Left Populism Is a Dead End

Marina Prentoulis's new book is intended to show left populism in a favorable light. Her examples, however, actually serve as a warning of what awaits the working class when parties influenced by left populism come to power.
  • Eddie Doveton | 
  • July 2, 2021
Image: Eleanor Shakespeare

With her recent book, Left Populism in Europe: Lessons from Jeremy Corbyn to Podemos (London: Pluto Press, 2021), Marina Prentoulis 1Marina Prentoulis is an associate professor in Politics and Media at the University of East Anglia. She was the UK spokesperson for Syriza and was closely tied to that political trend, both before and during its period of government. She also served as an advisor to Jeremy Corbyn during his tenure as leader of the Labour Party. defends populism as the way forward for left organizing. But instead she reveals that left populism is merely a contemporary variant on the more traditional left reformism, albeit presented in the language of and drawing on the motifs from post-Marxism, postmodernism, and poststructuralism.

Left populism is an ideology that “tries to place itself equidistantly between traditional social-democratic reformism, now practically extinct, and the revolutionary left. But this attempt is a failure, since it remains no more than an avatar of the old reformist strategy.” As such, the historical trajectory and political practice of left populism is likely to lead to similar failures and disasters that have befallen the politics of reformism over the last hundred years. Prentoulis’s book focuses on three case studies — Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and the Corbyn movement in the UK. Each is intended to show Left Populism in a favorable light. Her examples, however, actually serve as a warning of what awaits the working class when parties influenced by left populism come to power.

As for the events surrounding the rise of these three “left populist” movements, Prentoulis writes about them in the manner of an observational report, giving the author an air of a detached observer. The style is designed to support the view of society as interpreted by the left populist ideology: that is, society is amorphously fluid. This creates the “political logics” for Prentoulis’s left populist interpretation.

What Is Left Populism?

A full examination of populism, as well as the political theorizing of Prentoulis’s mentors, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, would require much more detail than is possible in this article. But a brief outline will help us better understand how Prentoulis frames her analysis.

Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of left populism responded to the social and economic crises and instabilities in Western democracies that emerged at the end of the 1970s. Laclau, however, is not unduly concerned that this resulted from the generalized crisis of the capitalist economic system arising after the long post-1945 economic boom. Rather, Laclau focuses on the political outcomes of that crisis. Laclau sees populism as a form of “political practice,” wherein political identities are created. This is discussed in terms of a “logic of articulation.”2Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 2001). As Laclau’s theory developed, his concept of politics in society became divorced from any consideration of the economic and social structure of the crisis. Further discussions by Laclau are conjectured entirely within the operation of a theater of politics, separate from society’s social and economic base. Within this framework, Laclau sees the growth of populism as an antagonistic response by the populace to the “dominant ideology” and to the ruling class. In a sense, this populism expresses a “rupture” in the hegemonic dominance of the ruling power bloc. It gives a voice to the antagonism, which can then take a either left or right course: so, it can be progressive (left populism) or nationalist and xenophobic (right populism). In On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005), Laclau talks about how this populist rupture challenges the status quo and offers an opportunity for political change.

Left Populism as an Ideology

Advocates of Laclau and Mouffe’s left populism will argue that left populism is not an ideology, as I asserted above. It is, they will say, merely a “political logic.” Left populism is presented as simply a strategy, a way of doing politics. Left populism seeks to interpret society, but denies that it is interpreting society. In using the concept of “political logic,” proponents of left populism deny that it is an ideological construct, instead framing its arguments with a certain understanding of the character and nature of society. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, this “political logic” is indistinguishable from an ideology, which is defined as “a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture; the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program; a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture.”

Left populists say little about the characteristics of social class; indeed, they deny the importance of social class, relegating it to one of several general sociological categories. But ignoring class is itself an ideological construct. The theory focuses instead on individuals, who are grouped together to form the analytical category of “a people.” This is meant to replace the Marxian category of social classes. But as is the way of postmodernism, the constructed “people” is not a permanent social fixture; it is fluid; it comes, it goes. The acknowledgment of this transience is then supposed to mean that left populism does not represent a specific ideological understanding of society.

