Article 12: A Dutch perspective on American gun culture

I think it was after Sandy Hook that I resolved not to pay attention to any further American mass shootings. “If this is what the Americans are willing to accept in order to have their precious guns, so be it”, I thought. Before I had a faint hope that simply by following the news I could contribute to change. Without reflecting on it I implicitly assumed that non-Americans, by being part of a horrified public, would contribute to statistics which would reach policy makers somehow, would show the damage these events do to the perception of the USA by others, would breach the insularity of the American gun debate and show how aberrant American gun culture − of which mass shootings seem an integral part − actually is. We, non-Americans, would in effect have to substitute those Americans apparently unable of being appalled by these events, so went my reasoning. At one point, however, I simply gave up on this assumption. As I am not a resident or citizen of the USA, and as such have no way to influence policy, following the news on this topic would have no effect other than disgusting me. No thank you.

I honestly don’t know how many mass shootings there have been since and which were covered by the Dutch and British media (my main sources for news). I have a faint memory of one in Texas, but only because friends kept bothering me about it and acted surprised when I professed ignorance. And yet. Yet I feel compelled to write after the Florida shooting. I don’t know if it is the victims being articulate or the piggish ignorance and ratfaced spite of American gun interests having been prominently personified this time. Either way, though I have no illusion of my words having any impact or use other than as an act of bearing witness, I intend to cursorily describe the Dutch view on gun ownership.

To start with, some facts. Within the European Union, only Poland, Lithuania and Romania are estimated to have a lower civilian gun-ownership rate than The Netherlands.[1]* The Dutch rate is 3.9 guns per 100 people. In the US, by comparison, the estimated gun rate is 88.8 per 100. However, as stated earlier the USA is an outlier when it comes to guns and thus not the best country for a comparison. When looking at the Dutch gun rate within a broader context its peculiarity in its own right becomes clearer. Its gun ownership rate isn’t even half of the average of 10 guns per 100 people and out of 178 countries, only 66 have a lower rate.

When looking at similarly developed countries the image doesn’t change. The Netherlands is, together with the USA, in the top twenty of the 2016 Human Development Index.[2] Of these twenty, six others besides the USA also appear in the top twenty of gun ownership rate and three more are in the top fifty.† Only Japan, Singapore and South Korea have lower gun ownership rates out of this group. Of the other countries with the highest gun ownership rates seven more are part of the 51 countries classified as having “very high human development”.‡ Geographically, Western European rate is four times higher than its own and the Netherlands has the lowest gun ownership rate within the region.§

Still, while I am by no means an expert on comparative gun legislation, I find it hard to imagine that our gun legislation is so singularly strict compared others. Instead, I believe it is our attitude towards guns which explains why so few own one in the Netherlands. Private gun-ownership is looked upon in an almost exclusively negative manner. It is almost perceived as a character flaw and something inherently suspicious, even when the owner is a hunter. A gun, so the idea goes, is ultimately a tool whose function is to cause harm so why do you intend to do this and to whom?

The idea of guns as a deterrent is not only strange to us, but also unconvincing. You own a hammer not just because you want to be prepared for the hypothetical situation when you will need to hit a nail on the head, but because you expect this is a realistic scenario which you will encounter at some point. This is perhaps a rather complacent comparison, but even if you take rarer situations like those requiring fire extinguishers or hurricane shelters I believe you will find that those who do not acquire them, despite being financially able to, simply cannot imagine being in a scenario which would justify such preparations. Now these examples are mine, but the scepticism towards claims that guns are simply a deterrent is a commonplace sentiment.

The distrust of legal gun ownership goes so far that there is even limited sympathy for ultimate self-defence in case of a threat. This would, so the reasoning goes, only lead to a downward spiral where criminals will assume, and prepare for, a situation in which their targets own guns thereby making crime more dangerous for everyone. So even if I never come into contact with legal gun owners and even if none of them have malign intentions, they makes society less safe for me.

In addition, the political argument in favour of private gun ownership seems wholly bizarre to us since our own society is an empirical refutation of the idea that widespread gun ownership protects liberty against tyranny in government. Though the Dutch are on the whole pro-American to the point of obsession, there is a rhetorical repository of anti-Americanism which partially consists of claiming that in almost all the fields which Americans present themselves as world leaders − such as economic, civic and press freedom − we are actually doing better. “If guns are necessary for preserving freedom,” so the argument goes, “then how come we are not a dictatorship?”

Instead, the only case in which we feel that gun possession (not ownership!) is legitimate is in the case of soldiers and police officers. As a gun ultimately is a tool whose function is to cause harm, there has to be public − that is to say democratic − control over who is allowed to use this tool and with which intention. Nevertheless, causing harm remains in principle largely suspicious in the Dutch mind and it is only out of practical considerations that it is to be allowed. This ethos is so strong that even the former Chief of Defence of the Armed forces Peter van Uhm professed a distaste for guns in a TED Talk he made and legitimised their military usage by arguing that it eventually will lead to the disappearance of guns from society.

The contrast with American attitudes could scarcely be larger. To us the impossibility of gun legislation reform in the USA is incomprehensible. So much even that a Dutch comedy show ridiculed America’s gun culture as a disease dubbed Nonsensical Rifle Addiction (NRA). The humour in the sketch might seem blunt, but it does not come near to how crass the hostility and defensiveness of gun-rights advocates in the face of these events is in our perception.

On my side you will find no pretence that the Dutch position is the right one. I simply wish to leave the reader − the American reader in particular − with a sense of exactly how particular and contingent America’s common sense on gun culture is. That is all I can offer as a sign of solidarity to those unfortunates who died or were involved with the Florida shooting.

* * *

* I will consistently use the numbers given in the Small Arms Survey though I realize they aren’t perfect. E.g. I am slightly sceptical about the Polish official gun rate, given its well-developed network of armed civilian militias.

† The first set consists of Canada, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. The second set contains Australia, Luxembourg, and New Zealand. There is no data for Liechtenstein and Hong Kong while the data for the UK is given for four countries individually.

‡ These are Austria, Bahrain, Cyprus, Finland, France, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Within this category only Bahrein has not yet been mentioned as having a lower gun rate than the Netherlands alongside with Japan, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Singapore, and South Korea.

§ Narrowly defined as Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the UK. The average between these countries is 15.7.

[1] Small Arms Survey (2007). Small arms survey 2007: Guns and the city. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from:

[2] United Nations Development Programme. (2016). Human Development Report 2016—’Human Development for everyone’. Retrieved from:


Article 11: Een klein commentaar op Jan Willem Duyvendak

Op 13 februari 2018 gaf Jan Willem Duyvendak een weerwoord op de eerdere column van Ewald Engelen waarin hij stelt dat identiteitspolitiek links grote schade heeft berokkend. Hoewel ik meestal geen grote bewonderaar ben van Engelen kon ik mij ditmaal grotendeels vinden in zijn redenering. Enkel zijn karakteristiek hyperbolische conclusie ondermijnde, mijns inziens, de kracht van zijn argument. De reactie van Duyvendak bevat daarentegen een juiste conclusie − dat linkse een economische en culturele agenda samen horen te gaan − maar daaraan voorafgaand bevat het meerdere punten die na enige beschouwing niet sterk zijn.

Om te beginnen een korte opmerking over de verschillende invalshoek van de twee. Het is veelzeggend dat Duyvendank met enige ergernis opmerkt dat de kritiek op linkse identiteitspolitiek “[s]inds de opkomst van populistische partijen en de overwinning van Donald Trump” zo veelvoorkomend is.* Engelen noemt dit echter helemaal niet. Zijn kritiek komt niet voort uit de poging on Trump’s overwinning te begrijpen, maar om het ontbreken van andere overwinningen te verklaren. Hij vraagt “hoe kan links [na de financiële crisis] de grote politieke verliezer zijn geworden?” Alleen al het verschuiven van het beginpunt van de discussie weg van de financiële crisis geeft blijk van een blinde vlek voor de economie.

De kern van Duyvendak’s Antwoord aan Engelen is echter een viertal “misverstanden”. Tegen de eerste twee misverstanden is op zich niets tegen in te brengen. Het is pas bij zijn derde tegenwerping dat hij in de fout gaat.

Zijn bezwaar luidt dat links eigenlijk helemaal niet zoveel aandacht heeft voor identiteitsvraagstukken, want dat blijkt niet uit de verkiezingsprogramma’s. Het is echter maar de vraag of verkiezingsprogramma’s een juiste weergave zijn van de aandacht van links voor identiteitsvraagstukken − zelfs als men links beperkt tot linkse politieke partijen. Alhoewel van groot belang, zijn het documenten die maar door een beperkte groep gelezen worden. “Aandacht” zou beter gemeten worden door te kijken naar de “redactionele” keuzes van links om bepaalde boodschappen in de publieke sfeer (bijvoorbeeld op internet, televisie, radio, evenementen en in folders) meer of minder te bespreken. Dat is meer werk en daar is vooraf geen uitspraak over te doen. Ik zeg daarom niet op basis van nattevingerwerk dat Duyvendak geen gelijk heeft. Wel stel ik dat een blik op de verkiezingsprogramma’s niet aantoont dat links slechts beperkte aandacht geeft aan identiteitsvraagstukken.

