Populism and civil society. A conference

“Whoever wants to talk about populism but leaves out capitalism, will always end up with identity politics – and will inevitably themselves become party to the conflict”.
Philip Manow 2018. The Political Economy of Populism

Populism is not populism if we distinguish between those who follow and those who determine and design the politics of the respective parties and movements. There are both differences and commonalities with respect to the two sides. Differences occur when we look at the causes behind the increasing attraction to populist trends across a growing number of countries in the EU and more broadly, Europe. Commonalities are most common with respect to the rhetoric adopted by the leading figures of these parties and movements. They become even more pronounced when considering the politics of those right-wing groups that have managed to gain power in government, thereby pushing previously liberal systems to assume characteristics of authoritarian regimes.

Both of these sides of populism – differences and commonalities – were at the centre of debate during the third edition of the European Civic Academy at the Collegium Polonicum in Słubice, Poland (28-29 March, which was organised by Civil Society Europe (CSE). The participants addressed the implications of the populist upsurge for European civil society and in particular for civil society groups and organisations, namely NGOs, social movements, and other groups defending democratic and human values.

Populism and civil society: A conference 2

Participants of the third European Civic Academy at the Collegium Polonicum in Słubice, Poland (28-29 March)


Although nationalism and identity clearly play a role in the increasing attractiveness of populist rhetoric[1], recent literature suggests that both the motives driving people to vote for populist parties, as much as the latter’s electoral success, tend to ultimately be determined by socioeconomic factors (Manow, 2018). Among the most important factors are access to and exclusion from (generous/inclusive versus exclusive) welfare systems and (open/inclusive versus exclusive) labour markets. These institutional properties of political economies are unequally distributed across Europe. In cases of mounting immigration, it is their specific combinations that decide about whether citizens and denizens feel to be or actually are insiders or outsiders in their respective social and economic systems. A subjectively perceived or real outsider status often triggers anxiety, fear, and anger – the favourite attitudes of “retrotopian” (Bauman, 2017) organisations, which draw from these feelings, mould them, and further reinforce them in the interest of gaining social and electoral support. Hence, it is the specific variety of capitalism and a country’s political economy that decide from which type of subjective feeling populists reap maximum benefit. As we know from the relevant literature (Hall and Soskice, 2001; Hancké, 2009), there are different such varieties in Europe. This makes for at least four distinct breeding grounds ultimately underlying populism – in the North and South as much as in the East and West.

If civil society organisations wish to address the fear and anxiety present among parts of the population with a view to neutralise their politically disastrous effects, they must take account of these differences and develop appropriate strategies. This was one of the major outcomes of the European Civic Academy conference. However, as demonstrated by the contributions of many participants, this is not the main challenge civil society has to face when it comes to combat the “shrinking (political, social, and institutional) spaces” available to NGOs, social movements, and other forward-looking, or “real-utopian” (Wright, 2010) groups.


Be they only subjectively felt or objectively present, the sentiments of exclusion and risk at the root of retrotopian beliefs all too often lead people, especially those in precarious conditions, to embrace the rubbish of populist propaganda. The picture changes when turning to the rhetoric and the politics of populist leaders. It generally consists of a mixture of xenophobic prejudice, of nationalism, nativism, racism, exclusive solidarity, anti-Europeanism, and anti-elitism. The North-South and the East-West divide characterising the causes for the growth of populism does not really hold here.

The situation tends to become more dramatic for civil society in the cases where populists have gained power and are able to markedly frame governmental agendas. Having previously been only fringe movements, when populist parties occupy key positions in parliament and the executive, they tend to push once liberal societies into the direction of authoritarian regimes. In situations like this, civil society organisations are massively threatened not only by the shrinking of spaces available for their activities. In many cases, their very existence is put into question. This includes a multitude of authoritarian instruments including illegalisation and bans on working. The menu of such instruments is amazing, while differences across the countries most concerned are negligible. As shown by the contributions of participants from Central and Eastern Europe (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania), but also from the North (Finland) and the South (Italy and Andalusia), among the main attacks directed at CSOs are:

  • Introduction of complex bureaucratic procedures to harness the advocacy capacity of civil society;
  • The use of media for smear campaigns, thus ‘disciplining’ the role of active citizenship and other reputational attacks;
  • The presentation of civil society actors as part of the elite who are not representative of the people they claim to represent and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary citizens (see for the above; Wolf 2019; Graf Strachwitz, 2019a);
  • CSOs are said to be self-appointed rather than elected and thus do not represent the will of the people;
  • Conspiracy theories based on the accuse of receiving foreign funding – CSOs are accountable to external rather than domestic interests (foreign agent) and, hence, are a threat to national security;
  • The accusation of being politically illegitimate (for the above see: Brechenmacher 2019).