Prentoulis suggests that class is subsumed under a broader category: “Populism,” she writes, “moves away from a ‘class analysis.’ There is a truth in this argument, in the sense that populism make the left consider other identifications beyond class rather than placing identity to a particular position determined by the relationship to the means of production” (15). The problem with Prentoulis’s analysis, and indeed Mouffe’s, is that it is predicated on a false criticism of Marx’s analysis of society. Only a few lines later we are told that “populism allows us to rethink contemporary struggles, especially in contexts where the working class is defined more broadly, taking new form and new roles that go beyond the white, male, industrial worker” (15–16). But Marx’s analysis of class is not the narrow sociological description suggested by Prentoulis. Indeed, Mouffe and Prentoulis’s understanding of this definition of class illustrates, as do the general parameters of left populism, that their analysis of society operates only at the surface, or empirical, level of society.

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Prentoulis appears to make the common error that several modern commentators make of relegating the working class to manual workers, or, as she does in the sentence cited above, to “white male manual workers.” This artificial narrowing of the working class then enables Prentoulis to begin talking about “a people” as a category encompassing a wider expanse than the “mere” working class. But this is not Marx’s understanding of social class. For Marx, the working class is defined by all those who need to labor for a living, all those who do not own means of production to provide the needs of everyday life. This working class can be a factory worker, a nurse, a civil servant, or a teacher. The extent to which this working class is organized into trade unions, or not, or are part of political movements, is a matter of circumstance; they do, however, remain working class. By narrowing the working class, Prentoulis (like Mouffe and Laclau) can then create, by dint of their own definitions, the very “people” who must occupy the space for left populism.

This is illustrated later in the book when Prentoulis discusses the development of the Movement of the Squares in Greece. “It wasn’t a working-class movement,” Prentoulis argues, “organized by the usual working-class agents, for example the KKE in Greece or IU in Spain” (51). Prentoulis goes to some length to demonstrate the KKE’s alienation from the emerging grassroots movement. The implication is that traditional “working-class” organizations just do not fit the bill; they don’t get the dynamic of the new movement, which, according to Mouffe and Prentoulis, is a social force beyond the narrowness of class. But this is a false negative. First, the KKE in Greece is well known for its sectarian behavior, and if anything, it represents the ossification of the politics and methods of the old Stalinist parties of the Comintern. It is therefore not a reasonable example of “working-class politics.” Second, and more importantly, Prentoulis attempts a left populist relabeling of the Movement of the Squares as a “people” to justify the theory. But the Movement of the Squares arose not because Greek or Spanish society had suddenly become declassed; rather, it arose spontaneously because the existing organizations traditionally representing the working class had failed. The Movement of the Squares was a movement of the working class (as defined by Marx), albeit largely unorganized, precisely because the traditional political parties of the working class had corrupted into establishment parties.

The Movement of the Squares was not an atomized collection of the classless but, in social composition, a working-class movement. It was a movement in the moment of birthing, a re-creative moment, such as we find previously in history of working-class struggles, as old forms are thrown off or disregarded and new forms take shape, through the ways and means of struggle. The presence or absence of a trade union banner from a protest or occupation does not modify the class origins of the protesters. Mouffe and Prentoulis wish to declass this movement into a gathering of anonymous “people” and to evaluate the movement in terms of a “political logic.” By confining their analysis to this “logic,” they consider change only in terms of potential reformist programs — that is, programs confined within parliamentary elections. In this way it is an ideology of reform and/or counter-reform.

The Movement of the Squares revealed the contradictions and crisis within capitalist society as they affect the working class. The movement mirrors what Marx calls a “class in itself,” which is defined “as a category of people having a common relation to the means of production and who may operate within the parameters of capitalist-relations” (my emphasis). The movement at this stage responds to the realities of hardships and problems of social relations under capitalism. It has not yet become — nor may not reach — the stage of Marx’s other category, a “class for itself,” which is defined as the working class organized and actively pursuing its own interests, conscious of itself as the working class. 3(Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1970).

Left populism looks only at the “political,” seeing it “as it is,” and, as such, will, like a cork on water, bob from the crest of one wave to another. Rather, what “the political” actually expresses are the underlying contradictions of capitalism, as Marx confirms in a later work:

Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.

Left populism removes the working class as the subject of social and economic change, looking only to the performance of “the political,” seeking within this an opportunity to construct left populism as a hegemonic movement. It thus considers politics as a socially structured totality in and of itself. Marx’s understanding that politics is but a representation of, or expression of, the underlying contradictions in capitalism is removed from consideration. The analysis of left populism then becomes a sequence of examining “what we see is what it is.”

This contrasts with Marx’s analysis of society, in which capitalism impregnates and shapes social relationships throughout society. Consequently, “class struggle” and the nature of commodity production (which arises from capitalism) can be found expressed in different ways at every level of society. One aspect of that expression is the “political.” What follows from Marx is that “politics” cannot exist as a self-contained totality — as a mere performance of political actors on a self-contained stage — but rather, politics is seen as a reflection of the class antagonisms in the wider theatre of society, and from the social relationships that are shaped by the nature of capital itself.

