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Populism and Terrorism, the Illegitimate Heirs of Nihilism

Álvaro Lobo Arranz, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Sep 18th 2023

Populism and Terrorism, the Illegitimate Heirs of Nihilism

The 21st century is no longer a child. However young it may still seem to us, the global events that we have lived through have already made this century as dramatic as the last one. Probably in the annals of history its beginnings will be remembered for the global challenges that characterized them, such as the economic crisis, climate change and Covid-19.

If we look back, we can see two endemic evils that our democracies have suffered from and that somehow may yet resurface: terrorism and populism. It is no exaggeration to state the need to carefully study their causes and consequences, at least if we want this century to be less violent than the one that preceded it.

This article will first describe separately the nature of the two phenomena, how they influence democracies and how they intend to impose their own worldviews. Then we will see how they draw their philosophical inspiration from some of the writings of Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre, and how totalitarianisms continue to perpetuate themselves in the post-truth era. Finally, we will show how nihilism causes both phenomena to share common traits with totalitarianism, as strange as this may seem.[1]



The two ghosts of our democracies

The first ghost is also the most obvious: terrorism. The images of the attack of September 11, 2001, are forever impressed on our memory. Those attacks were the unimaginable beginning of the great calamities that have afflicted democracy, taking the lives of thousands of citizens all over the world. However, the nightmare was not limited to the large number of dead and injured, as well as their families, but went far beyond that. The virus of terrorism in turn attacked Spain, the United Kingdom, Norway and France, resulting in a total of 44,490 victims worldwide in 2014.[2] Yet while the impact in Europe and America has been enormous, today the most affected regions are by far the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, where terrorism is a bloody reality and the death toll considerably higher.[3]

While political and legal factors make terrorism a complex phenomenon to define, there is no doubt that it has social, economic and cultural roots, and that it has various ramifications.[4] Aware that each case is particular and that comparisons are always partial, we can highlight three elements that usually recur: political violence, a pattern of reasoning and method, and propaganda.[5] We cannot forget that terrorism seeks at all costs to impose its own vision of the world on others, and therefore resembles totalitarianism in its intentions and ambitions, either through, for example, the jihad advocated by al-Qaeda or through the establishment of a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist state as the Sendero Luminoso dreamed of doing in the 20th century.

Returning to the episode of September 11, 2001, the 3,000 people who lost their lives in that attack constituted only 0.12 percent of the deaths that occurred in the United States during the year[6]; but the attack had the result of shocking Western society and determining the international policy of the United States and the rest of the world for many years to come. For this reason, terrorism is a problem that cannot be reduced only to tears shed and blood spilled: it is a virus that penetrates the individual and collective consciousness, provoking extreme fear and pain, which are very difficult to manage.

Compared to the last century, the political, socio-economic, ideological and cultural landscape has changed today, and so has terrorism. A few decades ago, this scourge had well-defined political and ideological connotations and inspirations and was used to achieve clear and specific objectives, and only rarely was it transnational.[7] Covertly, it was a favorite tool of many totalitarian regimes. Nowadays, an international terrorism with religious and cultural nuances has emerged, often invading the world information scene through organizations such as Boko Haram and ISIS.

At the same time, media coverage has skyrocketed in some cases, and with it the recruitment of new terrorists and the spread of fear. Our age, enmeshed in social networks, conditioned by the difficulty in distinguishing truth from appearance – and consequently good from evil – and by the existential discomfort of too many young people, has become fertile ground for a phenomenon that can destabilize governments, democratic or otherwise, as well as cause thousands of deaths. After all, we cannot forget that terrorism is not merely a violent and romantic delirium: it is a movement that finds its logic, identity and methodology in systematic violence.

The second ghost present in contemporary democracies is populism. In 2002, the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential elections caused a sensation. But today populism is a constant in almost all countries with a long democratic tradition. In some instances it has managed to come to power with relative ease, as we have seen in the last decade. According to political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, populism is “the permanent shadow of any representative democracy.”[8]

Populism is a political phenomenon that, manifests itself within both the extreme right and the extreme left, although in different ways and progressively undermines our systems of representative democracy. It is not an ideology, but a simplistic way of understanding reality and the political game that, in order to take root, requires an ideology and a disgruntled community, and that always proposes easy solutions to complex problems.

