A piece written by Mario Tronti for a recent issue of Democrazia e Diritto (2010, 3–4), dedicated to the question of populism
'Quite a number of the terms that we use all the time, and which we thus believe that we understand in all their significance, are, in reality, only fully clear to a privileged few. As in the case of the terms "circle" or "square", which everyone uses, though only mathematicians have a clear and precise idea of what they really mean; so, too, the word "people" is on everyone's lips, without them ever getting a clear idea in mind of its real meaning'. So said the mathematician and philosopher Frédéric de Castillon, victorious participant in the 1778 contest held by the Royal Prussian Academy on the question, close to the heart of Frederick the Great, 'is it useful for the people to be tricked?' 'Normally, by "the people" we mean' – Castillon continued – 'the majority of the population, almost constantly occupied by mechanical, rough and wearisome tasks, and excluded from government and roles in public life'. Here, we are dealing with the eve of the French Revolution – but in Germany, where nation and people had not yet met, as they already had some time before in England, France and Spain, by way of their absolute monarchies. Thus we are also talking about here, in Italy. Frédéric de Castillon arrived in Berlin having come from Tuscany. Nation and people grew together in the modern age. And what brings them together is the modern state. There is no nation, without the state. But there is no people, without the state. This is important, first in order to understand the question, and moreover in order to grasp it within the time that concerns us, and in which we are engaged. Because the theme is an eternal one, Biblical more than it is historical.
The ancient/Old Testament concept of the people – the people founded by Moses – seems to me to be closer to the modern concept of the people than are the Greeks' demos or the Romans' populus. Neither the city-state nor the Empire founded a people. No promised land, no exile, no exodus, no God of the armies. The free citizens in the agora or the plebs on the terraces of the Colosseum did not make up a people. These images and metaphors are current/not-current for our own time. The people is a secularised theological concept. It has nothing to do with the assembly of sovereign electors or the many headed beast. Esposito and Galli, in the Enciclopedia del pensiero politico ['Encyclopedia of Political Thought'] say that the process of secularisation began with Marsilius (universitas civium seu populus) and with Bartolo (populus unius civitatis). But it was Machiavelli who later spoke of a popular government distinct from, and counterposed to, the principality and the aristocratic republic. And for Hobbes, in the state of the Leviathan, 'the subjects are the multitude and the King is the people'.
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