Opinion: The revolt of the masses 2.0 | Opinion | DW | 31.05.2019
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Opinion

Opinion: The revolt of the masses 2.0

The French Revolution overthrew the aristocracy; the Velvet Revolution ended communist rule. Today, says Ivaylo Ditchev, massed ranks of digital natives are rising up against the final bastion of inequality: the expert.

As the globalized world becomes more complex, the tyranny of specialized knowledge becomes ever harder to support. Take the European Union. Few Europeans are able to figure out the subtle ways of its machinery, the interplay of the national and the political, of lobbying and connections. Confusion and anger gave rise to the whimsical figure of the Brussels bureaucrat — obsessed with curvy cucumbers. Accountable to no one, the Brussels bureaucrat complicates things, twists the law and invents complex language to fool the honest citizen.

The solution offered by populists is always the simplest: get rid of those parasitic intermediaries. [Italian Interior Minister] Matteo Salvini's "Europe of common sense" seems to be a promise to make the complexities of modern life digestible for everyone.

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Of course, democratically elected politicians are supposed to be regular people like us: It's only after assuming office that they are supposed to employ specialists to assist them. But the fine line between politics and expertise now seems blurred. Modern-day "elites" go to the same schools, speak the same language, have the same privileged way of life.

Fifty years ago, there was a much greater social mix in national parliaments. Today, it seems 100% of lawmakers have degrees from prestigious universities, just like the leading experts. Over time, both have come to be seen as belonging to the same snobbish set. On the opposite side, the common man and the populist politician form a united front: both are sincere, warm, authentic.

Read more: No new dawn for far right in European election

Infographic showing populism in Germany

Beyond regulation

The ascent of the amateur started with social media. The digital revolution made it possible for everyday users to comment, blog, rate, forward and upload videos.

Web 2.0 technology allowed interaction with professional journalism; unexpectedly, it evolved into an entirely new possibility for the user to produce content, with no gatekeepers to control or verify it. Trust shifted from institutional media to social networks, where your "friend" appears side by side with established news outlets.

Weren't we inspired by whistle-blowers, who managed to circumvent censorship in China or Egypt? It turns out that their destructive activity does not stop at the borders of dictatorships.

Thus, we find ourselves in a world in which Hungarians believe that Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros is flooding their country with migrants, Bulgarians think "gender" is a demon that will alter the sex of their children and the French burn cars in protest against President Emmanuel Macron's supposed plan to sell Alsace to the Germans.

Read moreTransparency International: 'Crisis of democracy' and corruption go hand in hand

'Karaoke culture'

The "revolt against experts," a phrase coined by British physicist Stephen Hawking, goes way beyond journalism. Amateur investigators armed with apps have analyzed the flames in the World Trade Center in New York in an attempt to prove that the US government laid explosives before the two towers collapsed on September 11, 2001.

Others have studied African demography or read excerpts of medical articles to propagate the supposedly nefarious effect of vaccines. In the Balkans, a favorite pastime is contradicting professional historians, who are accused of intentionally neglecting some obscure fact (always available online) that proves the glory of the nation.

Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic has called it "karaoke culture": drunken revelers who sing out of tune to recorded music for their 15 minutes of fame. But contemporary karaoke is not as spontaneous as it seems. It's the populist politicians who determine what music is played.

Their aim is to set the (digital) masses against the loathsome elites. Intellectuals will hopefully not be sent to concentration camps, as they were under some communist regimes; they will simply become obsolete, an obstacle for the revolutionary common sense uniting the leader and his followers.

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Eroding press freedom in Eastern Europe

Flexible positions

"The people of this country have had enough of experts," leading Brexiteer Michael Gove once famously said. US President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invariably attack the professional press. They detest the irksome judiciary. Why not simply bypass counselors, boards, independent agencies or NGOs?

With his compulsive tweeting, the archpopulist Trump communicates directly with the soul of the nation. 

Reversing ideological positions is usually criticized by experts. But it creates emotional links with the common person, as consistency is not necessarily present in everyday life.

Some people may recall that Italy's far-right League used to be a secessionist party, and that its former leader Umberto Bossi said the Italian flag made him sick. That far-right French politician Marine Le Pen wanted to abandon the euro and leave NATO. New populists reach for people's hearts using vulgar language, naive simplifications and rude humor.

What strikes me in the Ibiza videos, where former Austrian Vice Chancellor Strache appeared ready to sell out his country, is the gross, negligent way he is about to do it. The Bulgarian far-right politician Volen Siderov described his freshly elected rival Angel Dzhambazki as a "faggot." His audience seemed amused. 

Instead of trying to counter the new revolt of the masses, populists tend to take its lead. They intensify the class resentment against meritocratic elites, who oppose local pride and sovereignty with their universalist principles of knowledge and justice.

Once they get rid of the experts, rabble-rousers know that there will be much less control over their shady activities. Yes, citizens could still hold them in check, but alas, they seem too preoccupied with the karaoke.

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Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University.

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