Neoliberalism and Populism: A Short Survey by Mahmut Mutman

There are two ways in which we can talk about the relationship between neoliberalism and populism. Populism often emerges as a response to the crisis produced by neoliberalism, or alternatively (and paradoxically) they work in combination, i.e. neoliberal policies are implemented by populist governments. This initial categorization is only helpful to a certain extent and should not be taken at face value, as these phenomena are more dynamic than they appear when viewed from within a standard approach.

As the economic and social costs of the implementation of neoliberal program are borne by the working classes and poorest groups everywhere, neoliberal governments are often overthrown or replaced by populist movements—various Latin American and Asian populisms as well as Trump’s recent victory are the main examples. Populism has two major characteristics: (i) it divides the political and social space into two antagonistic camps; (ii) it constructs a “true” and “authentic” people as one of the camps, while the other, enemy camp is constructed as having an elitist, parasitical nature and being foreign to the interests or life style of the majority. The construction of the enemy, and accordingly the appellation of “true” people, shows a significant variation between right and left populisms. For instance, in the USA, Donald Trump’s right wing populism constructs the enemy as “the immigrants protected by the liberal establishment who is alienated from the interests of real American people” (and the same can be said for various European right wing populisms, though the presence of “EU” instead of “liberal establishment” gives these populisms a different tone of nationalism), whereas the Latin American left wing populism constructs the enemy as “the neoliberal, IMF-supported elite who is against the interests of poor working class people.” National identity (often with a strong racial implication or even plain racism) is essential for right wing populism, even though one always hears references to the “hard working people, simple American” etc. In Latin American left wing populism however, both the enemy and the victim are defined in class terms. It is not that left populism has no national address, but it is never racist (often quite the contrary as in Bolivia or Venezuela). Last but not least, the fact that these populisms, which are almost opposite each other, share some similar characteristics makes us wonder if populism is a generic ideology on its own or the form politics takes under conditions of crisis and antagonism.

The ideology of neoliberalism is distinguished by a set of politico-economic axioms that lies at its core: free market, enterprise, privatization, deregulation, financialisation, etc. But it also seems to have a salient capacity to adapt to different circumstances, from Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile to the rule of law in USA or UK. It would be wrong, for instance, to think that neoliberalism is racist by definition because it is hegemonic. It is compatible with the neoliberal axioms to bring unskilled labor force from peripheral regions insofar as it helps to reduce the cost of reproduction. Neoliberalism is not necessarily against multiculturalism or immigrants (even though there is a difference between B. Clinton’s and G. W. Bush’s versions). And yet, we know historically that in many peripheral countries, it was impossible to put the neoliberal program into implementation without a military regime in power (1973 in Chile, 1980 in Turkey). Neoliberalism seems to be capable of maintaining its “economic nucleus” across varying contexts and allies.

This brings us to the second category: neoliberalism implemented by populism. This is widely observed in peripheral societies: Menem in Argentine (1989-1999), Fujimori in Peru (1990-2000) and Erdogan (2003-) in Turkey are major examples. While populism is associated with charismatic leaders and plebiscitary tendencies, neoliberalism operates by elite, technocratic decision-making mechanisms. Although this is true to a great extent especially in “the neoliberal crisis-populist response” model, it cannot be considered as exhaustive of the possible range of relations between these two political formations. The neoliberal axiom of creating new markets by privatization and deregulation gives it a strong anti-elite thrust fighting “state bureaucracy”. Hence it shares an anti-status quo position with populism. Once in power, populists are in need of stability and development that may be provided by neoliberal programs. In this respect, all three examples above share quite similar patterns: the project of creating successful entrepreneurs from the small and medium sized companies and the informal sector; replacing white elite bureaucracy with new cadres of well-trained experts from lower middle class and provincial areas; World Bank and IMF-supported emergency programs giving the urban and rural poor some access to government benefits (schools, health, etc. for the excluded groups); cultural nationalism and a sense of participation and voice, even though restricted. This combination is no magical formulation for success, as it ends up in severe economic and political crisis, usually finding itself in an authoritarian chaos.

It is difficult to forecast whether there is another possibility of a neoliberal populism or a populist neoliberalism in the Western metropolitan centers, following the victory of Trump in the USA and in the eve of coming French and Dutch elections in Europe. One should also not forget the considerable force of left wing populism in Europe (Spain, Greece).

