Shops are often landmarks and compasses for the city life. In other words, commercial spaces are some of the elements that help navigating the city, but they also embody an array of sentiments: Time, continuation, change, and nostalgia, among others. It comes as no surprise that, beyond being ‘doers’ of a place, in many places across the world shopkeepers are often also the pawns and the active players of that ‘identity game’ set in motion by ‘populist’ forces that put the locality at the center of their offer.
Populism is certainly a catch-all word whose capability of explaining what is at stake is limited, for including traits that are common to most forces competing in the democratic arena, and for lacking the nuances behind those political offers that evoke the ‘people’, the past, the places, and the return to an ideal ‘golden era’ made of order, wealth, and general happiness. Despite these clear limits, ‘populism’ is nonetheless a concept apt both at describing the tendency of some parties to refer frequently to imagined communities, and at shedding light on the whole of the techniques deployed by such forces to produce forms of sentimental connection with the targeted population and the potential voters.
Among these potential voters there are certainly the shopkeepers and the world of retailing in general. This is a vast group of individuals and firms of various size that hold interests and are exposed to variegated forms of pressure that stem from different sources, both external and internal to the city. Shopkeepers and the like are that sector of the (petite-)bourgeoisie that, like many other groups and classes, have been experiencing the loss of control on their lives, and the costs of changes that pertain to world economy and the political economy, as well as to the costs of rents, the changes in the fabric of cities, local populations, taste etc. However, unlike other groups, the quality of past investments, owned resources, and the exposition to loans, mortgages and creditors force many commercial operators to confronting such changes and trying to influence the political scenarios. In other words, beyond being casualties of different processes that take place over their heads, retailers are also an organized group of interest that participates to the production of ideas and projects related to the spaces of the cities (spaces, moreover, that are rendered mostly selective, ‘exclusionary’, ‘un-public’, and apt to a limited set of functions that revolve around sales). A group, moreover, that is often sought as an ally by different political actors in search of consent.
Among these actors there are certainly the ‘populist’ forces. Such forces operate on different scales, and deploy techniques and tools that are both standardized and specific. That is, they utilize an array of communicative and symbolic tactics that are imitated, reproduced, and adapted to different countries and scenarios. This was, for instance, the case of Donald Trump and the propaganda machine that supported him, and that has been replicated in Italy by actors like Matteo Salvini or the far-right organizations that were, formally or informally, allied with the League. While these and similar case are well known and studied by a number of scholars and observers, my attention has rather turned to the local forms of populism – that is, ‘urban populism’. A type of populism that shares many features with the general phenomenon at hand, but which is endowed with linguistic and symbolic idioms rooted in local histories, complexes, and issues (sense of backwardness, lines of color etc.). The ideological bases of this local types of movement can be autonomous, that is, it can differ from the most known genres of populism and propose different values and goals. Moreover, the territorial scale allows for further personalization for the relation between the politician and the citizen. At least in certain places, older modes of control such as clientelism and personal intimidation can be reactivated. In addition, all this takes place within new mediatic landscapes that allow for the resignification and subsequent acceptance of these very same practices. Finally, local populist styles can act as runways for enterprising local politicians who are in search of popularity, aim at extending their audience, and ‘innovate’ politics.
The post-pandemic phase and the related investment programs add further complexity as a new ‘division of political labor’ emerges in Europe. For example, in the aftermath of the health crisis, in a country like Italy, new technocratic figures of politicians rose to power. However, they did not replace the populist ones but flanked them. That is, at least in certain cases, technocrats and populist politicians have been working hand in hand inside broad coalitions. Within this framework, the ‘populist work’ must become local so as to maintain connections with the dispersed territories. But the local becomes also the land of conquer of rising politicians that use the locality to challenge the old populist forces that, in the meantime, became accomplices of the ‘traditional’ powers.What stems from these observations, therefore, is the need to ‘provincialize’ social sciences and showing attention to how the ‘periphery’ produces political changes and ‘new’ aspirations to power. Methodologically, an effective way to do so is paying attention to the way certain local groups and classes (e.g., the shopkeepers) become supporters and allies of the new pretenders to power, constituting an influential social bloc.