On the Front Lines of the Populism Wars

Left populism might be working in practice — but does it work in theory? A review of Chantal Mouffe’s latest salvo in the “populism wars.”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon votes during the first round of the 2012 French presidential election on April 22, 2012 in Paris, France. Pool / Getty

“I’m a populist — no doubt about that.”

So said French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in September 2010, towards the end of a long interview with the French weekly L’Express. Although at the time the quip was intended to scandalize public opinion, Mélenchon’s statement undoubtedly proved prescient for the European left as a whole. European leftists have steadily been making up their minds about the “p-word” — long associated with marauding masses and postmodern pogroms — and are now embracing their own “left populisms.” In October 2017, for example, Mélenchon himself saw no more need for squeamishness. “I think,” he now declared, “that left populism is the only way forward for the Left.”

Mélenchon’s pronouncements were made in a debate with the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, organized in the aftermath of the French presidential elections. He was also among those singled out for explicit thanks in the acknowledgements of Mouffe’s latest book, For a Left Populism, which offers a summary of her recent thinking on the topic. Like Mélenchon, Mouffe sees no reason to be shy about her sympathies. Somewhere towards the end of her book, she confesses that “it is to be expected that my left populist strategy will be denounced by the sectors of the left who keep reducing politics to the contradiction of capital/labour” and “attribute a … privilege to the working class” — here conveniently “presented as the vehicle for the socialist revolution.” Such objections, she claims, are as old as her work itself. ‘There is no point in answering them,” Mouffe writes, “since they proceed from the very conception of politics against which I have been arguing.”

Mouffe’s statement is representative of her recent arguments for left populism. Instead of undertaking a ritualistic rehearsal of age-old arguments (“class” versus “mass,” “people” versus “workers”), hers is a polemical pamphlet, not an academic treatise. “I would like to make clear,” she states at the beginning of For a Left Populism, “that my aim is not to add another contribution to the already plethoric field of ‘populism studies.'” Furthermore, she also has “no intention to enter the sterile academic debate about the ‘true nature’ of populism.” Instead, her book “is meant to be a political intervention,” and “openly acknowledges its partisan nature.”

This candor should come as no surprise — certainly for readers acquainted with the broader body of Mouffe’s work. Since her last major work, Agonistics (2013), Mouffe’s main interventions as a writer have involved direct engagement with political actors. A two-part dialogue with Podemos figurehead Inigo Errejon (Podemos: In the Name of the People, 2016), for example, saw her discussing the ins and outs of political struggle in the Southern periphery in the aftermath of the eurocrisis. A French translation of her English work, On the Political (L’illusion du consensus), has now finally been issued, after a delay of more than fifteen years. As it stands, philosophical momentum seems to be on Mouffe’s side.

As Mouffe’s left-populist model has taken the mediasphere by storm, her band of critics has not wavered either. From its inception in the 1980s, her specific brand of left populism has been contested: a “post-Marxist extravagance” (Norman Geras), a “dangerous temptation” (Slavoj Zizek), a “sign of resentment” (Eric Fassin), or a “liberal deviation” (Ellen Meiksins Wood). “Left populism might work in practice, but it certainly does not work in theory!” the same Slavoj Zizek exclaimed at a recent conference in Belgium, voicing a sentiment familiar to many populism aficionados.

Ten years earlier, Zizek’s own dialogue with the Argentinian political philosopher Ernesto Laclau (an abiding presence in Mouffe’s book) came to an abrupt end in the pages of the journal Critical Inquiry. Revolving around issues of class, economics and democracy (the bread and butter of the global populism debate, so to speak), the conversation offered an emblematic stand-off between two camps still widely visible on today’s left.

On one side, a class-based socialism wedded to the “communist hypothesis” (Zizek); on the other, a less sectional left focused on popular identity rather than class interest (Laclau). The debate also ended in surprisingly violent fashion, with both thinkers hurling increasingly personal insults at each other. “There is,” Laclau noted in his final riposte, “indeed something extra-terrestrial about” Zizek’s “working class subjects,” an “actually existing social actor to whom he nevertheless attributes so many imaginary features.” Laclau’s injunction was clear cut: rather than focusing on antiquated models of a long-gone working class, he declared that “the construction of a ‘people’ is the main task of radical politics today.”

Eternal Return

Drenched as it was in vitriol, few of the debate’s points really bear repeating today. However, one passage in Laclau’s last response to Zizek has retained its interest — and certainly remains pertinent to Mouffe’s recent work. When Zizek accused Laclau of “playing into the hands of the right” by stressing left populism’s need to rely on the “construction of an enemy,” Laclau saw no need to refute this accusation. “I would even say,” he stated, “that the construction of a popular identity against an enemy is the very definition of what politics is about.” If the Left wanted to win back terrain from the Right, Laclau countered, it, too, needed to rely on some of the very same “symbolic mechanisms” used by that Right, putting them to work on behalf of its own, non-reactionary agenda.