Mahmut Mutman teaches critical theory, media and cultural studies in the Department of Cinema and Television and is the coordinator of the M.A. Program in Cultural Studies at Istanbul Sehir University. He is the author of The Politics of Writing Islam: Voicing Difference; he has co-edited a special issue of Inscriptions titled “Orientalism and Cultural Differences” and a collection on Orientalism, Hegemony and Cultural Difference (in Turkish) as well as several articles on orientalism, nationalism, postmodernism, and film and media in Cultural Critique, Postmodern Culture, New Formations, Rethinking Marxism, Anthropological Theory, Radical Philosophy, Third Text and Toplum ve Bilim.

Fight fire with fire! Revisiting the Torture Problem by Robert Imre

When it comes to war, terror, and political violence, fighting fire with fire only makes you fight in a burning house. Decades of research tells us that it makes no practical sense whatsoever, when engaged in a violent contest with terrorists, to use torture.

Intelligence organizations themselves say that they do not use torture to get information as it is unreliable and the 9/11 report confirmed that no reliable information was gleaned from the use of torture. In the hysteria following the 9/11 attacks, parts of the US intelligence community chose to ignore what they knew about torture, and mistakenly thought they might gain an advantage by attempting these practices. The disappointing complicity of the American Psychological Association made the practice even more problematic.

The utility of torture is to be found elsewhere and this is why dictators can use torture to keep people in line, not to glean information (Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s). Torture one person randomly, then do a series of random house searches and take away political prisoners, and then threaten to torture people some more. This is a process as old as dictatorships and totalitarian regimes themselves. But torture usually has the opposite effect on committed terrorists and/or insurgencies.

Once a group of people see a common cause and are motivated enough to enact forms of political violence, through hopelessness, criminality, stupidity, or perhaps even just pure evil, torture becomes a mere theatre of destruction. The question of torture being raised again might demonstrate the frustration that people might feel with unresolved political issues that lead to violence. If we want revenge, and we seek to make that vengeance public and carnivalesque, then torture functions just fine. But it does not get us reliable information on our enemies, and it entrenches a victim mentality that terrorists can continue to use to get people to join their cause. ‘Crackdowns’ on political violence have limited effect as in Northern Ireland and numerous other examples.

We know from decades of examples that there must be some form of political accommodation, and some redress of political grievances. This must be done through intelligent political leadership. Without that the violence continues.

The solutions must be political solutions. Torture itself has never been a tool that does anything beyond two things: entrenches political grievance forever so that victims of torture always have a legitimate reason to enact violence on their aggressors, and gives dictatorial powers to political leaders seeking to control their own people through fear. Torture does not work in terms of stopping terrorists as individuals or terrorist organizations.

There are a number of other problems associated with torture, and especially as linked to terrorism. In terms of fighting terrorism, torture is not effective in gathering intelligence and information that might give authorities an upper hand.

Dr Robert Imre is currently Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at The University of Newcastle, Australia and a Fellow with the Space and Political Agency Research Group (SPARG) at the University of Tampere.

Nationalism, Populism, Globalism: Brexit and Trump 

by Robert Imre

The victory of Donald Trump as President of the United States has been reported in various ways as a shock,  just as the Brexit vote was reported to have shocked people in the UK and the US.

The nationalist (and in the United States, the old term ‘nativist’ is often used) elements, coupled with a resurgence of populism, are specific factors that can be traced to help us understand how this political situation has developed. As a political scientist I see this as both commonplace, as well as a much longer process of (at least) beginning in the Thatcher and Reagan neo-conservative/neo-liberalisms begun in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The new ‘reality TV’ version of media management begun in the late ‘90s opened the door to a ‘post-factive’ political communication delivering populist politicians. The medium really did become the message.

As such, I suggest here that both results can also be seen as unremarkable in terms of modern politics and how political machines and election cycles operate. Through my own conversations with political science colleagues over the past several months, we had similar conclusions, both that Brexit was a real possibility and were not surprised when it eventuated. Similarly, a Trump presidency was not far-fetched and there was a path that he could take that could possibly bring victory. Google translate will give you a pretty clear view here.


Secessionist movements have been around as long as there have been states and nations so it should not be a surprise when states, that is to say some form of a modern constituent political units, that are bound together through trade or political agreements, decide to split (and possibly join other political configurations). 

