opted instead to vote for the unabashedly liberal lawyer and environmental campaigner Zuzana Čaputova, casting her ballot at the Slovak Embassy. Kotleba failed to make it to the second round, and Čaputova eventually became Slovakia’s first female president in June.

Photograph of graffiti memorializing assassinated investigative journalist Ján Kuciak.
Image description: What appears to be an electrical box protrudes from a gray and off-white wall. On both surfaces, graffiti in brown, red, and blue can be seen. The blue graffiti on the box reads”Jan Hus,” below this “Jan Palach,” and directly below that is “Jan Kuciak.”
Caption: Remembering Jan (Bratislava, March 2019).
Jonathan Larson

In the wake of Brexit, the election of President Trump, and the appointment of right-wing nationalist governments from Brazil to Poland, anthropologists have increasingly turned their attention to the rise of radical left-wing and far-right populism across Europe and the Americas (Bangstad et. al. 2019; Mazzarella 2019). Veronika’s story, however, reflects something which has remained largely unacknowledged by both academics and commentators seeking to identify, understand, and explain the populist voter: namely, the fact that those who vote for far-right parties and those who vote for liberal ones may well be the very same people. Indeed, Veronika was far from the only Slovak citizen to undergo a radical political change of heart between elections. According to one Slovak analyst, many of the same people who had voted for a progressive liberal in the last presidential election in 2014 had previously backed a far-right extremist party in the parliamentary elections (Walker 2019). As anthropologists, how should we understand such apparently paradoxical voter behaviour and the contradictory political landscape it generates? And what can the Slovak experience tell us about the shifting relationship between reactionary and liberal politics in Central Europe—and beyond? On the one hand, an explanation lies in the shared “integralism” that Douglas Holmes has observed in a creeping regrouping of fascism across Europe. To the extent that figures such as Kotleba and Čaputová also promise to “shake things up,” however, integralism cannot completely explain this strange relationship between the reactionary and the liberal.

Many commentators in the British and American press have celebrated the election of Čaputova as evidence of a new liberal force in Slovak politics and a decisive step away from the populisms and “illiberal democracies” of neighbouring Poland and Hungary (Santora and Germanova 2019; Tamkin 2019). Her appointment came after months of popular political mobilization following the assassination of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé, Martina Kušnírová, in February 2018. Kuciak’s research and writing had made public the unprecedented levels of state capture, tax avoidance, and embezzlement of European Union funding with the blessing of members of the ruling coalition party SMER-SD (Direction – Social Democracy) (Kuciak 2018). These revelations, as well as the brutality of the murder itself, led a group of young activists to found the movement, “For a decent Slovakia” (Za Slušné Slovensko). They spearheaded a series of mass demonstrations that called for an independent investigation of the murders and the resignation of the government. The protests also ushered  a new generation of civic activists onto the national political scene, which had until then been dominated by career politicians: human-rights lawyers, think tankers, and non-profit activists in their mid-30s or early 40s, including the mayor of Bratislava, architect Matuš Vallo, and Zuzana Čaputova herself.

Those who vote for far-right parties and those who vote for liberal ones may well be the very same people.

The protests of 2018, however, also saw the birth of a particular anti-politics that turned matters of governance into questions about civility, morality, and personal integrity. Key to these discussions was the term “decency” (slušnosť), evoked in equal measure by liberal civic activists and conservative centrists, as well as anti-system groups on the far right. For the former, decency reflected a desire to establish and enforce some basic moral ground rules for political conduct. It evoked both liberal ideals of public conduct, fairness and equity, as well as more politically and socially conservative notions of propriety and respectability. For the latter, the call for “decency” took on an altogether more restricted meaning, referring to the failure of political elites to recognize and address the everyday struggles of ordinary, hardworking Slovaks. Indeed, well before the events of 2018, Marian Kotleba made references to such “decent people” his trademark, claiming to take a genuine interest in the humble preoccupations of those citizens overlooked by corrupt politicians and greedy oligarchs. During the public rituals of mourning and political protest that followed Ján Kuciak’s death, these two meanings appeared to merge; decency became the touchstone for both calls for universal values and democratic change, and populist calls for the protection of “our people” from predatory elites. The phrase emerged as a politically ambiguous slogan that had the potential to mobilise enough people across the political spectrum, where other anti-elite movements had stalled.

Recent events in Slovakia warrant closer attention from anthropologists precisely because they reveal the ways in which established paradigms of political analysis used by the news media can fall short. “Decency” did not register with journalists and political commentators in the international or domestic press. Perhaps this was because of its conservative appeal: rather than promising to threaten the existing order, it pleaded for the restoration of its ethical underpinnings. Similar to cries the of “impunity” in Argentina recorded by Karen Faulk (2012), or traditions of mumming in Bulgaria described by Gerald Creed (2011), the emergence of “decency” as a uniting force thus illustrates the inherent instability of political signs. It also hints at possible reasons for the apparently paradoxical behaviour amongst Slovak voters. Part of the appeal of political figures such as Kotleba and Čaputová was their commitment to the restoration of inner truthssuch as common decencythat lie within the folk (ľud, Volk). As such, contemporary European fascism and contemporary European liberalism draw from a common well.

Nicolette Makovicky is assistant professor at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford. She is the editor of Neoliberalism, Personhood, Postsocialism: Enterprising Selves in Changing Economies, and co-editor of Economies of Favour after Socialism and Slogans: Subjection, Subversion and the Politics of Neoliberalism.

Jonathan Larson is associate director of the European Union Center at the University of Illinois, and author of Critical Thinking in Slovakia after Socialism. His recent work on surveillance scandals in Central Europe was just republished with a new postscript for a special issue of PoLAR on digital politics.

Juraj Buzalka is associate professor of social anthropology at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. He has just completed his work on the monograph Cultural Economy of Protest in Post-Socialist European Union. His first monograph was Nation and Religion: The Politics of Commemoration in South-east Poland.

Cite as: Makovicky, Nicolette, Jonathan Larson, and Juraj Buzalka. 2020. “Common Decency in the Populist Era.” Anthropology News website, June 11, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1419

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