This “disease” quietly enters parliaments, sometimes through elections considered less important by a country’s citizens, such as local or European elections. There is, however, a great media repercussions, and populists can come to power to the amazement and dismay of many. Populism runs through the whole of Europe and even undermines the American democratic tradition. It infects classical nationalism and conservatism, social and even religious groups and, of course, adherents to the left and the right, without the traditional parties being able to ward it off.

If we do not react in time, it can have unpredictable and destabilizing consequences for democracy, because the tension it generates can lead, for example, to breaking international treaties, questioning national sovereignty, rendering political responses ineffective, contempt for institutions, social polarization or socioeconomic crises. Seemingly all this is built on the legitimate desire of a disgruntled people, who are prevented by others from prospering, as is their right, and who come to believe that only populists can protect from the enemy.[9]

One need only look back to the 20th century to find references to populism in the totalitarianisms that claimed countless lives. Hannah Arendt understood totalitarianism as “a romanticized, dogmatized and theologized idea of what a country, a culture or a society should be: an idea to die for and have others die for.”[10] Perhaps at this time we are not facing the same totalitarian systems that were born in old Europe and have been exported all over the world; but if we are not careful, we could expose ourselves to the repetition of many similar dynamics, the consequences of which are already known to all.

The genealogy of nothingness

After having seen what these two evils are and how they act, it is necessary to investigate the element that generates them. The fact of having the same origin leads terrorism and populism to manifest some common characteristics, regardless of time and borders, as in one of those film sagas in which distant relatives, although very different, turn out to be prisoners of the same genetic impulses. This is a suggestive cue in the literary field, a decisive path for philosophy, but which in contemporary thought has dramatic consequences. After all, we cannot forget that violence begins with words.

In the chapter subtitled “The Rebellion” of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky we can place the beginning of this singular dilemma. There is a passage in which the Russian novelist emphasizes the theme of God, morality and free will.[11] As on many other occasions, the starting point corresponds with the problem of evil and suffering. It is anger, pain and indignation that place us in such a position: Why does evil exist? Why does God allow it? What does the established order do? This is not a position vitiated by prejudice: it is a legitimate and recurring question. Therefore, it is logical to think that in the indignation toward suffering we find the origin of nihilism, something that on the other hand is found in both populism and terrorism.

In the same work of Dostoevsky we find another decisive step in the famous episode of the “Grand Inquisitor.”[12] Here, through a fictitious dialogue – masterfully set in Seville – between an obscure inquisitor and Christ, is presented the dialectic between an authority that weighs but unites and a freedom that you are unable to exercise and necessarily results in submission. In this tension between heteronomy and moral autonomy, the Russian writer opts for the latter: freedom that rejects the imposed moral order. Thus begins a fundamental debate[13] for our time: if God does not exist, “is everything allowed?”[14] At the moment in which we lose the compass of goodness and truth, not only is understanding lost, but also the objective criterion to distinguish what is good from what is evil, what appears from what is true. In times of crisis, for some, truth and goodness are devalued, like money, so that reality as a whole loses its value.[15]

The door that leads to nihilism opens with Friedrich W. Nietzsche.[16] If in the “Grand Inquisitor” the main theme was the freedom of the human person, in Nietzsche this role is given to the weak willed,[17] and this in turn marks the transition from the need for forgiveness to resentment. Regarding the question of pain, the German philosopher poses the “death of God” as a worldview that no longer makes sense.[18] However, he is not just creating a concept, a phrase or a motto that may appeal to transgressive adolescents, but he is rejecting a worldview and an idea of truth, goodness and beauty that is essential to human beings. He is declaring that choosing nothingness is the only valid choice. Nietzsche’s nihilism opts for a strong will, leaving behind the collapse of Christian morality, to pave the way for a new scenario for humanity.