The question of what exactly leftists ought to do to counter the success of right-wing populists is, of course, hardly new. Similar questions have been raised in another recent debate on the topic of left populism: the so-called “Mouffe-Fassin” controversy. As noted by Jacob Hamburger, the somewhat belated reception of Mouffe’s work in France has been accompanied by a growing chorus of left-wing voices who claim that there’s no need for the Left to “cross the aisle” just to appease disgruntled workers. “Extreme-right voters,” Fassin claimed, “are not victims whose worries we should take seriously, but rather political subjects moved by sad passions, which we would better combat rather than empathise with.” And although left populists might indeed have a “convincing account” of how right-populists can pose as defenders of the common people, Fassin questions whether such attempts at “recuperation” are really durable in the long term. As in the debate between Laclau and Zizek, every aspect of populism that Fassin castigates as a deadly sin (above all, its stubborn refusal to situate itself on the left-right axis) is celebrated as a virtue by his opponents, who deem such elements indispensable to any political project.

The same call for emulation resurfaces in For a Left-Populism. In a chapter entitled “Learning from Thatcherism,” for example, Mouffe relies on cultural theorist Stuart Hall for her own left-populist tactics. The connection is not surprising. Hall was one of the first theorists to call for “learning from Thatcher” in the early 1980s, when the Iron Lady’s (seemingly) irresistible rise spurred many to reconsider the existing parameters of socialist organizing. Instead of dismissing Thatcher’s “populism” as an aberration, Hall urged his colleagues to counter the Iron Lady’s “authoritarian populism” with a “democratic one,” seeking the rational core in her neoliberal mystagogy.

Sadly, Hall’s democratic populism never came to pass, in spite of his initial enthusiasm for Blairism, which dampened as the 1990s progressed. In the eyes of critics, Hall’s approach implied an uneasy shuffling back and forth between contestation and recuperation, leaving unresolved the question of what exactly socialists ought to take from Thatcher’s “organic Toryism.”

The debate between Hall and his critics testifies to one of the unwritten rules of the European populism debate: the more it changes, the more it stays the same. Most of the accusations leveled at Mouffe by Fassin seem like perfect recapitulations of the criticisms put forward against Hall — much as the Mouffe-Fassin debate sometimes reads like a re-staging of the old quarrel between Zizek and Laclau.

Left populism’s left critics, however, have trouble answering one specific question. Why does left populism work (above all, at the ballot box), and why are a growing number of European leftists so irresistibly attracted to it?

The main factor here undoubtedly lies with Mouffe’s stubborn refusal to give up on a notion of “representation.” More than a mere concession to liberal common sense, Mouffe insists on the positive need for delegational structures in every left-wing organization. Demands for pure immediacy or spontaneity (the “politics of the multitude” or “insurrectionism,” in vogue for theorists such as Michael Hardt, Toni Negri, or Joshua Clover) are a long way from Mouffe’s project. The Left, she claims, must return to a soft vanguardism and reclaim the party-form — the only terrain on which the battle for hegemony can be won. By the same token, Mouffe contrasts her own “radical democratic” project with theories of sortition (that is, government by juries of ordinary citizens, as seen, for example, in the Belgian journalist David Van Reybrouck’s proposal to reinstitute “government by lot”) and other liberal palliatives, which only aggravate the crisis they caused in the first place. “Since we have reduced democracy to selecting representatives,” Van Reybrouck claims, “making the best of our system is becoming increasingly difficult.”

Mouffe begs to differ. Parties and parliaments, she claims, still “provide symbolic markers allowing people to situate themselves in the social world.” But with dwindling membership numbers and the neoliberal takeover of those parties, “these symbolic spaces have increasingly been occupied by other discourses,” holding “negative consequences for a democratic society.” Out-maneuvering liberals on their own terrain, Mouffe proposes a “real pluralism,” in which “the ever-present possibility of antagonism is acknowledged.” According to Mouffe, the response to the “populist moment” does not lie in a frantic flight from mediating institutions altogether, but rather “in making our institutions more representative,” the true objective of every “left populist strategy.” Social subjects, she argues, “cannot exist without representation.”

Mouffe is understandably triumphant about the results of this method. In a slightly gleeful discussion of Hardt and Negri’s latest book, Assembly, for example, she notes their newfound willingness to accept at least a minimal model of leadership in their latest writings — a clear sign of victory on her part. (If even the staunchest of anti-populists cannot deny the fact that Mouffe’s populism expresses a central dimension of a democratic agency, it clearly has the upper hand.) Contra theorists such as Negri and Hardt, Mouffe denies that some available political actor can be “read off” from an existing set of social relations. Instead, the “people” need to be constructed and moulded, something that will have to be done through the use of some central agency — here controversially taken up by the figure of the “leader.”

