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Populism and Its Uses: Antinomies of a Failed Reformist Strategy

Reflections on Chantal Mouffe’s new book, “For a Left Populism.”

Claudia Cinatti

September 20, 2018
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Image from La Gazette

The “Populist Moment”

The configuration of the post-2008 political map makes it possible to say with near certainty that “populism” is a new phenomenon, and it is not going away any time soon.

At a descriptive level, “populism” puts a label to a striking reality: the traditional social-democratic and conservative parties are going under, neoliberal hegemony is in terminal crisis and political alternatives to the right and left of the “extreme center”[1] are flourishing. Up to this point, we can all agree. But as political science has proved, the meaning of this category is elusive. There are as many “populisms” as there are movements, leaders and parties that invoke the divide between the “people” and the “elites.”

There is the triumph of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States; the coalition government in Italy between the proto-fascist Lega (the former Northern League) and the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S—Five Star Movement); in France there is the Front National (FN—National Front) of Marine Le Pen and La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) of Jean Luc Mélenchon; then there is Syriza in Greece, Podemos in the Spanish State, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and the list goes on. All this shows that populism has ceased to be a privilege (or a curse) of developing countries, with their belated bourgeois revolutions. As a result of the polarization resulting from the 2008 Great Recession, populism has settled in the heart of the advanced capitalist democracies.

The “populist spring”–which begins its second decade if the Latin American “postneoliberal governments” are included–is the object of any number of theoretical productions and heated political debates. Populism’s liberal detractors do not offer us anything new. Following in the tradition of the enlightened elites of the 20th century, they see in this second wave of the populist phenomenon an irrationality that borders on the religious,[2] one that therefore threatens bourgeois constitutional democracies, the principles of the Enlightenment and modernity itself. Among the most active members of the antipopulist camp is historian Loris Zanatta, who is not coincidentally a favorite writer at Argentina’s leading conservative newspaper, La Nación.

On the other side of the divide are the post-Marxist theorists Ernesto Laclau (who died in 2014) and Chantal Mouffe, who have rescued the category of populism from the obscurity to which mainstream political theory condemned it. Mouffe and Laclau have become the organic intellectuals of so-called left populism, an amorphous political camp that includes everyone from Argentina’s Kirchnerist governments and Venezuela’s Chavismo to Podemos and Syriza. It should, then, be no surprise to find that Mouffe has become Jean Luc Mélenchon’s philosophical “family doctor.” Emulating Jaime Duran Barba, the Argentine political consultant who has advised a string of center-right politicians, Mouffe now serves as the (electoral) strategist for La France Insoumise. Her task is to consolidate a successful left populism that challenges the hegemonic right-wing populism of the Front National, and this has led La France Insoumise to even adopt some of the FN’s symbolism.

From Populist “Reason” to “Strategy”

Mouffe’s new book, For a Left Populism,[3] takes up the formulations of Laclau’s last systematic theoretical work, On Populist Reason. Mouffe’s brief work is more like a pamphlet than an academic book. But this does not mean it lacks theory, although it is not the center of the discussion.

The book’s clear intention is to intervene in the political situation that western Europe finds itself in after the crisis of 2008. According to Mouffe, the future is populist. It remains to be determined if populism will be hegemonized by the right and therefore lead to an authoritarian regime, or if its left-wing variant will prove dominant, which would open up the perspective of “radicalizing democracy.” “Left populism” is Mouffe’s name for a political-discursive strategy that, to put it another way, re-creates the reformist illusion of moving from the hegemonic neoliberal model now in crisis to a different “radical democratic” hegemonic formation, all within the institutional framework of the existing bourgeois state and the social relations on which it is based.

Mouffe provides a brief but precise overview of how the system of categories elaborated by Laclau and herself has evolved. This system, even if not expressed in the key of “radical reformism,” moves from the post-Marxist formulations of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) to “left populism” and the consequent abandonment of all references to Marxism and socialism.

Without pretending to cover the extensive work of Laclau-Mouffe, I will briefly discuss some of their key terms and translate them from the jargon of linguistics, poststructuralism and psychoanalysis into the language of politics and strategy.