For Marx, capitalist society consists of a totality of social relationships. Not just in direct personal relationships, nor merely in the nature of “economics” in society, but in our language, our use of concepts, ideology, and ways of seeing and being in the world. As Bertell Ollman suggests, in relation to Das Capital, “Marx is offering us a conception of capital in which the factors we generally think of as externally related to it are viewed as co-elements in a single structure.”4(Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 25. Accordingly, politics, social movements, and the growth of parties such as Syriza and Podemos are not just “structured realities,” as Laclau and Mouffe suggest, but structured realities within the social and economic system of capitalism. As such, they constitute expressions of the social relationships of capitalist society. This will include all the contradictions of capitalism, including the reality of class and class struggle.

By contrast, Laclau uses the term “articulation” for the empirical politics that are his subject matter, and the term “reduction” as his critical response to Marxism. This was expressed most clearly in the first iteration of his theory, when Laclau states, “It is necessary to conclude that classes exist at the ideological and political level in a process of articulation and not of reduction.”5Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism (London: NLB, 1977), 161. Laclau later reformulated the idea of “articulation” as a “political logic” in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985), which he co-wrote with Mouffe. In that work, his initial proposition of populism gets further elaborated into a general post-Marxist politics in which Laclau removes the working class entirely, barely connecting it to any significant role in social transformation. This allows Laclau and Mouffe to declare:

In our view, in order to advance in the determination of social antagonisms, it is necessary to analyze the plurality of diverse and frequently contradictory positions, and to discard the idea of a perfectly unified and homogenous agent, such as the “working class” of classical discourse. The search for the “true” working class and its limits is a false problem, and as such lacks any theoretical or political relevance (84).

Fast-forward to Prentoulis’s book, and we have a fully matured alternative ideology of politics and change in society.

A Narrative of Empirical Observation

The subject matter of Prentoulis’s book, while framed within a left populist universe, is neoreformism, as it is known in Europe. The author’s three case studies — Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and the Corbyn movement in the UK — are neoreformist movements that have generally been seen as expressions of left populism. For that reason, they offer case studies in the viability of both the concept and the political trajectory of left populism.

Prentoulis’s approach to the case studies mirrors that of Laclau and Mouffe, who wish to avoid what they call “overdetermination”; this manifests itself in Prentoulis’s view of the political events she describes as having no particular or consistent “determination.” Things come, things go. Her approach informs us of what happened and the actions of various political players or parties (although what is presented is itself selected and filtered data). These events are each presented as unique and particular — social creations of their society. The problems faced by Syriza are particular to Syriza and Greek political history; the problems of Podemos flow from the politics of Spain; equally, the problems of the Corbyn movement relate to the particularities of the British and Labour Party politics. Of course, there is a truth in all this, in that at a certain level of analysis all things show differences — every grain of sand is unique. But, critically, the analysis does not move beyond this, because the author denies the “grand narrative,” so she ignores any generalized phenomenon, or what might be an influence or causation of any commonality. In practice, this means ignoring the Marxist understanding of capitalism and class society. This is not to say that we are not provided with a form of “grand narrative” in Prentoulis’s book. We are, but the nature of her narrative is an ideological interpretation that conforms to the poststructuralist-cum–post-Marxist idiom of society. This is a society manifesting itself as a fluidity, wherein boundaryless events evolve, come into being, and die away. It is within this fluidity that Prentoulis conjectures that a progressive “people” can be created — or more exactly, to use her terms, emerge out of — as a “political logic.”

This all sounds very suave and dynamic, but  left populism, when it needs to discuss actual events and processes, is essentially the older philosophy of empiricism, a worldview in which what you see is what you get. Any reality beneath immediate everyday experience is denied. The only difference from traditional empiricism is that this “what you see and get” comes and goes, being placed in variable “structured realities”; they are something to which “we arrive at.” As Laclau says, “What matters is the determination of the discursive sequences through which a social force or movement carries out its overall political performance.”6Laclau, On Populist Reason, 13.

This “empiricism of practice” is a direct outcome of the vulgar idealism that constitutes the theoretical component of post-Marxism, from which left populism draws its framing, be that Althusser’s construction of an ahistorical “ideology,” or Mouffe’s proposition of a collective will or “people.” These concepts are constituted as “subjects-in-themselves” that arise out of society in some mystical fashion. That is, there is no concrete materialist or historical reason involved in the construction of the said “ideology” or “people.” In consequence, without a materialist causation and explanation, the events are treated as they appear on the surface, “as they are.”