Subsequently, the German philosopher will arrive at an idea of will that goes beyond reason, something closely linked to the affective dimension, like everything that happens in our era.[19] For him, what in The Brothers Karamazov was the challenge of forgiveness is transformed into resentment, an attitude that in turn appears in terrorism and populism. To the question of the “death of God” he adds the problem of the “will to truth,” because according to him it is impossible to reach a genuine truth: in the world what is false is an integral part of the truth and cannot be separated from it.[20]

The last link of this strange genealogy we find in the middle of the 20th century, coinciding, even from a chronological point of view, with some totalitarianisms. Although theoretically belonging to another current of thought, Jean-Paul Sartre has his roots in the same nihilism. In his preface to the work of Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, his words are transformed into a cry of rage on behalf of a wounded Africa. For the French philosopher, resentment must be translated into a necessary violence, a sort of therapeutic resource.[21] Besides, he believes that violence is the result of a betrayal of the truth of which religion and the ruling establishment are guilty. Sartre adds his dialectical view of history, divided into phases of struggle between factions until a great victory is achieved. Curiously, the French philosopher attributes to the bourgeois thought of old Europe the moralistic vision of which Dostoevsky was the interpreter.

In the course of the 20th century, the heirs of this nihilistic genealogy appeared in the form of totalitarian leaders who, despite advocating totally opposite ideologies, had several points in common. They pretended to absolutize their particular point of view and thus put an end to any form of diversity. Totalitarian systems have embraced some of the foundations of nihilism and have had no qualms about trampling on reason, nor eliminating millions of human beings to impose their worldview. What turned this Earth into a hell for millions of people were resentment, dissatisfaction, group power, contempt for the weak, violence as a recurrent option and the devaluation of truth and freedom, to mention only a few characteristic elements.

In our 21st century, this genealogy does not seem extinct. It currently appears in the form of terrorism and populism, which are inclined to seek inspiration from their more direct ancestors. In this convulsive time, their genes are crossed with those of post-truth, where confusion increases and the good and the truth continue to be devalued. On the other hand, social media has undermined the press, so that rigor and reasoning have been replaced by emotions and trending topics. Consequently, this new context becomes a fertile ground for the new heirs to the saga to continue to emerge, thus putting the stability of our democracies at risk.

Same genes, same characteristics

Let us now look at what patterns of behavior the heirs of nihilism adopt.

In order to analyze the common characteristics of terrorism and populism, we could perhaps return to the very origin of nihilism: suffering. In old Europe it was the Great Depression that contributed to the emergence of totalitarianism, just as it was also poverty and inequality that provoked terrorism in Latin America,[22] not to mention the relationship between the 2008 crisis and the revival of populism in the past decade, or the fact that most terrorists do not come from the wealthiest neighborhoods of our cities. It is not surprising that situations of suffering, corruption, fear of kidnapping, extreme poverty and above all inequality generate the need for answers that classical politics and culture sometimes fail to provide.

This dissatisfaction generates mistrust, existential discomfort and resentment toward people and, above all, toward institutions. And if it is not recognized, denounced and channeled, it can lead to a violent reaction. In the case of terrorism, this is evident; however, populism tends to use direct, aggressive and threatening language, quite distant from the respect and education that characterize more mature democracies. In this way it comes to exacerbate and divide the entire society. Violence is seen as the only and last possibility of response to resentment, as Sartre already proclaimed in the preface to The Wretched of the Earth.

Continuing along this line, we can see how both phenomena lead to the struggle of one against the other within the same society, and examples of polarization are numerous: the good guys and the bad guys; us and them. Usually we rely on clearly self-defined identity groups, fighting against others apparently opposite and less defined: the authentic patriots against the globalists, the workers against the imperialists, the precarious against the oligarchs, and so on, according to an endless list, to which every language and every society can provide several new descriptive terms. The aggravating circumstance that violence implies a centripetal force – currently accelerated by social networks – pushes every citizen to take a position on almost every aspect of life, thus splitting society and giving up the holistic vision that is essential if one wants to advance peacefully. The adversary becomes not only a political rival, but an enemy to be eliminated, because sometimes both phenomena – populism and terrorism – provoke hatred and resentment.