According to Mouffe, the neoliberal consensus among the parties of the postpolitical “extreme center” has created a postdemocratic situation [4], that is, a crisis of liberal democracy in which the oligarchic neoliberal regime has no alternative project. This is the equivalent of saying that the liberal democratic regime’s “agonistic” character, in which conflicts take place within existing institutional frameworks, has been liquidated.

In more theoretical terms, Mouffe maintains that in democratic regimes, there is a tension between two traditions: the liberal tradition, with its rule of law, separation of powers and individual freedom, and “the democratic tradition whose core values [are] equality and popular sovereignty.”[5] At the risk of oversimplifying, democracy according to Mouffe does exist under neoliberalism but is reduced to its liberal expression, that is, elections, while it subsumes the component of popular sovereignty.

This crisis gives rise to the “populist moment” that we are now experiencing. While some people see this as a tragedy, since until now the (extreme) right-wing populism has had the upper hand, Mouffe sees it as a great opportunity that can be exploited by adopting a left populist strategy. This implies building a collective will or a people by establishing a clear divide in the political camp between “us” and “them.” There are two key elements of this populist logic of constructing a people. The first is having a plurality of demands that play the role of an empty signifier, which through their ambiguity allow for the articulation of these demands in a chain of equivalence (this is hegemonic articulation). The second is what are called floating signifiers, which establish the always mobile internal political border. This means not only that they change what divides the political camp between “us” and “them,” but also that the same demand can be articulated by different and opposing systems of meaning. For example, “unemployment” can be articulated in a left-wing fashion, since it implies the demand for jobs, or in a right-wing fashion if it implies blaming immigrants for stealing jobs.

One can sense that the lack of concrete political content in this “populist logic” makes politics a formalism that exists without ideology and without the interests of more or less permanent social groups. This leads Mouffe to conceptualize populist strategy as simply a technique, which then gives us neoliberal populists (Thatcher, Reagan), elite populists (Macron), anti-neoliberal populists, xenophobic populists, racist populists, left populists, and so on. In short, all politics can have a populist dimension.

Mouffe adds the idea that the traditional cleavage between “right” and “left” is not particularly important, and the word “left” as an addition to populism is little more than an adjective. Given all this, a fundamental question arises from this populist strategy: Just what is the difference between left-wing populism and that of the extreme right?

For our Belgian philosopher, what distinguishes them is how they define “us” and “them.” Here, she emphasizes the affective dimension (à la Baruch Spinoza) in the constitution of political identities.[6] According to Mouffe, this is where not only social democracy but also the Marxist far left fails, since both conceive of politics as a rational activity.

Here we start down a slippery slope. Mouffe’s definition of populism is disturbing, to say the least—even more so when she considers that right-wing populism is just another way of expressing “democratic demands.” On this theoretical basis, the Mélenchon campaign incorporated some of the themes of the Front National, such as “security” and national sovereignty.[7] Furthermore, if it is true that today the Front National is not a blatantly fascist party, it is because the situation is not radical enough. But in a situation of sharpening class struggle, it would no doubt be a base for the fascist movement.

Hegemony versus Revolution?

One of the fundamental theses of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is that the crisis of the traditional left (social-democratic, Euro-communist and Marxist in general) is a product of its failure to understand the new social movements that exploded after May 1968. The theoretical explanation given by Laclau and Mouffe is that Marxism has been trapped in a “class essentialism.” Here, our authors caricature the Marxist understanding of class as the immediate, mechanical expression of social agents’ location in the production process; they then place this understanding outside the concrete class struggle and fundamental issues, such as the strategic positions held by the proletariat under capitalism. According to Mouffe and Laclau, this “class essentialism” made it impossible to understand struggles that did not necessarily arise from exploitative relations in factories, among them the struggles of the feminist, environmental, antiracist, and LGTBIQ+, movements. Such movements do not deny the existence of social classes, since they cannot deny the existence of the “people.” But they see the principle antagonism as based on the “people,” not on class.

The conclusion of this antiessentialism is the contingent construction of mobile political identities, without a focal point that concentrates on the struggles of the exploited. For that reason it cannot contemplate the strategy of social revolution, that is, the seizure of political power and the establishment of a workers’ government based on organs of direct democracy.

Left populism 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.

