First time as a historical driver, second as fantasy: nationalism’s Second Coming and the paradoxes of populism

By: Ulf Hedetoft


Volume: 06
Issue: 02:2020
ISSN: 2459-2943
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2020.0023
Pages: 101-115
Lic.: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
the nation-state



Nationalism is a semiotic system in its own right, pivoting around complex dualisms between people and state. Its associated images cover the entire repertoire of signs, from iconicity over indexicalities to symbolism. Nationalism has brought measurable benefits to lots of people; they feel represented by their elected politicians, and they revel in symbolic abstractions of their ethnic-national identity. At least, this is how the national universe has traditionally been configured. Populism, on the other hand, nationalism’s recently assumed version, introduces a less materialistic and more fantasy-based approach to national belongingness, reversing some of the national imaginary’s ordinary paradoxes. Hence, its sign universe is almost totally dependent on symbols and their arbitrary, non-motivated connection between signifié and signifiant. This contribution aims to uncover some of the paradoxes manifested by populism and its attempts to reinvest nationalism with former glory while revealing liberalism and globalization as a historical hoax. Populism is a commitment to the idealism of the state while in the same process rejecting its reality. It clings to the formal promise of nationalism without recognizing its contradictory nature. And it refuses to accept that the uniformity of the People conceals a real struggle between groups, generations, regions, and classes in the private sphere – and the multiple challenges to their living standards and welfare that provided the origins of their populist reaction. Populism sends its supporters back to where they came from, but with a vengeance.


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