In both phenomena the figure of the savior leader appears, because, in the absence of a god in whom to trust, the need arises to find new realities before which to prostrate oneself. The newspaper archives preserve the names of people who today are a stain on the history of every country, but who at the time were considered, by the people and by themselves, heroes and saviors of the homeland. Populism continues to introduce into parliaments personal currents and parties that could hardly exist if the leader, seemingly omnipotent, disappeared from the scene.

Behind the young man of a Parisian banlieue who decides to immolate himself, behind hundreds of anonymous men and women who joined the Provisional IRA in the 1970s in Northern Ireland, and behind Osama bin Laden himself, there is the same messianic attitude that seduces, encourages and strengthens. The horizon is illuminated by an overly optimistic utopian future, but in reality, it is an unreal tomorrow that one wants to reach at any cost. The option of nihilism leads to the renunciation of traditional reference-points and the search for quick and accessible choices: this is why the simple and visceral messages of populism or the strong and hard decisions of terrorism gather so many followers. Today more than ever, immediate emotion carries more weight than the best of calmly elaborated reasoning.

At the same time, the phenomena we are talking about are related to Nietzsche’s view that the will goes beyond reason: it opens the way to an emotion that can backfire. The power of the group acquires a qualitative dimension and identity, and this is why totalitarianisms have no difficulty in filling stadiums with enthusiastic masses, or in concentrating crowds eager to show themselves united and strong, and even willing to idolize certain collective symbols such as flags or anthems. Perhaps we find the clearest example of this in those demonstrations that are initially peaceful and then turn violent, when the force of the crowd becomes completely incapable of reasoning and ends up erasing the dignity of the people involved.

On the other hand, terrorism also finds strong support in the power of the group. In the Spanish novel Patria (Homeland), a story is set in the context of Basque terrorism, Fernando Aramburu realistically recounts the process that drives young terrorists and their supporters to find in the group and its various manifestations the support and justification to act, thus creating a complicit silence that anesthetizes society’s conscience and allows them to continue operating.

It is no wonder that savior-leaders or the roar of crowds soon find a scapegoat. The most egregious example is the hoax of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged document that at the beginning of the 20th century provided a pretext to impute a series of nefarious deeds to the Jews.[23] Each group finds the root of all its evils in an ethnic or social minority: immigrants, policemen, religious people, politicians, judges, journalists, Freemasons and so on. This cruel but also persuasive list, in the name of defending the people, justifies restrictions on freedom, opens the door to censorship and witch hunts.

Blaming this or that minority is also a customary feature of conspiracy theories, characterized by the fact that they arrive at major conclusions on the basis of limited or even non-existent evidence, and that social networks, the tabloid press and malevolent propaganda shamelessly exploit. They suggest that reality is manipulated by a small group of secret conspirators who, for their own obvious interests, extend their tentacles everywhere in society, without any scruples. At the same time, since these small groups are supposedly non-existent, no one replies to the accusations and nothing prevents the lies and hatred against the social sectors to which one belongs from continuing to spread without any restraint. That is why today there is constant talk about oligarchies, globalism, lobbies and the like. Since nihilism cannot make sense of reality, although some try to prove the contrary, these groups need to spread a convincing interpretation about the origin of evil and suffering, and unfortunately there is no lack of people who believe in it.

Nihilism also affects the way we perceive information, reason and scientific knowledge, the more so in the age of post-truth. We have already shown how Nietzsche questions the very possibility of finding truth and the role of science, because what is apparent and what is true are intimately linked and cannot be split. It is no exaggeration to say that our culture has lost its sense of truth and gives less consideration to facts than to special interests.[24] The mockery of the effects of climate change and the resonance of the Antivaxxer movements in the midst of the pandemic show how current denialism is. Terrorism, too, is in serious trouble when it must deny the pain it has brought to its victims and to society as a whole, as if such consequences did not concern it.

Unfortunately, these movements do not limit themselves to misrepresenting the truth: there is a manipulation that avoids context and essential debate and that finds its best ally in the 280 characters of Twitter. For populism and terrorism, the image of a fight between immigrants is clear evidence that justifies their xenophobia, and the video of a police charge is enough to denounce alleged government oppression. This refusal to seek the truth uses lies as a resource. During the Brexit referendum campaign, a flashy bus traveled around the UK accusing the EU of receiving £350 million a week siphoned off from the National Health Service, the UK’s state-run health care system. As has been the case with so much other fake news, accountability has not been established. Populism and terrorism always try to reinterpret history in their favor, even going so far as to deny the facts.