In her particular reading of the theory of Antonio Gramsci, Mouffe opposes hegemony to revolution. If you look beyond all the embellishments and linguistic devices, you’ll find that when she talks about hegemony, what she means is the displacement of the oligarchic regime by another hegemonic formation (what type of social content will it have?) within the system and the institutions of liberal democracy. This is the yardstick to differentiate “adversaries” such as the Front National from “enemies” that are “antisystemic.”

Mouffe avoids seriously assessing the brief experience of Syriza, which did adopt a left-wing populist strategy and divided the political camp between “them” (the Troika) and “us” (the Greek people strangled by economic collapse). But before long, the Syriza government closed the border, accepted austerity memorandums and joined “them.” Nor does Mouffe’s book discuss the road taken by Podemos, which began with talk of democratizing society and ended up on the wrong side of the Catalan national struggle and proposing a unity government with the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE).

Thus, Marxism’s fight against populism points to the mother of all strategies. These abstract categories of “people” and “elites” conceal the irreconcilable antagonism between exploiters and exploited. It is this concealment that the strategy of class collaboration is founded on, a strategy that allows the bourgeoisie to preserve its power even in times of crisis. It is from this strategy that populism is now emerging. To this particular form of exercising bourgeois hegemony, Marxists pose the need for working-class hegemony, which leads the alliance of the exploited and oppressed classes in the struggle to destroy the bourgeois state and begin constructing a new society.

[1] Tariq Ali’s definition of the parties of the traditional right and the “third way,” which he considers “the political expression of the neoliberal state.” He has recently published an updated edition of his book titled “The Extreme Center: A Second Warning” (London: Verso 2018).
[2] “In their Manichean vision of the world, populisms insist on a kind of ‘moral fundamentalism’ that allows them to build a wall between the virtue of the ‘people’ and the vices of their ‘enemies.’ This introduces us to their generically religious nature, expressed more than ever in the propensity in the devotion of the populist people to their leader. Here is a crucial aspect regarding the point of contact between populist imaginary and traditional religious imaginary.” L. Zanatta, “El Populismo” (Buenos Aires: Katz Editores, 2014, 69).
[3] Chantal Mouffe, “For a Left Populism” (London: Verso, 2018).
[4] The concept of “postdemocracy” was introduced by Colin Crouch to point out the loss of (national-popular) sovereignty produced by neoliberal globalization. Wolfgang Streeck also uses the term in his book “Comprando tiempo. La crisis pospuesta del capitalismo democrático” [Buying time: The postponed crisis of democratic capitalism] (Madrid: Katz Editores, 2016). The philosopher Jacques Rancière uses this term to propose a “democracy without demos” (i.e., without the people), one that is reduced to mechanisms of the state.
[5] Mouffe develops this theme in “La paradoja democrática” [The democratic paradox] (Barcelona: Gedisa, 2003), in which she discusses the agonistic model of conflict between adversaries by contrasting it with Carl Schmitt’s formulation of politics as the elemental distinction between friend and enemy. In the first case it is competition with an adversary that recognizes a common institutional framework. In the second, the policy is destroying one’s enemy.
6] Mouffe alludes to this discussion in “For a Left Populism,” in particular to the considerations made by Éric Fassin in “Populisme: Le grand ressentiment” [Populism: The great resentment] (Paris: Textuel, 2017). Fassin maintains that there is no possibility of transforming the “affections” of the extreme right, which he identifies with resentment, into those of the left, which he defines as “indignation” and “anger.” He also clearly argues against the nonreformist left’s adoption of a populist strategy. See, for example, “A Legacy of Defeat: Interview with Éric Fassin”.
7] In a recent interview, Mélenchon’s communications manager argued that, to fight for the base of the National Front, one must not give up on issues such as “matters of security,” “nor should we abandon symbols such as the flag and the Marseillaise,” both of which were very much part of the last electoral campaign. He even goes further and says that “people were proud of carrying the blue-white-and-red flag. [. . .] When everybody starts carrying the flag, you start thinking, ‘I am no different, I too can carry it.’” “The Revival of French Left-wing Populism: Interview with Political Strategist Manuel Bompard”.
This article was first published in Ideas de Izquierda (IdZ—Ideas of the Left), August 12, 2018.
Translation: Sean Robertson

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Claudia Cinatti

Claudia is an editor of our sister site La Izquierda Diario and a leading member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) in Argentina.

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