These (attempted) splits can occur due to any number of factors and are often the result of trade issues, social movements, nationalist revivals, anti-colonialism, and any combination of these factors will change the political unit of state and alter borders. Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the British Raj, Quebec and Scottish secessionist attempts, Singapore and Malaysia, the list goes on and will continue to go on in the future (one can Wikipedia them all for backgrounds on political origins). 


The UK had been leaning more and more towards looking like some of it’s multilingual, multiethnic and multicultural progressive former colonies (especially Canada and New Zealand and to some extent Australia) in the post-WW2 period. The backlash here, mainly as a result of a disenfranchised post-industrial working class and rising xenophobia spurred on by a ‘post-factive’ set of election campaigns, is leading England and Wales towards a reformation to make that political constituency appear more like small and mid-sized European states (Hungary for example): creating the false notion of an ethno-nation, rather than a cosmopolitan civic polity. This is seen as way to stem the tide of the negative effects of late-industrial capitalism and the entrenchment of neo-liberalism, especially by a particular elite that sees their own power-base dwindling in the face of some form of political consociationalism. Ironically, led by a core of professional politicians who were instrumental in this neoliberal entrenchment, and taking pride in misinformation, this is also a global movement, stronger in some times and places and weaker in others, that looks very much like the Trump presidential campaign: retreating to a ‘new nationalism’.

Trump is not Unique:

We have seen this before in the post-Cold War period with both Berlusconi in Italy and Putin in Russia (as well as many others) in the post-Cold War period. Campaigns run in the same manner, by similar personalities, and entrenched in the political imagination of their respective constituencies. The Trump campaign demonstrated a miscalculation on the part of their opponents, both inside and outside the Republican party, and saw the disaffected ‘rust-belt’ voters who would normally vote Democrat, and may well have at least split their vote with Bernie Sanders, go with Trump’s totally malleable misogyny and racism. While there are a number of other demographic events here, this is probably the lynchpin, and played in to Trump’s appalling rhetoric about women, Muslims, Mexicans, and so on. This is almost exactly the same tactic that Australian Prime Minister Howard used in his first two election victories (although the misogynism was not so overt, and the ‘other’ obviously did not involve Mexican people) and it created the notion of the ‘aspirational voter’: working class (or ‘battlers’ in the Australian vernacular), in many cases the losers of global neoliberalism, who sought a way out not through labor unions, but in going after a constructed other and pushing women out of the political and economic spheres. Howard was not a reality TV star, but his political campaigns were very much about bringing a disenfranchised blue-collar class to vote for a political party that created a false ‘other’, coupled with a false hope, and Australia has been doing so ever since. Ignoring the participation in the heroic rescues of the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ in the early ‘80s, asylum-seekers arriving by boats are locked away in internment camps not seen since WW2 while at the same time globalization and the associate problems continues unabated. 

Today we have a situation where plenty of people are willing to vote for reality-TV personalities, who promise everything, use brash and insulting language, and appear as some kind of demagogue seeking to fix the unfixable. This certainly is an accurate reflection of American popular culture, including all of those negative aspects of misogyny and racism that are so deeply embedded. It is also a reflection of a global popular culture of misogyny and racism, and populist political movements reflect this, using the most crass of media techniques pushed forward by the reality TV phenomenon, and as such not needing to rely on facts, science or research of any kind. This is more than mere sloganeering, it is a deliberate campaign of deceit, lies and misinformation by political opportunists: the Brexit and Trump campaigns encapsulated.


It was delusional of the progressives in the US to think that rational argument will win the day. Playing on these core cultural tropes meant that there was no need for Berlusconi, Trump, or Boris Johnson to show a detailed policy plan on how to fix the global economy. Who would read it? The delusions played on, with people of all kinds claiming they will ‘move to Canada’ or New Zealand if Trump won, thinking that their privilege extended to the global as to be able to move to another country when their own side loses an election. 

What next?:

Questions about what the future might hold is something else, including the Grand Game questions about Russia and China, global trade, and the ongoing struggle with political violence. For both the US and the UK there are many unanswered questions, and like Berlusconi and other populists, they wont have a plan, they will answer them on the day.

Dr Robert Imre is currently Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at The University of Newcastle, Australia and a Fellow with the Space and Political Agency Research Group (SPARG) at the University of Tampere.

