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"Fratelli tutti" and the challenge of neo-populism

We publish the speech given by Rodrigo Guerra Lopez at the meeting organized last month by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

Rodrigo Guerra López*
Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences

4 March 2021

1. Introduction

The appearance of Pope Francis' Encyclical Fratelli tutti on stage in 2020, turned out to be a strong wake-up call for all. Very difficultly will someone who travels through its pages not feel questioned, provoked and motivated to rethink life in society. The document provides the essential elements to warn of the urgency of building a method that will help us heal our countless personal and community wounds and fractures. Since the subtitle, it is noted that "fraternity" and "social friendship" are the central issue that the Successor of Peter will deal with in the 287 paragraphs that make up the text. The first chapter, in a sense, justifies the accents, focus, and breadth of the rest of the Encyclical. Through a description of some of the most relevant features of the contemporary global scenario, the Pope wishes to show the need to overcome the reductionism typical of ideologies and affirm the importance of fraternity as a lifestyle, as a method of social action and as a school for new politics.

2. A shadowy scenario and the need for re-establishing forms of coexistence

Indeed, closed nationalisms, the globalization that circumvents fraternity, the loss of the meaning of history, cultural colonization, social polarization, the trivialization of environmental responsibility, the culture of discarding, the birth of new forms of poverty, insufficiently universal human rights, the lack of recognition of the dignity of women, new forms of slavery, promoting the logic of conflict and fear, the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the migration crisis, the civilization of the show, the new radicalism that is vehiculated through social networks, the manipulation of democratic processes, religious fanaticism and the lack of founded hope, are some of the phenomena that Francis explains in a tight synthesis and that serve as the backdrop to rethink how we should imagine a radical refoundation of our forms of coexistence and of our social projects[1].

I deliberately use the word refoundation to imply that Pope Francis takes a particularly radical approach. Our societies do not require a secondary adjustment of a few issues that need to be fine-tuned for their proper functioning. Much less do they need a merely cosmetic, superficial improvement, in the face of the culture of “appearances”. On the contrary, for some years now, Pope Francis has reminded us with great force that “When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root."[2].

An affirmation of this type does not pretend to be a disqualification of everything, nor does it seek to arouse an unfounded scaremongering: “The complaint that “everything is broken” is answered by the claim that “it can’t be fixed”, or “what can I do?” This feeds into disillusionment and despair, and hardly encourages a spirit of solidarity and generosity. Plunging people into despair closes a perfectly perverse circle: such is the agenda of the invisible dictatorship of hidden interests that have gained mastery over both resources and the possibility of thinking and expressing opinions.”[3]

Pope Francis is well aware that there are different ways of reading the present reality and that some of them exaggerate or oversimplify this or that aspect. Furthermore, there are readings of the new complexity that characterizes our time that use evil as a hermeneutical criterion. Instead of helping to understand reality and its multiple dimensions, they seek first of all to identify the conspiracy, exacerbate tempers, introduce a logic of conflict and motivate a purely reactionary struggle. The conspiracy theories of yesterday and today are an eloquent example of this type of pathological interpretation of reality.

3. The question is at the root

Pope Francis proposes something different: it is necessary to go to the roots, to the human, cultural and religious dimension that explains the lack of fraternity. This does not mean to settle in the moment of the complaint, the protest or the pessimistic lament. It means delving into that very place, in the depths of the human heart, to identify the reasons that can also provide hope today. The corrupt root of a global society based on discarding is accompanied by a structural tension within the human condition, which can show once again that each person and each community are made to transcend, to seek with determination the fullness of life in truth, good, beauty and justice. A fullness that is not purely formal, but has a moment of existential verification in the relationship with the other, in belonging to a people, in deep immersion within concrete reality. This is how, always starting from the bottom and from the periphery, with modesty and perseverance, we can show that “reparation and reconciliation will give us new life and set us all free from fear.”[4]

4. Populism and neo-populism

Among the various issues that Fratelli tutti addresses, there is one of particular political relevance: neo-populism. Chapter V of the Encyclical, dedicated to "a better kind of politics," just begins by tackling this question. The neo-populism of which we speak today is not a mere linear continuation of the classic populism of the thirties and sixties of the twentieth century[5]. The populism to which Fratelli tutti refers is caused by the weakness of the democratic culture of some nations since 1990. We cannot here make a comparative analysis of the similarities and differences between both stages of populism. Much less can we distinguish in this brief space between Latin American and European neo-populism. In fact, the soundest thing, both yesterday and today, is to speak of “neo-populisms” that specify to a greater or lesser extent a pack of elementary characteristics.