Daarnaast stelt hij dat links aantoonbaar niet veel, genoeg of verkeerde aandacht geeft aan identiteitsvraagstukken. Als dit wel zo was waren er namelijk geen nieuwe partijen zoals BIJ1, Denk of NIDA ontstaan. Dit is een interessante opmerking vanwege wat het wel aankaart en wat niet. Wat het wel aankaart is dat er nieuwe partijen ontstaan die identiteitsvraagstukken als uitgangspunt hebben. Wat het aanvankelijk weglaat is dat alle partijen een historische achtergrond hebben in de identiteitsvraagstukken van Nederlanders met een migratieachtergrond. De Vrouwen Partij is bijvoorbeeld een dusdanig randfenomeen dat Duyvendak deze niet noemt en er is geen partij primair gericht op LHBT’ers. Wat het geheel weglaat is dat er een Nederlandse partij is die aan hen vooraf ging, die zich richt op etnische identiteitsvraagstukken en een groep van het linkse electoraat aan heeft weten te trekken: de PVV.

Provocatief stelt Duyvendak “hoe valt anders te verklaren dat het juist mensen uit emancipatiebewegingen zijn die zich losmaken van linkse partijen en hun eigen partijen oprichten?” Eigenlijk is het niet zo moeilijk een meer samenhangende verklaring van de versplintering op basis van identiteitsvraagstukken te geven. Een vluchtige samenvatting gaat als volgt: linkse partijen werden aanvankelijk als partij bijeengehouden door zich primair tot doel te stellen een gedeeld economisch belang te vertegenwoordigen. Dit bindmiddel is verloren, omdat “beroep” grotendeels verdwenen is als een primaire identiteit en doordat links in de jaren negentig arbeid hoopte te helpen door te handelen in het belang van kapitaal (de zogenaamde “neoliberale” koers).** De emancipatie van vrouwen, homo’s en Nederlanders met een migratieachtergrond kreeg een grotere focus om als aanvullend bindmiddel te fungeren. Echter, zoals Duyvendak deels erkent, was de vrouwen- en homo-emancipatie zo succesvol dat er min of meer een consensus is ontstaan over deze vraagstukken en waar dus geen politiek over bedreven kan worden. Wat overblijft is het vertegenwoordigen van Nederlanders met een migratieachtergrond voor wie identiteitsvraagstukken het uitgangspunt zijn. Deze kiezers zullen zich in het politieke landschap opnieuw configureren rondom bepaalde identiteiten (Turks in het geval van Denk, islamitisch voor NIDA). Of een linkse partij nu veel of weinig aandacht besteedt aan de desbetreffende identiteitsvraagstukken is niet relevant want het is gewoonweg geen evident vehikel om die belangen te vertegenwoordigen.

Het vierde misverstand is volgens Duyvendak dat FVD en de PVV stemmen trekken vanwege linkse identiteitspolitiek over vrouwen- en LHBT-vraagstukken. Terecht wijst hij erop dat er een progressieve consensus is rondom deze onderwerpen die rechtse partijen hebben overgenomen. Dit ondermijnt echter het daaropvolgende pleidooi om de vrouwen- en LHBT-beweging juist méér te steunen. Als er een consensus is dan kan er eigenlijk geen wezenlijk politiek meningsverschil zijn en zal rechts nieuwe eisen uit de vrouwen- en LHBT-beweging grotendeels absorberen of akkoord gaan met linkse voorstellen. Vrouwen- en LHBT-vraagstukken kunnen in dat geval dus niet de basis vormen voor het “terugwinnen” van kiezers, met name gezien dat de kiezers “die vinden dat deze partijen te stil op deze onderwerpen zijn geworden” nergens te bekennen zijn bij andere partijen (buiten BIJ1, die geen zetels won voor de Tweede Kamerverkiezing onder de naam Artikel 1).

De identiteitspolitiek die Duyvendak probeert te verdedigen zal dus vruchteloos zijn. Toch heeft hij gelijk dat minderheden hun vraagstukken niet gewoon kunnen laten liggen. Dat impliceert echter nog niet dat er identiteitspolitiek moet zijn. Wat politiek is daar wordt over getwist en als dat niet zo is bedraagt het een technisch probleem. Als gevolg van de verschuiving van economische vraagstukken van politieke naar technische probleem heeft links zich gewend tot identiteitspolitiek. Engelen heeft gelijk dat dit omgedraaid moet worden en dit betekent niet dat er geen vooruitgang kan zijn voor minderheden.

Op Duyvendak’s retorische afsluiting − “Kunnen we niet gelijktijdig werken aan het veiliger maken van de levens van homo’s, vrouwen en migranten én het verkleinen van de economische ongelijkheid?” − moet het antwoord zijn: “Já, maar het tweede moet daarvoor tot een politieke zaak gemaakt worden en het eerste een technische aangelegenheid”.

Dat is geen gemakkelijke taak. Zoals Willem Schinkel in De gedroomde samenleving overtuigend beargumenteert is de duiding van Nederlanders met een migratieachtergrond als “niet-geïntegreerd” bijvoorbeeld van groot belang voor het zelfbeeld van Nederland als een samenleving. Over nood voor een “nieuwe linkse verhaal” wordt ondertussen ook al meer dan een decennium gesproken en het gevaar van de bagatellisering als gevolg van depolitisering van identiteitsvraagstukken is reëel. Maar zolang dit niet gebeurt zal links verder marginaliseren en, zoals Engelen schrijft, “zullen we de uitbuiting van aarde en arbeid nooit tot staan brengen.”

* * *

* Overigens verbaast het mij dat er in Nederland gesproken lijkt te worden over “de opkomst van populistische partijen” alsof het fenomeen is dat naar voren is gekomen sinds de verkiezingscampagne van Donald Trump. Alsof Wilders niet al tien jaar in de Tweede Kamer zat, Fortuyn er nooit geweest is en de FPÖ in Oostenrijk en de Deense Dansk Folkeparti daarvoor niet al de opkomst aankondigden.

** Voor een inzicht in linkse economische politiek in een bepaalde zin ook identiteitspolitiek is lees het essay The Forward March of Labour Halted? van Eric Hobsbawm of Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology van André Gorz (klik hier voor een fragment van Gorz).

Discourse 2: The Barber’s Speech


This essay is a translation from Dutch into English of a paper I wrote during my bachelor’s degree. It does not contain many novel insights, but does succeed in being informative so I decided to publish it after being encouraged by a friend. I have not taken the effort to double-check my sources to confirm the reading I made at the time of writing in 2012. Hence I apologize for any errors due to any misreading of the source material and the potential errors which might result from translating the text. If at a later point I do decide to double-check the sources I will indicate this. In addition, I apologize for any stylistic error or lack of elegance resulting from the translation process.

In this essay I want to make an inquiry into how The Barber’s Speech from Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 classic film The Great Dictator relates to his time and how this has influenced the discourse’s persuasiveness. To this end I will first describe the storyline of the film and then examine its background by looking at the production process. Afterwards, I will discuss the place The Great Dictator takes within Chaplin’s oeuvre and end with a discussion on Chaplin’s political views. This essay was written with the assumption that the reader is acquainted with the concepts of classical rhetoric. Hence no effort is made to give a comprehensive overview of the concepts employed.


The story of The Great Dictator

In 1940, seven years after Adolf Hitler’s and the NSDAP won the German elections, the Second World War broke out in earnest several months after the 1939 invasion of Poland. That same year Charlie Chaplin published The Great Dictator which he hadn’t just written, produced and directed, but in which he also played both the protagonist and antagonist (Chaplin, 1940b).

The film is a parody of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. He takes on the guise of Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of the nation of Tomainia, but also that of a Jewish barber. Hitler’s ally, Mussolini, played by Jack Oakie, also features under the name of Benzino Napaloni, leader of Bacteria (Chaplin 1940b).

The story begins with the Jewish barber fighting as a solder in the trenches during “the” World War. After several antics he encounters an exhausted Tomainian pilot carrying an important message. Together they fly off to deliver it, but the plane slowly runs out of fuels while the fatigued pilot repeatedly faints. When finally there is no more fuel the plane crashes. Both survive, but while the pilot informed that the war has been lost by fellow soldiers coming to his aid, the Jewish barber has become the victim of debilitating amnesia (Chaplin 1940b).

Twenty years later the Jewish barber returns to his barbershop in the ghetto, unaware of the many changes which have taken place within Tomainia. During his hospitalization an anti-Semitic fascist regime, led by Adeonoid Hynkel, has taken power. Just moments after his return he comes into confrontation with Hynkel’s ‘Stormtroopers’. Hannah, a Jewish woman who also lives in the ghetto, helps him in avoiding them. Nevertheless, the Stormtroopers catch him and attempt to lynch the Jewish barber. Only the arrival of their commander, who does not approve of the practice, saves his life. By coincident the officer, Commander Shultz, turns out to be the pilot which was saved by the Jewish barber. Despite Schutlz’s surprise that his saviour is a Jew he assures the barber that this will be the last time that he will be harassed (Chaplin, 1940b).