Once Upon a Time In Anatolia (2012)


Text by Heikki A. Kovalainen

To start the new academic year 2016–2017, we had the pleasure of watching Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2012), a meditative murder mystery by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, having made his name earlier with the film Uzak – Distant (and winning Palme d’or at Cannes with Winter Sleep in 2014). The film was chosen and introduced to us by our colleagues, Mahmut Mutman and Meyda Yegenoglu, who were most kind to give us a chance to develop our own interpretations of the film, alongside their perspectives.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, as Prof. Mutman noted in his general remarks on the film, is a film having won high praise in the corpus of an impressive director. The film numbers, among other rankings, in the BBC’s The 21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films (placing 54th on that list), so our expectations were high.

Ceylan’s film, however, poses multiple challenges to the spectator, since it treats not only its protagonists but also its central events in a deceptively simple manner. The film circles around a minimalistic plot: Five men drive around the Anatolian steppes, searching for a lost body that is finally found once night turns to day, and the ensuing events seek to make sense of what the murder means. All of the protagonists are men (the murder suspect, a police officer, a prosecutor, a doctor and the chauffeur “Arab”), making up a kind of Kafkaesque constellation of bureaucratic and professional roles, with intertwined interests. No attempts are made to disguise their masculinity.

Some spectators, indeed, may see the film as a nonreflective treatment of masculinity, with allegorical reflections on the meaning of life. I, however, resist an allegorical reading of the film not least because the film refers more to itself than to other texts. This is the case, in particular, with the little stories-within-a-story in the film. Most importantly, there’s a recurring narrative being told between the protagonists of a woman having committed suicide, allegedly to take revenge on her husband guilty of betrayal. Thus the theme of feminine protest surfaces in the film, albeit obliquely.


Among the discussants present in our film session, disagreement arose precisely on this front: to do with the treatment of women in the film. I’ll address this point only briefly, since the matter is complex. Our interpretations of the film varied from virtual misogynism to reading it as a feminist criticism of masculine power structures. Perhaps the best synthetic remark in this respect was made by Pirjo Nikander, who noted the film’s dealing with ubiquitous power structures (be they between men, or anybody else); how they pervade our human lives at every possible level.

Second, a less heated debate emerged concerning the question of aesthetic uniqueness of the film. There were those among us who thought the film was good but not unique and those for whom the film really stood out as a distinctive cinematographic accomplishment. I count myself in the latter group, largely because the film’s narration is exceptionally coherent: with all the dialogues forming an intricate network of cross-references; with the cinematography showing masterful treatment of light and shade both in the night and in daytime; and with the sophisticated use of rhetorical strategies such as formalist techniques of defamiliarization.


Defamiliarization takes place in the film, in particular, through a repeated gesture of showing a sequence of events taking place, say, an examination of the dead body, coupled with verbal dictation of these very events onto a police investigation tape – which creates an odd effect of coupling not entirely dissimilar to defamiliarization. For me, all of this contributes to a distinctive aesthetic experience. I view Once Upon a Time In Anatolia as a phenomenological, down-to-earth depiction of men seeking to find the truth of who died and how. The interactions between the protagonists are depicted with exceptional smoothness and spontaneity, interrupted mostly only by bodily scruples linked with eating biscuit, yoghurt, apples or pumpkins.

Discussion on the relative uniqueness of a given work of art may be ultimately futile, for even the great classics in the history of any art form are in some respects unique but in others not so much (just think of, say, Hamlet, which consists not only of a plagiarized plot but also plagiarized lines, in addition to those penned by Shakespeare). Whether a book or a film earns our high praise depends on how we, as readers or spectators, are successful in interpreting overt and covert messages of the piece, unveiling the artistic techniques doing their work through the artwork at hand.


Leviathan (2014)

leviathan the Itself

Text by Jukka Tyrkkö, Pia Koivunen & Heikki A. Kovalainen

Leviathan is one of the internationally most recognized Russian films of the last decade. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (1964-), the film was released in 2014 to rave reviews and much controversy. A bleak, uflinchingly naturalistic depiction of a layman’s life in contemporary Russia, Leviathan was enthusiastically received in the West – and it’s been this very enthusiasm that’s made the Russian authorities somewhat nervous.

Putting it briefly, Leviathan is a story about a man who loses everything. The tragedy takes place in a fictitious small town by the sea near Murmansk, in North-West Russia. The local administration, especially the mayor of the town, Vadim, wants to expropriate a property on the Barents sea coast in order to redevelop the region. The owner of the property, a middle-aged mechanic Nikolai (Kolya) doesn’t want give up without a fight and takes the case to court. What follows is a Kafkaesque battle between a little man and corrupted local administration.