More than 10 years ago, at the Social Observatory of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) we tried to approach this reality[6]. Over time, it is not possible to provide a definition of "neo-populism" that will please everyone, and yet we will try to give one, once more, below. At present, the concept of neo-populism is used to indicate a large number of realities of very diverse ideological lineage: Donald Trump, Evo Morales, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Matteo Salvini, Nicolás Maduro, and a long etcetera. We wanted to put the names of various contemporary political leaders to underline that, in all cases, the role of the more or less messianic caudillo appears as a constant.

From our point of view, the new populism is not so much an ideology, but a way of exercising power. Following Enrique Krauze a bit, we can say that the new populism is the demagogic use that a charismatic leader makes of democratic legitimacy to promise access to a possible utopia and, upon triumph, to consolidate power outside the law or transforming it to convenience[7]. In our opinion, neo-populism tends to include, to varying degrees, some - or all - of the following ingredients:

 · An ideological reading of national history, which serves as an argument to explain the arrival of a providential “caudillo”.

 · The exaltation of the "providential leader" who will solve the problems of the people and who, in one way or another, seeks to affirm himself as the incarnation of the latter. The "caudillo" is constituted as such by his messianic character and by his authoritarian way of exercising power.

 · The use and abuse of the word: the populist considers himself the supreme interpreter of the general truth. With his speech, he occupies as much of the public space as he can and administers freedom of expression at his discretion.

 · The arbitrary use of public funds: the treasury is used for megaprojects that do not go through a rigorous economic analysis that evaluates their viability and relevance.

 · The money is distributed in a targeted and welfare manner, without seeking to strengthen intermediate organizations, and trying to generate political loyalty in the beneficiaries.

 · The definition of an internal enemy that generates social outrage: the businessmen, the rich, the oligarchies, who in many cases have really been corrupted and serve as a perfect example of what to fight against.

 · The definition of an external enemy that can be blamed in case of need. Enemy who, on the other hand, can give more than one reason to be considered this way.

 · Acceptance of some elements of the market economy, insofar as they strengthen the existence of a business community loyal to the ruler. It is what some call "crony capitalism".

 · Contempt for the legal and institutional framework, which is sought to be transformed at convenience.

 · Manipulation of the secular nature of the State, which on occasions will limit the scope of action of the churches to private life and, on others, will accept the discretionary use of cultural and religious elements for the public legitimation of power[8].

Pope Francis, in Fratelli tutti, clearly identifies that any positive meaning that the term "populism" might have had in the past has been nullified in the present scenario. Neo-populism has currently become “another source of polarization in an already divided society[9].” It is a cause and effect of social fracture. Its nature emerges when a leader captivates the population, seeking to “exploit politically a people’s culture, under whatever ideological banner, for their own personal advantage or continuing grip on power. Or when, at other times, they seek popularity by appealing to the basest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population. This becomes all the more serious when, whether in cruder or more subtle forms, it leads to the usurpation of institutions and laws[10].”

Something that should be highlighted, from the quote we have just mentioned, is that Francis points out that current populism can occur "with any ideological sign." Indeed, the neo-populisms of the right and the left, apparently confronted, quickly tend to find sympathy and meeting points with each other. The recent case of the synergy, collaboration and closeness of Andrés Manuel López Obrador with Donald Trump is an extremely eloquent example.

5. People and “popular movements”

Neo-populism, although it wishes to establish itself as an authentic expression of the people, by undermining their freedom, by manipulating their cultural and historical ethos, “it disregards the legitimate meaning of the word "people"[11].” The word "people" has evidently suffered a significant erosion in the last hundred years. However, it is necessary to understand that, if the reality of the "people" is weakened, deformed or manipulated, it affects the existence of democracies, since these, in any of their definitions, appeal precisely to the people as a constitutive and unavoidable dimension.