In the meantime Hynkel prepares the invasion of Osterlich in secret as part of his plan to become ‘dictator of the world’. However, Hynkel is not able to finance his plans, since the banker he has approached is a Jew dissatisfied with his anti-Semitic policies. Hynkel asks Schultz to unleash his Stormtroopers on the Jewish ghetto in retaliation, but the officer strongly advices against this. As punishment he is sent to a concentration camp and the raid will take place regardless (Chaplin, 1940b).

After the raid the Jewish barber finds out that Schultz has gone into hiding in the ghetto. However, both are eventually arrested and sent to a concentration camp (Chaplin, 1940b).

Right before Hynkel’s planned invasion of Osterlich it is revealed that Benzino Napolini, Bacteria’s dictator, has stationed his troops at the Osterlich border. Unable to start with the invasion until these have been removed, Hynkel invites Napolini to Tomainia. The visit ends in a treaty where Napolini orders the demobilization of his troops while Hynkel agrees not to annex Osterlich. A promise he does not intend to keep (Chaplin, 1940b).

Some time later Schultz and the Jewish barber have escaped from the concentration camp disguised as Tomainian officers. At the same time Hynkel happens to be hunting near the escaped prisoners. His very own Stormtroopers run into him, confuse him for the runaway Jewish barber and promptly arrest him. The real Jewish barber is likewise assumed to be Adenoid Hynkel and Schultz is presumed to have been pardoned. The invasion of Osterlich has, however, already commenced by this time (Chaplin, 1940b).

Following the Tomainian triumph the Jewish barber has to give a victory speech in the newly conquered Osterlich where Hynkel planned to announce his plans for world dictatorship. Instead, he gives “The Barber’s Speech” where he argues in favour of the exact opposite of what Hynkel represents: democracy, freedom, solidarity and humanity (Chaplin, 1940b).

The making-of The Great Dictator

The initial concept of The Great Dictator didn’t come from Chaplin himself, but from the writer Konrad Bercovici. He had written a small text for Chaplin in the hope of inspiring him to produce an anti-fascist film. Others had already encouraged him to do so, but nobody offered such a concrete layout for a story-line. However, after The Great Dictator‘s release Chaplin refused to compensate Berovici for his contribution or even to acknowledge it. Berovici sued Chaplin for plagiarism and they eventually agreed to settle the lawsuit (Lynn, 1997, p. 395).

Besides the story of Berovici’s lawsuit the film ran into several other problems. One important factor was the political climate in the USA and the UK at the moment that it became known that Chaplin would produce a film about Hitler. The US was dominated by an isolationist sentiment, while the British still put their trust in a policy of appeasement towards Hitler (Cole, 2010).

There was a fear of Chaplin’s movie contributing to the cooling of relations with Germany. The American and British censorship boards closely followed the developments surrounding Chaplin’s production. The American Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) was challenged with an additional challenge. The MPPDA was – like the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) – not a government agency, but an organisation owned by the American film industry. However, industry ownership rested on the condition that self-regulation of decision-making which was acceptable to the government (Cole, 2010).

In addition, there was Charlie Chaplin’s tendency to be an obstacle to himself. Chaplin was a difficult director to work with due to his explosive, perfectionistic and controlling personality. An anecdote on his movie City Lights is illustrative: Chaplin repeated a particular scene for weeks on end where the Tramp was offered a flower by a blind girl due to Virginia Cherrill’s inability to enact the scene in exactly the manner which Chaplin wanted it to happen. Later in the production he fired her, because she asked if she could leave earlier for an appointment at the hairdresser only to take her back several weeks later (Lynn, 1997, p. 325 – 327). In the same way he frustrated, fired and rehired several actors and employees during the production of The Great Dictator (Lynn, 1997, p. 386-425).

Chaplin also decided to shoot large parts anew after the film was actually already finished and kept on editing scenes until thirteen days before the premiere (Mehran, 2004b, p. 33-38). The nervosity which led him to this course of action has been explained as the result of three sources of pressure. First, The Great Dictator was his first “talkie” – something Chaplin had tried to evade for years. Second, the film also meant the destruction of his iconic Tramp character, because he was attributed a nationality, religion and profession. Third, the MPPDA had constantly monitored the development of his project and isolationists and Nazi sympathisers regarded it with suspicion (Kamin, 2004, p. 5-9; Lynn, 1997, 320-321, p. 360; Mehran, 2004b, p. 38).

The Great Dictator and Chaplin’s oeuvre

Together with Modern Times and the dance of the rolls in Gold RushThe Great Dictator is one of the works which has inscribed Chaplin in the contemporary collective memory. Within the context of his oeuvre this work forms a clear rupture. As mentioned before, it was his first talkie, and at the same time the last movie featuring the Tramp – or as some say a Tramp-like figure (Kamin, 2004, p. 8; Mehran, 2004b, p. 38). It also was the end of Chaplin’s status as a big movie star in the USA. The productions which followed were confronted with varying difficulties and were not well-received. Moreover, Chaplin no longer refrained from openly voicing his political opinion in The Great Dictator, a development which started in Modern Times.

The film is marked by several themes which recur in the rest of Chaplin’s works. First, the character of Jewish Barber is modelled on the Tramp. Like the Tramp he represented the common man, but this time he was situated by means of a specific identity (Kamin, 2004, p. 8; Lynn, 1997, p. 322). The barber’s profession itself has been a recurring feature as well. Chaplin worked on scenes containing barbers both in his own movies as those of others. It was a theme with a personal connection to Chaplin’s youth when he was shaven bald due to a fungal infection (Mehran, 2004a, p. 43-49).

Chaplin and Politics

Chaplin has been characterised as a “natural Marxist” and I believe this is the best way to view his attitude towards politics. He notably lacked consistency in his viewpoints. For example, despite his left-wing opinions he did not hesitate to live in full accordance to his status as a multimillionaire. In 1932, during a visit to England, where he stayed in a luxurious suite of a prestigious hotel, Chaplin was invited by Lady Astor for a lunch at which other prominent figures, including then Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, would be present. Everyone was asked to give a speech after lunch on “what he would do if he had ‘the power of Mussolini to help England in her present crisis.'” Chaplin’s speech voiced his sympathy for several opposed ideas such as a libertarian plea for a small government, but also for the then still popular idea of the planned economy (Lynn, 1997, p. 347).

He was capable of turning 180 degrees on his political positions. After the German–Soviet Non-aggression pact Chaplin became, together with other Communist and Soviet sympathisers, a pacifist while he earlier had cherished the hope that the USSR would lead the resistance against Nazi-Germany. A few years later he again switched opinion when Germany invaded the USSR. Now he pleaded for a “second front” against Hitler (Lynn, 1997, p. 399, p. 419-423). This switching of opinions was, however, not effortless. Especially the news of the non-aggression pact, an event which shocked the whole of left-wing America and brought it into a temporary crisis, was difficult for him. Chaplin even considered referring to Stalin in The Barber’s Speech, but was convinced by two of the employees at his film studio to refrain from this (Lynn, 1997, p. 400; Scheide & Mehran, 2004, p.88-89, p. 96).

Another example of the influence of Chaplin’s political bias is his meeting with Oswald Mosley, a British politician who was member of several party, but became famous as the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Their meeting in 1932 in France happened during the same year in which Mosley founded the party, but considering Chaplin’s aversion to fascism the meeting probably happened before this event. Initially Chaplin described him as “one of the most promising young men in English politics“. Years later in his autobiography he looked back at the same meeting and claimed that he found Mosley a strange and even slightly frightening man (Lynn, 1997, p. 350).

While Chaplin wasn’t very critical towards the Left this wasn’t the case the other way around. Marxist film critics were negative about Chaplin’s work for varying reasons, but mostly because the film did not sufficiently emphasize class struggle (Lynn, 1997, p. 360-362).


Rhetorical situation

Of the three branches of classical rhetoric The Barber’s Speech could belong to two: deliberative (political) oratory and epideictic (ceremonial) oratory. Since Chaplin meant to point the Anglo-American public to the danger of fascism with his film, the label of deliberative oratory seems to fit best. The question remains which place ethos and pathos take in this oration. I will continue with a short discussion of the two.

Who speaks? – Ethos and The Barber’s Speech

There is only a thin veil between the fictitious world of Tomainia, Osterlich and Bacteria and contemporary reality in The Great Dictator. The story’s satirical nature thus prompts the question: who is performing this oration?

First, there is Chaplin who speaks as an actor-director, making a political film and as such also a political oration. His logical counterpart is the Jewish barber who tries to bring a lost nation back to the right path.

