The ‘Populists’ and the ‘Experts’

February 28, 2013   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

Italian Elections

By Costas Panayotakis

The reporting by the New York Times of the recent election in Italy suggests, yet again, that confusion regarding the European crisis continues to reign supreme in the newspaper’s editorial offices.  This is, for example, how Liz Alderman and Jack Ewing begin a recent article on the topic:

“The political gridlock in Italy revives a question that hasn’t been heard lately: Is the euro zone crisis really over?” (i)

Citing the turbulence in global financial markets after the announcement of the Italian election’s inconclusive result, Alderman and Ewing go on to conclude that “the answer seems to be no.”  This may seem like a ‘mea culpa,’ given the fact that Alderman and Ewing had only a month earlier opined that ‘progress’ was being made in the euro zone, but even that earlier article, despite its premature and self-contradictory optimism, was in effect asking the question that, according to Alderman and Ewing, had stopped being asked.(i)  To the extent, moreover, that this question was not being posed more often, this was not, as Alderman and Ewing imply, because people thought the crisis was over but because all serious analysts knew that, in fact, it was not.

And yet, despite their inability to remember what they themselves wrote not so long ago, Alderman and Ewing have not lost their knack for arguments that seem self-contradictory because they adopt the standpoint not of the majority but of the capitalist elites busily transforming much of the European continent into an economic and social wasteland.  Indeed, on the one hand, Alderman and Ewing present the brutal austerity policies imposed on a number of European countries as making “headway in improving their economies” and as “conditions intended to make their economies perform better.”  On the other hand, Alderman and Ewing admit that these same austerity policies “have hampered growth in Italy and elsewhere in the euro currency union,” “are impeding the economic rebound that might help [European countries] grow their way out of financial distress” and “making it harder, rather than easier, to stoke the growth needed to reduce the mountain of debt that set off the euro zone’s crisis in the first place.”

The reason these statements are not self-contradictory but can be understood as reflecting the standpoint of capital is made clear by Alderman and Ewing’s remarkable statement that many European leaders “have grudgingly adopted austerity to keep the euro zone crisis at bay, despite recessions and rising unemployment.”  What makes this statement remarkable is that recession and catastrophically high unemployment are not seen as integral elements of the euro zone crisis and the structural imbalances within the euro zone that brought this crisis about.  Instead, the euro zone crisis is equated with the threat that the euro may collapse, thus also liquidating all the benefits that European capitalist elites have long reaped from the euro zone project.  As long as these benefits are not endangered, the swelling armies of unemployed and destitute people across the European continent are not enough to justify the description of the euro zone’s economic situation as a crisis.

To be fair, Alderman and Ewing are not the only New York Times reporters to misrepresent the European economic situation in this way.  Also reacting to the Italian voters’ resounding rejection of pro-austerity political forces, Rachel Donadio and Nicholas Kulish inform us that “[n]ow, experts are asking whether politicians are capable of promoting plans that offer a way out of the malaise – or whether they could be elected if they did.”(iii)  While Donadio and Kulish’s attribution of this view to ‘experts’ seeks to give their analysis a scientific veneer, the kind of experts they have in mind becomes clear when they quote “Eckhard Jesse, professor of political systems and institutions at the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany.”  According to Professor Jesse, “[t]he governing parties tilt ever more toward populism instead of making decisions that are important but unpopular.”  Populism is, of course, the bête noir du jour for neoliberal politicians and scholars, who have learned nothing from their repeated failures to correctly predict the catastrophic results of the austerity policies they espouse.  As for who the ‘populists’ are, they are usually the politicians and scholars who correctly predicted these catastrophic results even before austerity had had the time to work its wonders.  Of course, the latter groups of scholars are not the ones whom Donadio and Kulish pay attention to – presumably, having one’s ideas be confirmed by reality disqualifies one from being a true ‘expert’.  And, conversely, the fact that the kind of decisions that Professor Jesse deems “important but unpopular” have, as even Donadio and Kulish admit, “helped collapse [Greece’s] real economy” does not presumably place in doubt Professor Jesse’s expertise.

Bottom line: if you want to figure out what is going on around you, stop listening to the ‘experts’ and start listening to what the ‘populists’ have to say.


Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at the New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press).


(i)  See Liz Alderman and Jack Ewing, “Italian Deadlock Rekindles Anxiety About Euro Zone,”

(ii) See Liz Alderman and Jack Ewing, “Despite Signs of Progress in the Euro Zone, Fears of Complacency Linger,”  For my critique of that article, see “On Europe’s Progress,” NYTimes eXaminer, .

(iii) See Rachel Donadio and Nicholas Kulish, “Inconclusive Vote in Italy Points to Fragmenting of Political System,”


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