On the Left, this view has always elicited a certain skepticism. Left populism’s dependence on the figure of the leader has led many detractors to accuse it of top-downism, even Bonapartism. It also explains the vociferous complaints from liberal writers, accusing left populists not only of “anti-liberalism” but of an even more primary “anti-pluralism.” To specialists such as Jan-Werner Müller, Cas Mudde, and Matthijs Rooduijn, for instance, the notion that liberal democracy can be “saved” by sending an occasional surge of populist electricity through the system is unrealistic at best, and positively dangerous at worst. In their eyes, Mouffe’s populism will never be able to keep its promise of safeguarding “real pluralism” in the long run — an argument Mudde and Müller have illustrated by pointing to Hugo Chavez’s “good-populism-turned-bad.” And if Mouffe is simply asking for rejuvenated social democracy, they counter, why then not simply call it that?

Mouffe contests the claim that “populism” has been irreparably damaged by these associations. Such a vision, she states, is historically untenable — certainly in light of the different meanings attributed to the term on the other side of the Atlantic. “In other contexts,” she writes, “populist movements have been viewed in a positive way,” as was the case with the American People’s Party, born in 1891. This original “big p” Populism, she claims, “defended progressive policies aimed at strengthening democracy,” which were later “adopted by liberals and were influential in the New Deal.” At least in America, “the term has remained open to positive uses.”

How does this claim square with the mountain of scholarship on the nineteenth-century “big P” Populist movement? Results appear mixed. As noted by political theorist Jason Frank, for instance, it is unclear whether the American People’s Party itself really did conform to the characteristics set out by Mouffe and Laclau. In the 1880s and 1890s, Populist Farmers’ Alliances and Granger clubs were known for their heavily horizontal modes of decision-making, coupled with a complete refusal to submit to any leadership with discretionary powers. (The strongly anti-authoritarian spirit of the Populist coalition, in turn, was consistently lamented by later socialist agitators who hoped to capitalize on the Populist base; they bemoaned American farmers’ refusal to embed themselves in the kind of top-down hierarchies associated with European workers’ parties.)

It was only when the People’s Party embarked on its long march through the institutions — its attempt to “change America’s political culture,” as historian Lawrence Goodwyn put it — that its national leadership was able to gain independence from its base. That base, in turn, continued to jealously guard its influence, insisting on strict transparency in party procedures.

As noted by Charles Postel, a prominent historian of Populism, the People’s Party only succumbed to a so-called “Caesarist” temptation in the late 1890s, when the consequences of the 1893 economic crisis (coupled with a protracted failure to alleviate the crisis) led some Populists to call for a presidential messiah. On a purely descriptive level, however, such instances make it difficult to claim that left populism as we know it cannot function without strong leadership.

Mouffe of course acknowledges that this emphasis on leadership might come with its own pitfalls. ‘The role of the leader in the populist strategy,” she writes, “has always been a subject of criticism,” and is also “the reason why populist movements are often accused of being authoritarian.” In the long run, however, she confidently conjectures that there is no rule stipulating that populist “leadership” is inevitably authoritarian. “Although it can have negative effects,” she claims, “there is no ipso facto reason to equate strong leadership with authoritarianism. Everything depends on the kind of relation that is established between the leader and the people.” Instead, she prefers to conceive of the left-populist leader as “a primus inter pares,” achieving a “less vertical relationship between the leader and the people.”

Ruling the Void?

It remains to be seen whether Mouffe’s claim will dispel the doubt of skeptics. It is one thing to claim that social movements cannot exist without a degree of organizational unity — a fact duly acknowledged by nearly every Marxist writer since the Second International. It is quite another, however, to claim that the very notion of “a collective will cannot be constructed without some form of crystallization of common affects” in which a paramount role is played by “affective bonds with a charismatic leader.”

What is clear from recent experiences of left-populist leadership is critics’ persistent uneasiness with that leadership. Leaders do not simply impose organizational unity on a populist coalition, they claim; they also function as agents that impart ideological coherence to such coalitions in the first place. This, in turn, implies a wholly different set of dependencies between base and leadership — not merely the recognition that “someone” has to decide when push comes to shove, or that the “iron law of oligarchy” will assert itself eventually.

Rather, these critics see left populism as living in the perpetual shadow of Caesarist derailing. As noted by Matt Bolton in an earlier reflection on Corbynism, left populism often seems in danger of remaining “as much of a top-down mediated phenomenon as classical liberalism,” easily susceptible to forms of “clicktivism’ and ‘gesture politics.” “Since the figure of the leader is so vital,” Bolton notes, “the tenacity to hold onto leadership trumps questions of whether this leader is actually able to wield it in parliament.” And if left populism here really did represent the rebirth of militant politics on the Left — “with well-organised new members embedded within their local parties, taking up positions of power, standing for office” — then the importance of the leader would be “correspondingly reduced.” Yet, rather than mere logistical expediency, populism’s dependence on the leader might even testify “precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the social movement of which the leader is the supposed avatar.”