Yet, there also are less obvious attempts to restrict the operation of CSOs and these do not stop short of those liberal societies that like to present themselves as honest and resolute defenders of civil rights. Germany has recently witnessed a court decision involving the German branch of Attac that deprived the organisation of its charitable status. Since Attac lives to almost 90% of donations, this comes close to the termination of the group’s operation (Graf Strachwitz, 2019b). Other CSOs, such as the Deutsche Umwelthilfe (the German Association for Environmental Aid), which has been successful in banning Diesel cars from the centres of many German towns, are currently facing similar treatment while the artistic Zentrum für politische Schönheit (Centre for Political Beauty) has even been accused of representing criminal associations and, as a consequence, has suffered surveillance by the country’s secret service. Both these latter examples show that the phenomenon of shrinking spaces is not an asset limited to openly authoritarian regimes. It is a creeping phenomenon often passing unnoticed in many Western democracies. Moreover, what has been argued with respect to the populist assault, namely that if you leave out capitalism in your analysis, you are likely to become party to the conflict yourself, equally holds for these latter examples all of which aim to defend capital interests.

What to do in face of such unpleasant and worrying developments? In their concluding session, conference participants agreed that two strategies are mandatory in the first place. Firstly, to enhance connections to the people especially at local level where concerns about welfare, health, and democracy are most strongly felt. This would also imply the development of an appropriate language adapted to local needs and understandable to everyone. Secondly, the building of alliances across different types of CSOs at local, regional, national, and supranational levels. The European Civic Academy organised by Civil Society Europe (CSE) is itself one example of such an alliance. Towards the end of the conference, representatives of CSE (Jean Marc Roirant, President of CSE and member of the Economic and Social Committee of the EU, and Karolina Dreszer, Vice-President of the national Federation of Polish NGOs, OFOP and a member of the Economic and Social Committee of the EU) and of DOC (Jean-Christophe Bas, CEO of DOC, and Jürgen Grote, Senior Researcher at DOC) figured out possible avenues for making the Academy more stable and sustainable in structural and organisational terms. The DOC representatives fully embraced the objectives of the Academy and promised to support future events.

[1] Identity-inspired explanations frequently refer to a dichotomy between, on the one hand, cosmopolitans (universalism and integration embraced by ‘nowheres’) and, on the other, communitarians (particularism and demarcation promoted by ‘somewheres’). Although there is something to these arguments, they do not have the same explanatory power as political economy-inspired arguments.


Bauman, Z. (2017). Retrotopia. Cambridge, Malden: Polity Press.

Brechenmacher, S. (2019). Defamation Patterns and Response Strategies. In: Activizenship, Vol.3, Brussels: 66-69.

Graf Strachwitz, R. (2019a). What lies behind the concept of civil society? Shifting perspectives in Germany and beyond. In: Activizenship, Vol.3, Brussels: 46-51.

Graf Strachwitz, R. (2019b). Der „shrinking space“ ist in Deutschland angekommen. Press Release by the Maecenata Foundation for Philanthropy and Civil Society; Berlin.

Hall, P. A. and Soskice, D. (2001). Varieties of Capitalism. The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hancké, B. (2009). Debating Varieties of Capitalism. A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Manow, P. (2018). Die politische Ökonomie des Populismus. Berlin: Suhrkamp (forthcoming 2019 in an English language edition as The Political Economy of Populism; London: Polity Press).

Wolff, J. (2019). Lessons from the Global South. On “Foreign Agent” Narratives. In: Activizenship, Vol.3, Brussels: 70-74.

Wright, E. O. 2010. Envisioning Real Utopias. London: Verso.


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Jürgen Grote

Senior Researcher and Topic Leader (Policies, Institutions, and Strategies in Global Inclusive Development), DOC Research Institute, DE

Jürgen Grote is a senior researcher and topic leader (Inclusive Global Development: Strategies, Institutions and Progress) at the DOC Research Institute in Berlin.He has previously been a senior research fellow at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and coordinator of an international network on labour relations in context. He has held the Marie Curie Chair in Public Policy at Charles University in Prague and has worked as an associate professor, lecturer, and research fellow at the MZES-Mannheim, the EUI-Florence, and at the Universities of Konstanz, Darmstadt, Potsdam, Jena, and Osnabrück. He has been a visiting scholar and visiting lecturer at the Universities of Montpellier, Lyon, Roskilde and at Bocconi University, Milan.In between, he has been engaged in policy consultancy on behalf of several regional governments, business interest associations, and labour unions in Italy. His main research interests include topics such as forms of organised collective action by both capital and labour, civil society and social movements, European integration, regional and structural policies, critical governance, and relational analysis.On these and on related topics, he has published and co-edited many articles and several books (Sage, Routledge, Palgrave Macmillan) the most recent one being: Social Movements and Organized Labour: Passions and Interests (co-edited with C. Wagemann) 2018; London: Routledge.