However, is there also a third speaker? Some critics of the speech have claimed that Chaplin / the Jewish barber is out of character (Kamin, 2004, p. 9). One has to admit that the passionate oration does not seem to fit with the calm, reserved, and somewhat clumsy nature of the Jewish barber. Moreover, in the speech he refers to the Gospel According to Luke despite his Jewish background. One could say that there is a third speaker who transcends both Chaplin as the Jewish barber. This third character remains part of the story of The Great Dictator, but again transcends the particularity of the Jewish barber. Like the Tramp, the third speaker represents the universal. It is the reasoned voice of the universal whereas the Tramp was its mute body.

In the rest of the analysis I will refer to “Chaplin / the Jewish barber” when speaking of the person who performs the oration.

Who listens? – Pathos and The Barber’s Speech

The Barber’s Speech does not have a single audience, but three. First, the Tomainian audience consisting of the victorious soldiers and the political and military top of the regime. This audience has to be convinced that not fascism, but its alternative is the right way for society. Perhaps that the soldiers are part of the crowd cheering at the end of the speech, though this isn’t certain. The Tomainian elite is not seen off after Garbitsch, one of Hynkel’s ministers who announces the speech, disappears from view. It is improbably that they cheer on together with the crowd after hearing the oration.

The second is the audience of the “innocents”, the Jewish refugees and the citizens of Osterlich. Chaplin / the Jewish barber has to convince them that he does not have bad intentions.

Third, there is his 1940 Anglo-American audience. They first have to be convinced of the wicked nature of Hitler’s regime and in addition that Chaplin / the Jewish barber can offer a hopeful alternative.

So far the discussion of the rhetorical situation. Below the structure and the techniques of The Barber’s Speech will be discussed.

Structure and techniques

The first reviews of The Great Dictator in 1940 were very critical of the speech. One of the points of criticism was that it was badly structured (Kamin, 2004, p. 9). At first sight The Barber’s Speech indeed does seem like an oration lacking structure. I will analyse the speech in two ways. First, in the classical manner. Second, by means of a coding which I applied to it.

The speech starts with Garbitsch announcing Chaplin / the Jewish barber, presumed to be Hynkel. He does this through a short introductory speech of his own which is worth quoting in full here:

Corona veniet delectis. Victory shall come to the worthy. Today, democracy, liberty and equality are words to fool the people. No nation can progress with such ideas. They stand in the way of action. Therefore, we abolish them. In the future, each man will serve the state with absolute obedience. Let him who refuses beware! Citizenship will be taken away from all Jews and non-Aryans. They are inferior and therefore enemies of the state. It is the duty of all true Aryans to hate and despise them. This nation is annexed to the Tomainian Empire, and the people will obey the laws bestowed on us by our great leader, the Dictator of Tomainia, the conqueror of Osterlich, the future Emperor of the World!

Near the end of this announcement the camera switches to Chaplin / the Jewish barber with Schultz at his side. When Garbitsch is done Schultz whispers to his companion: “you must speak”. Panicked he responds: “I can’t”, to which Schultz replies “You must. It’s our only hope.” After repeating “hope” in bewonderment he gets up and walks to the stage. Garbitsch greets him through a Hitler salute, but Chaplin / the Jewish barber merely gives a polite bow in response. After a moment of silence behind the microphones he begins without holding back: “I’m sorry but I don’t want to be an emperor” (Chaplin, 1940a). This is said in a soft, calm, and deliberate tone. It is said against all three audiences: “his” army and the military and political leadership of the regime, the citizens of vanquished Osterlich, and the American cinematic audience. We can be almost certain that this Exordium is a surprise for these first two groups and that their attention has been captured. For the American spectator it is not the phrase itself which is engrossing, but it is the question how Chaplin / the Jewish barber will be able to save himself from this situation which keeps them occupied.

Chaplin / the Jewish barber continues with attempting to make his audience open and sympathetic to his message. He continues his opening by specifying “[t]hat’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone” (Chaplin, 1940a). With this statement the Osterlichian citizenry and the American audience will certainly be convinced by this, but the Tomainian forces and leaders will no doubt be shocked at hearing this. In the case of the Tomainian elite this is not a huge problem, but it could become a risk when he alienates the soldiery.

This oration does not just change the order of narratio, propositio and argumentatio, but they in fact run through each other. Concerning these three parts I would like to take a short detour to my coding. After a careful reading of the text I realized that it could be seen in a different, additional manner. Instead of a speech consisting of successive parts, one should see The Barber’s Speech as a succession of “waves”. Chaplin / the Jewish barber makes three kind of statements in the oration: statements on human nature, statements on humanity’s current state, and statements on what should be done. These statements follow each other in numerous waves. These are respectively represented by the following three phrases from the first paragraph:

”We all want to help one another.”

“…we have lost the way.”

“The way of life can be free and beautiful…”

– (Chaplin, 1940a)

I have coded the speech based on this principle (see Annex). One could say that the first kind of statement roughly corresponds to the argumentatio, the second with the narratio, and the third with the propositio. After the coding the wave-pattern of the speech where Chaplin / the Jewish barber concerns himself with a particular kind of statement, follows up with others kinds and then returns to one already discussed.

If one sees the recording of the speech another aspect becomes clear. Despite its wave-like pattern the oration does not have high and low points where one would expect them to be. Instead there is a continuing crescendo starting in a soft and moderate manner to a wild and enthusiastic end. This also explains, in my opinion, why The Barber’s Speech manages to be convincing despite its aberrant structure. Chaplin / the Jewish barber reiterates the same message repeatedly, but each time in a more convinced and forceful manner. In this way the public, which initially might not be very receptive, is being roused more and more. 

The narratio in this case does not correspond to any a precise set of real events. As such there is no exact account of events, but rather a general description of certain “truths” as perceived by Chaplin / the Jewish barber. “Greed has poisoned men’s souls” might refer to the Great Depression. Naturally this works perfectly for the Jewish barber since Chaplin has offered him the perfect audience: the people of Osterlich. The Tomainian top might be less convinced, but their reaction is not noted. For the real American public Chaplin / the Jewish barber offers an ostentatiously abstract story which they can apply to events in their own world. However, the reception of his film in the USA has shown that he didn’t manage to convince everyone (Kamin, 2004, p. 9).

The argumentatio is, like the narratio and the speech in its entirety, fairly abstract. Chaplin does not just want to convince a public consisting of Tomainians and Osterlichians, but also an Anglo-American – and perhaps even global – audience. He subsequently focuses mainly on emotion, on pathos. Following Braet (2007, p. 40-47), I would claim that most of the arguments are made based on values. However, two times another argument is made. First, when an appeal is made to the authority of the Gospel According to Luke. Second, when in the last paragraph Chaplin / the Jewish barber performs a refutatio by stating that: By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will!”. The interesting thing about this phrase is that it in fact belongs both to the narratio and the argumentatio. In addition, by contrast to the other arguments it does not belong to the statements on human nature, but to those on the state of the present world. Though one could claim that a statement is being made about the nature of dictators.

Last there is Chaplin / the Jewish barber’s propositio. Notable here is that this does not plead for a return to the state of things before Hynkel, but pleads for a wholly new world. Here Chaplin’s left-wing politics come to the fore, especially in the last paragraph and the closing phrase where Chaplin / the Jewish barber cries out passionately:

“Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. (…) Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.

Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!” – (Chaplin, 1940a)

One could effortlessly supplement or replace this paragraph with the refrain, or many other passages, of the Internationale:

“C’est la lutte finale

Groupons-nous, et demain


Sera le genre humain”[1] – (Pottier, 1871)

Moreover, one could add the last phrase of the Communist Manifesto – “Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch!”[2] – to The Barber’s Speech final exhortation (Engels & Marx, 1948).

Figures of speech

Here follows a short discussion of the figures of speech in The Barber’s Speech. The passages have been selected based on their function within the oration.

In the second paragraph, Chaplin / the Jewish barber uses a personification to transform “greed” from an impersonal force in society, or a character treat of people, into an evil actor which has plunged the world in the miserable state of affairs in which it now finds itself:

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls ; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.” – (Chaplin, 1940a)

This same paragraph makes use of enumeration, a summation of words, groups of words or phrases. After the misdeeds of greed have been covered, also in the form of an enumeration, the speech continues with the misdeeds “we” have inflicted on ourselves:

We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge as made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little.” – (Chaplin, 1940a)

After which an alternative is proposed:

“More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.” – (Chaplin, 1940a)

In the third paragraph we can give an example of a proof, a visual and penetrative description of an event. Chaplin / the Jewish barber refers to the inhumanity of “the system”:

“Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people” – (Chaplin, 1940a)

After this paragraph the focus shifts to the soldiers. Chaplin / the Jewish barber implores them not to capitulate to Hynkel’s fascist regime. He makes use of a distinctive tripartite enumeration:

“Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts!” – (Chaplin, 1940a)

Instead he offers them something they can fight for in the fifth paragraph: liberty. He does this by means of contrasting it with slavery. This figure of speech is the antithesis:

“Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!” – (Chaplin, 1940a)

In the last paragraph Chaplin / the Jewish barber warns them. He employs an anticipation. He runs ahead of what will be said, not by the public or by him, but by the world’s dictators who offer the same prospect he just made:

“By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise.” – (Chaplin, 1940a)

After this final paragraph, after the continuing crescendo during the whole of the speech, he ends with a climax, the summit which is by now a self-evident truthful injunction:

Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite! – (Chaplin, 1940a)


The Great Dictator is an unmistakable cinematic classic from the first half of the twentieth century. A product of his time and of Chaplin as a person. The first fifty years of the twentieth century was a time where ideological battles were fought in all their fury and Chaplin was a person who wanted to take a stand. The minutely choreographed Barber’s Speech is the moment in Chaplin’s career where he dared to reveal his willingness to do so without restraint on the silver screen. 