Reactions to the film have been very mixed in Russia. The current Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinski, has accused the director for trying to court Western audiences. The film was warmly received in the West, indeed, and it’s been precisely this enthusiasm that’s made the Russian audiences somewhat nervous, as they’ve found the film to be depicting contemporary Russia in a disturbingly grim light.

At the same time, Leviathan has been praised for taking a fearlessly realistic and honest look at modern life in Russia, for depicting the plight of the underdog fighting the system, and above all, let us not forget, for its hauntingly masterful cinematography.

leviathan drinking

We had the pleasure of watching Leviathan in one of the IASR film sessions, preparing ourselves for the upcoming Winter Seminar to be held in St. Petersburg. Discussion on the film touched on various themes, for instance, the relationship between the state and the church.

The question was raised as to whether Zvyagintsev’s film presents criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, or of the illicit bond between religion and state, more generally. As a Russian film critic Yury Gladilshchkov puts it, “the film is about the faith of current Russia, about the horrible Leviathan, a corrupted state without honour and conscience, where the church safeguards the state, while the Christ is, in fact, privatised by criminals (bandits).”

Certainly, in a Russian context, one cannot help seeing the critique’s teeth gnawing primarily at domestic issues, yet a more general argument may be drawn out from the film as well. In the film, the mayor Vadim makes appeals to God – via his confessor – to justify his ruthless behavior towards Kolya. Implicitly, the film may be taken to suggest, then, that any attempt to use God to justify the state’s actions against the interests of the individual is unjust. We’re assuming that a Western spectator, at least, will side with Kolya in the way she views the film, finding the mayor’s actions without any moral footing.

Finally, a hypothesis was outlined during the discussion that there are perhaps two genres of film qua social critique. There are films, on the one end of the scale, that invest abundant energy in depicting characters’ emotions – to the extent of using melodramatic conventions – and among these, Ken Loach’s films are perhaps the prime example.

On the other end of the spectrum, social criticism can be practised via the medium of film in the Bressonian tradition. Within this genre, the director is concerned with showing incidents happening to the characters but without showing their emotions; rather, emotions are left for the audience to experience. On our view, Leviathan falls within the latter tradition – and it is precisely in the film’s dispassionate portrayal of the underdog’s fate where the power of the film lies.

leviathan scenery

Winter Seminar 2016: Russia

This year, our annual Winter Seminar headed off to St. Petersburg—a metropol exceptionally close to Finland both culturally and geographically.

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Choosing St. Petersburg as a Winter Seminar destination had been the long-cherished dream of the Institute’s Director, Risto Heiskala (shown in the middle wearing a black coat in the picture above) since at least 2014!

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The city centre is built around the gigantic river of Neva, which divides further into numerous canals and tributaries interlacing the city.

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If not so much around Jena, then at least on the bus ride to the hotel we had a chance of gaining a glimpse of everyday life in the city…


… as well as the breathtaking beauties of Imperial Russia, including the numerous Orthodox churches in the city (here showing the Peter and Paul Cathedral located in the Peter and Paul fortress, on a small island bordering the city centre) …


In Finnish, there’s a saying that if something takes exceptionally long, it takes as long as to build St. Isaac’s Cathedral—so of course, we had to see this crown jewel of Russian Orthodox churches as well.

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The weather wasn’t the best imaginable, but we didn’t let that distract us from enjoying the city—and certainly for most of us it’s something we’re quite used to!

[Photos by Marjukka Virkajärvi and Jessica de Bloom]

St. Petersburg: Seminars 1/2

The first joint seminar between the IASR Fellows and the local Russian academics circled around the broad theme of Russia in Context.

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Dr. Aleksandr Sherstobitov from St. Petersburg State University presented a network perspective on the public sphere—allegedly in existence, but in actuality struggling to function properly—in contemporary Russia.

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The second local speaker Dr. Irina Lantsova offered insider perspectives to Russian foreign policy, with the special emphasis on the “Orient”, in particular, South Korea.

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Finally, professor Dmitry Lanko‘s talk on Biopolitics and gay rights in Russia bristled with imagination and various humorous quips to the questions posed by the IASR audience after the talk.

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Among the IASR Fellows, papers were given by Risto Heiskala, Ilkka Pietilä and Pia Koivunen. Dr. Pietilä’s insights into the contemporary Russian health care system, in particular, generated fruitful discussion with the local colleagues.

[Photos by Marjukka Virkajärvi]