With regard to the political conduct of these two phenomena, it is undeniable that both cause a weakening of the rule of law, from within or without, and consequently a contempt for the established order. Already in the mid-19th century, Napoleon III ruled by force of plebiscites, proclaiming himself the representative of the “cause of the people.” For many citizens, the word “referendum” has become vitiated and the cause of traumatic ruptures.

Populism is aware that electoral consensus has a volatile component,[25] and uses it to circumvent the legal and democratic mechanisms devised to compensate, in a time perspective, for any excesses of the respective governments. Contempt for political systems manifests itself in the form of continuous and aggressive criticism of state authorities and the judiciary, aimed at questioning laws that do not play into their own hands, the media, international treaties and agreements and, of course, other political parties.

In the case of terrorism, the attack is more direct, because it almost always comes from outside institutions. The state – or sometimes many states together – is seen as an enemy that oppresses people, and its political, economic and cultural symbols become recurrent targets, bearing in mind that an attack in a specific place and at a specific time can provoke a very serious political crisis and condition future decisions.

Both strategies have a single purpose: to change the system – which is always considered imperfect – dragging it in forced stages toward a new scenario.

Is a solution possible?

As we saw in the first part of this article, both populism and terrorism, although distinct from each other, have a common origin and some common elements and, above all, constitute endemic evils in our representative democracies, and they can spread to social or religious groups. In spite of everything, History can be a good teacher, causing people to remember their consequences, avert their new occurrences and minimize their impact, especially in the post-truth era.

One variable that, in one way or another, always appears somewhere in the process is the economic one.[26] We must start from a fundamental assumption: there is no peace without justice.[27] Integral development and the reduction of social inequalities are, on the national as well as the international level, the best vaccine to prevent the onset of such pathologies. At the same time, integral cultural development in our societies is necessary so that the suffering and discontent present in them may be channeled into creative and constructive proposals, so that nowhere in the world will resentment and violence take hold of the hearts of citizens. There will, of course, be a need for independent, free, rigorous media, which do not let social media usurp their role: their function is essential to present a clear and complete perception of reality.

Protecting the institutions, the democratic spirit of the whole society, is not only necessary, but sometimes more important than one’s own safety. Above all, it is necessary to be aware that democracy is not a permanent fixture and is not perfect, and that therefore it must be cared for and preserved, since no alternative has ever proved better. Likewise, it is necessary to reconsider and increase respect for one’s opponents, for local and global vision, the ability to dialogue and grasp nuances, a critical and reflective education, and create a democratic conscience that does not distance citizens from political leaders and vice versa, and that is able to identify and denounce excesses before the point of no return is reached.

Under no circumstances can democracy be an end in itself. The challenge is to move forward as a society in the ways of reason and fraternity (cf. FT 103), making the promotion of just relationships prevail over individual self-interest, forgiveness over rancor, reconciliation over violence, and making the defense of the poor and of life, in all its forms, a major priority. Ultimately, “it is a question of progressing toward a social and political order whose soul is social charity” (FT 180).

But if we fail to get to the heart of the matter, a series of belated, costly and painful remedies awaits us. It is essential to abandon this wager on nothingness that makes good, truth and beauty meaningless for millions of people. We need a proposal that does not stop at the institutional dimension, but passes through the conscience of each person. When individuals build their lives in the light of something that makes them go out of themselves to open up to the rest of humanity, they are recreating democracy (cf. FT 88). No one knows what the world and democracy will be like in a few decades; on the other hand, we do know the dangers we face, because the illegitimate children of nihilism are still lurking.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 5 art. 8, 0521: 10.32009/22072446.0521.8

[1].    This article originates from the notes and readings made with Dr. Veronique Albanel in the seminar “Vérité et violence. Éthique, politique, religion”, held at the Centre Sèvres in Paris, from October 2020 to January 2021.