This had a strong influence on the persuasive power of the speech. Whereas the Jewish barber was given an ideal public, Chaplin did not have this luxury. In Great Britain, where war had been declared against Hitler by the time it premiered, the film became a great success. In the United States the reception was more lukewarm due to its continuing isolationist sentiment.

Until this day The Barber’s Speech has a certain quality which we are tempted to characterize as naive. The hope for a world which is not here yet, but will come: “The way of life can be free and beautiful” (Chaplin, 1940a). Perhaps, however, it is us who are cynics and this faith is exactly what we need today.


Braet, A., (2007). Retorische Kritiek: Hoe Beoordeel Je Overtuigingskracht. Den Haag: Sdu Uitgevers.

Chaplin, C., (1940). The Barber’s Speech. Hollywood: United Artists. Retrieved from:

Chaplin, C., (1940). The Great Dictator. Hollywood: United Artists.

Cole, R. (2010). Anglo-American Anti-fascist Film Propaganda in a Time of Neutrality: The Great Dictator, 1940. Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, 21, 137-152.

Engels, F. & Marx, K. (1848). Het Communistisch Manifest. Retrieved from:

Frank, S., Hooman, M. & Dan, K. (2004). Chaplin: The Dictator and the Tramp. London: British Film Institute.

Kamin, D (2004). ‘Who Is This Man? (Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin)’. In Scheide, F. & Mehran, H. (Ed.). Chaplin: The Dictator and the Tramp (pp. 5-12). London: British Film Institute.

Lynn, K. (1997). Charlie Chaplin and His Times. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Mehran, H. (2004). Chaplin on the Cutting Edge. In Scheide, F. & Mehran, H. (Ed.). Chaplin: The Dictator and the Tramp (pp. 43-49). London: British Film Institute.

Mehran, H. (2004). Second Thoughts on The Great Dictator. In Scheide, F. & Mehran, H. (Ed.). Chaplin: The Dictator and the Tramp (pp. 33-38). London: British Film Institute.

Pottier, E. (1871). L’Internationale. Retrieved from:’internationale

Scheide, F. & Mehran, H. (2004). The Great Dictator in Historical Context. In Scheide, F. & Mehran, H. (Ed.). Chaplin: The Dictator and the Tramp (pp. 72-103). London: British Film Institute.

[1] The traditional British version translates this verse as follows:

“So comrades, come rally,

And the last fight let us face.

The Internationale

Unites the human race.” 

[2] Traditionally translated as “Workers of the world, unite!”.

Annex: Coding of the The Barber’s Speech

The colour coding of the text is as follows: orange represents statements on human nature affinative with the argumentatio, green stands for statements on humanity’s current state corresponding with the naratio, and blue identifies statements on what should be done which is equivalent to the propositio. Red parentheses have been put around the phrases which have been picked as primary examples.

I’m sorry but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black men, white. [We all want to help one another.] Human beings are like that. We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. [The way of life can be free and beautiful,] [but we have lost the way.]

Greed has poisoned men’s souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge as made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.

Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say “Do not despair.” The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have a love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural.

Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it’s written “the kingdom of God is within man”, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power.

Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.

Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

Article 10: Two nightmares

This is the account of two sleep paralysis nightmares I had several months ago. I believe both horrific episodes were the result of a very underwhelming and comical reason: I had tucked my sheets in too tightly.

The red iris

It must have been the middle of the night when I woke from my sleep and felt a slight draft under my sheets by my feet. Though it chilled me I was to drowsy to think of doing something about it. Suddenly though, my attention was caught my the inescapable feeling that something was moving from the door of my room, which is about three meters to the right of my bed’s foot end, past my bed. My immediate assumption was that a burglar had entered, an idea which enraged me, but I kept still. I became even angrier when I had the feeling that someone came to sit or lie on the mattress next to me and had its face close to mine. Not only did this person want to steal from me, but it also wanted to satisfy some kind of perversion.

My plan for how to act in case of a burglary is simple and maybe a bit naive: be as loud, intimidating, and violent as possible and if they turn out to be violent themselves, submit. Just as I wanted to strike my intruder and scream on the top of my lungs I was confronted with my inability to do either. No matter how hard I tried I could not get a single muscle to move and my throat had dried up.

I opened my eyes and to my shock there was no thief, but a woman. She had long sleek black hair, white skin, and, as I looked a bit lower, I saw she was holding a child. However, the one thing I was drawn to and couldn’t take my eye of was the bright red iris of her right eye. She stared at me and calmly asked me: “You’re good at waking up, are you also good at falling asleep?” Though I tried I couldn’t resist falling asleep again and my mind slowly slipt.

It felt like it was only a few minutes later when I woke up, but I was alone again and able to move. Again I felt a slight draft and out of fear I pulled at my sheets to make them cover me fully. I didn’t dare open my eyes to look at the time let alone stand up and tried to go back to sleep, which I eventually did.

A vanishing

Normally I lock the room of my door as I go to sleep, a habit I formed when I lived in a dormatory as a student. This night, as I lay in bed, I realized that I had not locked my door, but I wasn’t feeling like getting up out of bed and instead went to sleep.

I woke up suddenly and realized there was a movement from my door to the window to the left of my bed’s footend. Instead of making the connection with the previous episode I again gathered a burglar had entered my room, though I did not think of my unlocked door. The thought of a person daring to come into my house made me furious and I immediately tried to scare this intruder off and opened my eyes.

Instead, I was confronted with the black wraith of a woman staring at me standing at the left footend of my bed. I couldn’t actually see if it was a woman, there were no distinguishable features, but somehow I knew it was a woman. Behind her stood another wraith who I knew to be her mother. She did not face me, but instead looked in the direction of the door. It was at this moment that I realized that I had made a mistake and that I was having another hallucination. The wraith turned in the same direction of the mother looking up. They were looking at an evil presence which I could not see as it was beyond the corner of my eye, but which I felt to be as present as myself.

It was with dread that I heard the wraiths speak without making sounds. “Condolences, condolences, condolences, condolences”, they repeated over and over. Not to the presence, not to me, but almost as a mantra.

I felt terrified, but also humiliated and angry. It couldn’t be that what I saw was real and it was unacceptable that I was not to say whether I could move or not. I decided to close my eyes for a second and then muster all my strength to move by force of will alone if needed. I shut my eyes and as I opened them and tried to lift my arm with great effort and felt that I was succeeding in moving it a tiny bit. However, I couldn’t hold my attention to my mixed success as at that very moment I saw that one of the wraiths had disappeared and, as I looked, the second wraith disappeared in thin air.

My newfound ability to move was of no use to me. I was deadly afraid to move. I must have lain completely silent for at least twenty minutes, feeling an intense solitude in the room, but nevertheless fearing to see or feel anything else. Eventually I did dare to readjust my sheets and to look at my alarm. It was after three o’clock, which struck me as I remembered this was the witching hour.

Quotation 6: ‘On populist reason’ by Ernesto Laclau

From “Demands and popular identities”

“A first decision has to be taken. What is our minimal unit of analysis going to be? Everything turns around the answer to this question. We can decide to take as our minimal unit the group as such, in which case we are going to see populism as the ideology or the type of mobilization of an already constituted group — that is, as the expression (the epiphenomenon) of a social reality different from itself; or we can see populism as one way of constituting the very unity of the group. If we opt for die first alternative, we are immediately confronted with all the pitfalls that I have described in Chapter 1.[1] If we choose the second — as I think we should — we have to accept its actual implications: ‘the people’ is not something of the nature of an ideological expression, but a real relation between social agents. It is, in other terms, one way of constituting the unity of the group. Obviously, it is not the only way of doing so. There are other logics operating within the social, and making possible types of identity different from the populist one. So, if we want to gauge the specificity of a populist articulatory practice, we have to isolate units smaller than the group, and to determine the kind of unity that populism brings about.

The smallest unit from which we will start corresponds to the category of ‘social demand’. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the notion of ‘demand’ is ambiguous in English: it can mean a request, but it can also mean a claim (as in ‘demanding an explanation’). This ambiguity of meaning, however, is useful for our purposes, because it is in the transition from request to claim that we are going to find one of the first defining features of populism.