Prentoulis and other left populists might object to my assertion that anything more than immediate events is absent from their theory. Surely the very concept of left populism suggests a wider cross-societal analysis? This, however, forgets the contradictory logic of poststructuralism-cum–post-Marxism, which provides tools for a “grand narrative” but denies the “grand narrative,” so the categorizations and tools of analysis are applied case by case. Since there can be no “grand narrative,” events are interpreted as they appear, and we end up in a place similar to traditional empiricism.

Conclusion

We should not doubt the genuine progressive intentions of the left populists: they do desire a more liberal and enlightened society. They also genuinely see their political ideology as a modern replacement for traditional socialism and as a liberal defense against a rising right-wing nationalism. Unfortunately, however, this solution to the crisis has not, and will not, work. Left populism has and will continue to tread a similar path as left reformism before it. Yet, while the ideology of historical left reformism retained links to the working class (with this at times acting as a restraint), the ideology of left populism has no such social obligations. In consequence, not only does it follow the counter-reform path of left reformism, but we are also seeing the added elements of actually pandering to aspects of xenophobia and nationalism. The reconstruction of the working class in terms of “popular classes,” and taking politics “as it is,” leads to an accommodation with all the ideological muck of capitalism. Hence, we see Mouffe actually advising Jean Luc Mélenchon, who has embraced elements of an anti-Muslim agenda in France. And in Germany, we find Sahra Wagenknecht calling for a more populist agenda within Die Linke (the Left Party), and arguing for a limit on refugees, making comments about asylum-seekers losing their right to asylum if they commit crimes.

This contrasts to Marx, who saw the central role of the working class as not only an exploited class but also as a universal class. Thus, their freedom must at once also be the freedom of all. He saw that the economics and politics of society are all part of the social relationships manifested as capitalism. Political events are not just the outcomes of arbitrary circumstances, given color and substance by political actors; rather, those actors perform not only on a given stage but also within a theater, within which the class struggle takes place, and is shaped by, and in turn shapes, the capitalist economy and its socioeconomic relations.

And so, what has Prentoulis presented us with? Left Populism in Europe is a political examination of the neoreformism that has developed in Europe post-2008. She has examined this in three countries: Greece, Spain, and the UK. The ideological stance of the book, its approach, and its narrative follow closely the theoretical ideas of Mouffe and Laclau. Thus, its exposition of left populism as an expression of post-Marxism, and indeed poststructuralism, is presented as the “new way to do politics” in the “new” situation.

Yet it is nothing but old wine in new bottles. Left populism is simply a re-languaging of the ideology of social democratic reformism, and not necessarily of the left variety. Indeed, the absence of organic connections to the working class — a connection that tended to restrain policies of traditional social democracy — has resulted in the pursuit of policies of neoliberalism, support for international banking, monopolistic multinational practices, and attacks on the living standards of the working class.

Having examined the history of left populism in her book and having highlighted that these first manifestations did not meet the hoped-for objectives, Prentoulis wishes to present this outcome as merely the result of mishaps and unfortunate circumstances rather than the disproving of her thesis. Her main underlying argument is that the insights of Mouffe and Laclau, in their ideology of left populism, remain prophetic and insightful in evaluating the times we live in. What went wrong in Syriza, Podemos, and the Corbyn movement is that there was not enough left populism, and that the left populism that did exist was undermined by the continued influence of the old hierarchical left politics. This destabilized and weakened the impact of left populism. According to Prentoulis, what we need is a purer version to be successful. But there is neither logic, evidence, nor ideological coherence to support this assertion. On the contrary, left populism is but a rehash of social democratic reformism, and it will inevitably take us down similar tragic paths.

There are, however, important areas of analysis around the phenomenon of what we can call “populism.” This review does not suggest that the category of populism is not a useful conceptual tool for examining political processes. Rather, this review has been an attempt to offer a criticism of the ideological construction of left populism that has derived from the academic stable of Laclau and Mouffe, which Prentoulis reproduces. At its heart, left populism presents itself not only as an analytical tool but also as an alternative way of interpreting the contemporary world: in short, an ideological frame. Such a frame can be categorized as essentially a form of social liberalism, decked with the language of the postmodern. But like the social liberalism of 20th century social democracy, it can only bend its knee to the demands of capital. That fact has already become more than apparent with the history of both Syriza and Podemos in government.

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