Bolton also provides an interesting counterpoint to the standard narratives of left populism’s recent success. These explanations tend to attribute it exclusively to its capacity to reaffirm the pertinence of socioeconomic cleavages, which have attained such acuity in recent years. Bolton’s story is different. Instead, he points to left populism’s concordance with larger trends in European party systems. In an era of plummeting party membership and declining voter participation, classical political markers lose their saliency, giving way to a facile form of “catch-all” politics. The Irish political scientist Peter Mair famously described this as a process in which politicians “rule the void,” presiding over an empty civil sphere.

The consequences of this process are dire, Mair argued. Instead of listening to a partisan base or attending to the wishes of an internal party machine, politicians come to rely on spin doctors for periodic reports on public opinion (aptly termed a “neo-popular” bubble by Hungarian critic Peter Csigo). Parallel to capitalists’ flight from the “productive” economy in the era of financialization, the ascent of the spin doctor — who seeks to inform politicians about “what the people really want” — is inextricably bound up with the withering away of a base in parties themselves, which now lack adequate transmission channels connecting them to the societal substructure.

And precisely because many European parties have been hollowed out internally, Mair shows, their leaders have been forced to take on a more assertive role. The result is a form of political marketing in which wonks and experts urge party bosses to convince voters that what they are saying is, in fact, what the voters wanted all along, lacking any external reference to a transformative vision of society. (In the late 1990s, for example, supporters of the Dutch populist politician Pim Fortuyn claimed that the latter’s slogan “He says what we’re thinking” was the reason they cast their vote for him. When asked what they were in fact thinking, a disturbing response followed: “Well, what he’s been saying, of course.”)

Here, Mouffe’s model again makes for a marked contrast to twentieth-century mass parties. As noted by Chris Bickerton, these parties consistently rooted their “representative claim” in a certain segment of the population. Left-wing parties advocated workers’ interests, liberal parties spoke for sections of the employing class or the petite bourgeoisie, while Christian Democrats saw themselves as defending “persons and families.”

In such a setting, Bickerton claims, “a strong leader is of secondary importance, since it is the rank-and-file that remains at centre of the party.” Populist parties, in contrast, have a different hierarchy of interests, forced “to fight themselves into the system” in a heavily mediatized public sphere. Left populism’s reliance on the leader seems more of a symptom than a solution here, reproducing the very evil it objects to in mainstream parties. It is both a product of and reaction to the age of democratic decline.

Justifying the Means

None of these questions possess a particular novelty in the debate on left populism — certainly when compared to their antecedents in the 1980s. In the face of this adversity, however, Mouffe’s mood remains optimistic. Her left populism, as another writer once said, “has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, nor in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity.” This seems reasonable — certainly when erstwhile enemies such as Zizek and Negri have themselves acknowledged that the left populists have won the game.

Yet the question remains when exactly left populism will come to speak in that language of “steel, cement, and electricity.” Zizek’s verdict on the practical triumph of left populism in January 2015, for instance, came long before the dissolution of the first Syriza coalition in the summer of 2015, after a wearisome struggle with eurozone authorities. It was also long before Podemos found itself in a severe deadlock on the matter of Catalan independence, which showed the fragility of the “pluri-national” coalition proposed by Iglesias and his consorts.

In the meantime, left populists themselves have not been content to rest on their laurels. Mélenchon and Iglesias have both insisted on the need for “their” left to newly reckon with matters of political economy. France Insoumise’s latest economic programs contain clauses on eurozone reform and a full-scale overhaul of France’s presidential system. All of this can of course be read as further proof of the strength of Mouffe’s approach — its adaptability, pliability, to other heterogeneous discourses.

But eclecticism — as the Italian communist Amadeo Bordiga once warned — may also come at a cost. Populism has undoubtedly shown a disenchanted left a new route to power. (Here the numbers speak for themselves, with Mélenchon impressively doubling his previous results in last year’s presidential elections. At the ballot box, populism works, whether one likes it or not). Critics, in response, might retort that it remains silent on what to do with that power once it has been galvanized. Mouffe admits that there is no room for comfortable closure here. “There is no guarantee that this project will succeed,” she states, but “it would be a serious mistake to miss the chance provided by the current conjuncture.”

To many on the Left, such a call will be sufficient; others might find it lacking. As it stands, For a Left-Populism leaves the debate on left populism productively open, while also issuing a call to action. In this, Mouffe is very much unlike the actors lazily derided as “populists” by today’s savants: she is eminently clear about her intentions.