Let me give an example of how isolated demands emerge, and how they start their process of articulation. This example, although it is imaginary, corresponds pretty well to a situation widely experienced in Third World countries. Think of a large mass of agrarian migrants who settle in the shantytowns on the outskirts of a developing industrial city. Problems of housing arise, and the group of people affected by them request some kind of solution from the local authorities. Here we have a demand which initially is perhaps only a request. If the demand is satisfied, that is the end of the matter; but if it is not, people can start to perceive that their neighbours have other, equally unsatisfied demands -problems with water, health, schooling, and so on. If the situation remains unchanged for some time, there is an accumulation of unfulfilled demands and an increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them in a differential way (each in isolation from the others), and an equivalential relation is established between them. The result could easily be, if it is not circumvented by external factors, a widening chasm separating the institutional system from the people.

So we have here the formation of an internal frontier, a dichotomization of the local political spectrum through the emergence of an equivalential chain of unsatisfied demands The requests are turning into claims. We will call a demand which, satisfied or not, remains isolated a democratic demand. A plurality of demands which, through their equivalential articulation, constitute a broader social subjectivity we will call popular demands – they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the ‘people’ as a potential historical actor. Here we have, in embryo, a populist configuration. We already have two clear preconditions of populism: (1) the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; and (2) an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of the ‘people’ possible. There is a third precondition which does not really arise until the political mobilization has reached a higher level: the unification of these various demands — whose equivalence, up to that point, had not gone beyond a feeling of vague solidarity — into a stable system of signification.”

From “The adventures of equivalences”


Let us go back to the previously established distinction between democratic and popular demands. We already know something about the latter: they presuppose, for their constitution, the equivalence of a plurality of demands. But about democratic demands we have said very little: the only thing we know is that they remain in isolation. Isolation vis-á-vis what? Only vis-á-vis the equivalential process. This is not, however, a monadic isolation, for we know that if it does not enter into an equivalential relation with other demands, it is because it is a fulfilled demand (…). Now, a demand which is met does not remain isolated; it is inscribed in an institutional/differential totality. So we have two ways of constructing the social: either through the assertion of a particularity — in our case, a particularity of demands — whose only links to other particularities are of a differential nature (as we have seen: no positive terms, only differences); or through a partial surrender of particularity, stressing what all particularities have, equivalentially, in common. The second mode of construction of the social involves, as we know, the drawing of an antagonistic frontier; the first does not. I have called the first mode of constructing the social logic of difference, and the second, logic of equivalence. Apparently, we could draw the conclusion that one precondition for the emergence of populism is the expansion of the equivalential logic at the expense of the differential one. This is true in many respects, but to leave the matter there would be to win the argument too cheaply, for it would presuppose that equivalence and difference are simply in a zero-sum relation of exclusion of each other. Things are far more complex.


Equivalences can weaken, but they cannot domesticate differences. In the first place, it is clear that equivalence does not attempt to eliminate differences (…) — if the particularity of the demands disappears, there is no ground for the equivalence either. So difference continues to operate within equivalence, both as its ground and in a relation of tension with it.


I have shown that equivalence and difference are ultimately incompatible with each other; none the less, they require each other as necessary conditions for the construction of the social. The social is nothing but the locus of this irreducible tension. What, in that case, about populism? If no ultimate separation between the two logics is possible, in what sense would the privileging of the equivalential moment be specific to it? And, especially, what would ‘privileging’ mean in this context? (…) on the one hand, all social (that is, discursive) identity is constituted at the meeting point of difference and equivalence (…). On the other hand, however, there is an essential unevenness in the social, for, as we have seen, totalization requires that one differential element should assume the representation of an impossible whole. (The Solidarność symbols, for instance, did not remain the particular demands of a group of workers in Gdansk, but came to signify much wider popular camp against an oppressive regime.) Thus a certain identity is picked up from the whole field of differences, and made to embody this totalizing function. This — to answer the previous question — is exactly what privileging means.

The difference between a populist and an institutionalist totalization si to be found at the level of these privileged, hegemonic signifiers which structure, as nodal points, the ensemble of a discursive formation. Difference and equivalence are present in both cases, but an institutionalist di9scourse is one that attempts to make the limits of the discursive formation coincide with the limits of the community. So the universal principle of ‘differentiality’ would become the dominant equivalence within that homogenous communitarian space. (Think, for instance, of Disraeli’s ‘one nation’.) The opposite takes place in the case of populism: a frontier of exclusion divides society in two camps. The ‘people’, in that case, is something less than the totality of the members of the community: it is a partial component which nevertheless aspires to be conceived as the only legitimate totality.


…the rejection of a power that is very active within the community requires the identification of all links in the popular chain with an identity principle which crystallizes all differential claims around a common denominator — and the latter requires, of course, a positive symbolic expression. This is the transition from what we have called democratic demands to popular demands.


At this point I can deal with two aspects of populism to which the literature on the subject frequency refers but for which, as we have seen, no satisfactory explanation has been provided. The first concerns the so called ‘imprecision’ and ‘vagueness’ of populist symbols. (…) The empty character of the signifiers that give unity or coherence to a popular camp is not the result of any ideological or political underdevelopment; it simply expresses the fact that any populist unification takes place on a radically heterogeneous social terrain. This heterogeneity does not tend, out of its own differential character, to coalesce around a unity which would result from its mere internal development; so any kind of unity is going to proceed from an inscription, the surface of inscription (the popular symbols) being irreducible to the contents which are thereon inscribed. The popular symbols are, no doubt, the expression of the democratic demands that they bring together; but the expressing medium cannot be reduced to what it expresses: it is not a transparent medium. (…) [I]n a local struggle I can be relatively clear about both the nature of my demands and the force against which we are fighting. But when I am trying to constitute a wider popular identity and a more global enemy through an articulation of sectorial demands, the identity of both the popular forces and of the enemy becomes more difficult to determine. It is here that the moment of emptiness necessarily arises, following the establishment of equivalential bonds. Ergo, ‘vagueness’ and ‘imprecision’, but these do not result from any kind of marginal or primitive situation; they are inscribed in the very nature of the political.


A second problem that is not completely solved in the literature on populism concerns the centrality of the leader. How do we explain it? (…) We already know that the more extended the equivalential tie is, the emptier the signifier unifying that chain will be (that is, the more specific particularism of the popular symbol or identity will be subordinated to the ‘universal’ function of signifying the chain as a totality). But we also know something else: that the popular symbol or identity (…) does not simply express a unity of demands constituted outside and before itself, but is the decisive moment in establishing that unity. That is why I said that this unifying element is not a neutral or transparent medium. If it were, whatever unity the discursive/hegemonic formation could have would have preceded the moment of naming the totality (…). But if – given the radical heterogeneity of the links entering into the equivalential chain — the only source of their coherent articulation is the chain as such, and if the chain exists only in so far as one of its links plays the role of condensing all the others, in that case the unity of the discursive formation is transferred from the conceptual order (logic of difference) to the nominal one. This, obviously, is more the case in situations where there is a breakdown or retreat of the differential/institutional logic. In those cases, the name becomes the ground of the thing. An assemblage of heterogeneous elements kept equivalentially together only by a name is, however, necessarily a singularity. The less a society is kept together by immanent differential mechanisms, the more it depends, for its coherence, on this transcendent, singular moment. But the extreme form of singularity is an individuality. In this way, almost imperceptibly, the equivalential logic leads to singularity, and singularity to identification of the unity of the group with the name of the leader.”

From “Naming and affect”

“I have talked about the name becoming the ground of the thing. What, exactly, is the meaning of this assertion?


For descriptivism, the operations that naming can perform are strictly limited by the straitjacket within which they take place: the descriptive features inhabiting any name reduce the order of the signifier to the transparent medium through which a purely conceptual overlapping between name and thing (the concept being their common nature) expresses itself. [Every name has a content given by a cluster of descriptive features. The word ‘mirror’, for instance, has an intentional content (the ability to reflect images, etc.), so I use that word whenever I find an actually existing object which displays such a content. (…) Difficulties arose within this approach in relation to the plurality of descriptions which can be attached to the same object.] With anti-descriptivism we have the beginning of an autonomization of the signifier (of the name). [Words refer to things not through their shared descriptive features, but through a ‘primal baptism’ which does away with description entirely. Gold (…) would remain gold even if it were proved that all the properties traditionally attributed to it are an illusion. In that case we would say that gold is different from what we thought it was, not that this substance is not gold.] This parting of the ways between naming and description, however, does not lead to any increase in the complexity of the operations that ‘naming’ can perform, for although designation is no longer ancillary to description, the identity of what is designated is ensured before and quite independency of the process of its being named. [The basic problem of antidescriptivisrn is to determine what constitutes the identity of the designated object beyond the ever-changing cluster of descriptive features – what makes the object identical-to-itself even if all its properties have changed (…) What is overlooked, at least in the standard version of antidescriptivism, is that this guaranteeing the identity of an object in all counterfactual situations — through a change of all its descriptive features — is the retroactive effect of naming itself: it is the name itself, the signifier, which supports the identity of the object.] It is only with the Lacanian approach that we have a real breakthrough: the identity and unity of the object result from the very operation of naming. This, however, is possible only if naming is not subordinated either to description or to a preceding designation. In order to perform this role, the signifier has to become, not only contingent, but empty as well.[2]

These remarks, I think, show very clearly why the name becomes the ground of the thing.