[2].    See H. Ritchie – J. Hasell – C. Appel – M. Roser, “Terrorism”, in Our World in Data (see, July 2013 (revised November 2019).

[3].    “Of the 26,445 global fatalities due to terrorism that appear in the Global Terrorism Database, 95 percent are located in the Middle East, Africa, or South Asia. Less than 2 percent of the deaths occurred in Europe, the Americas, and Oceania” (ibid., 2; this figure corresponds to 2017).

[4].    Cf. D. Perez, “Hacia una definición de terrorismo”, in Observatorio Internacional de Estudios sobre Terrorismo (cf., December 18, 2020.

[5].    Regarding what is meant by “terrorist act” we will follow the definition given by the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism of the United Nations (1999): “Any act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act” (art. 2, 1).

[6].    Cf. “How Many People Are Killed by Terrorists Worldwide?”, in H. Ritchie – J. Hasell – C. Appel – M. Roser, “Terrorism”, op. cit.

[7].    Cf. F. Reinares, “Conceptualizando el terrorismo internacional”, in Real Instituto Elcano de Estudios Internacionales y Estratégicos, 2005, 5f.

[8].    J.W. Müller, Qu’est-ce que le populisme? Définir enfin la menace, Paris, Premier parallèle, 2016, 22.

[9].    “Closed-minded populist groups distort the word ‘people,’ since in reality what they are concerned about is not a real people. In fact, the category of ‘people’ is open. A people that is alive, dynamic, and has a future is one that remains constantly open to new syntheses by taking into itself what is different. It does not do so by denying itself, but rather with a disposition to be set in motion and questioned, to be enlarged, enriched by others, and in this way, it can evolve” (Francis, Fratelli Tutti [FT], No. 160).

[10].   Cited in D. Pérez, “Hacia una definición de terrorismo”, op. cit.

[11].   Cf. F. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

[12].   See ibid.

[13].   Cf. ibid. Interestingly, in this chapter the Russian writer envisions a cultural scenario very similar to our own, under the assumption that God does not exist.

[14].   Ibid.

[15].   If even some characters embody forms of nihilism, in reality Dostoevsky’s personal attitude was not complacent toward it. Several scholars, in the field of both philosophy and theology, have in fact defined the writer as the modern thinker  who is an enemy of nihilism.

[16].   See F. W. Nietzsche, La gaia scienza, Milan, Rizzoli, 2000, 167-169.

[17].   “The less one knows how to command, the more urgently one desires someone to command, and command sternly: a god, a prince, a class, a doctor, a confessor, a dogma, a party conscience” (ibid., 259, [aphorism 347]).

[18].   Cf. ibid., 167 (aphorism 125).

[19].   Cf. F. W. Nietzsche, Genealogia della morale, Rome, Newton Compton, 2012, III, No. 24.

[20].   “Thanks to this self-consciousness of the will to truth, morality – there is no doubt about it – will end up going progressively to ruin: that great spectacle in a hundred acts, held in store for the next two coming European centuries” (ibid., III, No. 27).

[21].   “At the level of individuals, violence detoxifies. It rids the colonized of any inferiority complex, contemplative or despairing attitudes” (J. P. Sartre, “Preface” to F. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth).

[22].   “Terrorist recruitment, in fact, is easier in social contexts in which rights are ignored and injustices tolerated for too long” (John Paul II, Message for the Celebration of the XXXV World Day of Peace, January 1, 2002). To return to the case of certain populisms, most of them gained strength when many popular classes found the solution to their problems in certain extremist politicians.

[23].   It is an anti-Semitic text published in Russia in 1903 that documented an alleged Jewish-Masonic conspiracy. It was completely invented.

[24].   “The proliferation of fake news is an expression of a culture that has lost its sense of truth and bends facts to special interests. People’s reputations are jeopardized through summary trials online. The phenomenon also concerns the Church and her pastors” (Francis, Christus Vivit, No. 89).

[25].   See FT 161.ty is destabilizing democracies around the world” (UN, Human Development Report 2019).

[27].   The title of John Paul II’s message for Peace Day 2002, which we have already quoted, was precisely: There is no peace without justice. There is no justice without forgiveness.

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