The people is the community of persons (communio personarum) united by historical, cultural and solidarity ties. By understanding it this way, one does not pretend to incur a certain romanticism that does not recognize the importance of the institutional and organizational dimension required for social life[12]. However, the institutions acquire life, qualitative content and a particular ethos, thanks to the energies that come from the people, their spontaneous associative forms, their struggles and their causes. The technostructure often tends to become self-referential and suffocate - without realizing it - the life world (Lebenswelt) that characterizes the person and the people to which they belong. That is why Pope Francis greatly values ​​the corrective and nurturing potential possessed by the “popular movements” that grow from below, from the subsoil, and, little by little, find and make synergies with each other. In order to understand the real role of popular movements, it must be said that doing politics for the people is not the same as doing politics from the people, that is, from a real, empirical affection and belonging to a community of people united by its culture and its history, and in motion:

[Popular movements] may be troublesome, and certain “theorists” may find it hard to classify them, yet we must find the courage to acknowledge that, without them, “democracy atrophies, turns into a mere word, a formality; it loses its representative character and becomes disembodied, since it leaves out the people in their daily struggle for dignity, in the building of their future”[13].

In other words, a purely formal democracy that is not reconnected with the real people and their various forms of self-organization, easily becomes an anonymous machine that can end up putting an undemocratic leader in power or keeping in power. This means that neo-populism is one of the most perverse forms of authoritarian regression by electoral means. Due to these types of risks to the life of the people, Pope Francis will say elsewhere: “in this state of paralysis and disorientation, the political participation of Popular Movements can defeat the politics of false prophets, who exploit fear and despair and who preach a selfish well-being and an illusory security”[14].

6. “Fratelli tutti”: avoiding the suicide of democracy

Democracy, like all political reality, is fragile, imperfect, and disappointing, especially when it works well. Democracy is a regime in which everything is watched, discovered, criticized, protested and challenged[15]. It is not an idyllic and smooth path, but all the opposite. Democracy is a peculiar asceticism for the people and their dreams. However, in its name lives the ideal of a more egalitarian participation that limits despotism and its violence. For this reason, today more than ever, democracy needs the people, the real people, as healthy medicine. Democracy requires being able to manage imperfect human, individual and community life, respecting the limits that invite it not to commit suicide. Fratelli tutti undoubtedly contributes in a fundamental way to this task.


* Ph.D. by the International Academy of Philosophy in the Principality of Liechtenstein; member of the Theological Commission of CELAM; Ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences; Professor-researcher and founder of Center for Advanced Social Research ( ). E-mail:

[1] Francis, Encyclical Fratelli tutti, Ch. I: “Dark clouds over a closed world”. (FT).

[2] Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, n. 59.

[3] FT, n. 75.

[4] FT, n. 78.

[5] Cf. G. Eickhoff, Das Charisma der Caudillos. Cárdenas, Franco, Perón, Vervuert Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1999.

[6] Cf. C. Aguiar Retes – R. Guerra López – F. Porras Sánchez (Coords.), Neopulismo y democracia. Experiencias en América Latina y el Caribe, CELAM, Bogotá 2007; It´s useful also to consult within the huge bibliography on this subject: C. de la Torre – E. Peruzzotti, El retorno del pueblo. Populismo y nuevas democracias en América Latina, FLACSO, Quito 2008; “What is Populism?”, in The Economist, 19 diciembre 2016; A. Vargas Llosa (coord.), El estallido del populismo, Planeta, México 2017; E. Krauze, El pueblo soy yo, DEBATE – Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial, México 2018.

[7] Cf. E. Krauze, op. cit. p. 115.

[8] Cf. R. Guerra López, “Descubrirnos pueblo: movimientos populares, populismo y la búsqueda de una renovación democrática en América Latina”, in G. Carriquiry – G. La Bella, La irrupción de los movimientos populares, Librería Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, 2019, pp. 176-178; Cf. E. Krauze, op. cit., p.p. 119-123.

[9] FT, n. 156.

[10] FT, n. 159.

[11] FT, n. 157.

[12] FT, nn. 163-164.

[13] FT, n. 169.

[14] Francis, “Presentación”, in G. Carriquiry – G. La Bella, La irrupción de los movimientos populares, p. 7.

[15] Cf. D. Innerarity, La política en tiempos de indignación, Galaxia de Gutemberg, Barcelona 2015, p. 155.

10 April 2021, 11:28