Our whole approach to populism turns, as we have seen, around the following theses: (1) the emergence of the ‘people’ requires the passage — via equivalences — from isolated, heterogeneous demands to a ‘global’ demand which involves the formation of political frontiers and the discursive construction of power as an antagonistic force; (2) since, however, this passage does not follow from a mere analysis of the heterogeneous demands themselves – there is no logical, dialectical or semiotic transition from one level to the other — something qualitatively new has to intervene. This is why ‘naming’ can have the retroactive effect I have described.


I have now introduced all the theoretical variables needed to attempt a first and provisional conceptualization of populism. Three aspects should be taken into account.

1. First, it should be clear at this stage that by ‘populism’ we do not understand a type of movement – identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation – but a political logic.


2. …If the construction of the ‘people’ is a radical one — one which constitutes social agents as such, and does not express a previously given unity of the group – the heterogeneity of the demands that the popular identity brings to a precarious unity has to be irreducible.


3. …Since any kind of institutional system is inevitably at least partially limiting and frustrating, there is in any society a reservoir of raw anti-status-quo feelings which crystallize in some symbols quite independently of the forms of their political articulation…”

* * *

By Ernesto Laclau in On Populist Reason (2005).

Emphasis in the original. I have tried to present the key elements of Laclau’s argument by selecting various passages from chapter 4 of his book. In the preceding chapters he provides a criticism to support the need for his own argument. The following chapters essentially are an expansion and elaboration on his parsimonious basic model.

[1] In chapter 1 Laclau surveys existing attempts to define populism through common substantive denominators and concludes that they do not succeed in finding a suitable definition.

[2] I have added key phrases from the preceding paragraphs to clarify the summary of this concluding paragraph. The following passage is a quote in the text by Slavoj Žižek:

What is overlooked, at least in the standard version of antidescriptivism, is that this guaranteeing the identity of an object in all counterfactual situations — through a change of all its descriptive features — is the retroactive effect of naming itself: it is the name itself, the signifier, which supports the identity of the object.

Note 8: Verwerping van een eerder standpunt

Enkele jaren terug, in 2013, schreef ik een stuk getiteld “Afschaffen die Zwarte Piet! Of toch niet?“. Ik probeerde het destijds eerst op de linkse website Joop gepubliceerd te krijgen, maar deze accepteerde het stuk niet – achteraf terecht, gezien de vlakke stijl en simpele redenering – en zodoende richtte ik mij op het de rechtse opiniesite The Post Online die wel tot publicatie overging. Ik was destijds niet geheel op de hoogte van de signatuur van het platform, al wist ik wel dat het niet links was dacht ik dat het opinies over de hele breedte publiceerde.

De kern van mijn argument was het volgende: het geforceerd wegwerken, “afschaffen”, van racistische discursieve elementen in de samenleving racisme juist aanwakkert en het moeilijker te werken aan de bestrijding van socio-economisch racisme. Ik wens expliciet afstand te nemen van deze eerdere positie die ik in feite al enkele jaren niet meer aanhang.

Het werk van de activisten betrokken bij Zwarte Piet is Racisme en de reactie van een groot deel van de samenleving daarop hebben mij, net als veel andere Nederlanders, overtuigd van het gelijk van zij die al eerder stelden dat dat racistische maatschappelijke discoursen grondig, voortdurend en compromisloos bekritiseerd moet worden. Zij hebben als katalysator gefungeerd en een discussie op gang gebracht over zwarte pijn die het bewustzijn over racisme in Nederland naar een hoger niveau heeft getild.

Dat racisme ondanks het plaatselijk terugdringen ervan over het geheel toe kan nemen is geen bezwaar tegen het terugdringen van racisme. Dat veel Nederlanders zich daadwerkelijk cultureel onteigend zouden voelen als het Nationaal Sint Nicolaas Comité zou stoppen met Zwarte Piet heeft meer te maken met het gebrek aan een breder levendig cultureel erfgoed dan met de grote waarde van Zwarte Piet binnen het sinterklaasfeest voor de Nederlandse cultuur.

Wel sta ik nog steeds achter een sceptische houding tegenover het Nederlandse gebruik van het woord “afschaffen” voor zaken die niet af te schaffen zijn. Zelfs als alle instituties zouden stoppen met het gebruik maken van de figuur Zwarte Piet is deze nog niet “afgeschaft”, mensen zullen zich bijvoorbeeld in de praktijk nog steeds kunnen verkleden als Zwarte Piet.

Deze scepsis door laten slaan in een rechtvaardiging voor het niet terugdringen van racisme was echter fout.  Er zijn gevallen waar men uit tactische overwegingen moet tolereren. Voor Zwarte Piet zie ik niet meer in waarom dit het geval zou moeten zijn.

Quotation 5: ‘The future of liberalism’ by Alan Wolfe

Three ways of defining liberalism have come down to us. One emphasizes substance, the second procedure, and the third temperament.

The core substantive principle of liberalism is this: As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take. Expressed in this form, liberalism, as in the days of John Locke, is committed both to liberty and to equality. The question is what those terms mean under the conditions of modern political life.

With respect to liberty, liberals want for the person what Thomas Jefferson wanted for his country: independence. Dependency, for liberals, cripples. Human beings have minds and bodies, and both, liberals believe, should be free to exercise their full capacities: minds, through open societies that allow everyone to develop their intellect, and bodies, through societies that guarantee sufficient economic security to individuals so that they are not dependent upon the arbitrary will of others for the basic necessities of life. When we have no choice but to accept someone else’s power over us, we fail to think for ourselves, are confined to conditions of existence resembling an endless struggle for survival, are unable to plan for the future, and cannot possess elementary human dignity. The autonomous life is therefore the best life. We have the potential, and are therefore responsible for realizing it, to be masters of our own destiny. This is why liberals insist on the importance of rights, including the right of people to practice their religion as they see fit, to speak for and assemble around causes in which they believe, and to possess a significant degree of control over their personal livelihood. Take away such individual rights—imagine a world in which religion (or irreligion) is coerced, freedom of speech curtailed, economic activity directed and controlled by the state, and no one allowed to organize and bargain collectively to improve their economic condition—and you have a political system that can only be called illiberal, whether it leans backward toward absolute monarchy or forward to some alleged socialist utopia.

Liberalism’s core commitment to individual autonomy does not mean that it refuses to accept the existence of authority, including authority that derives from supernatural forces or governmental power. (…) Much like conservatives, liberals believe that individuals live within an ordered world that necessarily constrains the ability of people to do whatever they want whenever they want to do it. For liberals, however, such constraints are not imposed by authorities over which people have no control or shaped by traditions they cannot influence; they are established instead by people themselves through some form of consent or social contract. Independence cannot exist without interdependence. Once we have left the state of nature, we require the existence of society.

This insistence on the importance of the social is frequently overlooked, but it cannot and should not be. “Men are not born free; they become free by means of Society and the State, which, while limiting the claims of individuals, in reality bestow upon these claims an effectual recognition and sanction, and elevate them from precarious facts to rights whose fulfillment can be confidently demanded,” wrote Guido De Ruggiero, an Italian historian of European liberalism, in 1927. “That is the real gain which the individual makes when he exchanges the uncertainty of natural liberty for civil liberty.” Or, as James Oakes, a historian at the City University of New York, put the point in more of an American context:

Society was the great discovery of enlightened liberals. They felt liberated by their conviction that most of the things that previous generations had taken to be “natural” or “divinely ordained” were, in fact, the products of human history. Families, political systems, even economies were, as liberals realized (and as we would put it), “socially constructed.” For liberals, humans were above all social beings. They were born tabula rasa and were thus the products of their upbringing, their environment. To function freely as a flourishing human being, everyone had to be, well, socialized. And if humans are the products of society, then the social institutions that shape them must be constructed so as to produce the kind of individuals each society wants.

Equality is liberalism’s second substantive goal. Liberals are not satisfied when only some people (…) have the chance to determine how they will live. Liberals believe in equality, but not as an end in itself; radical egalitarianism is more associated with the socialist tradition than with the liberal one. Liberals, rather, believe that the freedom to live your life on terms you establish does not mean very much if society is organized in such a way as to deny large numbers of people the possibility of ever realizing that objective; if independence is good for the few, it ought to be good for the many. How much actual equality there is in a society will vary from one to another, and one can imagine different kinds of liberal societies with different degrees of it. But any society that closes off opportunities for people to achieve their full human capacities, or that allows persistent inequalities to stifle the desire on the part of its least fortunate members to develop them, would not be a liberal one.

One frequently hears that liberalism’s commitments to liberty and equality contradict each other. I certainly do whenever I address conservative audiences: Which liberalism are you talking about, they immediately want to know, the “classical” form or the “modern” one? Classical liberalism, in this rendition, is all about respecting private property and allowing individuals to pursue what they determine to be in their own self-interest without the coercive hand of government interfering in their decisions. Adam Smith, the Scottish moralist who published The Wealth of Nations in the same year that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, is the philosopher par excellence of classical liberalism; were he alive today, many of his followers insist, he would be a champion of Thatcher or Reagan, leaders who are called conservatives but are better described as libertarians, or advocates of the free market. Libertarians, to rely upon a distinction associated with the twentieth-century British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, are advocates of “negative” liberty, the key principles of which are not difficult to grasp: one is that freedom consists in the fact that no one can tell me what to do; and the other holds that when I am free to make my own decisions, my success is due to my own efforts and my failures are my own responsibility.

For those who think this way, classical liberalism, because it puts freedom first, is worlds apart from the form liberalism has taken in the twentieth century, which asserts the primacy of equality. Modern liberalism promises equality through what Berlin calls a “positive” conception of liberty: it is not sufficient for me merely to be left alone, I must also have the capacity to realize the goals that I choose for myself. If this requires an active role for government, then modern liberals are prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few. Positive conceptions of liberty hold that human beings ought not to be reduced to their passions or even their interests. They live for some higher sense of purpose than getting and spending and ought to be able to realize those ideals in the here-andnow through their own collective efforts.


Yet classical and modern liberalism are not nearly as distinct as those who insist on dividing them maintain. One, in fact, follows, if not logically, then certainly sociologically, from the other. Liberalism’s substantive commitments have to be understood in their historical context. In the eighteenth century, dependency was fostered by legacies of feudalism that made individuals subservient to their presumed superiors and, given the fixed status categories of the old regime, simultaneously created conditions that made it all but impossible for those in the lower orders to overcome their dependency. Under such conditions, autonomy and equality could both be furthered through the operations of a free market, for markets would provide opportunities for individuals to escape from the ties to which they were bound as well as give them a chance to improve their condition.

In more recent times, by way of contrast, dependency happens when people are too poor or too much the objects of invidious discrimination to develop sufficient autonomy. The eighteenth-century idea that people’s fates were intertwined because of the existence of society was transformed, during the twentieth century, into the conviction that government had to be called upon when necessary to make concrete the idea of the social; no more effective means existed by which those who already led independent lives could fulfill an obligation to offer assistance to those who did not. This was a solution not without its problems, for reliance on government, as I will argue later in this book, put a crimp into the consistency of all modern political worldviews. But the liberal proposition, tested by long experience, is that whatever dependencies result from using public policy to address modern inequalities, the resulting gains in individual mobility, development of physical and mental capacity, and racial and gender equality far outweigh them. This is why Smith, writing in the eighteenth century in opposition to the regulation of business by government, and Keynes, writing in the twentieth century in support of it, were, substantively speaking, both liberals. Their disagreements were over the means by which large numbers of individuals could achieve control over their lives, not over whether they should.

The same is not true of twenty-first-century Smithians. To advocate today what Smith advocated yesterday—a free market unregulated by government—is to foster greater, rather than lesser, dependency and less, rather than more, equality. This is not always the case; in the aftermath of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a reliance on the market could and did unleash pent-up human potential in ways that contributed, at least for a time, to both greater liberty and equality. But in the highly organized and concentrated forms taken by capitalism in the contemporary world, removing government from the marketplace does not allow large numbers of people to become entrepreneurs in ways that enable them to set the terms by which their lives will be led; it instead allows firms to reduce their obligations to their employees and thereby make them more dependent on the vagaries of the market. At the same time, it increases the gap between rich and poor such that, even if the poor improve their condition, which they do not always do, they do so in ways dramatically unfair compared to the other improvements taking place around them. And by ignoring the tendency of employers or other people in authority to prefer people like themselves to those who are different, it sanctions forms of irrational prejudice that keep members of stigmatized groups from reaching their full potential. You do not give people more control over their lives by reducing their real income, increasing their fears of unemployment, exposing them to greater risk of accident, threatening to take away their health care, lowering how much income they receive relative to society’s most well off, allowing their talents to be overlooked for purely arbitrary reasons of race and gender, and making them more dependent in their last years.

Liberalism’s substantive commitments to freedom and equality represent a political position; they are meant to defend particular goals against other political positions that either oppose such goals or assign a low priority to them. In the eighteenth century, liberalism’s opponents were those who protected a caste system in which favorable birth gave a small minority advantages available to no one else. In the twenty-first century, liberalism stands in opposition to forms of conservatism that justify hierarchies of unequal opportunity; versions of libertarianism that, by giving big business too much power, give ordinary people too little; and lingering legacies of socialism that run roughshod over individual rights in their determination to achieve greater equality. Liberalism in the substantive sense of the term is partial as well as partisan; to realize their substantive goals, liberals must organize on behalf of them and influence public opinion to obtain them.

In addition to its substantive content, liberalism can also be defined according to procedural means. Liberalism emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when constitution writing was all the rage, and the constitutional imperative reflected a desire to create rules that would enable competing interests within society to peacefully negotiate their differences. For liberals, proceduralism is the only realistic alternative we have to violence. In the absence of agreed-upon rules in the international arena, war is inevitable. Without adherence to procedures in domestic life, civil war threatens. Liberal thinkers have come up with a variety of terms to express this commitment to proceduralism, ranging from Locke’s social contract to such American constitutional practices as the separation of powers and checks and balances to the movements of the twentieth century to create international bodies designed to prevent war such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. What links all of them are the shadows cast by two political philosophers who called attention to the ubiquity of, and need for, force in the world of public affairs: Niccolò Machiavelli, the Florentine Renaissance man who gave the rulers of his day strikingly coldblooded advice about how to retain their power; and Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century Englishman, and rival of John Locke, who insisted that only a powerful sovereign could prevent a return to a barbaric state of nature in which life is, in one of the most chilling phrases ever written by a political philosopher, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To avoid such a fate, liberal proceduralists held, government must achieve sufficient neutrality between contending parties to win their trust, and that can be accomplished only through agreements to which all parties commit themselves.

Procedural liberalism, in contrast to substantive liberalism, refers to a moral ideal rather than a political goal; its goal is fairness or impartiality, the idea that anything that applies to any one person must apply to every person. Liberalism in this meaning of the term is not necessarily opposed to political conservatism, certainly not the anti-ideological conservatism of the twentieth-century British philosopher Michael Oakeshott or those followers of Leo Strauss, the German émigré to the United States and inspiration for contemporary neoconservatism, who have done so much to help us appreciate the importance of the American founding. Nor does it stand in opposition to libertarianism. If anything, libertarians have been even more vigilant than liberals in the protection of civil liberties against arbitrary power. And even those forms of socialism that left behind the idea of government ownership of the means of production in favor of a less intrusive commitment to the welfare state adopted a sympathy toward liberal proceduralism. Procedural liberalism’s real opposition is to absolutism: the notion that a ruler need not be bound by rules.

Understood in a procedural sense, a liberal is anyone who supports a constitutional form of government; believes in a government of laws rather than of men; holds that exceptions to general rules should be rarely if ever granted; and accepts the principle that the party in power cannot change the rules of achieving power to benefit itself.


In addition to sharing core substantive convictions and a preference for procedural means, liberals are characterized by a distinct temperament. The first use of “liberal” in a political sense took place in 1810, when Spanish delegates to the Cortés, or parliament, meeting in Cádiz, adopted the term to characterize a program seeking to end feudal privileges and to establish a more modern government. But the word “liberal” existed etymologically long before it existed politically. “Liberal” stems from the Latin liber, or “free.” Because it originated as an adjective whose meaning was dependent on whatever noun it was modifying, “liberal” has always had a rather capacious—dare one say liberal?—meaning; the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary points out that “liberal,” besides meaning free, can also mean generous, abundant, large, gentlemanly, unstinting, lax, candid, and unprejudiced. Legacies of that broad meaning abound today: students do not study something called the conservative arts and many societies claim to be liberal democratic while none call themselves conservative democratic. In ordinary usage, “liberalism” refers not only to a substantive political program and a morality emphasizing fairness; it also possesses a connotation emphasizing an openness to the world.

The liberal temperament has more to do with psychology than with politics or morality. “Liberalism” in this meaning of the term seeks to include rather than to exclude, to accept rather than to censor, to respect rather than to stigmatize, to welcome rather than reject, to be generous and appreciative rather than stingy and mean. Temperamentally, liberals are impatient with arguments rooted in fear and selfprotection. They tend to see the past’s improvements in the human condition as reason for anticipating continued improvement in the future. To be sure, liberals recognize that evil can lurk in the hearts of men and women and that some political systems—by definition, illiberal ones—have been evil in the extreme. But they hold that the existence of the bad does not make impossible the realization of the good. On the contrary, the fact that some societies lack liberalism’s generosity of spirit is all the more reason for liberals to insist on reform, not only in the public and political sense but in the private and human one.

As was true of liberal proceduralism, temperamental liberalism is trans-ideological. (…) Temperamentally speaking, liberalism is not defined by the positions one takes, but by the spirit in which they are taken.

* * *

By Alan Wolfe from The Future of Liberalism (2010).

Emphasis in the original. I have tried to strip this quotation from criticism and superfluous examples in order to shift the focus towards the “ways of defining liberalism”.